29 December 2014

No Matter What the Weather at the End of the World

For the past three years selecting where I’ll take my annual November vacation has always been an exercise in convenience. In 2011, a training session for work was cancelled in Bangkok. I had my heart set on the tropics, so I took leave and went anyway. Later I went down to spend Thanksgiving in Armenia – because, well, it was just right around the corner from home in Ukraine.

Two years ago, I traveled here to the Holy Land, also because it was just around the bend from Kyiv and because like Lincoln, I always wanted to walk the streets of Jerusalem - that ancient place. For the geographically-challenged, there are many places worth visiting that are in Ukraine’s neighborhood.

Last year I went to Zanzibar because I was craving some diving, and because it was just down the road from South Sudan (well, not exactly, but there aren’t a whole lot of destinations that are ‘just down the road’ from Juba).

This year, I wanted to get as far away from both Tel Aviv and Washington DC as I possibly could. Escapism was the main point of the vacation. The quest for adventure had fallen by the wayside. I had had my fill of thrills and challenges. I looked on Google Earth. The most far-flung place from both homes this year was the South Pacific.

As long as I could remember, I always wanted to travel the islands of the South Pacific. Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga. New Caledonia. Fiji. But I wanted to see them in a long maritime sojourn. And on this trip I only had about 17 days to spend before eyebrows would be raised at work on my absence.

Then there was New Zealand. I had never been there before and always wanted to go. It was an easy choice. So I booked an 11 day backpacking trip with an outfit based out of Christchurch, and purchased tickets from Tel Aviv to Auckland via Seoul.

Two twelve hour flights later, I landed in Auckland, having gazed nothing more our planet of my entire traverse of the Asian continent other than oil wells flaring on the Caspian, some oddly planned Soviet scheme of lighting in some civilization in Turkmenistan, and the distant skyscrapers of Seoul as I changed planes during my one hour layover.

It was gloriously sunny in Auckland for a pleasant walk from the international terminal to the domestic terminal outside along a meandering sidewalk. Two hours later, I puddle jumped down to the South Island to the sudsy port town of Nelson, where I would meet up with the hiking group in two days’ time.

On the curb in front of the tiny airport in Nelson, I reached for the driver’s door on the taxi. “No worries. That’s a common problem,” the driver mused. Remembering several near death experiences in Wales and Japan, I immediately reminded myself to always look right before crossing the street.

A long nap and several pints of beer later, more or less in that order, I acclimatized to the brilliant weather. In every shop or restaurant I walked into, locals boasted about how nice the weather was today. That should have foreshadowed a uniqueness about fair weather “down South” but I was too much in bliss in the inauguration of my holiday to ponder. I was too much captivated by the delicious beer – Nelson had been producing its own locally grown hops for more than 150 years so internationally acclaimed that they were exported all over the world. Likewise perhaps I was too enchanted by the charming scenery of this attractive little channel side town. Behind the city is a round hill that is awarded the title of “geographic center” of New Zealand. I confess that I did in Nelson what I would have done on a nice Saturday morning stateside: swim some laps in a local pool, go for a hike in the forest and wash it all down with a tasty IPA. Brewpubs dot the down like casinos in Vegas. Therefore in little Nelson we have Independence, Missouri, Fort Collins, Colorado and Portland, Oregon, all in one convenient, frothy quiet place.

On a Monday morning, the ten-night tour started from in front of the Travel Information office. Waiting were three young American ladies traveling together. They had met in Seattle. One ER nurse, two zoologists. That could be useful on a multi-day hike. Save any necessity for venomous snake identifications or crocodile bite tourniquets here in New Zealand. There was an Electrical Engineer from Sydney and an electrically eccentric senior citizen from the suburbs of Auckland. There was a couple from Canada on their way to Brisbane. Our guides were seasoned hikers, one of who was a geologist who had calves the size of small watermelons. He had conquered the Appalachian Trail, the Great Divide Trail and the Pacific Coast Trail in subsequent summers of self-induced insanity. Between the RN, the two zoologists and the wayfaring geologist there was no debate that I was in capable hands, or legs.

At the trailhead to the first hike, we were welcomed by a Kea, or mountain parrot. This first walk started in Kahurangi National Park, ascending steeply through beech forest into tussock-strewn plateaus. It was a kaleidoscope of wilderness. At one section, the forest would be thick and dark, like the deep forests of coastal Maine. In other sections it would open up into formidable scrublands like in the High Plains in the foothills of the Rockies, only with more exotic coloring than exists anywhere in North America. On the first night, the guides forgot the meat and the rice so we wound up devouring grilled vegetables for a meager dinner beneath a rocky outcropping in an old Miner’s camp as it began to drizzle. The temperature plummeted to zero Celsius as I once again regretted my thrift in exchanging warmth for weight. Luckily, I had not forgotten my trusty Spanish bota bag filled with New Zealand Cabernet.

The hike out and back was a veritable buffet of forest, plateaus, saddles and mountain peaks. Ditto for the weather: sun, drizzle, wind and rain. First, the path meandered through dark gnarly forests carpeted with thick moss. Strange, otherworldly bird songs echoed off the trees. Gradually as we climbed, the forest gave way to the treeline. The goal was Gordon’s Pyramid; a low summit crowned with panorama views of the South Pacific, Nelson Harbor and the Kahurangi peaks adjoining Mount Arthur. At only 1489m, one would hardly think the goal for the day was worthy of Tenzig or Hilary, but it was a formidably long 11km assault for the day that felt as if the trail drifted constantly and wildly in altitude. The fellowship then traversed the basements and chasms of various barren granite neighborhoods, more than one of which had some vague Antarctic air about them. As we reached the trailhead for Mount Arthur, we were assaulted by a murderous sidewind and rain that seemed to seek to blow us off the mountain. Just in time we reached a hut. Inside, a fireplace awaited - beside it a larder stocked with wood. We built a toasty fire and boiled water for tea.

From then on, the trip would be well lubricated by the weather. The van snaked through the Murchison Valley to the little town of Murchison. There, we encamped in a complex consisting of a little cabin dating from the 1920’s and a large three room Army tent roofed by a permanent shelter situated above a swift moving river fork. The twelve of us pulled numbers to take turns to use the outdoor shower as a local pub delivered dinner.

Torrents of rain pounded the Tapawera Valley as we departed camp after breakfast. The climate improved enough for a few leisurely strolls along the cliffs of the West Coast to be entertained by seals frolicking in the morning surf at Tauranga Bay. The weather decided it was best to change our plans to hike up the Fox River so instead we made our way to a beachside motel in the resort town of Punakaiki.

Punakaiki is famous for the “Pancake Rocks” - interesting coastal rock formations formed by some volcanic event or such I’ve already forgotten the process in which to describe to thee. I recall being quite hungry at the time and kept thinking about Homer Simpson’s drooling “Hmmm pancakes” to be too interested in mere rock formations. They were decent maple syrup for the eyes (we were with Canadians after all), however, so much more Disney were the magnificent blowholes adjoining the Pancake Rocks.

Incredible were the bone-moving booms that were generated by the wave machine moving under our feet. Humongous puffs of mist would push out of points on the horizon like hot spring geysers.

That evening was one of my favorites of the trip. If I could spend a few fortnights just reclining in rickety wooden chairs sipping pints in country pubs across Anglophonia, reeling in fish tales over gravy-covered steak, I would emerge from the ocean a far grander man. The Punakaiki Tavern was the only drinking establishment open in town, but it did just fine. After sampling an array of ales and pale ales, I wandered outside to gaze at one of only three starry, starry nights on my trip to New Zealand. This wasn’t the first time I saw the Southern Cross, but it had been more than a decade since. The Milky Way stretched out in a massive ribbon of white from the horizon.

The next day a break in the weather invited us to start the hike up the Fox River.

As many hikes as I had walked in my life, I had never crossed streams to the frequency and depth as I had done on the hike up the Fox River. We crossed in our boots, to guarantee wet feet for at least the next 36 hours. After stopping in an impressive cave formation to do some minor spelunking (not my favorite thing to do in a seismically active area), the rivers were given our full attention. One of the final rivers to cross was quite challenging. My crossing partner, [the Electrical Engineer from Sydney] and I decided to be the first ones to try crossing what looked to be, and turned out which was, the swiftest and deepest of the dozen or so rivers we crossed that day. The water came up to my upper thigh, and we nearly lost our footing, but we made it across. Others we not so lucky and almost were swept downstream.

It was dusk when we arrived at the Ballroom Overhang – a 50 meter expanse of rock jutting out from a cliff face above that provided a permanent shelter for campers. This evening was one of the very best pasta dinners of my life. I feel like the red wine contribution from the bota bag was a significant contribution to the overall success of the pasta operation. That and fresh grated Parmesan cheese.

Shortly before everyone turned in for the evening, while washing my dishes in the river I saw a lone flashlight bouncing around in the distance. My heart jumped for a moment at the prospect of an ax murder or thief, but then I remembered I was in New Zealand. There are not even poisonous snakes here! It turned out to be a German backpacker who was unexpectedly detoured on a trail eight hours prior. He arrived in our camp visibly shaken and thankful that he had located some dry land and the warm hearth of our campfire before he developed hypothermia in the rain. He scarfed down the remnants of our dinner and fell immediately into the satiated bliss of relative safety.

It took the morning to hike back down the river and reach the very aptly named town of Greymouth. Here, the town’s claim to fame was the Queen’s visit in the 1960’s and it was properly advertised in any public space that would be appropriate to do so. I lunched on seafood chowder and several cups of coffee and managed to get a hit of internet so as to sigh with relief with the fact that the world had not collapsed while I was out of wifi and mobile phone range. Rejoining the group, we stocked up on provisions for the three days in the small seaside village of Okarito where we would lodge in tents in a campground.

The first night started out fine. The beach offered a perfect location to roast a pig in traditional hangi style – whereby the meat was laid in a sandy hole with hot rocks to cook for a few hours with potatoes and yams. It was delicious.

By midnight however, a gale had settled in to the coast and oppressed my senses. The rain raged throughout the entire night – the wind blowing with increasing velocity in a colliding roar. So when I awoke in morning to find that the gale had not subsided (indeed it was if it had increased by morning) I was incredibly grumpy in assuming that kayaking, something I had looked forward to the entire trip, was cancelled. It turns out that it was not cancelled, and the tour operator was still insisting the weather would be OK for kayaking. This made me just as agitated, as any kayaker knows it is not pleasant to kayak when there is rain AND wind. It’s just silly. I made my point abrasively, but was overruled. Just as the guide finished the briefing, the weather miraculously lifted and the sun came out. The clouds lifted off the bow of my kayak as to reveal dramatically the Southern Alps as I made my way upstream solo up one of the most incredible tributaries I had ever paddled. So sure was I that I wouldn’t go kayaking that I neglected to bring with me any sort of camera at all. I saw storks, herons, ibises, swans, sandpipers and egrets. The Texan who had joined our group in Punakaiki snapped a National Geographic quality photo with a point-and-click.

I left the kayak feeling; 1.) exhilarated in seeing what I had, 2.) wiser in knowing that life never stops teaching me lessons in humility, and 3.) wanting for wishing that such life lessons occur before I’m caught up a creek without a camera.

Later that day, we accomplished a rainy walk along the beach. Here fresh water cascading from the forest met the ocean and made some colorful arguments. Despite the seeming anger, the sounds of the surf were like a lullaby. I went back early to camp, took a nap and felt much more affable when I awoke.

Leaving grey and forlorn Okarito the next day was a welcome change. Our caravan climbed up into the Southern Alps. The pressure forced a slow leak in my bota bag, which would later prove to be terminal for the device which had been a trusty companion in Yosemite. Up in the Alps, we spent the bulk of the time marveling at all the disappearing glaciers, Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier, trying to savor those precious moments of looking out at these massive dodos hewed from the last Ice Age.

Unfortunately, if I am a bellwether for the end of the folly of man in warming the planet, I have terrible news. All I could think about was how delicious the sausage pie I had for lunch was that day.

One day, the people awoke, and then there were none.

That night, we were happily indoors. We cooked chili in a motel what was rally a 50’s rancher with six bedrooms. I am, to the depths of my soul a fireplace man, and therefore thoroughly enjoyed building a roaring fire in the living room wood stove. There was even *gasp* a TV from which to receive a news fix. Having been long starved of Australian politics, I listened intently to an Aussie couple that had joined the company in Greymouth explain their opinion of the current Australian Prime Minister. Then we watched a viral video mishaps show on MTV.

Outside the air was cold, but the sky was crisp and clear with a billion suns of distant systems setting a glow across the field behind the house. A meteorite careened across the sky.

It was a Monday morning when we embarked on the final backpacking leg of the trip. From the trailhead, a 17km path non-venomously snaked its way along side a river in the stunning Copland Valley. The destination was a place called Welcome Flat, a backcountry hut complete with toilets, 30 beds and a natural hot spring.

Once I got going on my pace, I couldn’t stop. The guides allowed me to walk ahead a bit and I thoroughly enjoyed that therapeutic quality time alone in the woods, although I am fully unworthy of the comparison, in the spirit of Emerson, Steinbeck, Thoreau or Bryson. There I was in a rainforest with Jurassic tree ferns the size of TV station satellite dishes, upside down and as far from work and the worry of the World as I could possibly be. Just the mere thought of it was curative.

Reaching the cable bridges alone was a bit hairy. I had some second thoughts about solo crossing a gorge with the cable bridge swaying in the wind. But I took a deep breath and laughed as I crossed, thinking I could be issuing contract modifications or stuck in some staff meeting right now instead of here, a hundred feet above some river rapids in New Zealand. And if attacked by turbaned devil-worshipping bandits, I know precisely what I would need to do. All I would need is a machete.

I am certain there is some allegorical meaning in the bridge that would dawn on one finishing a year filled with evacuation, civil war, humanitarian suffering and terrorist rocket attacks, but I am at a loss. But I was awfully happy when I made it to the other side of the river. Definitely worth a picture.

The Copland Track was simply one of the top ten hikes, possibly even top five, of my life so far. The train was not overly grueling, but nor was it the least bit forgiving. The trail varied ecosystems approximately five times. As for trail conditions, the first couple of kilometers setting from the trailhead are terrible. It seems that the train isn’t maintained at all and is so poorly sign posted in the mud, that its easy to become lost. But after three kilometers the trail miraculously turns into one of the best engineered and best maintained I have ever walked.

Normally I’d say that the journey is better than the destination, but at Welcome Flat tonic certainly came in the form of the destination. Welcome Flat is situated in a valley surrounded by the snow capped peaks of the Southern Alps. The river leading up to the Flat is non-navigable and there are no roads, no settlements and no access save foot or helicopter. Speaking of helicopter, that is how they a.) bring in coal to heat the hut and b.) remove feces from the portajohns. Now that’s environmentally friendly!

About 100 meters from the hut was a marvelous collection of hot spring where one may recline in the mud pools and watch the snow cascade off the crevices between the peaks like waterfalls.

This was the first time I had ever stoked a coal fireplace. Coal fireplaces are certainly not as pleasing as tending a wood hearth, but the chore was most definitely a novelty in this century.

At night, I was awoken several times by what sounded like bellowing thunder. It was not really thunder, as I later found out, but terrific avalanches occurring from the peaks all around us. This was evidenced the next morning by looking up and seeing a changed landscape from the prior day. One could see how the snowline descended, and where the avalanches had occurred. Only earthquakes, volcanoes and asteroids bring about so abrupt changes in nature.

About 100 meters from the hut was a marvelous collection of hot spring where one may recline in the mud pools and watch the snow cascade off the crevices between the peaks like waterfalls.

This was the first time I had ever stoked a coal fireplace. Coal fireplaces are certainly not as pleasing as tending a wood hearth, but the chore was most definitely a novelty in this century.

At night, I was awoken several times by what sounded like bellowing thunder. It was not really thunder, as I later found out, but terrific avalanches occurring from the peaks all around us. This was evidenced the next morning by looking up and seeing a changed landscape from the prior day. One could see how the snowline descended, and where the avalanches had occurred. Only earthquakes, volcanoes and asteroids bring about so abrupt changes in nature.

We had to leave camp quickly on that last day because yet another system was moving in from the vicinity of Australia. It wasn’t going to dump funnel web spiders and box jellyfish on us, but flooding streams might block our paths back to the trailhead.

After a hike back down the valley, we made our way to a fine comfortable camp just south of the tiny hamlet of Haast. The weather was finally gentle. We cooked a grand dinner of local farm raised salmon and fresh potatoes.

The last day was a series of breath taking views, a stop in at an old pub, the Cardrona Hotel for a delicious pint of Emerson’s and some uplifting scenery as we approached Queenstown, where the fellowship was dissolved and everyone went their separate ways, but not before a small pub crawl which ended unceremoniously in an Irish pub.

I had in mind that I was going to do some sort of adventure-adrenaline thing in Queenstown, but I wound up sleeping a good bit of the day away. It was raining, and besides, I was too happy to feel guilty on my vacation. After all, it’s not as if I hadn’t experienced enough adventure lately.

There were two free days in Auckland before hopping a flight back to Asia. I swam laps in an old, yet quite hip 50 meter pool in the Newmarket section of town – creatively named “Olympic Pool” it obviously hailed from the 50’s. They really oughta add some chrome bumpers to make the place feel even more at home with itself. Against one wall were large glass screens where folks in the fitness rooms, saunas and steam room could watch the swimmers. Between the sweaty gawkers and the scuba divers in training peering up at me from the bottom of lane six, I felt quite popular.

On my final day upside down, I indulged one of my new hobbies I plan to start cultivating – the art of catching air particles passing from high pressure to low pressure with tightly woven aliphatic polyamides while manipulating a device consisting of tightly woven and highly compressed glass fibers suspended on dihydrogen monoxide.

In a few places, this hobby is known as sailing.

It’s immediately obvious to anyone outside a shopping mall that Auckland is a sailing town, perhaps the foremost in the world. About one in every three households in Auckland owns a boat. It wasn’t hard to see why Aucklanders would want to sail out their backyard, looking at all the hundreds of coves, dozens of islands and multiple bays that one could put into.

The ship we took out, she is an 80ft racing yacht used for practice runs of a crew training for the America’s Cup in 2007. We accomplished my main objective which was to come more than 45 degrees off the water so one has to lean to be comfortable. Check. On my last day in New Zealand, I felt as if I was doing something quintessentially Kiwi, even though I know I was a tourist on a tourist ship. I was sailing in Auckland harbor on a sunny, perfect day. What could beat that?

The next day, I hopped a ship with sails of a different sort and scooted back to Asia. Luckily, I had an overnight layover in Seoul, so I checked into a five star downtown and binged on Korean food. The next morning, a swim in the hotel pool left me feeling like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, and departing for Tel Aviv left me with the more lasting feeling of how much I missed East Asia.

The tour guide back at the dock in Okarito was right. At the edge of the world, far from work and war, the weather was everything while it was nothing. And also this – no one can predict the weather.

01 November 2014

A Truly Great Idea: Yosemite National Park

Before reporting to my new post in Tel Aviv, I took a week in Yosemite National Park to relax, and go for a long hike. Luckily the camping equipment I had ordered back in early December for a vacation to South Africa – which was supposed to take place in January, but which I obviously had to cancel – eventually arrived in the post and was forwarded to DC.

On the way to California, I stopped to see family in Albuquerque, visited old Santa Fe and the Garden of Eden oasis known as the Botanical Gardens. We also hit up the Sandia Peak Tramway - an impressive 2.7 mile ride unlike any in the USA: at the top a very decent meal with a spectacular view. Surprisingly chilly though when the sun plummeted rather quickly.

When I was on a country road in central California, buzzing along at 75 mph in sublime wine country, I resurrected that feeling I had a year ago when driving north out of Vegas towards Zion NP – of my heart leaping over the wide-open spaces of my own country. The land out there is just too expansive to contain any measure of selfishness. Self-pity floats away like a tumbleweed of tissue paper. Stress is sparse and only for survival, like water in a cactus. Pressure is buried, deep beneath granite. The wind and soil erode ego. In the smooth folds of granite pressed clean by the most recent Ice Age, the problems of modern man are but a shadow of a flick of a lizard’s tail.

Before joining a four day, three night hike to start in Yosemite Valley, basing in a fine motel in Sonora, I made a foray into Yosemite’s secret place. I first saw Hetch Hetchy on Ken Burns’s documentary on America’s National Parks. On the documentary, Mr. Burns tells of one man's remark that having a system of national parks were America's Greatest Idea. At least that idea saved some of America's greatest national wonders. Others weren't so lucky. One hundred years ago – in 1914 – some fools thought it would be a grand idea to flood a pristine canyon that rivaled Yosemite. Well, I suppose it’s true that San Francisco needs to drink. Still, it makes the wonderer wonder – what’s under all that water?

Through the skeleton of a burned out forest (a great fire spread through just the year before and was threatening to burn again that summer), I arrived at the foot of O’Shaughnessy Dam to the scene of police, FBI and SWAT scurrying around the place like bulletproof ants. They were having some sort of drill. I milled about for a minute or so, hoping to catch a glimpse of a 007 repel like in Golden Eye. No luck. Deciding I had had enough excitement anyway to last me through the current year and next, I moved on and walked along the reservoir, spotting a retreating rattlesnake, several fine song birds and some picnicking vultures.

The next few days were pure bliss in a place God meant pure bliss to launch from the walls like chocolate in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. This place was, literally, the sole reason for creating national parks to begin with and there is no reason to waste my time here on a Friday evening trying to explain it to you all. See these pictures. Now stop what you are doing, buy a ticket to Fresno and go see Yosemite. But don’t go in summer. Way too crowded.

In Yosemite Valley, I met up with my REI hiking group and spent the evening at a crowded campsite under the trees. Invading bears remained a theme of that night as they had the entire year. But in Yosemite, the bears had tracking collars and when they infiltrated the campsite at 2am to steal things some nice camp wardens had noisemakers and flashlights and the bears scurried away. Light and law scare the bears away - rather useful lessons these days.

We thankfully escaped the valley and the crowds the next day and proceeded on a three-day hike towards the rim. We glimpsed peregrine falcon, mule deer, a Western tanager and a baby rubber boa. I gazed on the Milky Way at night, sipping red wine from a goat skin bag – shivering at night in a sleeping bag designed for summer in South Africa.

The Chaos Excuse: Why I Haven't Written

Given the wide availability of negative news, I figured this blog would be a safe space for a little old fashioned American optimism. But the events of the past year, the tragedies in the countries and the indescribable suffering of the people I have come to know and love have not afforded me much opportunity to practice my optimism. It's been difficult to write anything these past 10 months. From Syria to Liberia, this has been a pretty awful year in much of the world. I know many people would say that the hard are times are the ideal times to write. But I honestly don't know how writers endure the self-punishment.

I penned my last blog entry on a sunny Sunday afternoon in South Sudan - the 15th of December, 2013. The next morning, on 16 December, 2013 I woke up as usual to a Monday morning 6am run around the insider perimeter of the walled compound I lived on in Juba. That was the last happy moment I had in South Sudan – running through the morning haze of a fine morning, listening to music on a quarter sized MP3 player. By the end of the day, there was rampant gunfire and the reverberation of artillery shells. The country had suddenly descended into chaos. Over the next 24 hours, the violence intensified, to the point were there were firefights between the factions alongside the walls of our compound. However by Wednesday, the fighting moved out of town and as soon as the road to the airport was safe, the US Air Force arrived in C130s with US Army Rangers, and thanks to the phenomenal bravery of the USMC guards and DSS agents and clockwork interagency coordination of the US Government, we were eating dinner in a Nairobi hotel by the evening of 18 December. Kenya wasn’t far enough away, though, not to hear the sounds of automatic gunfire in my sleep.

By the next week I was having Christmas dinner at my aunts' houses in the suburbs of Baltimore. It was difficult to explain what I went through, what continued to bother me, and to those that lived in plenty and slept in safe beds, how much those in that confluence of the Niles were suffering amid a new and disastrous civil war.

Wintering in Washington DC was frustrating on many levels. Our team had to operate our development activities thousands of miles and seven time zones away from where our beneficiaries were struggling to survive. We did whatever we could to continue providing help to South Sudan, but what ever we did never felt like it was enough. With all the resources at our disposal, we were powerless to stop the spreading violence. Famine loomed large with the impending rainy season; few crops would likely get planted, harvested and make it to market in the ensuing firestorm. We worked too much and slept too little, overwhelmed with the negative news. All discomforts seemed trivial, complaints; outrageous.

Since the conflict erupted in December, over 1 million people have been displaced internally in South Sudan and hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring countries to escape the violence in what is already being labeled online as the Second Civil War. I doubt anyone will ever know the exact number of those killed, but according to what I have read in the New York Times and other places, including the International Crisis Group, more than 10,000 South Sudanese have died.


Meanwhile, Ukraine also began to fall into turmoil. As someone who was deeply in love with Ukraine, had lived there for more than four years I began to become physically ill with the news coverage Yanukovich’s Government shooting unarmed protesters in the streets of Kyiv. My elation at the victory of the freedom of assembly, the departure of Yanukovich and the return of peace and order was premature. Russia invaded Crimea and my former hometown of Sevastopol and then proceeded to invade Eastern Ukraine. With the violation of the territorial sanctity of the first [and now likely, last] nation to give up its nuclear arms - that dream of a nuclear arms free world has been crushed by clenched fists. I listened to the talking heads on cable news while I chopped garlic for my dinner in a rented flat in Penn Quarter. Correspondents pattered on endlessly about the novelty of a new cold war or sanctions, seemingly oblivious to the geopolitical significance of the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Europe or the abrogation of the Budapest memorandum.

According to the UN, more than 2,200 people have died in Ukraine as a result of the fighting [http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/26/us-ukraine-crisis-rights-un-idUSKBN0GQ1TA20140826]. Thousands more are wounded. Tens of thousands have been forced to flee their homes. Torture and imprisonment without trial is rampant. And some Russian soldiers likely shot down a Malaysian passenger airliner inside Ukrainian airspace with surface to air missiles eagerly provided to them by the Russian Federation.

I realize you, the reader can find this information on a website with more credibility. But it never hurts for you to read the facts again and again. Russia invaded Europe this year.


At the end of the maximum 180 days in ordered departure status, I had accumulated a wardrobe of new clothes (we were only allowed to take a small backpack with us during evacuation), a much, much higher blood pressure, five overly expensive tooth fillings and orders to my onward assignment with the West Bank/Gaza portfolio. Then I was back in a series of pressurized tubes that, precisely seven motion pictures later, transported me to the Holy Land, my new home for three or four or five years.

I had been living out of a new suitcase of new clothes since the evacuation, and I was going to continue living out of the same suitcase for another two months at least until my shipments arrived – but I was finally home in my own place that wasn’t a hotel or rented room.

Helping out at the Ambassador’s Fourth of July event at his seaside house north of Tel Aviv, guests enjoyed Ben & Jerry’s ice cream courtesy of some Vermont hippies and some Israeli cows. McDonald’s hamburgers, liberated of cheese, were served on silver platters. President Shimon Peres eloquently recalled meeting President John F. Kennedy.

The next week, I was washing dishes after dinner on a Tuesday evening when I heard the low eeire whine of an air raid siren that I had only heard in World War II movies. I made my way to my bomb shelter, otherwise known as a reinforced concrete walk-in closet-with-anti-poison-gas-system in which I am unable to install shelves. Fifteen seconds later, I heard a boom, the first of dozens of rockets fired from Hamas that would be intercepted above the skies of Tel Aviv this Summer.

The next morning after a swim, I entered my apartment to receive a text message that instructed me not to go to work – seven months had come full circle. I’d gone from one frying pan into another. The next six weeks were mostly a blurr of long hours at work responding to supply Gaza with humanitarian needs, running to bomb shelters and somewhere in between the two; making lame attempts to get to know my new city.

Juba, Kyiv and Tel Aviv are all lie within the same time zone, but are worlds apart. Before this year started, few scholars could have likely drawn any similarities between the three places. And now they all have the same dreadful thing in common; when South Sudanese, Ukrainian, Israeli or Palestinian school children read about this year – for 2014 the milestone of progress has been replaced by a tombstone. Instead of a lean forward to the future for these countries, it was a wild eyed duck to the ground in fear; a slide backward into the oblivion of chaos. And in all three places, the disaster was completely and categorically - manmade.

2,150 Palestinians and 71 Israelis were killed in the conflict this summer http://www.unrwa.org/gaza-emergency. War left tens of thousands of Gazans homeless, and hundreds of thousands on both sides angrier with the other side than they had ever been.

One moment from my first weeks in Tel Aviv will stick with me forever. I was walking to the office one morning, when the air raid sirens went off. I didn’t know what to do. It was the first week of the conflict and I had always had a bomb shelter within a few steps at home or at work. A kind stranger, immediately noticing either my bewilderment or my foreignness, took me by the elbow and led me into a day care center. Inside the school, there was a tiny shelter built into a coat closet. I bowed my head and navigated my six foot body between the racks of clothes, backpacks and shoes among two teachers, a half dozen kindergarteners and a stray parent. The teachers began leading songs in Hebrew with the kids. Then, a boom echoed in the room as a rocket from Gaza was intercepted by the Iron Dome, just above our heads. The singing continued.

15 December 2013

Zanzibar and the Definition of Exotic

The folks at Merriam Webster list several widely disparate definitions of the word exotic. For example, one definition is “introduced from a foreign country: not native to the place where found.” Does that mean that camera wielding Thais, or fanny-packed Americans are “exotic people” in a place like Rome? The second definition is more straightforward: “Foreign, Alien.” I suppose this definition is the most utilitarian, as it is all-encompassing. Star Wars is full of exotic creatures. Balut and durian are exotic foods. A third definition involves dancing, although I doubt it is foreign or alien to the patrons, proprietors or dancers of the trade.

My favorite definition of Webster’s though, is by far the best: “strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different or unusual…” For a little kid entranced by books about sea journey, trade-by-sail and far-flung adventure, the very word “Zanzibar” has always meant all of those things.

Last month, on a much-needed week-long breather from my Juba pressure-cooker that I work and live in, I joined the millions of travelers who have come before me in being dazzled, awed and enchanted by this impossibly fertile land that lies just off the coast of Tanzania.

Zanzibar is actually made up of hundreds of small islands, but the main island where I landed, Unguja, is about 50 mile long. The turquoise waters stretched out below the plane as we descended off the short hop from Dar-es-Salaam.

My luggage decided to spend an extra evening in Addis to visit with friends, so I continued alone with my carry-on along the horrible road north to my hotel; located at the tip of the main island. A torrential rain storm arrived with me and caused me, my elderly driver and his elderly vehicle considerable discomfort as we limped through small rivers and ponds that had emerged in the so-called road. At least there were no pesky wind shield wipers to slow down the aerodynamics of the ancient Peugeot.

I won’t bore you with my tales of my week long vacation. I devoured excellent seafood and a few books, ran into a friend and her visitor (who went to one of the high schools I attended, believe it or not), took in some mind-shattering sunsets and partied with some 20-something dive instructors. Plodding barefoot on the white sugar beach in the starlight, I found some of the most textbook-perfect seashells I’d ever seen.

One thing I will bore you with is the two days of diving I did off the coast. The first day, quite groggy, we boat dived just a mile or too out from Nungwi, a fishing village recently infested-invested by resorts, on the Hunga Reefs. I sucked up way too much air too quickly and half-hypoxic, followed a sea turtle. *sigh* I always see sea turtles when I’m diving! (If I didn’t trust so in science, I’d begin to suspect their endangered-ness). The second day was far more interesting. This time, the boat traveled close to an hour to the spectacular Menemba Reef. If there was a postcard that I wanted to send to friends living in Duluth, Minnesota in February to make them jealous: I’d take a picture of this scene of a small tropical island surrounded by the loveliest aquamarine color that exists in our universe. The first dive was on an excellent wall of color. But the last dive of this trip was among the finest ever: a strong current pushed us along an underwater river as we encountered first a forest of coral, that tapered out onto a sandy desert dotted with oases of coral islands among a watery Sahara. Along the way: an awakening seahorse, a gigantic spider lobster hiding under a rock (like Shelob in the Lord of the Rings) and psychedelic sea slugs.

Each oasis was its own unique, self-contained ecosystem: with its own school of fish and distinct type of coral. Thanks to Dominik from Germany for the excellent underwater pics.

On my last day in Zanzibar, I spent the day walking around Stone Town (the capital of Zanzibar) with a local guide who described the tumultuous history of this long-bustling port town of the resource wealthy islands. Optimally located on the sea route between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, it was occupied variably through the centuries by Persians, Portuguese, Arabs, and the British. Zanzibar played host not only to the spice trade, but also to the slave trade, and the inter-imperialist wars of the 19th and 20th centuries.

(This is only a sample of the excellent pics I snapped on this journey: Zanzibar sure awes in color, but jaw-dropping gorgeous in black and white)

My guide also showed me the slave markets on the grounds of the Anglican Church, including the terrible basement cells in which the slaves were chained: an ineffaceable monument to the wickedness and cruelty of man.

The whole municipality of the Old Quarter of Stone Town should be an UNESCO World Heritage Site. What a superb mixture of mosques and churches; Indian, British and Arab architecture, bustle and calm! Hiring a guide to see this town was a brilliant move on my part: Stone Town is a tangle of tight alleyways, hidden passages and intimate side streets. Attractions: the market, the busy port and Freddie Mercury’s boyhood home.

Eagerly, I took copious pictures of doors, just like I did when I was in Morocco back in April. My guide explained to me why Indians installed decorative spikes on their doors: to keep elephants from scratching their bums on them and breaking them.

I was sad that I only spent the day in Stone Town. When I return to Zanzibar, I’d like to wander the alleyways, browse the woodworking shops and enjoy a morning cup of coffee on a rooftop watching the sun rise above this sublimely exotic cityscape.

Zanzibar, strikingly, excitingly and mysteriously different, and so much more, for all of time.