Monday, March 31, 2014

Mr. Turtle Speaks

CHOBE, BOTSWANA: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” observed Mr. Turtle. “My eyes and ears are never satisfied; yet there will be no remembrance when my days are past. Yet I have given my heart in this life to seek out wisdom; to know madness and folly in kind. I have traveled far and wide, from Norway’s fjords to South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, from Morocco’s Sahara Desert to Japan’s Mount Fuji. I have seen poverty and riches, wisdom and stupidity, cruelty and kindness, and all of the works that are done under the sun, and have concluded that my actions are the only reality and that they too are but vanity grasping for the wind, searching for a judge. Vanity of vanities."

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Yellow Fever Conundrum

Victoria Falls
VICTORIA FALLS, ZIMBABWE: My doctor told me before I left that since I’m over 65 it would not be a good idea for me to get a yellow fever vaccination. The yellow fever virus is spread by the bite of the female mosquito. According to Wikipedia, the disease, for which there is no known cure, causes over 30,000 deaths annually. “I’ll write you an immunization exception letter and you’ll be okay,” my doctor said. But arriving in Africa it hasn’t been all that clear. “Why would a country that is plagued with yellow fever want to admit someone who hasn’t been vaccinated?” the clerk at the lodge at Victoria Falls asked me when I told her I wanted to cross over into Zambia to see the falls from that side. I decided to try crossing anyway. “They can only turn me back,” I thought, “And besides I was also going to Rwanda, another yellow fever country so maybe I’d better find out now rather than later when turning back will be almost impossible.” When I showed the Zambian immigration officer my immunization exception letter he chuckled, “No, there’s no problem here. We have no such rules.” “But maybe other countries will have a problem that I have visited Zambia?” “No, no one will have a problem.” “What about Botswana, Kenya, or Zanzibar?” “No, no problems there.” “How about Ethiopia?  He shook his head and mused: “I don’t think so. Only South Africa will have a problem. You cannot go back to South Africa.” I proceeded to the Zambian side, but was left thinking, “Have I just put at risk the rest of my itinerary.” I’ve since asked others without receiving a definitive answer. The website for the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers states: “If your medical practitioner has advised you against the Yellow Fever vaccine for medical reasons, a vaccination waiver should be issued. Be aware that problems may arise when crossing borders and your vaccination waiver may not be honored.” Okay, now that’s helpful, huh?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

You Can't Change History

WINDHOEK, NAMIBIA: “You can’t change history,” my German born Namibia guide grunted, as he read from his Namibian newspaper, referring to the controversy over the inauguration of the Genocide Memorial statue, built by the North Koreans, and unveiled in Windhoek on Independence Day last week. According to the paper, the memorial commemorates the long history of anti-colonial resistance and national liberation struggle. The issue for my guide, however, and the other 20,000 Germans living in Namibia, is that the memorial replaces the Reiterdenkmal, a memorial to the German soldiers and civilians who died fighting the OvaHereo and Nama between 1904 and 1907, but viewed by the indigenous peoples as a period of genocide. The Reiterdenkmal had been erected in 1912 by the then German governor of South-West Africa. In 1915 the Germans relinquished control of the country to the British, having held it as a colony for just thirty years. “They say we committed genocide then,” my guide bristles as if referring to something that just happened a day or so ago. “But it was war, just like any war. Was it genocide for you to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki?” I suggested that what we did to our Native Americans might be a more appropriate analogy. “I’ve never heard an American say that before,” he muttered. I thought I’d push further. “Why?” I asked, “After all these years is it so important to you Germans?” “Because it’s history and history is about facts, not about politics.” He retorted.Okay, then, how many Germans actually died in those battles?” “Almost 2,000. Their names are inscribed on a huge plaque in the church across the street from where they removed the Reiterdenkmal.” “And how many OvaHereo and Nama were killed?” “I don’t know.” “Can you guess?” “No. I have no idea?” “Could it have been over one hundred thousand?” “Maybe. No one knows.” I think you’re wrong, you see, history is all about politics and your Reiterdenkmal is a losing proposition just as the confederate flag flying over South Carolina and Mississippi capitols is a losing proposition for those states in our country. Yours even more so as Germans represent less than one percent of the population here.” Thankfully, as a courtesy to me, he decided to drop the subject, instead pointing over to the oryx, wildebeest, and springbok leisurely grazing nearby. “Isn’t this a great country?” he mused. “Yes,” I said, “It’s a beautiful country with vast stretches of empty space and wild life galore and yes it’s clear that the small German community here has had and continues to have an enormous impact on the country’s well being.” He turned to me smiling, “Now that’s what I want you to remember about this country.” 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

No One Seemed to Mind

Blue Train Observation Car
The ultra luxurious Blue Train to Cape Town pulled out of the Pretoria station an hour late. Upon entering my suite, I was greeted by a young woman with a clipped Zulu accent, “My name is Eunice. I am your butler. I’m here to serve you throughout your trip to Cape Town. You need something, just call me.” The lush mahogany suite was furnished with two easy chairs, a writing desk and accompanying chair, a private bathroom and shower, wardrobe, television, safe deposit box, electrical outlets, and a high-speed Internet connection. In all my travels, I hadn’t encountered such elegance on a train. “Do you have any laundry?” Eunice asked. I shook my head, no. “Well then, brunch will be served at 10:30, dinner at 7:30. Meantime, would you like some coffee, tea, or juice?” I passed, instead deciding to explore the train. The observation car, an open non-smoking lounge, was in the rear of the train. The smokers’ lounge was in the front. In between, there was the diner and another bar lounge. Throughout the train there was plenty of opportunity to interact with the other passengers: a group from the States, another from France, another from Japan, and various individuals from Australia, New Zealand, England, and South Africa. The meals were sumptuous four course affairs. “For tonight’s dinner, you’ll need to wear a coat and tie,” Eunice informed me later in the day. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have a coat or tie.” “Don’t worry. I will find something nice for you, Mr. Beck.” Due to some earlier rain and a woman, who had gotten sick on the train and had to be evacuated, we arrived Cape Town five hours behind our 27-hour schedule, but no one seemed to mind. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Religion Freedom Is the Law

Canang Sari Ritual
BALI, INDONESIA: “It’s called a Canang Sari,” the woman said, as she set the small hand-made bowl of colorful flowers and various items: rice, noodles, a rolled cigarette, and a small candy bar. She bowed, waving her arm in a circular motion, before setting down another Canang Sari. “We do this every morning and evening out of devotion to Ida Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, Hindu’s all-in-one god.” Having been exposed to Hinduism in India, the notion of a Hindu all-in-one god struck me as odd until I learned that it was a concept introduced by Christian missionaries in the 1930s to make it easier for Bali’s Hindus to accept Christianity. Although Indonesia is 90% Muslim, Bali is 90% Hindu and wherever you look you find the Canang Sari: they are set in front of shops, on the beaches, in the small and large open court temples — just about everywhere. The twice daily ritual is impressive as each Canang Sari takes time to construct; the coconut leaf bowl is hand woven, decorated with flowers, and a assortment of goodies, before being set down in a brief devotional ceremony. The Hindus of Bali have found ways of adapting their faith to the Indonesian culture and legal system without provoking the fear and antagonism of either the government or the other religions. Indonesian law requires belief in a single god and as such recognizes just six religions: Islam, Hinduism, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. I’m not sure how Confucianism can be construed as belief in a god, but so be it. It’s the law. To obtain an identification card, Indonesians must indicate which religion they profess; agnosticism or any other declaration is not permissible. Religious freedom, they claim, is in this way protected.