Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Working in Beauty- South Africa and Namibia

As always, click on any picture to see details...

(N or S, E or W) indicates Google earth coordinates. Turn on the layers that show the little blue dots indicating pictures, much better than the ones I have taken.

Leaving Salt Lake 9 am over the Uintahs, only east-west mountain range in the US (Except Brooks Range in Alaska, thanks Tony D), though I don’t know why. I spot highway 191 climbing the ridge out of Vernal, Flaming Gorge frozen in the background. We’re still in the West, I know where I am by looking out the window. Split Mountain passes below just as it passed above John Wesley Powell and his small boats less than 150 years ago. Then Dinosaur National Monument, where 2 of 3 staff paleontologists were laid off last week and the showpiece building over the beautiful quarry sits empty and condemned. The paleontologists were laid off because the building was closed because the park didn’t have the money to fix it because there’s a hole in the budget where all the money goes….

Flew from a cold Salt Lake City to a warm South Africa. 20 hours on a plane (in the tourist cabin) one week after a knee operations. Yeah, I’m stupid and no one was with me….

I had a new toy this trip. Though I’m a gadget guy, I seldom get excited or make recommendations. I will do so now. I got a Sony PRS-505 electronic book. The thing is so cool! There are numerous places on the web you can download text files of classics and books with expired copyrights for free. This gizmo will also store pdf and rtf files, so you can load on company documents you may need to refer to. I haven’t had time to try maintenance manuals to see how they come across (you can choose 3 sizes of print for those “older” eyes), but I’m planning to. All this is in a 6 x 9 or so format that is easy to read and carry. I have 88 books and documents in it now, including the CIA factbook for each country I am planning to visit and several Mark Twain and Phillip K Dick books. I’m reading Twain’s “Roughing It,” great travel writing though he writes with the prejudices of his time. Anyway, you carry all this in a thing as big as an address book and it’s very easy to use. If you are a reader and you travel, buy one now!

Mark Twain is marveling at the speed of the railroad across the prairies compared to the stage he took not so many years before. He describes his journey along the North Platte at a grand 15 miles per hour by rail, so much quicker than stage, as I fly above at 500 miles per hour, so jaded by the experience I feel I’m in a flying bus and I don’t appreciate what it allows me to do. I read of his journey from St. Joe, Missouri to Salt Lake City (15 days by stage, 8 days by rail) in the 4 hours it has taken me to fly from Salt Lake City to Atlanta.

I thought I kind of knew African geography, but had to admit when they announced the flight was going to land for fuel in Dakar, Senegal I wasn’t sure exactly where I was headed. I had heard of the Paris Dakar motorcycle Race, but never much worried about exactly where it was. I know now, thanks to the little GPS map in the back of the seat in front of me. 8 hours later, we landed on a spit of land that points toward Atlanta, on the far western side of the continent of Africa that points generally toward Costa Rica. Though a long flight, we still had another 8 hours to go to get to Johannesburg. Following a 4 hour flight from Salt Lake, the notion of building air miles with 2 more 8 hour segments loses its appeal…

Cities on the western fringe. Dakar is joined on the screen by El Aaiun, Nouakchott, Banjul, Bissou, Conakry. Heard of a couple of them, couldn’t tell you a thing about any of them. And I still won’t know, Dakar is just a fueling stop. I know I need a new perspective. Economist Magazine described the “year of the potato,” led by Peru. China and India are the two largest global producers of potatoes. Africa on the move. Advances with bed nets and anti-retroviral drugs. 60-80% of the people that need them, get them, though behaviors are not changing. If you want to help, go to first. Too many NGO’s (non-govenmental organizations), too many are scams for the participants. Self-supporting through your donations, but what do those donations buy? For the price of a plane ticket for some shiny-faced young volunteer, you can buy 2500 treated bed nets to stop malaria. It's economics. And greed. Like anywhere with many who have nothing, those with an opportunity to grab more will. Whether given by govenments or NGO’s and taken by governments and NGO’s; much of the money doesn’t get where it’s going.

Gil Scott-Heron live on the ipod. Live in 1990, full of hope as democracy turns out in Eastern Europe, Nelson Mandala is released from prison, the world is a hopeful place. The genius that is the man that invented rap when it meant something is in clear voice and full of hope, temporarily between bouts of heroin addiction and time in prison.

I survived and landed in Johannesburg at 5 pm, the sun shining between large thunderheads on a beautiful green landscape. Clearing customs, I met my ride and we proceeded to Pretoria, about 60 miles north. Along the way were rolling green hills, fields of corn and sunflowers. Kind of looked like 60 miles of Kansas. Had that same haziness you see during the humid summer time in the Sacramento valley when the air is just too thick to see through for very far. The driver was telling me that houses are being built at an amazing pace, and it was easy to see that was true in Johannesburg as well as Pretoria.

I checked into the Lariba Lodge, a beautiful place far too nice for this old miner. ( 25°50'48.34"S 28°10'41.60"E)

Thatched roof, green gardens full of trees and birds. Many of the trees had helpful name tags on them, but they couldn’t seem to get the birds to cooperate in the effort. The porter that took me to my room saw a message envelope waiting for me with my last name on it and spoke to me in Afrikaans, assuming that someone named Bernard would know the language. I should have been a real spy instead of just a military spy. In Canada they take me for French, in South Africa I pass for Afrikaans (at least until I open my Midwestern mouth). You always read the CIA is looking for ordinary people that blend in….

I left Salt Lake at 8 am Tuesday morning, I arrived in Pretoria about 6:30 Wednesday evening. The trick to time zones is to stay up until you would normally go to bed. Not a problem as I go to sleep around 9 or 10. I made it until 9:30, after a very nice dinner that included a Springbok Carpaccio appetizer. I knew a springbok was an animal, so I was good to go with my carnivorous habits, but it wasn’t until later I was sure it was a type of antelope. I won’t forget now. Watched a bit of news. Developed a new perspective. The UN Security Council was trying to pass a resolution for more restrictions on Iran, but wouldn’t share the text of the resolution with South Africa – a member of the council. How does this stuff happen? Breakfast the next morning was buffet style, where I got to try passion fruit (had to ask what it was after trying it and liking it) – about the size of a kiwi fruit, cut in half to reveal seeds in a triangular arrangement. It had a sweet and sour taste at the same time that was nice. Hopefully it is healthy too, since I had another….

Work had to be done, so I went and did that. Traveling north to Peitersburg where we overnighted in another nice roadhouse style motel with several units and a pool. Oh, and peacocks. I was told they would screech me awake in the morning, but my traveling companions didn’t know how early I got up. Interestingly, the sun was shining early and I walked out to catch the peacocks sunning themselves in the morning sun, wings partly spread, just as I had seen buzzards do on a corral fence in Nevada. ( 23°58'24.95"S 29°27'32.84"E)

After a healthy breakfast, we were on to Lebowakgomo to visit a job site. Stopping at the camp, I was treated to (sounds like pup), a dietary staple. It had a familiar taste to it and I asked what it was. Corn porridge, Grits! The locals seemed surprised I was eating with gusto, but they brought me a big old pan with meat. They cook it up a little thicker, but all the same. I heard later they liked it that the gringo was eating their camp food; chalk it up to my time in West Virginia and Bob Evans breakfasts.

I didn’t get any pictures, but it was here I saw my first and only African wildlife. A family of a half-dozen baboons had taken up residence under a tree by the roadside. Traffic didn’t seem to bother them and people weren’t even slowing down to look. I did see some graceful gazelles on road signs, appearing ready to leap from the red-rimmed triangle and right onto the road. A more striking sign was a small yellow sign on a tall fence by the side of the road. It reappeared about every 100 yards and said simply “Danger” over an outline of a large-maned lion.

After a day on this job site, we began to travel to another. Passing through a small town, there was a bright red Vodaphone box, about the size of the Coke trailer at a high school football game. Now it was Friday and market day. Lots of young people lined up at the Vodaphone box to buy minutes on their cell phones. There was also internet access available at the box. I had read how places like Africa and India had leapfrogged technology, bypassing telephone lines entirely. Here was proof of what is happening in the world. The MTV culture is alive too, as the kids were dressed just like kids in the states, for summer. The adults were wearing good clothes, men in white shirts and sometimes ties, women in colorful dresses and scarves, sometimes with bags, bundles and branches on their heads as they walked home with perfect posture.

The area we were passing through was the homelands area, similar to reservations in the US during apartheid. The first thing that struck me was how clean and prosperous it was. There are many platinum mines in the area and a few chromium mines. There is very little trash or litter on the roadside and the many houses are well kept, usually with a small garden but some with shrubs and flowers all around the house. Many are simple houses, constructed of mud bricks. Even those are undergoing expansion, with new bricks drying in the sun. Quite a few of the larger houses are made with traditional brick and we passed a huge brick factory that seemed to be doing well. Nearly every car we saw was new, something my host hadn’t noticed until I pointed it out. South Africa is a country on the move. Interestingly, the discordant notes are blamed on illegal immigrants, the result of a failure to control the borders. One especially rude guy in a fast-food hamburger joint was said to be Nigerian, someone South Africans didn’t need.

In Burgersfort, we stayed in another beautiful lodge, high on the mountainside with birds all around and frogs singing in the creek. My traveling companion asked to be sure we were not in the lodge he had stayed in the last time because the duck pair nesting there had woken him up early. The view from the room was without compare, and our hostess prepared a wonderful home-cooked meal of rice and stew that filled and satisfied. The next morning I enjoyed coffee by the pool while the rest of the crew jogged down the hill and back up (just had knee surgery donchaknow, best excuse there is- especially when your knee is as large as a thigh). The birds were up early, including one pair that seemed to be growling one minute, then had a flute-like whistle the next. No, I can’t describe it better than that. ( 24°40'23.94"S 30°19'7.62"E)

We visited a camp under construction Saturday morning. It made me proud to know the company I work for cares about our employees enough to work as hard as they have on the camp to make the conditions right. We are setting the example for Africa with camps like these and will change how things are done, one contract at a time. After the camp visit, we headed for Johannesburg with a stop on the way. I had time to notice more things on this Saturday drive. Every church seemed to be busy, some with busses parked in front. This is a very Christian nation, with some church-goers proclaiming their affiliation with small steel badges on their shirts. My host explained that AIDS continues to take a toll, with funerals almost every weekend. I was only just digesting this when we passed the scene of an accident, the ambulance stopped with its doors open, family members running to the roadside and the small, lifeless body of a young girl around 6 or 8 years old lying by the roadside near the bumper of a “combi’ or taxi van common in South Africa. My host explained there would be no help in stopping, and the taxi driver could only pray the police would arrive before he was beaten to death or “necklaced,” a practice from the apartheid days reserved now for times like this.

Lest anyone think my host was an unfeeling remnant of the old regime, he was a “trade unionist,” an early white member of the ANC and firebrand of the revolution in the early 90’s. I won’t relay all his stories, except to say he is proud to pay for the dental implants made necessary by a severely broken jaw in those times and speaks only reverently of “Mr Mandala,” nervous about the day when that great gentleman, now 90, passes.

Arriving back at the Lariba Lodge Saturday night, it had been a long day and I crashed. Sunday is laundry day on the road. I’m still getting the “road warrior” routine down, but I have picked up a few pointers. If you will be somewhere for a few days, use the hotel laundry. The do a great job and they are quick. Unfortunately, most do not have weekend coverage and that is the time I usually spend more than one day somewhere. Time to do “mike laundry.” I fill the sink and knead and squeeze each article of clothing for as long as seems necessary, refilling the sink between “loads.” I then wring it out, lay it flat on a towel and roll it up in the towel. Putting my big feet to work, I stand on the center and work my way to the outside of the roll a couple times, unroll and hang to dry. Even jeans will dry in a day this way, just have to remember to do laundry early. The other travel item I have purchased is the high-dollar, ex-officio underwear. It’s some sort of stretchy stuff that dries overnight. I take 4 pair of these, they take up about as much room as 2 pairs of socks. I change daily and wash every night in case I end up in a time or place I can’t get to it. Much better than the old “front side, back side, inside, outside” from scouts.

I had the best customer service experience of all my travels to date in the Lariba Lodge. I bought wireless but was working on battery power and needed to change batteries. I had written the user name and password I was given, but had written it wrong. Even though it was my fault, the young lady at the desk called the co-owner, who called back and apologized for not being at his computer, gave me the local number of a tech guy who could help me. The tech guy went through the logon scripts until he found mine and corrected my goof. Everyone was cheerful, even though I was interrupting their Sunday with my own goof.

Taking a break and walking the grounds of the lodge, I saw a tree full of hanging baskets. They were bird nests. Though I couldn’t catch a bird with the camera, it was a sparrow-sized yellow bird with a deep black collar on its breast. Pretty cool.

Having seen the beauty of this great country, I was not prepared for the everyday reality, or the nearness with which it struck. There is much more here than I will ever understand, but my knowledge of history gives me hope. In the US, though we declared our independence in 1776, we did not have a constitution until 1787. Even then, Pennsylvania had engaged in war with Connecticut (or Delaware?) over territory. This was in an agricultural time of slow communications and little population. The “new South Africa” as many refer to it, was formed in 1994, in a time of instant communication and competing popular interests. It is much harder to form a democracy now than it was 200 years ago. But they are working hard at it and for the most part succeeding.

Yes, unemployment is 30-40%. Yes horrible things are happening, including carjackings and kidnappings. Yes, the electrical power grid can’t keep up with the growth of the population or the growth in industrial demand. If you want to know more, google it. I enjoyed the trip, the people and the countryside. My experience gave me hope and optimism. This country has gone through so much since 1994, and before. That they can begin to move beyond it so quickly is a testament to the work they are putting into the effort. Others are not so fortunate.

The people are so friendly, nearly everyone from the waitress at breakfast to the newest guy on the crew asking if it was my first trip to South Africa and what I thought of their country. They also asked how it was on the “other side.” Since I spend so much time in Utah, Nevada and Arizona, I said it was much the same, only greener in Africa. They want the world to know they are moving forward, hosting the world cup in 2010 and working hard to make that a coming out party for all of Africa. I’m rooting for them.

I’m off to Namibia next. The only factoid I’ve gleaned about Namibia is that their constitution was the first in the world to include environmental preservation. Leaving any preconceptions at the door, I’m looking forward to the trip.

Not quite yet. A contract driver picked me up at the hotel for the hour trip to the airport. As we chatted, I found out he was a licensed tour guide who spoke all 11 official languages of South Africa and was learning Portuguese. He wife is a flight attendant for South African Airways and he has been to 52 countries, collecting a flag from each. I felt like I was a traveler, but a quick tally of the countries I have visited tops out around 20. He was a great conversationalist as well and the hour passed like 5 minutes.

The flight from Johannesburg to Windhoek (“vind-HOOK”), the capital of Namibia, is about 2 hours. When you land at the Windhoek airport, you wonder where the city is. The airport is way out in the desert, like a half hour drive from anything that looks like a town. Seems like a cruel joke to get out of a 737 in the middle of nowhere…. ( 22°29'2.08"S 17°28'15.66"E)

Windhoek has a population of about 250,000, or about the size of Salt Lake without the suburbs. It sits in a small valley with lots of trees and greenery and the same left-hand traffic as the rest of southern Africa (don’t know about Egypt or Algeria, Seem to remember that Morocco had right hand traffic when I was there, but I could be wrong).

I could probably get used to it quickly, but our standard transmission trucks would be a trick to get used to shifting on the wrong side. But we were not to spend time in Windhoek, there was work to do. After a quick round of introductions, we were off to the Namib desert, which becomes the Kalahari in Botswana. Actually, we were off to the seaside resort town of Swakopmund (mouth of the Swakop river).

We proceeded north and west to the coast. The terrain again looked much like Nevada and Arizona, with fewer cacti and more brush. I showed the crews pictures when they didn’t believe me (expressed with the African term “serious!?”) and they had to agree the differences were barely noticeable. But I saw the anthills of Africa. I don’t know if you remember, but around 2nd or 3rd grade, every textbook that talked about Africa had pictures of the giant anthills. The part of Namibia we crossed was full of them, 3’-12’ high, just like the pictures of my youth. I think the textbooks put them in because kids could relate to them. I was told later that that is where the good (to eat) mushrooms grow after a rain.

Swakopmund is on the Atlantic Coast. ( 22°40'41.06"S 14°31'24.96"E) It was odd to watch the sun set in the west and know it was setting on the Atlantic Ocean instead of the Pacific. There are many dunes in this part of Namibia and one shipwreck near town that wasn’t worth salvaging.

The desert just inland from Swakopmund is pretty harsh, like southern Nevada and it is there that the uranium mines are found. Long deep ditches in the earth, mirroring the way uranium is concentrated along an underground water flow, carried along then dropping out when the concentration is too high for the saturated water to carry any farther.

We went for dinner at a beachside cafĂ©. My host warned me away from the Oryx steak. I usually want to try the unusual stuff (like my whale blubber experience) just to have the story later, but when a local warns you away, discretion is the better part of storytelling….

( 21°59'49.65"S 15°35'38.55"E)

( 67°49'19.00"N 163°21'41.16"W)

Two pictures, one pose, Namibia and Alaska. If you look at the forearm just above my watch in the top photo, you can see the blistering from hanging my arm out in the African sun. Didn't get my summer tan before going from snow in Salt Lake to bright sun in Africa....

I also wanted to try a local dark beer, but the Dutch heritage and hot weather means lager only. When you ask for dark beer, you are offered Guinness. It’s okay, but I’ve come to believe that Guinness is the Bud of dark beer.. I had a Hansa draught instead, pretty tasty lager.

Another thing about Africa I didn’t notice till I got to Namibia. The showerheads are always tall enough for me. At 6’2”, I’m just not that tall here….. After all my travels in Latin America and standing on my head to wash my hair, it was a neat change.

After the 2 hour flight back from Namibia and the 20 hour flight to Toronto, both my newly repaired knee and my old knee felt like I had walked all the way. I think I’ll rest a day when I get to Atlantic Canada.