Monday, March 31, 2008

Day 51. The Makgadikgadi Pans

If I were a bird watcher, which I am not, I would have realized my dream by coming into the vast expanses of the Makgadikgadi flats. Like the Okavango, they are formed by the spreading of the waters of the Nata River into the Kalahari. The Nata River is much smaller than the Okavango, however, so instead of forming a vast network of swamps it has formed endless playa lakes, which are well beloved by all sorts of birds. The playa lakes evaporate quite quickly after the end of the rainy season, so for most of the year the flats are dominated by alkaline pans where nothing grows. The birds simply move on.

I spent the night at a beautiful camping ground in Francistown, and met there a South African Boer family on holiday, Berney and Lizette Hattingh and their two daughter (10 and 12 years old). The Hattinghs farm 600 acres of corn and raise cattle in 1,400 acres of central South Africa, and were delightfully friendly toward a lonely Mexican. Oh yes, the whole family was fascinated to meet someone from Mexico, and the kids had me speaking Spanish so they could burst into happy giggles (the girls themselves spoke only Afrikaans, so Dad and Mom had to translate good portions of our conversation).

Berney gave me a brief introduction to Boer history in southern Africa (a story of religious and political prosecution), taught me to recognize the tracks of puff aders and other viciously poisonous African snakes, and expounded at large on the social and economic problems of South Africa. To put it in a nutshell, the Boer population lives in fear of the black population, and is concerned that the black politicos are but a shadow of Nelson Mandela and are slowly destroying the prosperity of South Africa (the Boers are now completely out of the political scene, but are still the owners of most of the farms and industries). Being the rich nation in Africa, they have similar illegal immigration problems than the US, but in their case the immigrants are competing directly with the resident black population for agricultural, manufacturing, and menial jobs. Berney’s outlook is not very positive for the immediate future, but going back to the Boer history he is not ready to give up. He was, however, considering buying a farm in Botswana to create an alternative for him and his family.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Day 50 – Aimless wandering

Today I drove aimlessly through the Okavango Delta, hesitantly taking sandy tracks that always started with many tire tracks and ended into swamps, as if the vehicles that had made them had simply vanished into thin air. It is pretty, but like the rest of Botswana a bit too flat to allow for scenic overlooks. Finally I lost my nerve and decided to drive around the delta on the paved roads. The place is huge! At least 250 km long, and a good 100 km wide on its distal reaches. In retrospect I should have done this driving before I flew over the delta, because I knew full well that the animals were having a good time in the innermost parts but were nowhere to be found in the periphery.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Day 49 (continued) – The Okavango Delta

Maun sits at the southern end of the so-called Okavango Delta, which is not a delta at all, but a very flat alluvial fan formed where the Okavango River exits a fault-controlled narrow valley and spreads into dozens of channels before the water completely infiltrates into the sandy soils of the Kalahari desert. It is a true geologic and ecological wonder, because it forms a giant wildlife oasis in the middle of the desert. Deservedly, it is Botswana’s greatest tourist attraction, and the Motswana, not being any kind of fools, have decided to make it a big profitable operation (the motto is “high cost, low volume tourism”). The cost for lodging, boat trips, or flights over the delta is astronomical, and much more than I was willing to pay. However, I had not come all this way to just sit in Maun, so I went to the airport, walked into the offices of Kavango Air, and explained that I was traveling alone and could not afford to hire a plane for myself. Would they have an empty seat in one of their small planes? The boss thought for a minute and suggested: “I have to go to Chobe to pick up a helicopter, and one of my pilots is going to fly me there. Why don’t you come along for the price of a seat? It would be a longer flight than normal, but you would get to see both the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park.” Nothing could have been better!

An hour later we took off, and I enjoyed what to this moment have been the best two hours of my trip: The delta is a very scenic collage of channels, pools, and swamps, and I almost danced with joy when I saw a giant bull elephant in one of the pools. I can finally say that “I have seen the elephant”. And I saw many more elephants, giraffes, hyppos, zebras, and even a rhinocerous:) We also caused a commotion among a herd of wildebeest that were grazing around the landing strip in Chobe. It was a dream safari.

Day 49 – The nerve racking drive to Maun

I was up by 4:30 am, but had to cool my heels until the people started stirring sometime around 6 am. True to their word, my angels gave me a push, got the truck started, and gave me very careful instructions on how to get out of the Kalahari. It would be about 100 km of rough driving before I could reached the paved road, but there were no confusing intersections, so they sent me with their blessings and assurances that “you cannot miss it”. Hah!

And so for the last time I crossed through the Kalahari, uneventfully as it happens, but with the bone chilling sensation that if I made a mistake I would be stuck for hours waiting for someone to come along. Reaching the paved road was an enormous relief, and within half an hour I was entering Maun, with the plan of finding a mechanic. But just as I was turning into the main street the truck simply quit. Dead. Nada. A couple of friendlies tried to push start me, but to no avail. Apparently the battery had held just a tiny bit of charge up to that point, but when it became truly dead entering Maun the engine simply couldn’t start. How is that for good luck? This could have happened while I was still in the Kalahari!

As my good luck would have it, there was an auto parts store a few hundred meters away, so I disconnected the battery, and just went and bought a new one. Of course that would not take care of the starter problem, but if I could push start it again maybe I could reach a garage (bracing myself for a long and expensive repair). The fellows at the auto store pointed to a young man that was just hanging around and told me he was a free lance mechanic, so I hired him on the spot to look at the truck. We went back, mounted the battery, and . . . the starter did its job and the engine purred like a contented lion! The adventure had finished, and as they say all is well that ends well. Time to look for more trouble.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Day 48 – My adventure in the Kalahari (continued) –Good luck?

As I arrived the group of 8 to 10 wardens were finishing their dinner, and settling down to a well deserved rest. Of course having a tourist in distress was some sort of a welcome distraction, so everyone had to gather round and offer an opinion about what to do next. Some suggested a loose connection (but I had already checked that), a stuck starter (but I had also checked that), or simply tourist foolishness. Finally a couple of the guys decided to go get me out of the trouble I was stuck in, started an ancient 4-by-4 jeep truck, and we took off. I had asked if they had tools (I had a few, but no spanners) or an ax, but confidently they assured me that they were not needed; they had the 4-by-4 and a stout rope and that was all that was needed. “How about a radio or a cell phone?”, I asked. They looked at me like I had just landed from the moon; no, no radios of cell phones. “So what do you do if you get stuck in your rounds?” “Oh, we stay in the truck and in two or three days someone comes looking for us.” Great!

Once again I made the 50 km through the Kalahari in the dark back to the truck. My angels looked seriously at the situation, checked all cables and connections, tried to start me with a jump (to no avail), and then concluded that they were going to pull-start me. There were of course all sorts of bushes in the way (I knew we were going to need an ax!), but that didn’t face them. Indeed, with the 4-by-4 and the rope they promptly yanked out of the ground all the offending bushes. I was trying to make myself helpful, removing the branches, but one of them asked me to please not step out of the light: “Lions do not come into the light, but they like to hover at the edge of darkness to see what they can catch”, he explained. It finally dawned on me that lions are a real and present danger in the Kalahari, and the wardens have learned to live with the daily danger.

Finally we are ready to try. One of the guys gave my truck a long and steady pull, while the other directed operations: “Now”, he said, and the engine roared gloriously into life. My angel jumped into the passenger seat with me, and with the jeep following we headed back to the gate. In chatting with the warden I explained that my ultimate goal had been to exit the park through the west gate. “Oh, no”, he said, “the west gate is about 200 km from here. Lucky that your car stopped where it had, for otherwise you would have been lost for days in the maze of roads of the western Kalahari.” So you see, I had been lucky after all.

We got to the gate close to midnight, I turned off the engine (it didn’t start again, of course), and my angels assured me that they would push start me again in the wee hours of the morning, for my 150 km journey back to civilization.

Day 48 – My adventure in the Kalahari – A series of unfortunate events

I got on the way early in the morning, ready to tackle rough 4-by-4 roads, but was quite disappointed when I found out that progressive little Botswana has been busy building an excellent network of paved roads. I crossed in a northwest direction, toward the towns of Palapye and Serowe, and was delighted when I saw two ladies asking for a ride. I stopped and invited them in. One of them was very traditionally built, and when she sat in the back seat the car listed slightly; she had a beaming smile. The other one sat by my side, and made small polite conversation in English, in that charming accent that the Motswana people have. Once we got to Palapye the lady in front got ready to get down from the car, but after a quick conversation in Tswana to the lady in the back she informed me that “This lady will show you to the bank, Rra”. Unfortunately the traditionally built lady spoke little English, but with a lot of smiles we got over my false turns and eventually reached the bank, for me to get my first infusion of “pulas”. After that we said goodbye, and from now on I will always think of her as the image of Mma Precious Ramotswe, my heroine from “The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency”.

The next leg of the trip, always on paved road, took me to the neighborhood of the diamond mines of Lethiakane and Orapa. These mines are one of the main sources of wealth for the people of Botswana, and have been used with great wisdom by the government to (1) build the necessary infrastructure of roads and electrification, and (2) “trickle down” money through the economy by employing large numbers of people for public works. More about the amazing phenomenon of Botswana’s well-run democracy and economics later, but at this point I must report that in the midst of this bonhomie there is always room for petty thieves. To back up one step, that morning I had discovered that the little digital camera that Faby and DJ had given me as a present so I could share pics with you all had a malfunction. The screen one uses to frame the photograph would not do its thing, but rather showed a psychedelic design. Bummer! Still, I kept pointing and shooting at stuff, in the hope that the recording device might still be working. About an hour after discovering this malfunction I gave a lift to a young man, who worked as a front loader operator in one of the mines, and for about an hour we chatted about cattle, the mines, and the fact that you don’t mess with the police (I had been stopped at a control point, and the policeman in charge had read me the riot act for not making a full stop at the sign, which was good 20 meters from where he was standing doing the control). Fifteen minutes after I had dropped him off I reached for the camera to take a picture, and the camera was gone! So now I have no camera to show you the sights I saw, and I must rely on secondary sources to illustrate the narrative of my week in Botswana. Sigh!

After Orapa I continued to Rakops. I was getting grumpy because I had run for another 400 km without encountering challenging driving conditions. Where were the deep drifts of loose sand promised by the rental company. Renting a 4-by-4 is bloody expensive, and the only reason I had done it was because I expected a wild and savage country. I felt that all I was doing was driving and driving through a pleasant but not particularly scenic countryside (a bit like driving for hundreds of kilometers through the flat arid valleys of northern Mexico and Nevada, but without the mountains). It was this with savage delight that I made a screeching turn into a road labeled “Central Kalahari Game Reserve”, which is the largest national park in Botswana, and the heart of the Kalahari. I was in paradise! Finally there was a dirt road, and indeed it had lots of loose sand, and I was on my way to see wonderful wildlife, bushmen, and the amazing Kalahari. Now, I had read that (1) 4-wheel driving through the Kalahari is not for the faint of heart: check, not even my worst enemy would not consider me faint of heart (foolish yes, but not faint of heart), and (2) one should never venture alone through the Kalahari: not check, but what is one to do.

After 40 km of sand I finally reached the gate of the reserve, where a very nice man collected the fee, and gave me very vague directions to the west gate of the park. Unfortunately my maps were poor at best, and the directions in the bush are close to meaningless (everything being flat, there are no landmarks to follow). Fool that I am, I had not brought with me a GPS or even a compass, but trusting on my good sense of direction I felt I was ready for the adventure. I get in the truck, turn the key, and . . . nothing! Dead. Hmm, the warden and I tapped the cables of the battery and still nothing. Ah, here comes another car, so I ask for a jump and the truck starts. What to do next? Prudence and common sense told me to go back to civilization immediately, but the thought of being so close to the Kalahari and turning my tail and running was simply unbearable. So I compromised to myself. I would head straight for the west gate of the park, thus crossing it from east to west, and reach civilization on the other side. I was counting on two things: one, the engine would keep going as long as I didn’t turn off the key, and two, even if I inadvertently turned off the ignition someone else would be able to jump start me.

Off I go into my dream safari. The Kalahari is a most unusual desert, in that it is not just a vast expanse of sand. Rather it is heavily vegetated with grass and scrub bushes, which have adapted remarkably to survive on the scarce rainfall and whatever moisture they can scavenge from the atmosphere. As it happened, I visited the Kalahari at the end of the rainy season, so everything was green and gorgeous. However, the Kalahari is a desert for people because there is not a drop of surface water anywhere. There are big playa lakes, which might hold water for a week or two, but the water quickly evaporates leaving behind big pans covered with cracking mud and grass. Everywhere else water infiltrates through the sandy soil almost immediately, leaving behind a soft but very dry paradise.

I went for about 50 km, now and then seeing a warthog, a few gazelles and springboks, and tons of birds. I was beginning to think that I had gone a long time without seeing a soul (later I was to find out that on that day there were only three vehicles in the 10,000 square kilometers of the park), and was beginning to doubt whether I really was heading in the right direction, when I hit a sand bank the wrong way, the truck was thrown against the bank, and the engine stalled! Oh, my God, the unthinkable had happened, I was stuck in the middle of the Kalahari! Trying not to panic I tried to start the engine: nothing. OK, I disconnected the second battery from the back (the one used for camping), dragged it to the front and connected it: nothing. Oh God, why hast thou abandoned me?

It was about 4 pm, so I had maybe an hour to get help. Alright, chop, chop, I got water and started walking back. I had passed an intersection about 5 km back, so I figured I would go all the way there to look for another vehicle, and that if I didn’t find one I would leave some sort of SOS signal and go back to the truck to spend the night. So I trudged back through the sand for about 4 km and, miracles of miracles, so at the distance the very tail end of a vehicle turning into the road of a camping area. They were three young Germans, who were gracious enough to come back with me to try to jump start me, but who were not happy to be on the road at such a late hour (lions start hunting after the heat of midday starts going down, around 4 pm). We are at the truck trying to figure how to give me a jump (they were behind me, and my jumper cables were not very long), when another truck comes to the jam from the opposite direction! Clearly God had not abandoned me, and was sending all sorts of help. The new comers were two Greeks, who had stepped straight out of a Clive Cussler book: Tall, suntanned, and with a rugged look that said “no problemo” to life. So the scared Germans took off, and my Greek rescuers got ready to give me a jump. Damned, the truck wouldn’t start, and the starter made a very funny prr-prr-prr noise. We tapped at the starter, and tried all possible combinations, but to no avail. “Sounds like your starter is gone man. You are going to have to replace it.” I sank deep in despair, thinking on how many days and pulas it would take to get a mechanic to the middle of the Kalahari to make the repair. “Come on, we’ll take you to the gate, and maybe they will know of a mechanic that can come make the repair”. At least I was not going to be eaten by lions, and the guys did their best to inject me with good cheer, but my spirits were very low when they finally dropped me at the gate, where the game wardens had their office, at about 7 pm and in total darkness.

To be continued

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Day 47 – Africa is big!

I rented my 4-by-4 vehicle (a 2002 Toyota pickup with a cab and a folding tent on the roof), spent an hour shopping for provisions, and finally headed out of Jo’burg to the border with eastern Botswana. Now, if you look at a map of Africa you will see that Johhanesburg is quite close to Gaborone, but you will be deceived by the scale. These are large countries, so before I could reach the border I had to run for good 400 km through the South African countryside (I did get to see from the road one of their big platinum mines :) Also, after listening carefully to the advice of the rental company owner, I decided to head first north, toward Maun, and leave Gaborone for the return trip (actually, he advised me to stay out of Gaborone altogether, which according to him is dry, dusty, industrial, and with no road signs or street names whatsoever – a long ways from my idea of Mma Ramotswe’s house in Zebra Drive!)

I finally crossed the border around 5 pm, and knowing that I should not drive at night I quickly found a small side road where I camped for the night.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Day 46 – Travel from Tana to Jo’burg

A long travel day. I left Tana at 6:30 am, to land in Nairobi at about 10 am. Then I had to wait for 5 hours for the flight to Johannesburg (so I walked, and drank a beer, and worked on the computer, and ate, and thoroughly bored myself). The flight left at 3:30 pm and I landed in Jo’burg at 7 pm. I had arranged for transport and a room at a bed and breakfast, so by 9 pm I was home. So far so good.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Day 45 – (Tuesday March 25) Last day in Madagascar

Alas, this is my last day in this beautiful country. We made the slow return from Tamatave to Tana, stopping along the way in the D’Andasibe-Mantadia National Park to say goodbye to the lemurs. Once again the two young ladies who were our guides were very concerned about locating lemurs. They should have not bothered because our star was shining brightly, so we had excellent sighting of the giant Indri lemur, the brown lemur, boas, chamaleons, and even the elusive Madagascar giraffe (no, it is not the big African animal, but a bright red insect with an impossibly long neck).
Back in Tana we landed, quite by chance, in a workshop of model ships. I never realized that there was such a craze for scale models of famous ships, nor that this small shop in Madagascar is well known for the quality of their research, nor the workmanship of its artisans. We got the deluxe tour by the proprietaire, who obviously delighted on having a visitor to see his ships. They are as small as a foot or as large as six feet, and the exhibition hall would have put to shame many maritime museums. So I finally got to see my pirate ships after all!

I said goodbye to Floriel, and to this charming country, with an excellent meal of slices of baguette with toasted smelly cheese (yumm), followed by a delicate langue piquant (tongue with peppers) and a generous serving of a cheese and potatoes cake. I am now ready for the next leg of the trip.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Day 44 – In the search of pirates and vanilla

Today we drove north along the coast, in the search of pirate forts and vanilla. We found none, because the trip was sadly interrupted by a collapsed bridge. The bridge collapsed a couple of years ago, so in the meantime the road folks had cobbled together a pontoon bridge that had partially sunk. I have great confidence on Le Petit Brav, but this seemed ridiculous so we turned back.
Madagascar was a hot spot for piracy in the 1800’s because the Aghulas current, which the Indiamen followed to turn the cape, hugs its eastern coast. Unfortunately little is left in the form of archaeologic remains, so I had to be content on knowing that I had visited the region, and the famous port of Tamatave (also known as Tomasina). Regarding vanilla, the French imported it from Mexico in the mid 1800’s, and made quite an industry of it (to this date, Madagascar is the second largest producer of vanilla in the world. So Mexico gave to Madagascar three important things: Vanilla, rum, and soap operas! No wonder everyone likes Mexicans :)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Day 43 – Easter

Happy Easter everyone! I miss you all, and wish I could be with you at Owl Creek.

Today we went down to the coast. It was a long descent, with lots of curves in the road. Floriel is an excellent driver but there is a dash of speedster in him, so he enjoyed cutting across curves, screeching tires, and making sharp changes in gears.

The countryside changes slowly from the pines of the high mountains to a lower but much more luxuriant vegetation of palms and bushes. They have a rather funny-looking palm here, in which the fronds grow on a plane, effectively creating the effect of a giant ladies fan. It is called the Tree of the Traveller, and is the symbol of the Malagache hospitality.

To get to the coast we left the route national at Brickaville (an old French sugar cane plantation) and took a bumpy dirt road to the little town of Ambila-Lemaitso. Before we could get there, however, we had to cross the Canal des Pangalanes, a very long coastal lagoon formed between the mainland and the barrier island where Ambila-Lemaitso is located. I had imagined some type of a ferry, but was not ready for the old barge that the locals use for crossing. It is basically an old pontoon, to which an offboard motor has been attached (a recent innovation, because up until last year they moved the pontoon with poles), and which is continuously bailed so it doesn’t sink. Floriel was a little hesitant, but finally gathered the courage and loaded our precious vehicle onto the barge. We have since baptized the car “Le Petit Brav” because it has taken us everywhere.

Ambila-Lemaitso is the dinkiest coastal resort town I have ever seen! In comparison Tecolutla (the sleepy little town where my parents took the family for a yearly vacation at the seaside) is the grand resort. We luckily secured a small bungalow for the night (the bottom of the barrel), and found a small restaurant for lunch and dinner (the cook was pretty good).

I spent the afternoon bathing in the Indian Ocean, which was a first for me (in India we couldn’t get in the sea because Mumbai bay is too dirty). This part of Madagascar is open coast, so the waves were huge. The jewel came at night, when a full moon reflected merrily on the ever changing seascape. Pretty!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Day 42 – Back to Tana

I wish I had had more time to go exploring around the “haut pays” but, alas, time goes by and I wish to see the famous pirate coast of Madagascar. So today we drove back to Tana, pretty much following the same was we used to come in. This, as some of you know, is against my principles, but every loop I proposed was nixed by Floriel, who would have loved to do it driving a four-by-four, but cannot bring himself to do it in our little four-cylinder.

Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world, after Greenland, Papua New Guinea, and Borneo. That means that it is larger than Britain, Japan, New Zealand, or Cuba, so this may give you a feeling for the frustrations of the tourist who wants to see it all in one week. Add to that the fact that it is a very mountainous country, where roads are necessarily scarce. Up until twelve years ago the country was a real banana republic, crushed under a communist-like regime. Things started to change when the communist empire crumbled, and accelerated considerably when the current president was elected in 2002. The president is an independently wealthy business man (he made his fortune in yoghurt), and has started with the basics, improving the main roads along and across the country (which is why I had an excellent “route national” to travel through). He has also made electrification a priority, so all major population and industrial centers now have power. Much remains to be done, but the boost given to industry and commerce by roads and power has turned the tide for the better.

Tomorrow will be Easter, so everyone is out on the road, making their preparations for the celebration. Floriel tells me that after mass on Sunday the families will gather for a fine meal that will linger through the whole afternoon, and that on Monday many people will go on pic-nic.

At Antsirabe there was a kermesse, with al sorts of eats and games for the kids. And then it struck me that Malagaches love hats. Come to think of it, almost everyone I saw I the road was wearing a hat. And not just any hat. Some are funny skull caps, some are elegant fedoras, but the most common are floppy raffia hats. Sometimes they are plain, sometimes they have bright colors, and sometimes they sport giant raffia flowers. They are very becoming on the ladies, but look terribly funny on the men, who wear them without a second thought!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Day 41 – My God, this country is beautiful!

We went back to the park in the morning, for another round of lemur spotting. In retrospect I should have moved on, because half of the longer circuit we followed was actually the same ground we had covered yesterday. Also, lemurs were even more scarce than yesterday. We heard a great variety of birds, however, and I wish I could have kept a list to make Normita and Evan green with envy.

At about mid-day we continued on our way to the south, to the crest of Madagascar’s mountainous backbone. Again, I was fascinated by the beauty and richness of the country. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression: Madagascar is a comparatively poor country, and clearly the people work hard and live under harsh conditions (but anyone who looks at a country from the road is likely to find the roadside villages dingy). Yet, as I said yesterday, everyone seems to be hard at work, so you don’t get the feeling of hopeless poverty I have seen elsewhere. I am sure the French were just as bad colonial masters as the Brits, but at least they left behind a basic agricultural infrastructure, their quaint style of villages, and their love for good cuisine (it is said that Brits kill their beef twice, once when they butcher it and twice when they cook it, and comparing the cuisine of Kenya and Madagascar I will have to agree).

I have drifted toward food first because as I write this I am getting hungry, and second because we spent the night at a small town high in the mountains, where Madagascar is making its first efforts at making wine. Since I couldn’t pass the opportunity I had to order a bottle of their best white wine to accompany a gourmet dinner of very delicate Cuisees d’greneuille (frog legs) and a delicious serving of Canard aux champignons (duck with mushrooms). I ask you, where else in the world can you dine like that?

Going back to the day, we eventually reached a sign that declared that the entrance to the Andingrita National Park was 15 km down a dirt road. My excellent Floriel didn’t hesitate (brave of him, since he was responsible for the car), and made 10 km down the most miserable cattle path I have been on, until eventually common sense prevailed and we decided to turn back. A good thing we did, because I later learned that to “visit” the park one has to make a 3-day trek across the mountain range. And what a mountain range! The granitic domes and the deep gorges resemble the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada (but it doesn’t snow here), whereas the green vales reminded me of the foothills of the Alps. So, my dear students, start getting in shape for next year’s visit to Madagascar!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Day 40 – The “haut plateau” of Madagascar

No, it was not a dream. The place is real, and is even more beautiful than I had imagined. I left the hotel for a morning walk, and I found myself in the strangest combination of Malaysia, Africa, and France. The architecture and the baguettes sold at every corner are certainly French, and the people span the range from light brown to black. They are generally small in build, very friendly and polite, and quite attractive. Some, like Floriel, have curly hair, very dark skin, and very aquiline features. Others are distinctively Malaysian in their features and light brown complexions, but they have a dash of Africa on them that gives them great beauty. Finally, there are some with very characteristic African features.

We had “le petit dejeuner” in a little bistro, with an excellent cup of coffee, an omelet aux crevettes (omelet with shrimp), and a crusty baguette. Hmm, these folks can cook!

We spent the day driving through the high plateau, the “haut plateau”, of Madagascar. It is absolutely gorgeous! We are surrounded by beautiful mountains from which water gushes into endless fields of rice (the Malagache—pronounce it Malagass—love rice, and they eat big mountains of it for breakfast, lunch and dinner). Everything is green and luxuriant, and everybody is busy harvesting the rice and everything else in the fields. Out of sheer luck I came at the end of their summer (which is also the rainy season), so the harvest is in full swing. There is a feeling of busyness and bonhomie everywhere you look, and the little French-looking villages are bustling with commerce. Truly, “cette pays et beni pour le bon Dieux”.

On passing through one of the villages we saw a big crowd going to market. There were all sorts of people carrying huge sacks of rice, charcoal, and maize. There were chickens and ducks. And there was a herd to tough-looking zebu cattle being herded to market with lots of shouts and whacks. We were just going by when one of the zebus went berserk, turned on the flow of the market goers, and started the African version of a Pamplonada, with people scattering all over the place. Once again I was being chased by a wild beast!

That afternoon we arrived to one of the national parks with an impossible name, to look for lemurs (Ranomafana National Park). It is in a broad valley mantled by rain forest, which only last year suffered much from the brunt of two cyclones (Madagascar is in the path of the cyclones of the Indian Ocean, and regularly gets smashed by them). The Malagache believe on putting people to work, which is why I had to rent a car with a driver and hire a guide for the park. I really didn’t mind the expense (less than 10 dollars), and appreciate the opportunity to get to know the locals, but I wish they were a little less zealous about their search for lemurs. They know that a tourist who sees lemurs is a happy tourist, and happy tourists give good tips, so our guide Angelo was looking stressed, cooing and making guttural sounds to attract the elusive beasts. I tried to tell him to be relaxed as I was enjoying the walk more than anything else, but he would have none of it. Yes, at the end I saw quite a few brown lemurs, and also a couple of white-faced lemurs (cute little buggers), so Angelo was happy.

In the photo you have, from left to right, Floriel, Angelo, and myself. Doesn’t Floriel look a bit like Cantinflas?


Estoy en Madagascar y es precioso! El pais es fantastico y la gente es bellisima y muy amable.

I am now in Madagascar and it is wonderful! The country is fantastic and the people are lovely and very friendly!

More posts to come!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Day 39 (March 19) – Departure for Madagascar

Time to go. I left about 4:30 am, drove through the empty streets of Nairobi, returned the rental car, and made my flight to Madagascar with plenty of time.

I must confess that I am travel weary. What will the next leg of this crazy trip entail? I finally managed to squeeze a few minutes in the internet at the airport, and was very glad to find messages from Faby and Dawn. I realized how much I miss you all.

So I get to Antananarivo (don’t even try to pronounce the Malagache names), and I find the Budget office closed and no one waiting for me. Oh boy, it is going to be one of those trips. I am trying to think at the same time that ten taxi drivers are offering their services in fast-fire French, and for lack of anything better I turn to the Hertz counter. The young woman is all smiles and patiently listens as I try to cobble the necessary sentences. Yes, they have a car available, and a week will cost me about 1,000,000 Ariary. I am just about to have a heart attack when making the conversion I realize that she is talking of about 550 dollars, with driver! I am introduced to my driver, Floriel, a smiling young man who assures me it would be no problem at all to depart within the hour for Antsirabe. However, before we can depart we will have to stop at the main office in Antana… oh hell, let’s call it Tana like everyone else does. Rats! Just what I needed, a rush-hour drive into another crowded, unfriendly African city.

So we get started and, oh my God, I have died and gone to heaven. The countryside is beautiful, the drivers are polite to each other and take turns to keep the traffic flowing, and Tana looks like a French city artfully draped over the hills. At the central office business takes less than 15 minutes, my driver takes me to have early dinner at a charming bistro while he goes to fetch his luggage, and by 5 pm we are on the road to Antsirabe. Having a driver is such a luxury (though I really don’t like having someone drive me), and Floriel is quite the chatterbox. He rattles along in incomprehensible French, and by being undeterred by my feeble efforts actually encourages me to speak in French.

We arrived to Antsirabe around 8 pm. The city is dark but full of life, with people going back and forth, some on foot and others in pousse-pousse (the local name for man-drawn carriages, not unlike the Asian rickshaws, which get their name from the fact that the running drivers encourage traffic to keep moving by chanting “pousse-pousse” or “push-push”). My trusty guidebook has given us the name of a hotel, The Green Park, and it is our good fortune that they have a bungalow available. The hotel doesn’t look like much, but all we need is a place to spend the night, and the place is cheap. So we follow the smiling attendant through a maze of narrow corridors and we come into this beautiful inner garden, with a Japanese-style series of ponds surrounded by a carefully manicured garden. There are gazebos and flowers everywhere, and our bungalow overlooks the pond. Am I dreaming? I am afraid that when I wake up tomorrow everything will have vanished into diesel fumes.

Day 38 – Quick excursion into the country

One of the persons we met suggested an outing to a community about 75 km of Nairobi, so I jumped at the excuse of starting at 5 am (thus missing the fierce Nairobi traffic), and together with a car full of cheerful ladies (Charleen, Margaret, and another of the lady investors) we drove into the eastern shoulder of the African Rift Valley. It is a textbook example of faulted blocks stepping away from the rift valley, with good prospects for groundwater. Unfortunately once again we stumbled against the “we have no money” and “maybe a wealthy “American” like me could give them the money?” syndromes. Ay, ay, ay, ay.

Day 37 – More meetings in crowded Nairobi

Not much to report, except that once again I crossed my sword with the aggressive matatus for two very long days. We spoke with a lot of people, and I gave a talk at the Ministry of Water Resources. Nice folks who welcomed us warmly.

Day 36 – Sunday

Didn’t do much. In the afternoon I drove Charleen and Margaret to the monthly meeting of Margaret’s investors group. It is a group of ladies that have gotten together to pool their money to invest in the stock market, but some land to grow forage, and generally look for a way to make their money grow. They have some good ideas, and I wish them the best of lucks!

Day 35 – Alone at last!

Today we took the day off from our kind hosts, and Charleen and I just drove off into the sunrise to take a look at the area east of Nairobi. It was a charming drive through a country that is dry but yet fertile. The folks here manage to keep small plots of corn, with just about enough rain to make it prosper. We just meandered through the land, without any fixed plan, in the way I like to travel. We had lunch at one of the small towns, stopped at a small trading post along the way for Charleen to buy some fabric, and discovered a small co-op of wood-carving artisans with a real treasure trove of African art. Turns out to be the followers of the man that in the 1800’s first developed the art of carving in Kenya, and we were impressed by how well organized they were.

Day 34 – Visiting Athah’s family and fighting the bandits

I had the idea that we had to see at least one touristic place in this trip, and zeroed in the Kakamega forest north of Kisumu. Before heading there, however, we paid a visit to Athah’s elderly parents. He is the oldest son, so his place in the family is quite high and formal, so the visit was a bit “formal”. He took the chance, however, to explain the protocol involved in bringing his second wife to the parental home (Elizabeth had never been there, and I think she had never met the parents): The oldest or “first” son builds his house to the right of the house of his parents, and he can bring his first wife to live there (but the wife has to cook with the mother in the main house, as some sort of apprenticeship). If the son takes a second wife, however, he is expected to build his own homestead, with a main house for the first wife, and a second house for the second wife. He is stuck, however, because his first wife left him so there is no one to build the main house for. Fortunately Elizabeth and Athah are a modern couple, and they have their own house in Nairobi, but I have the feeling that for his parents the issue is still pending.

The trip to the Kakamega forest was a wash, because once we got there it was raining cats and dogs, the entrance to the national park was an outrageous 50 dollars per person (plus a mandatory guide), and it was already 4 pm. So we had to turn back with our own honors, and Elizabeth plaintively asked if we could return to Nairobi that night. It was a crazy thought, since we were a good 10 hours drive from Nairobi, but for lack of anything else we agreed on starting on our way back, subject to the possibility of taking a hotel for the night somewhere along the way.

After 3 or 4 hours of a miserable road I was ready to quit, but Elizabeth volunteered Athah to take the wheel. “Fine”, I thought, “if they want to suffer I will just go to sleep”. So Athah drove and drove, through pouring rain and thick fog, while I slept unconcernedly. I woke up around 11 pm. We were in a dark and lonely “road” out in the sticks, moving at about 10 miles per hour. All of a sudden we came to a block in the road, and all the horrors we had seen about people being dragged out of cars and lynched became suddenly real. We stopped about 50 feet from the rocks that had been used to block the road, not sure about what to do. It was pitch dark. All of a sudden a big truck came from the rear, and about 100 feet behind us made a big swing as if to make a u-turn and blocked the road. Athah said under his breath “Kikuyus!” and remembering that he and Elizabeth are Luos we all felt cold panic creeping down our spines. Athah made a tight u-turn, so we were now facing the truck blocking our retreat, and at that time a rock was thrown from the dark and hit the car. OK, this was it; we were going to die! But Athah kept as cool as ice, stepped on the accelerator, and swerved the car into the mountainside to bypass the truck. We almost tipped over, but we made good our escape!

We went back a few kilometers to the next town, and stopped to report the incident at the local police post. “Ah, yes”, they said, it was a well known trouble spot operated by a gang of petty thieves. They thought the rock had been to scare us away (they did a great job at that), so they could plunder the truck at their leisure. They would send a patrol at daybreak. So, business as usual in Kenya!

Against all good sense we continued on our way (through an alternate road), and by 3 am we finally made it to Elizabeth and Athah’s house in Nairobi. What a relief!

Day 33 – Visiting Elizabeth’s family

We have left Lake Victoria amidst warm shows of friendship from our kind hosts (I feel like a rat), and headed north toward the city of Kisumu. Before getting there, however, we reached the house of Elizabeth’s stepmother (remember that this is a polygamist society, so a stepmother is just another of the mothers in the family). Mom lives in a typical African homestead, and the long delayed visit of one of the daughters (Elizabeth had last visited 10 years ago) was cause for an extravagant celebration. Chickens and wood were borrowed or purchased from the neighbors to prepare a feast, the generator was fired up so the visitors could watch TV, and all sorts of cousins came to have a chat with Elizabeth. Athah was of course honored as the visiting husband, and in his jovial manner he told me all about the mores of rural Africa (for example, even though the homestead is a rather open ranch, he as the husband was expected to only use the formal gate for coming or going, so anytime we wanted to go out we had to go all the way around to the gate). We all had a very jolly time, and ended spending the night there.

Day 32 – Visiting under false pretenses

We spent the night in a small hotel in the mountains, and spent the following morning talking to different community groups that face an alarming shortage of water. This is a region with quite a bit of rainfall, but without electric power or drilling technology they have to rely on hauling water from a spring or a shallow well for their most basic needs. I suggested they should harvest the rain that falls on their tin roofs (a 100 square meters roof receiving a meter of rainfall during the year amounts to 100 cubic meters of water, or 100,000 liters per year; assuming a person requires 50 liters per day, or about 20,000 liters per year, the roof of a regular house can provide the water needs of a family of five), but always met the same dispirited response: plastic tanks and gutters are expensive, and how are they to pay for them. Maybe a wealthy “American” like me could give them the money?

Later we took the long and dusty road to Lake Victoria. I should have been delighted (and in a small way I was) about visiting one of the geologic wonders of the world, but looking at it from the eyes of a water resources specialist I felt my spirits sink. These people have really hard lives, working from can’t see to can’t see to scrape the most basic living from their harsh environment. Along the shores of Lake Victoria, within sight of the fourth largest lake in the world, people have little drinking water and nothing to irrigate their fields with. Water has to be fetched from the lake in 5-gallon jerry cans by the girls and women of the family (Charleen promptly rose to the challenge as you can see in the photograph), who carry it up to the homesteads for the most basic needs, while the men tend to small herds of rangy goats and cattle, or try to grow a few greens in the tough clayey soil.

Yes, water could be pumped up the hill, but they have no power, no money, and no fighting spirit left in them. I want to believe that they could use my suggestions about how to pump water out of the lake with wind power, and I am sure they could use Chico giving them some practical lessons on “do it yourself”, but they are convinced that the only way out is for someone (the government or a wealthy American) to build the necessary water infrastructure.

I have had the rather unkindly thought that farmers are chronically poor, for the simple reason that whenever they have a bit of cash they rush to buy additional land. And once they have bought the land they refuse to consider using it as collateral for taking a loan. In the rather gloomy way of farmers all around the world they assured me that their lands had no value, and that banks would not consider them a worthy security for a development loan. So we were back to the same point: Maybe a wealthy “American” like me could give them the money?

Even though I made it very clear that all I can offer is advice, I know they think I am a millionaire traveling incognito and looking for a worthy project to sink my money in. I have the uncomfortable feeling that I am visiting these good people under false pretenses.

Day 31 – New friends and some shocking sights

Wednesday morning we left early, picked up our new friends Elizabeth and Athah (the phonetic version of Arthur), and we headed out of Nairobi in direction to the northwest. What a relief! As soon as you get out of Nairobi you start a long climb that eventually brings you to the edge of the East African Rift Valley. A fabulous view! We were a good 5,000 ft above the valley, looking into an immensity of African savannah. I felt like a pilgrim looking into a holy shrine of geology.

Elizabeth and Athah are married. Elizabeth is a rather outspoken and modern Kenyan woman who works as the in-country person of an international organization that is trying to improve the lot of women living with HIV/AIDS. She has some pretty strong opinions about the undervalued role of women in Kenyan society, so Charleen and her made common cause about male chauvinists in general, and Athah and myself in particular. Fortunately we men were a formidable team to contend with.

Athah is a giant, who would be very imposing if you were to meet him in a dark alley, were it not for the fact that he always wears a warm smile. He speaks very softly--but he talks all the time, weaving one story into another. Athah has traveled all over Kenya, so he is a fountain of information about the country, and he is clearly in love with Kenya. His interest was very contagious (we dubbed him the Kenyan tourist, because he came up with all sort of suggestions about places to see or people to talk with), and he was always ready to hold a long chat with passersby about the name of a place, who ran the local school, or what was the legend behind the local lake. He is also something of an anomaly among Kenyan men in that he has great respect for his wife, so he engaged with her in friendly banter all through the trip, giving just as well as he received. Interestingly, many Kenyan men are polygamists, and modern Elizabeth was his second wife, so the dynamics of the conversation were at sometimes pretty weird.

So in this merry company we traversed the East African Rift Valley, and eventually climbed into the surrounding mountains to the west, where a lot of the violence of the last four months took place. It was horrible. Entire communities had been burned to the ground, and a frenzy of destruction seems to have swept down the land. To try to explain the problem I will have to start by saying that folks here first regard themselves as Kikuyus or Luos (or one of the other 30 tribes amalgamated by the Brits under the name “Kenya” during their colonial rule), and only as an afterthought as Kenyans (similar to the case of the former Yugoslavia, where groups that dislike each other are thrown together into an artificial country). The Kikuyus are pushy, individualistic, always looking for a way to make a buck at the expense of others, and have the political power. All others are low key, and traditionally have been underrepresented in political power. Accordingly, Kikuyuland has reasonable roads and other services, while all the others have the worst roads and services. In the last election a charismatic Luo leader had the clear lead, so hopes were high for the underdogs, when in a typical Kikuyu move the incumbent faked the results. The underdogs went nuts! They tore into the Kikuyu trading posts, slashing and burning, to protest against the fake results. Not to be left behind, the Kikuyus returned the favor, so in no time whatsoever the country was aflame.

A fragile peace is now in place, based on a power-sharing deal, but the root of the problem remains that there is no true national identity. There is no national soul to Kenya. May God have mercy on these poor people.

Days 28 to 30 – Not much to report

Sunday I had to go back to Nairobi in the morning to meet yet another person, and in the evening Margaret and I had to go back to Nairobi to pick up Charleen at the airport. Her flight was delayed, so we got back home at 2 am on Monday.

Monday and Tuesday we spent zipping from one place of Nairobi to the other meeting people. Folks here are nice enough, but the traffic in Nairobi is fierce, and the fumes of diesel are thick, so by Tuesday night I was very grumpy and ready to bite.

Day 27 (March 8) A family Saturday

Today was a day devoted to family and home improvement. First of all, I should mention that since my arrival in Nairobi I have been the guest of Margaret and Patrick Mwago, their happy children Njoki and Eddy, and their super nanny Susan (I use the names that we have settled on, but actually all of them have wonderful African names that I simply cannot remember). Margaret and Patrick are in their mid to late 30's; Margaret works as an Administrative Assistant in the University of Nairobi and Patrick is Principal Counsel for the Nairobi City Council. They both decided to build a house in the country two years ago, and this is where I am staying. It is a wonderful, relaxing place, but it is still quite rustic. They have power but no water, so they collect the water they use from the runoff of the tin roof, have an outhouse, and we take our showers using a pail of lukewarm water.

Margaret has been desperately trying to get the house presentable to receive visitors, and was quite frustrated because the carpenter kept putting her off. So today we went in search of a different carpenter, bought particle board for the ceiling of the room where Charleen will be staying, bought glass panes for the window, and put the carpenter and his assistant to work. I offered to help, but the puzzled looks promptly put me in my place so I tried not to get on the way of the professionals (I think Chico and I would have done a much better job, but then again these guys had no power tools).

We then went to the market in a neighboring town, again making full use of the fact that "we have a car". I wanted to find a cyber café (a fruitless search since in the one place the internet was down, and in the other the power went off just as I was logging in), so I and Patrick were left in charge of the kids. Njoki is a girl, she is seven, and she is as cute as she can be. She speaks fairly good English but at the beginning was quite shy (we are over that stage now, and she is beginning to teach me Swahili). She is fascinated by my camera, and like to see herself in the screen of the computer. Edwin or Eddy is a boy, four years old, and he is a holy terror. His ability for getting into mischief is uncanny, and to top it all he is as unpredictable and destructive as Kilimanjaro. Indeed, he must have some sort of mild stomach flu, so from time he simply "erupts" the contents of his stomach over table, clothes, or the upholstery of our car (and I wonder how such a little boy can have such a big stomach!). Still, he is very sweet and friendly, and it is fun seeing him get into trouble.

The last member of the family is super nanny Susan, who is referred by all as "Mamma". She is about 55 years old, so is considered an old woman, but she has the energy of a 20 years old. Susan speaks very good English, and she takes care of all our needs quite effortlessly. She is up at dawn and doesn't go to bed until the last of the family retires, and has that sixth sense of all good Mammas that tells her exactly how and when someone of us needs help.

I invited the family to dinner, and we went to a typical Kenyan restaurant to have grilled goat. It was a huge place, with life music and a play ground for the children, and I got to see what a happy, fun loving person Susan is. She was right there playing with the children, swinging in the swing or looking after them in the slide, and when they finally came in she was the only one that jumped at my suggestion of dancing (I had first asked Njoki, but she was shy). With Susan and I dancing the rest of the family got up, and we all had great fun. A great family Saturday!

Day 26. I become a Matatu driver

First let me tell you that internet access here in Kenya is extremely difficult, so if you don't hear from me in the next two weeks please don't worry.

So, one of the reasons why the traffic in Nairobi is so fierce is that they have gazillion passenger minivans, who like their counterparts all over the world drive like maniacs, cutting drivers off, encroaching on incoming traffic, and making traffic generally chaotic (remember the "lacras" of Mexico City or the Chug-Chug's of India?) Well, according to Kenyans, only a Kenyan driver can handle the matatu traffic. Little did they know what a Mexican driver can do with innocent African drivers! My hosts were at first terrified, but after a while they relaxed and enjoyed the ride, and I have now a standing invitation to come to Kenya after a retire to be a matatu driver :)

Anyway, today was spent trying to establish connections with my colleagues at the Kenya Water Institute, the University of Nairobi, the Ministry of Water Resources, and the Water Resources Management Authority. It was a good day, in which further meetings on Monday and Tuesday were arranged (yes, this is a country where people take their time thinking over things, so any hopes of getting anything accomplished on a first go around would be nothing but wishful thinking).

Going back to being a matatu driver, I am afraid I have seriously contaminated my host family with car disease. As I said before, at the start they were terrified, but now they are used to the fact that "we have a car", so I have been pressed into service for driving everyone to work, the hospital, the market, and even the pub! Yes, there is a pub about 100 m from the house, and my host suggested we went there to have the customary three "boma" or beer, but he insisted it was too far to walk. We of course made a big splash coming by car, and the collected company was suitably impressed when I was introduced to them. All were men (the idea of a woman coming into the pub is unthinkable), all claim to be professional drivers without whose services I could not possibly expect to survive Kenyan traffic, and all were very welcoming. Of course I had to buy a couple of rounds, so by now I am legend. The evening ended with some collective singing in Swahili and Spanish, and promises for a long lasting friendship.

Incidentally Gustav, one is still allowed to smoke in the pub! "Pub" may be a glorified name, since it is little more than a small stone hut, 3 m by 5 m, with benches along the sides and two small tables for customers to rest their mugs of "boma". Still, it is a merry place and I am glad I had the chance to go.

Day 25. Traffic jams from Jo'burg to Nairobi

Whatever they may advise about being three hours ahead of time at the airport it is not enough if your are trying to get to the Jobby airport. I should have smelled a rat when I was sipping coffee in the terrace of my room at 6 am and everyone else was already hopping on their cars and leaving. I started at 6:30 am and got caught in two horrible traffic jams in Jobby's super-modern highways. I will say one thing for the South Africans: They are polite drivers that will actually let you through if you put your blinkers.

I arrived to the airport in a froth, barely making my 9:50 flight. And then we waited, and waited, and waited because there was an airplane jam, so we were delayed nearly an hour in take-off.

I finally got to Nairobi, about 3:30 pm, and could not see my hostess, Margaret, anywhere. OK, so I took the time to go to the Budget counter, where a very nice young woman greeted me with a huge smile and informed me that they didn't have a reservation for me. Trying not to get upset I showed her my reservation papers and she said "Hakuna matata" (no problem!). She called the main office, ordered a car, and told me that it would be ready in 30 minutes. In the meantime we had a good chat (I learned that her name was Swalha, she was a Muslim, she had worked for several years with a non-profit running a camp in arid northern Kenya, and was always looking for a better job), and she did me the favor of calling Margaret's cell phone. Poor Margaret, she had been delayed at the office and was doing her best to get to the airport. "Hakuna matata" said Swalha, "I will keep him safe here for you".

Finally Margaret arrived an hour later (she had taken a taxi but had been caught in a traffic jam), the car arrived half an hour later (he had been caught in another traffic jam), and we took off to pick up Margaret's husband, Patrick, in his office in downtown! Yes, you guessed right, it was a solid traffic jam there, and from there to their house, which is in the country, about 20 km from the city.

So, here I am in Nairobi, relaxing before work starts on earnest tomorrow. Good night!

Day 24. Johannesburg AKA Jo'burg AKA Jobby

I am sick as a dog with a cold! In fact, I spent all the flight sneezing and spreading contamination, so if you hear of a catarrh epidemic in Jobby you know who is the culprit.

But since I was not going to let a miserable cold ruin my day, like a brave explorer I promptly rented a car and hit the road. Jobby is a modern city with an enormous suburban sprawl of very nice houses and a superb network of roads. Since I was not interested on seeing the city I took the peripheral ring and sought accommodations in the outskirts of the city, in the legendary Inchanga Ranch Resort. It is a very cute, simple horse ranch that takes lodgers, but its main grace is that it lies in a green valley that is fairly isolated from suburbia.

After arranging for a roof for the night, I took off to see the famous Sterkfontein Caves, where many outstanding fossils of Australopithecus africanus have been found since 1936. The latest find was in 1999, when the full skeleton and skull of "Little Foot" was excavated. The large accumulation of fossils has been attributed to the fact that leopards took Africanus as a pray, climbed on one of the acacias that grew in the cave openings, and happily munched on our unfortunate relative, dropping pieces of bone into the cave. The exception is Little Foot, who apparently fell to his death into one of the pits.

The cave is but one of dozens of sites found in this small region, which 3.5 million years ago was a luscious landscape with many small lakes nestled in between the rolling hills. I am very happy of having undertaken this "pilgrimage" to what many anthropologists consider The Cradle of Humanity (with some argument by the region of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya and the region of the Afar triangle in northern Ethiopia).

Later that day I visited a Lion and Rhino Natural Reserve, which is Afrikaans for one of the hundreds of private zoos designed to use the vast grasslands for tourism and preservation of wildlife. The good side is that these zoos make use of the natural ecosystem to keep the animals healthy and happy. The not so good side is that the animals cannot move in a natural way, and the predators are fed rather than letting them hunt. In any case, is a great way to see wildlife at real close quarters and to get great pics.

Once I got to the lions enclosure, I was given strict instructions on not getting any closer than 25 meters to the lions. It was carefully explained to me that lions will pounce of cars, and bite the tires off just for kicks. Also, under no circumstance should I open the window more than a couple of inches. OK, I could handle those simple instructions, so following the directives of the attendant at the gate I took the right dirt road (there is a whole network of them) to get to the place where the lions were feeding. My God, it was an impressive spectacle! Either I had never been so close to a pride of lions, or the home grown variety of these magnificent animals is much larger than anything I had seen in zoos before. As if by the book, the males were lazy sods, who just moved in on "the kill", forcing the three females to amble away into the grassland. After shooting a few pics of the males (for which I had to almost pop out of the window), I thought I would go look for a good shot of the females, so I took one of the little roads that would intersect their path through the grassland. Almost immediately I realized I had made a big mistake, because I had rented a small VW Golf, which put my nose at the level of the grass. For all I know a lioness could be just inches from said nose, waiting to bite it off!

And then it happened! Less than a foot from my face out pops this enormous head, with its huge green eyes looking like daggers into the depths of my cowardly self. Fortunately I had the gear engaged, so in a moment I had sprung forward. This must have been like an invitation to a game of cat and mouse, because the huge cat leapt onto the road and started following me at a leisurely trot. Please remember that objects are much closer than they appear in the mirror, so you will understand that I felt compelled to increase the distance at an accelerated rate!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Day 23 (March 4). Travel day to Johannesburg

Yesterday at the zoo we saw a sign that said 9,550 km to Mexico; 8,680 km to Johannesburg; and 6,315 km to Nairobi. I am far from home!

Chrissy and I spent the day doing laundry, packing, running to the train station to buy my ticket to Geneva for April 7, and finally joining Oma Inge for lunch. I am certainly going to miss my dear travel companions, but now it is time to start with the African adventure!

Day 22. A visit to Grandma Inge

My last lazy day! Chrissy and I went to visit the Opel-Zoo, where she used to take Anna and Phillip when they were children. It is a short distance from where her parents live, so they had annual passes and stopped by almost every week.

It reminded me a lot of Happy Hollow, in San Jose, where Faby spent many happy moments looking at the animals and playing in the slides. Also, those of you that know me probably were wondering why I had not visited any zoos so far (I did try to convince the group to visit the zoos in Agra and Mumbai, but got turned down in favor of other touristic attractions).
The collection is not very large, but the animals are well taken care of (I think it is Mr. Opel's personal collection, whhich he decided to make available to the public. The giraffes and lions must had been very cold, so they were kept inside, but the European pigs were doing just fine. These are the same "sangliers" that Obelix and Asterix used to hunt in the forests around their village in Gaul.

In the evening we were invited to have dinner at the house of Oma Inge (Grandma Inge), who is Gustav's mother. Dinner was excellent, and Oma and Gustav engaged in their favorite passtime, which is arguing with each other (the German verb "meckern" describes this sport very nicely). Oma Inge has a beautiful, enormous house, and a proper German Keller, with a bar that resembles the inside of a ship, and a cave where some wines have aged for more than 25 years. A very fine evening!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Day 21. Würzburg

Today, Sunday, we went to visit Würzburg. It is a very pretty city about an hour's drive from Frankfurt to the southeast. Looking at it from top of the nearby hill, it looks like a traditional Bavarian city, with the obligatory fortress on top of the hill, and the city palace of the Prince-Bishop. Actually, the city was severely damaged by the bombing of World War 2 (more than 95% damage), so what we see today is the result of many years fo restoration.

We went to visit the city palace built by the Prince-Bishop in the late 1700's, in the most pure baroque style. It is a luxurious palace built on the grand scale of Versailles, with room after room covered by gold-leaf volutes, tapestries, and delicate furniture. The two unique features are the room of mirrors, which was completely destroyed during the war and is thus a masterpiece of restoration (using glass and techniques similar to those used in the 1700's), and the vault of the grand staircase.

The vault is free standing, without any columns, and is 18 by 30 m (60 by 100 ft)! It is a masterpiece of engineering, and just about the only portion of the palace that didn't fall during the bombardment. Even more impressive is the fresco that the Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo painted on it. The fresco represents the known world, with America opposite Europe in the short sides, and Africa and Asia on the longg sides. America is looking whatever way (showing the ambivalence that the Europeans had toward the new continent in 1750), but Asia and Africa are clearly looking toward Europe, and the Prince-Bishop himself flutters over the scene as if to signify his overlordship over the whole world.

As soon as we came back we headed for Klaus house, where we had been invited for cheese and wine. I had already planned to cook a Mexican dinner, so we simply packed all the ingredients and we turned the event into a delightful family dinner. The menu included picadillo and "moros y cristianos" (very tasty if I say so myself), but the flan didn't curd and was more like dirty caramel milk than flan.

We also looked at boxes and boxes of family pictures, and laughed a lot about how young they all were. Here is a photo of the whole family. From left to right: Chrissy, Klaus, Gustav, Katherine (the daughter of Klaus and Sieglinde), Sieglinde, Anna (the daughter of Chrissy and Gustav), and Andi (Anna's boyfriend).

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Day 20 (March 1). Giorgio

Another lazy day. I did manage to make some of the car rental arrangements for South Africa, Madagascar, and Botswana.

In the evening we met our friends, Gaby and Dieter, for dinner at the local Greek restaurant. The owner is a very friendly Greek, Giorgio, who immediately recognized me from a previous visit. Giorgio is the ultimate host, who will come to each table, greet everyone of his guests personally, and relentlessly guide them through the intricacies of the menu. For example:

Gustav (to me): "You should try the steak. It is very good here."
Giorgio (to me): "You like lamb?"
Me: "Uh . . . yes"
Giorgio (to me): "You eat the lamb. Nicely baked in the oven".
Dieter (to Giorgio): "I would like the fried calamari."
Giorgio (to Dieter): "You like fish?"
Dieter: "Uh . . . yes."
Giorgio (to Dieter): "You eat the fish. It is very fresh."

The end result? Gaby and I had lamb, and Chrissy, Dieter, and Gustav had the fish.

And so it went for the rest of the evening, with Giorgio asking politely whether we would like cheese, or uzo, or more wine; we saying "no, thank you"; and Giorgio promptly serving the cheese he had just received from Creta, his personal reserve of uzo, and some very fine Greek wine.

Overall a delightful evening!

Day 19. Handkäse mit Musik

Today I did little. I got my cell phone ready (0049-1734780076), tried to mail some books (way to expensive), and generally was a faule Socke.

I did manage to embarras myself, however, when we went to dinner with our friends Andrea and Frank. They are super nice people, and whenever we get together they make a great effort to chat with me. Unfortunately this happens late at night, when I turn into a pumpkin, and they must think that I am not very good at polite conversation. Well, tonight it was the worst. First of all, we went to a very cozy restaurant, where the temperature was on the warm side. Second, we had Apfelwein, which seems to have a soporific effect on Mexicans. Finally, we had the specialty appetizer of the house - Handkäse mit Musik or Cheese with music. It is a nice slice of artisan cheese, marinated in oil and vinegar, served on a slice of bread and liberally covered with onions and cumin. Delicious, but it owes its name to the fact that it is an explosive combination that causes an eruption in your digestive system and, if you are not careful, the emission of sonorous blasts of "wind". Of course it is all psychologic, since the stuff cannot work that fast, but in my low ebb state I am easily influenced and within minutes I was rushing to the bathroom to the general merryment of the Germans. La Scheiße!

To add insult to injury, I got hypnothized by the wine, the good food, and the heat, and literally fell asleep in the middle of a conversation. Terribly embarrasing!