Sunday, 13 September 2009

Past Life Flashes

I was at school with Claudette from the ages of 4 to 18 and Carol from 5 to 10. Kathy moved to town when she was 10 and became my best friend for the rest of our school days. Glenn was my first ever boyfriend (first date set up by Kathy at the age of 14, holding hands nervously at the film of Godspell, very conscious of my parents sitting three rows behind us in the cinema). 
I haven’t seen Claudette, Carol or Glenn since I left school in 1976. Kathy now lives in New Zealand and while I have stayed in touch over the years I hardly ever see her. Creina has been a family friend since I was 4; she was also my French teacher and more responsible than anyone else for teaching me to think. She lives in North Wales.
For most, a school reunion isn’t anything special, but when you grew up in Umtali, Rhodesia, a town of some 10,000 people on the remote eastern Mozambique border, it becomes a very big deal indeed. The town is now Mutare, the country is now Zimbabwe, a whole way of life has changed, the people I grew up have scattered across four continents. 
On Sunday, in St James Park, one of the other schools, Umtali Girls High School (not even my school) – held a reunion picnic to celebrate their centenary, inviting anyone from our tiny outpost of Africa to join in.
For once, this summer, the sun shone. The deckchair man was vigilant in demanding his £1.50. People rushed around trying to work out if they knew you behind the inevitable swelling caused by age and beer (Rhodies love their beer). It was all-white and backward-looking in some ways, but it was comfortable. No need for explanations, a shared experience of something long gone, a common past and old friends and memories. There were the people I grew up with, talking about the plays my mother produced for the local amateur theatre, the competitive puddings on the local dinner party circuit, Nolan's Electrical shop where I had my first Saturday job, Claudette and Carol who shared my earliest birthday parties and Glenn who shared my first fumbling attempts at romance. And Kathy who shared all my teenage adventures. It was a scary, extraordinary, special afternoon. Thank you, UGHS, for letting me relive a time and place far away and long ago.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

A Gentle Stroll

Believe me, however much they smile, there are few words more likely to strike terror into the heart of an overweight, arthritic travel writer than 'walking tour'. I immediately get suspicious when people tell me we are going for a gentle stroll. It may be just that – a leisurely potter around a historic town, fetching up in a pub or tearoom, but it can just as easily be a route-march across some steep rubble-strewn hillside. In one nightmarish case, it turned into a 4hr hike across the African bush in search of buffalo that only ended when I sat down under an acacia tree, absolutely refused to move any further even under threat of being eaten by lions. I simply couldn't move another step. So now, I end up cross-questioning people about length, number of stairs, gradients, quality of the roads and paths in a thoroughly suspicious fashion.
It was with some astonishment therefore that I found myself voluntarily organising a walking tour for the British Guild of Travel Writers yesterday, hosted for us by the Blue Badge Guides 2012 Committee. These splendid people gave us a preview of their regular public tours of the East End and the vast construction sites for the London Games, including the information centre that is due to open in the next couple of weeks. I ended up slightly damp but having seen not only the Olympic stadium but Bazalgette's elaborate Victorian Temple of Sewage (still in working order) and with a head full of amazing trivia such as the fact that the Lee River has been put to use to haul barges for construction, saving 170,000 lorry journeys. A great tour and an essential for every Londoner. It might just answer a few of the questions about why the Games are a good thing.
Tours run every Sat and Sun at 11am from Bromley-by-Bow tube station and cost £8 per head; for details,