Africa Vignette 7: Night Drive in Zambia

Site of the new ferry crossing

We cross the Luangwa River at a hand ferry in its first night of operation. They’ve been working on it all day.

Two men sit on a wooden platform mounted on pontoons with us and the Land Cruiser aboard. They work wooden handles to slide the barge along a cable that stretches to the other side of the river, and pull us across.

The grass on the other side has grown to waist high. The Land Cruiser parts it like a ship, until we come around a corner and pull up short to admire a dramatic full moon rise. Then John, the guy in charge of the Land Cruiser’s spotlight, swings into action.

An undefined scatter of ground animals scurry around the ground, rodents that would be alarmingly big back home. Turn the spotlight up and dozens of reflected eyes stare back from a stand of impala, who must feel vulnerable, exposed from cover of darkness.

Genets and civets, which are related to one another and to mongooses, the civet more elongated, the genet like a cat with fox ears. The bush baby, or ‘night monkey’, is a tiny primate whose eyes, when caught in the light, glow like the red end of a smoking cigar.

A beehive clings to the side of a baobab. Here is a porcupine.

We’ve stayed out so long it’s cold coming back. These are extensive drives. They might run from 6:00 to 11:30 in the morning and well after dark in the evening. Long past sunset we come upon a sign that reads, “Main Gate, 15K.”

Abraham offers around blankets.


See photos from Zambia in the Zambia Gallery at

Africa Vignettes is a weekly series most Mondays this summer on CS&W.

African Vignette 6: Madagascar’s Zoma

The Zoma

Zoma means Friday and it’s also the name for the positively teeming Friday market in Madagascar’s capital city, Antananarivo.

It’s strange to prepare for theft, but that’s what they admonish. Fix your bag to minimize what they get if they slash it open. The Bradt Guide to Madagascar: “The Zoma is notorious for thieves. It is safest to bring only a small amount of money in a money belt or neck pouch. Enticingly bulging pockets will be slashed.”

From a hill above Independence Avenue, a sea of white umbrellas washed out ahead in every direction, swallowing up the main square, flowing into busy little eddies beside stairways, up the hills as far as the eyes could see. Up one hill, down the next.

We paused. This was big, sprawling, daunting and dramatic. We clasped hands and dove in. Flowers first, down on the right. Then a jumble of sundries, the multitudes and the advertised danger, rarefied by the dry hot sun.

Someone reached out and tugged at Mirja’s skirt. Beware the “voleurs,” she warned.

Buy whatever you will. Locks and hinges. Grenadine drinks. Bright plastic jugs. Chicago Bulls caps. Greasy food rolls. Major motor parts. Michael Jackson T-shirts. A vast selection of wicker. Bon Bon Anglais Limonad. We bought a “Madagascar” ink-pad stamp that actually printed “Madagascap.”

Must’ve been three or four hundred meters down one side. Too tight to turn, too close to walk two abreast, too tense to relax. Still, smiles from the stalls. Dignity, not desperation. Some smiles, and lots of open looks of wonder.

All the way down and halfway back we didn’t spy anyone from our part of the world, probably for an hour.

Baby clothes. The tiniest shoes you’ve ever seen. Embroidery. Crocheting – napkins and table covers embroidered with lemurs and scenes from traditional life.

The Malagasy are a little smaller than me in general and I was forever bumping my head on the edges of their big white umbrellas, knocking my sunglasses off my head.

Mirja tried on mesh vests.

Down by the train station, the varnished wooden trunk section. Turning back, furniture. Circuit boards. Tiny piles of tacks. Stacks of feed bags.

There is a classic trap: there is a Malagasy 5000 Franc note. Then there is another that says 5000 also in numbers, but instead of reading merely “arivo ariary,” it reads “dimy arivo ariary,” which I believe means five times five thousand and in any event definitely means 25000 Malagasy Francs, even though in numbers it says 5000.

The feed bag guy wanted 1100 (27.5 cents) for a multicolored “Madagascar” bag. Realizing it just as the bill left my hand, I gave him not a proper 5000 but one of the 5000’s that are really 25000. After a lot of consultation with a lot of people, I got the correct 23900 in change.

We walked up each side of the Zoma – past the train station, bureaux travel, the Library of Madagascar, and made it to the top of an adjoining hill unrobbed.

Here at the top of the hill stood the country’s symbols of power: the Central Bank, High Court, Ministry du Promotion de l’Industry. A band was set up to play on a flatbed but never did. There was hubbub, amplified music and lots and lots of people. Up here the kid beggars that you usually tolerate because objectively, their circumstance ain’t like yours, swarmed so that they might have carried us away, so we turned aggressive and swatted ’em back.

By midday, unscathed and self-satisfied, we sat with our backs to the wall like in any good western, at the Hotel Colbert’s terrace bar, already having seen a week’s worth in one morning. Hotel Colbert had a dubious five star rating, apparently not from any organization in particular.

It was a gorgeous day and the city was so picturesque, completely foreign. We ordered Heinekens in the haze. At Hotel Colbert smoking was still as big as it ever was. Yellow Benson and Hedges ashtrays as big as your head took up a quarter of each table, and flaccid, bibulous Frenchmen sat nursing their Three Horses Beers, and hacked and smoked too much.


See photos from Madagascar in the Madagascar Gallery at

Africa Vignettes is a weekly series most Mondays this summer on CS&W.

Africa Vignette 4: It Takes a Long Time to Get to Zambia

Hippos in the Luangwa River, Zambia

Sure, the getting here was miserable. The long haul was more than thirteen thousand kilometers – leave shore over Charleston, South Carolina and don’t see land again until Cape Town. As if the continents were mountain peaks, you slid down the valley called the Atlantic on the flight map. That got us to Cape Town where it never dawned. The gray of winter just brightened up.

Nine more hours of airports, and these were the difficult ones, desynchronosis raging, hours 18 to 26 or so straight in a public place, no time to yourself. Now, finally, Lusaka. Here we are.

We hunt around the Lusaka airport and somehow find a woman who’s going the same place we are. She’s named Beatrice, from the copper belt up near Lubumbashi, Congo.  Up there, there are tons of ex-pats in the mining trade, so it’s a place that needs a travel agent, which Beatrice is. Next we find Ryan, the pilot from Durban, and finally Kitty and Maeva who are also lost and that’s all of us, so we load up the Cessna and head for a town on the Zambian border with Malawi called Mfuwe.

As we walk across the tarmac, Maeva, Kitty and my wife Mirja discover that they’re all three Finns, which is incredible. Three out of six random people in a Cessna from Finland, a country of just five million.

There is a lot of anticipation in this little Cessna.

See photos from Zambia in the Zambia Gallery at

Africa Vignettes is a weekly series most Mondays this summer on CS&W.

Africa Vignette 3: Germany Enters the Scramble

Tanzania generally comprises the former German East Africa. Germany came late to the Scramble for Africa, as the Europeans’ colonizing land grabs came to be known, and left early, because it was stripped of its colonies after the Great War. Its important colonies were only four – today’s Togo, Cameroon and Namibia along the west coast and today’s Tanzania, in the east.

For a while, German Chancellor Bismarck hung back from colonizing Africa with plaintive realpolitik: “Here is Russia and here is France,” he said, “with Germany in the middle. That is my map of Africa.”

Bismarck was no cosmopolitan, hardly a product of the European salon. A provincial, a scion of Prussia, he declared “The only healthy basis of a large state which differentiates it essentially from a petty state, is state egoism and not romanticism.” And by 1884, as Britain and France were madly laying their African stakes, a sense the Germans called Torschlusspanik, or “door-closing-panic,” took hold in Germany, a fear that it might be left out. Traders felt mercantile pressure from their British and French rivals, and let the government know it.

Maybe it was best to get while the getting was still good. Bismarck reexamined, applied a dose of egoism and with the support and urging of business interests from Hamburg and Bremen, Bismarck instructed the German explorer Dr. Gustav Nachtigal to seize Cameroon, Togoland and Southwest Africa, which is now Namibia.

Climbing sand dunes in Sossusvlei, Namibia.

See more photos from Namibia in the Namibia Gallery at

Africa Vignette 2: Wildebeest Crossing, Mara River

A little more than a vignette this week. A story.


We ride out to the Maasai Mara in a Cessna Caravan I, Model 280B, drawn theoretically in the safety material to transport twelve passengers in staggered rows of four each but in fact refitted with a bench seat for three behind the pilot then five seats staggered behind, one on each side of the aircraft.


We have come to watch what we can see of the annual wildebeest migration, perhaps the greatest periodic movement of biomass on earth. Specifically to watch a crossing of the Mara River, in which, if the herd is big enough, invariably a few of its members will fall victim to a crocodile. We are here in fact to watch the brutal murder-by-crocodile of a few wildebeests.

Our guide is Richard, and his approach to finding a crossing is simple enough in the fundamentals: You go to a herd and watch its behavior. If it begins to head to the river, race it to reach the general spot before the herd, but stay back. Wait and watch to see what develops. Approaching the water’s edge too soon is an error. Not only might you choose the wrong spot, but the presence of a big, mechanical thing looming on the cliff might dissuade the herd from approaching.

Richard goes to work without much theory, much book knowledge, but he has worked every day for twenty-five years on his home ground, these same plains.


Sweeping horizon to horizon vistas here. Showers play across the south end of the escarpment that serves as a western marker of the Maasai Mara. Its southern terminus, easily visible, is in Tanzania.

Each morning as our wake-up coffee comes at 6:00, factory sounds waft across the river, puzzling at first. A pole with a windsock rises from behind trees on the opposite bank. Shortly on the first morning comes the explanation as the shell of a balloon rises over the trees, inhaling hot air from its flame-thrower. It seems that they send up expensive balloon rides from the other side of the Mara River, from the adjacent camp.

In effect that wind sock shows the balloon pilot how long his passengers’ dream ride over the plains will be, for, if it reveals winds blowing straight along the escarpment the ride will be short, the pilots being required to put down before the Tanzanian border, to provide his passengers their wilderness champagne breakfast brought by Land Rovers madly chasing the balloon across the plains.

Richard started out as a balloon driver before he was a guide, all those years ago. Given his not so apparent school training for his driver job I don’t wish to speculate on the training required to lift early-morning clients across the way and carry them about in a fire-powered mylar envelope.


On these safari trips you spend the first three or four days getting to know the back of your driver/guide’s head, with which you establish the nature of your new relationship.

Richard, we find, is a man of few words. My wife asks a question ripe for elaboration:

“Do you drive around film crews, sometimes?”

Richard replies, “Yes.”


This morning from a distance we spot two lines of animals moving in the direction of water, and the chase is on. The smaller, closer line moves toward the main river crossing. We take the low road, nearer the river than the hills up on the plain.

Seeing the same movement we have seen, other jeeps early on the plain converge on the same area. We circle the herd on the low road and when they reemerge they are above us, and behind where we expect them to be. They have stopped to graze.

The full, unfiltered sun beats down now, three hours past sunrise. We go to height. This close to the herd we find we need some distance to discern movement.

The herd masses, the rear still a line but the front collecting into a grazing mass. The Serena Lodge perches ungainly on the opposite overlook, a row of prefab chalets not exactly aligned along the ridge.

They come for forty-five minutes, continuously massing, and for all their substance, they seem to whisper. They pronounce the sound of the letter ö but the wind in the trees and bird chatter drown out all but the most fervent.

We shed our morning wraps. The herd grazes. We take a forward position along the river’s edge to eat breakfast in a protected place. Although we cannot see the wildebeests they are close enough above us that if a mass movement starts we will hear (feel) the movement of all those hooves.

The herd moves beyond us.

How does it know where it will cross? There are no individual decision makers, but collectively, it seems to know where it is going. Today’s herd is bigger than yesterdays and a line from the opposite direction moves to join up with them. They seek clarity of mission and they have a destination in mind.

Richard stops the Land Cruiser to raise his field glasses. He sees a “huge group” on a cliff beyond. We have been following our own smaller group all morning but now we abandon them for the chase. We stop, as drivers do, to confer with one another. “Thousands and thousands” ahead, he says.

We speed on.

This is the biggest crossing of the season.

We are surrounded. We are in its midst. A group crowds the water here and another behind us dives, energy and a frenzy of dust and mud and movement, each body splayed out, hooves wide-spread, over and off a cliff many times their height, diving blind into the river. The herd marches ahead. Crocodile jaws, open and evil, claim their due. The herd marches ahead and reconstitutes of the far side, and the whole thing takes half of an hour.

The aftermath continues for an hour or more. Mothers have been rent from offspring. They return to the far bank and look this way, searching for their young. Will they cross back?

A few do recross the river, individuals, at considerable peril. Most do not.

Zebras venture close to the water to drink in the aftermath, even a very small baby. Crocodiles lay at the water’s edge and do not attack. Must be still sated from yesterday’s crossing. A pair of giraffes approach the water but we do not see them drink.

A line of more zebras comes back.

How many do you think have crossed, five thousand, six? Richard thinks so.


More photos from Kenya in the Kenya Gallery at Another Africa vignette next Monday.

Driving in Vietnam

Just driving around in Vietnam is fun. You never know what you’ll see.

Our mission these next few days is to cruise the Mekong delta canals on a boat we’ve arranged to meet us about three hours drive south of Saigon. The driver down there is a precious older gentleman without a word of English and we have no Vietnamese besides some pleasantries and the names of some food.

He’s a pro driver, no doubt about that, in a nice golf shirt and slacks, and he works the car the eight blocks from the hotel down to the Saigon River and then follows it south out of town, beyond Cho Lon, Saigon’s sprawling Chinatown, and holds a steady course until the center falls away.

He gets the left lane and proceeds slowly, a campaign strategy he follows every bloody deliberate inch down there and later, back. He has a deep and resonant voice I don’t understand.

We first came to Saigon nearly twenty years ago. Cycles are still the main way Saigon Man and Woman get around, but since then they’ve largely dispensed with the demure way women rode the back of scooters, both legs to one side. Back then many more women wore the traditional Ao Dai, the thin, body length robe. Maybe that made it hard to sit any other way. Some women still sit that way but today most ride behind their man like they do in America. (There are a lot less pajamas nowadays, too). It makes good sense, the way things work. Eight million people just don’t take up as much room on scooters.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon

Steady ahead. If he hurtles all the way up to 60 kph, even on long, empty stretches, he seems to embarrass himself when he discovers as much and slows down. Maybe he’s working by the hour and if they say this trip should take three and a half hours then no way will he make it in three hours and a quarter.

The river becomes more of a canal. After a half hour the industrial outskirts present themselves, less kempt than in town, still dense, low-rise residential peppered throughout. Smart electric road signs overhead show the way. It’s a divided six lane highway for cars with about a two car-sized lane outside in each direction for cycles, and this goes on for miles and miles.

A web of canals starts. It’s really hazy today and I think it’s really hazy almost all the time. High forecast at only 89 today. It’s December. Winter.

A guy with a cart jammed with coconuts goes chugging by, pulling it with his cycle. A young man with sheaves of office paperwork on his lap angles off to the right. A most unlikely place for the Mercedes Benz Haxaco dealership, and then a stretch of corrugated roof and iron bar buildings, followed by a tended-green-space flyby, with the “584 Group” high-rises set back off the road. I am not sure why, but here is an empty lot full of dozens of mannequins dressed in ladies clothes.

Just about every hundred meters stand banh mi carts by the road. Restaurants that serve a variety of foods are for tourists. Vietnamese people eat at a pho restaurant for pho, a banh mi cart for banh mi and so on.

A dense section of replacement radiator vendors rises up beside a bunch of chest-high fan stores. Brick store. Fruit and vegetable carts. All of a sudden an exodus of huge, tall tour buses swoops and squeezes in with us humble cars and scooters and muscles us all to the verge.

Canals run every which way now and there are signs down here for copper, aluminum and plastics manufacturers, and wild fields sometimes along the canals, sometimes wetlands sometimes traffic and bustle and dump trucks way taller than your car, and fast, and in close and menacing.

A plant known to botanists as eichhornia crassipes, and to everyone else as water hyacinth, thrives in dirty water, and the random industrialization of the Mekong delta means it has come to the right place. Where we cross canals it is not clear that boats could navigate among the invasive, free-floating plants and indeed, later, aboard a Mercruiser with seats for 16, the pilot will be forced to stop and fight repeatedly to disentangle the motor from the plants.

Trash collectors pedal along, riding the wrong way with collapsed cardboard boxes tied to the back of their bikes. Photocopy! Baguettes. Dried fowl hang behind glass in rolling carts parked at the roadside.

Everywhere the length of this country women, men and boys hold down low plastic stools out by the road in front of shops and I will never reconcile their sanguinity with their proximity to the highway.

It’s never exactly rural but after 45 more minutes I imagine I spy clouds discernable through the permahaze settled back over Saigon and I even talk myself into believing the sky may be a little bit blue. Unlike in town, trees, bananas and ferns move up to the verge.

With all the cycles around here, Honda is a common name. A cycle shop puts a hundred stylin’ helmets in its show window. Next door an open-air, under cover restaurant has just as many chairs.

Furniture: Headboards, many of the same bureaus in different stores. They MUST price fix, or they’d cut each others’ throats.

Eventually traffic lights begin to just flash yellow and the road runs rail-straight to the south.

There is a story to tell (another time) about the route to Latinization of the Vietnamese language. After enough Ca Fes and Ca Phes and Cà Phês, I begin to wonder if Shop Ti Ni is a tongue in cheek ‘little shop,’ which, it turns out, is exactly what it is.

So I wonder if ‘Mai Man’ is trying to act cool.

Out here they seem to have settled into a repetitive rural diet. Restaurant (road stand) advertising is centered around the ubiquitous pho and banh mi, but there is more:

  • banh canh: a thick noodle from tapioca flour or a mixture of rice and tapioca flour.
  • heo quay: a crispy roast pork
  • hu tiu: clear noodle soup with pork and/or shrimp
  • bun rieu: meat, rice vermicelli soup, and
  • com phan, which I can’t seem to find out about. “family food,” maybe.

All of these roadhouses beckon you in to plastic tables and chairs to enjoy your lunch with, likely as not, welders’ arcs next door. Or a floor tile showroom.

Oh no! Just along the side of the road there, the most earnest man has lost his load of joss sticks, doubtless meant to make him a Chinese New Year fortune next month. His whole sorry load bumped off his cycle and burst its packages along the road and you’ll never see a more industrious gathering effort.

You can install lots of pumps in your gas station in a place like this because your customers’ cycles can kind of angle in in a way cars can’t.

After more than an hour and a half, now 50 kilometers south of downtown, we drive past the Tan Huong Industrial Zone, down in the Binh Chanh district. It’s newish and it’s huge, 200 hectares and already only 40 hectares unfilled. Every trip to Asia leaves me smiling at its capricious city planning. Here now comes a cluster of bridal shops.

A man riding pillion holds an eight rung bamboo ladder. It sticks out past the front of the scooter over the driver. That can’t be comfortable for either of them.

Sometimes the storefronts come to ten feet from traffic, with scooter parking, the terrace with plastic stools for the proprietors and the area for commerce in front of that, between the building and all the scooters, intercity buses and us, cruising right on by.

Now, completely nowhere special, we take a right onto a four lane divided highway with a maybe additional four feet per direction for scooters. The eye can see farther out here. Banana trees, right up to the road sometimes. We swing back left, back in the original mostly southerly direction. Then another right, and after two full hours, banana trees and their tropical fruited kin grow right up hard by the road and now, gradually, women have begun to use the don ganh, the shoulder yoke carrying pole.

The don ganh is a metaphor for motherly love. With her baskets of fruit or flowers or ceramics or who knows what for sale, mama shoulders the burden of providing for the family.

Don Ganh pole, non-metaphorically


Live-aboard boats line the canals tied up to the sides. Roadhouses are open-air under cover, offering shade with your banh canh and hammocks alongside for a relaxing roadside siesta after lunch. They hang side by side in rows, sometimes alternating with chairs.

Traffic police pull people over with their little blue and white police sticks. In a brief rural stretch, brilliant, deep green verdant paddies grow young rice. I don’t imagine you can grow harvest after harvest (at peril of soil depletion), but you could with this weather.

By now the road is a single undifferentiated slab, informally apportioned as a section on each side for scooters, and a loose, slightly larger third for both directions of cars, trucks and buses. We slam to a sweet, complete stop for a mother hen and her four chicks, wee babies all. She has fluttered out of the way of a car approaching on our left, the chicks are stranded on our right and all of Vietnam, at least the whole of this road, comes to a stop until the family is reunited.

And suddenly we are in a different, proper city with traffic jams and dead stops. Packaged goods are mostly red and yellow. Store after store. Red and yellow. A church displays Chinese temple architecture but with two crosses on top.

After three hours the Can Tho bridge, a monster, looms up across the Bassac River, the Mekong’s biggest contributory channel. Reasonably new (2010) and expensive (some US$342.6 million), it’s 2.75 kilometres long, Japanese built. A 90-meter section of an approach ramp collapsed during construction killing a disputed number of workers, but at least fifty.

It replaced a network of ferries.

Eventually a sign welcomes us to Sa Dec City. Now that the sign says we’re here our silent driver takes the opportunity to free himself from his seat belt. For what, some relaxed, safe city driving?

He sets himself apart from American male drivers by asking directions at a bus stop, directions that yield a right turn on Duong Hung Vuond, and then some local juking, back and forth to a street along the water where we stop beside the vegetable market.

The produce truck just ahead has its back door rolled up. It works with FedEx efficiency. Eggplants, cucumbers, cabbages and potatoes are stacked in bags filled to bursting. The red onion man cycles up and throws on two bags, cycles off. The ginger man rides up on a scooter and places three see-through bags on the ground at the back of the truck. He toots his little horn as he drives away, summoning the truck’s packing boy from a plastic chair down by the river, who packs them in.

Meanwhile across the street, two mere boys bring a cart up to the curb and heave a stack of five bags of rice, each as big as they are, one on top of the other and drive off. A very young woman, maybe the daughter of the shop owner because these little businesses are a family affair, tugs and tussles and drags the top two right back off and sideways onto the ground, opens and rolls back the tops and begins to weigh out smaller bags on a little green scale.

Meanwhile our driver has been on the phone. Soon as he stopped behind the produce truck he flipped on his blinkers and made two phone calls. In between them an incoming call. Another placed, another incoming. We don’t know where we are going.

He makes another call. The engine and the air conditioning are on. Now it’s been fifteen minutes. Across the way a team of three baggers and two women in non las get a production line going. In minutes we have a dozen and a half smaller bags. (Non las are those round, pointy top peasant hats. Coolie hats, some call them.)

Non La hats

We drive off, nothing seems to prompt it. The driver takes another call and we turn around and park in the same place on the other side of the street.

Bikes, shops, scooters, commerce. Busy busy busy. Plastic trash bins and stacks of buckets drive by on scooters. Another incoming call. We can hear that some of these are men and some are female. There is a team working on finding our boat for us. Twenty minutes.

We drive back the other way, and then back up again.

Now when he hangs up, instantly another call is incoming. Too many calls back and forth for us to believe there’s anything organized going on here. But there is, of course, and in the end we find our ship, the Gecko Eyes II, was anchored a scant block away the whole while, just blocked from view by all the activity of the market.

The corner shop approaches three dozen ten-kilo bags filled and still working as our host on the boat, Phuc, finds the car and climbs in, name tag around his neck.


Rice at that market in Sa Dec

Click here to take a five-minute ride through Saigon on the back of a scooter.

A few more photos. Click ’em to enlarge them:



There are tons more photos of the world’s most photogenic country in the Vietnam Gallery at

Got time to buy me a cup of coffee?

Weekend Reading

Hunting for something interesting to read this weekend? Here’s the list you were looking for. And since we’ve had a couple of posts that touch on British imperialism this week, we start it off with:

The Great British Empire Debate by Kenan Malik at NYR Daily

But wait, there’s more! Enjoy these, too, and have a lovely weekend.

A Bakery in a War Zone by Lily Hyde in Roads and Kingdoms
How warp-speed evolution is transforming ecology by Rachael Lallensack at
What science is like in North Korea by Andrada Fiscutean in The Outline
The Person in the Ape by Ferris Jabr at
America Is Not a Democracy by Yascha Mounk at The Atlantic
How America Collapsed by umair haque at