PC 53 A United Nations Birthday

There are various milestones that we humans reach, ponder perhaps and pass, be they your first kiss, your first relationship, going to university, getting your degree/professional qualification, learning how to fry an egg/make a cake, change jobs, marry, maybe divorce, your first child, your second child, the death of a parent/someone close, some health scare, an overseas holiday, writing your first novel/composing your first music/playing an instrument/starting your own business/climbing the corporate ladder, your first house, second house, representing yourself/team/county/country at something, becoming well known, keeping a low profile ….. but your birthdays are a constant reminder, as if one needed one, of the relentless progress of your own existence!

Do you recognise the inevitable build-up of emotion in the days prior to your birthday, sort of difficult not to recognise that your birthday is approaching?  A   warm feeling? “Oh! Yes! My birthday’s next week/tomorrow/today” An event to share with loved ones, remembering the excitement from childhood … and carrying that childish excitement into adulthood. “It’s my birthday! Look at me!”

I always assume that everyone likes to celebrate their birthday but acknowledge that that isn’t necessarily the case. I am reminded of that lovely story from Winnie-the-Pooh about Eeyore’s birthday. Eeyore was an ‘Old Grey Donkey’, probably made of felt and stuffed with kapok, who was generally very miserable about life; I have certainly met some human Eeyores! ‘Gloomy and Doomy’!! Anyway, Pooh and Piglet find out it’s Eeyore’s birthday and give him a couple of presents, including a balloon, and get Owl to write a card. Because no one else can read, Owl thinks he’s very important and wrote the card: “Hipy Papy Bthuthdth Thuthda Bthuthdy’. So Eeyore was extremely happy.

At my first boarding school, aged 8, one’s birthday was recognised by a place at the top table in the dining room ….. and a little knitted Golliwog (not very PC!) to put in the top pocket of one’s jacket. I still have a very classy pen knife (every boy needs a penknife!) that has silver sides and my initials, given on my 12th birthday, a large Oxford Illustrated Dictionary from my maiden aunt on my 16th, a Sheaffer fountain pen that I still have from my 18th, its barrel worn and battered by constant use but the initials still visible, and a pewter tankard inscribed with the date of my 21st.

You may have missed that 70 years ago the United Nations came into being, to replace the somewhat ineffective League of Nations. From its initial membership of 51 states, there are now 193, suggesting that, despite its critics, it remains an effective and essential intergovernmental organisation, in promoting human rights and providing humanitarian aid in time of famine or natural disasters. It’s been less effective in peacekeeping, constrained by its members from being more interventional! Its birthday was on the 24th of October.

My birthday was also on 24th October and a few chums, actually quite an eclectic bunch, came to help celebrate. We had jellies and balloons, sausages and bacon wraps, smoked salmon …… and cake. The candles on the cake could have spelt ‘Happy Birthday’ but rather like Eeyore’s card said “bhtaiy pparhyd” – everyone knew what it said! When it came to blowing out the candles and singing that song, there was a nod to the United Nations and to our multicultural society. The song ‘Happy Birthday’ originates from 1893 and has been translated into at least 18 languages. There was a fairly competent rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ in English; I admit to helping this one, although sang ‘Happy Birthday to me’ and not ‘Happy Birthday to I’! After a suitable pause, the Brazilian Portuguese version ‘Parabens ……’ rang out. Suddenly the assembled group got into the mood: I’ve never heard it sung in Arabic before …… or indeed in French ….. and then in Italian …… but never in Mandarin …… and certainly not Hungarian …. and some words in Czech! We didn’t have party games, but we should have played ‘sticking the tail on the donkey’, particularly as the first part of Eeyore’s birthday story concerns him losing his …. tail!!

Funny how I seem to have clusters of birthdays during the year; for instance in May and June, and then in October (Scorpio!!). Two days before mine was the birthday of my great chum Alwin …. and a business colleague David …… and two of our Bikram instructors …… and the husband of a fellow Bikram student.

I hope I’m not the only one to observe that often the ‘Qualifying Age’ for something moves just before you get there – or so it seems! The age you can vote, the age you qualify for your pension, the years needs to qualify for X or Y, changes to time-bars, drinking alcohol in USA, or even driving a car. Next it’ll be the qualifying age to die!

Birthday parties are fun and …. very necessary! But I was reminded of that parable from the Christian New Testament – Matthew 22; about the religious who have no time for God, represented in the story by those who accept the invitation but when the food is ready claim they are too busy to turn up! So, another birthday reached …… and celebrated. But how about this question to think about for the next few minutes: “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” Funny life inn’t? Just some scribbles, huh!

Richard – 27th October 2015 – richardyates24@gmail.com

PC 52 My Thumb

I always take for granted that I have good health and that, providing I keep myself reasonably fit and eat reasonably healthily, I shall continue to enjoy a long and fun life. But as I enter that age when the names in the obituary column of the newspaper become familiar, I am reminded that there is neither rhyme nor reason as to who lives for a long time and those whose lives are unreasonably short. What’s reasonable or unreasonable, you may well ask? Well…….

Although not ambidextrous, I take for granted my dextrous agility with two hands, the right one being dominant. I have 8 fingers and two thumbs, some might say10 fingers. The span of one hand is about 9 inches, the thumb an inch long and the width of a hand excluding the thumb approximately 4 inches. From the tip of my fingers, at arm’s length, to my nose is about a metre (39 inches). (Those of you with mathematical ability spotted the conversion error in my last PC about Foz, but I am assured that a metre is about 39 inches!). We even have a ‘rule of thumb’ in our language – a general or approximate rule, based on experience and practice. Until you lose the use of your thumb, you don’t realise just how useful it is, this digit that allows us to hold things, between thumb and forefinger, that allows us to twist a bottle top or unscrew a jar, for instance. And that pad at the base of the thumb, useful for determining whether meat is rare, medium done or well done! All in all, it’s a very useful part of the body.

The last 24 hours in Rio de Janeiro arrived last Wednesday; a couple of hours on the beach, lunch, the final bits of packing …….. then my life turned upside down! It went something like this. I am sure at some stage in your life you’ve watched a cooking demonstration or a demonstration of a ‘must have’ kitchen aid? The sort of thing that the British company Lakeland stocks; originally an online outlet, it’s been so successful that it’s opened some high street stores – selling all that ‘stuff’ you never thought you needed. Well, have you even bought a Mandoline? Not to be confused with a Mandolin, that stringed instrument of the ‘lute’ family, a Mandoline in the kitchen is a gadget for slicing fruit and vegetables thinly; adjustable, at its thinnest setting a slice of cucumber or pear can appear translucent. When you need one, it’s brilliant; when you don’t, it sits in the cupboard/on the shelf. Occasionally I cook something in Rio …… and thought that the kitchen needed a mandoline. Bought in February, it’s been unused for 6 months, so I was asked to demonstrate.

Set up, a courgette was duly sliced thinly, using the safety device that is actually an interface between your hand and the vegetable/fruit and blade. Anxious to show its versatility, I picked up a small potato, altered the setting so the slice would be thicker, then with typical stupidity masquerading as overconfidence, pushed the potato against the blade, without the interface! The first slice was perfect, the second was equally perfect, except that it came with the addition of a slice of my thumb. One of those “Oh! S**t!” moments in life when you wish, very sincerely, as if this would make a difference, for the ability to turn the clock back – even a second would have helped! I’m sure my subconscious registered what had happened before my brain went through that “Oh! S**t!” moment. I am reminded of that story from the Battle of Waterloo, of Wellington sitting astride his horse with his Chief of Staff, Lord Uxbridge, next to him, watching the progress of the battle. Suddenly Ubxbridge’s conscious kicks in – “By God Sir! I’ve lost my leg.” he exclaims! Wellington looks down the bridge of his long nose at his Chief of Staff’s uniform: “By God Sir! So you have.” At this point Uxbridge fell from his saddle in shock; he survived the amputation.

I stared at the thumb, altered in shape as it was by the removal of a thick slice of my skin and epidermis. I’m always rather relieved to see my own blood, good and fresh and very red, healthy you might say; except in this case, aided no doubt by my daily Asprin to reduce the likelihood of blood clots, there was a lot of it! And more seemed to be produced as I stared at it – these few seconds frozen in disbelief. Brief thoughts of ‘What if …..?’litter our lives like confetti after a wedding and they filled my little brain! I lifted my arm above my heart, hoping that the flow would slacken, going against gravity as it were. An icepack materialised. I think I’m pretty unflappable in a crisis, so watched and listened whilst everyone else discussed what to do. This was, after all, about 3 o’clock; only seven hours before our flight departed.

“You’ll need a stitch.” was the general perceived wisdom and that this should be performed as quickly as possible. In the UK you would either go to your GP practice and hope nursey was in, or go to the A&E department of your local hospital. Brazil’s public hospitals do not have a great reputation so the private sector flourishes. I learned that I would be taken to Clinica Dermatological de Ipanema. So, bundled into a car, through the tunnels under Os Dois Irmáos, skirting Gávea and along the south side of Lagoa, and eventually into Ipanema. The clinic has been warned of my needs, and within 10 minutes of arriving, Dr Andrea Sanchez ushered me into her room. She was too polite to say what surely was going on in her mind, just accepting that I was obviously a complete prat! I didn’t think she would pull the skin close enough together to be able to thread some stitches but I was wrong! Five were eventually expertly tied off. Funny how the smallest of cuts can be hugely painful!

A slow journey in the traffic back to Iposeria, time for a shower and then we were off; I held my bandaged thumb as if it was some prize pumpkin; what a prat! And all for the sake of a slice of potato! We never did find the piece of flesh ……! Funny life, innit!

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

PC 51 Foz!

I bumped into my namesake Richard yesterday. We had a chat!

“So, you’ve been travelling – again! Where did you go this time?”

I detect a certain jealousy! “Iguaçu!”

“Where? That sounds like a large reptile not a place.”

“Iguaçu, not Iguana (!), claims to be the world’s biggest waterfall, and it’s in South America.”

“Now wait a minute. My western education tells me Niagara Falls, on the border of Canada and the United States, is the biggest; I learnt that at school.”

“Not everything you learn at school is gospel; you learn that later in life. Maybe you think the Italians invented Pasta, and now we know it was the, er?, Chinese!! Only joking!”

If it isn’t Niagara, it must be Victoria Falls, on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe in Southern Africa?”

“Well, Niagara is small by comparison to Victoria Falls, which has a width of some 1700m, the largest curtain of flowing water in the world. Iguaçu is another kilometre wider, but there are some 250 separate falls within this width.” (See note)

“Just a thought though, whilst we’re talking about Victoria Falls. Surely they should be renamed Mugabe Falls, or better still Robert Falls, as the Africans seem to want to erase any memory of the history of their colonisation. That would be PC (Ed: Politically Correct and not Post Card!) as far as the Zimbabweans are concerned but Queen Victoria might start spinning in her grave. She can’t complain though; I don’t think there is anyone else in human history who has had so many statutes raised in her honour, or places named after her.”

“Anyway, you flew for hours in a plane ….  just to see some water flowing over a cliff?”

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 “You could look at it like that but ……. I read some time ago that when the then US President Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, visited Iguaçu back in 1930s, she was heard to remark: “Poor Niagara!” So it’s not only me!

Haven’t you got better things to do, better ways of spending your pension?”

“But this is all about witnessing the awesome power of nature and believe me, Iguaçu Falls are awesome! Incidentally, weren’t you amazed to read that the two tectonic plates on the west coast of South America that caused the Chilean earthquake last month move laterally about 80mm per year – that’s more than three inches?”

Anyway, where is this place Iguaçu ….. whatever you call it?”

“Near Foz do Iguaçu, a small town in the south west of Brazil, where three countries come together – Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.”

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You call it Fozzzzzz?”

“Well actually it’s pronounced Foysh. Foz means ‘mouth of the river’ (delta?) and Iguaçu means ‘Great Waters’ in the local Tupi-Guarani language. The falls are some 23kms upstream of the town which is situated at the confluence of the Iguaçu and Paraná rivers.”

“Is there anything else to do, apart from watching water flow over an edge?”

“God, you can be so supercilious sometimes! Haven’t you ever watched in wonder, at nature? Simple pleasures like sitting on the beach and getting lost in the rhythm of the waves breaking on the shore, or watching a stormy sea expend its immense power crashing into cliffs; these are some of life’s pleasures, surely? Enormous waterfalls like Foz do Iguaçu are mesmerising; it’s not just the fact that water is flowing over a cliff, it’s its continuity, its colour, its perceived power …… the noise alone is deafening. At Iguaçu you can walk along the river towards the falls, and then there’s a walkway out onto one of the flat areas of rock. At the end you are surrounded by water, at the edge of an 80m drop, with huge falls behind you, covering you with spray, your ears pounded by noise, like being in a washing machine on its rinse cycle perhaps. Now do you get the picture?”

“OK! Maybe it’s worth a trip. So, did you get out onto the river or take a helicopter trip over the falls?”

“We could have gone up in a helicopter, to look at the falls from the air, but it was a very short 10 minute flight ….. for which they wanted to charge £60 per person ….. and we decided that my pension didn’t stretch to that! But we did risk a boat trip, on one of those rigid raider boats. We were told we would get wet ….. but they didn’t say we would bounce up river to some of the minor waterfalls ….. and then nose into one of them! The sound of falling water, the force of the water on our backs, eyes closed to protect ourselves, everyone screaming with …… well, either exhilaration or sheer terror! Completely soaked; ‘knicker wet’ as I would say! The relief when we re-joined the main river was palpable!”

“Ha! Serves you right, you adrenalin junkie you!”

“In the rain, we visited the local bird park (see below), but we also saw lots of birds and wild animals, some simply wandering around the hotel gardens!”

Did you stay close to the falls?”

“On the Brazilian side of the falls there is one hotel that is actually within the Parque Nacional do Iguacu, an immense area of Atlantic Forest some 1700km², in which the Iguaçu Falls are located.

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The Hotel das Cataratas is just the place to stay; it was completed in 1958 and oozes old world charm mixed with C21st efficiency. One advantage of staying here is that when the park closes overnight, as a guest you have the falls and forest to yourself!

So there you have it, a few memories of being surrounded by water – some water huh! Just some scribbles, you might say!

Richard  Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

Note: The Angel Falls in Venezuela have the longest single fall of water, some 980m, nine times that of Niagara, Victoria or Iguaçu!

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 A Toucan