Saturday, September 15, 2018

Hung Around Saint Petersburg...

The next morning we were still mildly astonished that we had successfully navigated our way into the heart of a major city which was all in Cyrillic.  Our hotel room looked down on the extremely wide Neva River, which was only half of the Neva River, since we were situated on Vassilevsky Island.  As it turns out, St Petersburg was originally built from scratch on marshland, which explains why everything is so flat and minor rivers are so wide.

Peter the Great built it, then made it the capital of Russia, and thus it stayed until after the Revolution, when for strategic reasons the capital was moved back to Moscow.  This is why the city is just swarming with stately 18th and 19th Century buildings, all grand and low slung and clustered right across from the tip of Vassilevsky Island.  So walking down there, about a mile, was our first objective on our first day.

When we got to the tip, though, and before we crossed the river, I wanted Maureen to see the Zoological Museum, which I had run across back in '92.  Right when you enter there is this skeleton of a blue whale, which, as you may know, is the largest animal to ever have lived.  Even bigger than the biggest dinosaur.  Then the rest of the museum, which is basically 19th Century taxidermy gone wild.  Hundreds and hundreds of every animal imaginable, from the smallest to the largest, all mounted and stuffed and piled next to each other. 

The most amazing specimens, though, were the mammoths, including a baby which had been found with flesh and hair still un-decomposed.  Then there was the skeleton of this massive mammoth that must have been fifteen feet high at its shoulders.  I've had a giant wild elephant standing right next to me in Africa, and it would have been a small buddy of this thing.

Then across the bridge to the Hermitage, which next to the Louvre is the Queenest of the world's museums.  Maybe more so than the Louvre.  It's held (mostly) in the Winter Palace, which is this mint green Italian designed 18th Century building which had been the main center of Czardom.  We bought our tickets and started cruising the rooms.

But, like the Louvre, and most other museums that I've been to, after the initial excitement, and after about forty rooms, one starts to get museumed out.  Anyway, all the 19th Century Impressionist stuff was across the giant open plaza in another building.  So over there we went.  And it's much harder to get bored when one is trudging through rooms of Monets and Van Goghs.

Except that our bodies were not keeping up.  As in Moscow, literally pounding the pavement was not going well for my collapsed arches.  Especially since they were encased in bad shoes.  And Maureen's hip problems were even worse.  In fact, by the time we got to Picasso she was in incredible pain.  Especially when we had to walk all the way back through all of those rooms to get out of the place.

We finally found the sidewalk, though, and I deposited her at a place to sit in front of the buskers while I walked up a couple of blocks, found a Subway, and got a sandwich for us to share.  After about forty minutes enough feeling had returned to her leg that she was able to walk a bit.  So we hobbled over to St. Isaacs, which is this giant St Peter's dome church, not Russian looking or feeling at all.  Then they wanted 800 Rubles to enter.  I remembered from '92 that inside it was all Italian and rococo anyway, which I don't find spiritual in the slightest.  So we blew it off and walked back to a Metro station.

Now the station by the hotel is right across the river.  But, as I said, it's an extremely wide river, so I had thought that we would have to walk that additional quarter mile to get home.  Instead, though, there was one of those airport moving walkways which took you all the way across under the river.  Cool.  And there we were at the hotel.

Diminished bodies lead to diminished adventures.  Saturday morning we took the Metro 'downtown' and walked over to the Kazan Cathedral, kind of a mix of the Italianate and the Russian.  Afterwards, across the street at Starbuck's, I reflected upon the fact that if normal giggling teenage girls could afford Starbuck's prices, then the economy couldn't be all that back at all, now could it?

Then it was walking down one of the canals, of which St. Petersburg has many, and coming face to face with The Church of the Spilled Blood, finally truly Russian, and also truly amazing.  As spectacularly onion domed and inscribed outside and muraled within as any other example in the entire country.  Suitably satiated, we then strolled and park benched in several parks, found a Metro station, and traveled a few stops so to check off something else on Maureen's bucket list: Eating at a Russian Pizza Hut.  (To add to her list of Pizza Hut countries, which now extends to six continents.)
And if you're wondering why we weren't eating at more Russian restaurants, that's because Russians are into eating bear meat, boar meat, and just about anything else which is not vegetarian.

Anyway, Sunday Maureen's body was feeling better.  So we walked from the hotel down to the Peter and Paul Fortress, which is this large historical area that is also across the river from 'downtown'.  Festive crowds and a very loud cannon boom at noon.  Then one of the thoroughly ubiquitous tour boats that take you through the canals and along the river.  Then it was a walk to the Metro, a quick trip to the big monastery in town, and another trip to Dostoevsky's church.  Compared to what we'd already seen on the Golden Ring, though, both were kind of diddly.  So we realized that we had pretty much 'done' St. Pete.  After all, we had seen the outer city pretty thoroughly on our drive in.  So back to center city, a meal at an Indian restaurant, then back to the good ol' hotel.  On the way marveling, as in Moscow, at the sheer throngs of normal Russians in festive spirit just out for a Sunday walk.

Monday morning it was time to close up all our bags and try to find our way back out of said city.  Which wasn't too hard, since we took  the newly constructed freeway that loops north and west on to a causeway across the Baltic Sea.  Midway across we exited to tour the small city of Kronstadt, home to the Russian fleet and also to another pretty impressive (not onion) domed church.  Also a chance for Maureen to dip her feet into the Baltic.  Although the weather had finally turned on us a bit, and it was a cold, damp day.  So she just pretended to.

Then there was an attempt to find Peterhof, another over the top Czarist castle.  But I got lost and time was running short.  So it was back to the Saint Petersburg beltway, and off of it to the M-10 and south towards Moscow.  The M-10 alternated between semi-congested and not too congested at all.  And three hours later we were in Novgorod, birthplace of Russia in the year 862, and the namesake of our Russian t-shirt business thirty years earlier.

Novgorod is mostly a smallish Soviet city.  But at its center is a brick kremlin (wall enclosure), and inside that old churches and buildings.  Our hotel was conveniently across the street from some old churches and a park which led to a footbridge across the river to the kremlin.  So we walked there on a perfect fall-ish afternoon.  I had been pushing to get there because the museum was open today but wouldn't be open tomorrow.  And it had the largest collection of icons in the entire country.
Now you may ask: Can someone ever get tired of Medieval Russian icons?  And the answer here is: Well, yes you can.  Especially when each room contained a Soviet-style lady warden, who got up and followed you suspiciously as you walked through, as if she thought you were going to try to steal one of the massive 4x6 icon paintings.

The first hundred or so, though, were pretty neat.  And we suitably took more photographs to go with the hundreds of church art photographs that we already had.  Then it was a stroll around the grounds, a stroll back across the footbridge, and then a stroll back through the park area and to a Russian restaurant, where the menu showed that they had bear meat and boar meat.  We got some mushroom soup and some potato pancakes.

Tuesday, after a final circumlocution of Medieval Russian churches, it was back on the road to Moscow.  After an hour or so on the M-10 it hooked up with the M-11, the half completed new toll road.  Which was as modern and well engineered as anything anywhere.  Although most travelers between the two cities use the new high speed train, which moves at 150 mph and only takes four hours to cover a distance greater than that between San Francisco and LA.  How is our Amtrak doing?

So as we cruise controlled along, it gave me time to reflect upon what we had just experienced.  The shabby, authoritarian Russia that is always portrayed in movies is twenty years out of date.  Nowadays they've all got their faces staring at their smart phones as much as anyone anywhere else.  Although the culture still feels homier and less overtly degenerate than in the West.  I suppose that some of that is because Russians have always thought of themselves as one big family.  A family that is often highly paranoid of each other, maybe.  But a family nonetheless.  And those 'family values' are no doubt why the Church has made such a roaring comeback after over 75 years of enforced atheism.

Also, politically speaking, there are just no politics to speak of.  Either positively or negatively.  I mean, nobody cares.  And in a good way.  After all, the government seems to be doing its best to fix the roads, keep the parks neat and clean, and spruce up the cities, even the minor ones which had previously been neglected.  Virtually no litter.  And the everyday Russians are not smilers, and certainly not enthusiastic back slappers.  But every interaction we had, whether in gas stations or hotels or stores, was friendly and polite.  Even though we spoke no Russian.

Oh, and since Putin got into power the mafia have been totally curbed.  Cops no longer demand bribes.  Average wages have gone up 600%.  We Americans tend to be oblivious to the fact that other peoples are patriotic, also.  And Putin has restored pride in a country which had been totally kicked around when it was down.  By us.  So no wonder the dude is popular.

But, hey, this isn't a political blog.  And now we were back on the outskirts of Moscow, just outside of the airport.  And for once my maps, which showed an easy exit and ensuing airport layout, were totally inadequate.  Totally jangled and confused by all of the road spaghetti, we pulled into the first parking garage we could find.  Then I walked and walked through the massive terminal to find the car rental guy.  Who nicely walked back with me, took command of the car, and then even nicely-ier drove us to our hotel.  Which we would have never found the turnoff to on our own.

And then it was over.  Once again I had successfully so immersed myself into an alien world that I completely forgot about the cares of the normal one.  But now it was time to go back and face them one more time.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Layers Of The Onion Dome

So many myths to explode.  Like drunk Russians.  We've only seen one tipsy one so far.  Or that you're taking your life in your hands trying to cross a street.  As soon as a pedestrian even looks like they're entering a crosswalk, every car immediately and politely stops.

Or drivers being crazy and Russian roads being of a Fourth World quality.  Okay, there is a certain amount of controlled chaos, but in about an hour you're used to it.  Wackier than Canada, but a hell of a lot saner than Mexico.  And at least on the major and semi-major roads, the surface is smooth sailing.  A lot of new pavement, and usually four lanes when four lanes are called for.  Lots and lots of trucks, but, hey, like most of Europe most folks travel by train or plane when they want to go somewhere.

Not us, though.  Back in ABQ I had prepared for this by laboriously printing out page after page of Yandex maps for each and every leg and mini-leg of our journey.  So we tentatively eased ourselves out of the airport rental car slot and on to the MKAD, Moscow's ten lane beltway.  Just after rush hour, it was intense newcomer's stop and go until we got to our exit, M-7 East towards Nizhni Novgorod.  Still semi-intense four lane, after another twenty miles or so we were free of Moscow's outermost bands and on our way.  A quick stop at a small supermarket for car food, back on the highway, and a couple of hours later we entered the outskirts to Vladimir, our first stop on our tour of the Golden Ring, a string of places whose innards held remnants of Medieval Russia.

Vladimir is a place of around 250,000, and here was the first test to see if we could in and out of a Russian city.  To our relief the signage, though usually only in Cyrillic, would prove to be consistently excellent.  After about ten minutes we found ourselves in the center of town, and--oh my gosh--up on a small hill to the right was a humongous old Russian cathedral, what with onion domes out the wazoo.  Since we were about the only tourists in Russia, including Russians, traveling by car, we pulled up right in front of it, parked, and walked around the entire church/park area.  Then, suitably touristed, we got back in the car, continued through town, and successfully found the turnoff north towards the small town of Suzdal about fifteen miles away.

Suzdal is known as the gem of the Golden Ring, bypassed by modernity and oozing with charm and bunches of old monasteries.  We found it to be not all all jaw dropping amazing, but still quite pleasant nonetheless.  We also found it difficult to find/contact our small B&B for the night, being hardly cognizant of Russian cell phone technology and our cell phone being dead, Maureen having shot too many pictures.

But somehow we got it all to work, had a nice cozy room for the night, and visited various churches and monasteries.  And the next day around noon we were back on the road, which would remain only moderately trafficked for the next several days.  The weather, as for the rest of the trip so far, was blue sky to partly cloudy, with highs of 75 to 80.  We successfully maneuvered our way through the city of Ivanovo, and then about an hour or so later found the turnoff to Plyos, a small town made famous by certain Russian artists and millionaires in the 19th Century.  Still artistically shabby, it reminded me as to how unshabby the rest of non-Moscow had been so far.

Which is significant, because it is necessary for you to know in just how horrible a condition the country was in back in '92.  And how in '06 even though Moscow had been somewhat spiffed up, the rest of the boondocks had still been very badly falling down.  Now?  Well, it's not Switzerland.  But the country is still not remotely 3rd or even 2nd world looking.  Sometimes it seems like there's one gas station for every three cars on the road.  Again, roads are good and smooth, and so long as you always keep your eyes on all the mirrors, and are ready to engage in the ballet, it's pretty safe and predictable.

Plyos is also on the Volga.  And for all my world travels, this was the first time that I had ever seen the river.  Which, even at this narrow point, was Upper Mississippi wide.  Besides the small town setting, though, this being the off season, there wasn't that much to see or do.  So then it was back to the main highway and onwards to Kostroma.

Kostroma is supposed to have a huge, amazing town square.  But we never got to see it.  Because on this late afternoon the road to the bridge into the center was dead stopped backed up. So we turned around and checked out a typical shopping mall in a typical provincial city.  Relentlessly middle class.  Stories about the Russian economy totally sucking are totally untrue.  Then it was out to a kind of motel on the outskirts.  Along with several Chinese bus tour groups, which would prove to be prevalent along the entire Golden Ring.

The next morning the bridge was still completely backed up, so we turned back around towards Yaroslavl, the largest city (500,000) on the Golden Ring, and, to us at least a quite pleasant surprise.  Besides the requisite old monastery, its Volga riverfront center was mostly taken up by a giant church surrounded by a giant riverfront Soviet monumental park.  Again, extremely easy to find a parking place and to walk around.

Now at this point you may well wonder, Isn't one 400-900 year old onion dome church just like all the others?  And the answer is; Most emphatically not.  All the domes are intricately different from all the others, and the other mosaics, etc., on the outsides of each building are constantly different.  And this was especially true of the really ancient church a few km from the center of town in Turchkovo.  Now surrounded by Soviet era belching factories, and somewhat difficult to find, particularly the tiny road to it, nonetheless it was incredibly worth the effort once we did find ourselves in front of it.  Most amazing was the interior: Floor to ceiling only slightly faded frescoes from around the 14th Century.  Truly old and jaw dropping.

And the church-o-rama didn't end there.  Because, back on the highway, a few hours later we were in the center of Rostov, now a town of around 10,000, but once the center of Russia.  And its church complex area might well have been the most beautiful so far.

Today was the day that I had been slightly dreading, since there was so much ground to cover.  So I was prepared to blow off Sergeiv Prosad, the last major stop on the Golden Ring.  But once I described it to Maureen she wanted to go for it.  Which we did.  And which, once we found our way into the middle of the city of 150,000 we were glad that we had.  For this is the modern day center of Russian Orthodox life, and its church complex was easily the largest and most jaw dropping of the lot.  What's more, at the main church there was a service going on, and the Russian choir music and the quiet but ornate spectacle would even make an atheist have their doubts.

Now, however, we were running late.  And Sergeiv Prosad is almost back to Moscow, our having looped back south from Yaroslavl.  So we continued west through somewhat heavy traffic to the city of Klim, which is on the main Moscow-St. Petersburg road.  And now we were on the dreaded M-10.

Well, it really wasn't nearly so bad at all.  Lots of trucks, for sure.  But lighted almost all the way.  And an average speed of almost 60.  Plus, once again, gas stations nearly every half mile.  In not much time we were on the Tver bypass, and then old M-10 up to the town of Torzhok, our stop for the night.

By now it was way past dark, and for the first time we got ourselves lost.  Actually, what happened was that we doubted a turn I made, and then we got ourselves lost.  After some confusion, however, and after talking to some guys who didn't speak any English, we did get to the center of the town and our hotel for the night.  Once again, a competent though not exciting room with ultra thin Russian twin beds, and we were in bed a little past 11.

Besides the requisite monastery, though, Torzhok didn't have a hell of a lot going for it.  So back to the highway.  M-10 was pleasant and easy enough, but after about 30 miles we came upon the just completed long section of M-11 the new ultramodern toll road that will soon connect Moscow and St. Pete.  Here the speed limit was 130 km per hour, and for a lot of the cars this was just a suggested speed limit.  Hardly any traffic at all.  So time to kick back and enjoy the scenery.

Actually, the scenery so far had been rather surprising in that there were hardly any fields, but lots and lots and lots of forest.  Kind of like northern Canada, with plentiful skinny birch and assorted skinny evergreens, although the trees were generally much taller than in Canada.  Also the forest was really, really thick.  It was difficult imagining walking leisurely through such a thicket.

So on we went, the kilometers clicking away by the hundreds.  At some point the new road ended and we were back on the M-10.  Which, again, was usually not that bad.  And when we were about 25 km short of St. Petersburg I had Maureen make a left into the town of Pushkin, so that we could have a gander at one of the area's big attraction, Catherine the Great's Summer Palace.

For once the signage wasn't clear, and it took us a bit to find the right area.  Then it turned out that easy parking was next to impossible, and the palace itself was surrounded by a gigantic thickly treed park.  Well, I never liked Catherine the Great anyway.  So I decided to punt, and to head on over towards Peterhof, the other huge suburban tourist attraction.

But we made a couple of wrong turns, the afternoon was quickly ending, and I had to call an audible: Head into the city.  So I studied one of our map pages as best I could, and decided to bypass the freeway bypasses and to go straight up a major street right into the center of town.  Which we proceeded to do.

Now if you had asked me a few days previously about such an attempt, I would have thought it madness.  But there we were, smoothly going up block after block.  Then when the road dead ended I successfully navigated us to the left, then a sharp left, then a sharp right.  Now we were smack dab in the middle of town.  We then proceeded to figure out how to get over a major bridge, go along another river for a km or so, successfully make a legal left turn, and voila: Against all odds we had somehow found ourselves in front of our hotel.

I'm still amazed that we were able to do it.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Between The 'R' And the 'M' In 'Normal'

First, the nuts and bolts.

Since one can't hail cabs on the street, a nice young Russian lady telephoned for an Uber for us on the train in from the airport.  Then helped us find it.  So we got to the hotel with minimum chaos.  Since my daughter works for Marriott, we got a high end room at a medium end price.  Surrounded by Gucci and Prada and blah, blah, blah other high end places.

It was also only two blocks from Red Square.  So, it still being only about 9 pm I thought to take Maureen over there. Our first experience with how long Moscow blocks are.   When we got there hundreds and hundreds of Russians were lazily sauntering around on a summer's night.  It turned out that Red Square was closed, but everything else was lit up in fairyland colors.  Said colors continued on the side streets as we made our way back.

Next morning we walked those long blocks again, were passed through a lackluster security line, and entered Red Square.  Since the big empty square is such an amazing sight, I was waiting for that same look of wonderment on Maureen's face as when she first saw the arc de Triomphe.

Except...  It turned out that this week Red Square was completely filled up with their equivalent of a county fair.  Complete with souvenir stalls, refreshment stands, a dirt covered rodeo setup, and a larger arena with bleaches going up to the sky.  Oh, and several construction cranes.  Poor St. Basil's at the far end poked out from the mess, it with its own problems of way too many tour groups.  Spanish and Italians, yes, but mostly mobs and mobs and mobs of Chinese.  Get used to it, world.

It turned out that it was Moscow's yearly festival, and that usually Red Square is open and empty and security guardless.  Oh well.  Off to the new Zaradnye Park across the street.  Except that the trees had just been planted and there was no shade and it was hot. and the exhibits weren't really open.  So back all the way around the fair to the front, over to the Kremlin wall, and wait in line for Lenin's tomb.  Except that now it was 1:05 and the tomb closed at 1.

Okay, around to the other side of the Kremlin wall, through the park there, and up to the gate where you start the Kremlin tour.  Except that the Kremlin is closed on Thursday.  By this point our old, tired feet are finding out that pounding the pavement really hurts old, tired feet.  Exhausted, we head back to the large, modern underground shopping mall right next to Red Square, get something at the food court, and wander back to the hotel.

Friday we're up and over to the line for Lenin's Tomb again.  To find out that Lenin's Tomb is closed on Friday.  Okay, back over to the Kremlin.  Now 'kremlin' in Russian just means 'fort'.  And the Kremlin is the 10-20 acres contained in the original Medieval Moscow fort.  Nowadays the north end has government buildings, the south end is park, and the middle contains a complex of 5 or 6 churches.  Strangely, I couldn't find the ticket stall that used to be at the entrance.  Even stranger, they just let everybody in.  Maybe it's a world cup thing or a festival thing, I thought.  Except that to get into the churches you needed a ticket.  Well, one lady let us in anyway, so that Maureen could see how Russian churches are covered floor to ceiling in gorgeous Medieval icons.  And, since all the churches are like that, for now all we needed was one.

Then it was time to buy a subway (Metro) pass and start galavanting around.  First we went to the top of Arbat Street, which back in Soviet times was the artsy area.  Now it's just a tourist street, although low key and a pedestrian walkway.  From here we went to Pobedy Park.  Now as you may know, Moscow subway stations are hundreds of feet below ground, and this particular station happens to have the longest escalator in the world.  The park itself was overrun with white tents and hastily constructed stages for the big festival weekend, so that many of the heroic monuments to World War II were kind of lost in the shuffle.  By now our feet and legs were wearing out, so we limped our way back to the hotel and took turns taking long, hot baths.

Now have I mentioned about the distances in Moscow, how it's impossible to just hail some sort of transport, how Russians just walk and walk and walk, and how lazy, old Americans can get so easily wiped out?  Well, Saturday morning we were up bright and early to go to the Ismaiylovo flea market.  And I have to say that it was one of the most creative flea market setups ever.  What they've done is construct a Potemkin Disneyland village of twenty different styles  of fake turrets and towers and gazebos and whatever.  Anyway, after walking and walking we found some suitable Soviet trinkets and such to take home with us.

Then it was over to the NVDK, a Soviet era celebration of Soviet life.  Which twelve years ago had fallen on hard times, but now, like everything else in Moscow, had been totally spiffed up.  And, it being festival weekend, there were just hordes and hordes of Muscovites walking towards and through it.  Now back in Soviet times there was no entertainment other than walking and walking through a park.  But now, even though virtually all other traces of soviet life are gone, walking and walking through parks seems to be Russians' favorite pastime.

Well, it was certainly exhausting poor old us, especially in the hot sun.  So once again we barely limped our way back to the hotel. Although on the way we managed to stop and ooh and ahh at a bunch of the Metro stations.  Since, as you may also already know, most are done up in marble, and many also have statues, murals, stained glass, etc., all glorifying just about any and all aspects of Socialist effort and utopia.

Sunday morning was our third attempt on Lenin's Tomb.  And this time they let us in.  We walked past the markers for Stalin, Breshnev, and the rest, were shushed into the darkened inner sanctum, and there under the floodlights was Vladmir, all waxy and shiny.  Then we were shushed out into the bright sunlight.

Next a Metro ride and a long walk to a famous graveyard, where everyone from Checkhov to Yeltsin is buried.  Then another Metro ride and another long walk to Gorky Park, so that Maureen could say that she had seen it.  Then back to the hotel and dinner at a hippie vegetarian restaurant around the corner from it.

Because now it's time to talk a little bit about the Moscow vibe.  As Maureen put it, it's kind of like Disneyland without the rides.  Yes, I know that it was festival week.  But, for instance, for all the Chanel and Dior stores in our hotel neighborhood, no one was really shopping in them.   Instead zillions of totally middle class Muscovites were strolling around and frequenting all of the reasonably priced restaurants which also permeated the area.  To the extent that the fantasy of super rich oligarchs driving around in Mercedes and owning the city was ever true, it certainly no longer is.  The reality is that Moscow is crime free and incredibly comfortable to move around in.

And here's something else: Back in '92 I noted that Central Casting had made a huge mistake in declaring Russkies as the enemy.  These people are about as hellbent on world domination as is a small town pharmacist in Iowa.  Always remember that they were the ones always desperately trying to play catch up to all of our latest weapons.

Although up until my last visit their reputation for surliness and suspiciousness had been well earned.  Now it was surprising the level of at least some knowledge of English.  And the poker faces still existed, but usually folks turned out to even go out of their way to be helpful.

What's more, there was nothing even remotely political in the air.  As for Putin, there seems to be a bemused ironic attachment to him.  After all, he doesn't scare them.  And if he scares the rest of the world, well, they feel with somewhat reason that the rest of the world hasn't been all that very nice to them recently anyway.

It's not like that they've found some new alternate path.  There are probably more KFCs and Burger Kings here than in the U.S.  It's just that, even though they have a few tattooed rockers and derivative Russian rap, there's a certain innocence to it all.  Maureen kept noting how much more modestly the women dress, kind of like life was not supposed to be a meat market after all.  So that, hypothetically speaking, if some new path were presented to these people, there's at least a ghost of a chance that they might be receptive to it.

As opposed to the toilet that we all seem to have been flushed down.

But, hey, no negativity here! Just travel.  And now we had to stuff everything back into our luggage and prepare for our automotive adventure into the heartland.  Since throughout Russia's history Moscow has never been like the rest of the country, the slate was suitably blank in my mind.  Here would be the chance to fill it in.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

In Search Of The Real Fake News

My first direct exposure to Russia was in 1982.  Back then the only way that you could visit the Soviet Union without prepaying and complicatedly arranging a prepaid tour was if you booked a flight from point A to point B which had a layover in Moscow for a day or two.  Since I was in New Delhi when I did that, I then had to spend a couple of days going all around the city arranging a transit visa.

But I was glad that I did that.  Because once we were in Moscow at the horrible Soviet transit hotel, all the other people were locked in there with horrible Soviet pickled cold cuts to eat and a horrid, loud Soviet bar/disco to hang out in.  Whereas I, and my wife of the time, got to flash our transit visas, walk out into the cold Moscow January air, take a bus to the Metro, take the Metro to Red Square, and... voila.

Now it was hard to make a comprehensive survey of Soviet life in one day.  But I've also found that one hour of actually being in a truly foreign place is worth a world of just reading up on the subject.  And one thing that really surprised me was that the Muscovite women, instead of wearing drab clothes and drab coats, as I had always been led to believe by our propaganda, instead were all dressed to the nines.  And almost every one of them was wearing a fabulous Russian fur coat.  Granted it was a Sunday and they were no doubt wearing their best.  But still...

Anyway, as foreigners me and my wife of the time would have stood out like sore thumbs in any event.  But in this instance my hirsuteness was properly covered up by a wool cap.  Since we had been traveling through the tropics, though, all that she had to wear was a huge, funky handmade wool sweater that she had bought in Nepal.  And every single Russian woman glared at her with contempt, as if she had been a vile, unwashed Gypsy who had shown up at a wedding.

And, since said wife of the time divorced me in a very ugly way not long afterwards, those contemptuous glares have always remained a treasured memory of mine.

The next time I found myself in Russia was for three weeks during the chaotic breakup of the Soviet Union in 1992.  A night at the Bolshoi cost around $1.  Old pensioners formed a gauntlet in the cold on one of the main streets, desperately trying to sell their meager possessions.  The most pathetic instance was someone attempting to sell one old shoe.  There was now one McDonald's and one Pizza Hut, but still no stores.  I spent an entire day fruitlessly going all over Moscow attempting to find a plug converter.

In Saint Petersburg I stayed with a 55 year old guy in one of those ugly Soviet apartment towers.  The elevator didn't work, so you had to climb up ten flights to the putrid stench of cat urine.  He owned an old car with almost comically bald tires, and when I bought him a towing rope for $6 hard currency at a new Finnish gas station he broke down in tears.  A grown man who couldn't even afford a piece of rope.

The new Baltic countries hadn't figured out yet if or how they were going to have borders.  'Mafia' types in absurd track suits at new fancy restaurants were starting to appear.

In '06 I took the Transsiberian from Mongolia to Moscow, the specifics of which can be read if you scroll all the way back to the beginning of this blog.  Suffice it to say that the rest of the country was still pretty shabby, but that Moscow had spiffed itself up considerably.  Gone was an eight lane road which had separated Red Square from the rest of the city.  Now there was a flower filled park.  Most civilians were still closed and grumpy, but not so much the young people.  Prices were a little higher; it took great effort to find a couch I could sleep on for $45.

Now it is twelve years later.  And time to go find out what's really been going on since then.

Because this is a travel blog, not a political one.  But to understand Russia you need to first understand that Russians have been paranoid going on many centuries now.  And to a certain extent with good cause.

Specifically, more recently, when the Soviet Union broke up (to a large degree from the instigation of the U.S.), the U.S.  sent over these neoliberal economists.  And they had the bright idea of privatizing all of the Soviet Union's natural resources, and then giving shares to each citizen.  Of course, after 70 years of socialism no citizen had the foggiest idea of what a 'share' was.  And a few clever people bought up all those shares for nothing and became billionaire oligarchs.

Then the U.S. totally manipulated the first real elections in 1996 and Boris Yeltsin, who went into it with an approval rating of 13%, somehow won.  Of course, immediately afterwards his approval rating went down to 6%.

Finally, back in 1989 the elder Bush specifically promised Gorbachev that if he didn't object to the reunification of Germany then NATO would never expand eastwards.  Then NATO proceeded to expand eastward, eventually taking in those Baltic countries, which for the vast majority of the previous 200 years had been integral parts of Russia.

So that when Putin arrived on the scene in 2001 he was seen as the Lone Ranger riding to the rescue. And it doesn't hurt that since then he has increased average wages by 600%.  So he doesn't need propaganda to have an 80% approval rating.  And we may see his cold eyes, but the Russians by and large see a guy who isn't going to be pushed around any more.

So why our current demonization of Russians?  And why our particular demonization of Putin?  After all, if you look carefully, he's never even said anything threatening towards the West.  And yet our media vilifies him more than it did Josef Stalin 80 years earlier.

May I suggest that it has something to do with religion.

You see, for 75 years the Russians had atheism forced upon them.  And then when that was lifted they were presented with the West's current moral menu of gay sex, drugs, and rock and roll  So it shouldn't be surprising that there's been a great backlash to all of that, and that both old time religion and old time morality have made a big comeback there.

So now the script has flipped.  In the 50s they were the Godless Materialists.  Now, by and large, we are.  And we don't like them even implicitly wagging their moral fingers at us.  Especially since, unlike the Chinese, they kind of look like us.  So we turn them into bogeymen.

Although, like I said, this is a travel blog, not a political one.  And I really can't say for sure what's going on at ground level there these days.  Which, of course, is a large reason why this trip is taking place.  So I'll be leaving here hopefully without any illusions one way or another.  And kindly bear with me as I go over there and find out.  

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The End Of The Road

I settled into my hotel room, which was conveniently right in front of the ocean, and slightly inconveniently halfway between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, which are about 25 miles apart.  It’s a long story, but when Germany originally took Namibia it had to cede Walvis Bay, the only possible deep water port between Capetown and Benguela, to Britain.  Thus until 1994 Walvis Bay was actually part of South Africa.  And today Swakopmund gets the tourists and Walvis Bay gets the cargo ships.  In between them is mile after mile and uncounted tons of orange-pinkish sand.

I drove down to Walvis Bay.  Truly not much to see.  But at the southern end of town all of a sudden there was this upscale totally First World housing development.  And white people jogging and bicycling and kite surfing.  After many blocks of that the paved road stopped and a dirt road curved along the bay and towards ever more sand.  First I passed a salt operation with brilliant white mini-mountains of salt.  Then brackish ponds and flamingos.  Hundreds and hundreds of flamingos.  Flamingos to the left of me and flamingos to the right.  All walking with their heads upside down in the water.

Okay, that was cool.  At the end of the road I walked across more sand until I reached the ocean.  Then I turned around and walked back.  Then I drove back up to Swakopmund in search of dinner.

Little had I grasped until then just how severely Namibia shuts down after business hours.  And business hours means 6 PM at the latest.  Even the fast food places shut down.  Streets are deserted, both of pedestrians and cars.

The restaurant I was looking for was closed on Mondays.  It was also closed for all of February.  I stopped what looked like an upscale, sophisticated black Swakopmundian and asked where I could find an, ugh, pizza.  He told me, but as his white wife and multiracial kids showed up I took a wild shot and asked if there might be an Indian restaurant in town.  Yes, they both said, there actually was.  So I went there, stuffed myself with an overpriced thali dinner, and returned to my hotel.

I don’t want to keep sounding like an old man, but this trip had been really wearing.  So once again I slept in on Tuesday.  Anyway, for being such a Namibian tourist magnet, Swakopmund really doesn’t have anything to see or do.  The beaches are okay, but in general the water is too cold for swimming.  As I’ve already mentioned, the ‘old’ German buildings are so spruced up that there’s nothing remotely quaint about them.  I don’t fish.  I certainly don’t dune buggy.

There is a small National Aquarium, and I passed some time there looking at fish swim round and round.  Then I found an area of about thirty craft vendors where I was the only customer, and I haggled over a few small items.  (Maureen doesn’t let me buy large ones.)  Then I tried to find the new mall that I had heard about.

Northern Swakopmund is way bigger and even whiter and more upscale than was southern Walvis Bay.  Apparently South African Afrikaans people are frantically building and buying vacation homes here.  And why not?  Sun, virtually no crime, other people who you can speak Afrikaans to.

You see, Namibia may be technically independent, but in actuality it is a wholly owned subsidiary of South Africa.  And no matter how many black presidents smile down from pictures at government offices, it’s the whites (and the Indians and the mixed race and now the Chinese) who actually run everything.  Apartheid definitely no longer exists, but the situation appears to be something that is somewhere between segregation and integration.

What makes it harder to read is that Afrikaans people and German people aren’t especially known for their smiling cuddliness, so it’s hard to tell what they really feel about all the black people who work around and for them.  They’re not all that open and friendly to me, either, but sometimes when I talk to them they turn out to be the kind of person who would give you the shirt off their back.  If you were another white guy, at least.

The black people are almost uniformly polite, almost demure.  And they really enjoy it when I crack jokes.  (Maybe because no Afrikaans person ever smiles, let alone jokes.)  For all I know they all could be secretly seething with anger.  But I don’t think so, because they really seem to be cup half full types.  And they’re not dumb.  They know that it’s a symbiotic relationship, and they know that they are light years ahead of blacks in Zimbabwe or Zambia or Angola.  After all, the great majority of people walking around these fancy First World supermarkets are black.

Speaking of which, I finally found the new mall and walked around it a bit.  Then I drove around the upscale enclave some more, marveling at how much like Southern California this was, only newer, neater, and nicer.  Then I found a branch of the downtown restaurant which was closed for February, had my meal, and drove back home across the sand.

Wednesday morning it was time to leave civilization behind once again and head out towards the great Namibian desert.  First a hundred miles across featureless sand and gravel on a gravel road on which I could easily do 65.  Unfortunately, so could others, and a flying rock chipped my windshield.  And it wasn’t even my fault!  Hopefully Platinum Credit Card will come through for me once again.

The road then turned south, got much slower, and interesting mountainscapes started appearing.  After another hundred miles or so I came upon a gas station/rest stop conglomeration called Solitaire.  As I was filling up I heard an American accent, and it turns out that some American guy owns the place.  He was only the fifth American that I’ve met since I started this trip.  But he was too busy running his business to really hang out and talk.

By now of course the sun was hotter than hell on an empty highway.  And soon I was driving into the darkness for one more day.  Almost all of the lodges out here are super expensive, but there was one in my guide book that was somewhat out of my way but semi-reasonable.  When I pulled in, though, the reception guy sadly informed me that there were no available rooms.  What?  Most places I’ve been I’ve been their only customer.  And then a lady pulls in after me and says that she’s been turned away at six lodges in a row.

I start mentally preparing for a night sitting in my tiny car.  But there was one other place, a Christian retreat some 25 miles back.  Surely a Christian wouldn’t refuse a weary traveler!  When I got there though I discovered that it was no longer a Christian retreat, but now an upscale lodge.  Howsoever, since they were new and off the road, I was now their only prospective customer for the night.  We agreed on $65, which got me a room that really wasn’t very upscale at all.

It didn’t really matter, because I was up at 6 the next morning.  Today was my day for the sand dunes.  You see, that’s why there’s all these tourists and upscale lodges around here: Namibia’s famous thousand foot high pinkish-orange sand dunes.  And if you don’t show up to see them near dawn, the heat of the day will kill you.

However, by the time I drove to the entrance along a long, slow, bumpy road, then paid my fees, then drove another 40 miles to the 2 wheel drive parking lot, and finally hitched a ride with a 4x4 for the last three miles it was 10 AM.  And hot.  I then joined all the other tourists in trudging a half km or so up and over deep sand to get to a place where there were dead trees on a small salt pan surrounded by sand dunes.

So here’s my report on the place: The dunes are all pinkish-orange and fine and dandy if you’re already in the area.  But don’t drop everything and mortgage the house in order to see them.  Like most of the rest of the world, they’re over-hyped.  They didn’t even look 1000 feet tall.  At least I wasn’t idiotic enough to climb one, like all the tour group ants working their way up the spine of Dune 45.

Of course, on my way out Dune 45 was empty.  It was now really dreadfully hot.

But although the National Park wasn’t incredibly astounding, the drive to and fro across the desert was certainly fulfilling.  Empty, empty, empty, with spiny mountains all around and the occasional oryx, with their 4 foot long absolutely straight horns, walking by.  There was a lot of distance to cover, and I was doing it slowly and rattlingly.  I was also kind of wiped out from the heat.  So when I got to the absurdly isolated gas station at Betta I inquired about a room, and, once again being their only customer, was given room number 1.

Now this was as middle of nowhere as nowhere can get.  Not even wifi.  Although in Namibia there is always hot water.  In fact it is scaldingly hot, and you have to do a 1 to 10 ratio with the cold.  I had a little canned food, which was good, because, like I said, that was all she was going to write.  When the sun went down I finally remembered to go outside and look at the stars.  As you may know, the Southern Hemisphere has way more stars than the Northern.  After a long while I ended up figuring out that I was seeing the circumpolar Southern Cross, but it was presently sideways.

Friday I was up and out early.  The dirt roads were really empty now, the sand had turned to ugly light brown, it was all around me, and at one point I was all alone driving uphill through sand like I was trying to get through 6-8 inches of snow.

But I finally hit the paved road again at the non-town of Aus.  A right turn and then 80 miles or so into Luderitz.  At this point all pretense of scenery had vanished, and it was endless ugly sand and gravel.  And when you get to Luderitz you realize that you’ve really reached the end of the road.

How to describe Luderitz?  Let’s start with Death Valley By The Sea.  Then throw in old German buildings, not grand ones, but boxy loaf-of-bread ones from the turn of the last century with a few striking Lutheran churches sticking up here and there.  This is true honest to God bleak desolation, and the reason for its existence is, incredibly ironically enough, a diamond boom from 1900.  This is still a diamond mining area, and travel anywhere for several hundred miles up and down the coast is strictly verbotten.  There are also palm trees.

As I checked into my hotel I was informed that there would be a hurricane this weekend.  Hmm, something else I hadn’t planned for.  Actually, there was a giant typhoon slamming into the Indian Ocean coast of South Africa.  And by the time it reached Namibia there would just be lots of rain.  Except that we wouldn’t get the rain.  Only lots and lots and lots of wind.  It was already constantly 30 mph.

Well, the weekend was just going to be for resting up anyway.  And I had achieved my goal of finding a place which was sufficiently weird ass for me to do it in.  I mean, seriously hard core weird ass.  I was in end of the road heaven.

On weekends in Namibia everything shuts down at 1 PM.  Everything.  No traffic, no pedestrians, the whole town is on lockdown.  But it was all so windy that there was nothing to do but stay in your room anyway.  Fortunately mine looked out over the small bay.  And I really needed the rest.  At around 3 I made an attempt to drive out to the Luderitz peninsula, but the wind was so ridiculous that my car was getting sandblasted.  I gave up, returned to my room, and watched a ridiculously bad Nicholas Cage movie.

By Sunday the wind had died down somewhat, but I was busy resting, writing and trying to organize the gigantic mess that my possessions had become.  At 2 I made another attempt at the peninsula.  No sandblasting this time, so I took the 18 km gravel road to Diaz Point.

This was now desolation cubed.  I had always considered Patagonia to be the bleakest place that I’ve been to, but here I had a contender.  Ugly sand, ugly gravel, ugly rocks, but all jumbled around so that it had an omigod-this-is-bleak air about it.  To top it off, the ocean surrounding it was ugly and grey and choppy.

When I reached the end of the end of the road the wind was at least 50 mph.  I staggered across the short rocks to where up on top of a tall rock was a cross commemorating Bartholomew Diaz’s stop here in 1488.  It was quite the poetic evocation to imagine some Portuguese guy in a 15th Century boat trying to find his way around Africa and ending up here.

It was also a fitting end to my own journey.  And although I am slightly annoyed that no one else knows or cares how fiendishly difficult this was to plan and execute, that’s okay.  I know and I care.  Because this was a capstone to all the other little trips that I’ve taken, starting with that overland passage to India in 1970.  I’ve pretty much done it all now.  And I can retire.

Except of course if Libya miraculously stabilizes.  And then there’s that circumnavigation of Australia.  And then…  Nah.  If I’m stampeded by a herd of oryx tomorrow I’m not going to regret that I never made it to the Maldive Islands.

200 is plenty enough.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

That's Swakopmund With a 'K',a 'P', and a 'Mund'

Promised lands aren't always what they're cracked up to be.  My fascination with Namibia started out in 2003, when I nibbled its southernmost part.  There the sky was so electric blue that the whole place seemed way psychedelic.

Here in the far north the situation was much more prosaic.  The land was flat and scrubby, though now green because of the rains.  Still nothing picturesque.  And went I went off of the paved road to head towards Etosha National Park the rains meant that there were a lot of puddles to splash through.

Ah, Etosha!  Upscale tourist magnet land of innumerable elephants and rhinos.  Now I had been forewarned that there wouldn't be many large animals during the rainy season, but still...  And when I saw a few giraffes shortly after I had entered the gates I was certainly expecting to see something more.

But that, except for some ostriches and the occasional zebra or impala antelope, was about it.  And looking around me as I continued into the park it was hard to believe that even they could survive here.  Because Etosha is mainly a big, flat, ugly salt pan with hardly anything growing on it.  And the heat and humidity were something else.  As were the ruts in the roads.  Especially the side ones that I kept taking in vain hopes of seeing something.

This took most of the day, until I reached the main 'rest camp'.  Here I paid way too much for a substandard room and made one more fruitless drive before the sun went down and they locked us in for the night.  At 8 I walked over to the famous watering hole, where supposedly in the dry season thirsty animals tramp many miles to all crowd around and drink.  Nothing tonight.  I waited patiently for an hour, and as with most of life, my patience was rewarded with more nothing.  I started becoming suspicious that Etosha is just a scam perpetuated on upscale tourists, who then are too embarrassed to report back that they've been had.  But everyone keeps assuring me that, yes, in the dry season this place is just chockablock with critters.

Well, I still don't know what all those large mammals could possibly subsist on around here, wet season or dry.  But if I were one of them, and I had a nice cubbyhole somewhere, I certainly wouldn't trudge all the way over here if there were any puddles nearby.

Speaking of puddles, it turned out that the silt from the salt pan creates the thickest, scaliest, whitishist mud imaginable.  So now my nice little rentacar looked like a godawful mess.

The next morning I made one more attempt at a 'game drive', gave up, and headed out of the park and south for around 80 miles.  Here, along with the first small hills, was the clean, prosperous little town of Outjo, with significantly more whites than Ondangwa and significantly more prosperity.  I whiled around a bit and also finally found a Namibia road map.  Then I headed west.

It soon got much drier and started looking quite a bit like our Southwest.  About 50 miles along I turned left onto a gravel road.  My memory of Namibian gravel roads from 2003 is that they were really good and that everyone drove really fast on them.  I wasn't going that fast, but I made the mistake of hitting the brakes whilst rounding a curve and for a few heart pounding moments it was like I was on ice, totally out of control.  After that was over I realized that at my age I probably shouldn't be having heart pounding moments at the end of nowhere.

I was searching for the famous 'rock finger' a 500 foot high slender pinnacle all alone by itself, like you might see in southern Utah.  It was nice and all, and the surrounding cliffs in the distance were like you see in New Mexico, but what was really interesting was that, as is the case all over Namibia, somebody had built a tourist lodge all the way in the middle of this emptiness.  And when I drove up the small hill to check it out the view would have made Arizona Highways proud.  But it was 100 degrees outside, so I didn't stick around.

Back to the main road, and at 85 miles due west of Outjo was the town of Khorixas.  On the map the two appear to be the same size, but now I was in the middle of Damaraland, the poorest area of Namibia, and this 'town' was scarcely a block long.  It did have a semi-reasonably priced lodge, although said lodge had no a/c.  Of course, at this point I had little choice in the matter.

Khorixas looked like the kind of place that the rains never came to, but this afternoon happened to be the day when they actually did.  You see, although Ondangwa and Etosha were giant puddles now, it takes forever for the clouds to make it this far west.  At the 'needle' lodge I saw a bolt of lightning against a blue sky.  Here the thunder was rolling and the clouds were darkening.  It finally started raining lightly around 6.

Although I'm stressing my mind and body a lot less than on previous trips, it's still getting to be too much.  So the next morning I decided to stay here another night.  After all, it was a suitably bizarre lodge and town.  And my only activity would be driving 50-60 miles to some world famous rock paintings and then coming back.

First, I hadn't realized that the pavement stopped at the town's western edge.  Also that, this being the poorest part of Namibia AND the rainy season, the roads would be in really bad shape.  So I poked along at less than 40 mph until I got to the turnoff, then less than 30 mph until I got to the World Heritage Site.

I paid my money and was assigned my guide.  I agreed on the short tour, which consisted of walking along a flat dirt track for about half a kilometer in 98 degree heat with no shade, then scrambling up some rocks, then being shown two largish flat rocks on which someone had drawn elephants and giraffes the the like up to 6000 years ago, then turning around and walking back.

The map showed another way back to Khorixas, and I never like to retrace steps, so...  To make a long drive short, I jounced horribly along at 20 mph for the next several hours in my teeny little rentacar.  And I realized why old people had always bought giant Buicks and Lincolns.  Not because they were conspicuous consumers, but because their tired bones demanded that they do it.

For no apparent reason on Sunday morning I felt refreshed and ready to tackle the long road ahead of me.  Due west on a gravel road across a Mohave Desert type landscape until I hit the ocean.  Off I went, occasionally being able to do 45.

I had certainly been thwarted in my elephant quest, but here in the middle of the friggin' desert I came upon a herd of 11 desert giraffes.  That's right, in the desert.  So that they have to bend all the way down in order to eat anything.  Which sort of defeats the whole purpose of being a giraffe.  But they were there, right by the road.  And I saw them and hung out with them.

Then nothing much for the next hundred miles or so.  I got to the gate of the Skeleton Coast National Park, got a permit to drive through, and then drove down the long incline towards the Atlantic Ocean.
'Skeleton Coast' is certainly evocative, and it has the reputation for being one of the bleakest spots on Earth.  But I wouldn't call it bleak, because there's a certain beauty implied in 'bleak'.  This is just kind of weird and ugly, which you wouldn't expect from being right next to the ocean.  But the ocean itself is cold, and except for morning fogs no real moisture is ever deposited here.  So it is mostly flat gravel plains.

I turned north and drove for about 60 miles to the outpost of Terrace Bay.  This is a defunct mining camp which has been turned into a small fisherman's 'resort', though that is really stretching the word.  And I counted exactly one vehicle among the 30 isolated cabins.  But the drive up and back featured dunes, mountains in the background, and often the ocean on the other side.

When I returned to the 'T', however, and continued south, all interesting features immediately disappeared.  Just flat ugly gravel all around me.  Even the ocean was gone.  And it was that way until I got to the southern park gate, had them check my permit, and re-entered normal Namibia.

Now I was in a hurry, though, because there was a seal reserve which closed at 5, and it was already past 4.  Not properly signed, it took me a while to find it, and when I went in to pay for my entrance it was 4:45.  I joked with the girl about letting me stay some extra minutes, but African officials, like TSA workers, don't cotton to joking.  Anyway I drove up to where the seals were.

It is claimed that the reserve has 100,000 seals.  I didn't count that many, but there were definitely thousands.  And each was a female with a three month old black pup.  All extremely cute.  Most of them were lolling around, a few occasionally growled and snapped at each other.  Out at the water's edge hundreds of them were constantly going in and coming out.  Pups were going in all on their own.  Most of the seaks waddled away when you got close, but one or two of them actually came at me and were aggressive.  So I had to get aggressive right back.

After around fifteen minutes a young British couple drove up for their second look-see of the day and we got to talking.  One thing led to another and soon it was 6:15.  Well, no one had ever come and told us to leave.  And they wouldn't lock the gate on us, would they?

They did.  So the Brits had to go get the lady, who came back and yelled at me for staying too long.  I then had to bribe her with a nice cake that I had.  But the gate was duly opened and I was on my way.

Hettie's Bay was another 40 miles, and was a nice, small fishing/tourist town.  Lots of fishermen at the campground but no one else but me at the only hotel in town.  Here was also the first gas station in 600 kilometers.  Which is how far I had driven today.

Monday morning it was 50 miles further into Swakopmund, Namibia's big, giant holiday resort. Except that it was the off, off season.  And 'big' and 'giant' are all relative, considering that it was Namibia.  Also, Namibia started off being yet another German colony, only this time they really meant to settle the place.  So Swakopmund is also known for its great old German buildings.  And indeed there are some incredibly well kept German Victorian structures, with their gables and turrets and such.

But that's the problem.  Everything about Swakopmund is so clean and neat and well kept up that at best it is like a vaguely German themed theme park.  Especially if, like me, you've just been spending weeks in the 'real' Africa.  The one that's dirty and poor and where not much of anything is kept up.

Oh well, I'm sure that I can adjust.  Right now though I just need to find a place to lay my increasingly weary head.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Through Angola To The Promised Land

The nice boutique hotel arranged for a driver to take me the ten miles or so to the Macon bus terminal towards the south end of the city.  I got there just before 9 AM for the 9:30 bus to Benguela.  Now usually in the Third World you just walk up to the ticket window, buy a ticket, and hop on the bus. However, here it was a little different.

I don't know if it was because of the big Angola Martyr's Day weekend or not, but there was a line of Angolans literally 65 people long all being served by one window.  Let's see, at 2 or 3 minutes a person that's...  I asked a big line herder guy when the next bus for Benguela was, and he said 4 o'clock.  That means I wouldn't get there until 2 in the morning.  Hmm.

This was obviously a situation which didn't call for fair play.  I shamelessly used my white person privilege, looked as plaintive and naive as possible, and said to the line herder guy, 'Ticket?? Bilheto??'  He pushed a hole through the line and took me to another window where no one was standing.  There a guy said that the next bus was at 10:30.  Whew!  I probably got the last ticket for it.

What's more, no one in Angola seems to want to sit in the front, so I got the first seat, the one with a totally unobstructed tourist view.  At first there was just mile after mile of Luanda outskirts.  Though it certainly wasn't fancy, many of the buildings were newish and well constructed.  And even the poor neighborhoods consisted of small concrete block dwellings, nothing as nearly as dilapidated or slummy as some of the places I've been.  Off to the right was the Atlantic Ocean.

After we got to open land, it was clear that the tropical foliage I had been seeing since Lagos was gone, and in its place was what the vast majority of Africa is: Dull brown dirt covered by various varieties of scrub.  Not altogether unpleasant but not altogether pleasant either.  And for the next ten hours we traversed it, often slowing down to 1 km per hour or so in order to navigate all the vicious potholes.  Where was that Chinese road crew when you needed it?

The city of Lobito was about 20 miles north of Benguela, and from that point on the driver seemed to stop every few hundred meters for the laborious process of disgorging a passenger and their baggage.  Finally we made it to the Macon terminal in downtown Benguela.  Here a cadged a cell phone call from a fellow passenger, and a few minutes later Nancy pulled up to take me to her place.

So how did Nancy, a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey, end up owning a guest house and an English language school in Benguela.  Well, it started out with some NGO work 23 years ago.  And the language school part was easy, since she is probably the only native English speaker for a 200 mile radius.  As for me, I was grateful both for the guest house part and the fact that I had found out about her in the first place.

Sunday was a day off.  So I slept in, and then took a ten minute walk down to the city beach.  It's not the most amazing beach in the world, but it's pleasant enough, with palms and a simple esplanade and all.  And Angolans were relaxing and enjoying themselves and such.  I walked to the end, turned around, and went back to Nancy's.

In the mid afternoon I walked downtown to find a--guess what!--pizza to eat.  Late afternoon Nancy drove me to the Macon place where I bought a ticket for tomorrow.  We then went back, meditated together for an hour, and that pretty much was Sunday.

There were no major bus surprises Monday morning, and we took off reasonably on time.  In Nigeria and Cameroon it was the dry season, but here it was the wet one.  And as we proceeded South things got greener and greener.  Hills and small mountains started appearing, and we drove steadily uphill, which meant more precipitation and greenery.  At some points the scrub actually became scrubforest.

For the first time on my trip I actually saw planted fields, mostly of corn.  And very occasionally I would see conical dwellings with thatched roofs.  (Most of the traditional Africa which you may think exists has been replaced long, long ago by sturdier, though much drabber, concrete blocks.)

After six and a half hours or so of mostly emptiness we reached the city of Lubango.  Here, however, the small Macon terminal was not in the center of town, but actually around three miles past that.  Never to mind.  I bought my ticket for tomorrow, lugged my stuff to the other side of the road, stopped a couple of the stuff-as-many-people-as-you-can minibuses which seem to ply the roads of virtually every non-rich country in the world, and soon found one which new where the 'Novo Hotel' was.

Not only that, but they went out of their way to take me right to its door.  Nowadays virtually every hotel room in the world, no matter how scruffy, has hot water, a small fridge, and wifi.  In this one, true to Africa, the bathroom fixtures were iffy and the wifi wasn't working, but, hey, it was only for one night.

Now to find a pizza.  (Seriously, there's nothing else to eat.)  A half mile walk away was the Millennium Shopping Center, which would turn out to be an interesting strange little mall.  On the way there I got to notice that here in the middle of nowhere, as with the rest of Angola, were a number of Portuguese white people who looked like that had lived there their entire lives.  They  
probably had.  Except perhaps during the 20 year long civil war.  And Nancy pointed out that everyone who can, Portuguese, Chinese, whoever, is getting out now that the oil price and the currency have collapsed.

Speaking of the Chinese...  Angola is still poor, but apparently the changes in the last 5 or 10 years have been amazing.  And like Ethiopia and most of the rest of Africa, it is all down to Chinese money and Chinese construction.  They have accomplished far, far more in 10 years than 50 years of foreign aid from the West did.  After all, what we did was have endless committee meetings to make sure that all of the proposed bathrooms were transgender, and then all the money ended up in the pockets of the ruling elite anyway.  The Chinese make loans repayable in oil and the like, then just send their own guys over to do the work.  As with China itself, the results are sometimes bad, but way more often amazing.

Another interesting thing to note is that, whereas in most African countries the locals speak to each other in whatever local language they use, somehow the Portuguese got everyone in Angola to speak Portuguese all the time, even to each other.  Also, I keep mentioning how nice most Africans are. The Angolans, however, deserve special mention for their low key decency.

Back to the travelogue, though.  My 5 day transit visa meant that I had to be out of the country on Tuesday or else I would have to pay a $150 fine.  Also, the border would close at 6 PM.  This meant that there wasn't much room for bus malfunctions or the like.

My first problem that morning was trying to remember which of the downtown streets was the one that continued out of town.  I walked for about ten minutes and was somewhat confused, but the first minibus which stopped said that they were going past Macon.  I squeezed in and soon we were there.

This bus left exactly on time.  And for the next six and a half hours we passed a topography that had flattened out again and gotten hotter and much more humid.  And back to mostly deserted scrub. It being the rainy season, though, the scrub was all green, and I realized that I had always previously seen scrub Africa in the dry season.  Kind of like California hills all of a sudden get pretty after it rains.  The bulbous baobob trees especially metamorphisized from weird ghostly apparitions into actual living things.

By 3 we were in Santa Clara, the end of the line.  Here I was surrounded by a bunch of piranha boys wanting to change money and motorbike me to the border.  I finally chose one and we drove around 500 meters or so.  Then a short wait to get stamped out of Angola, a medium walk through no man's land, an easy entry into Namibia, and there I was.  At the end of the hard part of the exercise.

It really wasn't the hardest traveling that I've done.  Much of the real work was in the figuring out how to do it.  But it was still wearing, especially in the heat and at my advanced age.  Here, however, was the Promised Land.  Water you can drink!  ATMs that work!  You can use your credit card!

Namibia is by no means First World.  But it was clearly several big steps ahead of where I had just been for the past three weeks or so.  It was also cheap: $3 for the 35 mile share taxi ride from the border to the first major town, Ondangwa.

There my modern motel had all the conveniences, although strangely no fridge.  But their restaurant had vegetarian lasagna and no alcohol beer.  I slept in again.  And really needed to.  Back in the day I could do 12 hour bus rides for day after day.  But that was back in the day.

Wednesday at 2 I took a cab out to the airport and picked up my rental car.  Oh boy.  Now things were really uptown.  I drove around Ondangwa to check it out some more.  A KFC.  A Namibian fast food chain, Hungry Lion.  (Although they, too, only serve chicken.  With a name like that shouldn't they be serving zebra or something?)  Several home depot-ish places.  Obviously, even here at the poor edge of the country, there was enough money going around to support more retail businesses than even capital cities in the rest of Africa.

I stopped at a relatively large shopping center.  All the store locations were occupied and commerce seemed to be buzzing.  In the middle was an actual, too good to be true, real supermarket.  This Shoprite had everything.  Cheese doodles! Ginger beer! Apple strudel!  On the healthier side there were cans of beans and corn, gouda cheese, and freshly baked whole wheat bread.  I greedily stocked up on anything that looked even remotely tasty.

I then went in search of a road map, only to find that the only store in town that sold them was closed.  What?  It's only 4:10.  'No, sir, it is 5:10.  Namibia is an hour later than Angola.'  Oops.  Oh well.  It opens at 8 in the morning.

And then it's off to Etosha National Park.  In search of elephants and rhinos and lions and vultures.