Friday, January 21, 2011

The True Size Of Africa

From the website Good Design (

Africa is "about 11.7 million square miles, which is really big—big enough to fit the United States, China, India, Japan, and much of Europe within its borders."

The thing I found most interesting is that if you look at Greenland on a map, it appears massive. In actuality, it is only the 13th largest "country" in the world. Three countries in Africa - Sudan, Algeria, and Congo - are larger than Greenland but you would never guess that by looking at your average map.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Passing of Sargent Shriver

(Photo from The Atlantic)

Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, died January 18th at age 95. According to his biographer in a recent article in The Atlantic, Shriver "through the programs he started and ran, and through the generation of public servants he inspired, may have positively affected more people around the world than any twentieth century American who was not a President or other major elected official or Martin Luther King."

And my favorite paragraph from that article:
"I tend to think of myself as a pretty cynical guy. I am not easy to inspire. But Shriver awakened in me--just as he did in thousands of others--the notion that it is always worthwhile to work harder, to do more, and to dream bigger about achieving peace and social justice."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Learning to Sew (More Than Just Buttons)

I know how to sew on buttons and I have sewed a few other items in my lifetime. I often chat with the ladies in the kitchen here and yesterday they said jokingly that I should do the dishes for them. I joked back that I would but I didn't have an apron and didn't want to get my clothes dirty. One of them mentioned that I should buy one and it gave me an idea.
I talked with Selina, one the women in the office who oversees training clients to sew. I asked her if she could teach me how to make an apron and she told me to come in first thing the next morning. I showed up at 8:oo and we went to work.
I wanted a very "African-looking" fabric and chose one that has several masks on it. I cut some fabric for the front pocket so that there is a mask with crazy hair right in the center. I cut out the pattern, the pockets, and then the edge material. All in all, it took less than 2 yards of fabric.
Selina showed me how to run an iron over the fabric to make a good crease to make the sewing easier. I never knew just how many stitches went into a simple apron. I sewed and sewed and then sewed even more. The other women in the office came by just to see me using the sewing machine. They all thought it was funny that a man (and on top of that, a legkoa) knew how to sew).
The finished product is fantastic and I am pleasantly surprised at my sewing skills. The downside now is that I really don't have an excuse to not help with the dishes. Maybe I will "forget" it at home. I talked with Selina and I think my next project will be making a traditional Tswana shirt.

Monday, January 10, 2011

I am a Multi-Trillionaire (No, Really)

Join the Peace Corps, move to Africa, and then become a multi-trillionaire. I would really have it made if only those dollars were actually worth something.

A few months back, I bumped into someone coming back from a trip to Zimbabwe. They had a bundle of Zimbabwean paper money. This was the first I had heard about the runaway inflation there. I saw the notes and decided that they would make an interesting collector's item. I have been looking for some ever since. When I was in Zambia seeing the falls, people approached me walking down the street offering to sell me Zimbabwean Dollars, and after lengthy negotiations, I bought a few bills.

You think of inflation and you think Germany in the 1920's, Hungary in the 1940's and Yugoslavia in the 1980's but those pale in comparison to what happened in Zimbabwe in the 2000's.

I won't try to dive into all the details. Here is an article that explains it better than I could. I was (and still am) fascinated by this and can't believe that I didn't hear about this before. Inflation got so bad that it topped out at 65 million googol percent (thats 65 followed by 107 zeros if you don't know your big numbers).

When the $100 trillion note was released it was worth about US $300. The $100 billion note, at the time of its release, could only buy 3 eggs and a loaf of bread was $300 billion. There was also a saying at the time that the capitol city, Harare, was maybe the only place on earth you could find a homeless billionaire.

The Zimbabwean dollar was once stronger than the Great British pound and through poor management and simply printing money to pay debts, the country was crippled and there no longer is a Zimbabwean Dollar. The government stopped its use in June of 2009 and switched to using US Dollars and South African Rand.

It is a really sad tale of mismanagement but makes for an interesting collector's item.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Paradise Found

For the final few days of vacation, our group went to a little place called "Jungle Junction." Jungle Junction is a "magical experience of island heaven in the middle of the Zambezi River." It really defies description but I will try.

Jungle Junction can best be described as a cross between a resort and a camp (try picturing that one) and occupies an entire island. There are various huts and campsites throughout the island and everything is kept as close to natural as possible. Trails were made over existing hippo or monkey trails, the buildings are made from natural materials, and there is no electricity (but there were flushing toilets and hot showers). Candles light everything up and all cooking is done over charcoal or open fires. A very laid back attitude permeates the place and there is even a self service bar. The only way on or off the island is by traditional canoe. These are similar to dug out canoes in the US and are called "makoros."

Being on the island was exactly what I needed. I didn't wear shoes for the entire time I was there and rarely wore a shirt. The days were spent fishing, swimming, reading, and just relaxing. The owner was around and quite friendly but really left us to our own devices. It was almost like having our very own private island resort.

I spent a few mornings going fishing but only managed to catch a very small tiger fish. I had another one hooked but after a short fight, the fish jumped out of the water and spit the hook out. There was so much tension on the line that the lure shot past me like it had been fired from a gun.
The island itself is quite fascinating. I could have walked around it for hours. the buildings are made out of locally available materials and hot water is heated by using charcoal. The whole place really is an engineering wonder.

It felt so nice after being in a desert to sit sit and relax and watch the sun set over the river. We had a night where we went up the river in makoros to watch the sun set from a small rock outcropping in the river.

There were also all kinds of animals on the island. I saw a large monitor lizard and small monkeys swung through the tree tops. One night while cooking hamburgers, half our cheese mysteriously disappeared. We shined out flashlights into the woods and saw a weird creature that looked like it was a mix between a monkey or a cat (which prompted a long discussion over which it actually was). As it turns out our cheese thief was a genet.

We all joked about never leaving and just living on the island throughout our stay. It really is an incredible place and there is no doubt in my mind that I will be back at some point.

"And me, I still believe in paradise. But now at least I know it's not some place you can look for, 'cause it's not where you go. It's how you feel for a moment in your life when you're a part of something, and if you find that moment... it lasts forever..." - Last lines from the movie "The Beach"

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Stairway to Heaven and the Gnashing Jaws of Death

Whitewater rafting on the Zambezi river is referred to by some as the "wildest one day whitewater run in the world." It also appears on many "Top 5" and "Top 10" lists of best rivers to raft in the world. I couldn't miss out on an opportunity like that. The section of the river we went on was about 25 km long and there are 23 rapids, including 4-6 class 5 rapids.

The rapids have names like "Stairway to Heaven," "Devil's Toilet Bowl," and "Gnashing Jaws of Death," (which wasn't nearly as bad as the name suggests). The river was as wild as advertised in parts and overall quite scenic. The whole river runs through a gorge that has 100 meter sheer rock walls on either side.

We walked down a precarious pathway to get to the water and got in our boat. After the customary safety briefing and a demonstration of how to paddle and the different strokes, we were off. The first rapid is literally right at the put in point and is called the "Boiling Pot." It is a class 4 rapid that flings boats up against a sheer rock wall. We rowed into the rapid and, unsurprisingly, were flung quickly into that wall. The boat went perpendicular to the water and I held on the raft with everything I had. One of the other volunteers with me fell overboard and somehow the rafter righted itself. We then went underneath the bridge between Zambia and Zimbabwe and watched people bungee jumping off of it.

We continued on down the river and through the rapids. Here is a listing and description of all of them. I sat in the front of the raft and definitely swallowed my share of Zambezi River water. Sometimes we passed easily through rapids and sometimes I thought we were going to sink. It was terrifying and time and exhilarating at others.

Then we got to Rapid #8 called "Midnight Diner." On this one all boats have a choice of staying to the right and having an easy class 3 run, or going through the middle, which is a class 5 rapid, and possibly flipping the boat. We voted to run the middle. The guide told us how we would run it and then said something like "when we flip, remember to try to hold on." I thought to myself, "wait, did he just say when we flip?" We shot the rapid and almost immediately hit a large wall of water. We never had a chance. The raft flipped and we were all in the water. I was able to hold on and stayed with the raft while we flipped it right side up and got everyone back in. Some of the others looked terrified that we had flipped but I thought the whole thing was fun.

The rest of the rafting went fairly without incident. there was a class 6 rapid that we had to portage around and it rained for about an hour after lunch. It was cold but really interesting to be out on the water in the middle of a big thunderstorm. There was a clap of thunder directly overhead and it echoed throughout the canyon. It was the longest and loudest thunder I have ever heard.
There were even stretches where we could jump out of the rafts and just float down the river. There aren't any hippos in the area and only a few crocodiles so it was not dangerous to do so. It was a long and grueling day but easily the best rafting I have done.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Queen Victoria and the Devil

Even in low water, Victoria Falls is impressive. In November 1855, David Livingstone became the first white man to see the falls and wrote in his journal, "Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight." He named the Falls after the Queen of England, Victoria. The locals had known about the falls for a long time and used the name "Mosi oa Tunya," which means "the smoke that thunders."

The Falls are the longest in the world, at just over 1.7 kilometers. 1 kilometer is within the borders of Zambia and the remaining 700 meters is in Zimbabwe. It is not like any other waterfall I have seen. The water falls into a crevice between Zambia and Zimbabwe. We could easily see tourists on the Zimbabwe side, and they could not have been more than 200-400 meters away.
The one thing I really wanted to do at the falls is to walk across them. In the low water season, it is possible to walk across much of the 1km on the Zambian side. We hired a few guides and went as a group. Sometimes we were 100 meters away from the falls and others, we could walk right up to the edge and look down.
It took the group a few hours to get across but the views were incredible.
Most of the rocks you see in the pictures will be completely covered by water during the high water season and it would be impossible to do the walk then.
The highlight of the trip though, was a place called "Devil's Pool." It is a small pool that has a small rock wall which effectively prevents much water from going over. Think of it like an infinity pool. During the low water season, you can swim literally at the edge of Victoria Falls.
We walked over the main falls and then swam out to a small outcropping of rocks that sit just above Devil's Pool. The guides showed us where it was safe to jump and where it wasn't and then we all took turns jumping in.
The pool was quite deep and even though I was not in any danger of being washed over, the current was still quite strong and it pushed me through the water up against the rock wall. We sat and enjoyed the view and tried to take it all in. Across the ravine, a small group of tourists on the Zimbabwe side gathered to watch us. I am sure we horrified them by seemingly jumping into the main falls.
Our guides were seemingly fearless. One stood on the rock wall with water rushing over it the whole time to watch us. Behind him was a 100 meter drop. One person asked if he was scared. He simply shrugged, smiled and said, "This is my office."

We all did another jump or two, took some pictures, and then headed back. This was easily the coolest thing I have done in Africa. I look at the pictures now and I still have a hard time believing that we did it.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Livingstone I Presume?

One nice perk of being a Peace Corps volunteer is that we get a few vacation days to use each year and can do a little traveling. Over the holidays, I set out with a few other volunteers to go to Zambia. We spent the first few days in a town called Livingstone. To get to Livingstone from Francistown, you have to get on a bus going to Kasane which will drop you off at the border. The problem is that there are not any big buses that run that route, only small, 25 seat minibuses. I was worried about getting all of us in with our bags so we got up before dawn to make sure we got on the first bus at 6am. All went according to plan except the 6am bus never showed up (a not so rare occurrence here). The 7am minibus did show up (late) and we crammed all of our gear and backpacks in.

We saw about a dozen elephants on the drive up. I still am amazed by them. They are truly massive up close, even when you are sitting in a bus. We got to the Kazungula border crossing after about 6 hours on the bus and walked to the ferry. For many reasons, there is not a bridge at the border crossing between Botswana and Zambia, only a small ferry. This route serves as a major supply route between ports in South Africa and the interior of Africa and the road coming into the border was lined with trucks. The ferry can only accommodate one 18-wheeler and maybe one other small truck at a time. I have heard truckers can sometimes wait for a week or longer to get across. Luckily, we were able to walk right on. We cleared customs and hired a combi to take us to Livingstone, which is about 60km from the border.

I really enjoyed Livingstone. If you close your eyes and picture a small city in Africa, there is a good chance that Livingstone would be it. It was busy and noisy, but also very colorful and lively. Many of the buildings were old "African colonial style." Since tourism is the major driver of the local economy, the city seems to go out of its way to cater to tourists. It was very clean and safe, and there was a local market filled with crafts. You had to haggle a lot to get a decent price, but there were so many beautiful things to buy.

One thing that really struck me (and made me like it even more) was that, despite being a major tourist destination, Livingstone seemed to not have lost all of its charm like other tourist cities do.
We stayed at a backpacker's hostel called Jollyboys ( and it was great. It easily rivaled some of the better hostels I stayed in when I traveled through Europe. All throughout the grounds were mango trees and you could go and pick a fresh mango to eat for breakfast or for a snack.

We had really good weather and got to do all sorts of activities in Livingstone. It was tough to leave and I will definitely be back.