Author: Clients in Action

A love of people plus a love of music makes a harmonious life

The Silhouettes’s music gives their audience and them meaning and joy

There’s a certain nostalgic element to music. “As we get older, we tend to forget things, and music revives precious memories. Smile and people smile back. Play music for them, and you feed their souls,” says Chartered client, Ian Davis.

Ian speaks about his wife, Trish, his work and his music, with enthusiasm and passion. Here’s a man who gave up his rock-star band at age 23 years to focus on his career, his family and their retirement savings. He rekindled his passion for music 40 years later in retirement, and now shares his music – at no cost – with people at housing and healthcare centers for the elderly.

Born to be a musician

Ian has always loved music and taught himself to play guitar at 13 after his father passed away. “I was lost when my father died,” remembers Ian, “and music helped clear my head. I sounded terrible at first, but kept on playing.”

Ian’s motto is to “practise, practise and practise.” A career in music takes patience, persistence and long hours. Very few people sign music contracts and it takes years to earn an income.

Ian started his first band at age 21, when he met his fellow band members in Salisbury, Zimbabwe; they were soon offered two extended contracts in Durban. At one of his gigs Ian met his wife, Trish. “I saw her enter the room and walk across it. Two weeks later I asked her to marry me,” recalls Ian. Trish supported Ian to pack up his life in Zimbabwe and move to South Africa.

At 23, Ian gave up his band (but never his music) and started a career in training and development with Trish at his side.

Earning an income

Ian especially loved developing previously disadvantaged people in the packing, loading and transport industry, travelling all around Africa to help people improve their social and business skills. He ran his own business two years before officially retiring and his on-line training courses for the transportation industry are still used today. “You must love what you do!” says Ian.

Now retired

On his and Trish’s retirement, Ian picked up his guitar again and considered starting a new band. He bumped into Brian, an old friend and original band member of nearly a half a century ago. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Their new band – The Silhouettes – comprises four members with Ian on lead guitar. Each member has a favourite, but all love the music of The Shadows. “We also play 60s and 70s music,” says Ian “and our fans tap their feet and get up to dance!”

Giving back with music

The band plays for people in retirement facilities, and for the mentally and physically challenged. “We enjoy playing for our audience! And they enjoy us!” says Ian. “It is a wonderful, fulfilling opportunity to play for people who don’t get to go out, whose kids don’t visit and who often can’t look after themselves. We entertain our audience with music and humour,” adds Ian.

“Our music has a purpose,” says Ian. “Music has attachments and reminds us older people of times gone by.” While Ian and his band bring joy to so many people, it’s all about give-and-take. “I have learnt so much from my fellow band players; we work as a team, support one another and cover the other’s mistakes,” reflects Ian.

Having the time to do what you love in retirement

Being retired is all about how you approach it, a positive attitude and having the time to do what you love! “It brings me great joy to bring a smile to someone’s face. Music keeps my mind active. When I hear a great song, I feel compelled to learn it. I don’t read music, but I can write lyrics and chords. I teach myself from listening to the tune. It sometimes takes me three weeks to learn a new song,” says Ian

Ian believes that music stimulates the imagination. It brings you to a place where anything is possible. He always leaves home with a notepad and pen and gets his inspiration from what he sees and hears. “I write lyrics as I go, sometimes having to visit the library to research what I saw, and then I compose the music.”

Ian certainly has all the characteristics of a great musician: passion, the right attitude, talent, and natural curiosity. “When I’m feeling down, I pick up my guitar and the world is right again,” says Ian.

Thank you, Ian. Your generosity is like music to our ears and your story struck a chord with all of us!

Chartered hosts a 50-Plus Skills workshop

50-skills-plus

Are you approaching retirement and wondering what you will do with all that time? What will replace that sense of purpose that work gave you? Or are you already retired and ready to find a new kind of work?

To assist our clients to plan their transition from full-time, formal employment to a fresh view of work in retirement, we invited Lynda Smith, owner of 50-Plus Skills and CEO of Refirement Network to run a workshop at Chartered House.

Even if you have looked forward to not clocking in, being accountable for your time and attention, hitting the traffic, and just being able to set your own daily schedule, the novelty of not working can soon wear off.

Lynda Smith has a vision to engage all those over 50 in South Africa through 50-Plus Skills.

Lynda Smith invites the retired community of South Africa “to learn and unlearn, to discover and to create a new season”. Thanks to medical advances and technology, we are living longer lives, and the gift of this longevity is that we can continue to make a valuable contribution to our communities through our skills and experience.

“Be courageous and engaged,” says Lynda. She encouraged her audience to keep up with technological trends, to continue your learning journey, to redefine work – it can be without remuneration, it may take the form of mentorship, it can be philanthropic support.

50-Plus Skills is not a recruitment company, but is a place to share opportunities and offerings.

Lynda’s 50-Plus Skills is on online community where you can connect with other retirees on their own journey of discovery, with people seeking skills, with those creating new ways of working.

To become a member, go to www.50plus-Skills.co.za The cost of membership is R500 pa and includes a half day life planning workshop

Chartered clients were encouraged to engage with 50-
Plus Skills.

From Retired to Restored

It took Mike Pennel three years to refurbish and restore his 1951 MG TD. This was his part-time job, while he was still working full-time for a prominent car manufacturing company. Little did Mike know that this labour of love would be the start of his new business venture in RetiremeantTM. He was reinventing himself and is now a specialist restorer of vintage cars.

“Vintage cars are a bit like us golden oldies,” he says. “They are full of wrinkles and dents and can’t be returned to perfect condition again. But they can be restored for a new lease on life.” For Mike, this type of personal restoration has meant far less pressure and much more joy!

Turning his passion into business

Mike’s MG TD arrived in parts in boxes

Mike bought his MG TD three years before officially retiring. “It arrived on a flatbed truck with all the parts packed into boxes,” remembers Mike. He spent weekends in his garage, painstakingly rebuilding and refurbishing every single part of the car while documenting every step of the re-build. He now fields questions on restoring TDs, and restores cars and components for other clients – all through word-of-mouth. Mike is selective of his clients and the work he takes on. “It has to fit into my area of expertise and meet my time-lines,” he says.

Having spent his whole life in the motoring industry, Mike has the expertise and passion to excel at what he does, while having fun at the same time. “The motor industry retires at 60. Time just creeps up on you. When I suddenly realised that I had to retire, it was all panic stations – I was not ready! I had not planned anything. Thankfully, I was asked to stay on for another three years which served my purpose in many ways,” says Mike. “When I finally retired at 63, I was ready. I had phased in my retirement with my hobby and knew exactly how I was going to spend my time.”

“The important part,” says Mike, “is to manage your time. Thinking back, I don’t know where I ever found the time to go to work.”

The pleasure of a task well done!

Planning your time

Mike’s advice is to plan the hours that you are willing to set aside for work every day. Even though his work is filled with pure joy and satisfaction, Mike allocates part of his day to other activities and interests. He has joined the German Shepherd dog club committee and apart from finding great joy in training his German Shepherd, he often gets called upon to restore the clubhouse. “Mike is always busy. If he is not fixing something in the house or clubhouse, he potters around the garage sorting things out,” says Natalie.

Natalie is fully supportive of Mike’s new business. It keeps him busy and gives her the time to follow her dreams.

Putting your creative passion to work

“I have always loved crafts and making boxes, trays and various décor items. When Mike asked what I was planning to do with all this stuff, I realised that I needed a creative outlet that would allow me to earn money at the same time,” says Natalie.

Natalie enrolled for a cake decorating Diploma and passed her course in her early 50s. “It wasn’t easy,” reflects Natalie. “I used to come home and ice my entire kitchen table, scrape it off, and ice it again!”

Natalie used her new skill to start a cake baking and decorating business. They refurbished their kitchen and she is very proud of the two ovens. “It also guarantees that we have dinner at night,” says Mike smilingly.

Natalie loves spending her time baking, piping and decorating, all from the comfort of her own home, with her orders also mostly coming in through word-of-mouth. “I am by no means artistic,” says Natalie, “but I love what I do!”

Natalie shares that her biggest challenge now is to grow her business. “I need to market my business better, but at the same time, I don’t want to be overextended,” says Natalie.

Mike and Natalie both spend part of their time giving back. With Mike’s skills coming in handy at the dog club, Natalie donates her time baking for a retirement home and child welfare project, and offers cake decorating workshops at retirement homes. “I love to teach and share my passion,” says Natalie.

Mike and Natalie share their tips for a successful RetiremeantTM:

  1. Be prepared. Retirement can be a shock. You may be ready financially, but you must be prepared mentally.
  2. Invest time in your hobby – who knows, it may turn into more than just that. Join a club or support group – be involved.
  3. Manage your time wisely – you don’t want to be so overextended that you cannot fit retirement into life.

Mike and Natalie have certainly restored their RetiremeantTM into an exciting new adventure. We wish them the very best of success in their new business ventures.

If you would like to contact Mike or Natalie, we have included their email addresses below:

Mike: mikepennel56@gmail.com
Natalie: natpen63@gmail.com

The land of lakes, cakes & the brave

Did you know that you can become a Scots lord, laird or lady?  You simply purchase a souvenir plot of good Scottish land and the title comes along with it. Chartered clients, Norma and Rhys Rolfe, harboured no such desires while visiting there … rather, to spend time with family and enjoying travelling the countryside in their mobile home.  If you have spent any time on our Retire Successfully website, you would have followed these inveterate explorers across continents, and here is their account of their most recent trip.

It is hard to believe that we have been in Scotland for nearly three weeks … how the time flies. We so enjoyed the first two weeks with the family who all seem to be doing well. The six grandsons grow by the day and are all studying hard for their exams (or I think they are).

The bright-yellow rape was in flower and added to the beauty of the countryside.

Our motor home was waiting for us, and having stocked it for our trip, we set off for Buckinghamshire where we spent a night with an old school friend of mine. He has a large business and a farm, and it was very interesting hearing his views on Brexit and China as he does a lot of business with the Chinese.

We then drove up the M1 to the Eastern Yorkshire Coast, certainly not the best way to see the countryside, but a fast way to get anywhere. They are building vast numbers of new homes on what were green belts all over the country, but not improving the roads, and this is leading to more congestion. An interesting fact was that the country was able to rely on wind power only for a few months last year.

Home to thousands of birds

We visited Bempton Cliffs where the largest number of sea birds nest each year, including the Puffins. They number over half a million, and after the fledglings are able to fly, the rest of the year is spent on the water in the Atlantic Ocean. The Puffins are most interesting birds as they eat eels found 70 meters below the sea. Their chests are so powerful that they can flap their wings 400 times a minute.

Discovering Scottish history

We also visited Whitby abbey built in the 7th century. Whitby is famous because this is where Captain Cook started sailing, and where the Endeavour, Resolution, Adventure, and Discovery were built. Herman Melville’s book Moby Dick makes much of Whitby whalers.

The weather and camp sites have been kind to us. The one in the picture is a good example. We are in Durham a lovely old city in Eastern Yorkshire with a magnificent old Norman Romanesque cathedral. We were able to visit our eldest grandson who is studying mechanical engineering at the Durham University.

Camping in the Scottish countryside

Not how you play, but that you do

Chartered client, Stephen Marcus Finn, has found joy in resuming his piano playing, after a break of five decades from lessons, and at age 67. A passing challenge set him on a renewed path of learning, with him loving the process of studying and practising. His story is an inspiration to aim for enjoyment, not perfection, in our learning journeys.

At the Grahamstown Festival three years ago, my wife bumped into a colleague who said he had taken up the clarinet again. She told him that I’d started playing the piano, after not having had lessons for about 50 years – I was 67 then. He challenged me to do my Grade 8 within the year, as that was what he’d be doing, having Grade 7 already. My wife accepted, despite my protests of never having played any exam, and not even knowing the difference between a major or minor key. At her behest, however, I promptly started learning theory, eventually passing Grade 8 with the ABRSM with distinction, and continuing lessons intensely with my superb and patient teacher.

My practical was different. I could never hear the difference between the keys and any aural test by my teacher was a disaster. I graduated to hearing aids only after the exam, having read a magazine article about how older people lose hearing facility – so, I wasn’t alone.

Came the exam in just under a year, and I breezed into the room with a smile and a “Hello”, only to be met with a scowl and a, “You can try out the piano.” It was a Kawai and I was used to Yamahas. The touch was so different, I thought I’d need five minutes to get attuned to it. But after 10 seconds (I kid you not), I was told to start with scales, my strongest point. Well, each one I played, I had to restart twice as I fouled up. My Bach (always suspect) went really well, my Beethoven (generally acceptable) was, yes, acceptable. My modern piece (which I thought I could play brilliantly) sounded as if I’d never played it, or even the piano, before. I saw the examiner wincing. Sight-reading was good, but then came the aural tests. I knew I’d get 0 for those, so just tried to work out what the examiner would ask me, guessing wildly all the time.

To my astonishment, I passed quite well, despite a horrendous mark for the scales. My aural result was stratospheric.

I didn’t cover myself in glory but I loved the whole process of studying and practising. And my wife’s colleague? We found out a year later that he’d only been joking when he’d challenged me. But what an inadvertent favour he’d actually done me.

As a postscript, for my 70th birthday I gave a recital for my wonderful teacher, my family and friends, playing Chaminade, Alkan, Scriabin and Foulds. As one of my children said afterwards: “It’s not how you played, Dad, it’s that you played.”

Goodbye, Old Girl

Sandy Murray shared this Daily Mail article that has been of comfort to her in the loss of her Golden Retriever, which she describes as traumatic. Writer Bruce Fogle describes how the loss of “man’s best friend effects one dog lover … goodbye old girl”.

At the moment, I am unanchored. Emotionally adrift. Not because my marriage has hit the skids, or because my children are unwell. I haven’t lost my job. I’m not even moving home. My mind’s in a stew for a banal, some might say, trivial, reason: my dog died.

It’s not that my dog was particularly special. She was a family dog, a six-year-old female golden retriever, one of the umpteen dogs you might see every day being exercised by their owners. But she was my dog, a warm, soft, beautiful, loving thing.

Macy was a thoughtful creature, a considerate being, a trusting and worthy part of my family. She was my travelling companion, accompanying me on long travels we took together around North America and Europe.

There are some, and you may be one, who dislike the anthropomorphising of dogs: the humanising of their personalities, their feelings, their emotions. To me, there are shades of this. I hate seeing dogs in party hats or wearing antlers at Christmas. But can you seriously refuse to grant a dog the complexities of emotional feelings?

Many do, but I can’t accept that. I can’t believe that dogs don’t have emotions, and the only words I have to describe those emotions are ones I’d use to describe a fellow human. Macy was “jealous” when another dog took one of her toys, “thoughtful” before trying anything unfamiliar, “joyous” when she met people or other dogs she knew, “contented” to be left alone, “purposeful” when investigating the natural world around her, “circumspect” in her approach to unknown people, “contained” in her display of emotions.

Helen Mirren in The Queen reminded me of Macy – guarded, wary, restrained, but no less “human” for it. But there’s a trickier emotion. Can you describe love? Can you put your own feeling of love for someone into precise words? Can you capture in a sentence or a paragraph that feeling of love so that someone reads and understands what you mean?
I know the look of love in my wife’s eyes, but can I describe in words what that look is? (I know, too, her look of exasperation, or annoyance.) You can’t dispassionately describe love from the outside. You have to feel it from the inside in order to know what it is, so you’ll have to take my word for it. As trite as it may sound, I loved my dog and I know my dog loved me.

Why do we love a species that so depends on us? We guide our children from their early reliance on us to eventual independence, but the dog’s dependence is permanent and we love them deeply for it.
An evolutionary biologist would say that is dogs’ trump card – their ability to convince us that they need us for ever and ever. They thrive on our lifelong need to nurture. Macy did this in a number of ways. First, there was that look in her eyes. It was exactly the same as the look of love in my wife’s eyes. So why is it any different from the love Julia need not put into words?

There’s another look she could get in her eyes – absolute, unmitigated, concentrated interest in me. An uncle of mine had that look and women generations younger than he fell in love with him because of it.

So why can’t I fall in love with that look in my dog’s eyes, a look that told me she thought I was the most interesting person she’d ever met?

Then there’s physical contact. Golden retrievers are particularly adept at this. They press their bodies into you. Each time I returned home, Macy pressed her head against my legs when she greeted me. Sometimes she did this in the park, too. Just because. If I were sitting, on a chair or in the grass, she’d come over and press her chest against me.
It’s as if she were saying: ‘I want to squeeze you I love you so much, and this is the best I can do.’

And silence. Is that not the true glue of love: the ability to be together, to do together, to understand each other without the need for words? The ability to feel love certainly predates language.

Being with a dog, understanding her moods, her wants, her feelings, her emotions, without the need for words, returns you to the core of your being, to a time before words, when body language said everything.

As so many dogs do, Macy bestowed unconditional devotion, an unquestioning reliability, a constancy and an immutability. Her intention was always to be there, to leaven anywhere with the familiarity of her presence. After the thrill of the chase, even when lost in the deepest woods, her purpose was always to return, to find me, to be rejoined once more.
Of course, that’s at the core of the most sentimental stories about dogs. Every culture has them: the dog awaiting his master’s return, even from the dead. That’s unmitigated sentiment, but what’s wrong with that? Can another human ever equal the unqualified, unconditional regard that a dog has for us?

Living with a dog is an ongoing process of interpreting. We intuitively interpret what our dogs, with their bodies, tell us, and when we can’t fully interpret we take them to the vet so that he interprets what’s happening.

As well as her owner, I was also Macy’s vet. I’m used to that triangular relationship – you, your dog and me, all interacting with each other.

I usher dogs through life, from the faltering first steps of puppyhood, through the arc of life to the often pain-riddled last steps of stoic old age. I have a relationship with the dog and with her owner.

To dogs, I provide medical care. To owners, I offer experience and advice.

There are times when I have to cut myself loose from the emotional link I’ve made with my patient and speak dispassionately with her owner. “Are we doing such and such because it’s good for the dog or are we doing it because we can’t bear the emotional torment of the only alternative: to painlessly kill.”

But when it’s my own dog that’s gravely ill, there’s no triad. Whom do I talk to about her?

Walking your dog is life-affirming, and it’s probably what I miss most now that she’s no longer alive. It’s as if you’re plaited together, one extended consciousness, awareness overlapping. I see a squirrel before she does, and then she spies one before I do.

On one of those walks, rather than charging ahead in front, Macy unexpectedly walked beside me. Dogs develop ritual behaviours and, because Macy had deviated from hers, there in the park I examined her and felt a mass the size of a chicken egg, fixed firm in her guts.

I pretended to myself, and later to my wife Julia, that it was an ovarian cyst, but I knew that was unlikely. I took her to the clinic, withdrew a blood sample and found nothing unexpected, but I knew I’d have to operate to see what the mass was.

That night, in obvious distress, Macy came to Julia’s side of our bed and, with anxiety in her eyes, she panted relentlessly. I gave her a painkiller and she relaxed, but it wasn’t until the following morning, when I operated on her, that I knew for certain that she had haemorrhaged in her abdomen.

Once the blood was cleared away, I found the site of her bleeding and removed it. There were other sites too, filled with cheesy material, like pus but not pus, and I removed most of them too. But not all of them. There were simply too many.

My fellow vet Veronica and I operated for three hours, removing large parts of her innards. Veronica worked in emergency and critical care in California before she joined me in London, but neither of us was absolutely certain what we were dealing with.

After we finished surgery and Veronica took off her face mask, I saw in her eyes what her mind was thinking: “Poor Macy. Poor Bruce.” What was in my mind was: “Why have I operated?”

Four days later, we got back the results from the pathologist. A wickedly fast-spreading cancer that had originated somewhere on her skin had invaded all her organs, spreading in sheets around healthy tissue. The cheesy material was nothing more than tissue that had lost its blood supply and died.

When we finished operating, I still didn’t know the exact cause of her condition, but experience told me that whatever it was, her life would be short and probably uncomfortable. I didn’t want to lose my dog, but I didn’t want her to wake up either.

I increased the narcotic painkiller and took her home to Julia. There, I continued to add painkiller to her intravenous drip and, lying by the sofa, conscious but asleep, by the light of the fire, she died that evening, not having had the distress of reawakening.

Just that week, I’d received a book from an American publisher, hoping that I’d write a blurb for the back jacket. It was an intelligent and attractive tale, told by Ted Kerasote, a self-sufficient outdoorsman from Wyoming, of his life with a big yellow dog named Merle. Of course, every book about a dog tells the story of its end.

Of Merle’s end of life, Ted wrote: “Rocking back on my heels, I wondered how this could be – his going off while I was cleaning his butt.” Somehow, it seemed apt. A dog is always more interested in another dog’s rear end than in its eyes.
“Half-laughing, half-crying at this thought, I suddenly felt all my joints lose cohesion, as if what had been holding me together had suddenly dissolved. “My dog,” I said to the empty house. “My dog.””

Ted had only his empty house. I had Julia and, although we didn’t need words, we too dissolved.
When dogs are members of the family, when we know they have feelings and emotions so similar to ours, when we grieve for their passing as we do for any other beings we have formed bonds with, we need rituals to help us cope with the end of a life.

Julia and I stayed with her body for a while, my fingers buried in my dog’s hair – for my comfort now rather than for hers – then I wrapped her in a sheet, put her on her bed in the back of the car and drove down to our place in Sussex.
At dawn the next morning, I started digging under a low, bushy bay tree where on hot days she had silently retreated for shade. The clay was as hard as concrete, but this was a satisfying ritual I’d carried out before.

I’ve got two more dogs, Liberty and Lex, buried in their favourite spots in that garden. It’s a final service, a last “thank you” to an innocent. Rigor mortis had come and gone and as I carried her from the car to the hole I’d dug, her head lolled like a flower on an old stem.

Mock me if you must, but I buried with her all the lost tennis balls that she’d found in the park during the previous month and proudly carried back to the car, 11 of them.

Dogs can’t tell their life stories, but sentimentally, and I dare say tediously, we dog owners tend to narrate our dogs’ lives to others.

To those who have not formed an emotional bond with an individual dog, a description of the quiet intimacies in that relationship can be discomfiting.

To those of you who have, let me say this, both from my own experience and from watching so many others endure the grief of losing a dog.

What differentiates the loss of a dog from the loss of a fellow human is the fact that the core values in our affiliation with dogs can be reformed. The emotional value of living in the company of a dog does not reside solely and uniquely within that one individual. A dog dies and that particular dog is irreplaceable, but the value of “dog” can be filled by others.

Macy was the fourth dog we’ve had during our marriage, and certainly the most travelled. I’ve surprised myself by how cut up I still feel about her premature death. Maybe that’s because she died young, or maybe it’s because I spent so many months on the road, travelling alone with her, sharing experiences with her and no one else.
Or maybe it’s because she was my first “digital dog”. It seems that every time my screensaver comes on, there’s another random picture of Macy, among lingonberries on the Russian border, ploughing through the surf of an empty Oregon beach, at Florian’s cafe in Venice.

The memories remain, but I know too that, inevitably and joyously, she will soon be followed by a fifth.

Bruce Fogle’s A Dog Abroad is published by Ebury Press (£14.99). Ted Kerasote’s Merle’s Door is published by Harcourt (£10.99).

Off the beaten track in Bulgaria

Chartered Wealth Solutions clients, Carl and Santjie Geldenhuys, have unique requirements when travelling. While some prioritise balmy weather and a welcoming beach, others love the thrill of excursions. Some can’t imagine accommodation without heated bathroom rails or an adjoining spa.

For the Geldenhuys couple, a child-friendly location off the beaten track is essential, as they take the whole family with them. Join them as they visit their surprising selection: Bulgaria, and tell their story.

It started with a phone call from our representative at Dream Vacations (our holiday club).

She: Carl, I think I have what you have been looking for. Off the beaten track and very child-friendly. In Bulgaria.

Me: What is the cost for the seven of us? (oupa, ouma, two kids from London and their three kids, one still a toddler)

She: R1 747, but, unfortunately, you cannot use your club points. It is an RCI special.

Me: That is a bit stiff per day for four adults, two kids and a toddler.vShe: You have it all wrong. R 1 747 for the week’s accommodation in a ski-resort close to Razlog, 80 km south of Sofia, capital of Bulgaria.

Me: Done deal. Where do I sign?

This is the only advantage to having kids and grandkids overseas. Travelling together is a good excuse to discover new places with the Londonites, and the three grandchildren are seasoned travellers.

Autumn scenery from Bulgaria
Room with a view … a Bulgarian Autumn.

Bulgaria is cheap, dirt cheap, even with a weak Rand. A Bulgarian ‘Alps’ ski-resort is not well frequented in October. The Balkan Jewel Resort was just what we were looking for: centrally located to explore the natural parks and villages in southwest Bulgaria, and a kid’s paradise (they provide care for children of all ages during the skiing season when the parents are skiing). The heated indoor swimming pool was a major plus!

We rented a 4×4 Mercedes bus at the Sofia airport for R2 700 for seven days (about what you pay for two days in South Africa).

Family photo at Dancing Bear park in Bulgaria
Dancing Bear park in Bulgaria

We visited Debarsko village, known for its 11th century underground church, the Dancing Bear Park close to Belitsa, Melnik (a village dating back to the times of the Roman empire) and the Seven Rila Lakes.

The Dancing Bear Park was an eye-opener. 25 bears are being rehabilitated, most “rescued” from gypsies, who have in the past “trained” bears to dance by placing them on hot plates, forcing them to “dance”.

Our tour guide, fluent in English, called her restauranteur friend in Belitsa. On arrival, we were treated to an unforgettable lunch of traditional Bulgarian foods and wine: R 600,00 for all seven of us.

The Seven Rila Lakes visit was both the highlight and the ‘lowlight’ of our trip. The lakes are situated in the Rila mountain, one of the highest in the Balkans. The 4×4 bus came in handy, as we traveled for two hours up the mountain just to learn that the ski-lift into the mountain was being serviced. We negotiated with an owner of a monster of a Pajero to take the seven of us up – an absolute nightmare, and undoubtedly Santjie’s “lowlight”. Our son-in-law equated it to his trip up van Zyl’s pass in Namibia. We also had snow en route.

Up and down the moutain to Seven Rika LakesBut it was absolutely memory making!

At the top of the route, the guys still had to hike another two hours to get to the lakes.

After a week in the Balkans, we moved on to Sophia, Bulgaria’s capital. There, we visited the Saint Nicholas Church, the city park and the Alexander Nevsky Patriarchal Church.

The downside of Bulgaria? English is largely non-existent. All signs are in Bulgarian (which looks like Russian to the ill-informed – that’s us) That is where sign-language, now our twelfth official language in South Africa, comes in handy. And it is international.

The kids and grandkids then moved on to London.

Family outside St Nicholas Church in Sofia Santjie and I intended to travel by bus to Bucharest, but departure was changed at short notice from a day trip to a night trip, so we would have seen nothing of the Bulgarian and Romanian countryside. Instead, we took a private shuttle (like our Uber). It was an absolute blessing as we were shuttled by a Romanian fluent in English. Though he had a university degree in Economics, he could not find employment as an Economist. This was surely the most educational five hours I have spent with an absolute stranger. Our guide was well informed regarding South Africa, even about the Guptas!

We detoured to the Church of the Virgin just inside Romania. Cut out of solid rock in a cliff overhanging a river gorge, it had been operational since 1220 but is now a tourist attraction.

Then we explored Bucharest by “hop-off-hop-on” bus and by foot. Memorable was the visit to Cismigui Gardens, the second largest city park in the world after New York’s Central Park.

Pelisor Royal Castle in Pelles
Pelisor Royal Castle in Pelles

Bucharest is an absolute jewel in comparison to Sophia. Modern with skyscrapers all over, it is very cheap, albeit not as cheap as Sofia. The two of us lunched on soup, a choice of three meats, and veggies for the equivalent of R 55,00 for both of us!

The next day was the absolute highlight of our trip: a shuttle trip with our new friend to Transylvania, the Alps of Romania. We visited the Pelisor Royal Castle in Pelles, and made a brief stop in Brasov, a beautiful village in the heart of Transylvania.

Couple outside restaurant in Transylvania
Santjie and our new Romanian friend outside the restaurant in Transylvania

Our shuttle friend took us for a late lunch at a very well-known sky resort in the mountains. We were treated to a starter, entré, main course and dessert, all very Romanian. And, of course, Palinka, the national drink of Romania. Our own mampoer would give it a good go.

We were back at our hotel at 23:00, having originally planned to be there at at 18:00!

Romania, and especially Transylvania, is an absolute must on anybody’s bucket list. Communication is no problem as they are fluent in English and all signs are bilingual.

We left for London the next day with mixed feelings. The trip to Transylvania is surely a highlight of our overseas’ visits.

To Moscow via Mongolia … in the Tsar’s Gold Train

In July last year, Chartered client Darrell Adrain, embarked on her adventure of a lifetime: a Trans-Siberian rail journey from Beijing to Moscow via Mongolia on the Tsar’s Gold Private Train. Here is her account of a trip that she describes as “a real bucket-list trip that I can highly recommend!” Enjoy her adventure along with her.

Elderly Caucasian female on trainIt took some courage to embark on this journey on my own since being widowed. I joined a group of 15 people, of similar age and with the same love of travelling. The tour was organised from beginning to end by a travel agency in Simon’s Town, which specialises in journeys to unusual destinations.

Departing on 4 July, we flew to Beijing where we spent three days visiting highlights: the iconic Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall of China, the Sacred Way, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City – all sights I had never seen before.

Scenes from Beijing
Scenes from Beijing

Our exciting train journey began with a crossing over the Gobi Desert at night in a clean and comfortable Chinese train that glided over the rails. The Desert – which is only two percent desert – comprises mainly dry gravel planes and sandstone cliffs. There are great reserves of coal, copper, gold uranium and other minerals; it is estimated that up to 10bn tons of coal exist beneath the golden sands of the Gobi Desert.

Having crossed the border into Mongolia, we were welcomed onto the Tsar’s Gold Train: 21 carriages, three dining cars. The train was designed and built in St Petersburg as the Tsar and his staff’s mobile office while they travelled across Russia in the early 20th century. The team of dedicated staff included an onboard doctor (carrying a huge emergency medical backpack) and a tour director.

On the Tsar’s Gold Train_ Travelling in retirementOn the Tsar’s Gold Train In addition to our group, there were 120 other tourists on the train, representing 16 different nationalities. Each group had it own leader, with Russian guides travelling with us all the way to Moscow.

How luxurious were our compartments! Red velvet curtains and carpets, two single beds with a table between, vodka and fruit, re-charging plugs under the table, wood panelling with ornate gold designs, a newly renovated shower room, and two new toilet and basin rooms at each end of the carriage. Our conductors (a married Russian couple) looked after us day and night, ensuring clean ablutions, hot water for tea and coffee, and neat beds with turned-down covers.

Our dining car was sumptuous: beautifully laid tables for four; varied four-course menus for lunches and dinners; breakfasts were English and Continental (fruit, yoghurts, cereals, nuts, eggs to order). The Russian-styled meals always comprised a salad starter, a bowl of delicious soup, a main course of fish, meat, chicken, pasta and desserts of different kinds, followed by tea and coffee. We ordered drinks which we paid for at the end of the trip in either Euros or USD.

Our first stop, on 10 July, across the rolling grasslands was Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia, an unbelievably bustling city! The country’s total population is three million and one million live in the capital city. There were traffic jams and no shortage of latest cars: Lexus, Merc, and the newest SUV! The economy is booming owing to huge mineral and mining deposits, and livestock farming. The country’s GDP grew 10-fold between 2000 and 2012.

Map of the Across the Gobi Desert to modern and ancient Mongolia
Across the Gobi Desert to modern and ancient Mongolia

It was the Nadaam Summer Festival. Everyone wears splendid cultural clothing and comes to town to celebrate and to see traditional wrestling, archery and horse-riding events.

We explored Mongolian temples and Buddhist monasteries. We visited the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park situated in the Mongolian Alps, where locals displayed their competitive talents in horse-riding, archery and wrestling. The largest equestrian statue (40m high) in the world is made of 90 tons of steel: Ghengis Khan on his horse holding his famed golden whip. What a spectacle! We climbed up through the statue to see the view of the undulating countryside.

Ghengis Khan statue and Gorkhi-Tereli National Park
Ghengis Khan statue and Gorkhi-Tereli National Park

Mongolia is a beautiful country and it was a surprise for all of us. Friendly people invited us into their home, a yurt (comfortable round canvas tent-like structures, heated by coal fires, hence Ulaanbaatar has the worst pollution in the world). Ulaanbaatar is also the coldest capital in the world, with minus 41degrees C in January.

To Russia, with love and lots of friends

Across the border into Russia, we travelled through the valley of Mongolia’s largest river, the Selenga, to Ulan-Ude, capital of the republic of Buryatia. It is a fascinating city, with a strong Buddhist culture and the largest sculpture of the head of Lenin. We walked around parks with beautiful flower beds, saw many high-rise buildings and old-style wooden buildings with ornamental trimmings. We watched Cossack dancing and attended a local concert … then back on the train.

The next highlight was a day around the beautiful 640km long Lake Baikal – the oldest (25 million years) and deepest (1700m) fresh-water lake in the world. It has its own microclimate around its shores! There are 39 train tunnels spanning 200 kms alongside the lake! Amazing railroad construction started as early as the turn of the 19th century.

Images from Lake Baikal
In and around Lake Baikal

On a clear day you can see 40 meters into the lake, home to numerous species of animals and plants, and the only fresh water seals, Nerpas. The omul – the most popular fish in the lake – is the main food source for the locals. Highlights were Port Baikal and a ferry trip across to the village with a huge food and cultural market. Some brave tourists swam in the icy waters, and we were treated to an evening BBQ and picnic on its shores, while being entertained by local musicians.

ln lrkutsk, the ‘Paris of Siberia’, with its many neo-classical and wooden buildings decorated with ornate fretwork, we visited the Memorial Decembrist Museum, in a house set up by the wives of noblemen who had been sent to Siberian prisons. These nine wives brought culture, music and books to lrkutsk.

We enjoyed a concert, featuring grand piano music and singing in a gracious dining area furnished in the style of those times (1850s). Many religions are practised there, and Russian orthodox and Roman Catholic churches abound. We were treated to a fabulous lunch by a Russian family in their dacha (summer home) in the Taiga forests next to a beautiful lake: salads, soup, breads, a chicken dish with broccoli, desserts, vodka and coffee!

lrkutsk, the 'Paris of Siberia'
lrkutsk, the ‘Paris of Siberia’

Situated on the Ob river, Novosibirsk (the largest city in Siberia) was a great place to stroll around and explore Siberian wooden architecture, monuments, the Opera House and a lively music and art scene. lt’s a well-known scientific and education hub. Novosibirsk is the richest part of Russia, with reserves of oil, gold, nickel and coal, transported via the rivers South to North, and via trains from East to West.

Novosibirsk, the richest part of Russia, with reserves of oil, gold, nickel, coal
Novosibirsk, the richest part of Russia, with reserves of oil, gold, nickel, coal

From the train, we viewed the diverse landscape of eastern Siberia and enjoyed talks on board about the region: the Gulags, 1905 Revolution, and prisoners sent to labour camps (by mid-60s 20 million had passed through the Gulag system of camps).

We had vodka-tasting with typical Russian snacks and red caviar, experiencing first-hand the Russian festive customs of hospitality and toasts! We were treated to a typical Russian tea ceremony, a popular cultural activity with the samovar, biscuits, cakes, chocolate, cranberry juice and sherry. Russians are the biggest tea consumers in the world!

Experiencing first-hand Russian festive customs of hospitality and toasts

Yekaterinburg, the capital of Ural Federal District (33 hours east of Moscow by train), is located on the cusp of Europe and Asia. Here Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his family were murdered in 1918. On this spot, a gorgeous Byzantine-style ‘Church Upon the Blood’ was built in 2003 to commemorate that tragic historic event. The city has a Soviet look about the buildings, opera theatre, railway yards, and is a University and education hub.

Yekaterinburg is located on the cusp of Europe and Asia
Yekaterinburg is located on the cusp of Europe and Asia

Our day in Kazan was extremely busy – it is the Tatar capital on the banks of the Volga. We visited the only surviving Tatar fortress in Russia, and the huge Kremlin, now a World Heritage Site on account of the many historic buildings. There are 140 different temples and mosques in Kazan, and everyone lives in peace.

On 19 July, we arrived in at the Moscow station, 850 years old. This city has a population of 12 million, but, include daily commuters and it rises to 15 million. 10% are Muslims, labour migrants from the republics. Our guide said there is no unemployment in Moscow, no ghettos and many people have dachas (cottages) in the country used in September.

The city had been beautified over the last few years for the Soccer World Cup, completed just before our arrival: floral displays, hanging flower baskets adorning the streets, abundant trees and flowers in pavement gardens and through Red Square towards the Kremlin. Fairy lights light up the buildings of the GUM shopping centre in the evening, and Lenin’s Mausoleum can be seen across the Square. St Basil’s Cathedral is an amazing sight day and night!

The World Cup – an opportunity to beautify Russian cities
The World Cup – an opportunity to beautify Russian cities

Our visit to the Kremlin was incredible; there was so much to see: 800 years of Russian history and artistry in one place.

Going down into the Metro is an amazing experience: the longest escalators ever, filled with people going up and down at 9pm! The trains travel at 40kms an hour, stopping at beautifully decorated stations underground, tiled to perfection, with artwork on ceilings and bronze statues – a free history lesson and art exhibition all in one!

Sadly, our time in Moscow came to an end as we departed on Friday evening to return to Johannesburg via Dubai.

So ended an epic and legendary rail tour, a total of 7858 kms. lt was a most remarkable journey for me, especially seeing such a vastly different part of the world and the pleasure of making new friends with similar interests.

Heartfelt food matters

On the last day of an energetic and happy holiday, I suffered a heart attack. Although I had ignored slight twinges in my heart for a few months, it was a shock. Fortunately, I knew what was happening, having lost a partner like this 10 years ago, and, aware of the symptoms, I received timely and good care.

Caucasian female standing on boat with ocean in the back ground
Jeunesse, the picture of health on her epic trip last year

What attacked my heart I asked? Genetic high cholesterol, I am told, exacerbated by an often-careless lifestyle and diet. Though mostly vegetarian, fit and active, and has alleviated the stress of a hard-working life in recent years, I have not paid due attention to diet. The medics casually told me to follow a Mediterranean diet, though the first meal the hospital offered was a lump of minced meat on white bread topped by a hard-boiled egg!

In an attempt to recover as quickly and sustainably as possible, and though I have known about good food all my life, and even worked at the first raw, vegetarian, health food restaurant in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, I have again been researching current trends in healthy nutrition.

The clear message about our diet and our health

There is a lot of conflicting information to wade through, but the trend towards veganism and cutting out sugars is resounding. Since so many of our illnesses, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and various cancers, are linked to inflammation, caused by ingesting animal fat and sugar, this makes a lot of sense.

Increasing numbers are also becoming aware of the severe impacts of animal products on the planet and climate change because as meat and dairy are ingrained into our diets, they are also rooted in our environment. To produce one kilo of meat requires 25 kilos of grain and 15 000 litres of water. If all that grain was fed to humans, we could feed an extra 3.5 billion people. Livestock farming uses 30% of the earth’s surface, in a world where water, land and food are becoming scarcer, massively inefficient and inequitable!

Animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions and when livestock byproducts are added this accounts for 51% of emissions! This industry is further a major cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution and habitat destruction, including rainforests.

70 billion farmed animals are reared annually worldwide and 6 million are killed for food every hour. Most of these animals, sentient beings, are reared in terrible conditions causing them to suffer.

This morning I sip my tea with almond milk, grateful to be alive as I contemplate the good news that food marketers have realised the potential and now offer a wide range of delicious plant-based foods and alternatives to every kind of animal protein that helps me to feel better about my body and the planet.

Resources for healthy eating from Jeunesse (online, deliveries and some Cape Town restaurants and caterers):

Spar offers over 100 options for plant-based meals, and there are more on Woolworths shelves daily. Unilever has just bought the Dutch based Vegetarian Butcher.

Here are some plant-based food deliveries and restaurants:

http://www.puregood.co.za/ a corporate catering business that dishes up super affordable, deliciously wholesome and ethically produced meals to working professionals in Cape Town

https://www.wellnesswarehouse.com/shop/foodmarket/ order healthy ingredients online, including dairy alternatives and snacks

http://www.vegansa.com/foodstuffs-ready-made-meals.php a directory of food for vegans in South Africa: what’s available and where to buy it

https://www.faithful-to-nature.co.za/food/food-types/vegan a great variety of organic vegan foods to help you enjoy a balanced and wholesome plant-based diet

http://justvegan.co.za/ deliveries of vegan meals in the Johannesburg area

http://www.plantcafe.co.za/ Cape Town restaurant where vegans and people with food allergies can find amazing food without sacrificing taste

https://orders.fitchef.co.za/ online food without preservatives, no man-made chemicals and no added or artificial sugars – delivered to you

https://www.facebook.com/TheYummyVegan/ Vegan comfort food filled with all the necessary nutritional value, from frozen meals to cater for small functions to large Conferences, Weddings and Parties

https://www.facebook.com/rawandroxy/ Cape Town raw vegan gourmet restaurant. Winner of the Condé Nast Gourmet award, best Wellness and Vitality restaurant in South Africa.