Thoughts to Start the Week

There’s a whole lot going on in the world just now, eh? Here are a few all-over-the-map ideas to start the week. Housekeeping to start: I hope my brand new book, Out There, will go live on all Amazon platforms this week or next. It’s a collection of thirty essays on travel, written from and about disparate locations, Greenland to Vietnam to pandemic-ridden Cincinnati. At 360 pages, your money’s worth.

Elsewhere, one expects a Lukashenka-like, whatever it takes response, but best of luck nevertheless to the people of Uganda and Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobbi Wine, in Thursday’s national elections. The pop singer stands against President Yoweri Museveni, who removed Presidential term limits in 2005 and has ruled the country since 1986. Time for a change there.

Kampala, Uganda

Whether the incoming Biden administration can restore a little spit and polish to Donald Trump’s smoldering city on the hill is an open question, but there’s no doubt the transition team has assembled a capable bunch. Today’s announcement of William J. Burns to head CIA is terrific. His memoir, The Back Channel, reads like a template for best diplomatic practices.

Notable that leading foreign policy establishment spokesperson Richard Haas and iconoclast Andrew Bacevich each claim last week’s events definitively bring down the curtain on the post-Cold War era.

Who needs a quick primer on the state of Irish politics?

And finally, I took a spin around the now defunct social media site parler.com over the weekend. I’ll share what I found here shortly. Cheers, don’t get sick, and a good week to you.

Goma Serena Hotel

To start the new year on a positive note, let’s play a game. It’s called, Imagine It’s Still Anytime in the Last Twenty Years and You Can Go Anywhere You Want. For a bold first move I pick Congo.

Once we refueled in Brazzaville, capital of Republic of Congo (separate country) but so far, the closest we’ve made it to the Democratic Republic of Congo is behind the camera in this photo of Goma, North Kivu province, taken from across Lake Kivu, at the Lake Kivu Serena Hotel, Gisenyi, Rwanda (photos). 

Now comes word of a new Serena Hotel in Goma, just across the border. Goma hasn’t had much in the way of non-hostel-type accommodation up to now. Most visitors to Goma seem to be aid workers, UN personnel and journalists. Until now. You could pair your Goma visit with a visit to see the gorillas in the DRC’s Virunga National Park, staying at Mikeno Lodge

I’m ready.

A Good News Story from Kenya

Elephant Friends, Amboseli National Park

I remember a day back around March, when we knew not much more about the virus than fright. On a walk in the park, I heard the return of birdsong and saw the first signs of coming spring. It made me realize that this may be a bad year for humans, but other life goes on without skipping a beat. It made me jealous of the squirrels.

Now today come holiday wishes via newsletter from the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, at the foot on Mt. Kilimanjaro. It’s a reminder that life, indeed, does go on, and it’s uplifting enough to share:

In Amboseli the elephants have been doing exceptionally well. High rainfall in the first part of the year provided a rich habitat for them. The Kenya Wildlife Service, Big Life Foundation and the Olgulului game scouts have secured the ecosystem and as a result there has been no poaching of elephants this year. Life has been good for Amboseli’s elephants and for that reason we are thankful and happy.  Just to make 2020 even better for the elephants, there has been the most amazing baby boom. The last baby boom was in 2012 when 201 calves were born. A more typical year we might see 50-100 births. The unusual number of births in 2012 was the result of a terrible drought in 2009. Many calves died and the females stopped breeding. When good rains came again, many of the females were available to become pregnant. We thought we would never see anything quite like it again, but this year proved us wrong. There was a drought in 2017 and once again many of the adult females became available the following year. Twenty-two months later in 2020 there has been a record-breaking baby boom. So far this year 226 calves have been born, and we are expecting at least a few more this month. We celebrate all these new little elephants in our Christmas issue with a portfolio of photos. Enjoy!

Cynthia Moss, Director, Amboseli Trust for Elephants

You can subscribe to the Amboseli Trust for Elephants newsletter by filling out this form.

New 3QD Article Today

My monthly column at 3 Quarks Daily is up this morning. It’s about Passport Control in Sikkim, Côte d’Ivoire and the USA. Read it here now, and I’ll post it here on CS&W later this week.

Gangtok, Sikkim
Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire
Havana, Cuba

Throat Sanitizer

Nairobi, Kenya’s capital

“Nairobi Governor Includes Hennessy In Coronavirus Care Packages, Claims it’s ‘Throat Sanitizer'”

The governor of Nairobi’s curious cocktail care packages.

Backing Off from Gorillas

Much as those who support the gorilla safari business in Rwanda and the DRC must need their jobs, it’s good to see this story in Monga Bay.

A Reading List in the Time of Coronavirus

All right, all right, it really does look like we’re all going to have to enjoy spring after being dragged inside (cozier if you’re south of the equator, winter coming on). If that’s what we’re facing, here are a half dozen books I can recommend for your quarantine time:

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk • Nobel prize winner for literature, clever, engaging fiction.

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris • The latest from a brilliant writer. It’s not what you think.

Prisoner by Jason Rezaian • Memoir of the former Washington Post reporter’s time in an Iranian prison.

Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa • Tough stuff about the Syrian civil war.

The Capital by Robert Menasse • Acerbic portrait of the function, and disfunction, of the EU in Brussels.

The Salt of the Earth by Jósef Wittlin • Classic novel of a Polish peasant’s experience in World War One.

And here are a few waiting on my bookshelf. Since we were planning to be in Africa this spring, here are three books that were to be background for the trip:

A Grain of Wheat by Ngūgī Wa Thiong’o • Classic story of late colonial Kenya.

House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma • The facts of life in modern Zimbabwe.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste • I loved Ms. Mengiste’s 2011 Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. This one’s about Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia.

And one more, a new release:

Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon • Story of three orphaned kids in 1960s Laos.

At least we can enjoy traveling the world through books this spring, while staying indoors. And not touching our faces.

If you read any of these books please send your feedback.

This Month’s 3QD Post: Ngorongoro Crater Part 2

Some photos to accompany this month’s travel column at 3QuarksDaily. Read the column here.

On the road: Ngorongoro Crater

Here is my monthly travel column for 3 Quarks Daily, as it appeared on Monday:

On the road: Ngorongoro Crater

Godfrey points the Land Rover toward Ngorongoro Crater. The road is fine to lull the unwary, but before you know it there is one lane, then no tarmac, then mud and potholes and empty hills.

Close cropped with a natty little mustache, Godfrey is kempt, forties, paunch-softened,  with an easy smile. A veteran guide, he has been here before. Says it will take five hours to do the 250 kilometers to the crater and so it does.

No package tour jets preceded us when we flew into Kilimanjaro International Airport aboard a small plane from Nairobi, so the airport bank wasn’t open. Consequently, we have no Tanzanian Shillings.

Oxen pull plows across the fields. Buses are occasional and private cars are rarer than cows. At the time of this visit (several years ago), the road is primarily for foot traffic, human and animal. No matter how far from a village, people are everywhere walking on the roads, always. They only move to the verge, reluctantly, when a Land Rover thunders by.

The few vehicles you do pass are either chock full of ride-sharing local folks, or they’re hauling two or three white Europeans on safari, or maybe they’re jeeps that read something like, “Africa Wildlife Research Project, funded by Belgian government.”

What do you know, way out here Godfrey knows where to buy a few beers. Two hot Tuskers from Kenya, two hot Safari beers from Tanzania, a roadside bodega, no power, no refrigeration, just a handful of dusty beers on a shelf for four for five dollars at an anonymous shack, friendly enough, opaque to a stranger. Godfrey’s got this round.

•••••

The tectonic plates that mold and shape the earth are always moving, creating the great Himalayas, tearing apart the mid-Atlantic. Perhaps you have heard the general rule that the plates move at the speed your fingernails grow. That rule doesn’t hold everywhere.

While the Mid-Atlantic Ridge spreads 2.5 centimeters a year, the Great Rift Valley of Africa moves rather more slowly, around a millimeter. Even so there will come a day when the warm waters of the Indian Ocean will lap at, and then cover up, the cradle of human life, Tanzania’s Serengeti Plain.

For now though, and until it does, the Great Rift Valley is a singular tear in the earth, so long and life-giving that much of Africa’s history has occurred around it. So it is important to have some sense of this mighty 3,700-mile trench’s place in the world.

Its west and south are home to Africa’s Great Lakes, Lake Malawi between Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania, Lake Tanganyika between Tanzania and Congo, Lake Kivu between Congo and Rwanda, Lakes Edward and Albert straddling Congo and Uganda, Uganda’s Lake George and Lake Victoria, on which Uganda’s capital Kampala and international airport at Entebbe lie, bordering Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, 

East and north, the newly forming Nubian and Somali tectonic plates separate along a line from south of Mt. Kilimanjaro all the way to the Red Sea. The rift continues under the sea into Jordan, crossing the Gulf of Aqaba and the Dead Sea, finally fading like an eclipse’s arc across Syria and Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley.

To a geologist, this rift system is one of the most electrifying places on the planet. Here is positively rhapsodic prose (for a geologist), from James Wood and Alex Guth in Africa’s Great Rift Valley: A Complex Rift System

basalt eruptions and active crevice formation have been observed in the Ethiopian Rift which permits us to directly observe the initial formation of ocean basins on land. This is one of the reasons why the East African Rift System is so interesting to scientists.”

The Ngorongoro Crater, the remnants of a volcano probably larger than Kilimanjaro, was born of these basalt eruptions a couple or a few million years ago. At some point long ago, further rifting caused the abrupt withdrawal of lava from beneath the volcano, resulting in its collapse.

Ngorongoro is the largest unbroken and unflooded volcanic caldera in the world, 2000 feet from rim to floor and a hard to believe 192 miles in circumference. Marshland and acacia forests separated by plains and a lake support 30,000 or 40,000 animals most of the year inside the caldera. A drive around the rim is the distance from Boston to New York. Imagine.

•••••

Ramadan has just ended and there will be a huge Eid festival in Arusha. All 200,000 Arushans (back then), Muslim or not, will be in the streets. In preparation, the little stream that runs beside town has become an impromptu car wash around a car lot named Dimple Motors.

Arusha looks like a friendly town, but driving through, it occurs to me that if you’d just dropped into Africa from Denver or Detroit or Duluth for the first time, the unfamiliarity might make you uncomfortable.

Do not fear. That will pass.

Before you know it you’ll relish the incongruous jumble of the African city. You’ll find yourself celebrating the difference from back home: A banner over the airport road marking independence (not that many years ago), sunshine filtered through dust thrown up by traffic on non-tarmacked roads, big welcoming smiles, bright sarongs and bare feet, baskets on girls’ heads, the scent of smoky-blue fires in pots on the roadside, shells of unfinished buildings stalled for reasons never to be known.

The waist-high trees of the Burka coffee estate stretch endless acre after acre, either side of the road. Impenetrable mist shrouds the steep eastern slope of Mt. Meru, off past the edge of town. 

Shade trees line the far side of town before traffic finally eases. Open-backed, full-polluting Tata trucks fly by, public transport. People stand in the back, clutching at the cab. Ramshackle stalls: “Lucky Feed Mill.” “Lucky Family General Store.” “Moona Pharmacy.” “Beuty Saloon.” All the way west from Arusha, Masaai villages of seven or eight or a dozen mud-walled roundhouses with thatched round roofs.

Here is a toll plaza, deserted. Godfrey never slows down.

“We pay our tolls through gasoline taxes now.”

Why don’t they just fix the damned roads? A western conceit. If there were money to fix the roads they’d use it to do a dozen more important things first, better nutrition, child care, malaria eradication.

Termite mounds rise three feet from red clay-colored dirt. African roadways belong to the people, as the roads of American cities did before the coming of the car. People scramble and scoot as, hell bent to deliver us to the crater (after which he’ll be off work), Godfrey pounds along, 80 kilometers per hour when he can, ruts and puddles or not.

It’s a straight road for multiple kilometers until a fateful right turn and farewell to tarmac at a signpost, “Ngorongoro 101 km” onto a road that promises a low-grade brain-jostling headache for days.

•••••

This was once an outpost of Deutschland. Germany came late to the Scramble for Africa and left early when it was stripped of its colonies after World War One. Its important colonies were only four – today’s Togo, Cameroon and Namibia along the west coast and German East Africa, comprising today’s mainland Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda.

Chancellor Bismarck felt more pressing Realpolitikal concerns back home in Europe: “Here is Russian and here is France,” he said, “with Germany in the middle. That is my map of Africa.” Yet by 1884 as Britain and France madly staked their African claims, a sense Germans called Torschlusspanik, “door-closing-panic,” took hold, a fear that it might be left out. Traders felt mercantile pressure from their British and French rivals and let the government know it.

On his rise to power Bismarck declared that “the only healthy basis of a large state which differentiates it essentially from a petty state, is state egoism and not romanticism.” More than a decade later he reexamined his Africa policy, applied a healthy dose of large state egoism and with the support of the business communities in Hamburg and Bremen, Bismarck instructed the German explorer Dr Gustav Nachtigal to seize Cameroon, Togoland and Southwest Africa, now Namibia.

In early days, claiming swathes of territory merely meant visiting coastal clans and scooping up treaties at the point of superior European guns. Dr. Nachtigal claimed Togoland and Cameroon in July 1884. The captain of the German gunboat Wolf claimed Southwest Africa by the end of August, and they were off.

Meanwhile in the east a German explorer named Carl Peters leased the coastal holdings of the Sultan of Zanzibar. He made deals with local leaders for land to the north and south of British East Africa. Peters learned that King Mwanga of Buganda was shopping for an ally to help him reclaim his throne, offering treaties first come first served, and rushed to beat the British to a deal. He schemed to join German interior holdings with the coast to thwart the Brits, who in turn strove to tie British East Africa to their territory of Sudan to the north.

Carl Peters’s frenzied bit of the Scramble came to naught over European politics, for as Britain dreamed of the bits of east Africa that Peters had cobbled together, Bismarck coveted Heligoland, an island the Brits held just 25 miles off the German coast, as a Baltic naval base.

Germany got its island, Britain its colonies and so came a general settling of borders, enabling the British to build a railway from Mombasa on the coast to Lake Victoria (the ill-starred Lunatic Express). Germany would control land to the south, German East Africa, now Tanzania, home of Ngorongoro Crater.

There is hardly a trace of the German language in East Africa today. English, on the other hand, is widely spoken in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. It is overlaid on Kiswahili, a Bantu language that is either the indigenous, official or trade language of countries across east Africa, not only in Tanzania and Kenya but also in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Congo, the north of Mozambique and Zambia.

The word Swahili itself derives from Arabic for ‘the coast,’ underlining the ancient connection between the east African Bantus and traders from the Arab peninsula and Persia, who for centuries sailed their dhows up and down the shores of east Africa. Swahili terms for numbers, times of day, for please and friend and travel and danger and many more, borrow from Arabic. Along with vocabulary from Arabia and Persia, some east Africans also got religion. Perhaps a third of Tanzanians practice Islam today.

•••••

In Welsh legend, a shepherd named Guto Nyth Bran ran so fast that he could blow out a candle and be tucked into bed before the light faded. He must have practiced on the equator. The equator produces the fastest sunrises and sunsets on the planet, since the sun’s apparent movement is vertical. As the sun sets, and just as it sets, colors fade like flipping a switch. The road crawls around the edge of the escarpment and Lake Manyara spreads before us outside the crater in black and white. In a minute it has disappeared into the dark. Then, over the north side of the hill, we bear down in a dive for the crater rim. All of the lodges sit along the rim – none on the floor.

Traveling counter-clockwise along the rim, my wife Mirja bolts upright. In the Land Rover’s headlights, she has spotted a leopard! Lying right in the road! It is gone in a flash. Stealthy and rare as they are, this is an auspicious start indeed.

•••••

END PART ONE. 

Monthly 3QD Travel Column

Read my monthly column on 3 Quarks Daily, titled On the Road: Ngorongoro Crater, here.

I’ll publish it here on CS&W later this week.