Archive for February, 2009

Sailing the Cape

February 26, 2009

Arrived late at night off the crowded plane from Jo’burg.  From the lawn of my B&B, I am met by the familiarity of stars overhead, but in the unfamiliar pattern of the Southern Hemisphere, which suddenly arrange themselves and I am looking at the very familiar constellation of Orion, but upside down: low in the sky and feet in the air.  My old friend looks a bit silly doing a headstand on the horizon, but I guess I won’t be doing any celestial navigation.  Where’s the Southern Cross?

I wake to a thick fog covering the hillside, and opening the rolling security gate with my clicker, I make my way downhill toward the South Atlantic I can hear but cannot see – so pea-soupy is it – until I am halfway across the beach.  I must touch any ocean I am near – this one is clear, but nearly as cold as Maine in the summer.  I touch it to my lips – untasted since I went to Brazil in 1991.

People and dogs appear and disappear out of the veil as I stroll the beach.  On the way back, a moment of panic as I realize I have not marked my way, have no phone or address, but when I relax my internal sense of direction takes me back.

A friend of a friend of a friend has secured me a place on a boat today, and the fog mercifully lifts as we drive around Table Mountain from Camps Bay to False Bay.  Cape Town is so dramatic, combining Big Sur (cliffs into the sea) with Greek islands (rows of white houses on the lower slopes under the strata of the mountain outcrops) and Laguna (beach culture, if that’s not oxymoronic).

John has big hands, big eyes behind big glasses, and a big belly.  Big brown curls escape his baseball hat to surround a round and ravaged face.  Bumbling but alert, he plucks his way through the aisles of the Pick ‘n’ Pay, stacking up a mountain of food for the 7 of us who will be on board.  Determined to find the best in everything, he laughs away all suffering.  “We’ll be picking up a missionary,” he booms.  I ask if that means there’ll be no drinking, smoking, or swearing. “No one in this world is without sin,” John says cheerfully.  I felt like an imposition – he had to take me out; Alistair insisted because Jacqui insisted – but now I wonder what I have gotten myself into.

Norman is indeed a missionary in Mozambique, hailing from Montreal.  His two children, Jonathan and Daniel, pre-teens, climb in the back of the van while I sidle up to John’s bouncing thigh – he can’t not be moving.  Unsatisfied, he stops for more food.  Laden with bags, we trundle along the pier to the boat, Out of Africa, a 40’ sloop, a bit down at heels for a New England boat, but fairly well-kept for this tropical booze cruise marina.

We are looking for a chart – John loaned them to – who was it? – when we are joined by Jenny and Dave.  Jenny is meek and small as Dave is hugely rotund and loud enough to make John seem retiring.  He goes one better than the Maine saying of ‘his brain never had a thought his mouth couldn’t use’; he thinks that every thought he has is one that everyone can use, and he is going to make sure they hear it.

He knows more about docking lines radios, weather, local fish, politics, sailing the world, and anything else that comes up, and he is dying to cut off whatever paltry contribution anyone else comes up with in order to share it.  He has brought a GPS that he has somehow screwed up, and insists on announcing each button he pushes as he attempts to reset it, to no avail.  I can see now why John brought so much food, but I can’t see why he brought Dave.

He, like the others, was a strong Christian.  You could see them itching to proselytize (Norman, the only ordained one, being the most reticent and least eager.  He didn’t seem to have much of the missionary in him; I suspect he had simply retreated from the world for a while, and then found he loved life in Mozambique among the Yow (no idea, but that’s how he said it).

At home, I am so lucky to have two sailing companions who enjoy silence as much as I do, and I resign myself to a day in the life of a non-stop talker.  Here endeth any further talk of Dave, but you can be sure he did not.

We motored out of the slip, but it soon breezed up to 17 knots or so.  No one else seemed to want the wheel, so took it and trimmed it as best I could (Dave kept showing me how, but the boat wandered as much as his attention).  Finally he got interested in something else, and I get my wicked way in balancing the sails and tweaking the leech lines, outhaul, and vang, and soon we were humming along at 7 knots toward Seal Island – the local famous spot.  Nothing like it, the clean sea humming along the lee side, the boat slicing the waves happily, steady in the wind.

You know those shots you’ve seen on the National Geographic channel of great whites breaching as they grasp poor little seals in their terrible jaws?  All happens right here.  We could see the seals, poking their heads up, and hear them and smell them as we passed to leeward of the island, but it wasn’t the season for the sharks so the seals are safe for now.  Apparently a local current anomaly makes for murky water near the bottom and clear water up top.  The sharks hide in the murky water and seals don’t even have time to move.  Everybody has a shark story, but lightning kills more people in Africa every year than sharks, snakes, and lions combined.

We did see whales, their slow backs breaking the long waves – Bride’s whales they called them, but we call them minkes.  We saw schools of small penguins, which used to be called Jackass penguins (as that is exactly what they sounded like) until the jackass lobby piped up and their name was changed to African penguins.

And, man did we see dolphins!  We must have had 3 dozen or more, playing around the boat, riding under our bow, leaping on either side, and racing off to fish, only to come back and squeak at us again.  So exuberant, so playful, so graceful.  I don’t know why they do not breath out under water, but they surface and blow and suck in an instant and are down again, never leaving a trail of exhaled bubbles.  We saw them surround a school several times, winding around them, tightening the fish into a whorl, and then slicing through it to chomp them.  Surprisingly, the seals hunted with them, occasionally sticking their long necks out of the water.

It was Wednesday, few boats were out, not even fishing boats, and we eased sheets and reached desultorily while we had lunch, and then tightened up and flew back across the bay (narrowly missing a submerged rock – navigation, though they all just finished a course supposedly, was not a strong suit on this boat).  Despite Dave’s assured “If you can sail here, you can sail anywhere” assertion, I would steer well clear of this boat if it were in Maine waters.

John, a self-confessed non-intellectual masquerading as a fool, nevertheless with street smarts (retired with a boat at 50, can’t be that dumb), was as well-intentioned as the day was long.  When we returned, Dave, of course, had to rush for an errand, and Jenny took the missionary family, so John and I stayed to do the dishes and out the boat away, and then he drove me ‘round the scenic route back to Camps Bay.  I protested that I could get a cab, but he told me a story of an American who had gone out of his way for him when he was in Nevada, so I will honor his christian soul and look for some South African with whom to pay it forward.


Black guards hanging around every street, guarding against blacks.  Rolling iron gates with sharpened uprights seal off every house.

The difference between John, a cheerful bigot in generalities, but who talked personally and with christian concern to all and sundry, and praised Mandela as well as de Klerk.  Other ‘liberal’ folks in my classes, started out all egalitarian, but ended up, within a few sentences, talking about ‘them’, meaning blacks, as a monolith.

Certainly ‘affirmative action’ here, with a majority black population and very little education or experience with government, has resulted in a lowering of educational, medical, and business standards, and the man standing for prime minister (and likely to get it) is under indictment for corruption (meaning he was obvious and stupid enough about it to get caught).

One needs to be careful.  I asked the audio-visual guy for an extra extension lead as we set up in the hospital for class, and apparently must have asked in the wrong way and got a diatribe about my need to wait and how harassed he was in return.

One woman in the class complains in a strong Afrikaans accent that she cannot understand my American accent, can I speak more Afrikaans-style?  No, actually, ma’am, when you go to a course given by an American, a certain amount of American accent is, um, expected.  The downfall of this apartheid, says someone else, was the attempt to impose Afrikaans as the national language over the tribal languages of Zulu and !Xhosa and the others.

It is easy to be condemnatory about the Somalis kidnapping ships off Somalia, but when you understand that during the 15 years with no government, other countries have given local warlords a backhander and gotten rid of their nuclear waste in Somalia’s desert, while other countries (like Japan) have fished the stocks out completely on the shelf off Somalia that there is now a generation of fishermen’s sons who have no way to make a living, so they seek revenge on the countries who have poisoned their land.
The affinity between the southern commonwealth nations – Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and somewhat less, India.  Sports mad – rugby, cricket, and the FIFA World Cup, which will be played here in another 18 months, is on the news daily.

In Camps Bay, Table Mountain lords above us – the peaks of the 12 Apostles leading down toward the cape – and cloud is constantly spilling over it as the warm sea air is blown up into the cold.  The cloud keeps trying to get down the mountain, but it evaporates.  Finally, as the sun goes down, the cloud pours down upon us beach sunset watchers.


Zuid Afrika 1: Kruger Park

February 22, 2009

Stepping from the small plane in the small airport at Nelspruit I was met with the heat that is summer in Africa – something like Caribbean heat, but dry and heavy, laying over you immediately like an old Army blanket despite the open sky and fluffy clouds.

Thabe (Tam-bay’), thin and dressed in white, meets me with one of those signs (always wanted to be that guy – happens more often now) and drives me an hour through the rolling countryside with rocky outcrops.  Each dirt road is red with the iron-rich soil common to much of Africa. Impoverished lean-to’s line the road with a few mangos and unidentifiable vegetables for sale on old wooden tables.  There are forests of straight eucalyptus and even straighter pine, farmed for lumber and paper, and providing the large beams for the huge open thatched buildings of the airport and the hotel. Farms of macadamia nut trees – it’s a very rich and fertile land.

Thabe, from the Shangaan tribe (northern Zulus), wants to visit America and Europe, and has a good job as a driver, but needs money for petrol, money for school fees for his daughter, and money for the house he is building for his family, so he may walk the length of his days under African skies. “We survive on tips,” he hints.

The hotel is built above the bush, weathered wooden walkways with thick bamboo rails wander under the trees to connect the rooms.  I gratefully plop down for an hour’s kip before the first ‘game drive’. Don’t worry, it’s ‘driving around trying to see game’, not actually bothering the animals, or driving them, the way our hunters do the deer at home. Getting ready for it, I discover my first loss – the camera Tammy equipped me with from the office has disappeared from its case, probably while my bag was in Jo’burg airport.

Adrian is our guide in the Land Rover, with about 6 other tourists – 3 Germans, 2 Brits, and an American goldsmith.  Adrian is Afrikaans, ample, and full of stories about the animals we will see around the corner, the ones he saw this morning – but we see mighty few in the heat of the afternoon.


Part of the problem is that it is so green here now – the rainy season has been plentiful, and the rivers are full to racing – no ‘great green greasy Limpopo Rover’ of Kipling.  In October, you could go to the trickling rivers and find all the animals gathered around a dwindled pool, but now they can find water  anywhere and are off by themselves in the leafy shade.


We see more impala – much like small does, only healthier looking and with sharper markings down their Superficial Back Line – than we care to count, and one large kudu, an impala as big as a large buck, but with vertical stripes on its flanks designed to hide it in the grass in drier seasons.

The terrain is wattle bush-veldt, so leafy is hard to see more than a few yards into it, and any animal would be in the shade, so I spend the time trying to train my eyes.  We stop at Lake Panic (smaller than the Mill Pond), and on its hushed banks see a large terrapin that lumbers into the water after we approach.  Small herons and large – the purple one about the size of our blue ones, a beautiful swallow, a brown and white jicanda bird – and about four hippos, but they are a football pitch away among the lily pads, and can be noticed more for their occasional noisy sighs and snorts, since they keep everything but their eyes and ears under water.

On the dirt road – run over – is an emerald snake, the highly venomous boomslang (from the German: baum – tree + schlange – snake).  The venomous fang is in the back of his mouth though, so you really have to stick your finger down his throat to get the haemotoxin.  I decline, even dead.  Beautiful snake, though.

We are a bit rewarded on the way home with a large wart hog crossing the road in front of us, and then a band of baboons, who have taken over a bridge above the Sabie.  They look like Fidel’s rebels, maybe 30 of them running around gesticulating, stopping the traffic as if for a shakedown, babies on the mothers’ backs, and the dominant male up on a bridge post, picking his feet and displaying his sex.  They do not jump on the car, but neither are they particularly bothered by us.


Just before we get home, as the sun sinks and the air cools, we come across a large bull elephant eating by the side of the road.  Way bigger than the Land Rover, he calmly strips branches with his marvelously prehensile trunk and stuffs the leaves in his mouth as we park not 10’ from him.  A large set of ivory tusks, still in his head where they belong, reveal his age to be about 40 of the 60-70 years they can live.  His ears show a clear tree of arteries and veins, and by flapping them – which he is doing slowly all the time – he can keep his blood 3 degrees cooler. He is not raising his head or his trunk, so he is ‘viry relexed’, according to Adrian.


He wanders across the road in front of us, surprising me again with the absolute silence with which he moves, many inches of padding under his feet.  He relieves himself as he reaches the other side, and I swear he could have filled a keg with his bladder, so much liquid pours down the tarmac.  Adrian says they pass about 100 kgs – 220 lbs – a day in feces and urine.  A good deal more – for now, at least – than I weigh.


Tomorrow morning I will be up at 5 – who knows what time it is now? After all this time in the air crossing time zones – to leave on the morning adventure at 5:20.

Eat As Much As You Want

February 18, 2009

(For regular readers, this entry is out of chronological sequence)

We’re in the Domincan Republic, as it happens, but we could be placed anywhere in the developing and money-dependent world, within this walled resort of 250 rooms or so.  Interesting word, ‘resort’, it has so many meanings.

We’ve been on hols like this before, where it’s all laid on.  We prefer the quiet and the out of the way and cooking on our own, but this year it had to be just a week, cheap, one flight-leg away from Boston, and Quan was tired of being the cook.

We can look out over the walls from our 3rd floor room to the extreme but gentle poverty of the tropics (which always seems to me so much easier than the fried meat, window-rattling poverty up north).  Nevertheless, the 200 or so staff here must be getting pretty low wages for this all to work.

It is unfortunate but true: On this island, the other half of Haiti, predominantly Hispanic but a mélange of races, those in the managerial positions look more European, and those sweeping the beach at 6am look more African – prejudice still runs in the Obama-rama world.

But the food!  It’s all free, tables laden, buffet style.  Always salad, meat, seafood, fruit, dessert, pizza, bread, as well as the day’s specials, and not bad quality either.  By last night I was so stuffed, but I accompanied Quan to the dining room anyway, and there is rock lobster – langouste – tons of ‘em, and I cannot resist.  Good, too.  Breakfast this morning is endless reams of breads, croissants, eggs, omelets, cereal, fruit, fresh juice, coffee, yogurt, and anything else your little heart and large stomach desires.  All the booze you can drink is free too – all included.

As you will suspect, many of the rooms are filled with Americans with large girths, and many more by college kids with not much on their minds beyond oblivion, but before we lay it on one country, I hear plenty of German, clipped British tones, a smattering of French and Italian, and an increasing amount of Russian and other Eastern European languages and accents I have not yet learned to tease out – Ukrainian, Polish, Azerbajian, and other tongues where natural resources has assured an energy-elite oligarchy in the post-Soviet economy..

Again as you might suspect, there is a tremendous amount of waste.  I have always found wasted food immoral, and the more so in these times, and in a poor country.  I have tried to ask without success (no hablo espanol), but I wonder if there is any organized attempt to capture the usable food and distribute it among the families of the staff or locally somehow.  Some parts of the world could easily live on what these people are leaving on their plates, let alone what must be thrown away at the end of each day.  And I wonder how much they are buying locally and how much is shipped in.

But to get off the political and global and back to the personal, what is it that makes us so hungry beyond the needs of our organism?  I could get along – in fact, am overweight right now and would prefer to eat less – on very little, especially in this hot weather.  But the temptation of fresh lobster or tasty bits of this and that … In spite of all the overdeveloped and redundant mechanisms that run from mouth and gut and liver to the hypothalamus, our anxiety, and the pull of socializing and variety, the end result is that I am always leaving the hall too full.

The evolutionary advantage in anthropological terms of the sin of gluttony is not hard to fathom: he who eats for a rainy day will have some reserves when that rainy day comes.  Of course, the reverse is also true: he who never fasts will be ill-equipped for the rainy day when it does come, having never learned to be happy and hungry at the same time.

It is so much easier to self-regulate at home – there is something about being away, being here, slightly bored

Routine in Revolution

February 14, 2009

A morning routine is a good thing to have.  Slipping from Quan’s side where our curves fit each other like strange attractors, I find yesterday’s clothes by feel – always a pleasure to slip into pre-worn clothes.  As February passes, opening the smelly cans for the three impatient cats who braid in and out of my legs (and the two older black ones who wait regally on the counter) and letting them out is done not entirely in the dark.

Opening the door, there’s a broad line of pink watercolor swathed across the east that goes a dusty orange and then crome yellow before the sun dances in the top of the trees.  It’s windy this morning, the trees creak in 5 degrees above zero.  Last week’s snow, rained upon and crusty, is fairly useless for anything.  If I do don my snowshoes and dive into the trees to escape the wind about my ears, the woods seem empty, not in a dark and mysterious way, but in a late-winter fretful restless way.  The driveway is a skating rink that’s a challenge for my mother’s 90-year-old unsteady pins, though the rest of us get our ‘ice legs’ like sea legs.

We all get cabin fever – cats, horses, rabbits, and humans – around this time of year (I believe the Inuits call it pablato – great word – when their wives go crazy with insideness) but it’s a fairly useless feeling in that neither spring nor spring cleaning are right around the corner; we will be dealing with snow and cold and tracked-in mud right through the end of April at least, and we won’t see signs of life until May.  Quan, married well and truly to the animals (with me as her occasional mistress), loves all times of year here and makes the best of it, but as much as I love Maine, it is easy to book me elsewhere in the late winter and mud season.

So my morning ‘routine’ comes as I turn on my heel, changing suitcases between Phoenix and Johannesburg, abandoning my family of people, animals, employees and logistical problems on our land to spread the word of connected anatomy and human potential across the globe.  You can hear my ambivalence; I love both – being the surrounded padrone at home and the lone adventurer abroad.  I love the quiet of Papa-San curled beside the computer as I peck at these keys, I love the grickle of the London cab, the babel of the open market, even the roar of the accelerating plane.  I love the challenge of a new group, though I hate the ‘routine’ of returning to the hotel room that soon feels emptier than the woods in late winter.  No way to have it all.

This brief visit home has the grace note of a visit from my daughter.  Children – myself included – have no idea how much joy such a visit brings. Seventy years younger than Mom in the slow turning of generations in my family, Misty can be induced to come for a night or two, but the siren song of her own life soon calls her away again.  I tend to the cats quietly, letting the two women sleep despite my temptation to wake them up, “C’mon, the day’s a wasting, who’s on for word games?”

But I let them sleep, and quietly get my Saturday morning tea going – heat the pot with the first water, pour the second over the loose Paramaribo tea Misty found for me in Paris, lift the ball out after three minutes, milk in the cup first.  (You know, that was an actual experiment: An English woman said she could tell the difference whether the milk was poured into hot tea, or hot tea was poured over the milk.  Scientists told her this was impossible, so they set up a double-blind experiment with both methods, and to their surprise she was able to identify accurately which cups had the milk in first as better tasting.  Turns out that certain milk proteins go a little sour when they get too hot, so that for certain folks with a sensitive palate it makes a gustative difference …  Proof positive that scientists don’t know everything about anything.)

Misty says she has to get back tonight for a study group, but I saw the boyfriend’s name written on her calendar.  Going to her flat sat me right back in my own college days in Boston – the thrown-together gnarly furniture, the temporary enthusiasms posted on the wall, the bathroom jumble where three girls do their face.  It’s a strange transitional time between youthful rebellion and self-pride.

Going to classes with her is likewise ambivalent.  So proud that she’s doing well and has taken to, of all things, economics.  Amazed, like all parents, at the developing independent human who came out of those diapers, those early drawings of a house and the sun, the teen’s fiercely bad decisions – and suddenly you are talking the merits of the stimulus package with someone who can hold their own, whose voice is yours and not yours, whose way awaits as yours waited, all unknown and yet so obvious in hindsight.

I am both sympathetic and critical of the professors, who are now way younger and thus fear me – you can see them subtly play to the one grey-haired visitor – and whose didactic teaching styles could use some of the flair I have developed trying to interest massage therapists in the arcane corners of anatomy.  An example here, a joke there – I rewrite their delivery in my mind as I sit in those awkward seats at the back, realizing how lucky I am to be in adult education where everyone chooses – indeed, pays – to put themselves in front of me.  Versus these professors, harried by their departments to publish or perish, scurrying from room to fluorescent room, trying to convey their life’s interest to class after class of women, half sullen or hung over, the other half more eager to please than really to learn – I don’t envy them.

Mistral and I had many years of difficulty, now I easily cry at how close we have become – a change predicted by my friends when I was so down.  We do our best by our children, but our best is so inadequate.  Though you wish like hell to spare your children from hell, their own hell is what they must pass through to become like you: an imperfect and struggling adult.  Wherever your parents are, take a moment to tip your hat.  They’ll appreciate it.