So I realize that as the semester progresses my dispatches back home are becoming less and less frequent. Please know that the gaps are not a sign I’m not thinking of you all but rather of my inability to sit down at a computer for long enough to jot down everything I’ve been up to. Just when I’m about to finish an e-mail, I up and go off to Zimbabwe (and you think I’m kidding? Continue on, dear friend :)
The past few weeks have been truly extraordinary. Last time I wrote I was heading off to Johannesburg with my friend Jake. Sure, there is no such thing as perfect, but our trip came quite close. We didn’t waste a second, veering through one of the world’s most dangerous cities to visit the Apartheid Museum (brilliantly evocative), Pretoria (nice a few decades ago, deteriorating ever since), downtown Jo’burg (woeful), the northern suburbs (rich and white) and Soweto, where we took a bike tour (distinctly not the type of bike tour Americans are familiar with!) and spent a night. The visit was capped off by a one-day mad dash around the city talking with foreign correspondents from U.S. newspapers. Somehow the stars aligned perfectly that day and we were able to go from the Baltimore Sun to the New York Times to the Washington Post. Needless to say, I was in heaven.
The following weekend included getting ice cream four times in three days (just doing my patriotic duty as an American and chubbying up), taking a day trip (to see more penguins, hike to a waterfall and drive along the coast), visiting a township and orphanage (see below) on World TB Day and attending a concert featuring the most joyous music I’ve ever heard. The Soweto String Quartet performed at the botanical gardens here, and between the music and the setting (and the wine!) I got up and danced. (If you think that was out of character, wait until what’s coming.)
Per the American tradition of stressing yourself out before going on vacation, I nearly got an ulcer the week before our fall break. But now I can report that it is physically possible to write a 12-page paper in one day; that I’ll be in New York this summer interning with Time (if you’ll be in the city, too, please let me know) and that the Vagina Monologues makes men uncomfortable the world over.
The trip I incidentally deprived myself of sleep for was to Namibia, the second least-densely populated country in the world (can you name the first? Answer below). What the country lacks in population it makes up for in attractions. Over 10 days, three friends and I drove more than 3,000 miles to the world’s second-largest canyon (Fish River Canyon), world’s highest sand dunes (Sossusvlei), a ritzy coastal town known for adventure sports (Swakopmund, where Angelina fled with Brad to have her kid) and one of the best wildlife-viewing national parks around (Etosha). The trip was action-packed and included a lot of firsts for me: camping, playing leap frog down a sand dune, eating pears, sea kayaking among thousands of seals, nearly running over a warthog, eating canned food incessantly (including canned meat that included beef hearts – vegetarian friends, please take mercy on my soul), playing Frisbee in the desert and – are you ready? – skydiving. Now I consider myself a pretty straitlaced guy, but I somehow got caught up in the adventuresome, free-flying spirit of the trip and – oops – ended up jumping out of an airplane at 10,000 feet. I was eerily serene beforehand – perhaps my nervous system was in shock? – but the jump was absolutely amazing. It made ostrich riding seem lame (and ostrich riding, as was been well documented here, is NOT lame :). There is the powerful and pure adrenaline rush of falling out of the sky at 175 MPH for 35 seconds, and then there is the serene and graceful act of looking out over the desert and the ocean as you glide back down to earth. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. The main parachute for my friend Reeves, who went five minutes before me, and his tandem partner did not open, so they had to land with the reserve chute. Thing is, the reserve chute is smaller so the descent is faster. Their landing was awkward and my friend broke his lower left leg. Reeves went before my friend Andrea and I, and we didn’t know about his state when we took off . The skydiving company had boasted a 100% safety record, as had the place next door. At that neighboring place, however, a girl and her tandem partner died the following day when their chute didn’t open. So will I skydive again? Probably not. Was it amazing? Absolutely.
As skydiving and 3,000-mile road trips and are exciting and school is not, the return to class was not welcome. And so I left. We returned from Namibia late on a Tuesday. On Friday, I saw that Zimbabwe was going to celebrate its independence day on Wednesday. I thought it would be quite interesting to visit a country with independence but no freedom (thanks be to Comrade Mugabe). Plus, I was curious what an 80% unemployment rate and 1700% inflation rate – the oft-quoted numbers media folks use to show the calamitous state of the Zimbabwean economy – actually look like. So on Monday, I carpet-bombed the inboxes of everyone I knew with a Zimbabwe connection. And on Tuesday, I was in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. I stayed for 48 hours, and I had a tremendous experience both as a tourist (which is legal) and as a journalist (which is not). I rode on a minibus (a 15-seat van) with 22 people and one chicken (alive). I met with Embassy officials and ‘toured’ the downtown area, which included the National Gallery of Zimbabwe (which has a collection of 3 Picassos and 1 Cezanne, believe it or not). I stayed away from the Independence Day ceremony where Mugabe spoke – I received uniform advice to stay away – but I met with lots of people, including a community organizer who was one of the victims of the government’s beating of opposition members last month. The meetings were very informative, if not a wee bit nerve-wracking. As some of you may know, foreign journalists are not allowed in Zimbabwe. When a Time magazine reporter went last month, he was jailed and starved for five days (story: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1609808,00.html?xid=site-cnn-partner ). So I did my best to lay low. As most journalists are white males and there are about 3 white males left among Zimbabwe’s population, this wasn’t too easy. But I took some precautions – including wrapping up all my notes and sticking them in my squeezed-out travel toothpaste container to get through customs – and made it home fine. All in all, it was an exhilarating trip, by far the most immersed in African culture I’ve felt since arriving. You may have read the doomsday forecast put out by the media, but the scene on the ground is not apocalyptic, at least not on the same urgent timetable reporters tend to use. I’ve included the article I wrote about my trip (a journalism scholarship paid for the jaunt, so I had to produce something) and I’d be happy to share more personal observations if you’d like.
So what’s next? A deep breath, some sleep tonight and then I’m off to Lesotho tomorrow. It’s a small country smack in the middle of South Africa. Apparently it’s frigid there (we’re moving toward winter here) and given that we’re going on an overnight pony trek, this could present a problem. We’re also hoping to spend a night with a Peace Corps volunteer serving in the country. Maybe she’ll be able to defrost us.
Anyhow, there are numerous other anecdotes I could share with you (how Jo’Burg is so dangerous you leave a car length ahead of you during the day when stopped at red lights (room to escape in case someone tries to carjack you) and don’t even bother stopping the car at night, or how it was over 100 degrees in the shade at Fish River Canyon), but I’ll let you go. There are lots of pictures up on Flickr (directions below) so hopefully they’ll flesh out the story. If you’d like to hear about something else, let me know. All I ask is that you tell me some news about what you’re up to. Life is obviously pretty spectacular here, but I think of home and all of you often, so updates are welcome.
Have a great weekend,
* A note on the orphanage I visited. A Philadelphia-area woman studied in Cape Town a few years ago and spent some time while she was here volunteering at an orphanage. Not surprisingly, she felt terrible when she had to leave and go back home since the work she had been doing would go undone. Surprisingly, she started a charity upon graduating college, moved to South Africa and now raises money for three orphanages in the township. She’s a wonderful woman, and I’m trying to help her however possible (this afternoon I photographed one of the soccer games of a league she organized for the city children’s homes). If you’d like more information or to give them a hand (this a rare opportunity when you’ll be able to see (or hear about) the impact your donation has) visit www.chosa.org.
** The least densely populated country in the world is Mongolia. Two points for correct answers (redeemable for postcards if you send me your address).