Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Two Sides of the Same Bridge

A highlight for travelers visiting Africa is white-water rafting the Nile just north of its principle source, the great Lake Victoria, near the town of Jinja, Uganda. There are five Grade 5 rapids, several points of Grades 3 and 4, and inevitably the inflatable rubber raft you ride capsizes, the violent current swallows you whole and tumbles you like a filthy sock, but because of your life jacket you are spit back up towards the surface. There are crocodiles lurking in the area, but the agency that sponsors these excursions has the rafts escorted by members of the Uganda Olympic squad, who kayak ahead chasing off carnivorous predators with good solid paddle whacks. As a preliminary, release forms are signed beforehand and when you are being helplessly tossed about the foamy currents, the thought crosses your mind that a crocodile bite would hurt, perhaps gravely. Much of the thirty kilometer journey, however, is a torpid, tranquil drift downriver, eating watermelon down to the rinds, gabbing about 'where you from?' and gazing with lazy, sunburnt eyes at the jungle-- a lush and flourishing wilderness crowding the river's edges. The boat courses through a quiet, undeveloped Africa, not quite tame yet not very mysterious either. Something, some unquantifiable emotion seems to be missing, or perhaps it has just been lost.

At the end of the journey, the rafts capsize for the last time. The tourists are thrust into the rapids where two strong currents collide to form a whirlpool nicknamed 'The Bad Place.' Afterwards, soaked adrenaline junkies tramp up the hillside (there are porters to take care of the rafts) where a large banquet has been prearranged in a large, grassy picnic area overlooking the river. Stacked on huge plates are piles of grilled pork, fried chicken, and salads. The coolers containing ice-cold Nile Specials, the local Ugandan beer, are completely raided within thirty minutes. Later that night at Bujagali campsite, amid conventional rock and roll anthems and the cash bar making a handsome take,  the rafters are called together to enjoy a DVD production edited to bam-bam go-go music from The White Stripes and Nelly. The video stars we rafters, being smashed and throttled and occasionally surmounting the brutish currents heroically. Much whooping and whistling punctuate the larger wipeouts.

Of course the DVD is available for purchase, $45, which sounded to me a bit of a kick in the stomach after the $95 price tag charged for the trip itself. Cash preferred but credit cards are accepted with a five percent surcharge added. "Sweet!" was the buyer's exclamation handing over his greenbacks. A prefabbed memory, now post-packaged.

This is the other side of Africa. Not all the continent is defined by civil wars, diamond mines, child soldiers and the smuggling of antiquities. A busy industry for outdoorsmen in particular thrives on the border of darkness from which Kurtz never returned. Enjoying Africa at its most picturesque or romantic is not for cheapskates. It takes a solid credit rating to go on safari ($65 to $200 a day), to climb Kilamanjaro (at least $800 to do it appropriately) or even visit an economically disadvantaged South African township ($50).

Many of the continent's prime visiting centers run a very sophisticated tourist infrastructure. These businesses are run with foreign capital catering to a clientele almost uniformly Euro-American (there were no African tourists getting dunked in the Nile when I was there). Perhaps that would be inevitable in a pattern that many Africans perceive as an outgrowth of neo-colonization. According to international trade laws operating ostensibly in the interests of debt-ridden Third World countries (encouraging foreign investors to do business in Africa requires a hefty lure), transnational companies build branch offices, use trademarks and most importantly, repatriate their earnings. Thus, lucrative profits cannot be taxed by the host country, denying revenue for improving basic infrastructure. There are many ugly words for this sort of parasitism, but the designation ballyhooed by boosters is the much more marketable term, 'globalization.'  

Perhaps nothing emblemizes this trend better than enormous 4WD utility vehicles preferred by young backpackers on overland journeys. Customized itineraries between Masai Mara and Cape Town provide the tourist with a desired experience without having to get one's hands dirty. These monster cars are designed with optimal window space: mobile isolation chambers perfect for gawking at perceived dangers, whether they be maneating lions or savvy street hustlers in Nairobi.

photo by ARIKO
About a thousand miles south of Jinja, on the southern tip of Zambia lies a town called Livingstone.  The square concrete one- and two-story units and bubble-gum advertising remind me of an ordinary town in the California suburbs. It is a rather unremarkable place, colorless for an African city. However, the ubiquity of billboard signs, upmarket hotels, and big family restaurants suggest prosperity. There is money to be made in Livingstone, a boom town in the vicinity of Victoria Falls, arguably the greatest waterfall in the world.

Victoria Falls (another colonial sticker) is known among locals as Mosi-oa-Tunya in the indigenous Kololo language: 'The Smoke that Thunders' (a much more appropriate appellation). At 1708 meters wide and falling between 90 and 108 meters it is the largest waterfall on earth, so large in fact, that it straddles two nations, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In 1855 its Anglican name was christened in honor of the Queen of England by the Scottish explorer and missionary, Dr. David Livingstone, who was exploring the interior of Africa by means of the Zambezi River. Today, most backpackers have given it the shorthand epithet 'Vic Falls.'

Because of its runaway inflation and resulting crime waves, I had no intention of visiting Zimbabwe, content to view the cataract on the Zambian side. The lip of the falls is accessed along a pedestrian walkway. The morning I was there was bright and beautiful, the park crowded, mostly with African tourists. Engaged couples come here for wedding photographs, as cascades (think Niagara Falls) for some reason have always figured prominently in the romantic psyche. An ebullient atmosphere pervades the occasion and the rising mist from the surging torrents feels cool on this warm, winter day.

The falls of Mosi-oa-Tunya are a phenomenon to itself, but for some it's just another waterfall. For those with greater expectations, numerous activities abound. Livinstone and its sister city on the Zimbabwe side, Vic Falls, are competitively self-aggrandizing, both boasting credentials to be Africa's adrenaline capital.  From either side of the falls extreme sports enthusiasts can arrange skydiving, bungee jumping, microlighting, abesailing, white-water rafting and canoeing on the Zambezi, gorge-swinging, river-boarding, horseback riding, elephant-back safaris, tandem kayaking, jetboating, and sunset booze cruises. 

It's all there. All you need is the cash.

I didn't have the cash or at least I didn't have money allocated for bungee jumping but I did want to check it out before I left. The jumping point was not at the falls themselves but a fifteen minute walk outside the national park to a bridge that represents in both physical and psychological terms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. To access the bridge immigration officials issue you a sightseeing pass allowing entrance into this 'no-man's land.'

The jump is into a huge ravine carved by the Zambezi and extraordinary geological forces. It is the second-highest jump in the world and when I arrived at the site it was a hullabaloo. I did not see any alcohol but a fiesta temperament prevailed. I could not believe the Top 40 teenybopper punk shrieking from tinny speakers (wouldn't you think the thunder emanating from the world's greatest waterfall had already enhanced the drama of the moment?). Those yet to take the fall paced the railing in the anticipatory adrenaline rush while the just-initiated, flushed and effusive, were frothing with excited, hurried talk. Jumpers on the platform sported huge 'can't-blame-me-for-trying' grins. You could see their chests rising with great gulps of air, the survival instinct manifesting itself-- a contact high that makes your own heart begin to rush when the countdown is cried by the gleeful participants.

"Five. Four. Three. Two. One!"

The jumpers plummeted into the gorge, popping back up with the 'hang loose' sign, A-oking their dopamine high before bouncing away again like ham dangling loosely from a tethered meat hook.

What is particularly surreal about the experience and sums up the two conditions of this continent with alarming eloquence is the stream of Africans on the other side of the bridge shuffling along. They look exhausted, weak, and some of them from the condition of their clothes, nearly indigent. Why were they crossing this bridge? For family? work? a new beginning? And what did they think of the sport of wealthy white men hurling themselves into oblivion for a hundred dollars a pop when there was a famine of maize crop in Zimbabwe and 50% unemployment in Zambia? They passed on the other side of the bridge inconspicuous to the jumpers because they did not get in the way and hardly made a sound.

I watched three guys find their rush, a future cocktail boast, and returned to the falls. On my way at the Zambian checkpoint a large clunker of a bus coughed to a halt in front of the fenced gates. The roof of the bus was loaded with suitcases, garbage bags, even furniture, perhaps the total belongings of some of the passengers. One of the park's many baboons, a curious and mischievous rabblerouser leaped onto the roof and moseyed through the chattel, scavenging for edibles. An apoplectic driver hopped out of the bus and shook his fist at the primate, who reacted to the man's curses indifferently. Travelers, slouched and exhausted, filed past the driver expressionlessly to present their passports and paperwork to immigration officials so that they could cross the bridge, where they would rejoin the bus and continue onwards towards wherever they were headed, to Zimbabwe, or beyond.
Edited from an earlier draft dated 2005

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Serendipity Factor Divided by the Butterfly Effect

Those skilled in 'Where's Waldo?' workbooks would perform admirably in any sort of safari but particularly in one in which we are searching for the Siberian Crane. You presume we would have to journey into the Russian heartland in order to spot this large and gorgeous bird, yawning its dazzling wingspan, wading in some ice-cold creek, scouring for small fish with an elongated, orange beak. Well, the Siberian Crane is a migratory bird, sensibly fleeing the miserable Russian winter for the savannah plains of Keoladeo National Park in India's eastern Rajasthan. Only, this year, as it has been annually for nearly a decade, the rains failed, the monsoon didn't hit and the water levels at the park looked depressingly shallow. So the birds did not come, flying the proverbial coop, resulting in a tranquil landscape, but eerily so.

Fortitude, patience, and an encyclopedic knowledge make bird watching quite worthwhile; skills most of us lack in considerable sums. Nevertheless, I journeyed into the park optimistically. Hardly an expert on the birds of South Asia, I was mostly excited to ride a bicycle through a national park. Before that, I hired the service of a cycle rickshaw driver hoping he might acquaint me with the prime vista spots.

Unfortunately, he was able to reveal very little. The birds must have flown across the continent, thousands of miles, bursting with anticipatory glee for the Indian winter only to be disappointed by the water levels and compelled to continue their peregrinations. Or had their expectations already been lowered considerably? Maybe this year they flew right by, or simply paused long enough to rinse out the dust.

As we rode past kiosk signposts with illustrations of the migratory birds, the rickshaw driver mumbled in a low voice, "No come." The greylag goose: "No come." The Asian Open Bill Stork: "No come." The truly radical Painted Stork: "No come." But he pointed out the kiosks, regardless-- something to look at since there was nothing much moving in the trees. "Many parrot sightings," someone at the hotel had quipped facetiously. He might have added crows, swallows and various sundry fowl familiar from home.

There are no Big Five birds to market the pastime (as there is such a trademark in African safaris where you can count on five fingers your sightings of rhinos, cape buffalo, elephants, leopards, and lions). Like all cultural subgroups, birders have a particular vernacular that isolates them from the greater population who "doesn't get it." One theory that explains their phenomenon is its relation to the male hunting instinct. Another is that it appeals to the male habit of "systemizing" (men are disproportionately represented in this particular pursuit). Birders can be handy if you are in the market for new binoculars or a telephoto lens. Of course they have a thriving online presence. On birdwatching.com, you can peruse new technologies ("gifts for birdwatchers"), advice on birding with your kids, tips for "watching birds with your ears", and even a special section entitled "Birding for Hard Times," which contains a number of bromidic themes referring to the activity's high returns on a low-cost investment: stress relief, good exercise, family fun, friendship, and happiness: "the ultimate wealth." However, in Keoladeo, morale was low among the amateur ornithologists, birders, and bird nerds, who grumbling into their zoom scope, spoke wistfully of better days.

Riding through a small, narrow path on my bicycle I spotted an altogether different sign posted explaining all so much: "In your next incarnation you might be an endangered species. Please help save the Siberian Crane." Appealing to one's better karmic instincts is a nice maneuver, especially in a Hindu nation. However, as far as animal conservation goes, India's karma is somewhat dubious. Bureaucracy has done little to heed the warnings of animal rights activists. The Bengal Tiger-- one of the symbols of India's majestic history and its many kingdoms-- is near extinction. As for the birds, the droughts have not helped. Yet even when the monsoons don't fail, there is not enough water for India's ever-expanding population. And as tourism and industry improves the lot of many, an emerging middle class is going to use more water simply because it can. With the arrival of new money lifestyles evolve in kind. Consequently, when golf courses go up so does the dust from an empty lake. And the birds: they just fly on, abandoning the park for something greener, wetter, and perhaps more pristine, wherever that may be...

I spent two days exploring Keoladeo. Unfortunately, officials insist that visitors use bicycles issued by the National Park. Thus your sole option is a noisy, clanky, single gear bicycle, which tends to notify most wildlife of one's presence long before you are able to view the animal yourself. There is no element of surprise. Nevertheless, there were a few moments of accidental sightings. I surprised a family of jackals savoring a cow's carcass and a mongoose and I enjoyed a fierce stare down. I was charmed by mud flap turtles, giant creatures, wrestling in their gooey environment beneath a small copse of deciduous. Owls and kingfishers delighted.

And that night I dreamt of the Siberian Crane. She was lovely in that cavernous, blue sky.

Edited from an earlier draft dated 2006

A View From the Train

photo by ARIKO

Something is amiss on the express train from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Kapira Mposhi, Zambia. As I awaken I want to urinate but struggle to dismiss this urge, as the train is stopped and one is only supposed to use the commode when the train is in motion, as to better disseminate waste. It is just after eight in the morning and everything is very still and soundless. Lying there for several minutes wishing a return to deep sleep, I overhear a passenger talking to one of the conductors; his english isn't good and the duration of the dilemma is not clear. He may have said it was a six-hour delay or six hours to our destination. The locomotive is broken down and they are waiting for someone to arrive and fix it.

The Tazara line between Dar es Salaam and Kapira Mposhi is one of Africa's most famous railways. It's nearly 2000 kilometers long but not long enough. It finishes in Kapira Mposhi, a depot for copper transport but rather inconvenient for most travelers as a terminus goes. Kapiri is the hub of the region's copper belt but commuters and wayfarers must take a three-hour bus ride to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, for all ongoing transportation options. Thus the railway feels uncompleted, as if the money just ran out.

No matter, the Tazara line is the technological pride of Zambia, as the country, fetal-shaped and perhaps its potential unborn, is large but landlocked and without the rail system could not conduct its commerce with nearly as much efficiency. Zambia is poor in comparison to its southern Africa neighbors, especially Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, who have benefitted from lucrative amounts of diamonds and uranium under their terrain. Zambia is at the mercy of the copper market which fluctuates more often towards depression than boom and the country often collapses into famine. Unlike other African nations it has a crisis of resources and lacks its neighbors' potential for growth.

Built as a socialist project co-sponsored by the Chinese, the Tazara line has fallen into disrepair. Millions of dollars are required to rehabilitate tracks and the locomotives themselves. Workers' paychecks are overdue. Of course, the financial crisis has affected the price of copper and volume of traffic, underperforming at all levels. Ironically, the service will betray its people's power intentions and be privatized, most likely sold to foreign capitalists from... China.

The train has been stopped for nearly three hours when I rise from my couchette to investigate. Outside my window on the adjoining rails, children wiggle in discarded secondhand rags in an attempt to stay warm. It is quite cold in the winter morning-- the train had traveled a great distance from Dar es Salaam and we were probably close to a thousand kilometers south of the equator and well into the region's Southern Highlands-- but the kids giggle and hop. They are twirling. That was the thing about Africa that struck the visitor, the streams of joyful children, dressed in scuzzy hand-me-downs, bereft of baubles, doohickeys and knickknacks who had but their own bodies to bid play, a joy of movement, of jumping and leaping and laughing. It's not at all easy to romanticize-- too many are pushed into labor at a young age. Education is something they will never have. Instead, they carry baskets of bananas, oranges, potato chips; the stronger ones wield buckets of bottled juice and soda. They hustle for trade wherever the train slows to dislodge passengers. Many have a habit of standing still, trying to look you in the eye long after you have turned their offers down. There is a vast range of emotions to draw from the window of the train and the casual observer can be confused as to whether his hopefulness can be substantiated or is just plain wishful thinking.

photo by ARIKO

There is nothing to look at beyond the depot where we are broken down and so the children don't intend to leave in spite of the windy winter chill. It is unlikely they see many foreigners and they cast playful glances at the window. It is an eventful day when the locomotive breaks down near their village, a spectacle to be appreciated. This is backwater country and mostly the train charges past imperviously, not disclosing its myth or mystery.

The train begins chugging again but we're several hours late. You take arrival times in Africa as optimistic conjecture-- an arrival time is a great variable.

The train's compartments are somewhat cushy and travel in first class isn't crowded as each room contains four beds. My girlfriend and I are sharing quarters with an elder Englishman and his African paramour, a young Tanzanian with beautiful plaited hair and jackpot eyes. Bearded, portly, and a gentleman rough around the edges, Raymond the Englishman, conveys his opinions with a frank earnestness and upon complicated questions elaborates for Judy, his beloved, so that she can follow in on his talk. He is patronizing at times, offhandedly acknowledging socioeconomic discrepancies and her coming up in the world with his numerous references to Judy's matriculation in a computer course. He's old enough to be her dad and probably big enough to crush her but there is something honest and intimate in their relationship nonetheless.

Raymond often refers to a detailed topographical map. You could almost picture him as a lieutenant for Mr. Cecil Rhodes, the great imperialist and diamond magnate, who once envisioned a transcontinental Cape-Cairo railway that had it been realized, would have been a fairly profitable crown jewel in the British empire.  Raymond's giddiness peaks as we zoom past some godforsaken station so that he can correspondingly zero in on the map. Only do the curmudgeonly aspects of his personality come out when dealing with moneychangers, bureaucrats and dangerous traveling logistics. "Thieves," he snarls at me, under his breath when stray African eyes linger as they pass our compartment: "Will you please shut the door?"

There are few Western travelers. Some Australians have a problem with two intoxicated customs authorities who board the train and demand $25 for a Zambian visa when it is clearly not required. These officials are very drunk and stubborn and only become more angry when the afflicted Australians point out the absence of any documentation to prove their point. There is a middle-aged American academic traveling onwards to Botswana; she is performing a comparative study between HIV/AIDS in that country and Tanzania ("Do you want me to go into this disaster...?"). Otherwise, the other passengers are Africans, many of whom crowd the dining car: inebriated commuters hollering to be heard over the thundering din of the locomotive. They yell for more beer from exasperated waiters, suffering these humiliations in kitschy uniforms of slacks, bowties, and leopard-print vests. The beer is flowing but otherwise the kitchen suffers issues of privation. There was no coffee loaded onboard in Dar es Salam. And culinary selections run the gamut from fried chicken to fried beef to fried fish. Being that the chicken is woefully undernourished and the fish terrifying, I subsist on beef, requiring serious mastication for its leathery toughness.

Upon awakening, I had originally surmised that our train's delay had not been due to an engineering malfunction but that the police had mandated our delay in order to investigate. For the night before the breakdown a passenger had been caught stealing from the cupboard. Thrashed by an angry mob, the offender was marched down through the train to the caboose and involuntarily expelled to the abyssal night. This was not uncommon in Africa, where vigilante justice compensates for inadequate investments in security.

This uproar is a brief spark of frenzy. Mostly I sit back and watch the countryside. The railway runs through the Selous Game Reserve but despite my best efforts for the thrill of a herd of giraffes or elephants viewed from a rushing train there are no lucky sightings. But after so much looking, it hits me: there is so much space in Africa! All one hears on the other side of the ocean is the common refrain of a population spiralling out of control. But the revelation gathered from the train window is that there is space, so much space and Africa is big, so big, you can't write the continent off. Violent dictators, misuse of agricultural land, and the AIDS crisis have done damage but none of it irreprable. There is potential here. Its mark is the untouched land, which reminds me of a 19th century America on the verge of breakthhroughs.

For the moment, however, wintertime grips the land in signature despair: yellow grass, weeds, skeletal, half-dressed trees-- and land not yet touched, farmed, irrigated. So much of it. Occasionally the train zips by the occassional village composed of mud and straw, whizzing past the farmer leaning on his shovel to observe the noisy serpentine machine careen past, creating for a brief moment in his day a gust of exuberant pandemonium.

photo by ARIKO
Edited from an earlier draft dated 2005