March 19, 2006


It is really fun to meet an artist whose work you really admire.

It’s even more fun when within the space of 6 hours, you discover his work in a musuem, call him on his cell phone, drive 3 hours in the opposite direction you were intending on going, be taken to his thatch hut in the middle of Zululand, and have to park carefully to avoid colliding with the free ranging goats.

The man himself was cheerful and gracious, commicating well in broken English. Reuben Ndwandwe told us of his being flown to Switzerland for an exhibit (his first time on a plane, and seeing snow), and how none of his childeren have any interest in making baskets themselves.

I won’t go into the details as Jonathan has written up a wonderful account of this story of discovering these gorgeous baskets.

But what I really want to remember is our sense of adventure, and the freedom we felt as we tracked down Reuben to his home outside Hlabisa. We were heading to Durban, a 3 hour drive south. We were in a museum, and found out the artist lived 2 hours in the opposite direction. We had time, we had a map, and we had a car to take us anywhere we pleased. We had nowhere to be, no one to meet, and bread and diet Coke in the cooler. Life is good…

Teeming life and unnatural death

Elephants, zebras, impalas, giraffe, buffalo, and gnus are easily seen upclose while driving through Kruger National Park. As a result, people are not allowed to get out of their cars, except in special designated areas.

We were lucky enough to sign up for a 2 day 3 night guided wilderness walk, where we stayed in thatched huts with shared toilets and showers. Unlike driving around, the point of the wildlife walks was to understand the ecosystem and to be able to see things that you miss sticking to the roads. We were also looking forward to some excercise, as it felt like all we’d done since Kili was sit in buses and trains. Each morning we were woken at 4:30am and were walking by 5:30am, in the cool 85 degree dawn. By the midmorning break at 8am, I was sweating so much I felt like I was slowly dissolving.

We were accompanied by one guide and one tracker, both carrying rifles capable of taking down an elephant. We learned a lot about the bush, observed interesting insects, frogs, birds, and learned to identify animal tracks and useful plants. One plant had leaves which contained a natural detergent, when rubbed together with water. Another plant, a large oblong, sharp, fleshy, scratchy leaf used to make rope was aptly named “Mother in law’s tongue”.

It was kind of like what I’d imagine being a boy scout would be. It was fun and educational, though I had a tough time especially the first day with the weather, climbing into and out of a steep gorge. When we finished the morning walk around noon, it was 97 degrees and full humidity. The area is mostly grasslands with some shrubs, so there was very little shade.

The most shocking thing we saw were the results of a poacher. We were walking and the ranger noticed a large group of vultures circling off in the distance. We walked across the flat grassy plain for about a km when the stench of rotting meat hit us. And then, in a small muddy clearing there was an enormous dark mass of flesh, a dead rhino lay upright on its knees. Its eyes were closed, and a large gash had ripped in its neck exposing spiky vertebrae. Besides the unnatural position it died in, the horn was missing, the surest sign of a poacher. The lions had done their job at the meat they could easily access, and the vultures and the flies were doing the rest, leaving the tough outer skin perfectly intact, but the insides eaten away.

The detective work by the ranger and the tracker was impressive, reading the scene as if it were written on paper. The rhino was killed by a poacher. Due to the tracks (aged to be from the last heavy rainfall on Saturday), there were at least 3 rhinos. One was injured, and ran and died in the spot we found it, collapsed on its knees. The others escaped, at least one of those were injured as well. The direction of the poacher’s footprints showed he came from the Mozambique border, only 4 km away, and he was likely alone. That the horn was removed at the base, where one only has to cut through flesh, instead of being hacked off by an axe showed he was a professional. He was also a good shot, as they only found one shell. Our ranger seemed sad and a bit resigned to the reality – he finds carcasses once every 2 months or so.

It was also a fascinating insight into the complex relationships between the various groups of people connected to wildlife in Africa. The poachers are usually poor villagers. It’s simple, they do it for the money, getting about $500 for a horn. Poachers come over the border because even if they are caught, South Africa has to extradite them to Mozambique, where the penalties for poaching are minimal. They sell the horn and it goes up several layers of middlemen, ending up fetching about $200,000. To combat this, the government tries to go into the villages, and buy information with bags of millet and clothes, making being an informant a lucrative way to make a living.

The extraordinary thing we found out was that a rhino horn grows back. Like hair, the horn can be removed and a new one will grow in a few months. Jonathan, of course, ever the entrepreneur, immediately asked why no one was farming rhinos for their horns. It turns out there were people doing this, but it is illegal to trade the horns. If they allowed “farmed horns” to be traded, it would become impossible to track the movement of illegally obtained ones, one of few ways the government has of catching poachers.

I was really disturbed by the dead rhino, and torn between sympathizing with the conservationists and yet at the same time with the poachers, seeking to provide food and clothing for their family. Walking through Kruger, it seems as though life is so abundant, and the boundaries limitless. The tensions between the needs of humans lives and animal lives, conservationists and poachers, life and death, are ever present.

March 17, 2006

You must be this tall to pet the lion

The excitement of seeing a cheetah 100 feet away behind a bush has nothing on petting one on the head after watching it saunter out of your kitchen.

We had spent 4 days in the Serengeti and saw herds of elephants, zebras, impalas and more from safety of the car. We almost decided not to go to the Tshukudu private wildlife preserve, as we were headed to the Kruger National Park the next day. But we were persuaded, and we are so glad that we went!

Private game reserves, in contrast to government run parks, breed animals and are involved in animal conservation. Tshukudu focuses on leopards, cheetahs, and lions, and because it is situated right next to Kruger, has all the other animals randomly wandering through their reserve. When we drove through on an evening drive, one elephant came right up to the truck, and tried to take my water bottle! I got a first hand smack with an elephant trunk. Who knew it was so hairy?

The animals are a mixture of wild and those raised by humans. The tame ones are used for breeding, and then the cubs are sent to re-populate parks in other parts of Africa, or to zoos. The tame ones must be kept in captivity, since they have no fear of humans and could become a nuisance or threat if released. We walked into a large fenced enclosure with an adult male lion and several lionesses, and were treated to the back and forth roaring of lions. Standing 3 feet from the lions, the power of the vibrations resonated deep in my chest, and left me humble.

We had the opportunity to walk with a young male lion, pet a cheetah and some leopards, and play with lion cubs. Even the cubs are the size of a large dog, with enormous paws, so it made me a little nervous, even though the guides were very comfortable with roughing it with them.

We had two kids in our group, and they had to stay in the car while the adults could get closer to the animals. Evidently even tamed animals see little kids as prey, and we literally watched the leopard’s eyes come into sharp focus whenever one of the kids moved.

I made the mistake of squatting down to get a photo of the lion cub, when suddenly his eyes zeroed in on me, then he was right in front of me and his head came within 6 inches of my face. The ranger on my right quickly pulled me back up, and just as fast, the lion lost interest.

Good to know I am too big to be seen as easy prey. :)

March 15, 2006

Conflicting Johannesburg

I was excited to see Johannesburg (or Joburg as the locals call it) in the flesh.

We had studied the Apartheid system during high school, and I had learned about the Soweto uprising, Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and the ANC (African National Congress). I knew more about South Africa than any other country on the continent.

I particularly remember walking into my World Cultures class and all the desks had been piled up onto one side of the room. All that remained were 4 small, isoceles triangles marked by masking tape on the carpet. Ms. Atwood cheerfully asked us all to separtate ourselves into 4 groups and stand inside the triangles. This was a struggle, as 5 or 6 people tried to stand in the little piece of carpet delineated by the tape, holding on to each other for balance. She picked out at random 3 people to stand beside her.

She then announced that she had marked off 13% of the land in the room, of which she put 90% of the population. This is what Apartheid had done by establishing the black townships. The lucky 3 students outside of the triangles represented the white minority. And the kicker – for the rest of the period, all those inside the triangles would have to find “work” in order to leave the triangles, some way to please those powerful 3 students.

Typical high school stuff followed – one kid had his shoes wiped off, another had a shoulder massage. Promoting myself as a skilled laborer, I ended doing someone’s math homework for the next period. This went on for 30 minutes. I had never before felt myself worried to find “work”, and so eager to please someone with the power to give me something.

This class has always stuck with me – how crowded it was inside the little triangle, the power the other student had, and the resentment I felt towards them, even in this little simulation.

I didn’t know what to expect when we got to South Africa. Apartheid had officially ended over a decade ago. Would we even notice anything as tourists?

South Africa is much more like the US than we expected. It has good infrastructure, and first world amenities, especially welcome after months in Tanzania and Zambia. Although there are 9 official languages, English is spoken by almost everyone. There are glitzy western malls, filled with restaurant chains, movie theaters and cell phone stores. Everything takes place in the malls, in the suburbs as far from the city centre as possible. And except for some workers, everyone is white.

Things began to feel very different as we moved around in the city. Every parking area has a score of men patrolling the lot, whom must be tipped for watching your car. Exiting the mall required us to be stopped at security gates, where they peered inside to make sure everything was ok. Our hotel was completely enclosed by a 10 foot wall with barbed wire at top, and we had to pass by a security guard who provided gated access 24 hours a day.

When we asked about driving into the city, we had a route laid out for us on a map. We were advised that it was safe enough to drive here, but warned not to stray. And for goodness sake, keep your windows up and your doors locked! In a city of 2.2 million, it was safe for us to drive a 10 block circle. The layout of the city became clear – all around from the center, south and west were the townships, no-go zones for us.

We saw no real mixing of racial groups. White people dominated the high end shopping malls and the airport, and given the warnings of crime and carjackings in the city, we didn’t see much else. Although there is no longer a systematic separation, it now seems a separation due to economics and class. My overwhelming impression of Joburg is a city of walled compounds, razor wire, gates and security guards. A frightened city.

We did venture into the city to go to the Apartheid Museum, which was really well done and very interesting. They handed us each an identification card, one for “whites” and one for “coloureds”, where we had to enter the museum through different doors, and could see each other but only through thick bars. We did not connect again until 5 minutes later, when the exhibit paths merged again. At one time under apartheid, there were over 100 classifications for race categorization, each with its sets of priveleges and exclusions.

I felt so sad afterwards, not only for the people who suffered under the system, but for how depressingly similar it was to the experience of American blacks. It struck me that even though the Civil Rights movement brought freedoms over 50 years ago, the racial tensions in the US are hardly gone, but have only been driven underground.

The effects of Apartheid are well intact, even if the official system has been banished.

March 13, 2006

Math = Magic

I am continually stunned at how bad people are at math that we’ve encountered on the road. Calculators are commonly used by restaurant and internet staff when a bill is presented. While I would gauge my ability to crunch numbers in my head as only average, Jonathan is particularly good, and very fast.

As he goes through the calculations in his head, he likes to say the intermediate figures out loud. And yet people are stunned speechless when he arrives at the correct answer.

At the Cristal Cove hostel, he asks the owner how much it costs for one hour of internet. She quotes him a price of 0.70/min. He answers with “So it’s 42 Rand (South African currency) an hour”.

She looks at him for a brief second, then starts trying to do the math in her head, then runs behind the reception desk to grab a calculator, punches in the numbers, and finds that indeed, 0.70 cents/min X 60 min = 4200 cents = 42 Rand. She is open mouthed in awe as she realizes he’s correct. She then bursts forth with “How did you do that?” several times with real amazement, while looking at me to empathize with her.

I watched this whole interaction first with amusement – I came up with 42 dollars about 1.5 seconds after Jonathan- and then with increasing horror the longer she took to come up with the answer. It really was as if Jonathan were a sorcerer.

I told Jonathan we couldn’t raise our kids in South Africa…:)