Sri Lanka Part One

Here is my latest monthly travel column as it ran recently at 3 Quarks Daily:

Negombo Beach, Sri Lanka

In this column I write about international travel, especially travel to less understood parts of the world. This month, with such travel still a wee bit constrained, we start a two-part look back at Sri Lanka, April/May 1999:

There are certain things a guidebook ought to level with you about right up front, before gushing about the exotic culture, pristine sandy beaches and friendly people. Number one, page one, straight flat out:

YOU ARE FLYING INTO A COUNTRY THAT CAN’T KEEP THE ROAD TO ITS ONE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT PAVED, AND LINES THE ROAD IN AND OUT WITH BOYS WITH NO FACIAL HAIR HOLDING MACHINE GUNS.

Lurching into and out of potholes on the road from the airport to the beach, dim yellow headlights illuminated scrawny street dogs sneering from the road, teeth in road kill. Mirja and I took the diplomatic approach and decided, let’s see what it looks like in the morning.

•••••

The fishing fleet already trolled off the Negombo shore in the gray before dawn. The last tardy catamaran, sail full-billowed, flew out to join the rest.

Sheldon had already been out and back. A slight fellow, just chest high, with a broad smile under a tight-clipped mustache, Sheldon showed me his catch, in a crate, a few gross of five or six inch mackerels.

He took me to meet all the other guys and see their catches, too, stepping over nets they were busy untangling and setting right for the afternoon. He led me to his house, just alongside and between a couple of beach hotels, shoreside from the road, among a sprawl of a dozen thatch huts.

Sheldon built it himself. It was before the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and I don’t know if it, or Sheldon and his family, are there anymore. He took me inside, immensely proud, to show me how he had arranged two hundred woven palm-frond panels on top of one another to build the roof. He told me “two hundred” over and over.

A thatch wall divided Sheldon’s house into two rooms. The only furniture was a rough wooden bed with no linens.

Sheldon’s wife, a very young woman dressed in a long blue and white smock with her hair pulled back, rose with a smile to greet me, and their precocious four and six year old daughters danced around us all. Sheldon took his son, just one year old, into his lap as we talked.

Sheldon and his family

We sat together near a crack in the wall where sunlight came through so they could look at postcards of where I was from. They served sweet tea. I drank it fearing I’d pay for drinking the water later that day.

Sheldon walked me back toward Hotel Royal Oceanic, two hundred meters and several worlds apart. On the way, he explained to me that he was 31, his brother was “41, 42 sometimes. Lives nearby, Mama too. Papa no.”

•••••

I’d plotted a Sri Lanka itinerary twice too ambitious. The roads were fine, really. There were just too many people trying to use them. The two lanes couldn’t cope with the mass of people and machines vying for them.

If you weren’t on a highway, or were at a sharp bend in one, you’d have to stop to let bigger vehicles squeeze by. And since there were no bypass roads for heavy trucks, and since most folks didn’t have private cars but instead rode big, fat inter-city buses, you were forever stopping and starting and squeezing between milk trucks and cement mixers and buses, and in Sri Lanka there were also tuk-tuks, those three-wheeled two-stroke vehicles used from Bombay to Bangkok to Borneo.

So we stopped for every bus. Our driver Tyrone joked about having to stop for women drivers, too. Our air conditioner “work very good, sir.” That was a damn good thing on the coastal plain where, as we passed a cricket match at 10:15 in the morning, I thought them all positively fools, running around in long pants.

•••••

Provincial elections were to be held the next day. Election posters covered the buildings. Tyrone claimed 99% literacy in Sri Lanka (other sources suggested 90 per cent), but even so they used a system like in much less literate Nepal. Each party was represented by a symbol, so that the illiterate could recognize their party and vote, in this case, for “chair” or “elephant” or “table” or “bell.”

The main parties were the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party, in power for the last five years and advertised by posters of the president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, holding her hand high in the air, and the opposition United National Party, which had held power the prior seventeen years.

Plastic flags flew over the road like over a used car lot. Blue marked the incumbent party’s territory, green the challengers’. By the plastic flag test, it would be the Freedom Party in a romp.

In a tradition of pre-election violence, a couple of weeks ago a woman blew herself up in Colombo. And a few years ago, days before a visit by Prince Charles, eight were killed near the Buddha’s tooth shrine in Kandy, the second city and seat of power under the ancient kings.

Tyrone offered that, “I will be gathering information,” about potential trouble. This morning’s news was that a candidate in the east had been shot overnight. Yesterday was the last day of electioneering, with no rallies allowed from then.

Campaign posters

That kind of violence baffled him, Tyrone said, and anyway it doesn’t matter which party rules – they both promise the world until elected and then they don’t do anything.

Some things are the same the world over.

He was puzzled why people took it all so seriously, he told us, when the leaders themselves don’t; At the end of the day, he said, they sit down and “they have a drink together.”

•••••

The wealthier houses presented whitewashed concrete walls to the road. Those funny-looking pointy-nosed one-cylinder “rototiller” tractors like they use in rural China were here, too.

Coconut plantations dominated the road to the main Colombo-Kandy highway. Bicycle carts pedaled by, some with wooden baskets built on back and scales cradled inside. Rolling, mobile merchants. Tyrone showed us a motorcycle with a box of little fish and said the guy goes door to door. Banana trees along the road, underneath tall coconut palms.

Everything grew here, I guessed. Mangoes were in season now, and avocados. Durians were out of season but they grew here, too. Tyrone called them the fruit that tastes like heaven but smells like hell.

Tyrone had fifteen years in the business and looked for all the world like a wiry, Sri Lankan Jeff Goldblum. He was good. He wasn’t a young, adventurous boy-driver. He was comfortable in himself. He told us not too many Americans came here and we could see that.

Germans, Italians, Japanese and British came, but really it was mostly the Germans, with their big charter airline LTU discharging a crew at the hotel as we left, and copies of Bild, Bild Frau magazines and cheap German novels and crossword books lying around the lobby coffee tables.

•••••

We got the Kandy road and suddenly Tyrone got politics. He liked the Freedom party because they were pro-privatization. They one hundred percent privatized the tea plantations, for example. He couldn’t cite a lot of other differences except the opposition was more socialist.

He guided us through a tangled story of ruling families and power politics that left me way behind. Sometimes he lapsed into tour-guidism (“Excluding inland waters, area of Sri Lanka is 65,000 square kilometers.”).

The Kandy road was wide enough for two cars to pass side by side. As we began to bite off a little elevation en route to Kegalle, Tyrone returned to practical matters surrounding the elections. There would be a curfew, he thought, tomorrow night as the election results came in, and it would most likely last for 24 hours.

That suggested possible violence, I thought, but it seemed normal to Tyrone, and it came with a benefit. We could get a “special travel permit,” and with the road less busy, “we can go ninety hundred,” he laughed.

Kegalle was stifling hot and gridlocked with buses and tuk-tuks in both directions. Traffic police stood surrounded by the chaos and did no good that I could tell. It reminded me of the garrison town of Wangdi Phodrang in Bhutan, about which Barbara Crossette wrote, “welcoming, but exceptionally unappealing.”

Pinawalla Elephant Orphanage

Four kilometers past Kegalle, a road sign: “A home for domesticated, disabled and elderly elephants.” We swung left into the elephant orphanage at Pinnawala.

All these elephants had become separated from their families in the national parks or in the wild; Maybe their families were shot for their tusks, for example. One had his right front foot blown off by a land mine.

Each elephant had his own individual trainer (there being no shortage of labor) and the trainers worked with their elephants all their lives. Asian elephants are trainable (we rode elephants in southern Nepal who would pick up logs, even trash, on their mahout’s command), but that doesn’t mean a trainer isn’t occasionally killed, especially during mating season.

You could get in quite close and mingle with the elephants. Kids petted a little one. It was humane that they cared for the elephants but, scruffy and indolent as all of the herd was, the whole scene was a little downbeat.

•••••

Seamlessly, spice country turned to tea country. Looking around, you could believe that Sri Lanka supplied the whole world. Boys played cricket in the road and they had to, because there were tea bushes utterly everywhere else.

Over the front seat, Tyrone was explaining how buffalo milk mixed with honey is the local equivalent of yogurt, when up came two signs, one explaining we’d achieved an elevation of 6187 feet, the other reading “Welcome to the Salubrious Climes of Nuwara Eliya.”

Straight through the scramble, at the far side of town stood the old British Grand Hotel. Nuwara Eliya (pronounced “Noo-relia”) is an old British hill station, full of well-tended proper English gardens and lingering British-built structures like the Grand Hotel – dark, wooden, rambling, musty and old.

It’s said that the Sinhalese preceded the Tamils to Ceylon and when the British arrived, the Sinhalese were unwilling to work for the slave wages the Brits wanted to pay. So the Brits recruited the Tamils and brought them up here to pick tea.

The good Tamils, as Tyrone called them, (not the trouble-causing Tamils agitating for independence) got housing, a stipend, a garden and a quota. After reaching quota they got a premium for the tea they picked, per kilo.

•••••

“It is election day, sir!”

Six o’clock on election morning. Two loudspeakers chanted the call to prayer alongside a glass-enclosed Buddha statue just by the traffic circle. The sun hadn’t cleared the hills but it was set to be a glorious morning, with birds and dew run riot.

At this hour, Nuwara Eliya served mostly as a staging area for the bus station. People queued and a few stores lumbered open. At a milk bar (that’s a name for convenience stores, here to New Zealand) I bought toothpaste and remarked how it would be a nice day.

Dazzling smile: “It is election day, sir!”

END PART ONE (More in a month)

•••••

See a few more photos from this Sri Lanka trip here at EarthPhotos.com, and read all my columns at 3 Quarks Daily here.

New 3QD Column Today

In my 3 Quarks Daily column I write about international travel, especially travel to less understood parts of the world. This month, with such travel still a wee bit constrained, my new column, published today, starts a two-part look back at Sri Lanka, April/May 1999. Read it now at 3QD, and I’ll post it here on CSW later in the week.

Negombo Beach, Sri Lanka.

New 3QD Article Today

Check out my monthly column at 3 Quarks Daily. With physical travel still constrained, it’s political tourism from here at home, about the Georgia runoffs. Read it here now, and I’ll post it here on CS&W in a few days.

 

On The Road: Field Notes From The Wreckage Of Tourism

Oops. Meant to post this last week. It’s column #25 of the On the Road series published monthly at 3 Quarks Daily. This column was published there last Monday. Here is a link to all 25 columns.

 

News from the leisure travel world is worse than grim. More than half of the 16 million travel industry jobs in the United States have been lost. On 14 April last year the TSA processed 2,208,688 air travelers. This year that number was 87,534. 

It’s the same everywhere. Da Nang saw a 98.5 percent year on year drop in visitors over Vietnam’s four day Reunification Day holiday. Ninety nine point nine percent fewer foreign visitors entered Japan in April than a year earlier. Planes are parked and ships are docked.

They outfit the American cruise ship industry in a low key shipbuilding town on the Bay of Bothnia in Finland. Turku shipyards built the world’s biggest floating petri dishes, the 360 meter long ships Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seasfor Royal Caribbean International.

Seventy seven thousand employees, Royal Caribbean had, until a virus as unfriendly to people as plastic to the sea torpedoed its heart, soul and balance sheet in three months flat. Maybe Turku can save its shipyard jobs by building hospital ships; Royal Caribbean may tread choppy water forevermore.

If not by sea, what if by air? Qatar Airways, purveyors of dreamy Qsuites, offers a ticket changeable for anywhere they fly within 5000 miles – at the price of the original booking. You could in theory book a business class flight from Philadelphia to Kyiv for $1600 and change it to Hong Kong. They seem to mean it.

Lest your enthusiasm take flight, Forbes stands ready with a harsh de-icing, predicting “no cabin bags, no lounges, no automatic upgrades, face masks, surgical gloves, self-check-in, self-bag-drop-off, immunity passports, on-the-spot blood tests and sanitation disinfection tunnels” and a four hour check-in process.

I don’t buy it. That’s just too grim, if only because airlines and governments alike are committed to maintaining a viable airline industry. Plus, airlines need you way more than you need them for a change. How about that.

Still, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Phuket, Thailand’s biggest tourist island, reported no new cases on Monday and Tuesday 11 & 12 May, so on Wednesday 13 May the tourist board petitioned national authorities to reopen right then and there.

Not so fast, the government replied, as they work on a plan for “high-spending visitors from Asian countries to select areas … to avoid 14-day quarantines.” They will “have to provide a health certificate, buy health insurance, and undergo a rapid coronavirus test on arrival.” Nothing like a carefree week at the beach.

Schemes for survival in the travel industry have veered into wishful thinking. AirNorth, Yukon’s airline, with service (in normal times) to Old Crow, Mayo, Watson Lake and beyond, found itself with a largely idle catering facility. For those fortunate to live near Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, it began offering pick up and delivery of airplane food from its Flight Kitchen.

JetBlue thought nostalgia for airplane food might be a thing, too, and in early May began offering delivery of cheese and snack trays, $2.99 for three ounces of mixed cheeses, dried cherries and crackers through Imperfect Foods. Pardon the … delicious irony.

Everything about the road (and flight paths and shipping lanes) ahead is uncertain. The airline trade association IATA, which offers a comprehensive country-by-country map of travel restrictions, argues against countries imposing quarantines, and forecasts, with wistful tear and jutted jaw, that international travel will return to 2019 levels by 2023. Continue reading

New On the Road Column Today

My monthly On the Road column at 3 Quarks Daily is live today. This month, Climbing Mt. Kinabalu, Borneo, Malaysia.

Read it here at 3QD right now, and I’ll post it to CS&W later this week.

On the Road: Getting to Tasiilaq

Here is my monthly travel column as posted to 3 Quarks Daily on Monday:

On the Road: Getting to Tasiilaq

First thing we have to do, we have to find Robert.

The men smoking outside the concrete block terminal are not Robert so I ask around inside. The man behind the check-in counter might as well be collecting Arctic tumbleweeds. No flights are pending; no one is checking in.

He does not know Robert.

Together we lean over his counter to look down to the harbor. One boat is speeding away and there don’t seem to be any others. He flips his palms up and shakes his head, “I think you just go down there and wait. That is your only chance.”

•••••

Humans inhabit the fringe, the perimeter of Greenland not flattened by the ice cap, and I mean flattened, literally. Even with its thinning, ice reaches three kilometers deep at its thickest, pushing the bedrock into the mantle such that if the ice disappeared, the island would become an archipelago.

You can’t fly to Tasiilaq, the biggest town on the eastern side of Greenland, for lack of sufficient flat space for an airstrip. So we have flown to a gravel strip called Kulusuk airport. To get to Tasiilaq we must traverse the mouth of the Ammassalik fjord. We booked that online and all we know is, get to Kulusuk and ask for Robert.

We can see our destination twenty kilometers across the fjord behind a few icebergs and a coastline of precambrian rock thrust from the sea long before humanity, possibly even contemporaneous with the first life on earth.

We invade and insult the silence with our prissy roll aboard carry-on bags, scraping and skipping the damned things down the rough gravel. Show more respect and stand still, and the quiet closes up around you as a vehement, absolute thing.

A man from Cologne with a massive backpack walks ahead of us. He has arrived with no itinerary beyond walking for two weeks. His pack reaches up past his head, bulging with two weeks of freeze dried food and powdered milk.

Once he walked from Ilullisat to Sisimiut in western Greenland, and that is far, far farther than from here to Tasiilaq and then clear around the island, but that time he was advised that there was no danger of polar bears and he has yet to be so advised here. His itinerary may have to be revised based on local information. Right now he plans to circumambulate Ammassalik island. He puts great store in the advice of Robert, but none of us know how to find him.

Airport to harbor, perhaps a twenty minute walk. No boats in sight. Either side of the gravel path, just rock and a little but not much tenacious flora. Our destination across the water is low and bare with mountains rising snow capped, glaciers embedded toward the top. Clouds tease the ridges but do not suggest a threat of rain. In between individual icebergs, not a field, rise like several-story buildings.

It turns out that two tiny Danish-built fiberglass Poca speedboats, so low slung that the dock hides them both, bob in the sea beyond the dock. Two Greenlandic men stand down there on the shore below the dock, neither in so much as a jacket, enjoying the northern summer.

We ask, “Robert?” and the younger man, with no English, shakes his head no, “Christian.” We and the backpacker, who is expecting the same ride, are at a bit of a loss until we work out, through gestures and good will, that Christian is on behalf of Robert. For us, that is good.

The dock is too high for the boats, and so we scramble down onto rocks to climb aboard, and Christian takes the backpacker, my wife Mirja and me screaming across the fjord toward a similar spot on the far shore. Christian, hair stood up to a greased crown, drives standing, and stops us dead in the water alongside this iceberg, then that, so we can take photos.

We clamber out on a rock where there is no dock at all. Christian motions without words, “up that way,” and makes no move to leave the boat. So off we scramble, not having paid anybody for anything, off to find someone who wants our money. Robert, maybe.

The Inuit seldom keep individual dogs as pets, but rather tether them in groups outside in summer, and we rouse the mild attention of a pack of tethered dogs as we troop up the hill. Inuit sled dogs have two layers of fur, the inner short, like wool for insulation, and the outer longer, coarser and water repellent. That may make them hot today but overall, they are surely chillin’, taking the warm season off, lounging all day except when growling and snapping over territory.

A vehicle makes its way down the hill picking its path, for the way is gravel and bumpy. A slight girl stops to ask that we wait here, drives down the road to drop some camping supplies and returns to drive us to the Red House, a tour shop and hostel run by the famous Robert.

Robert’s reputation should have preceded him. Turns out in 1983, extreme explorer Robert Peroni from the Italian south Tyrol walked across the Greenland ice cap, all the way across the island at its widest point, some 1400 kilometers, on an 88 day journey.

Now 72, Robert stands before us trim and erect, and above all relieved to find we aren’t planning to stay in his hostel, for he is booked solid as he would hope to be in a very short high season. We pay him for the crossing from Kulusuk, bid farewell, and the girl drives us up the hill to the Hotel Angmagssalik.

•••••

There was a time when airline passengers celebrated successful landings. I remember applause in 1986 when my Lufthansa flight landed in Frankfurt from Moscow. I thought it was as likely for getting the bloody hell out of the Soviet Union.

We came over from Iceland today on a brand new, gleaming Air Iceland Bombardier Q400 prop plane, twenty rows two by two. Bustling their baby refreshment cart up and down the aisle meant actual work for the flight attendants, compared to the doorman role they play on short domestic flights.

Come time to land, the plane took on a buzz incongruent with today’s humdrum air travel. In a small plane you’ve more of a sense of flying, and when the pilot maneuvered to dip under the clouds and between the mountains, we all craned to be the first to see icebergs, and phone cameras filled the windows. The runway at Kulusuk came up fast and we rode it right to the end lights.

About fifty of the seventy aboard were here for a day trip. Over in the morning, touch the soil, check Greenland off your list and fly back. I met a taxi driver in Reykjavik who said he did it as a fifteen year old.

What did they do?

They deplaned, someone took them around the side of the terminal and they watched a man in a costume play a drum and a fat woman dance.

Some months ago he drove a man to do the same and picked him up later that day. What did they do? A drum and a dance.

The east Greenland coast near Tasiilaq

Excerpted from Out in the Cold, Travels North: Adventures in Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada by Bill Murray

More photos in the Greenland Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

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.

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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.

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END PART ONE.