Sunday, August 31, 2014

Book: Ramez Naam's "Crux"

"Crux" is the sequel to a book, "Nexux", that I read earlier this year.  I reviewed that book here.  "Crux" takes over right after the events in "Nexus".  The creator of the nano-drug Nexus 5 is being hunted down by just about everyone in the world.

Nexus 5 allows people to control their brains just like people control a computer and it allows people to share thoughts and feeling.  The drug is opposed by a branch of the Department of Homelands Security who have been charged with stopping all trans- and post-human technologies that could be potentially abused.  When it is discovered that the creator has added a backdoor to Nexus 5 allowing him to essentially take control of anyone using the drug, governments and organizations, both legal and illegal, try to get the passcodes.

The book ends with several parties converging on one location fighting over the drug's creator.  At this point you realized that this is not a sequel ... it is actually book two of a trilogy.  The book ends with enough ends fluttering in the breeze to fill a third book ... if not more.

I liked "Nexus"  and I liked "Crux" as well.  It had an interesting take on future technology and It held my attention like any good action/adventure story should.  That's what it is, an action/adventure story, not great literature.  The book is full of cliche and overused tropes.  The book is also fun to read.  Sometimes that's all I need.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Backcountry Camping Desert

Since my third camping experience I've been looking for a location for my fourth.  My selection criteria are that it has to be within three hours of Omaha and the campsites must be backcountry (also called backwoods, dispersed, or hike-in) campsites.  Turns out there are only three places in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa that meet these two criteria and I've camped in all three of them.  I live in a backcountry camping desert.

I prefer backcountry campsites for their closeness to nature and their distance from other people.  I guess I'm a bit antisocial when I'm camping.  There are plenty of places within three hours drive that offer camping but they are all campgrounds where you are relatively close to your neighbors and on the edge of nature, not in it.  Not exactly what I'm looking for.  I plan to do camping trips four, five, and six in the same parks I've already camped in just at another spot within each park.

As I was conducting my unsuccessful search for a new campsite I came to the realization that, to extend my camping to the two or three day camping trip - something I want to do next year - I would have to travel farther from home.  I want to be able to hike to a campsite, spend the night, hike to another the next day, spend the night, etc.  None of the parks in my area are big enough to do that.  Typical hiking time between backcountry campsites in local parks is about thirty minutes to an hour at most.  I would end up spending over twenty-four hours at a campsite.  I'm not sure I could fill those hours.  I would rather spend some of that time hiking and exploring in a larger park.

So, I'm expanding my search.  I already am thinking about a five day camp in Rocky Mountain National Park sometime next summer after RAGBRAI.  I am also looking at the Badlands and parts of the Black Hills in South Dakota, both offer places where backcountry camping is permitted and are within eight hours driving.  The only thing about these places is that these areas only permit backcountry camping off trails.  In other words I would be hiking off trail navigating by map, compass, and GPS.  While I would love to do this I'm not sure if I am ready for that.

I was hoping to work up to that five day camp in Rocky Mountain National Park.  I'm starting to wonder if I will have that luxury.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Book: Paul Theroux's "The Last Train To Zona Verde"

My latest book returns to one of my favorite non-fiction genres, the travelogue.  Paul Theroux is a popular travelogue writer, as well as author of fiction and novellas, who has been traveling and writing about his travels since the late 1960s.  The latest of his travelogues, covering his travels in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Angola when he was 71 years old, was my latest read.  "The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari" is an interesting but somewhat sad telling of an older traveler.

Theroux is very familiar with travel, including traveling and working in Africa.  He starts this trip in Capetown, South Africa with the plan to travel up the west coast of Africa.  His ultimate destination, as we discover rather late in the book, is the almost legendary city of Timbuktu.  Unfortunately he does not make it.  His trip is cut short in Angola but along the way he discovers that the Africa of legend and lore, the one we have all fantasized at least once in our lives, no longer exists.

The Africa of our dreams, a place of small tribal villages full of people living like they've lived for hundreds, if not thousands, of years has changed.  It has become a land of gorged cities surrounded by rings of poverty and squalor.  A land of have-everythings and have-less-than-nothings.  Lands where one form of slavery has been replaced my a more insidious economic servitude.  A place where our dreams are just theater.

He recounts entering a village full of people in their native dress doing things like their ancestors, and their ancestors before, had done.  He leaves on a bush walk just to return to the village to see everyone has changed out of their native costume into western shorts and t-shirts.  It was all a facade for the tourist. Theroux was heartbroken.  I know how he feels.  In Kenya and Tanzania we saw a lot of things that were probably just theater for our benefit.  A way to earn a few bucks from the rich foreigners.

The book felt like it was written by a tired old man which, I think, is what Theroux was on this trip.  He sounded tired.  He sounded disillusioned with what he saw.  I can't blame him.  If I were 71 traveling alone in some of the most desolate and poor areas of the world (Angola has oil, diamond, and gold money but it apparently goes straight into the foreign bank accounts of corrupt individuals) I would feel tired too.  Add in the fact that three of the people he meets along the way die before the book is done and I would become a bit depressed too.

Despite the rather depressing tone of the book I enjoyed it.  His feelings somewhat match mine.  The world is changing.  The places of our fantasies are rapidly being transformed by the shrinking of the world and the changes are not all to the better.  My empathy with Theroux made this a worthwhile read for me.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Eighty-Seven Wearable Memories

I went through my closet this afternoon.  More specifically I went through my t-shirts.  Starting around 2006, and not ending until 2011, I would buy souvenir t-shirts from most of the places I would visit.  Since the Route 66 vacation in summer 2011 my collection has remained static except for a few t-shirts gifted to me.

So, how big is my collection?  Eighty-Seven t-shirts.  Every one has been worn at least once and most of them have been worn several times over.

Today I whittled it down a bit.  It wasn't easy as most of the shirts have some sentimental memory attached to them.  I can be very nostalgic at times.  I still managed to reduce the number somewhat.  Five were thrown away because I didn't like them and they had stains.  Another twelve I no longer like, or they no longer fit, and will be donated.  Ten more are shirts from various schools the Wife has taught at or are from her favorite school, Notre Dame (I am keeping the two of the best ones given to me by one of the Wife's nieces).

I still have some sixty t-shirts left (including five old stained ones for doing chores and mowing the lawn in).  There are still a lot of memories folded neatly in my closet.  Not sure if I will restart my collection or not.  I'm sure some cool shirt will catch my eye, some memory will require some proof of existence, and the collection will start growing once more.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Camp #3: Camping Preparation Canyon

A fellow camper.
For my third camping experience I chose to go to a small park in the Iowa Loess Hills.  I'd been to the park, Preparation Canyon State Park, a few times before.  I'd hiked passed the campsites.  For my third camp I chose one of two new campsites tucked back into the canyon and farthest from the parking area.
Note: The map linked to on the park website is old and not accurate.  There are brochures at the camping parking iron ranger with a newer, more accurate map showing all the campsites.  A copy of the map can be seen here.
I had a few new things to try out on this camp: a different brand of backpacking food, a different way to start fires, and a new sleeping bag.

After getting to the campsite parking lot the long way - there was a road closure that made me take a circuitous route to the park entrance - I slathered on the bug repellent, hoisted the backpack (20 lb - 9 kg), and hiked the short 1.37 miles (2.2 km) to campsite #10.  The campsite was at a large circular clearing at the end of a trail.  The grassy clearing had a picnic table but no fire ring, only a blacken spot on the ground where other campers had built fires.

My campsite.  The slope doesn't seem very obvious in this picture.
The clearing was not level and sloped up quite a bit.  I walked around looking for a place to pitch tmy tent.  I noticed an area where the grass had been worn down to bare earth.  It was roughly the size of my tent and appeared to be flat enough to put up the tent.  The tent went up in record time.  I guess the third camp is the charm.

I spent the rest of the late afternoon exploring the flowers and insects and reading.  I took a few pictures that I added to my 2010-2016 Preparation Canyon State Park Google Photos Album.

Dinner time arrived and I boiled some water to make my Backpacker's Pantry potatoes and gravy with beef.  This was my first Backpacker's Pantry meal, my others had been Maintain House brand.  This was also my first with potatoes.  The first thing I noticed with my first spork full was the texture of the potatoes - gritty and not very potato-like at all.  I've had instant potatoes before but these were not great.  It was hard to get past that.  Add to this the tiny cubes of diced beef ... I would've liked larger chunks.  I finished the meal but it was not that easy.  Before I pass judgement on all Backpacker's Pantry meals, I will have to try a Mountain House meal with potatoes.  That will happen my next camp sometime in September.

A colorful beetle.
After eating dinner the shadows began to get longer so I set out to light a fire.  I was a bit nervous since there really wasn't a fire ring to contain the fire like my other campsites had.  I would have to be careful.  My last two campfires had gone well except for the whole starting of the fire thing.  It had taken some thirty minutes each time to get a fire started.  This time I came prepared with something to help: cotton balls and Vaseline.

I'd heard about this method on the internet.  You coat the cotton ball with Vaseline which is petroleum jelly.  I'd collected my wood, bark, small sticks, and dry grass.  I made a bed of dry grass and put the jellied cotton ball on the bed and tried to light it with my lighter.  It wouldn't light.  This surprised me a bit.  I took the cotton ball and stuck it it the end of a stick so I could hold it over the lighter flame.  It took a while but it finally lit up.  I think I may have had too much Vaseline on the ball.  I put the now burning ball on the bed of grass and covered it with bark, small sticks, and smaller pieces of wood I found around camp.  The fire lit right up - so much easier than my first two campfire attempts.  Jellied cotton balls will be in my fire making kit from now on.

The closing credits of my Hiker's TV.
I spent the rest of the evening tending the small fire and reading my book.  That's one advantage of reading on a tablet - you can read in the dark.  As the sun went down the stars began to come out.  I was going to stay up later to see the stars but I didn't account for one thing - it was getting cold.  I usually have a half-zip or a long sleeve shirt in my pack but for some reason I'd left them out this time.  By about 9:50 PM I was getting cold despite the modest heat coming off the campfire.  I saw some of the early stars but the more spectacular field of stars I was hoping for will have to wait for my next camp.

I put out the embers of my fire and crawled into my tent and got in my bag liner and my new Western Mountaineering Highlite sleeping bag.  The bag is a 35°F bag compared to the 60°F bag I was using.  It's a down bag making it warm and very light.  The bag weighs a pound, 3.2 oz (90 g) less than my old bag despite being warmer.  I'd been worried that it was going to be too warm for this time of the year.  I'd thought I would probably sleep on top of the bag.  Turned out I was wrong and I slept in the bag and liner all night.  I read some more before I went to sleep.

With each camp I do, my sleep gets better.  I still wake up in the middle of the night a few times but the sleep between those wake-ups seems deep and fulfilling.  I woke up around 6:00 AM - a result of getting up at that time everyday to feed the dog.  Overnight a few things happened.  First, there was a lot of dew on the outside of the tent.  There was an equal amount of condensation inside the tent -  a common issue with single walled ultralight tents.  I also noticed that I had shifted over the night.

I'd thought the tent was on level ground but I suspect it was not quite level.  The bottom of the tent is a slick surface.  On top of that floor is my blow up sleeping pad which is also a rather slick surface.  On top of the sleeping pad is a rather slick sleeping bag.  Add all this together and I had slid during the night.  The foot of my sleeping bag was touching the side of the tent and had gotten wet.  It wasn't too bad ... just a little damp ... but down looses its insulation properties when it gets wet.  I will have to be more careful in the future which means when I wake up in the middle of the night I need to check to see if I've shifted.

The heavy dew on the grass along the trail.
I got up and had my camp packed up in about thirty minutes which seems to be the norm for me.  The hike back to the car was a wet one.  Everything was covered in heavy dew.  My shoes were soaked by the time I got to the car.  Fortunately it was a sunny day and everything could go out on the deck to dry out before I put it away.  Can't wait to have to carry wet stuff and putting it back up wet the next night ... I am being a bit sarcastic there.  It will not be pleasant and I kind of dread it.  I suppose it's nothing I can't get used to and get over.

Next camp will be in September ... not sure where.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Book: Danial H. Wilson's "Robopocalypse"

After the serious nature of my last book, surviving in the slums of India, I decided to follow it with a more fluffy piece of writing so I read about the near destruction of humanity by our own machines.  Danial H. Wilson's "Robopocalypse" tells the story of a war that breaks out between humanity and a sentient computer.

The book is written like an oral history and a collection of stories looking back at events.  I hear the story telling style is similar to "World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War" but since I haven't read the book, I can't make a comparison.

The reader is taken, step by step, from the creation of the sentient computer, to it's escape 'into the wild', to the use of our robotic devices to attack the human race, to the eventual human winning of the war.  Along the way we learn a little about ourselves and about our dependence and trust in the technology around us.

Some people have suggested that the development of a true artificial intelligence will be even more dangerous that the invention of the atomic bomb.  Atomic energy can be controlled.  A sentient computer more intelligent than the humans that built it ... especially careless ones ... may never be within our control.  This is a work of fiction that may just make you think about what may happen when our machines start thinking for us.

The book ends with a few loose strings which means ... a sequel.  Sure enough, a few months ago "Robogenesis" was published.  I liked Robopocalypse enough that I will probably read Robogenesis eventually.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

African Adventure: Tanzania - Zanzibar

A dhow off the coast of Zanzibar.
I have a thing for exotic sounding places.  The first exotic sounding place I chose to visit was Kathmandu.  The Wife went along with my madness.  Kathmandu was ... disappointing.  When I suggested adding Zanzibar to the end of our vacation because it sounded so exotic and Freddy Mercury was born there I was a bit surprised that the Wife didn't try to talk me out of it.  I wouldn't have faulted her after the Kathmandu fiasco.  Fortunately for me, and my exotic sounding places thing, Zanzibar turned out to be a bit better than Kathmandu.

June 25th

We left our camp in the Serengeti and headed for the nearest dirt strip airport,  We were a little worried about the weight of our bags.  We would be flying small bush planes form here to Zanzibar and the weight limit was lower than the large planes.  I tried to help by tossing almost all of my underwear and socks back at the Serengeti camp but I still felt our bags were too heavy.  Our driver/guide knew of our concerns and said we had little to worry about here.  Leaving Zanzibar would be a different story.

Our plane arrived and the pilot, the plane's entire crew, started loading the bags on the plane.  Our driver grabbed our bags and, being helpful to the pilot, loaded our bags on the plane himself.  The pilot never had a chance to feel just how heavy our bags were.  Our driver got an extra big tip.  Our plane made one stop in Arusha where we changed to another bush plane.  They didn't weight our bags there either so we were home free.

We were picked up at the airport by our driver who dropped us off at our hotel.  He said our guide would pick us up the next morning for our island tour.  This was a surprise to us as we were expecting a walking tour of the older part of the city known as Stone Town.  We would end up doing the walking tour the next day and, frankly, having the afternoon off gave us some time to decompress and relax from our Safari experience.

The view off our balcony at sunset.
After checking out our room we headed back down to ask about an ATM and a place to do some shopping.  At the front desk we ran into Mk and Tm who we'd met briefly in Arusha six days earlier.  We set up a dinner date for later that night.

A stop at the ATM and a few blocks and we found a street lined with all kinds of stores.  You could find everything you wanted from east Africa.  We bought some final gifts, a few more magnets, and few more things for ourselves.  I bought a tin toy safari jeep.

My toy safari jeep.
Zanzibar is very Muslim and it has a very exotic feel to it.  The Wife and I have become very fond of Muslim culture.  There were three or four mosques within a block of our hotel.  Not much farther away was a Catholic church and an Anglican cathedral.

That night there was a slight misunderstanding.  The Wife and I waited in the lobby for Mk and Tm.  They had waited for us in the bar.  We eventually met each other half way between the two places and ended up eating a very good dinner and enjoying nice conversation at the hotel restaurant with views of the Indian ocean.

The sun setting over the Indian Ocean.
Our hotel was very comfortable.  It was located in Stone Town and on the beach.  The hotel itself didn't have a beach ... well, there was one during low tide but at high tide the beach totally disappeared.  That was the only thing I missed.  If we had been in Zanzibar longer I would have taken the free hotel shuttle to their private beach up the coast from Stone Town.

June 26th

The path through the Jozani Forest.
Our guide and driver arrived and we headed out of Stone Town.  Our first stop would be the Jozani Forest Chwaka Bay National Park.  A guide from the park took us on a walking tour along jungle lined trails.  Our park guide identified all the plants we passed along with their uses and medicinal properties.  Every plant had at least one use.  Along the trail we saw lizards, tiny frogs, and millipedes.  Overhead monkeys jumped from tree to tree.  This was also where every exposed part of our skin was bitten by bugs.  The Wife got the worst of that.

The red colobus monkey.
The highlight of Jozani Forest are the Red Colobus Monkeys.  They are rare and they are known for not having thumbs.  They were very used to people and you could get up close to them including nursing mothers.

A mother and her offspring.
Half of the forest is a mangrove forest.  We walked along a boardwalk and looked at the cool trees and the small crabs crawling on the mud.  Our park guide talked about the importance of the mangroves and the attempts by the Zanzibar government to preserve the forests.

Our next stop of the day was a spice farm.  Zanzibar is one of several islands called the Spice Islands.  We toured the farm smelling and tasting different spices right of the plant/tree.  The variety was amazing.  As we toured our guide wove us hats, jewelry, and crowns from palm leaves.  Yes ... we got a wacky picture taken wearing all this stuff.  It will never see the light of day.  The tour ended with a palm tree climbing demonstration - see the awesome video here.

We had a few hours back at the hotel for lunch and a brief nap (i.e. watching the World Cup) before we headed out with our guide on a walking tour of Stone Town.  We passed by the home of Freddy Mercury ... or at least one of the houses that claims to be his childhood home.  We learned about the history of stone town and its connection with the Arab world.  We learned about the Arab slave trade.  We visited the Anglican cathedral that is built over the old slave market.  We learned about the architecture, the magnificent doors (the Wife wanted to bring one home), and visited the non-tourist market.

The memorial to the Arabian slave trade.
The sun was going down as we were returning to the hotel.  In a park along the ocean a crowd had gathered and were watching the horizon intently.  Someone pointed and a cheer went through the crowd.  They had seen the moon.  Ramadan would start the next day.

The crowd waiting for a glimpse of the moon and the start of Ramadan.
June 27th

Our flight was at 6:00 PM.  We had to check out from our hotel at 10:00 AM.  We arranged to have our luggage stored at the hotel.  Talking with our guide the day before, we arranged to have a ride on a dhow out to Prison Island.

A dhow sailing the choppy water as seen from our dhow.
We walked with our guide to another hotel where we boarded our dhow.  The boat was run by two sailors.  It was made of rough hand-hewn wood and what looked like a hand sewn sail.  It was breezy and I was mildly concerned it would be a rough ride but once we got out on the water it wasn't bad at all.  The sun was out, the wind blew us to the island ... a perfect day for sailing.

We arrived at the island, once owned by an Omani, purchased by the government of Zanzibar to be made into a prison.  Once the prison was built, it was never used as a prison, it was used as a quarantine island instead.  Today there is a resort on the island that looks awesome.

The aldabra giant tortoise.
On the island we visited the last new animal of our Africa trip: the Aldabra Giant Tortoise.  We walked among the tortoises, originally a gift from the government of the Seychelles, and watched them move slowly around their home.  They were used to people and you could touch them.  They seemed to like having their shell rubbed or at least they were curious about what was touching them as they would stretch out their necks and lift their heads.  Some had their age painted on their shells.  The oldest was 155.

We visited the prison building that is now a restaurant and had a drink while we looked out over the Indian ocean.  Our superhero powers activated again when we met someone who graduated from high school in Omaha and had gone to Iowa State.  Again ... it's a small world.

A gorgeous view along the pier on Prison Island.
We got our feet wet getting back into our dhow - I have officially dipped my toes in the Indian Ocean - and returned to the main island.  We visited the French style catholic church before heading back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel we ate lunch.  I felt a little bad eating and drink when I knew the staff, including our awesome waitress Grace, were fasting for Ramadan.

After lunch the hotel was nice to us and allowed us to use the shower facilities in the spa so we would be fresh for our flight home.  The shower was one of those handle shower heads and the pressure was so strong I lost control of it several times and I think I ended up getting the entire room wet.   After I got out, dried off, and put on fresh clothes I proceeded to sweat through those clothes.  The Wife had the same experience except she was also visited by a little lizard.  Not sure those showers did anything really.

We then emptied out all the non-essential clothes from our bags and gave them to our guide and the hotel staff.  Our flight to the mainland was a small twelve seater again.

Our driver picked us up an hour or so later and took us to the airport where they weighed our bags.  We ended up 4.4 lbs (2 kg) over the limit which they didn't seem to mind.   Our flight to the mainland was only about twenty minutes.  We were pleasantly surprised when there was a driver waiting for us to drive us to the nearby international terminal.  We hadn't expected this and I thought we would be paying for a taxi.

The rest of our flights from Dar-Es-Salaam to Zurich to Newark to Omaha went without a hitch.  I spent most of my time watching movies.

Zanzibar turned out to be an awesome end to our African adventure.

Pictures of Zanzibar can be found in my 2014-06 Zanzibar Google Photos album.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Music: Jenny Lewis With Apache Relay At The Slowdown.

I first heard Jenny Lewis back in 2006.  Back then she was the lead singer for the band Rilo Kiley and had just done a solo album.  I posted about seeing her here.

Jenny Lewis had signed a contract with Saddle Creek Records which just so happens to be based in Omaha.  When we moved back to the Omaha area back in 2008 I learned that she often comes back to Omaha to perform.  Unfortunately in 2008 I found out about this two weeks after that year's performance.

After missing her in 2008 I proceeded to miss her in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.  It seem I was always either traveling or had another engagement every time she was performing in Omaha.  She didn't perform in Omaha in 2013.  My luck would change this year.  Jenny Lewis performed at the Slowdown last Monday night and the Wife and I were there.

We got there early enough to get a chair next to the pit.  The chairs are along a narrow bar where you can put you food and drink.  The chairs are high enough that you see above the heads of everyone on the pit floor giving you an practically unobstructed view of the stage in this small venue.

The warm up band was a band out of Nashville called Apache Relay.  They were okay.  I wasn't that impressed but they weren't bad either.  Seemed like a nice group of guys.

Jenny Lewis was awesome.  She played music from her solo albums - lots of songs that I was familiar with - and some new material from her new album, "Voyager".  Sadly she didn't play our two favorite Jenny Lewis songs: "Rabbit Fur Coat" and "Happy". (These music links require a free Spotify account.)

I ended up taking over ninety pictures but I would say only about five turned out decent.  You can see the decent ones in my 2014-08-04 Jenny Lewis Concert, Slowdown, Omaha, NE Google Photos album.

Friday, August 08, 2014

African Adventure: Tanzania - The Serengeti

June 24th

Coming down from the Ngorongoro Caldera on the way to the Serengeti.
We left our camp on the rim of the Ngorongoro caldera and headed west.  As we descended you could see vast expanses of grassland ... dry grassland.


Our first stop of the day was at a Maasai village.  We passed several villages before we got to ours.  The others had two, three, or more jeeps parked outside the village walls.  We had ours to ourselves.  The village was roughly circular.  Livestock (goats in this village) were gathered in the center surrounded by a multiple rings of living huts.  The edge of the village was surrounded by a wall/fence made of thorny acacia branches.

The High Jumping Maasai Dance.
The Maasai came out of the village and greeted us with a dance.  We were escorted into the village where another jumping dance was performed.  I filmed and took pictures while the rest of our group participated (I do not dance).

After the dance our group was split into two groups of two and we went inside a hut where a Maasai explained their life and customs.  The hut was made of branches, grasses and animal dung.  The tiny room had two beds - one for adults and one for children.  There was a small fire in the center.

The educational part was followed by the shopping part.  Items made by the villagers were arrayed in a circle around the livestock pen.  We walked around and picked out some interesting items and gifts for the family.

After the market we visited the small school where the children demonstrated there recitation skills by saying the alphabet and their numbers.  We distributed some of the gifts that our travel mates (Ls and Gg) had shared with us and donated to the school fund.

This whole visit felt more like a dog and pony show for the tourists.  It was interesting but it felt very staged.  Frankly, I doubt it is easy to get an authentic experience nowadays.  I think the authentic experience that I'm thinking of is now a piece of history ... a piece of a bygone era when the world was a much larger place.

The road into the Serengeti from the top of the hill.
We said our goodbyes and continued on to the Serengeti.  We stopped at one of the entrances of Serengeti National Park.  As our driver was taking care of the formalities, I followed a short trail up a hill next to the entrance.  From the top you got a great view of the flat brown landscape.

The expanse of the Serengeti awaits.
The drive from the entrance to our camp was the first of our five safari drives in the Serengeti.  The landscape reminded me a lot of the Maasai Mara which made sense since the southern Maasai Mara butts up against the northern Serengeti - they are essentially two halves of one big area.  While the landscape was the same, the animals were different.  More accurately, the quantity of animals was different.

Zebra  and Wildebeest everywhere.
Two million wildebeest and over eight hundred thousand zebra migrate north to south and back following the rain.  This year the rain had been a bit strange.  The herds had been heading north toward the Maasai Mara but the rain had returned to the Serengeti and the herds had turned around and returned to the central Serengeti where we would be staying.  During our first safari drive we witnessed for the first time what a large number of animals there are in the Serengeti. The herds stretched out to the horizon as far as the eye could see.  It's kind of amazing that one zebra is interesting but thousands of them inspire awe.  It's one of those things that are hard to explain and the pictures don't quite do it justice ... you have to see it for yourself.

Zebra Butt.
Before heading for camp our driver/guide found us a leopard.  It was lounging up in a tree.  There was a thompson gazelle carcass hanging in the tree as well.  I wish we could have gotten closer but we could not go off road and leopards are pretty skittish anyway and would have probably run away.  We still got a good look at it.  It took us a while but we finally got good looks at all the big five.

A leopard in a tree on the right.  Its kill is on the left just below the leaf line.
We stopped at our camp.  It was set up similar to the Ngorongoro Caldera camp.  We had a late lunch and took a few hours off before heading back out for our second safari drive.  There was a reminder of my life back home on the table in the lounge area - I resisted the urge to play.

Zebra and wildebeest grazing as the sun goes down.
The second safari drive was like the first - animals everywhere.  You would think after being on safari for ... nine days that we would be tired of it all by now.  You couldn't be farther from the truth.  Every drive was accompanied by the anticipation of seeing something new and we saw something new almost every time we went out in the jeep.

Yawning lion.
We returned to our camp and headed for our tents to freshen up before dinner.  We walked by zebra grazing outside the tent.  That night we enjoyed some more bush TV along with a large family of fourteen (Grandparents all the way down to grand children) and a British mother-daughter couple.  The family was obviously wealthy and, while they were nice, they kept dropping names.  I lost interest in them when one of them mentioned golfing with the Dalai Lama.

A long exposure of the night sky and  tree lit by firelight.  Doesn't really do it any justice.
After dinner and admiring the incredible sky full of stars we went to bed in our tents.  In the middle of the night I woke up to the sound of hyenas yipping and lions growling and making other noises behind our tent.  This was followed by the sound of people running.  Took me a while to go back to sleep that night.

June 25th

In the morning we talked to the staff of the camp.  They confirmed some lions went through the camp the night before ... probably looking for water they said.  When we asked what they did when lions came around they said they got in the jeeps.  Made me wonder ... they were in metal vehicles while we were in canvas tents.  That explains the waivers we signed when we checked in.

A spotted hyena.  We all agreed they were ugly and a bit evil looking.
We went out for our third Serengeti safari drive.  We approached a group of four or five jeeps - a group of jeeps almost always guaranteed an animal was close by.  They apparently were waiting for some lions to get up out of the tall grass.  That's when our guide/driver worked his magic.  Our guide had a recording of different animal sounds ... including the sound of lions roaring.  As a matter of fact we thought the lions noises the night before might have been our driver playing a joke.  He put on the lion roars and cranked up the volume.  Two lion heads immediately popped up above the grass and looked around.  As soon as they appeared you could hear whirring of dozens of cameras going off.  This was followed by a cheer.  The other jeeps had been waiting for a while.  I think our guide should have gotten a tip from the other jeeps.  He repeated this trick several times during our stay in the Serengeti.

Two cheetah sitting on a termite mound.
The termite mounds were everywhere and a favorite perch for cheetah and other animals.
During our two safari drives we saw lions, leopard, elephant, giraffe, cute little dik-diks, and our first ... and only ... nile crocodile. We watched elephants drinking. We watched birds dive bombing a monitor lizard. We watched a hippopotamus try to eat palm fronds. We saw a lion hunting a wildebeest but she didn't make a kill. I was so excited when she started to sprint that I forgot to take the action shot (D'OH!). We saw two cheetahs stalking some thompson gazelle. Nearly a dozen jeeps also saw these cheetah (there can be over sixty jeeps in one place during high season). As the cheetah slowly approached the herd of gazelle, jeeps repositioned themselves between the cheetah and the gazelle. This ended up discouraging the cheetah who turned around and sauntered off. Another kill opportunity missed.

Elephants enjoying the shade of an acacia tree.
Every night when we returned to our camps we would talk to the other guests and compare notes on what we all saw.  The large rich family had the bad habit of always one upping us.  When we saw a lion, they saw a lion make a kill.  When we say a cheetah, they had a cheetah jump on the hood of their jeep ... on their son's birthday.  On this day we topped them all by seeing a unicorn ... well, it was an impala with a broken horn but they didn't need to know that.  When we said we saw a unicorn some of the young members of the family looked at us wide eyed and asked "really?"

A rare unicorn.
This night we only hear hyenas and, yes, they sound like they are laughing ... sort of maniacally actually.  Freaky sounding.

June 26th

Peek-A-Boo I see you!
Our last day in the Serengeti consisted of one long safari drive with a picnic lunch.  This drive was mostly on the savannah.  The grassy expanse seemed endless at times which explains the name 'Serengeti' which means 'endless plains' in the local Maasai language.

Mother and baby elephant.  The baby was pestering the mother.
On this drive we ended up taking a few movies ... something we should have been doing all along.  We saw more lion (including one with a radio collar), mongoose, elephant, giraffe, and many others.  We ate our picnic lunch within sight of a lion.  We saw a confrontation between a lion and a ridgeback antelope but neither of them seemed interested in running.  The guide thought the lion was probably full and not interested in another kill.  We saw a leopard.  We saw a pair of cheetah who had just fed - they both had distended stomachs.  Here are the videos the Wife took that day (her favorite is the dung beetle):


The large family had moved on this morning so in the evening our group of four, the two British, and a newly arrived Swiss couple had the whole camp to ourselves.  We had a nice night of conversation and excellent food.  We asked to meet the chef here too and we discovered the kitchen was nearly identical to the Ngorongoro Caldera camp kitchen.  Amazing they could serve high quality food to twenty people all at once with such limited equipment.  Their food was so good that even I ate the soup ... and I'm not a fan of soup but it was good.

Loved these red and blue lizards.
Our safari was nearing its end.  Tomorrow out travel mates would be heading home and we would move on to Zanzibar.  It was an incredible experience that I will not soon forget.

A whole lot of pictures of the Serengeti and its wildlife can be found in my 2014-06 Tanzania Google Photos album.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Book: Katherine Boo's "Behind The Beautiful Forevers"

This was an interesting book.  This is a work of non-fiction that reads so much like a work of fiction that I had to double check a few times.   The book, Katherine Boo's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity", is a detailed telling of the lives of a couple families, and the people who live around them, in one of the slums of Mumbai.  The author compiles their stories through a series of interviews with the slum dwellers.  The resulting narrative is both fascinating and depressing.

The book describes the hope and despair of the people who live in squalor trying their best to move up the ladder or, having given in to the reality of their existence, have given up and accepted the world around them as their only one.  Political intrigue, suicide, struggling to improve their lot, surviving.

They live in a world of corrupt police who dispense justice to the highest bidder, politicians who lower their social status through bribe and forgery just so they can run for lower caste designated offices, and trash sorters who survive on the garbage of others to earn enough to leave ... or to pay the necessary bribes just to survive.

I liked this book.  It held my attention.  I wish it went somewhere but that isn't what this book was.  This book is a snapshot of the lives a a group of people.  The narrative is that of life, not the narrative of some mystery show or action movie.

Monday, August 04, 2014

African Adventure: Tanzania - Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area

June 22nd

We left Lake Manyara and made our way to the Ngorongoro Crater or caldera. We were scheduled to visit a school this day but, since it was Sunday and it was winter vacation, the school was not open. Our guide suggested going to an orphanage. Our tour company, along with most others, always have some charitable visit scheduled. We discussed it amongst ourselves and decided not to visit an orphanage. There would be other opportunities to give back on this trip.

We stopped at the entrance to the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area. We stopped and walked through the small museum and gift shop. "I ♥ Warthogs" stickers were bought.  There is a story behind those stickers.  Everyone in our party fell in love with the warthogs.  We loved how their tails stuck straight up when they ran.  Warthogs have terrible memories and, while being chased by a predator, will often forget what it was doing and stop to eat ... just to be eaten itself.  We started telling people "don't be a warthog" when they would forget things.

The Ngorongoro Caldera.
The Ngorongoro Crater is actually a caldera.  It was formed when a volcano collapsed in on itself forming a large caldera.  The caldera walls keep the animals inside relatively isolated with few coming in or out.  Our first stop was to a viewpoint where we could see the entirety of the caldera.  The clouds were low this day but we still had magnificent views.  In a way the hazy sunshine gave it an ethereal quality.

The floor of the Ngorongoro Caldera.
Our last stop of the day was our camp, located high on the caldera rim.  The camp consisted in ten canvas tents with one large eating/lounging tent.  These tents were not as nice as our Maasai Mara Lodge tents.  This camp was mobile.  The tents, while quite nice (definitely glamping) they did not have electric outlets or hot water on demand.  There were lights, a sink, and a toilet.  The toilet could only be flushed every fifteen minutes or so due to lack of water pressure.  There was no WIFI.  The comfortable king size bed made up for the mild inconveniences.

The acacia tree canopy over our camp.
We ate lunch upon our arrival and spent the rest of the day relaxing in camp.  The whole compound was set up under the canopies of tall acacia trees.  There were flowering plants along the trail between the tents.  When it got dark a fire was lit near the main eating tent.  We were warned of possible encounters with wildlife in the camp.  To insure our safety, a couple Maasai Warriors escorted us to and from our tent after dark.

The flat topped acacia forest where our camp was located.
After a magnificent dinner we all went to bed.  We all had been showering in the evening but we were all put off a bit about the showers in our tents.  We had to request that water be delivered and the hot water would be limited.  We all ended up not showering this night.  It turned out to be a silly thing really.

June 23rd

We woke up the next day to the sound of water pitter patting on the outside of the tent.  It sounded like the rain was coming down pretty hard.  I looked at the Wife and groaned.  We'd been lucky with the weather up to this point.  It was obviously cold in our tent and it was pouring outside.  I was not looking forward to a cold rainy safari drive.

Our first mature male lion.
We got up and dressed and unzipped the tent.  Outside were a Maasai Warrior and an attendant with umbrellas.  As we walked to the main tent I realized that the ground really wasn't that wet.  I looked around as we walked along the trail and realized it really wasn't raining at all.  There was a low cloud/fog hanging over the caldera this morning.  Water was condensing on the acacia tree leaves above us and the water/dew was dripping on the tent.  After realizing this our moods lightened up.

Cape buffalo.
We had a great breakfast with the weird white eggs (the scrambled eggs looked like scrabbled egg whites but they were made with the whole egg) we got back into our jeep and drove down into the caldera.  We were still short a leopard sighting so we kept our eyes open.

A spooked zebra jumps.
All the guides/drivers had radios in their jeeps.  They were constantly sharing information about what they had seen and where different animals could be found.  We saw lions, cape buffalo, flamingos, secretary birds, zebra, and hippopotamus.  We saw a black rhinoceros but it was so far away ... my pictures could either be a rhinoceros or Sasquatch.  We also saw a leopard ... our first ... but it was in tall grass and the pictures I took really didn't show anything except the top of its back.  We spent all day in the caldera and ate a picnic lunch in the light drizzle next to a large pond with hippopotamus wallowing around.

A black rhinoceros ... or a Sasquatch ... not sure.
That night we enjoyed more bush TV (the fire pit) and had a delicious dinner.  We asked to meet the chef and we were taken back to the kitchen tent.  The entire dinner (there were about twelve staying at the camp) was cooked on a five burner stove and an oven.  All the food was fresh or frozen in one of two large freezer chests.  We were amazed that so many servings could be made and sent out together from such a limited kitchen.  We thanked the chef who seemed truly happy to see us - I don't think many people ask to see him or thank him.

Hippopotamus sticking their noses out
After dinner we all gave in and took a shower.  The shower, which we would come to call the "talking shower" went like this.  You made an appointment for a shower.  When you entered the bathroom area of the tent you would hear the talking shower ask "Are you ready for your shower?"  "Yes" we said, and he would respond "It will be ready in a minute."  You would hear the attendant lower the large canvas bag, empty the cold water and fill it with hot water, then raise the bag back up after which he would say "Your shower is ready."  The shower had a pull chain to turn the water on and off.  I was pleasantly surprised how long the shower lasted.  After the water ran out you would hear the talking shower ask "Are you ready for the next bucket?"  He would refill the bucket and the other would shower.  After the second shower was done the talking shower would ask if we were done and would wish us a good night.

Tomorrow we would visit a Maasai village and move on to the Serengeti.

Pictures of the Ngorongoro Caldera, the flowers and trees in our camp, and the wildlife encountered can be found in my 2014-06 Tanzania Google Photos album.