A trip of a lifetime…

I have never had the slightest inclination to visit Australia or China. Never. I never ever want to go back to China – it is what I would envision hell to be like. I will go back to Australia tomorrow. (But sadly on the South African Rand that is not an option.) And I would not dream of emigrating.

Margie and I had to pinch ourselves when we eventually got to the airport for the start of this trip – it felt like the day would never come. Margie – tall as she is – slept like a baby almost all the way to Doha, and then slept some more to Melbourne. Just about all the way. I watched all the movies and all the sitcoms. All of them…. And when I thought we were having breakfast it was supper. And being woken in what my clock said was the middle of the night and offered ice cream just feels a little bit surreal.

Arriving in Melbourne we felt like Royalty being picked up in a very smart black car with a chauffeur. (He wore gloves – that surely makes him a chaffeur and not just a driver?) Our names proudly displayed on his ipad nogal. (Thank you ACSA!) The drive into Melbourne is spectacular – bridges and buildings lit up. Our hotel blew us both out of the ground – we are just not used to this kind of glitz and glamour. The Metropole is not just a hotel, it is a city of hotels. Wide awake and like two children on a school outing, we decided to explore. The hotel/casino complex is a maze of the most unbelievably extravagant show of glitz that one can(not) imagine. We headed for the nearest bar – which was opposite the entrance to a nightclub – and sat staring at the youngsters in high heels that are more like stilts and short dresses that are more like frilly panties!

The first few nights were dogged by jetlag – but hey, we soon forgot about that. Our first day in Melbourne was spent with my old university friend Kobie, from Paarl. (Her Mom is a resident at Huis Vergenoegd.) What joy to be shown around by (sadly by now yes) a local, who knows the city inside out. And WHAT A CITY Melbourne is. It is beautiful – magnificent buildings in the most amazing architecture, a long river walkway (like the Southbank in London) and beautiful parks. We visited the Melbourne Victoria market (rather like Covent Garden in London) and the foodmarket , stuffed our faces with the most decadent figs stuffed with cheese and numerous other delicacies. We walked through the historical lanes, drank coffee and reminisced about the long gone days of our youth. All in a days’ visit. Kobie eventually left us at our hotel at about 21h00. The next day was conference!

The conference venue is part of the hotel, and we are met like celebrities by the gorgeous Judy Martin – the person who made the ACSA conference happen, and who has worked with Margie over the past 5 years facilitating the SA/Australia partnerships. More than a 1000 people congregated, and there we are… the two South Africans. I immediately realise that I am in celebrity company – Margie knows everyone. And those she does not know she walks up to and introduces herself. Quite something to watch! The power of networking with a purpose!

We make a beeline for The Eden in Australia and NZ stand to meet Sally Hopkins – the Eden co-ordinator. Even though I have spoken to Sally often on skype, exchanged emails etc, we have never met. And what a wonderful joy and pleasure to meet yet another delightful Aussie. We immediately make plans to party… And so the conference starts. We are introduced to wonderful people who do wonderful things. I feel like a child who met Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny, the Toothfairy and Liewe Jesus all in one day. People I have only heard of and read about we are now interacting with in  real life. And they are friendly and ask questions and make me feel alive! How wonderful to be surrounded by more than a thousand people who are passionate about Aged Care, really and truly passionate!  and who are so ready to share . Providers, researchers, operaters – you name it. And there is an energy that  is so infectious I had to pinch myself to make sure I am not dreaming. All this about Aged Care – WOW! We bump into old friends – Sharon Blackburn from the UK National Care Forum who has given us lots of advice on the South African Care Forum (and we meet the CEO of the NCF Des Kelly, later in Shanghai). And we meet new people – Dr. Julienne Meyer, the brain behind “My Home Life”, also from the UK. And the guys (Paul and Russell) from the Aged Care Channel, Dr. Peter Judd from Hammond Care and more and more wonderful people who share their stories and expertise with us.

And then there is the BIG PARTY – a black tie affair in the Grand Ballroom of the Metropole Hotel. So Margie and I get dressed up to the nines and look and feel so glam! And suddenly I understand why South Africans emigrate to Australia. These guys and girls know how to throw a wonderful party – black tie or not, they show us how to party in style. We meet more people, dance, eat amazing food, drink copious amounts of wonderful wine and dance some more. The breakfast room is empty the next morning… But we get back to conferencing and the passion continues.

Then we are treated to a visit to the hallowed grounds of the Melbourne Cricket Ground – affectionately known as the G. (At this point I have to confess that I have never seen people go so ballistic over a cricket pitch). It felt like we were shown the holy grail. (I kept quiet – believe it or not.) We were intrigued at the wow factor this had for the locals. That evening we had a “rural and remote dinner” at the G – where Margie was the guest speaker, telling the story of St. Antonine’s and Sr. Lucia. There was  not a dry eye in the audience! I wept like a baby seeing how our country and someone as special as Sr. Lucia is celebrated in Australia — when in South Africa she is hardly given the time of day. Margie did our country proud in showcasing the amazing work that is done. It was also very clear that Margie is held in very high regard by people in the know – what a privilege to witness this.

Sally took Margie and I on a wonderful guided tour of the outlying areas of Melbourne, with more coffee and food in exquisite coffee shops and restaurants. Melbourne is a truly cosmopolitan city with great pockets of Italian, Greek and Lebanese cuisine and culture. We were then taken to visit Kew Gardens, one of the Homes that linked with South Africa. The staff of this (VERY wealthy) home raised funds for Ekuphumleni to pay for the blisterpacking of medicine for the residents. We were treated to a lovely lunch provided by the staff, and had a tour of the home. The staff are very keen to enter into an exchange program with staff in South Africa – our next step.

Another highlight of the conference was the launch of a new global initiative, CommonAge. Margie was elected as one of the founding board members, representing the interests of the African Commonwealth countries. This organisation will look at creating a clearinghouse for information and opportunities in Aged Care within the Commonwealth countries, as well as creating opportunities to access Commonwealth funding, especially for the developing countries. Our very own, incredibly charming (and beautfully dressed in traditional dress) High Commisioner Koleka Mqulwana, attended the launch, and was very vocal about how she wanted to be more involved. She looks forward to visiting Ekuphumleni with Margie early in January, particularly as she grew up in Gugulethu.We spent a great afternoon with her, recieved our 10 000 Aussie dollar cheque (that’s almost R100 000 for Eku!) and witnessed the start of a new movement in Aged Care. The cocktail snacks at this event was something from a celebrity tv show: incredible!

The ACSA organising committee led by Judy Martin and their CEO John Kelly were the most wonderfully warm, hospitable  hosts, spoiled us rotten and treated us like real celebrities. We look forward to returning the hospitality when they are out on the SAGE study tour to SA in September 2014.

I was really sad to leave Melbourne – but was excited that many of the people we met were also going to Shanghai to the IAHSA conference so we could further grow these new friendships.

The flight to Shanghai was another 10 hour journey around the world – and Margie SLEPT! And I watched more soapies and movies. (Great to catch up on movies that I missed on the circuit, amongst others Lincoln, The Cider House Rules and Blue Jasmine. All very good films!).

Arriving in Shanghai late at night was weird – it was smoggy, dark, and almost all the incredibly high buildings were covered in darkness. It was eery. Weird. It felt as if everyone left in a hurry. We were taken along dark, dingy roads by a cab driver that makes our local taxi drivers look positively asleep. (At one point I told Margie that it felt like we were being kidnapped – and thought we might be sold as sex slaves. Bad deal…) We arrived at the Hotel Le Royal Meridien. Yes – more glitz and bling. This time we headed straight for bed after having a fight with the taxi driver who wanted to be paid, after we had already paid when booking. The start of a new adventure.

The next day Margie had a board meeting with IAHSA (at which she was formally appointed as the next Chair of IAHSA to take over on 1 January 2014 – the first time the Chair comes to Africa, and the first woman Chair since this global body was formed 22 years ago).  I was free to explore. Oh boy. China is not for sissies. There are 22 million people living in Shanghai. (As opposed to 50 million in the whole of South Africa). It is big, smelly, smoggy and very noisy. One cannot walk five steps without being accosted by someone wanting to sell handbags or watches – and if your refuse that – sex. Young girls, very young. (I think in pictures and found this so disturbing…) And they do not give up. They carry on and on and on.  I try not be rude. Well that lasted all of ten minutes. It didn’t help.

I then decided to venture off the tourist route, and discovered a weird, wonderful world of Chinese culture. The tiniest of tiny little shops with silk, lace, calligraphy pens, ink, paper, beautiful calligraphy brushes. And – shop after shop selling combs and hairbrushes. All made of either sandalwood or tortoise shell. Friendly locals minding their own business – most of them eating noodles. All the time – they seem to spend their lives eating noodles. There are hundreds – if not thousands – of little makeshift stalls along the back streets selling food. The pungence of smelly tofu hangs thick in the air, exacerbated by old oil and whatever is being fried. And those eggs boiled in tea. I stumbled across a fish market – crates of live fish and a crate of huge bullfrogs, all looking at me with desperate eyes. Next to it a big wooden block with a bloody meat cleaver. I ran. Fast.

China is not for the faint hearted. And I am faint hearted. I trusted no restaurant, suspected everyone of deep frying dogs and cats. The taxi’s – although incredibly cheap – drive like bats from hell. The live on their hooters, have no patience, give way to no being, whether on foot or on bike or on scooter, and simply push their way through the heaving masses by honking their hooters. More frightening are the scooters – they are electrical so do not make a sound at all. And before you know it a whole (extended) family on a scooter is right upon you at 60 miles an hour, with the entire contents of a house tied around the scooter (and family) with flimsy pieces of string. And they do not switch on their lights at night (saving energy I trust).

That evening I joined Margie and the rest of the IAHSA board of directors at a dinner to say thank you and farewell to board members standing down and welcome and congratulations to Margie who will be taking over as Chair. Margie and I were treated to the most wonderful meals throughout the period of the conference – it was clear that I was in the company of a celebrity. We had the most incredible dim sum, beautifully handcrafted little morsels of (well your guess is as good as mine after seeing those poor frogs….). With thinly sliced ginger, vinegar and soy sauce they tasted amazing. We spent time with old friends, made some amazing new friends, learnt wonderful things at  both the IAHSA and ACSA conferences, and most importantly made connections with many people wanting to visit South Africa. (After hearing Margie speak, the SAGE tour to South Africa in 2014 has now grown to more than 20 people!).

On Tuesday I presented with Mark Ericson (American living and working in Shanghai) and Vincenzo Paolino (from Zurich, owner of Almacasa Home for people living with dementia). Again I realised how different our realities are, and what a wonderful privilege it is to live and work in South Africa. Sr Lucia attended the conference, as well as Helen, a Social Worker from the SAVF in Krugersdorp. Helen spoke about her work in the SAVF home. Margie presented with Rebecca Neth-Townsend from Arizona – Senior Vice President of Ziegler Bank Senior Services – on the global impact of strategic partnerships.We were quite the hit with our stories of Africa. (And Helen with her platted hair!). Rebecca wants to come out from the US and work here for two weeks!

Aged Care has become a huge business enterprise in the developed world. The Americans are building ‘campuses’ that take your breath away. (We would call them Retirement Villages). I call them ghetto’s. The thought of ending my last years in a compound where everyone is old, talking about their constipation at the breakfast tables whilst chomping away at their prunes that were soaked overnight drives me batty. I do not believe that people should be grouped together based on their age, sex, ethnicity, culture, skin colour or sexual orientation. I believe we should all live together regardless of our age. This will keep us active, our minds focussed, our intellects sharp, our bodies agile. Watching young kids play, dogs chasing cats, locals selling their goods, young people going to work and people, no matter their age, falling in and out of love, divorces and new marriages will keep us from falling into the stigmatisation of “old age”. Put us all together in one ghetto and we will quickly deteriorate into frailty and misery.

Margie and I are most grateful to the Baumann Trust who made this incredible experience possible for us both, and for the Trust acknowledging the importance of these global connections for aged care in South Africa.

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