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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

Some People vs Most People

Oscar Foulkes October 23, 2018 Cape Epic, Uncategorized No comments
I have sat through many extremely dull and unnecessary race briefings during mountain biking stage races. As farm manager Rickus Jooste put it while doing duty during The U, the fit and skilled riders will say afterwards, “What were you talking about, that was easy.” The unfit and unskilled will say, “Jeez, they didn’t say it would be this difficult.”

But, it helps to know – basically – what to expect. In his dry, understated way, Rickus prefaced his route briefing by putting up a slide of a bell-shaped curve, recording the previous year’s results. The fastest and slowest riders were annotated “some people”, sandwiching the main part of the curve, which was labelled “most people”. Along with a few other dry-as-Swartland-in-summer comments, it quickly descended into the funniest race briefing I’ve ever attended.

He repeated the humour on the second night when using dance/music videos to illustrate the need for “rhythm and flow”. The all hips and generally loose bodies in Uptown Funk were juxtaposed with a wooden Theresa May doing her wooden best to sashay onto the stage to strains of Dancing Queen.

The some/most people comparison could equally be applied to pretty much the entire event.

It’s the kind of outlier experience that one hesitates telling others about, because you don’t want to put pressure on the 200 available slots for the following year’s event. However, when as much thoughtful attention to detail has gone into the planning and execution, it is only right to heap praise. They deserve nothing less than deep and profuse expressions of gratitude.

It was striking how much more peaceful the event was with just 200 riders, as opposed to the 1200+ of Wines2Whales or Cape Epic. There was no sense that we were in the middle of a hyped-up jamboree. This was about great trails, a stunning setting beside the dam, country hospitality, and the fellowship of keen mountain bikers. The closest one can get to the same experience is by doing the Imana Wild Ride.

There are very few parts of The U that follow jeep tracks or farm roads. This is all about trails that have been finessed through the fynbos. Of course it took a lot of work, but it’s generally a case of accommodating rocks and protea bushes, or finding a way uphill that doesn’t involve going straight over the top. There’s a lot of twisting and turning, and at times it almost felt as if the trail had been routed to specially traverse flat rock outcrops, of which there are many.

One has to concentrate all the time, watching for rocks in the trail, or the ones adjacent that could snag either pedals or handlebars. Some turns or passages are extremely tight.

With all these mini obstacles, one is often required to apply a little extra power. Also, due to corners sometimes being taken a little slower than usual, extra power is required when exiting. The Piket-Bo-Berg (PBB) trails also have more switchbacks than any other route I’ve ridden – getting up and around the tight, steep turns is also power hungry. As a result, a large number of riders (myself included) cramped on day one, and I was in danger of cramping for much of day two.

Liberal use has been made of bridges that keep the trail flowing across parts of the mountain where there is no trail.

Due to the technical terrain of the PBB trails, downhills are seldom free miles, but man oh man, are they fun to ride!

I don’t want to scare people off, because it’s all rideable (by “most people”), but there might have been more technical stuff in the two days of The U than in all the stages of the two Epics I’ve ridden. There are certainly more switchbacks.

I’ve never been a confident rider of downhill switchbacks. Eventually I was riding pretty much all of them. What helped was having secure berms on the outsides, in just another example of sensational trail building at work. I’m hoping my switchback riding has turned the corner (I promise I didn’t mean that as a pun).

This is not quick riding – if we rode Epic at the same pace we rode The U (and we were “most people”) we would be in danger of not making cut-off.

The landscapes we rode through – and viewed from afar, generally up high – are spectacular. Given that the PBB trails can only be ridden during an organised event, of which there are just two per year, one must grab those opportunities when they come along.

I need to make mention of the catering, which falls into the “some events” category. The lunches were in the style of Ottolenghi – mostly vegetarian, with loads of fresh, crunchy things – which might not have been to the taste of “most people”, but I loved it. Dinners were tasty, if somewhat under-catered from a quantity perspective, especially considering how many calories we were burning on the trails. Breakfasts were fine, although curiously lacking in butter for the bread.

The orange juice station involved two fruit bins of oranges from the farm plonked next to the juicer. Can’t get fresher than this!

Truth Coffee did a roaring trade, as well as CBC beers, the delicious Piekenierskloof wines and the Sugarbird gin. Pura’s “adult sodas” were handed out as we crossed the finishing line.

Race medals comprised little handmade wire bicycles. The organisers’ attention to detail showed in the bike boards on these miniatures being printed with the actual number of the rider receiving them.

Back to real bikes (of the carbon variety) – our Santa Cruz Blurs performed very well. I got pushed beyond my comfort zone a few times, but that was more about what was happening in my head. I had more than enough bike for the job. While the Blur might have been pitched as a marathon bike when it was launched, it is so much more than that.

I urge you to work your way through Chris Hitchcock’s event pictures on the PBB trails Facebook page.

These are “some trails”.

Most Epic Steeds

Oscar Foulkes October 11, 2018 Cape Epic No comments
We Cape Epic riders know that big questions will be asked of us over the event’s eight days. Until the official route announcement every September, we just don’t know the detail. But we do expect them get their pound of flesh.

Two days of extreme heat made 2017 unforgettable, ending dozens of riders’ Epic aspirations. In 2018, we had four consecutive days of 110+km (along with everything else, of course). Continuing the theme of novelty for the wrong reasons, in 2019 we’ll climb more metres per kilometre than any other Epic. Of specific concern are the days with 2650m, 2700m, 2800m and 2850m of climbing.

I’m expecting it to be my toughest Epic. If the organisers ask for theme songs for Epic 2019, I nominate Talking Heads’ Life During Wartime. Here’s a selection of a few pertinent lines:

This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco
This ain’t no fooling around

My chest is aching, burns like a furnace


I just hope there is no reason to invoke the line about “mudd club” (that’s mud with one ‘d’).

We can’t control the route, so there’s no point getting hung up about it. Rather focus on the things we can do something about, like preparation, and our own attitude while we’re suffering our way through a tough stage.

Of course, we also get to choose our weapon, in the form of the bike we ride. I was provided with a Santa Cruz Tallboy for the 2018 Epic (read more about that here). I love its ability to comfortably negotiate just about any gnarly or technical terrain. Riding the Tallboy did wonders for building my confidence.

Since April, I’ve been riding the Santa Cruz Blur, a handy extension to their family of downhill and cross country bikes. It weighs 10kg (or slightly less), which makes it the bike that Sir Isaac Newton would have chosen if he was riding Cape Epic in 2019 (assuming, of course, that he could be teleported from the 17th century, and squeeze himself into Lycra).

Riding a bike that light is a game changer when there’s a lot of climbing to be done. Actually, it’s a game changer on the flat as well, but there won’t be much of that in 2019.

While on the subject of lightness, I lifted a time trial bike when was at my local bike shop a few weeks ago. I swear it weighed kilograms more than my Blur, which was a big surprise.

A lot of climbing means there’s also a lot of descending, much of which will be technical. This is where the Santa Cruz downhill pedigree comes into play. Riding a Tallboy for five months definitely upped my confidence levels (it’s pretty much bullet proof). My riding changed thanks to the Tallboy; on the Blur I’m descending as fast, if not faster, than on the Tallboy.

The Blur is also great on nippy singletrack that has many twists and turns, because its lightness makes it very responsive to small shifts in body weight.

The name of the Blur is a reference to its speed. However, in the way it handles technical terrain, it blurs the traditional lines between cross country and marathon bikes (take a look at Oli Munnik throwing it around in the video alongside).

Last week, on a gentle Zone 2 ride, I passed a rider on a downhill bike as I hit the gravel at the end of Tafelberg Road. Even though it was an ‘easy’ day, my plan was to go full-gas on the descent to Vredehoek. He seemed to be having some casual fun, but clearly caught the bug, because I had him on my tail all the way down (huge trust from him to ride at pace, this close to someone of unknown skills). It was an exhilarating dash, especially with the drier weather having left the corners very loose and gravelly.

To some extent, it was a case of taking a knife to a gunfight, but the Blur acquitted itself extremely well.

When I was researching bikes before my first Epic I may have mentioned a couple of technical specs of one bike to Oli. “How does the bike feel?” he asked me. I realised that I was already doing that. I just didn’t trust myself to base a big decision on that.

Since then, and making allowance for my very average abilities on a bike, I’ve become more aware of ‘feel’. So, while the Blur is on a par with Tallboy in the way it handles technical stuff, how it feels is different. On the Blur, I feel a closer connection with the trail, and yes, I do have to ride it slightly differently.

While on the subject of ‘feel’, last week I rode Sergeant Hardy for the first time. You can click here for more detail, but the short version is that he’s a racehorse I own in partnership with my mother. We both have impaired breathing (that’s where the similarities end, unfortunately), but despite this handicap he was one of the top-rated sprinters in the world earlier this year. Our Epic team is called Hoarse Power because of him, and he has been talismanic for our mountain biking exploits.

Sitting on his back while walking through the waves on the beach is one of the most memorable physical experiences I’ve ever had. The feel was extraordinary – and that was without even breaking into a canter.

In horse racing, Newton’s Second Law can be applied to calculate the difference in result when the weight carried by the horse changes (i.e. jockey and saddle). Sergeant Hardy weighs more than 550kg, and yet a kilo or two in weight carried makes a significant difference over 1200m.

I’ll be around 76kg when I ride Epic, which covers much bigger distances. The lightest bike makes a big difference to how much effort I’ll expend in getting around the route.

A Blur, a Blur! My kingdom for a Blur!*

*with apologies to Shakespeare

(Disclosure: I have the use of a Santa Cruz Blur, but have not been offered any inducements or rewards to say nice things. This is 100% about the bike getting under my skin.)

Riding a different kind of ‘tall boy’ – me on Sergeant Hardy.

The Stuff of Motoring Legend

Oscar Foulkes October 10, 2018 Uncategorized No comments
If I had a workshop attached to a motor dealership I’d do the same. It should be relatively easy to sell a new vehicle to someone who has done 100,000km. One would think that at 200,000km it’s a slam-dunk, and at 300,000km, well, it should make taking candy from kids look difficult.

My Totoya Fortuner has clocked up 325,000km. I get those calls.

For the sake of brevity I’ll skip the pleasantries, which always involve the sales person asking me if I have a cold. Even without me dropping cancer into the conversation, she is left speechless for a bit when I tell her that this is my voice.

It doesn’t take long for her to come back at me, though: “Would you like to upgrade your Fortuner, Mr Foulkes?”

At this point, I feel like AB de Villiers with his eye in, the part-time bowler has dropped one short, and the ball is sitting up beautifully, preparing to be launched into row 20 behind the mid-wicket boundary.

“But I already have the most upgraded Fortuner.”

Then she starts fumbling through her notes, throwing features of the newest models at me, eventually moving to exit the conversation as elegantly as possible.

Before I get onto my rationale for my car being as upgraded as claimed, here’s my view on how to conduct this conversation. Begin by congratulating me on having a vehicle that has covered this many kilometres, which might also lead into chatter about the big trips and memorable family holidays. Perhaps also praise me on keeping a pristine service record. At this point it might be appropriate to guide the conversation in the direction of a new Toyota. After all, the record with my vehicle has proven the reliability and longevity of the brand. OK, maybe not quite as easy as AB slapping long hops to the boundary, but the bit of verbal footwork improves the chances of success.

Right, so how is my ten-year-old Fortuner, that has done the equivalent of eight circumnavigations of Earth, the upgraded version?

For starters, it is paid off. I owe nothing on it. A vehicle that has no corresponding debt has to be an upgrade on one that is encumbered.

Secondly, this is a vehicle with epic history (as befitting its mileage). It’s the stuff of legend. It’s been involved in the creation of many memories, with road trips to Namibia and Lesotho, not to mention the breadth and width of South Africa. It’s done five Tankwa trips for Afrikaburn, countless family holidays, and general running around the Western Cape.

Yes, there was also the time I got stuck on the N1 in Paarl when the alternator gave in, but that was at about 270,000km. One has to expect these things to happen eventually.

My Fortuner gets upgraded every time I put my (sponsored) Santa Cruz Blur on the bike rack, because the bike is worth much more than the car. I couldn’t claim the same if I switched to a brand new model.

I will, eventually, be forced to update my wheels. Hell, the sound system is so old it doesn’t even have a slot for an AUX cable, leading to much incredulity on the part of my young nephews. The vehicle will reach the point where a set of new tyres will be a significant portion of the its value.

Until then, I’ll be on standby for the six-monthly phone calls from the sales person.

With a brace of Santa Cruz on the bike rack, which seriously upgrades the value.

Being Human: Talking

Oscar Foulkes September 19, 2018 Adventures of Re- No comments
I’ve done some ridiculous things.

I can say this with authority, without even including on the list the time I tried to cook a whole egg in a microwave. Did I mention that I tried three times in succession, cleaning exploded bits of egg from all corners of the inside of the microwave after each attempt?

I’m going to put ‘preparing a talk’ onto my list of ridiculousness. Given that I’m never certain what sound will come out of my mouth before I start speaking, or – indeed – if any sound will emerge, doing a presentation to a group of people might not seem like a sensible first choice.

And yet, the twists and turns that have brought me to this point have left me with learnings and insights that I feel the need to share.

My talk is entitled Magic in Process. Superficially, it’s about cancer and feats of endurance, but it’s really about resilience in the face of adversity, overcoming challenges, and the simple actions that enable us to achieve our objectives.

The talk is constructed in such a way that it’s possible to tailor it to specific audiences. Given some of the subject matter, it might be useful for people looking for ways to resist the call of the couch (i.e. to be more physically active), or perhaps interested in different perspectives on dealing with the difficulties we experience on a daily basis.

I’m looking for speaking opportunities – if you have a ‘platform’, or know of one, I’d appreciate the opportunity to share the fruits of my journey.

Keeping it Human: Independent Retail

Oscar Foulkes August 16, 2018 Keeping it Human No comments
When we save money by shopping online or by visiting a big box retailer, do we gain, or do we lose?

Yesterday I needed to visit the pharmacy. Actually, I’d tried the day before, but the queue at the back of my local Clicks was so long that I abandoned. Instead, the following day I adjusted my route slightly to drive past Zetler Pharmacy (Mill Street, Gardens). I could park in the street just beyond the entrance (so, no need to go through the whole parking garage thing), and best of all, there was no queue. Actually, the best part is that the entire experience had authentic human warmth to it. Plus, if what I wanted was not in stock, it would have been delivered to my home later in the day.

As I walked back to my car, I walked past Babu Footwear, which is as old-school a shop as the pharmacy. I’d been meaning to go hunting for shoe trees; on a whim, I walked in. I hadn’t been in the shop for a minute before the gent commented on the brand of shoe I was wearing. Impressive, considering that he’d only had a glimpse from the top (and doubly impressive, because I was somewhat unconscious to the brand side of things). I walked out a few minutes later with the required shoe trees, and my day enriched by yet another unharried human interaction.

The irony is that the shoes I was wearing had been bought at bargain price on a daily deals website. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that I would have bought them by conventional means at full price.

The Google search I’ve just done suggests that Dis-Chem stocks shoe trees at a fraction of the price I paid. This is most likely because their version has been sourced direct from a factory in China. Coincidentally, I could have dealt with the pharmacy requirement at the same time.

In fairness to Dis-Chem (and assuming there was a branch close to me), the interactions with staff wouldn’t have been terrible. They would just have been different in a subtle, but important way.

It’s very easy to default to the obvious shopping destinations. However, if we do too much of it we’ll end up driving good people out of business. It’s complicated …

As a ‘human experience practitioner’ I am perhaps overly sensitive to the human dimension. On the other hand, if corporates were more tuned to these things, there wouldn’t be any market for what I do.

What do you think?

The shops' exterior (pic: Google)

The shops’ exterior (pic: Google)

The Making of a Logo

Oscar Foulkes July 16, 2018 Adventures of Re- No comments
My spontaneous middle of the night brainstorming session that led to Hx: The Human Experience went down a variety of paths. One of the most important, though, was the symbol that would represent the business. In other words, the logo.

Logos are important, primarily as an easy way to uniquely identify the brand. However, really great logos perform a dual role of telling your story.

My nocturnal thinking started at UX (user experience) and ended up at HX (human experience). Along the way, I got thinking about the Rx symbol that is used for medical prescriptions. I liked the old-school apothecary angle to it (Rx actually denotes a recipe that needs to be followed for the formulation), with a hint of alchemy.

That incorporated part of the brief to Nic Jooste, the designer with whom I’ve worked for about 20 years. The one non-negotiable was that the ‘x’ had to be small.

Nic then did a whole bunch of representations of Hx. What I learnt from this exercise is that the letter X is visually dominant. There are also a bunch of other associations that I wasn’t looking for (e.g. XGames, Xbox etc).

The letter H is also a tricky one, in that one runs the risk of looking like a knock-off of either H&M or Hamleys. The one famous ‘H franchise’ we were safe from mimicking was Harry Potter.

H and X are two letters comprising straight lines with hard edges. Some of the explorations tended to the somewhat impersonal and corporate. I also asked him to do some handwritten options, but these (with x adjacent) had many ‘up-strokes’ that tended to the slightly histrionic. Also, the vertical lines on the H didn’t line up at the bottom (I can be a little OCD sometimes).

However, there was an H that I really liked. It stood strong and bold, with a rounded top left corner that gave it a slight quirk and softened it just a bit (interestingly, rounding more of the corners on the H killed the effect). There were various looser representations of X, including one that was in the vein of Japanese brush strokes.

I asked Nic to put them together, which may not exactly qualify me for inclusion in Clients From Hell, but could have caused some irritation.

The end result has a duality that acknowledges the complexity of humanness. The H represents the hard sciences, the left brain, the numbers and spreadsheets that are integral to business. On the other hand, the brush-stroked X speaks for art, contemplation, beauty, and the human touch. Orange has a sense of fun and playfulness.

hxsq

Keeping it Human

Oscar Foulkes June 25, 2018 Adventures of Re- No comments
Some companies or brands – surprisingly few – do a particularly good job of delighting their customers. The rest cover the spectrum from “acceptable”, to outright frustrating or angering them.

My view is that the humanness of customers is one of the most neglected aspects of running any business. In fact, the humanness of employees is more likely to be given priority than that of customers.

While many of our drivers might be basic, our species is complex. No wonder that investment specialist Piet Viljoen (and my Cape Epic partner) refers to the “messiness” of business once one gets into the day-to-day operations. One can understand why some businesses make a point of slimming down their offering to the simplest possible in the hope of limiting the range of ‘people issues’ that they have to deal with.

Thanks to the work of people like Richard Thaler, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2017, we know that behavioural economics is of greater practical application than classical economic theory.

This is, indeed, fuzzy territory at times, which might partly explain why the human experience of products and services gets praised when done well, but that there doesn’t seem to be an appreciation of this as being a risk factor.

When bad experiences get blasted onto social media, companies can be very reactive. However, this is not the same as proactively seeking out the things that could trip one up in the future.

I should point out that some of these things are often extremely subtle, and wouldn’t necessarily be flagged by market research. As Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has demonstrated in his book Everybody Lies, people’s responses to surveys need to be taken with a pinch of salt. And, customers don’t outright tell you when you are not changing your offering as the market changes. They just spend their money elsewhere.

So, after a three-month process of working through a bunch of things, I give you

Hx: Human Experience

The primary offering, an Hx Audit, is “an assessment of the risks associated with the experiences that people have with – or in – your business. Barely noticeable, often intangible factors can have a major impact. Find them while you’re still able to take action to fix them.”

Following from this is the development and implementation of solutions to whatever problems have been identified.

Whatever one’s position on this issue, we can all do with more humanness in our daily lives, whether we are customers or employees. And it’s essential for good business.

Website, logo and other marketing collateral for Hx: Human Experience to follow.

happypeople

Adventures of Re: May

Oscar Foulkes June 5, 2018 Adventures of Re- No comments
On you will go
though the Hakken-Kraks howl.

– Dr Seuss

During my conversation with Heather Parker (read about it here), she mentioned that in addition to her executive MBA, she had also trained as a life coach. On the basis that I wouldn’t dream of tackling Cape Epic without a coach, I felt that this important process similarly needed a coach.

At the end of the day, the coachee is the person doing the work and making things happen, but it helps to have the structure of a process, as well as an outside pair of eyes to help find perspective.

At Heather’s instigation, one of the first steps was to do an Enneagram test. The results generally fell within the parameters of what I thought I knew about myself, but also opened my eyes to a few things. These were overlaid with the outcomes of the ‘purpose exercise’ she shared with me. This was used to get a rough outline in place.

In the spirit of active recovery, I made contact with a friend who runs an NGO. It turns out that this organisation is about to embark on a radical reinvention process. My friend immediately included me in a bunch of meetings related to their intended changes. It remains to be seen how I can contribute (it’s looking to me as if they are pretty well resourced from a skilled humans perspective), but it’s been exciting to witness the emergence of something as revolutionary as they are planning. It’s certainly been an eye-opener to experience the openness with which I’ve been included.

One of the benefits of this interaction is that it’s giving me the opportunity of trying out the ‘wild card role’ that I’ve often been drawn by, and which seems to be indicated by the Enneagram results.

Regardless of self-indulgent reinvention processes, one needs income. One of the commercial enterprises I identified was pinhooking, essentially the purchase of yearling Thoroughbreds, with the aim of selling them as early two-year-olds on a Ready to Run sale, which is something I’ve done on a small scale before. I’m doing this as part of a partnership, so that I can get something of a portfolio in place to spread the risk. We did most of our buying in April, but during May we also bought a weanling that we’ll sell as a yearling in January. The downside, of course, is that the income is preceded by expenditure, but at least it’s a start.

A major positive is that I don’t need to take on the risk of starting a fully-fledged business. And, it flows naturally from existing skills, knowledge and experience.

Horses also feature in my interim plan, by way of Sergeant Hardy and others. The month started hopefully, with Sergeant Hardy contesting a major race in Johannesburg. Being the top-rated sprinter in the country, and having won a similar race at the end of January, I had high hopes of him finishing in the money. However, altitude seemed to get the better of him, and he ran unplaced.

The one thing I can say for certainty about the ‘business’ of owning horses is that one lives in hope. Over the seven-day period from 26 May, we had six runners. Four of them were favourites (i.e. the top selection in the betting), including Sergeant Hardy. There’s no need to go into the details of what happened in each case, but the end result was two fifths and two fourths. The positive is that each of them must be close to being winning prospects next time out. Well, that’s the hope.

It can be tempting to give in to the embrace of depression. It doesn’t take much more than some sleep deprivation, perhaps combined with a broken exercise pattern and a couple of things that haven’t turned out as expected. Before you know it, your brain has started to assemble confirmatory negative thoughts. While cycling on Sunday morning, I noticed my brain doing this. In response, I made a concerted effort to snap out of it. I don’t mean to trivialise the situation of people for whom depression is an illness. However, I’d be failing this process and accompanying journal if I didn’t report those feelings, however temporary.

One of my coffee sessions during the month was with Vanessa Raphaely, who left her position as Cosmopolitan editor, not to mention the structure/comfort of family business, to find a new direction. Her advice boiled down to two words: “Just do.”

In the course of ‘just doing’, she has written a children’s book and a novel. But perhaps her biggest achievement over the past few years is a Facebook group, The Village, which is a brilliant resource for parents of tweens and teenagers. It must rank as one of the very few parts of the Internet where comments are made in huge quantity without even the slightest bit of trolling, flaming or hate speech. In fact, it may be the online world’s most supportive space, which could explain its growth to nearly 20 000 members, a high percentage of whom engage on a regular basis.

“Just do” also happens to be a perfect antidote to the states of mind that most easily slide into depression’s dark embrace. More importantly, by ‘doing’ we take the first steps into the future.

In theory, this woolly chap is going to develop into a strapping yearling by late January.

In theory, this woolly chap is going to develop into a strapping yearling by late January, earning us a profit.

A not so Uber rating

Oscar Foulkes May 21, 2018 Uncategorized No comments
Have you ever checked your Uber rating?

I did, a few months ago, and was a little put out to discover that Uber drivers considered me no better a customer than 4.5 stars (out of 5). A variety of distributions are possible, but this suggests that half the drivers gave me 4, and the other half the maximum possible.

I’m not the most chatty person (in fact, my voice issues often inhibit me from speaking unless it’s absolutely necessary), so I’m not one to initiate a conversation with drivers. However, I’ve never been abusive, nor have I done anything as extreme as vomiting in an Uber. Basically, I’m your standard low-maintenance customer … up until the point when the service provider is falling short. For the most part, Uber drivers do what they are required to, so I’m seldom going to put myself in the cross hairs for a low rating by getting tetchy about bad driving.

My view is that I’m contracting the driver to ferry me across town, I’m pleasant about it, and I pay what I’m required to. In what way have I been so deficient as a customer to earn a less than perfect rating?

When I first aired my ire about this at home, it was pointed out to me that in a country where a matric pass requires just 40% for three subjects and 30% for three others, the driver must think I’m a rock star if he’s rating me 4 (i.e. 80%).

For several months, I’ve been making a special effort to be uber-friendly when getting into the car, and generally bringing a glow of good cheer into the driver’s life. My rating inched up from 4.50 to 4.51 and then 4.52. I got it to 4.54, after which it summarily dropped to 4.52 and then 4.50. WTF?

As a customer, I treat it as something of a binary issue. Either the driver has delivered a service, or he hasn’t. Almost every time, I give drivers a full five stars.

Uber has made taxis cheap, cheaper even than the Hong Kong taxis I used on regular trips between 2003 and 2009. This, we are told, is at the expense of drivers, who are forced to work insanely long hours to make enough money to get by. It’s another version of the sweatshop, although in this case, we are not conceptually removed from the sweatshop, in the same sense as buying clothes in a branded store. In fact, the rank body odour of some drivers – especially ones who have been on shift for an extended time – can turn an Uber ride into a fully-immersive sweatshop experience.

Especially for immigrants (and my guess is that the majority of Cape Town Ubers are driven by people from other African countries), working as an Uber driver is entry-level employment. In this respect, it’s no different to conventional taxis around the world. I’ve been driven by a Ghanaian in Dusseldorf, by a Lebanese in Montreal (click here to read about my shawarma and falafel experience, thanks to him), and by countless other nationalities elsewhere.

Given their marginalised place in the economy, perhaps it’s understandable that they would be less charitable in the giving of star ratings. Certainly, it seems to be apparent that, as a whole, drivers have higher ratings than their passengers.

There’s another side to this, which is that by definition the Uber workplace has no co-workers with whom to communicate during the course of a working day. All that the drivers have for company is an endless succession of transactions – people sitting themselves down in a back seat, barely looking up from their phones, making hardly any contact other than establishing that this is the correct vehicle.

Unless they are particularly grumpy individuals, one assumes that Uber drivers would appreciate a little human warmth, if only for a few minutes at a time.

Companies are always telling us how much they value our custom. However, it’s never occurred to me to establish from their staff how satisfied they were with having me as a customer, on the basis of personal interaction. If I’ve never given any thought to a notional star rating from other commercial interactions, why should I suddenly be bothered by an apparently low level of appreciation from Uber drivers?

If I were the most charming, warm and engaging person to ever use an Uber, perhaps my rating would remain to fall short of the perfect score. Maybe that phenomenon is hard-baked into the system.

However, the world could certainly do with more of us being ‘nice’ to each other, even when it’s not required, nor of immediate benefit to us. Perhaps we set the bar too low when are the customer.

Who would have thought that a technology company that has tried to make the hailing of taxis frictionless by removing/minimising human contact could have made me aware of how much effort I was putting into being nice to strangers?

Common sense from an Uber driver (although if he had been my driver for the majority of my rides, my rating would have been much higher).

Identifying as Vegetarian

Oscar Foulkes May 17, 2018 Adventures of Re- 2 comments
Our family has taken the Meatless May pledge, in terms of which we are vegetarian from Monday to Thursday. This is admittedly the entry level option offered, in that we have left foods like eggs and cheese on the menu.

To some extent, it’s not a radical change, because we were doing at least one night a week of veg anyway. Also, chicken and fish have been our predominant forms of animal protein for some time, rather than beef or lamb.

The major difference is that the commitment applies for four lunches as well as four dinners. I think it’s important to have this level of discipline in the way the eating plan is applied in order for the campaign to have any effect.

All of us – and I’m including vegetarians and vegans in this – need to be more conscious of the impact that our food choices have on the environment. Whether it’s the out-of-season vegetables that are flown in from halfway around the world, or the quinoa that is not necessarily grown in a sustainable manner, or the dairy cows expelling methane, they all have an impact.

The main thing I’ve learnt is that it takes a heap of extra effort to get sufficient nutrition if you’re on a training programme. I’ve had a few dark hours over the past couple of weeks, as a result of burning energy on the bike, and meals that haven’t done all they needed to.

But, on balance, it’s been a positive experience. We’ve had to be a lot more creative in menus and recipes, plus the little bit of animal protein we get over the weekends has turned into a major treat. For all my love of chickpeas, great roast chicken is something I look forward to!

The other little surprise of the month has been that I suddenly realised I needed to indicate a dietary requirement when RSVP-ing for functions. Identifying as vegetarian felt significant. While it’s not on the scale of an unexpected declaration of sexual preference, expressing a new kind of identity – in the context of my current ‘Life of Re_’ process – was a little bit of a jolt.

As it turned out, the communication that reached the venue was that I needed diabetic dessert. Given that I hardly ever eat dessert anyway, this was quite funny.

The meat eaters had a choice of delicious looking bobotie, or beef stew, or chicken pie (most guests piled their plates with all three). As no particular provision had been made for me, I made do with Caesar salad, Caprese, potato salad, as well roasted green beans and courgettes. After finishing these, I found some homemade hummus on the table.

Fortunately, the venue was Boschendal, where everything had been grown on-site in their organic vegetable garden. The flavours of everything – even the out-of-season tomatoes – were striking. And, the preparation had been handled by a kitchen team headed by Christiaan Campbell. It could only be delicious. In fact, it would have been a shame to divert attention from the fabulous produce by piling the plate with meat.

At the risk of being accused of contriving to find a message relevant to a period of ‘re-‘, I would highlight two aspects:

  • the experience of ‘identifying as’ something new
  • giving pride of place (i.e. undivided attention) to something that would otherwise have been a sideshow

Food is the meeting point of culture, religion, psychology/personal history, economics, creativity, science and more. It’s a pretty good starting point for exploring and evaluating identity with a view to being fully ‘conscious’ about future life choices.

Regardless of life choices, one of my meal choices for the weekend will be roast chicken (free-range, of course).

Carrots being harvested at Boschendal (pic: Boschendal)

Carrots being harvested at Boschendal (pic: Boschendal)