Posts Tagged With: hotel

Saving the Children

We flew via Cessna from Kulala International Airport — not really, I mean the dirt landing strip I showed you yesterday — back through the desert for the 45 minute hop to Walvis Bay. A century or so ago, Walvis Bay was the happening place, the radiant of German colonial expansion into Namibia. It was the whaling and commerce center. Today it is still the major shipping center, an industrial port for the export of salt, copper, and uranium; there is a recreational beach and a lot of fishing, but otherwise from our limited perspective it had little to recommend it outside of our restaurant lunch on the water.

With one exception: the flamingos of Walvis Bay Lagoon. There are hundreds of them, pallid pink on their bodies but the flaming color of the inside of a blood orange on the tops of their wings.

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Those guys in the top image who look like they’re recreating the cover of the Abbey Road Beatles album are in fact doing a Michael Jackson imitation. Seriously, they don’t just stand there but rather work their feet back and forth in what looks for all the world like MJ’s moonwalk, the objective being to stir up the silt and thus scatter the small fish and shrimp that are their preferred food.

Since we didn’t have any significant amounts of copper or uranium among us, we left immediately after lunch, driving the half hour north to the resort town of Swakopmund. Swakop draws a lot of German tourists — most of the restaurants seem to be German — and has a long and inglorious history as a German enclave; it is only since independence in 1990 that the all-white, all-German private high school was repurposed into an integrated public school, and the locals — including our driver Joe — still bear a great deal of animus towards them. The town’s former industrial base was the large Hansa Brewery, and the layout of the town still reflects this: the streets are very broad, wide enough for beer-carrying freight trucks to maneuver.

Our hotel is another avatar of this colonial history, its architecture resembling European colonial mansions everywhere, with whitewashed colonnades, an English garden, and sweeping staircases. It’s just a tad different from our Namib desert camp. Its name, aptly enough, is the Hansa Hotel.

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With this uninspiring historical background, today was very much a cultural immersion day. Our first stop was the Festus Gonteb Primary School, a K-7 institution educating nearly 1100 students, nearly half of whom walk the mile distance from “DRC”, the sprawling 15,000-person shantytown Democratic Resettlement Community down the road. (More on DRC below.)

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We received background information about the school from FGPS’s earnest if longwinded principal, who then turned us over to two 7th grade “prefects”, i.e. top students (both girls) who are given assorted academic, outreach, and disciplinary responsibilities for their achievements. (The “disciplinary” part kind of weirded us out, in truth; the principal’s description made it sound like they girls were being promoted to some kind of stool pigeon, and we wondered darkly whether they still had any friends left.)

We split into two groups, one with each prefect. I went to a 3rd grade class with our impressively poised and articulate prefect Jennifer; Alice was in a group that visited a class of 6th graders. The students were nothing if not enthusiastic to see us.

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My camera alone was a big hit, and I made the mistake of allowing one of the kids to take a picture of me with it, instead of the other way around, which of course meant that I was swarmed by every kid in the class who also wanted to take a picture with it and look at the resulting image. I now have about twenty lousy pictures of myself, none of which show my windmilling arms as I frantically attempt to keep about two dozen pairs of enthusiastic hands away from my very expensive lens.

The kids sang songs for us — and we sang Row, Row, Row Your Boat as a round in return — then said a prayer and sang us farewell.

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We in turn left behind a load of school supplies that we had purchased, and received a boatload of hugs in return. We were impressed: these kids were enthusiastic, well-behaved, curious, and very affectionate. They have a lot to offer; we hope that there is hope for them.

As I mentioned, about half the kids walk to school from the “DRC”. It’s an interesting phenomenon, basically a government-sponsored shantytown. The government provides the land and lights the wide dirt streets, but provides no electricity otherwise. Residents scrounge materials to build shacks, and are given a metal ID token that, when inserted into a hydrant-like water station, allows them to access to water. The shanties are otherwise without plumbing, though a sewer line is in the works.

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At the edge of the shantytown is an actual (very) low cost housing development being built by the government, with rows of simple roofed conventional houses that rather like military base housing. The long term plan is to build more and more of these and gradually replace the shanties with actual small houses that the DRC residents are able to own.

Our destination within DRC was a soup kitchen, a rather remarkable three-room operation run by the inhumanly formidable Miss Katrina (a.k.a Mother Katrina) in the form of the Dantago Communities Rising organization; see the link for their Facebook page. Katrina has a day job as a restaurant manager in town but appears to operate in some kind of spacetime warp as she also runs Dantago as a combined soup kitchen/day care/community garden/craft store. Here she is with some of her charges, the latter taken in — sometimes during the day, sometimes semi-permanently — from parents who cannot care well for them. In a few cases those mothers, e.g., disabled by alcoholism, actually work at the center making jewelry for sale, or tending the garden to sell vegetables (the latter not so easy during a four-year drought). “Center”, by the way, is a rather strong word for the structure, which is a three-room shanty with no electricity or running water.

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Our contribution was to bring a load of vegetables, cut them up, and watch Lloyd and Katrina’s helpers make stew, which we then ladled out to the kids.

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My contribution was to start a riot by showing my camera to the kids as I took their pictures, thereby triggering the same grabfest that I had experienced (and caused) at the Festus school an hour earlier. Here I am in full Sensitive Tourist mode, trying to keep those grubby little hands off my goddamn lens. (Thanks to Sherryl for this picture, which I shall perhaps forward to Angelina Jolie.)

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I should mention, by the way, that I asked Katrina whether it was OK for me to take pictures. Her response: “Take as many pictures as you can. Send them to everyone you know. The more people that know about us, the better!” So consider yourself informed. It seems trite and mawkish, but I truly could not look at these kids without thinking of my own three grandchildren (ages 9 months, 21 months, and 5 years), who of course want for nothing and in all likelihood never will. Katrina’s reserves of energy, compassion, and patience are virtually inconceivable to me. (And she is not unique, as I’ll get to in a moment.)

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Grinding poverty notwithstanding, things are apparently never too dire for a makeover, and travelmate Wanda went to work with gusto. We soon had a soup kitchen full of juvenile, brightly painted nails.

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The child in the above photo, by the way, is from the San tribe, i.e. the Bushmen.

Our final stop was an actual orphanage, the “Tears of Hope” in the nearby township of Mondesa, run by the no less formidable Naftaline Maua, whom you see here in sort-of-traditional Himba garb.

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I say “sort of” traditional because actual Himba garb consists of very little indeed, plus red ochre hair coloring. The original German colonists — or more accurately, the original female German colonists were none too crazy about this, first because their husbands’ eyeballs were bugging out all the time, and second because those same husbands kept coming home from a hard day of oppressing the natives with red ochre stains in very difficult-to-explain places. So they strongarmed the men, in particular the clergy, into forcing the native women to wear Victorian dresses. As a sop to the actual Himba culture, however, they developed headwear designed to resemble to cattle horns, since the Himba were cattle farmers. Hence Naftaline’s hat and dress.

Naftaline has an interesting history of her own as an AIDS counselor, which you can read a bit about by clicking here. Now she runs a 6-bedroom home that houses 21 orphans (none, fortunately, with HIV). She is an outgoing energetic woman who apparently needs no sleep, and who with her daughter prepared a wonderful lunch for us in her dining room, featuring lamb and polenta seasoned with spicy tomato-y chakalaka relish. (Here’s the recipe if you’re interested.)

Turns out that a couple of her wards attend the Festus school we had visited that morning, and indeed a few came home and said hello to us since school was ending (or on lunch break) while we were there.  We left behind some household goods and clothing for her, then returned to our hotel to contemplate our spectacularly non-poverty-stricken lives.

 

 

 

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Categories: Africa, Namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gone With The Windhoek

Windhoek is located smack in the middle of Namibia, about an hour and a half flight from Johannesburg. Coincidentally, an hour and a half is also the same amount of time you will wait to get your passport stamped by the immigration lady at the airport, should another flight happen to arrive at the same time as yours.

Having been waved through customs, we met up with our Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) guide, Lloyd. Lloyd is a jolly 40-ish Zimbabwean, burly with a round face and beard and who, appropriately enough, reminds me of Jonas Savimbi. Savimbi was the militant founder of UNITA, one of the forces that waged a successful guerrilla war for the independence of neighboring Angola from Portuguese colonial rule. He is considered a regional hero. (And he died in a military action in 2002.) I have no idea whether Lloyd is heroic, but he seems — like all OAT tour leads — very friendly, helpful, and well-informed. Here he is:

So our group is now complete. There are 14 of us plus Lloyd. These include our exotic travel buddies Steve and Thumper, plus the “Boise Girls”, Christy and Becky, both from the aforementioned Boise, Idaho. We met them three years ago in northern Chile, in the Atacama Desert, on a previous OAT trip (which you can read about here). You meet all the best people there, possibly because of the large quantities of lithium in the soil. They are fun travelmates, adventurous and as cheerful as one can possibly be, especially considering that they come from a state that is most widely known for its potatoes.

The rest of our soon-to-be-determined-whether-or-not-they-are-merry band includes:

  • Cheryl and David from Tampa, Florida, who to escape hurricane Irma had to drive 19 hours to catch their flight from New York, and who spent the first day of the trip wondering whether they still had a house. (Turns out they did.)
  • Gene and Mlu from Las Vegas. “Mlu” is a nickname for Merrilu, which apparently her friends do not have time to say. They come from Las Vegas and estimate that this is their 17th or 18th OAT trip. I hope gives them something when they hit 20; their own 747 would be a nice gesture.
  • Wayne and Nikki, and Al and Wanda, who are traveling together, also from Florida, also friendly and well-traveled. Al in particular has a sharp sense of humor that definitely puts him in the category with Steve as “Someone I would like to trade insults with.” Wayne, Nikki, and Wanda I have not yet gotten to know very well outside of their engaging deep-dish southern drawls, but this will change. Wayne’s defining visual characteristic is his regal, Reaganesque white pompadour, accompanying mustache, and trim physique. If his friends do not call him the Silver Fox, they should start immediately.

The 40 minute drive from the airport to our hotel took us through scrubby high desert terrain, punctuated by small acacia trees about 20′ tall. It resembles eastern Oregon, although when you drive through eastern Oregon you do not generally see dikdiks and baboons by the side of the road, as we did here.

The area is sparsely populated, dotted with the occasional private ranch. They are burning the grass fields, so the sky is noticeably hazy, which accentuates the hot, dry weather. Windhoek is at an elevation of about a mile (1600 m ), which moderates the temperature that is nonetheless in the upper 80’s F (about 31C). And it is dry, very dry, less than 20% humidity as our desiccated lips are reminding us.  Chapstick is the order of the day.

The suburban area that we drove through en route to the hotel (called Klein Windhoek) was bipolar. Prior to ascending a long, steep hill to our hotel — the Thule, a few miles outside of Windhoek proper (pop. 400,000), on a hilltop overlooking the city — we passed through a slightly seedy mixed commercial and residential area, whose street names are a mixture of local historical names (e.g., Nelson Mandela Ave.) and German ones (Hofbahnstrasse, near the railway station). The latter reflect the original German colonization in the late 19th century. But as we ascended the hill the architecture gave way to very affluent-looking whitewashed suburban homes and mini-estates, all with contemporary architecture as one might find in a wealthy American suburb. We’ll see the city itself tomorrow.

Our hotel is a beautiful place. (You can check out pictures of the rooms and such on their website: http://www.hotelthule.com/.) We arrived there at about 4 PM and then congregated as a group two hours later for a tour briefing from Lloyd and a round table mutual introduction, which pretty quickly degenerated into a riot when Thumper announced by way of introduction that she received her nickname during a stint as a pole dancer in Laramie, Wyoming. If this is even remotely true then all I can say is that Laramie, Wyoming has probably never been the same. Meanwhile, David announced en passant that in addition to being a retired math teacher he is a mystery writer and song composer. Upon insistence of the group, he sang the first verse of a recent ouevre entitled “Predator Drone”. This is not going to be a dull group.

Introductions and tour briefing complete, and the jocularity level suitably high, we reboarded our little bus for a short ride to dinner at an excellent restaurant, where the entree choices were two dishes that most Americans have never heard of: kingclip (a fish) or eland (an antelope). Both were very good; the dinner was a great success, and we are now all primed for the coming two weeks.

Categories: Africa, Namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Slouching Towards Johannesburg

Disclaimer: no photos in this post, since we haven’t yet been much of anyplace other then the inside of an airplane or the interior of an airport hotel in Johannesburg. I’ll resume my usual photo essay style once I, well, have some photos.

I have discovered that a 15 hour plane ride (New York to Jo’burg) makes me feel like a superhero, though not in any useful way. In particular:

(1) The constant vibration and low level noise feels over the great length of the flight as though it ought to be resonating my connective tissue and most of cell walls into a protoplasmic stew. Somehow this does not happen, which makes me think that I am secretly related to Barry Allen, a.k.a. The Flash, the Scarlet Speedster himself, who can among other useful skills vibrate himself through solid objects.  I believe I felt myself actually merging with my seat cushion.  (As an aside, props to South African Airways for providing about 2″ more legroom than most American carriers in economy class. The Flash never worries about legroom because he can run fast enough to transport himself into parallel universes. I’m sure that at least one of those universes has airlines that only offer lots of legroom.)

(2) I develop Super Hearing, although it only works for slightly annoying sounds. It struck me that that the masking effect of the whooshing ventilation system combined with the engine rumble (see Vibrational Superpower above) makes everything sound a little muffled. Everything, that is, except for a ubiquitous crackling sound that, on reflection, turned out to be many of the 300 passengers randomly opening cellophane packages of whatever. Somehow every crinkle and crackle penetrates the vaguely subterranean roar that otherwise permeates the cabin. It actually sounds a bit like the popcorn-like snickity-snick sound that pervades tropical reefs when you go snorkeling: that is caused by parrotfish nibbling on coral. (At this point, if this were some kind of self-help book, I would helpfully observe that the similarity makes me feel like I am diving in a tropical lagoon even while crammed into an airline economy seat. News flash: it doesn’t.)

Even so, it could have been worse. Our 15 hour flight from New York was originally scheduled as a 16 hour flight from Atlanta. Since we were to fly out of Baltimore to Atlanta, and Hurricane Irma seemed to have that part of the country in her sights, we were understandably nervous about actually making our connection. My BFF and former Evil Assistant Angie assured me that I had nothing to worry, that she would on my behalf invoke pagan magical powers to ensure that Irma would not torpedo our itinerary. By way of proof she reminded me that it was due to her ministrations that our annual company summer picnic has enjoyed good weather every single year since she joined the firm.

All Angie required were some crow feathers and some other magical ingredients, unknown to me, but which I assume one does not normally obtain at an office supply store. So I gave her the go-ahead, thanked her in advance for her efforts… and with just a twinge of guilt changed our itinerary to connect through New York instead of Atlanta. And then —

If you’ve been following the Irma drama, you know that the storm weakened significantly and veered west. We would in fact have made our original connection. (Angie has forgiven me for my lack of faith, but I am going to have to bring back something nice from Namibia if I am to avoid a punishing round of I-told-you-sos.

The upshot is that we arrived in Johannesburg this morning at about 7:45 AM local time, slightly ahead of schedule, and after enduring a very long line at passport control were picked up and driven the short distance to our airport hotel. We are here for only tonight before flying to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, tomorrow.

Johannesburg — universally dubbed Jo’burg in conversation — is a large, dusty, hollow city of 4.4 million, plus another 2 million in the suburbs. By “hollow” I mean that the city center is built up but largely unoccupied, a grid of tall office buildings that give the city a Potemkin skyline because such a large fraction of them are empty. Business fled as one of the major revenue streams — gold mining — dried up, and as a result the downtown is now a crime-ridden warren of abandoned buildings. Downtown is ringed by residential areas as well as enormous sprawling shantytowns, largely devoid of electricity or plumbing and dotted by Port-a-Potties supplied by the local government councils. In short, Jo’burg is a decidedly unsafe metropolis where barbed wire and steel shutters are the ubiquitous decor, even on residences. We were told not to go anywhere on our own.

The one thing that we did do — and pretty much the only thing we had time for before dropping from exhaustion — was  visit the Apartheid Museum, which is an extremely worthwhile place to spend 2-3 hours. It is a modern building, marked by steel beams and rock walls on the outside as a reminder of the harsh conditions in the mines that so many black laborers endured. The inside is a maze-like self-guided tour through the entire history of apartheid from the 1940’s through its dissolution in the 1990’s, replete with oral histories, newsreel clips, photo displays, and documentary footage from the heartrending Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, in which government-sponsored torturers and willfully blind bureaucrats sought amnesty for their immoral activities under apartheid, in part by confessing their crimes to their victims.  The entire museum was informative and powerful, reminding me in some ways of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

We returned to our hotel, the O.R. Tambo Protea, to start meeting up with the rest of our group, starting with two of our previous traveling companions Steve and Thumper (who flew for about a billion hours to get here from San Francisco). The Protea is comfortable, with an excellent restaurant, the odd note being its neo-Mad Max architectural style, in which every surface is either an I-beam or corrugated aluminum, and where the lobby and bar are gaily decorated in machine tools, stacks of tires, and engine blocks. They really need to introduce a dress code requiring spiked leather collars at a minimum.

Tomorrow: Windhoek.

Categories: Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Land of the Rising Sun and Falling Rain

alice-metaOur flights to Tokyo began in Philadelphia but since I’m in charge here and I’m writing about airports I feel compelled to open with an image of Alice on meta-display at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, close to where we live. This doesn’t have anything to do with Japan but all our friends thought it was pretty cool. (I took the photo of Alice in a waterfall in New Zealand and wrote a blog post about it here. I submitted it for display at the airport about a month ago.)

Our actual journey to Tokyo was unremarkable, taking 5,211 hours — at least it felt that way — and arriving on schedule with our desiccated corpses in row 19. The trans-Pacific leg of the flight was on a 787, the Boeing “Dreamliner”, which is as advertised a pretty nice plane: noticeably quieter than most and with much better air quality. The snazzy part, though, were the windows: the shades are electronic, not physical, and you can dial in the opacity to turn them a lighter or darker shade of blue. Most people opted to do this — it being rather sunny at 38,000 feet — consequently bathing the cabin in a tropical oceanic blue light. It is rather like flying inside an aquarium.

The downside of this is that when you do fly over something interesting — and we overflew some truly spectacular Alaskan glaciers — it becomes difficult to find a place from which to look out and admire the view. Everyone’s windows are dark blue, and it feels like looking at the Arctic landscape as through it had been relocated underwater in the Bahamas.

Narita airport is in the hinterlands about 40 miles outside of Tokyo, so after flying all that distance you get to enjoy a whole new journey into town. There are several ways to do this, one of the easiest being an express train line that runs directly from the airport to the Tokyo main rail station. It takes about an hour. We bought tickets immediately after clearing customs but had to wait about half hour until the train left. Notice that I say “until the train left“. The train arrived almost immediately but the cleaning crew — one man to a car — spent the rest of the time cleaning in that fastidious Japanese way that reflects either an advanced aesthetic or culturally-ingrained OCD. By the time we were allowed to board  you could have performed open heart surgery in that rail car.

The ride into town passes through surprisingly rural countryside considering how vast and utterly urbanized Tokyo itself is: the metro area is 5,200 square miles with a population of 38 million. In other words, it is a city that itself is one-third the size of Holland with twice the population. With numbers like that it is surprising to see any grassland at all, let alone rolling fields. Gradually, of course, the landscape gives over to suburbia, small outlying towns that are surprisingly European in appearance, two story dwellings with tile roofs. The giveaway is that about 10% of those roofs curve slightly upwards at the eaves, giving them a distinctly (and deliberately) pagoda-like appearance.

The overall scene was on the gloomy side, mainly due to the weather. We arrived through drizzle and heavy overcast, and the towns — and Tokyo itself — were shrouded in low-lying clouds and a persistent light rain. We are in a tropical storm, it seems, and the rainy weather continued through today and will alas remain with us for at least another few days. Nothing to do about it but sightsee with umbrellas, which we had the foresight to bring. (I do not know the name of this particular storm, or even whether it has one. This being Japan, I would name it either Tropical Storm Sushi or Tropical Storm Manga, the latter if the storm has a big eye. Ha ha!  A little meteorological humor there!) Tokyo is in general a pretty rainy city: it gets 105 days of rain per year, about the same as London.

mustardWe arrived at our hotel, 24 hours after walking out the door and suitably exhausted, at about 5 PM. (We are staying at the Hotel Sardonyx, whose name, Alice observes, would make it the ideal pied-á-terre for me and my entire family.)  In the interest of mitigating the worst of our impending jet lag, we decided to tough it out for a few hours and have some dinner at the hotel before crashing into bed. That dinner was a little dose of surrealism of its own, the management having decided for some reason to serve almost exclusively some Bizarro-world simulacrum of what someone thinks American cuisine is. Everything you need to know about that meal is contained in this image of a mustard packet that I was served with my sandwich.  I did not have any “frank frutes” with my dinner, and if I had I assure you that I would not be looking for the “unique taste of plan sourness”, in part because I have no idea what that is attempting to mean.

And so to bed. Our room is small but comfortable, largely Western in appearance and feel but for a few very Japanese touches. One is an invisible rectangular heating coil behind the bathroom mirror, about 16 inches on a side, that keeps that area of the mirror fog-free no matter how long and steamy a shower you wish to take. The other is an intimidating toilet with onboard electronics, which is to say about a half dozen buttons of varied and uncertain function. At least two are related to some bidet-related butt-washing function; a third — which Alice mistakenly activated, to our delight — heats up the toilet seat. Our buttocks are now nice and toasty, thank you very much.

We slept well and long enough to at least partly counteract the 13-hour time difference, awakening at 7:00 AM or so, so we had some breakfast (vastly better than dinner) and struck out on the Tokyo Metro for our first round of exploration. As it turns out, that fact inspires me to close this post with a paean to the Metro.

The first thing you have to realize is that you need a big subway system to serve 38 million people.  How big?  This big:

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Leaving out the buses and trains, there are 13 lines containing 285 stations. It carries nearly 9 million people a day. But the system’s designers did something very clever that, astonishingly, does not seem to have occurred to any of their counterparts in other cities: they numbered the stations on each line. The stations all have names describing their location, of course — the one across the street from our hotel is Hatchibori — but on all the maps and signage they also appear as sequential numbers on their particular line. Hence our Hatchibori station is Hibiya-11, Hibiya being the name of the line that we’re on. The Ginza is Hibiya-8, which tells us immediately that if we want to go see those gazillion lights at night we need only hop on our own local station and travel for three stops.

How do you navigate transfers? In our case, with the help of my new favorite and exceedingly wonderful piece of software, the “Tokyo Subway Navigation” app, available for free at your favorite online app store. This little gem uses your phone’s GPS to tell you what station is nearby and how far away it is; lets you select start and destination points from a searchable database (e.g., your hotel and the Imperial Palace); and then tells you not only what stations to get on and off at, but how long each leg will take and how much the trip will cost. You can even eliminate that last concern altogether by shelling out ten bucks for a Metro 24-hour pass, which gives you unlimited usage on all 13 lines. Between that day pas, the app, and the intuitive station numbering, the city is basically at your feet; we bopped around all day with scarcely a thought. Next time I will tell you where we bopped to.  It involves sushi, kabuki, and manga action figures.

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Downtown Kona

“Kona” is technically a district on the Big Island, whose largest town (and the population center that people tend to refer to as “Kona”) is Kailua. It’s small, with a population of about 12,000, though it swells briefly to 35,000,000 every Wednesday when the cruise ships dock. The larger Kona area — it is hard to think of a town of 12,000 as having suburbs — is home to about 36,000 people. The tourist life of the town proper is of course centered on the waterfront that you see here.

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Then hotel at the far right is the venerable Royal Kona hotel, which is designed to look like a ship. And the not-so-gently sloping horizon is the southern flank of 14,000′ Mauna Loa. As you can see, Kailua’s “skyline” is very un-Waikiki-like, which is very much to our taste.

A few days ago Ali’i Drive, the main drag along the water, was blocked off to auto traffic in order to hold a street fair where, as usual, local vendors showed off their wares and slack-key guitar players were abundant. Hawaii having both a large share of eccentric characters and a lot of tourists would lead you to predict that one would find an array of colorful personalities in such a setting, and you’d be right. So here are a few.

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I call your attention to the fact that lady on the left in the third photo is wearing antennae. And judging from his hairstyle and mirrored sunglasses, I am guessing that they guy she is with is arranging a contract hit.

But the real point of discussion here is the impressive tattoo spanning the back of the lady in the bottom photo. It reads “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono“, which is the state motto of Hawaii and officially translates as “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness”. However that translation is — and can only be — approximate, since Hawaiian is a language rooted in mystical reverence for the land and suffused with nuance. One of the big points of contention in this case is the fourth word, “Ea“, which in the official motto translates as “life” but can also be translated as “breath” or — and here’s where things get sticky — “sovereignty”. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is a vocal Hawaiian sovereignty movement powered by the considerable array of historical injustices that led to (a) Hawaii being a U.S. state, and (b) only 1-2% of the population still knowing how to speak Hawaiian. (And even that is a big improvement over recent years: as recently as the year 2000 the number of speakers was only one-tenth of what it is now. So the language is enjoying a real resurgence.)

Hawaii is not about to be granted independence any time soon, but is certainly increasingly the case that the original language and culture are enjoying a lot more attention and respect than they did. It is not unlikely that the lady in this photo is part of the sovereignty movement.

So amidst all this diversity did we actually buy anything? Of course we did, though not a lot. We enjoyed another round of homemade fresh lilikoi-banana popsicles (seriously, those things are to die for), and Alice bought a table runner with a Hawaiian pattern. And there was of course food to sample, the most notable being a variety of hot sauces made with local ingredients. My favorite was one made with pineapple and scorpion peppers, which was like a fruity version of boiling lava. Incidentally, the Hawaiian word for “scorpion” is “kopiana”, which if you say it aloud sounds suspiciously like the English word; I find that a little strange since scorpions do exist here and so I’d expect a more Polynesian-sounding indigenous word for them. But never mind — I’ve got to go stuff some aloe leaves into my mouth now.

 

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Atlas Drove

…and drove, and drove. Today was a travel day, and we spent a total of 11 hours working our way from Fez to Erfoud, the gateway to the Sahara. The distance is about 260 miles, but we made some stops along the way, and at no point did the road resemble an interstate highway. We were in addition slightly slowed down by another one of our group falling ill and requiring a number of impromptu pit stops. Everyone takes this in stride, recognizing that it literally goes with the territory, and happily she is already feeling somewhat better. But the bottom line is, that there was not a whole of jam-packed activities today other than watching the scenery go by (which I will describe in a moment). 

We headed due south towards the desert, our first geographical landmark being the Middle Atlas Mountains, which are only a few thousand feet high (they peak at about 5000′). That is more than enough to notice a significant change in climate, though: the air is much cooler and drier, and the hills forested with cedar and pine. Indeed, this region is rather incongruously referred to as the Switzerland of Morocco, a metaphor made even weirder by the fact that there is in fact a ski resort. They don’t get an enormous amount of snow, but it is apparently enough to ski on; we could see a couple of trails and lifts on the hillsides. It was in this area that we made our first rest stop/coffee break in the town of Ifrane, whose architecture, signage, and heavily German tourist population indeed suggest that we somehow stumbled through a wormhole into some bizarre Islamic corner of Bavaria.

Once we crossed the crest of the Middle Atlas, we were on a high plateau, the plain between the Middle Atlas and High Atlas Mountains; the Sahara is on the far side if the High Atlas. This plain is a rocky desert with scrub vegetation, the road mostly straight and way too narrow: a single skinny lane in both directions with no median strip, guardrails, or shoulders. It was clearly built in an era when this region had no traffic at all, but now that the Moroccan government is investing in a number of southern towns there is a steady two-directional flow of passenger cars, trucks, and buses like our own. The narrow highway and generally marginal road conditions make every oncoming encounter — and they are frequent — an opportunity for terror, as the clearance between northbound buses and our own is about 6″.

All in all the terrain closely resembles much of the American Southwest, albeit with more terrifying roads. However, the Southwest does not have nomadic tribes shepherding herds of sheep and goats across the rocky scrub. The nomads construct makeshift-looking compounds of varying permanence out of a wide variety of scrounged materials, and these constructions are visible on the hillsides every hour or so as we drive. We stopped at one, that you can see here.

The ground surrounding the structures was rough with coarse grass and stones, and littered with animal bones. Dung beetles about 3/4 of an inch long wee all over, diligently rolling up balls of animal dung about the size of acorns and popping into their burrows when our footsteps alarmed them. The rocks were peppered with pretty little orange beetles with geometric hourglass patterns on their backs, looking like robot ladybugs.

The compound itself consisted of a few dimly lit rooms — they do have electricity, courtesy of a solar panel — adjacent to some corrugated metal paddocks variously holding turkey’s and sheep. Seven people live here, from two families; that’s one mother and child in the photo, and there was a grubby looking second child running around on his own. The families vacate this compound in the winter, leaving two of their number behind to keep squatters from occupying it. They return in the spring. They are illiterate, unwashed, and of low life expectancy: the woman above was 22 years old, looked about 40, and had been married since 13. But she baked a mean loaf of bread: she shared some with us that was still hot from the oven, and it was delicious.

Now here’s the strange part: completely belying this otherwise primitive existence is the fact that they have television. A modestly sized TV with one of those ubiquitous pirated cable boxes was fed by a small satellite dish and powered by the solar panel. They probably only have enough juice to operate the TV for a small part of the day, but sure enough, she turned its on for us and we could see the channel guide from the satellite (which she, of course, does not know how to read). But she also flipped through a couple of stations with some kind of soap opera going on, which kind of put a dent in my personal mental image of the isolated nomad.

We crossed the plain between the two mountain ranges and ascended into the High Atlas, where the road became twisty as we climbed and not any wider. There were at least guardrails, although frequently damaged or broken through by what we can only assume was some prior horrific accident. The terrain also became even more sparse, the soil turning redder and the vegetation becoming even more sparse. But there is enough water to be found in wells and the occasional shallow river to allow the construction of bricks and adobe, and the architecture in the towns by the road reflect this. Take a look at the image below: the town is made from adobe, and if you remove the tall structure at right, which is the town minaret, the scene could very well be somewhere in northern Arizona. 

If you’re not altogether in agreement with that statement, then check out the next image and tell me that it couldn’t equally well be in Arizona or New Mexico.

What you will not find in Arizona or New Mexico, however, is groves of date palms like you see in the picture below. The trees sit in a strip of land a few hundreds yard wide in a valley below the winding road, and they follow it for miles. Dates are a major part of the economy here, and the are a number of varieties with a wide range of quality and corresponding price. At the top of the line are Medjool dates, which are quite expensive (and not the ones in this grove).

We arrived at our hotel in Erfoud at a little after 7 PM and upon entering it immediately felt like desert travelers encountering an oasis. Below is the courtyard. You can see the pool in the middle of the photo; what you cannot see is the white camel that they keep on the grounds. This place is nice, and will doubtless in retrospect stand in sharp contracts to the more primitive lodgings that we will have for the next couple of days. We head out into the Sahara for real tomorrow, leaving behind most of our luggage and abandoning our bus for several 4 x 4’s that will take us to our tented camp for the next two nights. There, we will be riding camels into the dunes, meeting desert Berber tribes, and — my astronomer self smiles — enjoying some truly spectacular night skies. What I will not be doing, however, is transmitting any blog posts for the next few days, as we will be well and truly off the grid. I hope to be back online with suitable Rich and Alice of Arabia stories in a few days.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Venice: The Incredible S(hr)inking City

You may have read on occasion that Venice is slowly sinking — more about that shortly — but may not have been aware that it is shrinking dramatically in population as well. As recently as 1952 the official population of the lagoon city was over 200,000; today it is roughly 50,000. It has shrunk by 9% in the past 15 years alone, and the fear is that soon it won’t be a “real” city at all, with actual residents, but rather solely a tourist enclave populated entirely by tourists, gondoliers, restaurant owners, and souvenir vendors. In other words, it may become the Colonial Williamsburg of the Adriatic.

But at that, it would still be pretty charming: Venice is one of those places whose appearance comports very nicely with your mental image of it. Which is to say, that it looks like this:

Venice-9

Venice, appearing as advertised

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Venice-7Despite the charm, it’s pretty clear that the city is in decline, struggling to maintain its physical infrastructure.  Venice the city-state reached the peak of its influence quite some time ago — the Venetians basically dominated the Western world from about 900 AD to 1300 AD — but, well, what have they done for us lately? At least a bit of this decline is a consequence of the aforementioned sinking, whose signs are everywhere. Basically, the water is lapping at the front door of every canal-side structure, and the “ground” floors of many dwellings are unusable as a result, as you can see here.

So when will you need scuba gear to tour Venice? It depends on who you ask. The “official” rate at which the water is said to be encroaching is roughly 2 mm per year, but those self-same officials ascribe that number mostly to the rise in sea level of the Adriatic rather than the city actually sinking. (The Republican Party may not believe in global warming, but the Venetians, Dutch, Seychellians, and other low-lying peoples know better. And if you, gentle blog reader, also disbelieve it, then you are a willfully ignorant idiot and can stop reading now, pausing only to leave some stupid comment that I will delete.)

Where was I? Ah, lapping canals, yes. The official line is that, sea level rise notwithstanding, Venice used to be sinking on its own but isn’t any more. This may actually be true. Venice used to be studded with many artesian wells whose effect on the water table was exactly what you’d expect, and as the underground water was drawn off the city subsided to fill the gap. For that very reason artesian well drilling was halted about 25 years ago, and the subsidence has supposedly stopped as a result.

Maybe. A recent study by a geology group at Stanford claims that the city is in fact still sinking, at a rate of 8 mm per year. That is a lot: a foot every 40 years or so. The city fathers of Venice do not like this number, and there is quite the roiling controversy as to whether the study is correct.

Be that as it may, we will only be in Venice for 5 days, meaning that even if the Stanford study is correct the water will gain only about 0.1 mm on us, which is roughly twice the width of a human hair. And since we are staying in a third-floor apartment, our electronic equipment is probably safe.

We landed at Marco Polo airport at about 8:30 AM today (local time) and took the vaporetto (“water bus”) from the airport to the famous Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal, from which we could walk to our apartment. It’s a third-floor walkup that we found through AirBnB, nicely appointed and well-situated maybe a 75 yards from the canal. Although its entrance is an obscure doorway in a tiny grey stone medieval alley, the flat itself is modern and comfortable: 3 bedrooms (though we only need to for ourselves and our traveling companions Jim and Elaine); 1 1/2 baths, a small living room with TV, and a large well-equipped kitchen and breakfast area.

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The maid was cleaning the place when we arrived at about 10:45 AM, so we dumped our luggage in the living room and set off to explore the city for a few hours before exhaustion and jet lag felled us altogether. As it happens the particular part of the Grand Canal that our street abuts is the home of a large outdoor produce and fish market, which made for  some pleasant wandering. The fish offerings in particular were plentiful and diverse, showcasing a number of creatures that we have seen rarely or not at all, including (a) gigantic black-and-white mottled and blobby-looking cuttlefish about the size of bed pillows; (b) buckets of whelks in their shells; and (c) a variety of unfamiliar crustaceans.

Some further wandering revealed that there are essentially three kind of souvenir vendors in Venice, found in about equal numbers. The sketchiest of these are the African guys who operate off a blanket thrown down just about anywhere on the street. They are everywhere, and they clearly all get their inventory from the same place, because they always all sell the same thing. (I have noticed this in previous trips to Italy and in Paris as well.) The “thing” that they sell is whatever happens to be the fad this year, which in April of 2015 happens to be selfie sticks for about 5 bucks each. Every last one of them was selling selfie sticks, and God knows the market was there because a lot of tourists — especially the Asians — were using them. Despite the availability of ready customers, the vendors were not at all shy at coming up to me and offering to sell me one as well…as I stood there holding my SLR with its soup-can-sized lens. Really? Does this camera look like you could attach it to a selfie stick and hold it at arms length?

The next-least-sleazy species of souvenir vendor is your garden-variety storefront selling plastic gondolas, teeshirts, snow globes…all the traditional tchotchkes. There are approximately one billion of these stores in Venice, and their density increases exponentially with proximity to a major tourist attraction such as Saint Marks’s Square. (Indeed, there are now so many selfie-stick-sellers and teeshirt vendors in Saint Mark’s Square that the famous pigeons have apparently been squeezed out; there were surprisingly few there.)

Venice-5Venice-6And finally we have the actual cool souvenir stores: the mask vendors. Venice is famous for its masks, as you may now, ansd there are many stores selling many beautiful ones. Some are whimsical, some grotesque, and many would be right at home in a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. The nice ones of course are handmade, often out of papier mache, and one patient owner let us watch her for a while. You can see her at work and one of her simpler creations in these two photos.

We spent the rest of the afternoon variously walking our feet off our getting around on the vaporettos. (Question to my Italian friends: is the plural “vaporetti”?)

Perhaps it would be helpful to clarify the type of water traffic on the canals. The Grand Canal is positively choked with boat traffic which, remarkably, seems to manage itself quite handily with few or no collisions and not even any obvious near-misses. Anyway, a quick glance at the canal immediately reveals:

  • Vaporettos, i.e., water buses that hold perhaps 40 people.
  • Water taxis, which are much smaller and more expensive teak-paneled speedboats that hold perhaps 4 passengers
  • Utility boats delivering supplies and construction, dredging, and other equipment from one point to another
  • …and of course hundreds of gondolas, mostly filled with clueless seniors like us or Japanese schoolgirls with selfie sticks

…which pretty much sums up our day so far. The weather today was beautiful — sunny and in the 60s — but is supposed to turn sour tomorrow. So we are considering going out tonight for an obligatory gondola ride, which should be especially nice at night. Perhaps I will buy a selfie stick.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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