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Saving Civilization from Al-Qaeda (and the Weather)

Saving Civilization from Al-Qaeda (and the Weather)

You may have read the article in the New Republic last month about how 300,000 ancient books and manuscripts in the libraries of Timbuktu were evacuated in secret to protect them from Ansar Dine, an Al Qaeda cell. The manuscripts not only survived the burning of the Timbuktu library, but were smuggled in footlockers all the way to Bamako, the capital of Mali, where they are currently being hidden away by volunteers until they can be returned.

The problem is, Bamako is in the south and the climate is much wetter and thus more destructive to the manuscripts. As I write this, thousands of unique, priceless artifacts chronicling history, philosophy, science, literature, law and religion from the peak of medieval Islamic and North African civilization are slowly being eaten away by mildew.

I have teamed up with T160K, Timbuktu Libraries in Exile, to help drive attention and funding toward the preservation of these manuscripts, and by proxy, the preservation of civilization itself. There is nothing more offensive than religious zealots imposing their backwards ideologies on free thinking people. At T160K, we seek to keep these manuscripts safe from the elements while they wait out the Islamist threat in Mali.

300,000 unique books and manuscripts have been there 800 years. They should be around 800 years from now.

There are several things you can do to help, but right now we need to fund the Indiegogo campaign.

Fund the Indiegogo CampaignFind Out More

May 21, 2013Comments are DisabledRead More
Updates from Africa 12

Updates from Africa 12

So we’ve been consistently on the road for the last couple days and we’re now settled in Cape Town.  I’ll give a brief account of what happened in the past two days.

On the morning of the second we caught our shuttle with Michael to Windhoek. It was the typical 5-hour drive, nothing very eventful.  We stopped at the same rest stop for biltong (basically jerky) on the way.  We rode back with the Second Girls.  We arrived early enough to do some shopping, especially for luggage, and Codrin wanted to look at some masks at a mall we had been to.  The shopping mall, where our favorite Mugg & Bean is, turned out to be where we saw the strangest sight we’ve seen so far: A group of native Namiba women, bare breasted, lathered in orange makeup, replete with traditional jewelry and with their babies wrapped around the nape of their backs, walking through the shopping mall with plastic shopping bags.  We ate at Mugg & Bean, and then Ioana went off back to the hostel and Codrin and I went to the casino to play some more blackjack.

That night the plan was to go to dinner at a Cameroon restaurant but we ended up lounging around the hostel until everything was closed so we just drank a bit and went to bed.  In the morning Michael picked us up to go to the airport.  The Windhoek airport is a charming airport in the middle of the shrublands.  There is nothing in sight of the airport, and it takes 30 minutes to get there from Windhoek.  We had some trouble with our bags; we were 30kg overweight between the three of us and had to pay a lot to get our bags onboard.  The bureaucracy was terrible, which was surprising considering we haven’t really had any problems yet in that department.  We had to check our bags first, then go to a separate office and pay, get a receipt and go back to make sure our bags got on the plane, but the receipt printing took forever because the woman didn’t know the computer, and long story short we went through security 10 minutes before boarding.  But as it turns out, we ended up being the first people through the gate because we were rushing so much we didn’t realize we were slightly ahead of schedule.  As we were taking off, it occurred to me that I had never given Namibia a second thought, and Windhoek (let alone Swakopmund) was a place I had never heard about until we started planning this trip.  It makes me wonder how many other unknown, untapped jewels there are in the world for the interested traveller.

The flight to Joburg was uneventful.  We got back to Doris Street around 4 and the VIP Guesthouse was closed.  We called the number, and the cell phone, and no one picked up.  So we had a cab, three suitcases, three backpacks, three smaller backpacks and various other bags and we really couldn’t afford to wait there.  For whatever reason, even though we told Sarah we were coming that day, no one was there.  So we were again homeless in Johannesburg with our bags; more than we had the first time we knocked on the gate of the VIP Guesthouse three weeks ago.  We remembered there was another guesthouse down the street, so Codrin and Ioana watched the bags and I took the cab to Diamond Diggers Backpackers, where we found a room. One cab ride (and an extra 100 rand) later we got our bags into our new guesthouse, which was an enormous compound with a swimming pool, bar, jacuzzi and internet cafe.  They didn’t have a three-person room, but they had an empty suite for 8 which they gave for just the three of us.  Codrin went off to play poker at the casino, which is the only one we had found that had poker, and he had been itching to play all week.  Ioana and I called Renata, our waitress at Rodizzo’s three weeks ago, who had offered to take us out for drinks when we were back in town.  While we were waiting to be picked up, a woman approached us on the street and told us to be careful because there were black people in the neighborhood.  We thanked her politely and told her our ride was just coming.  Renata is apparently part of a very typical set of 18-24 year olds who live at home and still depend on their parents for rides, despite taking classes at the university.  So Renata’s father picked us up and dropped us off on the other side of town at a bar called Cool Runnings where we met up with Renata’s friends–about 20 of them–some of which go to University of Cape Town and whom we’ll be hanging out with when they go back to school in February.  The scene reminded me of how high schoolers get together; everyone has to go home by the end of the night, and no one lives on their own.  It really disorients social life, but it also prevents the sort of partying-til-you-pass-out mentality that accompanies any college campus in the United States.  We met some interesting kids at the bar; at the end of the night Ioana and I ended up paying for a bulk of our tab, which we were completely willing to do.  I have a copy of the receipt in my pocket; it is 71 items long.  But it was a fun, fun night.  We have some friends to call up and meet when we’re back in Johannesburg.

Ioana and I got back to the hostel around 2; Codrin came in at 4 in the morning announcing that he had one 10,000 rand playing poker. Apparently his 10-hour stint at the casino had been quite profitable. In the morning, we checked out and Codrin and I went back to the casino to play poker (I ended up playing blackjack for most of the time).  Ioana wanted to do some writing so she went to Nelson Mandela Square, which apparently is lovely and it’s something we’ll have to do when we go back.  Around 6 we took a shuttle to the airport, flew to Cape Town, and I’m here now in the dorm room with Codrin and we are officially “Settled in.”  We’ve met some people on the program but not all; everyone is quite tired from their 20-hour commutes and it makes me, for one, feel very relaxed that I’m already acclimated and “Africanized.”  Go figure.

This trip has been quite expectation-shattering and interesting.  I don’t really have a “conclusion” for this pseudo-journal I’ve been writing, because this really isn’t the end of anything.  The Cape Town program starts tomorrow, and I really don’t know what to expect, aside from the fact that it will be scholarly.  Hopefully the past couple weeks will give me a heightened perspective on the issues we will be studying, but only time will tell.

January 5, 2009Comments are DisabledRead More
Updates from Africa 11

Updates from Africa 11

So New Year’s was a blast.  We had a slow evening.  We went to the shopping mall and bought smoked game, potatoes, vegetables and spices, went back to the room and cooked a New Year’s feast for dinner.  We had a kitchen area in our room which we used–and abused.  When we were done there was a pileup of dirty dishes and leftover food that would make a garbage man weep.  We didn’t feel like cleaning that night, or the day after, so our room began to faintly smell like day-old potatoes and rotten cabbage.  The food was delicious though.

We got a ride to the Beach Bar around 9.  The Beach Bar is a year-round operation but their biggest party is New Year’s to which the entire population of Swakopmund swarms for a night of champagne, dancing, and bonfire.  I have mentioned that while we were travelling from Livingstone we had met several people along the way, including The Girls, The Second Girls (another pair with whom we took the shuttle to Walvis Bay a week ago), Aaron from Vancouver and Scott, Lindsay, Quentin and Desmond, the latter of which had to go back to Canada early because he’s a seventh grade teacher.  We never expected to find anyone we knew at this party, which covered 500 meters of beach, a picnic table area, the wraparound bar which could accomodate 200 patrons at once, and the dance floor where American techno and pop music boomed base tones relentlessly into a sweating, thumping, fleshy orgy of post-colonial white African hip hop culture.  As it turns out, we ran into the Second Girls twice, found Scott and Lindsay on the dance floor before Scott went off with Quentin to be his wingman, and most importantly we ran into Ginelle, who had served us at the Swakopmund Cafe the day before.  We found out from her that she only received $18 of the $60 tip we left her, which was probably part of the reason she had quit that day.  Ginelle is only 17 and applying to Universities this month, but it was interesting hearing, once again, the same talking points we heard in South Africa about the blacks and why they were bad and why the whites couldn’t get jobs, etc, etc. This time, though, I had to reconcile what we had learned from Herman about how much better Namibia is than South Africa with what Ginelle was saying, and ultimately I determined that the key difference between the white Namibian and the white South African is political; in Namibia, whites are not bothered being represented by an all-black government because they don’t see the political system as a racially divisible one.  Ginelle also enlightened us on a new race, the Coloreds, which are apparently non-whites who “Are basically white,” so they are distinct from blacks.  She listed a bunch of types of Coloreds, including Indians, who apparently “Act white” as well.  The whole thing is very confusing for me and I don’t know how I’ll be able to cope with this racial logic which saw its last major incarnation in American culture forty years ago.  This is apparently the post-colonial mind; especially from the side of the ex-colonizers. Although I don’t think it’s appropriate to label whites who live in Africa as ex-colonizers, because they’re just people and families living where opportunity took them.  I don’t think it’s fair to blame whites in Africa for the poverty gap, just like it’s not fair for whites to lash out at blacks for their recent post-apartheid misfortune.  I do feel for people like Ginelle who feels a real threat to her opportunity due to Affirmative Action and other policies enacted to combat the racial poverty gap.  Maybe all is needed is time for old wounds to heal, and it seems to me that Namibia is allowing the healing process to happen a lot easier than in South Africa.  As Ginelle called over a dark-skinned friend of hers from high school, to kiss her on the cheek and wish her a happy new year, I could only wonder what the charge of her generation will be if Namibia, and other ex-colonies in Africa, is to rise out of the economic and political consequences of colonialism.  I guess that’s what this study abroad program is going to be all about.

There was no countdown for the new year; instead, people checked their own cell phones and improvised one.  When the organizers of the party thought it was time (by our calculation they were a minute early), they lit a massive bonfire which had been prepared out of fruit cartons, tree branches and forklift pallets.  It was 2009.  We toasted our champagne with some new friends we met from Walvis Bay and brought in the new year, feeling the intense heat of the fire on our faces and looking at the bright orange flare, beyond which was a black ocean where the last remnants of 2008 were rotating slowly towards midnight.

We got back around 3 in the morning.  The next day, we slept in until 10, stayed in the room until 5 and went out at 8.  It was a completely unproductive day, but a needed rest.  Besides, everything was closed! We went to dinner at the Western Saloon, which served up a delicious line fish for our last meal in Swakopmund.  Ioana went to bed and Codrin and I played blackjack at the casino for a couple hours, finally turning in at 2.  In the morning, Michael picked us up at the guesthouse and we drove 5 hours back to Windhoek.  We bought two large suitcases in town, to carry our souvenirs.  We already have a new suitcase we bought a couple weeks ago.  We have so many masks we could start a store.

We’re excited for our return to Johannesburg and our reunion with Sara, her husband and Antonio.  We should be in Cape Town the night of the 4th.  Incidently, the mayor of Cape Town won the 2008 World Mayor award.  Cool, huh?

Happy new year, all, welcome to 2009!

January 2, 2009Comments are DisabledRead More
Updates from Africa 10

Updates from Africa 10

When I had finished writing the last update Ioana and I left the internet cafe and Codrin was gone.  He said he was going to the shop next door but he wasn’t there, so we wandered around a bit looking for him and then went off to the cafe for another drink.  It turns out Codrin had found a barber and was getting his hair cut, and when he came back looking for us we weren’t there either.  Ioana and I had a quick coffee and coke and then went off to the Woermann Tower, which we were told provides an excellent panaroma of the city.  The tower, built in 1905, is off of a charming courtyard and hotel where Prince Albrecht of Prussia stayed in 1907, and is the most famous building in Swakopmund.  We climbed to the top and got a great 360 degree view of the city.  You can look out over the ocean, then as you turn you see the ocean turn into desert, and with the ocean to your back it looks like the city is in the middle of the desert.  It is a large town, too, about the size of Westport.

When we walked around the city we realized that we were essentially in Germany.  Everyone spoke german, the architecture was European and colonial and on every corner there is a cafe, a beer house, or a public park.  The city is perfectly manicured, and if it were not for the cars driving on the left side and the desert backdrop you would think you were in a German city.  It is interesting, though; the entire downtown area was built at the turn of the century–the last century–so you see cornerstones from 1900, 1905, 1907.  It occurred to me that nowhere in Germany can you find a city center built before World War I, and that adds a sort of German cultural authenticity to Swakopmund.  This was the center of German colonial Africa, and remains a German city to this day.  Yet at the same time, the people are unquestionably Namibian.  They go to Namibian schools and participate in Namibian politics, and most importnantly, as we found out from Herman the day before, they do not regard themselves as expatriates in colonial Namibia.  This is particularly surprising for us considering the whites in South Africa who we talked to who couldn’t get out of South Africa fast enough because of stagnant opportunity.

Ioana and I explored the downtown area a bit more, and found a hippie next to the tower who branded her cafe a “Soulful” place and stapled a feather to Ioana’s purchase of herbal salts and bathing oil.  She asked us to come back tomorrow for a healthy smoothie with no additives.  We walked to the waterfront and found another craft market where traders laid their wares on tarps and bargained with uninterested passerbys.  Then we caught a cab back to the guest house.

We are staying in the Sea Breeze guesthouse, not to be confused with the Sea Wind guesthouse, right across the street.  A problem we encountered in Walvis Bay, that seems to apply here as well, is the extraordinary lack of attention the owners of these guesthouses pay to their guests, to the point where you can’t find them when you need them, even when you’re checking in, and where they don’t know how to get a taxi for us to get downtown.  Codrin got back to the guesthouse an hour later, and around 8 we went out again but since we couldn’t get a taxi we hitched a ride with a Batswana couple, visiting from Francistown, who were going out to dinner.  They had driven to Swakopmund from Botswana, a 18-hour drive.  The woman went to college at the University of Cape Town (as did Herman, actually), so we talked about Cape Town for a bit.  While the man drove, he took occasional drinks from a beer he kept in his lap.

We got downtown, it was dark, and rather deserted.  Codrin went to sleep early so it was just Ioana and I walking around.  There isn’t much of a night life, but there are plenty of restaurants open.  The problem, as The Girls told us yesterday, was that you have to get a reservation.  We walked through darkened streets until we found a pizzaria next to a “Western Saloon.”  We went into the saloon, complete with a door split into two halves at waist level.  It was adorned with license plates from Texas, Florida, Arizona, and pretty much every state in between, with saloon-style decorations like turn-of-the-century newspaper stories about wanted outlaws and a collection of Native Americana.  The place was also replete with Confederate Flags and bumper stickers.  They had a collection of foreign currency, and we asked them if they had Zimbabwean and they said their Zimbabwe bills were stolen.  So I gave them some of my $50,000,000 bills and the waiter brought out a sign from the men’s bathroom which read:  “Zimbabwe:  The only country where a roll of toilet paper, which has 72 sheets, costs $1000.  It’s cheaper to change the $1000 into $100 bills, wipe your ass with 72 of them, and keep the $280 in change.”  After donating our hard-earned $200 million to this Western Saloon, we were told the kitchen was closed so we could only drink.  Fine with us, we figured we’d eat at the pizzaria next door after we had a beer.  However, when we got to the pizzaria, it was 10 minutes after their kitchen was closed, too.  Then we went to the beer house, and their kitchen had just closed as well. Luckily, there was a movie theatre across the street, so we sat down on the pedestrian street and ate dinner of concessions:  Biltong, popcorn, candy, chips and iced tea.  The whole meal was US$8, for two people, and filled us up really well.  Even concession food:  amazing.

We managed to find a cab back to the guesthouse and crashed.  We slept in until 10:30, and then hightailed it downtown to have a lunch at our favorite Swakopmund cafe.  I got my haircut, Codrin went to the market and Ioana is writing in her journal at the Soulful cafe next to the Woermann Tower.

New Year’s tonight!  Apparently there’s a leap second being added at the end of 2008 so New Years is going to come a tick later.  Have a good one!

December 31, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More
Updates from Africa 9

Updates from Africa 9

Our second night in Walvis Bay we ate at Raft, the same restaurant on the bay we had eaten at the night before.  We were served by the same waitress, Claire, and petted the same Norwegian Ridgeback, Motley, who moseys around the restaurant with a card on his neck telling patrons not to feed him.  He loved our table because he enjoyed our kudu meat and french fries as much as we did.

In the morning we woke up early again and walked to the waterfront where we had planned our second day trip, this time on a bay cruise and 4×4 drive through the desert.  Our boat, the Gambit, departed late because of a slow-loading catamaran that left before us.  The boat seated twenty and our guide gave the tour in english and german. There was also a French family on the “cruise.”  As we departed from the dock, the guide started calling out to the pelicans and throwing fish in the water.  Out of nowhere, our boat was swarmed with pelicans–giant birds with long beaks and an impressive wingspan.  The guide, who was also driving the boat, threw fish as we drove and the pelicans would speed up to the boat, often going as fast as we were or faster, to catch up to the fish.  He would also hold a fish out so a pelican would come right up to the side of the boat to snatch the fish.  The coolest part was when a seal hopped onto the back of the boat, prompted by an enticing offer of fish.  The seal slapped its fins to slide into the main deck with us, and we all took turns petting it.  These are not trained or domestic seals–they are wild, living in the harbor, and clearly profiting from regularly scheduled tour boats which they probably compete over with vigor.

The cruise was about an hour and a half, and we went around Pelican Point, the sandbar that creates Walvis Bay, and were in the open Atlantic for the first time.  The point of this cruise was to see the dolphins, which we did see–scores of them, running in front of the boat, on its flanks, and behind.  They would only come up so you could see a dorsel fin, but the fins came up enough that you had an idea of how populated this bay is with marine wildlife.  The sandbar that culminates in Pelican Point has seals lounging in packs of hundreds. In December, they give birth, so we could see lots of seal cubs, no bigger than beagles, soaking in the sun.  The wind pattern that created this sandbar by carrying sand from the desert is the same pattern that diverted the flow of the river and made the sand dunes.

The dolphins were not as interesting as the seals.  As we were coming back around the point another, much larger seal hopped up onto the boat for its morning meal.  This one, which the tour guides had named Cassanova, was injured around the eye and our guide explained that the injury was a lot worse a week ago.  The entire boat delighted in the friendliness Cassanova showed toward people, especially considering that he was a wild seal.

On our cruise, we passed some seemingly deserted Russian fishing ships, two of them, which were moored together and anchored.  Our guide explained to us that the ships belonged to the Russian-Namibian fishing company Namsov, which had been fishing in Walvis Bay and off the coast of Namibia since the Soviet Union (hence “Sov” in the name). They were only authorized by the Namibian government to catch certain types of fish in season, and when they were caught breaking this law the captains of the ships and the officers were put under house arrest–on their ships.  So we passed by these abandoned ships, 200-foot steel fishing ships, rusting from non-use and contemplated the two captains and their officers living in exile until Namibia decided their fate.  I guess the lesson of this story is, do not break maritime fishing laws in Namibia.  Codrin estimates that $1 billion is lost every year from illegal fishing off Namibia’s coast, and it seems that there are very harsh laws in place to combat this problem.

There were many more Russian ships in the harbor, and some actually abandoned ships as well.  We also passed oyster farms in the bay and learned about Namibia’s oyster export industry.  As we would learn, Namibians love oysters.  Speaking of oysters, we were dropped off at the sandbar to begin the second half of our trip, and were served a beachside lunch consisting of oysters, pasta salad, egg rolls and tofu.  And beer.  Windhoek Lager has been brewed since 1519–that’s a nearly 500-year-old beer!

The three of us strapped into a 4×4 Jeep and our driver started to drive south along the beach toward Sandwich Bay.  Our driver’s name was Herman, but although “Herman the German” would have been a perfect nickname, he was actually only half German and half Afrikaans.  Herman was really good at driving on sand, and we drove on lots of sand.  And it was bumpy.  There were no seatbelts in the backseat, so Ioana and I were jostled around the back of that car like dice in a Yahtzee shaker.  We had just eaten–oysters no less–so I was more than a little sick from the drive.

The sandbar was wide, but as we drove along the water the beach narrowed and the dunes closed in from the left.  Apparently, you can drive all the way along the beach and the desert until you reach South Africa, and the first place we stopped was the old colonial border between British South Africa and German Southwest Africa.  After World War I, much of Namibia was absorbed into British South Africa, and Namibia stayed a colony of South Africa until 1988.  As a result, Namibia was the most recent country in Africa to gain its independence.  Walvis Bay–the commercial center of Namibia–stayed a South African colony until 1994 when Mandela became president.  Herman explained to us that he was born in Swakopmund, and when he was a kid he needed a visa to go to Walvis Bay, 30 minutes away.

Herman also told us that Sandwich Harbor, where we were going, was inaccessible twice a day because of the tides.  Only during specific times was the beach wide enough between the desert and the ocean for a 4×4 to get through.  When we drove in, the beach was about as wide as a 8-lane highway.  The reason the ride was so bumpy, Herman explained, was the tracks from other jeeps that had not been blown away due to an unusual lack of wind.  We would try to stay in other tracks but that didn’t lessen the bumpiness of the ride.  We stopped at one point, and Herman drove the Jeep up an incline onto a sand shelf that overlooked the ocean, with a steep dune behind us.  Then, suddenly, he threw the jeep into reverse and we shot backwards up the slope of the dune.  He braked and somehow the jeep stayed in place, with its nose pointed straight downhill.  We got out of the jeep on the surface of the dune and admired the stretch of beach ahead of us, which we saw, from pictures Herman showed us, had changed drastically in 20 years from global warming.  There used to be a large natural harbor of fresh water formed by the sand as a filtration system, but since the sea levels are rising this harbor is all but gone.  The fresh water system which used to be a complete river is now restricted to the aquifers which we had drunk out of the day before, and this system is dependent on a specific sea level and weather pattern.  The life of the desert, in this way, depends on how this fresh water system survives.

We drove about five more kilometers into Sandwhich Harbor, another fresh water lake adjoining the ocean and a monstrous 200-meter dune on the other side.  The car parked, and we started to climb the dune.  At first, it didn’t look that difficult, because the incline wasn’t steep.  It also wasn’t that hot; although the Namib desert is a desert, it is breezy and receives copious amounts of cool ocean air. What made the climb difficult was the sand.  Climbing on a hill of sand is like climbing uphill on a stairmaster.  You do a lot of stepping but you don’t move very far upwards.  Every two feet you climb up, you sink one foot down.  The side of the dune is packed down naturally, but if you break the surface there is soft sand underneath. Also, the wind is constantly blowing a loose layer of sand off the top, which is actually how the dunes form and move over time.  As we climbed higher and higher, you could look back and see more and more of the bay stretched out before us.  It hugged the fine line between the desert and the sea, and was really a sight to behold.  At the top of the dune, the wind was so powerful it could knock you over, which we had to be careful about because the leeward side of the dune, as we found out yesterday, is a much sharper dropoff.  We took some amazing pictures though.

On the drive back, Herman took us into the desert instead of just on the beach, and we drove on the dunes.  Unlike the quad bike, the 4×4 is much bigger, and since we weren’t controlling it it was a little scarier as well.  We had long known that Herman was an expert driver on sand, but we were not prepared when we reached the top of one of these monstrous dunes, the jeep tipped precariously forward and we looked straight down one of these slip sides into the sandy valley below.  Herman gunned the car and we shot downward, then he pulled up the side of the dune in front of us, then shot down the other side of that dune.  It was like we were on a roller coaster with no safety rails and no chain lift.  We essentially–if I may use this term–halfpiped the dunes.  There was a cadre of 4 or 5 jeeps in our group, and the jeep ahead of us at one point got stuck going up one of the dunes, and idled in the sand with its nose straight up in the air for a minute, then somehow turned around, and billowed down the slope to get momentum and tried again.  Herman cracked that the other driver was new at this.

When we were done driving the dunes, we drove back to town through the desert, this time going through a field of sand mounds planted with !nara bushes.  The !nara fruit is the only one in the desert and it is the food on which the animals and humans who live in the desert survive (the ! in the name is a click in the Topnaar language).  As we drove back, I talked to Herman about Namibian politics and learned a lot.  He explained that Namibia didn’t really have the racial undercurrent of South Africa, which we had noticed as well.  The government has been stable since independence.  I asked if there were any whites in government and he said there was one Israeli minister who people had voted for because his name sounded native – but he didn’t express any discontent with this lack of race-based representation.  This impressed us, because in South Africa we had seen everywhere a constant expectation of racial division and political fragmentation based on race.  There are plenty of whites in Namibia, but they don’t feel a need to be represented as white.  I asked the question expecting a rant, like we had heard in South Africa, that the whites don’t get any representation and their jobs get taken away.  But Herman explained that he loved Namibia, that it was safe and everyone had jobs and although it was briefly a part of apartheid South Africa no one held any grudges or seemed to care about racial divisions.  I realized at this point that I hadn’t noticed race in Namibia since we’ve been here–that the whites and blacks who live here are Namibians, and identify as such.  Furthermore, Namibians are happy.  Herman says the economy in Namibia is better than in South Africa (I haven’t verified if this is true yet), and there isn’t nearly as much crime.  He says he doesn’t lock his door at night and when there is a murder in Namibia it is front page news.  As a matter of fact, in Swakopmund I picked up a paper and the front page story was a car accident.  Can you imagine if the New York times carried a story about a car accident on I-95 as its front page story?

Herman drove us back to the hotel, and on the way we talked a bit about Namibian tourism as well.  He said the most high-profile thing that had happened to Namibia was when Angelina Jolie decided to have her baby here.  She and Brad Pitt rented a couple houses in a lodge and had family and friends stay with them for two months–in Walvis Bay.  Then, the funniest thing, he told us that he was their guide and they had become friends when the couple was here.  He said that “Brad” was very smart, and “Angelina” was shorter than she appears in the films, and the fact that our driver was referring to two of the biggest American movie stars on a first-name basis was quite bizarre. Herman then told us that one time, when they were out for drinks (“We were quite inebriated at this point”) a woman came up to Brad Pitt and told him that he looked like George Clooney, obviously not knowing who he was or that he was in Walvis Bay.  Our driver got drunk with Brad Pitt!  And then we found out that he’s not even a full-time driver. He owns five companies in Namibia, in mining, tourism and trade, and only drives part-time for the fun of it.  His wife just started a real estate company.  He says Namibia is the best place to start a business in Africa and I intend to take midVentures into this country while it’s hot.

That night, we went back to Raft.  Although we got a good recommendation from Herman for a restaurant, we couldn’t find a cab or anyone who would take us downtown.  Instead of walking 2 kilometers we walked back to Raft and saw Claire and Motley again.  The food in Namibia, if you have not yet figured this out from my updates, is delicious.  We ran into the owner of our hotel at the bar and told him we’ll see him back at the hotel in the morning for checkout.  He was picking up this gorgeous woman who is just one more reminder why Namibia is the place to return to, and why this will be a very happy new year.

We checked out at 10 am the next day and slowly got our bags together for our trip to Swakopmund, or “Swakop” as the locals call it. Swakopmund is essentially a German city on the Atlantic coast of Namibia, and it has palm trees.  It has charming shopping streets and a vibrant city center lined with cafes.  We haven’t had time to go to the beach yet, but we spent 2 hours at a cafe taking in the street life.  We ran into The Girls, which is our name for two nice young women who we met in Livingstone, and took the bus with us to Windhoek. The Girls, from New York, are on mission in Livingstone and have this month off to travel.  So we caught up with them a bit.  It’s amazing how we keep running into our Livingstone companions–Aaron in Windhoek, The Girls here, and as I’m writing another woman we met in Livingstone just walked into the internet cafe.

We have really one day to explore the town before it closes for New Years.  The New Years party tomorrow night is going to be the biggest in Namibia, and probably southern Africa.  The entire beachfront will be converted into a bar, and there we will party in german revelrie until the sun comes up.  At least that’s the plan.

December 30, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More
Updates from Africa 8

Updates from Africa 8

We spent our last day in Windhoek not doing much.  We slept in til 9 and then planned out our last couple days.  The original plan was to do another safari from Windhoek, but it turns out that a lot of the desert is better seen from Walvis Bay, the first European trading town on the west coast (about an hour from Swakopmund).  We had originally planned to go to Walvis for a day, but we decided to leave Windhoek early and spend three nights in Walvis.  We had a really hard time finding a place, everything was booked because Walvis Bay and Swakopmund is where everyone in Namibia goes to celebrate the New Years (and all the German tourists).  We finally tracked down a hotel with a double room available, which we would have to cramp into. Something is better than nothing.

We then went off to China Town.  We thought there would be an actual neighborhood, but the cab took us to an industrial park outside town that looked deserted and not very interesting.  Codrin really wanted to go so he got out of the cab; Ioana and I took the cab back downtown to get some lunch.  We ended up eating at Mugg & Bean, which is a San Francisco chain that I’ve never heard of, and consequently is delicious.  Ioana and I ordered 4 meals for two people and ate every morsel.  We ran into our new friend Aaron at Mugg & Bean and made plans to meet him for drinks that night at Joe’s Beerhouse, which is the place to be in Windhoek (we had heard that from several people). Our delicious lunch being complete, and contemplating what Codrin ended up doing for lunch in the middle of “China Town”, we got a cab back to the hostel and jumped in the pool.  We played with a volleyball with a young Zambian girl, who I thought was 15 but Ioana thought was 20, and her companion, a 60+ balding white man with yellow teeth and a heavy southern accent.  The dynamic between them was, at best, weird.  He would kiss her on the forehead in the mornings, and then tell her to take a shower, which she would do with obedience. She was a really nice girl and Ioana suspected she was into me.  Who knows.  It was a strange couple and we didn’t really want to inquire any further.  Apparenty the man had been all over Africa in the past year, but we don’t know where he is from, or why he is staying in a budget hostel with a young African girl as his companion.

That night, we went to Joe’s Beerhouse and indulged in zebra, kudu (antelope), crocodile and ostrich with a side of fried potatoes, and some local Windhoek Lager.  Our culinary experience in Namibia has been, to say the least, a delight.  In the morning we woke up early and went off to the markets to buy some souvenirs, since they were closed the day after Christmas and there isn’t a lot of market shopping on the west coast.  We bargained down some more masks on the street, then went to Mugg & Bean again for lunch.  Codrin was evidently a Mugg & Bean virgin so we iniated him with a angus beef burger with fries.  Ioana ordered the oriental burger, which came out and it was three times as tall as a normal burger with a toothpick through the middle:  Chicken, beef, vegetables and dripping in cheese sauce.  Since the burger was taller than an average hand, Ioana had to pick it apart to eat it.  We have this on camera.

We got back to the hostel and hopped a van with some fellow backpackers who were heading to Walvis Bay.  It was a 5 hour drive, not very eventful, with a pit stop at a gas station where I got some biltong (jerky-like sausage) and a Russian roll.

We dropped off our four companions in Swakopmund, so got a glimpse of this city where we’ll be spending New Year’s.  Swakopmund, like Walvis Bay, is a small town of low-lying houses and roads lined with palm trees.  They both are next to the ocean, but more importantly they both border the Namib desert on the other side.  Driving south from Swakopmund to Walvis Bay, we were presented with a puzzling environmental paradox.  On our right, the glistening Atlantic Ocean, over which, somewhere, was home.  On the left, a vast expanse of dune-riddled desert, mountains of pure sand cascading towards us.  We saw some sandboarders creating wakes of sand and a couple rentals for quad bikes.  In 20 minutes we were in Walvis Bay and checked into our hotel, which ended up having a three-person room open for us.

That night, we went to the nearest restaurant we could find, a restaurant on stilts in the middle of the ocean, which overlooks the city, the sandbar which designates the bay area and pelicans which danced on the shimmering water as the sun set.  I had grilled crayfish, Ioana enjoyed a surf n’ turf and Codrin had more zebra meat. Did I mention how good the food is here?

We had planned our next day’s excursion, and in the morning we got up early and went downtown, where our historical tour of the Namib Desert awaited us, complete with quad bikes.  Quad bikes are like double motocycles which are jet skis for the desert.  Each four-wheel bike holds one person and they are fully automatic. There is a start button and a gas lever you push with your thumb, and hand brakes.  Not rocket science for even those like Codrin and a 10-year old boy in our group who don’t drive.  We got a quick safety lecture, donned our ski goggles and zoomed off into the desert, which bordered the quad bike parking lot.  Our guide was a middle aged German who had a dry sense of humor and wore a cowboy hat.  He was the only one with rainbow reflective goggles; everyone else got blue or orange.

The Namib Desert is the oldest desert in the world, and when our German guide led us over one dune we were in the heart of it.  This section of the desert is composed entirely of massive dunes, all of which are crescent shaped and oriented in the same direction.  They each have a gently sloping side and a sharp dropoff where sand is looser and forms a crest, in the crux of the crescent.  We were told we had to stay in the guide’s tracks, because there are numerous hidden “holes” hidden in the banks of dunes that can collapse and cause injury.  For the most part, we rode down and up over the dunes and through the valleys, occasionally stopping for the group to get together.  Like the mokoro riders in the Okavango Delta, the guide seemed to know where he was going despite no discernable trails in the sand and few landmarks.  The first place we stopped at was part of what used to be a river bed.  The dunes were formed over thousands of years as the river changed course, and as a result tracts of mud were left.  Ten thousand years ago, this particular area was teeming with game and wildlife, and human beings, who were “stuck” in the Garden of Eden, as our guide described.  They could get all the food they needed to eat but they were surrounded by desert.  In any event, the first place we stopped was one of these ten-thousand-year-old mud plains. Over time, the mud hardens and becomes fossilized, and frozen in the mud are thousands of footprints.  We walked over this “mud”–now hard as rock–and saw elephant tracks, rhino, cheetah and–spookily–human tracks, all over the plain.

All over this desert there are sprouts of green plants and this, our guide explained, is a result of there being a giant aquifer under much of the desert.  The plants get the water from underground, and the few animals get their only water from eating the plants.  One beetle absorbs water from the fog which infrequently settles over the desert. Speaking of fog, when we went into the desert it was overcast and cool–doubly so when we were driving at 40 km/hour.  After an hour or two the skies lifted and left a hue of solid blue.  The pastel contrast between the blue sky and the orange sand was beautiful.

We had been riding for an hour and we drove up to another plain, but this one looked white from a distance.  When we approached we saw that the “white” was actually a bed of broken oyster shells.  We found out that oysters are always broken and eaten near to the ocean, which indicates that this area used to be by the sea.  More importantly, this area used to be inhabited by humans, as much as ten thousand years ago.  In the desert, as the dunes move (about 4 m a year) they expose these previously buried habitats, and as a result all signs of human existence here are preserved right on the surface.  We wandered this ancient habitat and found beads, made from bone and ostrich eggs and crafted with stone, flintstones that were used as tools, and, spookiest of all, human remains.  There are scattered bones and skulls all over the place, and handles for pots and shards of pottery nearby. There is one almost complete skeleton which is squeezed between some hardened mud layers.  The skull and ribcage poke out in an eerie display.  What is most remarkable is that our guide found this area a month ago; it has been completely untouched and unexcavated since it was buried by dunes ten thousand years ago.  I picked up several beads from the ground, despite the fact we were requested not to remove anything.  I understand the impulse of archeologists like Carter and Bingham to pick a little treasure from the ancient ruins–there is such an abundance of it, and it is so priceless.  I didn’t remove any bones although it was tempting.  I think I was slightly terrified of disturbing the sanctity of an ancient burial ground.

We did a lot of driving through the desert and saw some remarkable wildlife, including springbok in the wild (this is after we’ve been eating springbok for a week).  We went to one more ancient mud flat and our guide got down on his hands and knees and started digging into the sand.  I thought he was trying to chase a crab or something that was buried, but as he was digging the sand he was removing got muddier and soon he had reached water, about sixteen inches down.  He hunted around and got a half oyster shell (again, what was an oyster shell doing in the middle of the desert), and explained to us that the water he had reached was naturally filterd by the land, and was part of the underground aquifer.  The water is more pure than tap water in town, he said, and scooped up some of the muddy water with the shell and took a sip.  He then passed the shell around and we all took a sip. The water was sweet, and really did taste good.  He explained that the Topnaar people live in the desert on this water, even today.  Codrin had been off using the desert as his bathroom, as the Topnaars do (a fact our German guide reiterated for us many times) and when he returned we had all finished drinking the ground water and told Codrin he should have some.  He took one look at the brackish water and thought we were trying to trick him into drinking it, not knowing that we had all just had some.  The group took his reluctance and ultimate refusal to drink the water to be quite comical.  The guide had the two young children on the trip close up the hole he had dug, and then we were off again, buggying across the desert, down sheer dune faces and up again, the sound of our engines echoing off the sand walls and into the clear blue sky.

It was then time to meet the Topnaars.  The entire quest thus far had been geological and historical–as in natural history.  Then it took an uncomfortable anthropological twist.  We were driving through a valley surrounded by low shrub and we stopped.  The guide, who evidently speaks the local language, approached a clearing where we soon saw a single man had made a makeshift shelter out of cardboard, aluminium and bush.  He came out and the two men chatted, then our German guide told us that this man is a Topnaar.  “He lives in the desert and will die in the desert,” he said, “He has no desire to live in town.”  The man stood by his clearing with a tupperware container filled with dried seeds.  The guide continued, “he’s going to give you some seeds that he has harvested from the fruit trees we saw.  He uses these seeds for his diet.”  He took the container of seeds and passed them around, and we all ate one.  Then he passed around another container of dried fruit, that was a little sandy but otherwise digestable.  He told us as he passed that we could give the man some money if we wished.  All the while, the Topnaar stood silently as the fruits of his labor were passed around for our consumption.  Some people in the group paid him, and we drove about 100 meters further and stopped at another makeshift shelter in the desert.  This one was composed of a refrigerator box, tarp, and half of a large aluminium Coke bottle like the ones used in advertisements.  Our guide took us around back and showed us a Topnaar–another man–carving seeds out of the desert fruits we had seen on the dunes.  We could take pictures, we were told, of this particular exhibit.  Our guide had told us that the Topnaar were dying off because of HIV/AIDS, lack of medical treatment and the children going to school and entering Namibian culture, away from the desert.  As a caveat, he told us when we were at this second indigenous home that this man’s wife had just died, and he is alone.  The other man we had seen, his wife had died recently too, we were told.  This added a little more somberness to the already depressing situation.  We thought we were out of this awkward situation when we got back on the bikes, but one dune later and we were at the “home” of another Topnaar, whom the German spoke to for a minute and then came out to the group.  We formed a semi circle around him and our guide said “Now he is going to count to twenty in his language.”  This man was wearing a t-shirt, sandals and a baseball cap with the Pepsi logo, all dusty and worn.  When he had reached “akka”–four–our guide noticed that someone in the group was taking pictures of this display of linguistic anthropologism so he approached the man and took the cap off his head, to provide the tourist with a better picture.  It was a subtle gesture, but a saddening one–presumably, he wanted to give his client a more authentic rendering of this man as he rattled off something as simple as numbers to the gawking and eager foreign crowd.  We had ventured into the desert, and had been taken to the Topnaar habitat to witness them in the wild, to see how they eat, where they sleep, how they live.  We took pictures and our guide made the zoo more authentic by taking away the only sign that maybe, just maybe, they don’t live solely for the purpose of entertaining tourists.  It was a genuine reminder of the very real imperialist attitudes in this part of the world, how ancient societies are still marginalized, mummified, turned into exhibits and held up to be photographed and inspected.  These few Topnaar are members of a dying tribe, and it was upsetting to me to see the remnants of their ten-thousand-year-old way of life transfigured into a touristic commodity.  It was not so much their participation in this particular program that upset me–after all, they are making a living off of we fools who oggle them from behind our camera lenses–but the attitude of our self-proclaimed anthropologist guide, who up until now had impressed me with his breadth of knowledge and respect for this ancient desert and its people.  Our guide had told us that he “found” this Topnaar eight years ago, and since then the man had become a painter.  He had his paintings on display, solid-color abstractions of desert animals and wildlife on cloth napkin-sized canvases, and we were told that we could buy them for N$100 a piece.  We didn’t buy any.  For me, at least, this experience was too sour to be immortalized in a desert painting whose creator and his culture would be dead before the colors faded.

We drove off back to town, and as we got closer we could see the ocean in the distance.  The air was cool and breezy the entire time we were in the desert, which was lucky for us since we got back around one in the afternoon.  We parked our bikes, paid the guide and remarked that the entire four hours was certainly worth the $50 we had paid for it. Quad bike riding is a lot of fun and I hope I can do it again some day.

We didn’t have a car, so the guide dropped us off downtown in his 4×4 and we went to another delicious restaurant for lunch.  It was Italian; Ioana had pasta, I had a crepe and Codrin had an anchovy pizza, which he was surprised to find had fish on it.  For dessert, I had a pancake drenched in melted marshmallow and chocolate sauce. Everything was topped off with a bottle of white wine.  Have I mentioned how good the food is here?

Codrin and Ioana are currently on siesta and I’m going to join them. I’ll send more updates soon.

December 28, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More
Updates from Africa 6

Updates from Africa 6

Today I woke up at 7 to get on the internet and send yesterday’s post. The internet is very very slow and it took a couple attempts.  The Jollyboys is right in the center of town and its convenient to get anywhere.  I got back around 9 and we prepared for our excursion to Victoria Falls.The bus left at ten and dropped us off at the entrance to the Victoria Falls park on the Zambian side.  The park is on Livingstone island, which connects via the Victoria Falls bridge to Zimbabwe.  It is a lovely forested park with paths leading to various vantage points which overlook the falls.  The weather was overcast, and just as we entered for our hike down the first path it started to drizzle.  We walked towards the thundering sound of the falls (in the Kololo language the Falls are known as “the smoke that thunders”) and emerged onto a vantage point where we could see the towering 108m-tall white waterfall, which over their 1.7km length dumps 1 million liters per second into the mouth of the Zambezi river.  Although it is currently the “Dry” season, we were awestruck by the size, breadth and sound of the falls.  As we descended into a depression opposite the falls, the drizzle became a downpour, and we had to cover our cameras with our ponchos to take pictures.  The spray from the falls, too, which during the wet season is enough to soak you, contributed to the moisture in the air.  Luckily, it was cool so we didn’t mind being drenched.  We crossed a foot bridge over a crevice on the island, and could see the Victoria Falls bridge to our left.  The falls, on our right, were actually just a sliver compared to the total length of the falls. Even so, this portion we estimated was twice as tall as Niagra and twice as long.

When we had snapped as many pictures as we could from the Zambian side, we decided to head on over to Zimbabwe.  We got lost on the walk towards the bridge, and ended up finding a lesser-known photography trail where we got much better pictures.  We walked along the Zambian side of the barbed-wire fence separating us from no-man’s-land.  We could see people crossing on the other side, mostly coming from Zimbabwe with wares to sell in Zambia.  We doubled back and found the border crossing, running into a baboon on the way.  It turns out that baboons love border crossings.  There was a family of them climbing onto the immigration building, and another playing in the shade across the road.  People just passed by as if they weren’t there.  Baboons are the dogs of Africa.

Getting out of Zambia was no problem, and we walked the kilometer to the bridge.  The Victoria Falls bridge spans the two cliffs between Zim and Zam at a height of 110 meters.  Naturally, there is a bungi jump just on the Zambia side which you can do for $90.  Codrin, of course, had to do it.  So we waited for him to pay, sign the waiver, get set up, then plunge headfirst into the gully.  A crowd had gathered to watch him, one Indian family from Zimbabwe was trying to convince the father to jump.  Another man from Zambia had expressed his desire for more adrenaline action.  He told the manager “I would jump…”  He was interrupted:  “But what, my friend?  We have a good rope.”  He responded, “I know you have a good rope but that’s the problem.  I want to jump with no strings attached.”  They laughed; I love the sense of humor of Zambians and Zimbabweans.  In the meantime, we relaxed on the bridge, chatting with people from Zim who were trying to sell us some crafts.  There was a line on the bridge signifying the end of Zam and 4 feet away was the line for Zimbabwe—so there was a 4-foot no-man’s-land where a clever entrepreneur had set up shop.  I found the prospect of buying something from nowhere appealing, so I bargained down a rhino carved in softstone to about $2, paying in kwacha (Zambia’s currency).

I should mention that last night, a gentleman from Cape Town staying at the hostel (who also happens to be the head of educational programming for Ubuntu) saw Ioana writing in her journal and offered her some “inspiration.”  When we were on the bridge, she was seen smoking and someone offered her “something harder.”  If she had taken it I’m sure the bargaining would have been a lot more inventive.

Zambia, and Zimbabwe especially, are on the verge of barter economies, in that you can pay currency but a lot of people prefer to trade. Every single shopkeeper in Zambia wanted to trade for the elastic I wear around my wrist–without exception.  I heard “it’s for my sister” at least 12 times.  Even funnier, someone tried to trade Codrin for his socks.  When we were on the bridge, one of the traders offered me a price equivalent to $5 for something he was selling (I think it was a statue).  When I refused, he said “Fine, I trade for your shoes.”  I looked down at my brand new, leather shoes with custom soles and with a straight face looked back at him and said “What will I wear if I trade you my shoes?”  He took off his green, tarnished flip-flop and said “I’ll give you these.”  Then, for effect, he said “and I throw in the elephant.”

When Codrin was retrieved from his upside-down swing in the valley, we ventured off for Zimbabwe.  We were hungry (Codrin didn’t want to eat before he jumped) and were in the mood for some adventure.  Plus, the falls are much more extraordinary from the Zimbabwe side.  We had no problem crossing the border; I had to pay $30 for a visa.  There was a tourist outpost across from the Victoria Falls park on the Zimbabwe side, right on the other side of the border.  In the tourist outpost, we bought some Fantas for $2/piece and sat down to have a drink.  This part of Zimbabwe was a little better looking than its Zambian counterpart; there were Audis and Nissans in the parking lot and a couple tourist families, Asian and white, were loading into their cars as we drank.  There were some Zim traders holding some of the same crafts we had seen in Livingstone through the fence, but weren’t going out of their way to pester anybody.  I wanted to exchange for some Zim dollars, so I decided to get a good rate by going down the row of boutiques and asking for their respective exchange rates.  There was a great deal of excitement as I approached the stalls–the first stall offered 200 million Zim dollars for a US dollar, and I went from stall to stall until I had a rate of 800 million to the dollar.  The “Actual rate” is impossible to determine, because the official rate is about half as good as the black market rate.  Also, all Zim dollars become obsolete on January 1, so I actually paid $2 for nothing.  It was fun negotiating an exchange rate like I would a craft, but in this case I just wanted 50 million dollar bills as souvenirs.  The shelf life of a Zimbabwean bill is less than a year; that’s why you can buy “old” bills from 2007 on the streets in Livingstone for appalling exchange rates (i.e. 250 billion to the dollar).  When a currency is inflated that much, it ceases to be a currency, it’s just pieces of worthless paper.  And that showed especially when we found that all prices in Zimbabwe are in US dollars, and things are very closely priced around what they would be in the states.  In this respect it makes sense that Zimbabwe, with an employment rate of 90% and hyperinflation, doesn’t look too bad.  You can tell that business is slow, but business is still around, and infrastructure is built up very well, especially in the Victoria Falls area.  I’ll get to that.

We paid $20 to get into the Zimbabwe side of the park, and wandered picturesque paths to see the phenomenally better view of the falls. By this time the rain had stopped and there was a rainbow that appeared in the mist, arched perfectly about the middle of the falls. It was gorgeous.  We took many, many pictures and then left the park and caught a cab to downtown Victoria Falls (the town).  There, we sat down at a cafe and I had a panini (Codrin got fish and chips and Ioana a crepe).  There were thin pipes pumping mist around the border of the cafe, cooling off the patio, and Ioana remarked that these cooling pipes only appeared in Romania a year ago.  It was interesting to me how, despite what we read about Zimbabwe in the paper, how calm, clean, safe and pricey it was.  We were in the town that was built for tourists, true, but at the same time tourist traffic has declined steadily.  We saw some tourists when we were there but not many. There are still hotels in Vic Falls such as the Kingdom which cater to wealthy clientele at $300/night–everything is priced in dollars and these are real prices.  Our three-person meal cost $30.  We went to a craft store (a real artisan shop as opposed to the markets) and Ioana bought an ivory necklace, Codrin an ivory pendulum and myself a set of beautiful Zimbabwe-made masks which I’m going to have to figure out how to take back.  The prices were slightly negotiable, but not by much.  The woman at the store explained to us that no one in Zimbabwe knows what the Zim dollar is worth, and although government employees get paid in Zim dollars, they exchange them immediately for real currency as soon as they get them.  We joked about the concept of paying 500 billion dollars for a Coke.  We gave that store about $150 worth of business, more than we’ve given any place so far combined.

We had offered the cab a return fare to the border if he waited, so we added on $2 to get a quick driving tour of the town.  He drove us to the city center, the museum, to see the shopping street and finally to the really nice hotels.  We also drove down a dead end dirt road to the actual market, where we were the first potential customers of the day.  Everyone started trying to bargain with us while we were still in the car; we drove off.  We went back to the border, spending 20 minutes waiting for Ioana and Codrin to get their ivory export certificates stamped (there are tight restrictions on ivory exports) and we were back in no mans land.  We paid a taxi to take us back across the bridge, crossed into Zambia, and we were done with our Zimbabwe adventure.  When we entered Zambia, a border guard washed our hands with a petroleum-based liquid, presumably for cholera prevention, which stunk.

We grabbed a cab from the border to our last stop of the day–the Mukuni village.  All of the wares sold in Livingstone, which we had bought in great quantities the day before, are all made here. Isabella had recommended we go here originally.  It was a long drive down a dusty road to get there.  When we arrived at the village market, a thatched enclosure in the center of town, it was deserted. When we got out of the car, every shop keeper in town–about 50 of them–spotted us and ran for their stalls.  Tarps were whisked off the carvings, the statues, the bowls, paintings and jewelry.  We were in inundated with yelling from vendors.  This was not really a market for tourists–they sell to the shopkeepers in Livingstone–so the sight of three white people at 6 on a slow day was a prospect no one could turn up.  The whole village came out to sell us things, and buy we did–but not without some hard bargaining.  At one point, a nice kid who wore an Obama button asked 5000 kwacha ($1) for a Queen of Africa carving…it was his starting offer and I could have gotten it for 1000 but I told him because he liked Obama, I’ll buy it.  Big mistake. Within minutes, all I heard as I passed shops was “Obama, Obama, Brian!   Obama!”  They knew my name, and that I liked Obama.  I didn’t give in too easy, but at one point another shopkeeper tried to sell something to me, and pointed to what looked like the exact same Obama button on his shirt.  Apparently, he had gotten it from his friend so as to get me to pay for his wares, too.  I ended up paying $20 for a set of utensils, two African Queens, a soapdish/ashtray, a pair of statuettes and a double giraffe carving.  We had to get out of there. Apparently, someone offered to trade something for Ioana’s cell phone. She responded he better be willing to sell his whole store.  There was one woman vendor among all the men, and she convinced Ioana to buy from her some jewelry, it was very sweet.  When we left, I took a picture with my friend the Obama supporter, and Peter, who had sold me the giraffes.

We got a ride back to the hostel, and tomorrow we have to buy luggage to carry our stuff.  Bus to Windhoek leaves at noon.

December 24, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More
Updates from Africa 5

Updates from Africa 5

The Okavango Delta is a 18,000 km squared delta spread between Botswana, Namibia and Angola and is a hotbed of ecological activity.  The delta is so vast that it takes thousands of years for water to circulate within it.

Since we had only three days, we decided to tackle the delta in two steps.  First, we decided to take a charter scenic flight above the delta, and view it from above.  Then the plan was to take a safari on the ground and see things more close up.  After shopping around a bit, we found a lodge that does a two day, one night trip to the delta, and we also found a flight that could do a scenic tour of the delta that evening at 5.  We had a bit of time, so we went to Shoprite to buy food for the camping trip:  black beans, canned meat, canned fruit, smoked oysters, crackers, bread, deli meats for lunch, some spices and a 5-litre jug of water.  I thought that 5 liters wouldn’t be enough, but it was all we could carry.

After dropping the bags at our hotel, we took a cab to the Maun airport.  This “airport” is actually bigger than some Caribbean airports I’ve been to, but not by much.  There is one landing strip and two gates, one designated for “international” flights from Johannesburg and the other for domestic flights from Gaborone, Francistown, etc.  Since all flights to and from this airport are local, it is not surprising that there are parking lots for small prop planes, ranging from 2-seaters to 15-seaters.  We met our pilot, George, a South African, at the gate and he took us to our plane, a propeller-powered, four-seat, white stick of gum that looked like it would be eaten by an elephant.  George was very nice and gave us the emergency preparedness demonstration, which consisted of showing us how to pull the rusty lever that operates the one door, and where the barf bags are.  Good sign.

When we took off in this propeller-powered lawn mower, we rose quickly above Maun and soon were flying low over the green delta.  Since we’ve been in Africa, all landscapes have been yellowish-brown, with some low-lying mountains and assorted trees.  Driving on the bus, we’ve been able to see the hay-colored land pass by, but haven’t gotten a real immersion in the land.  The closest we got was at the veterinary checkpoint, when we stood in the shade of a large tree and could look out over brushes and observe beetles, worms and other insects crawling about.  The first thing that strikes you about Okavango is green.  Everything is green, and from the plane, you can look down and spread out before you, for hundreds of miles in all directions, is an endless tapestry of green grasses, speckled with darker green trees, and patches of greenish-yellow grass and sand.

The plane flew low enough to the ground that we could make out animals below, and we saw many.  The first we saw was a herd of giraffes, followed by a large herd of elephants.  It is the rainy season here, so the elephants are coming out to wash themselves, and the watering holes are filling up.  The most distinctive features of the delta landscape from the air were occasional signs of humanity–there was one perfectly square clearing, a hut or two every three kilometers, and a fire burning in the distance.  For the most part, though, this was a completely virgin landscape, and you could see that this land hasn’t changed in thousands of years.

The plane ride was an hour, and the only thing we saw were the giraffes and elephants, but somehow seeing them from a plane was not awe inspiring.  Perhaps it was their diminutive size from the air that gave the experience more of a zoological feel–in any event, at one point I saw a fast-running cat that I thought to be a cheetah, but I wasn’t sure, and it was gone before I could point it out.  When the flying gas can landed, we took some pictures and left for the hotel.  For the safari, we had to be up at 6 and take a cab to the river lodge, so that night we packed and prepared for our trip.

Early in the morning we checked out and made for the Okavango River Lodge.  The lodge is about 5km outside of town, and hosts mostly foreign tourists who come to take day or multi-day excursions in the delta.  The lodge has a bar area and serves drinks and food all day; the rooms are all individual huts with thatched roofs.  A room costs 80 pule/person, but you can camp at the lodge for only 20 pule. There is a pool and a pool table.  There are three dogs that lounge about the lodge–Tito, Smash, and Campsite, and all of them feed on scraps from the kitchen and the guests’ plates. The staff is very friendly and helpful, and by the end of the weekend we had run up a 600 pule tab for drinks and food (considering we were saving so much money on the room we definitely got our money’s worth).  The lodge sits on a main water highway which runs into the delta and is the route on which all the tourist lodges have their docks.  The ORL has several speedboats and a leisure boat for sightseeing, and you can rent canoes and kayaks for trips on the river as well.

We were scheduled for an overnight in the delta, so at 7 we got on a speedboat with our backpacks, and two Swiss guys who were going to spend two nights away.  The speedboat shot off through the water channel, which is about 50 meters wide, and flanked with tall delta grasses.  Most of the delta, of course, is composed of much narrower capillaries, but this particular vein was used to get in and out of the interior of the delta, where we were to catch our mokoro ride.

On the speedboat ride, we passed some pastures with grazing cattle, and occasionally a pickup truck was parked on the river and children waved at us.  As we got deeper into the delta, all there was around us was grass, trees, fields and wildlife–eagles, thrushes, storks, ducks, and various insects, and thousands of lily pads and white lily flowers, which bloom white but turn blue as they are pollinated.  At one point, the speed boat stopped and the driver turned the boat around.  How he managed to spot this traveling at the speed we were driving, I don’t know–but there, on a lily pad, was a cluster of three cm-wide eggs, camouflaged and almost invisible, laid by one of the many birds we had seen flying about.  Also on the speedboat ride we passed a fishing trap and went through a gate in the buffalo fence–the country-wide fence erected by Botswana to separate wildlife areas from humans.  Finally, after about an hour, we arrived at the river bank where fifty mokoros were parked waiting for us.

A mokoro is a long, slender canoe, which is the traditional (and easiest) way to navigate through the thick grasses, and shallow waters, of the delta.  It must be poled by a poler who stands at the back of the canoe and pushes it along with a pole about twice as tall as the canoe itself.  Each mokoro can carry two other people besides the poler, and backpacks.

When we first arrived, there was a truck parked with tourists who had just come in from the river and were loading on to get driven back wherever; several mokoros came in while we were there and the tourists loaded their bags onto the truck. There were also thirty or so locals who were either polers or just lived in the village down the road, and who sat in the sun and chatted while the tourists loaded up to go.  At this time we were introduced to our guides, John and Lockshell; John had to go back to his house in the village to get his food for the trip, so Ioana and Codrin accompanied him back to the village.  In the meantime, the tourists had left and I got to see the river bank cease to become a tourist area and turn into a local hangout for the villagers; it was interesting being the only non-Batswana there and witnessing the kids–they were all late teens, early twenties, hanging out by the mokoros, chatting, flirting, and having a good time.  They largely ignored me; I got some reading done of King Solomon’s Mines.

When Ioana, Codrin and John returned we loaded into the mokoros; I had my own with Lockshell and John poled for the other two.  As they poled us away from the riverbank, the wide river highway that had taken us here was abandoned and we became absorbed in the grasses.  The polers followed what seemed to be arbitrary ‘paths’ of water where the grasses were pushed below the water–I don’t know how they knew where we were going because the grass was shoulder high for the standing polers, and we were navigating through a vast field of criss-crossing estuaries.  We lied low in the mokoros as they went, and that first ride the sun was not too hot so it was a pleasant ride.  The grasses that leaned over our trail would whack you in the face as you passed, so you had to swat them out of the way with your hands.  At one point, like the speedboat driver, the polers stopped and pointed out a small frog barely distinguishable on a blade of grass.  How they spot these things I don’t know.

The gentle ride through the grasses took about two hours, and near the end we emerged into a little “clearing”–more like a pond–and heard a loud snorting sound, which made us jump.  30 yards away there was a hippopotamus in the water; and, as we crossed the pond, another one joined him.  They have a loud snort which sounds like a pig’s, and is rather unpleasant. They also can be very dangerous animals.  Our guides didn’t seem phased however so we sat back comfortably and took pictures as we passed.  On the far bank of the river was the campsite.

The “campsite” was a clearing in a hovel of trees, which seemed to be specially designated as a campsite due to its apparent inaccessibility by large game.  To get into the clearing you have to swat your way through a narrow path and there are low-lying branches surrounding the shaded camp area. We set up our own tents and pulled out our bread and deli meats for lunch.  Lockshell and John started making a fire so they could have some tea.  We finished our lunch, and then we realized we had a problem.

As you remember, we had bought only 5 liters of water which we had distributed among several bottles.  We had left one of the liter bottles on the speedboat, and with the two-hour mokoro ride we had started to drink into our inventory.  We realized we were going to be short on water, so we decided to boil some (at that point we had a couple liters left so it wasn’t a big deal).  After a siesta, John took Ioana, Codrin and me on the short walk, which was our first journey on foot into the interior of the island.  Before we left, we took the remainder of the boiled water the guides had made for tea and loaded one of the bottles.

Right before we left, Codrin had been out for a smoke and came back and excitedly told us there was a herd of antelope right outside our campsite.  We all ran out and saw a herd about 200 yards away, clustered and feeding.  We snapped away and then started to walk north with John for our walk.  The two hour walk was at 4 in the afternoon, but that didn’t stop the sun from beating down on us–hard.  It was probably 30 degrees, and within minutes our shirts were sticking to our backs.  We had gotten pretty thoroughly burned on the mokoro ride, despite having sunscreen, and on the two hour walk Codrin turned into a tomato.

John led us north across the island, which is a several-hundred-square-kilometers-large island in the middle of the delta.  When we emerged from our treed clearing, we could see miles ahead of us.  The landscape was flat, large and yellow under a perfect blue and white sky, perforated by occasional palm trees, many shrubs and bushes, and patches of tall grasses, short grasses and some “oases” of trees like the one our campsite was in.  The other feature dominating the landscape were termite mounds–some as high as 9 meters–which were created as millions of ant-like termites turned dead stumps into packed-tight sawdust.  You could stand on these mounds for a good vantage point of the plains around, and contemplate how many thousands of years it has taken for the landscape to form itself around a thriving savanna ecosystem.

On that first walk, the first animals we saw after the antelope were a family of baboons, which we only saw from a distance before they scampered off.  When we reached their playground, we could ourselves swing from the baobab tree but there were no more baboons.  At that point we turned back to go to the campsite.  Codrin had evidently never had been on such a hot and long walk before, and suggested he didn’t want to do something like it again (we of course had our 4 hour walk the next day).  When we reached the campsite, it was about 6 and we had time to make a fire for our water and our food.

We had finished all of our water on the walk, so we scooped water out of the delta and boiled it over the fire.  Even when boiled, the water had a greenish-yellowish tinge.  We had to filter it as well, but we didn’t have a sieve, so Ioana came up with the brilliant idea of using her sock, which we could stretch over the bottle neck and pour into the pot to make boiled and filtered water.  This “socky water”–not to be confused with “Saki water”, which would have been preferable–ended up being our lifeline for the rest of the trip.  We made two pots that night, and two the next morning.

For dinner I made chili, which I improvised by mixing beans, vegetable curry and spam meat we bought at the grocery store (and spices of course).  Dessert was canned fruit, with a side of boiling hot water.

We left the campsite around 7 to catch the image of the red sun setting over the delta–orange and red spears perforated the clouds and sent a reflective shimmer over hundreds of miles of water.  It was a beautiful sight.

I don’t think anyone slept that well.  Not only was there the fear of wild animals eating us in the middle of the night, you could actually hear the hippos frolicking in the water until well after midnight, and the cricket-like chirping of millions of insects made sleeping on the shore of that island louder than the East Side Highway.  We didn’t have sleeping bags, either, which added to the discomfort.  I had my KLM blanket which I stole on the flight to Johannesburg, and that gave me some sort of cushion.

The next morning, some of our water had cooled but we had to make more, which we loaded into our empty 2-liter Coke bottle. Breakfast was the second can of fruit.  Codrin opted to stay in the campsite for the second walk, so Ioana and I loaded our backpacks and set off with John to spot some game, around 7 in the morning.  We walked west this time, instead of north, and this walk actually yielded some results.  For perspective, we learned later that another group had taken the same walk two weeks earlier and saw nothing.

John was an expert guide, and could see things we couldn’t long ahead of us.  The first thing he spotted was a giraffe, which gradually became three or four giraffes, munching in a cluster of medium-sized trees.  Soon afterward we saw a herd of water buffalo–the two species both are part of the “big five”–the five hardest animals to hunt in Africa (and the most favored sights on safaris).  Also running on the fields were some impala, and flying ahead the entire time were many varieties of birds, including eagles and storks.  At one point, we saw a small jackal darting about and approached it slowly.  It looked like little fox.

Throughout the walk John pointed out not only wildlife but signs of wildlife–along the path there were hippo tracks, buffalo and giraffe dung, and the occasional branch that had been stripped by an elephant.  He showed us how to identify how recently tracks had been made; in one case, we saw an elephant track that had been made just the day before.

We had walked northwest for two hours, and were just about to turn around to go back, when John spotted an elephant in a far-off cluster of forest and vegetation.  We approached it slowly until we were 500 yards away, and could clearly see a lone elephant–tusks, trunk, and all–munching away in the trees.  It was quite a sight to behold.  On our way back, we came across a set of elephant bones that had been drying in the sun for some time; Ioana and I took bone souvenirs of course (I got a piece of rib).

On our trek back, we actually had one scare; when we were walking in the tall grasses, John stopped and pointed to where he said something else was moving through the grass.  You could see the grass parting as something made its way through it, parallel to us–of course, you didn’t need to tell us that lions roam these here parts as well.  Again, though, John didn’t seem alarmed so we remained calm as well.

When we were 40 minutes from our campsite, we saw three zebras–the national animal of Botswana–on the plain.  They were beautiful, majestic creatures, and didn’t seem threatened by us.  We watched them stand about, then trot of north again. As we approached the campsite, we saw the same herd of antelopes grazing; they bounded off when we got closer.

We saw one more species, too–occasionally we saw a herd of them in the distance, walking on their hind legs, clustering around their pack leader for protection, looking to hunt, and avoid being hunted, and all the while snapping pictures from the cameras that hung around their starch white necks.  It was interesting to see the interaction of these humans with their environment; little distinguished them from their wild progenitors save for more colorful camouflage and the campsites waiting for their return.

Lest I romanticize the trip to much, let me add that the temperature was well over a hundred degrees and the plains–save for some trees–provide little respite from the sun.  We only had our freshly boiled water–in other words, it was not fresh but scalding hot.  Every landscape feature we passed taller than the knee brought its own complement of bugs.  They loudly buzzed around our heads and one ended up in my nose for a bit (it made me realize how much of an evolutionary advantage the sneeze must have been at one point).  What’s funny about the bugs, though, is that I haven’t been bitten by anything since Johannesburg and that awful night of the mosquitoes.  When Ioana and I got back to the camp, we were hot, cramped, burned, parched and tired. What was more amazing was that John, our guide, had not had a sip of water the entire time, and had much more energy.  He was also twice our age.

For lunch we finished off the meats and smoked oysters, and then packed up camp for the mokoro ride home.  Codrin had had enough of the “wilderness”; he was so ready to pack it in that he broke down the tent himself.  I should add that Codrin and Ioana had run out of cigarettes and had to ration their last two–Codrin had smoked his in the morning so by this time he really needed a cigarette, and, more importantly, a cold Sprite.  Ioana and I, who had actually made the second walk, REALLY needed a cold drink.  We only had the hot water though, which was fine for now.

The mokoro ride back was much, much, hotter.  We left at 1 in the afternoon when the sun was hottest—and if the treeless landscape provides no respite then the treeless, canopyless, open grasses really provide nothing at all.  I had my KLM blanket which I used to cover myself in a makeshift canopy so I could see straight ahead, but the blanket was hot and baked me inside like a toaster oven.  I was wearing my long black sweatpants to protect my legs—my right knee was ketchup-colored—but this, too, created an amplifying effect for the heat.  Thankfully, after an hour it rapidly became rainy, and the heat was gone.  We pulled onto the mokoro shore around 2:30.

This left us about one and a half hours until our speedboat pickup, so we decided to get a drink from the village.  Ioana stayed with the bags and John, and Lockshell took Codrin and me into the village.  To get there, we walked a 200m path then hopped the buffalo fence.  I had brought the garbage from the camping which Lockshell told me to throw into the town landfill, a crater filled with assorted bottles, plastics and paper.  As it turns out, bottles and cans are all recycled in this village—and in a lot of other places, we found—to make huts.  As we walked down the main road through the village, you could see these round huts, about 15 feet in diameter, with walls composed of cemented Coca Cola bottles and straw roofs.  There appeared to be more than two hundred huts of varying sizes, and I don’t know how far this village extended. It is certainly akin to the villages we saw from the air.

As we approached the town center, we heard a loud uproar.  The two local football teams were playing a match, and someone had just scored a goal.  The entire village was gathered to watch the game.  We went to the “bar”, which appeared to be the only store in sight, and bought some cold drinks.  Codrin downed three Sprites in one gulp.  He bought another and some cigarettes, and we bought Lockshell a drink.  We three sat down in a shady grove and before long some villagers came up to us, and we chatted about various things, where we were from, whether we had girlfriends, and so on.  Then, out of nowhere, a Jeep drives in with about ten kids, playing loud music, and the teenagers got out and started dancing.  There was a beer keg on the back of the pickup and some kids seemed a little too sloshed (it was 2 in the afternoon).  At one point, a boy about nineteen dancing in only jeans and holding a beer cup suddenly stopped in his tracks, and a pool of liquid spread from his groin and onto the ground.  Needless to say, he was the subject of much ridicule.  Several guys came up to Codrin and me and shook our hands, introduced themselves, and talked with us for a bit.  One tried to teach me the step dance they were all doing, which looks like a side-stepping version of the tango with a more complicated 6/8 rhythm.

After watching the party for a while, and when it was halftime at the football game and people started to come enjoy the entertainment, Codrin, Lockshell and I walked back to bring Ioana her well deserved drink and cigarette.  What was so interesting about the village was that the entire economy of the village centered on mokoro rides through the delta; the lodges would hire polers from the shore for the excursions, and we saw later would pay them when they came to pick the clients (us) up.  Lockshell, he told us, was twenty—our age—and made a living sleeping in a tent in the delta a couple times a week.  Most males in the village serve as polers.  It is as if the entire village is contracted for this one tourist attraction, the mokoro, and the entire existence of the village is predicated on the mokoro ride as the accepted version of the true delta experience.

One more anecdote:  when we were on our way out of the village, a woman came out of her hut holding a half-dressed baby, held it up and yelled “I’m selling this baby!”  We tried not to laugh and hurried along.  Lockshell said it was a joke.

The speedboat picked us up on schedule and we went back to the lodge.  At the lodge, we treated ourselves to steaks made from the same cows, no doubt, we saw upriver, and then we went off downtown to check the internet and find a way to get to Livingstone the next day.  We got back to the lounge at night and treated ourselves to a couple drinks.  That night, we met some Batswana from Francistown who were up to see the delta. They were both footballers from their local teams and had brought their girlfriends along.  I asked one of them what his name was, and he said his name was “Tow.”  Then I asked his friend, what’s your name?  “Row.”  Tow and Row.  Only in Botswana.

We drank with Tow and Row for an hour, then went to bed.  The next morning, we found that between drinks, food and cigarettes we had rung up an 800 pule bar tab.  However, considering the money we saved by staying there instead of the first hotel, it was worth it.  We had a fabulous time.

We couldn’t get a chartered flight to Livingstone in Zambia, or a flight to Kasane on the border.  So we were sort of at an impasse.  We also learned that the border at Kasane closed at 6.  It was 10 in the morning, and we knew it was a 6 hour drive to Kasane, so we decided (and it turned out to be a good call) to hire a taxi to take us to Kasane (for perspective, that’s like hiring a taxi in New York to take you to Washington).  The first car we hired didn’t show up to pick us up, so we found another.  This taxi was driven by a 23-year-old named Mokanke who had a loud stereo system in the car.  We offered to pay him 1200 pule for the drive (about half a month’s salary for a taxi driver), and we trekked off to Nata.  You can’t drive through the delta, so you have to drive three hours backwards to Nata, then forward to Kasane.

The car drive to Nata was uneventful—really uneventful.  The flat, empty landscape is beautiful when on safari, but when driving for three hours it becomes a little disconcerting.  We would drive for a hundred kilometers without seeing another car or person; and there was only one stop on the way, and that was a veterinary checkpoint where we had to stamp all our pairs of shoes in a cleansing liquid to prevent hoof and mouth disease.  Nata was the next place we could stop to get something to drink; we bought Mokanke a jug of fruit juice and we had some beer and fried chicken.

A food interlude, because there’s nowhere else to put this:

Batswana love fried chicken.  If I didn’t know any better, I would guess that KFC, Harold’s Chicken and Popeye’s were all Batswana exports to the United States, instead of the other way around.  Not only are there hundreds of name brand fried chicken joints, there are a barrage of local ones as well. Botswana is fried-chicken-crazy.

During our 6 hour bus ride to Maun, the break was at a roadside restaurant–in a village, in the middle of nowhere–called “Southern Fried Chicken.”  You could get a side of fries and mashed potatoes as well.  I didn’t partake in this delicacy, but I had gorged myself in KFC that afternoon.  I was chickened out.

There’s a Portuguese brand fried chicken place called Nando’s next to our hotel.  We ate 1/4 dark with mild sauce.  That’s right, the identical thing you can get at Harold’s in Hyde Park.  The mild sauce is just as good.  Aside from chicken, since we have been here we have eaten samosas, schuwarma, pies (lots of pies) and heapings of coleslaw and fries.

Anyway, back to the trip to Kasane.

On our way out of Nata, we got stopped at another veterinary checkpoint.  This time, however, there was a lone officer, and he had an agenda.  We were driving in a taxi—which means not only did we have the yellow taxi sign but the license plates were blue.  The officer seems to have decided to give us a hard time, and told Mokanke we had to pay 200 pule for “diversion of route”—driving the taxi out of Maun.  We don’t know if this is an actual fine or not.  However, we asked the officer to give us a receipt for the payment, at which point he disappeared into his guard house.  He then said we could pay him 100 pule and he wouldn’t mention anything.  (From what I’ve read, bribes are very much cracked down upon in Botswana and I was sure to report this incident to the Botswana government hotline.)  After that checkpoint, Mokanke took the yellow taxi sign off his car.  We were now just a car full of four young people on a road trip.

The ride from Nata to Kasane was just as long and flat, but this time there were potholes, and more importantly, there were elephants.  It happened like this.  We were driving along and we saw a cloud of dust on the road ahead.  We saw that cars were trying to navigate through potholes, and then had stopped.  For an elephant crossing.  About ten large-eared, long-tusk elephants crossed the road slowly, as the cars and trucks patiently waited.  After we crossed this point it was elephant city.

Elephants were everywhere along the side of the road—we saw way more of them than humans—and they either were eating or walking away from the cars as they passed.  Codrin kept wanting to stop to take pictures, but the elephants would always disappear too quickly.  Then, we saw an immense 10-foot-tall elephant, and Codrin asked Mokanke to stop.  This elephant was ten yards from the car, on the right (cars drive on the left side).  Codrin gets out of the car, pulls out his camera, and starts snapping pictures.  Ioana and I get some good pictures too, from inside the car.  Then we tell Codrin its time to go, we can’t stay for long.  Codrin insists he knows what he’s doing.  He knows the head of an elephant orphanage, he says, who told him that elephants are scared creatures.  So Codrin continues to take pictures of the elephant from outside the car.  At first, the elephant seems fine with us idling there, but you could see the elephant becoming increasingly agitated.  It didn’t move, but at one point looked directly at us (or at Codrin) and gave its head a rather forceful (and agitated) shake.  I could have sworn that it stepped forward slightly too.  We start to yell at Codrin to get in the car (Mokanke included), but Codrin says “Don’t tell me what to do” and continues to take pictures.  Finally, when Codrin was ready, and when he wanted to (not because we told him to), he calmly got in the car and Mokanke hit the gas like he was squashing a bug.

We reached Kasane at 6:45 and the border was closed.  Mokanke expressed his desire not to drive back that night, and we sympathized with him.  We figured we’d be able to find a cheap place to stay that night, and hit the border first thing in the morning.  Boy, were we wrong.  Unbeknownst to us, Kasane is the most expensive place to stay in Botswana.  Apparently, the wealthy come to Kasane to have access to all the safaris, and Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe right there to travel to.  We ended up finding a rate of 500 pule for a double room, and got two of them.

But first, one anecdote.  It was getting dark, and as we were driving along the main highway from Kasane toward the border where the Toro lodge is, Mokanke hit the brakes suddenly and we looked up and there was a GIANT ELEPHANT looming out of the darkness, stepping onto the road.  It was the biggest one we saw, and it just slowly trod across the road.  Spooky, but cool.

The Toro Safari Lodge was not as nice as the River Lodge, for five times the rate, had a bar where a Heineken cost 16 pule and a restaurant where the only dinner option was a four course meal and cost 120 pule.  We decided that, since it was our last night in Botswana and we needed to spend our pule anyway, we would treat ourselves (and Mokanke) to a luxurious feast.  So we bought drinks, ordered dinner, and made the most of it.  Mokanke, Codrin and I talked about Zimbabwean politics and Ioana and Mokanke chatted about hip hop.  Mokanke took full advantage of our quarters, went to bed early and when I went to our room he was sprawled out on the bed exhausted.  He really was a sweet guy and I’m glad we could make the long drive (and unexpected night in Kasane) worth his while.

At 6 in the morning we checked out and Mokanke drove us to the border.  As we approached, we passed a 10-km-long line of trucks, all carrying heavy cargo.  I figured it was a line for border inspection.  As it turns out, the border at Kasane is actually a ferry.  Two ferries go back and forth between Botswana and Zambia all day, and they can only hold one large truck, or two smaller trucks, apiece.  So for a truck to cross that border has to be a 20 to 40 hour wait at least, given it takes 15 minutes between ferry loading.  People can cross without a problem, though.  When we had paid Mokanke and bid him a warm farewell (and Merry Christmas…he has a girlfriend in Gabarone of four years and he’ll make use of his payday), we lugged our bags to shore to wait for the fairy.  This was a rather seedy area, where Zambians and Batswana mingled in the mutual goal of taking advantage of everything confusing about border crossings—transportation, currency, gas and oil, commodities, taxis—and since we were the only white people we got special attention.  My personal favorite was the man who asked Ioana for a job.  “We don’t offer jobs,” she responded.

Fuel running is apparently profitable, for a pickup truck carrying thirty jugs of petrol drove up just in time for the ferry and the fuel was carried on.  On the other side we would see “Gas stations” that were just houses with jugs of fuel that was haggled over.  After a 16-wheeler loaded onto the ferry, we pedestrians followed suit, and 10 minutes later we were in Zambia.

The first thing you notice about Zambia is how different it is from Botswana.  Botswana is calm, wealthier, more secure, and civilized.  The other side was suddenly chaotic, crowded, noisy and in disarray.  For the first time since we’ve been in Africa, I suddenly felt like we were in the third world. Hundreds of people were exchanging currency on the street in a sort of black currency market.  You could buy kwacha (Zambian dollars) or Zimbabwean dollars.  One taxi driver targeted us and offered us a price of 650 pule to go to Livingstone (35 minutes away).  We went through immigration, and when we came out the same driver was trying to get our business.  We knew it should only cost 50 pule a person, so we weren’t about to go with him.  But then a woman who had arranged for him to pick her up asked to share the ride with us, and we got a price of 150 pule for the three of us.  Perfect.  It turns out that this woman, Isabella, is the daughter of the town clerk of Livingstone and in the course of our ride offered us a tour of the neighboring villages and a free bungi jump off the falls, which Ioana and Codrin wanted to do (count me out). Although I’m looking at a poster for it right now which claims a 100% safety record.

We checked into the Jollyboys Backpackers hostel, where we got a private three-person room for $12 per person per night.  A far cry from the 1000 pule we had spent the night before.  The hostel is beautiful with a pool, a bar, a kitchen, and it’s right in the middle of town.

Once checked in, we decided not to do the falls today and instead explore the town and the market.  We spent time at the bakery, the pub, a couple banks, and finally did some hard bargaining at the market.  We spent the rest of the day lounging at the hostel.  Codrin and I visited the Livingstone Museum, which provided a good historical and ethnographic background to the area.  On the street, we bought 500 billion Zimbabwean dollars for $2, which is the current exchange rate today (it’ll change tomorrow).

Tomorrow the plan is to visit the falls, and the village of Mokami nearby which is where all the tourist trinkets are made.  With any luck, we will have a beer for a trillion dollars on the Zimbabwean side of the falls.

This has been a very long post, and I apologize for the tardiness, but it has been difficult to get a computer and I owe Jollyboys $10 at this point for internet, so I’m going to sign off and I’ll post more updates soon!

December 23, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More
Updates from Africa 4

Updates from Africa 4

I spotted my first Obama shirt on a teenager in Gaborone, when we were leaving the national museum.  Gaborone is a very small city; the museum is the only real tourist attraction.  Most people check their bags at the door before they go in, in exchange for a claim check, but the woman didn’t give us claim checks because we were instantly recognizable, being the only whites in Gaborone.  Codrin claims there is a small Romanian population there, but we only saw two white women during our excursion to Gabane, and they were South African, so go figure.

Remember the night we arrived at the lodge in Gaborone the reception told us the room was 250?  Apparently he was on a different page as the owner, who told us when we were checking out that it should be 300 because there are three of us.  Not that we’d have a problem paying 300, but not when we were told 250.  We also had to pay for an additional night because we were leaving after checkout time, even though we were catching the night train.  We argued with the owner over the additional 100 pule, and she threatened to call the police on us.  Ioana stuck to her guns:  we were told 250, we’re paying 250. Fine, the woman says, pay 500 and get out.  No problem, we were leaving anyway.

This experience, in conjunction with the parliament building experience that morning, left us a little shaken, and I think we were all a little relieved to be leaving Gaborone.  It’s a city of only 200,000 people and we stick out like a sore thumb.  We had first class tickets to the train, so we got our own waiting room and a sleeper cabin, which made for a very nice night.

Codrin and Ioana are smokers.  They don’t smoke a lot, but they smoke enough that they need a cigarette, and they usually need one at the most inopportune times.  5 minutes before the train leaves?  That’s time for a smoke!  Bus stopped?  Smoke break!  We’re getting kicked out of the hotel?  How about one more smoke!  Border crossing? Perfect time to light up.  Smoking aside, the trip has been relatively bump free.

We got to the Francistown train station at 6 in the morning, and by 8:30 were on a coach bus to Maun (after Codrin and Ioana had to have one last smoke, of course).  It was supposed to be a 4 hour trip, we ended up pulling into Maun at 2pm.  There was a security checkpoint about an hour outside of town.  One major problem in Botswana right now is illegal Zimbabwean immigration; most Batswana attribute the Zimbabweans for the hike in crime in the past couple years, and increased exposure to disease.  Forcible removals of illegal, and legal, immigrants have been commonplace in Botswana.

I had an opportunity to pick up the Gaborone newspaper to read on the bus.  The biggest concern in Botswana right now is HIV/AIDS, which I wrote in a previous email has a 23% prevalence rate in Botswana.  This causes the life expectancy here to be a miserable 33 years, which is expected to drop to 27 years by 2010 if current trends persist.  I also wrote that Botswana seems to be tackling the problem head on, with everything from public service announcements to prosecutions of HIV-infectors–people who deliberately infect others with HIV.  One interesting segment on the paper was on the theatre and arts exhibition that had recently taken place, highlighting human rights abuses of Zimbabweans in light of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  I didn’t know there was a theatre scene in Gaborone, it wasn’t in the guide books. One very interesting thing took me a couple times to notice: a proliferation of hardware stores in Gaborone (and, as we found, in the countryside as well).  The hardware store fills a very specific demographic need.  People who are truly “do-it-yourself” do everything themselves–they have no need of a store for parts of things to put together.  People who are very rich, on the other hand, can afford to have things done for them, from plumbing to building to tiling their bathroom.  For there to be so many hardware (and furniture) stores in Botswana suggests to me that there is a very specific and vibrant middle class here, which has enough money to afford to improve their homes, build, etc, and actually desires to do part of the assembly and work required, but doesn’t need to build everything from scratch.  I don’t think that class exists in many countries, especially in Africa.

Botswana is highly dependent on the diamond industry, which is starting to dry up after 30 years when the mines were first discovered.  Whether Botswana will be able to retain its economic growth in the years to come is uncertain.  Currently, Botswana is the safest country in Africa and has the stablest democracy, uninterrupted by coup since 1966.  As I wrote in an earlier email, the economic growth has been a steady 5% per year since 1970.  Should these trends continue, and if the fight against HIV is taken under control, Botswana seems to be the country to watch in the upcoming decade.

Now we’re in Maun, and we checked into a hotel near the bus station for one night, until we can find a better place to launch our safari through the delta.  Maun is the tourist capital of Botswana; it’s known for its tours through the fourth largest delta in the world, a rich environment filled with wildlife.

I’ve been in the internet cafe for 30 minutes and have seen more whites here than I’ve seen in all of Botswana so far; and what’s most interesting is most of them speak Tswana.  They’re locals.  One man I talked to originally came from Houston, but moved here 20 years ago and has lived here since, running a holding company for local businesses.  He has a young son who evidently was born here. One more anecdote:  when I gave my street name, Pequot, to the receptionist at the hotel, she asked me if I was from Connecticut.  Apparently, she worked at Foxwoods for a year to get her training for the hotel business.

Our plan is to stay in Maun so we can do an excursion into the delta. Then, we will try to get to Livingstone, from where we can go to Victoria Falls.  We’re a little behind due to our stay in Johannesburg but we’ll make it up; we have a bus to catch from Zimbabwe to Windhoek on the 23rd.

December 17, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More
Updates from Africa 3

Updates from Africa 3

Sitting in a cafe in Gaborone, Botswana.

The bus here was delayed but only by an hour; the border crossing was fast and we were in Gaborone by 9.  Driving in we passed by a brightly lit shopping center with an LCD billboard and I thought for a second we were back in the suburbs of Chicago going to Target.

A woman named Maduo, a Batswana who rode the bus with us from Johannesburg, directed us around the corner from the bus station and through the main square, the Mall, to where she knew of a guest house. Maduo works in the human resources department of the University of Botswana, which actually has an exchange program with the University of Chicago and other Midwest colleges.  She walked us (Codrin and I carried her bags) to the lodge, which was a bit beyond our price range.  So she called a cab for us, waited around for ten minutes, then took the cab with us to another lodge on the outskirts of town, in extension 10.  This lodge had a double room, but he was asking 350 pule ($50) for it.  The single was comparable.  We asked him if we could put three people in one room, and he rrefused.  So we did what any savvy traveller would do, we left our bags with Maduo and Ioana and Codrin and I walked 50 meters to another lodge next door, walked right in and asked if they had a room for three.  They didn’t, but they could put three in a double for 250 pule.  Sold.  This room had a double bed and a twin, and the lodge serves breakfast included and has a pool.  We went back to the first lodge and told the man we had found a plae next door for half the price.  At that point, you would think he would offer a room for the same price, but he didn’t so we went on our way.  The man who had driven us had been waiting so he took us to the lodge next door. We bid farewell to Maduo, who had spent an hour and a half of her night helping us find a place, and settled in.

Gaborone is a small city, about the size of Westport, but has a vibrant business district, shopping malls and the Mall is like downtown DC.  Botswana has the fastest growing economy in Africa, at a constant rate of 5% a year since 1970, and it shows.  Every store here is a recognizable franchise, including a KFC, PEP (a South African superstore) and Woolworth’s.  Despite the economy, this country is still very conservative.  Homosexuality still carries a 7-year sentence, and AIDS here is the second highest prevalence in Africa, largely because of lax standards concerning rape and sexual assault. However, unlike South Africa, Botswana seems to be taking an active role in tackling the problem; there are HIV-awareness billboards all over the place, and most Batswana wear red ribbons.  In fact, in South Africa I didn’t see one public service announcement, condom giveaway, or person on the street giving out flyers.

We plan to spend the day doing the 5 or 6 tourist sites in Gaborone (there are more in Westport!) and buying a ticket to Maun, the tourist capital of Botswana.  We might meet up with Maduo later for drinks. Apparently there’s an expat bar, although with the number of bars available I don’t know if we’ll go to that one.

Today we wandered from the Main Mall to the main government park, which is a lovely green park with a statue in the middle square. Facing the park is the parliament building, a broad, white building with columnades and modern sculpture.  It is open to the public and has an inner courtyard with a fish pond.  We took pictures of the building, and then went into the courtyard and took some more.  There was an information center, but parliament was not in session so we didn’t want to stay for long.  We were taking our last pictures of this serene and picturesque complex when a guard started yelling at Codrin in incomprehensible english.  Then he started yelling at me. So I went up to him and he asked “Who authorized you to take pictures? Where did you get authorization?”  I responded that we were just taking pictures, there were no signs to say not to.  He said “You cannot take picture here, this is government building.  I am going to take you to jail.” “What?” I said. “I am going to take you to jail.  Directly to jail, not later, not tomorrow, now.” “Sir, I’m sorry, but we will delete the pictures we took, we didn’t know.” “You cannot take pictures!  You cannot take pictures here!” Codrin, Ioana, the guard and I kept going back and forth in the columnade of the parliament building, but he wasn’t doing anything. He was just talking to us, not withdrawing a weapon, not physically engaging in any sort of arrest.  Codrin started to argue more aggressively with the guard, and then started walking away.  The guard followed Codrin yelling at him, and then came back to me and Ioana telling us to come with him, and motioned elsewhere.  Of course, we’re telling him we will delete the pictures, we’re sorry we took them, and so on, and when we asked if he wanted us to delete them, he said “No! Do not delete.  Come with me!”  So we immediately took out our cameras and deleted the pictures, as quickly as possible (we don’t want any proof that we actually took any).  By this time, Codrin is completely ignoring the guard and walking off, and Ioana and I are on the fence between listening to the guard and starting to go.  If he was going to arrest us, he would have done so already, right?  Finally, the guard started following us out of the complex and then started motioning toward another government building, which actually looked like a jail. It was painted white and all the windows were barred.  He said “Let me assist you” and started leading us around this new building.  He kept repeating “Let me assist, let me assist!” and we started to follow him, but after about 5 seconds we decided it would be better if we insisted where we were going first before we went any further.  It turns out, he was now trying to help us by leading us to the public relations office to get permission to take photos.  He went from arresting us to being our best friend within five minutes.  This is Africa.  We thanked him and left.  On the way onward to the bus station, we surmised that after spending five days in Africa, the first crime we experienced was our own.Codrin and Ioana stopped for a smoke on the other side of the highway, as we walked to the bus station.  We needed to get to Maun as soon as possible.  Gaborone is lovely but there’s not much to do in the way of sightseeing, one day would be plenty.  The bus station was not so much a station as a parking lot the size of three football fields, filled with pay-on-the-bus busses that go everywhere in  Southern Africa.  We had a hard time figuring out the system, but we found a bus that was leaving at 6 the next morning for Francistown, and from there we could get a ride to Maun.  We figured this out after we had walked past the bus “Station” completely to a shopping center, where there was a Bata shoe store and a Pie City where we bought a couple beef and kidney, and spinach, pies.  I bought ice cream on the street.  The temperature at this point was over 90.  When we were eating our pies, Christina Aguelera was playing on the speaker system.  We couldn’t finish all of our pies, so we were left with 2 of them (they’re small).  Ioana made a quite ironical comment:  “You know how your parents tell you when you’re a kid to eat all your food because the children in Africa don’t have it?  Well now we’re in Africa and we’re not finishing either.” Really makes you think.  Codrin suggested we could give the extra food to someone who was starving.  But, actually, there were no such people.  We haven’t seen a single beggar, malnourished or otherwise poor person in Botswana so far.

From the bus station, we got an combi to a village called Gabane, on the outskirts of Gaborone.  We paid 3 pule a person, about 50 cents, for the 25 minute ride.  We got to Gabane and walked about a kilometer down a dusty road to a pottery and wares manufacturer, where we shopped for about an hour.  When we got back to Gaborone, we decided to take a cab to the train station and see if we could take a train to Francistown.  As it turns out, there’s a night train with first class sleepers for $25/person–not bad for an 8 hour trip.  So we’re leaving on the night train tonight, and will be in Francistown by morning and Maun by tomorrow night.

One more anecdote.  When we were reserving the tickets at the train station, the woman asked me for my name.  She was writing our names on a sheet that was numbered with letters A, B, C, etc next to each of which there were 5 or 6 lines.  I surmised that these were cabins on the train, and by putting our names in one of the letters she was putting us all in the same cabin.  So I noticed that one of the letters–D–had only 4 lines, as opposed to the others which had more. So I asked if we could put our names in letter D, so we could have our own cabin.  She was writing my name in G, and every time I said “D, can we put in in D?” all she heard was “D, D, D, D!”  So she started writing my name:  “Mr. D…” and then I said “M, A…Wait, D! Put us in D!”  So she erased part of my name and continued to write “D, D”.  By the time she had finished writing my name it was “Mr. D DMayder.”  As it turns out, the cabin in D only fit two people and the others fit 4.  So after we had reserved tickets for the three of us, we decided to buy the fourth ticket and get a private cabin.  So I asked if we could get another ticket.  “What’s the name?” she asked. I said “Mr. D, D, D, D, D…”

When we got off the combi back to the Mall Ioana asked, as we were getting out, how much it was for three people.  Instantly the driver said “10 pule”.  Yea, right.  That was after a 2 minute trip, when the combi we took earlier was 25 minutes.  Plus, 10 isn’t even a multiple of 3.  But it was still $1/person, and we couldn’t complain.  We paid him and left.

I have to go, we’re off to the museum.  Update from Maun soon.

December 16, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More