Monday, March 23, 2009

Africa - Part 2: more Safari

We booked probably the shortest safari possible – 3 days, 2 nights I think it was. During the day on the way in to the park we already saw enough to be excited about, and we got up early after the first night in the camp to head out again. About 10 minutes out of camp I went to put my long lens on my camera and discovered I somehow had failed to include it in my backpack that morning. Distressed at the thought of bringing that giant lens all the way there and then going out on a safari in one of the situations where it really is necessary, I started to fret out load at my predicament, wanting to gauge if anybody cared enough to be willing to go back for it. The truck stopped, and after sitting there and some discussion, it was clear that nobody was really excited about turning around the truck and wasting more time, but nobody wanted to say it and probably wanted to keep me happy since we’d be spending the next 3 days together. And then just as we turned around I found my lens sitting next to me, which was quite embarrassing, but a relief for everyone.

At first it was very exciting to spot elephants and giraffes off in the distance. But I never imagined how close we could drive up to them. As long as we approached slowly, they seemed almost unaware we were there. I always imagined a safari as sneaking up on animals from 200 meters away, catching a glimpse as they ran away and desperately trying to photograph them with a super-telephoto lens. The elephants, giraffes, various antelope, and buffaloes we came across were none shy. But nothing compared to the lions. They would always just be lying there – we could drive up literally to within 5 feet of these guys. And they would just yawn and stare off into the distance. It was surprising, but then again, I guess with no predators they are well aware they are the kings there. What were we gonna do, get out of the truck? Even when they had cubs there jumping around – couldn’t seem to care less we were there. On the other end of the spectrum, unfortunately, were the warthogs and hyenas (not to mention of course the creatures we never saw). The sound of the truck in the distance would usually send these guys scurrying off. They were both particularly intriguing because of, if nothing else, their ugliness and the ways in which they would carry themselves. The warthogs like giant cute pigs vs. giant rodents. The hyenas were like stray dogs, yet evil with their hunched shoulders and large mouths. The animal that most impressed our guide, because he had not seen one like it before, was a giant snake. It was impressive, but with all the input we were getting so fast I would not have appreciated it as much of we had not been told how rare it was to see.

The landscape and atmosphere out there was really breathtaking. At one point I told myself I was going to smack Mike if he said “This is God’s country” one more time, but there was some sort of feeling of truth to it. Standing out the top of the land-rover, Titanic-style, with the wind though my hair as we cruised over the endless plains of grass with tiny giraffes and elephants always in the distance was unforgettable. I spent a lot of time when we were flying completely alone across the savannahs between animal sightings imagining that I was part of a party here in the 19th century, before photos and video and stories of Africa had really reached the west. What it would have been like to be along with the first new westerners that would explore (and exploit) the region for adventure and tales of adventure, tracking new animals. What it was like to be of necessity self-sufficient in ones travels. Wealthy, but nevertheless putting themselves in extreme danger.

I was able to get a number of nice pictures and a few movies of some interesting creatures, here are some of my favorites (click on them, as well as the ones above, to enlarge):

Next up:

Africa - Part 3 - The end of the safari including our little trip to a 'real' Masai village.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Africa - Part 1: Nairobi and Day 1 of Safari

I’m finally getting around to putting up some stories and photos from my trip to Africa. 9 months late. This seems to be a problem. I also would like to post about my trip to Venice, the ‘new’ Trabi, a trip Munich, and more….all that happened last year. But then I get lazy, especially now that I’m scanning in slides, and everything goes up 3 months later or not at all.
I regret from previous travels that I didn’t document or keep a dairy of what happened, as I find I randomly remember some old interesting stories, only vaguely jarred back to memory in unusual situations. Thus I think I should try to use this blog as a sort of journal to write this stuff down. Which could make for slow reading, but will serve well for having a more detailed description for myself to read in the future.
Anyway. Africa. There were a number of reasons this trip came together: 1) I’d never been anywhere in Africa 2) I wanted to go somewhere where I could dive, but hadn’t been before, and preferably not too touristy (i.e. not Egypt). 3) My old friend Mike could finally no longer contain the travel-itch and was planning on heading to Africa as well, so we timed heading out together. Mike visited Dresden for a few days and got to take in BRN before we headed for Nairobi.
I got off to a rough start. In the middle of our long flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi it somehow suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t packed my diver registration card. The worst feeling of doom swept over me as I convinced myself that I would now not be able to dive and this would consume me and my whole trip would be ruined. In dread I wanted someone to commiserate with me and I turned to Mike who was sitting behind me, but he had finally managed to find sleep. I was desperate to share my misery so I actually poked Mike to wake him up and said. “Mike. Mike. Mike. I forgot my dive card.” As you can imagine he was not enthused by all this. He just kind of looked at me like “thanks for waking me up, asshole.” I felt guilty and returned to my seat. I spent the rest of the flight trying to figure out scenarios in which I could get my card or manage to dive without it, and failing that how I would mentally not let it ruin the vacation. I’ve never seen a place let anybody dive without showing a card, but maybe this day and age they would have it all in the internet. But would the remote and probably sketchy dive operators have a facility to use this? Would it be possible that they would look the other way at the prospect at getting a hundred dollars from taking me out? This drove me crazy.
We didn’t spend much time in Nairobi, and it wasn’t just by luck. Nairobi has always had a pretty bad reputation for violence and crime, and with the recent violence following the elections in Kenya in December, it seemed more than sketchy. I managed to find a hotel to book that was across the street from the safari operator I had booked a safari with. That way it would be easy to roll out of bed in the morning to walk over and get on the truck out to the park. The hotel was typical budget lodging in a third world country – no frills. Mike and I had become somewhat disoriented with what time zone we were in and when exactly we were supposed to show up for the safari in the morning. Not wanting to miss the truck, Mike went down at what he thought was 5:30 am to walk over and check out the situation. Turned out it was 4:30am. He nearly tripped over the concierge who was sleeping inside the lobby stairwell, who woke up and asked Mike what the hell he was doing trying to go outside in downtown Nairobi at 4:30am. No, no, it’s too dangerous he told him. The safari leaves at 8 anyway - go back to your room. We showed up then promptly at about 7:30 to make sure we had all the forms/supplies we would need, and, as would become a theme on the trip, there was no urgency on the part of the people there, who suggested we go get breakfast or something. We found a nice looking, although empty, restaurant in the same building and ordered breakfast – eggs, sausage, toast, tea. The waiter was happy to take our order and disappeared into the kitchen. Shortly thereafter some of the staff left out the door. About 20 minutes later a boy came back in the restaurant with a grocery bag with what we expected was eggs, bread, and sausage. Seeing this made us laugh and Mike claim “I was worried you may not get the real Africa experience. Yeah, this is what I’m talking about.” Another 20 minutes later we were served our breakfast.
Eventually after stocking up on water, toilet paper,
cheap rum, and cookies, the safari took off from downtown Nairobi. Nairobi I think must be the most polluted city I’ve ever been in. This includes cities such as Jakarta, Bangkok, Quito, Dar Es Salaam, and Makassar. It seemed like every vehicle on the road was pouring out thick black smoke that left everything grey. I noticed in the city between the jammed streets at one intersection a little gardening – some flowers. Put there by the city, with a proud sign. It was there to point out that they were trying to beautify the city and make life there better. It was so sad. Just so little among the backdrop of dust, trash, black smog, etc. If the city council really were to make an impact on this city it would have to start with some sort of cleaning and/or pollution legislation. As we made our way outside the city, the trucks were still expulsing thick black smoke, but they were much more diluted in number and the smoke no longer seemed trapped by the buildings. There were 6 of us on the safari, packed into a Land Rover along with our driver/guide and our cook. I think the ride was like 6-7 hours, most over unpaved roads. On the way to the park we passed along the Great Rift Valley and stopped for a photo-op and obligatory souvenir-stop:

This is the old don't tell 'em it's a movie at first trick

Besides Mike and I the safari participants were all teachers on summer break: Two American women working at international schools in Budapest, and an Irish couple that were I believe taught English back in Ireland. We arrived at the park in the late afternoon, and got our first glimpse of some wildlife while driving through the park on the way to our campsite on the other side. The wildlife was already breathtaking. Outside the park we did see some animals, but only various antelope and maybe some buffalo.

Once we got in it was completely different. Not long after we entered the park we came upon a colony of vultures on the side of the path we were driving along. They were clearly very aggressively devouring something. As we drove up they ignored the truck for the most part and we saw they were eating a baby antelope – and making quick work of it.

The company we booked with has a permanent sort of campsite set up not far from the outside of the park (it’s not allowed for them to have them inside). It actually had a number of permanent basic lodges and tents. But it was completely empty. Our guide explained to us that since the violence following the elections, we were the first group they had to go out on a safari. The camp could hold 60-80 people, but we were the only ones there. It was nice in that we had booked to sleep in tents but they upgraded us to the empty little cabins. Nothing luxurious – there was no electricity, and we shared a common outhouse. But what was pretty luxurious was that one of the guys would get up early and start a fire under the water tank/pump so that we would have hot water for a shower. The food was quite good, the guys cooked it up over a fire in the floor. The first night there Mike was restless and instead of sleeping decided to go out and explore around at night, eventually settling on our little porch and waiting to spot nocturnal wildlife. Or maybe elephants across the stream our cabin overlooked. At some point in the night, when everybody else was asleep, there was this sudden thundering of feet across the front of the cabins, causing, we found out the next morning, each of us to wake up individually. The others speculated that it was one of the guards chasing off some animals or something. In fact Mike had spotted a small nocturnal cat on one of the other cabins' stoops with his flashlight, and as it ran away attempted to chase it down, probably frightening the heck those in that cabin.

next, but probably not soon:

Part 2: the rest of the safari (with lotsa pictures of magnificent beasts)

Sunday, March 08, 2009


Back in September I mused about what it may look like when, as Sarah Palin says, "Putin rears his ugly head and comes into the airspace of America" and how one could capture this with photoshop. Well, somebody did a very good job capturing this:

And lest you think Sarah Palin was a thing in the past, an embarrassment that much of the country wants to go away, a series of recent polls, including that of the CPAC conference indicate the top three choices right now of republicans for who to run in 2012 seem to be

Mitt "who let the dogs out" Romney
Bobby Jindal of the Republican Response to Obama disaster fame
Sarah "In what respect Charlie?" Palin

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Nazi march and protests

You know you live in Eastern Germany when you get an email like this at work:

Date: February 10, 2009 12:54:37 PM GMT+01:00
Subject: [mpi-cbg-staff] Caution on 14 Feb!

Dear expats,

on 14 Feb there is not only Valentines Day but also a huge demonstration of Neo-Nazis announced in the City Center in connection with the remembrance of the destruction of Dresden in 1945. About 8.000 Neo-Nazis are expected and the police will have it's biggest operation this year (see below).

Please watch out if you have to go to the City Center on this day not to get into trouble, or maybe just don't go at all :)

Of course upon reading this, I GOTTA check it out.

Actually this happens every year.
February 13/14 is the anniversary of the beginning of the bombing of Dresden in WWII, but it seems that what is this weekend at the forefront, at least what seems to dominate the media headlines and conversations in Dresden, is the annual Nazi march held on the same date. The Nazis use the thousands killed during the bombing, and also exaggerate it (if that can really be done), as some sort of counterpoint to the holocaust and attempt to further nationalistic feelings that we (or Germans) should be mourning this more.

Unfortunately it seems that in an attempt to go against the nazis (past and present), there is some sort of attempt to justify the bombing, or at least accept it as a means to and end. This is of course part of the broader phenomenon that due to Germany's history a generation of Germans have been raised that it is practically a sin to be nationalistic - to the extent that it was very not-cool as a German to fly a German flag for a long time. That is until a few years ago, and in particular the last world cup, when the flags all came out, finally guilt-free.

But it is still evident with these demonstrations against the Nazis,
that people get so wound up going against Nazis, that it's almost like they are pro-WWII catastrophy. I understand that they want the world to recognize that they know that Germany was on the wrong side so to speak, but can't the tragedy that was Dresden be left out of it? By any standards, without getting into all the details and complexity, it was a tragedy, and thousands and thousands of innocent people were burned and suffocated alive.
It was a little weird to see the few US and British flags being paraded around on the anniversary of one the most questionable acts of war. But what was REALLY ridiculous was to see flags with the ensign of the Royal Air Force. What. the. fuck. I'm sorry, I hate the Nazis and what they stand for too. But that's just wrong.

Anyway, I wandered around the city and found myself in the middle of an anti-Nazi march. In the middle of a bunch of punks. Police were imported from cities all over Germany to make sure order was kept.

Their job being to protect the Nazis from the thousands of counter protesters.
It got a little hairy every know and then. Some of the crowd I was in started hurtling things at the riot police. I saw a glass bottle break off a policeman's mask. And then the police would charge the crowd. I saw some real baton-on-back beat-downs of kids too slow to get out of the way. It actually happened at the end of this video below, but you can't make it out...

Here's another video....

All in all an interesting day. except that the city's mass transit becomes paralyzed and I ended up walking all the way to work and back home. And the Nazis succeed in stealing the limelight of this historic day from where it should be focused.