The Bridge At Cahors, France

This Medieval Bridge at Cahors, France (just south of the Dordogne Valley on the main north/south motorway to Carcassone and The Languedoc Region of southern France) was the dividing line between "English France," and French soil during the Hundred Years War. Its three massive stone towers and fortified gateways kept the two armies apart -- except after hours, when festive-minded soldiers from either side would sneak across the river in rowboats, wine and feast and carouse together, and return to their respective sides of the river with "fair warning" just in time for renewed hostilities at daybreak.


Monday, March 27, 2017


HAITI – AND WHY IT DOESN’T SHOW UP ON GUIDEBOOKS


The flight from Santiago de Cuba to Haiti is predictably not on time. It is in fact, four hours late.  You have to admire Cuban consistency.  Upon landing and getting out of customs in orderly and rapid fashion, it was out to the taxi stands.  The usual hassle ensues.  They give you a vertical assessment (taking care to notice haircut, clothing, watch, thickness of wallet, and baggage) – which is essentially a “dollar scan” – and then pronounce a price.  It is mostly double what they hope to get.  I in turn announce the price I expect to pay.
 
Nearby cab drivers get bug eyed, point at me with glee, and bust half their buttons with laughter. They slap each other on the back and point again.  The Yankee expects to pay what? You say “too much” anyway.  They drop the price $5.  You say “still too much.”  They say “this is the price” (sometimes falling back on some phantom association and their very impressive official Taxi Driver Badges for uplifted prices).  Or they try some other higher authority gambit to stay firm in their pricing.  You walk.  They lower the price again.  Rinse, and repeat. Eventually you settle on a much lower number and depart.

It is immediately clear the capitol of Port au Prince is no place to linger.  The streets are torn up with culverts, earthquake and hurricane cracks, and drainage ditches.  It is dusty.  Filled with rubble.  Cascades of concrete block and disheveled rusted rebar are everywhere. The streets are littered with abandoned vehicles and piles of rubbish.  Pockets of barb wired, high-fence quality villas punctuate the poverty in no logical order.  Anything worth protecting is walled off with a barbed razor wire topping, and has a solid 6-foot tall movable driveway gate.  Traffic moves at perhaps 10 mph.  The street addresses are completely out of sequence. What is mostly evident is the lack of consistent color.  This is like a war zone housing project within a moonscape.

Port au Prince is one of the few places on the planet that does not evoke my curiosity.  I know I will be missing something, and those who have spent additional time here will be quick to point it out to me later.  Still, a quick decision is made to leave early the next morning for Cap Haitien, six hours to the north.  In the meantime, my hostess – a well educated and erudite foreign woman with a modern car and a fastidious sense of cleanliness – arranges dinner for me by the pool.

I am surprised to be fed beer, tomatoes, onions, salad, rice, and a delicious leg of chicken with attached thigh for about $10 US.  It is juicy, and so different than the dry Cuban chicken I have become accustomed to.  I am also surprised to get reliable in-room internet service for the first time on the journey, and use the opportunity to post pix and a brief narrative to Facebook if not this blog.  Sleep arrives easily, but with a sense I am going to miss a lot in this country due to the conditions I have witnessed outside my ideal little bunker and the ambitious reach of this journey as it extends far beyond poor Haiti.

On the way to the bus station, it is clear there are many people in Port au Prince without jobs or a reason for being.  I am not sure how they survive.  United Nations’ efforts here are notoriously inefficient.  As always visitors can easily witness bags of rice and beans being sold out of shacks for cash, rather than being distributed for free to those most in need of nutrition.  On this particular day, February 7th, a new President (Jovenel Mo├»se) is being inaugurated.  He is a banana farmer from the northern regional capitol of Cap Haitian – my intended destination – and has given much hope to the country on the street level that something will be done about the poverty and rampant corruption and accompanying waste that is endemic within Haiti.

Along the tortured path of the six-hour journey northbound through erratic traffic, broken roads, dirt and gravel redirects, and choking pollution I had the opportunity to speak with a French ex-pat living in Florida and traveling the world in pursuit of rare watches.  His name was Simon.  I was not sure how seriously to take him, despite his fascinating take on things.  He mentioned with some credibility that Haiti was full of gold (being mined by Canadians) and uranium (being mined by Americans) but the wealth that resulted was not even remotely distributed evenly.

He also mentioned that the earthquake that took Haiti down to 4th World Country status 7 years previous was caused by American fracking in the search for oil in the Caribbean.  I promised Simon to look this up on the internet, but had no real intention of following through.  If any part of this latter statement of his was true, the American military would have used it years earlier against North Korea, Cuba, China, Russia, Libya, and countless other targets.

It is one of the ironies of international travel that this particular leg of the journey proves to be the only one of 51 days on the road where the trip began and ended almost exactly on time.  How this could be predicted, given the nature of Haiti’s broken infrastructure and social fabric, is beyond my powers of estimation.

This unfortunate west third of the Isle of Hispanola first discovered by Columbus 525 years ago is fascinating in the same way that watching a slow-motion Russian dashboard video of two cars about to take out a pedestrian is. The roads are pockmarked, overrun by flood debris, and the traffic is choked with motorcycles and cars.  You often can’t see them due to the spider webbed windows of your own vehicle. You can often look through the floorboards to the road below, however.  In a word, the situation is mostly chaotic.

Upon arrival, my hotel in Cap Haiten had no air conditioning, and was next to the noisy diesel electric generator (which still resulted in power outages).  Unlike the Air B&B promises online, it also had no sink, no shower knobs, no hot water, and no Wi-fi. One week out from Seattle, I've had one night of internet access.  I do my best to catch up when the airwaves allow it, on a catch-as-catch-can basis.  Beyond her outright online lies, the proprietess also had the gall to ask for more money than any hostel or Air B&B I had visited over six days in Cuba.  As it works out, Haiti is a very expensive country, considering what you get in exchange for your payments.

I feel truly sorry for these folks.  It is as if they have committed some heinous past-life crime, and are tied to this forlorn place as a means of absolution. They are trapped in a pit of food shortages, boggle-the-mind traffic, fecal and oil-slick pollution, plastic bottles stacked up to 18 inches high along most streets and roadways, endless trash heaps, disgusting water, and a lack of purpose and opportunity. The people are wonderful, but are so desperate they are always trying to take advantage of visitors -- and especially white people. There is a given assumption we somehow owe them money, are rich (which of course can be a very relative term) and must provide handouts whenever asked. It is my hope that new President Jovenel Moise (inaugurated during this, my second day in-country) will bring reform and some measure of prosperity to one of the poorest countries on earth.

I wander the streets inauguration night, with a couple fellow guests from my hotel, and a local from the laborers’ union who is charged with finding me means of transport to the only thing worth visiting in Northern Haiti – The Citadel of King Henri Christophe.  My temporary handler is named Miguel.  He amuses me.  He is half my size, but insists on protecting me from thugs real and imagined during our walkabout to see the locals celebrate one of their own as the new President.  Most locals, viewing me with odd glances, ask me why in the world am I here?

Miguel has a bit of an interesting history.  Which kept changing over the course of the evening.  He speaks seven languages and a couple of dialects: Haitian, Filipino, Portugese, French, Creole, Spanish, Jamaican, Papiamento, and English.  As we wander and get to know each other a bit better, he allows how he had spent 7 years from 1993 on in Rykers Island, New York, and then Buffalo in a “state guest house” for selling drugs.  I feared him not.  It was very clear he was trying to impress me with how tough and how reliable he was.  And so it went for the evening.

For whatever reason, his reliability did not carry over to the next morning.  Miguel’s designated driver for The Citadel did not show.  I had to arrange for my own transportation, but in the meantime managed to cut some of the cost down.  Looked at realistically, getting a new driver gives me a whole new chance to make different connections and be attached to a different set of potential helpers who might move the journey forward when needed.

The Citadel is a 1982 UNESCO World Heritage Site almost without peer.  It is the largest fortress in the western Hemisphere, and may be the most indomitable.  It was built from 1806 to approximately 1820 through the efforts of 20,000 laborers.  It is located high on a mountaintop set back far enough from the coast to be out of range of naval artillery.  Fresh from establishing independence two years previously, the newly emancipated black Haitians decided they would always have a bastion to retreat to should the French ever return.  Theirs was the only successful rebellion carried out against colonial powers by slaves, and resulted in the first independent nation of Latin America or the Caribbean.

The massive redoubt (Citadelle Laferriere) is gained after a 45-minute drive from Cap Haitien (17 miles away) to Sans Souci Palace.  This is where Haiti’s original northern ruler – King Henri Christophe – kept his peacetime living quarters and carried out the administrative functions of his new government.  From there, visitors can either be driven by motorcycle up a very steep cobble stoned road at a cost of about $15 each, or walk the 3.5 miles on their own.  Once at an open parking lot high above (expect to be assaulted by vendors selling souvenirs), there are only two ways up.  You can walk the remaining 1.5 miles, or ride a horse, again at a cost of about $15.

If you do not appear to be in shape, the horsemen will follow you anyway, betting you will relent and demand their services eventually due to the steep pitch of the climb, the heat, and the humidity.  I later learned that the elevation of Bonnet a L ‘Eveque Mountain is 3000 feet above sea level – a relatively low ceiling.  However, following the approach walk I find myself dehydrated, dizzy, and temporarily spent.

No 19th century army ever assembled would ever be able to realistically capture The Citadel.  It has many defensive outposts on the way up, that can serve to ambush or delay enemy initiatives.  Upon arrival, the walls are massive.  They are about 130 feet high in places, 15 feet thick, and have very few ground-level entry points.  The fortress is over 108,000 square feet in area. All points of approach are commanded by captured French, Spanish and Italian cannons (over 365 were located at the Citadel, and many remain on display today).  The most imposing collection of cannonballs I have ever seen also remains stockpiled inside the main gates, awaiting a French return invasion that never occurred.

The Citadel’s architecture is meant to deflect attack (including from cannon balls) through its oddly angled walls and abutments.  As a result, it appears like the prow of a massive ship for most of the approach on the single road/path leading to the fortress.  As you make numerous turns winding up to the base however, it takes on different appearances altogether.  At many turns along the path it looks like the massive keep of a Norman Castle in 11th Century England.

Inside is housing for 2000 regular troops (5000 in time of war, and provisions to last them a year), officer’s quarters, and residential quarters for the King and his family.  There are also several large cisterns, a massive powder room, a bakery, a dungeon, a central plaza, bathing and dining facilities, and numerous storerooms to stockpile items for anticipated sieges.  Somewhere within the central courtyard, King Henri is buried in a secret hiding place after having committed suicide following a stroke.

It is difficult to imagine the labor that went into this massive affirmation of “Never Again!” high up on the mountain top.  Nothing could have been easy, between hauling heavy stone, mortar, water, food, provisions for workers, and eventually munitions and cannon up the steep 5-mile pathway.  In many cases, dressed stone was mortared directly to a rocky base capping the mountain.  The mortar itself was special, using a mixture including quicklime, molasses, and the blood of local cows and goats.  Cows’ hooves were cooked for their glue and added to the mix to give the mortar added strength and bonding power.

After a quick cab ride back to town, the overwhelming perception that there is nothing else to do here set in.  With military decisiveness, I set out to leave immediately.  The taxi driver and hotel staff find me the quickest way out of town.  Numerous competing sets of directions are provided, of where to go and how to get there.  Confusion sets in.  Everybody is contradicting each other.  Finally, one of the more quiet and pious hotel employees mentions he will go with me to the bus station, so that I can head for the Dominican Republic border.

The so-called bus station is merely a crowded parking lot for 15 passenger vans, heading in and out of town.  All of them compete for my ride, assuming they can take advantage of the language differential (largely French) to confuse me about bus or taxi rates.  I am on the verge of paying 4x what other passengers traveling to a town an hour away would pay, when a scornful young man who had previously lived in Chicago for two years came up to my assistance.  After lecturing the others on their dishonesty, he directed me to a van headed the right direction, made sure I paid the local fare only, and obtained for me the uncrowded front seat.  I am grateful, but only too happy to leave Cap Haitien.

One final episode took place prior to crossing the border.  The town I am supposed to be dropped off, is somehow bypassed.  Nobody told the driver (who spoke only French) I was to be dropped off early.  Next thing I know, we are at the border crossing.  I am not ready for this. At least six Haitians are grabbing for my bags and headed in opposite directions.  You have to be very firm and decisive with them at this point. Otherwise you never see your personal effects again. Once more, I receive contradictory estimations of what can be done to cross. And what do I do then?  This is outside my planning matrix.  Several would-be handlers try to tell me at 4 pm that the border is closed, and grab my bags once again to take me to their cousin’s hotel for the night … and then to their brother’s restaurant … and then to their friend’s this and that for …

At the last minute, a powerfully built young man who speaks English walked up to me.  He has command authority presence.  The others automatically drop my bags, and clear away from him.  He asks me to follow him, which prompts puzzlement and a bit of distrust initially.  My thoughts were: “Here comes another strongman, throwing his weight around again.  This will cost more than the usual fleecing even.”  He advises that the border is not closed, but that we must hurry.


It works out that he is an off-duty policeman, and somewhat embarrassed by the pushing and grabbing and low-rent behavior and misdirection exhibited by his countrymen.  He walks me through the final stages of passport exit stamp in Haiti, border inspection, payment of fees, a second passport inspection for entry into the DR, and then personal accompaniment to the local bus station ten minutes away.  From there, I am directed to Santiago, about four and one-half hours distant. The bus leaves half an hour later.  I have never been so happy to leave a country, with the exception of Venezuela six years previously.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

IT BEGINS ANEW …

My quest to visit every country in the world resumed February 2nd.  At the start of this leg of that journey, the marker stands at 95 countries.  For those who have read previous posts on this blog, it should be obvious that my approach has been to minimize expenses and maximize opportunities by sequentially visiting proximate countries in geographic blocks.  It makes no sense to fly to a single country, and expend most of your hard-earned funds largely on airfare.  This round is to the Caribbean.  I expect to visit 20 or so islands/countries, over a period of 45 to 50 days.

*****

Four years ago, I entered Cuba on the sly, coming in from Cancun, thus bypassing all the legalities of having to file extensive paperwork and join an educational or religious group or cadre of government functionaries to justify my existence there.  Not necessary this time.  One of the best things President Obama has done (in an otherwise undistinguished record of accomplishment) was to open the door to Cuba for ordinary Americans to visit.  My thinking (if not his) is why would we do business with 1.3 billion Chinese, who are a helluva lot more Communist than the Cubans will ever be, when we don’t have diplomatic relations with 20 million non-threatening Cubanos 90 minutes from our shores?
My objective in attending to Cuba this go-round, is to see the three-quarters of the eastern portion of the country.  My previous travels had taken me from the fascinating confines of Havana (worth the trip all by itself) to the western reaches of the sylvan caves, tobacco fields, and world renowned grotto murals of Vialle de Vinales.

My initial flight in from Miami instead of Mexico reveals why there have been so many lost treasure ships lost to Spanish fleets oh so many years ago.  It would take a master navigator to avoid the countless sand bars, shallows, shoals, reefs, and cayes that are so obvious from the air.
The flight from Miami was a portent of things to come.  It departed 2.5 hours late, due to there being a change of planes and our plane being overloaded with fuel due to a longer trip being scheduled.  It took a great deal of time for the independent tanker contractors to arrive and take fuel out of the plane.  Once that was done, the ground crew could not be found to back the plane away from the terminal.  Apparently they had been advised the tanker crew would take much more time for their task, and departed to parts unknown for a siesta.

Upon arrival in Havana, there was the usual nonsense from taxi drivers.  I have actually learned to relish this experience, as most visitors just take the mentioned prices laying down and don’t bargain or refuse and walk on.  In this case, the taxi traffic director quoted me a price of $25 US dollars.  The number and denomination was clarified twice.  When I arrived at my Habana Viejo hostel location, however, the driver said “Oh no, Sir, that price is in CUC.  That is standard.  I can’t change it.”  And no matter how much I argued, he insisted in being paid in the official Cuban government currency which is forced on all tourists in order to guarantee they pay rapacious prices for transport, food, and entertainment relative to locals.  (More on CUC vs the peso local currency workers are paid in, later).

It became clear that they will mention the price in dollars, because it is lower, being artificially valued at .85 US dollars.  Therefore, a taxi ride of 25 CUC (short for Cuban Convertible Pesos) is actually about $28 US dollars, rounded.  By mentioning the 25, and cleverly using the same symbol for CUC ($) as for US dollars ($), the Cubans manage to initially make the price look lower, and then skim the difference.  So instead of creating a scene, I made sure the driver stuck around, unloaded all my luggage, answered travel questions, and made several calls on my behalf before paying for the ride and allowing him to take his leave.  As it ended up, he was a very nice man.  Like most Cubans, he had ample warmth and integrity, but was the pawn of a very inefficient and manipulative system.

Cuban food makes up for the nation’s transport deficiencies.  Immediately following arrival, it was out for a walkabout.  This is one of the surest ways to cure jetlag, after an all-night flight from Seattle and then final leg from Miami to Havana.  Just around the corner, I ran into the delightful Mar y Terra restaurant, just one block up from the Malecon – Havana’s famous waterfront boulevard and one of the grandest walking jaunts on earth.  At first I was shocked by the prices.  I saw $25 for a glass of lemonade!  But after some inquiry and renewal of my rusty Spanish, it came to me that price was in pesos – the generally off limits to tourists denomination that workers are paid in.  It was actually one US dollar.

Shops catering to tourists charge in CUC.  So do buses, airplanes, and trains (at least on tourist routes).  Some buses and trains charge virtual pennies for a ride, and will not allow tourists aboard due to the low pricing. Shops catering to locals will post prices in pesos. That rate is 25 pesos to 1 American dollar.  That is the currency the Cuban government does not want you to use, because if you find the right establishment where locals do business, you can eat and travel like a king.  And half of the outlay will not go to the Cuban government. So the lemonade was a dollar.  A complete meal consisting of rice, beans (those two are always included in any Cuban meal), salad, beef and the aforementioned lemonade cost $2.25 US.

A walk down the Malecon toward Habana Viejo (Old Havana) is always a pleasure.  In any weather, on any day, the visitor will always find lovers in various stages of embrace, fishermen, poets, artists, and photographers.  Waves coming in from the Gulf of Mexico crash against the coral breakwater and throw up an occasional surprise curtain of spray.  Along the path are architectural testimonials to what makes Havana uniquely Havana.  And that is, a wonderful colonial veneer testifying to an earlier era as a playground for gangsters and moguls.  This provides an occasional hint of renewal and optimism (fueled by a fresh generation of visitors due to the thaw in relations between Cuba and the US), with an overlay of crumbling decay and echoes of things well past.

 To the east along the waterfront, are the twin redoubts of El Morro Castillo and the artillery stronghold La Fortaleza.  In concert on opposite sides at the mouth of the Havana River, these twin fortresses brimming with ancient rusted cannons kept marauding French, English and Dutch invaders at bay for many years.  Other favorite spots always worth visiting are the Revolutionary Museum, the Opera House, the Ambos Mundo Hotel (Ernest Hemingway’s writing desk and sleep quarters are on the fifth floor).  Also the La Floridita Bar – said to be his favorite watering hole, where “Papa” allegedly drank up to 15 non-sweetened daiquiris daily.  How did we ever get “The Old Man And The Sea” and “The Sun Also Rises” with that going on?

Despite vast improvements in internet access compared to my last visit to Havana four years ago, there is little or no open web access in Havana.  You have to go to a wi-fi hot spot, buy a card (always limited availability), and hope for the best.  My first night in Havana is not my night for such luck.  This is poison to a writer.  When you have a new adventure every day, no matter how furiously you take notes, the immediacy is lost to you if you can’t get memories and correct names and spellings computerized that night.  Thus, tavern owners all over the planet complain bitterly about my selfish nesting instincts, preferring to stay in my room and write rather than sharing good cheer with fellow travelers.

In my last trip to Havana, I met a young man named Barbaro Gonzalez.  At first, I thought he and his cohorts were going to mug me.  But he plaintively asked me:  “Sir, what is really going on in the world?”  We became fast friends at that point, as I described the world situation that had been hidden from him.  He has since learned via regular internet access what takes place on our planet, and even moved to Argentina for a higher paying job.  In his absence, I had a chance to visit with his extended family.  They live in one of the poorest sections of Havana, with approximately a dozen people living in a five-room apartment.

As we drank beer and traded Barbaro stories in poor Spanish and worse English, for a time I forgot our differences.  Those were largely the opportunities afforded me as an American and a world traveler, mixing it up with lively Cubanos who had never left Havana.  For one of those brief shining moments (four hours), we had beer, toasts, dancing, laughter, smiles, embraces, and then difficulty in parting.  My parting gift to Barbaro’s mother Reina was a crisp $100 Yankee greenback, which is nearly a year’s salary to many Cubans.  I left with some regret, yet having fulfilled my promise to my young friend to take care of his mother in his absence.

The next morning, I attempt to take the bus Via Azul – where you have to pay in tourist CUC – to the mid-Cuba city of Trinidad.  No go, bus full until the next day.  So I linked up in the parking lot with another frequent traveler, Max, and his 87 year-old Italian grandfather on a coche particular (private car out for hire) to make the journey.  The price for my share was $80, which far exceeds the cost of a bus ticket, but as I have written previously – what is the price of a day, stuck in a place you have already seen and know well?  And the journey is shortened to four hours without stops, not eight.
One of the particular delights of staying in hostels or sharing a coche particular is trading travel stories, travel tips, and sometimes exaggerated adventures.  As it turns out, Max is a Swedish freestyle traveler also (traveling without plans or reservations, except for occasional airline legs).  He tends to linger more than I in most places, and stops to work and refresh his bank account.  We part company in Trinidad with promises to keep in touch, and his offer of using his base in Stockholm as a stopover when next in Scandanavia.

As is the custom in third world countries, the train does not leave for my fly-out point at Santiago de Cuba from Trinidad as advertised.  That takes place at Sancti Spiritus, 68 kilometers away.  This requires another coche particular at added expense.  Of course upon arrival in Sancti Spiritus, I learn the train does not depart from there, either.  More bad information.  My driver Rolando – a most generous man – made a phone call on my behalf and we learn the train takes off from Guayos, about 15 kilometers distance.  We agree to meet later that night, so I can get a meal and use the internet in town.

Coming off the bus in Sancti Spiritus, I am desperate to use the bathroom.  I enter the station, and as customary in the US, simply head for the door.  Suddenly a woman is shrieking at me.  She attempts to block my path.  I walk past her, and she grabs me.  We have substantial language differences.  She reaches her hand out … apparently for money.  I told her “No!”  I walk past her anyway, and she grabs me again, and clutches me all the way into the men’s urinal.  She then calls for the police.  She and the bemused policeman make it clear a peso is needed (costing (approximately four cents) to use the john.  They don’t have pesos in tourist CUC fractions, however.

 “Can’t you wait until I am done?” I asked in passable Spanish.  “I have no proper change.”  The woman clutched at my arm, and tried to drag me out of the bathroom, despite me being twice her size.  The policeman said: “You can always get change.”  And then pointed to the ticket window, where a long line appeared to me as if a cruel joke was being played out.  Luckily, a Cuban man watching the whole exchange reached into his pocket and paid the single peso for me, about five seconds before my bladder nearly exploded.

Part of the time awaiting Rolando’s return was spent accessing the internet.  I was able to do this with the help of another inquisitive Cuban, Reinier Fernando Romero Hernandez.  I met him in the primary public square at Sancti Spiritus, asking where the wi-fi hot spots were.  He turned out to be an English teacher, looking to perfect his second tongue.  He also wanted to know some “usual phrases” that might be catchy, current, relevant, or useful.  I had little to offer.  “Most of what I know that you would remember isn’t everyday conversation,” I told him.  “They are mostly insults.”  He was not dissuaded.  So I armed him with such gems as “Your ass sucks wind” and “if your IQ could even be measured it would surely be less than your age.”

Reiner told me of his own travel plans, and his admiration for my goal to reach every country in the world.  I pointed out to him there were tradeoffs to fulfill such a goal.  These include living simply, not accumulating … stuff … and being willing to do what others won’t – particularly working two or more jobs, working past midnight, working weekends, and giving up time with significant others.  “Being able to travel well involves a direct price, sure” I told him.  That part you can predict and budget for.  But it also involves a cost.  Most can’t or won’t pay the cost.”

Rolando picked me up at 10 pm, continuing my ordeal to find an outlet to Santiago de Cuba.  We arrive in Guayos without incident.  This train does run to Santiago de Cuba.  Huzzah! However, on this date and on my stop as it comes through at 1:30 am, it will be full of military.  I am not allowed to board.  Again.  We all look at each other, unable to explain what has happened, or why, and what the alternatives are.

Luckily for me the Cubans train personnel abandon their ticket selling and work overtime to find a solution.  They are wonderful people, not the least lacking in earnestness or the desire to be of assistance without needing a reward in return.  Rolando and the train staff finally find a Via Azul bus, passing through Sancti Spiritus at 1:30 in the morning.  We rush back, he loads me up and walks me through the ticketing process (after the unexpected delight of a quick stopover to introduce me at his home to his wife and newborn son).  Eleven hours later, I am finally in Santiago de Cuba.  It has been nearly a 28 hour travel day.

Santiago de Cuba has the reputation of being the “blackest” of Cuba’s major cities.  This is due to its historic concentration of slaves at nearby sugar cane fields, and the percentage of escaped slaves who made their way here from other islands.  The number of horse-drawn carts in town and nearby still being used for primary transportation is surprising.  Santiago de Cuba has a fine historic colonial district, well worth a wander on most occasions.  But sometimes the odds catch up to you.  Probably due to taking ice in my bottled water and drinks (and perhaps due to water used to irrigate salads and sauces), I succumb to a combination of Montezuma’s revenge, bus cramps, dehydration, and fatigue.  The whole night is sadly spent sleeping -- despite a beautiful view, a warm hostess and a rare opportunity thus far to write.  At least I have met my departure deadline and am in a position to fly out of Cuba, one of the rare set pieces of my 50-day freestyle itinerary.


Thursday, March 5, 2015

AT LONG LAST, A DELAYED ACCOUNT OF THE ACCLAIMED KRUGER NATIONAL PARK – HOME OF ‘THE BIG 5’


The South African town of Nelspruit is neatly tucked into a crease of northeast South Africa that sits just about Swaziland.  It is the hub for tourists bound for the southern border of Mozambique, and the internationally acclaimed game reserve of Kruger National Park (about 55 kilometers away).

I arrived greatly looking forward to my long-planned  meetup on March 27th (2014) with my world travel mentor, a US citizen and a man we shall now simply call “He That Won’t Be Named” (henceforth, HTWBN).  Our months of planning and meetings generated high expectations for what was hoped would be four glorious safari buddy days together in Kruger.

This is a rendezvous I had been looking forward to for eight months.  One objective of going to Africa extensively in the first place was to accompany HTWBN to the last of two places he needed to visit all 196 ‘countries’ in the United Nations’ official list of members.  This list completion at my urging was to take place in later visits to South Sudan, and The Central African Republic.

Before long, I confront the reality that he and I will travel to these two countries separately.  For, as I would soon discover, my would-be travel partner can’t be pinned down to any particular plan.  At first I attribute this to the tragic loss of his wife Anne (his partner of 26 years) two months prior.  Or perhaps to his being a little woozy, from having hit his head on an overhead air conditioner in the hour before I arrived at the Bavarian Inn in Nelspruit to join him.

But mostly, the situation can be attributed to the fact HTWBN holds cards tighter to his vest than Wild Bill Hickock playing the Dead Man’s Hand in his final seconds in 1876 South Dakota.  He is, in short, a control addict.  Not taking pains to hide his usual distinction to dominate any agenda, he makes clear immediately things must be his way, even when not occurring on his turf.  Otherwise his badgering can grow to the unconscionable.

This character trait was not altogether new.  I’d met him three years earlier on isolated Easter Island in the South Pacific.   He was much more affable early on.  He was quicker to laugh, capable of appreciation, and capable of a grudging compliment now and then.  He was one who could enjoy the repartee of give and take, trade mutual barbs, but most of all engage in rousing discussions about how and where to find the most interesting spots on the planet.

That changed however once we started visiting regularly back in the States.  To my surprise he could now be rude on a whim, very insensitive, and arrogant (I attributed that to the pride one gleans from having visited nearly every country on earth, and then some).  But what I found most troubling was his need to hijack any topic that did not please him and crudely steer it to a new conversation topic of his choosing.  Listening was not part of his skill set.  He would be suddenly dismissive and just for the sake of playing devil’s advocate, argumentative.  He wanted to be at the helm of the boat at all times.

This did not prevent me from wanting to stay in the loop still and maintain an appreciation for HTWBN at times prior to our departure for Africa.  He displayed his occasional charm and and intelligence, and never ceased to surprise me with his knowledge of plants, constellations, foreign foods, towns, transport means, and travel routes.  Most of all, I appreciated him for being a great raconteur.  The man was a Grade-A storyteller.  I could probably write another travel book based merely on things this man had already forgotten.  It was fair to say I had a cautious but sincere affection for him.

Perhaps it was Anne’s missing presence that now gave him such an edge.  She had humanized him, ignoring his sharper points, lovingly talking past him when he got too critical or controlling.  She provided the necessary warmth and affection to mitigate his need to always be right.  She could counterbalance an argument, often joining my side on issues dear to me, to the point that even he appreciated the artful arrangement of the tag- team arrayed against him.  I tried mightily to give him the benefit of the doubt for current tensions in the absence of her compromise-inducing grace.

One of our initial joint tasks was to go food shopping.  Kruger offers a number of dining options, but the in-park restaurants are fairly expensive.  Taking your own grub and preparing it in-house is the best solution, especially if you arrive after hours from a hard day of four wheeling in search of game.  A travel companion and I put $25 into first-day groceries.  HTWBN contributed a can of beans, two tomatoes, and a can of tinned beef he’d found on sale at an economy food outlet on the way in. He then took half the newly combined food to the trunk of his car.

I was used to this penurious stance.  When we met, he generally required that I would bring my own alcohol to our planned visits.  “You’ll have to come up for the world’s best tequila,” he would often say when inviting me over for planning sessions.  Then fail to provide the liquor.  On another occasion, he offered to treat me for lunch.  He handed me a magazine coupon for $5.39 worth of tacos.  “Anything over this you pay for yourself,” he announced.  “And whatever you drink is on you.”

I had tried to arrange for the two of us to ride in one rental car during our four days in Kruger.  That would mean that one of us could turn their car in early, and save money.  Even better would be a splitting of the cost, in the same way we had split the cost of the lodges for our four nights there.  HTWBN would have none of it.  The potential loss of control was too daunting for him.  So we paid separate vehicle fees and duplicated fuel expense, and entered the park in two different cars at the southwest Numbi Gate.

That part having been decided, it was time to visit the world-renowned Kruger National Park – a park that offers a wildlife experience that ranks among the best in the world.

The park was established in 1898 to protect the wildlife of the South African lowlands (lowveld). Covering some 5 million acres of South Africa National Parks, Kruger is unrivalled in the diversity of its life forms and a world leader in advanced environmental management techniques.  It is also more affordable than most game parks.

As the flagship of the South African National Parks, Kruger is home to an impressive number of species, including: 336 trees, 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 114 reptiles, 507 birds and 147 mammals.  Man's interaction with this lowveld bush environment over many centuries -- from bushman rock paintings to 300 stone aged archaeological sites like Masorini Hill  -- is very evident in Kruger. These treasures represent the cultures, people and milestones that played a role in the history of the park and are preserved along with its botanical assets.

Our two vehicles quickly lose sight of each other within a few miles of entering the park.  I had assumed HTWBN would lead (he having been in the park previously), and was not sure which way to go for the best game viewing despite having a map in hand.  I knew only that by late afternoon I needed to be at Skakuza Camp, about 120 kilometers distant.  You must be within the camp enclosures by dusk, as the only assured means of protection against predatory animals such as roaming lions.  With what information was available, I chose to immediately head north on a side road to get the greatest chance of wildlife sighting away from the main H1-1 paved road.

The sightings did not disappoint.  I remember immediately being treated to a herd of leaping impala, some of them nearly gracing the hood of my car in the process.  Their sentries seemed to be very wary, very alert while the bulk of the herd fed and rested nearby.  They were not particularly wary of the sight of the car.  The sudden sound of the vehicle accelerating is what spooked them the most.  I have them locked in memory, freeze-framed in midair in their irregular bounding leaps over both the car and each other.

Giraffes were also very much in evidence.  They do not hang at a distance and are not at all fearful of visitors.  They come right up to the road to eat from tall acacia trees not yet denuded of leaves.  At times, you have to wait a few minutes to let them dine, and move on.  They are surprisingly affectionate creatures.  Upon review, I find most of my photos of them involve nuzzling, romantic cheek-to-cheek poses, and frequent side-to-side rubbing.

These graceful loping creatures are amazingly resistant to attack.  They co-exist easily with elephants and appear to fit in effortlessly with all animals. Lions, despite being able to take down even elephants when starving, must be careful how and when to attack a giraffe.  They need to attack in force (usually catching them in the dark, or while sleeping, by wounding the carotid artery in the neck).  A well placed kick from a giraffe will permanently disable a lion attacking from the wrong angle with a single blow.

Battles between old and young giraffes during the rut can also be an amazing encounter.  The young ones, of course, have energy and stamina.  The older ones are cunning and have superior years as survivors.  Younger males will attempt to wear an older adversary out with frequent head butts, or violent arching snaps of neck and head into the exposed necks of their opponent.  Watching this is the sidelong version of watching two bighorn sheep ram each other repeatedly head to head.  Older males, on the other hand, tend to swing their neck and head downward at the last second into shoulder and even knee joints.  The youthful but unschooled male limps away humbled almost every time.

Also on this first day in Kruger fellow visitors and I were frequently able to witness darting bands of warthogs with their razor sharp tusks, and herds of muscular but fairly placid Cape Water Buffaloes.  We also watched ever screeching baboons with their memorable inflamed pink bums go wherever they want -- as long as they are within easy reach of trees.   The highlight of the day, though, was seeing an endangered black rhino, so close at twenty-five feet that I can practically see my own image in its eyes.  Its huge curving horn is pointed directly at the car and a large question mark nearly masks my reflection:  “To charge, or not to charge?”

Skukuza Lodge is situated on the southern banks of the Sabie River, only a few kilometers inside the park’s western edge, and is one of the most accessible camps in Kruger National Park. The camp is well-foliated with many lofty trees along the river's edge.  Activities and facilities are quite diverse.  I run into HTWBN at the camp registration building.  We discover that even with advance reservations, the check-in procedure is rather tedious.

A pattern which often repeats itself in Africa is the lack of interface between paper forms and computer data online and how it necessitates lengthy delays.  Add to that a personnel shortage – with several employees appearing to linger within sight during breaks – and the frustration grows.  Most endure this gracefully.  After all, “This is Africa.”  Not HTWBN.  He took great pains to complain loudly and at length.  The one clerk who attempted to handle our cabin booking took the brunt of his aggression. He went so far as to shout out personalized insults at the shocked clerk.  The poor girl was nearly brought to tears.

The moment is only softened a bit when in the course of walking away I noticed a sign above the greeting/check-in desk that originally read “reception rates.” It had been scratched out and modified to read “deception rates.”

The evening meal marked the beginning of three full days of tension of not knowing if we would eat together, or dine alone.  Theoretically this was arranged in the morning, but did not guarantee HTWBN would stick to the plan.  For both breakfast and dinner (lunches were away while on day-trip game searches) there was always some sort of change.  This might involve a choice of food, whether to cook together or prepare meals singly, or deciding to dine out. When it came to purchased food the situation evolved into “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is ours.”  I will leave it to the reader to decide whose benefit that development favored.

The man was seasoned at looking after his own needs and this was evidenced by HTWBN’s practice – no, need really – to always arrive at camp first.  This maneuver enabled him to pick the best bed, the best perches for drying clothes, hog the electrical outlets, dominate the kitchen with his layout, and the ‘right’ to choose when to shower (and use the bulk of the hot water).  It also provided the opportunity to snatch the closest parking place.  His selfiishness would then proceed to drinking all of the liquor that had endlessly been intimated would be shared.

Adding to my frustration with his overall stinginess were several situations, beginning on day one, when HTWBN stole items from the camps.  The man was a millionaire (and explained away his unexpected kleptomania by saying his Dad had gone through the Depression and passed on the frugality habit) and yet stole salt and pepper shakers, and a cabin frying pan.  I found the only antidote to my growing disappointment was to maximize time spent apart during the day, and to seek out company with other campers.

On the way in to the next camp on the second day in Kruger I encounter more giraffes, elephants, rhinos and a few springboks.  There was a slight hint of disappointment in the air however: what everybody really wanted to see though was The King of Beasts.  No lions were present.  At least on my complicated route.

Which brings to mind an amusing game prevalent when one seeks to find a particular animal and does not find it -- the rumor.  How do visitors compensate for not seeing their big game of choice? By parking in droves, two to three deep by the roadside, at what appears to be a sure lion, cheetah, leopard or other ‘Big Five’ game sighting.  There is much excited finger pointing and rapid adjustment of field glasses.

The further you are from the crosshairs of this frenzy, the more detailed the description.  “Lions, five of ‘em mate, not twenty-five yards off, just before the tall grass.  Two of ‘em are cubs!”  And yet when you arrive there are no lions.  Just a tail waving languidly in the tall grass bending with the breeze.  Usually the marshy version of a cat tail …

Which brings us to a reverse perspective.  How do animals look at us?  It is an interesting thought to ponder.  Do they size us up for a quick get-away?  Or a quick meal? What type of classification do they stratify us by?  The big silver ones with the throaty diesel roar, or the more catchable little white ones with round black paws and a four-cylinder whine?

Lions, for example, perceive us as rhino sized or larger (as long as you don’t lean too far out of your vehicle).  Stand up or separate yourself from the shadow and mass of the vehicle though … and you potentially become lunch.  I didn’t see many try this. 

Day two provided more routefinding challenges than the previous day’s driving.  I recall how tricky it was navigating multiple roads leading to Olifants Camp.  The park provided maps that were not to scale, did not include all the loops and intersections, and were barely indicative of what could be expected.  This led to very late arrivals at times.  It struck me how difficult it could be getting a flat tire near dusk in one of the more isolated backroad loops.  With poor light and generally dangerous conditions outside, one could really be in a pinch until rescue arrived the next morning.  You simply do not leave the car, certainly not long enough or with the exposure necessary to fix a tire.
Olifants Camp (whose name origin ought to be obvious) is situated atop a sweeping bluff, which looms several hundred feet over the Olifants River. Views from the lookout platforms perched on the bluff allow one to see the broad river below at a shallow crossing point where it curves around to the horizon.  Those armed with decent binoculars can easily spot elephants, hippos, Nile Crocodiles, and Martial Eagles.  Most people opt to just linger.  It is a perfect spot to relax, and as many choose – to hold hands, snuggle, talk softly, and sip something tall and cool.

After settling in at Olifants and hurrying through dinner due to continued discomfort with HTWBN, a small group of us treated ourselves to a night safari. We saw few critters.  We sighted primarily impalas again, and were pleased to catch unexpected views of hippo and rhino groupings.  We were visited by an owl that constantly postured in front of the bus, and a rare spotted leopard that dashed past us almost too quickly to raise cameras grabbed our momentary attention.  It was the robust stars unfettered by city lights that was most memorable, however.  The glittered inky night skies of Africa are a very special treat indeed.

On the morning of the third day in Kruger, just prior to heading further north, I am entertained by a quartet of park employees re-thatching several of the beehive cabin roofs.  This observation of their labors had a pleasing, hypnotic influence on me.  It was comforting to see that these traditional skills had not been lost and could still be utilized, not only for visitors but for locals should the need ever arise to fall back on inexpensive and locally sourced housing.

Once back on the road, my very first sighting was of vulture clusters feeding on fresh impala carcasses.  Normally a vulture is not much to look at. But watching one maneuver into the wind and land like a leaf in a soft breeze amidst a mass of its quarrelsome brothers is a sight not soon to be forgotten.  The extension and definition of each individual feather during such landings in near slow-motion makes the sight enthralling.

My journey continued through typical lowveld two-meter scrub greenery, red dirt patches, muddy watering holes, acacia trees with their branches bare right up to giraffe height, dry riverbeds, and brownish sandy/rocky/dry plain.  Eventually I witnessed entire herds of Thompson Gazelles, wildebeests, zebras, deer, springboks, and elephants and was quite pleased the day did not disappoint.

A highlight of the third day’s journey was stopping at the Iron Age village and smelting site of Masorini Hill.  This cone shaped peak with its huge boulders provides a natural protective shelter, 12 kilometers from the Kruger middle-west entry at the Phalaborwa entrance gate.  This gate provides access to our next overnight stay, Mopani Camp, two thirds of the way up Kruger toward the Zimbabwe border.

Masorini Hill consists of a large modern picnic area with ancient stone walls, grinding stones, pot shards, and the remains of smelting retainers which produced iron, gold, and copper as far back as the Stone Age.  After some inquiry, I learn that the village huts were excavated and restored in 1973.  Findings from the area paint a picture of the means of production employed by a hunter-gatherer tribe -- of people known as the ba Phalaborwa.  Insight is gained into the type of construction materials they used, their social structure, their agricultural efforts, and the nature of their commerce with nearby tribes.

Successful excavations have exposed hut floor foundations and artifacts that provide detailed clues as to the Phalaborwa way of life. Dome shaped clay furnaces which still remain intact today were used to smelt iron ore and moulded into spears, arrowheads and farming tools. These items were then traded for glass beads, ivory, animal products and food between the ba Phalaborwa and the nearby Venda tribe to the North (and later the Portuguese to the east).

The bulk of the day was spent weaving and crisscrossing middle Kruger’s dusty clay and dirt backroads leading to Mopani Camp (named after trees in the veld that surrounds it).  This proves to be a pleasant and unhurried means of spotting zebra bands and herds of meandering elephants.  We travel aficionados regularly and continuously offer up praise in such situations in the form of endless bottled water toasts to the safari gods for the provision of modern vehicle air conditioning.  It was vengefully hot outside!

On the banks of the Pioneer Dam lies what may be Kruger’s best kept secret, the Mopani Rest Camp.  It is situated amidst tree clusters of the same name in an interesting design arrangement where vegetation inside the camp is left largely untouched and mimics wild vegetation found immediately outside, creating a rather unique atmosphere.  A signature feature of this design is a huge ancient gnarled baobab tree in the heart of the camp.

My favorite portions of Mopani are the generously appointed cabins, and an artificial lake created by Cooper dam that extends right up to the lower pilings of the restaurant and deli building.  From this vantage point, visitors can escape the heat, indulge in a brew, and dine slowly while watching African Fish Eagles circle above.  It is not unusual to enjoy the visits of hippos, who are known to swim nearly up to diners’ feet.  This is a highly recommended stay for those seeking a tranquil retreat.

I find myself avoiding all meals with HTWBN.  This conscious choice adds to rising tensions between the two of us.  Despite his ongoing ambiguity as to “will we or won’t we dine together,” he finds my response to his behavior annoying.  I continue to do my best to avoid him, knowing full well in my mind that my fourth and final day in the park starting the following morning will be spent without him.  I take up an outdoor conversation instead with a fascinating captain of industry on holiday from Capetown.

This gentleman is an Afrikaner, of Boer descent and Dutch through and through.  He had next to zero of the more liberal British slice of South African white in him.  We had a very enjoyable conversation on the outside patio where I chose to concentrate on being an attentive listener, learning the Afrikaner perspective on the question as to ‘whose country is this really?’  His take on it was, the Dutch settled the South Cape in the 1650s, long before blacks arrived en masse to take advantage of economic opportunities and homesteads created by whites (much of the same argument is made by Jews in the arguments relative to Palestine and that same issue of “whose land is this, anyway?”).

Suddenly the lights go out in the middle of our conversation.  “It’s my bedtime.  You have talked long enough,” growled HTWBN.  He controlled the patio light switch from inside and hovered near it to enforce his preferences.  I complained, briefly passing through his room on the way to mine.  He was unmoved.  “You’re too loud.  I don’t want to listen to your crap anymore,” he sniped.

This was an unacceptable level of rudeness. I reflected for a moment at how quickly a bond can disintegrate, and so unilaterally as one of those mysteries of relational erosion.  But I’d had enough.  We brushed each other a little too closely as I returned to the outside to say goodbye and apologize to my guest.  Upon returning to my room, the conflict grew more heated.  In finally spoke up. “Shut your mouth, you miserable son of a bitch! I’ve had all from you I can stomach,” I bellowed. There was no ambiguity to my disaffection.

Needless to say, the situation ended badly.  When I awoke the next morning, furniture had been piled against my bedroom door so I could not leave.  I had to remove the bug screen and then window from inside my room to escape outside and reach my car.

As a result, I decided to forego a fourth day in Kruger, choosing instead to get to the rental car turn-in location at Polokwane (about two and one-half hours away to the southwest) to get an early start on Zimbabwe.  Reflecting on the prior evening and the sudden end of this streaky and puzzling relationship made for an interesting drive.  I hardly noticed the sights. I did notice upon arrival, that over 5000 kilometers had already been put on the vehicle in South Africa alone.


This ‘boots on the ground’ introduction to Africa had only scratched the surface.  This journey of mine was to reach well beyond 16,000 kilometers by all means of ground transport by the time I transited through 16 additional African countries two months later, ending in a flight from Cairo to the tip of the Sinai Peninsula at Sharm el Sheikh. This number only jump started yet-to-be-added mileage in Jordan, Israel, Turkey, Dubai, Nepal and six nations of East Asia which still lay on the trip horizon.