Spontaneous pleasures of Portugal

Unconstrained on the banks of the Douro, Penny Haw tries to buy a hotel.

THE only person I know who is more spontaneous about travel than I am is my husband. Adventurers, we may be. Planners, we are not. Our itineraries rarely extend beyond initial destination and dates of departure and return. Conversations with others about forthcoming holidays go as follows:

“Portugal? Lovely. What are you going to do there?” they ask.

“We’ll meet in Porto and decide,” we reply.

So it was we met at The Yeatman Hotel in Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank of the Douro River. (Porto, on the north bank, is Portugal’s second largest city after Lisbon.) Situated high on the embankment, The Yeatman is a swish establishment with views across the river and city so splendidly expansive, they inspired the architect involved to include windows behind windows in the suites. This means you can admire the scenery not only from bed and balcony, but also while you execute ablutions in the bathroom.

Photograph: Penny Haw.

Photograph: Penny Haw.

We gazed across red-tiled rooftops and the denim-blue river at length and agreed to stay a day or two longer than not planned. A few days later, though we’d moved to another hotel (The Yeatman being fully-booked and also rather pricey for an extended stay), we were still in Porto and in no hurry to leave.

We wandered the narrow, cobbled streets of Gaia, which is where port, transported from the vineyards up river in barcos rabelos (flat boats), has been stored in caves and cellars since the 13th century. With almost every second building on the riverfront offering port tastings these days, our wanderings were slow; slower still when tastings were accompanied by fado (Portuguese folk music) and platters of almonds roasted in olive oil, dried fruit, cheese and olives.

Photograph: Penny Haw.

Photograph: Penny Haw.

Out on the sunlit street, a young man wearing a skipper’s cap and a striped sailor’s shirt approached politely and offered – in that inimitable “take it or leave it, I won’t push you” Portuguese manner – to show us the six bridges that link Porto to Gaia in his rabelo-styled wooden boat.

“Why not?” we mused. “We have nothing else planned.”

Halfway into the cruise on the deep, lazy river, the captain took the free hand of his sidekick, a young tour guide with a microphone in the other, and placed it on the steering wheel. The skipper walked to the bow, lifted a trap door and, using a plastic bucket, began bailing water from below.

Unperturbed, the guide continued her oration about the bridges. We glanced at the banks of the river gliding by, decided they were within swimming distance and continued listening to her tale. The Maria Pia bridge was the first major work of Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame, while the D Luís I was created by his student Theóphile Seyrig. Designed by Portuguese engineer Edgar Cardoso, the Arrábida bridge spans 270 metres and was, for a while, the world’s longest arch bridge made from reinforced concrete. The São João, also by Cardoso, is named for Porto’s patron saint whose virtues are celebrated in June with two days of dancing, feasting on roasted sardines and, apparently to express affection, hitting one another on the head with toy hammers. Furthest upstream, the Freixo bridge was designed by Professor António Reis and, finally, the youngest bridge, opened in 2002, is named for Infante D Henrique (Prince Henry the Navigator).

Photograph: Penny Haw.

Photograph: Penny Haw.

Back on shore with only slightly wet feet, we took a bus to the seaside port of Matosinhos, ate bacalhau (cod), sardines and octopus braaied in the street, drank vinho verde and walked about eight kilometres along the beach and river back to the city. We climbed the stairs of the Lello & Irmão Bookstore, which, built in 1906, is said to be where J K Rowling first imagined Harry Potter when she lived and worked in Porto (as an English teacher) in the early 90s. We moseyed around Porto Cathedral and ate Francesinha (not my favourite) at Liberdade Square.

“How about renting a car and driving into the Douro Valley to see the vineyards?” asked my husband on day four.

Good idea, I said. But it was Saturday and there were no rental cars to be had in Porto. Instead, we walked the length of Via Catarina (the main shopping area), drank coffee and ate pastéis de nata at Majestic Café in all its Art Nouveau glory, strolled through several markets, and toured Porto’s historic commercial centre, Palais de la Bourse with its magnificently decorative (some might argue, over-the-top) Arabian room.

Two days later, we hopped into a little silver Peugeot.

“Where are you going?” asked the rental agent as he waved us goodbye.

“That way,” said my husband, pointing upriver.

We headed east with the Douro almost always in sight to our right. For a while, the narrow road wound its way past riverside factories, industriously breathing plumes of smoke into the sky. A short time later, the route became enclosed by dark forest. Then the sky reappeared and the wine lands rolled out before us.

Photograph: Penny Haw

Photograph: Penny Haw

It doesn’t matter how many pictures you’ve seen of them, the vineyards of the Douro Valley – where every square metre of land has been painstakingly shaped, neatly terraced and walled with grey shale, and planted by hand since the 3rd century – will amaze you. Even the steepest slopes and smallest parcels of land have been carved into vinously-compliant steps on both sides of the wide, ever languid-looking river. While some vineyards spread far along hillsides – contained only by the waterway, roads, walls, gorges and hamlets – others are as tiny as the backyards in which they grow. Everyone in the region, it seems, owns a vineyard or at least a vine.

We stopped for the night at Vila do Pinhão, which has what is surely the most beautiful train station in the world with classic blue and white Portuguese tiles depicting life in the region on every wall. So content were we with our accommodation within walking distance of the village at Quinta de la Rosa, we stayed a few days longer.

Photograph: Penny Haw.

Photograph: Penny Haw.

One morning we hopped on another rabelo (watertight this time) and cruised through the vines and olive groves to Tua and back. We visited the vineyards and cellars of Quinta do Panascal, which offers a genius self-managed audio-tour that allows you to wander through the vines and ‘lagares’ (granite tanks) on your own before tasting the farm’s Fonseca ports.

Photograph: Penny Haw.

Photograph: Penny Haw.

A few nights later, we booked into the family-run Hotel Rural Flor do Monte in the nearby village of Pombai. At nine o’clock the next morning, after sales pitches in broken English (from daughter and son) and one in Portuguese (we knew the script by then) from mother, I began trying to raise enough money among my Facebook friends to purchase the hotel. Times are tough in Portugal and, vineyards and olive groves included, it was, I thought, a great offer. Regrettably, my friends (and husband, it might be noted) had too many questions and too little money to make it happen.

“Ah,” wrote one friend below my Facebook crowd-sourcing bid. “So you went to Portugal and decided to buy a hotel in the Douro Valley. Does that mean, for once, you have a plan?”

(First published in the Life section of Business Day.)

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Seeing clearly in Lake Malawi

The wooden platform linking the main island to the little peninsula at Mumbo Island. (Photographs by Penny Haw.)

The wooden platform linking the main island to the little peninsula at Mumbo Island. (Photographs by Penny Haw.)

IT was while looking for a new snorkelling spot off Mumbo Island in the calm, clear waters of Lake Malawi that my husband and I spotted splashing about 25 metres ahead of our canoe. Paddling closer, we discovered a juvenile African fish eagle struggling to stay afloat. She had, it appeared, been overly ambitious about her flying and hunting abilities, and had fallen into the lake about 100 metres from her home on the island. Unable to lift her waterlogged wings from the water to fly off and clearly not a swimmer by anyone’s standards, the bird was panicking.

Without hesitating to discuss strategy, my husband stretched out and placed the blade of his paddle beneath the young eagle. As he lifted her out of the water, the bird lurched momentarily before rising to her full height and regaining her balance on the plastic blade beneath her talons.

Rescue Ranger One slowly swung the paddle-cum-eagle-hoist past me towards the stern. The bird hopped off the paddle and positioned herself safely in the centre of the flat area behind me on the canoe.

We looked at her. She stared boldly back at us with dark, shiny eyes that seemed to say, “Well, what are you waiting for? Paddle.”

So, paddled we did, as smoothly and slowly as possible so as not to dislodge Her Royal Birdship. We glided into a rocky inlet and, as we turned the canoe to position the stern against a large boulder on the shore, our passenger hopped off and toddled to safety. With her back turned to us, she ruffled her feathers before briefly glancing our way. Dismissed, we resumed our expedition.

The bird was one of several living in the Miombo woodland, and ancient fig and baobab trees on Mumbo Island, which is a tiny atoll of about one square kilometre 10 kilometres from Cape Maclear in Lake Malawi. Getting there requires an easy 45-minute boat ride from the reception on the beach at Cape Maclear. As the wooden fishing boat motors past Domwe Island, you’ll see the African fish eagle is widespread around the lake.

Mumbo was unpeopled until Cape Town-based Kayak Africa was awarded a concession to establish a sustainable eco-camp there in 1996. These days, the lodge can accommodate fourteen guests in five separate double tent-chalets and one four-bed family unit on a little peninsula attached to main island – where the kitchen, dining room, games hut and beach are located – by a long wooden bridge. Meals are served buffet-style on the deck/restaurant overlooking the main beach.

Mumbo Island (Penny Haw) 2Perched on massive boulders and well secluded from one another, the chalets all overlook the lake. Regardless of whether you lie in bed, hang in the hammock on the deck or sit on the balcony, the views are terrific. During the day you’ll gaze across the water to the blue-grey mountains of the mainland in the distance and, when you look down, you’ll see fish milling about in the clear depths below you. At night, the lights of a hundred of tiny lanterns twinkle across the lake in the distance as fishermen take to the water in their dugout canoes.

That’s not to say my husband, son and I spent much time in our chalets during our four-night stay on Mumbo. With the largest number of fish species in any lake in the world – particularly cichlids, which are tropical freshwater fish well known for their magnificent colours and diversity of species – and remarkably clear water, Lake Malawi is a snorkelling paradise.

Aside from the excellent visibility and opportunity to dive among fish you’ll only otherwise see in books or fish tanks, there’s something particularly luxurious about doing it in fresh, calm and warm water. It’s not just that fresh water is much lighter, more palatable and less sticky to swim in than salt water but given Lake Malawi’s geology, it’s safer and more relaxed too. As you dive through and around the large rounded boulders, there’s little chance of snagging your flesh on jagged edges and, because the fish and aquatic plants are largely harmless, it’s safe to walk and hold on to the rocks as you dive. Moreover, there’s no threat of bilharzia in the water around Mumbo Island.

Above all though, snorkelling in the elongated, submerged crack in the Rift Valley that is Lake Malawi is absolutely fabulous because of its incomparable biological diversity. Cichlids – most of which live within snorkelling distance (that is, no more than 10 metres) from the surface – are famous among evolution researchers because the species – about 1,000 different cichlids live in the lake – was spawned from a common ancestor in a very short time. Living in a largely closed ecosystem, Malawian cichlids have rapidly adapted to survive their ecological niches, which means Lake Malawi is something of a candy shop to scientists and snorkelling enthusiasts. And if, like me, you’re lucky enough to have a budding marine biologist at hand when you’re diving, the lake and its creatures are all the more fascinating.Mumbo Island (Penny Haw) 3

But, unless you’re the Man from Atlantis, you can’t swim all day, which is just as well because there are other ways to entertain yourself on Mumbo. Following well-marked hiking trails, it takes little over an hour to do the circular route around Mumbo – unless you can’t resist the temptation of stopping off at some of the little beaches for another swim on the way. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a monitor lizard or two on the way. There’s a particularly mammoth male that lives behind the lodge’s kitchen, flicking his tongue as he thinks about dinner. If, you’re even more fortunate, you’ll spot a spotted-necked otter sunning itself on a boulder.

There is, of course, the option of simply sunning yourself on a boulder on Mumbo Island until it’s time for lunch, cocktails or dinner. Or you could take a canoe to circumvent the island in the off chance you’ll have the rare privilege of rescuing an eagle.

(This article was first published on the Life page of Business Day in 2015.)

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South African opera export extraordinaire, Pretty Yende – a profile

Pretty Yende, as photographed by Kim Fox.

Pretty Yende, as photographed by Kim Fox.

ABOUT 13 years ago, Pretty Yende heard opera for the first time and resolved to make it her career: “It was as if my soul knew what it was even though my mind and body didn’t,” she says.

These days, Yende is one of the country’s proudest exports. She was the first South African to be invited to take part in the young artists programme at the Accademia Teatro La Scala in Milan, is the first African artist ever to graduate from La Scala’s Academy of Lyric Opera, and has delighted audiences in many of the world’s most prestigious opera houses in Moscow, Vienna, Milan, New York, London, Edinburgh, Los Angeles, Barcelona and other cities.

In 2013, she was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver by President Jacob Zuma for, “Her excellent achievement and international acclaim in the field of world opera and serving as a role model to aspiring young musicians.”

Yende returned to South Africa briefly in August and joined students from her alma mater, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) South African College of Music and the head of its opera school, Professor Kamal Khan to perform at the Baxter Theatre. Funds raised by the one-night concert were donated to the Diemersfontein Excellence Out Of Africa Trust, which helps other promising young South Africans develop their talent.

Having been based in Milan for most of the past five years, Yende was pleased to be home, even for a short visit: “There is no place like home,” she says. “I am who I am because of where I grew up. Having that and being rooted in it has helped me get where I am today. I can never forget that.”

After debuting at the Metropolitan Opera (The Met) as a last-minute replacement in Le Comte Ory in January last year, she’s currently rehearsing for the role of Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, which is on at the New York opera house in October.

This will be followed almost immediately by Il Barbiere Di Siviglia in Oslo in which she plays Rosina. In February, Yende will be at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in the role of Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor and, in March, she’ll play Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro in Los Angeles. Thereafter, she’ll prepare for the role of Norina in Don Pasquale at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. She has also been invited to sing her first Elvira in I Puritani in a new production at the Zurich Opera in 2016.

Yende, whose story of hearing two female voices singing the Flower Duet from Delibes’ Lakmé in a British Airways television advertisement when she was a 16-year-old schoolgirl at Ndlela High School in Piet Retief is well-known, was described by British classic music critic, Michael White as “disarmingly focused on what she wants”.

“She floored me with her cool, matter of fact determination – which has clearly been the force behind all she’s achieved so far,” he added.

White is not the only one struck by Yende’s resolve. Virginia Davids, herself an award winning opera singer and associate professor of singing at the College of Music, recalls the first time she heard the young woman’s voice: “I got this phone call in September (when Yende was in her final year of high school), “Hello, my name is Pretty Yende from Mpumalanga and I’m coming to UCT next year and I would like to come and study with you.” I remember saying to my husband, “I’ve got this cheeky kid on the phone who insists that she must come and study with me.””

And study with Davids, Yende did. She credits the vocal coach for teaching her to fully appreciate her voice, its distinctiveness, and how to use it to convince audiences and win their hearts.

“(Davids) taught me the best lessons any artist could hope for. She spent time with me, encouraging me to love my voice. She taught me to accept it and to understand it’s not just the sound that matters; the world of music is much deeper. She showed me that if I was willing to go beyond that, then I’d be special. If I just wanted to make beautiful sounds like everyone else, then I’d just be normal,” she says. “Even when, in my early days at UCT, I realised there were many people with so much talent, who had been singing for much longer than I had and I worried that I couldn’t do it, she taught me to love my voice.”

But, insists Davids, it was a two-way thing. Seldom has she encountered a student so dedicated to her craft, and so willing and determined to perfect it: “Also, (Yende) loves going on stage and I think that is a special quality that the audience feels,” she says.

When the young soprano graduated cum laude from UCT, she couldn’t afford to study internationally. But, true to nature, she didn’t allow that to deter her dream and so began entering international singing competitions.

Winning the Hans Gabor Belvedere, Montserrat Caballé, Savonlinna, Leyla Gencer and Bellini international singing competitions during 2009 and 2010 and Placido Domingo’s Operalia Competition in 2012 not only introduced her to the world stage, but also won her a place at the Accademia Teatro La Scala. Here, among others, she studied with Italian soprano greats, Mirella Devia and Mirella Freni, who she says, taught her to “really know what I would like from my voice” and “made me realise what great hands I’ve been in during my career.”

When Australian conductor and pianist (and also husband of the late soprano Dame Joan Sutherland), Richard Bonynge worked with Yende on Lucia di Lammermoor in Cape Town two years ago, he praised both her beautiful voice and her ability to learn quickly. This was put this to the test when Yende was asked, with a few weeks notice, to step into the role of Countess Adele in Le Comte Ory opposite Juan Diego Florez at The Met last year.

After just 11 days rehearsal, Yende made her New York debut by taking a fall during a small pantomime sketch during the overture on opening night. Although she fell hard onto her hands and knees, she went on to perform with aplomb and received a loud standing ovation for her performance opposite Peruvian Juan Diego Flórez, who many consider the world’s best tenor.

This month, as she prepares with less haste for the role of Pamina in Die Zauberflöte at The Met and a solo recital at the Ubuntu: Music and Arts of South Africa at Carnegie Hall (also in New York and both events take place in October), Yende is more than a year older and an established professional who recently signed with Zemsky Green Artists Management, which represents several of the world’s leading opera singers. But she is, she insists, still the girl from Piet Retief whose dream it is to sing opera.

“Every inch of my soul resonates when I sing because I think that is my gift,” she says. “I can only give myself. And I thank God for the talent. And I thank God for the ears that listen.”

(First published in Business Day in September 2014.)

P.S. If you’d like to stay up-to-date with news about Ms Yende, you’ll find her official Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/PrettyYende/121489077889343

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Burgeoning weeds? There’s a goat for that

(Photograph: Sciencenews.org.)

(Photograph: Sciencenews.org.)

I AM a big fan of uncomplicated, make-a-plan biotech-type ideas. They suit my simple-solutions-are-super approach to life. I like the notion of solving problems and creating opportunities by putting things that don’t need batteries, Eskom or petrol to work. We’ve done it for centuries by, for example, burning wood for fire, and using animals for transport, microscopic unicellular fungus (that is, yeast) to make bread and beer, and bacteria to turn milk into yoghurt.

More recent biotechnological discoveries include the use of dung beetles to reduce methane emissions, worms to turn waste into compost, and larvae to feed on excrement so it can be harvested and processed for animal or fish food or biodiesel. There’s also the use of Pseudomonas bacterium to break down crude oil when treating oil spills and zebrafish to decode the genetic mutation responsible for a hereditary muscle disease found in people native to North Carolina in the United States.

Also in North Carolina, entrepreneur Matt Richmond took biotechnology back to grassroots level in 2010 when he established a small business called Rent-A-Goat to – yes, you guessed it – rent out goats to people and organisations that wanted to clear their properties of unwanted grass, bush and weeds.

By 2011, the company, which Richmond promotes as an eco-friendly alternative to machinery or chemicals, had become so successful, he decided he’d help ensure others didn’t “miss the goat” and added to it “a worldwide listing for all goat-based brush clearing service providers”.

Rent-A-Goat was recently included in Entrepreneur magazine’s 100 Brilliant Companies. It has more than 82,000 followers on Twitter and has received almost 16,000 ‘likes’ on FaceBook.

Goats are not only useful for maintaining lawns and landscaped areas. They’re also considered the ideal weed control and bush clearing solution for sites undergoing new construction, and for removing invasive species and restoring indigenous plant and animal habitats. They’re also widely used to keep firebreaks clear of vegetation and to reduce undergrowth in forests.

The animals are excellent climbers, and can tackle steep and rocky terrain that’s difficult to clear with machinery. Land cleared by goats can safely be used for farming and gardening, and even children’s playgrounds. Each animal eats about three and a half kilograms of vegetation a day. They produce 13% of the methane emissions emitted by cattle, and goat droppings are considered easy to use and effective fertilizer for garden beds ¬

Herds signed up by Rent-A-Goat work from nine-to-five each day with no downtime and are supervised by authorised goat managers. The animals are transported to and from work in “roomy trailers” and are taken home every night. The company guarantees they’re up-to-date in terms of vaccinations and deworming. Prices, says Richmond, are competitive with commercial landscaping services.

And, if you think high-tech organisations don’t appreciate biotech solutions, you’re wrong. Goat-using clients include Amazon in Japan and Google in California, which employ herds of the ruminants to mow lawns around their premises each week. San Francisco International Airport, scene of the Asiana Airlines crash in July 2013, hire the services of about 250 goats. They were not, however, at the airport at the time of the incident, which means the landscaping livestock didn’t become scapegoats.

This article was first published in Business Day in 2013.

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Thick and tired? Try public humiliation

ScalesIN the old days, slimming clubs meant going to weekly meetings and facing the ordeal of climbing on a scale in front of other wannabe-skinnies. A group leader – usually a smug ex-fatty – would be on hand to record your weight. If you’d shed grams, she’d nod, smile and quietly write the number down. Gain a gram or two however, and you relinquished all rights to confidentiality.

“Penny,” smug ex-fatty would boom across the room, “plus two. Yes. Penny. PLUS two.”

A public flogging had nothing on the humiliation of having your weight-gain broadcast to the broader community. Forget diet plans, calorie counting and weekly pep talks; the real success of slimming clubs is the fear of failure in a public place. And yes, that’s why I let my Weighless membership lapse; if the numbers are going up (and they are), there’ll be no advertising my spreadsheets.

But technology is changing the face of dieting – no more smug ex-fatties necessary. The principle however, remains the same; shame works.

Brazilian weight-loss company Meta Real, for example, is using social-media to scare its members into shape. Its new Virtual Fridge Lock smartphone app, available to people who sign up for the company’s diet program, posts reports of refrigerator raids on Twitter and Facebook.

The app is linked to a magnetic device that is fastened to the side of participants’ fridges. If the fridge door is opened late at night – which, says Meta Real, is when most dieters give in and overeat – a device in the magnet notifies the app. The app immediately updates the culprit’s FaceBook and/or Twitter status with the words, “This person just raided the fridge”. Friends and followers are encouraged to respond with tweets and posts condemning the transgression.

There are other weight-loss apps designed to help you shed kilograms. One of the most popular is DailyBurn, which tracks your diet and fitness, and tells you how many calories you can eat each day, while Meal Snap analyses photographs of your food and provides you with calorie content.

If however, you like the “name and shame in social media” approach but need something even more ruthless than the Virtual Fridge Lock, you could sign up for the Facebook-operated app called Aherk! to achieve your goals.

Aherk! is described as “a goal-oriented self-blackmailing service”. It works as follows: You log into the Aherk! site, type in your weight-loss goal and set a deadline to achieve it. You then “put your ass on the line” (these are the words used on the site) by uploading a “compromising picture of yourself”, which will be posted to FaceBook if you don’t achieve your goal.

When the deadline arrives, the app automatically asks your Facebook friends to vote to indicate whether or not you’ve achieved your goal. If the answer is no – ta dah! – said compromising photograph appears on your Facebook page.

The developers of the Virtual Fridge Lock and Aherk! argue there’s a growing body of evidence that humiliation via social media is an effective way of losing weight. Am I likely to sign up? Fat chance.

(This article was first published in Business Day in 2012.)

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Age…with eyes wide open

AS if we need further encouragement to enjoy a glass of red wine, researchers say resveratrol, a natural compound found in red wine, grapes, blueberries, peanuts and other plants, could protect blood vessels in the eye from being damaged by age.

The study, led by retina specialist Dr Rajendra Apte at the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, shows that the natural compound stops out-of-control blood vessel growth (angiogenesis) in the eye.

Published in the July 2010 issue of the American Journal of Pathology, the discovery means resveratrol could safeguard vision in three major eye diseases that can lead to blindness. These include age-related macular degeneration, which is one of the leading causes of blindness in people over the age of 50; diabetic retinopathy, which results in vision loss in about 20% of diabetic patients; and retinopathy of prematurity, which occurs when premature babies experience an obstruction of blood flow into the retina.

“A great deal of (prior) research has identified resveratrol as an anti-aging compound and, given our interest in age-related eye disease, we wanted to find out whether there was a link,” says Apte. “There were reports on resveratrol’s effects on blood vessels in other parts of the body, but there was no evidence that it had any effects within the eye.”

The research team tested resveratrol on mice with abnormal blood vessels in the retina. Their findings showed that when the rodents were given resveratrol, not only was further growth of abnormal blood vessels prevented but that abnormal blood vessels that already existed also began to disappear.

“We have identified a novel pathway that could become a new target for therapies. And we believe the pathway may be involved both in age-related eye disease and in other diseases where angiogenesis plays a destructive role,” explains Apte. “This could potentially be a preventive therapy in high-risk patients. And because it worked on existing, abnormal blood vessels in the animals, it may be a therapy that can be started after angiogenesis is already causing damage.”

So, drinking red wine might prevent eyesight deteriorating with age. But, say eye specialists, there are a number of other ways you can preserve the health and efficacy of your eyes too.

The most prevalent vision problem associated with age is presbyopia, which is a Greek word for “ageing eye” or “old eye”. It’s that “arms-too-short-syndrome” that makes it increasingly difficult to focus on things at close range, which occurs gradually from about the age of 40 as flexibility is lost in the lens of the eye where focusing takes place.

Although most eye specialists believe that presbyopia is as inevitable as the wrinkles on the brow, there are those who argue that, just as other bits and bobs of our bodies benefit from exercise and stretching as we (often frenetically) fend off ageing, eyes too profit from exercise, relaxation and re-training.

One of the primary proponents of eye exercises to remedy presbyopia is New York-based vision therapy optometrist Dr Ray Gottlieb, whose Read Without Glasses Method combines optometric vision therapy and natural vision exercises, which, he says, “have helped patients improve their near vision, avoid reading glasses, get free of them or need weaker ones”.

Sceptics though, believe Gottlieb’s claims are improbable because, they reason, it is the lens that loses elasticity with age and not the muscles and, as such, exercise cannot solve the problem.

“What worries me about the theory is that exercising your eyes in the hope of reversing or slowing presbyopia can result in eye strain and headaches,” says Hout Bay-based optometrist, Tanya Seeber.

But, although she’s unconvinced about exercise to slow or reverse presbyopia, Seeber is an enthusiastic advocate of other methods of that can help conserve vision as we get older.

“You can minimise the impact of age-related vision loss, boost eye health in general and reduce disease risk by carefully monitoring vision changes, identifying problems, and adjusting your habits and dietary choices,” she says.

Predictably, the usual culprits are wheeled out as detrimental to eye health: smoking, drinking and eating too much, and stress. Medical evidence strongly suggests smoking is high on the list of risk factors for degeneration of the macular, which is the part of the retina responsible for the sharp, central vision needed to read or drive. Other risk factors for macular degeneration include high blood pressure and obesity.

“In other words, stop smoking, lose weight if you are unhealthily heavy and take care of hypertension,” says Seeber.

But perhaps the most crucial step in protecting your eyes is to get them checked by an expert and then keep a regular schedule of check ups thereafter. Seeber believes it is wise to start visiting an optometrist or ophthalmologist regularly from the age of about 35, even if you’ve never experienced problems and/or have no reason to suspect that your eyesight is deteriorating. Regular check-ups are even more crucial if members of your family have a history of eye disease.

“But aside from doing what’s right by your eyes, you should go to an expert in the knowledge that your eyes provide a picture of your general health. A thorough check can highlight other pathologies like thyroid problems, high cholesterol, hypertension and diabetes,” she explains.

Optometrists or ophthalmologists also check for glaucoma, which is the result of too much fluid pressure inside the eye; macular degeneration; cataracts; diabetic retinopathy; and retinal detachment. These diseases are often painless and the onset, gradual. The sooner they’re detected, the quicker and more effective treatment.

Many people, particularly those experiencing the onset of presbyopia, are tempted to self-prescribe spectacles and purchase over-the-counter eyewear, which they believe will improve their vision.

“There are a number of problems with this,” says Seeber. “Firstly, by not consulting an expert, people miss out on the important, comprehensive check up that could highlight a range of pathologies. Secondly, they risk putting additional strain on their eyes and getting headaches by not getting the prescription right. Remember, your left and right eyes are seldom equally strong or weak. Even if you don’t buy your spectacles from a specialist, it’s worth getting your eyes and eye health thoroughly checked out by one. Ask for a prescription and get the right glasses elsewhere if you prefer. Your owe it to your quality of life.”

And don’t forget to have a glass of red wine.

Keeping an eye on your vision as you get older

• Older eyes tend to get dry, particularly among women. Avoid too much caffeine and alcohol. Take flaxseed, salmon oil, omega oils and grape seed oil to help reduce dryness.
• Multivitamins, minerals, antioxidants and specially formulated supplements for vision also protect against glaucoma, macular degeneration and cataracts.
• Like every other part of your body, your eyes rely on healthy eating habits, enough sleep and relaxation for their general well being.
• Protect your eyes – particularly if you’ve had cataract surgery, wear contact lenses and/or spend a great deal of time outdoor– with quality UV protective eyewear when you are outdoors.
• Do not delay consulting an expert if your eyes suddenly turn red or if you have sudden loss of vision.
• Be wary of purchasing over-the-counter eye drops if you have not had your eyes professionally examined.
• Be alert for other symptoms of vision problems such as blurred vision, spots and double vision. See your optometrist or ophthalmologist promptly if you notice any of these symptoms.
• Take periodic rest breaks from intense concentration, particularly if you are reading or using a computer, and blink regularly.

For more information

• Ophthalmological Society of South Africa http://www.ossa.co.za
• South African Optometric Association http://www.saoa.co.za

This article was first published in Business Day’s Health News supplement in 2011.

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Make my day, phone scammer!

SCAMMERS claiming to be from Microsoft or Windows security or technical support have been around for years. They’re those “helpful” people who phone out of the blue to say your computer is running slowly because it’s full of viruses or “hacking files that put you at high risk”.

Once they’ve gently guided you through several processes on your system, which – horror upon horror – confirm how infected it is, it emerges a warranty has expired, which only a “technician” can renew it for you.

“This is bad. But I can transfer you to a technician who’ll fix it for you for only US$299, which will secure your computer for good.”

The “technician” helps you download software that allows him to control your computer remotely. Thereafter, enter your personal information, including bank details, make a PayPal payment, and voilà, the warranty is renewed, your system is free of problems you never knew you had and your bank account is free of funds you knew, minutes ago, you had. (There are variations of the scam. The results are the same.)

I’ve been getting calls from these scammers periodically for five years. Earlier this year however, they stepped up their campaign and, since then, I’ve been getting as many as two calls a week. I am, it seems, a platinum card carrying customer. The increased attention coincided with frequent ringing of my phone from numbers unknown or withheld. No one answers when I pick up. My theory is the calls come from an automated system that dials random numbers, registers when someone answers and flags the number for Scamsters-R-Us HQ.

I’ve tried several techniques to convince them to stop calling. I regularly hang up immediately. “Please remove me from your database,” I’ve requested politely. I told one I was busy so would immediately I’d give her my bank details to save us both time. “Thank you,” she said happily, before carefully noting my personal information at “Ponzi Bank”. I put on a breathy, Marilyn Monroe voice and told another, “Ooh! A virus! It’s been a while! I know; I’ll show you my bank account details if you show me yours.”

Two weeks ago however, when I heard the familiar whirr of the international connection and, “Hello, this is Andrew Jones from Microsoft security”, I was feeling neither courteous nor funny, and responded with a series of porcine grunts. It didn’t take “Andrew” long to catch on. “F*@k off!” he screamed loudly, before hanging up. This coincided with news from my mother that one of her elderly friends had almost fallen victim to the scam. (She was saved by the fact that her husband “who has the bank details” was out at the time of the call.)

So, the gloves came off and when, a few days later, “Paul Neil of Windows tech support” called, I was ready with a whistle from my days as a hockey coach. I let rip. The calls have stopped and I’m hoping my platinum status has been revoked.

(This article was first published as my technology column in Business Day in 2013.)

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