I first noticed the Cape Weaver when I stopped on the bridge that crosses the channel that connects two of the lakes in Green Point Park, in the ocean suburb of Cape Town. The little yellow-breasted bird was busily constructing a nest, tying together some stout reeds, about a meter above the water’s edge, using strips of grass. By the next day, the nest appeared to be almost complete and he had started on a second. As the days passed he continued to build more and more nests. In the end there were at least ten that I could see. But where were the females?
And then one day two females appeared while I was watching. The little male predictably became hyper-excited: flapping, wiggling, screeching. But to no avail. The females checked out his attempts at building nests, turned their backs on him and flew off. My little male disappeared into each nest that they had rejected, to see what it was that they did not like. He was like a randy real-estate agent who had tried to seduce his prospective female tenants and pathetically failed.
A passing local lady explained to me that the little male was fortunate: normally females which do not like a nest can rip it apart, before heading off to find a better suitor. She told me that the entrance to the nest is on the underside and if the female accepts the male, he will construct a tunnel, while she lines the nest, and then they mate.
And then came a storm, with strong winds, and the nests were rather greatly shaken, some of the reeds being bent down almost to water level. Perhaps the females knew what they were doing in refusing my little male.
Some time later, I noticed weaver nests at the other end of the pond. And there was a little yellow breasted weaver, and a female disappearing into and emerging out of a nest. Was it my little male bird? I like to think that it was.
But he can’t control his urge to build more nests and attract more females.
In the meantime, I look forward to watching the next weaver generation emerge…
Until 1969, I had been muddling along in the ‘old technology’ of Quantity Surveying or Estimating, as it was known in the US and Canada. It was Singer Sewing Machines in London that gave me my opportunity to enter the relatively new world of computer programming. And I have never looked back.
Our office was in West London, on the Uxbridge Road, in Ealing Broadway. and it was there that we did our program design and coding on paper. As a recently inaugurated European division, we did not have our own computer; for program compilation and testing, we went to the UK Guildford office. I spent as much time in Guildford as I did in Ealing Broadway. And it was there that I first met Bob Baylis and ‘almost’ met Mark Samuels; our paths were to cross again in 1978, at P-E International, where Bob was employed and when Mark was the Managing Director, but that is a story for another day.
Now I won’t attempt to explain the intricacies of programming in the 1960’s; our world was one of coding sheets, punched cards and tapes, large air-conditioned computer rooms, and one or perhaps two compilations or tests a day. For the successful programmer, acute attention to detail was mandatory.
I thrived in the environment and was part of a small team sent to Germany in the summer of 1969, to test and install our new inventory system in the German head office in Frankfurt, near the central station and a few minutes stroll from the river Main. Our hotel was between the office and the station. The red-light district was adjacent; it took us perhaps one hour to completely orientate ourselves.
We could only have access to the German computer systems after daily production had been completed, so we started late afternoon and worked to very late every evening, rarely finishing before midnight. We usually met for lunch in a nearby restaurant and on the first day the waiter recommended a local white wine from Rüdesheim. It was #28 on the menu and we soon learned to order additional bottles of achtundzwanzig. It was delicious, and day after day, it contributed greatly to the eventual success of our project.
On one weekend, we decided to go to the source of achtundzwanzig. We took a local train from central station to the nearby river Rhine, and then travelled on a boat down the river to Rüdesheim. After ample ‘refreshments’, we took the local gondola to Niederwald. Almost silently gliding over the vineyards, gradually ascending, was an experience I will never forget. I was in love with life; nothing new there.
At the summit was Niederwalddenkmal, a patriotic monument, 38 m tall and finished in 1883. The view across the valley was stunning and the weather was idyllic.
On one of our last nights in Frankfurt, when the project was almost wrapped up, we went to a nearby striptease show called ‘The Dolly Bar’. It was luxurious, compared to the normal seedy dives that I had previously experienced in Toronto, the US and London. The girls were stunning, but what struck me most was experiencing the wall-to-wall sound; I had never heard such wonderful acoustics before. And it was the first time that I had heard Mary Hopkin singing, ‘Those were the days’.
That was 1969, and the sun had arisen and set many times before I was once again back in London; it was late-1984 and I was on my way to the wedding of my good friend, Laín Burgos-Lovece, in The Wirrall, south of Liverpool. I had a room in a hotel on Half Moon Street, just off Piccadilly.
That evening I went around the corner to an old familiar pub in Shepherd’s Market, a pub that I had frequented many times over the years. I bought a pint and sat in my usual corner. I had not been there since those bitter sweet days of the summer of 1978; bitter, because my personal circumstances at that time were a mess, but sweet, because I had been deliriously happy with the prospect of an exciting new relationship.
We arrived in London in early December 1968; we had been travelling for more than three months since we left Toronto. It was the era of ‘Europe on $5 a day’. I had even bought the book. It weighed almost as much as my meagre luggage. After carrying the wretched book for a couple of weeks, I put it in a bin. At the time, five dollars a day seemed rather extravagant to me. Of course, with inflation, today a coffee in Paris can cost more than that.
After having spent a few days in New York, completely failing to understand why anyone could possibly rave about the city, we sailed in the bowels of the Queen Elizabeth to Southampton, via Cobh and Cherbourg. It was a cold and stormy crossing, one of the last voyages of the liner, and there were few passengers. Not very long after, it ended up on the bottom of Hong Kong harbour.
But once back on dry land, we had almost three months of glorious weather. We wandered around south-west England and Wales, a visit to Dublin and my parents in Ulster, then through France, Spain, Gibraltar, Italy, Austria, Switzerland and back through France to England.
For the first few weeks, we hitch-hiked, eventually as far as Biarritz. We survived on my schoolboy French, but with no basics of Spanish, Italian or German, we took to the trains, mostly in third class wherever we could.
Once back in London, we had to decide: to go back to Toronto, where work was easy to come by and we had lots of contacts, or to stay in London in the unknown, at least for a time. It was not a hard decision to make. We bought the evening newspaper and looked for a room for rent.
We were staying in a cheap ‘bed-and-breakfast’ near to Victoria Station, so we concentrated on finding accommodation on the main-line into Victoria. On the first day we noted three rooms that we could afford. When we arrived at the first room, it was already taken. At the second, there was an obvious sign stating that no Irish need apply. And at the third, we were met by a rotund Jewish gentleman, with whom we quickly felt totally at ease. We signed a lease there and then, paid the deposit and the first month’s rent, and left with the keys.
The ‘apartment’ was a large room on the ground floor, with a high ceiling and a partitioned kitchen, that also contained a bath. The toilet? That was on the first floor and each ‘apartment’ had its own toilet. And electricity and heating were paid for by inserting coins in a box on the wall. In Toronto, I only used to have a tiny room and a shared bathroom. I felt as if I had arrived!
But now we needed to find employment and soon, for our reserves were getting alarming low. Sandra was soon employed. She was a beautician by training and found a job with a salon at the corner of Oxford and Dean streets, removing unwanted facial hair, using electrolysis. Most of the clients were West-end showgirls, but it was Sandra’s boss who took care of hair removal from the client’s private parts!
In the meantime, I went to the Institute of Quantity Surveyors, just up the street from the Houses of Parliament. I left the meeting with the feeling that I had little chance of finding employment; construction in England was suffering a severe recession and the unemployment queues were long and there were no quantity surveyor jobs advertised in the evening papers. What a contrast to Toronto, where construction was booming at that time. So, it was ‘back to the drawing board’.
I quickly found a temporary job, selling potatoes, door to door. It lasted one day. I have never aspired to be a salesman and there are limits as to how many doors being slammed in my face that I could take, often coupled with expletives. I soon realised that being Irish in London was no advantage.
Then I found a temporary job distributing leaflets, door-to-door, for a carpet company. I had to note every address and a salesman called soon after. It was a success, at least for the company. But I soon ran out of addresses within a feasible radius to leaflet, although I loved the walking.
Just before New Year, I spotted an advertisement for an ‘Institute’ training Cobol programmers, with a guarantee that the training would continue until one found a position. Their office was just around the corner from Hector Powe’s main store on Regent Street. My father’s best friend worked for Hector Powe and I took that as a good omen. I signed up for the training and paid the fee. It was a gamble on my part, for by then I had little money left. Sandra earned enough for the basics, but not enough to cover the rent.
The first two weeks of the course were an eye-opener for me. I found that I had a natural talent for programming and at the end of the second week the tutor took me aside and told me that a friend of his had just called, looking to hire a junior programmer. When he asked if I would be interested, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm.
The interview was on the following Monday and the company was Singer Sewing Machines, in Uxbridge, west of London, about two hours travel from our little apartment. I met Robin Nicolson, was offered me the position, and needless to say, I gratefully accepted. I started the next day.
After some eighteen months of commuting between Europe and South Africa with 90-day tourist visas, I arrived in Cape Town in mid-January of this year with a 4-year residency permit. It had involved several months of meeting many bureaucratic requirements (Applying for South African Residency), but finally I could stay, at least for four years, with the possibility of extending.
But no sooner had I landed, when my driver made me aware of the seriousness of the Cape drought situation. At the end of the seasonal rains in 2014, the dams were almost full, but three years of below normal rainfall had left them in a precarious situation; the dam levels were at just over 20% capacity. Little capacity remained, as the last 10% cannot easily be accessed.
Shortly after, the local government reduced the legal consumption from 87 litres per person per day to 50 litres. Now I had no idea of what normal water consumption per day would be, but I was told that in Sweden 200 litres per day was normal and in the US 300. So how to get down to 50 L per day?
Copious advice was available. Obviously filling swimming pools, watering gardens and washing cars were out of the question. We were advised that a 30 second shower used about 18 litres, a full flush of a toilet, 9 litres, and a quick flush, 5 litres. And a washing machine and a dish washer about 25-35 litres each, depending on the make and model. So, 50 litres per day per person was not a lot of water, at least not by western standards.
In the bars and restaurants, clients were urged not to flush toilets, unless absolutely necessary – ‘If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if brown, flush it down’. And in the Radisson Hotel, near the Waterfront, there was and still is, an exhibit to educate guests on the water situation and the impact of having a bath or a 90-second shower.
But how did Cape Town get in this precarious situation, that attracted the international press naming of Cape Town as the first major city at risk of running out of water?
Obviously, the failure of the annual winter rainfall was a major contributor to the crisis. But I suspect that there has been no recent increase in the capacity to store water in the ‘wet’ years. The existing dam walls need to be radically raised where feasible, to avoid the overflows in the wet years spilling to the sea.
Of course, the population of Cape Town is not static; according to Premier Helen Zille, between the census of 1996 and that of 2011, the population increased by 45% to 3.8 million. I often wonder how they count the hordes of homeless and vagrants that one encounters in the relatively prosperous area in which we live, never mind in the ‘no-go’ townships, which sane people avoid.
And what about the tourist trade? In recent years, Cape Town has been the ‘in place´ to visit and be seen. But tourists are predictably not enthused about restricted showering and toilet flushing and choose to spend their money elsewhere. After the ‘negative news’ hit the international press, the hotels, restaurants and bars of the city reflected the paucity of business. It has not been a great year for the tourism industry.
In February the government announced that ‘Day Zero’ would be in March, the day when the water supply would be switched off and that citizens would have to collect their reduced daily allowance of 20 liters per person day. This would be distributed at some 200 stand-pipes located near supermarkets and other gathering spots and the distribution would be supervised by the military. There was no information as to how the ration of water would be accounted for.
Predictably there was immediately a run on bottled water. The supermarket shelves were stripped dry and there was not a drop to be seen anywhere. When a new shipment arrived in the morning, it soon evaporated. The supermarkets limited the purchase per client, but the shelves remained empty.
Then ‘Day Zero’ was suddenly postponed and then postponed again. There was still no rain, but the conservation efforts of the population and eliminating water to the farms, resulted in a 60% reduction of water consumption. At least that was the official reason for the postponements.
And in early May it started to rain, not heavily, but persistently, and the dams started to fill. Day by day the levels grew, from 20.9% on 7 May, through 30% on 5 June, 40% on 20 June, and 50% on 3 July. As of today, the level is at 56.5%.
Is the drought over? Probably it is for the next twelve months, but one must remember that the farms are still not receiving any water and they are suffering. Until the stored water level gets to 70% of capacity, the emergency should not be declared as over for this year.
To contribute to available water supplies in the future, the local government has set the objective of obtaining at least 10% from alternative supplies:
Desalination plants are being constructed
Wells are being drilled
A blitz on leaking pipes
Treating of effluent water
I recall my old friend in Toronto, Peter Pedrette, relating of when he was a junior quantity surveyor in London, he was being shown around a water treatment plan, and in a break was offered a glass of water from a tap. After he drank it, he was told that the water had been through at least six people.
For cities, such as Cape Town, in the future reliance on natural rainfall may not be sufficient to satisfy local requirements. Water, no matter the source, will have to be viewed as a valuable resource, to be cleansed, treated and returned to general consumption.
No longer can we take for granted that water will flow when we turn on the tap.
We arrived back in Guatemala City from Antigua in the early afternoon, (see Volcán Agua), and reserved seats on the Tica Bus to Mexico City departure of the next day. That evening we went to a nearby pizzeria and early to bed; there was no water and the electricity supply was at best, intermittent.
At about 23:00, I woke in a sweat, with an excruciating pain in my bowels. In the dark, I scuttled to the communal toilet, to which most of the other guests seemed to have preceded me. With no water supply and unable to flush the toilet, the stench was diabolical; it was a trip to the toilet that was to repeat itself many more times that night and the next morning.
What to do? We had already paid for the tickets to Mexico City on a bus with no toilet for a 1,400 km journey. If my gut spasms persisted, could I hold out until each of the next scheduled stops, on average about every two hours. I decided to go for it.
And thankfully I made it without undue embarrassment… but only just. As soon as we arrived in Mexico City, I went to the first pharmacy that I encountered and sought relief. The pharmacist listened to my symptoms and gave me some pills that he was confident would eliminate the problem. They certainly worked, almost instantly; I was totally blocked up for most of the next two weeks.
We found a room in a clean and inexpensive hotel, close to the two great plazas of the city: the Alameda and the Zócolo. It was a perfect location in the historic heart of the city.
Nearby was the Alameda, a large central city park, with a complex layout of paths, statues and fountains. Originally it was the Aztec marketplace. At the eastern end of the park is the Palacio de Bellas Artes, an opulent building dedicated to the performing arts – music, dance, theater and opera, and exhibitions of art and photography.
To the east of the Alameda is the Zócolo, known as the Plaza de la Constitutión, a massive square measuring about 250 m by 250 m. On one side is the Cathedral, on another the Palacio Nacional and on the other two sides various Federal Buildings. In the centre of the plaza there is an enormous flag pole.
We went to the Palacio Nacional to see the murals painted by Diego Rivera. Now I am not renowned for my enthusiasm for things artistic, but a friend had told me that I would find a visit to have been worthwhile. I was not disappointed. The murals were most impressive, covering the history of Mexico from the pre-colonial era, through the Spanish conquest and the modern-day rise of the working class. I felt very small looking up at them from the stairs and the adjacent corridors.
That evening we went to the Frontón México, an art-deco building that was the home of Jai Alai in Mexico City. It is a few minutes walk to the west of the Alameda.
Jai Alai is based on a similar game originating from the Vasco region of north-eastern Spain. It is played on a long rectangular court with walls on three sides and a high ceiling, similar to an elongated squash court, with one wall removed and glass screening to protect the audience.
The ball is rock-hard and is caught and slung against the end wall with a hand-held device called a cesta. It is renowned for being the fastest ball sport.
Most of the crowd were there to gamble and as a game progressed, the odds were constantly changing. The book-takers ran up and down the steps taking bets and issuing receipts. The noise level was impressive and I entered the fray, with my small bank of pesos that I was prepared to lose as part of the experience. I survived for a couple of hours, sometimes up, at other times down, until it was gone. It was a fun night.
On the way back to our hotel, we went to the Plaza Garibaldi, a short walk to the north of the Alameda. The Plaza Garibaldi was known for its mariachi bands and we were not disappointed, for there were at least a dozen of them. Each one consisted of violins, trumpets and different forms of guitars, some with a harp, at times each musician taking turns to sing, at other times singing as a group.
And here you can hear how a mariachi group sounds…
It was with the sound of a dozen mariachi bands reverberating in our ears, that we wandered back to our hotel in the early hours of the morning.
Since I moved to Cape Town over two years ago, I have walked through Green Point Park almost every day. Many of the regular park staff greet me with a smile and a welcome comment; I always feel very much at home in the park. And it is with keen interest that I observe the daily progress of the bird-life, the building of their nests and the hatching of their young, and the flowering of the plethora of Cape plants. I am blessed with the time to witness the annual progress of nature.
In the middle of one of the open grass areas of the park, there is a semi-circle of small pillars. I had sometimes wondered what they represented, but my curiosity was not great enough to deviate me from my path: until recently.
I found that there were 14 small pillars in a semi-circle, numbered from 6 to 19, and at right angles, two elliptical shapes marked with the months of the year.
I was still none the wiser until I read the explanation on the sign, and then all was revealed.
It was a normal Cape sunny day and I decided to test the sundial. Following the instructions, I stood on the mark at July, stretched up my arms, noted the time, made the necessary adjustment as per the instructions and compared it to the time in my phone. The latter was one minute slow!
At the time, we never considered flying to Flores, the nearest airport to Tikal: we did not even know that there was an airport there, but if we had known, we would still have gone by bus. So, A-M, Joe and I bought one-way tickets for the local bus, leaving late that evening.
It was very dark on the way to the depot. Few street lights in the city were functioning, but it was easy to find the bus at the depot: it was the only one with lights switched on and motor coughing and spluttering, ready to go. It was an ancient bus that had seen better days: it was probably older than we were. And as it turned out, we were the last passengers to arrive.
We entered the bus through the rear door and immediately the strong smell of stale sweat and unwashed clothes hit us. We were the only ‘foreign’ passengers and we had to search for the three remaining dispersed seats. There was no spare leg-room between the rows of seats and I felt like a giant when compared to the local Indian population. The door was soon closed and with a roar, we departed.
Within a short time, the passengers that had been awake, were fast asleep. Somewhere ahead of me A-M and Joe may have also been asleep. I had a little Indian guy cuddled up to my shoulder. He stayed there for most of the journey, I really did not mind.
We were soon on a second or third-class road, sometimes descending, at others ascending, tossing, turning and bumping from pothole to pothole. Twice our progress abruptly ceased. Each time I got out with some others to watch the driver, buried in the engine, fiddling, swearing, adjusting, with only the light of a torch, until the motor finally exploded into life, to a round of applause from the appreciative audience.
At intervals through the night the bus stopped to drop off passengers or to pick up others. It was shortly after dawn when we arrived in Flores. When I left the bus, I was no longer aware of human body smells. How rapidly we can adjust to our environment.
We had no trouble in finding an inexpensive, but clean and comfortable hotel, with a view over the lake. There appeared to be few, if any, tourists in Flores, most probably scared off by the earthquakes. Joe headed off to find a neighbouring hostel that had been recommended to him, and we agreed to meet later that evening.
And when we did, Joe was enthusiastic about a bar that he had passed early that day. We went in, and after our eyes had adjusted to the dim light, and we had settled down to our cold beers, the conservation went something like this…
‘Did you actually come here earlier today, Joe?’
‘Nope, I thought that I would wait for you two’
‘Joe, have you noticed anything different about the women?’
‘Well, there seem to be a lot of single women, and they are not wearing much’.
‘What about those doors along that corridor, with the couple just emerging?
‘No, I had not noticed’.
‘And the couple that have just gone down the corridor? Joe, we are in a brothel’, at which point A-M started to laugh, and the spell was broken.
We eventually finished out beers and left. No doubt A-M will still be recounting the story of that evening when we took her to a bordello. And I suspect that Joe returned after we left him at his hostel.
The next day we caught a local bus to the ruins of Tikal, about 65 km to the NW of Flores. The Mayan city flourished during the era from 200-900 AD but was inexplicably abandoned over a relatively short time. It became overgrown by the jungle and it was not until the mid-1800s that it was ‘rediscovered’, although the local Indian tribes were aware of its existence.
When we were there, it was only partly uncovered, and there were numerous mounds, smothered in vegetation, that once restored, would one day reveal their form and purpose. In its day, Tikal encompassed a large area, connected by causeways.
The temples were massive, and we climbed two of them, Temples I and II. They were steep, and the steps were irregular and quite worn, but the view from the top over the jungle was breath-taking. And on the way up, monkeys were screeching at us from neighbouring trees. It was sobering to remember that countless of human sacrifices were performed on those elevated altars.
We were travelling light and decided to spend the night in Tikal, sleeping in hammocks in a little enclosure in the jungle. The shelter was circular, with a thick waterproof roof of fronds, open on all sides, with a waist-high wall. There was no light, so when the sun set, we climbed into our hammocks.
Initially, I fell asleep, but was often awoken by the constant clamour of the jungle. It was another world out there. At one time there was a furious galloping through our clearing. The next day we were told that it would have been a tapir.
When we returned to Flores, we decided to fly back to Guatemala City. The Flores airport was nearby, and none of us relished another long and uncomfortable bus journey.
The next day, Joe continued on his way north and we headed off to Antigua. You can read more of our journey here at Volcán Agua.