Thursday, November 24, 2011

Bush Pilots and Cell Phones over the Zambezi River

Flight over Zambia 

Linkuvasha Bush Airstrip
Zambezi River Paradise

It is June 27th as I write this entry, sitting at the edge of the Zambezi River in the remote luxury of Ruckomechi Camp.  This segment of our adventure began yesterday when after breakfast at Davidson Camp, we were transported an hour to the remote airstrip, Linkuvasha, for our flight here.

The morning’s temperature is 1 degree centigrade as we huddle around the fire circle, holding tin mugs of hot coffee, warming our extremities and waiting to depart Davison Camp. At 8:00 A.M. bundled warmly, we bump along the rutted dirt road to catch our plane. Upon arriving, Brian our guide races our vehicle along the grassy airstrip to clear the runway of a flock of ground hornbills in preparation for the incoming plane. We wait patiently, soaking in the morning sun and enjoying the solitude when our vehicle’s radio sputters to life.  Our plane has been delayed an hour, so in the interim, we hop back into the vehicle and Brian takes us on a short game drive.  Returning to the Linkuvasha airstrip we watch as a small silvery speck in the sky takes the shape of a tiny bush plane and lands on the grassy runway.  After brief farewells, we climb onboard the 4 seated air plane and are immediately bumping along the runway for takeoff.  We are the only passengers and we catch our breath as the small plane lifts off, shudders, banks, and stabilizes. The teak and acacia forest below becomes a melody of fall colors and as we gain altitude, I see the curly grey smoke from many forest fires clouding the horizon.  The landscape soon changes from sparse forest to a patchwork of monochromatic farm land and I am lulled by its monotony.  Initially, our pilot busies himself with control dials and radio, and I am beginning to relax until I realize that he has begun texting on his Nokia cell phone and is paying little attention to our flight path.  An hour and a half later, we land safely at the tiny airport of Kariba to refuel.  John and I enter the bleak terminal to use the facilities and John gazes longingly through the closed grill of the snack stand at several ancient and certainly stale packages of cookies.  The second leg of the trip takes just 30 minutes and the flight is spectacular. The ground below is sculpted by canyons and dry curving river beds and when we reach the Zambia River we fly low along the river, a maze of islands, lagoons and marshlands, studded with pods of hippos. 
Zambezi River Hippos

We touch down on another barren airstrip and are met by Champion, who offloads our baggage into a Wilderness Safari land cruiser to drive us to Camp.  He takes the scenic route and we are delayed by the Ruckomechi version of a traffic jam; two female elephants with their babies, foraging contentedly in the middle of the road.  We are delighted to wait and watch until they move off road to forage elsewhere. 

The camp is situated along the banks of the Zambezi River and when we pull in we are met by JuJu and Carl who hand us cool wet towels to wipe the dust from our faces and hands.  We have missed the official lunch but two places are set in the open dining area, at the far end of a long plank table and we enjoy a late lunch of cold cuts, salads and fresh fruit. The staff hovers over us, attending to our every need but mostly, I just wish to marvel and the hundreds of hippos, inhale the river view,  and refuel in peace.  After lunch we are briefed on the safety regulation and escorted to our room.  There are 10 tented rooms, 5 fanning out from either side of the center dining and lounge area. Ours is number 4 and we are escorted along a long raised boardwalk skirting the other bungalows to our palatial tent, overlooking a river clogged with hippopotamus.  Our screened and curtained bungalow is 15 feet by 35 feet across; the bedroom and bathroom partitioned by an iron meshed wall, filled with river pebbles. I give John the first shower and begin to settle in when I hear brush crackling and look up to see an elephant walking just a few feet from the screened side of our cabin; it turns and crosses along the front of our tent.  John exclaims his amazement from the shower, feeling perhaps a little more vulnerable than I do, in his state of nakedness. 

Kevin will be our guide for the duration of our stay here and we depart for our afternoon and evening game drive at 3:30 P.M.  Each open safari vehicle has three rows of tiered seats so that all guests have good visibility. Silvie and Frederick, French newly-weds are with us this afternoon. They are in their 40’s, delightful and funny; his English is perfect and hers is considerably better than my French. We spot the usual suspects; impala, water buck, eland, wart hogs, baboons and countless birds. 
Curious Impala 

Cape Buffalo

We have sightings of Cape buffalo from afar and enjoy “sundowners” at the edge of the Zambezi River. I surmise that the psychology of these safari camps is to keep the guests happy and warm, by moderately medicating us, even if the white Rhino remain elusive. We are well layered for warmth, but when night falls we wrap ourselves in the provided blankets, top it all with fleece lined canvas ponchos and are still chilled. Kevin is a patient and excellent guide and drives slowly, scanning the base of the tree line with an infra-red spot light. When we see a pair, or pairs of eyes shining back at us, he stops the vehicle and motions us to be quiet and perfectly still. He has perfected the sound of a wounded rodent and for minutes on end repeats this chirpy-squeal until a pair of eyes begins to move closer to investigate. A small spotted genet, a feliform and somewhat related to cats, moves warily towards the vehicle, obviously hoping to catch an easy dinner. Although it comes quite close to the vehicle, it is hard to see clearly, illuminated by the eerie red light. Tonight, the forest is full of eyes and we soon see an African civet, a much larger, spotted animal, crouching under a shelter of branches and at first, I mistake it for a leopard. Civets, genets and mongoose are all related and part of the viverridae family. Prior to tonight, I have never heard of a civet or genet and it is exciting to meet these nocturnal creatures for the first time.
Sunset over the Zamezi River
We get back to the camp at 7:30 P.M. to find that an extended family of 10, from Utah, have arrived during the afternoon. John and I dine with the family, at the end of the long table; they are friendly, but very autonomous, and we don’t find much common ground.  Silvie and Frederick have arranged for a romantic dinner for two and their table is set above on a rise, shining with candlelight and overlooking the Zambezi River.  

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Walking Safari

Examining a Termite Mound

Davison Camp Walking Safari.

Alan and Annette are departing this morning and Brian will drive them back to the park entrance, 2 ½ hours away. Our guides today are Charles and Honest and we are going on a walking safari in the company of Mary, Tom and Michael. Both guides are carrying rifles with Charles in the lead and Honest bringing up the rear.  It is warmer this morning and we follow single file behind Charles, stopping frequently to examine footprints, termite mounds and animal dung. We approach a herd of Cape buffalo grazing in the distance, a lone bull standing off to the side. Apparently, Cape buffalo are quite aggressive and both guides are cautious.  We get within a hundred meters of the herd when Charles motions for us to get down and gather closely around him.  The intent is to look like a single large unit, not individuals. With nothing to stabilize my zoom, I take many blurry photos until instructed to lead a slow retreat to behind a distant termite mound. Returning to the vehicle, we head back to camp, stopping to watch a jackal and families of wart hogs along side of the road. 
Walking Safari
Lion Footprint

John and Michael
International Friends
John is good at making friends and during the afternoons rest period, he instigates a game of cards in the open air lounge area, including Michael, the two girls and Claire's younger brother.
Cape Buffalo
Sundowners at Hawange National Park

17 year old Jade abandons her family and sits between John and me during our afternoon game drive. We are fortunate to see many giraffe as we follow the edge of the trees along side a large open plain. As 5:00 P.M. approaches, we drive out onto the plain to enjoy our late afternoon sundowners, gazing at herds of grazing wildebeests and families of giraffes browsing on the trees at the edge of the forest.
Wildebeests-Hawange National Park
Giraffe in motion
Three Giraffes at Hawange National Park

Lions and Ray Bans

Cecil the Lion on his morning patrol

Davidson Camp Safari

We are awakened at 6:30 by a soft “good morning” and a gentle tap on the canvas of our tent. We dress quickly, walk to the open lounge and breakfast area and are soon holding cups of hot coffee and standing close to the large fire, warming our extremities. We focus our binoculars, in the pale morning light and see ostrich, wildebeests and Chacma Baboons drinking at the watering hole, 100 meters away.  Breakfast is an array of cold and hot cereals, toast, muffins and exotic fresh fruit salad and yogurt. By 7:00 A.M. we are sitting in land cruiser with our guide Brian, setting out for the morning game drive. 

Cecil the Lion
The safari vehicles are designed with three graduated tiered rows of seats so we all have unobstructed views. The sides of the vehicle are open, and study roll bars support a canvas roof to shield us from the sun. The morning is cold and biting and we bundle ourselves in the provided wool blankets and canvas ponchos. Our first sighting is a male lion, nonchalantly patrolling the road in front of us and not the least disturbed by our presence. The sun is directly in front, making photography challenging, but I take many backlit photos. The lion is nonplused by our presence and we follow him until he veers into the “ambush grass,” wanders 20 meters away, and lies down to bask in the morning sun. John focus’s his binoculars, leans out of the vehicle slightly, and drops his Ray Ban sunglasses in the dirt below. Brian is less than pleased, since retrieving the glasses with a male lion just 20 meters off is not a healthy practice. He curses softly, drives forward and then backs up, maneuvering the vehicle off the tracks of the road, and positioning it between Cecil the Lion and the fallen Ray Ban’s. With considerable drama, instructing us to keep a close eye on Cecil, Brian slips out of the vehicle and retrieves the sunglasses.  John feels badly about his blunder and is rather subdued for the next hour, until later in the morning, I lean out and my sunglasses fall in the tracks of the road. 

Monkey Business
Tail Gate Morning Tea

Three Elephants
Sable at Watering Hole
We will grow accustom to the camp schedule of an early morning game drive, returning for a late and elaborate brunch around 11:30 A.M; resting until 3:00 P.M. when tea is served and heading out on an afternoon game drive at 3:30 P.M.

On this afternoons safari, we see herds of wildebeests, impala and smaller groups of kudu and eland. I am surprised by the many varieties of antelope and we spot the lone dik dik, steenbok, common waterbuck and Cape buffalo.  Shortly after 5:00 P.M. Brian drives the vehicle out onto a vast open grassy plain with a watering hole in the distance. We all climb out of the vehicle and watch a breeding herd of elephant at the watering hole beyond. Brian sets up a small table in the dusty tracks beside the land cruiser and proceeds to arrange the bar, for our late afternoon, “sundowners.”  We are here for a magical 30 minutes, watching the elephants also drink in the slanted, golden afternoon sunlight until the sun dips behind the trees.   
Elephants at watering hole at sunset
Marty and John - Sunset Hawange National Park
We return to camp after dark and discover that three other families have arrived at Davison camp.  Mary, Tom and their 21 year old son, Michael from the U.S.A;  an extended family from Victoria Falls with a pretty 17 year old daughter, Jade and a family of 4 relocating from Brazil to the U.S.A. They are French and have a pretty 15 year old daughter, Claire.  Things are looking up for John and our evening meal is quite a party with the varied energy of our mixed families. Including our host and hostess and the several guides, over 20 of us share dinner and stories afterwards, as we stand around the fire sipping wine and other libations.  
View of the tent cabins from the dining area
John in front of our luxury tent cabin

Monday, August 08, 2011

Firearm Check-In and Elephant Welcome

Our Safari Begins.
June 24, 2011. Isaac picks us up at the Sowetto Backpackers Inn promptly at 6:00 A.M. to drive us to the Joburg airport.  Yesterday he told us that we must leave by 6:00 A.M. or risk hitting traffic that will take us twice as long.  We arrive at 7:30 A.M; 3 ½ hours before our flight to Victoria. After checking our bags and getting our boarding passes we find an airport café for breakfast. Refueled, we head towards the security check and along the way John is amused to see a large official entrance way with an illuminated sign designating “Firearm Check-in.” 
Fire Arm Check In

South African Airlines

Victoria Falls Airport

Our flight to Victoria boards at 10:15 A.M. and we dutifully line up at gate 20A, hand over our boarding passes and board a bus that takes us out onto the tarmac where our plane waits. The bus regurgitates its load of passengers and we swarm up a rolling double wide metal stair case, show the stewardess our boarding stubs and enter the plane single file. A passenger ahead, finds someone in her seat and calls back to the stewardess to ask if this is the plane to Victoria? It is not.  Our entire bus load has been delivered to the wrong plane.  There are a few moments of pandemonium as all of us process this information and push back down the rolling metal staircase.  We board another bus and are eventually deposited at the correct plane.  The two hour plane flight to Victoria is otherwise uneventful and passes quickly. Upon arrival, John and I need double entry visas to enter Zimbabwe, which proves to be to our advantage time wise, since the line for these is much shorter than the single entry visas.  We pay our $45 each and are quickly through immigration and met by a Wilderness Safari guide for our drive to Davidson Camp.  We are escorted to a 12 passenger mini-van for the first 3 ½ hour, leg of the journey.  We travel a steady, 100 kilometers an hour along a two lane highway passing small family compounds of round mud brick houses with reed and thatched roofs. Our driver tells us that the soil on these farms is not good and that this land was recently taken away from the white farmers and given back to the local people. (If I understand correctly, this upheaval happened 6 or 7 years ago.) It is late afternoon and many children are walking along the side of the roadway, returning from school and wearing either red or blue school uniforms.  Our driver tells us that most children walk 10 kilometers each day to attend school and that the schools are expensive, costing upwards of $50 each month.  He has two children of his own and tells us that it is difficult and expensive to send them to school. 
We are stopped at several checkpoints and our driver’s credentials are checked and a toll paid.  We learn that mining is a major industry and see coal mines in the distance and flat-topped slag mountains, and when we come to a major town our diver takes the scenic loop. He tells us that this city has 150,000 inhabitants but I do not see a city, only a small town with a bank, several tiny markets but there are nearly 20 churches of various Christian denominations side by side on a stretch of the road leading into the town.
Arriving at Davison Camp – Linkwasha Concession, Hwange, Zimbabwe. June 24-27, 2011.  We finally arrive at the main entrance to park, use the simple facilities and switch vehicles. The excitement in John’s eyes is catching and we climb into an open sided Land cruiser and begin our safari.  Bully is our driver and Dixon rides shotgun….literally.  It is after 4:30 P.M. and the drive to the camp will be another 2.5 hours along dirt roads. Although we are in the national park the Davidson camp is in its own concession. The temperature is dipping rapidly and the wind chill in our open vehicle is biting.  We bundle up and wrap ourselves in the provided blankets. Much of the drive is on a hard packed road paralleling the railroad tracks, the demarcation between park and public land. We spot a variety of antelope, mostly impalas, families of wart hogs, giraffes and zebras in the distance. As interesting as all this is, we are cold and very hungry and anxious to arrive at camp. Some 30 minutes from Davison, a family of elephants is blocking the road. We forget our physical discomforts and watch this group for some time. Our vehicle is about 30 feet away and the elephants are keenly aware of us and the bull elephant flaps his ears, sways, snorts and takes several warning steps in our direction. The group soon turns their attention back to foraging the trees lining the road and 20 minutes later, they wander off, allowing us to pass, but this close encounter of the elephant kind is the perfect start to our Zimbabwe adventure.  
Road to Hawange National Park

Elephant Welcome

We pull into Davison camp after dark; Andre and Flores welcome us, assist me down from the land rover, and hand us each a hot wet towel to wipe the grime from our faces.  A large, welcoming, fire is burning in front of the open air dining-lounge area and there is a lighted watering hole beyond.  We drink a small welcoming “sherry” as we fill out indemnity forms and passport information. Andres walks us along a dirt pathway to tent cabin number 4. The semi-permanent tent is erected on a wood platform with support corner beams; it is spacious, with meshed siding on three sides and canvas siding that rolls down for privacy.  The en-suite bathroom is a single step up behind the bedroom area, but they have confused our reservations and assigned us a double bed, decorated with leaves and branches, arranged in the shape of a heart. Our luggage will be moved to another tent during dinner, but we are given a few minutes to clean up here and now. One of the safety rules is that guests may not walk alone between the tents and the lounge areas at night, so I request that an armed guide return in 20 minutes to escort us back to the central area. Dinner is served at 8:00 P.M, after Alan and Annette, a couple my age, return from their game drive with their guide Brian. Not surprisingly, they are from California and we enjoy an excellent dinner with them and our host and hostess, the camp managers.  The nighttime temperature has dropped to below 1 degree centigrade and after dinner, we stand close to the fire, storing up heat before taking the escorted walk back to our unheated tent cabin. We did not expect that it would be so cold in Africa and we have been wearing our long underwear continually, so we take off our outer wear and slip quickly under the covers.  John lets out a joyful exclamation when his feet discover a hot water bottle tucked between the sheets.  We both giggle with pleasure, hugging our new best friend and drift off into a cozy sleep.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Arrival in South Africa

Forty Hours en route to South Africa - Lift off on June 21, 2011.

Just two days ago, Alisha, John and I were packing up my jewelry booth at the Vallejo Pirate’s Festival after a successful and spirited show.

Marty, John and Alisha at the Pirate Festival
John and I now sit in the Chicago O’Hare airport, waiting for our plane to London to depart. Our final destination, 30 hours from now is Johannesburg, South Africa.

I spend Monday in a flurry, working in my office and pass the Marty Magic baton to my husband Art and my assistant, Kat. John and I are mostly packed, but there are many last minute details to handle and we don’t pull out of our driveway until 8:30 P.M. several hours later than planned.
Art chauffeurs us to the S.F. airport and we sleep a few hours at the Holiday Inn before catching our 5:00 A.M. hotel shuttle to the airport. Our United Airline check- in and flight is easy and we doze most of the way to Chicago, but the 4 hour lay-over in Chicago is painful. The news report on the overhead television announces that Michelle Obama and her daughters are visiting South Africa this week, so we will be in good company.
We board our Chicago to London flight at 7:10 P.M. on Tuesday and after eating a tasteless, British Airway dinner, try to sleep. I manage an uncomfortable 4 hours, but John, his long body contorted awkwardly in the cramped economy seat, sleeps little.

London Tube - Mind The Gap!
John and the London Parliment Skyline 
It is Wednesday, June 22nd and we arrive in London at 6:55 A.M, are quickly through immigration and on our way into London via the Underground. Both John and I are running on adrenaline and we easily navigate the “Tube” with just one line change, towards Westminster. An automated voice, announces each station, reminding passengers to “mind the gap.” An hour later, we arrive at Westminster station, feed our tickets into the exit turn style and climb the stairs up to street level.

The spire-studded skyline of Big Ben, the parliament, and Westminster Abby welcomes us. It is a familiar sight for me, but John is duly impressed and excited to be in London, if ever so briefly. The morning is cold and gray and we cross the Thames River via the Westminster Bridge to get another view of the impressive, Westminster skyline. The London Eye, a huge Ferris wheel, offering stunning views of London on a clear day, dominates the opposite bank and we drop down along its river front promenade in search of hot coffee and breakfast, but most of the eateries and shops along this touristy stretch of river are not yet open. We cross back over the Thames via the Hungerford Bridge, walking towards Trafalgar Square and choose Garfunkel’s restaurant for breakfast. The hot and frothy cappuccinos are excellent, but the two for one English breakfast leave much to be desired. The eggs are undercooked and gelatinous, the sausage odd and the fried tomatoes slimy and cold. Leaving the restaurant, we skirt around Trafalgar Square, popping into St. Martin-in-the-Fields Cathedral. Too late, I realize that it is the Crypt Café, below the church, where my friend Alison, recommended that we eat. We cut through the Victoria Embankment Gardens, turn away from the river and within a few blocks arrive at the covered, Covent Garden market. We spend an hour wandering these shops and open air craft market and then walk towards Neal Street. John finds a skate shop of interest to him, and a few other trendy men’s boutiques. We convert pounds to dollars and are shocked by how expensive everything is. One of my favorite shops in the area is Neal’s Yard Remedies, a skin care and aromatherapy boutique. Years ago, my friend, Alison, told me about this shop and whenever I am in London, I make a point of visiting this unpretentious, natural remedy boutique. John entertains himself sniffing and testing the many samples and comments on the wonderful scents. It’s been 5 years since I have been to London and I hope that the designer jewelry shop, the Crazy Pig, is still in business. We find the shop straight away and spend 20 minutes inside, looking at the outrageous skull, alien and animal jewelry. It is a small boutique and John and I look rather road weary, but no one greets us or asks if we need help and we are the only customers and obviously very interested. Strange, and not the Marty Magic way of conducting business.
The London Eye

Courtyard of Westminster Abby

We navigate back towards Westminster, walking mostly along the Thames. It’s the height of the season and tour buses are nose to tail, parked along the street, many regurgitating hoards of young back packers onto afternoon barge tours along the Thames. Double –Decker buses are taking other tourists on city tours and for John’s sake, I wished we had time for an overall city tour, but Westminster Abby is our destination. It is starting to drizzle when we arrive at the Abby and there is a very long line waiting for entry, but also a shorter line for cash only. Happily, I ordered pounds in advance from my bank back home and within a few we are inside this cathedral. (Thanks again to Alison, John has brought his student I.D. and the entrance fee for him is 7 pounds as opposed to 18 pounds.) We collect head sets, included in the entrance fee, and dutifully push each corresponding button and make our way slowly through this remarkable cathedral. John is fascinated with the many tombs and the “trippy” gothic architecture. We are in no hurry and spend two hours, intermittently sitting to rest and to absorb the magic of the place.

When we exit it is raining hard, so instead of exploring further, we dash towards the entrance of the Underground and buy our return tickets to Heathrow. An hour later, we are at international terminal 5, with another 3 ½ hours to wait before our departure to Johannesburg. The time difference and our lack of sleep is catching up with us and we want only to board the plane and sleep; but our gate will not be announced for several hours and I am afraid that if we sit we may fall asleep and miss our plane. We eat an overpriced airport dinner and wander in a daze, the maze of glitzy airport shops. I am stupid with exhaustion and check and recheck the departure board. I have in my mind that our flight leaves at 19:10, but when our departure gate is finally posted, I pull out the boarding passes and see that the flight is at 17:10. I panic, wondering how I could have been so stupid and rush to a British Airway counter. My blood pressure soars but the calm woman behind the counter points out that the boarding passes I am holding are earlier ones, for our flight between Chicago and London. We have not missed our flight after all. Earlier today, I mentioned to John how strange it was that three of our departure flights were at 10 minutes passed the hour and two of the arrival times were 5 minutes before the hour. We finally board and with the aid of a sleeping pill each, both John and I sleep most of the way to Jo’berg.

June 23, 2011. We pass through immigration easily and are relieved to be reunited with our luggage. When we exit customs, I scan the crowd, looking for someone holding up a sign with our names. Isiac, from the Lebo-Soweto Backpackers Inn is there as promised, holding the expected sign. He is personable and informative as he drives us through the terrible rush hour traffic of Jo’berg, to Soweto. The drive takes 1 ½ hours and he chooses alternate roads to bypass the worst of the traffic. We pass through the industrial outskirts of Jo’berg, buildings painted with graffiti, streets littered with trash. This area of the city reminds me of industrial parts of L.A. and the Tenderloin section in S.F.

John at the Sowetto Backpackers Inn
We finally arrive at the Back Packer Inn, situated on a gently sloping hillside in the heart of Soweto, overlooking a sprawl of industry and humanity. The tiny inn is colorful, simple and sweet; fenced with a private raked gravel garden, several outdoor tables, pool table, dart board and a self service, honor bar with little inside it. Our small room has two lumpy twin beds and a shared bath and all is immaculately clean. Cheerful murals are painted on the bathroom walls and the communal sitting room, equipped with a small T.V. and a single computer. It is now late morning and we are hungry and order breakfast for 45 Rand, about $7.00 each. One of the female staff busies herself in the kitchen, cooking up an uninspired, but much appreciated breakfast. It’s been two days since we have been able to shower so we gather up soap, shampoo and clean clothes and walk down the hall to respective bathrooms to clean up. I lie down and try to nap because in less than two hours, we will take a 4 hour bicycle tour of Soweto.

Marty riding through Sowetto

I choose this inn because the bicycle tour runs from here at 1:00 P.M. 3 young student doctors arrive 10 minutes late, having been caught in traffic. They are in their late 20’s or early 30’s and are doing an internship at one of the city’s largest hospitals, after which they will take their exams. Two are from England and one from Australia and I am please that John will have their company on this ride. It’s a long and difficult bicycle ride uphill before we arrive at our first stop where locals of all ages are gathered in an open dirt field. There are several broken down cars, small food stalls and a corrugated tin shack.

Sowetto Scene

A few people are tending fires and there is an acrid smell in the air, a combination of burning plastic, urine and beer. We are invited into the corrugated tin house to drink beer. Wooden benches line the walls of the darkened shack and four men and one woman sit with plastic tubs of beer between their feet. The cardboard cartons of Jo’Berg Beer have a warning label; “Don’t drink and walk; you may be hit and killed.” Our guide brings in a covered, round ceramic jug filled with cold home-made beer. After much explanation, he takes a drink from the jar, grunts in approval and passes the jar to John. John takes a couple of sips, sounds the expected approving “aah!” and passes the container to me. I take two swallows of the cold and bitter brew, “aah,” and gratefully pass on the container. This ritual reminds me of drinking chicha the jungles of Ecuador with the indigenous villagers.

Sowetto Beer Drinking Shack

Sowetto Beer Warning Lable
John drinking home brewed beer
Empty Beer Cartons

Sowetto Bicycling - Marty
Sowetto Graffatti- Marty

With our guide leading our way, we bicycle between a long row of small cement houses.Wide eyed children play in the street and swarm around us, most holding out their hands, wanting to touch ours.We “high 5” everyone as we ride our bicycles and for me it is a challenge to stay balanced with one hand. On several occasions, a child, grabs a fast hold of my hand and offsets my balance. One of the young doctors repeatedly lifts small children into his arms, swings them around and ruffles their hair. He is playful and genuine.
Sowetto Children
Sowetto Todler and Cannabis

Sowetto Interior

Young Sowetto Man

We are invited into one of the tiny homes by a smiling young man in his early 20’s. The house is about 12 feet wide and 20 feet long, consisting of only two rooms.The front room is the kitchen area with a small table, a large jug of water and a few pots and pans. An open archway connects the front room to the back where there is a neatly made up double bed, a single chair and a table with a television. Electricity is available and a young woman sits in the corner chair watching the T.V. A bare light bulb hangs from the ceiling and thin mattress leans up against the bare wall. The young man tells us that he is one of 5 who live here and our guide explains that he is lucky, since many of these homes, house up to 7 people. The residents in this area haul water from a central water spigot behind communal cement out houses. Each toilet is assigned to a designated group of 15; they are given a key and responsible for keeping their facilities clean. John is amused to look down and see a small pot plant growing at the edge of a building. Two small children stand on either side of it, curiously looking up at him and John snaps a photo. We ride through many sections of Soweto, many with less than adequate conditions for the inhabitants and others that look quite middle to upper class.

Sowetto Memorial

Nelson Mandela House

High Five -John in Sowetto
We arrive at the Soweto museum and visit the Soweto monument to the children who were shot down in 1976 when they marched for their rights to a better education. A large spray of white flowers sits at the base of the monument, placed there by Michele Obama just yesterday. I wish that we had been here for the ceremony but we are told that the area was cordoned off; swarming with secret service personal and the bicycle tour did not run.
John WS in Sowetto at dusk.
Young Doctors on the Sowetto Bicycle Tour

We have a late lunch of Kota in a simple local restaurant. The men go around back to use the toilet and wash up under a spigot. I am shown to the inside bathroom with indoor plumbing and pretty lace curtains. We eat the traditional Kota a front gravel garden. It consists of a 2 ½” thick slice of white bread, the center torn out and stuffed full of French fries, salami, ham and a fried egg. The center piece of bread is used to sandwich it all together. As hungry as I am, I can only eat half of it.

After lunch we bicycle to the Nelson Mandela house, a modest, contemporary, single level house, now a historical land mark. A few other tourists are taking photos of the exterior and a handful of local teen age boys are hanging out. They gather around us, interested in John and the young doctors. The afternoon light is slanted and golden and I wish to take many photos, but bicycling and photography don’t mix well. We return to our back-packers inn shortly after 5:00 P.M. John watches an hour of television and I send my first e-mail home. After two nights sleeping on the plane, a full day in London and a 4 hour bicycle tour in Soweto we go to bed at 7:00 P.M; exhausted.