April 2, 2006

Zulu First Fruits Festival

Seated on the truck bed in back of a 1964 Range Rover on damp sofa cushions, we bounced over dirt roads deep into the hilly rural areas of Zululand, headed from Eshowe for a village named Kekeke to observe the Zulu Snake dance and First Fruits festival.

I’d found out about this event from our 2004 Frommer’s guide to South Africa. There was only a single sentence, that 3000 Zulus gathered for the annual Snake festival on February 23. We quickly realized it was happening in 4 days, and that we were already in Zululand and could see it! We signed up for a trip with Graham, the ex-mayor of Eshowe, who is well linked with the Zulu community and often arranges for visits to Zulu weddings, christenings and celebrations.

Round mud huts stood in clusters dotting the slopes of the lush, grassy countryside. Cattle and goats grazed and milled about on the sides of the road. There were no road signs – in addition to the driver, we also had a Zulu guide with us to navigate and translate. Each Zulu village consists only of one family, and contains between 5 to 15 huts. In the case of Kekeke, we learned that it was named after the man himself, who had 16 wives and about 100 children. In Africa, I no longer introduce myself saying I’m from a large family.

We were welcomed by the 11th wife. I know this because she said “I am wife, wife, wife, wife, wife, wife, wife, wife, wife, wife, wife”, ticking off with her fingers everytime she said the word. The Zulu women are very large – our hostess was at least 300 pounds, while the men, boys and girls are thin. It is very much an aesthetic. We were welcomed into her house, which was very luxurious – besides having multiple rooms made of stone, she had electricity as well, and we were treated to an incredible spread of fruits, Coke, whiskey, wine, muffins, cookies and cheetohs. We had been told that she was Kekeke’s favorite wife – she had the largest house.

I spent some time there thinking about how marital relations would work with 15 other wives. I would imagine that Zulu soap operas or reality TV shows could be very, very juicy. How would you feel as wife #8, as you watched a newer, younger wife become a favorite? Are there ignored “middle” wives like middle children? What do you do if you can’t stand wife #4, 7 and 12? Do the wives form alliances? Do they all get a say on who their husband marries? And how does the man remember all those anniversaries? His wives names, never mind his 100 children?

I actually had a lot of time to think about all this, as we arrived at 10:30 am, stood outside her house for 15 minutes, were invited in, ate and drank, and sat, and sat, and sat until at 3pm. We heard that nothing happens in a Zulu village until you are fed, but I guess nothing happens until everything is completely digested as well.

We wandered out of the house into the village, and saw lots of little kids, and the kitchen where 4 women were butchering a cow for the evening feast. The skin of the cow was draped outside over a wooden fence. We wandered back into the house, and made small talk with the others in the group just to get out hot noon sun. We were reminded once again of the concept of “Africa Time”.

The festival consisted of mostly women in traditional dress, dancing and singing in Zulu in rhythm to a drummer. There were a few men, including a traditional sangoma or medicine man. The whole point of the festival traditionally was to sanction the eating of fresh fruits – something considered dangerous until the festival was performed and the blessing of the sangoma obtained.

It was odd to watch this very traditional dance and celebration – we were the only 8 tourists in a gathering of 500 Zulus, and yet I was constantly aware that it was the year 2006. Cars were parked at the village perimeters, and one of the Zulu warriors was videotaping the ceremony while dancing in it with his Sony camcorder. The bystanders, dressed in jeans and T shirts, happily chatted with each other and on their cell phones. Newer innovations like using coke can tops laced together to make anklets that jingle were prevalent (instead of dried seed pods), and the uniform white top was broken by a Nike swoosh in the corner.

I felt priveleged to be there, and was curious as to why Zulus would want strangers there at their celebrations. I thought how strange it would be at my wedding to have 10 Zulus hovering in the back, watching. We found out from our guide that it is considered very prestigious to have whites/foreigners come to your ceremony, symbolizing your status and importance. We were walmly welcomed into the community, but it is one of the times on this trip that I felt the most homesick and like an outsider, watching a timeless dance performed to traditional rhythms and chants I neither understood or could make sense of.

My favorite part was wathching the slight missteps in dance, or the small glances the dancers or the sangoma would give each other to coordinate their ceremony. It felt very authentic, like this was a festival performed by people for whom this was a once a year thing, sort of like a Christmas pagent. It was fascinating to see a celebration that people do for themselves, instead of the widespread “cultural shows” in touristy spots.

Check out more photos for a more complete view of the festival.

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…:)

February 17, 2006

So many ways to throw yourself off a cliff

Crazy Mzungus (white people)! Who else would want to jump into a gorge for fun?

I had the same thought as I stood with my back to the edge of the gorge, attached by a harness and rope, with my feet bound. The Gorge Swing is a contraption where you jump off of the edge and freefall until the length of rope goes taut, and you swing the rest of the way across the gorge. It was terrifying as I went down backwards, which they assured me was less frightening than going forwards. Even though I wanted to, I couldn’t keep my eyes open, so I had no idea where I was, how far I was from the bottom. I would keep expecting the rope to catch and start the swing, but it kept on not being there, until I really began to fear that it would never catch. Then bam! and my head would whip back and I was safe on the upswing.

For my second jump I had an audience of Zambian tax inspectors, who watched me be put in a harness. I let out what Jonathan described as “a blood curdling scream” as soon as my feet left the ledge, evidently scaring the daylights out of the Zambians. Crazy Mzungu!

At this point, I was really ready to be done. It wasn’t any less terrifying the second time around. Plus, at the end of each swing, we had to climb 300 ft back out of the gorge, in 90 degree direct sun. I was tired, and I didn’t need to do it again.

But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do a tandem jump with Jonathan, harnessed together at the hip and holding each other around our waists. While it was more comforting to be holding him as we stepped off the ledge, we also went much, much faster with our combined weights, and swung much higher. It felt as if we were plummeting towards the earth, and despite doing my best not to scream, it ripped out of me probably just a second after we left the platform. Check out the video clip, or the photos.

I don’t ever want to hear from him that there is anywhere I wouldn’t follow him. :)

In addition, I tried Rappeling and Rap jumping, where you run going face first down a cliff. My favorite was the Flying Fox, where I was attached to a line that ran straight across the gorge, and you run at full speed and spread out your arms. It really felt as if I were flying. The view was spectacular, and I could see my shadow all the way down on the gorge floor.

I had no idea that there was so many ways to jump off a cliff. Ropes and harnesses are amazing things…

Getting there is half the fun…

A 4X4 vehicle is an impressive machine. High off the road, with boxy windows and growling engines, these cars seem to be able to drive through anything.

And in large part, they do. The dirt roads going to Jungle junction were bumpy, but certainly driveable.

But after a good long rain, they turn to trenches of mud.

Piled into the back of the pickup truck with our luggage and Evelyn, a botanist from the Camp, we sat while the truck first got stuck in mud that was 2 feet deep – we had to be pulled out by another Range Rover. Mysteriously, children and men showed up within minutes of the car getting stuck, and all seemed happy to pitch in to help get the car out. Little boys especially seem to find it entertaining and try to push.

A few minutes down the road we were stuck a second time, out of the range of help. After some futile attempts at driving out of the mud patch, we all got out of the car, while our driver, covered in mud, patiently jacked up the front right wheel, then the left, and hacked off tree branches to put underneath the wheels. After diligently working for 40 minutes under the hot sun, he gunned the engine, and we crossed our fingers and hoped that he wouldn’t be the first person this season to be stranded in the mud.

I have never been happier to reach a paved road.

Jungle Junction and Lizazi

To get away from the touristy main strip of Livingstone, we headed to Bovu, a small island in the middle of the Zambezi River, to a rustic camp called Jungle Junction.

nullWe arrived by mokoro, a dugout canoe carved from the trunk of a single baobab tree. It was surprisingly stable, powered by a boatman in the back with a long stick/paddle. It felt very serene and calm. The sun was low in the sky, and the only sounds were the chirping of insects and the gentle lapping of the water against the canoe.

Jungle Junction is a camp, with reed huts and campsites, set up by 2 Scottish expat hippies. All of the buildings are made from native materials. No electricity, kerosene lamps, outdoor showers. It had all the hallmarks of a great place to do nothing – a library hut, a bar hut, a dining hut, and several places to lie down. Even when it rained the entire day, it was a relaxing and tranquil place to unwind.

There were also a few excursions from the camp, including a tour of the local village. We were taken by George to his village of Lizazi, which had 128 people in 10 families. Completely dependent on subsistance farming, we saw rows of corn, sorgum, a few goats, and a few chickens. Round thatched huts served as sleeping quarters, while the “kitchen” was a open walled thatched hut. Meals were cooked on charcoal or wood fires.

The visit was refreshingly low key – there was nothing to buy, nobody to pay. We were given advice to visit them “just as you would visit a friend”, and not hand out toys or food to children. Kids didn’t expect anything either, which was also a welcome relief after being trailed with “Hello, money!” and “Jambo! Chocolate?” in Tanzania .

Most of the village was empty when we visited at 9 in the morning, with the kids in school, and the adults working in the field. It made me feel quite the slacker to be going on my fourth month of vacation…:)

February 16, 2006

Chinese New Year and the Search for a Phone

Phone booth photo Copyright Todd Lappin
Although Livingstone, Zambia may be the adventure capital of Africa, it is damn hard to find a phone.

Since arriving in Africa on Dec 23, I had only managed to talk on the phone with my mom for a total of 8 minutes. I told her I arrived safely, that I was off Kilimanjaro safely, and the third call that I would call back when I got better phone accesss.

It had been almost 3 weeks since I called, and it was Chinese New Year. Every Chinese New Year growing up, I remember my mother hovering around the phone starting at 5am, waiting for calls from Hong Kong and China. Often, it would be the one time a year we would speak to family and friends there.

I was betting she had never been wished a happy new year from Zambia.

Unfortunately, Jonathan’s cell phone had no coverage throughout Zambia. Neither the hostels or the internet centers had phones capable of international calls. To make matters worse it was a Sunday, and many shops were closed.

There are, however, the Zambian version of public phones. Unlike the booth I’m used to, these were rickety wooden shacks with tin roofs, each with a person standing guard over one phone. Making calls from Zambia is expensive -$10/minute.

I got in all of 45 seconds of time, enough hear her surprise to hear from me, and to wish her a happy new year, and then the phone cut off. Evidently I had used up all their pre-paid credit, and they couldn’t give me anymore…

We celebrated by going to the very posh Royal Livingstone 5 star hotel, and had drinks at sunset on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River, just before the water crashed down at Victoria falls. We could see the smoky water vapor from the crashing falls.

I was sorely homesick, but as we watched the sun set, we realized we hit a unique milestone…on our 15 weeks on the road, we celebrated not one, not two but three new years (Jewish, Western, Chinese). I’ll drink to that. Does this mean we’ve been traveling for 3 years? :)

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