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.

Out in the Cold: Tundra Tales

outinthecoldcoverrightsideToday is a big day here on the farm. My third book, Out in the Cold (cover, left), is now in the publisher’s hands, and coming soon.

Out in the Cold reports to you from Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and maritime eastern Canada – including a curious artifact – the last remaining French colony in North America, a tiny pair of islands off Newfoundland called Saint Pierre and Miquelon.

In gathering stuff for the book we had the complete thrill of witnessing the total solar eclipse of March, 2015 in Svalbard, an archipelago about 800 miles from the North Pole. That’s where today’s excerpt comes from. We’re about to set out, a troop of strangers, on a snowmobile trip to the Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg:


They suit us up and put 22 strangers through our paces on how to drive a snowmobile. It is only a five-minute lesson because there really isn’t much to learn. Push this to start the engine, pull that to go, wiggle your body with the curves. And supervision is close at hand.

This outfit is all about moving along, sportsters through and through. They run us through novice moves, herding us in a tentative straight line. We ease out along a coastal plain, the Isfjorden to our left, just a little ice bobbing in the water, shuttered and abandoned coal mines on our right, busy with the pylons of old coal-carrying cableways, stacked up along the hill that hems in Longyearbyen to the east. Just minutes, the buildings along the Longyearbyen waterfront still visible, a shakedown cruise, then we stop for final questions.

The propriety of handing unfamiliar go-fast machines to anybody who shows up, I’m not sure about that, but I’m glad. Over the course of the day I race up to 70 kph briefly and it is a pure thrill.

Now we are firing across capacious plains ringed by snow-laden hills. From here to Barentsberg we run for forty, fifty minutes between stops. We buckle in, adjust our balaclavas and goggles to cover our faces and plunge into an extended run the length of Adventdalen, the valley behind the ridge east of Longyearbyen.

Clean, dry and bitterly cold, the beauty of the route utterly unmediated by man save for snowmobile tracks. Beauty no one sees. Bits of moisture not quite snow, not hail or rain, evanescent, suspended, rise as often as they fall in the monochrome. The air is alive but the earth is stone still.

Somewhere along the way we come upon the most unexpected spectacle – the launch of a hot air balloon. A team from the Connecticut-based Slooh “community observatory” is practicing for their video coverage of the eclipse from the air. When the balloon disappears behind a fell, one snowmobile towing another sets out to follow it and pick up the crew wherever they land.

It tickles me, the grim military bearing the leaders wield like a club to bring all these unsteady novices to a stop. Up front Hans Peter leans forward and opens up a little space between him and the pack so that he can hop off his mount and guide us all in for a rest stop, forming up in rows four or five abreast. He moves to each spot and rotates his forearm down from the elbow with a stiff wrist flick and I imagine a scowl of doom behind his helmet.

We stop on a low rise called a pingo for a random geology lesson. Dome shaped mounds like mini-volcanoes, pingos form in permafrost when artesian groundwater forces its way up, freezes under the ground and rises under pressure from the water below. Pingos grow vanishingly slowly and take decades or longer to form, often at the base of fells (fell, “fjall” is the Old Norse word for mountain), as has the one on whose summit we sit frozen to our seats this morning, between two ridges.

Interesting in a textbook maybe, but you don’t read textbooks on a lump of frozen tundra that shows all the vitality of a mound scraped off the runway at Boston Logan. It is not unlike the landscape as far as the eye can see. With the temperature firmly, stubbornly below zero, I use Hans Peter’s lecture as an opportunity to dab ineffectually at my nose and balaclavas with my mittens, and readjust my goggles.

In short order I have run into the indelicate problem of a very runny nose under my double balaclavas. I have reassured myself since that I was not alone with deficient hygiene.

Your nose is meant to prep the outside air to meet your nice warm, moist lungs. Cold air is usually dry, so when you breathe in your nose is preauthorized to add moisture, and will automatically produce more fluid. Then when you exhale, the outside air can’t hold all the moisture in the nice warm air inside you, so it condenses right there on the tip of your nose. Cold air gets you coming and going.

There may be an avoidance technique the accomplished snowmobiler knows but I have no idea. In long stretches of snowmobiling there is no opportunity to clean your balaclava, so the problem … accumulates. At occasional stops, wearing mittens with only thumbs, it is a challenge to, ah, clean yourself up, especially in the midst of your 21 new best friends.  At least we are anonymous. I hope all those standard issue balaclavas they handed out in duplicate came from the island’s best laundry.


My fingers have formed to the shape of the handlebar grip, my shoulders are frozen high and tight to my neck. Blood sinking toward my center, I think. Careful. We thunder into Grøndalen, green valley, that leads to Grønfjorden, “Green Fjord,” a liquid icicle intruding perhaps fifteen kilometers inland from the larger Isfjorden. A track along its eastern shore provides our entrée to Barentsburg. The top of the ridge on the far side of Gronfjord provides visual drama, dipping in and out of cloud.

Driving conditions into Barentsburg village are good because late-in-the-season snow is compacted, not too fresh, and snowmobiles work best on compacted paths, where their tracks find and naturally slide into the grooves made by those who came before.

Opening the snowmobile up to modest speed for a sport snowmobiler feels secretly heroic for those of us with more timid ambition. Blazing along at seventy kilometers per hour I find myself grinning under all that headwear, holding on tight, very, very tight.



If, as Sylvain Tesson suggests, the art of civilization is combining the most delicate pleasures with the constant presence of danger, then Norway has not civilized the archipelago, but only the little settlement at Longyearbyen.

For outside of Longyearbyen, on the other side of those Beware of Polar Bears signs, there is only ice. None of the perpendiculars of carpentry, no angular form fashioned by man. Just snow, ice, a horizon that undulates, and sky. No sound but snowmobile engines and the wind in your helmet.

No evidence of life extends beyond us and the sound of our engines. No animals, no birds, no roads or road signs, no cables carrying power or pipes pumping water. An entirely inanimate place, or at least one whose only animation, the glacial movement of ice, evades our perception.


Stephen J. Pyne, who spent months as a member of a party of twelve near the center of Antarctica, writes “… the self can only exist — can only be felt and known — in contrast to an Other.”  In much of the polar regions there is no Other, only a constricted, inanimate, frozen world. And that is a challenge for mental hygiene.

Admiral Richard E. Byrd tried to spend an Antarctic winter alone in 1934. Byrd had parlayed a respected naval career into $150,000 in cash contributions (during the Great Depression!) for his expedition. Among other things Byrd’s team of 56 men meant to build a meteorological base where a team of three would record the weather conditions daily. (Also on this expedition was an American named Paul Siple, who developed the “wind chill factor.”)

Construction of the weather hut began too late in the fall, on 22 March, amid appalling conditions in temperatures as low as -60F. Water condensed and froze in the fuel lines of the tractors. The dog sled teams pulled out after three days and the tractors after three more. After just six days of camp construction, Admiral Byrd remained alone inside the 9×13, eight-foot-tall prefabricated building. When the last tractor left the hut was already buried, with only the radio antennae and the instrument shelter visible.

The sun set for the winter on 19 April. Byrd maintained regular weather and aurora observations and a three-times-a-week schedule of radio communications until he fell ill on 31 May. His erratic manner on the radio eventually prompted a rescue – after two failed attempts – as three men reached Byrd’s hut by tractor on 10 August. Byrd was too ill to leave the hut until finally spring weather allowed a flight in on 12 October.

The conventional explanation for Byrd’s illness is carbon monoxide poisoning caused by poor ventilation in the hut. Water froze in the ventilator and stove pipes and the exhaust pipe of the engine that drove the generator.

Stephen Pyne has a different theory: “The truer answer might be the folly of trying to simplify existence amid what was already so simple as to belong on a moon of Saturn.”

Pyne isn’t surprised things went awry for Admiral Byrd.

“Freedom is relative: it requires coercion of various sorts in order to have meaning,” he says. But in his stay in Antarctica “there was nothing to rebel against. You could do whatever you wished. The catch was, there was almost nothing to do …. There is not enough on site to generate the contrasts that allow ideas to arc between them.”

The pilot and author Ernest K. Gann got round to the same idea in a different way. In the context of flying through cloud, he put it like this: “It would be better if there were something to relate to something else and so provide a focus for the mind.”


To the great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, adventure was just bad planning, but to the poor lady in our improbable little Arctic tribe who inexplicably just suddenly drives off alone, so deep into uncompacted snow that her snowmobile finally judders to a halt in a bank she tosses up higher than she, snowmobiling is no adventure.

There is no reason why. It just happens. Our convoy pulls up to wait while they fish our errant snowmobiler out of the snowbank just below Barentsburg town. She is shaken and insists on riding pillion from now on. They tow her snowmobile.

While we wait the sun bursts through the clouds onto the opposite shore, just so gorgeous, so pristine, all the Earth silent but for our snowmobiles. We are thirty five miles of coastline toward the Greenland Sea from Longyearbyen and we might as well be alone in the world.


Two previous excerpts: Here from the Faroe Islands, and this one, naked and freezing, from Iceland.

Click the photo for a larger version on Out in the Cold will be ready for purchase this spring. My previous books are Common Sense and Whiskey, Modest Adventures Far from Home, and Visiting Chernobyl, A Considered Guide.

Out in the Cold: Book Excerpt

outinthecoldcoverrightsideMy new book is just about ready to share. It’s called Out in the Cold (cover, left), and as we run up to publication I’m sharing some photos and excerpts here on the blog. In Out in the Cold we explore up north: Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and maritime eastern Canada, including a curious artifact, the last remaining French colony in North America, a tiny pair of islands off Newfoundland called Saint Pierre and Miquelon. Today it’s winter in East Iceland. Hope you enjoy it.



Reindeer break at once across the hill above the road – a herd of forty – and kicked-up snow gathers speed rolling our way. No apparent reason for their stampede. These beasts, magnitudes more hearty than the dispirited troika that pleaded for handouts in Russian Barentsberg, appear to run for pure joy.

In the world of Icelandic reindeer, the ladies are both the fairer sex and the tougher. Females and males alike shed their antlers annually, but bulls shed right after the rut, in autumn (and it must be a relief, because reindeer antlers represent the fastest tissue growth known in mammals, up to two and a half centimeters every day. They can weigh ten kilograms).

Cows fight, physically, for the best feeding spots in the winter when they are pregnant, so they keep their antlers through winter. Collectors fan out across these hills as soon as the snow melts searching for shed antlers that soon after appear carved into every kind of bauble in the boutiques of Reykjavik.

The day of the eclipse Agnar was guiding a group. “We were standing on that hill there,” he says, pointing, and for a few minutes at maximum eclipse “the reindeer all got into a group,” as they do at night. “For the reindeer it was a very short night.”

The Arctic fox (that they reckon has been around for 10,000 years, turning brown in summer and white in winter) is Iceland’s only native terrestrial mammal. Reindeer, Iceland’s entire cadre, were introduced from Norway. Unlike the Lapps of northern Scandinavia, Icelanders never took to domesticating reindeer, so they live up here in the eastern highlands in winter and come down toward the shore for better grazing in summer.


Agnar parks the Super Jeep in front of a completely improbable guest house built for twenty or thirty, perched at glacier’s edge and across a road marked only by reflective yellow poles along one side. Truth is, the glacier looks the same as the mountains it lies between this time of year, undifferentiated, everything bathed in white.

Agnar sets about digging places to make footfall in the snow, a spadeful per step, from the vehicle to the door. Just several meters away but over the snow horizon, he claims heat glows beneath the snow and that we should shed our clothes and jump into a hot pool.

At minus eight degrees it sounds like an act of dubious wisdom, especially since we can’t even see that such a thing exists.

“Most people,” he smiles, take their clothes off and run with their coat and boots on, maybe a towel.”

He points to the changing rooms, leaves us towels and sets off with his spade digging a path.

No one within twenty miles. We do as he says.


We imagine that once we commit we will see the tail lights of the Super Jeep driving away down the hill, Agnar cackling with evil, the two of us locked outside and naked.

Shedding my clothes, I read a sign on the wall that explains the water in the pool stays at a constant 48 – 53 celsius degrees. Stand at the edge and the snowy rim reaches above your private parts, not that there’s anybody around. You jump in – quickly – and find a place not too near the hot vents, and your feet float up like in the Dead Sea except it’s not salty.

Whoever made the pool rimmed the water with stones and today nature has laid fresh snow around the pool so that when you get down low in it to expose only your head to the cold, you can’t see above the snow rim. It’s quiet as a scared kitten, so quiet I imagine hearing individual snowflakes land on the glacier. This tiny mote of space is all that exists in the world. It’s snug in the water and morsels of ice tickle your face.

Refreshing, renewing. And like so many other things around here, utterly incongruent. Elsewhere on this island, with heat so near the surface Icelanders bake Rúgbrauð, or Geysir Bread, buried in a pot two feet underground to cook overnight.


Guides the world over fix on their favorite landmarks. For our Burmese guide it was factories. “That is milk factory,” “That is rice factory,” “Do you want to see brick factory? Take photo?” Kemm on Streymoy Island liked churches.

For Agnar it is power stations. He shows us all of them (and there are many) big and small, and tells the tale of a farmer and his own personal power station. Power shed, really. It seems that one summer, when there was no snow, the electricity went out and the farmer went to investigate.

He found the door blown off and snow tumbling out of his shed. Failed electricity led to a burst pipe, turning the shed into the farmer’s own personal snow machine. His neighbors snickered that he could hire himself out to ski slopes.


Agnar’s tires are straight-from-America and too big for him to carry a spare. Only America, where bigger is always better, he says, would make these tires. He scoffs at an Icelandic company that has 38 inch tires made in China and imported. They won’t do in EAST Iceland.

And since they are too big to carry a spare, what do you do if you have a flat?

“You have to fix it.”

He glued his tires right to the rims and the mechanic who helped him told him he was crazy. But he didn’t mean for them to come off. Ever.

I was wrong about Agnar at first. All this derring-do makes Agnar’s fine company on the side of a glacier beat that of any neurotic city boy, or gentrified psuedo-farmer like me.



Back to Egilsstaðir, one of Iceland’s few inland towns and the transport hub for the east. It is the first proper town if you arrive on the Norrona ferry and home to an airport with multiple daily flights to Reykjavik. Population, about 2,750.

There is a cafe in the red house (they just call it the red house) in the middle of town. Tonight maybe thirty people socialize in a light, Egilsstaðir way, gathered in groups around laminated diner-style tables like the Hvonn brasserie in Torshavn.

(Most people on the island are related at least at the 8th or 9th remove. To avoid striking up a relationship with your cousin when out at the pub, there is an “incest prevention” app based on genealogical data that allows people to bump phones and determine how closely they may be related. Just in case.)

An Indian fellow in the kitchen serves up tandoori chicken dishes, Gull Icelandic beer in big mugs and ‘wood fired’ pizza, surely exotic in a place with no wood. People come for the food and the free wifi, or to play chess.

Icelanders play a lot of chess. It is one of the ways to pass the long winter. In the off season fishermen carve chess pieces from whale bones (wood being more scarce) and people knit. There is a fine selection of yarn in the store. Families, friends, the community, everybody nods closer in the winter.

And Icelanders read. In the 1960s there were a dozen daily newspapers and forty bookshops in Reykjavik. There are more books published and more books read per head here than anywhere else. Every tenth Icelander is an author.

Meanwhile, in the Icelandair Hotel Herad across the way, mod furniture that may have found exile here from the rest of Europe after the 80’s swivels in place beside the overbearing silence of its restaurant. The Hotel Herad’s most notable feature may be ahead of its time. Its default TV news channel is not the advertising wasteland of CNN, but France 24 TV news.




I throw open the blinds the day of our flight from Egilsstaðir and flop back down on the bed, self-satisfied because I’ve built an extra day into our itinerary and this will be it, the day we are socked in with a full blizzard. The street is scarcely visible and the flags outside stand straight, towel-snapping in the wind. No plane will fly here today.

Snow-whipping wind bends the trees sideways while I imagine a day of amniotic calm in which I needn’t be kempt nor ept nor sheveled. I imagine ordering modest room service fare in the modest Icelandair hotel, never progressing beyond my underwear and soaking in the state of the world as France Vingt Quatre sees it, nibbling the admittedly graying grapes on the Herad’s fruit platter. Until the next time I look and blue sky and calm reign, and the occasional car makes wary time down the highway.

All flights lead to Reykjavik, four of them, at 8:55, 12:15, 12:55 and 16:10. They ask that you arrive thirty minutes before your flight but still you have to ring the bell on the counter for service. It’s a little whacky. There’s a video monitor on which Saevar the Reindeer Whisperer offers tours of East Iceland.

Americans have tried to convince ourselves since 9/11 that a more prominent display of intolerance, flags and belligerence by Homeland Security will take care of the security threat. Back home we have made the dour airport experience the new normal.

In Egilsstaðir, the old normal never left.  There is no security and there are no security personnel. You are hard pressed to find any personnel at all except the lady behind the counter at the coffee shop. And there are no bag scanners or x-ray machines. Just jump on and ride.

By this time we have had any number of alternating gales and lulls since that first look out the window. Three Caterpillar tractors with big blades race up and down the airstrip. In winter, I guess clearing that bit of land is a full time job. The 8:30 arrival, a Fokker 50, roars in ten minutes late and we are southbound within a half hour.

A pilot on the Savusavu air strip in Fiji once lauded the entire Fokker line to me, saying these little worker bees demand the air, and you have to hold them on the ground. So it was with today’s flight in a Fokker 50, as we roared down the air strip and out of east Iceland like lightnin’.

When I was a teenager my friend Jim and I found some of his dad’s money, paper bills that said “Landsbanki Islands,” and we scoured maps to find these islands. We couldn’t, and came to realize the translation would be something like the “National Bank of Iceland.” In fact, the failure of Landsbanki, alongside Iceland’s other two big banks Kaupthing (“marketplace”) and Glitnir (as we learned in the Faroes, Norse heaven), precipitated Iceland’s bankruptcy in 2008.

The word “Islands” works the same way here. The airline is Air Iceland when you book your tickets in English on the web; here it’s Flugfelag Islands in its livery, and in-flight magazine.

They keep Reykjavik city airfield busy with domestic flights to Isafjordur, Akureyri and then on to Grimsey in the Arctic, Þhorshofn, Vopnafjordur and Egilsstaðir, to Tórshavnin the Faroe Islands and to Illulisat, Nuuk, Narsarsuaq, Kulusuk (where we are bound soon) and Ittoqqortoormiit in Greenland.

From my seat 2A I lean forward and guess that if that propeller comes loose so will my head, because before they start it up and it spins too fast to see, I reckon it is maybe just a touch more than a meter from where I sit. Which might be just as well if the prop flies off, anyway.


Here is a previous excerpt, from the Faroe Islands.

The Clerk’s Stamp is Money

The northern Indian province of Sikkim, between Nepal and Bhutan, borders Tibet. To visit, non-Indians require an “Inner Line Permit/Restricted Area Permit” issued by the Government of Sikkim Tourism Department.

It’s because of history. China chased the Dalai Lama from Lhasa over these mountains and off the throne in ’59. India took in his cadre and donated a whole city, Dharmsala, to their cause. That peeved the Chinese mightily.

The Tibet/Sikkim border isn’t drawn to either sides’ satisfaction. These are barren, forbidding, 12,000 foot mountaintops. Nearly 2500 died fighting up here in the 1960s.  (The border at Nathula reopened for trade in 2006. Goods worth just over $1,000,000 moved through in 2013.)

So they try to keep up with where foreigners are.

The Inner Line Permit is a sheet of legal sized, pulpy paper with wood chips still evident. You can get one at the provincial border for free with passport photos and photocopies of things.

It cautions that the visitor must not overstay or go beyond the restricted areas, and must register at all check posts. It has us write down on paper what the NSA already knows: our arrival point, arrival and departure dates, names, nationalities, and passport information. This form requires a bureaucrat’s stamp.

The bureaucrat’s stamp is money.


permit copy

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Two New Things to Read

One's on the web, the other's a book.

Enjoy Where is Cuba Going? by John Jeremiah Sullivan, in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. It's long and meandering, in a good way. Sullivan is as flummoxed by the Florida Cuban community and the embargo as everybody else is, except the Florida Cuban community and anybody who has to navigate through them toward election.

Just one thing – he writes:

"Barack Obama was going to open things up, and he did tinker with the
rules regarding travel, but now they say that when you try to follow
these rules, you get caught up in all kinds of forms and tape."

Since his wife is Cuban, he can enter Havana under rules that are different from the ones we used on our visit a few months back, so he wouldn't have any experience with the new rules. For the record, there is a little more paperwork than, say, flying to Paris, akin to the kinds of things you have to file to visit, say, Belarus.But it's no big deal.

And staring down the epic Cuban Embargo had us anxious and alert re-entering Miami, but immigration couldn't have been more bored to see us. We might as well have brought along those Cuban cigars I left behind.


I've also just been reading, and recommend Chasing the Devil: A Journey Through Sub-Saharan Africa in the Footsteps of Graham Greene by Tim Butcher. Tim Butcher is a former British newspaper reporter and war correspondent now living in South Africa, who has that knack for travel in places you probably don't want to visit.

His previous book, Blood River: The Terrifying Journey Through The World's Most Dangerous Country, in which he retraced Henry Morton Stanley's 1870 trek, was harrowing. In the new book Butcher sets out to cross Sierra Leone and Liberia. There's a particularly frightening section, and touching tribute, to two friends killed while reporting in Sierra Leone in 2000.

It's good stuff. Both Butcher books are worth a read.

Common Sense and Whiskey, the Book – The Southern Caucasus, Chapter Fifteen

Here is Chapter Fifteen of Common Sense and Whiskey, the book, a very short trip through Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Track down previous chapters here. Click the photos to make them bigger. More photos and additional commentary are available at A Common Sense and Whiskey Companion. And here's the Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia Galleries at Order the entire book for $9.99 at, at, or the Kindle version (just $4.99).


The Wien Flughafen stood disturbingly deserted at night, all the shops stocked like Christmas, but you couldn’t play with the toys. They glittered and blinked coquettishly behind glass doors pulled shut.

Our old buddy Austrian Airlines left Vienna on a beeline toward Budapest, then Timisoara, Bucharest, Constanta, over the Black Sea to Trabzon and on into Yerevan, all of it in blackness below. The flight tracking screen showed our destination tucked right in between Grozny and Baghdad: “Local time in Jerewan 4:31 a.m.”

Austrian’s corporate color scheme was brilliant red, the national color, and the cabin crew was dressed red hat to sensible (but red) shoes. Fetching, I thought.

Taxiing out (“We are number one for takeoff”), a wail arose behind us. A woman screamed “Go back, go back and check!” Crimson crew rushed to her and kneeled and huddled round our distraught Armenian. One of them came back forward and PA’d their apologies, “Dis is not Azerbaijan, ve know dis.”

The safety announcements were recorded, and they were for the wrong destination. This woman wasn’t by God going to Baku. Azerbaijan’s border with Armenia had been shut tight for fifteen years.

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Next Week: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia


14th century Trinity Church (Tsminda Sameba) near Mt. Kazbeg, Georgia.

Several days back we put up a list of links to reading about the Caucasus. Next week we'll publish our small contribution, the final chapter of Common Sense and Whiskey, the book, ($9.99 at, at, or $4.99 for the Kindle version.) here on the blog. It's the story of our quick rumble through the southern Caucasus, from Yerevan, Armenia to Tbilisi, Georgia and up the Georgia Military Highway to the Russian border and Mt. Kazbeg, then over to Baku and the scary post-industrial Caspian Sea island of Pirallahi, in Azerbaijan. See previous CS&W chapters here.


Common Sense and Whiskey, the Book – Malawi, Chapter Fourteen

Here is Chapter Fourteen of Common Sense and Whiskey, the book, including a journey on the famous MV Ilala across Lake Malawi. We're publishing each chapter here on the blog (Track down previous chapters here). You can order the entire book for just $9.99 at, at, or direct from EarthPhotos Publishing. Here's the Kindle version (just $4.99). Click these photos to make them bigger. More photos and additional commentary are available at A Common Sense and Whiskey Companion. And here's the Malawi Gallery at


“On your right is area 50. This here is area 28, light industrial area. Across the road there is fertilizer factory and tobacco factory. That is heavy industrial area.”

The national police headquarters came into view on the right.

“That is area 40.”

Just across the street, “Area 43,” Everlasting explained, “Is low industrial. It used to be only area ten, and area ten is still there, but it is full, so they have made area 43.”

“We also have names but our names are too long, so we just say, say, area 12.”

Malawi’s Ministries stood on the left.

“So, is that area 1?”

Logical, I thought.

“No, that is area 20.”

This went on all through Lilongwe.

“Ah, that is area 47. Up there, that’s area 49. National Bank. Bank of the Nation.” The tallest building in Malawi is the central bank.

“This is the Jehovah’s Witness headquarters in Malawi.”


When we met, our driver told us, “I am Everlasting.” We sort of looked away, and then we realized that was his name.

Everlasting was a slow, deliberate speaker, easy enough to understand once you got acclimated. His “S’s” kind of trailed off.

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Common Sense and Whiskey, the Book – Paraguay, Chapter Twelve

Here is Chapter Twelve of Common Sense and Whiskey, the book. We're publishing each chapter here on the blog (Track down previous chapters here). You can order the entire book at, at, or direct from EarthPhotos Publishing. Here's the Kindle version (just $6.99). Click these photos to make them bigger. More photos and additional commentary are available at A Common Sense and Whiskey Companion. And here's the Paraguay Gallery at


The farthest back water washes to a national capital must be Asuncion, Paraguay. It’s as if its residents didn’t ask for the honor, but the capital had to be somewhere so they amiably accommodated.

Maybe parts of Africa are less vital. Think Ouagadougou, maybe, or Bangui. Even somnambulant Vientiane, which is in Laos, shows more vitality than here, smack in the middle of South America.

They’d rolled up the streets by the time we installed ourselves in the Sabe Hotel. The front desk spoke not so much as “hello.” No English. Here in the national capital.

The TV wouldn’t work until tomorrow because it was New Years Day and they couldn’t get anybody out to fix it, but it was a nice enough place. A picture hung partly over the window in the hallway. That was a little strange.

I was out early in the morning, through the business district and down to the Paraguay River. It wasn’t very big, downtown Asuncion, and it wasn’t very busy.

There was the main Plaza de los Heroes, down a few blocks, and Asuncion had a building modeled after the Pantheon. Sales ladies’ tables along Avenue Palma offered up the usual languid market fare: watches and underwear and (allegedly) Nike clothes and plastic toys. Birds were loud and it was hot hot hot by 8:45.

Down at the river, General Francisco Solana Lopez’s white-washed mansion, started in 1860, stood shuttered. Beyond it, children pumped water at a clutter of squatter shacks. A sand spit stretched out to two rusting shipwrecks, resting over on their sides, just on the edge of the water. Here in the national capital.


The breathtaking Asuncion waterfront.

But let’s start at the beginning, which was a few days earlier.

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