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.

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See photos from Zambia in the Zambia Gallery at Earthphotos.com.

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

Weekend Reading

Good stuff to read this weekend:

The case for invading America by Scott Gilmore in MacLean’s: “Our invasion may be slowed due to the usual congestion at the border crossings, but if we time our attack mid-week, traffic on the Ambassador Bridge should be manageable.”
Watermarks by Donovan Hohn at Lapham’s Quarterly. A meditation on water.
Teddy Roosevelt on How the Blind Cult of Success Unfits Us for Democracy and Liberty by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings.
The Political Path to GPS: How war and peace forged the universal map by Anthony Paletta at New Atlantis
Mexicans Drive Bus to Russia for the World Cup at El Universal

Last Friday I wrote that

“President Trump is not taking the country seriously, but rather playing it as a television show in which he is the star, with teases and cliffhangers, time-worn entertainment industry tactics to keep us tuning in,” and that “This year the United States has become a cartoon country, with either the complicity or inattention of much of its population.”

Here is an article from Monday that elaborates on that theme: Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the kayfabe.

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Birds are strange. Sometimes kind of prehistoric and scary and very unlike humans. But they are not beyond the occasional bad hair day. For one further weekend diversion, I invite you to enjoy 183 entertaining photos of our avian friends at EarthPhotos.com.

Enjoy the weekend.

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.

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See photos from Madagascar in the Madagascar Gallery at Earthphotos.com.

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

Weekend Reading

Next week is one to watch, with the Trump/Kim summit in prime time on Monday night in the east of the United States, just as President Trump would have it, then Thursday’s kickoff of the World Cup in Moscow.

This morning the president said that “he wants to meet with NFL players and athletes who kneel during the National Anthem so they can recommend people they think should be pardoned because they were treated unfairly by the justice system.”

President Trump is not taking the country seriously, but rather playing it as a television show in which he is the star, with teases and cliffhangers, time-worn entertainment industry tactics to keep us tuning in. Trouble is, neither are much of the broadcast media playing their traditional role on either side of the partisan divide. Rather they are capitalizing, literally, on our fraught national moment in a frenzy of profit-making.

This year the United States has become a cartoon country, with either the complicity or inattention of much of its population. So perhaps it’s time for a month of World Cup diversion.

Eh. Besides all that, here are a few absorbing reads for your weekend:

500-year-old Leaning Tower of Pisa mystery unveiled by engineers at Phys.org. Why the Leaning Tower doesn’t fall down.
Meet the Economist Behind the One Percent’s Stealth Takeover of America by Lynn Parramore of the Institute for New Economic Thinking. This is just frightening.
Own Goal: The Inside Story of How the USMNT Missed the 2018 World Cup by Andrew Helms and Matt Pentz at theringer.com
All life on Earth, in one staggering chart by Brian Resnick and Javier Zarracina at Vox.com.

And it’s that time of year again. From Mumbai’s weekend forecast: the worst rains since 2005 by Maria Thomas at qz.com:

He explained that this year’s heavy rains are the result of a low pressure system expected to develop over the Bay of Bengal, which will combine with cyclonic circulations over the Konkan coast, Goa, and Andhra Pradesh.

Every year, the monsoon rains bring Mumbai to a standstill…. Because of this, thousands are usually left stranded when it rains heavily, turning railway stations and even arterial roads into filthy swimming pools. The death toll often mounts by the day as residents risk being washed away or losing their lives in landslides.

Monday we’ll continue with this summer’s series of African vignettes with a tiny story from Madagascar (Its capital, Antananarivo, is pictured above). See you then.

Faroe Islands Photo Essay

New this month, bbc.co.uk has a really nice exploration of the Faroe Islands by author/photographer Christian Petersen, premised on the far-flung islands’ postmen. Check it out. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Then come back and read an excerpt from my book Out in the Cold, about a visit to the Faroese village of Saksun (below).

Click to enlarge. There are more photos in the Faroe Islands Gallery at EarthPhotos.com, and you can buy Out in the Cold from Amazon.com by clicking the cover, or from your home country’s Amazon.

Quotes: White People Dancing

“There were as many ways of dancing the high-life as there were people on the floor. But, broadly speaking, three main patterns could be discerned. There were four or five Europeans whose dancing reminded one of the early motion pictures. They moved like triangles in an alien dance that was ordained for circles. There were others who made very little real movement. … The last group were the ecstatic ones. They danced apart, spinning, swaying or doing intricate syncopations with their feet and waist.”

– Chinua Achebe in No Longer at Ease, originally published in 1960

Weekend Reading

Relax and enjoy some absorbing writing online this week. A sampling:

Facebook, Snapchat and the Dawn of the Post-Truth Era by Antonio García Martínez in Wired.
Sacrificing at the Altar of the Euro by Thomas Fazi in Jacobin Mag. More in the burgeoning genre of hand-wringing about the inflexibility of the Euro. Case study this time, Italy.
My Mother’s Brilliant Career in Soviet Culture by Anastasia Edel in the NYRB. From the mini-genre of books about Soviet life. Books like Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation by Donald J. Raleigh and Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich (Author), Bela Shayevich (Translator).
Warsaw to Trump: Let’s make a military deal (without NATO) by David M. Herszenhorn in Politico. From the Polish perspective, this might be canny thinking.
Can’t we all just get along? A road trip with my Trump-loving cousin by Bryan Mealer in The Guardian. Mealer is the author of a 2011 book on a rather different topic: All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in Congo.
How we entered the age of the strongman by John Gray in New Statesman.

Gray is a sort of public intellectual iconoclast from Britain. This is a lengthy book review in which Gray writes early of “corporate predation and ravaging of communities …under the regime over which liberals of one kind or another presided,” then later that “The most serious threat to the West comes from its own intellectual inertia.” Corporate predation must not be that ravaging to Gray. He worries, as does everybody else today about “the redundancy of human labour,” and decides that “The western model … has morphed out of shape.” And this:

“In a plausible scenario, the decisive conflicts in coming years will not be between liberal and authoritarian states but among oligarchies within each of them. Will Trump continue to be swayed by the billionaire Mercer family, or will other American oligarchs become more influential? Will the spoils system Putin has established in Russia be destabilised in an intensifying succession struggle? Could the anti-corruption drive through which Xi is cementing his position in China provoke a backlash from oligarchs it threatens? Whatever the answers to these questions, there is little reason to expect any move to more liberal values. Societies that are progressively discarding the freedoms by which liberalism was once defined are ill-equipped in the contest with advancing authoritarianism.”

It’s a lengthy article. Food for thought.

Enjoy your weekend. See you Monday with Africa Vignette #5 from Malawi.