Sunday, January 29, 2012

Biding Time

Sandalwood, the Burmese all-in-one cosmetic, is believed to create a smooth complexion, make you smell good, prevent sweating. It functions as a sunscreen and - they think - it makes you look beautiful even if, with liberally applied paste, some, otherwise pretty faces look like the inside of a bowl after you prepared pancake mix.
Thar Aye for growing his retirement fund, plants sandalwood trees on ancestral land in his native village.
We drove to the agency that assigns tourist guide jobs to him. It turned out to be a small roadside office, cum pharmacy. The assignment manager and Thar go into a heated give and take. It soon dawned on me he was trying to get out of already agreed on jobs. The manager confirmed my suspicion when I asked.
"Under no circumstances will I accept Thar's time with me if it involves giving up even one crummy professional assignment, " I said.
Thar broke up completely. Tearfully he insisted, as long as I was in town, he wanted to be at my disposal.
"The best you can do for me is to leave me alone," I said brusquely, maybe even a bit harshly. It was easy to see this is the hight of the annual tourist season when he can make the means to carry him through the year. More important, I didn't want him to mess up his job providing contact.
"Unless absolutely necessary, like seventeen years ago," I blinked at him with what I hoped he'd understand as our 1994 conspiracy, "I totally wish to be by myself."
The pharmacist / travel tour arranger, showed relief. I asked him not to accept any of Thar's resignation attempts. As a result, Thar guided yesterday eighteen American tourists in and around Mandalay and, apart from his guide fee, made a three-hundred dollars commission from the jewelry they bought in the store he herded them to. When this group is gone he'll shepherd another, and then another. Those jobs will continue to come 'till the northern hemisphere snowbirds see the crocuses emerge from the ground and put the snow shovels away 'till next winter.

It boggles the mind how unfettered capitalism by a few for a few has run this beautiful country into the ground. I say, unfettered capitalism because the honchos who ran the show here for the last sixty odd years have virtually the whole country under their thumbs. There are no rules or regulations to impede the free flow of their capitalist creative energy. They own just about everything, they create the laws that put the least possible obstacles in the way of running their businesses. They have no need to invest in lobbyists because they themselves have the power to do whatever the situation requires. They are the law. As a result, the country ends up in an indescribable fiasco, with nothing for most and everything for a few. In Myanmar, the 99% versus the 1% has come full circle.
During colonial times, this country was considered the region's breadbasket. Now, besides gold, silver, rubies, emeralds, huge tracts of valuable virgin lumber (that, to a large extent has now become furniture and wood paneling all over the world), an abundance of fertile land, and an amiable, peaceful population, it also has oil and gas. Still, the infrastructure crumbles everywhere. Compared with its neighbor, Thailand, who has practically none of Burma's natural treasures, and virtually the same climatic and topographic circumstances, it is a hopeless basket case. On my last visit to the country the Kyat bills (name of the Burmese currency) had been changed from units like 5, 10, 50, 100' 1,000 etc. to uncountable monstrosities like 9, 45, 90, 450, 900 etc. One day the junta declared all the old bills to be worthless. Everybody had the right to exchange only a small portion of their cash for new currency. Talking about instant wealth distribution! It certainly enriched the rulers, and it worked instantly at leveling the general population's wealth.

While wandering around in town I saw some areas that look like gated communities in the US, except each home has its own gate. Right in between crumbling, dirty, pot-holed, crowded, alleys, you'd suddenly come upon a high ends estate type neighborhood with perfectly paved streets and landscaped center dividers. Elaborate, gaudy villas peak out over high, razor wire topped walls. Those houses, I found out, belong mostly to Chinese investors.
A real gated community is on the grounds of the Imperial Palace. A square enclosure of 3,500 yards (about two miles) per side, behind a 500 feet wide moat alongside a 30 feet high wall, is accessible, for a ten-dollar fee, to tourists wishing to visit the palace. The ticket comes with strict warnings not to trespass beyond the straight road leading to the palace. Numerous military sentries make sure you keep to the rules. The top military brass, the country's rulers, have their digs in the huge compound in the middle of the city. One can only imagine how luxurious they are.

Thar joins me for breakfast at the hotel before he has to meet his tourists. We talk about politics, life, how he lost all his savings with the currency changeover, and his total devotion to Buddhism. He assures me that now I don't have to worry anymore what I write in Myanmar, about Myanmar, with some limits about describing the government, the economy and Burmese life in general. The leaders realized they are incapable to suppress the new methods of disseminating information.
The day after answering in minute details many aspects of my life, like date and what time of day with what means of transport (a strange question since only flight is permissible) I arrived in Myanmar, for inclusion in the application to be let go north to cross into China, and paying a hundred-dollar application fee, a government agent called the hotel with news the northern region is closed to foreigners. "A messenger will return the hundred-dollars and retrieve the receipt," he said. As soon as I heard that, I rushed out to get the receipt photo copied. Back at the hotel the messenger was waiting for me, returned the hundred-dollar bill when I handed over the paper then left. The copied receipt said it was for the hundred bucks, as a downpayment for a permit to do the Burma road on February 8, from Lashio to the border at Mu-se. I immediately started to make arrangements to pass time in the region until February 7 (hint, hint!).
Next morning I had to leave the hotel at 6:15 AM to embark on an Irrawaddy river boat to Pagan. By the way, the rulers, as they had done with other local names, changing Burma to Myanmar, Rangoon to Yangon, the river is now called Ayeyarwaddy.
Pagan is one of the old capitals and sports 4,400 Pagodas in a relatively small area.
Six AM the reception called that Thar was waiting for me in the lobby. He and his wife were there to drive me to the boat landing and to give me two large bags of travel provisions. Before leaving, Thar made me sit on a chair, then he and his wife stood in front of me and put their hands together in prayer. They dropped flat to the ground, raised their upper bodies, hands joined praying towards me, went down again, up, down, up down as I had seen people in front of Buddha images. Totally embarrassed, I pleaded with them to stop - to no avail. When they finally got up, Thar hugged me, western style, and cried again. He said I was responsible for all that went well in his life. The provisions they brought for the less than ten-hour boat ride were eighteen bananas, four bags of potato chips, two sweet rolls, six little bags of biscuits, two toasts with chocolate filling, five limes and two bottles of water.
The boat has a restaurant and, although called the fast boat, it is only fast when compared to other decaying wood and rusty steel floating contraptions on the river, the ones with very loud and smoky one-cylinder tuck-tuck-tuck engines. For the 180 kilometer (about 120 miles) downriver journey, going with a 4-5 mph current the boat took almost ten hours. That "fast" boat seems to be reserved exclusively for tourists. There too, as in so many other places I'd noticed before, the average age of passengers must have been around sixty.
A horse and buggy picked me up at the boat landing for the trip to my guesthouse where I'd made reservations from Mandalay. I don't like my new digs at all - bad vibes. It feels, sort of, like Bates Hotel(?) from the film Psycho. It gives me the creeps..
I'd barely settled in when a young man came into my room and introduced himself as Thar's second son, the doctor. Over dinner he told me he makes, as a doctor since four years, the princely sum of about one-hundred-dollars a month. His spoken English, like his father's seventeen years before, is not fluid, to say the least. He never gets chances to practice even though he remembers a large vocabulary.
Next morning, which is today, I wandered around in search of a more suitable guesthouse. I am writing now on a little veranda off my charming twenty-dollars per night bungalow. All is pleasant here, except for the maintenance man who is painting furniture next to me with a very strong smelling paint and other odors wafting by, one I identified as coming from burning car tires. Birds don't seem to mind, they keep merrily chirping away.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


Images of Rangoon.

The lady at Yoma's reception (Yoma is the name of my lodging) is very charming and helpful.
"Where is the place to buy a bus ticket for Mandalay?" she answered with:
"We'll get it for you. No charge." Her friendly smile displayed a scary set of teeth. All incisors were filed to sharp points. I thanked her and accepted the offer.
"Do you have reservations for accommodation in Mandalay?" she said.
"No," I said, "I never make reservations, just take what I find."
"That might be difficult next week during New Year. Everything tends to be fully booked," she said.
Her remark made me think of my default funky dormitory accommodation at the otherwise sold out Motherland guesthouse and the problems finding an alternative.
"Could you make me one?" I said.
"I can try," she said and presented another of her scary smiles. She ended up making one call after another, probably about ten, until she found a place in Mandalay that wasn't yet fully booked. She reserved it for me. I really started to like her smile.
"What would you like for breakfast?" she said.
"Do I have to chose now in the evening?"
"Yes, because it will be served in your room at the time you chose." She showed me a list of what was available; eggs, butter, toast, fruits, coffee or tea, and then the local fare, fish head soup with pork rinds and noodles. While I looked it over she said:
"I suggest you take the local food, if you don' mind spicy. It is more nourishing."
Fish head soup with pork rinds and noodles for breakfast turned out to be an excellent choice.
That reminds me again of the previously mentioned strange way we humans make choices. The offered cornucopia of fruits here in town is a pure delight for eyes and taste buds that are accustomed to what is offered in regular supermarkets back home. Street sellers display mountains of (I am not sure of the spelling for these tropical fruits' names): Lichee, logan, mango, papaya, jack fruit, mangosteen, durian, pineapple, all kinds of shaped and sized bananas, pomelones, star fruit, a big assortment of melons, berries and piles of other, interesting looking fruits I'd never seen or tasted before. But, the most expensive and most prominently displayed fruit on many of the vender's tables are apple with stuck on labels identifying them to be imported either from Japan, China or New Zealand. Compared to the prices of local fruits, their cost is astronomical.
As the Romans so aptly said: De gustibus non disputandum est!

Yeah, right!
On my street wanderings today I passed a sign with pictures of sushi, sashimi, tempura, katsu don. A sushi bar in Rangoon! With much heard stories about Japanese cruelties and mass enslavement of Burmese during WW II, it is hard to imagine that there exists a love affair between the two peoples. Not having noticed French, Italian, even Chinese restaurants advertised in town, seeing a Japanese was a surprise. Fully aware of my statements about human idiosyncrasies, about wanting rather the unobtainable than the readily available, I could not resist going in and try. True to form and its exclusivity, the Japanese meal in Rangoon, although absolutely perfect, cost a multiple of what an equally delicious Burmese feast would have set me back.
The other extreme to street fare prices was demonstrated at the bar in the Strand hotel. For old memory's sake I went there to see how time has dealt with that old venerable relic of Somerset Maughan's and Kipling's colonial lore. Together with Raffles in Singapore, the Strand was a shining crown in the empire where the sun never set, a place where jingoistic old boys slapped backs and ingested their gin and tonic, ostensibly to ward off Malaria.
The only feature of this empire jewel that appears authentic is the name, it is still called Strand. Inside as in the old version, there is plenty of mahogany wood paneling but now it has a kitchen cabinet look. All is spic and span as one would expect in a super expensive five-star hotel, yet the white marble floors, that in my memory had the worn look of time, now have the feel of a tiled and polyurethaned bathroom floor. The bar, except for the few liquor bottles, could, for all its charm, be in a hospital cafeteria. The similarity with a hospital is also demonstrated in the pricing. A gin and tonic cost ten dollars, the price of ten wholesome dinners in Rangoon's streets - even with noodles of your choice. There were no old boys, just a couple of morose tourists in shorts sucking beer.
Burma seems to have a functioning system to avoid unemployment. A twelve-story construction site had, as in an ant colony, a continuous stream of men carrying bags of cement, sand and huge loads of bricks up the partially finished stairs, presumable for the construction of the thirteenth floor. On the whole large site there was not one crane or pulley system to transport material up to near the clouds.

My fascination with old travelers did not stay in Bangkok's Khao San. Already on the flight from Bangkok, in a super cheap Air Asia flight where the seats are so close together and narrow that normal sized people have to suck in breath and curl up to fit, it felt like a geriatric convention. Among Rangoon's tourists, even thought not numerous as in Bangkok, a fair number qualifies for inclusion in the graveyard-blond set. I had to revise my Khao San nostalgia traveler assumption. Here in Burma it is not likely many of oldies are repeat visitors - traveling in Burma during their younger years was not the thing to do - and very few did. It was difficult to obtain a visa and affordable tourist accommodations were rare. Also, Daw Aung San Suu Kui, the peace Nobel price winner who was placed under house arrest after she won an election, advised against visiting Burma. "I only fills the coffers of the ruling junta," she advised.
With a French woman, the only other western traveler on the bus, I shared a taxi from the out-in-the-boonies bus station into town. She is a grandmother, her children are independent of her. She hopes to find some local crafts to buy that she then can sell back home with a profit to help finance her travels. "What do I have to lose?", she said. With super cheap fares on airlines nobody ever heard of, food and lodging costing less than cigarettes at home, she stretches her French social security check as far as it might go - and that is way further here than at home.

Where do I fit into that picture? Right somewhere into the middle, I am afraid. Maybe a few of the observed senior frailties and peculiarities aren't burdening me as much as some others. In a Rangoon sidewalk eatery I observed one of the oldies pulling a roll of toilet paper out of her bag then cleaning with it her plate, chopsticks (which are disposables that have never been used and never will be used again) and tea glass. Also, I am not buying crafts for resale or stretch social security checks, but try to acquire exiting happenings to add to my store of worthwhile, memorable memories.

The toilet paper cleaning lady reminds me of a theory I came up with. No matter how strange it might seem to you, please bear with me - because in the end you just might agree.
When eating from street food venders, as I regularly do here in Asia, in Africa, South and Central America, in short, wherever they are, and if the food is cooked and served in dishes, don't look for the pristine, antiseptic-looking ones - unless you like your food to taste as if, before serving, it had been submerged in a swimming pool. Almost all street food venders have no access to running water. Even if clean running water was available by his or her stand it is not practicable. Vegetables, dishes, glasses, utensils, are all washed in a bucket of water under the stand - all day long.
Sounds terrible, right? Yes, but....
Some of those street chefs, "to do right by their customers", heavily chlorinate the water in which they wash food and dishes. As a result, offered fare gets that not so yummy swimming pool flavor. The alternative, if you want vegetables that taste like vegetables, fish taste like fish, meat like meat, is frequenting the less conscientious street establishments.
Before gasping think of what you are most likely exposed to if you eat in hotels or regular indoor restaurants. Food and dishes are washed in water that might also be questionable. Even if you adhere strictly to the edicts of careful travelers; never accepting local ice cubes, never eating salad, never drink, or even brush teeth with water from the faucet, you are not home free. Water, no matter it's quality, is everywhere, in everything, every day. You will be exposed to it no matter how much you try to avoid it. Even the bedding you sleep in has been washed in it, the local's hands you shake have the same bugs like the local water. You wash your hands - with what? You can't disinfect them forever, everywhere, every time.
The answer, according to yours truly, is immunization.
The locals survive the onslaught of local bacteria, even though their system is no better equipped than yours. Give your body a chance. Most likely, at home, your system is never exposed to the same internal flora and fauna you come in contact with while traveling in some regions of our planet.
Immunization, according to my non-medical expertise, is exposing the body to weakened or small amounts of agents that are liable to attack the system. That way, though a normal process, our internal biological laboratory is stimulated to produce antibodies. If your machinery was never exposed to these alien onslaughts, it has no capability to resist attacks.
David, a Canadian friend of mine in Paris lived that theory to an extreme. Whenever he bought a baguette sandwich he first placed it on the ground in the street, rolled it around a few times with his shoes while muttering: "It you don't eat a few of the buggers all the time you won't be able to resist them when they attack."
The solution, again according to my non-medical but plenty of empirical experience, is to accustom the system gradually to local conditions. First, brush teeth with water from the faucet, then advance to rinsing the mouth, have a drink with ice cubes, wash the dust off a fruit with local water, have a little salad, and soon, your immunization is complete.

My Mandalay contact from way back is out of town 'til tomorrow.


When I came back from the internet café the reception lady said a man had called, asking for me. Because I know absolutely nobody else in this town, I assumed it was Thar Aye, my old friend from Mandalay whom I had informed by email about my arrival. "He will call back at two PM", she said.
It was about eleven, plenty of time for the planned visit to Mandalay Hill, 1,729 steps up from the street entrance, to visit the tall golden (gold painted?) standing Buddha. I went to the foot of the hill by taxi because it is about seven kilometers from my hotel. On my return, as came into the hotel lobby, Thar jumped up from a seat, embraced me, then prostrated himself in front of me and - kissed my feet. They were really dirty from the long walk. I tried to pick up the sixty-year old man, I pleaded with him to stop, I pulled while he kept kissing my feet. Total embarrassment! When he finally got up, tears were streaming down his face. He kept holding on to me and had arranged for a photo studio to take pictures of the two of us.
If all that sounds strange to you, it no doubt is. It came about because what happened when we first met, about seventeen years before.
Emilie and I tried to get from Mandalay to Imphal in India's Manipur. That journey, then and now, was off limits to everyone from the outside since right after WW II. The Brits, with the help of hundreds of mules imported from South America, built that road during the war to get behind Japanese lines. The war was over before the road was completed. Since then, Nagas and Kukis, two former headhunting tribes in the region, are at war with each other and, neither Indians, nor Burmese would permit anyone getting through the area because lawlessness prevailed.
In order to find our way across that off-limit territory we needed a local assistant to help organize a transport elephant, or whatever else was needed to get through the jungle to India.
Enters Thar Aye, a trishaw driver we'd met at the Mandalay train station. He had a surprisingly huge store of English words, but a very limited capacity of speaking it. He explained how, when he was a Buddhist monk, he gave himself the task of learning a hundred English words a day for a hundred days. He did, but had practically no opportunity to use his knowledge for speaking - 'till he met us. I offered him a thousand dollars if we could make it to India with his help. He agreed and we left. In the last town officially accessible to us, Monywa, we found out that we were shadowed by the secret police. Had we succeeded in our quest for reaching India, Thar, as out facilitator, would have been dead meat at the hands of Burma's ruling junta. We abandoned our attempt and returned with him to Mandalay.
"Why?" I asked him, "why would you risk your life for a thousand dollars?"
"With that my children could get an education and that is more important than my life," he said.
Needless to say, I gave him the thousand dollars anyway.
Roll forwards fifteen years.
I was contacted by a man from White Plains near New York city.
"Are you Ernst Aebi who traveled once in Mandalay?"
"Have you met Thar Aye there?"
"Yes. What's that all about?"
"I am a travel agent and was in Mandalay to make contacts to organize trips. I met Thar, a travel guide. At his house is a photo of you, like on a shrine. He says that his children all have a wonderful education because of you, that he is a licensed travel guide because of you, he managed to buy a house because of you."
"Well applied thousand dollars," I thought.
When I returned from my East Africa trip last year, there was a letter in my huge pile of accumulated mail. It came from a couple in Manhattan's Upper Westside. It also stated that they hope I am the Ernst who once was in Mandalay and that I knew Thar Aye. Included was a handwritten letter from Thar. He explained how one son is now a computer programmer, one a dentist, one a doctor and his daughter is married to a jeweler - and that he lives now in his own house, all thanks to you (me), he wrote. He expressed a wish that some time soon I might come back to Mandalay.
That's what brought about the foot kissing.
We drove on his bike to the government information office to find out, first officially, which of the routes I might be allowed to take.
The one from Mandalay to Imphal, we were told, is okay to drive on but I was not allowed to go there because the Indians refuse entry. It is like a war zone over there. Thar confirmed that claim by the government lady. The road between the border town in India's Manipur, from Moeth to Imphal, is closed to regular traffic.
The Ledo road from Assam in India through Burma to China, in many parts does not exist anymore. It was built by US troops under general Stillwell, also called Vinegar Joe because of his demeanor, during WW II to resupply the Chinese in their fight against the Japanese.
That leaves the old Burma road that was also off limits for most of the last sixty years because of ethnic conflicts between the Burmese ruling junta and, I think the Karens.
"Maybe you get a permit," one of the five ladies behind the counter said.
"How do I know I get it?" I said.
"You apply now, pay one-hundred dollars and in two weeks you get answer."
"Then I can go?"
"No, you will need a car and an escort from Lashio to the border, one-hundred and fifty dollars," she said.
"One hundred here, one-hundred and fifty in Lashio?"
So, my options are:
* Road to Imphal, but no permission to get into India. With the road from the border to Imphal closed, even if I managed to crash that border, I'd have to walk about 150 kilometers through a war zone.
* Ledo road doesn't exist any more, but reconstruction is under way.
* The old Burma road, lame, with a government handler, but historically significant. I could try to avoid the government dude, but for what? Save two-hundred and fifty dollars? On a road I could (probably) take officially if I was willing to hand over two-hundred-and-fifty dollars.
I paid the initial hundred dollars and now I get two weeks of exploring other parts of Burma. I have heard of worse fate.

Friday, January 20, 2012

... and yet another visa

Done! Got China visa, plane ticket to Rangoon and tomorrow evening I'll be there..... none too soon.

Today was exploration of the Bangkok I have seen from the river, from taxis and from Tuck-Tucks but never really moved around there on foot.


Pity the tourist or the business man who is condemned to make his residence there. Of course, some would not quite fit into Khao San and are thus stuck with the inevitable. Super modern, gleaming glass and steel, some mind boggling architecture, it has the charm of a railroad station waiting room.

To get there I took a riverboat to the pier where my Bangkok map indicates a Skytrain passes. Track and stations are way above the roads, sometimes several stories up. While zipping along above the town you can look into people's fifth story living rooms. In train and stations all is fully automatic, super clean and, of course, air conditioned. I got off at Siam Square, the center of the business and high end condominium district and .... was not in the Bangkok of my love anymore.

Siam Square is also a huge, multi-story shopping center. Macy in New York claims to be the largest department store in the world. That may be true if one counts a store of one name under one roof, but from the looks of it, a couple of Macy Herald Square stores could be accommodated inside the Siam Square complex. It goes on and on, endlessly. I walked around for a while among the hi end boutiques, international chain stores, businesslike dressed crowds and then escaped back to my old haunts on a boat that sped through a narrow canal that smelled like a sewer - which it probably was. I celebrated my return to Khao San with a Banana and Nutella crêpe from a cute street vendor. There, in the ghetto, were definitively more smiles per square meter than around Siam Square.

Yesterday a barber trimmed my beard stubbles to a fashionable, (rakish?) three millimeters. I simply had to have that done because the longer my facial hair got the whiter it was. After all the jokes I made about the graveyard blond set in Khao San, I couldn't live with that anymore. The very friendly barber, who also gave me neck massage, did such a lousy job on the mustache I looked like one of the sculpted ugly, evil-looking ogres guarding the good spirits inside temples. So, today, before heading downtown I went back to the barber to also trim the mustache down to three millimeters. He seemed offended that I didn't like his work and refused to change anything. I said not to worry, I'd pay. That didn't mellow him, but he made a young assistant do it then he charged the same amount as when he did the whole face (it was still only sixty cents).

People watching again last night, I met a Dane, an independent Apple programmer. He gets enough monthly checks from Apple for the apps he'd designed as a free lancer to allow him to travel three months out of the year - so he must be good. Now I am relieved to know I am not a complete dolt in the IT world. When I mentioned my problems with transporting photos to a blog from iPad he said it could not be done but that I just gave him a good idea. He will now design an app that can make it happen. He is always searching for problems that need solving. He lives off commissions from the paid downloads of apps he creates.

Our conversations were so interesting (mostly about IT which usually is Chinese to me) I got lost in his alien world. The guy, a real geek, is fifty years old. His travel rule is never to have more than ten kilos of luggage. By the way, even though he doesn't qualify for the formerly described nostalgia set - his hair is not gray and he is not out of shape - he goes to the New Merry V since many years. Wherever he heads for southeast Asia, he first flies from Denmark to Bangkok, then stays at New Merry to unwind and to get into the groove of things to come.

That is again a confirmation that I am not alone with my addiction to Bangkok's, more precisely Khao San district's, siren song. A friend, Jonah who was the main editor of SEASONS OF SAND, wrote in an email that he too, like by a forceful magnet, is regularly pulled to that weird spot.

Now, with required visas in passport, tonight I'll be looking for noodle soup in Rangoon.

01/19 Yangon, Rangoon.

The world hasn't stopped here either. Last time I was in Rangoon, about fifteen-years ago, I remember it as still a sleepy, charming town. It sure ain't sleepy anymore.

At the (now super modern) airport yesterday I saw a man holding a sign for Motherland guesthouse. I took the free shuttle, expecting to stay at that place, even though I know it is pretty far from the center of town. It was fully booked except for a bed in a co-ed dormitory.

That dormitory arrangement is as follows: My bed is perpendicular at the foot of three other beds. During the night I have one pair of feet in my face, a pair in my groin and a last one at the level of my feet. The single toilet/shower for all nine occupants is outside, down a stair in a dark corridor. I have a locker for my stuff down a hall. For someone of my age with sometimes not much time to spare between the sensation of having to go and actually needing the toilet, then and there, that is a risky proposition. Today I'll do something about it. A taxi driver (who spoke a little English) drove me around town to hotel/guesthouses.
"How long drive?" he'd said.
"Until I find accommodations," I said.
"Very expensive," he said.
"All hotel fully booked," he said.
"So, how much 'till we find one?"
"Fifteen-thousand kiat," he said. That, with the black market exchange rate I got the previous night, amounts to about twenty dollars - in a land where twenty dollars is probably a decent weekly wage. When I protested he suggested I take another taxi.

He drove me to at least ten downtown places. All had no vacancies even though I was not particular about my requirements , as long as it was not a dormitory. The driver clearly started to get antsy about the inordinate time he spent chauffeuring me around for my quest.

After about twelve "no" to my questions about "you have vacancy?" I got a "yes". Couldn't see the room though because the guests were still in their twenty-five dollars a night digs. Only cash accepted, I was told, but breakfast included.

Back at the Motherland guesthouse, about two hours later, the driver, as relieved about mission accomplished as I, offered to take me and my luggage back to to the Yoma, the name of my new digs, for free. Maybe he was just a bit guilty about the charged fee.

Rangoon has changed big time since my last visit. It has become a noisy metropolis, congested, much less charming than it had survived in my memory. Where you could walk on streets full of pedestrians, men in longhis, the wrap around waist cloth, and women with sandalwood powder circles painted on their faces, winding your way in between the little stools of street stall diners, today parked cars and trucks have become ugly prosaic impediments. Man-powered trishaws have largely been replaced by dilapidated taxis. The quaint tiny wooden stools people sat on in the street eateries have succumbed to the plastic revolution. To make it worse, some malevolent force has decided to produce them in the gaudiest of colors. The street fruit seller still offer a profusion of fresh and beautiful tropical fruits but also here the rare exclusive have taken over - apples with stuck-on labels, informing the buyer of their New Zealand provenance. For the huge price of one apple, a fruit that doesn't grow in the tropics, one could buy a large bagful of tropical delights, the kinds of fruits, despite their high cost, so popular at home where they, in turn, don't grow.

That human trait, wishing for what one doesn't have, is perfectly described in a Swiss word of wisdom:
Hansdampf im Schäggeloch hät alles was er will,
Was er will das hätter nöd und,
Was er hät das will er nöd.
Loosely translated that means:
Little Jonnyboy, enclosed in his protective shell, has everything he wants,
But, what he wants he doesn't have, and,
What he has he doesn't want.

Ah, the pleasures one can expect after giving up hitting one's head with a hammer!

The visa tribulations continue. Since it seems I can't get a Vietnam visa in Kunming, China, I have to try to get one here. Two of the roads I'll try end up in China. From there I could go all the way to Hong Kong, get visas to wherever I want to go, but that seems lame, and way off the territory.

The Vietnam embassy here is in a huge beautiful house, a long way out of the town center. When I got there this morning, with doors ajar, the place seemed abandoned. With the coming of next week's Lunar New Year, that all nations around here in this neck of the woods celebrate, the whole staff seems to have gone on vacation. I wandered around on the white marble floors of the house and called from time to time "Hello!"

A lone woman eventually appeared and told me nothing could be done 'til after the next week. I offered to pay extra for expediting the matter, so she said she'd try to contact someone and, just maybe she could get me a visa before totally everybody was gone for the week.

Now I have to stay in my windowless room, hoping for a phone call from her. The Internet Wifi (which they advertise to have here) is down, so I spend my time writing, even though there is not much to write about. It has been almost four hours since I left her my passport, completed application and photo and no phone call has come. Now I ran out of things to report about Rangoon today, in 2012. The last time I was here the calendar said 1960.

That 1960 Rangoon stay was accidental. While on my round-the-world-trip-without-money (twenty-dollars brought from home when I left from Zurich, Switzerland) I had taken a flight with the Burmese airline from Calcutta to Bangkok. Along the way there was a problem with the plane, an old WW II surplus DC-3. We bumped to an emergency landing in Rangoon. When we hit the runway, fuel was pouring out of the left wing, just outside my window. Instead of a fire engine, a truck raced along, right behind the wing with two men in the back trying to balance a barrel to catch as much as possible of the valuable spilling fuel.

The only Westerners on the plane were an old missionary women from the US and yours truly, the totally broke globetrotter from Switzerland. We both found it chic of the airline when they lodged us in the famous Strand Hotel - not that they had to throw other guest out to make room for us - from the looks of it, we were the only occupants. We were served a sumptuous Chinese dinner ... with chopsticks. That was no problem for the missionary who had lived in the regions for just about her whole life but for the boy from Switzerland, at a time when there were not yet Chinese restaurants wherever you went, it almost meant starvation. The staff, knowing full well we were not regular guests had a ball watching me struggle. The problem got solved. Just coming from India, I ended up eating my Chinese food by hand.

During the day the missionary and I explored the city, a dusty backwater town, on foot. In the evening she was tired so I went out again, alone. When it got dark, there were no streetlights, the town was pitch dark except for some flickering cooking fires. I had no idea where I was, my feet were muddy from having stepped into all sorts of smelly things. A man led me by a hand into a house, I was served tea then brought to a cot and made to lay down. It was too dark to see anything. When hands stared to fondle my body I stormed out, blindly. After erring around for a while I saw a light, stumbled towards it and found it to be a police station. Somehow I managed to make them understand I wanted to go to the Strand Hotel. An escort brought me there. After a shower, and relieved to be back at the hotel, we were served dinner, this time with fork and knife. Next day we flew to Bangkok.

Hopefully soon, for the sake of people who read this stuff and for me, the journey will be getting more interesting.

In Bangkok, as mentioned in the last report, I saw in Wat Tramit the 5.5 metric ton Buddha in pure gold. Well, here in the land where there seems to be a stupa, a temple, or a paya for every man, woman and child, where taxi drivers stop at certain temples to donate or bow, they have an even more impressive gold deity. The Buddha in Rangoon's Shwedagon Paya weighs 53 metric tons, larger than its Bangkok's counterpart by a factor of ten. Poor Bill Gates could afford barely ten of these.

I wonder how many children could be educated and fed with the money that would be freed up if they melted down and sold the gold in that statue in the name of Buddha's compassion and benevolence. Bill Gates goes that way and he is no god. To judge from what I have seen previously here and the little new insights from the present visit, the country's people could use all the help they can get.

About six o'clock last night the lady from the Vietnam embassy called. If I hurried I could pick up the visa. She said she'd wait for me. It cost, instead of sixty-five dollars, the expedited fee of eighty-five, a sum I gladly paid. It meant no ten-day wait in Rangoon. The woman refused the tip I offered for her service.

At ease now I'll do laundry while I have nice running water, try to find a working internet café to read my email, maybe post this scribbles on the blog, and organize transport to Mandalay. Plane is out, train I'd already done twice, boat transport, as I found out, doesn't exist, so, it will probably be the twelve-hour bus ride.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Bangkok Hum-Drum

I just made some birds homeless!

Copied as written in bird's nest for sale package.

The Thai bird's nests are extraordinary natural product that healers of the old school, and physicians have proved and endorsed that they are composed of many highly useful substances which nourish the lungs, kidneys, heart, stomach, and other internal organs, as well as heal the "excessive heat in the intestines, and other internal organs" relieve cough and phlegm, and regulate the blood circulation, the physical condition would be greatly rejuvenated with youthful vigor and freshness; it also helps to brighten mental faculties and give more radiance to the complexion.


First soak the shredded clean-dry bird's nest in the clean cool water for one hour to allow it to soften and swell, then take the bird's nest out and put it into a steaming vessel for stewing on a low fire for two hours. When the bird's nest becomes jelly like and tender, add sugar as required and keep it on the fire for a little while, then you will have the above mentioned priceless delicious food.
Alter natively (!) chicken soup stock can be used to make a very delicious bird's nest soup.

Now you know it too. I got this description in the bird's nest store/restaurant. Even though it is not specifically mentioned, it (the soup) looks like they cleaned out the bird poop before cooking up the nests. I never had it before and it tastes like nothing, no particular flavor, consistency, aroma, in short, nothing to write home about (and here I am doing it!)

But, short of simply becoming immortal, after having eaten that elixir of gods - may come what may - I'll never, ever get sick.

For the tidy sum (here in Bangkok, that is a lot for food!) of nine dollars I got a tiny bowl full (about the size of a small tea cup) of that mystery food. It was served with a raw egg, a couple of ginkgo berries, a little pitcher of honey and a bowl of ginseng tea.

Along the walls stood glass jars with dried bird's nests. Prices written on the jars ranged from an equivalent of 90 dollars to 900 dollars. I had no idea if that was per weight or by nest. The owner told me. It is for 38 grams (1.34 ounces). So, 1.34 ounces of a better quality bird's nest can put you back 900 dollars. The darker the nest were, the higher the price (does that mean the expensive ones are less washed?)

That magic potion, however, didn't prevent me from getting blisters on my feet. I walked about five hours in my new rubber flip-flops. It was totally worth it.

I have been to Bangkok's Chinatown before and it never looked even vaguely like that. Just like the Khao San backpacker ghetto, Chinatown has bulged and is busting in its seams. Either vastly more Chinese came here or, the ones already here had babies like crazy. The place is more densely populated than an anthill is anted, antelated(?). They sell authentic-looking AK-47 but they shoot only gas-powered BBs. There are more flip-flops on display than there are people on the planet able to wear them. Everything is in such an excess, the sight might make you dizzy. Way more than 90% of the stuff is simply useless junk, stuff that nobody ever needs, stuff one buys for presents, on impulse, or because of a shopaholic affliction. Once bought it gets put away, maybe dusted a few times, then discarded. Since two wrongs don't make one right it is no excuse that we in the US, or generally the "developed world" share the same idiotic habits.

I wonder how we, in the States or in Europe, are going to deal with the frightening phenomena of total gridlock and congestion as I see here. Bangkok's Chinatown could serve as a laboratory. The good news is, from the looks of it, they take it in stride. There are plenty of smiles even on people's faces whose bodies are about to be crushed. In areas of wall-wall humanity deliveries to stores still need to be made - and they are. It is inexplicable to me how not lots of feet, or at least toes, get crushed as pick-up trucks, and motorcycles with improbable loads squeeze through the mass of humanity.

A day later:

Last night I went people watching on one or Khao SAN's main drags, an activity I love almost everywhere, even in Walmart (if that didn't involve having to actually go there!) Not so long ago, a European with a smattering of English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Scandinavian - I mean just recognizing them by the sound would be enough - could have felt like a homebody anywhere international travelers congregated.

Fugetaboutit now!

The whole world is on the move. The former xenophobic Soviet Republic's masses haven been unleashed. Nationals of countries where obtaining simple sustenance took all their time and effort, have now become free to visit other shores. A place like Khao San could serve as an illustration of the biblical Tower of Babylon - with the saving grace that all in the milling crowd have a smattering knowledge of the international lingua franca, English. Maybe there is a benevolent god after all because the one who created the havoc in Babylon didn't offer that handy service.

Over a couple of bottles of Singha (the Thai beer that goes: One Sing-ha, two Sing-ha-ha, three Sing -ha-ha-ha!) I got into interesting conversations, one with an official of the UN, a Dutchman, stationed in Bangkok since seven years. What a job! I think he has just been forgotten by his superiors because he didn't seem to have much of an idea about what his duties were. At least he doesn't do any harm to anyone (according to him, they at the UN, not he, were working behind the scene for improving the Burmese junta's human rights record!). Why not live in Burma for that? I thought. But then, of course, Bangkok is much more pleasant than the new capital the (former) Burmese bozos had themselves built in the middle of nowhere, a place difficult to reach by the rest, and maybe restless, of the population - thus a place with a marked absence of interesting people.

The German I met later was much more interesting. A professional gemologist gem buyer, about sixty-years old, he has roamed the gem producing regions of northern Pakistan, Shri-Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, mostly as a backpacker, hence his presence in Khao San, in search of private, thus mostly illegal, miners.

The stories! We both managed to impress each other with recounting of our respective exploits on the planet. We ended up with a lot of ha-ha-ha. At a dollar a bottle, how could one go wrong.

I learned an interesting factoid about natural versus manufactured gem stones. For most of his buying journeys he carried a little portable laboratory; spectrometer, chemicals, microscope etc. etc. I didn't recognize even the names of some of the tools he described but some of what they unveiled fascinated me.

The difference between a manufactured gem and a natural one is in the impurities. The natural ones have blemishes, inclusions of other materials that impede brilliance, clarity, refraction or, what have you! The manufactured ones, even though, with the same chemical composition, are pure.

"Thus worthless, or worth less?" I asked.
"Yeap," he said with a sheepish grin.
"Wasn't it once the purer the better?" I said.
"Yeahhhh," he said.

This is yet another illustration of man's (woman's) gullibility, snobbism, or simply silliness? If it is rare it is worth more, or we desire it more, even if it is of inferior quality, less tasty, or less beautiful, or weaker, than readily available substitutes, or, in some cases even injurious; think bird's nests, shark fins, caviar, Limburger cheese, or, hitting the head with a hammer.

As for the before mentioned people watching, I keep being mesmerized. With Sing-ha-ha-ha I sit and stare at the great show of a never ending procession.

Two men, both tall and hefty, with shaven heads and reflecting sunglasses, one in a jungle green singlet that left his beefy, tattooed arms exposed, with grim features and brusque gestures, looked exactly as one would expect rough mercenaries to look like. They met a third, punched fists and started to talk. After a while one made the sign with his straight hand of slitting a throat, the two others repeated the gesture, they punched fists again, one left and the two went to a table across the ally from me and ordered food. As they sat on the tiny plastic stools both their spread legs start whipping vigorously. The table belongs to a street food seller that advertises vegetarian. One got an orange soda, the other a bottle of water. While they waited for their vegetarian meal, the bigger one got up from his tiny stool, rummaged in a garbage can, retrieved a styrofoam bowl, filled it with water from his bottle and brought it to one of the stray dogs in the ally.

Many of the passing foreign woman are achingly beautiful in their special exotic Khao San outfits, stuff few might wear on their home front. Tattoos these days are covering whole limbs and torsos. Many entwined pairs of women stroll by. It seems men with men have their own cruising grounds somewhere else, but transvestites add interesting colors to the mix. One, a really big guy with an Arnold Schwarzenegger upper body, veiled in pastel colored gossamer shrouds that left spandex shorts exposed tripled by in high heel stilettos. I wondered where he might have gotten his enormous sized lady's shoes.

It is strange to see the before mentioned nostalgia elders lugging bulging backpacks in their search for accommodations. Some, with their tottering gait, look like you might want to help them across the street even if they carried nothing. More so than their younger counterparts, they seem to have a permanent grin plastered to their faces.

Markedly absent in the passing mix are Thais. Except for the occasional man or woman hurrying by on the way home from their cooking, serving or massaging jobs, they are missing while only a short block away, on Phra Athit, a street parallel to my ally, many young Thais are lined up together with the foreigners for the inexpensive, but delicious noodle soups.

I had lunch today at a restaurant about a half hour away from the ghetto. I remember it from former visits for having the best roast duck. It offered also shark fin soup on the menu. After my malevolence with wild birds I stayed with duck.

Staying in Thailand for any length of time without having a massage would be like hanging out at Munich's Oktoberfest without drinking beer. The Khao San region is full of advertisements; foot, neck, head, whole body oil, or just the regular full body Thai massage. On my wanderings I often passed a hole in the wall with an advertisement for massage in the garden. Through the hole I saw a white pebbled path with black stepping stones, sort of like a Japanese rock garden, going through the building. Since I never was a fan of having my body kneaded I went there mostly out of curiosity; to find out what that garden in the middle of the city was all about. I opted for the full body Thai, even though I know from previous experiences that it is nothing short of torture.

The garden was beautiful, all white river stones with slate slab walks between potted plants. Baldachine-like tents, with massage tables inside, stood about. In a dressing room I put on a supplied lime green, loose fitting gown and then was led to a table - and that is when hell started.

A hefty, elderly woman tried to rip off my foot from my leg. Of course I would not let on that it hurt. I now realize this is a wrong reaction. The masseuse has to know she is getting to the body and if you don't let her know, yes, I feel it big time, she just tries harder. Hard and harder she tried, and more and more it hurt. I closed my eye tightly, concentrating on suffering in silence, not to appear like a wimp. I had requested the one hour treatment instead of the recommended two hour job. That was the only bright thought I had while being subjected to kneading, kneeing, elbowing and being walked/stomped around on. They could save a lot of man(woman)power by simply strapping customers on the rack then tightening the vices.

When it was over I was happy to notice I could still walk - sort of. Singha turned out to be a quick remedy.

Another, sort of massage, is also offered all over the place. Fish Treatment, they call it. When walking past one of those places with large, aquarium-like tanks full of little fish, I heard piercing screams. A young woman had just put her feet into one of the tanks and the sensation of the fish starting it nibble on her skin prompted the outburst.

Now, with the world's disgust about pig and chicken shit fed fish from Asian fish farms one can add to the list of local fish food - backpacker callouses.

I expect to have the Chinese visa by Tuesday evening, so, if all goes as planned, next Wednesday I'll be in Burma where the real trip begins.

Oh, I just remember another tidbit, a remarkable sight in Chinatown's Wat Traimit. The Buddha in that shrine is made of solid gold, 5.5 metric tons of it. Google tells me that 5.5 metric tons are 194,006.79 ounces. At almost 2,000 dollars an ounce that makes it a pretty valuable idol. Bill Gates, if he used up all his loot, could barely afford a hundred of them.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Visa hassles, but I love them, keeps me longer in Bankok

Looking around in New Merry's bar, it becomes obvious that this is a particularly popular hangout for the previously mentioned nostalgia-challenged Kaho San population. Unlike in the rest of the local backpacker ghetto crowd, a good portion of the New Merry guests are of the graveyard-blond set. That might be because this guesthouse is one of the older haunts - it looks it too - and thus a bunch of us oldies are repeat guests, trying to re-create the lusty times of yesteryear, a vastly different era in our lives. Some might have been here in their hippy years - quite a few of them have that, je ne sais quoi, former hippy aura, timid little signs of rebellion against standard rules, like wearing a necktie over a T-shirt, or a puny ponytail made of a few strands of thinning hair. Some of the women have multiple earrings per ear, hefty necklaces made of wood, shells with voluminous pendants engraved with Buddha images, evil eyes, clumps of turquoise framed in silver, all the stuff that used to be the rage in their days. Some also sport tattoos, now pretty much faded. Their designs are also smaller than today's ubiquitous body covering creations. Alas, those once free spirits got married, had kids, slaved away at jobs, had bosses, pay checks, car payments, parent-teacher meetings, soccer practice, dental and doctor appointments - some not only for the children but, as of late, also for their implants or dentures.

Many of them could easily stay in upscale, starred hotels, but now, as they have become grandparents and thicker around the waist, and as mentioned, men's hair gotten thinner - or non-existent and women's hair don't flow so freely and carefree anymore, they remember the good old times, the times before they were second hand, also rans. Retracing their youthful journeys, they are naturally drawn back to their old haunts like the New Merry.

Ooooops! Got emailed questions about certain colored light districts in Bangkok.

That is a delicate subject,
Since .....
My children might worry that their children, my grand children, who might read the blog, would get a wrong impression about their grandfather.

In some ways I'd like to say Doodle Pip!

.... but I refrain from telling anyway because I grant them their right of having their fully expected prudish opinions (I'd never hear the end of it if I didn't).

As for my blog photo woes, they still woe. After trying, experimenting, trying again, endless fidgeting, swearing, moaning, all to get pictures from the camera into the blog, I gave up and went to ask a pretty, very young (an absolute requirement for IT competency - I think it is a generational thing!) girl. She tried almost as long and intensively as I had and finally assured me that I am not a complete dolt. She couldn't do it either.
She sent me to Bangkok's digital shopping center, a one-acre per floor, five-story building with nothing but electronic stores, a gazillion miles away from New Merry V. Along the way in a taxi, once more new Bangkok vistas opened up. This time we crossed a few bridges.

Lo and behold, one of the Bangkok IT wizards in the IT heaven found out that New York's B&H IT wizard had sold me a bill of goods, a wrong connection cable. With that knowledge there is now less worry about my digital adroitness - at least in my mind!

So, if yours truly manages to figure out my new camera so that pictures don't turn out blurry (even though the camera is programmed to operate on fully automatic), there might be the occasional picture in the blog.

My extensive taxi rides bring up yet another New York analogy. If you were to take a taxi, two times up and two times down, let's say from West Broadway and West Huston to West 86th street, unless it was Sunday morning or any night at four AM when there is absolutely no traffic, the ride would always be the same, Westside highway to the closest exit of 86th street and vice versa. During off traffic times some driver might go down Broadway.

In Bangkok drivers play to a different tune. I've been up twice and down twice to the Myanmar embassy and got an incredibly diverse view of the city. The only invariable was omnipresent gilded temples. On every route we passed oodles of them.

As mentioned before, with every driver I needed to negotiate a price for the trip. If I offered less than the equivalent of six dollars, he invariable drove off. Returning from the Myanmar embassy the last time a driver pointed to the meter when I asked the price to start the negotiating process. Even though the traffic was heavier than on previous trips, the metered price was, instead of the regular six, a tad less than three dollars. I gave him a hefty tip to reward him for honesty.

The line for Myanmar visa pick up was enormous but it went fast. I now have the Burmese passport entry.

Back in the ghetto I went to one of the agents advertising visas for China. For roughly two-hundred-and-ten dollars, plus a plane ticket to and from the country, plus hotel reservations in China I could have the visa in three days, she said.

Bummer! Whichever route I plan to take, none would involve an airplane. A hotel reservation for a certain day, with my intended way to travel, is a joke. The agent assured me I would not have to take the flight nor did I have to go to the reserved hotel. As for paying these things, they are only pro-forma, I'd only pay a handling fee. It shows there are many ways of skinning a cat.

One instance in my travels tells me there is something to the visa proposition here. When we planned to get into Tibet illegally by crossing over the Himalayas in an uninhabited region, at an uncontrolled border, also the source of Brahmaputra, we got such a Chinese visa with pro-forma travel arrangement from Kathmandu. It helped a lot when the Chinese authorities caught up with us in the wilds of Tibet without having checked into the country.

The difference now is that I don't know if I'll end up in India or in China. The original intended route ends up in India.

I'll soon post my decision. Stay tuned (if you care to know!)

The bug snacks should help unblocking writer 's block while writing blogs.

That house looks very much like the one I lived in during my 1960 Bangkok stay. In the back was the swamp with the wooden causeway by which one could reach the (dirt) road.

These are some of the mentioned nostalgia visitors to the backpacker ghetto. I asked permission to take the picture and told them what it was for.
Exactly as guessed, one said 1970 was the first time for him. The others all came a bit later, but for each it is a repeat visit.

MANGOSTENE, the delicious queen of fruits, even though not pretty to look at.
Queen Victoria had heard about how yummy they are. She offered knighthood to whoever could bring her one to England. None of her brave subjects got the coveted back slap with a sword. Apparently Mangostenes don't travel well.
Here they are easy to get, you just buy them from a street vendor.

Street view from a tuck-tuck. Taxis in town are in such weird colors that no owner in his right mind would have a private car like that. Thus, taxis are easy to locate.
Nowadays they are metered but, at least for a foreigner like yours truly, they refuse to go metered. Every time I insisted, the driver took off. So, still as it always was, before every trip there is a (good natured) bargaining session.

As you can see, I have not mastered the formatting for picture with text. Until I get that right, you'll just have to figure out what caption goes to what picture. If anyone can send instructions, it would be greatly appreciated. My IT person here seems also lost.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bureaucrats In Paradise

Bangkok, January 10, 2012
The only thing that hasn't changed for me in Bangkok since 1960 is my total feel good about this special nook of our planet.

1960, escaping from a hepatitis quarantine in Calcutta, another long story, I ended up in Bangkok via Rangoon. Even though I had made serious money on my round-the-world trip up to then, in Beirut (belly dancing), Damascus (decorating in an international fair), Izmir (same as Damascus), Kabul (selling a car I had bought cheaply in Turkey) and Delhi (selling gold coins for a lot more than I had paid for them in Turkey), I was totally broke on account of a Calcutta hospital stay.
My home in Bangkok, for about two months, was a shack on stilts reached by a wooden causeway over a swamp.
Years ago, on a previous visit, I tried to find the place but that swamp, in walking distance from the imperial palace, was paved over between tall buildings. This temporary home of mine must have been a precursor of today's backpacker guesthouses. There were no backpackers then but the shack's inhabitants were their equivalent. Brian, according to his words, an escapee from Eaton and overly demanding parents, helped me with my reading of my first novel in English. It was Kipling's Jungle Book, but I remember nothing besides, I think, a pet mongoose saving a little boy by killing a cobra. There were a few sailors who had jumped ship, or missed its departure. One, a tall, hefty, red-haired Dutch man, claimed to be a refugee from Japanese police, after a Tokyo jewel heist. He was a flaming gay and always had some young Thai boys around him, most of the time sitting on his enormous lap.

I made a reasonable living with temple fresco rubbings. I'd bought pieces of black silk and gold bronze paste. With lengths of split bamboo I wedged the silk over stone frescos then rubbed gold bronze over the protruding sculptures. Those rubbings sold. well to tourists, at least to keep me amply supplied with orange soda, the hepatitis medication recommended by my Calcutta doctor. There was never enough for answering the siren song of pretty girls who patrolled the streets in the back of bicycle rickshaws.

Last night was the first time I stayed in a regular, starred Bangkok hotel. I had made reservation for it on account of my very late arrival from Seoul. Despite a fancy bathroom, TV, AC, and mini bar, I was happy this morning to get into the backpacker ghetto of Kaho San.
Here, in an old haunt I knew from before, New Merry V, I have a room with bed, little plastic table, chair, bathroom which is a toilet bowl in the shower stall, ceiling fan. I have to have my own towel, soap and toilet paper (which I can't keep by the toilet because, as mentioned, it is also the shower). When leaving the room I look it with my own padlock, the one from my luggage. Still, even though it is probably not really needed, I chain my luggage to the table. Instead of the 200$ in the other hotel, the present deluxe digs (deluxe because of en-suite bathroom) cost the princely sum of 12$ a night.

As for the backpacker ghetto, Banglamphu, also called for its main drag, Kaho San, wow!!! There must have been a worldwide backpacker population explosion. The few streets in the neighborhood that were populated by these young travelers and the Thai catering to all their needs, have multiplied by a factor of, whatever .... but a lot. There is nothing one can not buy, eat, drink, experience, hear or see. One sign says: One suit, one shirt, one silk tie, one clothes bag, one hanger, choice of Armani or Hugo Boss label, 50 €. I had a foot and neck massage on a well padded deck chair in the street. The masseur, a man!, was at true sadist and I must have been a masochist to let him maul me the way he did. His painful ministration didn't prevent me right after from having two bowls of noodle soup, 30 cents US per bowl. Sitting with a Singha, the local beer, in the street I noticed among the young milling crowds quite a few silver foxes, the people in my age group with graveyard-blond hair. They must be, I reasoned, like me, folk who had loved this place when they were young and now came back for a nostalgic encore.
One thing strangely absent with all the young people around are the smart phones. They actually sit with their beers, juices, coffee, tea, food in outdoor establishments and talk with each other instead of texting. Apparently their home country servers don't do their thing for them here.
There are now even more places that offer cheap flights to everywhere, visas to all places, even Hotdogstan - except to Myanmar. For that they can't serve you. Applicants for Myanmar visas need to present themselves to the embassy in person.
A valuable advice to parents with children that are still at an age when they create acida for their elders because of upcoming college expenses. Here, in the streets you can, besides ID for whatever you can think of, get a Harvard diploma for roughly two dollars.

Also, Bangkok is debunking a prevailing USA fear of black mold. With the recent floods many surfaces are covered with that stuff and nobody seems to care. At least, the population looks as healthy as any other I know.

Now I'll go to the Myanmar embassy.

Evening, same day.

Myanmar seems to be as desirable a place too go to as the US. The line of visa applicants in the street outside the embassy is as long as any in front of a US consulate anywhere in the world - or is it only the intractable bureaucracy of either place that is the same? At any rate, I arrived at the front of my line after about two hours, only to be given application forms. Filled out forms in hand, I eventually made it to the front of another line, where, having reached the window, just before handing in the forms, I saw another sign informing me that I also needed a photocopy of the application to hand in with the original. Thanks to a lenient bureaucrat behind the window, the lady made me a copy for 15 cents (US equivalent). I waited (on provided chairs) about an hour then was called to another window where I was told to come back two days later to pick up that desired entry in my passport.

Among a multitude of other information about myself, the application required me to list all my employments for the last ten years. I was tempted to write in that I was married during that time but then, afraid of other delays, I wrote "retired".

Imagine New York with Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Bronx, all tied up together without any separations by rivers and harbor expanses. The layout is not a neatly divided grid of avenues and streets but a jumble of random angles of tiny alleys, regular streets, wide boulevards and elevated highways, sometimes several stories high. Then imagine an additional cool million of inhabitants. Then imagine a vast majority living in two or three story buildings.... You got Bangkok!

From where I am staying in the Khao San area, to the Myanmar embassy it is a roughly one-hour taxi ride (no worries about cost, I managed to negotiate a flat six-dollar fee, both for going and coming). Each taxi driver considered himself a wise guy who knows how to avoid the Bangkok traffic nightmare. Each squeezed through narrow alleys then zigzagged between other road users on wide boulevards between super modern cloud-scratching office towers. Instead of chocking vehicular congestion we got into chocking vegetable cart and street peddler congestion. I tried to guess by the sun in which direction we were heading. It was a wind rose heading, east, west, south, north, in wild succession. The second driver, an old man with but one black tooth in the font of his mouth, tried to be a helpful tourist guide, pointing out all sights we passed. Problem is, he prattled everything non-stop in Thai, so I am none the wiser for it.

The short of this story is: Bangkok is huge.s

Since I'll be here for another while (I also need a visa for China, the Indian I made in New York), you are condemned to get some more Bangkok dribble. Sorry, I promised exciting news of an exiting journey and now this!

Vivere pericolosamente - and reporting about it - will have to wait.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Adventure for a soul with IT angst in Seoul

Looking for adventure? Seoul, South Korea is not the place - unless getting lost in a cyber world counts - or maybe finding your way in an underground labyrinth - or hopping in tropical clothing over frozen snow piles.

On my way from the Big Apple to Bangkok I made a stopover in Seoul because I've never been in South Korea. In 1960 I tried to get from Peking (as Pejing was then called in English) to North Korea but that didn't pan out because of Chinese bureaucracy.

Of course I knew Seoul is not in the tropics when I packed my carry on, but I didn't expect a serious cold spell that makes me now walk the city swaddled in two T-shirts, and two shirts under my bush jacket.

About getting lost in the cyber world, that started with my first visit to a toilet. When it came to the point of pulling paper off a roll, all I saw was a control panel with twelve options on little images with instructions in Korean writing. I pushed something with an image of a fan - and got my behind fanned. In the end, after getting washed where the toilet paper would have been in action, first with water way too hot, then with a stream so strong it practically lifted me off the (heated) toilet seat, I got dried by the fan and was allowed to leave. As soon as I got off my seat the contraption flushed automatically.

The menu in the hotel bar is in an iPad. For many people, also one of my brothers, it might as well mean prohibition and famine. Without help he won't be able to chose anything. Only a year ago the same would have happened to me a total newcomer to finer IT points like flipping pages by finger stroking an iPad screen — never mind about turning it on.

I got into the underground labyrinth when I went to explore the city. I saw only very few pedestrians, strange for such a big metropolis, I thought. When I tried to cross a wide street with a continuous stream of traffic, and no pedestrian crossings, I noticed stairs that went down. An underpass I thought. It probably was, but not the expected straight job in the direction of the other street side. I had entered a bustling population center with stores, eateries and the crowds one would expect in a large city. I never made it to the other side. I wandered, looked and wandered some more with no idea as to whether I went Nort, South, Eeast or West. When I came up into daylight I had not the foggiest idea where I was in relation to my hotel. I went underground again found a store that sold city maps, went up, re-oriented and was saved.

After that I decided to do it the New York way, jay walk. After the third or fourth New York style street crossing, the law caught up with me. Two police officers, a female and a male, took me by the arm and led me - to jail? Not jail, but the labyrinth. They led me downstairs and pointed me in the underground direction of the other street side.

Seoul, as large cities go, is impressive. Already gettin from the airport to town in an airport limousine, as the bus was called, boggles the mind. Even though it was dark when I came in, I noticed that we drove for miles on impressive causeways over large water expanses, some of them frozen. That, sort of gave me the willies when I though of my wardrobe put together for the tropics.

I decided to go see Unesco World Heritage Changdeok Palace some Emperor of the Joseon Dynasty founded in 1392, exactly a hundred years after the Swiss Confederation was formed. The structures of the palace are impressive even though plaques inform visitors that the place had been razed, looted, burned many times either by foreign invaders or internal revolts. The secret garden is off limits to wandering visitors. It can be visited only in a guided tour. Since I was already there and had not much else to do, I took the tour even though visiting a snow-covered garden, secret or not, didn't promise wonderful sights.

The warmly dresses guide talked non-stop about where and how the princes used to eat, compose poetry, or watch sunsets while I almost froze to death. A group of young men in the tour, I think a Dutch, a Norwegian and a German, discussed the pros and cons of what is more convenient, to sharpen used chainsaw chains or, with the ridiculously low prices of Chinese made tools, to simply go and buy another saw.

I left the group and went to a warm tea house. The hot Quince tea was so good, I had to try the fresh ginger tea, also hot, as well. Cozy warm again I was not sorry about having missed out about what else the princes and princesses did in their garden.

Full to the gills with Kimshi - they must really love that stuff - no matter what meal I ordered, it came with that pungent cabbage, I fly late tonight to Bangkok.

I'll arrive there around 11PM. With that late arrival time I did an unaccustomed thing, made an online hotel reservation for one night to a "centrally located hotel that offers airport pickup". I reasoned that arriving downtown Bankok after midnight, I'never find an open pack packer place.

So, if all goes to plan, the next report will be from more familiar haunts, Bangkok.


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The following inclusion is for readers who didn't get last winter's East Africa Journey report which I sent out only by e-mail

Vermont. December 19, 2010

Hi Children,

As you already know, I'll be off on January 5, presumably until the middle of May.
First, to adjust life to the planned trip from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to Cape Town in South Africa, I’ll stop in Fiji for a couple of days. According to Sam and Nicholas’ glowing reports from their sailing trip there, this South Pacific island is close to what paradise would be, if such a thing really existed.
Nicholas and Sam, I’d like directions to the great diving/snorkeling spots and Indian eateries you gushed about. Once the Fijian paradise has transported me into the anticipated comfort of dolce far niente, I’m sure to fully enjoy the rest of the planned trip.
Actually, come to think of it, dolce far niente might not be the state of mind required for that journey. I expect and hope it’ll be quite different from hanging around on pristine, placid South Pacific beaches.
Remember how, years ago, when I first roamed all over West Africa, which then was plagued by civil wars, uprisings against governments, and frequent reports of rampant banditry, or when Emilie and I were trekking across the Himalayas to enter Western Tibet illegally, or when we attempted to bush-whack from Burma to India by land (also illegal), or when taking on a few other such potential problem jaunts, I gave a notarized letter to all of you, directing how, in case of a request for ransom by someone, some group or whoever, my wish was for it to be ignored?
Now, with you all grown up with your own families, your own designs for your own destinies, and me at an age when ending up in a hospital bed with tubes stuck into the body is becoming a more likely possibility, the request that you ignore an eventual ransom demand makes even more sense. The worst thing that could happen to me, if the shit hits the fan somewhere along the way, is that I will have a great last adventure. You surely wouldn't dare to deprive me of that.
This reminds me of a little truism coined by Paulo Coelho: If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine …. it is deadly.
So, I definitely do not want any of you to risk anything—neither your safety, nor your finances, nor your time. Unless I specifically ask for it, do not come to my assistance. Such a request for help is a very remote possibility because, as I have always maintained, I want to depend on my own resources. I am doing this kind of trip, as I have done with many previous ones, to satisfy my hunger for adventure, the search for challenges. Overcoming these challenges gives me the immense feeling of accomplishment that have I strived for most of my life.
I know what I am going to write now is redundant for you—yawn yawn—but I repeat it anyway: I hope this trip will be full of hassles, problems, hardships, and, of course, also lots of fun. Hard, stale bread is inedible to a complacent person, yet a feast to the starving. Or, comfort is to lie on a mattress after sleeping on slabs of stone.
I know how some of you might say, “Yeah, like the guy who keeps hitting his head with a hammer just to feel the pleasure of when he stops.”
That’s me. I plan to travel mostly by local means, stay at local places, or where trekkers and backpackers hang out. In a cheap back-packer lodge, I can hook up with interesting, like-minded travelers, not the natty dressed business, golf, or tennis crowd I’d meet in five-star hotels. A local bus may not be comfortable but I will learn how the people in that country live, what they eat, where they sleep, how they laugh and cry. Also, apart from what I learn and experience from intimate contact with the local population, their food, lodging, and transport cost much less. This way, I can even claim to travel to save money, at least compared to what it would cost to spend the same amount of time at my place in Manhattan.

This feels like a good time to also say I am very happy about what you, my kids, have become. I am proud of each of you.
A little fatherly advice, yet again: remember, you have only one life, make good use of it. Don't dawdle on one kind of food, experience, happening, or activity, no matter how much you like it, because there are many others to try. If you keep moving, it is very likely that somewhere along the way, you’ll find even more delicious, better, exciting, or satisfying ones. Use your imagination and search for new discoveries. Don't become victims of stagnation. The what, where, why, how, and when are your choices, but please think about them. You are the architects of your destinies.
Another platitude: rolling stones don't gather moss. I wish for you to have the happiness I have now. It is highly recommendable. I wish for you all to age with contemplations on a terrific past, grooving on the memories. You will have moments of reflection that make you laugh, chuckle, cringe, howl, shudder and, maybe, sob. Even if they don’t all fill you with pleasure, they are guaranteed to make you feel alive. But, you can only have great memories if great things have happened to you. Make them happen.

With love to you and to your children,
DEG (Dad, Ernst, Grandpa)

Vermont. December 24, 2010

Hi Friends,

As some of you already know, I’ll be leaving on January 5, for five-months. I plan to occasionally send out little updates. The journey begins with a flight from New York to Fiji, via Los Angeles.
In Fiji, a place many people describe as “close to paradise,” I’ll stay for about a week in a backpacker’s lodge on a South Pacific beach—to get into the groove of things.
Next stop will be New Zealand. I’ve never been in this land down under, and plan to rent a car to get a sense of it.
From Auckland, via Kuala Lumpur and Kuwait, I'll fly to Dubai. There, for three days, I hope to find out how much of my once pretty fluent Arabic is still present in my musty brain. Indoor skiing in the shopping mall, or staying at the famous (infamous) sail-shaped, ten-thousand-dollar a night, seven-star hotel, is not part of the plan.
From here, what I expect will be a fata morgana of Arabian Peninsula excess, I’ll fly to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.
This is where the journey of regular airplane and hotel tourism will transform itself into the backpacking trip I’ve spent years dreaming about. I plan to zigzag down the east coast of Africa, to see a little of as much as possible between Addis Ababa and Cape Town.
Another goal is to avoid the Disney World-type safari tours I have heard and read about in travel advertisements. I don’t want to see the land, people, and animals from zebra-striped vehicles filled with other camera-toting wildlife and photo-op hunters in Banana Republic outfits.
I hope to see and experience everything in the way a local experiences his surroundings, traveling, eating, and sleeping as much as possible in the way he would do it.
I will have four months before catching my flight from Cape Town to Zurich. Until then, no other flights have been booked. As the crow flies, the overland trip is about 3,300 miles (5,300 kms).
Of course I don’t expect to go as the crow flies. With roughly twenty countries to potentially visit on this route, I have no plan other than to follow my nose. Fellow backpackers, hobos, local farmers, soldiers, hookers, the grape vine, the bush telephone, and witchy prophesies will help me make decisions as I go. Modes of transport might include anything from bush taxi, to bus, truck, train, riverboat, foot, camel or horse. It will be determined by whatever happens to be available and feels right in the time and place.
How easy will it be to find computer and internet cafes, or some such access, in the places I hope to visit—Ethiopia, Somaliland, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, maybe Congo, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland? Stand by to find out when you do or don’t get messages from me.

Until then,

Fiji. January 10, 2011

Hi, y'all,

Day two in Fiji. Beaches, azure water, lots of colorful fish among live corals, yummy cocktails, I am surrounded by all the stuff I need to properly get into the groove for the upcoming trip. Tomorrow, I'll rent a car for three days to check out the rest of this pretty island. The interior, I am told, is not accessible by a regular car. I’m getting a regular car and plan to check out the interior.
Somehow, my Swiss Army knife disappeared from my checked luggage during the normal tribulations of security hassles for the flight from NYC to Fiji. Traveling with only a small carry-on backpack, I brought a small foldable check-in bag—that can be folded up in my backpack — in order to transport the knife wrapped in a few clothes. It might be difficult to find a replacement in Fiji, but I hope to get a new Camper model in New Zealand. For now, this is my only problem.

All best,

New Zealand. January 18. 2011

Hi y'all,

Day One. New Zealand so far comes across as quaint, clean, square, pretty.
I rented a car at the airport upon arrival in Auckland, and am now in a Bay of Islands near Whangarei where, I suppose, Tania sailed one of her flotillas. To judge from wall-to-wall, or rather, hull-to-hull boats, as far as the eye can see, this is the country’s sailing center.
Everything I’ve seen so far—the people, the water, the roads—is pretty, orderly, well-organized, clean. Yawn, yawn . . . how much can I take of this leisure-time bounty, and still be thrilled? For the good Aucklanders, who spend their days in offices and other workplaces, this all provides the perfect environment for sailing, biking, and hiking in fresh air, surrounded by beautiful nature. This must be where they come for welcome, quality-time relaxation.
But, me, I want more excitement.
The next plan for tomorrow is to travel on small roads along the east coast to Cape Reinga, the northernmost point of the North Island. From there, I will drive as far down the west coast as time allows. The map promises some spectacular sights along, namely Waipoua Forest, a primal nature preserve.
Traveling huge distances in a short time permits me to see a little of a lot of the country, enough to learn about where I'd like to stay, if I ever return for a longer visit.
Last night, the only hotel I found while searching from 6PM to 7:30, had a restaurant and bar, but both were closed for a pretty large wedding. On the way to my room, I stumbled over hordes of noisy, little children in fancy outfits roaming the corridors in what looked like a treasure hunt or, perhaps, just a regular race.
So, my first night in New Zealand was spent in a very noisy hotel room. And, my first dinner was mushy, take-out Chinese with a supermarket bottle of wine consumed on a hotel room bed while blasting Sky News on the television to drown out the wedding band’s schmaltz.
Exciting? Sure, though not exactly the kind I am craving.

So long.

Auckland International Airport. January 20, 2011

Hi y’all,

Waiting at the airport to fly to Dubai via Kuala Lumpur and Kuwait.
New Zealand is a country that would definitely appeal to the traveler who wants it nice, comfortable and easy. Everything I saw, and I saw a lot in the short time I was here, is a picture perfect presentation. The people are mostly friendly, considered and helpful. Traffic—even though they drive on the wrong side of the road—is very disciplined. The food, except for what I will describe later about yummy New Zealand lamb chops, is okay. Apart from restaurants that serve certain local food, I found all kinds of international fare. Almost everywhere, one can find Vegemite, or one of this pungent yeasty spread’s close cousins. I learned to love this stuff in Australia, and back home in the States it isn’t easy to find.
Here is a strange thing that mystified me. One of my favorite foods is the tender, but very expensive, New Zealand lamb chop offered in US supermarkets and restaurants. I’d dreamed about stuffing my gut with plenty of them in the land of their origin. Alas, although I saw countless sheep on endless lush, green pastures, and although beautifully dressed chops in stores made me drool with anticipation, actually eating them remained a dream. I just kept drooling. Without a kitchen for preparing them myself, I couldn’t buy any from a butcher. I searched restaurant menus, and they remained consistently absent, everywhere. How could a delicious broiled lamb chop be so elusive in the country of lamb chops?
Back in Auckland, I got a haircut. As is customary in barber chairs the world over, shooting the breeze with the barber, I was related my lamb chop woes.
“We export them all,” he explained.
“All?” I asked, astonished. “There are none to be had in the whole country?”
“Don’t think so, but I’ll find out,” he said, turning to a line of victims sitting in chairs against the wall, waiting to be attacked by his scissors:
“Anyone know of a restaurant in town that serves lamb chops?” he asked.
A long silence ensued.
“Wrong time of year,” one said.
“Nonsense, they have ‘em at the market,” said another. “There is no such thing as a right or wrong season for lamb chops.”
This started a flurry of yes, no, maybe, could be, couldn’t be until the barber moderator interrupted the debate with: “So, none of you knows where this man can get a cooked lamb chop?”
“That place by the entrance to the university might have them. They specialize in roasted meat, even wild boar,” one ventured a guess.
I got directions, went there, and waited for more than an hour for a table before getting a very expensive, New Zealand lamb chop. Lamb chop mission accomplished, for the same price they would have cost me in the Big Apple.

Overall, I must say I enjoyed Fiji more. But, even with balmy breezes, waving palms, turquoise waters lapping at the white sand beaches peopled by newly-divorced Australian ladies, some eager for adventure, it wasn’t great. I want real excitement.
Almost as absurd as the New Zealand lamb chop search, I found the Fiji water joke even more bizarre, a sick joke. Expensive, bottled Fiji water, supposedly purified by volcanic lava, is sold all over the world for ridiculously high prices, a total rip off.
When bottled water snobs the world over made this elixir famous, the well that supplied it could no longer meet demand. So, other wells were drilled and dug all over Fiji pastureland, from where a steady procession of huge, diesel-fume-spewing trucks transport the water to the shipping port in Suva. The cattle farmers are protesting because, by exporting their water, pastures are drying up.
I saw these new Fiji water wells when I drove my rental car over the mountains. On the map, a secondary, dotted-line road led across the heart of the island. Before heading in, I asked a gas station attendant about the road’s condition, and he warned that it would not be passable with my regular passenger car. But, you know me and my thirst for excitement. This only gave me more reason to go.
At first, the gravel road was okay, except for a few spots that had been washed out by a river. A sturdy 4x4 Land Cruiser going in the opposite direction stopped me.
“Where do you think you’re going?” the driver asked.
“To the other side of the island.”
“Got to turn around and take the ring road,” he said.
“I’d like to try the mountain.”
“If you wreck the car nobody will be able to bring it back.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“Good luck,” he said, shrugging, and drove off.
The warnings were a little disconcerting, but I figured my rental car was insured, the distances were not huge, I could always walk out if I needed to, and I was excitement-starved.
The five-hour trip was a blast. The car lost an exhaust pipe, but I arrived on the south side of the island with a big grin and an even bigger hunger. The grin stayed with me for a long time, the hunger was sated in a small and inexpensive Indian restaurant.
A very puzzling thing about Fiji was an almost total absence of agriculture. Although the soil is obviously fertile, to judge from the lush vegetation, apart from inland cattle grazing, most fields lay fallow.
Once, the islands were big sugar cane and grain producers, an Indian cab driver told me, but now, nobody plants anymore. He gave me a convoluted explanation about friction between the native Fijian population and the Indian descendants of indentured laborers brought over by former colonial rulers. Apparently, both sides claim ownership of the land, and as a result, nobody gets to use it. From his rudimentary English, I also gathered the situation was worsened by rampant corruption.
Trouble in paradise!
I send you greetings, and wish you barrels of fun with shoveling snow.
Next news will probably come from Arabia.

All Best,

Dubai. January 23, 2011

Hi y'all,

In this town of unimaginable wealth and hubris, I consider myself lucky to have found a computer that almost works. Just for these few words, I had to backspace five times. The letters on the keyboard are so worn down that, if my fingers weren’t familiar with the layout, I could not write at all. All signs inside this store are in English, not a word in Arabic, which says a lot about who uses these crummy computers. A public cyber café here caters only to the least affluent, imported foreign laborers, and right now, yours truly.
I wasn’t going to write and bore you about the trip again until things got really interesting with stories of African adventures. But, I can’t help myself. I need to share the weird experiences and extraordinary sights of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
We’ve all heard of, read about, seen pictures of this place. I knew about ski lifts in the desert, artificial islands the size of cities, buildings that reach farther into the sky than any other on the planet. And, I assure you the reality is way beyond anything I imagined. The scope of incredible, mind-boggling sizes and decadent opulence is beyond being grasped by casual contemplation.
Dubai does not have a town center. I saw several concentrations of huge architectural dream fantasies, elaborate structures reaching into the sky, most of them empty, unoccupied. These agglomerations are a couple of miles apart from each other, as if oil-rich Ali and a few of his friends had said:
“We don’t want to be in Hassan’s and Moulay’s backyard.”
Then, Mohammed and his friend Sidi said:
“We don’t want to see either of them from our buildings.”
So, Dubai and Abu Dhabi consist of a few city centers on a long Arabian Peninsula beach front, each one out of sight from the others.
At the airport, I still knew nothing about this peculiarity, so I said to the Afghan driver, "Bring me to a medium priced hotel close to the center of town."
At some point during the drive, we passed the Burj Kalifa, the tallest building reaching one kilometer up into the sky.
After settling into a reasonably priced hotel room, I went for a walk, figuring I'd see the tall structure from anywhere and be able to use it to navigate my way back to the hotel. However, no matter how much I searched the horizon from everywhere I went, it was nowhere to be seen.
I found the beach that had to be the location of the fabled seven-star, sail-shaped hotel, but after a couple hours of walking the longest promenade, I never saw it.
The next day, I asked an English-speaking Pakistani taxi driver to show me around town for a couple of hours, “I’d like to get an idea of the layout and see the sights.”
It was totally confusing. When we came to a cluster of fantasy skyscrapers, I thought this must be the center, even though the Burj Kalifa and sail-shaped, helicopter pad-topped hotel were nowhere to be seen. We continued driving for a couple of miles on a road lined by seaside villas and huge properties with jungle-like vegetation peeking over decorative walls, lushness growing in the Arabian desert where it almost never rains.
“They have lagoons, wild animals and golf courses in there,” the taxi driver said.
We drove through four totally separate and massive clusters of skyscrapers that were architectural phantasmagorias. With boarded up entrances, empty parking lots, and an obvious lack of upkeep, many buildings weren’t even occupied. Others were unfinished projects with immobile cranes hanging over the skeletons, and no workmen to be seen. The glut of real estate here didn’t seem to be a problem for the developers. New structures were going up, apparently for no other reason than, “Ali has five of them, so I want six.”
On the palm-shaped island, my driver got lost and had to ask for directions to get back to the far away mainland. He dropped me off at the palatial entrance to the Mall of the Emirates. The place, mainly constructed from polished mosaic marble, attracts shoppers and sightseers with its huge indoor ski slopes.
Okay, I agree, it is ridiculous, but I couldn't resist. I had to hit at least one slope.
Since I was wearing flip-flops, a T-shirt, and a light bush jacket, I had to rent everything—socks, boots, jacket, skis and poles. I felt pretty goofy in the fancy ski jacket with a flip-flop protruding from each pocket.
One ski lift and one gondola bring skiers to the top of the slopes. Midway, there is a stop to let intermediate skiers disembark. I managed only three runs because in my rented outfit I started feeling cold in the machine-made winter climate.
In the evening, I took another taxi from my skyscraper cluster to the one with the Bourj Kalifa. Tickets for mere mortals to get to the top (almost to the top, it turned out) were sold out for the next two days. I paid dearly for a VIP ticket and went up—just because it is there, and so was I. On the visitor’s platform, about a hundred floors above sea level, there was, among a lot of other goodies, a gold bar vending machine.
I can only imagine how many business people come to Dubai for meetings in one of the skyscraper clusters. If they are in the cluster with the marina, they get to see enormous, opulent, shipshape power yachts that most likely never leave the dock. Towering above, are tall, glass, steel and marble buildings, one of which was purposely built to lean at a more precarious angle than the Tower of Pisa. Impressive as it all is, the unsuspecting traveler could assume this is all of Dubai. None of the other skyscraping clusters could be seen from here.
The more I saw of this weird place, the more I believed in my theory about a couple of sheik buddies competing to build the most expensive, most outrageous, most ostentatious, most memorable, most of everything city.

Today, I took a taxi ride (90 minutes, one way) from Dubai to Abu Dhabi.
In Abu Dhabi the private oceanfront estates with mansions peeking out over landscaped forests seem even larger than the ones in Dubai. The town itself didn't have as many sky scrapes, a lack they made up for with mosques. They were everywhere we drove. One with a name I can’t remember was so big that St. Peter's Square, together with its basilica, could probably be accommodated. All the snow-white polished marble downright dwarfed the Taj Mahal. With money clearly not being a problem, it was fitted with intricate mosaic, some even made of precious stones.
Back in Dubai, the driver dropped me off at another of the city’s several malls. Apart from an ice rink, it has one of the world’s biggest indoor aquariums (in which scuba diving lessons and excursions are offered) surrounded by a rainforest zoo. There were enough fish in there to feed all of Dubai for quite some time.
All my information about this strange place comes from cab drivers. They are from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Afghanistan and the Philippines. None have ties to the land or its people, just to the jobs that allow them to send money home to their families.
Here is a short list of wisdom I have acquired:
The average wage for a foreigner in Dubai is about thirty dollars per week, plus board and lodging.
Locals generally don’t work. If they are not chauffeured around, they stroll about in the cool evening air in meticulously ironed, snow-white jellabas, or whatever they call their flowing gowns. During the day, they hole up in their luxurious digs surrounded by servants. A few go to some sort of office from time to time. There is a water park with slides and lazy rivers for rich local kids, brought by their drivers. My Afghan driver said it costs a hundred dollar per person for half a day, way too expensive fort the foreigner salary.
The huge shopping centers exist not as much for locals as for mostly wealthy shoppers from Russia, China, the former Soviet Republics, and even Afghanistan. After all, they need a place to spend all the development money from the US.
Not all shoppers in Dubai are wealthy, and goods are sold tax-free. The inexpensive hotel where I am staying seems to be a hangout for resale shoppers from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Hotdogstan. When they’re ready to leave, they fill the lobby a mountain of bundles, boxes and bags, and the taxis that bring them to the airport are invariably vans.
I am glad I came, even if it is mainly to feel better about not having to live here. Now I know a few more things I don’t want.
Tomorrow morning, I’ll be leaving for Addis Ababa. From there on things will surely change dramatically.

All my best to all of you,

Addis Ababa. January 24, 2011

Hi All,

After being bombarded in the Arabian Gulf region by a weird cacophony of artificial sounds, sights, and impressions, I am back in Africa where I can feel really alive again. Here the sounds, sights and impressions emanate mostly from humans. Although surrounded by unspeakable poverty, dirt, and smells, it feels real.
My lodging is in a guesthouse, a room with a seat-less, cracked toilet.
The leaking crack spreads a smelly flood under my bed. I got one of the "fancy" rooms with a private toilet because, with the urgencies caused by my aging bodily plumbing, it is sometimes difficult to wait for my turn at a communal one. The luxury costs 19 dollars per night, instead of eight for the toilet-less cubicles.

While waiting to board my plane in the Dubai airport, I got into an interesting conversation with a beautiful woman about what I just seen compared to life in her native Kampala, Uganda. Hearing her less-than-glowing impression of her few days here reinforced my own harsh judgment of the Persian Gulf phantasmagoria.
She gave me her card, and said I could stay at her place in Kampala, if I happened to pass through on my journey. She said she'd love to show me around her land. Of course, with her looks and the easy, interesting conversation we had during a casual encounter, I made an urgent mental note to include Uganda on my itinerary, even though Uganda is far off the as-the-crow-flies route.
Our seats on the plane were far apart and I didn’t see her anymore because she, unlike yours truly, didn’t get off the plane in Addis Ababa. She flew on to Kampala.
During the flight, Thomas, an Indian businessman from Addis Ababa sat next to me. Even though he was nowhere near as lovely as my boarding area friend, we talked up a storm. Thomas was intrigued by my plans and offered to show me around Addis, his home and place of business for the last thirty years. He’d been to Dubai on business—import and export—he told me.
A driver picked us up at the airport and after dropping us off at the house, was immediately sent out to buy cold coke.
“I unplugged the fridge while I was gone,” Thomas said.
He sent out a young servant girl out to unload his heavy luggage from the car. I wanted to help, Thomas held me back.
“Can’t do that with servants,” he said.
I must have looked incredulous.
"This is the African way," he said and smiled.
He offered to exchange twenty dollars so I’d have local currency before getting to a bank. He threw a wad of bills from his briefcase on the table and ordered the girl to count out the proper amount and hand it to me.
Then, he offered her to me.
“She can escort you around town. She speaks English,” he said
Super shy and clearly intimidated by my presence, I had noticed how, every time she passed through a door, she crossed herself. She was cute, but the proposition felt awkward, especially when I saw how he dealt with her, and how I was expected to treat the poor girl. I thanked Thomas and declined.
When the driver brought me to the guesthouse I had chosen from the Lonely Planet, Thomas loaned me one of his cell phones.
“Stay in touch,” he said, “I’ll show you the local sights, and then we can go to nightclubs.”

As soon as I was settled in at the guesthouse, I tried to arrange for a round trip to Djibouti, and from there, via Somaliland, a return to Ethiopia.
“Can’t be done,” everyone said.
Ethiopia does not issue visas at land border posts anymore. So, the visa I got upon arrival at the Addis airport would be cancelled when I crossed the border into Djibouti, which meant I could not get back into Ethiopia. Instead, I would have to find a way from Djibouti to Somaliland and then, down to Mogadishu in Somalia, and from there to Kenya. There is no legal way to get to Mogadishu because there is no official government for the region that could issue a visa. Also, nowadays, just about everybody knows that Somalia is not exactly a vacation paradise. Somaliland, though not a recommended destination, has at least some sort of government, and I found out on the backpacker grapevine that I could get a transit visa at the border.
The cyber café near my guesthouse is hard to describe, but I’ll try. First, I must say, it’ll be a miracle if this message gets to you from here. The place, two blocks from my guesthouse, is tucked away in the basement of a dilapidated two-story house. To get in, one climbs down a set of stone stairs that are covered with clothes and rudimentary furniture set out to dry, probably as a result of a flood in the house above.
Then one needs to crouch deep down to pass under a mess of free-hanging electrical wires. The circuit breaker panel, with all the functioning cyber café wires connected to it, lies on the floor. I know the wires are for the computers because I followed them into the space. If it were to flood in here, I imagine everyone computing where I now sit would be electrocuted. The upside is that the computer works better than any I used in affluent Dubai.
I am still searching for a taste of good Ethiopian coffee. The one I had at the guesthouse this morning could not have been the kind that made it world famous.
That is it for now, even though not much has happened yet. I just had to write to tell you all how happy I am to be back in Africa.

All Best to all of you,

Nairobi. January 31, 2011

Hi y'all,

Here I am, already in Nairobi. Sorry I didn’t get to write a lot about Ethiopia. When it started to rain, the cyber café I described earlier became unsafe. When I saw the wires held up by sticks and string over the muddy puddles, a potential death trap, an electric chair without the comfort of sitting down while getting fried, I chose to stay away.
Okay, it is only an excuse. There must have been other computer facilities. I just didn’t look. Fact is, I was so busy discovering Addis that I simply forgot to send a report.
So, here are some of my recollections:
Addis Ababa, about 8,000 feet above sea level, is not hot like most of Africa. But, even though the high altitude keeps the climate reasonably cool, the thin air does not do well with pollution. As I experienced with my old Land Cruiser in the Andes, the thin mountain air makes diesel engines spew black clouds of stinking exhaust. That, and masses of mostly old and dilapidated vehicles, transformed the Addis atmosphere into a dark, smelly murk. Everything you touch is coated with a sticky film of black soot. The lungs didn’t like it either. Even when walking up a short incline—and there are plenty of inclines in this hilly city—I breathed like an old asthmatic.
Thomas, as his name would suggest, was a Christian, and he brought me to an old church in the mountains, a much-visited pilgrimage destination. The faithful approached it across a large foreyard by prostrating themselves on the hard ground every step of the way. I felt sorry for the old people, some who could barely walk, but still tortured themselves, groaning all the way to the inner sanctum. Thomas and I simply walked. Nobody objected.
I think Thomas needed to do the church thing to cleanse his soul before getting into what he had planned for the rest of the evening.
We drove to an obviously poor section of town, and he led me down through some dark shaft into a sort of cave or basement or dungeon. The place was chock full of men sitting shoulder to shoulder on narrow benches, all nursing a type of vase filled with bright yellow liquid. The mass of poorly-dressed drinkers oozed and made way for us to melt into their midst.
“Do you have a strong stomach?” Thomas asked.
“Yeah, guess so,” I said.
“I can’t drink this, it upsets my stomach,” he said, then shouted over the crowd to a man standing by a barrel. He ordered a vase of yellow liquid, a man ladled a scoop into one, and a forest of hands handed it over the sea of heads toward me.
“What is it?” I asked, before tasting.
“A type of honey beer.”
The heads turned my way. In the dim light, I imagined a crowd of anticipating grins saying, “Dare!”
I took a small gulp. It was sickly sweet, not very good, but with a thousand eyes following my every move, I didn’t want to appear like wimp. I drained the whole thing.
This was met with nods of approval. From the direction of the barrel, another full vase came my way, transported by the same forest of hands over the same sea of heads.
I gulped it down, asked Thomas to tell the men I didn’t want any more, tried not to wince, and got up to leave with a smile.
Despite Thomas being decked out in a business suit, white shirt and tie, and I, clearly a foreigner among the local men in work clothes, the grinning faces made me feel welcome.
After the basement visit, Thomas took me for a typical Ethiopian meal.
While lounging on cushions on an earthen floor, a woman placed between us a large brass platter covered with thick, sour-smelling, flat bread. Slapped on it were two heaps—one looked like roasted meat, the other like mixed vegetables. Thomas ripped off some of the bread and, folding it between two fingers, scooped some meat and vegetables on it, then gobbled up the whole lump.
Ethiopian bread is very different from its Indian relative. It is thick, sort of mushy, and very limp, not very suitable to be used as an eating utensil. Sure enough, when I tried to copy Thomas’s moves I ended up with vegetables and meat splattered all over my lap.
The next day, he invited me to the office for lunch, where his staff treated him with great deference, as if he were some kind of royalty. With lots of bowing, hand folding, and frozen smiles, they served an Indian meal that had been brought in from outside—take-out food in Addis Ababa.
“I envy you for your trip,” he said.
I must have agreed enthusiastically, because he said, “I want do it also. What do I need? My wife and children are in India where the kids go to university. I am alone, and like you, I had prostate cancer treatment. All my life, I have done nothing but work. Now I could spare about 600,000 dollars for a trip. Is this is enough?”
“To travel as I do?”
“Yes, the same way.”
 “Is $600,000 enough?” I repeated, laughing. “You’ve got to be kidding. That’s way more than you need.”
He looked dubious.
“Except for plane rides, I expect to spend way less than a thousand dollars a month.”
“You can’t even live in Addis on that,” he said.
“Maybe not your lifestyle, with a car and driver, servants, a big house, fancy clothes, business expenses, and entertaining people like me.”
“How would I start?”
“Buy a Lonely Planet backpacker travel guide for the places you want to go to, pack a little bag and take off.”
“I’ll do it.” He said it with an air of encouraging himself. “You will hear from me.”
Back in my room, navigating around the toilet puddle, I reduced my luggage. From now on, with no more plane rides, I’ll have to lug my stuff around on my back. I made a cleaning woman happy with the gift of a plastic bag full of the things I didn’t absolutely need.

It was still dark and frigid cold at about five in the morning on Thursday, January 30, when I showed up at the Addis Ababa central bus station with a ticket for a regular class bus down to Moyale on the Kenyan border. I had looked into a first class ride, but that route had no first class service.
The bus station was hell. Literally. A thick pulsating horde of people, loaded down with wild assortments of luggage, about a hundred diesel-fume-belching rickety busses, a cacophony of shouts, howls, pushing and shoving from all sides, made deliberate progress impossible.
Pushed around by the masses, I tried to find Bus # 68, the one that, according to my ticket, was supposed to be headed for the Kenyan border. The numbers on the busses were small and written on the sides below the windows, most of them covered by the flipped-up doors of luggage compartments. There was no discernible chronological order. Next to #3 could have been # 89, followed by #26, and then #102. I asked around, but was ignored. Everybody else was frantically searching for their own rides.
Waving a dollar bill, I attracted a man with an official-looking tag on his chest. Plowing through the crowds, he pulled me to bus #68.
Aboard, even though it was supposed to leave right then, there were only five people. I had reasonable legroom and was settling in for the long, two-day ride when someone shouted in through the door in Amharic. My five fellow passengers grabbed their things and rushed out.
A boy, about twenty, informed me in broken English, “This bus no good, we take other.”
I grabbed my pack and pushed again through the maddening crowds, following him. The new bus was really rickety and completely full. More shouting ensued, and with my young guide trying to explain, I understood that our regular class bus didn’t have enough passengers, so now we had to board this second class one—except it was already full. The five of us, without ceremony and lots of yelling and giggling, pushed into the melee.
Everybody laughed, but I didn’t get the joke.
The bus took off with us newcomers standing in the aisle. The seats were very narrow, and legroom was barely enough to accommodate a normal-sized leg. But, incredibly, the seated passengers managed to squeeze closer together to make room for one more person. Me. The others sat on luggage in the aisle. There are advantages to being considered old.
When the sun rose, our rattling box, stuffed as tightly as a sardine can, started heating up. I looked longingly at the closed windows. The pretty lady next to me saw my desperate expression and slid a panel open just a little crack to let in fresh air. Behind her, a man, whose face had been covered by a ski mask, started yelling. Intimidated, the lady closed the window again.
A few others, among them the young man who had brought me to that bus, argued with Mister Ski Mask. Another window opened and a chorus of voices debated the pros and cons of open versus closed windows. My pretty neighbor, in fairly decent English, informed me the discussion was over whether fresh air promoted tuberculosis, or prevented catching it. The preventers seemed to get the upper hand, and the window stayed open. Mister Ski Mask kept protesting.
I expected more arguments, but, instead, everybody laughed.
That scene began hours of fun. When I mockingly fanned myself, window all around opened up wider, accompanied by howling laughter. When others tried to close the windows, it also provoked laughter. Everybody thought it was hilarious when one of the passengers needed a toilet break, but when the bus stopped, everybody poured out and disappeared in the bushes. When a passenger bought fruits through the window from an outside vendor and the bus left before he got the change, more laughter. When we hit a particularly deep pothole that catapulted passengers toward the ceiling, there was high-fiving all around.
To my surprise, a helper of the driver handed the five of us from the regular-class bus the ticket price difference since we now had only a second-class ride.
There was plenty of time for chatting.
We were four people sitting in a row of three small seats, and the lady I was squeezed into was returning to her job in Moyale, on the border, after a holiday with her parents in Addis. She worked as an Ethiopian customs agent.
The young boy who had brought me to the bus, Gameschisa Fida, was trying to reach South Africa, illegally, to work there to support his ailing mother back home. Another man of about thirty, according to his introduction, was an itinerant preacher named Bereket Hintsa. He joined our English-speaking chat group. He, too, was trying to get to South Africa for work. He hoped for a job with missionaries.
I heard a disturbing tale from the two soon-to-be illegal immigrants. From others that had gone before them—brothers, friends, neighbors—they knew how many of the East Africans die along the way. When they cross through the Limpopo region of Mozambique into adjoining Kruger Park in South Africa, a border that is not controlled, many get eaten. The South African government doesn’t police the region because lions in the huge wildlife park have learned that unarmed humans who beat a path through the bush at night are easier prey than swift antelopes. Still, even with that threat hanging over them, so desperate for work, many still attempt to cross that border.
After dark, the bus stopped in a small town. Most passengers disappeared into the night. I’d not eaten or drunk all day so I wouldn’t need toilet breaks and was starving. The two young men, the customs lady, and I, looked for a place. They didn’t want to spend their meager funds on frivolities like food, so I offered to treat them. A copious meal, virtually the same Ethiopian fare I’d had with Thomas in Addis Abbaba, with sodas for my three guests, and beer for me, cost less than two dollars.
The boys wanted to sleep under the bus, but the lady said she knew of a reasonably priced hotel. We went searching for the place in a pitch-dark part of town. Even though I had a flashlight, I stepped into a drainage ditch, which, to judge by the smell of my feet, drained toilets.
My room was $1.80 dollar for the night. It had a comfortable cot, the toilet was a hole in the ground, and the shower was a bucket with water and a ladle. All was reasonably clean.
When we got to the bus at 6:00 a.m., it was chock full of different people, not the ones we had traveled with from Addis. All were young, with nothing but plastic bags for luggage.
“They are also headed to South Africa for work,” the itinerant preacher told me. He explained that, unlike he and Fida, who were going solo, the others were part of a group led by an organizer who herded people down to South Africa for pay.
We had tickets for the bus but no more seats. The driver threw a few of the men out to make room for us.
“Don’t worry about them,” Hintsa said, “they’ll be on the next bus.”
These new passengers were a terse group, and this portion of the trip passed in morose silence.
In Moyale, the customs lady brought us to emigration to facilitate our exit formalities. Then, she took us to her home, a small, rented room, and treated us to an elaborate Ethiopian coffee ceremony. On a large brass platter, she put little plates with nuts and dried fruit, then handed each of us a small mortar and pestle. One was for pounding coffee beans, another for cardamom seed, and the last, for dried herbs. While we pounded, she fired up a little brazier with charcoal, and I sent a kid out to buy some roasted meat from a street vendor.
 The next morning, in the Kenyan office for immigration, Hintsa and Fida were refused permission to enter the country. It seemed as if the immigration officers were inventing complications because they expected a bribe. Completely improvising, I intervened and said they were my servants, that I was responsible for them. They got their immigration stamps.
Very unlike what I expected at an African border crossing, the office was in the middle of nowhere, no houses, stores, money-changers, or touts, to be seen. We walked on the road leading south for about a kilometer and suddenly, were mobbed by hordes.
“You want lodging,”
“Where are you from?”
“Where you want to go?”
“What you want?”
“Change money, good rate. Dollar, Euro, Yen.”
“I’d like transport to Nairobi,” I said to no one in particular.
An indescribable shouting and shoving match ensued. A forest of hands pulled me in all directions.
“Get off me! I’ll look for myself!” I yelled at the top of my voice. I might as well have yelled against a wall.
Even though Africans themselves, my two companions where completely intimidated by the wild scene. Unlike in Ethiopia, where most people look reasonably clean, just about everybody in the screaming mob around us was in filthy rags. The scene seemed completely out of control. A couple of bullies got the upper hand by punching others out of the way. One tried to rip my backpack from me, and I pulled it out of his hands so violently he stumbled to the ground.
We were herded across a dirt-littered, dusty square to a rusty iron box mounted on a truck chassis with blowtorched holes cut out of the sides for windows.
“Nairobi!” someone shouted from within the Mad Max contraption.
I went closer to check it out. Inside, every seat was taken, and from the looks of it, each by more than one person.
“It is full,” I said to no one in particular. A man produced a jerry can and indicated I could sit on it in the aisle. Since I knew the trip to Nairobi would take two days, I walked away.
An elderly man in a relatively clean white jellabia and turban tried to take me aside.
“One of my trucks is going to Nairobi. For forty dollars, you can ride with it.”
“Show me,” I said.
He brought me to a loaded truck. Several people sat in the cab.
“Where would I be?” I said.
“In the cab,” he said.
“With all those people?”
“No.” He ordered people out, and they climbed onto the cargo in back.
“Okay, but my two companions have to come also. They’ll sit on the cargo,” I said.
He held out his hands for the money. For a brief moment I contemplated bargaining, but when I noticed the mob milling around us to offer alternatives, I handed over the forty dollars.
Seated between the driver and me, like an immobile statue, sat a woman fully veiled in black. On rare occasions, when she wasn’t staring straight ahead, I saw eyes through the slit in her facial shroud.
The driver understood and spoke a few English words. I tried to find out when we’d arrive in Nairobi. In two days, he said.

From the backpacker grapevine, I’d heard about the road from the Ethiopian border to Nairobi, how it defies description, how, on some stretches, in comparison, driving on a rocky river bed would feel more comfortable. When we started the drive south in our pretty new truck, all looked perfectly fine. There were a few potholes, but I had seen much worse. After about twenty kilometers, we left that decent gravel road and veered left onto a track in the desert. My pocket compass told me we were heading due east, in the direction of Somalia.
Since, for lack of a common language, I couldn’t really talk with the driver, I just sat in the bouncing seat and wondered what I got myself into. In a billowing dust cloud, we drove all day in a southeasterly direction, through a desiccated, shrubby, semi-desert. Ostriches, giraffes, warthogs, antelopes, and hyenas ran before us. We passed long processions of people hauling huge bundles of old, dripping oilcans on their heads, backs, and on donkeys, traveling incredible distances from the few wells we passed. The crowds waiting for turns at drawing water from these rare well stations were immense, clear signs of a serious drought that had caused village wells to dry.
A few times, the truck stopped to cool off overheated tires, and people in the back complained. They were bruised all over from all the jostling, but were still eager to remain underway in the general direction of their ultimate goal.
I mulled over the possibility that I had become a valuable foreigner who was being delivered to Somalia for ransom demands. Why else, I wondered, would my driver make such a huge detour on the way to Nairobi? Was he, maybe, a smuggler avoiding military road checks on this godforsaken route, because he was bringing supplies to rebels? The cargo on the truck was in bags, and my companions said dried beans were spilling from them. Beans being transported so far over such terrain? The whole thing smelled fishier and fishier.
We stopped for food at a tent in the desert. A little hand-painted sign read: HOTEL AL JAZEERA. Hintsa, Fida, and I had tea and an oily flat bread that looked and smelled like the main ingredient was goat droppings.
At about 10:00 p.m., the driver stopped the truck in the middle of nowhere, got out and walked away. Two men in the back who had been thrown out of the cab when I boarded, the driver’s helpers for tire changes and and shoveling sand from under the wheels when we got stuck, said that he probably went to sleep somewhere.
“When will he be back?” I asked. They shrugged and went to sleep under the truck. Hintsa and Fida joined them.
Afraid to leave the truck that could take off without me, I climbed back into the cab, next to the veiled woman. We exchanged not a word. She fell asleep and sometimes slumped over me. Every time she became aware of that, she bolted upright again. Neither she, nor I, had a restful night. Apart from wondering how to behave with my strange sleeping companion, I was also pasty with sweat and dust.
Around 3:00 a.m., the driver climbed back into the cab and, without a word, or checking to see that everyone was on board, he started the engine and roared off.
Around dawn, we hit an asphalt road. From studying my map of East and South Africa, I guessed it was the one leading from Kismayo in Somalia to Nairobi. My hopes for a rapid trip Nairobi and a luxuriating shower were soon dashed. It turned out progress on this stretch of relatively good road was slower than the road-less passage through the desert. As soon as dawn spread a bit of gray light over the desolate landscape, the country’s pests awoke also — police and armed patrols. Every few kilometers, we were stopped at a roadblock.
The routine was always the same. One of the “control post” dignitaries asked the driver for documents. The driver took a stack of official-looking papers from a dashboard shelf, added a few shilling notes from a stack on his lap, handed everything to the control post dignitary. This man, or sometimes, a woman, rifled through the papers, found the shillings, pocketed them, handed the papers back to the driver, and waved us on to continue to the next control stop, some of which were barely five kilometers further down the road.
In the vicinity of Nairobi, my seat neighbor for two days and one night, the formerly totally voiceless veiled woman, pulled a cell phone from her shroud. She spoke in what I took for an Arabic dialect, then gave directions to the driver, who got off the road. Soon, we were met by a fancy, chauffeur-driven SUV. The woman clambered over me and jumped down from the cab. In parting she said in perfect English, “Bye- bye. It was nice traveling with you.”
 We entered Nairobi, navigating between mountains of garbage and through a terrible slum. The driver stopped somewhere and motioned for me to get out. My companions thought they were near a friend’s house where they planned to stay. I gave the traveling preacher a hundred dollars and the young boy, who had only sixty for the long trip to South Africa, two hundred, and said goodbye.
I stopped a passing car and asked the driver if he could be paid to bring me to the Stanley Hotel. I had read in the Lonely Planet, of course, that this was one of the best in town, the place where Hemingway used to hang out when he wrote Green Hills of Africa (my least favorite of all his books). With the money I’d saved on my budget journey from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, I reasoned, I could splurge a bit. The hotel cost $330 a night, breakfast included — and I don’t recall ever enjoying a shower so much.
I am totally clean now, freshly washed clothes hanging to dry all over the fancy room, with the prospect of getting the latest world news on a big TV, of course, only after I’ve been about town, stretched my legs, had a good meal and my fill of cold beer. I send you all my best, while you probably shovel snow.

Hugs and kisses,

Kampala, Uganda. February 2, 2011

Hi kids and friends,

I just wrote a witty and informative (!) report—my best ever—and just as I was about to click "send," it vanished. The screen went black, the computer rental time had run out. I am not sure I have the patience to go through the whole process again in the present sticky atmospheric heat, but I'll try.
 I arrived here in Kampala yesterday, in a steamy bus (15 hours) from Nairobi. All along the ride, Africa presented itself with its magnificent landscapes. We passed through extensive tea plantations — I wasn’t aware Kenya was a big tea producer. The plantations were not as impressively neat like the ones I have seen in Sri Lanka, Darjeeling and Sikkim, but the uniform worker housing looked almost palatial compared to private dwellings on the roadsides. On some parts of the journey, the indescribable poverty, horrendous disorganization, and hellish pollution density was quite disturbing.
Around midday, the bus stopped at a place with food stalls and toilets. Even though we didn’t have to get back on the bus for forty-five minutes, I was unable to break through the wall of people in front of the food stalls trying to get something to eat.
Despite all that, I feel everywhere the heartwarming friendliness of the people. The upholstery on my bus seat was missing. On the first leg of the trip, a woman lent me a blanket to pad the space between my butt and the split wood. On the second leg, I got a bag full of fabric for the same purpose. Knowing they had an American on the bus, several people pointed out to me when we passed a rural road leading to where Barak Obama’s father came from. Overpopulation shows its ugly face everywhere, but alongside the prevalent misery, I find optimism and curtsy in the most unexpected places.
The Uganda border crossing was uneventful, except later, I found out that I had been overcharged for the visa. I chatted with a guy sharing my seat. We covered all aspects of life while driving alongside Lake Victoria. He told me he works for Uganda water and sewer systems.
"Is Lake Victoria (the largest in Africa) polluted?" I asked.
"No, no, only along the shores. Out in the middle, the water is okay," he said.
 Once in Kampala, of course, I wanted to call the simpatico beautiful woman from Dubai airport that had offered to lodge me and show me around town. No matter how long, intensively, and desperately I searched and rifled through my meager possessions in the crowded bus station, I couldn’t find her card anymore.
Not having made alternative plans about where to stay, I asked a taxi driver from the bus station for a cheap place.
“Any place,” I said. After the long bus ride, I was tired, starving and thirsty. He drove me to a lush mountaintop quite a way out of town.
“You will be safe here,” he said.
The place turned out to be very inexpensive, beautifully located on a hill, overlooking town. But, as soon as I got out of the taxi, I knew something about the place was not quite what I’d expected of a hotel in Kampala. It was a Christian retreat. Very pious-looking people in subdued conversations sat primly in the lobby on quaintly arranged cozy chairs. The preferred beverage was tea.
After the long bus ride, during which I hadn’t dared to eat or drink anything for fear of needing a toilet at an inconvenient time, I tried, unsuccessfully, to get lunch and a beer. They served no beer, and the kitchen was already closed. I was able to buy a pack of dry crackers and a bottle of water to take to my Spartan room. The place was way out of town, too far to go find a store for more substantial fare. I tried to enjoy the crackers but even though I was starving, they still tasted stale. The water was, well, just water.
Next morning, I checked out as soon as I could rouse someone at reception to pay. Luckily, just after I was cleared, a taxi dropped off an early Christian guest. I might have even thought, “Yup, there must be a god.”
I asked the driver to bring me to a guesthouse, a flop house, or a hotel near the bus station, in the middle of life. Upon arrival the previous night, I’d seen milling mobs of people there, eating places and stores. I wanted to be among real people.
My new room was in an inexpensive Indian hotel, $12 per night, with shower and fan. It was dirty compared to the Christian establishment digs but, with signs of (ant) life, I felt at home. Again, I searched for the woman’s card. No luck.
I asked a taxi driver to show me all he considered worth seeing in Kampala, and he drove me around town for about two hours. Afterwards, on foot, while wandering the lively, but pretty dirty streets I discovered absolutely nothing that tempted me to stay any longer. I booked a bus for the following morning to Kigali in Rwanda.
I talk with lots of people. I eat what they eat, drink what they drink, sleep where they sleep and, use the same toilets and showers they use. I learn what troubles them, what pleases them. They tell me their opinion about America, Europe, their world, their work.
Compare this kind of traveling with the experience of a tourist who arrives at, say, Nairobi airport. He/she gets picked up by a hotel coach and driven to a hotel where he/she can eat whatever they'd eat at home. Their room has A/C. They can shower and shit, also just as if they were home. Next morning (if they don' t suffer too much from jet lag), an air-conditioned coach picks them up for a drive to a comfortable wildlife lodge in the “wilderness” where, from a terrace, or a vehicle painted with zebra stripes, they can watch the "wild" animals that are lured in close by bait for photo opportunities. This whole experience has almost nothing to do with real Africa
I’ve already seen several kinds of antelopes and gazelles, warthogs, giraffes, flocks of huge ostriches, hyenas, and a bunch of strange big, black and red running birds. Those animals, out in the bush, are really wild, not ones who gather around salt licks laid out for tourist cameras.
 Tonight I plan to check out Kampala nightlife and tomorrow, I’ll be off to Rwanda to see how the Tutsis and the Hutus are getting along these days.
 I'll stop writing now before the present story decides to disappear from the screen again. I think the last report was better, of course, but impatience has gotten the better of me.

With all my best wishes for you,

Kigali, Rwanda. February 4, 2011

Hi y'all,

Even though way off the direct route between Addis Ababa and Cap Town, I wanted to see what I imagined to be one of the worst-off countries in Africa. In 1994 Rwanda suffered one of the worst genocides in modern history. Remember the film Hotel Rwanda!
Four-fifth of the population was dislocated, many swept into refugee camps in neighboring Tanzania, Uganda, and even Congo. 800,000 people were slaughtered, mostly hacked to pieces by machetes. Because of that horrible recent history, I thought I would see the hordes of physically and mentally wounded all over the country.
I also imagined the same abject poverty, indescribable filth, complete disorganization, chaos, and brazenly oppressive corruption of police and army I’d seen along the way so far. What I had witnessed on the truck journey from the Ethiopian border to Nairobi was déjà vu all over again between Nairobi and Kampala. The bus driver on that route also kept peeling banknotes from a bundle of bills to pay bribes to get past frequent army and police checkpoints. I didn’t care that this was how they conducted business, but the additional hours of being stuck in an overcrowded bus because of the frequent stops, was a royal pain in the butt.
The Kampala to Kigali bus, even though it looked pretty rickety, was a real express ride. Along the way it never stopped to pick up, or let off, passengers. Legroom was reasonable, if you sat at a slant, and for once, there weren’t more passengers than seats. The only stops were for checkpoints where Ugandan shillings were handed over to uniformed officials, or for pee and poop sessions in the bush. During these stops, the more prudish women had to walk substantial distances through the sparse vegetation because the brush was not tall enough to hide them properly from the eyes of other passengers. I never saw anyone bring along either toilet paper, or water jugs, and yet, even after our stops, there were no new odors on the bus.
 We came to a border post in the low mountains between Uganda and Rwanda. As when I got entered the country and got grossly overcharged for the visa, the Ugandan border post was the expected total confusion with all the dirt and disorganized bedlam. The officers were so lethargic they barely moved. They had this annoying habit of flicking their fingers for a document, and I was supposed to guess which one he or she wanted. Passport? Immigration form? Yellow fever vaccination certificate? Money? Actually, I have to take back the reference to money. When it came to that, they could make an exception, be specific, and state a number.
After braving their bureaucracy—they manage to make you feel like a turd—and getting the exit stamp, miraculously without having to pay a bribe, I crossed to the Rwandan side with my Rwandan bus seat neighbor. We'd been chatting during the nine-hour long trip from Kampala, and he was very proud of his country, painting a picture of an African paradise.
The way to the Rwanda border post was about half a kilometer, across a bridge, then up a hill. A neat, clean square opened up before us. Immigration, Emigration, Customs, Custom Cashier, Toilet, Forex, everything was clearly marked. Outside the different offices were waiting areas with benches.
"I told you this is what Rwanda is like," my newfound friend told me proudly when he saw my unbelieving stare and what must have been a gaping jaw.
The officials in neat, clean uniforms were very friendly and efficient. The visa was free (Ethiopia was $50, Kenya was $20, Uganda was officially $60, but they’d charged me $100).With the easy formalities finished in no time, we drove for about 80 kilometers through beautiful agricultural land. Slopes were neatly terraced for irrigation, bottom fields were planted with cotton, tea, and corn, some hills were interspersed with plantings of pineapples and fruit trees. Villages we drove through were spotless with many vegetable plots around the houses. There weren’t even tiny bits of litter alongside the road.
Even though we occasionally saw police and army along the way, none of them stopped us. I could barely believe my eyes when we got to Kigali, a rather large city spread over several hills. The heavy traffic—we arrived at rush hour, around 6:00 p.m.—was orderly and disciplined. The cacophony of honking, so prevalent in other cities, was absent. Red traffic lights had their intended effect: vehicles stopped. At pedestrian crosswalks, pedestrians had priority, and priority was granted to them. Traffic-controlling roundabouts were landscaped with flowers and further decorated by weed-less gravel beds. Curbstones alongside the roads were painted with black and white patterns for better visibility at night. Most roads had sidewalks.
From the bus stop I took a taxi to the Hotel des Milles Collines, famous from the film Hotel Rwanda. I had read that the hotel depicted in the film is somewhere in South Africa, but I wanted to see the real thing. As usual, I had no reservation, and the Hotel des Milles Collines was fully booked. An apologetic receptionist told me they because of the movie, they practically never had vacancies anymore.
OKAPI, the hotel I found not far from Milles Collines, is also in a beautiful setting, overlooking the city. My room has a balcony, a bath with hot water, a mosquito net, a TV with CNN, and it costs $50 per night, breakfast included. Fifty dollars a night is considerably more than I’d been shoveling out for digs on this trip, but after the filthy, ant-populated dive by the bus station in Kampala, I don’t mind splurging a bit. Last night I had an incredibly yummy curry at the hotel restaurant—with a beautiful nighttime view of the city—and washed it down with several bottles of nice, cold, inexpensive beer. Of course, that dinner might not have been such a culinary highlight, nor would the beer have tasted so good, if I had not starved myself all day during the long bus ride.
As I might have mentioned somewhere else in these reports, on days when I travel by bus, I drink or eat nothing in the morning before getting on, and most of the time, nothing all day. This is so as to not get into trouble between pit stops. Some rides have lasted more than twenty hours, and after such abstinence, I am dehydrated and starving.
This is bad.
This is also good.
At journey’s end, whatever I find tastes so wonderful, and I am totally thrilled. It is a feast, a culinary highlight, a celebration. Food on these occasions is so good, that even stuff I would disdain under normal circumstances, tastes delicious. Again, you’d be justified to remind me about hitting myself on the head with a hammer just for the good feeling of when it stops.
“Hey,” I say, “it works.”
 Despite accusations he was responsible for shooting down the airplane that caused the death of Rwanda’s and Burundi’s former presidents, thus precipitating the ensuing genocidal mayhem in both countries, Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s present ruler, who looks on photographs like a shy, skinny kid, has created something extraordinary. From total devastation, in a short time, he created the best-run country in Africa—at least judging by what I have seen so far.
As a casual observer, I noticed a few aspects of Rwandan governance that could help many other countries.
For example: Rwanda has no welfare system. Instead, every citizen is guaranteed at least 100 hours per month of paid government work. This is the kind of infrastructure-related tasks that not many would consider doing unless they really needed the income—cleaning out drainage ditches, painting curbstones as traffic guides, planting, weeding and landscaping roadsides, sweeping and cleaning all public places. People who need to take these jobs to survive have an incentive to find a better one. To judge from countless farm stands, many choose to become small-scale growers selling their crops.
According to my Rwandan bus friend, corruption is minimal. Officially, there is no more difference between Hutus and Tutsis. One of the reasons for Rwanda’s cleanliness is the total absence of the ubiquitous shopping bag, the colorful plastic that decorates most of poor African, Asian, Central and South American landscapes. In Rwanda, it is totally illegal to possess a plastic shopping bag. Shoppers have to bring their own bags, and they may not be made from plastic.
Here, practically at the heart of the African continent, I am writing this report in the neatest, best-organized cyber café I’ve seen since the economically developed world of New Zealand.
 It turns out Rwanda has become a dead end. The only long distance bus connection to a major city is the one to Kampala. In order to head south I’d have to backtrack there. From Kampala, I could get to Arusha at the foot of Kilimanjaro. In Arusha, I’d be able to take a bus down to Dar Es Salaam. The idea doesn’t appeal to me.
If I were to go by bus from Kigali to Tanzania and Malawi, or, if I was totally crazy, through Congo, where my map shows no road heading in the right direction, I'd have to take small, local trips on Dalla Dalla, the overloaded minivans that go from village to village. Worse yet, I heard on the backpacker grapevine that the police and army checkpoints along the roads in Tanzania are even worse than the ones in Uganda and Kenya. These Dalla Dallas go when they are full, which could also mean long waits. I estimate it could easily take me ten days to make less than a 1000 kilometers.
So, I’ve decided to take a flight to Dar Es Salaam. From there, it is a 48-hour train ride to Malawi. I'd still have to take local buses, but for only about a hundred-kilometer ride from the train station in Mbeya in Tanzania to the Malawi border, from where, presumably, long distance busses depart to the interior of the country.
Before beginning this trip, I had decided to avoid places like the Serengeti, the Okavango Delta, and other such African tourist safari spots with luxurious wildlife-viewing lodges, iced cocktails, vehicles painted in zebra stripes. I keep repeating myself, but can’t stress how little I think these Disney World-like tourist spots have to do with the Africa I’d like to explore.
So far, I really love how I am traveling. It has been everything I hoped for. I’ve met lots of local people, eaten, drank, and slept locally, have seen a full spectrum of sights. Everything, from awful to magnificent and some of the tougher moments in between, feels like adventure.
Yeah, yeah. To you all, it probably sounds as if I’m still hitting myself on the head with a hammer. Call me deranged, but I’m loving it. I am not about getting out of my own skin—unless someone does it for me against my will.
From here, in the pleasantly warm climes, I wish you all as much fun as can be gotten by shoveling snow.

All Best,

Nina writes from Geneva. February 4, 2011

Hi Pops,

No snow here. In fact, it is a balmy, sunny 10°C weather, a lovely spring day. I think the US stole our snow.
Do you know that Rwanda is called the Switzerland of Africa, as Kyrgyzstan is called the Switzerland of Central Asia, Bangalore is called the Switzerland of India, and Lebanon is called the Switzerland of the Middle East?
My friend, Dorothea (whom you have met), was based with the ICRC (International Red Cross) in Rwanda for a few years. It was her first posting. At first she was not so happy, but then she liked it.
 That you had to find out about Egypt from CNN, and not from Tony’s emails that keep telling you to go back up north for excitement, is interesting. Are you not reading his e-mails? They are quite funny.
 Tony is right. At the rate you are going, you will be in South Africa way before your booked flight home. What will you do while waiting?
 Sergey (from Kyrgyzstan)), loves South Africa. He went two years ago, and went back again this year. He just drives around the country.

Toodle doo and enjoy,

Kigali. February 5, 2011

Yo Nina—and everybody else.

I attach Nina’s message to this one so you know what I am responding to.

Talking about a balmy February in Geneva? You should try Kigali for balmy. It lies practically under the Equator. By the way, I crossed the Equator already three times during this trip. First time, north to south in a truck between the Ethiopian border and Nairobi; second time, south to north in a bus, between Nairobi and Kampala; third time, north to south, between Kampala and Kigali.
Yeah, I’ve heard about the African Switzerland designation, but I didn't think they had kept the title after the horrors of 1994. Actually, the Swiss association seems to be like a bad omen, not only in Rwanda. Lebanon got trashed and re-trashed several times, once by a civil war, and twice by Israel. Kyrgyzstan just went through a mini civil war with lots of killed, wounded, and displaced people because of ethnic clashing. Wasn’t it the Kyrgyz against Uzbeks? I don’t know of anything bad happening in Bangalore, but with the odds they face, we probably need to cross our fingers for them.
As for the Egyptian upheavals, of course I read Tony's e-mails (and answered them too). I knew stuff was going on, but seeing the pictures on TV is another matter altogether. Over the years, I was several times on Tahir square, and have seen it under normal circumstances. What’s going on now in this tightly controlled society is an eye opener. I hope it turns out well and they will find a peaceful solution. I wish them to be as lucky as Rwanda by ending up with a competent leader like Paul Kagame. There is hope because, so far, it seems a similar situation in Tunisia came to a good conclusion.
As for my speed, I guess you are right. I breezed through quite a few countries in a short time. But, I assure you, I saw and learned more about these countries, their people, customs, culture, and everyday life than a regular tourist who flies in to visit a few sights. As I said before, I live with the people, travel with them, eat and drink with them, talk with them, sometime argue with them (bargaining over prices), sleep where they sleep.
Besides, wasn't it you who suggested I go check out the southern Mozambique coast with its supposedly magnificent beaches for an eventual family get together? Mozambique is not on my intended itinerary. Since I am doing the northern route via Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, pass Livingston and Victoria Falls, then Botswana and maybe, depending on available time, even the Kalahari desert, it really isn’t on my way to anywhere. If I want to also include that, I need time.
Like Sergey, I, too, expect South Africa to be nice. I plan to rent a car in Johannesburg, drive via Swaziland, and maybe Lesotho, to Mozambique to check out those beaches, then zigzag somehow down to Cape Town. That way, in my own car, even though still bumming around and slumming it whenever possible, I’ll be traveling in a lot more comfort than I will have done between Addis Ababa and Johannesburg. I can stop wherever and whenever I like. I can have as much coffee for breakfast as I feel like. I can eat and drink whatever, whenever, wherever. In other words, I’ll luxuriate in total comfort.
Now, after sending off this message, I’ll hire a motorcycle with driver. From the backseat, I plan to look at everything worth seeing while he drives me around town. I can even make him stop if I discover something that warrants closer examination—or looks good to eat.

Be well, you and your family.
Greetings from one of the other Switzerlands


Stone Town, Zanzibar. Tuesday, February 8, 2011 at 8:03 p.m.

Hi y’all,

If things go as planned, sometime next week I'll be in paradise. How come? No, I am not planning to kick the bucket. The assumption is based on a local newspaper article. Last night in Dar Es Salaam, I read that in Malawi, where I plan to be next week, farting in public is punishable with serious jail time. I suppose if a country has no greater problems than that, it must be paradise on earth.
 Getting out of the airport in Dar Es Salaam felt as if I’d stumbled into a steamy boiler room. I instantly turned soggy, as if I had been slapped around with a wet, hot towel. In the sticky heat, I got caked with dirt from swirling clouds of reddish, flying dust.
In bustling downtown, I found the Lonely Planet-recommended Safari Inn, a cheap backpacker guesthouse in a part of the city where, it seems, all of Dar Es Salaam’s street vehicle repair shops are located. Mechanics slathered in engine oil ply their trade in sandy workstations. Masses of people climb over and around heaps of discarded, or ready to be installed, dusty and rusty auto spare parts, engine-less vehicles, puddles of engine oil waste, and food stalls.
After dumping my pack in the room, and chaining it to a plumbing pipe, in desperate need for a beer, I searched throughout the mostly Muslim town. After climbing over mountains of accumulated garbage and around sleeping people, braving peddlers, moneychangers, touts with their offers of organized safari, friendship in exchange for cash, cigarettes, T-shirts of Osama Bin Laden and Barak Obama, I ended up on a rarity in the neighborhood, a real sidewalk. It was even partially tiled and reasonably clean. Progress in my search for beer became more fluid, and my pace quickened.
While looking intently left and right for a sign advertising the sale of the thirst-quenching liquid, I dropped about three feet into a sewage ditch. The beautiful sidewalk had simply ended. Even though I gained a new, rather unpleasant scent, I didn't get much dirtier than I already was, and I had planned to do laundry that evening in the sink in my Safari Inn room. Carpe Diem, I’d said to myself, because I actually had a sink with running water.
But, beer or no beer, I was also hungry. At one place, the whole side of a street was taken up with large grills full of glowing charcoal. Here, the already stifling heat of the town totally defied description. It was infernal.
Heaps of skewered meat—goat? lamb? beef? chicken?—on the blazing grills looked appetizing. That was positive. On the negative side, apart from the stifling heat, the crusty buckets on the dirt floor, from where the cooks took the raw, marinated meat, were, let us say, not spotless.
I sat down at one of the tables in the street, as far away as possible from the extra heat source, got a coke—a coke!—and ordered one of the skewers. The cook asked which one. Anyone, I indicated. All the pieces of meat were so thickly pasted (marinated?) with some yellowish/orange-ish/brownish-colored paste, I had no idea what actually was on the skewer.
As soon as I bit into the thing, it felt like black clouds of smoke came pulsating out from my ears. An infernal fire in my mouth started to incinerate my head from the inside out. As the sole white patron at the crowded street eatery, many curious eyes following my movements, so I didn't dare leave my ordered food, or worse, spit out anything. I didn’t want to appear like a spoiled European or American kid—well, okay, a spoiled European or American old fart.
In denial, totally defying the anticipated following morning’s punishment on the other end of my body when I had to go, I kept chewing. The chunks must have come from a really, really old animal, maybe a cow. No matter how long I chewed, each clump of meat reverted to the same shape it had been before my jaws clamped down on it. It defied all attempts to reduce it to a size I could swallow. It provoked giggling amusement in my fellow meat eaters when I took the Swiss Army knife from my pocket and did to my dinner, while it hung out of my mouth, one side held by teeth the other by one hand, what should have been done by my teeth alone.
My novel eating method brought about a total transformation in the people around me. At first, I’d been just an anonymous foreigner, out of place in their midst. Now, suddenly, I became a buddy.
“Where are you from?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Do you like Dar Es Salaam?” (I lied on that one).
“What do you think of Barak Obama?”
“How long will you stay?”
Everybody wanted to talk with me. I had another coke and jokingly told them I'd rather have a beer. Well, no such thing materialized there, but I was told about a place, not far away, that served it. Sitting, chatting, and laughing, despite a mouth and throat on fire, I started to see Dar Es Salaam and its people through another lens.
When I was about to leave, one of the men said I should not walk alone back to the hotel after dark. He offered to accompany me, but I refused his help with thanks. The warning had some little impact. I didn’t go for a beer even though I now knew where I could get one, and walking home through the unlit streets, I had my Swiss Army knife, with an open blade, hidden in my hand.
Earlier, I’d gotten tickets for the Tanzania to Zambia train. It leaves Dar Es Salaam twice a week. My ticket is for three days from now, Friday. It goes to the vicinity of the Malawi border, a country I need to visit to check out the farting situation.
This morning, I arrived by speedboat from Dar Es Salaam in Stone Town, Zanzibar. This island is a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania. The architecture, some pre-colonial, and some from the times of different European and Arab occupiers, is charming. Many of the old houses here in town, with a World Heritage site designation, are beautifully restored.
Purposely avoiding the tourist safari circuit with souvenir shops and guides is a bit difficult to do here. Zanzibar, at least Stone Town, is the most touristy place I have visited so far. This quaint, mostly Muslim, town is full of souvenir shops, helpful locals who offer to show local sights, sell local stuff (even here, some of the wares say: Made in China), or lead the way to restaurants and hotels, mostly in renovated historical buildings. Beer and wine are readily available, even while muezzins chant for evening prayers from minarets. Obviously, the main industry, tourism, takes precedence over religion.
Tomorrow, I plan to rent a scooter to look around on the rest of the island.
 Now that I have come to the end of this report and all I have to do is click on “send,” I realize I almost forgot to tell of my frustration about yesterday’s mishap in Dar Es Salaam. In a decrepit cyber café, I wrote a nearly identical report to the present one (of course, much better!). Just as I was about to click “send,” the lights went out, the ceiling fans stopped twirling, the computer screen went black, and not a trace of my report was left.
I have so much more confidence in the Zanzibar electrical grid that I even dared to add this appendix.

All Best to all of you,

Dar Es Salaam. February 11, 2011

Hi y'all.

Zanzibar is very beautiful, especially Stone Town. It is so quaint and picturesque, almost as if it had been set up for tourists.
Since I couldn’t help feeling like a tourist anyway, I didn’t even bother looking for a backpacker dive. I took a hotel room with a tiled bathroom, AC, a ceiling fan and a mosquito net over a beautifully carved bedstead. I have mirrors, pillows, and sheets, and from the street, I hear music. I had a delicious fish dinner with a bottle of Chianti, the real Italian McCoy.
The second day in Zanzibar, I rented a scooter, an Indian-made Vespa. The owner took me to the local football field to check out my driving skills before handing over the wheels. While I showed off my scooter driving virtuosity, one of his assistants went to get a Zanzibar driving permit for me. It cost about six dollars.
There was no reason for the scooter owner to question my driving skills because I’ve owned one of the things in the distant past of my life. I have also rented them all over the planet.
Near the road on the way to the ocean side of Zanzibar, where the island’s reputed snow-white beaches are, I saw a hand made sign "Eco-tours in the Lagoon and Forest.” I drove on a narrow trail into the woods where I found the “Reception”, a decrepit shack. A teenage boy, the manager, explained they like to make some money for the villagers by showing visitors the local medicinal plants in the woods and the lagoon. A man sitting in the shade nodded agreement.
I gave the teenaged manager the requested $10, and the man who had nodded agreement got up and led me off towards the forest’s edge.
The “Eco-tour in the Lagoon and the Forest” started out with long, sweat-drenched hike on a faint trail. Along the way, I was made to taste, chew-then-spit-out, rub-in, smell, squash and squeeze, all sorts of plants, all with a promised useful purpose. I was supposedly cured of toothache, now and in the future, bellyaches, birthing pains, coughs, arthritis, and other ailments I never heard of before. We also ate a bunch of non-medicinal things like mango and coconut. I tried new nuts and fruit—one, a dark berry, is called the children keeper.
“When you want your children to stay put and behave,” my shaman guide said, “you simply leave them next to one of these bushes. They will be eating berries until you pick them up again.”
The man sounded really knowledgeable. He was missing an ear, but wouldn't tell me how he lost it. After that introduction to natural living, Zanzibar style, I continued on the road to the beaches. Once, flying full speed over an unmarked speed mogul, I must have looked like an acrobatic snowboarder. At three police checkpoints, I was stopped for document control. All the officers were courteous, none asked for money.
The famous Zanzibar snow-white beaches were a total letdown. Yes, they are white, but with the flat shore, at low tide, the water receded out so far, you could barely see it across the exposed rough coral-covered ground. Even if you wanted to go out to the water’s edge, it is virtually impossible to walk on that ugly, rubbled, coral cemetery. The planned, refreshing swim in a turquoise lagoon had to be put off, at least until I found such a place that was accessible.
On my way back to Stone Town, on a badly pot-holed part of the road, a motorcycle in front of me swerved to avoid a particularly deep one. I was going to follow suit, but a bus behind me honked, presumably warning me that he was overtaking. I had no choice but to go for the pothole, as I had already done many times before.
Well, that pothole was just too deep for the small wheels of my scooter. The front wheel got stuck, and I did what snowboarders do routinely—propel to a somersault. Only difference is, instead of using a snowboard, I did it with the scooter, and instead of landing on snow, I came down on potholed asphalt.
A bit dizzy, I gathered myself, pulled off to the roadside, and noticed profuse bleeding from my right foot, and blood dripping down over my face from the direction of my right eye. I also had some pain in the chest, but I felt lucky that the overtaking bus had not run me over.
A young man in work-stained overalls came to my assistance. When I mumbled something about driving the not-badly-damaged scooter back to Stone Town, he said that under no circumstances should I try to do so. A puddle of blood from my face was forming around my feet. I reluctantly agreed with the man.
I gave him the phone number of the scooter rental. Handily enough, just about everybody in Zanzibar has a cell phone. He called the scooter man and made an appointment to meet at an emergency medical center. He drove me there on the scooter.
The scooter renter and his assistant were there upon our arrival, and at the medical center reception, I was told they couldn't do anything for my wound before the accident had been reported to the police. So, the scooter renter and my rescuer drove me to the hospital.
“If you say it was a vehicle accident,” the scooter man said, “you have to have a police report before they treat you.”
“I fell onto a coral at the beach,” I said at the hospital reception.
After a long, bloody and sweat-drenched wait, a doctor took a look at my wound and said that he couldn't do anything. With a hole in the eye, I’d have to go to a hospital in Dar Es Salaam. He gave me the address.
 There was no boat to Dar Es Salaam that evening, and I spent a horrible night in my beautiful hotel room. The pain was almost unbearable, but all I had was aspirin, which I was reluctant to take; as a blood thinner, it could exacerbate the already profuse bleeding. But, the pain worsened, and in desperation, I took two aspirins anyway.
At one point during the night, it felt as if a dagger had been stuck into the wounded eye. I ran to the bathroom mirror to see what happened, and saw the inside of the eye pushing out through the hole. It was sort of hanging over my cheek, a bloody gob. The blood just kept coming, pulsing out. I got my camera and tried to take a picture of my departing eye in the mirror.
Afterwards, I placed a wad of toilet paper over the whole mess, let it completely soak up with blood, then stood under the fan to help it dry and seal the area, staunching the flow. It worked.
Early the following morning, after a painful and sleepless night, I shocked the hotel reception people at check out with my blood-smeared face and clothes. The clerk took my money, reluctantly. On the ferry, even though I had a second-class ticket, I went to first class. Nobody stopped me.
In Dar Es Salaam, I took a taxi to the hospital the Zanzibar doctor had recommended. The place, a couple of downtown bungalows, was a mess, gads of people pressing in many slow-moving lines toward reception. I was in pain, didn't know in which line to stand, and had to pull my luggage along. I think my bloody face eventually opened a path to the desk, where I was told that the eye doctor would not be in until 2:00 p.m. My watch said 9:00 a.m.
I told a taxi driver to bring me to a good hotel. He suggested all kinds of multi-star hotels, and one name rang a familiar bell: Mövenpick. I knew this to be an upscale Swiss hotel and restaurant chain.
At the Dar Es Salaam Mövenpick reception, my blood-stained arrival caused quite a stir. When I told them why I was there, they became super solicitous. The manager was called, and I was offered any and all assistance. I asked for a room and a good hospital.
The hotel driver brought me to one, called CCBRT, It was a bit out of town and, like the first one, was also made up of a collection of bungalows. But, in this one, the lines weren’t so long.
The triage doctor took one quick look and said the eye had to come out immediately, before the good eye had a sympathetic (?) reaction.
“It could blind the other eye also,” he warned.
“Should I, maybe, get another opinion?” I asked.
“There is no other option. The eye is punctured and has already fallen out. It needs to be disconnected from the socket,” he said.
“Okay,” I said, “take it out.”
 This triage doctor was not the surgeon. Before the operation, I had to pay the bill, US $70. In case I found it too expensive, I was told the medication was included in the price. (Later, I googled, and found out it would have cost me $30,000 in the US, medication probably not included.)
After paying the bill, I got a hospital gown, so small, it fit like a second skin. I thought I'd never be able to take it off again. The surgeon, Dr. Moonga, was waiting in the tiny, but clean-looking, operating room. He seemed to be in his mid-twenties. He told me he was from Zambia. A nurse injected local anesthesia in the eye area, and he got right to work. In pretty rudimentary English, he said it was high time the eye came out.
During the operation, for which I had only local anesthesia, we talked about all sorts of things—how I liked Africa, what I thought about the demonstrations in Cairo; of course, President Barak Obama came up.
As with everywhere else in the region, as soon as I said I was American, I became everybody's friend. I’d already heard plenty of comments like: “We thought you Americans are racist. Now we know that you are not.”
What a difference from when, a few years ago, I had a hernia operation in Uruguay. Then, during the operation with local anesthesia, we talked about another US president, George W. Bush. The doctors had asked how we could have elected such an idiot.
“I'll also stitch the gash on your eyebrow,” doctor Moonga said.
“Don't bother,” I said. “I like scars.”
“Exposed bone won't heal too well,” he warned.
“Okay then, stitch it.” I said.
 Back at the hotel, I found out that not all Dar Es Salaam is as I described it in the previous e-mail. The Mövenpick is in an orderly, rather clean, part of town. Set in a park, it has a restaurant, bar, swimming pool, gym, business center (where I write this message), a beautiful breakfast buffet, and a very helpful staff.
The night following the operation, I was in pain. I called reception to ask if someone could get me some medication. A man appeared at my door and inquired exactly what it was that I wanted.
“Strong painkiller,” I said, and gave him a twenty-dollar bill.
An hour later he was back with ten pills. With no idea what they were, but anxious to do something about the pain, I ate one. Wow!
Now I understand how people can get addicted to the stuff. The pain was still there, but it had somehow become pleasant, even felt good. I felt warm and cozy all over. I started hugging pillows. During the night, I took a few of those magic things and felt wonderful.
Clear-headed again in the morning, with diminished pain, I had to seriously restrain myself from the temptation to take more of the little miracle pills. I wondered and worried about how long it might take to become addicted. I couldn’t even google them, because I didn’t know what they were.
 Now, I understand how a businessperson, or a tourist, staying in a first class hotel like the Mövenpick will come away from a town like Dar Es Salaam with a totally different impression from the traveler who hangs out in backpacker's digs in the cheapest part of town.
Even though what the budget traveler sees and experiences is closer to the local reality, right now I am very happy to be at the beautiful, clean and comfortable Mövenpick. Saturday morning, I'll be going back to Doctor Moonga to check on the healing progress of the place where the eye used to be. Depending on what he says, I'll either continue the journey, or take a flight back to Switzerland, London, or New York.
 Taking everything that has happened into consideration, I have to consider myself really lucky. The lost eye was blind before the accident. Now, apart from the pain and open wound in the empty socket, not much has changed. I lost some weight (as was my wish), albeit only the weight of the eye. Presumably, the lost blood has been already replaced by the body’s metabolic conversion of beer and wholesome food.
After the operation, I had asked Doctor Moonga if I could have a last look at my eye. He fished it out of the garbage can next to the operating table, a maroon, jelly-like gob, the size of a small plum.
“You want it as a souvenir?” he asked.
“Good riddance,” I said.

All best from your lucky,

Dar Es Salaam. Saturday, February 12, 2011

Hi kids and friends,

Clean bill of health! I just came back from a check-up at the hospital where, two days ago, they took out the right eye. I have no infection, no inflammation, no problem, except, of course, it looks like shit.
Two doctors, the surgeon, Doctor Moonga, who took out the eye, and the chief of the clinic, assured me there is no more risk of my empty eye socket affecting the vision of the other good eye. They gave me an antibiotic and an anti-inflammatory ointment that I have to squeeze three times a day into the space where they eye used to be. I can now wash the face and take showers. I am greatly looking forward to both.
I just got an email from Jade’s Nick in London. He is arriving tonight to assist me. Although I don’t think I need help, I am very touched by the fact that he is coming all the way from London.
Without the email, I might have missed him when he arrived, because I planned to go out on the town tonight to celebrate my luck. I still can’t believe my good fortune, that the bad eye came out and I have no other wounds. The scrapes on feet, knees, and eyebrow are healing so fast they don’t bother me at all. The chest, probably a broken rib is just an annoyance. From all I know, there is nothing one can do about broken ribs, anyway.
Cool. Now, Nick and I can celebrate together. Maybe we’ll find the place in my old neighborhood where my fellow street diners told me they sell beer.
After having missed the train the first time around, today I am getting another ticket for the train to Malawi, the no-fart country, leaving next Tuesday. This means I’ll have Saturday and Sunday for celebrating the functioning good eye with Nick. Monday, I can relax before the long train ride.
At the hospital I asked for eye patches. They don’t have any. It would be a bummer if I can’t find them in town. I won’t be able to enjoy the expected benefits of a pirate look. I’m going to look for some this afternoon.
If I get a chance, I’ll write again this evening, before Nick gets here.

All Best,

Saturday evening, February 12, 2011

Continuation of this morning’s message . . .

After a searing, hot stroll in town I can add … and loony one-eyed dudes … to the Noel Coward lyrics: Only mad dogs and Englishmen are out in the tropical midday sun.
Dar Es Salaam is tropical, the walk straddled midday, the sun was out, and I am not an Englishman.
The search for an eye patch took sweat-drenched hours of walking the dusty streets from pharmacy to pharmacy. In each store, the staff was as courteous and as helpful as they could be, once they saw my bloody gauze taped to the face. Again and again, I was re-directed to a next pharmacy that might have one. Eventually, I found a sorry-looking plastic thing. I bought two to last until Cape Town.
 Thanks to the many of you who emailed, concerned about my tribulations. Now that the doctor has given me a clean bill of health, I can assure you all, there is absolutely nothing to worry about.
I was lucky to lose the bad eye and that good one is not affected, but there are also some other groovy benefits coming with the situation. How many people can walk around with a black patch across the face and say they lost an eye in exotic Zanzibar?
My brother, Kurt, suggested I blame it on a lion or rhino attack in the bush. “There are no witnesses,” he wrote, “you can say whatever you like.”
I think the Zanzibar story sounds even better. After all, what is any self-respecting pirate doing with lions and rhinos—in the bush, no less? Plus, attempting a scooter somersault is not something just anyone can do.
 Last night, with no pain, thanks to the miracle pills, I spent the evening at a barbecue in the hotel's park. A sumptuous buffet was laid out, an orchestra played local music, a local group performed for us.
Four fellows banged diligently on bongos, and about ten men and women in “traditional” outfits danced. As they jumped around, one could see spandex bicycle shorts with company logos peeking out from under the straw skirts. For another war dance, they wore synthetic fabric leopard print outfits. Even though it looked cheesy, I was glad they weren’t real leopard skins. Once more, I appreciated that on my journey, I was not only seeing that side of Africa.
 The next report, if I find a cyber café with working computers, will probably come from somewhere in Malawi.

All Best to all of you,

Nkhata Bay, Malawi. February 20, 2011

Hi y'all,

Nick, my cool son in law, and I had a really good time in Dar Es Salaam. Sunday night, he returned to London without me. Even though I didn’t need assistance, I very much appreciated the effort made to ensure my wellbeing. The way I understand it, when they found out about my eye problem, the family decided collectively that Nick would have the best chance to talk me into abandoning the journey and returning home.
Ah well!
Apart from the readily available ones at the hotel, we found beer in the Muslim town at the place my fellow street diners had told me about before my trip to Zanzibar. No outside sign at the hole in a wall advertised what could be found within. Without the precise description I’d received during my spicy street barbeque, I would never have found it.
Sitting on rickety plastic chairs, with beer bottles in hand, looking around in the cheap, dark, dilapidated establishment, we realized we were in a cathouse. All the patrons were men. Some disappeared and re-emerged furtively from a door near our chairs. While we sat drinking, apparently there was a shift change. Two veiled women came in, and a little later, two other veiled women left. It made sense, in a heavily Muslim town, to concentrate all the sinful activities—alcohol and prostitution—in one place.
 The train, Tazara (Tanzania-Zambia-Train), from Dar Es Salaam to Mbeya, the town along the track closest to the border with Malawi was quite comfortable, fast, and reasonably clean. Not Swiss train clean or French TGV fast, but compared to the other African train I know, the one from Bamako in Mali to Dakar in Senegal, it felt luxurious.
While waiting to board in the crowded, somewhat fancy train station (a gift from China to Tanzania), a large group was doing a war dance, accompanied by the traditional music of an even bigger group. The performance was vastly more impressive and entertaining than the one I had seen at the expensive five-star Mövenpick.
I met a bunch of really nice people on the long train ride. A good part of the journey was a multi-compartment party with beer, boasting, storytelling and laughs. One of the party compartments was filled with Peace Corps people returning to Zambia from R&R in Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar.  From them, I found out that an impressive international music festival, a real fun, all-night party, was happening in Stone Town, near to where I lost the eye.
With no mirror to do it myself, I looked for someone who could help medicate and dress my empty eye socket. One of the American Peace Corps volunteers, a beautiful woman stationed in a small Zambian village, came to my aid. She expertly cleaned and bandaged the wound, better than the hospital’s operating room nurse had done.
During a break from the beer party and eye dressing, I returned to my compartment and found two young men sitting on the bunk, under which I had chained my backpack to the luggage rack. For a little bribe, the conductor had brought them from the overcrowded second class carriage to my four-bunk compartment, which I had to myself.
Nick, is an olive farmer from South Africa, and Tom, a free spirit from France who normally lives and works in Barcelona as an IT specialist. They, like I, were bumming around on the cheap in East Africa, and had just been to the music festival in Zanzibar. When they heard about my journey and the recent operation, they immediately decided to become nursemaids to the old guy. They started to take tender care of me, as if I were a helpless cripple.
 At the Mbeya train station, the closest to the Malawi border, we disembarked and . . . got royally screwed. A man who spoke pretty good English offered to arrange a direct bus ride to the border for us, and then, assistance with the border crossing formalities. On the Malawi side, he said, he would get us on another direct bus to the closest town, where we could board a long-distance bus to Nkhata Bay on the shores of Lake Malawi, the place where we wanted to go. Nick and Tom had heard Nkhata Bay was the coolest place in Malawi. The pretty nurse, who’d taken care of my eye on the train, had also recommended it.           
The travel facilitator dude transported us into town and to a bus stop. He shepherded us into what looked like a Dalla Dalla, the minibus-horror that stops everywhere along the road to pick up or drop off passengers, regardless of how full the vehicle already is.
“Thought you’d get us a bus,” Tom said.
"Don't worry, this is not a Dalla Dalla, it goes direct to the border.”
“Give me the money now so I can arrange it all,” the facilitator said.
The whole thing smelled a bit fishy to me. How was this guy going to negotiate a ride for us on the other side of the border, 120 kilometers away?
Tom offered to do the negotiating. “I know how to deal with these kinds of people.”
Nick and I handed him fifteen dollars each.
He had a serious chat with our facilitator, seemed reassured, and handed him $45. The dude pocketed the bills and disappeared from our bus.
As it turned out, our transport was a regular Dalla Dalla. Our middleman had paid the driver, but the fare could not have cost more than a dollar each.
During the whole long trip, there was a chicken on my lap. When I boarded and found it in a plastic bag beneath my feet, I’d merely felt sorry for it, never dreaming a chicken on my lap would turn out to be a blessing. At some point during the trip, every seat had at least two occupants, one sitting on the lap of another. Nobody sat on my chicken.
It totally defies description, how so many people can be squeezed into such a vehicle. We would be full, over full, totally full, when the driver would stop for another half dozen people along the road, all with bags, bundles, buckets, and parcels. To judge from odors, and the proximity of Lake Malawi, much of the luggage contained fish, clearly the local staple.
Try to imagine a minibus with nine seats filled by twenty or so, mostly unwashed bodies, sweating in the stifling humid heat, with buckets of "fresh" and smoked fish, squawking chickens, and screaming kids squeezed on laps between luggage and bundles on women's backs.
The 120-kilometer trip took about four, very uncomfortable hours. Tom, who had negotiated with our trip facilitator, was crushed. He almost melted with shame for having been suckered by a hustler. He tried to reimburse Nick and me, but we assured him the same thing would have happened to us.
By the time we got to the Dalla Dalla’s terminus near the border, we still had to walk for about half a mile to get to the official border post. The Tanzanian emigration official checked us out of the country and said that we'd really have to hurry to get to Malawi immigration because they were closing in five minutes. Soaked in sweat, we ran with our backpacks. Tom offered to carry mine, but I wouldn’t let him.
Despite our efforts, it turned out to be impossible, pack or no pack, to cross that half-mile of no-man's land in five minutes. The border was closed.
With my clothes filthy from the long train ride, totally soaked from running from the Dalla Dalla to the Tanzanian border, and then across no-man's land to the Malawi border post, I felt, to say the least, uncomfortable. With no chance to wash up, barely able to sleep, I had been traveling for 31 hours by train, Dalla Dalla and foot, from Dar Es Salaam to that piece of no-mans land between Tanzania and Malawi. My eye socket hurt like hell
We prepared to spend a miserable, wet night near the border post. While I was stringing up my hammock between two crumbling concrete pillars, and my travel companions were preparing to lay out their ground sheet on some mud, a uniformed border agent asked what we were doing.
"Spending the night here until morning, when we can check into Malawi," we explained.
"There is a hotel on the other side of the border," he said.
"We haven’t checked into Malawi, yet," we said.
"Never mind. Go there, and come back tomorrow morning for the entry formalities," he said.
Accustomed to the prevailing African attitude for sticking to bureaucratic bull, no matter how insignificant the problem, I could barely believe my ears. The man, in the uniform of a border officer, even walked us a long distance to the hotel in the pitch, dark night.
The hotel was a "hotel" only in name. We entered a corridor with crude wooden, latch-less doors on both sides, each leading to a tiny cubicle with a bed, a mosquito net, and a fan. The toilet in the back of the house—a hole in the ground—and the shower—a bucket of murky water—were enveloped in clouds of mosquitoes. I gave the immigration man, who’d brought us there without asking for payment, a royal tip of five dollars. This is probably more than he makes in a week, and it is definitely twice the price of one night of accommodation per person.
No matter how disgusting and uncomfortable it was, I washed up in the water bucket. I also washed my clothes then hung them under the fan to dry. Last, I tried to take care of the eye socket.
It seems almost impossible to imagine, but that night turned out to be one of my most satisfactory, restful ones. Dry again, the pain in the eye taken care of with one of the groovy pain killers, a clean bandage applied, I turned and turned on the rather dirty sheet in total bliss, enjoying it so much I didn’t want to go to sleep.
Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking again. This is one of those: If you hit yourself over the head with a hammer long enough ….
 In the morning, back at the border, we found that bureaucrats will be bureaucrats, despite what the nice officer had said the previous evening.
"Can't check you in today because you checked out of Tanzania yesterday," another immigration official in a clean uniform informed us.
“What can we do?” I said, and explained the situation.
"You have to go back to Tanzania and check out again.”
“Our Tanzanian visa is cancelled.”
The officer shrugged.
All three of us knew how futile it is to argue with bureaucrats. We started the half-mile walk back through the no-man's land towards Tanzania. It started to rain. The immigration man who had refused to let us into Malawi, called us back. Without a word, he took our passports, crossed out the Tanzanian stamp and wrote in the current date with a ballpoint pen.
"Welcome to Malawi," he said.
The taxi to the next town where we hoped to catch a long distance bus was a regular station wagon, but even that turned out to be functioning as a Dalla Dalla. Before we left, was stuffed way over capacity. Two fellow passengers, a man and a woman, said they were escaping assassins from Burundi.
“We have only fake papers,” they said, “had to leave in a big hurry.”
Another passenger carried three bibles under his arm, one in French, one in Swahili, and one in English.
At the first checkpoint the officers had a field day with these three, accusing them of entering Malawi to profit from international aid. Facilitated by dollar bills slipped into open hands, they were cleared.
Our passports were checked, and the scribbled-in exit dates from Tanzania were discovered.
"You committed fraud. It is illegal to change passport entries," the officer said. “I cannot let you continue with these."
He showed the passports to the other uniforms. All nodded gravely. The expected response was, of course, to hand over money, but I was encouraged by how things had gone at the border.
"You have to take that up with the officers at the border,” I said.
The uniforms looked at me as if I were dirt.
“The immigration people at the border are a real credit to Malawi. They are friendly, kind and understanding." I said. "You’d have to accuse them of fraud because they changed the date."
I explained what had happened, the uniform handed back our passports, and wished us a pleasant journey.
 When we got to town the daily long distance bus had already let. But, of course, there were lots of Dalla Dalla. Again, this time without a chicken on my lap, we dealt for hours with "fresh" and smoked fish, countless bundles, buckets, and bags, with people on our laps and endless stop and go, stop and go. People got on, people got off. Ever once in a while, someone got on and, when he or she saw us foreigners, decided to practice English. These were the trip highlights, giving me a little insight into the lives of local people.
After seven hours of (mild) torture, we arrived at the town closest to Nkhata Bay (I forgot the name and don't have a map with me). We had to get some local money. In the bustling town center, at the Dalla Dalla station, we had to trust someone to lead us to a bank, then help find a taxi to bring us to Nkhata Bay.
Apprehensive to ask for local help after our Tanzania huckster rip-off, we lucked out. Tom found a good man. Still smarting from having been played for a sucker, he’d said, “You have to find the man, and not let the man find you.”
The new guide led us through a labyrinth of crowded tiny alleys to a bank. When it turned out that they had no money to change, he found us one that did. He even carried my pack. I was really happy to give it up because it meant I wouldn't once again be drenched in sweat for the remainder of the journey.
Tom complained. "How come you would not let me carry your pack when we walked to the border but you let this man?" he asked.
"He doesn't have a backpack of his own, and you do," I said.
Everything our new guide said and did turned out to be as promised. He even found me a desperately needed toilet, not an easy feat for the uninitiated in Manhattan, and infinitely more of a challenge in a small African town. Then he brought us to his “brother’s” car for the drive to Nkhata Bay.
“He'll go direct, no other passengers along the way,” he promised.
And so it was.
Before leaving, I bought a bunch of bananas from a woman street vendor. I had not eaten anything since noon the previous day and the prospect of traveling in a private car meant I could request a stop along the way, if necessary. Our guide’s brother, as promised, didn’t pick up anyone else along the way, and raced toward our destination as if trying for a speed record. I marveled and appreciated how skillful he was in avoiding the frequent potholes.
 At first glance, Mayoka Village, a Lonely Planet recommendation in Nkhata Bay, looked like a paradise. On the shore of Lake Malawi, quaint bungalows dotted the mountainside. To get from town to the backpacker guesthouses in Mayoka Village, we walked on a slippery trail along the lake. Bungalows constructed from reed, hid in the lush greenery, clinging to the slopes. Down at the pebbled water’s edge was a bar/restaurant, and a couple of dugout canoes bobbed on the gentle surf. Wow! All the three of us felt the same way.
“Sorry, we’re full,” said the receptionist.
Disappointed, we plopped down at the bar for a beer and a reconnoitering. A woman, who turned out to be the South African owner of the lodge, came up to us and said. “We might be able to arrange something if you don’t mind some hassle.”
“What kind of hassle?” Tom asked.
“You’d have to move out tomorrow. Tonight, I have two cots in a twelve-room dorm, and one bungalow. They are vacant for just today. However, people are always leaving so, tomorrow, we might find something else.”
“We’ll take it,” Tom said.
The dorm beds were five dollars a night, and the bungalow, with attached bathroom, twenty. I splurged on the $20 digs.
That evening, we celebrated. The next morning, we had buzzing heads, but Tom was particularly sick. It wasn’t the hangover that bothered him as much the realization that he’d had unprotected sex with a Malawi woman. We all knew that Malawi has the highest AIDS infection rate of all countries in the world. Nick and I commiserated with him and considered ourselves lucky for not having gotten “lucky” during the celebration.
What exactly did we celebrate?
Oh, yeah, the fact that we were in Nkhata Bay and had no need to get into a Dalla Dalla for a while!
The next day, Nick and Tom got into a dorm room with only four cots for $6, and I moved into a reed hut right over the water for twelve dollars. My lodging didn't have a toilet or a shower. For the shower, I had to climb up a steep mountain trail, and the composting toilet was up even higher. But, I was able to take proper care of the eye socket because, in the morning, they supply hot water in the bathroom, heated outside in a barrel over a wood fire.
This Mayoka Village is the nicest place I’ve found so far in East Africa. Evenings, anyone who wants to participate jumps into a wooden boat with an outboard motor, plenty of beer, and a couple bottles of wine. Out on the lake, reputedly the world’s deepest, we swim, sing, and throw each other overboard. Back at the bar, everyone pays what he or she thought they consumed. Nobody is counting. For food, one can choose between African and European, all is tasty and inexpensive, the ambiance is happy-go-lucky. Most of the guests are East African volunteer workers—NGO, Peace Corps, etc.—on R&R in Malawi. European, American, Australian, South African, they come from all over.
I’ve had plenty of chances to try out my “lost an eye in Zanzibar” story. It’s a hit that might work in all kinds of situations, pick-up lines in SoHo, for example.
Yesterday, after a long, sweaty hike to town, I found a shoemaker tucked into a little cubbyhole of a deserted house. I had a hard time explaining the kind of eye patch I wanted. The plastic one from Dar Es Salaam, with all the sweating, disintegrated. Eventually, the shoemaker got the drift about my wish, picked from a pile of discarded shoes a black one and tried to cut out the shape of an eye patch. His blade was so dull I lent him my sharp Swiss Army knife for the task.
He was not a very skilled, and the patch looked like shit. For holding it in place, he stitched together two old and frayed shoelaces, then had the nerve to charge me two dollars. I’d heard one dollar is the average daily wage in Malawi, and the shoemaker had worked on my patch a maximum of twenty minutes. Of course I didn’t bargain with him. Those two bucks surely gave him more happiness than they’d ever give me.
I have been in Nkhata Bay for three days. Tomorrow, probably with Nick and Tom, who have decided I need their assistance, I’ll head south and west, in the general direction of Livingston, by Victoria Falls. I’ll probably visit Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. I hope to find long distance busses wherever I go because I had my fill of Dalla Dalla.
I feel lucky to have come this far with the report. The risk of losing it all is real, either by blackout, malfunctioning computer, or lion attack.
Once, while writing this report, I hit "backspace," and everything I had written, vanished. Luckily, the owner of this very rudimentary cyber cafe, a German, knows something about computers. He retrieved it all with a couple of clicks.

All best from sweaty,

February 18, 2011

Jeri sent me an e-mail. I have been notified that my driver’s license expires on March 25.

Livingston, Zambia. February 24, 2011

Hi y'all,

Once again, I have been assured of the rewards gained from traveling by local means: bus, train, Dalla Dalla, motorcycle, taxi, rented vehicle. The traveler comes close to living like locals. He eats the same as his fellow travelers, often fare that mobs of children and woman sell around the bus whenever it stops. He suffers the same, enjoys the same, and sees the land from the perspective of a local.
It might not be comfortable but for that, I could stay in home, either in the Big Apple or on my farm in Vermont, with TV, AC, central heat, comfy couch, wireless internet connection on my familiar computer, eat in clean sushi restaurants, stuff myself with Chinese, French, and Italian food, hang out with familiar friends, daughters, son, grandkids who, I think, love me. I can drive my own car/truck, and, if I choose, have an automatic garage door opener to facilitate life even more. For vacation, I could visit daughters and grandkids in London and Geneva, my brothers in the mountains of Switzerland to play cards and eat nostalgia food, or hang out on a tropical beach with yummy drinks, fly for dinner to Paris, or lounge around and be pampered by beautiful women in Bali, Thailand, Cuba, or Manila.
Something Paulo Coelho once wrote comes to mind: Si vous pensez que l’aventure est dangereuse, essayez la routine . . . elle est mortelle.
Loosely translated this means: If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine . . . it is deadly.
A few days ago, on my way from Nkhata Bay to Livingston beside Victoria Falls, I was promised the ultimate comfort in African travel: a long distance bus ride from Ilongwe, the capital of Malawi, to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, a thirteen-hour ride. The bus was big, fairly clean, and didn't look a hundred years old. Most seats were still covered with padding, the window next to my head could open and close. Best of all, there weren’t more people on the bus than seats. I could hardly believe my good luck when we took off at the scheduled time. I snuggled into my seat and looked forward to a day of bliss with roasted meats, meat pies, fruit, the customary fare offered by food sellers at every stop.
We crossed the border into Zambia without major hassle. Well, almost no hassle. Later, comparing notes with other travelers on the bus, I found I’d been riped off again by immigration officers. They charged me $80 for the visa instead of the official $50. Of course I didn’t get a receipt.
Not far past the border, our bus stopped at a gas station, and the driver remained in his seat without fueling up. We stood in that gas station for a long time. No announcement, in either in the local language, or English, provided a reason. Eventually, a super fancy bus pulled up alongside. To judge from the tinted windows, and its general appearance, it was even air-conditioned.
Wow! Goody-goody! I thought. Maybe, my luck is unlimited. Maybe, we're being switched over. I looked at the potential new ride longingly, waiting for the announcement. People—many people—got off that bus and moved over to ours.
Upon boarding in Llongwe, I had wondered about the empty plastic Coca Cola crates stacked next to the driver. Now I found out. They became seats in the aisle for the herd of new passengers streaming in.
The seat next to me was vacant, my neighbor had left the bus at the border. When the new passenger invasion, I took my backpack from between my feet and placed it on the seat, trying to make it select who would be sitting next to me. Someone skinny would have been preferable as the seats were barely a foot wide.
A young man and woman squeezed through the mob in the aisle toward me, and when they were close, I took off my pack with an inviting smile. The pretty woman smiled back at me and tried to sit down. From across the aisle, a voluminous woman yelled something that must have meant, "that seat is reserved!"
The slim, pretty girl shrugged and moved on. Behind her, a colossal woman in a bright yellow day-glow outfit pushed through and plopped down into the vicinity of the seat. I say “vicinity” because her enormous backside could never be contained in that space. As she settled, a glob, like a bagful of jello, spilled over and onto my lap. Her arms, each the circumference of my waist, covered my front. On top of her bulk came a basked full of smoked fish. I made a face that must have looked as if I had swallowed a glass of vinegar, or was about to bite her. Oblivious, she smiled at me and nodded, clearly satisfied with the situation.
There were still ten hours left to the journey. I think, with the constant pressure, I got skinnier, which, in itself, is a desirable thing. But, whenever I tried to push back some of the blubber, it just relocated on another part of me. Unlike jello, which needs to be cool to maintain its wiggly shape, her gelatinous mass was hot and wet. From between rolls of fat on her neck, like ground water from between rocks, rivulets of liquid pearled down on her . . . and me. The whole thing smelled so strongly of fish that I thought I might become one.
Around midday, the bus stopped by a roadside market on the banks of a sediment-laden river. Stacks and stacks of smoked, fried and "fresh" fish were for sale. Since I had practically become one, I went for a chunk of the fried stuff. It was tasty, and the fact there wasn’t anywhere to wash my hands didn't matter since I’d already smelled like a fried fish before eating
Two Swiss women, who had boarded our bus during the transfer and had become aisle passengers on Coca Cola crates, joined me at the fish stand.
“It is about stretching the legs than for eating the fish,” one said.
They were planning to go the same way as Nick, Tom and me, toward Victoria Falls. All three of us Swiss meeting at that god-forsaken fried fish stand created the conditions for us to immediately hit it off. Tom and Nick were delighted by an introduction to two attractive and potential travel companions.
Incredibly, my neighbor from hell in the screaming yellow outfit, who already had a basketful of smoked fish, bought another load. This one, she brought aboard in a torn plastic bag, which, of course, landed between my feet.
It is the tail end of rainy season here, and we drove through beautiful, verdant green veldt. It scenery almost made me forget my travel misery, but the constant pressure being applied from wobbly, fleshy folds, compounded by a penetrating odor, made that impossible. To make matters worse, my torturous neighbor, and the lady from across the aisle that had chased the slim girl away, blabbed incessantly and very loudly, in shrill Swahili.
By the time we reached Lusaka, it felt like I needed to be scraped off my seat. I did manage to extricate myself, and together with Nick, Tom, Martina and Millie, we chose one of the gazillion taxi drivers that mobbed around us, each offering their ride more loudly than the next. All five of us squeezed into a small car and left the ruckus behind. On the bus, we had become so accustomed to making do with minimal space that we felt reasonably comfortable.
At the guesthouse, I really wanted a private bathroom in order to properly take care of my eye socket—and take a leisurely shower to eliminate a strong fish odor. Oooops. All that was available were about twenty cots in a crowded co-ed dormitory, with shared bath.
I sort of managed to take care of the wound and squeeze in a shower and then, the five of us went to the bar and tried decimating their stock of beer. As usual with long bus rides, I had drunk nothing during the whole trip. Now that an existence as a canned sardine was behind me, I was able to chuckle at the thought of how, considering the seating arrangement on the bus, I would have accomplished getting off to pee.
Via an email from home, I found out my driver’s license expires on March 25, which means I have to end this adventure earlier than expected. Up until now, my plan, after traveling through Botswana and the Namibian Kalahari by local transport, was to rent a car in South Africa, probably in Johannesburg. From there, I wanted to visit Kruger Park, check out the famous beaches of Mozambique, see Jade’s homeland in Swaziland (a family joke), and cross Lesotho on the way to Cape Town.
I’d been looking forward to bumming around these countries with my own (rented) wheels. I’d be able to leave when I wanted, go where I wanted, drive as fast or slow as I wanted and, best of all, choose my fellow passengers. Now that I have been made aware of my drivers license expiration, one-eyed or not, I have to alter the plan.
I’ll forgo Botswana, and fly from here in Livingston at Victoria Falls, directly to Johannesburg, where I’ll rent a car. Martina and Millie will join me for the Kruger Park visit. Afterwards, I’ll still have enough time for visiting southern Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho in style and comfort.
 Got to go. We have a party tonight at Jolly Boys (the name of the guesthouse where I am staying) that can’t be missed!

All best,

Livingston, Victoria Falls, Zambia. February 28, 2011

Hi y'all,

Got emails from a couple of you who say think there is no need to shorten my trip just because of an expired driver's license. A missing eye didn't prevent you from continuing, so how can a crummy drivers license, you asked.
True. But, on reflection, one month for southern Africa should be plenty. Also, an earlier return gives me a chance to build a planned greenhouse at the farm before summer. With a spring greenhouse completion, I even might be able to grow my own seedlings for the garden. You all know that, apart from traveling, gardening is high on the list of stuff I like to do.
If I decide to fly directly to Johannesburg from here, I’ll have plenty of time to visit South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho. I’d miss the land journey through Botswana to Namibia, a trip, according to the insider talk at the Jolly Boys guesthouse, that isn’t much to write home about anyway. The place to visit in Botswana is, apparently, the Okavango delta. From the descriptions I’ve been reading about and hearing, it sounds like an African Disney World, where super expensive lodges provide salt licks to attract animals close to the lounge chairs where fancy, icy sundowners are served. And, yes, they also have zebra-striped vehicles for visiting wildlife in their habitat. But, now, towards the end of rainy season, the vegetation is thick and tall, and the animals don’t depend on water holes. So, they are spread over large areas and are difficult to see, with or without guided rides in camouflaged trucks.
Missing Namibia and the Kalahari, places I’d really like to visit, is a pity. But, I can always do that another time. I keep being told by the backpackers about how easy it is to fly into South Africa, rent an 4x4, totally equipped with camping gear and whatever else is needed to go off road. That way, doing the Kalahari would be more rewarding.
And again, according to the backpackers, if I were to go overland from Livingston, through eastern Botswana, to Johannesburg, I’d have the dubious pleasure of sitting for a twenty-five-hour-long bus ride through super boooooring, dusty, bumpy savanna with hardly any change in landscape. A whole bunch of them came up that way from the south. I think, after the fish experience, I am done with long bus rides for a long while.
With the present plan, Tom, Nick and I fly tomorrow to Jo'bug. I get to refer to Johannesburg this way because it is what my advisers do. The girls, Martina and Millie, will come a few days later
After a proposed visit to Nick’s Afrikaner parents in Jo’burg, I’ll rent a car until March 25. The girls will join me then to go to the Kruger Park.
At the moment, I am still in Livingston. The last two days, we’ve visited Victoria Falls—one day, from the Zambian side with Tom and Nick, the next day, from the Zimbabwean side with Kathryn, a schoolteacher from New York City.
Although I have seen the huge Iguazu falls, straddling the borders between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, and the world’s tallest waterfall, Salto del Angel in Venezuela, Victoria Falls takes the cake, at least as it is now with high water at the tail-end of rainy season. On both the Zambian and the Zimbabwean side, we got totally drenched from watery mist, sometimes as heavy as blinding downpour.
At the Zimbabwean side’s elaborate Visitor Center, I had ostrich steak for lunch. For a couple of US dollars I bought billions of Zimbabwean dollars, enough to turn all my eight grandkids into instant multi-billionaires.
The Zimbabwe side of the Falls is much more developed than the Zambian side. They have sophisticated tourist facilities, nicely laid-out paths for viewing, comfortable bathrooms—but practically no visitors.
With strongman and despot President Mugabe’s political, economic, and human rights follies, and a hyper-inflation, where one needs a barrelful of cash just to buy bread, the tourist trade has completely dried up. Even though now the country’s official currency is US dollars, most visitors to the Falls come to Zambia. Few are willing to undergo the hassle of getting an additional visa to also see the Zimbabwe side.
As I mentioned earlier, my companion on the visit to the Zimbabwe side was Kathryn, a New York City public school teacher. She came over the couple of days she has off for President's Day. Her trip sounded even more impressive—or harrowing—when she told me how she didn’t mind taking real cheap flights. To return to NYC, after a two-day visit to the water fall, she has to fly from Livingston to Lusaka, from there to Nairobi, then to Frankfurt, and from there, the last leg, to JFK. To make it even more interesting, she has very little layover time between each flight segment. If one flight is delayed, the whole itinerary collapses. As an extreme budget traveler, she’d always be the last served in the case of overbooking, which would give her plenty of extra airport time.
When we walked back from the falls toward the Zambian border post, through a mile-wide no-mans-land, a boy with a bicycle rickshaw tried desperately to sell us ride. He pleaded so persistently, I started to feel guilty for walking.
“We like to walk,” I said.
“I like to eat,” he said.
I gave him $20, an amount he probably doesn’t make in a normal month. His expression was worth a thousand dollars.
On the Zambian side, one girl’s passport, wallet and camera took off into the trees with a baboon. She had been carrying everything in a plastic bag to keep it from getting soaked, when one of the many frisky baboons around the falls grabbed it and swung up a tree. As if trying to tease the girl, the monkey swung the bag about. The passport fluttered down, but the wallet with cash and credit cards, as well as the camera, stayed up.
A local kid, one of the many trying to serve visitors in whatever capacity—for pay—offered to chase the baboon. Human kid catching a baboon in the trees! That sounded ludicrous, but the girl’s companion agreed to the retrieval price. Incredibly, the agile kid caught up with the monkey while it was chewing on the camera. The camera, presumably because it didn’t taste good, was dropped, but scarred with baboon bites and missing pieces missing, it was no longer usable. At least, the girl can retrieve the memory card with her holiday pictures. But, her wallet stayed in the tree. Now, there will be baboons in Zambia with cash and credit cards.
 Livingstone is a cute little town, very clean and orderly. I even found a simpatico Italian sit-down café that serves espresso and a selection of pastries.
The backpacker's place, Jolly Boys, a collection of mostly open-air, bungalows, has a free form swimming pool, sunken and raised lounges, a tree house with mattresses on the floor, internet connection with rentable computers, a souvenir shop, and a bar and restaurant. Tonight’s special is Crocodile Curry.
There is also a well-equipped kitchen where guests can cook their own meals. The fridges are chock full of fancy food. All packages are inscribed with the name of the owner, a requirement written on the RULES OF THE KITCHEN bulletin. I imagine the staff can haul loads of yummy treats home, simply by comparing names on the packages with names of people who have moved on.
The crowd at Jolly Boys is a really fun group of backpackers and other, mostly young, budget travelers. Evenings are a continuous party, beer flows freely, and laughter is ever-present. Prices for lodging range from $7 a night, to fifty. When we arrived, nothing but the $7 dormitory cots was available. Guess which one I moved to when a $50 one freed up the next day. Taking care of my eye socket is easier if I don’t have to hustle for a free sink. Also I don’t have to get dressed every time I need to use the toilet.
So, this report is probably my last from the wilds of Africa. Next news will come from South Africa.

That's it for now.
All best to all,

Johannesburg. March 3, 2011

Hi y'all,

As mentioned in a previous message, I plan to be one month in South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho, getting around by rental car. After March 25, when my driver’s license expires, I will start heading back. On the way home, I plan to stop in Switzerland for a visit with Nina and family, and then play cards with my brothers. In London, I’ll be with Jade and her family.
The eye socket seems well healed. I have no pain, no infection, no problem at all—except the Malawi shoe leather eye patch, attached to my head with a fraying old shoe lace, keeps falling off. Even that is not an issue because I have given up keeping medicated gauze over the wound. I’ll stay for a couple of days in New York to see an eye doctor and pig out on sushi and sake, then I become a farmer in Vermont.
Here are some proposed new travel dates. I will not change my plane reservations until I find out what fits in all your schedules.
 - Arrive Zurich Saturday, March 26.
- Take train from Zurich airport to Geneva.
- In Geneva until Monday, March 28
- Afternoon, Monday, March 28 depart Geneva, by train for Zurich.
- Depart Zurich Thursday morning by train for Appenzell.
- Thursday afternoon until Monday morning, April 4 in Appenzell.
- Monday morning, April 4 depart Zurich for London.
- Monday afternoon, April 4 in London.
- Wednesday, April 6, noon, depart London for New York
- Wednesday, April 6, evening in NYC
Please let me know if these dates are okay, so I can change my plane reservations accordingly.
In case someone would like to talk to me, I have a South African cell phone. The number is: + 27 (0)79-239-8273. I have no idea if it will also work in Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho.
With the rental car, I will first go through Krueger Park. This is on South Africa’s northwest border and in the direction of my route toward Mozambique. Kruger Park, and the adjoining Limpopo wildlife preserve in Mozambique, is also the region where my two Ethiopian friends, the would-be illegal immigrants to South Africa, planned to sneak into their promised land.
Martina and Millie, the two Swiss women I met in Zambia will join me for the Kruger Park trip. It has been arranged that they will meet me when I pick up the rental car at the airport. After the park visit, they have to return home for work in Switzerland.
I suppose now that I am in control of where and when to stop, like near an internet cafe, I can be more regularly in contact. Tom and I had a couple of real interesting days here in Johannesburg at the house of Nick, the Afrikaner. But, I’ll write about that in a future message.
 So, unless I hear that you won't be home, or are otherwise unavailable, on my proposed travel dates, I'll go ahead and change my flights.

All best,

Swaziland. March 8, 2012

Hi y'all,

About a week ago, around 5:00 a.m., the rental car’s burglar alarm went off outside my lodge in Krueger Park. I jumped into my underpants, still wet from the previous night's washing, and rushed out.
A family of baboons sat around the car, looking at it stupidly, and then turned to me. Two others sat in the car, looking out the window.
"What the hell is this racket?" they seemed to be asking.
I shooed them all away and found I had forgotten to close one of the rear windows.
Oh sh.t! Martina had reminded me on the way back from the restaurant that the window was still open. Feeling totally mushy and relaxed, after a dinner of antelope steak and real good South African wine, called Allesverloren (meaning: everything lost), and with the balmy evening air caressing us as we rolled on a dirt path through the bush, I completely forgot about it.
The baboons must have had their own party, the car seats were coated with monkey hair. Luckily, I thought, I had taken my bags of nuts, dried fruit, and fruit juices, into my room at the lodge. I'd hate to think of what the car would have looked like if the monkeys had ripped into the juice cartons.

On February 26, together with Nick and Tom, my self-appointed nursemaids since the train from Dar Es Salaam to Mbeya, we flew from Livingston to Johannesburg. What a culture shock, already at the airport!
The super modern high speed train from the airport into town made me think I had time traveled, or changed to another world. Super modern, super fast, spotlessly clean, and fully automatic, compared to what I had been seeing recently, it was like a fantasy prop from a futuristic film.
Nick's brother picked us up at the palatial stainless steel and glass train station and brought us to Nick's parent's house. In a neighborhood of similar-looking housing, theirs, a veritable mansion with a big, nicely landscaped garden, swimming pool, four-car garage, of course with automatic garage door openers, put the icing on my culture shock.
The many gates and electrical fences around all the houses bothered me. Even inside Nick’s family dwelling, between the living and sleeping areas, there were big iron bars and gates, which made the otherwise beautiful home look like a jail.
Tom and I, as Nick’s guests, got the royal treatment. Nick’s mom showed me to a private suite with a bathroom bigger than the biggest bedroom I’ve had since leaving the US. It was practically big enough to accommodate every room I’d occupied over the past two months.
Nick's mother kindly offered to chauffeur us around the sights of Johannesburg, one of which was the house of a friend. This one, with its tasteless opulence, defied description. The proud and extremely talkative owner gave us a tour. I lost count of the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, garden passes, artificial rainforests, and dogs that followed on our heels.  It had a wine cellar and a grotto. The amount of tacky knick-knacks on furniture, in display cases, on shelves, and standing around on carpets, stairs, and passageways, could have filled a warehouse.
Waving at her stuff, the lady declared, “I am a shopaholic.”
The Apartheid Museum, where Nick’s mother brought us next, was very impressive in its balanced presentation of South Africa’s racial history. Considering the horrible mess the country was in when the Apartheid government was in charge, it is a veritable miracle that the nation has become what it is now. The museum manages to demonstrate the incredible feat Nelson Mandela achieved by unifying the different factions, black and white. The way he managed to direct deep-seated hatred into a general mutual respect borders on the incredible. But, they still have a long way to go.
When she goes jogging with her friend, Nick’s mother said, they must go on the zoo grounds, for which they have to buy expensive entry tickets. On public streets, she claims, it is too dangerous. Also, having seen how electrified fences protected most of the houses in predominantly white neighborhoods, and how prominent signs on perimeter walls ominously announced an ominous “Armed Response,” it is obvious that not everything in South Africa is hunky-dory.
 After two days in Jo’burg, where I was treated so well, I rented a car at the airport and picked up Millie and Martina who had arrived from Livingston. Together, we drove to Krueger Park.
Despite my determination to stay away from what I call Disney African tourist spots, I visited this famous wildlife preserve because it is different. One can drive around in one's own car, does not have to sleep in super duper fancy-shmancy, expensive lodges, be led around by guides informing each other by radio and cell phones of animal sightings. Krueger Park is simply a very large national nature preserve with an extensive road system for visitors to explore and search out animals on their own.
We saw lots of wildlife even though, right at the end of the rainy season, the grass is very tall. Giraffes and elephants looked right over it. But, despite the tall vegetation, we saw plenty of smaller animals as well. Many different kinds of antelopes, wart hogs, zebras and large birds scurried out of our way. We saw a large group of rhinos and were glad they kept their distance from our minuscule sub-compact Hyundai.
The lodge, even though reasonably priced, looked like an exclusive motel. Thatch-roofed bungalows, a restaurant, and a natural form, rocky, swimming pool, were all laid out in a park-like setting. Tame antelopes and monkeys were more numerous than human guests. The bungalow had a cooking stove, a bathroom, and a ceiling fan — total comfort. When not cruising around in search of animals, we cooled off in the pool, lazed in the sun, had yummy drinks, and got ready for super dinners of bush meat and local wine.
After leaving the park, the girls took a bus to Swaziland, in the direction of Cape Town, from where they were going to fly home. I continued north to check out the famous Mozambique beaches.
That evening, I got to Maputo, the capital, where I spent a night. It has a really European feel—great restaurants, sidewalk cafés, and music everywhere.
Next morning, driving out of the bustling city, I got a flat tire. It seemed as if the whole town was there, offering to help when I pulled over to the side to put on the spare, which was in the trunk and under my luggage. Countless pairs of arms and hands stretched into the trunk to help remove my backpack, just a little too much assistance for my taste. With no way to keep my eyes on all the activity of every hand, and not wanting to offend well-meaning, honest helpers, I refused everyone. No was not immediately understood for no. I had to start yelling for them to leave me alone. Eventually, the people stood back and let me do my thing, although I continued to be surrounded by a solid wall of onlookers throughout the procedure.
 About 600 kilometers (400 miles) up the coast from Maputo I got to Tofo, one of the famous Mozambique beaches, which turned out to be a real backpacking paradise. The beach of almost white sand is more impressive than any I have seen in a long time. At low tide, it is about three-hundred meters wide. Framed by azure water and white surf on one side and large dunes on the other, it stretches as far as the eye can see. One brisk walk took me four hours to get to the end of the bay and back. I passed crystal-clear lagoons shadowed by large, windswept dunes. Local boys fished with poles, hand lines and spears. Others pried oysters from rocks.
Tofo is full of quaint restaurants and simpatico backpacker guesthouses. Visitors, who outnumber locals big time, are mostly young, and hail from all around the world. Structures are built on sand and posts right on the beach. The cyber café from where I am writing this email is on an airy terrace overlooking the gentle surf. It earns the café designation because the owner, a cheerful Australian lady, also serves the real thing, a foamy cappuccino.
My lodging is in a small, reed bungalow. The floor is sand, but it has an attached and rudimentary, albeit private, toilet, sink and shower. The bar/restaurant, serves reasonably good and inexpensive food. As has been the case with a few other backpacker digs I’ve visited during this journey, evenings are for partying. Here, I can stroll up and down the beach to check out merry making in different places, and choose the one I like best.
The main Tofo daytime attraction is whale shark spotting. The waters off this part of Mozambique are reputed to have the world's largest concentration of whale sharks. A New Zealand marine biologist stationed in Tofo told me there are only about a thousand of these giants left, the largest fish known to be alive in the world, and about 300 of them make their home off Tofo.
A couple of other German, Italian and Australian backpackers and I went out on a chartered speedboat. It is supposed to be easy to spot the aquatic giants because they swim close to the surface, screening the water for plankton, which is their food. When one of the polka-dotted behemoths was located, we all jumped into the water with snorkels, masks and fins. About a dozen of us surrounded the six-and-a-half-meter (twenty-feet) long fish. It seemed to completely ignore us and kept floating around, sucking tons of water into its giant mouth to screen out plankton.
Swimming with a shark with huge maws? No problem, the marine biologist told us. The gullet of this fish has barely the diameter of a garden hose, so it isn’t interested in prey larger than plankton. The water is rich with this food here, hence the population density and poor visibility. I took a couple of pictures with my under water camera, but all it shows is a black and white polka-dot pattern of the fish’s skin, one near the tail and one near the mouth.
 I left Tofo with a Japanese couple for company. We'd met at the backpacker where, as I often do when encountering people from the land of the rising sun, I tried to see what was left of my Japanese language skills (every year I find out it is less!).
On the reasonably good, though narrow, blacktop, we drove about 700 kilometers (about 450 miles) in one day, to Mazini, the largest town in Swaziland. The border formalities here were simple.
At one point in Mozambique, we got stopped at a checkpoint. The policeman asked to see the luminous vest every vehicle is supposed to carry. Not having one, I told him the car rental company should have known about this requirement. The cop didn’t care what I thought and asked for a fine of $100, an astronomical sum in Mozambique. I said I didn’t have that much money on me. He asked how much I had.
“Just enough to get to Johannesburg to return the car,” I said.
“Pay up,” he said.
I said nothing and just sat while the policeman, with my documents in hand, held up other cars. He asked them for the required vest, which the drivers produced. The policeman showed me one and when, cursing me, he left to return the vest to the other car, my Japanese passengers were a bit intimidated and offered to pay. I told them to keep quiet. After a while, the officer came to the window and, without further comment, threw the documents at me. We drove off without having paid a fine.

Nestled in idyllic hilly surroundings, the pseudo-modern looking town, Mazini, was far from my romanticized image of what Swaziland would look like. After driving all around, which didn’t take long because the town is small, the only hotel I found was a hopelessly disappointing, sterile, lifeless, and pitiful letdown. A while after I stopped the car under a billboard that identified the place as a hotel, a heavy metal gate rolled out of the way to let me into the parking lot. A guard handed me a telephone.
“Talk,” he said.
“What? Why?” I said.
“Talk!” he said a bit more forcefully.
“Hello,” I said.
“Yes?” a female voice said.
“What yes?” I said. “I am here at the hotel, and a man told me to talk into the phone, and that’s what I did.”
“You want to stay?”
“What is your name?” I gave it.
“Nationality?” I gave it.
“Passport number?” I gave it.
She asked a whole bunch more questions. Had I seen another place to stay, I would have left. The place felt creepy.
“Give me the man on the phone.”
“What man?”
“The one who told you to call me.”
The man listened for a while, then hung up. He told me to throw the money, in cash, for the night’s lodging through a slit in a box that was screwed to the floor.
The room might as well have been a prison cell. Small, with not the least attempt at decoration, it had a bed, a lamp, a chair, a small bathroom. It was also clean.
After washing up a bit I went on the town to find a place to eat.
“You must be back before 9:00 p.m.,” the man said.
“Yes Dad,” I replied. He didn’t smile.
I found a restaurant above a department store. Only one other guest was there. I sat the table next to his and asked for a menu.
“We have pork chops and fries,” the waitress said.
“Okay,” I said, turning to the man who was nursing a beer. “What a charming town.”
He shrugged.
“Not much choice on the menu,” I said.
“No. Are you traveling through?”
“Yes. Do you know something about the town?”
“I live here,” he said.
“I am staying in a really strange hotel,” I said, explaining how I had just checked in.
“There are quite a few places like that,” he said.
“How come?”
“All the king’s wives get their own businesses and, because they don’t want to be seen working, they run them that way, from afar.”
“This place also? With two items on the menu?” I pointed around at the large restaurant with the charm of a railroad station waiting room.
“Also,” he said.
This black man had lived in Swaziland for almost twenty years. I couldn’t quite understand his explanation about what he did in the country. But, everything else I learned from him about Swaziland seemed more surrealistic than the weirdest Pieter Bruegel painting.
The king has hundreds of wives, all virgins when he took them. Most of his subjects believe he is a god, and almost all businesses in the country belong to him, or his huge extended family. Already, his father had numerous wives, and most of them had children by him, all of whom are the current king’s brothers and sisters. He, himself, is rumored to have hundreds of children, though nobody in the country knows exactly how many.
The next day and a little further along in that same country, I found a little, Lonely Planet-recommended, paradise. It is in a lush valley (I don't remember the name while I sit here at the computer) the site of one of the royal residences. A big part of this valley is a wildlife preserve with, supposedly, a large white rhino population. The only hunter allowed here is the king.
Again, trusty Lonely Planet led me to the Malandela Lodge, where I now sit in its cyber café. The accommodations and overall appearance of the whole place is impressively beautiful with tasteful landscaping, charming structures, and an inviting restaurant. Part of Malandela Lodge is called the House on Fire, a labyrinth set in a mosaic of strange, fantastical sculpted figures. It also has a sort-of amphitheater for music performances, and posters on walls announced world-famous bands that performed here.
The nook where I am sitting now to write is a cozy. The sun is shining in, fans are whirring all around me, and I’ve just had a delicious cafe (Italian Lavazza).
Phone connections are good (it helps to be in the vicinity of a kingly residence). I took the opportunity to change my flight schedule so it will coordinate with my driver license’s expiration date.
 The Malandela Lodge is fully booked for a missionary conference. Observing all the holier-than-thou, goody-goody, pious-looking, beatifically smiling patrons who are spending mission funds in the fancy restaurant spoiled my appetite.
 The friendly receptionist sent me to a widow’s B&B further up the road. Nestled in the middle of a cornfield, I got a room big enough for a large family holiday. Apart from eight beds, it has a kitchen, supplies to make coffee or tea, a functioning ceiling fan, and a TV. The landlady made me a breakfast fit for a king.
 That's it for today. I am off to check out the rhinos and to see of the king is home.

All best,

March 4, 2011. Email exchange between Dr. Moonga, the surgeon who removed the eye in Dar Es Salaam (transcribed exactly the way it was received), and me:

Hi Mr. Ernest Aebi,

how are you doing? Hope your eye is healing well,i just thought of saying hi and findout how you are doing.
Stay well and be blessed.


March 6, 2011

Dear Doctor Moonga,

Thanks for your concern.
I am now in Mozambique. All is well with the
eye—or rather, the place where the eye used to be. Today, I even went diving in the ocean, looking for whale shark (saw two).

With best wishes,
Ernst Aebi

March 6, 2011

Oh! iam very happy to hear that you are doing fine.Iam sure you are enjoying what  Mozambique hsa to offer.
It is good to enjoy life when you can.Wishing you the best of your adventure.

Dr. Moonga

March 6, 2011

Dear Doctor,

Yes, it is true about enjoying life even with one eye. After the eye was taken out, one of my sons in law came from London to bring me home but since you told me that the wound was healing well I felt like continuing my journey. My son in law went home alone.
 I shall presumably be back in New York around the middle of April.
 Thanks again for a job well done. I am curious to find out what I will see when I part the eyelids. Now it looks ugly, but feels fine.

With kind regards,
Ernst Aebi

Stellenbosch, South Africa. March 20, 2011

Hi y'all,

This is probably the last report from this journey. This time, my wow for the day is Paviaans Kloof, a world heritage site about 700 kilometers northeast of Cape Town.
I arrived there from Swaziland, via Lesotho, East London, Jeffrey's Bay. I already described Swaziland a little in a previous e-mail. It turned out to be really pleasant, despite the first night’s weird accommodations in one of the king’s wives’ godforsaken haunts and the other king-related oddities—absurdities—I saw, or was told about.
The day after the Mazini “hotel” debacle, I ended up at the House on Fire at the Malandela Lodge, a masterpiece of imaginative mosaic work in the valley of the king’s main residence. This was definitely the highlight of my Swaziland visit, situated on the edge of a game reserve where I saw lots of zebras, warthogs, many different antelopes, and a crocodile in a futile effort to catch a wading bird. Of the white rhinos that are supposedly plentiful there, I saw none, neither white nor black.
 On the long South African stretch between Swaziland and Lesotho, I traveled through huge tree farms, as far I could tell, all pine and eucalyptus.
In Bethlehem (South Africa), like in Swaziland, I entered once more a twilight zone. After dark I found a nice-looking hotel at the edge of town, but it was fully booked. They told me about a lodge that, according to the helpful reception lady, always has vacancies. She gave me complicated directions.
Eventually I found it, tucked away on a wooded hill, quite a way out of town. Many buckies, as they call pick-up trucks in South Africa, were haphazardly parked on a gravel lot. I saw them only in my headlights because, except for a murky light that came from small windows in a shed, it was pitch dark up there. Inside the shed, which was much larger than it looked from the outside, a bunch of guys, most of them giants in height and girth, were playing darts. When I asked about accommodations, I got grunts for answers. It turned out most of them only spoke Afrikaans. When they shook hands with me, their calloused paws felt and looked huge, like excavator shovels. They pointed to the dark bar where I could sign up for a room.
 The bar had one dim light that barely illuminated the walls. On closer inspection, I noticed they were covered with stuffed African game—elands, rhinos, lions, leopards, zebras, giraffes, buffaloes, all kinds of antelopes, and the huge backside of an elephant, its grossly enlarged testicles and anus sticking into the space.
The girl at the bar gave me a room key and a brown bag that contained soap, instant coffee and creamer. She gave me directions to the room, but I couldn’t find it, and went back for help. The bar girl led me through dark woods to a bungalow, then went back to her work.
The room had six beds, the carpet splattered with cigarette holes and unidentifiable stains, some sticky. I chained my pack to a pipe and went back to the bar for a glass of wine. The only red they came from a carton and was sickly sweet.
Probably propelled by curiosity, one giant after another drifted into the bar. They downed beers fortified with double chasers. By the questions they asked in heavily accented English, it seemed I had dropped into an Afrikaner club where the members had not yet acknowledged the end of Apartheid.
When they drifted back to their darts with large beer cans in hand, the young and pretty bar girl asked what happened to my eye. I told her about the Zanzibar accident and described the rest of my journey. She looked around to make sure none of the men could hear, then asked if she could continue the journey with me.
"All my life, I have only been as far as Bloemfountain," she said.
Bloemfountain is about fifty kilometers from Bethlehem. "Huh?" I probably said.
Of course I was flattered that this attractive woman wanted to hook up with me, but I had not imbibed enough of the horrible wine to lose my capacity for reason.
"I don't know exactly where I am going next," I said.
"Anything, anywhere, with anyone, just to get out of here," she said.
This effectively deflated my ego. Until then, I had dared to assume she had been taken in, swooped off her feet, bedazzled by my appearance as a dashing, irresistible, one-eyed, world-traveling adventurer.

The next day, without a new companion, I arrived in Lesotho. At the border, after having traveled the last few days in European-looking South Africa (with the notable exception of the Bethlehem Afrikaaner hang-out), I returned to the real, lively Africa with colorful crowds of people in the busy streets trying to sell, trade, lead, beg, or peddle a wild assortment of goods and services. The activities at the border post were chaotic.
One of the touts, a young man, offered to process the border formalities for me, for ten dollars.
“Thank you,” I said, “I think I can deal with this on my own.”
The man shrugged and followed me as I entered the immigration hall. When I saw many lines of people in front of many desks, none marked to indicate whether it was for immigration, customs, car registration, or whatever, I must have looked like a babe in the woods.
The man looked at me with a knowing smile. I dug a ten-dollar bill from my pocket and handed it over. He took my papers, went past the line of waiting people right up to a desk, got a stamp, moved to another desk, got another stamp, took me out to the car, pointed to a man in uniform and said, “Give him five rand (about 60 cents US).”
“Why?” I asked.
“Just give him,” he said.
I gave the man five rand, he saluted, and waved me into Lesotho.
On the fairly decent road to the capital of Maseru, I noticed a trickle of kids in neat school uniforms. A little further along, another group joined them, walking in the same direction. The groups grew bigger as kids congregated from villages toward the road. The roadside, without a sidewalk, started to be crowded. Soon, the children had swelled to a large procession, until we came to a large, low-slung, one-story school complex in the middle of nowhere. Large masses of identically dressed children swarmed toward the school from all directions. Some of the distances these kids walked, ten miles and more, were incredible, unthinkable for children in the US or in Europe.
Throughout Lesotho, I came across these school-bound migrations. Not surprisingly, I didn’t see a lot of overweight children.
Also, along the roadsides, I saw cow, goat and sheepherders dressed in traditional garb, wrapped in cloaks, carrying long staves. They watched over animals, probably in much the same way their forefathers had done for generations, except now the animals were decked out in fluorescent-colored headgear, highly visible ribbons fluttering in the breeze. It made them impossible to miss when they strayed out onto the road.
One day, I had a run-in with Lesotho police. A temporary stop sign on the road side said: STOP POLICE. The cops stood about fifty feet beyond the sign. I drove up to them and stopped.
"Why didn't you stop at the stop sign?" the cop asked.
"I did, right here.”
"You have to stop at the sign," he said.
“Not at police?”
“At sign.”
"Common courtesy might suggest I stop where the police man stands so he doesn't have to walk to me," I said.
"No, at stop sign.”
"Sorry. I misunderstood.”
"Five-hundred maloti (about $80),” he said.
"I pay if you give me a receipt, because I’ll fight it in court,” I said.
He stood with my driver license in hand, then walked away, then returned, saying, "Pay up!"
I didn’t respond.
He continued pacing while I made no move toward my wallet. After a while, he gave up, redirecting his attention to the new vehicles approaching his trap. He threw my drivers license through the window into my lap. I drove off without a fine.
I spent two nights and one day in Maseru. I drove around until I felt I had seen the whole small town and just one hotel. Parking was out back, where I had to identify myself to an armed guard. The room was okay, the price reasonable, but I wondered what the armed security was for, especially after I dumped my luggage and went out the street side and nobody checked anybody at the entrance. People came and went. Some things, I just don’t get.
Under way again toward the South African border, alongside the gravel road, stood a woman who roasted meat over a fire in a barrel. For a long time, I had not seen any car, or house, or any pedestrians, nothing. I was curious. Roasted meat in the middle of nowhere? What was going on?
I stopped, ordered a few pieces, found them delicious, got a few more, and ate them, too. The woman smiled. I smiled back and chewed. The price was ridiculously low. I lingered to see for whom she was cooking. Nobody came, but she kept roasting and smiling. As I said before, some things I just don’t get.
Next day, back in South Africa, I spent the night in East London. Along the shore, there stands a whole row of some big and pretty fancy hotels. I cannot imagine why. There is no beach, just a bunch of breakers crashing over a bleakly black and rock-strewn shoreline. The town is definitely nothing to write home about. I saw no sign of any major industry, no big harbor, nothing that would attract anyone—except a guy like me, who got to town by nightfall after a long journey, and needed a place to crash. Again, some things I just don’t get.
My room had a TV, and I was looking forward to catching up a bit on world news. In bits and pieces, I’d heard about the huge demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia. I wanted to know some details, and settled in front of the boob tube with a drink—the perfect way, I thought, to rest up after the long drive.
The cricket world championship was ongoing, and South Africa had advanced in rugby finals. Every channel was all about cricket and rugby. Nothing in the world mattered, Egypt and Tunisia were not even sidelines. Some things I just don’t get.

The drive south to Jeffrey's Bay passed through mostly untouched and endlessly unexciting brush land. Nothing along the way invited me to stop and smell the roses.
Jeffrey's Bay, however, another recommendation from Lonely Planet, is everything the book promised it to be. Here is another beach that can compete for the title of BEST. At low tide, the ivory-colored, pristine sand is at least a thousand feet wide. I walked a couple of miles and could not resist picking up, and carrying along corals, incredibly beautiful shells, and small sponges. To make the long beach walk even more memorable, I found an outdoor pub that serves oysters and beer. The next day, I walked several miles in the opposite direction and again, even though I didn’t find any libation, I couldn’t help bringing back beautiful sponges and shells.
 I picked up the beach treasures because from now on, I reasoned, I could simply throw stuff into the car trunk. After returning to Cape Town, it would be airplanes, trains, and taxis all the way until home. No more worrying about carrying extra luggage. No more lugging it to bus stations, and the fussing about where to stow it on the bus.
 Nick had told me about a farm he runs in Paviaans Kloof (Baboon Canyon or Gorge). This valley/canyon/gorge is a World Heritage site because of its incredible natural beauty, wild rock formations, rare fauna and flora. Nick manages the family’s ecotourism guesthouse and olive farm in Kamerkloof, and he'd invited me to visit.
On his advice, delivered via my African cell phone, in Uniondale, a town surrounded by apple, pear and peach orchards, and the last inhabited place before entering the canyon, I stocked up on gas and food. He said the Paviaan Kloof motto is, “If you don’t make here, or bring it in, you don’t have it.” There are no stores. The region is literally cut off from the outside world.
After Uniondale, a three-hour-long drive on a decent gravel road leads through hilly terrain and over rugged mountains into a stunningly beautiful valley. Framed by red cliffs, sparsely covered with vegetation, with baboons and other monkeys sitting in the road, as if to ask, "What are you doing here?" I felt I was entering an alien world. A few river crossings turned out to be interesting challenges.
Nick's Kamerkloof is a gracious country house with neat landscaping (mostly cacti), but the river, separating it from the road, was too deep for my car’s wheels. Nick crossed over, picked me up in his Land Rover and brought me to a private suite in his house, complete with generous living/dining room, bedroom, bath and kitchen. Kamerkloof has also a beautiful guesthouse in the olive grove. Apart from comfortably sleeping about twenty people, it also has two bathrooms, a full kitchen, two barbecue stations, and a swimming pool (actually just a big concrete water reservoir that is also used for irrigating the olive grove). The surroundings lay in such beautiful vegetation that it is difficult to determine what is natural and what is landscaped.
We went to visit some of his local friends, most of whom are escapees from the outside world, living the Spartan life of hermits. They build their own houses, grow their own vegetables, and raise their own meat. Two of the houses are artistic creations, both made of adobe. One is round with a domed cupola; the other is a collection of small structures attached by short tunnels. Clearly, the woman with the tunnel house had built her first little dwelling when she arrived, then, whenever she had time, desire, finances or need, she added a new one.
Another woman artist we visited also lives in a labyrinth of attached rooms. She has huge stacks of really impressive paintings all over the place. She never shows them in galleries. She is surrounded, inside and outside of the house, by big flocks of chicken, geese and turkeys.
“Wow,” I remarked, “you’ll never lack for meat and eggs.”
“I am vegan,” she said.
Two men and a woman had formed a commune that sometimes had more members, sometimes less. To judge from their digs, they lived in abject poverty. Nick told me one of the men was from one of the richest families in South Africa.
Nick, his friend, Cornelius, and I went to the other end of Paviaan Kloof, a four-hour drive over three rugged mountain passes. I understood then why there had been so many signs along the way saying: Only All-Terrain Vehicles allowed. Even a regular 4x4, or all-wheel drive car, could not make it over these mountains. A vehicle really needs to be high off the ground to pass over obstacles like wash outs, river crossings, and deep furrows in the road.
Back in the outside world, on the other side of the mountains that enclose Paviaan Kloof, we stayed with friends of Nick in a research station funded by Green Energy Credit contributions. Individuals, like Al Gore, and environmentally conscious corporations, pay into this organization to atone for their carbon over-use. The station cultivates many, many native tree and bush seedlings that are then transplanted in Paviaan Kloof to restore native flora that has been decimated by livestock over-grazing and field planting.
The organization offers to pay the few remaining farmers in the region for removing domestic animals from their land and to stop plowed field planting. Shooting a leopard in the Kloof, regardless of how many sheep it has killed, is punishable by heavy fines and mandatory prison. Despite the incentives, some farmers still insist on keeping their sheep herds. To deter leopards, they wrap barbed wire collars, or sheet metal rings with protruding vicious-looking spikes, around the sheep necks.
With fresh knowledge about some of the plants, I let myself get carried away by one called Speckboum (pork lard tree). It looked so similar to Sandwort, a plant I had enjoyed eating on Baffin Island in the arctic that I had to try and see if its South African relation tasted as delicious. I collected a bagful of the fleshy leaves. At Nick’s house, I cooked it up with garlic and olive oil. Everyone liked the gentle, lemony flavor, and pleasant texture. None of Nick’s friends had ever tasted it before. I presume there will now be a new, local, food supply for the foragers.
 One morning, I was reading a book under a huge cedar tree next to the house. A cute baby monkey—gray with a white-framed black face, I think they are called Capuchins—tested me as a potential playmate. First, it screeched and showed its teeth. I showed it mine. It whipped its head; I whipped mine. It hopped on a branch; I hopped on the ground. It started pelting me with cedar cones; I pelted back with cedar cones. The game attracted a whole bunch of curious cronies and I ended up in a shower of cedar cones. The monkeys won, I moved to a place far from the tree to continue reading my book.

I write this message in Stellenbosch, a charming college town and the South African wine capital. Streets are lined with stately oak trees, and there are plenty of sidewalk cafes, fancy restaurants, and simpler eateries. Wine bars are filled with young, good-looking people. Most are students but clearly, many others are here for the wine and, perhaps, hoping to hook up with somebody attending the prestigious university.
While strolling around town I saw an advertisement for a wine tasting tour. I made the call and the next morning, met a van with five other people and the enterprising organizer. We spent the whole day going from one incredibly impressive winery to the next out-of-this-world winery. Just about every single one could pass for a museum, whether it was thanks to the antique furniture, or for very unusual architecture, or, most commonly, for their art collections. You name it, they have it, from Renaissance masters to Picasso, Rauschenberg, and Jackson Pollack. By the looks of these estates, it seems super rich people the world over will live to compete for the most impressive joint.
As for the wine, they all go out of their way to advertise the best vintages. I have never before tasted so many consistently superb wines. In each tasting room, we got to taste several types: whites, roses, and reds. In order to taste as many as possible, my fellow wine tasters swilled the delectable liquids in their mouths then spit into spittoons, before ordering wines to be sent to their homes. I could not do that spitting, considering the practice an inexcusable waste. I swallowed every drop. At the end of the tour, the driver brought me to my hotel and, walking me to my room, made sure I’d remain upright until I was in my bed.

This lengthy e-mail is testimony to a comfortable cyber cafe with fast, working computers, and cappuccino service while I write. The fact that I love it so much reminds me of the relative pleasures I learn to enjoy on such a trip. A nice cyber café with working computers, and reason to assume the power grid will not shut down while I type, would be what I’d normally expect in such a place. Now, after the frequent hassles accompanying every preceding message, I am thoroughly enjoying this simple pleasure.
 When I leave this pleasant town, I plan to take a little trip over to the Atlantic coast, then check out if the wonderful things I’ve heard about Cape Town are true and then, via Switzerland and London, back to the Big Apple and my favorite Sushi restaurant.

So far, in the little over three weeks since I have had this sub-compact car, a Hyundai with tiny wheels, I’ve covered about five-thousand kilometers.
Despite a chiding email from one of you about my rushing through all the interesting countries and regions, I don’t feel I went too fast. Some of the distances are huge, without much visible change in the land, the people, and customs. The way I traveled, mostly by local means, eating, drinking and sleeping they same way as everybody else, I learned from them, and perhaps, some learned something from me. I saw and experienced more of the real Africa than most regular tourists to the region could hope for.
I added not one scratch to the car, despite frequent driving in areas where I had to watch out for hazardous crowds of people, herds of cows, goats, sheep, baboons, antelopes, zebras, etc. Many of those co-users of roadways don’t care, or, if they are animals, don’t know, about rules of the road. However, I hate to think of what the poor car’s under-carriage looks like, what with all the gravel and pebbles that have bombarded it along the way. Ah well!

With all my best wishes to all of you,

Cape Town. March 22, 2011

Hello kids,

In response to your many requests, I did not get the bolts of African fabric, but I got another something made from feathers. Between Paviaan Kloof and Cape Town, I drove through a region where huge ostrich farms lined both sides of the road, mile after mile. Thousands and thousands of the huge, rather ugly, birds are penned in corrals that look very much like American feed lots for cattle.
One such farm advertised ostrich rides, ostrich steaks, and ostrich boas. Since it was just about lunch time, I turned off the road and visiting. I ended up riding an ostrich, eating an ostrich burger, and buying ostrich feather boas for all you girls. The boas, I am told, are not only for strippers. Nowadays, they can also be worn as fancy scarves.
Yes, I really sat on one of those gangly ostrich things and rode around a corral. Got pictures to prove it, and a certificate that declares me fit to ride ostriches. In other words, I am now the proud owner of an ostrich driver’s license. Just in case I ever need that knowledge, it is good thing to know the ins and outs of ostrichmanship. It takes a special set of skills to hop around on one of these huge things. You sit astride its broad, strangely warm, featherless back, legs tucked under its rudimentary wings. Like you would with a motorcycle handlebar, you hold on to the base of those wings to steer the beast in the direction you hope to go. In my case, this was easy; my ride knew the routine and went in a circle around the arena, no matter how I steered. To brake, I was told, you grab a tight hold on the bird’s swaying neck and pull back with all your might. Luckily I didn’t have to do that, the bird stopped all by itself next to the stand where I could disembark without breaking my neck.
For the boys, Tony, Nicholas, Sam, William, Gregory and Alexander, I found special Kalahari bushmen’s knifes made from elephant bones. And, as a special treat, all my grandchildren will become billionaires—in Zimbabwean money.

Cape Town lies in a stunningly beautiful bay with Table Mountain as a backdrop. I am staying downtown in a so, so hotel. The room has a TV, but it is worthless. Like the last time I had access to one, there is practically nothing on except for cricket and rugby.
Long Street in Cape Town is another backpacker paradise. Lots of cool drinking and eating dives attract a hip, young crowd. So, even though I am considerably older than most, guess where I spend my evenings.
I’ve walked all over town. It has beautiful parks and an impressive Botanical Garden with majestic trees planted hundreds of years ago by the first Dutch settlers.
Down by the water, where the commercial and fishing harbor used to be, is another center of frantic leisure time activity. Pleasure boat marinas are nestled among luxurious condominiums, and most old harbor structures have been converted into temples of eating, drinking and shopping.
I took a tourist sightseeing bus on a grand tour around Table Mountain—yes I did! On the far side, which, I would guess overlooks the Indian ocean, there are stunning beaches and super luxurious beach dwellings, some individual villas and others, multi-story condos that follow the cliff line all the way down to the water’s edge.
 I am enjoying the last few days of my Africa trip in Cape Town, with beautiful weather, great hikes, great sights, great people, great food and super great wines.
 I’ve returned the rental car and no penalties were assessed. Nobody looked at the under-carriage.

All Best,

New York. April 16, 2011

In Zanzibar, my eye hurt a lot, looked bad. It felt like my planned Africa trip from Addis Ababa to Cape Town had ended early.
 Then, after the eye was taken out in Dar Es Salaam, it didn’t feel so bad anymore—and the operation cost only seventy dollars.
 The rest of the trip turned out great, a dozen East, Central and South African countries seen from a local perspective, traveling by local means—a wonderful adventure.
 In the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king. New York feels great. And, in a few days I’ll be grooving on my farm in Vermont.