Saturday, April 16, 2016

How I Saved Louie: Crabs in Bondage

     Zavora Beach Lodge is perched on a dune 17 sandy kilometers off the main road in Mozambique. It sits on what I consider the best piece of coastline in the country. The beach is clean and the waves are consistent. At low tide a perfectly round, crystal clear snorkeling pool appears just steps from the beach. A constant but soft onshore breeze keeps the mozzies at bay and the guests cool. The people are lovely. Sounds perfect, right? But it’s empty.

     Perhaps it’s the steep, sandy, traction-resistant road which leads to the bluff campsite that keeps people away, or that the lodge is mainly known for its scuba center, which caters to groups too tired to stroll the beach after two boat dives a day, but the beach here is practically (beautifully) deserted. I was often the only person walking the beach a kilometer in either direction.

One late afternoon Scott and I made our way down the beach farther than we had gone before. We rounded a bend in the coastline until we came to twenty or more small fishing boats perched higher than high tide on the slope of a dune. Soon we began seeing heavy clumps of fishing net bound up with sand and seaweed. Then we saw a tangled mess that contained not only seaweed and sand, but crabs trapped hopelessly in the web.
     “Oh how sad!” I said bending at a mound with three dead crabs. Up to that point on our walk we had been in blissful, life is perfect moods but now we turned away from the scene with empty sails. We walked only a little further before deciding to turn back to camp. As we passed the lump of sand and net with the three crabs I stopped to lift it to see how much it weighed. Just as I bent down to get a good hold, an eye on one of the crabs went sproing! and locked eyes, rather eye, with mine. I looked closer to see that his other eye was ensnared tightly under a line of netting.
     “Oh Scott, one of these guys is alive! Oh, poor thing. We’ve got to help him.” I carefully took hold of a strand of netting and tried to pull it over his head but the net was too tightly wrapped around the crab’s body, head, and ten legs.
     “This is awful. We can’t just leave him here to die like this. Do you have anything sharp in your pocket?” I asked.
     We tried using the teeth of our car keys to no effect. I looked frantically for something sharper in the sand.
     “Oh Scott," I moaned. "Would you please walk to camp and bring my Swiss Army Knife back with you? It has a little scissor attachment. That will be the perfect tool.”
     After some protest (did I mention we were at least a kilometer from camp?) Scott set off down the beach in a grudgey trudge towards the lodge.
(Photo taken during sunset trudge the previous night)
     I searched the area near the boats for something sharp. I tried a piece of hard black plastic to no avail.
     “Hang on Buddy,” I said aloud. Then “Oh brother. I’m talking to a crab.”  Then, because his eye popped up again when I spoke, I imagined that the crab could understand I was trying to help. I knelt next to his good eye and, channeling Band of Brothers, urged, “Stay with me little guy. Help is coming!” He peered up at me with the trust of the innocent and pure.
     I continued searching for anything sharp enough to cut through sturdy plastic net. I peered into each of the boats looking for a left behind tool or utensil. A few of the boats had small outboards attached so I looked for something I could borrow, uh, detach, okay, yes, break off and use to free the crab, who I had named Louie during my frantic and audible search.
     Finally, I found a broken bottle. Perfect! When I picked up a piece of glass the size of a toddler’s palm a small but dangerously sharp shard miraculously broke off and fell at my feet. Even better!
     “Sorry Louie, but this may be a little uncomfortable,” I said returning to the crab with the piece of glass that was as sharp as a surgical knife, or at least a steak knife. His eye sprang up again. He looked at me as if to say, I’m terrified right now, and you are a little manic, but your salty tears are somewhat refreshing, and it seems that this is hurting you more than it’s hurting me so, go for it!
I started cutting with a sawing motion on the strand that trapped his other eye down in the prone position. Sproing! Now both eyes gazed into mine begging for parole.
     “Okay, now lets free a leg Louie.”
     By the time Scott returned with the Swiss Army Knife I had managed to slice away only two more strands. There were dozens to go.
     “Here,” Scott said somewhat impatiently handing me the tool. But when Louie looked at him with both eyes he softened. “Hey! He doesn’t look like a Cyclops anymore!”
     “Didn’t you bring a camera? I wanted to have a photo of him.”
     “No Tris, I did not bring a camera so you could take a picture of your crab. Sheesh,” he added, impatient once more. “Get a move on. It’s going to be dark soon.
     I used the tiny scissors and painstakingly cut strand after strand from Louie’s body, his legs, his head. I had freed most of Louie from his wet, heavy bondage but he still had two legs entwined in a small piece of net. Suddenly he took off running. Not far though. He stopped, turned, and looked at us as if to say, If you don’t mind, I’ll stick around until you finish the job. I picked him up and turned him over to cut the last few strands from his back legs then returned him to the sand. Now it got weird. He just sat there looking at us.
     “What’s the matter Louie?” I looked up and down the beach around us and noticed many holes where crabs had dug in for the night.
     “Oh! He needs a home! He’s probably so exhausted he can’t even dig.” So, I dug a hole for him. Louie watched while I dug sideways into the sand above the high tide line to create a haven from the crows, dogs and whatever else preys on crabs. It was so weird. He watched and waited and then, when I was done, he scampered over to the hole and moved in to the deepest corner, comfy-cozy.
     “Good night Crab Louie. Be well. And stay away from nets!” We walked back to camp feeling good that something in the world, finally, was a little better for us in.
     Three nights later and many kilometers away, at Bahia Mar Resort where we were splashing out for my birthday, while Scott shook his head in disbelief, I ordered crab ravioli for dinner. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Oh Great. The War is Starting and I'm Naked.

Oh Great. The War is Starting and I’m Naked.

     “When you are in the convoy, don’t drive near vehicles carrying soldiers. Don’t get anywhere near the armored personnel carrier either. It’s a good thing you don’t drive a Ford Ranger because they like to shoot at those. That’s the car favored by government officials. Get to the beginning of the convoy early but not too early. If you arrive too early the police will have time to search your car and find something to confiscate or a reason to fine or arrest you.”

     I wonder how long it would take for us to relax in a country where these statements are said to us the same way one might suggest, “Order the lemon herb chicken because the peri peri chicken will give you gas and a runny tummy.”

     We entered Mozambique several weeks ago with a plan to stay at camps along the stunningly beautiful coastline from Maputo to Vilankulos and up to Inhassoro, which folks in South Africa claim is the most breathtaking of them all. Well, the mechanic near the border who filled our almost empty gearbox with fluid and sold us new tires sure raved about it. After Inhassoro, the plan went, we would turn around and drive back the way we came until we could cross the border into Kruger Park. That was the plan. 
     We spent the days swimming in the Indian Ocean and soaking up the sun and Thank God For Ocean Breezes at Xai Xai (Shy Shy), Zavora (best bluff campsite, rescued a crab caught in fishermen net), Inhambane (So-so. Inhamblah), Vilankulos (splash out at Bahia Mar Resort for my birthday, facial, massage, and swim up bar included), Morrungulu (where South Africans next to us who have been coming for 10 years without incident, had their tents slashed and were robbed while they slept) and finally Inhassoro (at the dreamy Dream Catcher Lodge where we sat in the sparkling clean pool until we were pruney all over and watched fisherman lay a five kilometer long net and spend all day pulling it in before dividing it among the community of women who rushed to the beach with buckets or empty maize bags at the end of the day). 
     All of these lodges and or campsites used to be packed to the gills during school holidays and at Easter but these days there are just a handful of guests and minimal staff (except for Bahia Mar which is owned by a Government Minister and has steady occupancy). The drought, the fall of the Rand, and political unrest are to blame for keeping folks away.

     At each stop we asked our hosts about the “troubles” between the Renamo Party in the North and the government party in power. We heard that anyone driving between Rio Save (an hour from Inhassoro) and Muxungwe, about 100 kilometers North, would only be able to proceed in military convoy and that some vehicles had come under attack. This was the main reason for our plan to turn around at Inhassoro, before the Rio Save. I mean we aren’t stupid. A military convoy means that the road runs through an unsafe area, right? While backpacking around the world in 1995, in Laos we hitched a ride with a trucker who was part of a convoy through an area of turmoil and terrorism. What I most remember about that was that we had to wait a long time for the military to arrive and organize the convoy. Also the truck driver needed a shower. So did we. (Unlike this Zig Zag World Tour, our trip in ’95 was The Young and Sweaty with their Two Sweaty Backpacks.)

      When asked why we were turning tail at Inhassoro I explained, “I’ve been in a convoy before and I’m never doing that again. No way, no how. Do I look stupid or something?” But as we drove further and further north, the less we wanted to retrace the same potholed or sandy roads we took to get there. Our ultimate destination was and is Namibia. Driving all the way back to South Africa wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as driving through Zimbabwe and Botswana to get to Namibia.

     We met fishermen from Zimbabwe at Dream Catcher Lodge in Inhassoro who said, “We just came by convoy today! It’s perfectly safe. It was only annoying because they kept stopping so much. The road is bad in places but your Landy can handle that, no problem.”

     “I read in the news this morning that Renamo dug three trenches across the road yesterday to make drivers slow down or stop,”I said.

     “There are big pot holes to be sure but I don’t remember any trenches.”

     I asked our practical, born and bred in Zimbabwe host her opinion.
     “There have been incidences of shootings but a lot of what the media reports is rubbish.” She paused before adding, “Only you can make the decision but I can tell you that I wouldn’t hesitate to go towards Zim by convoy.”

     I posted the question to several Mozambican on-line communities and received a full range of responses from, “Don’t do it! Not worth the risk” to “I did it without incident two weeks ago. Go for it.”

     Scott and I spent two days deciding. On most ballots Scott voted FOR using the convoy to get to Zim. Ninety percent of the time I voted AGAINST mostly because I couldn’t bare thinking about what our families would go through if someone did end up taking a pot shot at us. In the end, on the eve of March 30th, I looked at Scott and said, “We drive an old Landy not a new Ford. Let’s do it.” I spent the next day reading about the convoy and general advice for driving through Mozambique. Mozambique has a lot of rules; “Don’t carry a knife, or machete, or pepper spray. They are deemed weapons and you’ll be arrested. If they search your car they might find a reason to confiscate your alcohol. Hide all your electronics!” Preparing the car (hiding the pepper spray, machete, computer, and the gin for good measure) and all the stress involved with coming to a decision made me kind of constipated so the next night I had peri peri chicken for dinner.

     On April 1st we left camp at 6:30 AM so we would get to the Rio Save in time for the 9AM convoy. We arrived with just a few minutes to spare, just enough time for a few policemen to inquire what we had brought for them. More came to the window, even after I used the usually successful line I borrowed from a woman called Alice during an overland trip from Cairo to Nairobi in 2010 when she was threatened with a fine for breaking a mirror in a pub in Ethiopia, “We are but humble travelers.” Finally a red-flag-bearing woman expressed her impatience for a delay that would result in no reward for her and shouted something in Portuguese at the policeman while waving us on to the bridge with the same motion the “Gentlemen start your engines” guy uses to get the Indy 500 Race started.

     We couldn't tell how many vehicles were in the convoy. But we never saw another tourist vehicle. Overloaded semi-trucks and logging trucks were what took up 99% of the convoy. There were of course armored personnel carriers, pickup trucks filled with fully kitted out soldiers wearing helmets and flak jackets and carrying large ass-kicking weapons. Hot in heavy body armor, thirsty soldiers lined the road in random spots along the route. If the convoy was going slow enough, soldiers asked for water and Scott let them drink from his water bottle. In two areas, there were makeshift army camps along the road.

     The advantage of a convoy in Africa, beside the obvious, is that it turns the road into one-way traffic. For the first time in all our journeys in Ndoto, we didn’t have to worry about oncoming traffic or trucks passing us on a blind curve. All we had to worry about were bathtub sized potholes and watching out for the man-made trenches. There were three trenches and I was glad we knew they were coming because if we had hit one at speed it would have meant the end to an axle.

     Sometimes the convoy spread out and we could barely see the truck in front or behind us but most of the time it was an orderly train of semis and Ndoto. At one point the convoy stopped completely. Soon truckers were climbing down and heading to the side of the road for a wee. I was desperate to do the same. I debated going between Ndoto and the truck in front of us but during a rehearsal Scott said he could see my bottom under the car. So off I went into the bushes with my trusty golf umbrella, which I never leave home without. Truckers threw me thumbs up all around when I returned.

     Finally we arrived at the end of the convoy route. Truckers pulled over to rest and buy cashews from street vendors. We bought cashews too but had no desire to linger. We carried on and six hours after we crossed the Rio Save we arrived at the Shop Rite in Chimoio. We needed supplies and I badly needed to use the facilities. While Scott shopped I asked to use the toilet in my best Portuguese by asking, “Toilet?” with unabashed urgency. Soon a young man whose job was sweeping the aisles led me to double doors that led to the bowels of Shop Rite. He handed me off to a woman who guided me through a maze and upstairs to the ladies room. (Word of advice: If you later want to eat the food you buy at the Shop Rite in Chimoio, do NOT look at what is behind the double doors because the bowels of Shop Rite are literally like the bowels of anything.)

     The ladies room had three loos (with doors!) but none of them had toilet paper. “Toilet paper?” I asked the woman. She answered in rapid Portuguese and made a motion as if she were birthing her eighth child, easy peezy, ‘Well, just go.’

     “Uh, I really need some paper.” I thought, Maybe high school Spanish would help. "Papel?" Or was it El papel? Los papeles?

     Hands on hips, losing patience with me, the mzungu woman who can’t pee without paper, she encouraged me again in Portuguese to just go dammit. By this time, I was near panic and broke into a flop sweat.

     “No pee pee. Big business. Number two, you know?" 

     Blank stare. I pictured myself, dejected and horrified, sinking slowly to the employee restroom floor with acceptance of the inevitable like the bride-to-be with sudden, unstoppable food poisoning while crossing the street in the movie Bridesmaids.
     Portuguese, think of something to say in Portuguese! I said sotto voce. I remembered the time I was in Brazil floating down the Amazon in a small wooden boat. The place where the women prepared our meals was just outside our cabin so every morning I greeted them with, "Bom dia!" which I was sure meant good morning. But every morning after I said it they giggled and blushed. Finally, the captain pulled me aside and told me that my accent was a little "off" and that instead of wishing the cooks good day, I was telling them they had nice bums. 
     "Bom! Bom!," I said motioning to my behind, to the area my gentile Aunt Martha called patootie. Not knowing what language patootie comes from, I threw that in for good measure; "Patootie!!"
     Nothing. By now her impatience was turning to fear.

     “For God’s sake woman! I had peri peri last night!”

     At that, she left and returned with a roll of paper towels.

     An hour later we finally arrived at our camp for the night, Msika, a once hopping resort near the border of Zimbabwe on Lake Chicamba. The regular campsites were overgrown from lack of use so they let us park next to a chalet and gave us a key so we could use the toilet and shower. It was Saturday night but except for a few upper class Mozambicans getting their drink on at the bar there were few guests at the resort and even fewer staying over. The young Mozambican couple let me hold their soft baby, which sent all sorts of warm endorphins coursing through my body. The manager said, “If war doesn’t break out, we are set to have a big fishing competition here at months end”, which sent the cozy vibes crashing.

     I was exhausted, sweaty, and desperate for a shower. I grabbed my towel and toiletry bag and headed to the chalet while Scott unfolded our rooftop tent. I peeled off my sweaty, dusty, anxiety-ridden convoy clothes, tossed them in the corner and padded to the bathroom in my birthday suit. Just as I was about to step into the shower there was a massive explosion that shook the building. My heart stopped. I was glad the peri peri was through my system.

     “Oh great. I’m naked and the war is starting,” I mumbled to myself wearily. Back on went the funky clothes. I opened the door to the chalet just as Scott was about to enter.

     “I forgot to tell you. They are blasting the mountain across from us to get fill for the new highway.”

     The next day we read the news. At 9AM the previous day, at the exact time we crossed the Rio Save and joined the convoy, government troops began bombing the hell out of the Renamo base in Gorongosa National Park, the park once filled with animals that went to fill soldier's bellies during the previous war. 
     This is all very bad, very sad news for Mozambique. In addition, there's a shortage of maize and food prices are soaring. Up north, kids are barefoot and their clothes are in taters. In the South, in the area controlled by the government, children have uniforms, shoes, backpacks, and schoolbooks. But there are a lot of children. If you drive through Vilankulos at noon you'll have to weave your way through a sea of blue uniforms. Hundreds of children, all the same age are leaving school, while hundreds more are arriving for session two. There aren't enough jobs to go around now so it's hard to imagine what these children will do when they graduate.

     Tomorrow we will cross the border into the most beautiful country in Africa, Zimbabwe. First stop, the amazing Musangano Lodge at the gateway to the highlands.


Monday, January 25, 2016

Something Fishy

Something Fishy!

Happy New Year!

2016 started out on a very positive note. The foot funk that began after getting that fish pedicure (you know, the kind where you put your feet in an acrylic tub filled with callus-nibbling fish) in Crete and that has followed us around like Pigpen’s little cloud has finally disappeared. No matter how much we scrubbed or soaked, an unpleasant air biscuit type smell floated up from our feet and embraced us like a long lost lover. It’s embarrassing to admit, but we didn’t mind as much as we should have. The weather was cooler in Turkey so it was easy to ignore it by keeping our feet encased in shoes and socks for a few weeks. I felt badly about it though while we stayed with my nephew Brian at his colleague’s apartment in Gaziantep Turkey over Christmas. His colleague was in America for the holidays and was kind enough to offer her place to Brian so that he, Scott, and I could spend the yuletide together. Her only request was that we remove our shoes, Hawaii style, at the doorway (and she didn’t even know about our funky feet!) On Christmas morning, as Scott and I padded around in our bare feet, I cooked scrambled eggs for breakfast. When Brian came into the kitchen with a “what’s that smell” look on his face I mumbled, “Er, the eggs must not be very fresh." But since arriving in Spain last week we’ve caught nary a whiff. I can’t explain that at all. Perhaps Cava and paella (and lots of it!) are good for guppy foot. Anyway, a few words of advice—if you ever get a fishy-pedi do NOT decline the offer of a foot scrub afterwards.

Hey, what kind of a safari is this!?

I hear you saying, “Wait a minute. Last time I checked, Crete, Turkey, and Spain weren’t in Africa.” And you would be right! So let’s back up.
In early September we headed to South Africa and to our beloved 1973 Landy as planned. But once there, she almost killed us!  Not the Landy. Ndoto (En-doto) was good as new and ready to roll. Especially after she acquired a rebuilt engine block after we cracked her original (So sad and expensive) just a few weeks into the trip.  It was South Africa’s weather that nearly done me in. If you know me, you know I am a hot weather wimp. The day the temperature rose to over 114 degrees (45 degrees Celsius) was the day we came up with plan E for Escape, which, after master web browser Scott viewed the options, meant that we would take our safari to the high seas. A good plan because we love being on the water, and we love to use ships as transportation, and because we don’t love heat stroke.  We boarded The Beautiful Ocean Princess, as she was referred to by the Captain whenever he spoke of her (and she was), in Cape Town for a 36-day Indian Ocean adventure, only we got off the ship a few days early on Malta. You can read about that by clicking HERE. Or just read on below about other stuff.

Seeing Star Wars in Oman

…After a week in Malta petting all the cats and eating all the gelato we could stand (which is a lot!), we ferried to Sicily where we boarded a different ship heading back to Dubai with no repeat ports of call except for Salalah Oman. This was perfect. Since we had already explored Salalah and eaten her camel stew, we used the time to go to the brand new mall in town and see Star Wars, The Force Awakens in 3-D! My favorite part of the experience, other than loving all the girl power, er, strong female role modeling, was viewing the movie with Burka-clad women who lifted their veils to put on their 3-D glasses as the theater lights went dim. I am pretty sure they enjoyed all the girl power in the film too.

Anyway the second ship was not as beautiful or as intimate as the Beautiful Ocean Princess but it was more Italian so had better bread, desserts, and prosciutto, and it had bottles of good quality olive oil available 24-7 in numerous locations on many decks. (The chef told us they go through 5000 liters of olive oil every 14 days). Best of all, the ship took us to places we hadn’t seen or been to in a really long time: Crete, Marmaris, Eilat, Muscat, and To Aqaba! (can’t think of Aqaba without invoking Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia). All interesting ports to be sure, rife with culture and history. But that ship-trip will always be most memorable to me because it was where I met Wren Schultz, a juggler in the circus and an actual New York Times Crossword constructor. Scott said he had never seen me that excited to meet anyone, including royalty or movie star or presidential candidate. And it’s true. I am a crossword addict and to meet someone in person who creates such a pleasurable and rewarding pastime (only you crossword fanatics will understand) was a life event I thought not possible. Wren also won over $50,000 on Wheel of Fortune, and has shaken the hand of Will Shortz. And Wren is also the love of Della’s life, which makes him luckiest of all. Della is his juggling and rope slinging partner and the nicest person I’ve ever met. I am serious. Della is so nice that she kept letting Italians cut in front of her and had to take the last bus out of the port, after all the Italians were gone. We waited for her because she is SO NICE.

Super Trivia
Our Super Trivia team (Super because it lasted three sea days) consisted of Scott and me, and 70-year-old world traveler Paul, a super smart Romanian engineer named Virgil, crossword constructor Wren, and super nice person Della. We did not win the prize for most questions answered correctly but we did win Most Entertaining for the way we creatively spun the doghouse sized multicolored die. We passed it like a quarterback. We hiked it. We leapt for it like a jump ball. We rubbed it on the Italian winning team for luck. They later gave us one of their prizes saying, “Your team-a is the best-a.” For me, it was enough that I was on a trivia team with a crossword constructor! Oh my gosh.

After Scott and I ate one last loaf of delicious crusty Italian bread drowned in olive oil, we disembarked the ship in Dubai and flew to Gaziantep Turkey to be with my nephew Brian and stink up an otherwise lovely apartment.

Christmas was very special. I’m so grateful for time with family during the holidays. We gave Brian a toaster and he gave us Star Wars action figures. We cooked for each other. We watched movies. We walked. We had baklava every day and we toured museums and a castle. We met some of Brian’s young, hip, and attractive colleagues who also administer aid to displaced folks that remain across the border in war torn Syria. We went to an uplifting concert comprised of 10 musicians, half Syrians, half Turks. By the end of the concert everyone was dancing. Being in Gazientep made me feel hopeful.

What about New Year’s Eve?

New Years Eve was muy bueno! We spent it in Barcelona, which has to be one of the top places on earth to bring in the New Year.

First, we ate tapas. Lots and lots of tapas. That made us thirsty for Estrella Beer. Lots of beer.

On New Years Eve, tens of thousands of people converge at the Magic Fountains at Plaza Espana. During the daylight hours, people build towering human pyramids called Castells while children chase bubbles the size of children. Then, at the stroke of midnight, when most everyone in the rest of the world is blowing horns and popping poppers, citizens all over the Spain, the hopeful and the superstitious, go silent and reach for a grape - the first of twelve grapes they will consume for each toll of the bell. We did it too. It’s bad luck not to. It was quite something to watch all the giddy revelers packed in around us suddenly get very pensive and quiet as they concentrated on finishing all twelve grapes before the last chime. It was delightful. And scary. Nothing like ingesting 12 choking risks at the same time. But we planned ahead and bought the smallest grapes we could find.

                          On our last day in Barcelona I took a cooking class. Paella, roasted veggie, pumpkin cannoli, and wine-soaked pears. We students were soaked in wine too by the end.  

We were a long way from South Africa but not far from the African continent. 
A few weeks ago we headed for Morocco where we celebrated the wedding of cousin Ariana in Marrakesh.

This is the life I always dreamed of living. Life long learning and traveling the world in a zig-zag  fashion is truly a Safari Ndefu Jema, A Good Long Journey.

We’ll return to South Africa when the weather is better suited for camping. Until then, there are a lot more fish to feed in other parts of the world, such as Hoi An Vietnam where we were a few days ago.

Happy 2016 to you and yours. May all your dreams come true!

For more stories, read my book, Safari Jema, A Journey of Love and Adventure from Casablanca to Cape Town.
Safari Jema

Much love and wishes for peace, love, happiness, and adventure.

Scott and Tris
January 26, 2016
Manila, The Philippines