Have You Seen the Taal Kraal?

Yesterday, one of my colleagues, a young woman from Zimbabwe named Joy, asked me about ten gallon hats, cowboys and John Wayne. While her inquiries were clearly in jest – the mock-galloping gave her away – I really wasn’t surprised by the questions. As strangers in a strange land, we’ve become popular targets for interrogation.

This is despite the fact that (the very best of) American culture is regularly imported here by way of B-grade Hollywood films, sitcom reruns and Royales with Cheese. The opportunity to grill a real, live American about anything from the supposed superiority of Starbucks to driving on the other side of the road to “Why do your Republicans talk so much about ‘freedom’ when they insist on taking it away from women/minorities/immigrants/gays?” is often too difficult to resist. Shame that we still don’t have good answers.

Without conducting the scientific research necessary to confirm, I’d say that the two questions we get most often are these, and I quote:

  • “When are you people leaving?”
  • “Have you seen the rugby?”

The first question, you must understand, is not meant to be rude. We like to think of the phrase “you people” less as an arbitrary, disdainful lumping and more as a term of endearment. As if the word wonderful was accidentally omitted. Still, we’ve been getting the question for the better part of six months now …

As for the rugby question, until recently, we could not supply a satisfactory answer. While we became avid supporters of the Springboks during the Rugby World Cup last year, we couldn’t see one of those matches in person because, well, they were all in New Zealand. Now, however, all attention is on the Super Rugby league, and we have our own team here in Pretoria: the unfortunately named Blue Bulls.

It was time to see the rugby.

Thanks to the gracious organizing efforts of Quintus and Christa Smit, their daughter, Marni, and Marni’s boyfriend, Giancarlo, we scored tickets to a Bulls v. Crusaders match at Loftus Versfeld Stadium.

Crouch. Touch. Pause. Engage. Blue Bulls & Crusaders preparing for a scrum.

Loftus during Blue Bulls matches is informally, yet fittingly, known as the “Taal Kraal.” Taal is the word for “language” in Afrikaans, and kraal is the word for “corral.” In essence, by going to a rugby match at Loftus, one is effectively surrounded on all sides – corralled in, as it were – by Afrikaans. And I mean Afrikaans Afrikaans. The Boers love themselves some rugby! And they love to talk about it. In Afrikaans.

Don’t get me wrong, we understand why people like the sport. I enjoy the strategy, something I learned to appreciate while watching and discussing World Cup matches. (As it happens, the match we saw featured several players from the Springboks side, as well as the All Blacks, as the Crusaders are from New Zealand.) Jenny, bless her, loves the muscular men with the thick thighs. When she spotted Victor Matfield, I thought she might rush the pitch and hurl herself into his arms, nuzzle his werewolf beard. Never mind that he is actually retired and his appearance was as a business-suited sideline reporter.

Blue Bulls & Crusaders players compete for the ball during a lineout. (not pictured: Victor Matfield)

But, the point is, rugby – especially Blou Bulle rugby at the Taal Kraal – is a white thing. I think fellow American Ryan Brown said it best:

… don’t let Invictus convince you otherwise: rugby is whiter than a Wilco concert and always will be.

So it is. And, so what? So is ice hockey, eh?

At least we got to experience an authentic slice of modern Afrikaner culture. At least we got to openly and enthusiastically support men with Blue Bulls … jerseys.

At least we people got to see the rugby before we left.

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Into the Wind

It’s calmer today. The wind that whipped us up and down the Cape Peninsula yesterday – from Kalk Bay to Boulders Beach, all the way to Cape Point and back to Noordhoek and Cape Town – is just a pleasant breeze now. At times it’s barely noticeable, but the fresh sea air it carries is so clean, so subtly salty, so perfect, I find myself constantly wishing for another gust.

The sun, paying no heed to the weatherman’s forecast of cool temps, is its strong, African self. Its warmth is matched only by its brightness.

It’s a beautiful day in the Mother City.

It’s also overwhelmingly blue. In the mid-afternoon light, I am surrounded on almost all sides by vast blueness: the shimmering, marine blue of the ocean; the shadowy, gray-blue of the mountains beyond; and the sharp, infinite blue of the sky above. Only a scattering of wispy clouds, now tinted pale orange in the west, offers a counter-chromatic.

If Cape Town was a house, I would be out on the front porch. Behind me, Table Mountain serves as a majestic living room wall, a feature in and of itself, upon which no piece of art is worthy to be hung. The family room, at the V&A Waterfront, is like no other: it has a Ferris wheel. Adjacent, the home office has shelves full of skyscrapers. Tucked away quaintly in the back is the wine cellar of Constantia. The curb appeal here is high.

Table Mountain from the V&A Waterfront

As I sit, sipping a cappuccino, watching dolphins and seals frolic in the bay, I realize, more clearly than ever, that I am ruined for real life. I remember 9-to-5 jobs, draconian vacation policies, gapers’ delays on the Ike, real winters. These memories loom. What happens when they once again become reality?

Better question: How can I shape my new reality? What options will I have? What opportunities will exist? What traditional boundaries will confine me?

I’d like to say that this year (will have) taught me to think differently, to define life unconventionally, to choose my own adventures. But, until the true test comes, I can only aver.

In the meantime, we will enjoy our final weeks in fantasy land, a place not perfect – particularly for those whose eighteen years of political freedom has yet to yield any significant economic freedom – but certainly out of our ordinary. A place where a fresh, fall day feels like a sunny, Chicago summer. A place where I can be a full-time volunteer. A place where Jenny can have straight hair and Indie can live her dog life.

Today, it’s calm. The winds will pick up again soon, though, and carry us in a new direction. We should, I suppose, welcome another gust.

A Sense of Safari

It was late afternoon when the elephant took its last step. The young male, a sub-adult, likely broke away from the herd early in the day, trudged along a dirt path and lumbered into a thicket of suikerbos, where it fell, landing on its left side with a thud. In this position, prone, helpless, struggling to breathe, the young elephant died.

Natural causes, the ranger said, though it’s hard to say exactly what.

To the hyenas (brown and spotted), wild dogs, lions and other carnivores of the African bush, the reason for the elephant’s death does not matter. What matters is that dinner is served.

By the time we arrived on the scene – “we” being Jenny and I, Jenny’s parents, our ranger, Nick, our tracker, Max, and a young South African couple on their first safari – the carcass of the young elephant had become a sad, mangled, putrid smorgasbord. Just thinking about it now makes my stomach turn. The stench

But, on this Monday morning, there was no better place to be.

As we sat, quietly, in the open Land Cruiser, just feet from the rotting remains, we heard footsteps from behind. Two very wary, but very hungry, brown hyenas approached. They made a wide arc around our truck, stopping often to sniff the air and listen for possible competitors, before trotting over to the smelly elly. One quickly tore a hunk from the pachyderm’s posterior, but the other was spooked. We had all heard, just moments earlier, a lion roar from just beyond our position; the hyenas knew the cats were close.

Suddenly, the silence was broken by the crack of a snapped twig somewhere to the hyenas’ right, our left. Was it an elephant, coming to protect the sanctity of its fallen comrade? Ranger Nick reflexively reached for the ignition. A fellow elephant would be extremely upset to find that opportunistic scavengers had already eaten the juvenile’s neck and part of its back, ripped open its belly and removed its intestines. Ranger Nick was ready to reverse. (Good…the dead elephant stinks!)

Alas, it was not an elephant, but the hyenas bolted, nonetheless. The two mongrels figured themselves no match for what did emerge: four self-confident lions, looking to feed. A young male, two females and a cub sauntered over to the gray buffet. We watched, in awe, with shirt collars over our noses, as the lions dove in.

Young male lion and cub feasting on a dead elephant

But this moment, too, was short-lived. Again, the first lion roared from the bushes beyond. A rival pride was near. The absolutely rancid odor of death, of the disemboweled, dined-on elephant served as a breakfast beacon.

Time for us to leave.

The scene we witnessed, awesome and gruesome as it was, reminded me that as elusive as the Big Five animals can often be, each and every safari experience comes with a guarantee of another Big Five: the sights, sounds, feelings, tastes and smells of the African bush.

Of course, the sights are incredible, and the easiest to convey here. We can show you photos of the lions and the landscapes. You can see a red-billed oxpecker clinging to a giraffe’s neck. You can see a zebra foal nuzzling its mother. You can see a herd of playful elephants drinking and bathing in a watering hole. You can see Jenny’s mom serving as our tracker:

Jenny's mom, Sharon, in the tracker's seat on safari. Not sure what she sees...

When we share video, you can hear the birds chirping or the small trees snapping under the powerful game drive vehicle as it crashes through the bush. More often, you can hear Jenny asking me whether I’m “getting this on video.”

But, what’s more difficult to convey, despite video evidence, is the feeling of the bouncy, jostling, sometimes bone-jarring game drives. Or the warmth of the sun or the coolness of the wind. Or the prick of a thorn tree catching you on the shoulder as you walk through the bush searching for a safe place to pee.

And, regrettably, there is no word count, pixel width or megabyte capacity large enough to do justice to the tastes and smells of safari. After a few hours driving in the open vehicle, you’re bound to find yourself with a bit of gritty, red dust in your mouth, leaving you parched in a way that only a sundowner – perhaps a fruity Sauvignon blanc or a tangy gin and dry lemon – can remedy. All the while, your nose is working overtime, discerning scents as varied as the freshness of wild herbs and eucalyptus to the pungency of dung and death.

I only hope that we can hold on to the memories of these sensations long after we’ve left Africa. I hope that we can, while looking at the photos, watching the videos and telling the stories, remember what it felt like, what it tasted like, and what it smelled like to be out in the wild. I hope that we will always have this sense of safari.

At least we’ll have the photos.

March Madness, April Fools’ and the Cuteness Overload that was Boom-Boom’s Party

I didn’t do anything tricky. I didn’t try to convince Jenny that we won the Mega Millions Lottery. I didn’t tell Indie that her arch nemesis, Mr. Nasty Tinkerbell, was hiding in the bushes. I didn’t even write a blog post confessing that this whole time you thought we were living in Pretoria and going on safaris we were actually living in Peoria and going to Steak ‘n Shake.

OK, I did trick Indie with the cat thing.

But, I didn’t do anything for April Fools’ Day this year, mostly because I was up too late with March Madness the night before. It’s a crippling disease, being a Kentucky basketball fan. I caught the bug in 1998 when we moved to Lexington and the symptoms get worse every year. Even Jenny has a mild case from time to time.

Saturday night’s game started at just past midnight here in Peoria Pretoria. By the time the adrenaline wore off, my heart resumed a normal rhythm and every possible recap and analysis piece was read, it was 3:00am. Which is approximately the time the national championship game will tip off on Monday night Tuesday morning.

I’ll be there! #BBN

March Madness. For real. Where did the month go?

UK's Anthony Davis & Doron Lamb after beating Louisville

I know it began with the music of the night because I remember that Jenny and I saw a quite nice performance of “Phantom of the Opera” at the gaudy Montecasino. And, I know it ended with a performance of the Kentucky Wildcats beating Louisville in the Final Four. But the rest?

Well, one of the major highlights was an all-too-short visit from Jaimie and Zach – a visit that fooled the daylights out of Indie, who seemed sure that the pack was back together again. We’ll have more of an update on that ASAP.

What I want to tell you about now, though, is not the wild night of pasta making, not the multinational cocktail party, not the book launch, not the breakfast with the old gang at the guesthouse, not the exhaustive quest for a pair of real basketball shoes in a country that knows only rugby, soccer and cricket…No. Those are fine stories, but what I really want to tell you about is Boom-Boom’s party.

Boom-Boom is a girl. She is now six-years-old. She has an older sister, Dimakatso (or Katso, 15), and a younger brother, Siboniso (2). The father figure in her life is a sweet man from Swaziland named Alex. Alex lives in a shack in Mamelodi with Boom-Boom, Katso, Siboniso and the children’s mother, the one and only Ephney.

Of course, Boom-Boom isn’t her real name. Her real name is Vuyokazi, but she got the nickname “Boom-Boom” when she was a chubby little baby. See, “fatty boom-boom” is the not-so-nice name given to the overweight in South Africa. Even though she’s now a skinny six-year-old, the Boom-Boom moniker seems to have stuck.

When Ephney told us that she was planning a party for Boom-Boom’s birthday, we were excited. Jenny had been thinking about sewing a little dress or outfit for her, and the birthday party would be the perfect occasion, and deadline, for her work.

Jenny consulted with Ephney on style and color, shopped for the perfect fabrics, cut out tiny patterns on the dining room table, spent many nights hunkered over the sewing machine and had a very fun fitting session with the client one afternoon in Mamelodi.

As the day approached, we coordinated with Ephney on logistics, helping to deliver payment to the municipal park where the party would be held, driving down to the central business district to fetch the giant birthday cake and making an early, day-of run out to Plasticland for additional party buckets. It was all coming together.

With Ephney’s friend Kate, Kate’s daughter and niece, we arrived at the park ahead of schedule and began to organize the party site. There was just one problem: The minibus taxis Ephney arranged to transport the partygoers from Mamelodi were late, very late. We only had the tables and chairs rented for two hours, and the five of us were already an hour into the “party.”

Eventually, the party arrived at the park. Not party as in a group of people, though that is accurate enough. I mean party as in more than twenty screaming, singing, dancing kids who somehow managed to cram themselves into a 12-seat minibus.

It was a sight to behold. Here were a couple dozen, excited, free township kids arriving at a public park in a white neighborhood in Pretoria. Awesome. Sure, the other kids at the park were mixed and playing well together, but this was just so fun to see.

And then…

And then there was Boom-Boom.

Boom-Boom (left) looking too cute in her new outfit (by Jenny) and wings

In her polka-dot top, pink stretch pants and matching headband, she was cuteness personified. Jenny’s outfit was a success. And so was the party.

Boom-Boom's birthday party at Zita Park

Boom-Boom getting ready to cut the cake (which she did, with a giant knife, to the horror and delight of the other kids)

Our little buddy, Andries

What Andries will look like as an adult, the never-smiling Kendrick Perkins

Just kidding, Andries...you've got a great smile

As you can see, I served as the official photographer. Ephney wanted to make sure we shot each kid individually. But, by the time we started doing that, most kids were in swimsuits, as there was a nice pool at the park. So, I now have a computer full of photos of kids in swimsuits. I hope I can clear customs on the way home…

Boom-Boom & friends on their way to the pool

Happy family

the3six5

Sunset at Noordhoek Beach

A while back, before we left for South Africa, one of my Chicago buddies (who since had the nerve to move to Seattle) tipped me off to this cool blog called the3six5. The idea is simple and brilliant: tell the story of a year in 365 days by 365 different people. Scott’s poignant post last September reminded me to sign up.

Well, today was my day.

There’s a lot going on today, as you can read in my 365-word post: Jaimie and Zach are here from Chicago, I have a job interview and basketball practice tonight, and we’re already starting to think about the logistics of our return to the U.S. this summer.

So, in lieu of a true post here, I encourage you to check out my entry on the3six5. And…Zach has promised to write a guest post about their visit, so please help me to keep the pressure on!

Ke a leboga.

Weekend at Vickie’s Pt. 3: That Time We Crossed into Zimbabwe Illegally

By now you know that when we say things like, “Hey, we’re going to Victoria Falls!” what we really mean is, “Hey, we’re going to jump off a cliff!” or “Hey, we’re going on safari in Botswana!” So, I suppose it’s fair that you read the title of this post through skeptic’s eyes.

But, is it true? Did we actually enter Zimbabwe, home of Bobby Mugabe and 9 bizillion percent inflation, illegally?

Well, yes …

On Sunday morning, our fourth day in Zambia, we woke late, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, then left the hotel compound en route to the bridge that spans the Zambezi River below the falls – the bridge that spans the divide between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Our initial and, honestly, only goal was to view the falls from a different angle, from more of a distance, from a new perspective, from a place not so wet. We were rewarded.

Victoria Falls from the bridge on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border

Jenny, ever impatient with my photo taking, began to wander further across the bridge, and even managed to skip over its single lane and integrated railroad tracks to chat with the fellas at the bungee jump. You know the one …

Just beyond the tangle of (new, very new) ropes, we saw this:

You are now entering Zimbabwe

We paused. Ahead, just after the bridge ended and the rocky soil began, was an armed soldier standing outside an army green canvas tent.

Intimidating? Deterring? Not for this dynamic duo. We marched on.

Growing up in Illinois near the Mississippi River, I had crossed bridges into neighboring states millions of times. Crossing into Iowa meant dealing with Iowa drivers. Crossing into Missouri meant dealing with … well, Missouri. Could crossing into Zimbabwe be any worse?

Our confident steps disguised our cerebral concerns and before we knew it we were across the bridge, past the armed guard and into Zimbabwe. In a way, it was just like crossing from Fulton, IL to Clinton, IA – except this part of Zimbabwe smelled much better than Clinton.

The road carried on around a curve and up a small incline, where a short queue of tractor-trailers waited to cross the one-lane bridge into Zambia. For smaller cargo, the much more efficient mode of transport seemed to be the humble bicycle.

Bicycle couriers on the road between Zambia and Zimbabwe

Now that we were in Zimbabwe, we thought we would just keep walking to the very colonial Victoria Falls Hotel, which looked to be about another 2 km further along the same road.

… and, no.

As we rounded another gentle curve, we found that our courageous, clandestine crossing was none of the above. What we saw now, some 500 m up the hot, asphalt road, stopped us in our tracks. It was the official border post.

So, while we were technically on Zimbabwean soil, we were not officially in Zimbabwe. No passports had been stamped. No bribes had been taken.

Jenny thought we should create a diversion and run through the boom gate, past the armed guards (it worked at the bridge, right?). Or, maybe we could stow away under the nylon tarps covering cargo on this flatbed…

In the end, we decided against crashing the gates, against hitchhiking. After all, we couldn’t afford to be detained in a Zimbabwean prison all day, we had to get back to the Royal Livingstone for high tea.

As one does.

Fortunately, we had a guide to help us get back into Zambia:

Tiny monkey friend

High tea at the Royal Livingstone was everything you might expect. And, a whole lot less. While the whitewashed buildings and elaborate interior decorating placed you squarely in the charming(?) period of Colonial Africa, the whole experience seemed a bit too contrived (for us) and a bit too rote (for the staff). Awkward.

We didn’t spend much time loitering. We were on to the next event: massages on the banks of the Zambezi River. Nice.

Post-massage, we retired to the bar on the veranda on the river’s edge. After the stress of an unlawful border crossing, a massage and a cocktail seemed appropriate. Besides, what better way to watch the sunset over Victoria Falls?

Post-massage drinks at the Royal Livingstone

Sunset above Victoria Falls

And, there you have it. Our “trip to Victoria Falls” in a somewhat rambling, three-part nutshell. Of course, we omitted a few details, like how much time Jenny spent in the gift shops at the Zambezi Sun, the baby monkey that wanted Jenny as its mom, me getting completely soaked walking the knife bridge, and other stuff. Oh, and we didn’t tell you how much we enjoyed cruising the Zambezi River on the African Princess, but you can find proof of that enjoyment here and even more photos from our adventures here.

Up next: a visit from Jaimie & Zach!

Weekend at Vickie’s Pt. 2: Cruising the Chobe River with a Boy Named Diane

As if standing on a rock just above Victoria Falls watching the great Zambezi River rush past and disappear over the edge — or jumping backwards off a cliff into a gorge, 177 feet below — wasn’t enough excitement for one weekend, we decided to spend Day 3 in Zambia by going to … Botswana.

Although not part of the original plan, we learned of an opportunity to take a day trip to the famous Chobe National Park, just an hour or so from Victoria Falls. Operating on the We May Never Have This Chance Again principle, we signed up.

Departing at 7:30, our small bus reached the Kazungula border post at 8:30. Along the way, we passed through small settlements with a hodgepodge of buildings: some tin, some stone, some mud and thatch. Pantless children stood behind wooden fences; women washed clothes in colorful plastic buckets; chickens and goats roamed the roadsides.

The Kazungula border crossing is one of the more unique in the world. It’s the only place on the planet where four independent nations meet. Though there is some debate as to where the mid-river borders actually are, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia all come together in one quadripoint in Kazungula where the Zambezi River and Chobe River intersect.

Quadripoint at Kazungula between Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia

A reasonable person would expect to find a bridge spanning the river, allowing vehicular traffic (and cargo) to cross between countries efficiently. Unfortunately, Robert Mugabe is not a reasonable person. Zimbabwe still refuses to agree to any such construction, I suppose partially due to the fact that there is a bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia in nearby Victoria Falls. As a result, semis loaded with goods heading to or from the four states (or other places on the continent, like South Africa and the DRC), must wait their turn to be ferried across the river. One by one.

The queue of trucks on the Zambian side stretched for nearly a mile. Our guide said the drivers may be forced to wait for a week or more before their turn comes. Africa time.

We, however, jumped the queue.

With the blue ink of the EXIT stamps from Zambian immigration drying in our passports, we pushed through the crowd of people clustered inside the tall, metal gates and walked with blinders past the hawkers in their Chipolopolo jerseys. “Remember me. Peter! I am Peter! When you return, remember Peter. Copper bracelets. Big Five carvings. Peter!”

Mercifully, the drone of the speedboat we boarded at the river’s edge soon drowned out the hawkers’ cries, and within 60 seconds we were across to Botswana.

Standing on shore was our ranger and guide for the day, a fit, handsome man named Diane. Though pronounced more like de-YAN-ee, seeing the shiny, gold name badge with “Diane” on his greenish-khaki shirt was, at first, rather strange.

We rode in an open safari vehicle from the river to the border post, where we were quickly processed by Botswana immigration before stepping on a conspicuously dirty sponge mat ostensibly designed to clean our shoes of anything that could transmit foot-and-mouth disease. From the spongy block, we could see another queue of trucks waiting to cross the river.

After ten minutes by highway in the open vehicle, we reached Chobe Safari Lodge, our departure point for the first activity: a river safari.

It was truly amazing to see the animals from the water, and to see so many species of animals that live on or near the water. It’s a completely different feel from a traditional game drive.

Wire-tailed swallows enjoy a ride on our boat in Chobe National Park

We were pretty lucky that day. The sightings were nice, especially of hippos, crocs and birds.

Pod of hippos in Chobe National Park

Large crocodile and great white egret in Chobe National Park

African darter (with fish) in Chobe National Park

We also spent some quality time with an older bull elephant who had crossed the deep river channel in order to munch on the soft green grasses of Sedudu Island.

Bull elephant in Chobe National Park

If the day had ended here, we would have been extremely satisfied, but we were only halfway through. We still had a game drive after lunch!

After the buffet, a brief chat with a group of retirees from Iowa, and a bit of a torrential rainstorm, we donned ponchos and set out in the open vehicle to tour the land side of Chobe National Park. Within minutes, we saw a large troop of baboons, several hundred impala, some kudu and a marshland antelope called a puku.

Then, we saw the elephants.

Driving on a sandy dirt road parallel to the river, Diane spotted a small family of elephants ahead on the bank, drinking. He guided the truck onto a rutted path, angling towards the shoreline. He cut the engine and we coasted to a stop some 50 feet away from the herd. As soon as they spotted our vehicle, most of the elephants turned and waded into the water; one, a juvenile male, stayed behind and stared at us.

Elephants in Chobe National Park

Eventually, they all crossed over and focused on other things, but not before another of the big creatures trumpeted at us in warning.

We could have spent hours watching them, but it was getting late – time for us to get started on our return journey.

But, wait! What’s this? Another ranger driving an open vehicle flagged us down and told Diane that a leopard had been spotted nearby. Let’s go!

Diane whipped the truck into the bush, executed a killer three-point turn and gunned it in the opposite direction. Our placid game drive was now a Ferrari Safari.

As we raced down the road, the truck’s tires skidded in the soft dirt. We rounded a corner and started scanning the bush and trees for signs of the big cat. Up a small incline we spotted an unusual set of tire tracks. The other vehicle must have stopped here to watch the leopard.

Diane halted abruptly. “There!” Indeed, there it was. High in a tree, roughly 100 feet from the road, was a male leopard.

Male leopard in tree in Chobe National Park

Surveying the scene from high above, the leopard certainly had been watching the herd of impala grazing between the road and the river. They were gradually making their way inland, ever closer to the leopard’s perch. But, for now, he had his sights set squarely on us.

Male leopard watching us from tree in Chobe National Park

Quite an amazing ending to an incredible day – a day when we set foot in two countries, saw two more, and explored the Chobe River with a man named Diane.

Up next, Pt. 3: That time we crossed into Zimbabwe illegally