Bonsai Farm, Moalboal, Philippines

Novel Journey 3: In which the author goes snorkeling

Bonsai Farm, Moalboal, Philippines

Bonsai Farm, Moalboal, Philippines

It is a 20 minute walk from Dacozy to Panagsama village through the village where the folks who support the tourist industry actually live.

There is one cluster of small houses where everyone seems to have gone made for bonsai trees. I’m not sure if it is a very enthusiastic hobby or something raised to sell elsewhere. Continue reading

Panagsama Beach, Moalboal

Novel Journey 1: In which the author goes forth

Panagsama Beach, Moalboal

Panagsama Beach, Moalboal

My father passed away three weeks ago.

His cancer returned in May and I flew home for a few weeks to spend time with him and my mom. He had just completed a round of radiation therapy and was recovering his fitness. My mom was retiring early and they were hoping to go travelling together, bringing forward plans originally slated for my mom’s 70th birthday, still two years away.

When I left, only two months ago, all seemed well. But it hangs over everything. Every conversation. Each moment.

My dad’s sister visited from Australia six weeks ago and, again, everything seemed fine. Then the phone call and the hasty trip to South Africa.

I started writing my first novel, Tartarus One, when I was 12 years old on my father’s first computer. It was an IBM clone with a tiny green cathode ray screen. I wrote about 10,000 words before stopping. The story then was about a man who was unjustly imprisoned in a jail in space, who escaped by building a small craft, and crashed in central Africa before returning to exact vengeance.

It was a clever story but I realised quite quickly that the voice and approach I was writing in wasn’t my own. It was Stephen King’s. And I knew that wouldn’t do.

I tried off and on over the years but, unless one has a trust fund or a supportive, wealthy and understanding spouse, writing full-time is too expensive and the returns too insecure. I have always worked and never earned sufficient to give it a go.

Over the years Tartarus One became Tartarus Falls. The story evolved, became more complex, then simpler, then honed. But I never wrote it.

I arrived on Monday afternoon. He was in bed and hadn’t moved for a few days. He was thrilled to see me and my normally physically reserved father held my hand tightly as we spoke that afternoon. Him in short, exhausted bursts. Every word leaving him panting from the effort.

He didn’t look well. His face swollen and blotchy, pale. His skin cold, even though he said he felt warm. He couldn’t lift his arms, so I helped feed him, change him, drop water into his mouth with a syringe.

But he was cheerful. Chatty, even. He wasn’t in pain, except when we moved him.

He seemed to think that he could recover even from this. The nurse who arrived left me in no doubt how serious things were. He hadn’t urinated in days, his kidneys had stopped.

I’ve always worked hard and have taken tremendous risks with my ideas, ambitions and choices. Sometimes that worked, sometimes that didn’t. My life hasn’t been dull.

A year ago, with an awareness that life is shorter than one may hope but still long enough, I contacted a writer mate of mine. Jon Evans has written a few novels and even sold sufficient of them to pay for an expanded life-style, although he does keep a regular software job as well. He travels and writes and works.

Let’s go somewhere with a beach, sufficiently low-cost to keep us there a while, good internet access, and good diving, and let us each write a novel, I suggested. He thought it a good idea and we began hunting though island nations.

Cuba meets most criteria, except for being an evil Stalinist dictatorship. So the internet is crap. Papua New Guinea is just fucking expensive. Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand … either of us have already been.

That left the Philippines. Which consists of several hundred islands. Next question, which one?

My brother arrived on Tuesday. By then, my father could only speak a word or two before losing consciousness. I called the UK and let my wife speak to him.

They’ve always had a very special relationship, going to see cricket together at Lord’s in the UK. Could it be only a year ago that my wife made my dad run for a bus to get to the grounds?

“I love you dad,” she said.

My mom, my brother and I sat around the bed, playing music, telling stories, laughing, sometimes crying. We remembered.

My story, while being science fiction, happens to be set in Nigeria. Why? Well, when my hero escapes from an orbital jail which uses a space elevator to transfer goods and people, it has to be sited over the equator.

I was fortunate to have spent a month in Nigeria over this year, working on a local data transparency project for the Edo State government. I also took a few days to visit some of the places where the story happens. I found books on Efik culture and cuisine. I did my research, discovering I could make my villains much more terrifying than I had originally imagined.

I worked out the structure of the story, the set-pieces, the characters.

My sister-in-law and nephews arrived on Wednesday. He wasn’t able to speak anymore although, at least in the morning, he was able to acknowledge that he was still listening.

When I helped move him, or dress him, or feed him, I could see the dark splotches under his skin that must be part of the cancer spreading throughout his body. If a thing could be said to be evil, they looked it.

“Wait,” he would gasp. Short, stubby words. Every time we needed to move him.

Through the day, he got weaker.

Even as I booked my plane tickets and reserved accommodation, I was worried. What happens with my dad’s cancer? Would he live long enough for the book to be published? He was never much of a reader and the cancer meant that he couldn’t see very well, but he could know that it was written. That it was done.

I never expected the call to come so soon.

At 16h00 he asked me for peanuts. I put a little peanut butter on a teaspoon and he sucked it. Then he asked for cheese and onion chips. I couldn’t give him that. I placed some water in his mouth with the syringe.

He refused food at 17h00. Clamped his jaws shut and wouldn’t take anything. Then he slept, his mouth open, gasping.

I was already exhausted when I packed for Moalboal. I had just returned from South Africa, spending the night before working through my dad’s documents with my mom, helping her prepare for the accountants so they could settle his estate.

There had been no space to mourn yet and it would be another two weeks before I would get any rest. I still had a conference to prepare for in Geneva, several projects to close out, a number of proposals to write and submit, and a report to finish.

I stayed with him till 23h50. It had been three days since I last snatched more than a few hours of sleep and I left my mom alone with him.

She woke me at 00h28 on Thursday morning. I checked that he was no longer breathing, that his heart had stopped, and I covered him with a sheet.

We called the Chevra Kadisha and we sat quietly together. My brother, my mother, and me.

This morning I woke up with the sound of the ocean against the shore. Two-and-a-half days of travel behind me.

For the next four weeks, a novelist’s journey ahead.

CATEGORY: American Culture

Death, Iowa and being 30 minutes late to an orgy with Marcia Brady and Laurie Partridge: What’s the best time zone in America?

The United States spans six time zones. I have now lived in four of them (Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific), visited a fifth (Hawaiian-Aleutian) and flown over the sixth (Alaskan), so I feel comfortable addressing the question of which one is best with some authority.

Eastern Time Zone

I begin with a certain bias. Like most kids, I hated going to bed. The big reason: I was afraid I’d miss something. I knew that other people were still awake and doing things, and it drove me crazy. Truth is, this is the same thing that bothers me about dying. Death doesn’t scare me, but I think about things like all the Chelsea FC matches that will be played without me and again, it drives me bonkers. And yes, I’m actually serious about this.

During the summer months, especially, I’d have my anxieties confirmed on occasion. Back in the old days we didn’t have the Internet or cable or a 24/7 news cycle or ESPN. All we had was newspapers. Hell, we didn’t even have touchtone and wireless phones. I’d get up in the morning, grab the newspaper and flip to the sports section to see how the Orioles had done. That was the team that had four 20-game winners, Boog Powell, Davey Johnson, Mark Belanger, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, and Earl Weaver at the helm. They were my favorite team. But when they were on the road playing West Coast teams, the games would still be in progress when the East Coast papers went to press (I lived in NC, which was in the Eastern time zone back then; these days it’s lobbying for a move to the 17th century time zone, but that’s another conversation). So there, where the score ought to be, would simply be the word “late.”

DAMMIT! See, I went to bed and something that I care about happened and not only did I miss it, everybody east of Louisville did, too.

I lived the first 27 years of my life alternating between Eastern Standard and Eastern Daylight, the whole time feeling like the kid who got sent to bed early because mom and dad were throwing an orgy downstairs and they’d invited both Marcia Brady and Laurie Partridge.

Verdict: Sucks.

Central Time Zone

Then I marched off to grad school at Iowa State, which sits smack-ass in the middle of the Central time zone. This was a tad better. Going to bed early-wise, anyway. Of course, I was in grad school and club DJing on the side to make ends meet, so it’s not like I went to bed early very often, regardless. The downside was that time zones notwithstanding, if something interesting did actually happen, at any hour of night or day, it highly unlikely to happen in Iowa.

Verdict: A little better but, you know, Iowa.

Mountain Time Zone

In 1993 I moved to Colorado for yet another round of grad school. I know, I know – how much book learnin’ does a simple country boy really need? But it worked out great. Colorado’s tourism motto ought to be Come for the Doctoral Programs, Stay for the Time Zone! Seriously, that beats the hell out of Iowa’s Gateway to Nebraska, don’t you think?

The bottom line is that as time zones go, the MST/MDT combination rocked. Braves games came on at 5pm and were over by 8, which meant I could watch them lose in the playoffs and still have plenty of time to take a shower and head out for a beer by 9:30. When I wasn’t studying, that is. But even when I had to spend the night reading 2000 pages of single spaced, 6-point blather about Semiotics (double sided, no pictures, written in a language that only vaguely approximated English), it was comforting know that I could, in principle, have watched the game and gone out for a beer.

All those losers in the Eastern time zone were going to bed right about the time I was ordering my second pint of stout and settling into SportsCenter (or rereading the same page by motherfucking de Saussure for the 12th time because the first 11 bounced off my brain like a superball off the deck of an aircraft carrier). HAH! Send this to bed early, bitches.

The West Coast was still out there with an hour in hand, but by now we had cable and 100 sports stations and the worst case scenario was an excuse to stay up an extra hour watching the Nuggets in Portland.

Verdict: Rocks!

Pacific Time Zone

Now I live in the Pacific Time Zone and by god nothing happens before I go to bed. Or, you know, before I would be going to bed if I had a mind to stay up. I have a job and am approaching middle age, so I go to bed earlier than I used to. But not because I have to. No, it’s because I choose to.

The upside of PST/PDT is obvious – you don’t miss anything. If you’re back east, you’re thinking about bed right about the time I’m thinking about dinner. You’ll be snorking into a drool-soaked pillow for three hours by the time the orgy gets started out here. Advantage: me.

The downside is that if you aren’t careful, you can miss things because they happen too soon. Take Thursday night. The Broncos game was timed for a nationwide viewing audience: 8pm Eastern. Which, if you do a little math, you’ll realize is right about the time those of us in the Emerald City are getting off work. Holy fuckstockings. I had to bus home, then go pick up Ronan MacScottie from daycare, then get home, walk him, feed him, grab a bite to eat, and it’s gonna be halftime before I can tune in.

Fortunately there was a lightning storm in Denver that held the game up, and I flipped on the game just as whoever she was got thoroughly into her enhanced interrogation of the national anthem. But this was what’s known as an “exception.” The “rule” is that things used to be too late for me and now sometimes they’re going to be too early.

Back in Denver I’d sometimes have to get up at ungodly hours on the weekends because Chelsea, sitting over there in Cockney Standard Time, had the early game. On multiple occasions I was down at the Bulldog for a 5:30am kick on Saturday or Sunday (heck, there were two 3:30am kicks when they were playing in the World Club Championships in Japan). Which means I might be looking at 4:30am starts out here on the left coast.

Yow.

Verdict: Can we change Pacific Time so that it’s only 30 minutes behind Mountain instead of a whole hour? Because that’d be great.

Those Other Time Zones

I haven’t spent a lot of time in the Hawaiian zone, but boy howdy, let me say that there was nothing wrong with Kauai that I could find.

Verdict: More research needed.

Never been to Alaska. I hear it’s pretty. Also, cold and devoid of single women.

From what I could tell looking out the airplane window, the Alaskan zone is mostly water. (This, by the way, is known as dramatic license. In reality I was nowhere near a window. The way this jet was laid out you had a section on either side with a window seat and an aisle seat, then you had the middle section which featured an aisle seat on either end and 16 seats in between. 16 very narrow seats. I had my ex-wife, who was mostly zonked on Dramamine to deal with her terror of flying on one side and a sweaty guy who was only able to get into his seat with the help of butter and large shoehorn on the other. At one point I had to fight my way out to go to the lavatory and by the time I got back I’d missed three episodes of Friends. Also, the big guy had slumped over and drooled on my seat. I spent the rest of the flight feeling like I was sitting in an inflatable kiddie pool.

Verdict: Sarah Palin.

To sum up, then:

Eastern: Everything interesting happens while you’re asleep.

Central: Iowa.

Mountain: Theoretically makes even de Saussure okay.

Pacific: You’re 30 minutes late to the orgy with Marcia Brady and Laurie Partridge.

Alaskan: Sausagefest.

Hawaiian: Poipu, Brennecke’s Beach Broiler.

Have a nice Sunday.

CATEGORY: EnvironmentNature

Six snake stories

It’s the dog days of summer, the time when it becomes hard to blog. Dedicated and serious bloggers push through it and write brilliant, meaty pieces on the new constitution or nuanced and warm offerings about choral singing and fly fishing or whimsical asides about larping. The less dedicated among us stare at the list of blog topics we intend to tackle, heavy duty pieces about entitlements or the positive role of corporations in politics, then turn away and go back to playing poker on our cellphones.

Better something than nothing, I figure, so today’s blog is about snakes, inspired by the comment thread on Booth’s recent post on fly fishing.

I don’t like snakes, but I don’t dislike them either. We have snakes here on our farm in Indiana and when I see one, I walk around it. Occasionally we’ll have to shoo an aggressive black snake away from the garage with a broom, and I suppose if we found a copperhead or rattler too close to the house I’d probably kill it, but for the most part they go their way and we go ours.

However, I’ve lived much of my life in places where there were snakes, poisonous ones, and have accumulated some stories. Growing up in south Georgia it was massive diamondbacks, huge snakes as thick as your arm that would stretch across the narrow, sandy roads as they sunned themselves. In West Africa, it was mostly cobras and green mambas. In Louisiana, it was water moccasins and in Australia tiger snakes.

1973—West Africa I

Peace Corps training was based in Kenema, where we were housed in a low cinder-block dorm, just a long row of concrete cubicles, each with a cot and a door that was nothing more than a thin piece of cloth on a string. We were playing cards when someone stuck their head in the door and yelled “Snake charmer.” Three of us jumped up and flip flopped across the compound to the street where the snake charmer was performing in front of a crowd of about thirty people.

Snake charmers traveled from village to village performing for tips. They wore black, pajama-like outfits and fluffy headdresses made from black-dyed rags. They carried their snakes in burlap sacks. There was no anti-venin available so locals were terrified of snakes and snake charmers. Snake charmers could handle snakes with impunity because they had “medicine,” what we would call black magic. In other words, they were evil men who’d made a bargain with the devil. If a snake charmer loaded his writhing sacks onto a local jitney bus, called a lorry, everyone else got off. If he came to a village and needed a place to sleep, he got not a room but a house, and afterwards the medicine man performed elaborate rites before anyone would sleep in it again.

This snake charmer was a scraggly man, with brown teeth and the faint odor of palm wine. His act consisted of pulling a snake from a bag, throwing it on the ground so that it faced the crowd, who immediately jumped backwards and screamed, “Wayah!” He’d then reach out, snag it by the tail and return it to the bag. We got there just in time for the spitting cobra. He reached into the bag, pulled the snake out, and threw it to the ground. It took off toward the crowd, who immediately bolted, except for me. I stood where I was and grinned at the snake. Behind me people screamed, “Wayah! Wayah!”

The snake crawled toward me. When it got about eighteen inches away, it rose and hooded, its head level with my bare knees. It swayed back and forth, deciding. The snake charmer looked at me as if I was crazy, then reached out and grabbed the snake by its tail, tugging it back and dropping it into the sack. He tied the top. We stood, legs akimbo and hands on hips, staring at each other. I am sure he was wondering, “Who is this smart ass ruining my act?” I was thinking that these snakes had to be defanged. With exactly the same hubris as a thousand white men in Africa before me, I refused to yield to silly native superstition. Instead of shorts and sandals, I should’ve worn starched khakis and a pith helmet.

After a moment he turned and walked back. Grunting, he lifted his biggest sack, and untied it. He walked over to me. By now I stood on my own little island because the crowd had retreated six feet or so behind me. Looking at me appraisingly, he untied the sack and dumped a cranky, fat Gaboon viper with a head the size of my fist into the dust. It crawled a few inches, felt the heat from my bare foot and coiled into striking position. The snake charmer watched me. I looked at him and smiled.

The crowd was going crazy behind me. Children buried their heads into their parents’ legs and wept. Adults slapped each others’ shoulders and whispered. Wayah! Wayah! The snake charmer looked back and forth from the snake to me. Finally, apparently resigning himself to the reality that I was now part of the act, he shook his head, reached down and grabbed the snake behind the jaws.

Another Volunteer snapped pictures like a photographer at a fashion shoot, racing around, kneeling, turning his camera sideways. Klick, klick, klick, klick. My fans cheered me on. The “wayah’s” of surprise morphed into “wayah’s” of encouragement. Wayah! Wayah! Wayah! The snake charmer hung the heavy snake around my neck and released his hands. He hugged me. He smiled for the camera. I smiled for the camera. The viper smiled for the camera. Klick. Wayah! Klick.

Then came the money shot. The charmer grabbed the snake, held it between us, flipped it over, pried its jaws open and using a small stick raised up a fang fully an inch long. A crystal drop of poison glistened on its tip. I stared at that hypodermic-sharp fang that had been less than an inch from my carotid artery and felt the blood rush down from my head. I felt my knees soften and struggled to hold myself upright. The world went silent. I no longer heard the klicks or the cheers. I couldn’t stop looking at that fang. My tongue was made of dust.

And then I did the single bravest thing I have ever done in my life: I smiled, waved to the crowd and calmly walked back to the dorm.

1973—West Africa II

After training we did visits in the villages of Volunteers who’d been there awhile. In Joe’s village, I went to the latrine. When I came out, I looked down and there, perfectly parallel between my two feet in their plastic sandals, was a short, flat arrow-shaped snake. I didn’t move. Nor did he. We remained like that for what seemed like a very long time. Finally, he slowly turned, his flickering tongue almost touching my bare foot, and crawled away.

Back inside the house, we looked up the snake in Joe’s book. It was a death adder—the same snake that killed Cleopatra.

“Why didn’t you kill it?” asked Joe.

I shook my head. “You kill it. Me and that snake had a deal. I wouldn’t kill it and it wouldn’t kill me. A deal is a deal.”

1974—West Africa

Since it was always warm in West Africa, some Volunteers slept on waterbeds they’d brought from home. Ray was sitting in his living room one day when out of the corner of his eye he saw a small black cobra slide around the corner and into his bedroom. Without thinking he jumped up and yelled, “Kalii!” which means snake. Instantly every adult male in the village poured through his front door, each with a machete. Ray tried to yell stop, but before he could get the words out his mouth a stream of pinkish water poured through the doorway. Inside his bedroom, the dead cobra lay in pieces on his shredded water bed.

1977-Louisiana

We were laying pipe through the Atchafalaya Basin. My job was to follow the excavator digging the ditch in a small aluminum boat. Once or twice a day I’d fuel the machine or lubricate something, but mostly I sat in the boat and watched, there more for safety than for anything else. Every day I’d wash my boat, prepare lunch for the operator of the machine, read and in the middle of the day when it got hot, slip into the bayou for a swim.

This drove the operator and the supervisor crazy, because they rightly thought swimming alone by yourself in a deep black-water bayou with snakes, strong current and the occasional alligator was unsafe. The supervisor would try to talk me out of it by telling me stories like the old urban legend where a man jumps into a river and comes out with fifty snakes hanging on him. I’d just laugh and say that was nonsense, that snakes couldn’t open their mouths underwater or they’d drown.

One day we were sitting on the tracks of the machine and a cottonmouth swam by. A cottonmouth is a very bulky snake and swims very high in the water. Instead of its head poking out of the water at an angle like most water snakes, they form a sort of “S,” almost like a camel’s neck with the top of its head parallel to the surface. This one held a fish in its mouth. The supervisor looked at me, but didn’t say anything. I never swam alone in the bayou again.

1989—Australia

Australia has 6 or 7 of the ten most poisonous snakes in the world, depending on how you count. (You’d think it would be straightforward, but it’s not. Some snakes have very toxic venom, like the sea snake, but have small fangs and rarely bite. Some have venom that is less toxic, like the tai pan, but are quick to bite and inject larger amounts, and whose bites are often fatal.)

A friend was burnt out from work. Another friend offered the use of his country retreat near Melbourne. The first friend went down at night and settled in. The next morning he got up, took his coffee out to the back veranda, and there sunning themselves on the stone path leading into the garden, were half a dozen fat black tiger snakes. Tiger snakes are very poisonous, very agro, and very dangerous. He took his coffee, slowly retreated into the house and went out to the front to sit and have his coffee, where there, laying on the welcome mat was another tiger snake. He quickly packed and left.

2013—Indiana

The other day I was running along Woodall Road and I saw a black snake, actually a Southern Black Racer, dart across the road. I stopped to look at it. It was about three feet long, as thin as a ribbon, and like most Racers, aggressive as all get out. This one coiled up in the leaves, hissed at me and then put his tail up against a dry leaf and began shaking it furiously. It was a pretty good imitation of a rattlesnake. I’m a believer in evolution, but it’s still amazing that behavior this specific could occur through natural selection.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (TSR)

HobbyWeek: ShadowRun, Rifts, and Dungeons & Dragons – oh my!

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (TSR)

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (TSR)

I started playing role-playing games (RPGs) when I was in 4th or 5th grade. It was the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set pictured here, actually, complete with crappy plastic dice that turned to powder in the sun. I don’t remember where I got it, whether it was a gift from my high school-aged sister (who was playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons [AD&D] at the time) in order to get me to stop watching her game all the time or if I saved up my allowance or what. At this point it hardly matters, because that basic set that I only barely played was a gateway to worlds ranging from classic Tolkien-based fantasy to cyberpunk to space opera.

There was never a large enough group of people in junior high and high school to actually get a game established, and I knew that adding RPGs to the mix would have made me even more of an outcast than I already was. So I didn’t play much from the time I got that basic set until I got to college. Penn State main campus is so large that there is a critical mass of people for just about any hobby you can imagine, including tabletop gaming. And so it came to pass that I started playing RPGs in my freshman year of college. I’ve been playing more or less constantly ever since, through grad school, dating, marriage, a career, and two kids (who are starting to show some interest in tabletop gaming themselves). And at this point most of my closest friends are guys whom I met when I advertised in a Boulder, Colorado game store in 1996 that I was starting a ShadowRun campaign.

Over the course of the last 21 years of gaming I’ve done it all – player, game master, built my own fantasy and cyberpunk worlds, and even homebrewed up a semi-custom system based on the 2nd Edition ShadowRun rules for one of my worlds. I initially created those homebrew rules as way to define some rules for an alternate cyberpunk Earth in which I was (and still am) planning to write SF short stories and novels.

If you asked me whether I liked playing or running the game (game mastering, or GMing for short) more, I’d have to say GMing. There’s something addictive about matching my wits against five to eight very smart people, and it’s an amazing feeling when I can craft some adventure that they enjoy and yet still find challenging. It’s fun to watch a player’s jaw drop when something totally unexpected happens (for my gaming friends who I know are reading this, “He got up”). But I’ve come to really appreciate those moments when my gamers outthink me and throw me such a curveball that I have to toss all my planning out the window as a result. In my group we call that “filing a flight plan” for reasons that will become apparent in a moment.

I GMed a multi-year long campaign in the magic-meets-cyberpunk game ShadowRun. The game was largely set in Seattle after the United States had broken up and Seattle had essentially become a city-state. The party (group of player characters, or PCs) had been hired as bodyguards for a woman who needed to make it to Denver safely several days later. The party got attacked several times by my bad guys and had successfully kept the woman safe, but I had planned a major ambush at the Seattle-Tacoma airport for when the party delivered the woman to her scheduled flight to Denver.

One of the PCs owned a small jet that he kept at a small area airport and I had previously established that he could fly the plane around Seattle without filing a flight plan so long as he wasn’t planning on flying outside the borders of city. I had guessed that they might try to fly the woman from the area airport to Sea-Tac airport and had prepared for that, but after privately discussing how best to get the woman to Denver, they called me back into the room and informed me that they needed to file a flight plan. I reminded them that they didn’t need to file one to fly inside the city of Seattle, and they said “We know – we need to file a flight plan.” And that’s when it hit me that they were going to fly her directly to Denver, bypassing entirely my carefully planned ambush.

I remember looking down at my pile of maps and NPCs and saying something along the lines of “Well, I guess I don’t need these anymore.”

Moments like that are why I love GMing so much. Sure, GMing can be frustrating sometimes. The way I run my games is a major time commitment for me. And given I run multi-year campaigns, decisions I make during character creation have been known to come back and bite me in the ass months or even years later. But those inevitable frustrations are worth it every time the party files a flight plan or they tell me “you suck” because of the green slime I hid in the mine tunnels (underwater where they can’t see it or burn it off, of course).

While GMing games is the most fun for me, even I get burned out and need a break from time to time. When that happens one of the players steps up and offers to run a game and I get to play. At this point I’ve mostly played D&D, but I’ve also played some ShadowRun in college, In Nominae, Champions, Rifts, and a little GURPS cyberpunk. I’ve been a Star Wars cyborg (pre-Episode 1, thankyouverymuch), an angel, a hacker, a Macross Valkyrie pilot, and more wizards, clerics, and monks of different D&D races than I can even count. I’ve also had my character’s gender changed via reincarnation or other magic so many times that it’s become a running gag.

Playing is a lot less time consuming than GMing and it’s easier to do while raising kids. But it also gives me an opportunity to create characters in one world that I can then re-purpose for my own world. For example, I took a female monk I played in one of my friends’ games and imported her into my own D&D world. And sometimes I’ve taken major NPCs I created for a game I was GMing and played a version of them in another. It’s fun to be able to pretend to be something I’m not, or to take some part of my own personality and build a character around it to see just what happens.

Over the years I’ve had lots of hobbies. But only a few have been important enough for me to stick with them through hell and high water. Science fiction is one, collecting and building LEGO (especially Star Wars LEGO) is another. Blogging is a third. But the one that I’ve stuck with the longest, and quite possibly enjoyed the most, is role-playing games.

CATEGORY: CATEGORY: ArtSunday

ArtSunday: What to see, where it is, how to get there…

Cover, Lighthouses of the Carolinas, 2nd ed. (courtesy, terrancezepke.com)

The review for my most recent  completed book from the 2013 reading list has been giving me fits. I finished this book several days ago – but it’s not, as my wife Lea commented, the sort of book one generally reads straight through. But I did, so here I am.

In a typically whimsical moment, I put a guidebook on my reading list. Lighthouses of the Carolinas by Terrance Zepke is one of those books travelers buy to help them find and learn about certain “sites to see” (in this case, lighthouses of note in NC and SC).

Like any good guidebook, Lighthouses of the Carolinas gives some brief historical information  about each lighthouse or “light station” (a term used for less permanent structures that either supplemented or stood in for a lighthouse at various points in this region’s maritime history). It also gives directions for reaching each point of interest (as well as explaining which of these various lighthouses or stations simply can’t be viewed (either because they are out to sea as some light stations are) or because they are on private property (as most, it seems, of SC’s lighthouses are, thanks to corporate control of one sort or another).

Some of the lighthouses have colorful histories and some are world renowned either in the maritime history of lighthouses (Hatteras in NC, the nation’s tallest light) or in pop culture (Harbour Town, a developer-built addition to the Harbour Town Links golf course, home to a PGA tournament each year but a functioning lighthouse, nonetheless). As with all guidebooks, there are long lists of “other points of interest,” contact information for chambers of commerce and other sources of information, and the occasional sidebar featuring a historical anecdote, local folklore, or a brief biography of, for example, a noted lighthouse keeper.

And that’s pretty much it. There’s not much to say about the writing – it’s functional and occasionally the author musters a tad of enthusiasm for some sight that shouldn’t be missed or bit of trivia – but this is a guidebook. It’s function is to tell the reader what to see, where it is, and how to get there.

And so it does.

(I should note that I read the first edition of this book. The 2nd edition seems to edit out some places, especially those lighthouses/stations “difficult or impossible to see.” That seems a shame, since they were often quite interesting historically. But this is a guidebook – and I guess you can’t guide people to places they can’t get to, now can you? Oh, and she’s demoted Harbour Town from the SC list of lighthouses. But it was pretty Disney anyway, so maybe she went for a kind of authenticity. Or maybe lighthouse buffs complained about its inclusion. Oh, the politics of guidebook writing….)

XPOST: The New Southern Gentleman

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Traveling to Istanbul (III)–In the heart of the country?

Thursday started out in a bit of frustration, but turned out okay after all. The plan was to head out by tram to the Naval Museum, then double back to one of the university museums to see a map show, and then wander around the Galata area. The first two were a bust, sadly. First up, the Naval Museum was closed for renovations until July. You would think that this would be noted in the appropriate places. I love maritime museums, and this sounds as if it would be a good one. I remember the one in Barcelona being fantastic. And I was all set to buy a T-shirt too. Maybe next time.

Then we spent, or rather wasted, some time looking for the museum associated with the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, where they were having a large map show featuring the Piri Reis map of 1513, the first map to show anything from the Americas. But we kept being told that was closed too, even though the website said the show would run until May. Well, that turned out to be my mistake—I got my museums confused. We did, however, get some nice pictures of Barbarossa’s statue:
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And one with Barley, the travel totem. It’s remarkable how any picture is enhanced by the addition of a small bear:
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So instead we ended up taking the funicular up to the top of Galata and walking down, great fun in the windy streets. Lunch was some pide at a place recommended by Istanbul Eats, which has turned into our go-to place for real food. It was a lovely day to amble down the hill. Here’s me in my tourist disguise:
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We ended up getting a bit off course on our way to the Galata bridge, and wandered through what seemed to be the hardware part of town. Really, this was great—here’s the guy who sells chainsaws (with many brands I’ve never heard of); here’s the guy who sells wheels; here’s the guy who sells used wheels; here’s the guy who sells springs; here’s the guy who sells hammers, and only hammers; and so on. This was a true market (although not in a market square, just along the streets), with shoppers wandering around looking for stuff, and sellers selling them stuff. I felt like I was in my element here, and if I only needed something at that exact moment, I could find it. As opposed to London, where I can never find anything—I usually have to wait for the next trip back to the US to get whatever hardware stuff I need.

Then a quick tram trip back to the hotel, a dip in the whirlpool for tired muscles, and a late kebab dinner. And I finished re-reading Ian Mcdonald’s wonderful The Dervish House, about Istanbul in 2027—a great book, highly recommended. Although I can’t imagine it was published here—there’s still a certain level of censorship. I can’t get Gawker online, for example—what I get instead is a message in Turkish with a big red X on it, so it’s hard to miss the point. I can just imagine what else I can’t get online. Turkey is one of three finalists for the 2020 Olympics, and I wonder if Internet censorship is a positive or negative screen. It didn’t hurt China’s chances, obviously. The other two finalists are Spain, who is broke now and will probably still be broke by 2020, and Japan, who has had the Olympics about 17 times already, if I remember correctly. Maybe it just seems that way. So I would think Turkey’s chances aren’t bad. This would be the first Olympics in a Muslim country, which would be interesting.

So today we did a couple of smaller museums, both worth the admission. First up was the correct museum for the map show, which was kind of interesting, since the show didn’t actually contain any real maps—just pictures of them. Lovely, large pictures, to be sure, but still—not even the original of the great map that’s the centrepiece of the show. Islamic mapmaking was extraordinary, though—as in so many other areas, principally science and mathematics, they set the standard for a number of centuries.

Then a short walk straight uphill to Orhan Pamuk’s real Museum of Innocence, named after his novel The Museum of Innocence. This was great. If you’re a fan of Joseph Cornell or Barbara Hodgson, this is the museum for you. Pamuk has created, quite attentively and lovingly, various little boxes, each containing found everyday objects that embody each chapter of the book itself. There are 83 chapters, so now you know how many boxes there are. He hasn’t quite got them all filled, but the vast majority are lovingly full of the detritus of daily life, the kind that brings back and preserves memories. Which is what the museum is all about—how we preserve memories, and why we need to do that. Pamuk has written a companion book to the museum—The Innocence of Objects—discussing why and how he put the museum together; it’s been something he’s had in mind for decades, as it turns out.

Pamuk is not the most popular figure in Turkey, irrespective of his Nobel Prize for Literature. Several years ago he was put on trial out in Anatolia somewhere for insulting Turkishness or something, but—to the great relief of the national government—the trial was halted. But he embodies the European side of Turkey, at a time when much of Asian Turkey seems unconvinced of the benefits of being European. Maybe it’s the ease with which Turks seem to deal with each other that suggests a more placid, culturally integrated nation than is really the case. It’s clearly a multi-ethnic culture—you can see this just wandering around. The surprising thing to me is the sheer number, even here in Istanbul, of women wearing scarves, or even the full hijab. And raincoats—women wear raincoats everywhere, including a large number of younger women. Men wear whatever they want, of course.

Turkey still wants to be in the EU, but a number of EU nations remain to be convinced, and you can sort of understand the hesitance. Maybe it’s all those raincoats. As we’ve noted before, the EU has had a host of issues with Poland and Hungary over the past several years, and is still trying to figure out what sort of financial system it needs to have—it’s not clear to me that it’s ready yet for Turkey, or that Turkey is ready for Europe. This is not a new issue, of course—Turkey has been straddling these tensions for centuries. Much of Pamuk’s autobiographical Istanbul: Memories and the City is caught up with this tension. Still, Istanbul was a European Capital of Culture in 2010, along with Essen in Germany and Pécs in Hungary, so they’re making their move.

There’s no question it’s a great walking city—Mrs. W has been having a great time posting her daily shoots. I’ve been a bit remiss, but we’re sharing the laptop—I’m not about to start posting on an iPad Mini. But the location is a photographer’s dream, and there’s a shot anywhere you point your camera at.

Here’s a shot of the interior of the Şehzade Camii, which I believe is my favorite. Like a good cathedral, the larger mosques pull your vision straight up, which is sort of the point. And this is what you’re likely to see:
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Here’s another one:
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Notice the designs are of three things only—flora, words from the Koran, or geometry. Yet within those constraints, what a riot of variance. Compare the above with the interior of the Blue Mosque:
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The difference in tone is largely accounted for by the fact that the Blue Mosque interior is all tiles, so the light is different. Here’s the Hagia Sophia at night (taken with the phone, so it’s not great):
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The markets were a hoot—exactly the amalgam of color, aroma and bustle that you would expect. Here’s the Grand Bazaar:
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And the Spice Bazaar—where we actually parted with some currency. Some goodies to look forward to upon our return.
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And only one more day, then back to London! Where, I gather, it’s been snowing. Great.

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Traveling to Istanbul (II)–the Harem and other delights

IMG_0058Whenever I want to learn about a place, or a different time, I usually go the mystery route—find some good mysteries about whatever I want to know about, and read them. Sometimes this is more a happy accident than by design. Such was the case with Jason Goodwin’s series about Istanbul in the 1830s, with their protagonist Yashim the eunuch. I picked the first one up one day, and have been hooked ever since. There are four now, all excellent. And one reason they’re excellent is what you learn about the place and the time—in the 1830s, the Ottoman Empire was under intense pressure from both the north, in the form of Russia, and the south, in the form of Egypt. There’s lots of politics, since Yashim essentially functions as an intelligence operative for the Palace. And a lot of the Palace politics gets clarified and elucidated by Yashim’s visits to the Harem. Well, he’s a eunuch (from particularly tragic circumstances), remember—he can go there.

And so can you or I, now—just queue up inside Topkapi Palace for the Harem—yes, the real Harem—and you’re in. It’s great. Talk about a warren of rooms—there are rooms and rooms, and alcoves, and passageways, and cul-de-sacs, and fountains and baths, and everything a harem is supposed to have. The day we went was bright and sunny, so there was plenty of light, always a help. It’s still easy to forget that most of the world’s historic architecture and buildings were built when the world was still, in William Manchester’s wonderful phrase, lit only by fire.

We start out in the entrance hallway here, which gives a pretty good flavor of the whole place, even though it’s an outdoors area:
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As we move along through the nooks and crannies, we see why the mythology of this place was so shrouded—because there’s not a single straight line in the place that goes anywhere. On the other hand, there are some stunning rooms and details:
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With this as well—one of many corners you want to peer around, just to see what’s there. And it’s probably just another corner:
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So that was great. Imagine, the real Harem. If a magic carpet had swooped down, it wouldn’t have surprised me one bit. And it fits with most of what else we’ve seen—mostly mosques, and mostly those designed by Sinan, mentioned yesterday as the dean of mosque architecture. Two in particular stand out. The first, Şehzadi Camii, was commissioned by Suleyman following the death of his son. The second was the mosque named for Suleyman, the Süleymaniye Mosque, which is the grandest mosque compex in Istanbul. When I say complex, that’s because that’s what they were. These large complexes contained a bit of everything—the mosque, of course, but also a whole lot else: tombs (türbes); the schools, including the college for religious instruction (the medrese); the kitchens (usually for feeding not just the residents of the schools and the priests, but also the poor of the neighborhood); a hamam for public bathing; a ceşme, or public fountain; a library, stables and a han (business center). These were often large and costly to erect, but there are many of them, largely as a result of Islamic inheritance laws, which prevented leaving one’s entire estate to one’s children. We have some pictures of these two mosques in the next post.

We had another stunningly lovely day today, which we put to good effect by taking a ferry over to the Asian side. We then got to wander around a bit, noticing that the Asian side looks pretty much exactly like the European side. So we ambled north to the little town of Kuzguncuk (which is still in Istanbul, so our transport pass still worked.) This is worth mentioning because of the lunch we had, at a place called Ismet Baba Restaurant.

Like every place that gets overrun with tourists, there are two kinds of Turkish food in Istanbul—there’s Turkish food for tourists, and then there’s Turkish food. We’ve mostly been eating the former, but with just a tiny bit of effort you can easily find the latter. The lunch we had yesterday, for example, where we went back in the kitchen and picked stuff out. Not a word of English was uttered in any of these exchanges. Today there was a little bit of English, but it didn’t really matter. This was a fish restaurant, so we had bluefish (which we picked out,) lightly battered and cooked in olive oil, with some yoghurt and aubergine salad on the side. Perfection, that’s what it was. The great meals are always the ones you didn’t really expect, aren’t they? Eating that meal, sipping a beer and gazing over the Bosporus, I felt we could get into this sort of lifestyle.

That’s a fantasy, of course—I’d go nuts after a couple of weeks. But, still, it’s nice to have these breaks. At the moment I’m sitting on the roof patio of the hotel, staring at the busy Bosporus and Golden Horn, with dozens of ferries scooting around, and the larger ships and tankers heading up to or down from the Black Sea. It’s not what it was in the 19th century, of course, but it’s a lot busier than London. There’s a whole lot of life here. Tomorrow, up the Bosporus again!

Mosaics, Hagia Sofia

Traveling to Istanbul (I)

Dome, The New Mosque

Dome, The New Mosque

This is farther east and still in Europe than I’ve ever been, outside of Moscow—farther than Bucharest, farther than Athens. A lot like both, though—even though the place has been Islamic for five hundred years, it still feels pretty Orthodox as well—you can’t just disappear that 1,300 years of Christianity. What it mainly feels like, though, is bustling. This is one busy city. Thank god for the excellent tram system. I’m a big fan of cities with trams anyway, and this one is superb. It makes Boston’s system look like the medieval relic it really is. And the traffic makes Boston’s look positively care-free.

Our hotel, though, is nicely located, a couple of blocks from just about everything, right in the middle of the Eminönü area. So we’re a block from the train station, the relevant tram stop, the ferries up the Bosporus and into the Golden Horn, and no more than a fifteen minute walk to the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace. Lots of good restaurants nearby as well, with the only thing lacking being a place to get recent (i.e., since last Wednesday) English newspapers. But we’re fully wired—isn’t everyone these days, including what appears to be every resident of Istanbul, each and every one of whom apparently has a mobile phone? Packing for trips these days has become an exercise in wire management—we have the iPad charger, the laptop charger, the charger for the phone, which fortunately is the same as for my Blackberry from work, the battery chargers for the two cameras, the little box for uploading photos from cameras and phones and iPads onto laptops…what could I possibly have left off this list?

And, since it’s Easter, I had to bring along The Book of Common Prayer, to compensate for the fact that we haven’t been to an Easter service for years, and here we are, in a country where the Orthodox Easter won’t come around until May. Plus we spent the entirety of Easter visiting mosques. These cultural markers do mean something after all.

The mosques are quite neat, and not quite what I expected, at least the larger ones. These are large palaces of light, really, designed to be as open and as bright as possible. I’m still trying to sort out Islamic aesthetics, which I imagine will tell me why many of the interiors we’ve seen—especially at Topkapi—seem designed to not blend with each other—to just be, as Mrs. W put it, bright and shiny, with no sense of overall room design. Well, that’s probably just us—and it certainly isn’t a criticism that could be made of the mosques that we’ve been in. These are big and airy, with high domes (every one literally trying to outdo Hagia Sophia, apparently), lots of windows, and sublimely tasteful settings of verses from the Koran.

So far we’ve done most of the major mosques, including some designed by the master architect of mosques, Koca Mimar Sinan (“Great Architect Sinan”). Sinan was appointed Chief Imperial Architect by Suleyman and held the post for more than half a century. His output was astonishing, including 81 large mosques, more than half of which were in Istanbul. The major ones are the Süleymaniye, probably the largest and best known of Istanbul’s mosque complexes, and the Şehzade Camii (“Camii” is Turkish for “mosque”), which Suleyman had built in memory of his son, who died at 21. These are grand constructions. I would have to say that if I had a favorite, it was this one—the nicest balance of light and space of all of them. But this is subjective, obviously.

They are also interesting socially. This is a patriarchal culture and religion, so no surprise that there is a separate prayer area for women. Still, people are wandering around everywhere—except at our last mosque, where they asked visitors to stay in the back. But this wasn’t the case at other mosques, and people were just wandering around at most of them. Men were praying, yes. But men were also chatting up a storm, talking on their mobiles, and taking pictures of each other. Families were sitting around talking—not loudly, but certainly not whispering either. Children were running around all over the place. Maybe it’s because it was Sunday, and that’s a social day—you meet the neighbors at the mosque, have a nice chat, and move on. But what it most reminded me of is what medieval cathedrals were supposed to be like—large spaces where everyone got together regularly, and lots of stuff happened, not just services.

And Turkey is certainly a family place. There are kids everywhere. When we were visiting Topkapi Palace on Friday, it seemed as if every school group in Istanbul was there as well, not to mention about ten thousand mothers with strollers. What is lacking is lots of Disney stuff—we haven’t exactly been looking for it, but so far no kids in Little Princess outfits. However, there do seem to be LOTS of Burger Kings and McDonalds, which I suppose is inescapable these days. Still, plenty of good food pretty much everywhere. We’ve already had some excellent real meals, and some terrific light fare from the kebab shop down the street. This a city of 12 million people or however many it is, so you can get pretty much whatever you want here, so long as it’s lamb. But not just the lamb—Turkish cuisine is full of nuts and seeds, and not only do they spice everything up nicely, it’s also good for you. Forget all that crap about the Mediterranean diet. It’s what they eat here that’s good for you—olive oil, dates, figs, olives, and lots of seeds and nuts. I could eat this stuff forever.

Anyway, according to David Macaulay’s excellent <em>Mosque, the ideal proportions for a mosque are a perfect cube, covered by a half hemisphere. The perfect cube comes from the Kaaba at Mecca. The dome comes from, of all things, Hagia Sophia: when Mehmed II finally conquered Constantinople in 1453, he began a mosque building campaign. Hagia Sophia itself was turned into a mosque (it is no longer a mosque—it was turned into a museum in 1935). But it was also the impetus for a new model of mosque—one that emulated the Sophia, and, in particular, one that outdid its magnificent dome. It became a model for a number of mosques designed by Sinan, including Süleymaniye and Şehzade.

Hagia Sophia, from the Gallery

Hagia Sophia, from the Gallery

So one of the first things you do here is head over to Hagia Sophia, which is what we did on Thursday, along with, apparently, everyone who happened to be in Istanbul that day. And it’s worth it—it’s one of the most impressive buildings ever. It’s very large, and yes, the dome is gigantic—that’s 182 feet straight up. There was scaffolding along one of the walls in the nave, and some complaints on TripAdvisor about that, but really, you’re going to complain because your fifteen minutes in this marvelous building was ruined by scaffolding? Americans, go home. There is some great mosaic work throughout, especially in the narthex, and upstairs in the Gallery. The columns are magnificent, carved from marble, and supporting a U-shaped first-floor gallery that itself can obviously hold thousands. It is filled, just filled, with light—Byzantine architecture made some amazing innovations in this regard. But then you realize that this is simply what was left following two ruinous sackings—by the Fourth Crusaders in 1204, and by the Conqueror’s troops in 1453. Some of the Sophia’s treasures can still be seen in Venice, interestingly enough.

Dome, Hagia Sophia

Dome, Hagia Sophia

It was an inspiring visit. I felt sort of the way I felt after my first visit to The Baptistry in Florence: here was a building that not only encapsulated an age—the entire history of Byzantium—but it also provided a foundation for much of what followed. It’s a trip everyone should make. It’s not until you’re here, really, that you start to appreciate what the Byzantines did—they kept it all going when Rome collapsed and was overrun by Vandals, and when what eventually became Europe disappeared into several centuries of fear, suppression and constant warfare. For ages this was the Roman empire, extended—except run by Greeks. The Turks didn’t get here until the 15th century, an Islamic tribe coming out of the steppes.

Mosaics, Hagia Sophia

Mosaics, Hagia Sophia

It’s theoretically a secular culture now—this is Atatürk’s legacy. But it doesn’t feel that way. Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, which is basically an autobiography, reminds us that this is a city of ruins from many different civilizations and periods, and it still has that flavor of mixed failed empires, from which a new one has yet to take shape. But the ingredients are all here.

CATEGORY: LeisureTravel3

The La Jolla Canyon Run: down and out in the Malibu hills

CATEGORY: LeisureTravel3I am flying across America to participate in a race that isn’t.

The race is the La Jolla Canyon Run—31 miles of trails, up 5000 feet of elevation gain. It’s traditionally held in early March in the Santa Monica Mountains just north of Malibu. This year it was cancelled because the organizers got crossways with park management, who then jacked up the access fees.

So there’s no race. But my son who lives on the coast just north of there has been training for this race since last fall. My wife and I had promised to do it with him, so we’re on our way to race it anyway.

On one hand, this is my kind of race. They like the hoopla associated with races—the podiums and medals and crowds. They’re disappointed this one has been cancelled. I don’t like hoopla. I tend to do smaller, lower key events. Show up, do the best you can, shake hands, go home. This event is exactly my sort of thing. You can’t get lower key than a non-race.

At the same time, I’m a little worried. I’ve never run that far or done a true trail run. Also, since the race has been cancelled, there’s no support on the course in case I break an ankle or run out of water. Oh, and I’m old—sixty this year—and still horribly out of shape. That extra ten pounds is going to hurt going up those mountains, especially with another five pounds of water on my back.

The course is four loops, up and over five mountain ridges, each a thousand feet high. That’s not that high, but these are steep. If you’ve ever driven the PCH from LA to Santa Barbara, you know that the mountains drop straight down into the sea, with barely enough room to site the road.

Since the race is cancelled, the route is not marked, so the three of us spend the night before the race studying maps and going over directions like “at mile 5.3 or maybe it’s 5.5, I can’t read my writing. Anyway, there’s a well-marked turn, but don’t turn there. Turn at the next one, which isn’t marked. The sign for that one is behind a bush. If you find yourself running straight up a mountain, you’ve gone too far.” I love my son, but having a dyslexic prepare your cue sheets adds a certain drama to the whole thing.

My wife only plans to do 7 or 8 miles. My son plans to do all four loops, 31 miles, and wants to break six hours, a time which would probably have put him on the podium. I plan to do all four loops, and am hoping for seven hours. But that is wildly optimistic. If Mike does six, then I should do eight and a half hours based on a comparison of our marathon times. My son asks me if I want to borrow a headlamp, just in case I’m out there longer than twelve. He’s not joking.

Loop 1:

The first loop goes up a steep ravine, up and over a dry waterfall, half-hike and half-climb, through a canyon and onto a hillside. The trail then winds up and around a series of mountains that put you looking right down onto the PCH and the Pacific Ocean. It’s a breathtaking view, up and down the coast for miles. The trail then goes through what looks like a high mountain meadow (even though this is not the high mountains,) past another mountain with a very creepy and enormous radar installation on it, then back down the canyon.

The original race was to start at 8 a.m. But we get there early and I start at 7:10. There aren’t many people about and I have the trail to myself. Mike and Liz wait until 7:30. It’s a beautiful, beautiful morning—high blue sky, birds riding the thermals, whitecaps on blue ocean. It’s a little cool, in the fifties, but that’s perfect for a run like this. I take off, making myself run slower than I’d like, freezing as I run through the shadows in the canyon and warming up as I move out of the canyon and up the hillside. Mike passes me about mile 2, just in time to show me a tricky turn. I keep him in sight as we scale the first mountain and make our way along the coast line.

It’s easy to zone out when you run on the road, just sort of settle into a pace and motor along with legs in gear and brain in neutral. That doesn’t work with a trail run. These switchbacks are narrow enough that the handful of hikers who have been up to Mt. Mugu for sunrise have to step off the trail for me to pass, and the long drop on the other side is steep enough and filled with enough cactus that it would hurt. The footing is rocky and treacherous. I’d hoped to do the first loop in under two hours, roughly 15 minute pace. I’d counted on really making up some time on the descents. That’s not the way it works. The descents are a lot easier than the ascents from a huffing and puffing standpoint, but I still have to pick my way down because of the uneven terrain. Still, I run as much as I walk and get through the first loop almost on schedule.

I feel good in terms of energy, but I worry because the trail is starting to take a toll on my legs. I feel a little nascent plantar fasciitis in my left foot, a bone bruise on my heel, a strange little tweak on the inside of my knee and my hip flexors ache. I stop to refill my water in the parking lot but I haven’t drunk any yet, so I simply open it, take a look, and close it. Liz is not back yet, which makes me uneasy. I am not that comfortable with women running alone in wilderness areas, even in relatively well populated ones like this one, and hope she’s okay.

Loop 2:

As I leave, I notice the parking lot is filling up. A wonderful diversity of people are climbing out of the parked cars. In addition to Californians, or at least people who look like I think Californians look, bless their windswept hair and stylish water bottles, there are Japanese and Indians along with people I guess to be of Mexican descent. I am wearing a t shirt, shorts and a hat. The Californians are wearing fleeces and shorts or jeans. The Asians are dressed for an Everest expedition, with thermals peeking out of shirt tops, fleeces, down jackets, full-fingered gloves and knit caps. I’m not sure who’s confused, but one of us has no idea what the temperature is today.

The second loop is the Ray Miller trail, almost three miles of switchbacks that go straight up. This hillside is angled so you can’t quite see the top. At every switch you think the top of the hill is just around the bend, only to turn the corner and see another series of switchbacks. I’m walking now, but tell myself that there’s no time to be gained running uphill and I’m better off saving my energy for the descents, which is sort of true. At last, I reach the top of the trail and get on the fire road, called Overlook Drive. From here, you can see the Pacific on one side and snow-capped San Jacinto Mountains eighty miles east. It is gorgeous.

When I’m halfway down the fire road I hear a shout, look over the side of the mountain and there’s Mike laboring straight up a tiny path. He runs up to me and we compare notes. I’m at mile eleven and he’s already five miles ahead of me. He looks good.

I run down the road, feeling immeasurably superior to the walkers and bikers. I reach the halfway point, turn and start making my way up the same trail I’d seen Mike scale, Fireline Trail. And I crack like an egg. All of a sudden I’m not running any more. Only sixteen miles in and I’m barely walking. I’m leaning into the trail, climbing the darn thing back up to the fire road.

I run/walk back up to the juncture with Ray Miller and try to run down, but I am moving so slowly that the king snakes sunning themselves do not even acknowledge me. I step over them on my way down. Halfway down I drain my water supply and finish the loop bone dry. I am back in the parking lot at five and a half hours. Liz is back also, to my relief, and I gulp down food and water and take a sip of her coffee, which Mike’s girlfriend has just brought from Starbuck’s. He races up as I finish refilling my water bottle.

“You’re on pace,” I say.

“I’m shot,” he says. “Average pulse is 170. My stomach is torn up.” It’s not surprising. When you run as fast as he’s running, your body diverts blood from digestion to the legs. As a result, food sits in an undigested lump in your stomach, doing nothing but making you nauseous. Then, since you’re not absorbing any nutrients, it becomes a game of timing: Can you finish the race before your reserves run out and you bonk, essentially shutting down? He kisses his girlfriend and runs off to do Loop 4. He’s now seven and a half miles ahead of me.

“Go home, get a shower and come back at 4:30. I’m on nine hour pace,” I yell to Liz as I head back up the mountain.

“I can’t leave you out here,” she calls back.

“Sure you can. I feel fine. I just don’t have any legs,” I reply.

Loop 3:

And I don’t. My legs hurt now—calves, shins, quads, and even worse, I’m not used to running for six hours so I haven’t put on any of the lubricant long distance runners use. I’m beginning to chafe. I’m walking bow-legged, my groin raw. It feels stupid that with all of this, the thing that hurts the worst is the place where my shorts rub. The good news about endurance sports is your brain can only process one pain signal at a time, so although everything hurts, only one thing really hurts at a time. Might as well be one thing as another. I am moving very slowly. I try to run a bit, but every impact is excruciating, so instead I try to hike fast, then hike, then just walk.

It’s becoming clear I’ve got no chance of making the eight hour official cut-off of the original race. Nine will be an accomplishment. But I don’t know if I can even do that. I am slowing down. On the descent back down the canyon, I am starting to slip and fall, my ankles turning and dropping me onto my butt on the rocks. I’m now over 22 minutes a mile on descents, about the same pace as an elderly man strolling around the block smoking an after-dinner cigar and walking a poodle. Finally, at just over eight hours and after 27.25 miles, I reach the parking lot.

Liz is waiting for me, having ignored my request to go home. I look up the hillside at Loop 4, then at my watch. Best case, I’m looking at two more hours. Worst case, I’m looking at being carried down off the mountain. I punch “stop” on my GPS watch and climb in the car. I’m done, and I failed.

Mike meets us back at the house. He did the entire course in 5:54, an excellent time, especially without the advantage of having water and food on the course as would have been the case in a race. I am very proud of him. I time out, finishing only 27.25 miles in eight hours, almost on the nose. My legs hurt so bad I can barely climb the steps to the apartment. I have to step up with my right, drag my left, then step with my right, drag my left.

I didn’t do what I came to do, and I am in pain.

Beautiful weather. Outdoors. My son. My wife. It’s hard to imagine a better day than this.

CATEGORY: LeisureTravel3

Postcard from Edge of the Earth: Tucson

CATEGORY: LeisureTravel3We are a family that thinks “relaxing vacation” is an oxymoron. We have climbed mountains, kayaked, cycled and scuba dived our way around the world. Even though we’re no longer the youngest and strongest on these tours, my wife and I were pretty confident this year when her coach convinced us to sign up for a “triathlon camp” in Tucson. We’ve been to enough of these sorts of things to know that coming off a Midwestern winter we’d be a little heavy and out of shape compared to the Texans and Australians, but we weren’t worried about being conspicuously bad. After all, there’s always some slow, chubby old whiskered geezer poking along the rear of these things who makes everyone else look good.

Except this time I was that geezer.

Day 0: With four other arrivals and six enormous bike cases, we are crammed into two SUV’s for the ride to the hotel.

Tucson is an ugly place, squat, dusty and bleached out like every desert town. Wind-whipped plastic bags hang from the bushes along the highway like Christmas decorations. But Tucson has the good fortune to be surrounded by some of the most beautiful desert in the world, and in February the weather is absolutely perfect for exercising—fifties and clear blue skies. As a result, the roads are jammed with cyclists from a dozen different tour companies.

We spend the afternoon unpacking, putting our bikes together and then meet for dinner. There are eighteen campers, six coaches, two bike mechanics and two helpers, who will prepare some of the food, drive support vehicles and the like. I immediately notice that almost everyone here is in really good shape. No, not really good shape as in “they would look good at the gym.” Really good shape as in the coaches are pro athletes and the campers are elite athletes who have gone to world championships and represented the U.S. Even one of the helpers has gone to multiple world Ironman championships in Kona. I get a sinking feeling. I literally have not been on a bike in three months. Maybe my idea to come here and ride myself into shape was not such a great idea.

Day 1: On every “active” tour, be it cycling in Tucson or hiking in the Andes, the first day is always a subtle test to sort people into groups according to ability. We started out the morning with a fifty minute run, then swam a couple of miles (the faster guys swam 2.5, the slower 1.5—I was slow,) then hit the road for a cycling time trial. The way a time trial works is riders line up and leave the start line a minute apart. Each rider rides the course as hard as he or she can and records the time. It’s not a competition, but everyone really wants to catch that rider in front and not to be caught from behind.

In this case, the time trial was allegedly a five mile course with a 1% grade. I say allegedly because endurance athletes are legendarily bad mathematicians. One coach told a story of riding a time trial that was advertised as 27 km (about 15 miles,) but was really 27 miles. This five mile course was closer to six and 1% was closer to 3. Que serah.

Time trials are intensely painful. The idea is to go as fast as you can and hold it. Normally I am pretty good at these. In this case I just catch the woman ahead of me (the helper who competes in Kona) but my time is slow.

Total mileage so far: Run: 5, Swim: 1.5, Bike: 30.

Day 2: Today we ride to Madiera Canyon. Most of the rides in and around Tucson follow a similar pattern. You ride anywhere from 10 to 40 miles out of town along a gradual uphill, then you ride 10 or 20 miles up a mountain. Usually, riders go to the base of the mountain in a pack. That’s because those in the rear of the group are shielded from the wind and use 30% less energy than if they had to ride alone. However, that also means riding very close together and requires everyone pay close attention and concentrate. If someone slows or veers suddenly to miss a pothole, it can bring down a half dozen riders. It’s especially nerve-wracking when you don’t know the riders around you.

There are three groups of riders. I’m in the B group. The ride out to the base of the climb is pretty uneventful except for me getting a flat tire, which the coach insists on changing (and which turns out to be a problem later on.) I didn’t ride particularly well, but I didn’t get shat out the back either, at least until we started climbing. When climbing on a bicycle, weight really matters, and I weigh 185. In this group of thin, ultra-fit younger people I look like I wandered over from the set of Biggest Loser. As soon as we hit the hills, I fall back. Still I grunt my way to the top, even up the final three miles which are extremely steep. I ride so slowly I can see big drops of sweat fall from my forehead and explode on the pavement like little bombs. On the way home I do a big pull (taking a turn riding out front setting the pace and breaking the wind) then I drop out of the group to ride alone. That turns out to be a mistake, since a headwind pops up (“we never have a headwind on that ride.”)

This camp insists on having a sweeper to bring in the late riders, which means I can’t just relax and dawdle my way in but have to ride with the sweeper and one other laggard. I hate it, but no matter how many times I explain I have tools, tubes, a map and a cellphone and they should just leave me the heck alone, they insist on shepherding me in. I get in about 5 minutes behind the B group. At least I don’t end up coming home in the support vehicle like a few riders. It’s a small victory, but it’s all I’ve got.

That night several of the campers and one coach get sick with a nasty twenty four hour flu. I’m fine except for a pulled muscle in my back. I sleep well.

Total mileage so far: Run: 5, Swim: 1.5, Bike: 130.

Day 3: Another run, swim day, but we also have a “recovery ride.” A recovery ride is usually a short ride after a hard day intended just to loosen up the legs. This one is short all right, 26 miles, but it’s up and over a small mountain pass, around a beautiful park, and then back over the pass again. Each climb is about 3 miles long and very steep, up to 13% on the backside. I try to ride alone again in the park to enjoy the scenery, but once again I am assigned a chaperone.

It’s a tough day. I’m very slow, even on the flats, and that muscle in my back is starting to really hurt. I come in last in my group. Again.

Most people who compete in triathlons, particularly long ones, choose to use a coach. I’ve had two tri coaches over the years, both USAT certified and well regarded, and three swim coaches. But I’ve never had coaches like these. The director of the camp is a professional triathlete. The cycling coach is a pro. The swim coach has coached world champions and the Canadian national team. The sports science coach has a master’s degree. I am blown away by the knowledge and professionalism of these guys. Of course, it also makes an interesting point about the financial returns of being good in a minor sport. It’s a little ridiculous to have coaches of their caliber working with an athlete of my caliber, sort of like have Beethoven give piano lessons to a horse.

Total mileage so far: Run: 10, Swim: 3.0, Bike: 160.

Day 4: I don’t sleep well. My back hurts and I am terrified because the next morning we climb Mt. Lemmon, the best known of the Tucson rides—20 miles of relentless climbing (21 actually, of course) finishing way above the snow line at 8,000 feet of elevation, which for us folks who live at sea level is an additional challenge. However, there is one bit of good news. I check the air in my tires and find that the one that had a flat the other day is severely underinflated. Perhaps it didn’t get fully pumped up on the side of the road. So basically, I have climbed two mountains with a flat tire. Maybe I’m not that bad after all.

Yes, I am.

I am the last one up Mt. Lemmon, although to be fair, part is because that muscle in my back begins to cramp. By the end of the ride, I am having to stop every three or four miles and lay on the ground to stretch it out. For the record, it REALLY worries people when they see a beet-red, sweating sixty year old guy jump off a bike on a mountain and lay flat on his back writhing in pain. Everyone wishes they’d paid better attention in CPR class. But while excruciatingly painful, a back cramp is pretty harmless as injuries go.

It’s a gorgeous ride, probably the most beautiful ride I’ve ever done—anywhere.

More people are starting to get sick and we’re also starting to get a little tired of each other. This is usually the point where people start getting on each other’s nerves. It’s exacerbated here because triathletes tend to be boring, self-centered people. It is the nature of the sport. Serious triathletes train 15 to 28 hours per week. Throw in preparing to train and resting afterwards, and it’s pretty much all their free time except for church. They don’t watch movies or read books. They don’t drink or smoke or do dope. They train, weigh themselves, and obsess over wattage data. Monomaniacs tend not to be great company.

I’m now starting to grumble under my breath about one of our fellow campers, a woman doctor from Missouri who has done everything—climbed mountains, dived with the whales in Antartica, driven a NASCAR—everything, and tells you about it in long uninterrupted bursts more like a Wikipedia entry than a conversation. But she is a muscle and nerve specialist, and when she hears about my back comes up to the room and spends thirty minutes working on me. I feel bad.

I consider feeling bad about telling another camper, a woman from Texas, that the best thing about Texans buying guns is they tend to shoot other Texans. But I really don’t.

Total mileage so far: Run: 10, Swim: 3.0, Bike: 215.

Day 5: People are starting to get really sick now. One woman has been in her room for two days with projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhea. She passed out on the floor of her bathroom. During our morning swim, the pool attendants summon the paramedics for another member of our party. Part of it is just bad luck, but it’s also the exercise. This is exhausting stuff, and even though we have nothing to do but workout—our meals are done, our laundry is done, even our bikes are washed, we are all still wearing down. Before it’s over nine people will be ill.

Total mileage so far: Run: 18, Swim: 5, Bike: 215.

Day 6: This is the final day and I have finally worked myself into some sort of shape. Of course, it’s impossible to get into shape in one week. But when you have a good base, it’s possible to improve a lot in a short period of time. I did the Chicago Marathon only four months ago, so I wasn’t starting from scratch.

Our final ride was out to Kitt’s Observatory. This time I ride strong, in a pace line with the top half of the B group. Of course, I am still the slowest up the climb, a combination of lack of ability, poor fitness, 15 extra pounds, and the need to stop every few miles and stretch out my back. But on the way back I am finally able to ride with some authority. The sweeper and I ride well together, trading turns and moving fast enough that we actually catch a rider ahead of us. It feels really good to ride hard and have plenty left at the end of seven hours in the saddle.

Total mileage so far: Run: 18, Swim: 5, Bike: 320.

Day 7: We head home.

In the airport I turn to my wife, “Would you do this again?”

I expect her to say “Oh hell no,” as she has about our other biking trips. But this time she gets a pensive look and says, “I don’t know. Maybe.”

Would I? I’m not sure, although I guess every group does need a geezer.

TreeRock

U2′s music and Seussian trees: a visit to Joshua Tree National Park

TreeSunAs beautiful as the landscape is as I near Joshua Tree National Park, the picture somehow doesn’t seem complete. Where are Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr.? Their 1987 album first introduced me to Joshua trees—those desert-stunted twisty trees that look like Dr. Seuss might have drawn them out here in the Mohave. On their album cover, U2 looked so damn cool. I want to hop out of the car and stand in the Seussian landscape and look all badass and gritty and have my photo taken in black and white. I even play the album on my iPod as I drive into the park.

That all changes once I get into the park itself. The squat dusty houses give way to open terrain that awes me. I’m so struck, I pull over only a hundred feet past the gatehouse, get out of the car, and gasp. I literally gasp.

FirstViewThe soil is sun-bleached red and grainy. Rocks dot the land as though shot-putted there by the massive granite formations that dominate the landscape. Some of the formations stand monolithic, singly or in small clusters; others form whole ridgelines that crag off into the distance. In the far, far, far distance, I see snow-capped mountains.

And all around are the Joshua trees. If trees could somehow be reptile, these would be—their trunks studded with scale-like corrugations. The trunks rise and twist, spinning off branches all tufted with spiky Afros. They might even be hundred-fingered jazz hands flashing a “Hey!”

Everything looks interesting, and I start snapping pictures. It doesn’t take long for me to realize, though, that I’m engaged in a losing proposition: if I take pictures of every interesting-looking tree, I’ll be here forever. Or at least all day.

The road winds south into the park, a single ribbon of pavement across something that otherwise looks like a Martian landscape. Smaller roads branch off, but I don’t have the time to explore like I want to. Instead, I content myself with a stop for lunch beside a chunk of granite roughly the size of the Lincoln Memorial, where I eat my salad and study the stone formation—the pasttime of the ancients. I get lost in the granite’s curves and cracks, a small world unto itself.

TreeRockEstablished in 1934 as Joshua Tree National Monument and elevated to National Park status in 1994, the national park covers nearly 800,000 acres. About 1.3 million people visit each year. Visitation peaks in the spring wildflower season and then tapers off as summer heats up. Then picks up again a bit in the fall. The desert, I’ve been told, is either really hot or really cold. Today, it’s about 60 degrees with a breeze. I’m glad I’ve brought a windbreaker, which is just enough to keep me comfortable.

Down the road a piece, I stop at a place called the Hidden Valley. Here, the granite ridges and boulders have enclosed a protected ecosystem. Mere months before the land was preserved by the Park Service, a cattle rustler blasted a pathway into the valley; tourists have dutifully trekked in ever since. Hardly hidden any more. But the nature trail is well marked, and interpretive signs do a good job explaining the unique ecology of the valley, which partially preserves a relic population of pinyon pines and junipers. Once upon a time—about 10,000 years ago or so—the Mohave had been a woodland forest. Now, only small upper-elevation pockets remain, where there is enough moisture to sustain the trees. There are also a lot of yucca plants, although the Joshua trees have mostly stayed outside.

Perch

I see several bird species I don’t recognize—which isn’t saying much since I don’t recognize most bird species—and signs talk of jackrabbits and coyotes and lizards. “Be careful where you put your hands when you’re climbing,” one sign cautions. “Snakes like to cool themselves in the shaded cracks of the rocks.”

I find a high perch that erosion has carved into a bowl shape that, coincidentally, just fits my butt. It’s like a little granite recliner that lets me comfortably lean back and look down across the valley. The sun blazes a slow arc across the blue dome of sky. I allow myself to just be.

“Have you found what you’re looking for?” a friend will later ask me on Facebook. “No,” I’ll reply. “Because the streets have no names.” Oh, we’ll think we’re so clever with our U2 references—although, in fairness, it was one of the monumental albums of our teen years. That was our Joshua Tree National Monument.

VistaBy the time I get up to leave, shadows have crept slow paths across the valley’s pebbly floor. The narrow foot trail winds between close boulders before spitting me back out to the parking lot, where I’m treated to a vista of Joshua trees springing from the landscape as far as I can see. In a different time and place, it might have the appearance of an apple orchard gone a little wild. Maybe the trees even look a little automatonic—desert sentries with crazy spiked hair and Madonna-like “Vogue” poses.

Back on the road, I wind through more rock formations, places with names like “Hall of Horrors” and “Skull Rock.” I reach a “Y” whose southward branch would take me some thirty miles to Cottonwood and Palm Springs beyond, but I branch north. The Joshua trees thin out, then vanish almost completely. The desert here looks even more rocky, more Martian, with speckles of some kind of scrub brush. The road takes me out of the park.

SkullRockBeyond, the road descends in a long, straight arrow toward 29 Palms. I thumb the wheel on my iPod to bring up Robert Plant’s song. “I feel the heat of your desert heart,” he sings. All these years, I had no idea the song was referring to a real town.

But it’s U2 that I’ll still take home with me in some weird way, disconnected as the album will now be from my real-life experience with Joshua Tree. Rather than U2, I’m more likely to see the Lorax amidst these trees.  But as the song goes, I have been in God’s country: “Dream beneath the desert sky…. We need new dreams tonight.”

CATEGORY: LeisureTravel2

Uganda Journal: heading home

EquatorStanding on the Equator, I’m as centered as I’ve felt during my entire journey. A few feet to my left, in the Northern Hemisphere, there’s a sign that says “Did you know?” with a shallow bowl that drains into a bucket. In the Southern Hemisphere: same thing. Did you know, in the north, water drains into the bucket by spinning clockwise; in the south, it drains by spinning counterclockwise. Me—I’m just spinning.

After nearly two weeks in Uganda, we’re taking our leave. On our way back north to Kampala, we make the obligatory tourist stop at the Equator and its string of shops. On the west side of the road, they’re more refined, more spacious, more expensive; on the east side of the road, the shops look poorer and maybe, to the uninitiated, a little sketchy, but the prices are better. Knowing how to speak Luganda helps improve bargaining power, but since I know only oli otya—which means “hello”—I need Herman to help me strike deals.

For the first time, we’re not the only mazungko around. This is, after all, a tourist spot, and several outfitters have stopped with tour groups ranging in size from one Australian to a dozen Southern Baptists. I assume nothing about their journeys or itineraries, but I hope they get to see as much of daily Uganda as I’ve been able to.

Traffic“I know this is just everyday life to you,” I’d said to Herman yesterday morning as we walked through town, “but it’s so different from my own experience of everyday life.” I had just marveled at a street-cleaning crew shoveling rubbish from the gutters alongside road. They scooped the garbage into a cart pulled by a tractor that looked like an early-30s Dust Bowl refugee. The antiquated technology, the type of manual labor, the sheer amount of rubbish was all SO far removed from anything I see at home–and that was just the latest in a cavalcade of impressions that had jumped out at me since arrival.

“It’s good to see something different,” Herman replied. “Adventure broadens the mind. Expands it.”

Challenges it, too. Coming here with an open mind and healthy sense of wonder has opened some great internal horizons for me–and yet it’s also helped me feel more grounded than I’ve felt in a long while. More centered. I wouldn’t say that I’ve found everyday life here profound, but I do recognize that it has impacted me profoundly, in ways I’m only beginning to intuit.

That night, the students at the Bethlehem School saw us off with a party similar to the opening celebration they threw in our honor: songs, traditional dance, drums. This party had a lot more crying, though. At first, I thought it was stage crying, but the tears flowed freely.

KanzuAs part of the ceremony, the kids presented each of us with gifts. The ladies got baskets and I received a kanzu, a traditional formal ware for Ugandan men. It looks like a cream-colored dress with a stitching of maroon down the breastbone; with the charcoal sports coat that comes with it, the outfit looks sharp. I also get a hat, too small, made of bark cloth, which comes from the bark of a kind of fig tree.

“That’s the first time in the history of the program that they’ve ever given a man in the group a kanzu,” Deb tells me. “You must’ve been a really big hit this week!” Hit or not, I feel deeply honored and am visibly delighted. I wear the outfit out to dinner, and people light up when they see me. “You look smart!” they say, over and over.

The drive from Kyotera to Kampala—with our stop at the Equator—takes us into mid-afternoon. We do a little sight-seeing in the capital, then we meet some friends for a farewell. In the courtyard of the hotel where we meet, a wedding reception is underway. Guests have seated themselves beneath a big tent, kids are getting designs painted on their faces, and music swells from a pair of oversized speakers. From the paving-stone driveway next to the courtyard, I can see out across the manmade lake I admired on my first morning here. Mengo Hill, with the king’s palace atop, rises on the lake’s far side. To my right and a little behind me, the setting sun casts soft light against the peaks of the tall cumulus clouds that hover over the palace and hill.

I’ve spent the past few months thrashing about in the dark, it seems, but suddenly, here, at this moment, I realize that I’m standing in the light of a soft-orange sky. I’m finally standing in the light.

Without even realizing it ahead of time, this is what I had come to Uganda to find.

In the background, Celine Dion sings something about love coming to those who believe it: “And that’s the way it is.” The song fades. The sun dips away. The moment ends. I can leave my ghosts behind me.

Soon, it’s off to the airport in Entebbe. We leave early because of the notoriously bad congestion and the single snarl-prone road. Better to sit at the airport for hours and wait for the plane than to miss it because we cut the drive too close and then got fouled by traffic.

I leave Uganda, then, as when I arrived: a land cast in darkness, peopled with shadows. With hardly any streetlights or exterior lighting on the storefronts, the gloaming feels thick. “Dark Continent” is not a metaphor.

Yet Africa can mean many things to many people, and its “Dark Continent” reputation is very much a part of that in the same way that, say, Abraham Lincoln represents different things to different people. We myth-make all the time, for all sorts of reasons—and when it comes to Africa, that mythmaking has been going on for centuries. “Africa the place,” says author Andrew Rice, “is forever obscured by the shadow of Africa the notion.”

But of course, “Africa” and “Uganda” are not synonymous any more than what I’ve seen of everyday life might stand in as typical of every Ugandan’s everyday life. I’ve been privileged to have been given a sliver of a glimpse, and for now, that’s perfectly enough.

It will take some time for me to unpack what “Africa the place” means to me now that I’ve been here, just as it will take time for me to reconsider what “Africa the notion” now means. I’m glad I was smart enough to come here without letting the later affect my experience of the former.

And I can’t wait to come back.

LastLight

CATEGORY: LeisureTravel2

Uganda Journal: Africa’s darkest heart

TortureChambersFinal words, written in shit: “I never for my husband was killed….”

Scrawled on concrete, marred by blood: “Cry far help me the dead.”

The lost voices of 300,000 dead, forgotten beneath the earth.

These are Idi Amin’s torture chambers—five concrete bunkers burrowed into the mountainside beneath Mengo Palace in Kampala. Amin, the notorious dictator who ruled Uganda from 1971-1979, is thought to have killed as many as 500,000 political dissidents during his time in power. This was his favorite place for killing—these five ten-by-ten rooms. Bloody handprints still hold up the walls and try to hold back the shadows.

The Israeli engineers who built the chambers thought they were building bunkers for ammunition storage. When they finished their work, Amin booted them from the country and turned their well-engineered handiwork toward its more sinister purpose.

Ask most Americans what they know about Uganda and they’re apt to answer, if anything: “Idi Amin.” I was too young to actually remember him, but his name haunts Africa like a uniformed boogeyman, bedecked with a fruit-salad of medals pinned to the left breast of his jacket.

If the Rwandan Genocide Memorial presented me earlier in the this trip with anonymous slaughter on the scale of hundreds of thousands, Amin offers a single, charismatic face for such carnage.

Amin salutes the body of the Bugangan king, which he had returned from exile for burial--a move that made Amin widely popular among many of his countrymen.

Amin salutes the body of the Bugangan king, which he had returned from exile for burial–a move that made Amin widely popular among many of his countrymen.

Andrew Rice, author of a book about Uganda’s turbulent modern history, The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget, says Amin had an intuitive feel for populist politics. Particularly in his earliest days, that man Amin a powerful cult of personality. “In that first brief flush of power, Idi Amin was more popular than any leader of Uganda before or since,” Rice says.

Amin behaved more erratically as time passed, though—although Rice and others suggest that Amin was crazy like a fox. Even after deposed, he managed to slide his way into comfortable exile in Saudi Arabia, where he lived unmolested until his 2003 death.

As a historian, I’ve been interested on this trip in somehow coming into contact with Amin’s story. I wrestle to understand my curiosity. I grope for insight.

What I find are the torture chambers beneath the palace.

PalaceThe palace itself sits atop the highest of Kampala’s hills and had served as the traditional home of the King of Buganda, whose tribe makes up the largest ethnic group in the country. The building was destroyed in 1966 during civil war—shelled by Amin in his capacity as an army colonel at the time, ironically—and was rebuilt only recently as a tourist attraction.

Five years later, when Amin seized power, he used the site as his base of military operations—and the site of his most notorious tortures.

A grassy ramp leads down into the hillside, where it ends at the lip of a concrete tunnel cut into the earth. Electrified metal doors once hung here on heavy hinges. The tunnel once held three feet of water—also electrified—and five doorways offer access to the cells themselves. The crush of bodies in those cells had been such that people asphyxiated to death. At other times, they were shot or bludgeoned to death with hammers. Some were fed to crocodiles.

A pile of muddy rubble spills into the tunnel, and water still pools on the floor. We have to balance from rock to rock, careful not to slip on their muddy surfaces, as we plunge into the gloom.

NeverOur guide has been unusually chipper up until now, and he helpfully directs people up a ladder into the far cell for a closer look. I’ve not made it that far, though. I’ve been stopped still by the words written in shit, scrawled between two cells. “I never….”

This is everything I’d imagine the set of a horror movie to be: dark, dank, filthy. Our voices echo from wall to concrete wall until they haunt the air like the spirits of the dead, who have no voices of their own—only shit and blood and fear and darkness.

The heart can be dark indeed.

Cry

Uganda Journal: making matooke

Plantains

Because he’s back home from secondary school for the holiday, Simon is in charge of the kitchen at the Bethlehem School this month. Although only seventeen, he’s easily one of the best cooks whose food I’ve ever eaten. “In Uganda, it’s considered a disgrace for a man to cook unless he trains to be a chef,” he tells me.

“In America,” I tell him, “if you like to cook, it’s a good way to find a girlfriend.”

“I love to cook,” Simon admits.

Simon’s kitchen is a mud brick hut with a metal rook and two small cookfires crackling away on the dirt floor in one corner. In the opposite corner, two tables give him room to lay out his diced peppers, sliced tomatoes, a bowl of beans soaking in water, and several banana leaves each larger than a sheet of newspaper.

Outside there’s a room-sized pavilion where he can build larger fires for larger cooking projects. Several other secondary school kids home for the break are out there now, roasting ears of maize to snack on, but when the kitchen is going full-swing during the school year, it feeds six-hundred kids a day: porridge for breakfast and pasho and beans or pasho and matooke for dinner.

It’s the matooke that’s brought me to Simon’s kitchen today. Matooke, also spelled “matoke,” is basically a thick mush made of plantain bananas, and it’s the staple food of Uganda. Although high in calorie content, matooke is a great source of potassium, and I’m told it’s fairly nutritious. Most importantly in a country where life can be little above subsistence, matooke is extremely filling. I’ve asked Simon to teach me to make it.

SimonPeelsWe sit outside the kitchen on a bench with a box of the green bananas on the ground in front of us. Forget the easy-peel Cavendish—the supermarket banana most Americans and Europeans are familiar with—these plantains mean business. The peels don’t just slip off. Simon cuts off the top end with a knife and then runs the knife back toward him to cut the peel away. With several quick knife strokes, he strips away the peel, the slices of skin falling back into the box. He drops the peeled fruit into a pot and then grabs another unpeeled plantain. The process takes on the rhythm of a private peeling potatoes, although Simon does it with good humor.

“It gets sticky,” he says. Banana sap is notoriously thick and gooey. He shows me the build-up on his fingers as he goes. He’ll need kerosene to clean it off his hands and knife when he’s finished.

It takes about ten minutes to peel the fifteen bananas. As the peels pile up, Simon lifts the box and shakes it like a sand sifter, and the few unpeeled fruit rise to the top.

He rinses the banana, and then fills the pan with enough water to cover them, then wraps a banana leaf over the top of the pan and sets it on one of the cookfires to simmer for half an hour. While they cook, he works on a sauce for the beans he’s making, mixing diced peppers, onions, and tomatoes. “I add salt to break up the tomatoes,” he tells me, as though divulging his secret recipe.

MashingThe plantains absorb the water as they cook, and when we pull them off the fire, they’ve turned yellow and mushy. One of Simon’s assistants, Nmutale, wets his hands to cool them, then begins to knead the banana leaves that cover the cooked plantains, mashing them to pulp. “He’s kneeling as he prepares the food,” Simon points out. “In Ugandan culture, we believe it’s important to respect the food, so that’s why we kneel.”

Every few seconds, Nmutale dips his hands again to cool them, then continues kneading. When he finishes, he scoops the mash from the saucepan into a banana-leaf-lined basket. He then folds the leaves in on themselves, wrapping the mash into a volleyball-sized globe. Who knew it took so banana leaves—let alone bananas—to make this stuff; there’ll be no way I can make it at home.

As Nmutale mashed, Simon has taken some of the thick central veins from other leaves and coiled them, then set them in the saucepan. He’s also added some water to the bottom, and then lines it all with more banana leaves. The coils keeps the leaf ball out of the water and will allow the pot to act like a steamer once Simon sets it back on the fire.

CabbageWhile all that’s been going on, Simon has had me washing slices of cassava root and pumpkin. Nmutale sets the wrapped mash in the pot, and I place the washed vegetables around it. Simon folds up the leaves into a tidy package looks almost like a cabbage. It will slow-steam like that to stay warm until ready to serve.

By the time we all sit down for lunch, another hour has passed. The matooke arrives still wrapped in the banana leaves. People lift a flap of leaf like a game of peek-a-boo and scoop off big gobs. It’s yellow by now, and tiny, tiny black dots—banana seeds—are visible throughout. People eat it plain, although I’m still experimenting with a way to make it taste palatable. Heaps of salt might help, but that’s no good (and not really available), so I’ve tried mixing it with ground nuts (which look like hideous purple baby puke but taste sweet), beans, goat soup, and beef soup. So far, nothing’s helping. “It’s an acquired taste,” Deb admits.

I’ve been trying for ten days and haven’t acquired a taste for it yet. I’ll keep trying.

ChrisCooking

CATEGORY: LeisureTravel2

Uganda Journal: a walk to the well

The well at Nakagongo sits in a low valley, with a web of trails that lead down to it from the surrounding hillsides. It’s not an especially grueling walk and not especially steep, but it’s a five-minute hike downhill from the road. On days like today, when it rained for a couple hours in the morning, the dirt path gets muddy. We also have to step over a pretty angry stream of ants.

Well01

About three hundred adults and eight hundred children are serviced by the well, which is nothing more than a clean natural spring surrounded by a cement basin. The basin seems to be draining well today–the water at the bottom is only ankle deep, although Deb has seen it back up almost to the output pipe. The ground around is a mucky mess.

Well02

Families have to walk from as far as forty-five minutes a day to collect water in five-gallon plastic containers. Once someone arrives, he or she might have to wait as long as half an hour before they have the chance to fill up. The villagers may then balance the jugs on their heads so they can carry jugs in each hand, too. Enterprising boys have set up a business where they’ll load their bikes with water and take them to the houses of people who can afford to pay for delivery.

At home, villagers use the water for cooking, cleaning, and bathing.

WaitingForWater

During the dry season, when the well dries up, villagers have to walk to another water source that’s an additional hour away.

To say I am thankful for indoor plumbing seems like a trite understatement. Seeing the well might be the most profound reminder of just how different life is for much of the world than it is for us in America and in other developed nations. This is everyday life for these villagers, and yet it is so far removed from my own life that it might well as be a different century or a different planet as a different continent and country.

Certainly America has its share of drought–I think of the summer of 2011 when much of the cornbelt baked–but water generally flows pretty freely…at least freely enough that most of us still take it for granted, although climatologists could offer some disheartening insight into that, I’m sure. I can walk into three rooms in my home that have running water, and that’s not counting the baseboard heat I have. Some of these people have to walk for forty-five minutes.

Think about that when you turn on the tap.

Toilets of the world

Between August and December of 2012, I traveled from the United States to six different countries. Before I left, several people asked, “what will the toilets be like where you’re going?”

I decided to let you all see for yourselves. These are the toilets I used around the world:

Boston, USA

Boston, MA, USA

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CATEGORY: LeisureTravel2

Uganda Journal: the double tragedies of Kasensero

Memorial01The Rwanda Genocide Memorial in Kasensero sits high atop a limestone bluff that overlooks Lake Victoria, which shimmers gray-blue against the horizon a half-dozen kilometers away. In 1994, the bodies of more than 10,000 genocide victims washed up on Victoria’s shores after floating nearly a hundred kilometers downriver from the killing grounds in Rwanda.

The village of Kasensero itself remains hidden from view, as though villagers intentionally buried the bodies just beyond the crest of the hill, where it begins its downward slope, out of horror or fear or maybe even willful forgetting. Or, as one person has suggested to me, as a way to cut down on the smell.

FishingBoatsKasensaro is no stranger to tragedy, though. It was here where the AIDS virus first appeared in 1982. “Fishermen come in with their catch and get paid. They have a lot of money, and they want to show off for the women,” explains Herman, who has brought us to the village’s fishing center along lakeshore. All that hooking up and sleeping around—and then going home to their wives—meant residents of Kasensaro had an infection rate of ninety percent by the time health officials had any real grip on the situation.

“At first, people thought they were being bewitched, so they went to the witch doctors instead of the real doctors,” Herman says. “Ninety percent. Whole families, wiped out.”

And from there, the disease spread.

Today, seventy percent of the residents of Kasensaro are infected with HIV—compared to a national average of around six-point-five percent—although a look around the lakeshore would suggest nothing’s amiss aside from the weather. Most of the fishermen have grounded their boats for the day because of the severe chop on the water from the wind that has blown in a dark gray cloudbank.

KageraRiverA couple miles outside of town, past the fish factory, past the thatch-roof huts occupied by descendants of Rwandan refugees, the road terminates at the Kagera River. The current runs swift and mocha-colored, and clots of water hyacinths flow past. “This is the river that carried the bodies,” Herman tells us—just before he gets harangued by a police officer who’s lazing about on a motorbike. Ostensibly, the policeman is there to prevent smuggling, but just a few yards away, smugglers are happily packing a boat full of ice to take goods across the river to Tanzania.

That’s when I realize, Hey, I’m looking at Tanzania. It’s less than a hundred feet away and looks just like this side of the river, but it’s a different country, so I still think it’s cool.

Police in Uganda get paid poorly and infrequently, so it’s little wonder they look to make a few extra bucks on the side. What’s a little corruption. After twenty minutes, thirteen-thousand shillings—about five bucks—buys this officer’s silence, and he goes back to watching the smugglers who’ve also bought him off.

In the meantime, I’ve been talking with Elijah, the student from the Bethlehem School I’d worked with earlier in the week in Nakagomo. He’s on the trip because he comes from this area. His mother was Rwandan and had fled here to escape the genocide. Shortly thereafter, Elijah was born. Although his mother later died of AIDS, Elijah’s grandfather told him the history of his family and of the genocide.

The Hutu majority, in political power at the time, conducted an orchestrated campaign to slaughter members of the Tutsi minority. Animosity between the tribes, simmering for ages, erupted into Civil War in 1990, although it settled into a stalemate after three years. However, the assassination of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana of April 9, 1996, sparked renewed violence. In the course of 100 days, some 800,000 Tutsis were murdered, although some estimates place the number as high as a million—twenty percent of Rwanda’s population. Moderate Hutus who called for peace were also killed.

In the fifteen years since, the Rwandan government has aggressively worked to commemorate the genocide. Eight majors memorials, and more than 200 sites, exist in Rwanda, and three memorials exists in Uganda. Terry Tempest Williams’ Finding Beauty in a Broken World chronicles her work helping to build one such memorial in Rwanda. The memorials exist, says author Andrew Rice, “because remembrance serves the political interests of Rwanda’s present rulers, who came to power by defeating the genocide’s perpetrators in a civil war.” Rice’s book, The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget, recounts Uganda’s own history of internal violence under Idi Amin.

MassGraves&MarkerWhen Herman takes us up to the cemetery on the hilltop outside of town, we have to haggle with the caretaker for admittance. Ten thousand shillings buys our way in. “Come in,” the caretaker says. “You are very welcome. Be at home.”

In the cemetery, 2,827 victims of the genocide are buried in eight mass graves. One trench, perhaps sixty feet long, runs parallel to the front wall; three similar trenches run perpendicular to the first. Two other mass graves are located in the front corner of the cemetery, and two more are located in the opposite back corner. On an upper plateau beyond the caretaker’s house, there are yet two more. Workers used a backhoe to dig the pits, which are now entombed under concrete slabs inset with flagstone and adorned wide, light-orange stripes and diamonds. At the center of each, flower arrangements struggle to grow, but I’m not convinced the caretaker has been taking much care of the place.

ElijahMemorialSmall rocks are scattered over the tops of the slabs, too, and at first I wonder if the rocks have some symbolic significance. Then I see a trio of young children outside the caretaker’s house: one of them throws rocks at a chicken in a tree while another throws rocks down the hill.

While the memorial needs care, it’s still a contemplative space, and it’s easy to envision its potential for beauty. I see Elijah, who leans alone against the monument that sits in the front of the cemetery. “How does it feel to be here where your people are buried?” I ask.

I see him grope for words, but all he can do is shake his head. “It is something I cannot describe,” he says. As someone who spends a lot of time on Civil War battlefields and who has lived in a National Cemetery, I know what it’s like to be among the dead of your people and how powerful the experience can be.

I leave Elijah to his contemplations and follow the flagstone steps to the upper plateau. In the distance, Lake Victoria looks calm. The sun has come out.

MarkerOverlookingLake

CATEGORY: LeisureTravel2

Uganda Journal: the safari (part two of two)

Hippo

photo by Justine Tutuska

The second of two parts

The first thing we see on our boatride along the shores of Lake Mburo is a pair of African fish eagles, which look like streamlined bald eagles but with the white extending from the head and neck down to the chest. Our park ranger, Moses, tries to fill us in on the hunting techniques and mate-for-life habits of the eagles, but we ignore him completely as soon as the first hippos begin to bob their heads out of the water. I happen to spot the first one and point, and everyone leans over to see. Shudders snap. I can practical hear Moses think, Well, so much for me….

The hippos tend to surface, exhale a spray of air very much like a whale, blink once or twice as they inhale, and then slide quietly back under water. “They look so hungry, hungry…” I say to no one in particular.

Crocodile01

We find hippos in a dozen clusters along the lakeshore, where they live in shallow areas and eat vegetation. If you combined a submarine with a tank and gave it a gaping maw, it would look like a hippo.

We also find a tiny Nile crocodile sunning itself on a tree branch, although he quickly plunks himself into the water when Moses slows the boat. We find another, about three feet long, sunning itself along a muddy bank near a shallow inlet. They grow as long as four meters, Moses tells us—that’s more than twelve feet of crocodile. That’d be a big damn reptile with a lot of teeth.

A little while later, we spook a couple sizeable crocs resting in a stand of papyrus when we round a bend. I can’t get an accurate sense of their length, though, because they both slide into the water, and stare at us with their cold reptile eyes, and disappear with hardly a wake.

Baboons

photo by Justine Tutuska

A family of baboons comes to the water’s edge as we’re nearly back to the dock. Perhaps twenty of them march by, including a mother with a tiny infant on her back. The troops dominant male finally pushes his way out of the brush closest to the river and scoops his charges up the bank and away like a cop telling onlookers, “Nothing to see here folks. Move along. Nothing to see.” Maybe I’m anthropomorphizing the scowl on the male’s face, but he sure doesn’t look happy to have us bothering his family, even if we are only taking pictures.

Zebra02We have the chance for some souvenir shopping, and Herman shows off the park’s bungalows, which would make for first-class camping. We also see plenty of other animals: waterbuck; topi, a type of antelope with front legs longer than its back legs, built for sustained speed; mongoose; and more bird varieties than I could ever wrap my head around. The place is a birder’s paradise.

We also see a pair of water buffalo, reportedly the most dangerous large animal in Africa because of their truck-like size and notoriously peevish temperaments. Each beast has a set of horns that begin from a central plate, or “boss,” on their forehead, and then like a full head of hair parted straight down the middle, the horns branch out like the curved ends of menacing handlebar moustaches.

Herman tells us the fall census tracked fifteen leopards and a bunch of hyenas in the park, too, as well as a single male lion. “And people camp here in tents?” I ask him.

Once upon a time, elephants used to roam the area, as did rhinos, although Uganda now only has seven and they’re all in captivity. The park does have plans to introduce giraffes later this month as a way to manage the brush.

The national government spends a lot of money on the national parks, Herman tells me later. The biggest problem is a lack of manpower, which would help address the other major problem, which has been poaching. The introduction of sport hunting in Lake Mburo National Park—the only park where it’s allowed—has helped alleviate the problem by providing much-needed income to local communities. A water buffalo might bring in as much as $1,000 U.S.; fifteen percent goes to the park, fifteen percent goes to the sportsmen’s association, which regulates the hunting; and seventy percent goes to the local landowner.

Similarly, when an animal from the park causes property damage for a local landowner, the national government reimburses the community with money that can be used for public works projects like new wells and community centers.

While no leopards show their spots, a monkey gives us a parting shot that could not be more perfect: it sits on the park sign and looks cutes as though posed there for promotional purposes. But Herman has shown me more than beautiful animals—through his own passion today and his work setting up Green Pearl, he has given me a glimpse of Uganda’s ecological future.

MonkeySign

photo by Justine Tutuska

CATEGORY: LeisureTravel2

Uganda Journal: the safari (part one of two)

ImpalaThe colonial King of Ankole, Omugabe, loved his impala. The capital of Uganda, Kampala, had been named for the graceful antelopes—but the growing population in the city began to squeeze the impala out of their habitat, and they were being hunted relentlessly. The king knew he had to protect the impala he so dearly loved. So, he gathered them together and moved them to the west, to an area now known as the Lake Mburo National Park, and there they still dwell today—the only place in Uganda where people can see them.

That’s the folk story as Herman tells it, anyway. The impala at Lake Mburo are plentiful, grazing in small herds of a dozen or so. They all have black stripes on the back creases of their hind legs and tail that spells out “M,” and the males have lyre-shaped horns that twist like thin tornados as they grow. They have eyes easy to get lost in; as near to the impalas as Herman is able to get us, we have the opportunity for a long, close look.

Herman has brought us to the park for a daylong safari to show off not only some of the most splendid animals on the continent but also to show off his skills as a guide. He’s starting up a new eco-tourism company, Green Pearl Tours—Uganda is the Pearl of Africa, and “green” denotes the eco-angle—and one of the reasons I’m in Uganda is to work with my colleague, Pauline, to provide business planning and marketing help to Herman for his start-up.

“We need to conserve the environment for future generations,” Herman says. “The country is very green. It shows there is life.”

That’s certainly true here at Lake Mburo. Life abounds. Outside the park, so much of the countryside is used for farming and cattle herding; those agricultural uses take up former animal habitat, and those cattle compete directly with zebras for grazing range. Here, the zebras roam as freely as the impala. “It’s the only place in Uganda you can see these animals, impala and zebra,” Herman says. It’s one of the things he likes most about the park—that and its good climate and its relative proximity to Kampala, some three and half hours away.

For those reasons, Herman chose to do his internship here while studying in a travel and tourism program while at university. The park, established in 1983, is one of ten in the country, most of which are clustered in the western part of Uganda.

Monkey02When we show up, the workers at the Sanga Gatehouse welcome Herman like an old friend. A maintenance crew, installing solar panels to provide power for the facility, has taken their lunch break and are feeding scraps of sandwiches to the vervet monkeys in the trees that line the path to the outhouse. The monkeys, gray-furred and black-faced, typically travel in family groups of twenty or so.

We have an appointment for a boat ride on the lake, but as we head in that direction, Herman patiently stops now and then so we can gawk at warthogs and bushbuck and crested cranes. You’d think a vanload of mazungku had never seen animals before.

“Let me tell you the story of the lake,” Herman tells us at one point. Two brothers, Kigarama and Mburo, once lived in the valley. Kigarama dreamed that the valley would flood and so urged his brother to move with him into the hills. Mburo ignored him. When the flood came, Mburo drowned. And so the lake is named for him and the hills are named for Kigarama.

WarthogNear the boat dock, a half a dozen warthogs graze on bended knees. “When they eat, it looks like they are crying,” Herman tells us. “There’s a hormone at works that causes their eyes water.” The warthogs have become so acclimated to humans that they pay us no heed. As we wait for the boat, the largest boar grazes within six feet of me before deciding to act spooked. He “whufs” and takes an angry jump in my direction as a warning. “Woa, big fella!” I tell him as I back off, looking at tusks that could easily disembowel me. “You’re the one who came into my space.” I don’t mind being the one who retreats, though.

Herman has cooked lunch for us: homemade samosa, which are like perogies filled with vegetables, and chipati, a kind of fried flatbread. He’s also made fresh passionfruit juice from a special recipe. When we’re done, he sends us out on the boat.

To be continued….

Lake&Mountains02