Wednesday, July 17, 2013

I'll See You Soon

It's hard to believe that we leave Mozambique for the last time in the foreseeable future tomorrow. There's no way to express how much these three trips over three years have impacted me, but I hope that this blog has given a tiny taste of Mozambique and its neighbors, and for those of you who are interested in travelling in Africa, I hope that at least some of the stories have whetted your appetite. In Portuguese, there is a word for longing for a time that is passed, for a feeling, an experience that cannot be recovered, or for a person who is far away. This feeling of saudades is a familiar one for someone who is sentimental and resistant to change. But for all the times in my life for which I have experienced saudades,I have come into something else that is worthy of missing just as much. So I will have saudades for these summers in Maputo, and for the unforgettable places and people and times which I have yet to encounter. E para você, Moçambique, vamos reunir no futuro. Until then, I will continue to write about the other places I travel to, and I look forward to talking about this trip an annoying amount to my friends and family back home. Get ready. I have missed you, too.
-Geek in Mozambique

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Southern Swing

It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted, and a lot has happened since then. In fact, only one more full day is left until we leave Maputo! The time has truly flown by, so I’m going to condense this blog post as much as possible for all our sakes. On June 21, we left for a two-week travel extravaganza which my dad has called “The Southern Swing.” In two weeks, we visited three countries and one of the Seven Wonders of the World, stayed in at least seven hotels and one tent, took three flights, met countless interesting people, and carried one backpack each.
Our first stop was Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, where we met up with our guide, Justin, and his protégé, Moffat. Victoria Falls is a little town that plays host to the largest waterfall in the world, the mere spray of which was enough to soak us to the bone.
The next day, we headed to Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest game reserve, and while we were there, we stopped by the Wild Dog Conservancy. Wild dogs are the second most endangered predators in the world, and the conservancy provides shelter to individuals who cannot survive in the wild, either temporarily or permanently. Three dogs lived at the conservancy at the time—two of them were physically unable to survive in the wild, one because of malnourishment and the other because of a bad leg.  The third dog, however, named Aurora, was being kept there temporarily. Wild dogs are extremely social animals, and while they are extremely successful hunters in packs, they can’t bring down prey by themselves. When Aurora’s sister was killed in a confrontation with lions, she was brought to the conservancy which plans to introduce other wild dogs to her. Once a pack is formed, the entire group can be released back into the wild.

The day we visited the falls, we perused activities that we could do in the following days, and we should have known that we were in for a new experience when Caleb set eyes on the adrenaline-inducing ones. Our fate was sealed the minute he saw the Gorge Swing. The swing is sort of like a bungee-jump, except that you’re right-side up and instead of springing back up after the fall, you swing out over the gorge and then are pulled up. We did two other activities first—the Flying Fox, in which you are suspended in a flying position and slide out over the gorge on a zipline-type line, and the Zipline itself. Each activity was a little bit more intense than the next, and I think they prepared us somewhat compared to if we had gone straight for the swing. Nevertheless, when the time came for us to do the gorge swing, at least some of us were nervous. John was the first to jump, and as he did he yelled “one more day”—because even essentially jumping off a cliff is an appropriate time for a Les Miserables reference.
Caleb was next, and he was smiling happily before, during, and after. Although he and John had both described the swing enthusiastically, I felt nervous not so much for the fall but for the moment right before. As I approached the platform I was shaky, and I was too preoccupied to think of a catch phrase to yell. After I jumped, I had a quick thought of “what have I done?” and then, even before the freefall was over, I stopped being afraid, opened my eyes, and thought how proud I was that I had jumped. For a three-second freefall, I feel like I had a lot of time to think. It felt almost as if I was in a dream. When the harness caught me, I felt relieved. I was thinking about a Bible verse, actually: “When I said: “my foot is slipping,” your love, oh Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul.” I don’t know that the gorge swing is a particularly spiritual experience, but for me, jumping off the platform and trusting that everything would be fine, and then looking up at my family smiling and waving at the top and looking down at the gorge and the distance from which I had fallen, I felt very content. And of course I was thankful for my low blood pressure. Dad conquered the gorge swing wearing his Piggly Wiggly t-shirt, of course.
The next day, it was time for white water rafting on the mighty Zambezi River. We found ourselves among some interesting rafting partners, some of which did not greatly contribute to our raft’s welfare. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the rapids if not the long, rocky hike from the river to the road.

On June 25, we crossed into Botswana, where our first stop was Chobe National Park. There, we experienced one of the best game drives we have ever been on. The first thing we saw upon entering the park was my personal favorite antelope, the rare and shy Sable. We were able to see two individuals and a herd, and our guide, Richard, was extremely obliging when we wanted to follow them.
Chobe is famous for its elephants, and we were not disappointed as we watched large groups crossing the river and munching on leaves. These elephants were used to humans passing through to look at them, and they were comfortable enough to let us see the young ones.
But although they were at ease among humans, the elephants weren’t totally carefree. Chobe is also home to lions, and they weren’t interested in elephants for their photogenic qualities. The dominant male and female of the pride had taken down a two-to-three-year-old elephant, an impressive feat for only two lions.
Just when we thought we’d seen everything we could hope to see in one drive, we saw another car stopped to take pictures. When we saw what was hopping along in the grass, we could scarcely believe it—I’ll give you a hint: it’s black and white, and it doesn’t care—it was a honey badger.
On the 27th, we headed to Maun, touted as “your gateway to the Okavango Delta” and on the 28th, we went into the Delta itself. In the delta, the main form of transportation is the mokoro, a flat-bottomed canoe-type boat which is traditionally made from the bark of the kigelia, or sausage tree, though modern mokoros are generally made from fiberglass, since the tree is protected. Mokoros are propelled by long poles, and our polers were absolutely graceful with them (and I learned later that grace isn’t easy in a mokoro). As we were transported to our island campsite, we came across a bit of a roadblock in the form of eight hippos who didn’t want to let us pass. We decided to wait, but the hippos were lazy and patient, and they weren’t going anywhere. Of course, with hippos, giving them their space is essential, so our polers took an alternative route. When we reached our camp, we set up tents and were shown around the grounds. That evening, we went for a nature walk around the island, and we came across a herd of zebra just as the sun was setting.
The next day we went for a morning game drive, attempted to learn to pole the mokoros ourselves, and later enjoyed a ride around the delta with the professionals in charge of the poling. That night, an announcement was made that our hosts were going to share some of their culture with us via song, and we ended the day with songs, riddles, and games around the campfire.
The next day, it was time to leave the delta, and even though we had a great time, it was good timing as far as our accommodations, because I was starting not to feel well—one of the risks a person takes by eating fish while camping. And the next day, July 1, we were scheduled to fly to Namibia, so I went ahead and went to the doctor’s office before the airport and he gave me the nastiest antibiotic I’ve ever had to take. After that, we said goodbye to Justin and Moffat, and to John, who returned to Maputo.
We began the Namibian portion of our trip in the capital, Windhoek, where we picked up our rental car, a Jeep Wrangler with the name “Malory” painted on the front, and on July 2 drove out into the desert to Soussusvlei. Though the drive took up a good portion of our day, we were surrounded by beautiful scenery and even some wildlife in the form of ostriches, springboks, and oryx (specifically, gemsboks).

On July 3, we took Malory out to Soussusvlei’s famous Deadvlei, named for the dead trees which grew there when the Deadvlei wasn’t so dry. But the area where the trees were was surrounded by giant red dunes, and the hike up is tiring. Since I was still recovering from my bad-fish incident, I took it easy and Dad and I took a flatter detour to the Deadvlei. The smaller dunes gave me at least a taste of dune hiking. When you take a step, your feet sink into the fine sand and it’s hard on the knees, but the hike is exponentially easier if you step in the footprints of those who have hiked up before you. As I climbed up the vast hills and looked at the others around me, some of them reaching the tallest peaks after a slow, graceful, climb, and relied on the footprints to hoist me up, I kept thinking of Isaac Newton’s remark regarding his intellectual achievements: “I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

On the Fourth of July (Happy Independence Day, fellow Americans), we had reached Swakopmund, a city on the coast of Namibia—the west coast of Africa, thus completing our east coast to west coast sweep. After a morning of walking on the beach and looking at the flamingoes gathered there, followed by a trip to the aquarium, it was time for another sand dune related activity. Using snowboards, we surfed the dunes. It was a little scary at first, and I was awkward on a snowboard, but Caleb, who is accustomed to snowboarding, took to it right away. In fact, when he jokingly claimed that he was a professional snowboarder, another woman who was dune surfing with her family asked me if it was true.

Friday, our final day in Namibia, we took a day trip to Spitzkoppe, a granite rock formation and its surrounding area. On some of the rocks, Bushmen paintings can be found—this one depicts a rhinoceros and two “half-human, half-animals” which represent the Bushmen wearing animal skins and approaching an animal on all fours after rubbing themselves with wild sage to mask their human scent. Paintings like these were used to tell other groups what kind of game is in the area, where to find water, what hunting methods were most successful for the group that did the paintings, and what perils they faced along the way.

Like a Bushmen painter, I hope that this blog post which I’m leaving for you was interesting and maybe a little informative, even if it doesn’t tell the whole story. I look forward to talking to you guys soon in more detail! Until then, be well, do everything you can, stay away from camp fish, and remember that every step you take in the sand is still one half-regular-step further than no steps at all. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

I Think I Saw an Impala

Yesterday we returned from a five-day trip to Kruger National Park and the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center in South Africa with over a thousand pictures and some new wildlife experiences.
This trip, we set out to see carnivores, so we headed to the north of the park where lions are less prevalent and cheetahs, leopards, and hyenas enjoy the lack of competition while rare antelopes such as Sable and Hartebeest enjoy the lack of lions eating them. We started in Skukuza camp, which is still in the south of the park and from there embarked on a game drive with a guide named Robert. 
The first thing we saw was a breeding pack of hyenas. Robert explained that hyenas separate their cubs into age-appropriate groups so that they don’t compete for food, and that a cub will be fed not only by its mother but also by other members of the pack, practices to which Robert attributed the very low infant mortality rate among hyenas. Sure enough, after we had watched and taken photos of this lady, we realized that there was another nursing mother on the other side of the road with two very young, all-black cubs who had yet to gain their characteristic spots.
Robert also noticed something in one of the trees as we passed by, and when he backed up to show it to us, it turned out to be one of the most impressive feats of safari-guidery that I have ever seen. In the dark and while driving, Robert spotted a flap-necked chameleon, a tiny little fellow who looked so much like the leaves around him that Robert had to point for ten minutes before everyone in the vehicle had seen it.
On the fifteenth, we left Skukuza and headed for Mopani camp, which is named for the famous Mopani tree (in which lives the Mopani worm, which is considered a delicacy) and is further north in the park. As we drove up to our camp, we saw teasing symbols—there was a dead impala in a tree, which can only mean one thing, but the leopard had left his kill and was likely afraid to return until the humans had stopped guarding his dinner.
It was a good day for other sightings, though. I have seen a lot of hippos, but always mostly submerged. On the fourteenth I saw my first hippos out of water (courtesy of the chilly weather) and the next day we looked out over the river from the safety of a hide to see a huge breeding herd basking on a little island that likely disappears during rainy season.

It was apparently the time of the breeding herds. This herd of elephant consisted of at least forty individuals, and when we reached a bridge at sunset to see two large herds crossing over the river, we stopped even though we were in a bit of a hurry to get to Mopani before five-thirty (if you arrive after the gates close, you must pay a fine) and enjoyed taking pictures of them and absorbing the moment when we saw 300 tons of elephantine beauties lumbering through the sunny water.
The next day, on a morning drive with a guide named Amos, we saw a serval and some black-backed jackals, each of which was too quick to photograph. We also came across this lone female hyena taking seriously the command of so many parents for their children to finish everything on their plates. She was gnawing on the last of the skin of an elephant carcass—the elephant was killed in January when it was struck by lightning, and while I never like to see an elephant in turmoil, it was amazing how the detrivores continually made use of the resources available to them.
It was also a good day for birds. We saw a group of six juvenile ostriches—I saw my first ostrich in the wild on Friday and couldn’t believe its size even after having seen them in zoos, and even the young ones were gigantic. But even more exciting than the ostriches were a smaller and less-known bird which we came across later. In a group of four, crossing over the road by foot, were the endangered Southern Ground Hornbills. These large, flighted but mostly ground-dwelling birds are quite rare, and in fact only 1500 individuals are estimated to exist in South Africa, so we were very lucky to have seen them.
            On the seventeenth, we woke up early to prepare to leave Kruger for the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center, and saw yet another hyena—this one was also nursing, but right in the middle of the road. She seemed very comfortable with the cars going by and also stopping for photos.
            So we had seen several hyenas, jackals, and even a serval but none of the majestic big cats. We had seen a leopard’s kill and also seen a spot in the ground where another leopard had dragged a kill across the road, and we had heard reports of lions and leopards and even caught a short glimpse of a leopard in a far-away tree, but sometimes it’s enough to except the little signs even if you can’t see the actual animal. As we neared the gate, I noticed a large herd of impala—and of course, why would impala just stand there, if a predator was nearby? Still, they looked alert, and right after we passed them I thought I saw something lying in the riverbed. I asked if we could back up, apologizing in case it was just an impala and I was making us stop for nothing.
            It was an impala. But a leopard was eating it.

            As I have mentioned, I used to dislike the idea of animals eating one another, but there are two sides to every story. Leopards have cubs to feed too. Hyenas separate into nurseries and apparently nurse their pups right in the middle of the road. So in the end, everybody’s just trying to survive. Sometimes an impala gets away, and sometimes a leopard gets to eat. I’m just glad he chose that riverbed to rest in after the hunt.

African Wild Dogs
At the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center (HESC), the goal is to preserve endangered species such as ground hornbills, African wild dogs, caracals, and servals, but the focus is and has always been on cheetahs. 
The HESC includes breeding programs in which cheetahs born at the HESC are later released into the wild, as well as rescue programs for animals in undesirable situations. One such situation was that of two lions who were simply left on the side of the road in Portugal after the circus that owned them shut down. This lion is actually a male, but he was castrated at a young age and therefore lacked the hormones necessary to grow a mane. Unfortunately for these lions and two other adult males (with manes and other body parts intact) who were born at the HESC, lions, unlike cheetahs, cannot be released into the wild if they weren’t born there. For cheetahs, hunting is innate. They need some time to practice, but they have the skills they need. Lions have an instinct for hunting as well, but the tactics needed for stalking and bringing down prey are taught within the pride, so it’s a good thing they are doing well in the wild.
Maybe one day the little guy in the back will be released into the wild.
            And speaking of the wild, the HESC partners with Kapama Game Reserve, a wild and unregulated piece of land where animals are free to avoid us seeing them, to arrange game drives there and occasionally to release animals onto the reserve. We were on one such game drive and were seeing a lot of common duikers (a small antelope some may remember from a particularly uneventful night drive of two years ago) when we topped off our trip with one last huge sighting. In contrast to my unsure reports of something lying in the riverbed when I saw the leopard, Caleb drew attention to his find definitively.
            “Lion. Lion lion lion.”

This trip was certainly an eventful and lucky one.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

English and Natural History

 Today my dad and I taught an English lesson at the orphanage/boarding school. The lesson was about how to say things like where you are from and what nationality a person is, and my dad drew a map of the world on the chalkboard and asked the kids where Mozambique and some it’s bordering countries were. The students were shy, but many of them eager—especially Felicia, who did not attend our class because it was too elementary for her since she is the only twelfth-grader at the school. After class, though, we (and by we, I mean my dad) helped her with her homework and chatted a bit in English. One interesting thing about the orphanage is the relaxed attitude about the place. My dad and I showed up, one of our favorite nuns asked if we were going to teach a lesson, we said yes, she called the girls, and a group came. Also, both today and Tuesday another regular volunteer at the orphanage had told us she would meet us at ten, and both times she showed up after eleven, unapologetically. Although Felicia told us that one is expected to be at class on time, we have learned over the years that, when it comes to social commitments, being on time has a different meaning here.

            After lunch, Eduardo, Caleb and I went to the National Museum of Natural 
History, which included many interesting displays such as fetal elephants in the various stages of development; various preserved snakes, sea creatures, and insects; and a hippo skeleton. I hope this museum is able to gain revenue in the coming years as Mozambique continues to grow—it is tiny, but fun. And of course I was dazzled by a museum that allowed picture-taking.

Elephant Fetus at 10 Months
Hippo Skeleton
Tomorrow we'll be heading to the famous Kruger Park to check out some wildlife. Until I return, please think of me commiserating with this pretend shark.  

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Know Your Market

Ah, back in The 'Bique, where the fresh vegetables are cheap and the bananas practically jump out of their peeling and into your stomach. Although I have had some run-ins with mosquitoes and some misunderstandings due to my terrible Portuguese, it's been a nice few days over at Maputo Royale and I have a feeling it’s going to go by very fast, especially in the action-packed weeks to come.
            Today my dad, Caleb, Adozinda, Eduardo and I all piled into the car and went to the market together to get some fruit, and get some copies made for tomorrow’s English lesson. The copy-shop will make one copy for one Metical—that is, a thirtieth of a U.S. dollar, and they don’t only make copies but also sell things you might find in the non-medical sections of a pharmacy, like pens, erasers, and, okay, if I am to be totally honest, sanitary napkins. The latter of this list I happened to need, so I asked my dad to add them to our purchase. When the woman at the counter gave us the price for the copies, we put them on the counter and said:
            “E este também.” (This too.)
            “Você vende?” (Are you selling?) She asked. I was pretty confused by this response, but figured I had misheard or that I was unaware of all of the applications of the verb “vender.” Uncertain, my dad said yes. “Quanta custa?” (How much does it cost?), the woman asked.
            “Não sei,” (I don’t know), I said, a bit surprised that she didn’t know the price of her own product and wondering if she wanted me to make an offer. Finally, amid a few more comments from all of us, my dad and I realized the misunderstanding: she thought we were some sort of door-to-door maxi-pad salespeople! So much for me being discrete. I not only repeated the story to Caleb and then to John but now I’m posting it on the internet. It really does seem like some things can only happen in Maputo, though. Next time you go to Staples, try making some copies and then when you get to the counter say: “I don’t really have any money, but I’ll trade you these maxi-pads.”

            On a different note, though, we did visit the orphanage/boarding school yesterday where I taught one English lesson last year, and we visited the girls and sat in on their Portuguese lesson. Tomorrow we will teach a real lesson there and I will let you know what kind of shenanigans unfold. In the mean time, have a lovely day, and remember that the strongest currency is whatever people need. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Put a Little Love in Your Heart

Greetings from the U.S.! 
Today I am breaking tradition because I am not travelling at all. Instead, I want to bring to your attention to Compassion International, an organization through which I sponsor a nine-year-old girl in Tanzania. They are having a campaign right now to have sponsors tell their stories through very small web-pages (they gave me an 800-character limit on how much I could write so you can all breathe a sigh of relief that you won't have to read as much as you do on here.) Click here to check out my page, but don't click any other clickables you may see besides the word "here" because those are annoying spam links. Oh, the internet. Have a wonderful day!