I didn't pass the course and later also found out that the game farm where we had the program was not a registered provider. I should have seen that one coming.
My hunger for a career in tourism was still high. My next port of call was the airline industry. I enrolled at Birnam Business College in 1997 on a six months' course. On passing this course, one would have SAA fares 1, Galileo, and a Diploma in travel and tourism. My mom and I met with a representative of the college who firstly ensured me that the college could accommodate visually impaired students and then she guaranteed a career with an airline for the top students. By now I should have learned that promises like these often did not materialize. So focussed was I on my dream career that I chose to believe her.
The next six months was a great challenge. The study material was inaccessible because of the small text size. I used a magnifying glass, but it only hurt my eyes and didn't help much. The maps provided by IATA (The Institute of Approved Travel Agents) were of poor quality, and I was informed that we were not allowed to enlarge them or make darker copies. My hunger for this career path helped me to find solutions to these problems. I took each map and used felt-tipped pens to color each country a different color. I marked each river, each city, each mountain and each major tourist attraction. Then I used this little memory of mine to memorize each map. Come the exam; I would take my felt pens and color the map provided in as much detail as I could remember before answering the exam questions.
I aced it! I had an average of over 90%. I learned for the first time that if the "what" - your passion - is strong enough then the "how" becomes easy. My excitement, however, was short-lived. Every airline company that I applied to informed me: “Insurance does not allow us to employ someone with a visual impairment, not even as ground staff.”
For the next year or two, I worked at places related to tourism. Working for the British Consulate and the British Embassy was rewarding. It also gave me great insight into, what was then known as, the two-year working holiday visa.
In 1998 I decided to use this visa to work and travel in the UK. I secured a job as an assistant manager at a hotel in Ambleside in The Lake District. A day after my arrival I was informed that the position was not for an assistant manager but a general assistant. That meant doing everything; from taking out the trash, cleaning the pots in the kitchen, cleaning rooms and waitressing at night. The boss turned out to be miserly beyond anything I have ever experienced. Of all my tasks, waitressing was the most difficult. Walking from a brightly lit kitchen to a dimly lit dining room meant that I often had minamal sight to use. The guests at the hotel were never happy with the blonde South African waitress taking the wrong orders to the wrong tables. Over the next month, my shifts became longer and longer, and the conditions worsened.
Come Easter weekend. I asked for one evening off.
"Sir, I have worked for nine days straight on double shifts. Please, can I have Sunday evening off to attend a religious event? It is the Lord's Memorial, the most important annual event of our faith." "Don't make your issues mine!" he hissed. "It is Easter, no time off for anyone!" I packed my bag and left Mr. Greedy-boss man with one less staff member for the whole of the Easter holiday.
I managed to get a job at the Sunlight factory. The company cleaned workwear from other factories. My first task was to empty the pockets of the overalls from the jam factory before it went to the industrial washing machines. I found everything from bottle tops to used condoms. Never anything of worth except for the odd five pence.
At the beginning of summer, I decided to move to London. I stayed with my brother, Andre and his friend, Justin at first and later rented a room in a house in Beckenham. As long as one was not fussy and prepared to get one's hands dirty, there was always a job in London. At first, I signed up with several recruitment agencies to get temp work in an office environment.
My first call was for a receptionist post in Canary Wharf. I was so excited to get an opportunity at a large corporate. Upon arrival, I was given the extension list in order to direct incoming calls. It was printed in an extremely small font so I asked if I may use the photocopier to enlarge it. Although I had informed the agency of my visual impairment, they had not told the company where I was placed. I was not allowed to enlarge the list and that night I got a message from the agency not to return the next day. The reason remains a mystery until today.
For the next few weeks, I tried getting answers, but the agent who had placed me refused to take my calls, and they never offered me another opportunity.
For the next six months, I had too many jobs to mention. My favorite was a six-week temp job at the BBC, Radio Four, transcribing interviews with people who had been close to Frank Sinatra. They were happy with my work, and I often thought, "if only my typing teacher from grade nine could see me now!"
The rest of the jobs that I had during that time were far less glamorous. From doing laundry for an infirmary to a gardening job in an exclusive estate. The one position that stood out as the nightmare of them all was as an assistant in a sandwich shop and cafe on Beckenham high street. The work was hard, and the pay was minimum wage. This would have been fine, but the manageress was a cow, to say the least. She was never happy with any of my work or that of anyone else working in the cafe.
The pharmacist next door was a friend of hers and, one day, made a complaint against me. I was operating the till, and when I counted his change before handing it to him, he complained that I held the money too close to my face. I explained that, because of my visual impairment, I had to do so to ensure the amount was correct. He was not happy and complained to his friend, Mrs. Cow. I was told not to return the next day. The same man came back later that afternoon, and by then I knew I was not to return to the job. I was upset and thought "there must be a way to leave my mark."
Mr. Pedantic pharmacist ordered a spud with baked beans and a cup of tea to go. He drove a flashy little sports car with white, leather seats which he always parked in the disabled bay across the road. I prepared his order as usual, but this time with a small difference. I took a needle and made a couple of tiny holes at the bottom of his polystyrene cup and take-away holder. If all goes well, it won't start to leak until he is already in his car. I knew he would place the cup and takeaway on the passenger seat. I believe it worked. I never did witness the result of my scheme, but it did help to make me feel a little better.
I knew I was being treated unfairly, but I had no idea what to do about it. I'll never forget leaving the shop that day. While walking home, my left eye felt weird and, by evening, I could see nothing through that eye. By morning it seemed to have cleared up, but it never went back to normal. It was, and I remember crying myself to sleep that night. I did not know that that was the start of a downward spiral for my sight.
After returning from a holiday at home in South Africa, I again did many odd jobs. For a few months, I worked as an assistant at the infirmary where I did the laundry on Sundays. One of my favorite tasks was to take tea and biscuits to the residents. Each one was very particular as to how their cuppa was made. Although I endured some verbal abuse, one elderly, bedridden gentleman approved in no uncertain terms. One morning he took my hand and said,
“Darling, will you be mine?” In order not to upset him I replied, “Maybe tomorrow,” thinking by then he would have forgotten. When I took his tea to him the next morning, he greeted me with the question, “Darling is today tomorrow?”
I had been in the UK for one year when I thought about that dream of mine, working for Contiki. I learned that their head office was located not far from where I lived in Bromley. I took a chance and phoned them asking if there were any vacancies at their head office. It just happened to be the start of the busy summer season, and a temp admin position was available in their operations department. I was interviewed the next day. During the interview, I explained that I was visually impaired. The manageress, Jo took one of the tour files and showed it to me asking,
"Will this be a problem?" "Not as long as you don't mind my nose being buried in it!"
Jo laughed, and the job was mine. At the end of summer, my role was extended, and I ended up staying for a year.
This experience taught me a valuable lesson. You can have the career you want. It might take longer than expected but as long as you keep trying it will materialize. It is this wisdom that came in very handy later in my career.