Archive for June, 2008


Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

We didn’t visit the Sudan on this trip, nor even come across people from there.  I did however manage to read two great books about the recent history of the area, and both left a powerful impression on me.  Given that we’ll be visiting Auschwitz tomorrow, it’s an appropriate time to post about these books.

The first is a short book called The Translator, by Dauod Hari.  I would read this book every night, and summarize it each day for my family.  It’s about a young man growing up in Darfur who eventually becomes a translator for journalists from the western world covering the atrocities inflicted on the Darfur tribe by the Sudanese government.  It’s a book you can read in a short time, and it’s very, very powerful.  It makes the horrors that the people of Darfur are experiencing quite tangible. 

The second, longer book is What Is the What? by Dave Eggers, about a different young man growing up in the Sudan.  This boy has the improbable name of Dominic Valentino Achak Deng, and it will make you cry to follow his life history.  The horrible trajectory of his life includes being one of the “lost boys” who walked for months across Sudan to escape, temporarily, to an Ethiopian refugee camp.  After a few months there, the refugees are run out of Ethiopia, back to Sudan, and then walk for months to a different refugee camp in the most desolate part of Kenya.

In Kenya, Achak lives there in a shanty-town refuge camp for ten years, incredibly.  He eventually is selected for deportation to the United States, hoping for a better life.  Things in the U.S., though, don’t go all that well, and a center plot line of the story is how he’s robbed at gun point in his Atlanta apartment, bound, beaten, and abandoned, finally be found by a friend more than a day later.

Both Daoud and Achak made it out of the Sudan to the U.S.  And both have dedicated their lives to helping their fellow Sudanese.  It’s painful and quite emotional to be thrust into the middle of each boy’s horrific life.  And it’s so shocking, and horrifying, to think that a genocide of this scale (about 500,000 are estimated to have been killed and some 2,000,000 displaced) is happening during all of our lifetimes, with little done by the U.S. government to bring it to a halt.

Quickly Through Kenya

Thursday, June 5th, 2008

Kenya 006 We had a very brief lay-over in Nairobi, spending just a day there.  We were originally scheduled to spend two weeks in Kenya, but lost all confidence in the itinerary that had been planned for us.  So we turned two weeks into twenty-four hours, and will have to return to Kenya at a later date, since I’m sure it’s a fabulous country to visit.

Tanzania III 349We stayed at a great place, the Giraffe Manor House.  The grounds of this magnificent estate include a lovely country home, a wildlife educational center for the children of Nairobi, and about a bunch of giraffe and warthogs!  We got to spend lots of time with Daisy, Frank, Jock, Laura, and other beautiful giraffes, and everyone had lots of fun. 

Kenya 019 Gibson had his first kiss, and we all admired the beauty and grace of his tall, slender girlfriend Laura.  It was a bittersweet departure from Africa, though, for Gibson, who failed to lose a tooth in this continent after running up a five continent “losing” streak!  He has one loose tooth now, and we spend two weeks in Europe, so it’s possible he can add continent #6 to his list, but Africa will have to wait for a later day!

Tanzania III 369 We also visited a couple of museums in Nairobi, and re-grouped from our Tanzania debacle.  I wouldn’t characterize Nairobi as one of my all-time favorite cities, but like any large city, it has its corners of interest.  Anyway, the main thing is that we finished a great visit to Africa safe and sound, had a relaxing stop-over in Kenya, and are now off to London, which is one of my all-time favorite cities!!

Out of Africa

Thursday, June 5th, 2008

We had a fabulous time in Africa, and loved much of our visit to this great continent.  I’m torn, though, about how to report on our final couple of weeks there.

Tanzania III 022 Originally, we planned to spend two weeks in Tanzania, and the final two weeks of our trip in Kenya.  Yet, while we love wildlife and the African bush, we were perhaps pushing things a bit by scheduling almost three full months in safari Africa.  We were doing two, and at times, three game drives a day, and after a while, even a wildlife-loving family like ours is ready for a change.

Tanzania I 005 We had a great time in Ngorogoro Crater in Tanzania.  But the rest of Tanzania wasn’t all that exciting for us.  It was probably a combination of a) safari saturation, b) being in Tanzania the wrong time of year (you definitely want to play your stay here to maximize the likelihood of being here during a migration), and c) some particularly poor choices of locations.

Tanzania III 038 Net, net, we cut our stay in Tanzania short by a couple of days.  Our last location was particularly disappointing (someplace called the Lukuba Lodge on Lake Victoria, which gave us all the creeps).  Our itinerary had been planned by two groups (Small World Travel in Austin, Texas, and Abercrombie and Kent), so we weren’t exactly picking locations out of a phone book.  But the difference between the way these places were described, and the reality, was vast, and we weren’t happy with our guides. 

Tanzania III 062 We lost so much confidence in our itinerary that we decided to skip our Kenya trip (all pre-paid :-( ), and get “Out of Africa.”  One thing that has always worked well for Elizabeth and me is that we have very similar perspectives on “cutting your losses.”  When we go to see a live performance, we make sure wePicture 336 have tickets on the aisle, and have no issue leaving after 15 minutes or so when it’s clear we don’t enjoy the production.  I did a careful  analysis of the venture industry and concluded it was in for a long period of economic challenge, and shifted gears professionally.  And we got a lot out of our time in Charleston, SC, but felt we’d been there long enough, and were off and running on this great trip!  So once we concluded we were getting bad advice about what to do in Africa, and felt we’d had a great experience here, we had no issue changing our game plan.

Tanzania III 196 We had one memorable experience in Tanzania prior to departure.  In the Serengeti, we visited a local Masai trival village and their local school.  It was an eye-opener.  We met several of the people living in a small local community.  I’d say maybe 40-50 people lived in a set of huts made of branches and cow dung.  We met a family in their hut, which measured about 4 meters by 4 meters, and slept eight!  Even more challenging, there was a constant fire inside the hut, meaning a substantial amount of smoke inhalation for its residents.  Few people know that smoke inhalation is one of the largest killers of children age five or younger around the world, many of whom are raised in uninterrupted proximity to a fire.

Tanzania III 070 We were amazed at how the Masai people lived.  Many of them, adults and children, were covered in flies.  And many of the kids looked to be quite ill, with open sores on their faces.  We learned that in this culture, woman face exceptionally challenging circumstances.  They do most of the daily hard labor.  One woman described her typical day as getting up before everyone else, milking the cows, fixing everyone breakfast, go out and find firewood, go to the local stream (often more than a kilometer away) and carry back water, tend to some farm areas, fix lunch, and on and on. 

Tanzania III 123 The marriage ritual was also particularly punitive for the Masai women.  As long as a man or his family has the dowry (generally twenty cows), a man can marry as many women as he wants.  And the current wife/wives have to build a new home for the most recent wife.  These Masai women often seemed cheerful, but we’ve learned over the course of this trip that appearance can be deceiving, and they clearly have a very hard life.

Tanzania III 069 The Masai men spend their day caring for the livestock (cows and goats, for the most part).  They go through a strange rite of passage ritual at age 16 where a Masai boy becomes a “man.”  I’ll spare you the gory details, but a boy gets circumcised by a sharp knife with no anesthesia, and is disgraced if he flinches or shows any sign of pain.  Many die from subsequent infection.  And, in their culture, it’s well known which young men have made that transition, and which “failed the test.” 

Tanzania III 210 We also visited a Masai school, which was better than no school, but not by a lot.  This school has almost 800 students, and just 11 teachers.  There are 70 kids per classroom, and four children to a desk.  They have no books and few supplies.  I know that some remarkable kids make their way through these challenges, get a good education, and go on to higher grades.  But most deal with a very difficult experience, and receive little real education.  Our kids were shocked at the circumstances of this school, and we all got a better sense of the challenges remaining in Africa’s educational infrastructure.

Tanzania III 203 So now we’re on to Western Europe to wrap up our trip, after a brief stop in Nairobi.  If anyone is ever considering a trip to Eastern Africa, we can tell you a lot about what not to do, and very little about what to do.  Oh, well.  We loved our first couple of months in Africa, and are on to new adventures!  And, while it wasn’t our highlight, we will soon have Tanzania photos you may want to check out.

How Quickly Things Change

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

We’ve visited so many places on our trip where things have changed, often dramatically, since our initial visit.  Tibet.  The Yangtze River and Three Gorges Dam area.  Myanmar/Burma.   And Alexandra, a suburb of Johannesburg.  In April, we visited Alexandra on a sunny day, and the community was beaming.  Less than two weeks later, it’s been the site of riots over racial tensions.  We’ve been following it from a distance, but I thought I’d include the update we received from Robin Binckes, who took us through Alexandra on our visit there.


Greetings from a place which is, I know, special in your hearts!  Thank you to all who have expressed concern for our safety and sadness at what has happened here in the last ten days.

As many of the people who have visited South Africa in the recent past have read the reports of the violence and trouble we are experiencing and have felt concerned for the safety of people that they met whilst here, I felt that it would be a good idea to send out this letter updating you on what is happening and to ask for your assistance in helping the people most vulnerable and most effected by this tragedy ? the children.

Through Friends of Alexandra we believe we can play a role in helping the +- 50 children who are being accommodated in the Police Station in Alexandra to protect them and their families from further violence.
But first let me try to update you in point form of the situation.
1. The violence started last Sunday (11th May) in Alexandra township.
2. It was reported to be violence as a result of Xenophobia & directed at immigrants who were taking the jobs of locals.
3. The violence continued in Alexandra every night last week.
4. Some South Africans in the township were also attacked.
5. Some reports indicate that criminals are now involved and that this has become an excuse for criminals to attack people and rob them.
6. The violence occurs at night. During the day, life has continued as normal.
7. My tours have continued into Alexandra after discussions with the Police Commissioner and last week I took over 60 people into Alexandra on three days and never witnessed an incident, nor felt threatened or in danger.
8. The violence has now spread to other townships and areas of extreme poverty. Once again the violence flares up at night. This weekend it spilled into the downtown area of Johannesburg, as well.
9. To date 42 people have been killed, hundreds wounded and thousands are seeking refuge and safety in Police Stations.

1. Last night was much more peaceful with the majority of townships having an uneventful night.
2. Reports on the radio this evening are that the Army is being called in by the Police to assist in controlling the violence.
3. Day times are peaceful in Alexandra- (I cannot speak of other areas, as I have not visited them)- I continue to take visitors there and Thursday & Friday I will be taking groups into Alexandra.
Today I visited the Police Station in Alexandra to see what the plight of the children was and what their short term needs are. This is what I found.
1. Men are being accommodated in tents outside the Police Station, sleeping on the pavements and tar, but under shelter. Water tankers are providing water. Toilets have been provided.
2. The men have no blankets or bedding of any sort.
3. Women and children are being accommodated in a hall upstairs in the Police Station. They have a roof over their heads and, like the men sleeping outside in marquees, are dependent upon NGO?s for everything else.
4. A total of about 800 people are being accommodated.
5. There are about 50 children ranging from babies in arms to children of about 14 years old.

The children need blankets, sleeping- bags, foam mattresses, food, and other obvious items.
We need to purchase these items quickly, and provide them to the children.
I spent this afternoon on the telephone to some of the larger companies who I thought would donate the urgently needed items quickly ? (it is getting colder here and the weather forecast is for a drop in temperature. As you know we get down to freezing on a cold Winter?s night.)
Responses ranged from
?Sorry, do you know how many calls we have had from people like you??
?We will put your proposal before our CSI committee?
?We have already had meetings with Provincial Government officials and are sure that our contribution will reach the people you are trying to help? (Sometime?!)
?We actually don?t sell or stock lower end merchandise. All our sleeping bags are high end.?

That is why I am appealing to you!

Details are;
BANK ACCOUNT NO: 420951652

My personal view is that the violence is a build up of frustration in the poorer communities as a result of unemployment, poverty, unfulfilled promises by Government and corruption. The immigrants are an easy scapegoat.
We will overcome this, as we have surmounted other and greater obstacles.
We are asking for your help for the children of Alexandra.
Warmest Regards.
Robin Binckes.

The Big Crater

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

Tanzania III 003Our trip in Tanzania started at Lake Manyara, and proceeded to the Ngorogoro Crater.  The crater was spectacular, and I’ll start with our time there.  Ngorogoro is an amazing place, and a must for anyone traveling to Eastern Africa.  You can see all sorts of great wildlife, all in a confined space, and enjoy beautiful views of this fascinating geology.

Tanzania I 403 Ngorogoro’s crater bed is about 110 sq. miles in area, and from a technical geologic perspective is a caldera, not a crater.  Geologists estimate that some 4 million years ago, the mountain here blew its top, leaving a steep approach, a crater rim, and a big, flat, open area at the bottom.  Small streams flow down the craters sides into the bed, creating accessible pools of water.  The sides of the crater have lots of shrubbery and trees, and the area is a protected national conservation area. 

Tanzania I 006 What’s astounding about Ngorogoro Crater is the abundance of wildlife in a large enclosed area, offering great viewing opportunities because it’s flat and open.  We got great looks at lions, the very endangered white rhino, various types of antelopes (Eland, Thompson’s, Grant’s), Zebra, Wildebeest, Buffalo, and Warthogs.  The area is also teeming with birdlife, and is physically beautiful.

Tanzania I 180 The one morning we spent at Ngorogoro started on an exciting note.  We encountered two prides of lions.  One group earlier in the morning had brought down a baby Buffalo and several of the lions were feeding on it in a shrub-covered area by the side of a stream.  Meanwhile, another pride were on the prowl, clearly wanting to keep up with the Jones!  We watched the mother  and a cub lay an ambush for an Tanzania I 304unsuspecting warthog.  As the warthog ambled into our view, the two lions took positions behind trees on opposite sides of the warthog’s path.  The mother pounced, a few seconds too soon, and a short chase ensued.  Against the odds we would have posted, the warthog escaped, and the lions returned to their napping.  But it made for a great start of the day!

Tanzania I 473 We also got some great looks at the endangered Black Rhino.  The ones we saw look light in color because they had been rolling in the mud earlier that day.  Ngorogoro has a number of these rare animals, which have been hunted to the point of extinction by poachers looking to use the horn of the Rhino, either for Chinese medicinal purposes or as dagger handles (popular in the Middle East).

Tanzania I 381 In all, we spent an afternoon and the following full day exploring the crater.  It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen or experienced, and we’d highly recommend it to anyone in the area.  It’s a must for a trip to Africa for anyone interested in wildlife.  Check out our Ngorogoro photo album for lots of great wildlife shots from this remarkable part of the world!