Thursday, March 30, 2006

Video Gallery: The Eclipse Dance

Waiting for the eclipse was cold business that required a careful balance of patience and silliness.

Photo Album: Eclipse

We barely made it to the eclipse near the Egyptian-Lybian border. Be amazed.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Soloum, Egypt

Last night, we were picked up at our hotel by a driver (name unknown - he don't speak much English) and drove all night to the northwest corner of Egypt to view a solar eclipse. The drive itself was long (eight hours) and unremarkable. We broke up some of the monotony by getting to know the passenger sharing our car. Chris was from Hong Kong and was something of an eclipse nut. This was his fifth outing. He connected the spiritual sustenance he derives from Tai Chi (sp?) to the mystical power (maybe not the right term) of celestial events. He specifically believed that eclipses can successfully sow union in fields formerly reserved for discord and potatoes. He was an earnest man who seemed to take things immediately and thoroughly to heart.

We broke our journey only for the necessities of nature - urination, caffeination, and smokes. Our driver had a worryingly strong appetite for espresso and strong cigarettes. Nonetheless, we arrived safely at the eclipse site sometime around 04:00. There was a small amount of unpleasantness at the entrance to Soloum. I took great exception to being charged 100 Egyptian pounds (20 US dollars - only paid by non-Egyptians) to enter the viewing area. We were essentially getting charged to look at the sky, but we had little choice, so dough was coughed up in phlegmy wads. Even an apparently free resource like heavens can be monopolized if you control the only road. In retrospect, I can hardly blame the locals for cashing in. This eclipse was probably the biggest thing to happen in town since Rommel.

The viewing site was far more organized that I expected. There was a cafe selling tea and simple cold food, a press center, clean bathrooms, a large tent with comfortable chairs, and a snack bar dispensing a variety of packaged foods. I immediately noticed the distinctive blinking lights of a router/switch among a pile of equipment and popped open my laptop. I was rewarded with five full bars of wireless connectivity. I immediately set about bugging people via IM about how I was chatting to them in the middle of a desert. Technology rules. We settled in for a bit and passed the hours pacing around to stay warm and watching other people arrive and get their (sometimes volumnious) gear sorted.

A stubborn fog kept things cold even after the sunrise. I was definitely not winning an fashion awards with my attire - multiple hastily-assembled layers paired with a red fez that I had acquired in Cairo. Jason assured me (and continues to assure me) that I looked very silly indeed. I can only assume that the correspondent from Egypt TV had comedy in mind when she asked us to take part in a live interview. According to her, we were seen by millions of Egyptian TV viewers. Jason got to say a few words about the eclipse. I was (perhaps wisely) denied the opportunity to address the nation and had to be content with smiling awkwardly at the camera. The crew claims that it is not possible to get a tape of the broadcast. We will follow up on this later. The OC has not received this much journalistic attention since we appeared in a Vietnamese communist newspaper way back in the day.

After our television debut, it was warm enough to shed a few layers and break out that most ingenious of all time-wasting devices: the hacky sack. We only managed to attract one other player - a student for the American University of Cairo - before wilting under the disapproving stares of the Egyptian secret service. President Mubarak was nearby (less than 50 meters) to view the eclipse, so security was very tight. There were no fewer than 5 different kinds of police and military running around setting up traffic cones and otherwise trying to look official. As far as I can tell, their efforts were a complete joke. On entering the main tent, you had to pass through a metal detector, but your bags were just put aside to be collected a moment later without inspection. Even the most boneheaded assassin could have beat that system.

Things started to pick up as we approached 11 AM and the first kiss of sun and moon. Bearded nerds fiddled excitedly with their equipment as everybody made a few last minute adjustments. A contingent of legit scientists (including one very animated Ukrainian astronomer in a sheik-style headdress) announced the start and all eyes went skyward. We had managed to score some of those fancy mylar eclipse glasses from an ambiguously European woman and some chairs from the main tent and were thus well equipped for a civilized observation of the event. We shot some stills and a bunch of video using the glasses for filtration and some books to steady the camera. The arrangement (however ghetto) seems to have worked well, but nothing we shot really looked like much up until the time that the moon completely covered the sun.

The moment of "totality" was groin-grabbingly awesome. As the disk of the sun disappeared, the darkening of the sky seemed to accelerate. When the very last sliver of orange slipped away, it felt like somebody had flipped a light switch and the whole world went dark. It was now safe to look directly at the corona of the sun leaking out from behind the moon. For the very first moments there was a pronounced "diamond ring" effect where light spilt through a lunar canyon, making one point on the circumference momentarily more dazzling than the rest. To the naked eye, the ring appeared to be a bright, icy blue/white. Even serially-unimpressed Jason went so far as to say "wow". After a few minutes of slacked-jawed staring, we set about taking photos of The OC with eclipse. We made it just in time. I snapped a last picture of Jason just as the sun started to re-emerge. Two seconds later, somebody flipped the switch back on and the sun started to re-emerge. The assembled crowd gave a little cheer while the devout Muslims present responded to a well-timed call to prayer.

Getting to view the eclipse was a happy coincidence for us. Thanks to Juan for the heads up. He gave us more credit than was due when congratulating our foresight a few weeks back. The long drive into the desert organized at the last minute was well worth it. Our new friend Chris seemed very pleased with his fifth eclipse. Although I did not see any clear evidence of increased peace or brotherhood, I am sure that our appearance on Egyptian television will go a long way towards cementing the bonds among the family of men. I looked damn good in that fez.

Video Gallery: Eclipse

Saloum, Egypt

Using our trusty camcorder and a piece of mylar we managed to get some video of the eclipse.

Eclipse - big / little

As usual, check out this page if you have trouble playing the video.

Photo Album: Cape Town

Most big cities in South Africa made me afraid of the stabbie-stabbie. Cape Town was the exception.

Photo Album: South African Party

Because we took the road most traveled through South Africa, we ended up getting blitzed with a lotta honkies.

Seven Hours To Eclipse

El Saloum, Egypt

Just a quickie...

The OC is currently in the very northwest corner of Egypt - maybe 2 kilometers from Libya - and we have wireless (and free) internet access. One of the tour groups out here for the eclipse has erected a large tent with all the geeky amenities of home. I love technology.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

To Infinity, And A Little Bit Farther

Cairo, Egypt

It seems, for the moment, that the OC's luck has changed for the better. We unexpectedly received our baggage last night, a day ahead of schedule. To tell the truth, I had my doubts that we would be getting our baggage on schedule (if at all). I was expecting an extended stay in Cairo walking around in our recently-purchased cheap bazaar clothing. And those cotton undies just don't fit right.
Luckily, we did get our bags, and after a quick call to Ahmet, we were also able to change our plans.
Originally, we had arranged to go to the pyramids on the Wednesday of the eclipse. Around Giza, the eclipse wouldn't be total, but at least we would be seeing it in a visually impressive setting. Riding camels around the ancient structures with a half-black sun seemed a decent consolation prize. But, since we got our bags back ahead of schedule, Ahmet was able to arrange a driver for us who could take us on the 9-hour overnight car ride across the western desert to catch the total eclipse in Sollum. He even found one more American kid to do the trip with us, dropping the price a significant amount.
So, we are sitting in the Ambassador Hotel now, waiting for our driver to come pick us up. Our adventure in Egypt is just beginning.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Off The Sauce


Jason and I agreed that while in Egypt we would be good Muslims and abstain from alcohol. This is probably the first time since high school that I have gone three weeks without a drink. Hopefully I will pass the time without cravings or shaking hands and emerge from the other side of the sobriety tunnel assured that my enthusiasm for drink is more hobby than profession. I think of it as a kind of home alcoholism test. A pleasant side effect is that I am guaranteed to be hangover free for awhile, and that is quite a blessing. My day afters are getting alarmingly worse as I age.

Gimme Clips

Bahrain International Airport

The cheapest tickets we could get from South Africa to Egypt were on a Gulf Air flight through Bahrain. It involved a 12-hour layover and a night's stay in fancy hotel with soap and everything. The bed was springy and warm, and I was dead tired, so it worked out perfectly.
Except for the fact that they lost our luggage.

It wasn't too surprising, I guess. We flew from Cape Town to Jo'Burg on Nationwide Airlines, and then had to switch to Gulf Air in Jo'Burg for our flight to Bahrain. We had a tiny amount of time to make the switch, and we were jumping from a domestic to an international flight. It involved us exiting security, switching terminals, checking into Gulf Air, going back through international security, through customs, and finally to our gate. They were a lot of steps to go through, and less than an hour to get through them. (Because of the time crunch, I missed out on my VAT refund, too, which would have been like $200.) We managed to barely make it, about five minutes before they closed the gate. Unfortunately, our bags did not.
They're stuck somewhere in Jo'Burg now. We reported them missing in Bahrain and they are sending them along, but we won't be able to pick them up here since our flight is leaving in about an hour. They promise that they'll send them through all the way to Cairo. This means that we're going to have to stay in Cairo longer than expected. We had hoped to be able to leave the day that we arrived, so we could catch the total eclipse in Egypt's western desert. But, now we can't leave until our baggage arrives. If that only takes a day, we can probably still make it. However, I have a feeling that dealing with the bureaucracy of international baggage handling across three countries will take longer than a day.
So, no eclipse for us.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Caped Crusaders

Cape Town, South Africa

Word Up, Karen!

We spent more than a week in Cape Town. It went by fast. When we pulled in on Friday, I was thinking that we would have a quick look at the sights, maybe reconnect with The Dykes (a.k.a. The Dutchesses, a.k.a. Mignon and Anouk), then high tail it out of Dodge. Events and the confusing organization of modern air travel conspired to keep us around longer.

Cape Town (or the small part of it that we saw - almost entirely the city center) is damn nice. The weather is good, the streets are clean, and (unlike JoBurg or Durban) we did not feel like murderers were lurking behind every bush. Our newfound confidence may have been born solely of experience in South Africa, but I reckon The Cape is a generally more prosperous and therefore less hostile place altogether. Public opinion is definitely with me on this one. Most citizens of Cape Town (especially taxi drivers) seem to hold other South African urban centers in low regard. The city is set against a backdrop of mountains that we did not climb and surrounded by reportedly excellent beaches which we did not visit. The OC had had enough time outdoors. Cape Town was all about urban pleasures.

And we got those kicking in short order. On Saturday, we started the festivities with a rugby match at Newlands Stadium. The Stormers and The Cheetahs were head to head as part of the Super 14 tournament. The OC had ever been to a rugby match before. It was a very civilized. Perhaps too civilized. They do not allow you to drink beer in the stadium. That would not fly in the US. Enforced sobriety aside, I am pleased to report that my Cheetahs beat the home Stormers by 3 points in a jolly good show of sporting prowess. After the match, we hooked up with our new friend Rob. He and a local Turk took us out to the Observatory neighborhood for a studenty rock show followed by sloppy conversation in some kind of baroque opium den and then the de rigeur hip-hop dance-a-thon. The next day we had our reunion with The Dutch Girls (discussed elsewhere) and another serious bout of drinking.

It was a busy weekend, the kind that spills over into the week in the form of headache, disorientation, and cigarette throat. Understandably, the weekdays were more low key. In addition to some excellent local museums, we saw a hip hop review put on as part of the month-long Cape Town Festival, celebrated Human Rights Day with a trip out to the harbor to see the enormous yacht that Rob is delivering across the Atlantic and to eat a tasty lobster and abalone dinner, and took in 90 minutes of pretentious student films offered by the Right Eye Film Festival. Jason hit Robben Island (former prison of Nelson Mandela) while I convalesced a bit. We also sorted out some admin, lined up plane tickets, enjoyed some fine local restaurants, and generally took it easy.

By Friday, we were ready for a return to the large life. All week, taxi drivers dropping us off at the hotel had noted the nearby presence of "Mavericks" - a strip club of no small fame. Fate clearly wanted us to go. In a happy coincidence, our Dutch friends were scheduled to return to town that night. We met Rob at nine for dinner before heading directly over to the nudie bar for the usual nudie bar antics. I even got to practice my Russian to small but measurable effect. Sometime around two, a text-based tug-o-war broke out. We wanted the girls to come to the naked club. They wanted us to come to them in a non-naked club. For reasons complex and obscure, we eventually gave in. I was running out of money, anyway. A cab ride later and we were out of the frying pan and into the gay bar. I don't really care for gay bars, but the delightful company of The Dutchesses more than outweighed my distaste for camp.

We laughed. We danced. Everything was going great right up until the moment that Mignon's girlfriend Alice caught Jason smooching Anouk, who just so happens to have a steady man back home. It could have been worse. She damn near caught me smooching her own lady friend. Long story shortish, there was some kind of back in forth in high-speed Dutch and Alice stormed off. She was back two minutes later only to thunder off again, but this time taking a precious cargo of Dutch sisters with her. We were powerless to stop the Viking woman as she sailed away in a taxi with the girls. Thoroughly bummed, we jumped in a cab of our own and headed back to to the hotel where we said goodbye to Rob and set about drowning our sorrows in chicken pie while waiting for the shuttle to the airport.

And that brings us just about to the present. I am writing this aboard a Gulf Air A330 over Ethiopia on its way to Bahrain. We are going to spend the night in what the pre-flight propaganda refers to as "The Kingdom" before continuing on to Cairo and then to the northwest of Egypt to see an eclipse on the 29th. It is going to be a busy couple of days - hopefully busy enough to leave behind recent frustrations, but not so busy as to leave behind recent pleasant memories. Those Dutch girls really got under my skin.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Movie: The Wine Incident

Jason always laughs at me when I hurt myself. Finally I got a chance to laugh at him.

The Wine Incident (small) (large)

Check this page out if you have problems playing the file.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Dykes

South Africa

I have been accused - and not without reason - of coming on too strong when meeting new people. Probably the most frequent manifestation of this behavior is my tendency to declare hopeless infatuation with but the slightest provocation. I have had torrid one-hour affairs with hundreds of waitresses and fallen madly in love repeatedly for no more than the period of an elevator ride. More noticeable is the related tendency to cut through traditional small talk and go right for more familiar topics like the state of my butt or my fantasy about girls in lab coats. I figure its faster to convert stranger into comrade or anonymously adored vixen into lady friend if you just dive in. Not everyone reacts favorable to this approach. For that reason, I have lately been holding back when making first impressions.

When we met Anouk and Mignon for the first time, I made a conscious effort to forestall the reciting of epic romantic poetry and the penis-related anecdotes in favor of more conventional small talk. This required no small effort, as I was nearly smitten to death. The objects of my readily-dispensed affection were tall/blonde/blue-eyed sisters from Amsterdam sporting fashionable (and flatteringly tight) outfits and charming Northern European accents. We met in the little town of Underberg at the start of our trip into Lesotho and would be trapped together in trucks and on horses for most of three days. I thought it prudent to delay any proposals of marriage or interjections of poopie-humor for at least an hour so as not to overpower our new companions. In the meantime, the conversation could focus on the weather, mid-century artistic movements, knitting, and other similarly safe topics.

My restraint was completely unwarranted. We were not halfway up Sani Pass before the fart jokes were coming fast and thick, and for once it wasn't me or Jason that started it. I can not remember a time when the OC hit it off so well and so quickly with some fellow travelers. Not that it needed breaking, but the real ice smasher came when (over tea and without precedent) Mignon told us about how she once shit in a bag and brought it to school for "Something Special" - the equivalent of "Show And Tell". After that revealing tale, everything was fair game. Anouk explained that homosexual men in Holland are sometimes called "intestinal tourists". One thing lead to another, and it was not long before we coined the new term "intestinaut" as a rough simile. The sisters also explained that in Holland a well-endowed woman is said to have "a lot of wood stacked up in front of the house". Jason scored a point for the yanks in his creation of the as yet theoretical soap opera entitled "The Bodacious and Beleaguered".

I managed to keep my romantic instincts in check for awhile, but once the girls started singing classic country tunes, there was really no holding back. I have no power to resist beautiful, intelligent women with a dirty sense of humor that can harmonize their way through "Nine to Five" with no apparent effort. I blurted out a declaration of undying love sometime during the second day. Alas, it was not to be. Anouk was devoted to her man - a surfing lothario of no small stature - and Mignon was equally loyal to her girlfriend. Oh well. I agreed to settle for purely Platonic relations and moved the discussion along quickly to a lengthy discussion of the whiteness of my butt - it having been partially (and quite accidentally) exposed during the previous day. The high spirits continued throughout our time in Lesotho, down the pass to Underberg, and all the way along the road to Durban where we finally parted company after a brain-numbingly drunken night on the town.

The girls hopped a flight for Cape Town and the OC reluctantly boarded the bus for the Wild Coast. I was unhappy. Saying goodbye before I have really said hello is getting real old, and in this case I had particularly large amount of greeting left undone. The Baz Bus might be comfortable and convenient, but I greatly prefer to be wedged into a crowded mini taxi where I can watch local people reacting with confusion to the yodeling Dutch duet way in the back (as happened on the way to Durban). Being around Anouk and Mignon made me feel full of the life and energy that comes with new friendship. It is no surprise that our short stay at Cinsa seemed very boring and lonely in comparison. I was more than a little pleased to make our way to Cape Town and the possibility of reunion.

And reunion we had. Anouk, Mignon, and Mignon's lady friend Alice picked us up in a rental car on Sunday night and we headed down to the beach to celebrate. Early in the evening, Anouk said the nicest thing. She said that once or twice during our separation she and her sister had agreed that whatever they were doing would be a lot more fun if Jason and I were there. It was a complement that I did not hesitate to return. We passed the evening eating pizza, getting drunk, and shaking our booties first at the beach and later at a very gay club near the city center. We said goodbye for the second time in the early morn after a thorough hugging and the obligatory photograph. Although I could easily stand to spend more time with Anouk and Mignon, this parting was a happy one. Something about the second meeting felt like a completely realized unit of friendship, rather than the frantic meet, greet, and beat feet so much more characteristic of the OC. For once, I got out enough hello to feel good saying goodbye.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Video Gallery: Coloured-Ass Crooks

The OC attended a hip-hop show in Capetown showcasing the best of South Africa. Have you ever heard folks rapping in Afrikaans?

Video Gallery: Mike In The Hood

It was like an action movie without all the glamor. We also dispensed with the sobriety. Who needs it?

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Photo Album: Lesotho

Check out the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.

Video Gallery: Water Sports

We traveled to Lesotho to discover the enigmatic Wasotho people and perfect our equestrian skills. Also, to frolick in the creek.

Video Gallery: The Rapping Dutch

We met two Dutch girls in South Africa, and man were they street.

Cape Toon

Cape Town, South Africa

Another quickie...

We made it to Cape Town yesterday. The vibe here is much nicer than in Durban or JoBurg. I do not feel like I could be robbed or knifed at any moment. In fact, I feel rather happy to be here. The sun is shining and the downtown where we are staying is full of colorful old buildings. Lovely.

Juan pointed out that there is a full eclipse passing over Africa on the 29th. This forces us to decided from three paths:
  1. We could stick with the original plan and fly to Egypt and enjoy the eclipse from there. This option features the additional benefit of getting to see Chris L and Gigi we are currently vacationing on the Nile.
  2. Head for Ghana. This is where the total eclipse makes first landfall. It is a bit of a unknown quanity. I reckon it would be nice to see just a touch of West Africa before departing for the north of the continent.
  3. Make a break for Namibia. It's close, it's cheap, and it's had good reviews from other travellers.

We should have our house in order soon. In the meantime, the OC is in heavy research mode.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Sorry, Rina

Cintsa, South Africa

We're in another backpacker haven in South Africa, relaxing mightily in a safari tent overlooking the Cintsa Bay. We'll be spending a few days in this area of the Wild Coast, learning to surf and maybe trekking a bit around some local Xhosa villages. These "out in the boonies" tours seem to be the only way to get some enjoyment out of South Africa, cause the cities just ain't doin' it.

Two nights ago, the OC had another brush with lawlessness. This time, though, it wasn't directed at us. It was one of our friends who was the in the unfortunate shoes of the robbed.
We had arrived in Durban the night before with Mignon and Anouk, two Dutch sisters who had joined us on our horse-trek through Lesotho. We had planned to go out the night we arrived, but were stymied by a lack of cash. When I suggested to the reception lady at the hostel that we needed to get some clamolas from a nearby ATM she just looked at me with big, incredulous eyes and exclaimed, "On a Saturday night!?". Apparently, using an ATM in Durban on a weekend night is just asking to get your head caved in. Anyway, long story short: no money, no outie.
The next night, though, we hit the booze. We cashed up early, made ourselves pretty, warmed up with a beer-soaked game of Mexican, and eventually made our way down to a beach-side club known as Joe Cool's. Shortly after we arrived, we were joined by our South African lady-friend, Rina. She was the girl in charge at Sani Lodge, the hostel we had stayed in near the Sani Pass. She had heard about our going to Durban and was the one that suggested that we party down in Joe Cool's.

In general, the places that we have gone to in South Africa that our considered "safe" for tourists are also invariably full of white people. Despite being like 80% black, South Africa still follows the general rule of the Western World which is that white people get most of the money and black people get most of the crime. Predictably, Joe Cool's was no different. When we first walked in, I didn't see a single black face. After two or three hours, though, I did notice one black girl on the edge of the dance floor. She wasn't really dancing, and she seemed a bit uncomfortable. She wasn't even talking to anyone; just standing there looking understandably lonely. I briefly flirted with the idea of striking up a conversation with her, but I was quickly swept away by the bootie-shaking sisters from Holland. It's hard to maintain any coherent thoughts when you're in a Dutch sammich, so I lost track of the mysterious club patron and plunged into the dance.
Fast forward one hour and three drinks, and we're all having a great time. Except for Rina. She stopped me in the middle of my best Saturday Night Fever impression to tell me that she was leaving. The night was young, so I asked her why. She blurted out that someone had stolen her cell phone, and ran off towards the exit. I followed her out to find her standing in front of the club arguing heatedly with the mysterious black girl. She was accusing her of stealing it. Great.
I immediately went down to try and mediate the situation. My first assumption was that I was seeing ingrained racism in action. Apartheid only ended a decade or so ago, and Rina had a heavy Afrikaaner accent. The only black girl in the club made for a nice target. She was crying, and Rina was yelling and pointing fingers. I tried to help by calling Rina's cell phone, but Rina said that she keeps it on vibrate. So, while I called, she quite aggressively patted the crying girl down and searched through her purse, hoping to find her vibrating phone. The whole time, the black girl was denying everything, but not really putting up much of a fight. I didn't know what to do. The way Rina was rifling through that girl's stuff seemed really invasive, but I wasn't sure what kind of evidence Rina had, so I just stood there and held my cell phone.
Eventually, Rina went back inside muttering that the girl must have stashed the phone somewhere in the bathroom, and I had a chance to talk to the black girl alone. We made some small talk, and she told me her name (which I have forgotten, of course), and started giving me her story. That's when I got suspicious. She immediately began telling me some very elaborate stories that seemed designed to build sympathy. The first was that she had been pepper-sprayed by the club bouncers on her way out. She had been crying a little, but her nose wasn't running and her eyes weren't red at all. The next one was that she was visiting from Kenya, and had come to the club with her twin(?!) sister and "a white guy". When I asked her where they were, she said that they had left, and she didn't have enough money to get back to where she was staying. We spent quite a few minutes talking outside while Rina was doing her thing in the club, and the whole time, she kept slipping and saying little things that set off my bullshit alarm.
Eventually, she asked to use my cell phone so she could call her brother, who was a policeman in the city. Earlier, she had mentioned not knowing anyone else in the city, but I gave her my phone anyway, hoping that her conversation would give me more of a clue as to what was going on. No dice. While she was on the phone, she spoke to whoever was on the other side in an African language that I couldn't recognize.
After about ten minutes, a shitty car came slowly rolling through the parking lot with a black driver. When I looked at the girl, she seemed to be studiously ignoring the car, looking everywhere except at the car. It never even stopped. It just slowly cruised by and then exited the lot. A minute later, she asked to use my phone again and called the same number and spoke the same language. The conversation was very short and afterwards she handed the phone back to me, she said, "I'm going for a walk. I'll be back." I was sure she wasn't coming back, but Rina was still inside, and I didn't really feel like illegally detaining anyone. So, she walked off.
Predictably, she did not come back.

That whole situation sucked, and my being half-drunk didn't help. I'm still not entirely sure what happened, but my guess is that the girl had in fact stolen the phone. And I did nothing.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Sub Durban

Durban, South Africa

Just a note by way of update...

We arrived yesterday in the coastal city of Durban, previous home to one M. Ghandi, and center of SA's large Indian population. We spent the last few days trekking around the mountain kingdom of Lesotho and climbing mountains in the Drakensberg range. From here, we are going to work our way down to Cape Town with maybe a stop or two for some scuba or a sit on the beach or a surfing lesson.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Treat 'Em Mean


During our expedition to Lesotho, our guide, the irrepressible Matt, treated us to a snippet of poetry written by his own hand. It goes:

treat 'em mean
keep 'em keen
treat 'em nice
get fucking shit on

One can only agree with the truth and wisdom inherent in this bit of verse. Has not every man felt that another's success with the fairer gender could only be ascribed to the feminine world's adoration of maltreatment? That is to say, is it not the assholes that get the girls? Matt has managed to encapsulate in just a few choice words what we all know to be true: nice guys finish last in the booty race. As a tribute to his literary accomplishment and generous contribution to our collective global wisdom, we sent Matt a shapely plastic leg from a female mannequin anonymously in the mail. I hope that he receives and cherishes it in the spirit that it was sent, whatever that might be.

The Mountain Kingdom


As is noted by any casual cartographic observer, South Africa completely encloses the mountain kingdom of Lesotho (leh-soo-too). This always struck me as odd because Lesotho is closer in scale to Slovenia than to Monaco. As far as I know, it is the biggest country that is completely surrounded by another. Come to think, I know of only two such countries. Vatican City is the other one. Please comment if you've got more. I like to indulge my fetish for geographic trivia a bit every now and then.

Lesotho is sometimes called the "Switzerland of Africa" because of its mountain setting. The kingdom was intentionally founded on high ground as a place of refuge from the ethnic and colonial wars that ravaged South Africa in the 18th and 19th century. The dramatic scenery was formed by the slow erosion of valleys into once what was a high plateau. There is allegedly some flat land near the captial, but we saw none of it. We came and went through the rugged Sani Pass on the eastern border with South Africa. We were joined by two Dutch sisters and a South African guide called Matthew.

On the drive in we stopped four times. Two halts were accounted for by the widely separated border posts. The third was a lunch break on top of a hill. After scarfing down the familiar "sandwich and fruit and drink box and cake" combo, we played hacky sack for a bit with some local shepherds in between denying their requests for money. Apparently, the people of Lesotho have taken to begging in a big way. Kids ask for sweets, adults for cash. The last stop was to take a swim in a mountain river. Only Matthew and I were willing to brave the cold water and enjoyed an invigorating splash around. In one memorable instance, my trunks were nearly pulled off by the fast-moving water. The only thing that prevented total ass exposure was a timely and apparently comedic (Jason and the girls are all witnesses) loss of balance.

Late in the afternoon, we arrived in a lodge where we were to spend the night. It was the most modern building in an otherwise unmodern village. Most of the people of Lesotho lived in round stone houses with maybe one glass window and a thatch roof reinforced by plastic or corrugated iron. Almost everyone wears a traditional blanket for warmth and Wellington boots to protect against mud and rocks. The people are not terribly tall, smile easily, and take a strong interest in foreigners. Their language is called Besotho (buh-soo-too). It sounds a lot like you would expect a native South African language to sound. I spent a little time chasing the village children around the corn fields before joining the others at the local pub.

Perhaps pub is a bit strong of a word. It was a round house like any other, but it contained a few very animated locals drinking down cups of homemade sorghum beer. The taste is a bit hard to describe. Imagine a milky white light vinegar with strong overtones of pepto-bismol. Add to that slippery chunks for texture and you are close. To be fair, my dislike for the brew was not universally shared. Jason defected from public opinion and declared it to be "good". In fact, he liked it so much that he bought a large plastic gas can full of the horrendous crap and carted it back to the lodge to be choked down before, during, and after dinner. In total, we only managed to knock back about 60 percent. The rest was used to polish brass.

We were up early the next day to continue on by pony. The local horses were a bit smallish but easy to ride and very sure of foot. These traits were most welcome as all involved had but limited riding experience and we were traveling up and down very steep, rocky paths. The experience was marvelous. The horses did all the work while we sat back and enjoyed the scenery of little villages, green valleys, grey mountains, and blue sky. After lunch, we kicked things up a notch and started working the horses a bit harder. It felt silly at first, but I soon warmed to shouting "heeya" and urging on my pony with crop and ankles. They day culminated in racing Jason at a gallop along narrow paths and high ridges. I never thought of myself as the kind of guy that would be into riding horses, but I am.

The second night, we stayed in a more remote village. Our host was a schoolteacher and the wife of the local chief. Their property consisted of one large Western-style house, several traditional round buildings, and a roofless stone enclosure for the livestock. The enclosure served the dual purpose of fence and poop-concentrator. There is not much vegetation around, so dung is also used for fuel. The women occupied themselves with domestic chores and crops while the men were almost exclusively shepherds. Only the main house had electricity (from a generator) and the family's prize possession was a small TV set. It was there that we took our meals (just a hearty dinner and a light breakfast) and where our hostess treated us to a short history of Lesotho and told us about her recent trip to Wales.

After dark, there ain't much to see or do, so it was early to bed. In the morning, we struck out again on horseback, retracing some of our steps, but also covering some new ground. Just as we were approaching the lodge, the weather started to close in. We jumped off our horses just as it began to hail after a thrilling downhill gallop in light rain. The weather stormed itself out while we had a cup of tea, then we piled back in the truck for the trip back to the border. We stopped only for a bit to enjoy a drink at the highest pub in Africa, The Sani Pass Hotel, before continuing on back into South Africa. Lesotho is a quiet, scenic place, full of friendly faces. I like it. It makes me feel...welcome.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Video Gallery: Jugglation

Let us watch the sum total of Brazil's juggling prowess. Be frightened and amazed.

Photo Album: Pousada Da Jo

While in Salvador, we stayed in a hostal known as the Pousada Da Jo. It was a silly place.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Seven Up

Johannesburg, South Africa

As of yesterday, Jason and I have walked on all seven continents. One more thing checked off in life's big TODO list. We are staying in a nice hostel in the rich northern part of the city. It is a lot like Pasaena, with two immediately noticable differences:
  • Language - People here generally speak English but sometimes suddenly burst into an African language or Afrikaans, both of which sound very alien if you are not used to them. I am not used to them.
  • Security - Every building in our immediate vicinity has a big fence (sometimes with an electrified wire top) and a prominent security company sign. Crime is a big problem in this city. Our hostel is built like Fort Backpacker, complete with buzzered entry system and strategic position on the high ground.

I am sure that more will become evident after a few days. Tomorrow morning we are heading south by bus to do some hiking in mountain passes and then it is on to Durban to get in touch with the beach and South Africa's sizable Indian population.

Good Morning, Dark Continent

Johannesburg, South Africa

Due to the rash of theivings and muggings that we experienced in Brazil, I was a bit worried about coming to South Africa, which has an even worse reputation for the unauthorized re-distribution of wealth. Johannesburg itself, Mike assures me, is the "second-most dangerous city in the world". I'm not sure what that means, but it doesn't sound good.

And our first few hours in the city didn't really make me feel any better.

The airport was alright, and after going through all the passport and visa yim-yam, we found a call center from where we could contact our chosen hostel. The nice man behind the call center's counter had some not-so-nice stories to tell about his hometown. Apparently, he had been robbed at knife-to-the-neck-point for a near worthless jacket and, in a separate incident, a friend of his had been stabbed with the spoke of a bike wheel and died. For reals. Needless to say, he was in agreement that Jo'Burg wasn't the safest city.
When we finally managed to contact the hostel lady (the lovely T.K.), she regretfully informed us that their pick-up van wouldn't be at the airport for another five hours or so, and a taxi would cost about 300 rand ($50 USD). When we inquired about other safe ways of getting across town and to the hostel, she just gave us a flat no. Though there may have been various buses and such that we could take, none of them were remotely safe. So, the nice man behind the counter hooked us up with a taxi driver who could take us to the hostel for the bargain price of 250 rand, and sent us on our nervous way with a hearty handshake. His last words to us were: "Don't trust anyone." Duly noted.
The drive from the airport wasn't as much stressful as it was eye-opening. Our hostel is in one of the nicer suburbs in the Northern section of Jo'Burg, and while we were driving through it, I noticed that all of the buildings were surrounded by tall brick walls. And atop these walls, there were another two feet or so of razor wire, or electrified fence, or both. And when I say all the buildings, I mean all of them. Homes, strip malls, office buildings... I didn't see a single structure without. Even our hostel had an impressive security system, surrounded by a 12-foot-tall steel fence with a two-layer buzzed gate entrance. How bad must things be if every building in the well-off suburb has to be so heavily defended?
By the time we arrived at the hostel, I was not feeling too happy about being in Johannesburg. I was tired off constantly feeling on guard, stressed out and paranoid about my own safety. Plus, I was literally tired after being up for over twenty-four hours, eight of which were spent cramped into a tiny airplane seat. The OC then took a nap.

We've been in Jo'Burg for over a day now, and we haven't strayed far from the hostel. We've done some shopping in the area to buy a replacement camera, and some other knickknacks we've needed for a bit, but that's about it. Tomorrow morning, we're leaving early on the Baz Bus, a backpacker's tour bus that will take us all the way to Capetown. Along the way, we'll be hopping on and off to stay for a few days in places of interest. It's a very backpacker-y and touristy way of seeing South Africa, but it's also safe and convenient, which is what I'm looking for right now. Normally, we try to avoid the well-defined, prepackaged nonsense, but I think I need to go for a month or so without getting mugged before I'll be ready to stretch my legs out again.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Brazil Will Eat Itself


Of the four South American countries visited by the OC, Brazil has far and away the best food. This is not so much because of the quality of the ingredients, or for any dishes in particular, but more due to both immediate and regional variety. With Brazil, I feel like there is yet room to explore with my stomach. Peru, Chile, and Argentina left me hungry for less.

The format and timing of Brazilian meals is more familiar to the North American diner. Breakfast generally includes more than just coffee and bread. A wide variety of fruits, meat, cheese, and some kind of cake also appear. Lunch and dinner in restaurants hit the plate around noon and eight, but it is normal for the average Brazilian to forgo a large evening meal in favor of a hefty late afternoon snack and a light meal (e.g. soup) in the evening.

Proper lunch and dinner is frequently served family-style in portions meant for two. It mostly frequently consists of some kind of meat, beans, rice, manioc (see below), and maybe a bit of salad as a garnish. Beef seems to be the most popular main event, with chicken and fish alternating popularity in keeping with the distance to a sea or river. You also see stew-like dishes, especially feijoada, a bean and fatty beef combo that is a Saturday mainstay. Starchy sides are less common, but not uncommon, and take the form of fried or mashed potatoes and boiled manioc. Brazil is not big on sauces or spices, but one or twice we were treated to a very hot pepper salsa on the side. I never had a dessert, but menus frequently offered fruit or cake.

Brazilian snacks deserve special mention. Lanchonettes are more common in Rio than Starbucks's are in Seattle - much more common. It is not unusual for three of four corners at an intersection taken up by these little restaurants. They dispense mostly fried goodies and juice and sometimes get as fancy as hamburger-based sandwiches (see X-* below). Fried things are always heavily breaded meat in shapes varying from empanada to Scotch egg.

Some specifics:

  • All You Can Eat / All You Can Pay - Buffets are popular for lunches and at bus stations. They feature a variety of salads, all manner of starchy staples, and a handful of stewy meat dishes. Some places take the all-you-can-eat approach. Others weight your plate and charge by the kilo. The latter is a welcome innovation as you pay only for the exact amount of food that you want. Buffet food is not the greatest, but it does allow you to try a range of dishes.
  • Rice and Beans - The magic Mexican combo was universally available. This made Jason very happy. Beans are usually black and cooked with garlic and onion and the rice is white.
  • Manioc - I am not exactly sure what part of a plant this is. Apparently, the raw form is highly poisonous. It is necessary to juice the plant completely before serving to remove cyanide. As you might expect, what is left over is pretty dry. You see it served in two forms. The first is like a fibrous plantain. The second is as crunchy flour that has been sauteed in butter. I prefer the former.
  • Churrascaria - For many readers, this may be your only exposure to Brazilian cuisine and it's not a bad place to start and stop. These restaurants feature a buffet of salad and meat options and sometimes sushi, but that is really just a sideline for the main event. An army of waiters come around with skewers of meat and slice them straight onto your plate. You get well-salted beef, pork loin, chicken hearts, ribs, sausages, and other parts and they keep coming as long as you keep eating. The servers seem to universally delight in stuffing the hell out of the patrons.
  • Fruit - As you might expect from a country featuring a giant jungle, there are a lot of fruits around with no English name. They appear most notably at breakfast, but are also seen in juice bars and popsicles. Acai (ah-sigh) is a notably popular purple jungle berry. In the jungle, we had fresh fruit at every meal. The pineapples were particularly sweet and delicious and the oranges much less acidic than those that I have had elsewhere. Juices are served raw. It is up to you to add sugar or liquid sweetener (weird stuff) to taste.
  • Bahian Food - Bahia is a district of Brazil situated along the northeast coast. The capital (and only area visited by the OC) is Salvador. This region is famous for the high level of African influence and it really shows in the distinctive cuisine. Our first night in town, we were treated to a home-cooked meal of local specialties. My favorite was a goopy slime of well-cooked pork, okra, and flour. It had the taste and consistency of spicy okra gravy. Marvelous. There was also a stew of bananas, yams, and potatoes that made up a slightly sweet, starchy mixture. The main meat dish was carrots, manioc, and cabbage boiled with salty pork chunks and sausage. It's nothing fancy, but I dig it the most.
  • Sun Dried Shrimp - Some Bahian stews feature shrimp that have been first dried outdoors for preservation. You eat them shell and all. I am not sure if the head is removed before or after drying. These take a bit of getting used to. Especially the little legs that get caught in your teeth.
  • X-* - The menu of some lunch counters is dominated by a list of sandwiches with names that begin with 'X'. Examples include 'X-Frango', 'X-Burger', and 'X-Salada'. In Brazil, 'X' is pronounced as a 'sh'. Jason suggests that it may stand for cheese, or 'quito' (kay-shoo) in Portuguese. Whatever the origin, the sandwiches are tasty but very unhealthy. King among the offerings is the X-Tudo, a sandwich who's breadth of ingredients could only be described as Peruvian. In one bun, you get hamburger, bacon, egg, bologna, french fries, peas, corn, and a whole lot of mayo.

The OC Takes All Its Equipment On The Bus

South American Buses

For reasons historical, there were very few passenger rail lines in South America, so travel in in the region was characterized by many long journeys by bus. This was not nearly as bad as it may sound. Inner city routes were generally plied by comfortable double decker efforts with reclining seats and foot rests. If we were very lucky, we might find a "luxury" class bus with large seats, more padding, and an extra dollop of leg room. All long-haul buses had a toilet. It wasn't much, but it worked for those gotta-pee situations. For journeys that included a standard meal time, you either got served something on board (filling, but nothing to write home about) or the bus stopped at a roadside restaurant. I was consistently surprised by the high quality of food available in South American bus stops, especially in Brazil.

The supply of buses appeared to outstrip demand, so prices were tolerably low, and there was almost always space available at a convenient time. By taking overnight legs, we often saved the cost of a hotel at the expense of a loss of comfort. After the first 5 tries, we got pretty good at sleeping soundly on the road. At one point, I could hardly tell the difference between a night's rest in a bed and a night's rest in a bus. The only real environmental issue was temperature. Some areas were extremely aggressive with the air conditioning. Surprisingly for me, busses were generally very punctual, sometimes arriving or departing within a minute of the scheduled time even though they had come from hundreds of kilometers. Only the vast space of Brazil and it's comparatively cheap airlines pushed us up the transport food chain and onto planes.

As we arrived in Peru, I commented to Jason that I was looking forward to riding a bus with chickens on it. Whenever you see a Hollywood film about Central our South America, someone always ends up wedged between a fat man and a surly woman bearing livestock. Despite many hours logged (30+ on the journey to Cuzco) we never found the chicken bus, but we did get close. In a "combi" (short-distance shared taxi bus, not an inner-city service) in Peru, the gentleman ahead of me was whispering to a rustic cloth bag that wiggled under its own power from time to time. When he got off, we heard the distinctive squeal of a small pig. It seems that chickens are banned, but swine is OK if you can keep it quiet in your carry-on.

Into Africa

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Just a quickie, as we've not posted in a bit...

Carnaval is over and we are getting the hell out of Dodge. Tomorrow around noon the OC boards the first of a two flight combo that will land us in Johannesburg, South Africa. That's right, we are going from the 3rd most dangerous city in the world to the 2nd. Fingers are crossed.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Carnival Is OK I Guess

Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

Two years ago when we were putting together the plan for this trip, Carnival in Rio was one of the "must-do" events that we built all other travel around. You can not really claim to have seen it all without attending the world's largest party. Right? Out of keeping with the best traditions of the OC, we made hotel reservations months in advance, and like West Hollywood's finest preparing for Halloween, I started thinking about a costume shortly thereafter. We even sent out a blanket invite to friends and family, but nary a person could be suckered in. You would think that the combo package of the most uber of all uber-fiestas and the company of the OC would sell itself. Go figure.

Cariocas (citizens of Rio) celebrate Carnival in a couple of different ways. Probably the most visually famous is the samba school competition in the purpose-built sambadromo - a long, narrow stadium complete with all the luxury boxes, vendors, and amenities you would expect to find at a major sporting event. The image called to mind by the idea of Carnival is probably one of a nearly nude Brazilian beauties in sequined peacock outfits. This is the place to find them. The competition is between different samba schools. It starts at 8 and ends at 6, with each school given one hour to parade their hundreds of imaginatively costumed dancers, complex floats, tremendous drum corps, and the aforementioned peacock ladies. We went on Saturday night to see the lower ranked schools. The action is apparently not as good, but the prices are also not as great. No matter, though, I am quite certain I could not tell the difference between a first tier and a second tier school and I only managed to make it to about 02:00 AM. Six hours of overwhelming spectacle and constant dancing was enough for me.

Brazilians seem to love a good street party and they are not hard to come by during Carnival. Local groups organize themselves into drum-heavy bands called blocos that gather at an appointed place and hour to parade through the streets with dancing followers. Some of them also include a big truck filled with speakers topped by singers and non-percussion instrumentalists. We participated in one of these. It took a circular route to and from Lapa in the center of town and drew a mixed crowd of gringos and locals. I enjoyed it, but by the end my legs were tired from slow marching and I was feeling a bit annoyed that I could not join in with the crowd's enthusiastic sing-a-longs. In addition to organized blocos, neighborhoods organize big street fairs with music stages, food stalls, and many places to buy drinks. One of our most memorable outings was to a Carnival fair way off the beaten track far beyond the borders of the Lonely Planet map.

Elaborate balls are another Carnival tradition. These vary from the posh black tie to the gritty gay disco variety. We went to one self-described "ball", but it was really more of a concert than a party at the Van Trapp's. The city organized a free samba show in a central square from Friday to Tuesday. We went on Friday. The music was good, the dancing interesting, and we met some girls who took us to a samba band drum practice and on to a hip hop club straight out of a 50 Cent video to round out a very complete evening. We ended up hanging with those kids for the rest of our time in Rio.

There are a few Carnival details that transcend the type of party. One is costuming. Almost every kid is decked out as a pirate or gypsy. Adults get in on the action as well. Big groups dress in identical jester outfits and run around in mobs. Individuals take on the guise of everything from diapered babies to super heroes from the future (in my case). The gay community is specifically well represented in the form of a nonstop stream of surly drag queens. Ubiquitous access to very cold, but very bad beer is another constant. You never have to walk more than about 30 feet to get a frosty Skol - a beer that goes down so hard you wish it would come back up. Last and not least, Brazilian street food is everywhere and varies in quality from horrifying to merely deep-fried.

Carnival was a good party, but it was not the be-all, end-all, booty-quake that I thought it would be. I have no idea how to dance to Brazilian music. It requires to move your feet much faster than normal North American humans are capable off. I can not talk to Brazilian girls. Portuguese is like Spanish in a blender. I hate Brazilian beer. Consequently, I could never reach the level of inebriation necessary for my least marketable skills to really shine. Most importantly, I kept seeing big groups of friends together and feeling nagging jealousy that I was not with my own mates. Just like New Year, it requires the right company to transform an experience from a good time to the time of your life.