Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Wall-less Wonder

July 25, 2012

          Last Friday, we left Mozambique and entered the last absolute monarchy in Africa—that’s right—Swaziland. But I’m not writing this to talk about politics (although it was very interesting to see the photos of King Mswati III and Queen Mother Ntombi at almost every public place we visited); I’m writing mostly to talk about the interesting and lovely animals we encountered on our visits to Mkhaya Game Reserve and Hlane Royal National Park.
          Mkhaya is a reserve which specializes in endangered species; right now they have a breeding program going on for both the roan and sable antelope, and if you love rare antelopes like me, that is pretty exciting! Unfortunately, those guys haven’t been integrated into Mkhaya’s general population yet, so visitors aren’t able to see them. When we arrived at Mkhaya, the entrance was marked only by one small sign and nothing was to be seen except a few non-functioning cars and a tiny concrete building. We did see a promising-looking ranger, however, and when we asked him if we were in the right place, he told us that we would follow his four-wheeler to a building called the farmhouse, where we could sign our paperwork and leave our car behind. When we arrived, the first thing we saw in front of the large farmhouse was a huge display holding more than 30 rhinoceros skulls. Upon reading the information posted nearby, we discovered that they represented only a small portion of those rhinos lost to poaching in recent years. The information also boasted, however, that poaching is now illegal in Swazilandoffenders can face 5-15 years in prison—and the rhino populations are on the rise.
          After looking around a bit and signing some papers, we grabbed our backpacks and climbed into the high safari jeep along with one other guest. He was American as well, and quite the rhino enthusiast, so when we saw a mother and baby white rhino napping very close to the side of the road, he was quite excited. But before that, we had stopped because our guide had seen a choice opportunity to talk about poop. He got out of the jeep to tell us the difference between the dung of black and white rhinos—but of course, our party already knew, because of our three-day hike at Kruger last year. Black rhinos are browsers and therefore eat twigs and leaves, and white rhinos are grazers, which eat grass, and black rhinos cut the twigs at a forty-five degree angle when eating—this is the angle of their teeth and also their hooked lip, which is one of the traits that can be used to identify them from the wide-lipped white rhino. When our game-drive companion overheard us discussing the 45 degree angle found in the black rhino’s waste and then heard our guide confirm the fact, he said: “Wow, you guys are veterans. I mean, you literally know your crap*!” I usually try not to talk about poop in my posts, but I just couldn’t pass up a chance to brag about my rhino-fact prowess.
*clean version

When we arrived at the camp, we had a nice lunch waiting for us, and there were several nyala and guinea fowl who are gentle enough (and plentiful enough) to roam freely in the camp. Nyala are actually a somewhat rare antelope, but in Mkhaya, they are even more common than impala. In fact, they are so common that those of the guests at the lunch table that day who weren’t vegetarians were having nyala stew.
          After lunch, we decided to check out our house. I’ve included a picture so that you can see what a beautiful place it is—fluffy beds fitted with the deluxe kind of mosquito nets (that is, those with a square frame), and a rustic feel. So rustic, in fact, that you get a great view of the bush from . . . well, anywhere. A couple of posts ago I mentioned that you need to ask if a place has hot water, a toilet, and electricity.  You also should ask if it has walls.

          On our evening drive, however, we found that it was all worth it. As soon as we set out, we saw a curious sight in the road—I thought at first that it was a snake skin, and it was also guessed that it might be an electric wire, since Mkhaya has several electric fences to control which animals are in which parts of the park. Upon further inspection, however, we saw that it was a long chain of caterpillars! I am not usually looking for insects on a game drive, but I thought it was extremely interesting to see so many of these guys following each other.

Between Mkhaya and Kruger, we have seen a lot of white rhinos—and they are endangered, so we have been lucky to have had so many encounters, but the real prize is the elusive black rhino. During our drive, we saw him far away and didn’t think we were getting any closer. Still, we felt happy that we had seen him at all, and we continued with our drive, photographing the beautiful tsessebe; they are the fastest antelope species, reaching speeds of up to 80 kph (about 50 mph).

          Later, however, we saw another jeep stopped, and we knew something good was nearby. It turned out to be our black rhino from before, but at a much closer range. We relished the opportunity to take some photos, and eventually the rhino became curious. Rhinos have very poor eyesight, but excellent hearing and sense of smell, so he came sniffing up to us until he was only a few feet from my camera lens. All I could think about as I leaned back and continued to snap pictures was Moses saying last year: “If you even think about a black rhino, climb a tree.” Eventually, though, he lost interest and sauntered back to his far more interesting leaves.
          When we had almost reached the camp, we caught sight of this hyena. In Mkhaya, there are no lions, leopards, cheetahs or wild dogs, so the only predators are jackals and hyenas, with hyenas being the top predator. Although hyenas often hunt in packs, those at Mkhaya tend to be solitary and rarely hunt at all, since they are capable of surviving solely as scavengers. With the abundance of food and no competition, this guy seemed fat and happy. The dinner at Mkhaya was very nice, and was followed by chatting around the bonfire and then heading off to bed at an early hour. The park has sections so that the hyenas can’t get into the camp. They are quite loud, and their laughter could be heard from the wall-free house, but the real problem was the fact that it was freezing! We had plenty of extra blankets, and after it was all over with, I felt pretty warm—I couldn’t move, but I was warm.
          The next day, we went on a morning game drive, during which we encountered what looked like a herd of wildebeest with two unicorns in their company. They turned out, however, to be albino juvenile wildebeest.
We also took a bush walk, and we came across a lone male white rhino who, according to our guide, was sniffing in search of a female. But what entered his nostrils was the smell of humans, and he became quite curious. We crouched down to make ourselves look unintimidating, since prey animals only charge if threatened; the best advice for the bush is to not look like a predator to a prey animal and to not look like prey to a predator. I’ve included a photo which shows the rhino and our guide so you can sort of get an idea of how close he was—after he got closer than that, I stopped taking pictures for fear of agitating him. He soon decided, though, that we were harmless and continued his quest for the ladies.

We also encountered this lovely scene during our walk—a crash of eight white rhinos and two buffaloes. They were quite relaxed, and we enjoyed the view for a while before sneaking off. That night, we saw some lovely animals on our evening drive, but one of the most interesting things was not what we saw, but what we heard. Most people know that hyenas make a quite creepy laughing sound, but shortly after we noticed a hyena hooting (that’s another sound they make), we heard, from another part of the park, what sounded almost—but not quite—like human screams. We learned that this is the sound black-backed jackals make, and together with hyenas, they are an unsettling but interesting duo!

          The next day, we went for a final morning drive at Mkhaya, had breakfast, and headed to Hlane Royal Game Reserve. This reserve was the king’s private hunting ground before it opened to the public, and, in a “king of the jungle” kind of symbolism, it is famed for its lions. After we arrived, we headed to the place we were staying for the night (we were relieved to see that it had walls), and after having some lunch, we went on a guided evening drive. Almost immediately after entering the part of the park which has lions, we saw three beautiful lionesses. This one was basking in the fading sun, having already had her share, and the other two were hiding behind a bush nervously defending their kill. One of them, when she heard the engine of our car, picked up the entire slab of meat and trotted a few kilometers away so she could eat in peace. After we left the lions, we came across this lovely herd of elephants and enjoyed them as the sun set.
          There are so many things that I want to tell you about, but there’s just so much to tell! So I'll end here by saying that on Monday, we headed back to Maputo and on Tuesday I had my final Portuguese lesson for the summer.
          Tomorrow, we depart for London, England to join Caleb for a week, and although I am quite sad that my trip to Mozambique is drawing to a close, I’m very excited about London! 
-Geek in Mozambique

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Dances with Kids

July 19, 2012

          Since my last post, I have been able to experience some interesting and cool things in the world of volunteering. For the last couple of weeks, I had been looking for some volunteer opportunities, but, as it turns out, sometimes it's not easy to find work even when you don't want to get paid. I had been trying to find an opportunity at World Vision, and, to make a long story short(ish), after a bit of miscommunication I found out that there was a lot of paperwork that had to be done in order for someone to help out there, so I would probably be back in the U.S. before everything was processed. However, one of the World Vision employees put me in touch with a local organization that he’s involved in called MozHope, and when I got to their office, the coordinator hooked me up right away, saying that I could come with them to a project they were working on the next day. The only problem was, since she was speaking Portuguese, I didn’t know exactly what was going to go down.
          My dad and I arrived at the MozHope office at 8:30 and met with some more MozHope employees, and we took the coordinator’s car to a small enclave of the city. It was very interesting to see the less visible parts of Maputo—on the surface you can see the bigger buildings, the sea, the markets, and the vendors on the main roads. But, as it turns out, there are also little communities tucked away behind the city’s many smaller concrete buildings covered with advertisementsespecially those for Fanta, Laurentina, and VodaCom. 

           As it turns out, MozHope was meeting with a group of women who wanted to make and sell clothes to try to work out a plan to help them out by purchasing the material, sewing machines, etc. that they would need in order to get started. There were two employees who spoke English, and they translated a bit for me, but I won’t go into too much detail because, in all honesty, I still didn’t understand the ins and outs. Next, we met with a woman who wanted to embellish flip-flops and sell them, and then with a group of women who wanted to make cable antennas. The MozHope folks went to each group to talk about how they could help and what paperwork was needed to make it happen—for me, you couldn’t really call it volunteering since I basically just tagged along, but it was interesting to see how organizations like this work with the community. It became apparent to me that no matter how much money you throw at something, you need local people to get involved and organize things to help the community. At the end of the day, the coordinator invited us to teach an English lesson to some local children the next day, so of course we accepted.
          Our class began at 2:00 at one of the schools, and students of all ages came, the youngest being three or four (these little guys just played together with a ball while their brothers and sisters learned a bit of English) and the oldest being in high school. My dad and I taught them how to introduce themselves and how to talk about how they feel using the verb “to be,” with little breaks in between for games with a ball where one person would say “My name is ­­_____, what’s your name?” and throw it to another who would have to answer and so forth. Then, we taught them some parts of the body using the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” I was really surprised at how many kids showed up—there were over twenty present, and although this did mean I didn’t remember anyone’s name, all of them impressed me a lot by how attentive they were. I’m not sure how the class was put together, but each one showed an interest in learning English and listened well. It was after we finished our lesson, however, that things really got interesting.
          By this, of course I mean that our students showed us some native Mozambican dancing! They showed us three different styles, accompanied by some other students at the school who played four skin-and-wooden drums. When they asked me to join in, I did my very best.
It was a good time! 

Although I won't have time to do any other English classes, I would love to work with this school or another like it for a longer period next summer. I want to memorize everyone's name!
          At 4:30, I went to the mall with Cinthia, Susana, William, and one of Cinthia’s friends, Linda. We played some games in this funky looking arcade on the top floor (below), and afterwards went to the cinema. I never thought I would see “The Amazing Spider-Man” as a foreign film, but “O Fantástico Homem-Aranha” (English with Portuguese subtitles) was excellent!
          Tomorrow we are heading to the Kingdom of Swaziland for some choice game-viewing, so hopefully my next post will bring you some lovely tales from the bush! 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Octopus' Garden

July 11, 2012
          Okay, it is time to tell you about Inhambane. Here’s how it went down. First of all, Inhambane is a province of Mozambique somewhat north of Maputo, and it was supposed to take roughly seven hours to get there. As some of you may remember, last year we traversed to Ponto do Ouro (south of Maputo) to scuba dive, and the road was ridiculous. The road to Inhambane was reportedly smooth, so I thought it would be a piece of cake in comparison. We bore through about thirty minutes to an hour of road which I like to call—Maputo-rough. If I was on this road in the states I would probably complain, but in Mozambique, it’s not that big of a deal. After that, it was smooth sailing—we stopped at the KFC in Xai Xai for lunch, enjoyed our car snacks, and got excited for the beach. Following the directions on our GPS, we found ourselves on another dirt road, and instead of leading us to a smoother road, it got even worse until the “highlighted route” was nowhere to be found and we had to follow the faint strip of road we could see until we found ourselves deep in the bushveld. And let me tell you how to identify the bush: it’s when you think the words: “Oh, good, civilization,” when you see a herd of cows.

          Still, we powered through until, on one fateful climb, we got stuck in the soft sand. We tried backing up and charging through, but to no avail. We were wondering what our next step should be, since we weren’t stuck in the sense that the car was stationary, but rather in the sense that we couldn’t get past the ditch in front of us and would have to change our route. It was just about this time that a man who apparently lived in one of the nearby huts appeared out of the bush like an angel from heaven, and told us to follow him. He ran in front of the car for a while, until we realized it was a bit far off and invited him to take a seat inside, and where did he direct us but to the highlighted route on our GPS. We thanked him, gave him some money and a package of cookies we had with us, and were once again on our way. 
          We saw signs for another resort before we could see a sign of the one we were planning to stay at, so we asked if they had available rooms to avoid driving any further. The house we stayed in had concrete floors and a straw roof, but it had hot water and electricity, and it was very spacious. It’s interesting the things you have to ask for here: in the U.S., a person would ask if a hotel had wifi or a pool, but in Mozambique it’s important to ask if the place has a bathroom, hot water, electricity, and, as we learned during our whale watching experience in Hermanus last year, heat or air conditioning (neither of which was provided by our most recent accommodation, but they were not missed as the weather is lovely in Inhambane right now.) The only unpleasant aspect was that the walls were not totally solid and therefore did not protect against bugs. Although we had mosquito nets, they were not 100% effective in keeping out mosquitoes and other bitey creatures. (My toe is really itchy as we speak.)
          However, we had not come to lie around under mosquito nets—we came to dive! The first day after we arrived (Saturday), we met our dive master, Vossie, at the dive shop at noon and suited up. It was nice to be able to enjoy the ocean without worrying about certification—this trip was all about enjoying the fruits of last year’s labor. I would say the most interesting creature of this dive looked like a cross between a shark and a ray—there were three of them in one spot, or so I thought until Vossie gently lifted up something buried in the sand and two more swam out. When he pointed them out to us, he made a motion with his hands as if he was playing a guitar, and I had no idea what that was about until after we ascended and he informed us that they are called guitar sharks.
That night, as we were getting dinner ready, I noticed something flying near the ceiling of our house—when I saw the creature and heard the telltale squeaking noises, it became apparent that it was a bat! I have always liked bats because, as a child, I had a book called “Stellaluna” about a baby fruit bat, and also because they are very helpful because they eat mosquitoes (although unfortunately not all of the mosquitoes). At the high point of our bat-collecting, we had six resident bats, and when we left to return to Maputo, I was able to take the following picture of three of them that stuck around. 
 On the second day of diving, we saw several large pufferfish, and I resisted the urge to poke at them in an attempt to make them inflate. We also saw a stonefish—they are extremely poisonous, so I hovered at a comfortable distance from him. I was informed later, though, that by avoiding the stonefish, I was also at an unfavorable distance from an octopus that was mostly concealed in a hole behind it! On the third and final dive, however, I was quite satisfied because I got a good long look at another octopus looking rather grumpy inside his little den in the sand. He did not want to come out, but I was happy just to look at him while mentally singing “Octopus’ Garden” to myself. In the time not spent diving, we enjoyed little walks on the beach, fresh seafood, and long sleeps; and on Tuesday, we headed back to Maputo, taking an easier route this time. Our time in Inhambane was awesome, but I was glad to return to my dad’s well-lit and mosquito-free house. Until next time, may your bats eat all of your most hated insects, and may you catch sight of every octopus! 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

English Lessons, and Venezuelan Independence Day

July 10, 2012
I’ve just returned from Inhambane, and I’ve got a good bit of catching up to do! I’m going to split today’s report into two posts, actually, so bear with me.
          As some of you may know, I was planning to sub in for an English teacher at an all girls’ orphanage during my stay here, but as it turned out, the girls were supposed to go on holiday for the month of July. I was told, however, that it was possible that there would be an opportunity to volunteer there for one day before the girls left. On Wednesday night, my friend Cinthia, who is Peruvian but grew up in Mozambique and is now in college in the states, called me to let me know that Thursday’s classes were a go.
          I met Cinthia at her house Thursday morning, and from there she, her mom, and I headed to the orphanage. When we arrived, one of the nuns who work there told us that it was a cleaning day, so they would not be having classes; however, since we were already there, they decided that the girls could spare a little time for an English lesson. Cinthia and I taught them a few verbs, quizzed them on the alphabet, and did our best to teach them to express their feelings. It was a challenge because Cinthia had only been there once before (I think), and I had only been there once, so it was difficult to gauge where the girls were in terms of their English speaking prowess. It was also very difficult to explain grammar rules, since I don’t speak Portuguese, but fortunately Cinthia was super at explaining both herself and me. I think I bored them with my endless examples of when to add an “s” to an English verb, because by the end of the class, they were getting restless. When the class ended, though, we had some nice time together to chat (even though I for the most part stayed quiet and tried to understand what was being said) and the girls became more comfortable around us. One girl asked me (in English) my nationality.
          “American,” I said.
          “Oh,” she said, and then, in Portuguese, “do you know Justin Bieber?”
          I had to disappoint her by not personally knowing Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, or Beyoncé, but all the girls still showed us plenty of affection with hugs and a tour of their vegetable garden. As always, it was lovely to enjoy the hospitality of such smart and cheerful kids.
          On the way back into the city, Cinthia invited me to come with her family to a Venezuelan Independence Day celebration at one of the hotels. The celebration was held outside, and after the Mozambican and Venezuelan National Anthems were played, two men gave speeches in Portuguese, and then everyone was left to mingle. With most of the guests speaking Spanish, the hotel’s employees speaking Portuguese, and various people speaking English, my head was spinning. But, it was an enjoyable evening during which I got to meet a lot of splendid people, including Susana and William Diaz, who are both college students studying in the UK and who knew Cinthia when they were small children.
          It’s now eleven forty-three and I am quite ready to turn in for the night. I’ll be writing a post tomorrow, though, to tell you all about my adventures in Inhambane. Until then, goodnight!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Não falo Português.

Today I had my first Portuguese lesson, in hopes that I will soon be able to do something besides look uncomfortable whenever people say things to me. My instructor’s name is Viegas, and he has a very amiable attitude, but those lessons are intense. It is one-on-one instruction for two hours, and although studying Spanish has made it remarkably easy to understand Portuguese, I think that if anything, it has made the pronunciation harder. Oh, the temptation to use Spanish pronunciation in such similar words! But, I did learn some valuable introduction skills, as well as the priceless phrase: “I don’t understand” (“Não compreendo.”)
          On Saturday, Dad and I went for a horseback ride at a stable near the fish market. The market is a very interesting scene, because there are a lot of colorful fishing boats and a lot of people playing in the water or coming to buy or sell.

          We had been to the stables and were told to come back later—they were only having lessons in the morning, and we could come back at three for a trail ride. At this point, we assured them that we knew how to ride—this statement was shown to be debatable, however, when we arrived at the stables and not only remembered that it had been around two years since either of us had ridden, but also noticed that they used English-style saddles. For those of you who don’t know the difference between English and Western saddles, Western saddles sit around the middle of the horse’s back, and they have a horn in front. English saddles sit farther up on the horse, near its shoulders, and some of the riding techniques are different. Needless to say, I was rather embarrassed when, after having assured them that I knew what I was doing, I looked like Hyacinth Bucket in the BBC comedy series “Keeping up Appearances” episode entitled “Mind Your Head.” For those of you who don’t get the reference, it wasn’t pretty. The ride was enjoyable, though, after receiving a few pointers from our guides; and after being assured that I would benefit greatly from lessons, we called it a day.
<Look how smug he looks.

If there’s one concept I’ve grasped in these first few days of being back in Maputo, it is the “tip of the iceberg” phenomenon. Last year, I did a lot of things in a lot of places, but there's still so much to learn even about Maputo and her neighbors. It’s an overwhelmingly big world, so my goal is to suck up as much of it as possible!