Friday, October 31, 2008

Scenes from Stanford

I spent one retreat morning on horseback at a vineyard in Stanford, about 10 miles from Bodhi Khaya. I wish I could have bottled the green and brought it back to Maun with me.
Letting my curiosity guide me, I left the horse and wandered down little Stanford's main street, where I happened upon a dream come true: an art gallery/espresso cafe/restaurant/community cultural hub. The Stanford Galleries had it all, including newspapers!

I also got lucky. The owner hardly ever comes in, I'm told, but that morning he did. He's Peter Younghusband, who turned out to be a retired journalist and author, including of one successful children's book that chronicled the real-life wanderings of a hippo across Africa. (Some of you know that I was late to the party with my children's book about a baby hippo befriending a 120-year-old tortoise in Kenya after the tsunami. My book arrived at the publishers two weeks after a book on the same topic had been accepted. That OTHER book went on to become number one on the Amazon children's bestseller list. All I can say for myself is I was two weeks late and many dollars short!)

A South African, Peter worked for Newsweek and for the London Daily Mail, with a 3-year-stint as its Washington correspondent during the LBJ years. He had to begin working 2 weeks early because Bobby Kennedy was shot. He covered the Vietnam War. He counted as one of his great friends in Vietnam David Halberstam. He told me how he was ready to go on break and told his paper he couldn't possibly do an assignment on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was the truth. But he told his buddy Halberstam about it, and Halberstam said no problem, I've got contacts that can help you get the story. Peter really needed the break, but Halberstam provided no excuses for him to go on vacation. He stayed and got the story. I got to share with Peter how Halberstam was one of our most generous guests during our Nieman Fellowship year at Harvard. He went so far as to pass around his notebook to our class of Nieman Fellows so that we could see how he conducted his interviews and took notes. On this occasion, he was working on a baseball book.

The connections continued. Peter turned out to be the previous owner of the farm where I was staying. He had a rough bout of health and couldn't keep up with the labor on the place. He sold it to journalist/filmmaker Georgina Hamilton, who made it Bodhi Khaya because, as she told me, there needs to be more meditation in the world. The farm is very old and has been home to authors besides Peter. Georgina's late father made the purchase possible. He was Gavin Relly, active in the anti-apartheid movement, among the first white South Africans to meet with the ANC in exile. (I haven't double-checked my facts on this, but this is what I was told by one of the managers at the farm.)

The Overberg region -- my getaway into the middle of nowhere -- turned out to be rich in characters and in story.

More photos from the Cape

Here's the farm where I stayed in Groosbot, in the Overberg. I don't have a photo of him, but I met Marc Weiner working in the Bodhi Khaya office, and he and I had a conversation about our love for Botswana. He said he used to work there in the mid-90s in the Okavango Delta, his favorite region of all. You can imagine my surprise in finding a true bush guy, complete with Crocodile Dundee hat, at a meditation retreat in the coastal farmlands. He didn't think I would know the place he once lived.

Camp Okavango, he said.

My assignment in May was Camp Okavango, I told him.

Marc couldn't believe it.

"Do you know Obie?" he asked.

He's one of my best friends in Botswana! I was helping him out at Xugana three weeks ago.

Marc and I wrote a note, and he enclosed a photograph of himself in an envelope I placed into the Xugana mail bag, headed out by bush plane today. How can a continent this vast bring people together in such coincidences? With that little card Marc was able to catch up Obie on his life's meanderings for the past decade and to ask about Obie.
Thus two friends, one a white South African, the other a black Motswana, were reconnected.

Maybe, as though emitting an untold signal, we kindred spirits are drawn to each other by our love of the delta. We recognize each other before we know it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Botswana makes the news

Grootbos, South Africa
October 28, 2008

I meant to mention this last week, but I guess I was in such a shopping frenzy it slipped my mind. The Cape Times had an article with a London dateline describing how Festus Mogae, Botswana's president from 1998 until the end of March, won the 2008 Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. He'll receive $5 million over 10 years and $200,000 a year for life after that. The foundation created by Mo Ibrahim, who founded Celtel International in Africa and got rich beyond words, selected Mogae for his leadership on health and economic issues. In its second year, the prize recognizes and promotes good governance in Africa.

"Botswana is the world's largest producer of diamonds, and Mogae drove a campaign to ensure Botswana benefited more from its mineral wealth -- venturing into cutting and polishing diamonds instead of just exporting uncut stones and leaving most of the profit-taking to foreigners," according to the article. "Mogae also received widespread praise for tackling Botswana's high HIV/AIDS infection rates. He has taken an AIDS test publicly and addressed the issue in almost every one of his speeches. Life-saving anti-retroviral drugs are known locally as 'Mogae's tablets.'"

When I first arrived in Botswana, Mogae was on his village-to-village tour to say goodbye and accept the thanks of the people. I found it an other-worldly notion, this presidential goodbye and goodwill tour, but it works in Botswana, where people showed up with gifts of goats and the all-important cows. The citizens of Botswana truly like their presidents.

The new one, Seretse Khama Ian Khama, son of Botswana's first president, Sir Seretse Khama, certainly impressed me a few months ago. Even though in my bush life I have been radically unplugged from most of the news of the world, my Botswana friends in the bush kept my apprised of some of what they heard on Radio Botswana. Khama made a courageous stand for freedom and democracy after the June vote in Zimbabwe. He alone on the continent refused to recognize Mugabe as Zimbabwe's president. That seemed to make the people of Botswana all the prouder of their leader.

I can imagine this latest news about Mogae has had similar effect.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Where the world keeps turning

October 27, 2008
Hermanus, South Africa
photos of Leroo La Tau in daytime and at dusk

I'm the only guest in the Bodhi Khaya farmhouse, the meditation retreat center where wildflowers bloom in abundance, green mountains overlook the garden and a gurgling stream issues forth its welcome sounds. Come from a desert, and you appreciate the lushness of green and the soft pastels that emerge when fog kisses the mountaintops lining the sea. Yes, I'm enjoying my retreat from the heat. (I admit that I had intended to go into total seclusion for several days, but the draw of sushi was too much for me. Here I am in Hermanus, about 30k from the farm, waiting for the sushi doors to open at 6. I'll gobble down the sea's bounty and high-tail it back to my fleece jacket and down comforter. Can you believe it? I've hardly sweated for days, and you should see my still freshly pedicured toes. They're normally sandy and dirty five minutes after I walk out the door in Maun. Here, they are positively glossy. Why, I could eat sushi with them. There's an idea.)

My respite in the farmhouse has given me time to recall and consider wondrous memories of Botswana. And I find myself thinking back to two weeks ago, at Leroo La Tau, when the lions were roaring night after night. I would jump up to try to capture the sound with my tape recorder. Alas, the recorder never does the haunting sound justice. And yet, I remember the calls, to the bone.

It was a full-moon week, and I was fortunate to spend time with Gerald Hinde, a BBC wildlife photographer of the year, and his friend John Henning. They would wait in the hide beside the water hole and have the tripod at the ready for the rise of the full moon. I found myself enchanted by elephants sticking their trunks right at the spot where the water was pumping into the water hole. Their trunks served as gargantuan straws, and they slurped like a crowd at the counter of a malt shop.
Were we ever lucky!
A blood-red moon rose in grandeur over the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, across the channel where thousands of zebra gathered to muscle their way in for water. Gerald was pleased with the show, as was I. My camera can never record the full-on night shots, but my memory can. And one of those memories will be how on the night of the full moon I woke up around 2 in the morning and rushed out on my balcony to see a primitive shape moving gracefully in the distance in the moonlight. The scene reminded me of the rock paintings at Tsodilo. I couldn't see details, simply a blackened shape. Finally, it registered. The shape was a giraffe, too shy to go all the way to the water hole. It went forward, then backed up. Soon I understood why. Another shape moved off from the water hole and toward the rise of the hill. That shape was an elephant.
The coast was clear. The giraffe loped to the water hole.
All was quiet, but the animals of the night were on the move, graceful as ever, oblivious to the woes of humans, many of us biting our nails and focused on distressing spirals of world markets. Botswana reminds me of what's real-- our connection to the animals, all of nature, and to one another. Nothing artificial about it.

I came across this quote from Annie Dillard that suits my endless fascination with Botswana's wildlife. Even here in this luxurious, lush Western Cape I long for my treasured glimpses of the animals:

"The great hurrah about wild animals is that they exist at all, and the greater hurrah is the actual moment of seeing them. Because they have a nice dignity, and prefer to have nothing to do with me, not even as the simple objects of my vision. They show me by their very wariness what a prize it is simply to open my eyes and behold."

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Scenes from South Africa

You'll see the cable car we took up to Table Mountain, lucky for us, on a crystal blue day with little wind.

More yachts. Good life.

And while the economic downturn has everyone across the pond in a panic, the dollar is growing stronger by the day here. Whatever the state of the world's economy, mama duck has a job to do at Kirstenbosch Gardens and is handling the turn of events just fine, thank you very much.

Wish I had a photo from WIZARDZ Internet cafe in the all-too-familiar Waterfront mall where I might as well have plopped down my sleeping bag, considering the time I spent there. It was here that I embarked on the the grand process of trying to fax portions of my 48-page ballot to the Sacramento County elections office. It was an ordeal. Thanks to Dan and Stuart for helping me out last month, and to elections official Diane for answering my many questions about completing my civic duty from abroad. If the fax made it, my vote for U.S. president is in! Let the confetti drop. From this salubrious spot on the globe, the world is ready for change.

More Cape Town scenes

The food is from Masala Dosa. Every city needs one of these!

Kelly joked that someone went wild with a "bedazzler," something I think that is sold in infomercials, on this black Jeep we saw on Long Street. I'm excited that art cars are on the move in Africa, just as they are in Houston and Austin.

I'm here with the yachts, hoping that Microsoft's Paul Allen will happen by and invite us for a sail. It didn't happen. Oh, well. But the gossip in Maun is that Paul Allen has just purchased one of the fanciest safari camps in the Okavango Delta. It's the talk of the frontier post....

Oops, wrong button and now there are two yacht photos of me. aiesh. sorry.

Ode to my mother

Cape Town
October 25, 2008

I have a mother I wish everyone could have: kind, talented, compassionate, artistic, protective of her family in every way. She's not, however, someone who could stomach buying the ticket to Africa. Although her Sunday School friends tried to persuade her and my father to come visit me during my sabbatical year, they failed. I'm sure my stories about the black mambas and the lions roaring outside my tent -- oh, and the biggest spiders I've ever seen in my life -- didn't help move Glenda's high heels from their position locked in cement. No way. No how. Africa did not flip her trigger. I think her fondest international travel memories remain those from the Swiss Alps.

So today I have a blog entry in honor of my mother, lover of flowers, interior design and her garden club friends. Kelly and I didn't shop every minute of our time in Cape Town, South Africa. We went to the Kirstenbosch Gardens, a world famous spot tucked into the Table Mountain landscape and a draw for every British matriarch in this hemisphere. "Dah-link, would you go and fetch the car?" said one regal 75-ish-year-old to her very proper British husband. (All of England of a certain age must turn up at the gardens. Kelly and I looked positively schoolgirlish on the paths through the flowers) We also drove to the end of the continent, to Cape Point, and along the way we saw African penguins and landscapes that would entice my mother. So, Mom, this is for you, to assure you that Africa has treasures for everyone and to let you know I was thinking of you in the floral splendor of Cape Town. Miss you.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hair it is

Oct. 21, 2008
Cape Town, South Africa

Have you ever seen "Girls Gone Wild?"
Neither have I.
But the title alone quite fits my foray into Cape Town, my escape from 43 degrees Celsius heat in Maun.
I met my Sacramento Bee friend Kelly Swift here on Saturday. She left Kendwa Beach in Zanzibar after about 6 weeks hanging out and diving. I've been in and out of the Botswana bush, where it is brutally dry and hot. This was a quick getaway before Kelly heads to the orphanage for volunteer work and I go back into Botswana to host my friend Sandy Garcia coming to visit from Austin, Texas, and to head out to a bush camp as a volunteer with Wilderness Safaris' nonprofit Children in The Wilderness.
Since we arrived Kelly and I have romped through the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront shopping mall like two teenagers. I haven't been this excited about shopping since I was 16 and working at Ivey's in North Hills in Raleigh, N.C. It's totally out of line. We're trying on Jimmy Choo shoes. We're looking in the windows at Gucci. We're drinking Cape red wines. We're dining on sushi and fantastic Southern Indian food at Masala Dosa on Long Street....You name the girly extravagance, and we're on board.

Yesterday we had our hair cut and colored. I suffered the ignominy of the receptionist saying to me about my boxed color jobs from the Okavango Pharmacy, "Oh, that explains your hair's strange color." The way they handled my hair was worthy of an ER room, in triage. Several times Claudette my wonderful stylist explained the sorry condition of my hair by referring to the "boxed color." Well, you try living and shopping in Maun for beauty products, sister. Not an easy spot. At any rate, the hair looks fabulous. The city life is a welcome break from the bush. And today it's head to toe polish at a spa. Girls gone wild....One of these days we'll see the sights of Cape Town. But not today.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Bush news

Oct. 9, 2008
Maun, Botswana

Nothing like news from the wild to make your hair stand up. Around town I heard that Fani, a groundsman/mechanic who used to switch on the lodge generator in the morning and walk me to the office when I was on early-morning duty, had a chilling encounter the other day at Savute. He got to the generator room around 5 a.m. and found the door ajar. Oops. It had not been shut tight the night before. Fani walked in and disturbed a guest. A leopard had slipped in to drink the droplets of water behind the generator and had apparently slept there all night. Fani woke him up -- and how! The leopard jumped up, soared over the generator and onto Fani's back, which he used as a springboard to leap out the door. Fani was unhurt, thank goodness. The word is it's a tossup who was more frightened: the leopard or the groundsman.

This happened, I think, the same week the Savute crowd had to wrestle with how to remove a struggling impala that fell into the swimming pool and got stuck. When I tell you it's dry out there this time of year, I mean it.

Even before I left in August, one of the managers looked out the window of her little house (and behind the one where I stayed) to discover a noisy, massive shape nearby. It was a male lion up on his haunches and gulping water from the stone birdbath. We all checked his tracks that morning, and I can assure you they were seriously monstrous in size.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Beauty, Form, Function

Xugana Island Lodge
Okavango Delta
October 6, 2008

My road trip to the Tsodilo Hills and Etsha 6 last week had been a goal of mine for months. I must thank Kitso, a former Xugana guide, for helping make the trip happen. When I was volunteering at Xugana Island Lodge in June, I heard that his sister in Etsha 6 made beautiful baskets. I promptly began peppering Kitso with questions about his village’s reputation as a basket-making center, acclaimed as the best in Botswana. I made a pushy and no doubt culturally impolite request that he introduce me to his sister someday; I wanted to see her at work and talk with her. He graciously agreed, and so last week we went to Etsha 6 for Kitso to begin his 11-day time-off from Camp Moremi and for me to meet his sister.

You’ll see in my photos Ipolokeng Montsheki, whose first name means “beauty.” I was told I was welcome to call her that. I visited her first at Kitso’s house, where she was sitting under a big shade tree that sheltered the laundry buckets used for all the compound’s washing. It was clear that Kitso would have to translate any conversation I had with Ipolokeng. Not many white people stay overnight in Etsha 6, and, throughout the village, an American accent throws Setswana-speaking people into confusion easily. Beauty and I quietly sat next to each other for a while. I wanted to keep my interruption of laundry time to a minimum.

I went to visit Ipolokeng again at the Rush Inn, a butchery stacked with dripping chunks of red meat. That’s where she works. Between serving customers she sits outside to make baskets.

Through Kitso’s translation Ipolokeng told me it’s not easy to find the fan palms she uses for the fiber for basket making. She has to walk far to find them. Kitso said about 60 percent of the women do basketry in Etsha 6 to earn money for their households; everyone is looking for the same plants. After collecting the leaves Ipolokeng boils them in water, then dips them in cold water. This process renders a natural color for the baskets. If she wants dark colors for her original patterns and designs, she relies on different kinds of tree bark to achieve the colors she wants. She pounds the tree bark into powder to put into the water. Bird plum and magic guarri (Kitso wasn’t sure of the spelling) are two types of trees whose bark comes in handy for color variation.

Ipolokeng’s mother taught her the art of basketry. The tools are simple: an awl and a bowl of water for dipping the leaves and one’s fingers to ensure pliability of the fibers. The process, however, is anything but easy. The coiled baskets take a long time – up to two weeks for a small platter, up to two months for a basket Ipolokeng made that was half a meter high. A fine basket has a tight center, a weave that is not rough and no strings askew in the pattern, she said.

I loved her baskets. She had only a few, all of which were promised to someone who had made a special order. I didn’t want to give up and leave famed Etsha 6 without a basket. Anyone who knows me knows that I am an art lover. How could I leave Botswana without taking home a treasure by one of the artists with whom I was now acquainted? I tried my luck. Would Ipolokeng consider selling me the covered basket at a premium and then make another one for the client? I am most grateful that she agreed. You’ll see a photo of her holding my basket in her lap.

Despite my unfortunate encounter with bedbugs at the Etsha 6 accommodation, I remain glad that I made the trek to the village on the western side of the Okavango Delta to learn about basketry and to meet one of Botswana’s artists. In a world I inhabit that is too often filled with artifice, I found in Etsha 6 something different: authenticity -- Beauty, form and function -- a worthwhile road trip indeed.

P.S. Below are book excerpts that describe the area and its artistry.

From “African Basketry: Grassroots Art From Southern Africa” by Anthony B. Cummings and M. Elizabeth Terry:

“In many parts of the world, indigenous and minority peoples occupy remote areas. This remoteness has been a major factor in maintaining habitats and societies intact. It has also been a factor in the retention of basketry skills. It is no coincidence that the most beautiful baskets are products of dusty, dry, drought-prone landscapes. Basket-making is hard work and the finest basket-making skills often belong to the poorest households….

In the early 1960s Etsha teemed with wildlife. By the early 1980s, there were millet fields devoid of trees, yet getting there from the district centre of Maun still took eight hours of grinding along in four-wheel drive. There was no electricity or telephones, and the best way to get a ‘quick’ message was by telegram sent by hand from Maun. The past 20 years brought remarkable change. In 1986, the first computer run by a generator appeared in the nearby village of Gomare. By 1992, a tar road linked Etsha to Maun, reducing the trip to a comfortable three hours. Five years later, Etsha had a microwave tower for communication by cell phone and computers linked to the Internet, where Etsha schoolchildren could view international websites selling baskets from their village, complete with photographs of basket makers they knew.

Despite these dramatic changes, there is still continuity with the past in Etsha and many villages across southern Africa. The sound of women pounding millet in mortars with pestles still resounds past thatched homes and across open fields. Women still walk home barefoot in the setting sun with baskets on their heads full of household possessions.

“Many people have the idea that a basket is something that can be made in just a few hours and requires little skill. In fact, basket making is a difficult and time-consuming business. When one considers the actual weaving time, let alone the time needed to collect and prepare the raw materials, the number of hours is staggering.

Weaving time varies according to the type of weave and, in the case of coil-built baskets, the size of the coils, the size and spacing of each stitch, and the type of material used for wrapping. For example, an average (30 centimeters diameter by 7 centimetres high) coiled bowl-shaped basket made from palm fibre with medium-size coils and close stitches will take, on average, 25 hours to complete. For some basket makers, however, as may as 40 and even up to 80 hours may be needed. A further 16 hours must be added to include the time taken to collect the palm fibre and dye materials; to collect the water and firewood needed to prepare the palm; to sort, process and dye the palm or roots; and to travel to the nearest craft buying centre to sell the basket….

Even those weavers who weave quite steadily cannot do so for much longer than five to six hours every day. This is due to the sore neck, eye-straining and backbreaking nature of basket making, apart from other commitments around the household such as carrying water, gathering firewood, food preparation and childcare. This means that an average sized, bowl-shaped, coiled basket can take from two weeks to one month to produce.”

More Tsodilo Scenes

These photos are of the hills and one of the cave to the spring. The local guide is bent over and has his hand on the cave's ceiling. Kitso, in the blue plaid shirt, has just climbed out from the cave. What you don't see is his 1.5 litre bottle now filled with the spring water.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Tsodilo Hills Redux

Maun, Botswana
Oct. 4, 2008

This camping trip could not have been more different from the one last weekend. This time Tsodilo Hills was calm, peaceful, inviting at every turn save the extreme heat of the day. My guide friend Kitso from Desert and Delta Safaris accompanied me on this trip to introduce me to his sister, an Etsha 6 basket maker I wanted to interview. I was giving Kitso a lift to his home village for his 11-day time off from the DDS lodges.

Kitso had never been to the hills and on the way he told me stories of the San people, commonly known as the bushmen of the Kalahari. It was news to me that Kitso's grandfather on his mother's side was a San traditional doctor, someone who used herbs to heal people and "threw bones" to talk with the spirit ancestors about someone's health or life situation. He worked in a house in front of the medical clinic in Gumare, Kitso said, so that patients, in two stops, could have treatment that combined traditional healing with Western-style medicine. He recalled how his grandfather would take him on trips into the Delta; they would sleep under the night sky, in the open, beside the fire and listen to the sounds of the animals.

On this trip, I made it to the far side of Female Hill to the most sacred site for the San people. It is a distant cave where an eternal spring bubbles up. Kitso braved swarming wasps and moths to go in, down to the water, to wash his face and hands and fill his 1.5-liter bottle. I have had a strong aversion to wasps since I was a child. They stopped me from going into the cave, but that was not the only thing: It didn't feel like a place I should enter. I can't explain it exactly. My inclination was just stand still on a rock outside and look out over the Kalahari Desert. That's what I did. When Kitso climbed out of the cave, he shared some water with me, enough to splash over my sweaty face and neck. It was an important trip for him, retracing the steps of his grandfather and his father, and I was most appreciative of the chance to hear his stories. I felt I had made a journey into a psychological and cultural realm of Botswana seldom experienced by tourists. And once again my passion for African skies was rewarded. You can see the glory of the sunset.

Where NOT to stay

I had a wonderful road trip back to the Tsodilo Hills and to Etsha 6, the center of the highest quality baskets in Botswana. But I reached a new low in accommodations at Etsha 6. A teacher who volunteers at Bana Ba Letsatsi assured me that he stayed at this guest house frequently and that it would be fine for me.

Au contraire.

I could not resist sharing this with you to show that I am willing to swallow hard and give someplaces a chance. This was the only accommodation in the village. I needed to give it a chance. I tucked myself on top of my sleeping bag atop the bed, placed my bug hut over my head and tried to fall asleep to the sound of the loudest donkey braying you have ever heard. Soon I could feel something biting my face and my neck. ARGH. Bed bugs!!!!

I promptly moved myself, a flashlight, water, my sleeping bag and pillow into the backseat of my car. That's where I spent the next 8 hours trying to sleep. There were times when my mind drifted back -- I couldn't stop myself! -- to some of my favorite hotels: The Peninsula in NYC, Mission Inn in Sonoma, Miraval in Arizona, the Intercontinental in Beijing, the Four Seasons in Austin, The Homestead in Virginia....Why was I punishing myself? I think I believed if I could imagine those buttery linens at The Peninsula, I could recreate the feeling with my back to the car upholstery. It didn't quite work like that.

You might wonder why I didn't drive back to Maun, burning rubber all the way. I had been warned: DO NOT DRIVE AT NIGHT!!! Even in the day, I saw impala, ostriches, cattle, donkeys and goats, some of which stood right in the middle of the road, some of which were so stubborn I could only swerve to miss them. Too many people crash into too many animals on that stretch of road. And there's only one fuel stop between Etsha 6 and Maun. So I was stuck in the Toyota Surf with my windows cracked and my friend Kirk's giant Maglite torch at the ready in case I needed to bash somebody's head. After I got used to the yoga positions for sleeping, I managed to sleep fairly well and had the happy (seriously) pleasure of waking to the sound of more roosters than you'd find at the state fair. Nice sunrise. Nice time. But oh how I hate bed bugs.

A magical flower

A magical flower
The guide squeezes this flower and it squirts water like a water pistol

Cathy and Joe Wanzala

Cathy and Joe Wanzala
They couldn't wait to paste the Obama sticker on their car

My main man

My main man
Ernest is my trusty cab driver who blasts music as we make our way through Gabs

Ted Thomas, man of intrigue and style

Ted Thomas, man of intrigue and style
My friend, Ted, and his wife, Mary Ann, hosted a Safari Send-Off for me in Austin and treated me to a special mix of African music that already a UB student and a professor want to download.