May 17, 1999

Africa: Last Day

Much travel, but not much else. Quick hop back across the border from South Africa to Botswana (Gaborone is right across the border), final shopping, final packing, and off to the airport for the trip back. Lovely place, southern Africa. I'd love to come back.

May 16, 1999

Africa: Day 15


As we say a fond farewell to Pilanesberg, we take another drive through, albeit one not so roundabout as the last time through. This time through, we get remarkably close to some zebras. They're shy animals, but we seem to have caught them in a good mood. At least, they're in a good mood until some other tourists stop and get out of their car. As the doors slam, the zebras bolt. We hope the tourists get eaten by lions.

Tau lies near the border with Botswana, so it's a three-and-a-half hour drive back towards Gaborone, a not-insignificant part of which is over a dirt road. Then it's through the gate in the electrified fence and up another kilometer or so of dirt driveway to the lodge itself. Yet another place that makes me feel like a wealthy gringo. Instead of connected rooms like at Mowana, we get individual, well-upholstered cabins surrounding a large watering hole. Each cabin has a balcony facing the watering hole so that you can watch the animals right outside your window (warthogs, guinea hens, kudu, ibex, and baboons when we got in). Each cabin also has an outdoor shower with a window likewise facing the watering hole, so you can watch animals while washing your hair. I'll stick with the tub, though. Someone even brings us tea. From the female contingent, I detect immediate lusting after our guide, Brendan, who looks pretty much like you'd expect a twentysomething professional game guide named Brendan to look.

After yet another very nice buffet lunch, we're out into the wilderness for another game drive. We almost immediately see a batch of kudu who are almost but not quite ready to start mating. As a result, we almost but not quite get the opportunity to snap some pictures of kudu porn. Tooling around, we catch zebra, the usually assortment of guinea hens, warthogs, and variations on the theme of deer. The big sighting, however, is a number of lions. Approaching an earthen dam, we see a lioness casually strolling across the top. As we stop to look and take pictures, Brendan explains that it's one of four lionesses, which runs around with a pair of lions, apparently brothers. The lions recently killed a baby elephant, so they're visibly gorged on the meat. As we watch, one of the male lions strolls up, laps briefly at a water hole, and joins the lioness. After a few minutes, his brother takes up station on a nearby rise.

Yes, a lion

On the way back to the lodge, it begins to rain, so we're all quite cold by the time we get back. Time to use the very nice tub…

May 15, 1999

Africa: Day 14

Pilanesberg/Sun City

Ken had been unable to make his tee time reservation for the Sun City golf course, so we were up shortly after the crack of dawn for him to make a call ahead. We were staying on the northern edge of the reserve, while Sun City is on the south (the reserve is in the remains of a very old, roughly circular volcanic caldera about forty kilometers across). To get there, then, we took a more or less southerly route, albeit a fairly roundabout one in search of lions. We didn't find any, but we did see just about every kind of antelope there is, including springboks who were actually springing. They do a peculiar sort of hopping run, as though they were four-footed kangaroos.

We ran into some nonsense at the front gate to Sun City. It looks like one of the ways of keeping out the riffraff is to charge admission. They immediately give it back to you in the form of chips, but if you can't afford the R40 a head (about $6.50), you can't get in. Having just come over the border, we had no rand. It didn't surprise me that they didn't take dollars or pula, but I didn't even see any indication that they took plastic. After a halting argument with the woman at the gate, she waved us through and told us to pay her later.

Sun City, which Little Steven van Zandt and friends famously refused to play some years ago, is a peculiar entertainment complex built on a hill in the northern part of South Africa. It consists for the most part of several hotels, a gold course, and a water park. It is, from a certain point of view, an abomination, albeit an architecturally ambitious one. Big theme hotel-casinos in the middle of nowhere? It's Vegas in South Africa. America has much to answer for. It's garrish. It's tacky. The movie theater was evenly divided between six-month-old Hollywood films (all of which we saw on the flight over) and what I presume was South African porn (which, let's face it, would have been too ironic to show on Virgin Atlantic). I noted smugly that despite the end of apartheid, all of the help was black and all of the guests were white or foreigners, but then Naomi pointed out that the same was true of most American luxury hotels. Thus endeth the civics lesson.

After perusing and making appropriate fun of the Lost City motif, we wandered back downhill (on foot) to the crocodile farm. It's quite cleverly set up; you must go through the gift shop both on the way in and on the way out. Antone and Callee seem to have contracted an addiction to shopping. The crocodile farm was, not surprisingly, full of crocodiles. The big ones (who were very, very big) didn't move much, but the small ones were quite active. There were informative signs everywhere on the life and habits of the crocodile. Apparently, despite its fearsome reputation, crocodiles haven't killed the most humans of any animal in Africa. That honor goes to the hippos. Our "cute little ears" theory is thus vindicated. To meet Ken and Helen back at the Sun City Hotel (at about the midpoint of the slope), we took the local tram, which turned out to be the most accessible thing in Africa. The ramp up to the platform was a very gentle slope, they had a special gate ready for wheelchairs, the floor of the train was level with the floor of the platform, and there was little or no gap between them.

As we left Sun City, we realized that we hadn't, in fact, paid our admission at the front gate. So even though they ultimately got as much money from us as if we had, we hadn't followed procedure, and our entire stay in Sun City was, from a certain point of view, illegitimate. The obvious implication? This was our second illicit crocodile viewing. As hardened international criminals, we start keeping an eye out for the crocodile cops.

A legally taken crocodile picture. Note the vervet monkey (circled in red) tempting fate.

May 14, 1999

Africa: Day 13


The day started with taking care of some tasks around Gaborone, mostly shopping. However, before going off to do that, we went into the embassy again with Helen and, because we were fortunate enough to catch him for a brief free moment, met the ambassador, Robert Kreuger, a former senator from Texas. The second time in the embassy, I began to notice how secure a place it really was. The buildings were well away from the surrounding walls, making it less vulnerable to car bombs placed outside, windows were small and sparsely distributed, and even though the embassy buildings surrounded a nice open courtyard, there were only a few entrances to it, and those easily defended.

Once we got done shopping for trinkets (I wound up with a substantial arm full), we packed up and headed off to the Pilanesberg game reserve in South Africa, about four hours southeast of Gaborone. Ken had a lot of chances to flash his diplomatic passport. As we left Botswana, one of the customs officials wanted to search our van. It turns out, however, that you can't search the vehicle of anybody carrying a diplomatic passport, since they have diplomatic immunity. Ken waves the passport, and the problem goes away. A bit later on, we made a left turn on red somewhere in South Africa. The road system was built by the Brits, so like everywhere else in southern Africa, they drive on the left. Our maneuver was the equivalent of an American right turn on red. But apparently that's not legal in South Africa. Cop pulls us over, Ken waves the passport, problem goes away.

Judging by the many posters by the roadside, South Africa was facing an election in the near future. Most of them were populated by the usual electoral claptrap: "Let's put South Africa back to work" and the like. However, I found it interesting that one party had as it's slogan "Fight back against the ANC." Most disturbing, however, was one that said simply, in white letters on a navy blue background, "No mercy for criminals." Seeing as we were apparently in flagrant violation of traffic laws, I found this rather threatening.

Our lodgings in Pilanesberg, on the edge of the game reserve itself, were a bit like those near Victoria Falls, fully equipped cottages rather than hotel rooms. However, they were a bit more conventionally western: solid walls and tile roofs rather than canvas and thatch. That night, we cooked chicken over native thorn wood and had it with Ken's family's barbeque sauce. Yummy.

May 13, 1999

Africa: Day 12


A day spent mostly in transit: drive from Victoria Falls to Kisane, then fly from Kisane back to Gaborone. On our way back, Helen, discussing our plans for the next few days, mentioned that I would be making dinner that evening, which prompted an immediate and spontaneous "Yay!" from Antone and Callee. Most gratifying, particularly given my tremendous ego.

On returning to Gaborone, I pulled out the wedge of assiago and kilo of arborio I had brought with me to Africa and, using an interesting South African vintage, produced the standard rissoto with red wine and rosemary, accompanied by a salad with a balsamic vinagrette (also brought a vial of the good vinegar with me). Seemed to go over tolerably well.

May 12, 1999

Africa: Day 11

Victoria Falls

Ken went off to play golf at Elephant Hills (a course attached to the next hotel down the road) this morning, Helen and Naomi went to said hotel's casino, and the rest of us went riding elephants. After a drive of about a half hour mostly over dirt roads, we arrived at a small clearing furnished with a set of metal steps. In a few minutes, a string of four elephants and their guides strolled into view and we mounted up. The guide explained to us that these elephants had been acquired as babies by some people living elsewhere and kept as pets. As they got older, however, they became too big to keep. Since they had been raised by people, they had little chance of surviving in the wild, so they were trained as part of a project to establish that, contrary to popular belief, African elephants can be trained as well as Indian elephants.

Matt on an elephant. I'm the pale one.

As we set off into the bush, it was surprising how little noise the elephants made. Apparently, elephants have thick, fleshy pads on the bottoms of their feet which spread to cushion the impact as they walk. Incidentally, this allows them to move remarkably stealthily. I doubt they made more noise than I would have; it certainly allowed us to get quite close to the giraffes. We didn't see a lot in the way of game (late morning isn't a great time to go looking for animals), but the point of the exercise for me was simply to ride the elephants. My guide, Sipho, was a treasury of information on plants and insects as well as larger animals. For example, the African star chestnut tree has a bark that peels off in thin layers periodically. The "live" bark is fairly pale, but as it peels, it darkens and turns a deep crimson, giving the tree a dark reddish appearance. The chestnuts themselves are toxic to humans, but elephants munch on them. The ride concluded with a nice outdoor lunch with a few of the guides, which developed into a discussion of American society and politics.

Rejoining everybody else, we went to the open-air marketplace in "downtown" Victoria Falls to buy trinkets and curios. It was a profoundly unpleasant experience that I'm not eager to repeat. The feeling of being a potential target was compounded by a predatory edge to the bargaining. The people selling stuff were out to extract as much money as possible from the tourists, while the tourists were primed to get as much stuff out of the craftsmen as they could for as little money as possible.

After shopping, we headed across the street to the Victoria Falls Hotel for high tea. The Victoria Falls Hotel was established in the previous century by British colonialists and, in a way, it's still the late nineteenth century there: manicured grass lawns, whitewashed Georgian architecture, and, of course, high tea. The scones were wonderful, the tea hit the spot, and the petit-fours were the first chocolate I had had in weeks. Tea was also enhanced by the view from the terrace. We were around a bend from the falls themselves, but the slope down to the Zambezi perfectly framed the river bridge.

May 11, 1999

Africa: Day 10

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls. Not the town, but the falls themselves. The falls are the result of a sort of crevice across the course of the Zambezi river. The water falls from eighty to a hundred meters to find a new course at the bottom of a deeply cut valley. May sees the high water mark of the Zambezi, and you can see the site of the falls from miles away. The spray from the falls rises like a huge cloud of smoke. Before leaving Botswana, we had been told that we wouldn't be able to see anything through the mist.

After paying admission (once again, payable only in foreign currency), we start the stroll up to the falls. There's a small museum near the entrance that looks a lot like a little National Park Service museum with local curios and mounted examples of trees and wildlife. Even there, perhaps half a kilometer away, you can hear the falls and start feeling the spray. The Zimbabwean bank of the river follows an L shape; the river flows parallel to the upright and falls right before the crossbar. The path (passing a statue of Livingston, prompting an obligatory "Dr. Livingston, I presume" joke) leads to a point a little bit before the angle in the L. From there, the view is remarkable and not terribly obscured by the mist. There were also a lot of rainbows.

A partial view of the Falls

Following along the crossbar of the L, however, is where the view goes from remarkable to awe-inspiring. The path runs through a patch of what is for all intents a strip of rain forest a few yards thick, occasionally breaking out into small cleared observation platforms. From those posts, you can see the entire width of the falls themselves. Or rather, you could see it if they were narrow enough to see all at once and if there wasn't a constant mist. As foretold, there was a heavy spray, indistinguishable from a heavy rain, which often obscured the falls, but the wind often cleared the spray, leaving a stunning view. We got soaked and spend a while back at the entrance drying out, but it was more than worth it.

After heading back to the house to change into dry clothing, we went on a mostly fruitless search for Penzo pottery. Penzo, a brightly colored style, is produced in Zimbabwe and we had been told that there was a factory outlet in Victoria Falls, but we appear to have been misinformed. While there, Naomi, Callee, and Antone took a brief stroll into the adjacent crocodile farm. We pulled them out when we noticed that you actually had to pay admission to get in, but there was nevertheless a bit of illicit crocodile viewing.

We finished the day with a sunset cruise on the Zambezi. It was terribly, terribly civilized, with a good spread of hors d'ouvres and many pictures were taken (although not by me; I neglected to bring a camera). We were also briefly in Zambian waters, bringing our country count for the trip up to four.

May 10, 1999

Africa: Day 9

Victoria Falls

The trip from Kisane to the Zimbabwean border is ten or fifteen minutes. Zimbabwe is in dire need of hard currency, so they charge foreigners for visas and require that they pay in foreign currencies (it's $30 US, in case you're interested, with appropriate conversions for pound sterling, francs, and so on). At the border, we hit an interesting cultural filip. The customs guy decided to put all of our visa payments on one receipt. Who would get their name on the receipt? Why, the most senior among us, of course. Since Ken and Helen had diplomatic passports and didn't need to buy visas, that ended up being me. The guy also sang a little Naomi song to himself as he wrote her name down on the paperwork. "Nah-oooooo-mi." I could hear the drums and backup singers in his head. Nice tune, by the way.

"Downtown" Victoria Falls is where the Third World starts getting ugly. There's an area of four or five blocks where the stores, banks, and restaurants are. It's also packed with Zimbabweans trying to make a buck off of the tourists. It's impossible not to feel like a target there. Fortunately, our sojourn there is brief. Change some money into a thick sheaf of currency at the bank (the Zimbabwean dollar is worth about three cents), a very bad lunch at a local hamburger joint, and we're off to where we're staying: the Lokothula Safari Lodge.

Home, with the walls up

At the lodge, we stay in a two-and-a-half story, three bedroom cottage with canvas walls that roll up on the ground floor, giving an unobstructed view of a bit of "lawn" and a broad stretch of woods as far as the Zambezi. Much like the bar in Kisane, the weather is good enough that we don't really need actual walls or glass windows

The 7:15 warthogs, right on time

Dinner is at a restaurant attached to the lodge and its related hotel, the Boma (the Place of Eating). The place is decorated to look a bit like a village, and the evening is something between a meal and a performance. Our waiter starts by washing our hands and pouring some native beer (traditionally made from various grains including millet and sorghum and quite cloudy) from a gourd. An interesting taste, although I've got little to compare it to. Between performances by singers (quite good), dancers (ditto), and a strolling storyteller (I liked him), I took advantage of the grill, well stocked with local game: wildebeast, warthog, eland, ibex, and so on. I made it a point to have the eland, although I doubt that it was from the fatty hump at the back of the neck, so I probably didn't get much n!um out of it. It felt like the Disney version of Africa, but quite enjoyable nevertheless.

May 09, 1999

Africa: Day 8


We got in too late yesterday to go out looking at animals, so today was our day to be out and about. In the morning, we hit the water for a boat ride up the Chobe. Among the interesting bits we passed was a patch of disputed territory, an island in the Chobe claimed by both Botswana and Zambia. The fight for possession is being carried out in the World Court, so they should have a decision any decade now.

Among the animals seen were ibex, elephants, crocodiles, monitor lizards, vervet monkies, and a number of birds. We were also charged, or at least lunged at, by a hippo. We've decided that hippos are such hostile animals because people keep making fun of their cute little ears.

"Two can play the waiting game...oh, the waiting game sucks. Let's play Hungry Hungry Hippos!"

Comorant over the Chobe

Our closest encounter, however, was with an elephant. Jimmy, our guide, saw a lone elephant strolling along the bank, and so pulled us up on the shore a hundred meters or so farther down. From our vantage point, we could see him coming closer and closer, occasionally tossing dust on himself. After a few moments, he strolled right in front of the boat, no more than ten feet away from the prow. He stopped, turned to look at us, and after a long moment went back on his way.

Elephant approaches

Elephant very close

Elephant watching us

After lunch, we were off for an afternoon game drive. Jimmy is our guide again, and he has gotten visibly darker in the course of the day. He speaks some of the local languages, and we start speculating on his origins. On the drive, there were baboons, giraffe, mongeese, water buffalo, and many of the same animals as seen this morning, but in even larger numbers. In particular, there seemed to be a huge number of elephants, which we saw singly, in small groups, and in herds of up to twenty or thirty. There seemed to be a great many baby elephants, which strikes me as a good sign for the overall elephant population.

Elephants at Mowana heading inland at sunset

Antone and I agree that we wish we had a tape recorder as well as cameras. The sounds the animals make are just as remarkable as the sights they present: the snorts of the hippos, elephants trumpeting, monkies chattering at one another.

May 08, 1999

Africa: Day 7


We spent most of the day in transit from Gaborone to Kisane on the banks of the Chobe river in the northeastern corner of Botswana, about where the country borders on Zimbabwe and Zambia. It feels somewhat cooler than Gaborone despite being many miles closer to the equator. There also appears to be a staff of warthogs helping out at the airport.

Arriving at the airport around four, we headed off to the Mowani Safari Lodge, about which I must say this: damn. Never have I felt like such a rich gringo. The semi-open architecture is exactly the kind of building I adore, everything is made of gorgeous wood and pseudo-earthen materials, and the upstairs bar has a completely unobstructed view of the river and the Zambian shore. The chairs in the bar even recline. Every room has a small porch or balcony facing the river, although the view from the downstairs rooms is somewhat obscured by some lush vegetation. The rooms have ceiling fans and the beds have mosquito netting. What more could an intrepid
explorer in darkest Africa ask for?

The lobby. Seriously.

Oh, and dinner is good. They've got a lovely buffet set out, from which I sampled extensively. My only quibbles are that the cheeses were surprisingly mediocre and it appears that there isn't any chocolate to be had on this continent.

May 07, 1999

Africa: Day 6

Gaborone and environs

Today's cross-cultural experience was heading out to the village of Manyana (why a bunch of Setswana-speaking Africans would want to build a Spanish Village of Tomorrow is beyond us) to see some San rock art. Since our directions sucked, we undershot and had no clue where it was. The route we chose ended in a road being built, so we figured that wasn't the way to go. We therefore decided to turn around and head on a little farther to Thamaga, where they have a fairly well-known pottery works. The pottery was nice and the prices lower than Botswanacraft, the more-or-less official native craft store in town. Most of us got stuff. I picked up some egg-shaped salt and pepper shakers and a pair of small cups.

On our way out of the building, I noticed that the location of the "Manyana bushman art" was marked on a map on the back of the Thamaga brochure they had handed us when we bought the pottery. The directions were nonexistent (the map just showed relative positions), but we left convinced that it was, in fact, out there. Retracing most of our steps, we took a different branch of the road and after another fifteen minutes found ourselves in Manyana itself. We picked up a passing schoolboy and his friend to give us directions, and he seemed pretty happy about it. As we got closer, we passed what looked like the rock art mafia, a group of slightly older kids hanging out at a bridge waiting for tourists to come by. Our guide, David, pointed us to the chief's house, where we needed to pick up a key, then off to a nearby cliff. David knew his material and seemed quite happy for the work. Despite my fondness for rock art, the most interesting bit was a gap in the rocks called "Kelly's cave." The local legend is that many years ago, a man named Kelly, fleeing from the authorities in South Africa, hid there and later brought his wife. The cave allegedly goes all the way to the next village over, a distance of about seven kilometers, but nobody goes in for fear of snakes.

The evening's festivities consisted of "Mexican night," another Cinco de Mayo celebration, at the Marines' house: Mexican food, more-or-less Latin music, and a pinata at tables outside. We met more of the local expat community, but due to the slight chill, we spent a significant amount of time indoors playing 8-ball. As we set up, one of the Marines listed the flaws of the table (slanted, too small, cue tips rubbery, and so on), but I like to think that our poor performance was due to our own incompetence, not shortcomings in the equipment.

May 06, 1999

Africa: Day 5

Gaborone and environs

After a slow start, we get out today. First, off to downtown Gaborone to change dollars to pula. Gaborone looks a little like Davis might if it suffered a string of bad years. It looks to be a city of no more than moderate size, built low and wide with breathing room between buildings rather than dense and tall, and it's a bit run down with many stenciled and hand-lettered signs. Still, there are signs of new construction in many places. The bank is part of a long shopping mall which looks to have been built in the Seventies. We hit up a local handicraft store to scout out the range and price of curios. Didn't get much (I just picked up a fistful of postcards), but I suspect we'll be back later after we get a more solid handle on things.

From there, we went a block or two over to the American embassy with Ken to meet Helen for lunch. Once you get past "airlock" gates, the Botswanian guards, who checked under the car with a mirror on a stick for bombs, and the formidable walls, perhaps ten feet of metal-cored concrete, it looks remarkably unremarkable, just an office complex of no great size. Still, we handed our passports over to the Marine guard on duty (one of the guys we had met the night before) and strolled around. We had an interesting chat with Scott Delisi, the Deputy Chief of Mission (#2 man at the embassy, right behind his excellency ambassador Robert Krueger, former senator for the great state of Texas, who happened to be elsewhere at the time) concerning the ghost of the embassy.

Apparently, the DCM's office is haunted. The doors act strangely, things move while nobody is looking, computers crash for no apparent reason, and so on. That last might be attributed to their use of Microsoft products, but the rest may need a ghost for a full explanation. The theory about how the ghost came to be runs thusly: some years ago, a former DCM's secretary died and had her ashes sent to the embassy in Botswana. Apparently, she had loved the country and had wanted her ashes scattered from a nearby hilltop. Her request, however, was delayed, misinterpreted, picked up by the wrong person, and eventually carried out the wrong way. Instead of being scattered from the desired hill, her ashes were dumped on the embassy grounds. It was some time after that when the strange effects began.

From the embassy, we went off to Oodi, a small village near Gaborone where they do a brisk business in weaving. Oodi is a more or less traditional African village. "Houses" consist of fenced compounds containing a few single-room buildings, mostly square cinder block huts and mud brick rondevaals. Color me ethnocentric, but I think it would look better if the fences were wood or natural thorn bushes rather than rusty steel wire.

The weavers spin their own yarn and thread from wool brought in from South Africa, dye it on the premises of their workshop, and make various bits of cloth out of it, everything from place mats to bedspreads. The hand-operated looms they do most of the work on are quite large and look to be capable of producing pieces at least six feet wide. However, their most impressive work is figurative tapestries produced on large vertical looms. Apparently, they do work to order, producing tapestries from a photograph. I didn't get any of those, but I did pick up a few nice items. We happened to arrive at Oodi a few minutes before a party of cattlemen's wives, brought along by an expedition of their husbands, accompanied by the ambassador's wife. As we left, Antone said "Bye bye, rich ladies," although not so loud that anybody outside the truck could hear it.

The last outing of the day was a game drive at the Mokolodi game preserve, our first trip out into nature. We, along with one of the Marines and somebody from the embassy, piled into a truck for a two hour drive around the preserve, which encompasses about thirty square kilometers. We saw any number of variations on the theme of antelope, some elephants, cheetahs, warthogs, and ostriches, but the highlight of the evening was getting very close to a family of rhinoceroi: a father, a mother, and a juvenile. The father had, apparently, attacked the vehicle we were in not too long ago, but not with any great enthusiasm. He appeared not to hold a grudge against the truck, although he did stay between us and his mate. Silas, the driver and guide, had a remarkably good eye. We finished the evening with dinner at a restaurant on the edge of the preserve. The place looked spectacular, with an enormous conical thatched roof supported by entire-log beams, although the cream sauce they cooked my venison in was perhaps not the best way to go. Nevertheless, they had some outstanding ice cream and a very good chocolate mousse.

May 05, 1999

Africa: Day 4


A quiet day at the house as we recover from travel and set up for the journeys ahead. One of the many pleasures afforded us here is a very large bathtub. Narrow, but I think it's a bit over six feet long. I can lie down in it with room to spare.

It's also Cinco de Mayo, for which the Warrens are having a large party. We go from the US to Africa in order to celebrate a Mexican holiday. Whatever. Much of the cooking was done in advance, but various among us are recruited to help. I'm called in to try to repair an over-spiced salsa. I can't (impossible short of a massive onion and tomato transfusion), but I do get it down to the point where the spice freaks enjoy it, and it forms the basis of a nice guacamole (apparently, it went quickly). The tortillas were made to order locally out of a mix of grains that approximates a cross between flour and corn tortillas. Helen made a very good chile verde, and somebody brought some homemade chocolate ice cream made with Mexican chocolate. Very interesting. Quite tasty.

I am, of course, no more up for a party than usual, but I get through it. There are three distinct groups there: foreign service people, so far as I can tell essentially career clerical and administrative people who happen to work with the government in a wide variety of exotic locales; Marines, a young contingent of people with short hair and radios; and us. There are some weird moments of culture clash as members of the various subgroups have conversations that the others don't understand. Very friendly people, though.

May 04, 1999

Africa: Day 3


After touching down in Johannesburg, the Virgin Atlantic people looked at us as if to say "Are you still here?" while we waited for someone to help Naomi off the plane. The guy at the ticket counter for Air Botswana seemed nearly as clueless when confronted with a wheelchair, but throughout the trip the people sent to actually do things are quite good at them. We've been zipping right through customs and straight from one gate to the next. The flight from Johannesburg to Gaborone was almost a standard puddle-jumper, except that the chatter from the cockpit was mostly in Setswana.

If England looks like Boston, southern Africa looks like Texas: large, flat areas, dry with scrubby semi-arid vegetation, and an active cattle industry. There are even sections of DFW that look like the Johannesburg airport. It was very warm and very dry in Gaborone when we touched down, and I was surprised to see Ken walk out to the plane to greet us. Apparently, he does this kind of thing all the time when people come in to the embassy. Despite being the airport of a nation's capital, the airport in Gaborone is probably smaller than any other airport I've ever been to. Helen was also able to meet us there, although she had to go back to work almost immediately.

Goldie and Boots, two temporarily African carnivores

Driving to the house, Africa started to look a lot more African. Antone and I quickly spotted termite mounds and women carrying enormous baskets on their heads. The Warren house, which architecturally would be quite at home in the States (say, an unremarkable low six figures in Santa Clara) is furnished with a weird mix of standard middle-American furniture and African curios. Make no mistake; the curios are impressive. I immediately began to covet the hand-carved coffee table and a low two-piece chair that looks to be made of mahogany or some similarly dark wood. Also remarkable are some hand-made wooden chests, ranging in size from cigar box to steamer trunk, which were bought for a song and look to be sturdy enough to last for several generations. However, the most African moment came when I stepped outside for a moment shortly before dinner. While searching for the Southern Cross, I realized that I was looking at the Milky Way, like a trail of crushed diamond across the night sky. Definitely not in Kansas any more, and I'm pretty happy about that to say the least.

The Warrens are, of course, marvelous hosts. After a round of naps (even I fell asleep, which is saying something), there was a very good fried chicken dinner and drinks on the front porch until an early bedtime. Inshallah, we'll adapt to the new time zone fairly well.

May 03, 1999

Africa: Day 2


In retrospect, not the best idea in the world. We landed at Heathrow a little early, about 6:00 AM London time, and waited about an hour for Antone's plane from Boston. Most of us had managed to rest a bit on the plane ("sleep" would clearly be the wrong word), which took the edge off the fatigue, so we felt in good enough shape to stroll around town. We were, as it turned out, wrong.

The last time I was in England, it was on the way back from Cyprus. It had just rained shortly before the plane landed and I was coming out of two months of being in the drought-stricken eastern Mediterranean, so on first impression (as the Underground became a bit less underground on the way out from Heathrow) the fields and neatly kept row houses were every bit as green and pleasant as one would want. This time, being a bit more awake, England struck me as being a lot like Boston. In particular, the Picadilly line from Heathrow into central London bears a striking resemblance to the C line out into the Boston suburbs. It's the same batch of mostly middle-class suburbs interspersed with enough vegetation that you can be fairly sure that you aren't completely in the city yet. London itself looks a lot like Boston writ large: organic curves to the streets and architecture clearly going back into the previous century, or at least trying to look like it does, with more modern buildings dropped in more or less at random as old ones here and there wear out. Even the graffiti looks the same, although it's a bit more legible here. Some guy going by the handle "Flex" has tagged pretty much everything between Hammersmith and Paddington. And, after wrestling with the Tube a bit, I can see where Neil Gaiman got the idea for Neverwhere. It's a maze down there.

We went from Heathrow to Paddington (I checked; no loose bears about) to discover that one of the largest train stations in London has no elevators, so we spent some time lifting Naomi up and down stairs, which was much easier than I expected. Score one for the Mariner Square Athletic Club, I suppose. Once we found a way to the street, we headed east more or less along Marleybone. The most touristy thing we did was to pass by 221 Baker St., but I had to put my foot down at the suggestion of Madame Tousaud's. By this time, we were getting pretty tired (indeed, it was about at this time that my main task became not to enjoy the rest of the day, but to endure it), so we stopped for a while at Regent's Park, which is when England finally started looking like England. There were people punting in the pond, swans and cranes, and one or two people walking sheepdogs. I also noticed that people over here can, in fact, end sentences with "innit?" and mean it. From there, we veered south for the British Museum and a painful side trip for some sort of cider-based drink in an Irish pub. The place was called "Finnegan's Wake," although I doubt that a word of James Joyce was ever read there. By the time we got to the BM, we were all far too tired to enjoy it. I had been awake for something like 24 hours straight. Never again. We made it into red-figure ware before finally giving up.

At the last minute, Antone's colleague Christina, who teaches in London, saved the day. She and Antone had arranged to meet at the BM and go somewhere close by for tea. Most places were closed (bank holiday, we eventually discovered), but she whisked us off to a place around the corner, the bar of the Hotel Russell. Once we dealt with the steps (too old a building for ramps, of course), we were in the sort of hotel the word "London" suggests at its best moments: dark wood paneling about half-way up followed by white walls, crystal chandeliers, velvet curtains, Oriental vases, oil paintings, and deep red-orange leather furniture. That last item was particularly welcome at this point. Other people drank Coke or juice, but I was adamant about having tea. I ordered the Darjeeling, and it was the right way to go. I think I had as much stuff set in front of me as the rest of the table put together: tea strainer, teapot, another pot of hot water, cream pitcher, bowl of sweeteners, and, of course, a teacup. After a pleasant hour of tea and nineteenth century interior décor, I was perhaps no less tired, but certainly much better able to deal with it. I think I begin to see what it is the British see in tea.

Views of the Hotel Russell, lifted quietly from a promotional web site.
I suspect they won't mind.

England has no Exit signs. They all say "Way Out," to which I can only reply "Groovy, man."

May 02, 1999

Africa: Day 1

We get started only a few minutes late. Shortly after hitting the highway (in this case, 24 on the way to the *80 junctions), Loren, who was driving us to the airport, expressed surprise that we were flying directly from Oakland to London. We were surprised ourselves at the observation, since we were flying out of San Francisco. We managed to change several lanes in the nick of time and got a nice unloading spot outside the international terminal.

Naomi's contention is that every time she gets on a plane, they send out a pair of little old Fillipino guys to carry her from her wheelchair to her seat. She's right this time, but I wonder how likely they are to have little old Fillipinos in London and Johanesberg.

When they handed out apples on the plane, Naomi was temporarily at a loss as to how to eat it. However, I quickly produced a knife and sliced it into sections. Even at 30,000 feet over the Atlantic, I can use my super-powers to process food.