About Fiona Trott

I normally stand somewhere cold for BBC News. Off round the world for a year for beasts, pistes and feasts. Follow @thefionatrott

Road Trip to Phoenix

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It started on the SR 190 from California. The road through Death Valley was everything I hoped it would be – beautiful, barren and often unsettling! I drove through deserted villages with only religious radio stations for company and felt the scorching heat at Furnace Creek. It was eerily silent – probably too hot for any birds to sing. I then found myself in the middle of a jaw dropping landscape.

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Zabriskie Point is one of the places where I’d stopped to stretch my legs. It was surreal. I felt like I’d stumbled onto a movie set by mistake.

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I was a bit cautious about driving through one of the hottest places on earth – it was only April, but all the blogs tell you to take litres of water and hire a white car to deflect the heat. I did both those things, but the one thing I wasn’t expecting was the wind. At certain points, I could hardly open the door. Once I joined the SR 160 there were tumbleweeds blowing across the road front of me. This was Nevada alright. I then saw the neon lights of Las Vegas.

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I always thought I’d hate it, but when I walked down The Strip I suddenly got it – where else can you dress up to the nines and be treated like a celebrity, without having to spend too much money?

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I checked out Caesars Palace (yes, there was a scantily clad centurion outside) and mingled with all the tuxedos and tank tops on the casino floor. Elton John dominated this part of The Strip. He was in residence at the Palace and the water fountains outside the Bellagio were dancing along to one of his tunes. They were watched by hundreds of people. Little did they know they were doomed…

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Preachers with placards were warning anybody who cared to listen that if they were drunk, gay, or gamblers, they’d all go to hell. I wondered what might happen if they were all three.

The next day I set my sights on the Grand Canyon but I wasn’t expecting such dramatic scenery along the way. I took a quick detour to see the Hoover Dam.

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I’ve never really been afraid of heights, but I got pins and needles standing here. An amazing accomplishment, but one hundred people lost their lives working on this.

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I then drove down Route 66 and onto the I-40. The scenery had changed again. It had gradually dropped from 75f to 34f and as I approached Devil Dog Road, I found myself in a snow storm. I was starting to worry. I didn’t want my Grand Canyon pilgrimage to be in vain.

It wasn’t.

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The mind-blowing scale of it and the colours, contours and crevices make it the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen. It’s as simple as that. From the Visitor Centre on the South Rim, I drove east along Desert View Drive to Grandview Point. It took me about an hour and a half to take in the views along the way – and that was just a tiny part of it. The entrance fee was $25 for 1-7 days. I could easily have spent a week there.

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The next day was a very red day. I’d stayed in Flagstaff overnight (an old railroad town with great bars and outdoor shops) and made my way down the hair pin bends of the beautiful Oak Creek Canyon and into the Red Rock town of Sedona. I’m so used to associating beauty with greenery, that I never imagined I’d be so overwhelmed by rocky landscapes, like the ones on this trip.

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On day four, I’d arrived at Pheonix Airport. As I dropped off the car, I realised I’d driven over 1300 miles and had only spent about £80 on fuel. I’d also spent hours and hours on the road, but it only seemed like minutes.

Time for a break. Next stop – Miami.

I Love San Francisco

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I was already excited at the Golden Gate Bridge. As I was coming in from Sonoma I asked my friend about the island on the left hand side. Yes, it was Alcatraz, she assured me. I made a mental note.

Later, I met up with another friend. We spent the day walking around North Beach to soak up the background to the Beat movement and visited the City Lights Bookstore. We then headed towards the cafes and bars around Columbus and had a killer cocktail at Calzone. Dinner was at The Stinking Rose. As the name suggests, it’s not a place for people who don’t like garlic. The booths were great – all curtains and chandeliers.

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The next day we walked up to Coit Tower to take in the views of the bay and admire the Art Deco homes nearby. We then went down to Fisherman’s Wharf and got another extraordinary view.

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We were ambushed by a group of male cyclists shouting, “Naked bike ride – woo hoo!” So that’s how they get an all-over tan…

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The walk from From Pier 39 with its pod of Sea Lions all the way down to the Ferry Building is lovely. Inside, there are lots of great food merchants like the Cowgirl Creamery. There’s an outdoor market there on a Saturday.

Another favourite place was the Foreign Cinema in the Mission area. You can have dinner in the courtyard at sunset and watch a movie projected onto the wall. The Redwood Room at the Clift hotel was also a good place for a nightcap, complete with DJ and digital artwork.

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The day before I left, it was time to tap into those historic headlines and movie moments and visit Alcatraz. One of the first things you see when you step off the boat is this graffiti:

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It’s from 1969 when the Native American activists occupied the island for nineteen months. I like the fact that it’s still there. Inside the prison, everybody’s given a set of headphones for an audio tour. The narrators are a former prison warden and some inmates. They tell you what happened in each block – like the Battle of Alcatraz in 1946 and the actual escape in 1962.

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Can you believe they dug those holes in the wall with a metal spoon?

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It’s such a beautiful view from such a bleak place. It must have added to the prisoners’ torment. I love this city. I’d like to go back.

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What is a WWOOFer?

You’re a what?” That’s a question I was asked a lot in Napa and Sonoma. The other was, “Does it have anything to do with dogs?”

Sadly not. WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities On Organic Farms. The idea is that volunteers help out on the land, learn about farming and support the organic movement. In return, the host family provides food and accomodation.

I looked for a vineyard in California and found Random Ridge Winery. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Imagine getting up every morning and walking out to this:

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My main task was suckering. The vines were very lively after a warm winter, so trunk after trunk, row after row, I gently brushed off the unwanted buds and cut off the extra shoots at the bottom. It was a bit like Bonsai on a ten acre scale.

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Random Ridge doesn’t use herbicides. It’s all down to tilling and mowing and using rock phosphate instead. All the wine is bottled without using fining agents too. On this part of the trip, I’ve tasted about fifty different wines. When it’s organic, you can tell the difference. I like to believe it’s because the vines get a lot of care and attention. That’s why after the first week, I was excited to see this:

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Clusters were forming on the Sangiovese. It emphasised the fact that everything I did would affect the way the vines grew the following year.

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Not surprisingly, I also enjoyed driving the truck around. This was another job at the vineyard – going up and down the rows so that we could clear away the dead wood. I’d almost got away with it until I heard, “Stop feathering the clutch.”

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As for the winemaking itself, I’ve learned that there are so many variables that can affect the way it tastes – from the rocks beneath the vine roots to the way the grapes are picked. Do you use wood barrels, if so, are they toasted? Is it Californian oak or French? Is it fermented in a stainless steel tank instead, or a giant concrete egg? Do you use a cork, silicone or screw top? I will never sip wine in the same way again. I’ve also made friends for life.

 

Portland – in Pictures

They say Portland, Oregon is where “young people go to retire.”
It’s tempting.

image Food carts – a difficult choice. Different cuisine from different countries all on one street.

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I went to Georgia. Khachapuri, lobiani, badrijani rolls and some mushroom khinkali – $8.

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A wonderful book store. Too many, too little time, too small a rucksack.

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Welcome to Voodoo Doughnuts. They come in all shapes and sizes. You can even have maple syrup and bacon.

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I chose chocolate and peanut butter. Is that better?

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Vintage clothes stores. If I was “young and retired” I’d probably wear this too.

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I’d also drink more. Here’s a microdistillery I came across on the Lower-East side. A group of thirty-somethings are making local, handcrafted whiskey and will soon be exporting to Japan.

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The Japanese Garden in Washington Park. Beautiful. Quiet. A place to relax in the autumn years of your young life.

Seattle Spirit

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“They’re not friendly, they’re nice“- that was the advice given to me on one of my first nights in Seattle. Apparently, it’s called the ‘Seattle Freeze.’ People are polite, but that’s as far as it goes. I’m not convinced.

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image Take Pike Place Market – one of the oldest public farmers’ markets in the USA. In the 1960s there were plans to demolish it, until campaigners like Betty Bowen and Victor Steinbrueck won their fight for it to become an historic preservation zone.

image Its charitable arm, the Pike Place Market Foundation, receives hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations each year. Some of the donors’ names are on the trotter prints on the pavement outside. (The market’s mascot is a pig named Rachel and you can put money inside her at the entrance). Cash raised goes towards projects like the Pike Market Medical Clinic, the Downtown Food Bank, and low-income housing.

The city’s Underground Tour was also set up after preservationists prevented the historic Pioneer Square from being demolished.

image It’s the area where the Emerald City Supporters gather on match days. They stand separately from the club’s official rally just metres away. The soccer fans want to preserve the ‘Sounders’ name and invite other supporters to join their March To The Match.

Local people here care about their community. They can’t be that cold, surely?

Pleasure and Pain

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I was in a state of shock. The day before, I was in a Tuk Tuk in dusty Delhi with sandals on my feet. Now, the boots were on and I was trudging through pure white snow in temperatures of -20c. This was my first day in Montreal. I couldn’t feel my fingers but I was happy. I’d been on the road for weeks and was back in the company of old friends – back to a comfy bed, back to a washing machine and back to booze.

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When I was asked if I wanted to go to an operetta, I wasn’t sure if my jet lagged body could handle it, but this was very different. Le Docteur Miracle was performed in an old warehouse, with a bar on one side, the stage at another and the orchestra just metres behind us. As it turned out, Bizet and beer were a good combination.

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There’s no pleasure without pain. Just as I was getting used to long, lazy afternoons in front of log fires, I suddenly found myself cross-country skiing on Mont Royal and high in the Laurentians. I hadn’t exercised for three months. It was hard work, but the views were worth it.

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There were dramatic views on the train down to New York too. It’s said to be one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys, but it’s also eleven hours long. An hour of that is taken up with Homeland Security officials boarding the train and setting up office in the dining car. There were piles of papers, pens, stamp machines and staples and after a $6 fee, I returned to my seat with the Visa Waiver in my hand. It’s just as well – I’d arranged a very important date in NYC which couldn’t be missed.

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This was a treat I’d promised myself months before – Afternoon Tea at The Plaza Hotel. I’d booked it with a friend who’d come over from Washington DC. We were spoiled rotten. For one afternoon, I forgot I was a traveller on a budget.

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The next day, I remembered. I was looking around a vintage clothes store in Greenwich Village and spotted this Vera Wang dress for $60. I was about to try it on when I suddenly caught myself in the mirror. I was dressed top to toe in Gore-Tex. This was me for the rest of the year and I was lucky to be doing it. The dress went back on the rail and I went to the bagel shop for dinner.

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A couple of hours later, I had the pleasure of meeting an old friend who’d come over from Ireland. It was a date we’d fixed a year before and we’d stuck to it. We explored parts of New York we’d never seen before – lower Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge, Chelsea and the Meatpacking District from the High Line and we went to a Gospel Service at Mount Neboh Church in Harlem. Clapping and high fiving complete strangers puts a real smile on your face first thing in the morning. It was a sombre service too, following the gas explosion earlier in the week which killed eight people just six blocks away. The Reverend made an appeal for nappies and food for the dozens of families who’d been displaced.

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We also paid our respects at the 9/11 Memorial. It was beautiful, but it was painful. I didn’t know that the names of the thousands who died were actually carved into the stone. It means that relatives can put a white rose into the lettering on the victims’ birthdays. We saw some roses. We also noticed people who were inconsolable with grief.

New York is an amazing city. It made us very welcome. Next time, I’ll go back and get that dress.

Bizarre Bazaars

After almost four weeks in India, I thought I’d seen everything. How naive.

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As I was elbowing my way through Jaipur’s Siredeori Bazaar, I was aware of something large looming on the horizon. It was an elephant. An elephant was making its way through the rush hour traffic. I dashed down the street to catch it on camera – much to the amusement of the local shopkeepers who were shouting, “Here, here!” and found me a good spot outside the Hawa Mahal. After it plodded past, I stood there chuckling away to myself, mainly because its rider was also on his mobile phone. One of the shopkeepers asked me why I was laughing. “This is India!” he said.

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He was so right. Why was I surprised? It’s a colourful country in every sense of the word and as I weaved my way through the textile shops of the Pink City’s bazaars, I thought I was walking into a kaleidoscope. I then found gems, bangles and bracelets, dried fruits, spices and juices. I was warned that sampling street food was like Russian roulette, but what would you do if you saw a sizzling pan of Kachori right in front of you?

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A deep fried oniony dumpling is the best way to describe it, but my highlight was this sugary oasis at Bapu Market:

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LMB is quite well known. What I love, is that you can just wander around, pick whatever you want and then go to your cocktail table to devour it. I chose a nutty, biscuity, Shahi Pinni and a sweet lassi. It was the best lassi I’d ever had – deliciously creamy with an extra dollop of cream on top, just for good measure. I had a headache by the time I got home, but it was totally worth it.

The next day, I had one of the best cinema experiences of my life.

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Welcome to the Raj Mandir. A glamorous theatre that even sells cake. I don’t know what was more entertaining – the movie Gunday or the audience itself. As soon as the lights went down, there were cheers. As soon as the heroes appeared, there were cheers. People were shouting from the back, people were replying from the front, they were taking pictures of the screen and taking calls on their phones. It was chaotic and I loved it. We can get a taste of India back home, but there are some things you just can’t replicate.

A World of Extremes

imageIt’s something I’m gradually getting used to – a cow aimlessly wandering across a city street and the taxi driver deciding which one he should dodge first. The cow? The motorbike? Or maybe just slam on the brakes and sound the horn to see what happens next? I’ve quickly learned that driving with one hand on the horn is the best way to drive in India. In fact, it’s encouraged.

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How else are they supposed to know you’re behind them? Taxis are my main mode of transport here in Jaipur. I’m volunteering on a Women’s Empowerment project with Sankalp and for our personal safety, we’re advised not to take the bus. So everyday, we’re allocated a private driver to get to our placement. In the evenings and at weekends, a Tuk Tuk is considered acceptable, because it’s more ‘open’. I might fall out of course, so it all depends on your definition of safe.

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The aim of the project is to give teenage girls more confidence to be who they want to be. This is because it’s not uncommon to be denied a school education or to be taken out early, to help with domestic responsibilities. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been helping them improve their English and encouraging them to think about a career. Among the BRICS countries, India has the lowest number of women at work – newspapers here say that only 29% of those aged 15 or over are employed.

We have two groups of eight girls. None of them have access to the internet, so I’ve been going home and researching career profiles of Indian women who are at the top of their game. One of them has decided she wants to be an air hostess, so we discuss role models like the politician Brinda Karat who worked at Air India and campaigned against women having to wear skirts. The girls say they’re enjoying it, but the lessons often get interrupted with questions like, “Are you married?” at which point everybody starts giggling, which makes me start to giggle. One of them, who’s eighteen, gets married in May. I asked her if she’d keep coming to the lessons afterwards. She shrugged her shoulders.

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Teaching the girls how to use a laptop is another important part of the project. At college, they’re only taught how to use a keyboard from a book. It’s taking a long time just to get the knack of holding down the shift key and making a capital letter with the other hand. I’m so used to seeing teenagers back home frantically messaging each other, that it’s something I took for granted. The other thing I took for granted is that India is a country of extremes.

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I’m no longer surprised by the cows eating rubbish on my way to work, but what I’ll never get used to, is seeing half clothed children living amongst litter in a street that’s also used as a toilet. Then there’s the other extreme – breathtaking beauty.

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I took this picture as I walking in the Mehtab Bagh gardens. I’ll never forget the moment I laid eyes on the Taj Mahal for the first time. The white marble makes it so striking – even from a distance. It’s just as well I took that walk. When I went to visit it properly the next morning, it was shrouded in fog.

I’ve spent most weekends travelling and have taken a trip down to Ranthambore. After South Africa, I’ve been missing the wildlife, so I went on a tiger safari and caught a glimpse of this handsome beast.

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Tiger stripes, camels covered in crazy patterns and cows wearing necklaces with yellow painted horns are all part of this beautiful and bizarre country, but so far, the experience is bittersweet.

Hide and Seek

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Take a look at this. It’s the first photograph I took of an elephant on the Mduna side of the Thanda Reserve. Its blurry because she was rushing back to the others after giving us a good telling off. She came right up to the truck and angrily shook her head. In my mind, her huge ears made a slow, deep, flapping sound but I’m not sure if they really did. That’s another reason why the photo’s blurred – my hands were shaking a little.

This encounter was just a few seconds long, but it was a massively important one. Twenty two elephants were brought onto Mduna back in 2011, but sightings are rare. That makes it difficult to follow their progress.

Our job was to take photographs to build up an ID kit. We also had to monitor their behaviour – but when elephants don’t want to be found, its an impossible task. That’s why a small team of us asked if we could go back to Mduna day after day to try and locate them. We had three things at our disposal 1) Camera traps 2) A telemeter and 3) Good old fashioned tracking skills.

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The trick with putting up camera traps is trying not to get poked in the eye by a branch or get a photograph taken of your nostril. We set them up to take pictures every fifteen seconds after they were triggered by a movement.

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The telemeter got us into a few scrapes. Quite literally. Mduna is very wild – that’s why the elephants can hide so well. After picking up a signal, we followed them through thorny sickle bushes, dozens of spider webs and thick, thick mud. On one occasion, we abandoned the truck altogether and got a tractor to pull it out. After hours and hours of trying – still no sighting.

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My favourite method was using tracking skills. Just looking for signs. Could we see footprints, dung, or a tree being flattened with one single step? We logged the GPS of incidents like these, but still no sighting.

After days of scratches and close encounters with golden orb spiders (one so big, that our guide actually stroked it), we were beginning to give up hope. Then, one morning, we discovered that a camera trap had come up trumps. After photos of a few rhino bottoms and an inquisitive Nyala, came this:

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Finally – a sighting. We knew where they’d been hiding, but we still needed to get full frontal photographs to help build up our ID kit.

The next day, we got what we wanted.

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It was the closest any volunteers had ever got to the herd and for the longest period of time. You get to notice some interesting behaviour when you just sit and watch. Did you know that elephants actually make a grumbling sound to communicate with each other?

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This one copied one of the elders – it picked some grass with its trunk and put it on its head. I think it was trying to hide.

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This one had been ‘mock eating’ – pretending to be busy with some grass, but actually watching us out of the corner of its eye. When this picture was taken, it came over to say ‘Enough now. We’re leaving’.

Within seconds, they were gone.

Our research work is used by the Space For Elephants Foundation. Its aim is to restore corridors for elephants here in South Africa, where wildlife is restricted by boundaries and fences. It says if there are too many elephants in one place, they’ll start to destroy the habitat they depend upon.

Life Outside the Game Reserve

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It’s an outbuilding, not a waiting room and the patients don’t have the luxury of privacy either. This is a mobile clinic high on the hills of Etshaneni where dozens of people – mainly women and children – are queuing to see the nurse. It’s the only chance they’ll get for a fortnight and many of them have walked fifteen kilometres to get here. Forty per cent of people living in this area have no choice but to make that journey. They have HIV. Sadly, that’s a good sign. The doctor says that five years ago, it was seventy per cent.

We’ve been invited here by The Happy Africa Foundation which is raising money to refurbish the dilapidated building and make it a more permanent centre for clinical treatment.

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Almost everybody has to have their blood pressure checked on a regular basis. Hypertension is common, even amongst fifteen year olds. A poor diet based on maize, salt and oil doesn’t help.

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That’s why vitamin A supplements are handed out to children up until the age of five. Its hoped it will strengthen their immune system and improve their eyesight. However, the doctor explained something distressing about some of the babies born here. A high percentage of the mothers are still teenagers and as young as thirteen. What’s worse, is that in Kwa Zulu Natal there’s a real problem with girls falling pregnant by ‘sugar daddies’ – older men who exploit them by offering to pay for things like schooling. Apparently, some of these girls are particularly vulnerable, because they are orphans who’ve lost their parents to AIDS. What they don’t understand, is they’re at risk themselves.

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The medical staff stay for as long as they are needed and on this occasion, it was likely to be some time. As we were leaving, more were arriving. A lot of us on the volunteer project have talked about how we take things for granted back home. It really is an understatement.