Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Africa Version 1.0

Ok, so now you've figured out how we decide where to go. So let's go!

En route (that’s French for ‘on the way’) to our first real African experience, we had a healthy 6-hour layover in Amsterdam.  A short train ride into town made sense as even the impressive Amsterdam airport can wear a little thin after a few hours.  Besides, I’d always wanted to experience the city best known for it’s open-mindedness, if only for a short time. After leaving the train station, I realized the ‘dam’ in Amsterdam stands for ‘damn, it’s cold!’. Packing for a vacation in equatorial Africa didn’t prepare me for wandering the streets of Amsterdam in February.  It was chilly, but not so cold so as to deter the legions of cyclists utilizing the extensive bike path system in the city (note to pedestrians  - walking on the bike path, which looks just like the sidewalk to me, is potentially fatal). 

The ultimate goal of the experience was to find the flower market, famous for its displays of tulips. In spite of suffering from mild hypothermia, it dawned on me the market might not be in full flower during the last leg of the Dutch winter. Still, a good soldier follows orders, especially when issued from the sugar momma. 

Along the way we noticed the slightly tippy nature of the architecture in Amsterdam (none of the buildings seem perfectly vertical) although there seems to be no immediate danger. As we walked along a side street, I watched a fellow step behind a curious structure made of curved metal walls. He then turned around in such a way as to stare through a conveniently placed, eye-high gap in the wall. It occurred to me it was a public urinal just as we made eye contact. Quickly averting my eyes toward the building we were passing, I immediately made eye contact with the full-figured, scantily-clad woman standing in the window. I didn't think we were in the red light district but apparently independent operators can be found anywhere downtown. In retrospect I hope I didn't breach window shopping protocol . Since my viewing options were suddenly severely restricted, I promptly took great interest in the sidewalk directly in front of me. Ann and Perri were oblivious to my plight. I’ve just got to stop being so observant. And speaking of observations, the smoke drifting from each coffee shop we passed confirmed the Dutch legal opinion on cannabis use was being fully embraced by the populace. We eventually made it to the market and back to the safety of Schipol International airport, where our Kenyan Airlines jet waited patiently.

She knows how to dress for Europe in February.

You won't find this at the  Calgary farmer's market with Harper at the helm.
After a quick red-eye special to Nairobi, and a short flight past Mount Kilimanjaro (quite spectacular in the morning sun as seen from 20,000 feet), we found ourselves on the island of Zanzibar. As we drove across the island to our all-inclusive beach resort, it was impossible not to gag on the irony as we passed a decidedly 3rd world environment. It was all there: oxcarts, tin-roof shanties with no electricity or running water, buses of suspect structural integrity, packed to rafters, and let's not forget the women doing most of the work. The first thing that caught my attention, however, was the spectacular rainbow of bright colors adorning the local women.  Zanzibar is primarily Muslim, and the local women seem to have tapped a vein of vibrant colors for their wardrobes, reminiscent of a Turkish pottery shop (see October’s blog).

The resort itself was of the disturbing all-inclusive variety, complete with swim-up bar and buffet suitable for binge eating, not to mention the pasty Belgians who overdo it on the first day and spend the remaining 2 weeks in the shade. The staff, who were friendly to a fault, were always willing to share Swahili words with you if you showed the slightest interest. Apparently, we were the only ones who did. One significant difference from previous vacations was the variety of guests' nationalities, hailing from countries like Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, South Africa and Australia. Eavesdropping on poolside chatter was not an easy proposition (for me they all could have been speaking French). Another difference was the unbelievable water temperature. The surf was literally bath temperature and the water color was that perhaps-not-so-fake turquoise you often see in vacation ads.
This could be a picture off the website, but I really took it from our balcony.
While we were there, we took part in the usual touristy day trips: snorkeling, a spice farm tour, and a poorly guided trip through Stone Town, a Unesco world Heritage site, featuring such highlights as a 19th century slave market, and, much more importantly, the birthplace of Freddy Mercury. I'm not sure the local Muslim community realizes he was a flamboyant pop star who died of AIDS, but maybe they do and don't care. Other than the fantastic seafood lunch on the snorkeling trip (best lunch ever!), I can’t say the first few days were remarkable. Perri added some drama by being sick to her stomach for a couple of days, much to the chagrin of our driver. But to her credit, she refused to be left behind. We managed to disregard every traveller website about eating in Africa by having lunch in a local restaurant in Stone town. Although it looked a bit dodgy, I had the curried mussels and lived to tell the tale. Perhaps my intestinal parasites are territorial and won't tolerate any incursions.

Interesting pasties.
This tortoise was alive during Victoria's reign even though it doesn't look like he is now (just sleeping, probably).
Before the vacation, Ann suggested we load up with school supplies in France and make a donation to a local school in Tanzania. So, one day, while Ann was off snorkeling, Perri and I befriended a Maasai fellow on the beach who agreed to take us into the local town to visit the school. We arrived during recess and the headmaster gave us the overview: lots of students and not enough supplies. On the way back, I realized we could have done a lot more. For those of you who have a conscience and plan to visit developing nations in the near future, look up the ‘packing for a purpose’ website to give you some ideas.

The English teacher at work?
She might go to school.
I was able to have a nice chat with our Maasai escort who explained he and his buddies come from the mainland to Zanzibar during the tourist season to ‘run the business’, which included selling knick-knacks and doing traditional dances at the resorts as after-dinner entertainment. We eventually wandered down the beach to see the shop, which was comprised of a half dozen tents filled with carvings, necklaces, and traditional Maasai skull-crusher clubs (I got one and I’m dying for someone to break into our house while I’m home, although I think I’ll put it somewhere out of Ann’s reach).  After some haggling, Ann remarked that although the Maasai salesmen spent the whole day on the beach, where it gets very hot, they all smell like they just stepped out of a very soapy shower. It’s true but I couldn’t say why.

Ole and Jackson - they really are Maasai. Don't let the sunglasses fool you.
The next day we were the only passengers on a 12 seater Cessna for a 20 minute flight back to the mainland, where we had an exciting landing (big-time cross winds) on a dirt airstrip within sight of the ocean. Saadani national park is a recently converted hunting reserve of about 1000 km2, and is one of the smaller parks in the country. We had few expectations about our accommodation and what we might see while we were there. I had visions of suspect food, pesky biting insects, and long crowded drives where the guides would apologize for seeing nothing more than distant specks which may or may not be antelope . Since I only brought a small camera with no big lenses, I was prepared for the worst. The camp was truly rustic with thatched-roof cabinas right on the beach (we were 5 steps to the high tide line), the occasional bat in the bathroom, monkeys trying to steal your lunch, and boardwalks between structures. However, our mosquito spray didn’t seem necessary and was used only as a precaution should we actually encounter any mosquitoes. There were other guests although we only ever saw them at dinner. And the food was fresh and excellent.

Our first expedition was a late-day river trip, which was exciting when we first saw hippos. Then less so when we kept seeing them for the next hour or so (there are a few hundred who live along that stretch of river). Perri may have seen a crocodile slipping quietly into the water, and we all saw a goodly number of strange birds (at least, strange to us).  Again, we were the only three on this excursion, which I expected to be unusual, but proved to be the norm.

There were many of these.
The next morning Ann and I got up early to watch a local watering hole about 40 meters from the camp, complete with an observation hut. After about an hour of discussing the numerous and sizeable ants sharing the hut with us, we had just about given up on seeing anything. I know most of you are thinking maybe something would turn up if you shut-up for a few minutes and that is just what you would think, except it was while we were chatting a troupe of baboons showed up for drink.

Later in the afternoon we climbed aboard one of the range rovers for game drive, where we once again had a private experience. We were delighted to see some monkeys, baboons, antelope, a few zebra and a bunch of giraffe. All told, we were quite happy about the trip. We weren’t sure what we missed, although at dinner another group, who had been there almost a week, assured us it was unusual to see anything more interesting. They were hoping to see some elephants before they left, but weren’t counting on it.

Our guide spoke quietly, but was certainly effective.
I'm not even sure what this is exactly.
Warthogs - they're just funny.

Giraffes are cool and very photogenic.

On our last night we were surprised by a bushbaby (no photos but there are such things) while we played cards after dark. Imagine a large squirrel, then notch up the cuteness factor about 5 clicks. They make a funny sound that suggests they're disappointed and upset at the same time, even when they're happy, or frisky. I honestly couldn't say where this one was coming from, emotionally, but it returned to our hut for a noisy encore at about 3 a.m..

A few short hours later, we climbed into the truck for our last drive (still, just the three of us). The morning held little promise as the wind was up bringing the distinctive odor of rain, or was it failure. I was convinced we would get a nice, wet three-hour drive where indistinct blobs sitting under distant trees would be described as possible examples of African wildlife. In the first hour I was reminded of the Jeff Goldblum character in Jurassic Park explaining how he hates being right all the time. Just when we were all resigned to seeing nothing more than a few bush bucks, and Perri and I had begun taking pictures of trees, the guide stopped the truck and pointed to the horizon. “Elephants”, was all he said, before racing the truck off the road in the general direction he had been pointing. Darned if he wasn’t right. He parked the truck in such a way that the entire herd of perhaps 25 animals, including a number of little ones, walked right past us. Very cool. They made almost no sound except the occasional tearing sound when one reached out and grabbed a substantial amount of foliage off a passing tree and shoveled it into his or her mouth, an eating style with which I am familiar.

Perhaps we were a bit too close for his liking.
Mark it down as a successful day!

On the way back, Perri and Ann were jabbering away like a couple of kids on Christmas morning. At least they were until the guide quietly said ‘lions’. And darned if the guide wasn’t right again.  This time we found ourselves literally parked in the midst of a pride of lions happily enjoying the remains of their breakfast baboon. We were gob-smacked (I’ve been dying to use that word). After ten minutes of listening to the sounds of bones being crunched a few meters away, I was reminded I hadn’t had breakfast yet. There was also a non-eaten baboon, who was at the top of a nearby tree (the only nearby tree) loudly voicing his displeasure at the demise of his buddy. I think he also realized it was going to be a long day waiting for the lions to have a nap and move on.

I think she had breakfast...
But I don't think this young male had, and I really didn't like the way he was looking at me.
On the way back to camp, we decided it would be best if we weren’t too vocal about seeing both the elephants and lions since none of the other guests had. I’m not sure about safari etiquette, but what with all the Maasai skull-crusher clubs available, I didn’t want to tempt fate.

Breakfast – packing – flight to Dar es Salaam for a nice meal then 4 ½ hours of sleep before the marathon travel day home.

Overall – both Tanzania and Zanzibar are pretty cool.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The Winter of Our Discontent

I decided to take a little walk through the trees the other day. Being in a forestry district, the difference between a residential street and wilderness is about 20 steps. 
This goes for miles.
During hunting season, which I have been told has been extended into March, due to the high numbers of wild pigs snuffling about, a walk in the forest can be your first step on the stairway to heaven. Fortunately, hunting is not allowed on Wednesday afternoons. Is it a coincidence school is out on Wednesday afternoons? In France it probably is.  I did stumble upon a hunting blind, although I’m not sure what you hide from:
Blind: That garbage is spent shotgun shells.
The only thing I could see from the blind was a bunch of houses across the vale. I’m guessing they don’t get many sleep-ins in the fall, especially on weekends. It would be the hunting equivalent of having your bedroom window face the first tee box on a golf course.

There were a few interesting stretches of trail along the valley bottoms, where moss dominates the landscape.

Another filter? What do you think?

For a long stretch, I imagined I was walking through the set of the Blair Witch Project.  Looking around, everything looked kinda the same, like this:

and this:

And the sky looked like this:

I might've been a little lost, but certainly not scared. What can a bunch of wild pigs do to a guy? I've heard they're clever but I know they're tasty, so I concentrated on ham rather than the concept of hunting in packs.

I was able to overcome any directional confusion through the use of my Iphone’s google maps application, which got me safely home, eventually. But first, a quick stop at the mall.

The little mall here is like the mall anywhere: a big store and a bunch of little stores where muzac is piped in for the listening pleasure of the shoppers. What caught my attention on this trip was the hard-core rap being played, and the generous use of F-bombs and MF-bombs being dropped by the vocalist. No bleeping out words for these guys. As the song was in English, it appeared that I was the only person aware of the verbal assault. Some might suggest the locals display a high level of tolerance for non-traditional art forms. I might suggest the kid in charge of music that day knew exactly what he could get away with. Nicely done.

It was good I got my hiking out of the way, as it looks like I may have been misinformed about the hospitable nature of the Arcachon winter. Over the next week there are forecast lows of -7c! I’ll admit I am curious to see how the locals will dress under those circumstances. After all, it appears they wear everything they own at +10c. Judging by the air quality on cold days, I guess they hunker down and ride it out at home in front of their busy little wood-burning fireplaces.

So, what does an enterprising Canadian family do when faced with the bleak prospects of a long dark winter? Why, they plan a vacation somewhere warm, of course! As usual, when faced with Perri’s school break, Ann always starts with a simple plan and modest aspirations.  Somehow, the plan unravels. This is how I think her brain works:

"I love the Canary Islands. We should go there.  Easy. The Canaries are not too far away and relatively cheap. Oh-oh. Look at those February temperatures. Daily highs in the low 20’s? That’s not serious heat. And the wind is probably always blowing. I can’t be expected to shake off the chill of winter with anything less than 25c. No problem. I’ll just keep my finger moving south on the map until I hit something else. Hey look! The Cape Verde Islands are cool and they are much further south. They must be warmer. Damn the moderating influence of the ocean! The Cape Verdes aren’t much warmer than the Canaries. Maybe this ocean is broken. We should look at other oceans. Hmmm… Atlantic’s no good, Mediterranean – it’s close, but it’s just a sea, Arctic – definitely not for winter, Pacific – too far (for now), Indian – hello. Why, there are all kinds of warm-looking places along here. Somalia? That sounds warm and familiar but not for the right reasons. Kenya – maybe. Madagascar – very cool, and hot. We should go there; I saw the movie. Wait a second. What’s this tiny island thing off the coast of … of… what country is that? Tanzania? I thought they renamed that one. And this island is … Zanzibar? Well I guess it’s decided. Nothing with a name like that gets ignored."

Author’s note - I’d like to avoid searing comments from readers by reminding them I am within the legal boundaries defined by my artistic license, recently purchased from the local French prefecture in regards to mindreading. I’ll admit with only 20 years of empirical studies on this subject (Ann), I recognize I may not have got it exactly right.

At this point, I have to step-in and admit that Richard actually described things pretty much the way they unfolded in my brain.  However, I am not offended in the least. Actually, I take pride in my goofy, unconstrained, creative thought process because it sometimes leads to some interesting ideas (not always though...)   - Ann

So, we’re off to Tanzania in a few weeks. Like any thoughtful traveller, I was compelled to check the on-line travel advisory websites for hints on safety, health, and money. Interesting. Apparently I can acquire no less than a dozen potentially fatal tropical diseases as well as a few which aren’t, but you’d generally wish they were if you actually caught them. This called for a trip to the travel medical clinic in Bordeaux. I used to believe an inoculation for something like yellow fever prevented the disease. However, after spending the last couple of days feeling like a test subject in a biology experiment gone terribly wrong, I have come to the conclusion inoculations are simply disease ' free samples'. Of course, Ann and Perri feel great.

We had another guest a few days ago and used him as an excuse to visit St. Emilion yet again. The ancient town in the heart of Bordeaux wine country will always make the to-do list for those of you planning a visit. The Chateau we visited for a wine tour lured us into joining their frequent flyers club. Maybe this is the first sign that we have a problem. I prefer to believe we are hobbyists.

One more glance at the weather forecast suggests I may be without golf for more than a few days. Cabin fever is always a danger. The two local sport channels favour European handball and field hockey. On slow days, re-runs of recent ski jumping events dominate the airwaves. Even better, the local movie channel was running a film with French subtitles a few days ago. I was a bit confused because it sounded to my untrained ears as though the film was already in French. And it was. But not the kind of French they understand around here. The film was made in Quebec and the subtitles were deemed essential for viewer comprehension. Perhaps some elocution lessons for the French-Canadian acting community are in order.

As the temperature plummets, it occurs to me our house relies on three or four radiators to heat the whole place. There is only one on the entire main floor. Six months ago I admired the generous use of windows (not the double-paned, high efficiency variety) and sparing use of unsightly radiators. Now I'm not so sure. I also used to wonder why there were so many halogen lights in the house, since they cost more to replace than standard bulbs. Now I see they may be intended as a secondary heating system!

School vacation can't come soon enough.