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This is Africa

Saturday, August 16th, 2008 at about 12:18 pm

And such was the mantra repeatedly to me by so many people there: when the power went in the middle of the day for hours at a time in the township I was working in my last week there, Henry (my host, the medical clinic’s only real IT staff, who was used to such things) simply said “Yes, I mean, this is Africa” when I asked if this happened regularly. And when the young Afrikaner males explained one or other of the crazier facets of South African culture (get caught drunk driving? Just bribe the cop. Are car-jackings really a big threat? Yes, Hendrik was hijacked not three weeks ago) my incredulity was always met with: “Yes, but the thing you must remember is, this is Africa”. The rigid South African driver’s license exams: “Yes well in America I’m sure it’s fine to have an easy test because everyone is well-educated, but here, this is Africa — you need to test just to make sure someone’s intelligent enough to be on the road.” And even then, when we would see some reckless driver: “Well, this is Africa”. The cheap prices of the drugs the Afrikaner males consumed in quantity: “This is Africa.” The phrase showed up everywhere, in explanations to things, as if some innate quality of the land itself had forced itself on all the continent’s inhabitents and culture. I adopted it, and began to mentally apply it to things I witnessed myself that I’d never expect to see elsewhere: The doubly-electrically-fenced villa homes of the security villages, one of which I was living in, and through whose fences I crossed every day — well, “This is Africa.” The salamander I found in the bathroom the last night I was in Pretoria: “This is Africa.” The constant threat of a smash-and-grab; the cars that narrowly avoided clipping me as I biked to work; the service culture that abundant cheap labor produces (an improbably smiling HIV-positive single mother from Zimbabwe named Marci who made my breakfast every morning — your country is ablaze and yet you smile!); the constant construction, everywhere, tearing up highways and sidewalks, leaving enormous mounds of dirt on the side of the road blocking my way and sending choking clouds of dust into the air; the general lack of sidewalks; the lack of public transportation (beyond the ubiquitous minibus); the ants that crawled across the floor of every bedroom I stayed in; the mounds of trash burning on the outskirts of Mamelodi; the flames of a “controlled” burn on the side of the highway, not a soul in sight and the outline of the blaze licking like tired wild dogs at the dried grass, lighting the night with orange and umbre and smoke: this is Africa, light seeping from where the tissue scars across its enormous beating heart.

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by j. android

Holland

Monday, August 4th, 2008 at about 2:44 pm

Eash. The bike I rented yesterday, a sort of ungainly, beat-up cruiser (I paid extra for gears, but they were minimally useful), was as rough on me as I was on it — I hauled about 60 kilometers on that rusty rented piece of shit today, and the top of my thighs are killing me from where they got pinched by the huge seat. I took a ferry from Centraal Station across the Ij to the far side of the city, then spent the next 7 hours biking along the sea dikes and through small towns. The route was laid out in the book, but with minimal directions, so I ended up relying on the extremely well executed system of signs for specifically the bike route network in this province (amazing!) and, when that failed, bus signs.

At least it’s flat, and the cycling was mostly easy. The wind was killer on the way back, I didn’t realize how much it was helping me on the way out. I made a big loop, but after the halfway point the going got much tougher — I was both tired and now fighting the wind. But overall well worth it for sweet views from the dikes of the sea and the intensely bucolic reclaimed farmland. The little villages were also quite cute at times, and that famous lowlands light lived up to its portayal in the Golden Age paintings I saw yesterday at the Rijksmusem.

I rolled back into town around 3:30 in the afternoon (much earlier than I had thought, I figured it would take all day, and thank god today was the first day we didn’t have any rain). Went to a cafe called Winkel, had a huge piece of apple pie and a glass of orange juice. Spent the rest of the afternoon getting blitzed on amnesia and biking around doing what I’ve come to call the “gracht tango”, hopelessly trying to navigate the dense array of streets and canals (roads on streets next to canals end in “-gracht”) that make up this part of the city. It’s intensely charming, although crawling with tourists, which I’m not used to after South Africa. Walking down the street here I’m as likely to hear someone speaking English or French as Dutch.

I just had some dinner at “Noodle & Go”, a kind of ikea-meets-fastfoodnoodles place nearby that I chose because it would be quick. It’s still light here at 9:40 and will be for half an hour, which is also a huge trip coming from the southern hemisphere where it was getting dark at 5:30. I kind of want to go out, but it now hurts to bike I’m so wiped so I think I’m just going to watch Interview with a Vampire (strange sudden craving, so I quickly downloaded it here at the hostel — thank god for broadband, I felt like I was breathing through a tube on South African Internet connections). Tomorrow maybe another bike tour, depending on how my legs feel. Wednesday going to Texel. The Netherlands are lovely in the summertime.

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by j. android

Kruger

Sunday, July 27th, 2008 at about 5:51 am

Because the Peebles Valley is a scant 20 minutes from the Numbi gate of Kruger National Park, the largest game reserve here in South Africa, we spent Saturday on a game drive. It was quite fun, often stretches where not much would happen but then you’d see something ridiculous (elephants walking across the road, or something) and it would be thrilling. So I’m quite glad we did it, though I didn’t make it back to Pretoria until almost 11pm. Now I’ve got today, Sunday, to rest, before going off tomorrow morning to Ndlovu, a medical clinic similar to Peebles in some respects that we’ve also got a wireless network in. It’s just me this time, so I hope I’m up to it technically, but it promises to be quite interesting no matter what the outcome. Below are some assorted photos from Kruger; I took quite a few but in most of them it’s difficult to actually see anything.

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by j. android

The ACTS clinic & Peebles Valley

Sunday, July 27th, 2008 at about 5:30 am

Thursday and Friday of this past week I had the excellent opportunity to go with a big group from Meraka to Peebles Valley, a semi-rural area about 4 hours away from Pretoria where there’s a large AIDS clinic. There was a wireless mesh set up there to connect some of the various buildings that comprise the clinic & it’s associated hospice; partially this was for sharing of the clinic’s V-SAT (the only Internet connection available in the area) and partially to get phone service (through Voice over IP) working between some of the clinic buildings (previously, cell phones had been used, to enormous expense). This was working for a while, but without constant maintenance from people at Meraka it rapidly falls apart. It’s now recognized that in order for networks like this to function, they need someone locally who’s incentivized to take care of them. And that usually means turning them into some kind of business — a local Wireless ISP, or a local phone company. This is exactly what I’ve been working on the weeks I’ve been here — a “Wireless ISP in a box” that would allow easy deployment and maintenance of not only the networking side of things, but also the billing systems & other infrastructure needed to easily turn a wireless network into a (hopefully) profitable business for a local entrepreneur. The idea is an old one: give people the tools, let them build it themselves, and if there’s some money to be made it will become self-sustaining.

So hopefully a local businessperson can be identified at Peebles to keep the mesh working, because while we set a few things up again they’ll only fall apart without some oversight. We spoke with a few local guys who might be interested in doing something like this. The biggest bottleneck is the clinic’s V-SAT satellite uplink; it’s already at 70% capacity and that’s for the clinic’s medical use. So another uplink is required, and that can be tough. But it seems that there’s at least one guy working on brining a pipe in from the largest nearby town in the form of a series of high-bandwidth wireless relays on towers, so that could be promising.

The clinic itself was extremely interesting, I had the chance to talk to the clinic’s director a bit while he showed us around the place. The HIV infection rate in the area is enormous, I think he said around 30%, and the effects on the population are in some ways understandably devastating. But the effectiveness of the antiretrovirals the clinic is administering is the real amazing part: with proper care & early detection they extend the lifetime of a patient by decades. They actually built a hospice on site, but so few people died that they turned it into a specialized children’s clinic. And all of this is at a cost of around R150 ( = US$ 20) per month for the patients. They’ve currently got over a thousand patients on ARV’s, and have treated around 20,000 over the lifetime of the clinic (originally started in 1994, but that number is since the real ARV administration began in the early 2000’s). ARV’s are more expensive than this, of course, so where does that money come from? Primarily, the US government: 75% of the clinic’s funding comes from http://www.pepfar.gov/, championed by Congressman Howard Berman, who was actually out to visit this particular clinic because it’s so successful, in many ways a darling of the program (according to it’s director, who entertains a lot of visitors apparently). It’s nice to see a little positive foreign engagement on behalf of the US.

A hot-tin roof: node hacking in the winter sun. A shirt over the head is an excellent way to be able to see a computer screen in the middle of the day. Also note the sweet rusty cantenna, which works amazingly well.

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by j. android

Going to the country

Thursday, July 24th, 2008 at about 1:58 am

Heading to the Peebles Valley out in Mpumalanga for the next two days, to do a site visit on a wireless network that’s been set up there. This is the kind of thing that I really came out here for, so it’s quite exciting. I should be back over the weekend and then going to do some work at another site next week. It’s coming down to the final week here, so hopefully this last time will be particularly exciting (Kruger this weekend! Should be great).

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by j. android

The Kingdom in the Sky

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008 at about 3:31 pm

Friday at 2pm Avery, Colin, Matt and I got in a rented 4×4 and headed for the hills. A few hours’ drive from Pretoria is Lesotho, and we made it most of the way there by nightfall. Friday night we spent in a cottage on an asparagus farm — not much asparagus in the middle of winter, but the place felt authentic enough. We checked in, dropped our bags, and went to nearby Clarens (a surprisingly nice little town in the middle of nowhere in the Free State) for dinner. The meal was delicious, and the restaurant doubled as a microbrewery that makes its own cider (a popular drink here, in the US relegated to more of a novelty). Delicious. This is the cottage we stayed in, and the view of the farm at dawn the next morning:

Early on Saturday we headed straight for the border, stopping only to get gas and some gas-station breakfast. Crossed the border without incident, and immediately headed for Oxbow, about an hour and half’s drive from the border. Even upon first entering Lesotho there are certain differences — just after crossing the border we passed a man on a horse. On the way to Oxbow we climbed quite a bit in elevation, to close to 3,000 meters. At Oxbow we were confronted with the reality of AfriSki, the place the others were so excited to get to. It’s the long, diagonal patch of white on the righthand side of the second photo below. The first photo is from the drive up to Oxbow.

While the others skied I climbed the nearest mountain, which like most of the terrain was covered in low bush-like grass, small rocks, and the occasional patch of snow. I made it up and back in less than two hours, a very nice climb. It was part of a chain of sorts, so I climbed to the ridge and then followed it upwards towards the nearest flattish peak. The view was fantastic. The air was cool but not too cold, and the scene so picturesque that hiking alone along the ridge I felt like I was in an outdoors-gear catalog (how much my life is defined by my consumer culture). The first two photos are taken from the top looking around (you can just see AfriSki in the background on the right side of the second one). The third was taken on the way down, looking back up at the ridge I had descended.

From the ski place we headed for Mokhotlong, where we’d spend the night. We still had plenty of daylight in the afternoon, though, so we decided to try to see the Katse dam. It turns out the road to the dam from where we were isn’t tarred, however, so an hour into the drive along with the rocky dirt road we decided to turn back. Just the detour itself was well worth it, however: we got to see plenty of villages & scenery, engrossing & beautiful. We took a wrong turn towards the beginning and while we were trying to figure out where to go next some children ran up to us; that’s Avery bending over beside two of them. The second photo is one of the traditional huts that populated the villages we passed. They’re made, it seems, entirely of rocks and grass for the roof, which works well because rocks and grass are about all there is around most of the highlands. We barely even saw any non-domestic animals; there’s really not much there. The last photo is just a larger shot of the mountains in the area; I’ve got about 40 others that look almost identical.

One of the most amazing and haunting sites of the journey I’ve <a href=”">already mentioned</a> I don’t have any photos of — the largest village we drove through was having some sort of gathering, there were about 300 people gathered discussing and watching things (though I’m not sure what). When we drove through the first time they were away from the road, so we could only guess what was going on and move on. On the way back, however, it seemed like whatever they were doing was over and they were congregated more around the road. As we drove through almost all talking stopped and everyone just stared at us. It felt wrong to be there, but we weren’t trying to disturb anything. I definitely didn’t have the guts to take a picture, but we drove right through the near-silent crowd. It was the strangest and in some ways most wonderful part of the trip.

We spent the night at a hotel in Mokhotlong, where we also had a poor dinner (the lights kept going on and off, they didn’t have half the things we tried to order, including the pineapple on my Hawaian pizza, which they only told me after they had made it and were about to bring it out [what I was thinking ordering a Hawaain pizza in the middle of nowhere in the highlands of Lesotho is an excellent question, but the menu was all western so I didn't feel too bad about it]). After dinner we went to the hotel bar, which turned out to be the place to be in Mokhotlong: there were about 40 very, very drunk Lesothoans in there when we arrived at 9pm, and they were extremely happy to talk to us. The first few minutes I was pretty uncomfortable, because as the only white guys we kind of screamed “foreigner” and people were staring at us, but we started talking to people and they were actually quite nice (and, again, very drunk). We had a couple beers and talked to people with varying commands of English before calling it a night.

We woke up before dawn on Sunday and made it out of Mokhotlong as fast as possible (there was still music coming from the bar at 6:30am, don’t know if the stereo got left on or if the party was still going). Roosters crowed as the sun came up. We drove to the top of the Sani Pass, where there’s a chalet (it’s not in the picture, but it’s near the sign in the first photo). We had an excellent, hearty breakfast there before braving the pass. The pass itself was unbelievably epic, definitely a highlight of the trip. It’s basically a huge valley between two peaks that a winding rock-and-dirt road descends. We had rented a 4×4 to make sure we could do stuff like this, but it really showed the difference between true off-road vehicles and ones designed for the highway — our Nissan X-Trail just didn’t have the ground clearance to really excel at this. Still, thanks to Matt’s extremely competent driving we made it down with relatively little incident, only got the car stuck on a rock once. The second photo is a view from somewhere towards the top of the pass, looking out over the valley we’re about to descend.

Back in South Africa at the bottom of the pass, we started to head back to Gauteng. On the way we stopped by Little Switzerland for a late lunch, a nice resort with an excellent view of the Drakensburg mountains (that’s the photo below). We then drove through Golden Gate park as the sun was setting, and were back on the N3 heading north to Pretoria shortly after nightfall. Made it back by 8:30pm and I crashed early, entirely exhausted but very pleased. This was definitely one of the best parts of my trip so far.

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by j. android

photographic memory

Sunday, July 20th, 2008 at about 2:33 pm

Some of the most vivid scenes I’ve witnessed here I have no photos of: the piles of trash burning beside the road outside Mamelodi, the 300-odd Lesothoan highland villagers staring at us silently as we drove through, not knowing what we had interrupted. They are undoubtedly what will remain with me most.

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by j. android

Adventures I wanted, adventures I got

Friday, July 18th, 2008 at about 5:05 am

In a couple hours I’ll be heading for Lesotho, the Kingdom in the Sky, with Avery & his coworkers Colin and Matt. We’ve rented a 4×4, I bought some long underwear — this promises to be quite the trip.

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by j. android

Lions and tigers &etc oh my!

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008 at about 1:31 pm

My somewhat adventurous weekend ended with a truly African interlude: a nature reserve by the Cradle of Humankkind. It was ridicuawesome. Basically for $10 you can just drive around all these different areas where there are various wild animals. Importantly, there are no fences, so it’s just you (in the car) and them (lazily sleeping 50 feet away because they’re used to visitors and its the height of the day but STILL). Lions, cheetahs, wild dogs, ostriches, wild boar, kudu, other bizarre antelope like things. There were some rhinos somewhere but I couldn’t find them. This has gotten me super excited for Kruger, which I’m supposed to go to in a week and a half with some people from work.

South Africa has the most diverse bird population in the world

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by j. android

Sterkfontein

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008 at about 11:00 am

Sunday I had the chance to explore briefly one of the most important paleoanthropological sites in the world, the so-called Cradle of Humankind. It’s been the source of numerous early hominid fossils, some of which are on display at the Sterkfontein Caves museum (the caves are the most significant site in the larger 47,000-hectare region). There’s something, as Elaine put it, almost spiritual about seeing where you came from. It’s a fascinating place. After the museum you can descend into the caves, which are interesting as sources of fossils but not terribly spectacular as caves because all the limestone (read: stalactites & other formations) has been mined out.

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by j. android