Update: February 4, 2021. I pondered over the past year the reason we were not sufficiently intelligent to cancel our trip to South Africa due to the COVID-19 pandemic before departing in early March 2020. On returning to the U.S., I did extensive research documenting pages of information from multiple newspaper and website sources. I concluded that as regular citizens, we were not informed of the pending danger, mainly because President Donald J. Trump did not want to scare anyone, electing to ignore the threat to keep the stock market resilient and the economy thriving. Some well informed in Congress were altered to the pending danger, sold some investments ahead of a market crash. These are a few critical dates.
- In late November 2019, coronavirus broke out in Wuhan, China.
- On December 31, 2019, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) became aware of cases in China and reported to HHS (Department of Health and Human Services).
- January 1, 2020. CDC Director Robert Redfield got informed by a counterpart in China and alerted HHS Secretary Alex Azar, who shared this information with NSC (National Security Council).
- Donald Trump was alerted to the situation in his PDF (Presidential Daily Brief) in early January.
- WHO (World Health Organization) issued a report on January 5, 2020, advising against travel.
- During the week of January 6, 2020, HHS, CDC, and Dr. Anthony Fauchi, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, met to discuss the situation.
- January 18, 2020, Alex Azar addressed the coronavirus outbreak with Trump, who criticized him as an alarmist.
- January 31, 2020, the White House banned entry for foreign nationals who had traveled to China within the last 14 days.
- February 11, 2020, the WHO announced the official virus name as COVID-19.
- February 24, 2020, the U.S. Stock market plummeted over coronavirus fears.
- February 26, 2020, California announces the first COVID-19 case in the U.S.
- February 29, 2020, Trump announces travel restrictions involving Iran, Italy, and South Korea.
- February 29, 2020, reported the first U.S. COVID-19 death in Washington state.
- March 6, 2020, Trump signs an $8.3 billion emergency spending package to combat coronavirus outbreak.
As you review the above dates, recall that we were somewhat ignorant of the danger of undertaking this trip on March 5, 2020. Trump was more concerned about a potential market and economic collapse that he saw would impact his reelection bid in November 2020.
Reading Bob Woodward’s book Rage, released September 15, 2020, with 466 pages, covers hundreds of hours of interviews with Donald J. Trump. He warned Trump in January 2020 that the COVID-19 pandemic could reach the scale of the 1918 Spanish Flu that killed 675,000 Americans. “In 17 on-the-record interviews with Woodward over seven volatile months—an utterly vivid window into Trump’s mind. The president provides a self-portrait that is part denial and part combative interchange mixed with surprising moments of doubt as he glimpses the perils in the presidency and what he calls the “dynamite behind every door.” Below are a few excerpts from Woodward’s best-seller book.
“A meeting was scheduled with Trump for the morning of March 11, 2020. …. But now the word came from [Jared Kushner that] his father-in-law that he needed immediate help on the mounting Covid-19 crisis. In the Oval Office that morning, there was a consensus among the national security and health officials that they needed to act immediately to close down travel from Europe.
“Treasury Secretary [Steven] Mnuchin was opposed. Travel from Europe was about five times that from China. “This is going to bankrupt everyone,” he said dramatically. “It’s going to destroy the economy.” “What data are you relying on for that?” asked [Dr. Deborah Leah] Birx [Whitehouse Coronavirus Task Force] “You’ve been asking me for my data. What data do you have?” Mnuchin said that was how the economy and markets worked.
“Trump eventually approved the travel restrictions. They would be consistent with his decision on China. Kushner assisted with drafting the prime-time television address that Trump had decided to give that night from the Oval Office. It was only the second of his presidency. A nationally televised evening address gave the speech the stamp of important business.
“That afternoon, the World Health Organization officially declared Covid-19 a pandemic. “This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history,” Trump said at 9:00 that evening. “From the beginning of time, nations and people have faced unforeseen challenges, including large-scale and very dangerous health threats,” Trump read. “This is the way it always was and always will be. It only matters how you respond.”
“The president announced he was halting travelers from most European countries for the next 30 days. “Last week, I signed into law an $ 8.3 billion funding bill,” he said. Several hundred times that would soon be required. “The vast majority of Americans: The risk is very, very low,” Trump said. “Wash your hands, clean often-used surfaces, cover your face and mouth if you sneeze or cough, and most of all, if you are sick or not feeling well, stay home.”
“He made no mention of social distancing—staying six feet apart from others—and urged only those who were sick or not feeling well to stay at home. “This is not a financial crisis, this is just a temporary moment of time,” he said reaching to calm the markets. “The virus will not have a chance against us.… Our future remains brighter than anyone can imagine.”
“The speech received poor reviews. Trump seemed depleted on air, not in command of the material. He displayed none of the verve of the spontaneous, engaged true believer of his political rallies. Peggy Noonan wrote the next day in The Wall Street Journal, “The president gave a major Oval Office address Wednesday night aimed at quelling fears; it was generally labeled ‘unsettling.’ ”
“That day, March 11, marked the beginning of a new consciousness in the country. There were over 1,000 cases and 37 deaths in the country. Trump acknowledged he would likely have to cancel his upcoming rallies. Testifying before Congress, Fauci said that testing for the virus was “failing. I mean, let’s admit it.” The distribution of faulty test kits had prevented officials and scientists from getting a clear picture of the number of infections in the crucial early days of the virus’s spread across the U.S.
“By the beginning of March, fewer than 500 tests had been conducted. The Dow Jones fell 10 percent on March 12, prompting The New York Times banner headline: “WORST ROUT FOR WALL STREET SINCE 1987 CRASH.” A giant chart on the front page of The Wall Street Journal showed the surging growth in the Dow from the early days of Obama’s eight-year presidency and the first three years of Trump’s. Then it fell off the cliff, down 20 percent since 2009.”
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward, as I reported earlier in this book. “I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Back in Wisconsin, our children, Robyn, and Sean did hit the panic button. They sent their first text on March 19, 2020. “State Department travel warning. Come back to the U.S. or be prepared to stay where you are for an indeterminate amount of time.”
Currently, (February 3, 2021), we have 26,535,848 COVID-19 cases in the U.S., with 450,435 deaths. The U.S. accounts for 25% of worldwide cases and deaths, with only 4% of the global population. When all the election counts were in after November 3, 2020, Joe Biden became the 46th U.S. President with 81,283,098 popular votes against Trump’s 74,222,958 voters. More critical was Biden’s 306 Electoral Votes versus Trump’s 232. Tony Fabrizio, Trump’s chief strategist, reported that Trump lost the election because he mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic, based on exit polling.
Trump’s legacy will go down in history as the only president to have been impeached twice. Without the shield of his presidency, Trump faces several lawsuits, including a charge of rape. Trump will be recognized for encouraging the Capitol’s insurrection on January 6, 2021, where five people died. Between November 3, 2020, and January 6, 2021, Trump and his allies filed 62 lawsuits in state and federal courts seeking to overturn election results in states Trump lost. All but one failed, and it was inconclusive, providing election workers three days to correct a few ballots. Trump told more than 30,573 lies during his four years in office. Here you can view lies listed by category. Trump will be remembered for his racist, bigoted, xenophobic leadership, supporting white supremacists, and promoting fake news with his constant Twitter feed totaling 56,571 during his four years in office.
Update September 18, 2021. If you read my blog about the science behind COVID-19 vaccinations, https://johncbarry.com/covid-19-science-behind-vaccination-development/ you will see that I read three books to inform me about vaccination development.
The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, by Walter Issacson
A Crack In Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer A Doudna and Samuel H Sternberg
The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, by James D. Watson
Now I can add to the above list the next book I read to inform me about the virus in the United States.
Michael Lewis’ book The Premonition, A Pandemic Story. I am an avid reader of non-fiction. Michael’s book stirs every emotion: humor, anger, frustration, sadness, disbelief, incredulity, etc. It reads like a page-turning James Bond “who done it.” The book delves into the 1918 flu pandemic, referencing historian John Barry’s book The Great Influenza, about the deadliest plague before COVID-19 and the lessons learned to prevent epidemics in the future.
What is alarming is the federal bureaucracy with agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and state-run health departments were afraid to provide any guidance or recommendations initially. What if the advice was incorrect? Who would get fired? California was identified as an example for the country to follow in stopping the spread of the virus and likely helped Gavin Newsom not to get recalled as a governor.
The book identifies knowledgeable and experienced experts while detailing the work they undertook to influence decision-makers. The Trump administration refused to take a leadership position in controlling the pandemic and handed control to individual states without direction or supervision. For-profit health organizations were equally incompetent supporting states by striving for outrageous fees, charges, and impossibly long turnaround times for testing as one example.
As of today (September 18, 2021), we have 668,841 mostly preventable deaths and nearly 42-million COVID-19 cases in the U.S. The United States did not provide global leadership in controlling the pandemic. Here is one Michael Lewis quote. “On March 18, 2020, Park and Patil presented the model’s output to Governor Newsom’s senior advisors. When we showed them what the model was saying it sucked the air out of the room. The next day Governor Newsom issued the country’s first statewide stay-at-home order.” Reading the book increased my admiration for Cyril Ramaphosa’s strategy of shutting down South Africa to stop the spread of the virus.
Here is a longer and more troubling quote from Michael’s book.
“They watched the U.S. government repatriate Americans from Wuhan on January 29. The first group went to March Air Reserve Base, in Riverside County, California; the second, in early February, to four different places, one of them a National Guard base just outside Omaha, where they remained quarantined for fourteen days. The Omaha National Guard base was a short drive from the Global Center for Health Security, the place charged with treating Americans infected with mysterious new pathogens and run by James Lawler.
“Lawler discovered—and could not quite believe—that the CDC didn’t plan to test any of the new arrivals unless they had a fever. All of the foreigners being shipped home from Wuhan were being tested before they got on the plane, and the CDC felt that was adequate. The Germans and the Australians and the Japanese had tested all of their citizens after they’d flown home from Wuhan and discovered that 1 to 2 percent of them were infected and that many of those had no symptoms: the tests in Wuhan hadn’t identified any of them.
“Lawler called the CDC to ask if he might test the Americans now quarantined down the road from his hospital—if for no reason other than to make sure they didn’t let them loose while they were still shedding the virus. “There was very little data to support the fourteen-day quarantine,” he said. “There are clearly people who have incubation periods of twenty-one days. I thought we needed to know if they were infected when they got here or shedding when they leave.”
“He and his staff had already created their own test, based on the test created by the World Health Organization, and so they didn’t require the CDC’s help, merely its approval. The CDC sent one of its epidemiologists to visit James Lawler. At the end of the meeting, the guy said he needed to check with Atlanta.
“The next day I get this panicked call from him,” said Lawler. “It’s gone all the way up to [CDC director Robert] Redfield. He said, ‘You can’t do it!’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said I would be ‘doing research on imprisoned persons.’ ” Never mind that every single one of the fifty-seven Americans in quarantine wanted to be tested: the CDC forbade it.
“And Lawler never understood the real reason for the CDC’s objections. Did they want to avoid finding cases to avoid displeasing Donald Trump? Were they concerned that, if they tested people without symptoms and they found the virus, they’d make a mockery of their current requirement that only people with symptoms be tested? Were they embarrassed or concerned that someone other than the CDC was doing the testing? If so, then why didn’t they just perform the tests themselves?
“Whatever the reason, fifty-seven Americans spent fourteen days quarantined in Omaha, then left without having any idea of whether they’d been infected, or might still infect others. “There is no way that fifty-seven people from Wuhan were not shedding virus,” said Lawler.”
Now you can listen to the original blog or read on to see some of the photographs and video clips.
Monday, March 23, 2020. I woke at 6:00 am to a rude awakening! Checking my iPhone messages, I discovered United Airlines canceled our flights to the United States from Cape Town, South Africa, scheduled to fly on March 26, 2020. I receive a follow-up message to say they are flying again. What I did not know then is that this pattern that would repeat several times over. Let me back up and tell the account coherently.
We left the US on March 5, 2020, for a 37-day vacation in South Africa to visit family and friends. We planned to return home on Easter Monday, April 13, 2020. For our trip, we flew Delta Airlines from Milwaukee, Wisconsin; to Detroit, Michigan; on to Amsterdam, the Netherlands; to Cape Town. In hindsight, had the Trump administration told the American people the truth of the COVID-19 pandemic, we would never have traveled in the first place. We witnessed our investments plummet. A select few Republican Congresspeople were informed of the imminent catastrophe, sold their investments, some in the millions of dollars before the public learned of the pending danger.
United Airlines started a seasonal service between Newark, New Jersey, and Cape Town on December 15, 2019, through March 25, 2020. Travel to South Africa is on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Return flights to the US are on Monday, Thursday, Saturday. The distance of 7,817 miles (12,580 kilometers) is the longest route flown by United. Flying time to Cape Town is 14 hours, and back to the US, 16 hours. United operates this route using a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner with 48 business class seats, 88 Economy Plus, and 116 economy seats. Frankly, I had no idea that we caught the last flight for the season back to the US until I did my research from home in Wisconsin. Then too, South Africa went on lockdown at midnight on March 26, 4 hours after our scheduled departure. Consequently, no other flights could have taken off on the following days.
After Trump stopped flights from Europe, and other countries from flying into the US, the rumors started flying, and fake news prevailed. Our daughter and son in the US were in a panic after the US State Department issued a proclamation, return to the US immediately, or remain overseas indefinitely. We sprang into action. We did not want to be stranded forever in South Africa, lovely as the country is. We purchased new and additional tickets on United Airlines flying from Cape Town directly to Newark, New Jersey, in the New York area, with a connecting flight to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For the record, our one-way tickets on United Airlines were more expensive than our return tickets on Delta. We canceled our return ticket on Delta and should get a credit toward our next flight, but there is no cash refund.
When I woke on March 23 at 6:00 am South African time on Monday morning, it is 11:00 pm Sunday night US Central Time. The first text from United was sent at 10:43 pm SA time when I am already asleep (3:43 pm Central). It states that our flights “are canceled due to the unprecedented circumstances.” At 11:53 pm SA Time (4:53 pm Central), I receive a follow-up text stating the flights are not canceled!! The follow-on text states that non-US citizens who have visited certain countries will be denied entry to the US. We may be subjected to 14-days of self-quarantine. We had planned to follow an isolation recommendation in any event. We quarantined ourselves in South Africa for the two weeks, ending March 21, and beyond that date until we departed.
When I booked the United flight on March 20, 2020, there were only two seats available in the economy class, and they were not situated next to each other. I had a decision to make and paid for an upgrade to Economy Plus. In hindsight, it was a wise decision because there is much more legroom. If the passenger in front decides to recline their seat, there is sufficient space available to enjoy the trip without a seat backrest in your face. Our problem is that with this experience, we will never fly the regular economy class again. I have been a frequent flyer for many years, regularly flying for business and occasionally for pleasure with our family. I am knowledgeable enough to know that to get an early boarding allocation; I need to obtain our boarding passes 24-hours before take off. At 8:00 pm, South African time, on Wednesday, March 25, I logged on to the United Airlines website to secure our boarding passes. It was the start of a 90-minute ordeal. Let me hasten to add that I retired after 50 years in the computer industry as a developer, designer, educator, trainer, consultant, and salesperson, so technology should not be a challenge for me. Little did I know.
I keyed in my confirmation number to be informed that the flight had been canceled! My wife was three hours away in Cape Town, so I made contact with her immediately to alert Linda of our challenge. Linda contacted my daughter and son, who were both working from home in the US with their respective companies requiring employees to work from home due to COVID-19. The four of us now worked to figure out if and why the flight was canceled. I started the process off by attempting to secure my boarding pass. At some point, I was required to scan my passport with a warning that it will take some time for the system to register the document.
I again received the message that the flight was canceled. We had to verify that we had not traveled to a list of countries where we could not get access back to the USA. My wife scanned her passport into the system, and again we were informed that the flight had been canceled. Our children in the interim were on the United Airlines website and showed that the plane was flying. After an hour and a half, the boarding process was complete, and we could print our passes. My conclusion is that the programming was substandard, and rather than report there were problems with the information we entered, the program reported an erroneous flight cancelation. To verify that we were not unduly stupid, where we were seated on our flight home, a few passengers near us complained that they, too, got these flight canceled messages.
In the US, we are recommended to arrive at the airport three hours before takeoff for all international flights. Our flight out of Cape Town was at 8:00 pm. We arrived at the airport at 3:00 pm, 5 hours before the scheduled departure. We were surprised by the number of people in line, but the gates had not yet opened to allow us to check our luggage. Maintaining our social distance, we had interesting conversations with other passengers waiting in line. The airport itself was a madhouse, especially with passengers flying to the UK. To pass through the multitude of people to get to our check-in position in itself was a challenge with a large number of people, each in very close proximity to one another.
The check-in agents arrived about 4 hours before boarding, giving us sufficient time to go through security and passport control. At 7:15 pm, the boarding process started. While seated on the plane, at 8:00 pm, the captain advised us that 28 passengers were stuck trying to check their luggage and get through security. He kept us informed as to how many people were waiting to board the flight. He was wise enough to hold takeoff until all passengers could board.
The captain did tell us that part of the holdup was some of the check-in agents had not shown up for work, and that helped slow the process dramatically. The captain walked through the plane before takeoff to answer questions that the passengers may have. Once in the air, an hour and fifteen minutes after our scheduled departure time, the captain made up time to arrive in Newark close to the stated arrival time. He announced the flight crew was volunteers due to COVID-19. The captain informed us that we would not be processed by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) for temperature checks after deplaning.
Arriving at a near-deserted airport in Newark was another experience. We arrive at Terminal B. We proceed through passport control, then had to relocate by train to Terminal C to collect our luggage, pass through customs, and check in our bags for transport to Milwaukee. Next, take a bus to Terminal A, catch a small regional jet for the two-hour flight to Milwaukee. We knew we had 90 minutes to complete this process, and we were fortunate to make our flight without delay. The jet was less than half-filled with passengers. Probably the most challenging situation was the toilets in the terminal buildings were locked, and I have a weak bladder.
The surprises did not stop yet. We arrived in Milwaukee at General Mitchell International airport at 10:00 am at a deserted airport. The shops were closed, and there are no people around. We make our way to baggage claim, and our three bags are the first on the conveyor. My son and his girlfriend (Sean and Erica married November 13, 2020–a Friday the 13th) were outside the baggage claim area. Sean tosses the keys to my wife, making sure there was no close contact and headed off home with his girlfriend. My next surprise was my drive home. In thirty-four years we have lived here, I have never seen the roads so quiet. Once back home, we started the sterilization process, cleaning all our luggage, taking a shower, and doing six loads of laundry washing everything we took to South Africa, including the clean clothing we brought home in our bags.
Friday, March 27, 2020, was the start of our 14-day isolation. I cannot deny, now, into a few days of this experience, that we have experienced a significant adjustment. We have arranged to have groceries delivered, and seriously miss our daily 40-minute walk around the neighborhood. I feel starved of exercise. Naturally, we miss seeing our children and granddaughters. Facetiming is not the same. We are not able to socialize with any of our neighbors in our condominium complex.
Now that I have reached the end of my account of getting home, I will start at the beginning.
Thursday, March 5, 2020
A friend kindly drove us to the airport in Milwaukee. Our flight to Detroit was only 75-minutes on a regional jet. Delta requested us to be at the airport 3 hours ahead of departure. With Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee being a small airport, this seems an excessive request. The bad news when we finally got to Cape Town was that we discovered the Transport Security Agency had searched my large suitcase, one of three checked bags. They found nothing worth confiscating. The flight was uneventful. We had a three-hour layover in Detroit and had a meal at PF Chang’s.
I filed a complaint with Delta for not issuing boarding passes with TSA Precheck. They said it would take a week or more to respond. TSA (Transport Security Administration) is a government organization responsible for security at the US ports of entry. Precheck is a program that one can apply for at a cost, where your background is vetted, and when going through security at the airports, they are more lenient in what passengers are asked to do. We do not have to remove shoes or belts, for example. More than that, I hold a TSA Global Entry that speeds up the process when returning to the US from overseas travel. Delta advised that the TSA Precheck is a privilege and not always provided to passengers. Strange, when I paid $85 for the convenience.
We boarded a flight to Amsterdam. With a flight time of eight and a half hours, I watched the movie Bombshell. It is the story of Fox News and the sexual advances made by Rodger Ailes on female anchors. South African actress Charlize Theron played the part of Megyn Kelly, who sued Rodger. If any of the faithful Trump followers watch this movie, I cannot see how they will vote for Trump again, unless he convinces his base that this movie is all lies and fake news. I watched Judy about the life of Judy Garland. What a short sad life she had, getting manipulated by men wanting to profit off her voice at any cost. Finally, I watched a single episode of the TV series The Neighborhood with a Chinese family living in white suburbia and the racism they faced. And yes, it was a comedy.
The flight to Amsterdam was not full, Linda and I had a spare seat to ourselves.
Friday, March 6, 2020
By the time we crossed the Atlantic, it was early morning In Amsterdam. We did not have much of a layover and boarded a massive Boeing 777 300 for the 12-hour flight to Cape Town. When you arrive at Cape Town International Airport, the passengers are split into locals and foreigners to go through customers and immigration. There were a handful of South Africans, with the majority of us being international passengers. Frankly, with all the bad press South Africa is getting, I am surprised to see any visitors. I read before our departure that tourism is down.
A few days after our arrival back in the US, Moody’s Investors Service cut South Africa’s credit rating below investment grade, delivering the country a full house of junk assessments as it grapples with a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. The currency, the Rand, devalued dramatically against the US$, and other global currencies. South Africa has been in a recession for the past six months.
The Hotel Verdi, which is a stone throw from the airport, listed 11:30 pm and midnight as shuttle pickup times. A taxi driver told us that the 11:30 shuttle had left at 11:20. I called the hotel to complain, and they responded immediately with another shuttle. I have stayed at this hotel previously and recommend it highly. Everything from the rooms to the dining facilities is of the best available.
Saturday, March 7, 2020
After a short night’s sleep and a great breakfast, we took the shuttle to the airport to collect our Hertz rental car. Hertz provided us with a Renault Stepwise, a compact small vehicle. We drove to the hotel, loaded our luggage, and I tried to connect my dashcam to one of the two cigarette lighters. Neither worked on this low mileage car, and I was disgusted. The more significant issue was that on two occasions, I tried to close the rear door and ended up cutting myself in two different spots on my face. The rear doors are an above-average height with a sharp edge. From an engineering design point of view, the vehicle is a disaster. Linda bumped her nose on the silly door but did not break her skin.
Hertz exchanged the car for a Volkswagen Polo. I had to change the feed to the dashcam from a cigar lighter to a USB port. So far, it appears that the dashcam did not get the needed electric connection. The Rexing dashcam shows that it is activated when you switch the car on. When I looked at the camera display, after several day’s driving, it was blank. I discovered that the SanDisk micro SD card was my problem in that it will not permit multiple over-recordings with the overwrite feature. I replaced the SIM card with a Kingston product. The biggest disappointment for me is that I was not able to save videos of drives we went on to add to YouTube and my blog.
On leaving the airport, we drove to a nearby friend’s home to borrow a Taser for our short duration in the Cape. Wally drove me to a nearby shopping center for me to draw rands from the ATM. At a minimum, I needed cash for the tolls on the way to my sister in Montagu. After tea and cookies, we made our way to my other sister, living in the northern suburbs of Cape Town. Linda had never seen their home, and I had not seen the renovations. After another round of tea and snacks, we followed through driving three hours to my sister and brother-in-law’s farm in Montagu. That night we stayed in Cottage 3 on the farm. Please appreciate that driving in South Africa required me to drive on the left-hand side of the road with a stick shift rental car.
I am the proud owner of three pairs of eyeglasses; one for general use, one for computer use, and sunglasses. When we arrived in Montagu, unpacked, and set everything in its place, I realized that my “regular” eyeglasses were missing. A quick call to Hertz verified that I had left it in Renault’s glove compartment/cubbyhole and that they would keep it in a secure place until we retrieved it on our return to Cape Town on Tuesday.
A dozen of us met for a tapas dinner at the BluVines restaurant, including Simon, and wife Yvette (more about them later), Jonathan and Sharon (additional detail to follow), Linda, and me. I wrote about Richard Weilers and his restaurant in a blog, and with the delicious food and waiters who entertain with singing. You may imagine what a wonderful evening we had.
Sunday, March 8, 2020
Eating is essential, so we started the day at Sergio and Cay Fernandes’ Rambling Rose restaurant. Sergio always does an excellent job of making all his patrons feel like royalty, but we are regulars, so we got an even better treatment. Cay’s kitchen skills are unparalleled. Having Linda and me back in Montagu added to the excitement. You can read about The Rambling Rose Restaurant in my blog about Montagu.
Linda, my sister Gail, and I headed off to Gecko Private Reserve in the Little Karoo, owned by Jonathan and Sharon Deal. Driving time is 45 minutes to an hour from Montagu, depending on the speed traveled. Gail was driving a 4X4 vehicle. I have been to Gecko Rock on several occasions, and knowing the corrugated gravel roads; I would never drive a regular car there. Gecko is 4,000 hectares in size. (10,000 acres, or 15 square miles). New Berlin, Wisconsin, is 37 square miles (95 square kilometers). New Berlin has a population of 40,000. Imagine half of the New Berlin population living on Gecko Rock.
With a few bungalows or cottages on the premises, Gecko can accommodate 50 people. You should be able to imagine how each unit is positioned so as not to see another soul. The concept is to fully enjoy the mountains, flowers, some wild animals, and nature in general. The cabin we stayed in, is self-contained with a lounge, kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom. The quiet is so peaceful and almost deafening in its silence. I asked Sharon where the water for the cottage is supplied? It is piped and pumped from the main house, and this is how each cabin gets its water supply. Please understand this is not a straight line. It is a mountainous environment. They live entirely off the grid. Electricity is supplied from solar panels on the cottage roof, with a battery pack in the kitchen. The bedroom has large panoramic windows so that you can lie in bed and enjoy the view of the mountains. Imagine a life without internet access.
Jonathan provides handgun training for certification to own a firearm, a South African legal requirement. Gecko offers hiking, off-road riding, and facilities for conferences for up to 70 people, including a camping site where you can erect your tents. Meetings focus on self-improvement. The attendees are required to provide meals.
Sharon provided a late lunch before heading to our cabin, so we did not have to fuss with food. The friendship with Jonathan and Sharon was enjoyable, and we even played a trick on Gail’s husband when he joined us later in the day. As he arrived at Sharon’s home, we pretended to all be drunk. It is what friendship is all about.
Jonathan wrote a book entitled Timeless Karoo. I was so impressed that I wrote a blog about the book.
Monday, March 9, 2020
Sharon met us early morning at our cabin for 3.5 miles (6 kilometers) walk on the estate, including heading back to their home. After another meal, Gail drove us to the cabin to collect our belongings, and we headed back to Montagu.
Today’s game plan was to enjoy the Montagu Country Hotel, the only Art Deco hotel in South Africa, and furnished with original period furniture. The original hotel was built in 1875. The Art Deco hotel was erected behind the original structure in 1922. The old structure was demolished, and the hotel was renamed in 1941. Gert Lubbe purchased the hotel out of bankruptcy in 1966. Gert passed away a few months ago. See a separate blog discussing this hotel.
Before heading to the hotel, we spent time watching Simon train horses on Gail and her husband’s farm. When Linda was growing up, she spent her 6-years during her schooling, riding horses daily. During that time, she was the proud owner of four horses, one at a time. One horse was bought from the renowned golfer, Gary Player. Linda and two close friends would go to the stables after school, groom, feed, and ride their horses. All of Linda’s horses were older and unlikely to be too energetic for young girls.
However, how do you go about training a horse to be able to be ridden for any age group? Gail and her husband have numerous Arabian horses on their farm. Simon contracted to teach their son and the team of six-horse handlers how to break in a young horse without using any violent methods. I will not get into more detail now, but there is much information I could share. I will likely produce a blog about this exciting learning experience. Simon and his wife Yvette have a horse training business in Johannesburg and spent time with the “horse whisper” guru, Monty Roberts, on several occasions in Salinas, California.
The connection to the Montagu Country Hotel is interesting to understand. Colene Basson is a charted accountant. Colene previously worked with Gail and her husband as their accountant. P-J Basson is the CEO of the hotel. Colene joined P-J in his business, helping to run the hotel. After I wrote the blog about Montagu, Gail asked me to write a blog about the Montagu Country Hotel. I said that it would not be ethical if I had not stayed there, so I made a reservation from the US before going on this trip. P-J got to hear about our visit and gave us a complimentary upgrade.
I requested P-J to allow me to interview William, the pianist who played beautifully during our dinner. You name it, and he played it, including music from Les Misérables, West Side Story, and other well-known favorites. I was so intrigued by the extensive repertoire that I went to chat with him. I wanted to see what sheet music he was using. William told me that he couldn’t read sheet music. He hears a tune and can play it almost instantly—what a talent. I want to interview him to learn more about his background and skill.
We enjoyed an excellent sleep in this stylish hotel after dinner in an elegant lounge. In truth, we did not need to eat again. The hotel had secure parking for our rental car alongside the hotel.
Tuesday, March 10, 2020
Yes, we are at it again, with another meal, this time breakfast. Gail had organized a tea so that Linda and I could meet people we had contact with while writing my Montagu blogs. Richard Weilers from BluVines Restaurant joined us along with other dignitaries. I had not met Helen Gooderson, the CEO of the RAD Foundation. Helen explained they take at-risk kids off the street and mentor them with music and arts. She shared a story about one youngster who had never been out of the Montagu community.
She arranged for this kid to spend time in Boston, Massachusetts. Helen explained to this boy what he would experience during this travels and venture. He could not understand the concept of flying. He arrived at the airport in Cape Town with his grandmother. He was concerned when they took his suitcase and saw it disappear on a conveyor belt. He wanted to know what if on the two 11-hour flights he needed to use the bathroom. Helen explained the process, and he wanted to know, looking up, where the excrement goes after he flushed. Since I have crossed the Atlantic at least 100 times, I cannot relate! (Helen subsequently moved to Alford, UK).
After saying goodbye to Gail, we detoured to Hertz in Cape Town to retrieve my glasses. It is a process that should have taken two minutes. 30-minutes later, we left, eyeglasses in hand. The agent had to look in many locked cupboards. With not being able to locate them, he sent a broadcast text to all off duty personnel to request information as to where it was stored. The process did not provide the information requested. In desperation, the agent emptied the locker that he first looked in, and after unpacking everything, he found them in the back underneath all the other lost items that were stored there. Sadly, this did not create an excellent impression of their efficiency.
Linda was anxious to get to her sister and renew her acquaintance with her sister’s daughter and grandson, Alex. We arrived at her house at lunchtime.
Wednesday, March 11, 2020
Linda was up very early to take her sister to the hospital. They left at 5:45 am. The procedure was a success. I took 17-month old Alex for a 30-minute walk to give her mother, who was working from home, time to make business calls.
One challenge faced by residents of South Africa is the unreliability of electricity. The power utility company, ESKOM, cuts power, known as load shedding, done in stages. Today was a day when the power got cut twice, each for two and a half hour periods—one in the late afternoon, the other during the midnight hours.
Thursday, March 12, 2020
With Linda’s sister in hospital, recovering from her knee replacement surgery, Linda spent the entire day at the hospital. I spent some time playing with 17-month-old Alex. As part of my caring for him, I took him for a long walk: me walking, Alex in his pushchair.
A great curse in sunny South Africa is a corrupt and incompetent government. Electricity production and distribution are through the bankrupt Eskom, the electrical power utility. Due to a lack of maintenance, they need to shut the power. It is complicated; they have various stages; each stage has additional shutdowns in 2.5-hour increments. Stage 1 and 2 have one shut down for the southern suburb of Tokai in Cape Town, where Linda’s sister lives. Each suburb or region throughout the country is on a different schedule! Where my sister lives in Montagu, stage one has no shutdown, and stage 2 is a single shutdown. Stages go all the way to Stage 8, in Montagu power is cut three times in the day, and the same for Tokai. How does anyone keep track?
I have an app EskomSePush on my iPhone that tells you by day and location the status of load shedding, as it is named. The only silver lining is that we do not live in Zimbabwe where electricity is cut for 16-hours a day. It only comes on in the very early morning when families need to rise and cook for the day if groceries are available in the shops.
While at Linda’s sister’s house, we do not watch TV. The only entertainment is to read the news on our iPads if there is available electricity, and therefore Wi-Fi. One other issue is that when power is cut, it is critically important to unplug all electronic devices. If left plugged in, when the power comes back on, there is a power surge that burns out electronic device printed circuit boards. Then too, we read lots of books.
Friday, March 13, 2020
The highlight of the day was my opportunity to attend a dinner with Rondebosch Old Boys. Several hundred attend this event with 12 from our 1963 graduating year. It is held at an exclusive Kelvin Grove club in Newlands, a southern suburb of Cape Town, close to where we attended junior and high school. The fee of R475 ($30) covers the 3-course meal and drinks, wine and beer only. If you want hard liquor, you pay for it separately. As a side note, for many years, Rondebosch would not hold the event at this club because, in the early days, Jewish people were not allowed to join this club, or attend functions at this club! That bigoted policy got rescinded many years ago.
Growing up in racist South Africa with its apartheid policies creates interesting but sad stories. The newly appointed principal of Rondebosch Preparatory School is a non-white gentleman. Ian Ryan told of being raised at previously disadvantaged schools, and the struggle to get a good education. He did say that the most challenging position as a principal that he held was at the previous girl’s junior school. He said that if you thought teaching boys was a challenge, try teaching girls who tend to be more intense about their studies.
It was the 111th anniversary of our Old Boys’ Union. Dinner comprised a salad, braised lamb shank for the main course, and Crème Brulee for dessert. When I returned home, I told Linda that I did not think the lamb was particularly tasty. She reminded me that I made the same comment after last year’s dinner. I guess catering for a few hundred patrons is not easy.
Returning to my sister-in-law’s house was challenging. I only arrived at 11:00 pm. Linda had stayed up to help me with the garage doors, and to then set all the complicated security alarms. It is no exaggeration when I say that it is like living in prison, where everyone is extremely fearful of criminals entering your home. After I parked my low mileage rental car, we went to sleep. The next morning the domestic informed me that I had left the car lights on overnight. I had visions of a dead battery, but I dodged a bullet. The car started and started repeatedly. After a three-hour drive to Montagu, the battery problem was a distant memory.
The other big news of the day is that Linda brought her sister home from the hospital.
Saturday, March 14, 2020, and Sunday, March 15, 2020
Nothing much exciting to report—with one exception. While at the Rondebosch function, a school friend told me that a millionaire was living close to the home where I originally grew up. Linda and I drove to the neighborhood on Sunday to see what my youthful home looks like 65 years later. I must stress that we grew up dirt poor, the house we had back then was tiny, a semi-detached house, not something to be proud of, especially while attending a prestigious boys’ school. It was a rental that my parents moved to at the time I was born. The change in the neighborhood was alarming. Every house now looked like a fortress. Where we initially lived, there was a large sports field across the road, and that location currently consists of multiple homes, all fortified as protection from criminals.
South Africans live with a siege mentality. I chatted with one neighbor who told me that there is one elderly lady who has lived in the area all her life. I could not recall her from my early days. We drove around the corner to the home my parents built in 1961. That home has also been fortified by the current owners so that nothing is visible from the street. As Linda reminded me, the large outer wall is the one my parents had erected. The entry gate is remote-controlled, and also massively high and new since we lived there.
Monday, March 16, 2020
Today I woke up and carefully packed the small rental car, a Volkswagen Polo, about the size of a Golf. I needed to detour to my sister Monica and her husband, staying with their son in the northern suburbs of Cape Town. I had to find space for Monica’s sizeable cool box, three suitcases, and what looked like a 6-months supply of groceries in plastic bags. Somehow we found space in the small car and set off for Montagu. Driving in the late morning had its advantages, as there were relatively few large trucks and other traffic on the road.
When you drive through the Huguenot tunnel on the road to the north you pay a toll. A few months ago, it was R38.25, and now it had been increased to R41.50. Most people pay cash, while credit cards are accepted, but why don’t they charge a nice round number like R40 or R45. Why mess with coins? Several motorists drop the coins on the ground when handed back from the toll operator, and then hop out their car to retrieve the small change. It causes chaos with irritated motorists also trying to get through the tolls.
Tuesday, March 17, 2020
I filled the VW Polo today with petrol/gas at the cost of US$50. Outrageously expensive for a small car. My sister Gail fetched our sister Monica and her husband, and then picked me up from the farm, as we headed to a restaurant midway between Montagu and Barrydale along Route 62. This restaurant is literally in the middle of nowhere on a farm where they produce wine. Leon, who runs the restaurant, told me the business has been slow since the municipality made him remove all the road signs advertising his place. We met a British gentleman who is spending a month in Montagu on vacation. I am guessing he must be in his late 50s. He started cycling at 5:00 am from Ladismith along Route 62 to Montagu, a distance of 63 kilometers or 40 miles. Leon, the restaurant owner, told me that a couple stopped at his restaurant while cycling from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, to South Africa, a distance of 5,240 kilometers or 3,256 miles. (New York to LA is 2,800 miles).
Wednesday, March 18, 2020, through Wednesday, March 25, 2020
It may not be apparent in what I have written about so far, but for all intents and purposes, Linda and I were in quarantine due to the COVID-19 virus. After my school function on Friday the 13th, we began a process of isolation. Linda in her sister’s home, and me in the cottage on my sister’s farm. We made significant efforts to stay away from people, and in both cases, only interacted with our immediate families. We clearly understood that being back home, we would need to begin a fourteen-day isolation process all over again.
Before setting off on this vacation, we had several family and friends that we wanted to meet, and in some situations, stay over and visit for a day or two. None of that happened. After I wrote my blog about Montagu, I discovered additional sites that I should visit and expand the blog. That, too, did not occur. The sad reality is that after our long trip on three aircraft and four large airports teaming with people, we had no assurance that we had not contracted the virus or were carriers that could affect other people. The responsible action was to practice social distancing. I am fortunate that I have visited South Africa on numerous occasions, and escaping the cold of Wisconsin for the warmth and sunshine of South Africa, could have been an even more enjoyable experience.
Arriving back home after three weeks in South Africa was a shock to be in a different world in terms of the reality of the Coronavirus, COVID-19. We received email, text, and telephone discussions from local families, friends, and neighbors about the prevailing practice. In one situation, we even had a face-to-face conversation with a friend, three meters/ten feet apart.
Locally in Wisconsin, people still shop. Let me use grocery stores as an example. Seniors typically buy early morning, return home, shower, and launder all the clothing worn to the store. Some purchase groceries and have goods delivered to your door. If it is more urgent, people will order and pick up at the supermarkets with purchases brought to your vehicle. In all cases, the bags or boxes are left at the entrance door on returning home, groceries are removed and sterilized, and packaging trashed. Naturally, the next step is washing and disinfecting your hands, finally packing the groceries away.
To put it mildly, when we arrived at the Milwaukee airport, it was like a ghost town. There was virtually no one there; all the shops were closed. Our state governor, Tony Evers, has declared all non-essential workers to stay home. On the drive from the airport to our condo, I could not believe how light the traffic was. One nearby church had 80 attend a service, afterward, ten tested positive for COVID-19, and 43 are sick.
It is very important for Donald J. Trump that America is the biggest and the best. We are. We have more COVID-19 cases than any other country in the world.
In our condo complex, we have a community room and a fitness room. Both are locked until the virus passes.
Our strategy to stem the virus was to launder everything that we journeyed with, including all clean clothing. All suitcases got wiped down and sterilized. We even washed our shoes. Our children stocked our home with food that should see us through for the next four weeks at a minimum.
Social distancing is a reality. People are staying at home and avoiding contact with others. If you go for a walk and someone is on the pavement on your side of the road, you cross the street so as not to make close contact. When we went through the security at the airport in Newark, they had an officer continually crying out, “stay at least six feet apart.”
Our son, Sean, and his wife Erica drove in two cars to the airport. Sean tossed my car keys to Linda, waved from a distance, and headed home. If you have not yet got the message, we are taking this pandemic seriously.
The bottom line, if you meet someone today, who has met someone else in the last few days, you may have got yourself infected with a virus that can live for three weeks.
We had a few unusual financial situations after we returned home. We needed to cancel our Delta return ticket. They did not offer us a refund, but we could use a credit on a future flight. Hertz charged us an additional amount of $48, even if we returned the rental 18 days early. I queried the charge, and they did not respond but did issue a credit of $47. The difference was due to the fluctuation and devaluing of the South African Rand.
If you go to the grocery store and purchase several items, and charge it to your credit card, you do not expect to see an itemized list on your card for bread, milk, apples, tomatoes, etc. United Airlines listed 12 separate charges, including South Africa Passenger Security Charge $1.30, South Africa Passenger Safety Charge $1.50, US APHIS User Fee $3.96, US Passenger Facility Charge $4.50, September 11th Security Fee $5.60, etc. I guess if you wish to dispute any of these charges through your credit card company, this may be helpful. I have never seen this detail on my Delta Airline bill.
As I reflect on our trip, my only disappointment was in not visiting family and friends that I wanted to meet. Then too, I am sorry that we could not have additional sightseeing opportunities that we planned before our trip. However, the seriousness of the COVID-19 virus cannot be underestimated, and being responsible and practicing social distancing was and is the sensible option.
Stay safe, one and all.