Thursday, February 26, 2009

North from Nata

Posted from Kasane, Botswana

This is the region we have been warned about constantly. There's wild animals there. Lions, elephants and buffalo (oh my). Be careful of elephants, some would say. Don't get closer than one kilometer; they can go from 0 to 40 kph instantly. Others say elephants are not dangerous, just big. However, watch out for buffalo. Or lions. Build fires after dark, we are told. Find an armed police escort. The military will provide one. There's leopards too. Don't worry, you'll be fine. Elephants are friendly. Don't go. You're not afraid of animals? Take a gun. The Massai warriors can kill a lion with just a spear. But not you. Build circles of fire all around you. Pour one liter of diesel fuel in a circle around your camp to keep the snakes and scorpions away. But most of all, just build a fire.

As we traveled north from Nata, the landscape changed abruptly. The trees gave way and all around was flat grassland, then a wide flat shrub land. This was the wilderness. There were no fences, no sign of human habitation except the long straight road and a radio tower on the horizon. The bushes encroached on the shoulder, but it wasn't a problem for us. There was virtually no traffic to contend with.

Soon, the shoulder disappeared. Here, the wilderness began taking back the road, one pothole at a time until they became craters and the traffic drove beside the road rather than on it.

In this place, elephant trails are common. I looked up to see a pair cross the road 200 meters in front of me. Then two more, off to the left, a cow and her baby. I made sure to give them lots of room.

We stopped for lunch under a shade tree, and Orian professed an appreciation for this road that we were all feeling.

"I'd recommend this route to any cycle tourist," he said.

"It's the best road we've ridden yet," added Quinn.

It was a great day for cycling. The tailwind gave us a strong boost. The sun continually disappeared and reemerged from the clouds until late afternoon when a storm system poured on us. Then it was sunny again, just long enough to dry us a bit before we stopped.

The land transitioned again, into a tropical dry forest. We flew through the warm rain for half an hour, then made for a radio tower in the distance. We hoped it would have a little road and maybe a clearing that wasn't frequented by elephants. Between the five of us we'd seen 10 in the 125 kilometers since Nata.

The tower was better than we could have imagined. There was an 8-foot fence topped with barbed wire and the gate was held closed only by a loop of wire. This is the way to secure yourself from animals.

"Now, we're in the fence," remarked Orian.

"When the animals can't be caged, we cage ourselves," said Quinn.

As we set up we heard noises in the bush so we rushed up the tower in time to spot four elephants moving away. To the west the rain we had endured obscured the sun and to the east the next system moved in.

We scaled the tower again in pre-dawn light to watch the sun rise. From 270 feet up the land is remarkably flat and you can see forever. Over 360 degrees there wasn't a single light. The complete lack of human habitation provided a very visual indication of just how far away we were.

You don't get to do that on the tour.

The trees grew from gray to vibrant green as the sun rose, darker green for the shrubs and lighter for the taller trees. Elephant paths networked through the forest, visible even from the top of the tower.

We climbed back down the swaying tower to regain the road. It really isn't that bad. The bathtub-sized potholes and heaps of elephant dung served mostly to slow down the cars and trucks rather than hinder us.

This day provided more elephants, zebra and some baboons. Midmorning we caught sight of a giraffe, then several more. We left our bikes by the side of the road and snuck into the bush to get a closer look.

You don't get to do that on the tour either.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Botswana, are you ready for us?

Posted from Gabarone, Botswana

I suppose I should make a big deal about our first border crossing, but it really wasn't. We lunched 17 km from the border and those 17 km flew by with little wind and much energy, buoyed as we were with excitement.

The border was as simple as could be. Just one question before I could leave South Africa:

"Number?" said Immigration Official T. Wilson.

"Excuse me?"

"Of your car."

"Oh. I'm on a bicycle."

"What is the number of the bicycle?"

"It has no number."

Without another word, he stamped my passport and the surmountable challenge of Botswana immigration didn't so much loom, but rather reared it's friendly head. To avoid including an address of our destination, said the official, we must simply check the "in transit" box. We have 30 days to reach Zambia.

Off we go.

Three Schools

Posted from Gabarone, Botswana

In the town of Bultfontein, as in so many others, we were welcomed into the home of strangers. A group of three families came together to put us up for the night and give us a braai (barbecue).

"This is not a guest house, but if the community needs rooms they are always welcome to stay over," said our host Elize.

In return for staying with the generous people of Bultfontein, we gave presentations at two different schools the next morning. But really, it was more of a reward than a payment. The first, Bultfontein High School, was in their morning assembly when we arrived.

BHS is an Afrikaaner school, and the principal introduced us in Afrikaans. Either he's a very funny man or we made quite a spectacle, because there was great merriment (at our expense?).
Orian gave a short talk about our trip.

"How many think this trip would be hard?" he asked. Yes, most of them nodded, they wouldn't want to do it.

"Is it difficult to ride one kilometer?" he said next. Most shook their heads. "Well, we just ride one kilometer, then we ride one kilometer again. It's not so hard to do that. And we do it again until we've ridden 80 kilometers. The next day we do it again, and in seven months we'll be in Cairo."

Then, quite unexpectedly, he called me out to play the piano. Thinking fast, I tried to evaluate my options.

"Do you know Mozart?" I asked. They did, so I played the only Mozart I know. This gave me time to think, and when I finished I had a plan.

"Does anybody play a musical instrument?" There were a few. "It's a bit like bike touring. It seems very hard when you think of the whole thing. But you just learn a little bit at first, then a little more, and soon....Mozart!"

The principal caught on to our theme and wrapped up by relating it to school: first one grade, then the next, like the baby steps of Dr. Leo Marvin. It went unsaid, but the larger message is you can do anything if you break it up into smaller accomplishments, and this is especially true of bike touring. There are always problems, and there are always solutions to those problems. And the hardest step is always the first.

We left the bobbing blond heads of the BHS students behind and pedaled 10 km into the country to visit our next school, the Sekgweng Combined School. Sekgweng is made up of two small, low buildings, avast difference from the stone, church like parochial school in Bultfontein. They wear uniforms too, not polos and jackets like BHS but blue work shirts and slacks of skirts. I'm not sure what they meant by "combined school," but there were no white kids. Perhaps "combined" referred to mixed economic status, for Carin, one of the teachers, informed us that there are rich and poor kids there. I couldn't tell which was which.

Orian repeated his speech, minus piano and principal. Afterward, the five-year-olds gather in front of us and belt out South Africa's national anthem at the top of their lungs. They speak Sotho until grade three, and English thereafter.

Later in the day we cross the Vaal river and enter the Northwestern Cape. We'd been promised a place to stay in Bloemhof, so we waited at the police station to meet Jeanne Boshoff.

While we waited we were corralled by Anlee, a communications officer. Anlee is a spectacle as well. She wanted to roll out the red carpet for us, but ended up arranging for us a morning visit to a school with Inspector Mathe, as part of an adopt-a-cop program. All the while, she insisted Jeanne - who had never met us until that moment - was in charge.

Jeanne was flustered at first, but turned out to be very laid back and a great host. To our surprise, her guest house was a registered B&B, the Vrolikheid Gastehuis.

"It's not that nice," she insisted. "South Africans are used to more luxury." The second statement may be true, but I take exception to the first. The guest house was formal while remaining homey, and the yard was exquisite with a fountain and gazebo.

The next morning we rode to Thuto-Lore, a high school on the outskirts of Bloemhof, in an informal "township." Larger than Sekgweng, it was also a series of low, long buildings reminiscent of a barracks. Like Skegweng, there was little hope of seeing a piano, but nobody seemed to suffer for the lack of it. From the parking lot I could hear many students singing in Southern Sotho in the courtyard.

As we entered the courtyard, their voices rose in unison to an almost deafening level and I realized: they were singing for us! Then they quieted, and began singing the Lord's Prayer in a call and response style.

Inspector Mathe introduced us. He spoke ponderously and formally with long pauses. After he said what everyone presumably knew already, he turned it over to Teboho Ledibane, chairperson of the Community Policing Forum. He gave us the ninth degree in front of the students and his motive was clear: public relations.

What has been your experience in South Africa? Crime? Safety? Why is it important for the community to interact with the police? If this is their usual demeanor, I can see why the police have trouble relating to students. Still, Anlee, Mathe and Ledibane are working very hard to make a positive change in their community. Edgewise throughout the visit we were able to disseminate some information about our trip and answer questions from the learners.

"Next time, come and sleep in the township so that you must get the vibe of our culture," Ledibane invited us at the end. This statement was a marked contrast to the advice of most of our white hosts. "Please don't sleep near black townships. Stay between white people. It's not safe," we had been told. It's no wonder race relations are strained. But the welcome we've received and the generosity has been unbeatable, independent of race.

Do we have a couple of minutes to see a dance routine, Ledibane asked as we finished. A group of learners stepped onto the platform with us and began an unscripted, humorous playacting dance routine to a clapped beat. The rest of the students cracked up and crowded around.

Finally, they sang again. Two girls, maybe 15 years old, took turns leading, soloing and after each phrase the whole school would repeat the hook. The two girls had beautiful voices and held their own to the rest of the school, everyone belting it out at full volume. There was no thought of self-consciousness here.

The sound of that school, and the welcome they gave us rang in my head throughout the day and ever since.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Upward and Inward

Posted from Bloemfontein, South Africa
From Port Elizabeth we turned north, and two changes became quickly apparent. We went up and into the mountainous high country of the Eastern and Northern Cape provinces, and as we crested the first ridge the vegetation and climate changed quickly. Bush and prickly pear gave way to brown grass, termite mounds and Aloe ferox, occasionally interrupted by a green farm supported by an irrigation system. The clouds have broken up and the climate is hot and dry.
The social atmosphere has changed as well. We proceeded to Cradock, where Romano's friend Sonya had promised us a place to stay. I think Cradock has more shantytown than town, miles of it, not cobbled together from scraps but uniform shacks. There was trash everywhere, broken bottles and other garbage carpeted the landscape.
Cradock was descriptive of most of the towns we passed on our way north. The area is poor, and often towns will have little in the way of a visible economy. I wonder where everybody works. But the people are still welcoming and generous, and the area seems to be profoundly religious.
We pedaled downtown to meet Sonya at the Good Samaritan Hospice. She left us to our own devices before dinner, and we had the place to ourselves overnight.
It was Quinn who first suggested the place was haunted. The hospital had an eerie feel. It's a green building like a one-story house in the front with a two story hospital wing attached to the back. The front is cozy and smells of laundry, but the wing smells like a hospital.
Sonya offered us three beds on the second floor. Quinn quietly pointed out to the rest of us: "People die in these beds."
We ate dinner in diminishing twilight of the kitchen because the light didn't work, and heard strange noises about the place. Orian fixed the light after dinner, or so we thought.
I was making a cup of tea in the kitchen when the fluorescent bulb fell. Out of the corner of my eye I saw it hit my tea cup and crash with a characteristic pop. Glass and powder flew everywhere, filling my cup and showering me and I was fortunate not to be cut.
None of the others decided to take a bed. I chose the one furthest down the hall, between the locked doors of two mysterious rooms. Why are there so many locked doors in this building, I wondered. Dogs barked outside my open window and cats yowled, an unearthly tone that set me on edge even after I identified it.
My room appeared neglected. The bed was on rollers, accompanied by a crib full of second-hand clothes. Do babies die here too? The room is adorned with a heating unit and a sink, upon which leans an Afrikaans children's book and though the translation (The Cat in the Box) is benign, the title in Afrikaans adds to the ominous feeling: Die Kat in die Bos.
Maybe I'd be more comfortable back in the cozy front of the building, with its green and pink tile flowers, close to my friends and the utility of the kitchen and the hum and clatter of the dryer. But a bed is a bed and I put these thoughts aside and slept.
Unlike Hospice in the United States, which deals primarily with cancer patients, Hospice South Africa is consumed with AIDS patients. They offer education, HIV tests and condoms, though the dispenser in the living room which claimed "AIDS kills, use a condom" was empty. Hospice received support for antiretroviral (ARV) drugs through President Bush's global AIDS plan, said Sonya. However, the plan only lasts five years, and Hospice's future ability to get ARVs is uncertain.
But ARVs are no good if the patients won't take them. Africans infected with HIV are eligible for disability if their white blood cell count drops below 200 per micro liter, said Sonya. If they take ARVs, their count will improve and they'll lose their disability.
Cradock has an especially bad problem - a 45% infection rate - because of high prostitution rates there, said Sonya. It's on a major truck route to Port Elizabeth and is a common stopover for truckers.
"It almost seems like a war you can't win," said Quinn. The culture itself is contradictory to the potential solutions.
Sonya doesn't come off as fatalistic, though. She acknowledges the problems in a matter-of-fact way that is common in South Africa, and focuses on the challenges.
"We cannot pay the same salaries as the government," she said. "We cannot provide the same benefits. We are here for the love of the work."
We left Cradock late in the morning, planning to push through to Middleburg because we had been promised a place to stay. But the day was hot and the wind was against us and by late afternoon we were nearly exhausted.
We came over Witkransnek pass as the sun began to set and it cast a golden glow on the yellow grass that filled the valley below. Just on the far side we could see Middleburg, with dozens of mesas protruding between us and our destination. We rode quickly along the straight, down sloping road. Though our bodies craved food and rest, a tailwind combined with the cooling temperature to give us new strength.
Finally, as we rode into town, the colors started to fade. The clouds, at first yellow, turned to pink, then purple.
It's a magical time to cycle. Quinn pulled out the remnants of a bottle of whisky, but he dropped the cap so we finished the last few swallows at 20 kph in the dusk. I don't remember the last time I enjoyed whisky that much.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Bike Shops and Soup Kitchens

Posted from Cradock, South Africa

Port Elizabeth was our first goal upon leaving Cape Town. Other towns and destinations came along the way, but all along we were counting down the kilometers to P.E.

The road to P.E. is a gradual descent, and with a tailwind I found myself wondering when I had last pedaled. I couldn't answer, but to coast into a place we had been seeking for so long was the first real sense of accomplishment on the trip.

Port Elizabeth was also a chance for us to catch our collective breath. We stayed with Romano

Satanassi and his daughters, Maria, Valentina and Martina. Friends of a friend, Orians family had mailed his yellow fever card to them and they hosted us for two days while we waited for it. Meanwhile, we ran errands, worked on our bikes and relaxed.

A touring bike is a lot like a bike tour. It never remains the same. You are always tweaking it, repairing it, adjusting it. It's a living entity. It adapts to you and you adapt to it. Like a marriage, it's not always perfect. There are rough times, frustrating neuroses. Little things that annoy the bejezus out of you. But it's a labor of love, and you're always making your relationship stronger.

I love the sound of a well tuned derailleur: silence. By turning the barrel adjuster on my rear derailleur, I can get eight of the nine gears in perfect alignment. But the second from the top just won't sit right. It tries to shift off of its own accord, so I get on and off and on and off and fiddle with it and eventually we have a manageable compromise.

I spent my time and money in P.E. replacing a handlebar stem and a pitted headset. Orian's bicycle underwent more invasive surgery - he replaced his drop-bars with a straight bar and mounted his shifters on the bar ends, "wing-nut bike tourist" style. Quinn went further still, and dismantled his bike entirely so it could be sandblasted and powder-coated.

"I think I'm a wannabe wing-nut cyclist," said MinWah, while adjusting some facet of her bike.

"It's not really something to aspire to," returned Orian. "It just happens to you. One day you wake up and realize you're that guy where you say 'man, he's been on the road a little too long.'"

On our second day in P.E. Romano's drove us to help out at a soup kitchen. We rode across town in his old diesel Land Cruiser, serenaded by Bocelli and entered the shantytown that contained the soup kitchen.

"I tell you, they have a problem with alcohol," said Romano, as we entered the neighborhood. Sure enough, the landscape was dominated by billboards advertising alcohol. Tall fences with barbed wire atop them thwarted the progress of windblown plastic bags and other trash.

The Ubomi Obutsha Centre serves kids twice a week. The little kids lined up, patient in the queue because they know exactly what gets them soup and what does not. It was mostly boys with a few girls and they were mostly dressed in the black and yellow of some school uniform.

They signed in with their names and received a blue, yellow or turquoise mug filled with a tomato-based noodle and vegetable concoction and a small piece of bread. They sat on upturned crates and dipped bread and drank soup. It was quiet at first, but as the little room filled they broke into animated chatter like any other cafeteria.

They spoke Xhosa, said Romano, one of 11 official languages in South Africa. More than anything this brought home to me how recently apartheid was institutional. English and Afrikaans are invasive, like the Canadian pine trees and the eucalyptus from Australia that dominate the landscape south of the Cape Fold mountain belt.