Hellenistic Dispatches: Climbing Parnassus; Seeking the Oracle; and Peaking Monasteries

Bright and early the next morning, we were shepherded onto our bus to travel to the Peloponnese, a huge land mass to the west of Athens. After picking up fellow travelers at other hotels in Athens, we met our terrific tour guide, Joy, born in Crete, who had never been to the US but spoke English better than most of us. Joy had studied archeology in college and engaged in “one excavation of an ancient city” before reluctantly taking her mother’s advice and becoming a tour guide. You see, tourism comprises the largest single component of the Greek economy, making it the #1 contributor to the troubled country’s economy, so Greek citizens can make more money as guides than they can as archeologists. It’s hard for us in the US to fathom that in a country as rich with buried antiquities as is Greek, that such amazing work as locating 2500-year-old ruins and reconstructing ancient cities would not trump any other career option. Joy knew her archeology, for sure, and we on the tour bus benefitted greatly from her extensive knowledge of the ancient sites and their historical background. To a person, including one couple who were in biotechnology and astrophysics at Princeton, all of us were astonished by Joy’s huge store of information which she communicated to us during our four- to six- hour drives from Corinth to the excavation of the original Olympic stadium in Olympia to the temples of Delphi atop the spectacular Mt. Parnassus and onto Kalambaka and the mind boggling “working” monasteries that sit atop the towering rocky peaks of Meteora – two of which we climbed up to visit (and this comes from Ellen, or she who hyperventilates whenever she ascends more than 200 feet above sea level!) Joy — like many Greeks, I suspect – also relayed to us many involved and meandering tales regarding figures of Greek mythology during our many hours on the bus. Even though we had to compete with torrential rains when we visited the Temple of Apollo and the other ruins in the very high risk earthquake zone atop Mt. Parnassus, the excavated statues and temples gave you a dream-like feeling, much like the poor girls who were forced to breathe in the toxic vapors emitting from the rocky crevasses in the mountain floor, such that you could imagine bumping into Zeus or Hercules behind the nearest Doric column. Located on the slopes of the breathtaking Mount Parnassus, “in a landscape of unparalleled beauty and majesty” (says Friendly Planet in its description of this tour), the ancient site of Delphi contains the ruins of the Sanctuary of Apollo Pthios, the Treasury of the Athenians, the Temple of Apollo, and the nearby museum which contains masterpieces of ancient Greek sculpture. This site has been regarded as sacred since the Bronze Age, maybe earlier. In antiquity, Delphi was regarded as the center of the world. Whoa! Now those are some hefty credentials to give it the superstar designation of all the Greek antiquities we saw, and there are many, putting it maybe just a notch below the astonishing Acropolis complex in Athens. Exploring the sites of ancient Hellenistic antiquities is, without a doubt, the most impressive aspect of a trip to Greece. It doesn’t get much better, after all, than walking amongst antiquities that stretch as far as the eye can see and that originally comprised the cradle of Greek civilization. Witnessing the erosion of this remarkable culture, in its many abandoned buildings, garbage-strewn roads, and graffiti-scarred edifices in the country’s capital, is probably the saddest aspect about the likely expulsion of Greece from the euro zone over the next few years.

That afternoon, rain drenched and having been forced to miss the pinnacle of the Delphi climb, the Temple of Apollo, we set off for another long drive to Kalambaka, to visit the monasteries that totter on the pinnacle of the majestic gray rocks that make up the Meteora. Yes, they still house monks and nuns who maintain these spectacular stone edifices, bursting with medieval paintings and sculptures in gold tones, reds, blues, whites, and greens. Think of the Sistine Chapel, if it was 50 percent smaller in size, and had been painted by Michelangelo on top of 300-foot rock spires. The monastic history of the amazing Meteora monasteries, perched upon the summits of these precipitous and isolated rocky pinnacles, goes back to the 11th century AD when the monks constructed “these inaccessible eagle’s nests in the crannies of these rocks” (Friendly Planet). Today four are still occupied and we visited two of them. Kalambaka is situated on mainland Greece, just above Peloppenese, and is an eight-hour drive back to Athens.

On the second night of our classical Greece tour, I took a bad fall in the dark when I slipped on a bedspread I had tossed on the floor of our hotel room in Olympia, made of hard tile with no carpet to cushion my face-down crash landing upon the floor. Suffice it to say, I badly banged up my face and lay there, slightly uncertain of how it happened, but apparently never losing consciousness. Bob heard the alarming crash of “When Ellen’s Face Met Floor”, managed to help me get back into bed, and rushed off to wake up the hotel manager to get some ice to help subdue the huge baseball that immediately swelled up within minutes on my forehead. I suffered what I assume was some nerve damage on my hands; just after impact it felt like 100 pins were stabbing into the sides of my hands and that was the only painful after effect. I ended up pulling a pair of socks onto my hands before I laid down to sleep again, to cushion them as they rubbed against the sheets.

Over the next few days, I developed some truly disturbing purple bruises that ended up encircling my eyes before extending down onto my cheeks. As I told my brother, I looked like Gene Simmons in “Kiss” makeup, if Gene had suddenly dyed his hair blonde. People would look at me and then avert their eyes; Bob was distressed that travelers wondered privately if he were a wife beater. After nearly four weeks, I am mostly back to my normal 65-year-old self, for better (though I don’t like being an “official” old person now, not at all!), happily not worse. But I am wondering if I can construct a metaphor here (without using “like” or “as”!) between my bruised and battered face, as I boarded our Swiss Air jet out of Greece three days later, and the financially bruised and battered country, which is tottering (like those monasteries in Meteora) on the brink of collapse and over which we had just travelled over the past fortnight. Okay that’s a stretch, and while my bruises have healed, Greece’s remain. With 25% of its citizens out of work, with an economy largely dependent on attracting travelers from around the world to bring in greatly needed cash infusions (I read upon my return how Greek has developed a barter economy since euros are so hard to come by for the locals.) and with a severe shortage of governance skills, you have to wonder where Greece will drift over the next few years. The cynic in me says the future is not bright and that odds greatly favor Greece’s departure from the euro zone. In all honesty, Greece never should have been admitted to the European Monetary Union in the late 90s (I think it was one of the original members). You certainly don’t have to be a cynic to wonder how the struggling country was able to meet strict inflation and GDP guidelines to be considered in the same league with dynamos like Germany and France. And, if Greece is kicked out of the club in the next few years, that could conceivably set off a chain effect where Italy and Spain will soon follow suit. It’s not a pretty picture but one Germany, as the chief locomotive driving the EMU, as well as Greece have to face. In the meantime, this erstwhile traveler and one-time bond trader says, “Sell euro-backed funds”. Or better still, sell drachmas, if you can find any. But in the meantime, buy Greek olive oil ! (which by most accounts is superior to that produced in either Italy or Spain.) While it is not as ubiquitous as that packaged in Italy, I did find some in Trader Joe’s. I figure using Greek olive oil rather than Italian is just my puny little gesture of aid to this once-esteemed, and still extremely impressive, culture in a very bad spot. I wish that were enough.

END

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Channing Zeus, Sipping Ouzo, and Eating Moussaka at Noon

Hellenistic Dispatches: Channeling Zeus, Sipping Ouzo, and Eating Moussaka at Noon

We had just been released from Immigration Control at Athens International airport on September 13th and spotted a middle-aged man holding a “Friendly Planet” sign near the exit doors. That is the name of the tour group, based in Pennsylvania, with which we’d signed up for our tour of the Greek islands and four classical sites on the mainland, and also the company who had sponsored our spectacular incursion into South Africa and Zimbabwe last November. We introduced ourselves to Tasso who, it turned out, was not to be our tour guide but had been entrusted with our transport to our hotel, The Royal Olympia, in downtown Athens. He grabbed the handle of my red Samsonite suitcase and Bob pulled his own bag, and he ushered us out to his spanking clean Mercedes car which he told us he had recently purchased for his taxi business, we assume, to maintain a high level of tony professionalism in one of the country’s most important businesses – tourism.
So that was our first impression of the overall state of this financially beleaguered country that barely managed to evade being ejected from the European Union just three months earlier. When just a month earlier we had wondered if we would be readily able to extract euros from the ATMs during our trip, we now encountered cab drivers – not Syrian refugees but native Greeks – who owned glitzy Mercedes sedans. But, as we were to discover over our eleven days in Greece, such superficial assumptions about the battered country would be curiously contradicted time and again. Indeed, Greece remains, not surprisingly, a country in serious distress. I do not think it will remain in the Euro zone two years from now, but that is just my Wall Street gambler’s instinct. For what that is (not) worth.
But back to experiencing our first steps on Hellenistic soil. We deposited our bags in the trunk of Tasso’s Mercedes and within minutes were whizzing along on the relatively new national road – what we would call an interstate in the US – towards downtown Athens. Tasso explained (English was spoken nearly everywhere we went in Greece. European’s facility with our native tongue should embarrass us Americans; I didn’t even know how to request a tiny glass of Ouzo at that point in Greek. Nor do I now) that the country had built the superhighway in 2004 to accommodate the Olympics that were held in Athens that year. Athens sits on the far southeastern edge of Greece, very near the Aegean Sea which separates it from Turkey. As we drove away from the far eastern coast where we had landed, Tasso pointed to a respectably sizable lump of earth – you could call it a mountain – that sat between us and downtown Athens. He explained the country had had to drill through the mountain when rebuilding its airport road to construct new tunnels to facilitate transit into the city proper. There wasn’t much along the road as we wended our way towards the mountain and I marveled at the distance to Athens the city from its major port of entry. I guess that description of the Athens airport is debatable; Athens has its nautical port at Piraeus, maybe 20 minutes outside of the city itself. Since tourism comprises about 40 percent of the country’s inflows, the numerous cruise lines and ferries that dock there also bring a sizable number of people into and out of the country. This fact is especially relevant since this fall’s Syrian refugee crisis has forced many migrants to enter Greece en route to Macedonia, Austria, and finally Germany and Sweden via its extensive ferry system. This doesn’t even make note of the many unfortunates who have washed up on its easternmost Greek islands Lesbos and also Kos near Turkey as their lifeboats were not seaworthy enough to venture further west through the sometimes turbulent Aegean Sea.
Finally our cab breached the city limits of Greece’s capital and meandered through the streets towards our hotel, which was situated between the Temple of Zeus ruins and the mighty, and I do mean mighty, Acropolis/Parthenon complex overlooking the city. Our first impression of Athens was of the graffiti seen on the buildings – everywhere. I kept waiting to get to the “fancy” part of town, ie: the equivalent of Athens’ Fifth or Madison Avenue, where the architecture and shops would dazzle me and no more unsightly painted scribbles would adorn the buildings. That never happened. Even just a few blocks from our very very nice hotel, sandwiched between the Temple of Zeus excavation, Hadrian’s Arch and the Acropolis, the city looked ordinary, crowded and, well, even unattractive. The most appealing structures in the city were those from 2500 years ago and, as lively as the Plaka shopping and restaurant district was, everything was very crowded and fairly unremarkable in appearance. Only the few blocks directly adjoining the steps leading up to the Acropolis were notable for their architectural appeal and charm. The absence of any type of urban or rural zoning in any part of Greece was stunning. By no stretch of the imagination can Athens be called a “great” city, nor is it in any way even distantly comparable to smaller cities in Italy like Florence and Rome or Zurich and Lucerne in Switzerland. I suspect this was always true and is not just a result of Greece’s recent default-related battering and near expulsion from the European Union. When we boarded our shuttle bus to transport us to our ship in Piraeus the next morning, I actually was surprised to find the port town to be more interesting and even a bit more attractive than Athens. I don’t mean to be so hard on Athens; certainly its “resident” astonishing antiquities as well as its related history as the birthplace of ancient Greek culture are both amazing and breathtaking. The Temple of Zeus was directly across the busy city street from our hotel and our pre-sunrise breakfast wowed diners with both The Temple as well as the Acropolis, on another angle, barely visible in the romantic and muted early morning light.
We met with our tour guide in the hotel lobby after breakfast and signed up for our chosen excursions at the various ports of call in the six Greek islands we were slated to visit: Mykonos, Ephesus (actually on the Turkish mainland), Patmos, Rhodes, Crete, and finally the picture-postcard stunning Santorini. Then we jumped on the bus for Piraeus where we were to board our boat, The Celestyal Olympia, which held 1600 passengers. It had a pool and surrounding deck, a casino, at least six bars, two restaurants (buffet and sit down), and a large room with bistro tables and stage, presumedly for evening entertainment — of which Bob and I partook of none in the end. Many of our island stops took place in the evening hours so it was all you could do to board your bus on the island at 5 pm and roar off to your ancient excavation or shops or charmingly-meandering street for three hours and then get back to the ship before restaurants closed down at 10 pm. (In the end, I don’t think Bob and I became committed to cruise travel.) If I were to summarize our island hopping experience, I would opine that we were slated to visit too many islands in two few days. Six islands in four days of zigzagging across the Aegaen Sea just doesn’t add up to much time to enjoy any of the islands. If I were to return to Greece in the future, I would travel on our own and fly from Athens to three islands – charming Mykonos, the medieval city state of Rhodes, and the stunning volcanic rock Santorini with its white stucco Greek Orthodox churches with picturesque blue domes and crosses high atop the extremely mountainous island (oh, those switchbacks!) I would like to explore more of Crete, as well. Also, I would plan for us to stay for at least three days at each island, time to enjoy the ocean and spectacular scenery. For instance, we were suitably enchanted by the charm and extraordinary beauty of Santorini but only had about two hours to walk the picturesque (and mobbed) alleyways of the main village. We stopped to shop at one or two shops, and to take pictures of the famous blue-domed church with the many levels of oceanfront houses and restaurants below it, tumbling down to the sea many hundreds of feet below. But when we sat down at one bistro with a porch overlooking the ocean far below, we realized we had to return to our bus in 40 minutes so we abandoned our plan to enjoy a local beer and the scenery outside our patio and scurried back down the hill to meet our transport back down the steep mountain to the port where our ship was anchored. This trip was the first time in three tours we’ve taken (Costa Rica, South Africa and Greece) where I felt, some embarrassment, that we were one of “those people” I had jeered on the tour busses in my youth. When the Celestyal Olympia docked in a port, you’d look around when you finally were called to meet your local bus and you’d see three to four additional enormous cruise ships, also spewing out thousands of foreign tourists (Russians, Turkish, Canadians, British, German, Danish, Swedish, and Americans) onto the concrete docks leading to the port city. So much for sailing into a charming cove at some “undiscovered” Greek island and lounging on the deck of your sailing dinghy as you traversed the 200 yards to shore with only 20 other passengers hoping to soak up local color at the same time as you are. As charming as the islands were, we were usually part of a mob of tourists everywhere we went, with barely enough time to enjoy the scenery before having to hightail it back to sea. (We did have a whole day, from about 12 noon to 5 pm, in Rhodes. But it was in the 90s so we explored the hilly streets in the walled medieval city, and sipped coffee in a garden bistro for maybe two hours before dragging ourselves back to the boat and the air conditioned comfort of our stateroom. Note to self: the next time you consider a visit to the Aegean Sea, no cruises! Fly to Athens, where you can book any number of small planes that fly many times a day to many of the islands, or use one of the ubiquitous ferries. Consider this: by opting for the tour boat agenda, we never visited even one beach! No pale blue waters, no Aegean breezes, no umbrella drinks, no snoozes on the sandy beach. Well, on Patmos, we had 90 minutes on land and came upon one small beach in the town where the boat docked. The bistro across the street from the beach had set up tables and chairs in the sand and we did use our time that evening to plop ourselves down, feet in sand, and sip a gin and tonic as we watched the boats and bird life in the harbor, with one of our fellow travelers from Saskatchewan (who enjoyed a beer)
So we departed Piraeus on a Monday at noon, sluicing through the often churning waters of the Aegean Sea to Mykonos, Ephesus (Turkey), Patmos, Crete, Rhodes, and Santorini before disembarking once again at Piraeus on Friday morning where we met our tour guide, after some searching, and were bussed back to our hotel. Sidebar: Before we boarded our ship, I had expected that it would not be surprising if we saw some of the Syrian refugees on the Greek ferries that had begun crossings from Turkey to Athens after so many people had perished on overloaded rubber rafts making their way to the Eurozone from the Middle East. While I did see a number of Greek ferries as we sailed out of Piraeus on our first day, we encountered none on the open seas. We did notice a group of refugees after we arrived back in Athens near the bus and train stations there. So while huge numbers of refugees were making their way across Turkey and Austria and into Germany while we were in Greece, I think most of them were in northern Greece on a massive trek into Macedonia while we were in southern and central Greece.
Back in Athens for about 12 hours before we were scheduled to board our busses for our four-day “extension” tour to explore the antiquities of classical Greece (Epidaurus, Corinth, Delphi, Mycenae, Olympia and Kalambaka), we opted for a casual Greek meal in the Plaka, the old city of Athens, and about a 10-minute walk from our hotel. We had with us a couple we had met on the tour, also from Connecticut and with whom we had become friendly, as we stopped along the way for a cash infusion at a bank ATM near the main entrance to the old city. We had been instructed by Friendly Planet to bring cash in small denominations, so we would be prepared for tipping our tour guides and drivers, wait staff and bell men. But of course that meant we carried thick packets of fives and tens – all in US dollars. That didn’t go far to replenish the wallets of cash-strapped Greek workers, just barely emerging from the near collapse they endured in June. So we were relieved to find there was no shortage of euros (and no drachmas suddenly needed for transactions, at least for the time being) at the ATMs. That said, our plan was to withdraw a respectable sum of euros per ATM visit in order to reduce the fees we had to pay to access the local currency. So we only had to hit the ATMs on three occasions over our 12 days in the country; credit cards were accepted by most restaurants and some stores. But when bargaining for gift purchases, you definitely had more leverage in getting to “yes” if you agreed to pay with euros, or euros and dollars, than with credit cards.

Stay tuned for Part Two: Climbing Parnassus, Seeking the Oracle, and Peaking Monasteries

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Why Rising Interest Rates are Good

Every time Federal Reserve chief Janet Yellen or another Fed governor emits the slightest phrase about the Fed perhaps/maybe/ maybe not/could be/might possibly prod interest rates a bit higher this year, it sends Wall Street into a tailspin.  Oh no!  Bond prices are going to collapse!  Sell your assets!  Stock prices will be battered by rising inflation if the Fed turns off the spigot it has generously kept pumping in order to stave off financial collapse since the Great Recession began in late 2008.   This seems like a vast overreaction to me, a veteran repo trader from the early 80s, a time when the Fed allowed interest rates to skyrocket to reflect a federal funds target of about 18% in order to rein in the inflation that surfaced in the decade following the end of the Viet Nam war. 

So how high are interest rates bound to rise this year, or next?  How bad will it be?  Not very high; in the worst case, perhaps a fed funds rate of 2%; maybe 3.5% by the end of 2016.  Should that modest an increase be seen as the end of the world for asset classes, already at record high prices, and historic lows in interest rates?  Not by any means.  Let’s get a grip. And, in any event, the fact that rates might begin to edge higher is a healthy sign: it means that the severe financial collapse of seven years ago that the Fed was forced to counter by pumping in billions of dollars is truly over and the US economy is showing signs of reinvigoration. In other words, higher interest rates are good.

As someone who has spent about 30 years in regular contact with the Fed, often as it conducted its daily monetary policy maneuvers – first as an investment advisor for corporations with short-term cash to invest in Treasury bills, then as a repo trader financing multimillion dollar holdings of US government securities for a variety of Wall Street firms, and finally as a money markets reporter covering the Fed and repos, for Bloomberg News – I think the Fed’s conduct over the past six years has been astonishingly bold and enormously effective.  As, read this closely, unelected banking professionals who espouse no overt partisan viewpoint, I find its independence refreshing and something to be lauded, not demonized.  The Fed has never been known as a risk taker, nor should it be, its mandate being to keep the lid on inflation while sustaining full employment.  And yes, it holds all the cards with regard to expanding or contracting the money supply, back when people daily pondered the Fed’s “tea leaves” to determine whether interest rates are going up or down; now, in this era of greater transparency,  policymakers just tell you.  And it did so in a measured, “see no evil” modus operandi.  If you had risky, aka “toxic”, securities to finance, that was your problem.   It wouldn’t take mortgage securities as backing for overnight loans to its stable of “recognized” bond dealers. That is what makes the Fed’s performance through its Qualitative Easing program so creative and bold. The Fed rewrote its long held open-market operations playbook in order to get the financial system back on its feet.  And it worked;  that is why Wall Street investors, and average Americans should not be unnerved by rising interest rates.  Higher rates mean we – the US economic system –  are getting better.

But let’s get back to cause and effect.  The fact we have had low interest rates since 2008 is a function of the  economic collapse after Wall Street malfeasance – as reflected in the short selling involving subprime mortgage securities – which led to a meltdown of the mortgage market. That market had become vastly inflated after financial companies lured homeowners into committing to hefty mortgage schemes (ie: negative amortization; buying homes with no down payment) they could not afford and which were absolute misrepresentations of financial outcome, driven by the greed of investment banks. After that happened, the Fed undertook some very bold initiatives to erect a solid safety net under the banking system, so that the entire financial system didn’t disintegrate. Some very smart people on Wall Street, including then Treasury chairman Hank Paulsen, saw the financial implosion as likely spreading throughout the banking system, moving from the Wall Street markets to Main Street, so that you and I, and everyone else who had money in a bank, would have been unable to get our hands on our cash. The ATMs would have been frozen. By September 2008, there were only two Wall Street investment banks left standing, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, and key insiders cautioned then that they, too, were also within days of joining the others in failure. As I told my non-Wall Street friends in 2008, you don’t want to be the last person in line at the FDIC when all the banks fail.

So Bush, Paulsen, and Fed chief Ben Bernanke initiated the $700 billion stimulus package in late 2008 which led to round 2, under Obama and his Treasury chairman Tim Geithner, an injection of nearly $800 billion into the banking system. This took the form of Fed cash infusions that lowered rates to just above zero, then later the purchase of so-called toxic waste securities (something in normal times the Fed never would accept as collateral in its open market operations), termed Quantitative Easing. The Fed was forced to come up with QE1 and 2 because it had already used all the arrows in its monetary policy “quiver” by cutting interest rates to zero, its primary weapon to combat economic malaise. It had no choice; the system was still wavering after the stimulus package was enacted, so it upped the ante by absorbing the Street’s more risk-laden collateral.

It was a brilliant and ultimately successful maneuver and thankfully we had Bernanke and Paulsen and Geithner controlling the levers or else we, too, would have endured a “lost decade” — but far worse than Japan’s, since our collapse was more broad based. And we were not alone; Europe is still struggling to get on its feet after its own banking institutions engaged in some risky business of similar, if not identical, origins that fanned the fires of the global financial collapse of 2008.

So restrain yourself from hitting the “sell” button in a knee-jerk reaction if Chairwoman Yellen does announce that policymakers are on the verge of tightening, or raising its key federal funds rate, from which all interest rates are set. It should be instead a time to buy financial assets since it means the US banking system no longer teeters on the brink and economic growth is expanding. There are still no discernible, worrisome inflation pressures on the horizon, setting the stage for another bull market and a Dow Jones that could easily break 20,000.

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Into Africa: Swimming with the Sharks

Game animals were everywhere when we got to Kruger National Game Reserve, in Mpumalonga state, east of Jo’burg on our fifth day in Africa. We saw the very rare cheetah there, instead of the leopard, which is the most elusive of the Big Five, a creature that is both reclusive and shy, we were told.  Also lumbering through the bush wherever we drove in Kruger were wart hogs, hyenas, impala, crocodiles (on river banks), all kinds of exotic birds, mongoose, monkeys/baboons.  It was like being on another planet. We went on six safaris in all, with five of them occurring on three consecutive days. In the Kapama Private Game Reserve where we had our after-dark lion encounter related in my first dispatch, we would convene at 4:30 pm for our evening safari that found us back at the lodge at 7:30 just as dark was falling and in time for our huge “bush” buffet dinner of grilled impala, ostrich meat, roast guinea hen, rice, local beans, salad, some type of green vegetables with red pepper and lots of tropical fruit. But midway through the safari, our guides would coordinate a stopping point where our vans would convene and park. Out came a folding table and African-print tablecloth, tin cans displayed holding impala jerky and nuts, and a suitcase opened containing South African wines and beers, and gins and vodkas. How civilized is that for “roughing” it? Well, the British once counted this land as part of its empire and you can tell.

We stayed in the financial district, Sandston, in Johannesburg which was full of huge, glittering buildings and a fabulous shopping plaza named after Nelson Mandela with restaurants and stores for your nourishment and retail therapy.  All very high end and we were able to walk the few blocks to nearby restaurants without fear of robbery in that up-scale neighborhood.  But then you get out into the “townships”, which is South Africa’s euphemistic term for the slums that were built to contain all black South Africans during the apartheid years, from 1948 until 1994, chock full of falling-down metal shacks and usually found just outside the city center, and it’s a much different story.   Much of inner Jo’burg is also sketchy indeed, and the country, full of visible contradictions, has a huge crime problem averaging 47 murders a day, about seven times greater than in the US. Car jackings and robbings are also at epidemic levels, and our guide admonished us never to use an ATM machine that was not inside a building and to preferably visit one only when accompanied by a companion who could stand guard as you withdrew your money.

We loved Cape Town near the bottom of the continent. A stunning, up-and-coming city in a beautiful setting nestled between huge mountains and a crystalline seacoast, it reminded me a bit of San Francisco with its vestiges of Victorian architecture and multi-colored houses on the hilly streets, with a spectacular waterfront. Another couple on our tour, who had spent their professional lives in northern California, told us that they could imagine living in Cape Town, “and we are pretty picky about where we live,” they added. I titled this final chapter of our African odyssey as I did, since our youngest two tour members from Miami opted for a side trip down in a cage off Cape Town to meet some sharks who dwell in the cold and clear waters off the city.  I was quite happy to forego that little visit.)  It didn’t hurt that we spent our last morning in Africa sunbathing on the roof of our hotel, dipping our bodies into the lap pool and gazing up to the mountains towering over us as well as the harbor in front of us. The day before I had picked up an interesting stone from the Cape of Good Hope, about a 90-minute drive south of Cape Town along a stunning, mountainous coastline, to bring home to my brother who might have been a geologist in a different life. In the city the next day, hoping for some cut-rate diamonds, I priced one tanzanite ring set in tiny diamonds in one tony store:  upwards of $2K.  Also I looked at a pair of tiny (0.4 karat) diamond earrings set in 18K white gold in Cape Town:  $800.00.    I thought we might get better deals in South Africa, known for its diamond mines, but I finally concluded that its main claim to fame in the world of cut stones is to have the highest quality diamonds but obviously not the least expensive.  I guess it’s back to 47th Street in New York for any serious gem shopping I might envision in my future.

And oh, those amazing South African wines, which I now believe are a most well-kept secret from the average wine-swilling consumer in the US; the white wines from Stellenbosch, in particular — which is the Western Cape’s version of Napa Valley, but with bigger mountains — grows and ages astonishing chenin blancs, chardonnays, and sauvignon blancs that are the equal of any wine I have drunk from California, Italy, or France. At $3 a glass, or $5 to $8 per bottle, you feel like you have been sucked back in time to the 1950s with prices that low — except, of course, we had no good wines in the 1950s in South Africa or the US!

On Monday Dec 1st, we dragged ourselves out of the aforementioned rooftop pool and packed our 12 wooden animals, two soap stone elephants, three African pashminas in purple, red, and gray for Kittson, Ronon and Emily, tee shirts from Kruger park for the sons-in-law, hats, hippos, beaded necklaces and bowls and boarded our bus for the airport in Cape Town. That was a South African Airways wide body, disappointingly cramped for a long-haul carrier that should know better, and flew to Jo’burg where we would be driven to the other end of the airport with our carry-on luggage in tow, and then have to wend our long way back to the international terminal, go through security two more times, and get back on the same SAA Airbus 340 for JFK in NYC, with a refueling stop in Dakar (remember, that’s the city that is EIGHT HOURS away by plane. So much for Ebola contagion jumping over 5000 miles or more to the southernmost part of the continent!) And no one seemed to board the plane in Dakar except for some security men who strangely made us remove our carryon bags from the overhead bins so they could look behind them. No kidding. Then they sprayed us with some kind of disinfectant, and an hour later we were airborne for the final nine hours to New York. Cramped in our narrow seats with our American butts, more than one of us complained of an aching tail bone when we disembarked at JFK at 7am local time the next day.   Even so, it was all worth it. Africa is still dominant in my dreams.

FYI: our tour company was Friendly Planet (not Lonely Planet, which makes tour books), based in Pennsylvania. Our 17-day tour of South Africa was called “Best of South Africa” and it cost about $3500 for the basic tour; we signed on to the extension trip to Zimbabwe which added about another $1200 to the bottom line. That included your airfare in high season, all 4- and 5-star hotels which were over-the-top in luxury and comfort; all of our breakfasts (from fruit and cereal to oatmeal to eggs, bacon and scones!), four dinners, and three lunches.   They also sponsor tours to Israel, Kenya (maybe not now), China, South America and Europe, among other places. We thought they offered an exceptionally good value with excellent tour guides and top-of-the-line Mercedes busses.   A word about tours: you might cringe at the thought that you have become one of “those people” who are on a tour bus but we have found one great feature of tours: they take all the hassle and (subliminal) anxiety out of travelling to an exotic location. From arranging your transport to a hotel as well as conveyance of luggage, they do it all. And tour guides often can offer lots of tidbits about travel in the country you chosen as well as many interesting details about the people and country itself. And they do all that for far less money than if you arranged it yourself.

Ellen, once of Africa, now back in Connecticut

 

 

 

 

 

INTO AFRICA/Part 3: SWIMMING WITH THE SHARKS

 

Game animals were everywhere when we got to Kruger National Game Reserve, in Mpumalonga state, east of Jo’burg on our fifth day in Africa. We saw the very rare cheetah there, instead of the leopard, which is the most elusive of the Big Five, a creature that is both reclusive and shy, we were told.  Also lumbering through the bush wherever we drove in Kruger were wart hogs, hyenas, impala, crocodiles (on river banks), all kinds of exotic birds, mongoose, monkeys/baboons.  It was like being on another planet. We went on six safaris in all, with five of them occurring on three consecutive days. In the Kapama Private Game Reserve where we had our after-dark lion encounter related in my first dispatch, we would convene at 4:30 pm for our evening safari that found us back at the lodge at 7:30 just as dark was falling and in time for our huge “bush” buffet dinner of grilled impala, ostrich meat, roast guinea hen, rice, local beans, salad, some type of green vegetables with red pepper and lots of tropical fruit. But midway through the safari, our guides would coordinate a stopping point where our vans would convene and park. Out came a folding table and African-print tablecloth, tin cans displayed holding impala jerky and nuts, and a suitcase opened containing South African wines and beers, and gins and vodkas. How civilized is that for “roughing” it? Well, the British once counted this land as part of its empire and you can tell.

 

We stayed in the financial district, Sandston, in Johannesburg which was full of huge, glittering buildings and a fabulous shopping plaza named after Nelson Mandela with restaurants and stores for your nourishment and retail therapy.  All very high end and we were able to walk the few blocks to nearby restaurants without fear of robbery in that up-scale neighborhood.  But then you get out into the “townships”, which is South Africa’s euphemistic term for the slums that were built to contain all black South Africans during the apartheid years, from 1948 until 1994, chock full of falling-down metal shacks and usually found just outside the city center, and it’s a much different story.   Much of inner Jo’burg is also sketchy indeed, and the country, full of visible contradictions, has a huge crime problem averaging 47 murders a day, about seven times greater than in the US. Car jackings and robbings are also at epidemic levels, and our guide admonished us never to use an ATM machine that was not inside a building and to preferably visit one only when accompanied by a companion who could stand guard as you withdrew your money.

 

We loved Cape Town near the bottom of the continent. A stunning, up-and-coming city in a beautiful setting nestled between huge mountains and a crystalline seacoast, it reminded me a bit of San Francisco with its vestiges of Victorian architecture and multi-colored houses on the hilly streets, with a spectacular waterfront. Another couple on our tour, who had spent their professional lives in northern California, told us that they could imagine living in Cape Town, “and we are pretty picky about where we live,” they added. It didn’t hurt that we spent our last morning in Africa sunbathing on the roof of our hotel, dipping our bodies into the lap pool and gazing up to the mountains towering over us as well as the harbor in front of us. The day before I had picked up an interesting stone from the Cape of Good Hope, about a 90-minute drive south of Cape Town along a stunning, mountainous coastline, to bring home to my brother who might have been a geologist in a different life. In the city the next day, hoping for some cut-rate diamonds, I priced one tanzanite ring set in tiny diamonds in one tony store:  upwards of $2K.  Also I looked at a pair of tiny (0.4 karat) diamond earrings set in 18K white gold in Cape Town:  $800.00.    I thought we might get better deals in South Africa, known for its diamond mines, but I finally concluded that its main claim to fame in the world of cut stones is to have the highest quality diamonds but obviously not the least expensive.  I guess it’s back to 47th Street in New York for any serious gem shopping I might envision in my future.

 

And, oh those amazing South African wines, which I now believe are a most well-kept secret from the average wine-swilling consumer in the US; the white wines from Stellenbosch, in particular — which is the Western Cape’s version of Napa Valley, but with bigger mountains — grows and ages astonishing chenin blancs, chardonnays, and sauvignon blancs that are the equal of any wine I have drunk from California, Italy, or France. At $3 a glass, or $5 to $8 per bottle, you feel like you have been sucked back in time to the 1950s with prices that low — except, of course, we had no good wines in the 1950s in South Africa or the US!

 

On Monday Dec 1st, we dragged ourselves out of the pool and packed our 12 wooden animals, two soap stone elephants, three African pashminas in purple, red, and gray for Kittson, Ronon and Emily, tee shirts from Kruger park for the sons-in-law, hats, hippos, beaded necklaces and bowls and boarded our bus for the airport in Cape Town. That was a South African Airways wide body, disappointingly cramped for a long-haul carrier that should know better, and flew to Jo’burg where we would be driven to the other end of the airport with our carry-on luggage in tow, and then have to wend our long way back to the international terminal, go through security two more times, and get back on the same SAA Airbus 340 for JFK in NYC, with a refueling stop in Dakar (remember, that’s the city that is EIGHT HOURS away by plane. So much for Ebola contagion jumping over 5000 miles or more to the southernmost part of the continent!) And no one seemed to board the plane in Dakar except for some security men who strangely made us remove our carryon bags from the overhead bins so they could look behind them. No kidding. Then they sprayed us with some kind of disinfectant, and an hour later we were airborne for the final nine hours to New York. Cramped in our narrow seats with our American butts, more than one of us complained of an aching tail bone when we disembarked at JFK at 7am local time the next day.   Even so, it was all worth it. Africa is still dominant in my dreams.

 

FYI: our tour company was Friendly Planet (not Lonely Planet, which makes tour books), based in Pennsylvania. Our 17-day tour of South Africa was called “Best of South Africa” and it cost about $3500 for the basic tour; we signed on to the extension trip to Zimbabwe which added about another $1200 to the bottom line. That included your airfare in high season, all 4- and 5-star hotels which were over-the-top in luxury and comfort; all of our breakfasts (from fruit and cereal to oatmeal to eggs, bacon and scones!), four dinners, and three lunches.   They also sponsor tours to Israel, Kenya (maybe not now), China, South America and Europe, among other places. We thought they offered an exceptionally good value with excellent tour guides and top-of-the-line Mercedes busses.   A word about tours: you might cringe at the thought that you have become one of “those people” who are on a tour bus but we have found one great feature of tours: they take all the hassle and (subliminal) anxiety out of travelling to an exotic location. From arranging your transport to a hotel as well as conveyance of luggage, they do it all. And tour guides often can offer lots of tidbits about travel in the country you chosen as well as many interesting details about the people and country itself. And they do all that for far less money than if you arranged it yourself.

 

Ellen, once of Africa, now back in Connecticut

 

 

 

 

 

INTO AFRICA/Part 3: SWIMMING WITH THE SHARKS

 

Game animals were everywhere when we got to Kruger National Game Reserve, in Mpumalonga state, east of Jo’burg on our fifth day in Africa. We saw the very rare cheetah there, instead of the leopard, which is the most elusive of the Big Five, a creature that is both reclusive and shy, we were told.  Also lumbering through the bush wherever we drove in Kruger were wart hogs, hyenas, impala, crocodiles (on river banks), all kinds of exotic birds, mongoose, monkeys/baboons.  It was like being on another planet. We went on six safaris in all, with five of them occurring on three consecutive days. In the Kapama Private Game Reserve where we had our after-dark lion encounter related in my first dispatch, we would convene at 4:30 pm for our evening safari that found us back at the lodge at 7:30 just as dark was falling and in time for our huge “bush” buffet dinner of grilled impala, ostrich meat, roast guinea hen, rice, local beans, salad, some type of green vegetables with red pepper and lots of tropical fruit. But midway through the safari, our guides would coordinate a stopping point where our vans would convene and park. Out came a folding table and African-print tablecloth, tin cans displayed holding impala jerky and nuts, and a suitcase opened containing South African wines and beers, and gins and vodkas. How civilized is that for “roughing” it? Well, the British once counted this land as part of its empire and you can tell.

 

We stayed in the financial district, Sandston, in Johannesburg which was full of huge, glittering buildings and a fabulous shopping plaza named after Nelson Mandela with restaurants and stores for your nourishment and retail therapy.  All very high end and we were able to walk the few blocks to nearby restaurants without fear of robbery in that up-scale neighborhood.  But then you get out into the “townships”, which is South Africa’s euphemistic term for the slums that were built to contain all black South Africans during the apartheid years, from 1948 until 1994, chock full of falling-down metal shacks and usually found just outside the city center, and it’s a much different story.   Much of inner Jo’burg is also sketchy indeed, and the country, full of visible contradictions, has a huge crime problem averaging 47 murders a day, about seven times greater than in the US. Car jackings and robbings are also at epidemic levels, and our guide admonished us never to use an ATM machine that was not inside a building and to preferably visit one only when accompanied by a companion who could stand guard as you withdrew your money.

 

We loved Cape Town near the bottom of the continent. A stunning, up-and-coming city in a beautiful setting nestled between huge mountains and a crystalline seacoast, it reminded me a bit of San Francisco with its vestiges of Victorian architecture and multi-colored houses on the hilly streets, with a spectacular waterfront. Another couple on our tour, who had spent their professional lives in northern California, told us that they could imagine living in Cape Town, “and we are pretty picky about where we live,” they added. It didn’t hurt that we spent our last morning in Africa sunbathing on the roof of our hotel, dipping our bodies into the lap pool and gazing up to the mountains towering over us as well as the harbor in front of us. The day before I had picked up an interesting stone from the Cape of Good Hope, about a 90-minute drive south of Cape Town along a stunning, mountainous coastline, to bring home to my brother who might have been a geologist in a different life. In the city the next day, hoping for some cut-rate diamonds, I priced one tanzanite ring set in tiny diamonds in one tony store:  upwards of $2K.  Also I looked at a pair of tiny (0.4 karat) diamond earrings set in 18K white gold in Cape Town:  $800.00.    I thought we might get better deals in South Africa, known for its diamond mines, but I finally concluded that its main claim to fame in the world of cut stones is to have the highest quality diamonds but obviously not the least expensive.  I guess it’s back to 47th Street in New York for any serious gem shopping I might envision in my future.

 

And, oh those amazing South African wines, which I now believe are a most well-kept secret from the average wine-swilling consumer in the US; the white wines from Stellenbosch, in particular — which is the Western Cape’s version of Napa Valley, but with bigger mountains — grows and ages astonishing chenin blancs, chardonnays, and sauvignon blancs that are the equal of any wine I have drunk from California, Italy, or France. At $3 a glass, or $5 to $8 per bottle, you feel like you have been sucked back in time to the 1950s with prices that low — except, of course, we had no good wines in the 1950s in South Africa or the US!

 

On Monday Dec 1st, we dragged ourselves out of the pool and packed our 12 wooden animals, two soap stone elephants, three African pashminas in purple, red, and gray for Kittson, Ronon and Emily, tee shirts from Kruger park for the sons-in-law, hats, hippos, beaded necklaces and bowls and boarded our bus for the airport in Cape Town. That was a South African Airways wide body, disappointingly cramped for a long-haul carrier that should know better, and flew to Jo’burg where we would be driven to the other end of the airport with our carry-on luggage in tow, and then have to wend our long way back to the international terminal, go through security two more times, and get back on the same SAA Airbus 340 for JFK in NYC, with a refueling stop in Dakar (remember, that’s the city that is EIGHT HOURS away by plane. So much for Ebola contagion jumping over 5000 miles or more to the southernmost part of the continent!) And no one seemed to board the plane in Dakar except for some security men who strangely made us remove our carryon bags from the overhead bins so they could look behind them. No kidding. Then they sprayed us with some kind of disinfectant, and an hour later we were airborne for the final nine hours to New York. Cramped in our narrow seats with our American butts, more than one of us complained of an aching tail bone when we disembarked at JFK at 7am local time the next day.   Even so, it was all worth it. Africa is still dominant in my dreams.

 

FYI: our tour company was Friendly Planet (not Lonely Planet, which makes tour books), based in Pennsylvania. Our 17-day tour of South Africa was called “Best of South Africa” and it cost about $3500 for the basic tour; we signed on to the extension trip to Zimbabwe which added about another $1200 to the bottom line. That included your airfare in high season, all 4- and 5-star hotels which were over-the-top in luxury and comfort; all of our breakfasts (from fruit and cereal to oatmeal to eggs, bacon and scones!), four dinners, and three lunches.   They also sponsor tours to Israel, Kenya (maybe not now), China, South America and Europe, among other places. We thought they offered an exceptionally good value with excellent tour guides and top-of-the-line Mercedes busses.   A word about tours: you might cringe at the thought that you have become one of “those people” who are on a tour bus but we have found one great feature of tours: they take all the hassle and (subliminal) anxiety out of travelling to an exotic location. From arranging your transport to a hotel as well as conveyance of luggage, they do it all. And tour guides often can offer lots of tidbits about travel in the country you chosen as well as many interesting details about the people and country itself. And they do all that for far less money than if you arranged it yourself.

 

Ellen, once of Africa, now back in Connecticut

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Into Africa: Running with the Pachaderms

“What is that sound?” I asked Bob when we were walking back to our room on the elevated boardwalk that ran behind our accommodations at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge in Zimbabwe on our first night in Africa. There was a distinct rustling in the acres of bush directly behind our rooms, which our decks faced. “It sounds very close. What could that be?” We paused to look into the bush but could see nothing.

We had been out to dinner with two other couples also on our tour, who were old friends who included us at dinner at a nearby “boma”, a traditional African restaurant where we had eaten roasted pork, wart hog steaks, and grilled impala – not to mention the local delicacy: Mopani worms. (Okay, I passed on the worms but Bob gave them a try and reported they were salty and crispy. Not for me.), as well as danced with the Zulu drummers and dancers who perform at the boma many nights. I had expected it to be touristy but found it colorful, exuberant and yes, authentic (at least to this new arrival) as well as a delightful immersion into African culture just 30 hours after we had departed from New York.

Now we were tired and still nowhere caught up in our sleep after being forced to spend the overnight flight from JFK in cramped seats that didn’t recline. We had managed to grab a solid nap that afternoon when we got to the lodge but now were ready to crawl under our mosquito netting and into our bed to crash.

But there was that noise near the walkway and then the rustling got louder and more persistent, as if the beast making the ruckus was very close to the rooms at the lodge and, well, grouchy that it couldn’t find its bed. We got into the room and quietly slid open the door to the deck and walked outside in the dark to see if we could identify the source. Suddenly I heard a bellowing call and it was somehow familiar. We had not yet visited the elephant paradise that is Chobe Wildlife Reserve in Botswana but I suddenly recognized the sound: “Bob, I think that’s an elephant”, I said and narrowed my eyes in the darkness to see if it was visible among the trees in the moonlight. It bellowed again and the sound was just below our deck railing. Okay, it had been just ten hours since we landed in Johannesburg but suddenly it was real: We were really in Africa. I swear my heart beat louder until we hit the sack.

The next day we engaged in a long walking tour on the Zimbabwean side of the extraordinarily huge Victoria Falls, which begin in Zambia “falling” into the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe. On our way back to the lodge, our guide and driver, whose name was (really and truly) Last, had just made an unscheduled stop to show us a 1500-year old baobob tree on the opposite side of the road through the bush that we were taking to get back to our lodge. We had literally been out of the vehicle for less than three minutes when we turned to walk back, and out of nowhere — I guess, they had been hiding in the bush — five local men had suddenly appeared and had already set up their wood and stone carvings next to our van, hoping they could wrangle a couple of dollars from the Americans. They had wood sculpted creations of the “Big Five” game animals – lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo, and rhino – carved standing on top of each other (a popular configuration with the American tourists), single carved hippos and elephants, soap stone elephants and beaded necklaces.

We had to laugh; we couldn’t believe how quickly these men had materialized, almost like leprechauns (yes, I know, wrong country!). One second the bus was parked on the side of the empty road next to thousands of hecters of African bush; the next moment these guys had scampered out from behind the trees with their hand-carved wares in hand. We had just left the battered metal shacks that comprised the market in the village of Victoria Falls and had been hounded from the moment we left the bus to our stop at the nearby bank, so that one of our fellow tour members could grab some more dollars, by the local Zimbabweans, anxious to make a few dollars to buy their family an evening meal. We didn’t need more animals or plates; we had bargained and bought arm loads of items just an hour before. But the men persisted in trying to sell us more. A standard ploy: “What do you think this is worth?” they would implore you, staring you straight in the eye. They hope to get you to elicit a price based on your US value system which, no doubt, is going to be multiples of what they typically are able to get for one of their hippos or leopards. If you, the unwitting tourist, blurts out, “$25” for a pair of salad servers, they will have those teak tongs wrapped in newspaper and bound with tape before you can reconsider and you now have yourself a pair of salad utensils with giraffes on each end that you could have bought for $10, or even $8 if you had been patient and more discriminating.

You have to bargain. They expect it but the process is a bit daunting for the newly arrived tourist. One of our guys had a pair of hippos, finely carved and polished, in his hand that he thrust out to me as I moved by him to board our bus: “$10! Give me $10,” he exclaimed as I inched past him. “No, I really don’t need any more animals,” I replied. “How much? How much?” he persisted, as he stood next to the van’s door. “8! I will take $8.” I again said no, that, if anything, I would only pay $5.00 for the two animals. “No, no, $8,” he insisted. After all, I, a blonde American woman, should be an easy mark when facing off againsst these Zulu (Zuluan?) man. I climbed the steps to the bus, shaking my head. “$5,” I said. “That’s all.” As the doors were closing, he tossed the hippos onto the floor by my seat and said, “Okay, $5!” I gave him $10 and he gave me $4.00 change, asking if he could keep the extra $1 “for his partner” (Big mistake: always give exact change when you strike a deal). I agreed, as much to be rid of him as anything else. I was now the jet-lagged owner of two very finely carved and polished hippos for $2.50 each.

Africa is a stunningly poverty-ridden continent. That may be the biggest understatement you will hear during the new year that looms. In 2008, after the global financial collapse eradicated the fortunes of many emerging and sub-emerging and sub-sub-emerging economies, Zimbabwe abandoned its own currency after a tsunami of inflation rendered it worthless within days. The country now uses the US dollar (go figure) as its currency of exchange; you were able to buy one of the now worthless Zimbabwean 100 million notes for just a few US dollars, to keep as a souvenir. And $1.00 is a substantial amount of money to these people. You can’t get your head around how poor they are and sometimes selling a wooden elephant makes the difference between their being able to feed their family or not that night.

When I considered that fact later in our tour, I told Bob that maybe we shouldn’t have bargained for all the items we purchased since even the highest price was a real deal. He looked at me like I was, okay, one of those Mopani worms, saying, “They expect you to bargain and at least they got some money from us in the end. A few dollars is a lot of money to them.” South Africa is the most developed of all the countries in Africa, a continent that can easily hold three countries the size of the United States within its borders and still have some space for a pyramid or two in its upper righthand corner. It is huge; it is an eight-hour flight just to reach Dakar in West Africa from Jo’burg. Eight hours! The average person in South Africa makes $300 per month; in many other areas of the continent, they make less than $1 or $2 per day. Maybe this is just your garden-variety-gooey-eyed-liberal-tree-hugger ploy, but one Zimbabwean at the village market in Victoria Falls called me over to him and showed me the two blankets of carved animals and boxes he had on display on the ground. “Mum,” he said. “Here are all the things I made. Can you please buy something so I can feed my family? It’s all I have.” Another local tribesman called Bob over to the fence surrounding a parking lot where our bus was parked when we went to visit the falls on our second day and showed him a carved lion he had to sell. Bob asked the price, mainly out of courtesy as we had already hit the market, and the guy named his price. And then he added, “ you should buy it because you have money and I do not.” It is kind of eye opening for the “ugly American” hitting a less-than-third-world country for the first time. Reality bites, indeed.

We arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa on Nov 18th and immediately transferred to a British Airways flight to Victoria Falls, about 1000 miles north. I gazed out the window as we flew the two hours north to Zimbabwe. We had entered the African continent in Namibia at sunrise that day and looked down upon vast expanses of dry savanna with no buildings, no roads, nor even elephants in sight (well, we were still a mere 39,000 feet above the continent), and I was curious to see if there were many changes to the flora and fauna now that we were in South Africa. There was endless bush below us, and still few buildings or roads, only the occasional power plant. Still I saw no parades of lions, giraffes, or elephants that I thought were everywhere in Africa but we were headed for Botswana in a day or two where there is one of the highest concentrations of elephants in Africa, we were told. When we got to Chobe National Reserve in Botswana two days later, we were greeted by herds of elephants of all sizes, along with hippos, rhinos, impala, and Cape buffalo. Then suddenly looked like the Africa that commanded my imagination.

Africa has an almost mystical allure that catches you by surprise when you first experience it. I had to keep pinching myself to realize I really was in Africa the first few days after we arrived. It’s a continent with a bloody history of savagery of whites against blacks; blacks against whites; and blacks against blacks. But in seeming contradiction of that fact, South Africans in particular are a very friendly and attractive people with broad, easy smiles and a wonderful physicality when they dance or sing; and the South African women are quite pretty . Maybe it’s the Dutch influence (and the inevitable in-breeding that implies) but the black women there don’t look like your stereotypical African woman. Small “button” noses, slightly paler skin on which their rosy rouge was easily discernible, and with smaller “European” lips. Everyone was just lovely to us in South Africa. And yet, the country is again beset with corruption with an ever declining report card assessed for President Jakob Zuma who succeeded the great Nelson Mandela as leader of the country and head of the revered African National Congress. Mandela is clearly held in very high esteem as the father of the “modern” South Africa by both Afrikaaner and black alike. Some people we talked to worried that the reconciliation he brokered between blacks and whites after the Afrikaaner leadership disbanded apartheid in 1994 might be showing signs of falling apart, now that Mandela has been gone a year. I hope not.

(Stay tuned for Part 3 of “Into Africa”).

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Into Africa: The Lion Doesn’t Sleep Tonight

Darkness had fallen in the bush surrounding the Kampana River Private Game Reserve, about five hours east of Johannesburg in South Africa and Bob and I, with four of our fellow tour members, were tracking a male lion who had been spotted slinking down one of the rutted dirt roads in the bush. Clive, our guide, said he thought this male had been the partner of the female lion and cubs we had spotted that morning, half asleep and sated from eating a good portion of the wildebeest the two females had killed the night before. Suddenly, there he was maybe 10 feet away, walking purposefully through the underbrush towards our jeep. We froze in our seats. Keep in mind, this is an open-air vehicle, with two of us on each of three tiered seating levels.

The lion kept up his steady pace with a female in pursuit behind him. Neither Clive, our driver and guide, nor Freddy, our “spotter” who sits in a chair on the top of the hood, was carrying a gun. With a tinge of panic, I suddenly wondered if it might have been a good idea to have some kind of weaponry in hand, I mean, just in case the lion decided we presented as mighty tasty morsels as he leapt into our seats. But Clive was relaxed; he told us that the lions were used to seeing the vehicles and knew they posed no threat. He said the lion would ignore us – so long as we kept our hands inside the vehicle and stayed in our seats, quiet. Okay, roger that, Clive; no arguments from me. Mum’s the word.

My seat mate, Doris, was on the side nearest to the approaching lion, as was Bob up in the third tier. I didn’t move, as I felt Doris’ body slowly inching across the seat towards me, to distance herself from the lion. I looked back at Bob, thinking, “Okay. Really cool to see the lion but can we go back to the lodge now?” I was surprised to see that Bob had also angled his body to the left, to be further from the PAGE TWO: beast. The lion was now directly next to the jeep, his eyes focused straight ahead – and straight ahead were all of us. His eyes appeared to glow in the darkness; it was about 7:00 at night and we were not slated to return to the lodge until 8pm or so.

Lightning had begun to light up the sky and rain was starting to trickle down on our heads; there was no canvas roof on our safari jeep. We had been hearing thunder for an hour or so. By now, I was barely breathing as I kept my eyes fixed on the lion, now only about one foot from the side of our vehicle. I kept thinking, “How can this be safe?” But suddenly the lion turned left along the side of the jeep and moved off into the darkness, down the rutted dirt road. Clive turned on the ignition, and put the jeep into gear, following the lion down the road. The storm was closer now and lightning bolts thundered near us. But Clive was a man on a mission; he wanted to see if the lion was on a kill. He spotted a Cape buffalo on a nearby rise in the bush and waited to see if the lion would charge it. The female lion was with her male counterpart now. Clive stopped the jeep again and waited. We had been given rain parkas to toss over our heads and torsos, a plan I readily agreed to. The rain was coming down heavier now. We waited. The lions were standing next to the road near the buffalo.

Suddenly the buffalo disappeared into the darkness, having seen the lions first. We would be witnessing no kill tonight which, actually, was just fine with me. I had had my close (lion) encounter and now was just a bit concerned about the lightning. Clive put the jeep into gear and took off at a furious pace over the rutted bush roads, kicking out stones and dirt as he drove over dried out watering holes and up small hills, under power wires over which the monkeys scampered, until he intersected the main road that would quicken the driving time to cover the four miles back to the lodge. Lightning crashed somewhere nearly in the bush as we skidded to a halt in the PAGE THREE: parking lot next to the lodge. Just another night on safari in South Africa.

A week ago when our Airbus 340 first turned its huge bulk to the left off the Atlantic Ocean just after sunrise, puncturing the coast of Namibia as it aimed for Johannesburg on the eastern side of South Africa, I pressed my face against our window to catch my first glimpse of Africa. It looked flat and barren to me – no apparent roads or hills or houses, no savanna (as I imagined a flat, grassy plain where I had the misperception was the home of all the large animals in Africa). I even looked down over 39,000 feet of heavy cloud cover to the uninhabited land I could see and thought, “Well, maybe I can see an elephant.” Okay, reality time, Ellen. Elephants may be what you had always associated with Africa, and they might be very, very big, but did you really think you could pick one out from 39,000 feet? So my first impression of Africa was probably not too far off the mark: a vast land, much of it flat and barren, no visible road or bridge infrastructure beyond the occasional power plant, and not even the big game animals that we had flown 14.5 hours to see in their natural habitats, including what the game reserves call “the Big Five” everyone hopes to check off on their game viewing inventory: the lion, rhino, buffalo, elephant and the most elusive of all, the leopard.

They would all come in time and in great numbers, with most seen during the six safaris we enjoyed over the first week with the list expanding daily to include zebra, giraffes, wart hogs, and crocodiles. We would see many, many elephants with our first being a small group who had assembled at the watering hole behind our safari lodge in Victoria Falls, in Zimbabwe our first night in Africa. Then two days later when we crossed the border into Botswana to visit Chobe National Park, our very exuberant and knowledgeable guide, Winnie (as he said, introducing himself, “Like in Winnie the Pooh”) jammed the petal to the metal, as they say, as he guided our vehicle PAGE FOUR: towards groupings of the ubiquitous impala (like smaller, reddish deer), antelopes, African (or Cape) buffalo, monkeys, hippos in the river that divides Botswana from Zambia, and yes, elephants and more elephants in groups steadily moving their enormous grey bodies through the bush to graze on the plain near the river. It was at that moment that I said to Bob, “Now I know I am in Africa”.

That night we came home to our lodge to see a mother and her baby elephant walking through the bush just below our deck as the mother yanked leaves off the top of the small trees, while bending a branch down to feed her baby. What an astonishing trip it all was, and I do mean that both in the 60s hallucinogenic way, as well as just the entire journey itself. The Dark Continent. We were really here. The endless trek over ocean and the vast land mass that is Africa actually did bring us to our far away destination. It might as well be Neverland, it was all so different and yes, magical. I now know why there are people who go to Africa – Dr. Stanley Livingstone, Isak Dineson, Jane Goodall – and never leave. Africa, a vast and complicated land, is also just plain amazing.

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I Get High (With a Little Help from Joe Cocker)

I Get High (With a Little Help from Joe Cocker)

(Written in April 2008 after I saw Joe Cocker perform at the Palace Theatre in Stamford, CT.)

I can die now. A heart attack can strike me whenever it wants. I can calmly take one of those hairpin turns, driving south on the Pacific Coast Highway, a tad too quickly and conquer my extreme acrophobia as I helplessly plunge head over wheels in my tiny rental car into the icy cold Pacific waters below. I can face all my darkest fears, with a smile; hell, I’ll even say, bring ’em on ! It’s all okay. And why?

I saw Joe Cocker Friday night at the Palace Theater in Stamford, CT. And I will never be the same. I will now count February 11, 2005 as one of the five greatest nights of my life. Without a speck of hyperbole.

It was one of those evenings that absolutely transforms you, just sweeps you away. You never hear music or think of that most unbelievable and unique ability of Cocker’s to fuse rock, blues, and jazz into one, quite the same way again. I had always really liked Cocker’s music and raspy, yet spirited, singing style, but this was something else. At age 60, I don’t think Joe has ever sounded better or been more in control as a performer. I don’t know what this is I am feeling; maybe it is just sheer adoration if not gaga infatuation. (Forgive me Lady, but Cocker came way before you.) Before last night, I only thought Bruce Springsteen could do this to me. No longer.

His opening act was his saxophonist, Eug Grove (pronounced “Huge Groove”, believe it or not) and a fine jazz artist in his own right. Eug said he had gone to college at the University of Miami, but later gone on to “get his degree with The Tower of Power” where he was immersed in funk and rock. Eug stayed around to play keyboards and sax for Joe (with whom he has travelled with for a decade) who came on about 9pm.

I was excited as we waited to see Joe, but I had no idea what was in store for us. We’d already had a bit of kismet. As we waited for the show to start, sitting about the 15th row back in the mezzanine after managing to snare the final two seats in the house just at 2:30 that afternoon, this guy approaches us and introduces himself, saying “I have something I have to ask you.” We thought and said out loud to him, “uh, oh” and he held up his hand and replied, “No, this is only good for you.” He explained he had seen Cocker at the Beacon Theatre in NYC on Tuesday and his in-laws were downstairs in the orchestra, having bought tickets weeks earlier. But they wanted to sit upstairs to be with his wife and him. Would we be willing to switch seats with them?” Sure: to swap our center balcony seats, maybe 25 rows back from the stage, for seventh row center downstairs ?!! What an imposition! We followed him down like two happy sheep, gave him our ticket stubs and he retrieved his wife’s parent’s ticket stubs and gave them to us. And there we were now, maybe 35 feet from the stage! Just perfect.

Joe finally sauntered on stage to cajole the words to “Chain of Fools” from deep in his throat. My eyes were like saucers. Joe of course always has done covers of songs but somehow, in my opinion, he manages to put his own inimitable stamp on a song, re-interpreting it in a way that makes you feel you never heard it before. After that great rock/blues opening, we were off and running.

Onto Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” which coming from Joe’s mouth (and somewhere deep in his soul after four decades of performing), was even more astonishing and moving than if it had been sung by the wild eyed, spastic-seeming performer of 1969 when he first wowed US audiences at Woodstock. Then “What’s Goin’ On?”, the great Marvin Gaye soul hit, never sounding more plaintive or relevant. He would sing “Brother brother, we don’t want to escalate” like a man beseeching Rummy about Iraq two years ago. He’d ask “What’s going on?”; we’d sing back “What’s going on?” It became a mantra. Later came “You Can Keep Your Hat On,” sung with a whimsical resonance, with Joe pantomiming a woman taking off her dress, anticipating a night of romance. Also on the play list, “Wait til the Night Comes”, his hit from the late 90s; “Up Where We Belong”, from the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman”, which had been Joe’s first #1 song in the USA, in 1982 (with Jennifer Warnes.) He brought us to our feet with both “Up Where We Belong” as well as his terrific blues hit “Unchain My Heart.” The audience was in a frenzy; it was like a religious awakening. Our arms were waving; we were dancing in our seats; we were singing; we were all calling out “Joe!”; It was like it might have been if you had been there when the Beatles landed at JFK in America in 1964 ! This was, not surprisingly, largely an audience of 45 and older; some people brought their kids who seemed a bit surprised by the pandemonium among all these old farts of their parent’s age.

When Joe began the opening strains to “I Put a Spell on You”, looking directly out at the audience under a center spotlight, I didn’t know whether to swoon or shiver. Each song Joe sang was more controlled, more soulful, more transcendent than the last. Joe, at 60, is a much more confident blues performer now, no longer the long mop of unruly curls or spasmodic arm movements.

I closed my eyes in bliss when he began “One” by U2, perhaps my favorite if cynical love song by the Irish rock icons. He later closed with “With a Little Help From My Friends”, his Woodstock anthem that put him on the map here, and I have never heard him sing it better, even on the Woodstock album. He segued into “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” followed by a rousing “Cry Me A River” for his encore. Every time he left the stage we kept clapping and screaming until he came back. He must have gone through 15 songs from his songbook of hits from the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. Finally, he came back on with just his bass player and pianist for his final encore, “You Are So Beautiful”. It was stunningly moving, and it served to bring us down from our overwhelming blues/rock-infused high. He waved, said “Thank you, Stamford”, and left the stage with a smile. He had to be tired after going through the 90-minute set without a break; I was mentally and physically drained myself. It was one of the top five “most perfect nights” of my life; for an hour and a half, I was absolutely, exquisitely happy. Truly a rapturous performance from a rock legend, one who unbelievingly seems not far off the top of his game.

I thought about those jerky hand motions Joe had long been famous for, his body jerking left and right (much like Elaine used to dance on Seinfeld!). Joe’s hands are still constantly in motion but I realized now what that is: his enormous and inherent sense of musicality. His fingers on his right hand are constantly either fingering a keyboard or plucking the strings of a guitar; he holds his left hand slightly higher, with hand curved, as if cradling an invisible guitar. So that was it! Talk about “Guitar Hero”! At the end of each song as he would come back from a riff performed by his musicians on stage, he would approach the mike and his fingers would be going, he would be gently moving to the music, dancing even, and then it would happen: he would stop in the spotlight, sing a few last phrases, and he would perform the most exquisite and subtle air guitar I have ever seen by any rocker. He would punctuate the end of almost every song that way, and it was not jerky, or spasmodic, but masterfully controlled.

Years ago in the late 70s, the brilliant John Belushi would stand behind Cocker as he performed on Saturday Night Live and mock Cocker’s jerky movements. Belushi would greatly exaggerate the spasmodic arm motions and end up maybe even falling down on stage, all to the real or feigned ignorance of Cocker in front of him. The joke was that Cocker was a burned-out rocker, unlikely to last another year due to his presumed excesses, much less another 25 to 30 years.

One thing I know after Friday is that Joe Cocker is certainly still rocking and still has the power to move an audience to near rapture with his blues riffs and craggy, subtle vocal growl, his incendiary take on a Beatles favorite like “With a Little Help from My Friends”, that makes the song no longer a cover but his alone. Joe Cocker will turn 64 on May 20. I think he might be having the last laugh.

–Written in 2008 after seeing Joe Cocker perform at the Plaza Theatre in Stamford CT. One of the great nights of my life.

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