Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Trip Journal Dec. 12

Today, we decided to splurge and go to the Elephant Nature Park, an elephant camp that is more than twice as expensive as all the others, but rehabilitates wounded animals and treats all their elephants humanely. It's run by a Thai woman nicknamed Lek who is trying to use it to revoloutionize the elephant tourism industry.

We learned Lek's story partly from the camp guide, an Australian, and partly from a National Geographic documentary we watched there. Lek grew up in a hill tribe village alongside an elephant that someone had given her shaman grandfather in return for a healing. She developed a love for the animals, and was heartbroken whenever she saw them abused. When she made enough money, she began to purchase old, sick, and wounded elephants from the tourist camps, the street, and people's backyards, and recruited volunteers to help care for them. She spoke out about the abuses these elephants had suffered, and while the international media listened, locals resented the negative publicity and attempted to discredit her.

In 2002, Lek made a documentary with National Geographic that exposed the phajaan, the traditional way of "breaking the spirit" of an elephant so it can be trained. The animals are put in cages barely big enough for their bodies, and beaten, burned, poked with rusty nails, and starved for a period of 3-10 days until they no longer fight back. The government prohibited the documentary from airing in Thailand, but locals still got wind of it, and the tourist camps just down the road pooled money to have Lek killed for it. She went into hiding, so instead they killed her favorite orphan elephant, one she had nursed since it was only three days old.

Instead of giving up, Lek grew her camp, turning it into a positive example of elephant tourism with no abuse to the animals. The tourist experience there includes feeding, walking with, and bathing with the elephants, but none of the overwork, confinement, malnourishment, abusive training with hooks, or lack of medical care that working elephants often endure.

Our guide gave detailed explanations of the personality and history of each elephant in the camp. One older female elephant acts as eyes for a friend of hers who was blinded slingshot and an arrow. The blind elephant follows her buddy so closely, she sometimes bumps into her rear end. And without fail, whenever the blind one trumpets, her friend comes running.

Each baby elephant has an auntie who acts as a second mother. When a new baby arrives, the female elephants excitedly bicker over this privelege. There is an old ladies' club, a naughty little boy, a prude (who runs or crosses her back legs when the males come by), a harlot, and a lothario. Every one has a personality and an interesting story, but with 25 of them, it's hard to summarize.

On the way to the camp, we stopped at a market to buy two tons (yes, literally) of cucumber, watermelon, banana, and pineapple, and our first interactive activity was to feed the elephants. The babies had to have their watermelon and bananas peeled, and had much less dextrous trunks, so sometimes we put the food directly into their mouths. Sometimes they got frustrated and tried to siphon chewed food out of their mothers' mouths too. The big elephants aggressively sniffed around for food, and were capable of chewing one whole watermelon while holding another on deck in their trunks. The watermelons quickly disappeared in a flurry of crunching noises.

Our next activity was the highlight - a bath. We waded into the river Ping with the elephants, splashed them with buckets, and scrubbed them with rough brushes while their mahouts often balanced on their backs. We were told to wait for elephants to sit down so they wouldn't step on us, but we found some a little reluctant. One baby head-butted us when we held out our scrub brushes toward him. He also stepped on David's foot and gave me a little kick, but seemed aware of our fragility and was extremely gentle. We gave another elephant's rear end a good wash as his mahout took a bath upstream, and watched another mahout balance atop his elephant while the elephant rolled underwater, trying to throw him. It was great fun.

We took the elephants for an afternoon walk, intermittently scratching the babies behind the ears. Then we were in for the sobering part of the day, a candid description of the abuses that many working elephants chronically endure. Some get abscesses on their backs from the bench seats. Babies can have heart attacks from the exertion of trying to walk behind their working mothers. Pregnant elephants miscarry while working. Most are underweight because feeding them is so costly, and most owners aren't willing to pay for veterinary care. In the tourist shows, the elephants are cowed into obeying by the threat of a beating, and many bear obvious scars from elephant hooks, especially on their foreheads and sensitive ears. And because they are expensive to replace, many are forced to continue working, even with broken bones and other serious injuries, until they can no longer walk, at which point they're sold or abandoned. Some exhausted elephants are fed methamphetamines so they can work yet longer. Our guide told us that the camp we visited yesterday would be shut down if there was any government oversight at all.

The Thai government still refuses to give the Elephant Nature Park non-profit status, and is afraid of ruining the cash cow of the huge tourist camps with regulation. But thanks to increasing international exposure, the tide is slowly turning, and Lek is hopeful that the king may suggest some measures to protect the species.

We ended our day at the Elephant Nature Park with another elephant bath, and some more play with the baby elephants as they were bedded down. I played tug-of-war with one's trunk and scratched under his chin before he retreated to his mother to have dinner and rest, and we returned to our Chiang Mai hotel.

We feel lucky to have found this place by happening to walk past its booking office. Today had been our favorite day in Thailand by far.

Trip Journal Dec. 11

Today our tour took us to the Mae Tang Elephant Camp, where our activities ran the gamut of elephant tourism. A show included a parade, soccer, basketball, painting, logging, balance beam, music, and dancing demonstrations; we could feed them sugar cane; we rode on an oxcart; we finished by riding on a bench atop an elephant.

Everything in the show was precisely choreographed, down to each brushstroke of the paintings. Both elephants painting produced pictures of trees with four black branches, eight tufts of green leaves, four red flowers, and some green grass. The elephants were better than I am at shooting on goal in soccer, and they even realigned the stack of logs perfectly after one slip. We were awestruck, but had hoped for more of an ad hoc demonstration, to see what music and paintings the elephants chose to make on their own.

Our oxcart ride was painful. A Thai couple sat in front of us, and the man took over the reigns from the driver and hit one of the oxen with a switch until it drew blood. His wife hit him in response, but he thought it was funny and kept doing it. We were glad to get off to spend 5 minutes in the Liso tribe tourist village they dropped us off at.

The elephant ride was a full 45 minutes, and took us on and off-road, up and down scenic jungle hills, and across the river. Our mahout obligingly let me get off the seat and ride on the elephant's neck, and took a couple dozen pictures of us.

After lunch, the camp's final activity was a bamboo raft ride along the river Ping, the same river that runs through Chiang Mai. It was beautiful and tranquil, but garbage in trees as high as 10 feet above the water line hinted at terrible recent flood damage. David got to steer the raft with a bamboo pole for a few minutes, and we were all given traditional conical hats to shield ourselves from the sun.

When our guide picked us up downstream, we drove to a pretty orchid and butterfly farm with a gift shop selling jewelry made from the insects and flowers. And that marked the end of our tour.

Since our tour package was over, we escaped the dingy Night Bazaar Inn and had the van drop us off at the Sheraton, where we got an unbelievably huge (800 square feet?) 21st-floor corner suite for a measly 3,000 StarPoints per night.

We spent the evening on "Sunday Walking Street," a weekend street market where I probably paid too much for my $1 flip flops and a $2 t-shirt, and where we saw two more dance shows. We should start keeping count of these dance shows. We've probably seen a dozen.

Trip Journal Dec. 10

Today's tour was reassuringly better than yesterday's, at least in the morning. Our guide spoke clear English, and there were only three tourists in our van instead of a crowded seven. Our guide was also able to explain that the order of the days in our itinerary had been shifted, and to tell us what to expect both today and tomorrow.

Our first stop as we climbed the mountains outside the city was Doi Suthep temple. 300 stairs (or a funicular) lead to a beautiful temple overlooking Chiang Mai on clear days (but not today). A statue of a white elephant commemmorated the temple's founding. A Buddha relic was strapped to the back of a white elephant in Chiang Mai, and it was allowed to wander as it pleased. Where it dropped dead on this hilltop, the temple was built. The temple had the usual gilded pagodas and Buddha statues, and also featured a band of boys and girls playing classical Thai music. There was also an elephant near the road, chained on a tiny cement block, and eating food tourists bought from its handler to feed it. The elephant was rocking is head back and forth autistically, probably in response to its extreme confinement.

We saw another hill tribe next, the Hmong. The Hmong village was ten times as touristy as the other hill tribes we had seen, with several dozen shops, a tiny museum, and a picture-taking garden. We did the most ridiculous tourist activity of all there, and paid 75 cents to have me dressed up in a Hmong costume and photographed in the garden.

Lunch was a fancy hotel buffet, where we each had at least 5 entrees and 5 desserts. We had to pay extra for the drinks, though, and David pronounced the $1.25 Pepsi "extortionate" given the prices we'd grown accustomed to.

Our final stops showed up in our brochure as "Home Industries." They were horrendously overpriced umbrella, laquerware, silk, and furniture stores, with attached factories demonstrating how the items are handmade. David and I liked a papier mache elephant with a silk saddle, and probably would have paid about $5 for it in an ordinary market. Not so here -- $75. The saleslady showed us a picture of Princess Di shopping there, but it didn't sway us. Anyway, the the factory demonstrations made the visits worthwhile, since we got to see an umbrella emerge from paper and sticks, and part of a teak carving of a jungle scene emerge from only wood and chisel.

When we walked through the night bazaar tonight, we stopped to watch part of a dance competition, where a group of three teenage boys did an amazingly energetic and creative, if a little effeminate, routine that looked part rapper, part Back Street Boys, and part Britney Spears. The judges were incredibly long-winded and not all that complimentary, even though the dancers got approving hoots from some girls in the audience.

Trip Journal Dec. 9

Today, we took a minibus tour to an array of destinations that sort of matched Day 3 on our itinerary. We first visited hot springs that turned out to be two 3-foot-deep ponds about 12 feet across, plus about 2 dozen souvenir shops. We took in all there was to see there in about one minute, finding amusement only in the quail egg salesladies who cooked them in the 90-degree Celsius water. Next we saw a 14th-century temple covered in moss, with a huge stupa containing a buddha relic beside it. Our poor tour guide tried to explain the history of the temple, but despite his extensive English vocabulary, it was nearly impossible to understand him. At one point, he said, "This is a baobab tree. Do you know what kind of tree this is?" and got blank looks from all of us until he repeated himself more carefully.

Next we went to the Golden Triangle, the area where Thailand, Burma, and Laos meet along the Mekong River. It's striking how much tourist development there is in Thailand, and how little on the other banks. We took a longboat ride to Laos, which we found out later we had to pay extra for, and visited a "cultural garden," i.e. gift shop encampment, in Laos, which we also had to pay extra for. (No wonder they weren't on our itinerary.) The boats were outfitted with car engines, which made them like long and skinny speedboats, and David and I made the mistake of taking the front seat on the way over, jolting every time we hit a wave. In the Lao tourist village, we mailed a postcard, did some shopping, and gawked at the bear cub they kept in a tiny cage for the tourists to feed.

Next was the "Top of the North," the northernmost point in Thailand, a border crossing with Burma, and supposedly a great place for shopping for cheap, smuggled Chinese imports and drugs. The disparity of wealth between Thailand and Burma was visible from the scenic overlook we climbed up to.

Our final stop of the day was a set of three hill tribe villages -- Akha, "big ears," and Karen Padong, or "long neck" people. They were very tourist-oriented, with shop after shop of identical handicrafts. Only some of the shopkeepers wore traditional costume, elaborately colored and woven dresses and hats or hair ribbons with silver bangles all over.

The old ways are unpopular with the young generation. Girls in the "big ear" tribe are taught that they won't go to heaven if they don't wear increasingly large piercings. The "long neck" girls are told that no one will marry them if they don't do it. (Originally, they were told that tigers would bite them if their necks weren't protected, but that story no longer flies.) And since they are not allowed to go to school with the boys, they have little visibility into the outside world despite the constant stream of tourists. Both customs seem painful, and only apply to women. A long neck woman's brass rings weigh about 5 kg, and eventually their weight depresses the rib cage so much that the neck appears longer.

Still, kids are kids, and the Karen girls were playing games, laughing, and running around, all smiles and completely oblivious to the staring tourists.

We left at nightfall for the 3 hour drive back to Chiang Mai. When the guide said goodbye to one couple after dropping them off, it sounded like "te ka ya se," but with our ears better-tuned to his pronunciation, we understood it as "take care of yourselves!"

We visited the night bazaar next to our hotel in search of food, and discovered that December 9-12 is Chiang Mai Mardi Gras, so we watched a parade, a metal band, and a remarkably good Western pop cover band that left me humming a Spice Girls song. The parade had traditional Thai dancing, a marching band, and even a drag queen group. The lowlight was when the queen of the parade, throwing glitter from her crescent moon float, threw up about ten feet past us. But we had no trouble recovering our appetites for dinner.

Trip Journal Dec. 8

We had some misgivings about the 4-day Chiang Mai trip we had booked to begin today. First, it was all-inclusive, except dinner, and cost only $140. Second, our travel agent seemed a little clueless about what we were doing - we had booked a different tour but had to change it at the last minute because our travel agent hadn't understood that we needed to buy tickets for a flight in the middle, and it turned out the flights were full. Third, we had read some terrible things about long-distance buses here, and weren't sure whether we had tickets for the government service instead of a fly-by-night private company.

Our misgivings intensified when our 6:30am pickup took us to a tiny office on an alleyway, where we were asked to wait for an hour and a half. We then boarded a minibus, which took us to our real bus, which we then sat in for a half hour, then took to the bus station, where we waited another hour. The good news was that it did turn out to be the government bus, but our transfer certainly wasn't very efficient.

The ride itself was uneventful. 3 pirated B-movies played on the TV at the front. My favorite featured a sweet country boy who had a pet elephant and happened to be a martial arts master. One day he took his elephant to town, and it was abducted by a gang. The next 90% of the movie was spent on impressive hand-to-had combat. It was all in Thai, but the kind of movie where words don't matter. And, of course, after killing and maiming at least 50 people in the name of his baby elephant, the hero gets him back again.

We were nervous that we'd be abandoned at the bus depot in Chiang Mai when we arrived, but there was a guide there to transfer us to our hotel and give us information on the next three days. The hotel was about what we expected - old and smelly and bare bones, but at least cleaned thoroughly each day.

We went to a fish ball soup place for dinner and both liked it.

Day 1 of the cheap "tour" is hereby complete.

Trip Journal Dec. 7

Internet cafe charges are low enough here that we're getting sucked into logging in more frequently. So we spent the morning in the cafe across the street from the hotel, then embarked on a shopping expedition to the Design District, based on the advice of a newspaper article we had clipped somewhere in South America. The article claimed that the wedding district had evolved into an interior design and art area, but we found mostly wedding stores and overpriced trendy-looking restaurants, and weren't able to find the main mall there despite a few tries. So we had a quick ramen lunch and went to a mall whose existence we could confirm.

The Emporium Fashion Mall has a concentration of Western and Thai clothing and technology stores, with a design museum on top. The design museum's current exhibit focused on design themes of the Isan people, an ethnic minority here. With incredibly fancy props and environmental effects, it displayed some Isan customs and crafts and described the influences of the Isan on Thai society. The most controversial part was the first room, which had backlit head shots of Isan people as floor tiles, and forced people to walk across them. I had read about this in the Bangkok Post - an editorial writer was upset by the directly disrespectful action of putting one's foot on another's head - and I expected to see the text of the exhibit address that somehow, but it did not. Overall, the effects were impressive, but the lack of substance was somewhat disappointing.

We joined a friend's parents for dinner near their apartment, and as we waited at the Skytrain station to meet them at 6, some music played over the loudspeakers, and the rush hour hordes suddenly froze, standing at attention. Even the ticket-buying line stopped moving. A couple of minutes later, the world came to life again. We learned that the freeze-frame is a daily event, and that the accompanying music is the national anthem.

After a nice neighborhood tour, we had a delicious dinner at an Isan restaurant, then headed "home" to bed - we had an early bus to Chiang Mai in the morning.

Trip Journal Dec. 6

Today Elizabeth wanted to see the Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha even if it killed her. Thankfully, our third attempt was successful - they were open and they let us in. The Emerald Buddha has an interesting history. It has been around for 600 years, was taken to Laos for 200, and after its return was covered with stucco and forgotten. But one day they damaged it during a move between temples, and saw the green of its jade peeking through the stucco. They assumed it was made of emerald, and the name stuck.

The Emerald Budda wears different golden outfits for each season, and now that it's the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the cold season, he's wearing both warm clothes and a raincoat, and you can only see his face peeking out. (Thai people apparently do think it's cold now, even though it's still at least 85 degrees and humid.)

The Grand Palace was visible only from the outside, but we were able to walk into a throne hall next to it, and tour the royal regalia museum. We saw plenty of swords, crowns, coins, and medals for each level of several orders, e.g. the Order of the White Elephant, levels 0-7. We also saw a large number of decorative "betel sets," and couldn't discern exactly what their implements were for.

After the Grand Palace, we had pretty good, but very spicy, curry for lunch at an outdoor cafe, for 75 cents each, and then took a river taxi downstream just for fun. Boarding a river taxi involves a small jump onto the boat, since they're moored at each stop for only a minute or so, attached by just one rope, with the engines running in reverse to hold the boat in position.

I made a big faux pas immediately after boarding, by picking out a place to stand next to a group of monks. One of the monks had to point out the "reserved for monks only" sign right above my head. I later learned that the area is reserved so that the monks can segregate themselves from women. Oops.

The ride took us fast Wat Arun, a beautiful temple; fancy hotels and condos; and rotting shacks and overgrown and abandoned teak houses on stilts. And it cost a whopping 30 cents each.

Proud of ourselves to have finally seen the Grand Palace, we called it a day soon after dark.

Trip Journal Dec. 5

Today we made it to Wat Pho and saw the Reclining Buddha, which is so enormous it almost completely fills the hall that it's lying in. The buddha is painted in gold leaf, has 108 scenes of Buddha's life in mother-of-pearl on the soles of his feet, and is much more impressive than the smaller reclining Buddha we had already seen near the Golden Buddha yesterday. Surrounding that pavillion were numerous other halls and stupas, most of which were decorated with gold leaf and colored cut glass that sparkled in the sun. The surrounding hallways had beautiful historical murals too.

We next headed to the Grand Palace next door, but as we walked through the gate, someone blocked our way and said, "Thai people only." Another attempt to visit it was thus foiled.

We saw marching bands and other uniformed groups sitting along the road next to the palace, and although our hotel concierge said there was no parade, we decided to stop and join the masses gathering behind barriers by the curb. It was sweltering, and the crowd grew and grew with no sign of an impending event. After about an hour, uniformed guards in the street stopped traffic and asked everyone to stand up. A motorcade of Mercedes and BMW sedans and two antique limousines whizzed by. We caught glimpses of the passengers, but didn't indentify any as the king. Much to our chagrin, a minute later everyone sat down and started waiting again.

Another hour later, the traffic stopped once more, and the parade finally began. It was very Western and conventional, with high school bands playing Sousa music interspersed with other uniformed groups that just marched. One group near the beginning carried a bunch of large sequined eggs on pedestals and covered by 7-tier umbrellas, which we later learned are an emblem of the king.

The traffic control during the parade was somewhat lacking; different bands went in different directions on the same road at the same time, and one band even got stuck behind a group of cars. But it ended without incident.

After the parade, we walked over to a grassy knoll to watch the coming fireworks. On the way, we had our first risky street food - a noodle stir-fry for David and sugar cane juice for me - and then spent another hour waiting. The fireworks finally began at 7:45, but in the end they weren't the real attraction. The huge, dense crowd was fun to be a part of, and we also liked seeing the crowd light candles and raise them while singing the national and king's anthems.

Getting back to the hotel after all of this was an adventure in itself. The crush of people was so tight that traffic couldn't move at all, and one taxi driver hit David (very gently) in frustration. We walked for about half an hour to reach a quieter spot, and had dinner at a vegetarian place tucked away in an alley and recommended by the Lonely Planet. The atmosphere was somewhat lacking, but food was delicious and cost a total of about $6 for drinks, appetizers, and main courses. Next we started hailing taxis, but found that they all disabled their meters and wanted triple the normal fare. Tired, we ended up paying double, a whopping $4.50 for a ride all the way across town.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Finally, Africa photos are here!

After several hours hard at work in a Bangkok internet cafe, David picked out 95 of our best safari photos and uploaded them to the safari gallery at right.

If you look at one thing in this blog, it should be those photos. Wow.

Trip Journal Dec. 4

We went to an amazing Japanese brunch buffet today. For about $6 each, we had fancy all-you-can eat sushi, sashimi, teppanyaki, oden, salad, fruit, soup, shabu-shabu, about 10 different hot entrees, and myriad desserts. It's a miracle that we managed to stay awake afterwards.

We decided next to take the subway to the riverfront, then take a boat taxi to the main tourist area, the Royal Grand Palace and Wat Pho. As we walked from the subway station to the waterfront, a man accosted us and started making English conversation with us. He told us not to walk through that area because of the mafia(!) and that the temple we were going to closed early today.

This made me suspicious, because it's a standard scam here for someone to divert you to their shop by claiming that the tourist attractions are closed. But as this guy kept talking, he seemed only helpful. He told us that the King's birthday is tomorrow, and that there would be a boat parade and fireworks, a concert, special lights on Chitlada Palace, a special ceremony with 99 monks, a temple that would stay open until midnight, and a palace that would be open only this one day of the year. He also told us we could get a tuk-tuk (a 3-wheeled open-air taxi like an Indian auto-rickshaw) to take us anywhere we wanted to go for $1/hour, no minimum time, and negotiated one for us.

We got in and went to a nearby temple to see the Golden Buddha, then headed north to the palace area. We next went to a factory the guy had recommended, which is open to the public only 7 days a year. We imagined craftsman making things like furniture and fabrics, but when we got there, we realized it was a lapidary factory, very upscale, and certainly not particularly cheap. Then we asked to go to a tourist office, but ended up instead at a tourist-office-accredited travel agency that tried to charge us $1300, no hotels, for a 7-day trip to northern Thailand and Hanoi. Since it wasn't quite late enough to see the lights, we looked for a way to fill the time, and let the driver talk us into going to a tailor so he could get a free liter of oil as his commission. Of course, the tailor's prices were sky-high. At this point, we still had time to kill, so we went to a department store (which had its own kids' dance show) and stopped for coffee. When we came out, a new tuk-tuk was there for us, since our earlier driver's shift had ended. We had a hard time convincing the new driver that we did NOT want to go to a tailor, but to the palace. Finally, he dropped us off in front of a bunch of lights and larger-than-life portraits of the king, and we paid him his $3 before realizing we were near the concert in the park, not the palace. I don't think this driver had our interests in mind, but it's hard to feel like we got gypped when it cost so little.

The trees lining the road we were on were all covered with white lights, the center divider periodically had illuminated portraits of King Rama IX, and, illuminated arches crossed the road. Food vendors (even a fried grasshopper and grub vendor!) lined the sidewalk, and although we weren't quite sure where we were going, we followed the people for a mile or so. We ended up at the concert in the park, where we saw a Red Bull-sponsored kickboxing match, which the guy in blue shorts won by periodically sweeping the other guy off his feet. We then walked past a rock concert and pop dance show before stopping to watch the more old-fashioned song-and-dance number at the far end of the park.

I have yet to understand the dance show phenomenon. They always seem to involve extremely frilly dresses, and all the dancers face forward in identical costume and do the same movements at the same time. There's usually a high-volume karaoke singer front and center, and they usually don't seem perfectly rehearsed. But they were fun diversions anyway.

After walking the length of the park, but seeing no fireworks at the specified time, we were thoroughly confused about the schedule of events. So we turned back down the illuminated avenue toward the palace in hope that it was the venue that was open to the public only today. We moved about as fast as the vehicle traffic, and got near the palace grounds in about an hour, where we stopped to watch another dance concert. This one involved people in traditional costume, but the crowd had been asked to join in, walking in circles around a fake fire, so we didn't see any traditional dances.

We then continued toward the palace, but somehow got lost between the zoo and parliament building (which itself had a great show of white lights). Since we weren't sure anything was happening at the palace anyway, we caught a cab back to the hotel.

For a very late dinner, we picked the Lonely Planet's closest recommended restaurant, oddly named Cabbages and Condoms. It turns out that it's attached to a health care center, which applies all of its profits to AIDS prevention. It had a nice atmosphere with an outdoor garden, and an extensive menu of delicious Thai food served on traditional blue-patterned porcelain emblazoned with the restaurant's name. It made a nice ending to a long, hot, and crowded day.

Trip Journal Dec. 3

This morning, we took the Skytrain to Chatuchak Weekend Market. Even though we had read about it and knew what to expect, we were cowed by its size, and got lost several times despite our map. There is some semblance of organization to the place, but there are multiple locations for each type of store, and everything is crammed tightly together and thronged with people. Inside the narrow aisles, it seemed 10 degrees hotter than the 90-degree outside temperature.

We walked past pet stores with open bins of puppies and gerbils. Oddly, next to one was a bubble drink store that sold its beverages in plastic bags just like those that the betta fish came in. We saw dozens of t-shirt shops with vintage US designs, particularly YMCA and high school mascots. Many artists sold original paintings; buddha shops sold statues from 1 foot to 8 feet tall; trendy designers sold their home furnishings and clothing directly; souvenir shops sold thousands of tiny elephants. In this cheap shopping mecca, we should have found some must-haves, but walked away with just some candles, a t-shirt and pair of Teva knock-offs for $2-3 each.

Dripping with sweat, we sought out air conditioning in the mall-ridden Siam Center area. Most of the main mall was under renovation, so we ducked into the movie theatre across the street and saw Harry Potter 4 in "gold class," a special theater with huge, fully reclining armchairs, pillows, and blankets for everyone. On our way up the escalators to the sixth floor, we passed a kids' dance show, where girls in Santa hats all followed identical steps. There were Christmas trees and decorations everywhere, and there was a general aura of festivity. Outside were two Hindu and Buddhist shrines side by side and covered with fresh yellow flowers. And just down the block were a drum competition and another dance show.

We were about to go to a Thai kickboxing match when we found out how much the foreigners' tickets were ($40 for second class) and how late the fights ran (midnight). Instead we went to an internet cafe to work on this journal and process our photos of Africa.

Trip Journal Dec. 2

After an hour and a half in Hong Kong, we flew another few hours to Bangkok, and we were glad to finally escape the airport. Our room at the Westin is on the 22nd floor overlooking the city, and they gave us a welcome basket of mostly unidentifiable tropical fruit that we had fun sampling.

We then explored the Sukhumvit Road area around the hotel to get our bearings. We liked the cute cards, kitchenware, clocks, and toys for sale at the department store next door, and stopped at the McDonald's on the first floor for a "linner" meal. I had the Samurai Pork Burger, which was smothered in mayonnaise, but still not as tasty as I had hoped. The minimall across the street had an English bookstore, so we bought the Lonely Planet Thailand book.

We then embarked on a long and fruitless search for a laundromat. We found several dry cleaning places that also did laundry, but at per-piece prices that would have added up to $50 US for a load. So we decided to hand-wash. The fruitless search took us along Sukhumvit Road and a number of side streets, and the walk was interesting in itself. There seemed to be at least one street food vendor per city block, selling anything from salad to hot dogs to satay to soup to barbecued squid-on-a-stick. The soup places were some of the most fun to look at, since they piled their tables high with fresh herbs, lime, and bean sprouts for people to mix in. Dozens of street vendors sold clothes, watches, shoes, jewelry, crafts, and household items, too, in portable stalls. $2-3, even without bargaining, could buy a shirt, belt, or pair of sandals.

Trip Journal Dec. 1

We went to the airport early today since there was nothing to do at the hostel, and whiled away a few hours before flying to Hong Kong, then Bangkok. We boarded the plane for our 13-hour flight at 1pm.

Trip Journal Nov. 30

We had coffee and bubble bath this morning from a perch with a fantastic view of the Zambezi gorge. I am quite sure this was the only time I've ever taken a picture while in the bathtub!

We left the camp early this morning to get tours of the Zambia side of Victoria Falls and the local village before leaving for Johannesburg. I was sad to be leaving this idyllic environment, and we took pictures of everything, even the chicken coop, before we left.

The Zambia side of the falls turned out to be almost completely dry. This meant that adventurous tourists could walk off trail along the dry Zambezi bed and even peer over the edge of the falls. But we were on a guided tour that we couldn't escape from, so we just walked the established paths. It was scenic, but not as impressive as the Zimbabwe side, so I'm glad we visited both.

The village tour was much more interesting. A girl from the village named Alice walked us through a family's property and past the village chief's house while explaining everyday life there. As with the earlier village we had seen, the living standard was very low, with no running water or electricity, and mostly simple mud huts. The village chief's hut was ordinary, distinguished only by some paintings on its exterior walls. Alice herself was young and articulate, and apparently well-educated, but clearly hadn't escaped the cycle of poverty.

The judicial system for the village was beautifully simple. Whenever there is a dispute that neither party, nor the local village quadrant's head man can resolve, both parties have to come and sit under a tree by the chief's house. The chief then holds a public hearing, makes a ruling, and doles out a punishment as appropriate. The punishments typically involve community service for one of the seven village projects, among which are water procurement, AIDS prevention, sanitation, medicine, and the souvenir shop. Only after these sentences fail to reform criminals will the chief resort to harsh measures like beatings. There is no village jail.

The story of AIDS was heartbreaking. Alice matter-of-factly explained that the education rate is in rapid decline, because distant relatives, unlike parents, aren't willing to make the sacrifices needed to send orphans to school. We had known that the adult HIV infection rate in Botswana is 38%, but this really made it hit home.

We rushed to the Livingstone airport after the tour and had a boring flight to Johannesburg, where we changed our tickets to fly to Bangkok tomorrow, then took a risk and booked a room at a hostel at the last minute. The room turned out to be fine, but we felt like prisoners there - it was surrounded by an electric fence and security cameras, and although it was within blocks of a big shopping mall, there was no way to get there safely. So we ended the day by eating in and watching a TV movie.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Trip Journal Nov. 29

We left this morning for Songwe Village, a safari camp in Zambia built like a traditional village. On the way there, we stopped at the Livingstone Museum. We had a thorough guided tour, and left perplexed by the level of respect that the local people still have for Livingstone, given that he was just a missionary and explorer, and didn't really "discover" Victoria Falls.

The Songwe Village camp is just past a real village of 1,800 people, and it was interesting to see people in their daily life as we drove the bumpy road. The camp itself was a pleasant oasis of clean, even luxurious, open-air mud huts on the edge of the Zambezi gorge. The stunning view from our bathroom shower and sink (again, open-air - no windows) occasionally included whitewater rafters far below.

We took a Zambezi river cruise in the afternoon, on a boat called The African Queen filled with white senior citizens. We saw an elephant swim from Zambia to Zimbabwe, but otherwise the cruise was uneventful.

The three hosts at Songwe Village are all native Zambians and some of the most geniunely friendly and hospitable people we've met. They made us feel at home, and we're sorry to be spending only one night here.

Trip Journal Nov. 28

We went to the Zimbabwean side of Victoria Falls today, and were awed by it despite the fact that more than half of it was dry. (November is its driest month.) The sudden change in the river's character is what is most striking: above the falls, the Zambezi is wide and relatively placid, and tourists can even bathe in it. But below the falls, it's a series of Class 5 rapids in a narrow gorge. It was hard to take pictures because of the constant misting and the need for a wider angle, but we still took a bunch.

We also walked across the gorge to the Zambia border, just for fun. We had forgotten our passports, but the guards were very casual about letting us come back from no-man's-land anyway. I suppose no one has a reason to sneak into Zimbabwe these days.

We spent the afternoon souvenir shopping, and had trouble shaking a strongly odiferous man who pretended to be guiding us to shops in hope of commissions. Everyone seemed desperate for business, and tried to guilt-trip us into overpaying ("please, I have to eat"). It was not a pleasant experience.

While we appreciate the natural beauty and haven't felt like we were in physical danger here, we'll be glad to leave Zimbabwe.

Trip Journal Nov. 27

We opted for an early morning game drive today before our drive to Victoria Falls, but didn't see anything of note since the animals tend to migrate to the wetter areas as it starts to rain. We had a horrendously complex transfer: the lodge drove us to the Kasane airport, where someone picked us and another couple up, then dropped off the other couple at the Zambia border and us at the Zimbabwe border, then someone else picked us up in Zimbabwe and drove us to the hotel. It was raining, and there were more termites out this time than ever. And the longest part of the transfer was in an open-air safari vehicle. Ugh. The high point of the drive was seeing the other couple's drop-off point, which happened to be the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi rivers and the convergence of Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Our hotel in Victoria Falls, Ilala Lodge, was reminiscent of the colonialist era, complete with decorative guns on the wall and framed pictures of natives captioned "Africans." Our room overlooked a strip of parkland where mongoose and babboons ran by and baby warthogs played. Since the weather was bad, we decided to save the falls for tomorrow, and instead strolled around town, visiting the historic Victoria Falls hotel and checking out souvenir shops. Whenever we were outdoors, we were constantly accosted by people selling carved figurines who didn't take no for an answer. All claimed to be their artists, but mysteriously each man (and all the shops) sold the same stuff. Taxi drivers and black-market money changers also approached us constantly.

We decided not to change any money at all. The current bank exchange rate of Zimbabwe dollars to US dollars is 68,000:1, but the street exchange rate is more like 85,000, and inflation is at 400%. The government refuses to devalue the currency, and the largest bank note is worth less than 2 cents. Instead, everyone uses "bearer cheques" which have expiration dates (sometimes in the past), but the largest bearer cheque denomination is still only about 25 cents, so every local cash transaction involves big stacks of money. Every shop has prices in US dollars or a reprintable price list. We took refuge in The Kingdom, an inappropriately lavish casino hotel across the street that would have fit in on the Las Vegas strip. It was eerily deserted, and we ate at a large restaurant that had only one other table filled.

Feeling unsettled by this whole experience, we went back to the hotel early.

Trip Journal Nov. 26

Around breakfast time, David caught a bunch of babboons playing by the pool, and another bunch frolicking on the porch of the room next to ours, and even jumping on its roof.

We took a "village tour" this morning. We were concerned that it would be touristy, but it was anything but; it was more an introduction to the harsh reality of poverty. Neil took us to a compound of tiny mud huts belonging to a single family: grandparents, their eleven children, and their sixteen grandchildren. Most of the adults and kids were in the fields, planting or herding cows, but there were a couple of people there. Neal showed us around to the communal outdoor kitchen the oven for making mud bricks, the ramshackle sledge for hauling water from the village pump, the outhouse, and the henhouse. The buildings used a few different construction techniques, the most interesting of which was a matrix of beer or soda cans encased in mud. There wasn't much else. The village kids have to walk 6 kilometers one way to school, and Neil explained that Muchenje Lodge helps the village out, and employs the little boy's mother. Apparently they don't pay well.

After the tour, we took an all-day game drive on the other side of Chobe National Parks, where the rains had already brought leaves back to the trees. Again, we didn't see much big game on land, but we did see ground hornbills, wild dogs, steenbok, army ants, white-headed vultures, and dung beetles. The dung beetles industriously rolled their dung piles along while running backwards, and were a big source of amusement.

The midday portion of the all-day game drive was a boat ride on the Chobe river. This was where we finally got to see what we came for: herds of elephants. We saw two, of about 20 mothers and babies each, come down to drink and play in the water. They stayed for about fifteen minutes, then marched away in an orderly manner as soon as their matriarchs decided it was time to go.

We also saw several crocodies, including one that was 11 feet long and 3 feet wide. About twenty hippos grazed on the banks, with some baby warthogs near them. And the area had different birds from the Okavango, too: African fish eagle, jacana, hammerkop, and blue-cheeked bee eaters.

We were satisfied when we headed back into the jeep, but saw even more on the way back to the lodge: water monitor lizards, hundreds of buffalo, kudu, a kori bustard (the heaviest flying bird), an Egyptian cobra, slender mongoose and a tawny eagle. We also watched a banded mongoose kill and eat a mouse. The mongoose had some trouble biting into the mouse, and stretched its body to about twice its natural length before a piece tore off. Eventually he gave up and stuffed the whole thing in his mouth, leaving the tail hanging out as he chewed. Another couple in the jeep congratulated Neil on showing us "our first kill." To top things off, as we headed toward the park exit, a small herd of giraffes crossed the road in front of us.

We had seen so much that our guide had to hurry to make it to the park gate before closing time. Unfortunately, it had started to drizzle again, and this meant that we were constantly pelted with termites at high speed. The guide himself was protected by a windshield, but our seats were exposed for better game viewing. I hid my entire body in my poncho for a while, then peeked out for a second, and immediately hot hit in the eye. David counted 22 splats on his forehead, and the seats of the jeep were littered with bodies and wings. Eew. We were glad for our lodge shower when we got back.

Trip Journal Nov. 25

On our final game drive at Kwara Camp this morning, we tried to find the leopard we had spotted yesterday, but it had vanished. We saw a leopard turtle, though -- does that count?

We had another Cessna ride to our next camp, Muchenje Lodge. This time, it was especially exciting because David's door was left unlatched when we took off, and when he tried to lock it, it flew open for a moment. But we arrived safely, and took a minivan through Chobe National Park to the lodge. During the transfer, we saw a group of five elephants about to cross the road, and plenty of the requisite impalas and babboons. But the most striking thing about the drive was the postnuclear landscape. While parts of Chobe National Park are green, the side the lodge is on was in drought, and sometimes the only things in sight were miles of parched ground, loose boulders, and thousands of leafless trees. Many of the trees had also been stripped of their bark or knocked over by the park's 50,000 elephants, which compounded the sense of devastation.

At the exit to Chobe, we were required to jump out of the van, step on a wet sponge on the ground, and get back in, even though we hadn't exited the vehicle in the park. We learned from our driver that some animals had died of anthrax poisoning, and the sponge was saturated with formaline to prevent the spores from spreading.

After miles of desolation, we were worried about what Muchenje Lodge would be like. But our fears were unwarranted -- the moment we got there, we realized we were on a cliff with sweeping views of fields below, where hundreds of animals were grazing. Too bad they turned out to be cows when we whipped out the binoculars! Our room was comfortable and modern -- it even had electricity.

If my description of the landscape didn't make it clear how important rain is to Botwana, perhaps this will: "pula," the Setswana word for rain, is also used as a toast, and is the name of the currency. So most people were probably rejoicing when it suddenly began to pour on our first game drive, before we even saw any animals. But we were just soaking. It rained so hard that we had to pull over and wait for it to stop, but even after it did, there were very few animals, except termites. Botswana is riddled with termite mounds, and it turns out that rain "awakens" termites to fly out of their mounds and attempt to start new colonies. Their flight is clumsy and random, and they drop their wings where they land...or they leave a white splatter mark on one's jacket, as we learned. We saw our first buffalo, at least.

The bad luck continued on our night drive. It could have been worse, though -- we stil saw three new species: barn owl, bushbaby, and porcupine. The porcupine sighting was truly exciting because the animal was about ten times as large as we expected. Our "fish story" is that it's about a meter tall, but it scurried away before we could get a picture to prove the sighting.

We also saw a local bar which was a single room in the middle of nowhere. It was crowded, but there was only one car parked outside it, and there were almost no houses near it. Where did all the people come from?

Surprisingly, no elephants yet...where did those 50,000 hide when the rain came?

At dinner, we tried Amarula liqueur, which has an Irish Creme-like flavor, but comes from the fruit of the African marula tree. It was delicious over homemade vanilla ice cream.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Trip Journal Nov. 24

We got a surprise Thanksgiving treat today: a leopard sighting. Another jeep followed some leopard tracks, and radioed Matuse to help find the animal. As soon as we drove up to a thicket of trees, we saw its face staring straight at us near the base of a tree.

Camouflage consistently surprises me. Plain, tan animals like impala are often easy to spot, but animals with vibrant patterns, like zebra, cheetah, and leopard, tend to blend in with the foliage, especially at a distance. Our jeep was only about ten feet from the leopard, but only a couple of people saw it immediately.

We followed the leopard as it moved restlessly, and eventually it came out into the open, and we saw its entire body up close. It was amazing.

Minutes later, we found two lions napping by their half-eaten kill, a tsessebe. Then we saw more warthogs, and Matuse told us the fable explaining why they and the leopard have such different skins.

When God was granting skin to all the animals, the leopard was first in line. It received a beautiful spotted pelt. The warthog, though, was last, and he got barely enough boring gray skin to cover his body. When he put it on, the skin stretched, which made his walk awkward. And when he ran, his skin stretched so tight that it pulled his tail to point straight into the air.

While we didn't see many big mammals, we got amusement from running warthogs, and did see a saddle-billed stork, an ostrich (right by the airstrip), and a longtailed shrike. We learned that a bird we saw with big plumes on its head was the secretary bird, since those plumes make good pens. We also saw the national bird of Botswana, the lilac-breasted roller, which is a small songbird covered with a patchwork of amazingly vibrant blue, purple, and green shades. The ride ended on a good note with a large herd of giraffes near camp.

In the afternoon, we took a ride through the Okavango channels on a double-decker boat. Despite a few recent rains, the water was still shallow, and Justice had to jump out and push it a few times. Our vantage point on the upper level gave us views into the surrounding savannah, but we didn't see many animals. Matuse asked us to keep our eyes open for elephants, and while we didn't see any, he spotted four of them moments later.

We docked the boat near the elephants, and crept up on them on foot. Despite the occasional crunch of palm frond beneath our feet, the elephants didn't see us, and we were able to move close to a mother and baby calmly eating. Even Justice was excited at how close we got to them on foot, and we watched them for a while before retreating.

We also saw a small crocodile and raced past a couple of hippos as they dove down, and the ride was soon over.

Thanksgiving dinner was, coincidentally, pretty close to the real thing: roast chicken, potatos and gravy, corn on the cob, and green beans, with apple crumble for dessert.

Trip Journal Nov. 23

After our first night at Kwara Camp, the day started early -- they wake the guests at 5:15 here. For the second night in a row, we had hippos in camp during the night.

We started the day with a 2-hour walk into the bush, and swarms of bugs. We quickly spotted the requisite impalas, but otherwise the first hour was fairly uneventful. In the second hour, however, we ran into a pair of elephants eating. Since we were on foot we couldn't get very close, but they were still impressive from 30 yards.

After our walk we rode on mokoros for about 30 minutes. The mokoro ride was peaceful, as they glide silently over the water. We had a couple of lily frogs visit us; one Elizabeth captured but quickly allowed to escape; the other jumped onto the side of my boat then proceeded to hang about until I placed him back on a lily about 10 minutes later. The ride ended early because our guides were concerned about running into hippos -- they don't like being surprised, and a silent canoe in the twisty waterways of the Okavango is both likely to do so and very vulnerable. So, we set out to track the hippos by jeep.

About 5 minutes out of the water another jeep radioed about a cheetah sighting. Once we arrived, we practically ran over a male cheetah lying ni the road. The other jeep was watching another cheetah in the distance. Shortly after we arrived the distant cheetah started walking, then running, our way. "There's going to be a fight," said our guide.. and sure enough there was -- only 20 feet from our jeep. It was all a tumble of paws and fur, ended in one of them submitting, and lasted all of 5 seconds, but it was exciting nonetheless.

After our 10a-4p siesta, we went back out on the jeep and directly to where we left the cheetah. They were still there, and we followed the dominant one as he set out to hunt. Our guide got ahead of him, parked next to a small herd of impalas, and said "he's going to eat that baby." The cheetah approached, and at 100 yards our guide said "he could take the baby from here." Still, despite one of the impalas eyeing him nervously, they let him creep up to 30 yards away before running. The baby had been sitting while its mother ate, so it didn't have a chance. In about 3 seconds the cheetah had his mouth on the impalas neck, and within 2 minutes he was munching away.

The rest of the daylight drive was less eventful; the highlight was a cobra that we scared with the jeep. The night drive, however, was amazing.

Once again we got a radio call from Russ' (another guide) jeep, this time indicating that he'd located a pride of lions. They were an hour away, but since they were sleeping we went anyway. When we arrived they had awakened and were hunting zebra.

We mainly listened int he dark from a distance, occasionally shining the light to make sure we still knew where they were. The ability of the guides to identify animals based on the color and height of the reflections of their eyes is impressive.

The herd of zebra were consistently retreating for about 10 minuets until they inexplicably turned around and headed right for the pride. We listened to the kill, which was loud and ferocious, then hit the lights and sped right over. We parked literally 10 feet from the pride of 9 lions noisily devouring the zebra and fighting over chunks of meat. They didn't seem to notice or care that we were there. We watched them feed until there was nothing left except some blood stains on the ground.

Once we got back to camp it was 10pm, so we went right to bed after dinner.

Trip Journal Nov. 22

David woke in the night to an animal foraging around the tent, and learned in the morning that a hippo had wandered through camp.

The morning game drive was our last activity at X Camp, and we had a noon boat transfer to another Okavango Camp called Kwara. While we saw far fewer animals from the jeep than we had before, we still saw several new species: wildebeest, tsessebee, and warthog.

The transfer was uneventful...until we rounded a bend in a narrow part of the river and saw an elephant standing in the water right in front of us, eyeing us warily. We scared it out of the water, but it lingered nearby, and we got some great close-up pictures and quite a pleasant surprise.

Kwara Camp is similar to X Camp, but not quite as luxurious, and not fenced. Our room overlooked a wide field and sink, and we saw elephants in the distance as we walked over to it for the first time. After a second lunch (yes, our *fourth* meal of the day at 4pm), we went on a game drive with our guide, Matuse. Same concept, same area, but the experience was quite different from the one at X Camp. This time, we had both a guide driving and a tracker in a seat on the hood of the car. We had only 4 guests in the vehicle, and there was no roof. And Matuse drove wherever he pleased, road or not, night or day, since we were no longer on a game reserve.

We weren't so sure about the roofless arrangement since it rained hard during the beginning of the drive. But ponchos kept us dry, the rain soon stopped, and we really enjoyed the scenery. We found a lion, and watched it twitch to ward off raindrops, then settled down in a field to have our sundowners near a herd of wildebeest and a herd of zebra with a sable.

After nightfall, we got back in the jeep and Justice, our tracker, panned the scenery with a searchlight, finding an alarming number of glowing eyes staring back at us. We saw elephants, giraffes, antelopes, and other daytime species, but also found some nocturnal ones: cervil, spring hare, bat-eared fox, and owl. Despite our off-roading, Matuse somehow found his way back to camp at 8, and once again, we went straight to bed after dinner.

Trip Journal Nov. 21

We got up at 5:15 for a light breakfast by the fire and an early morning game drive. Our guide, BK, took us out into some of the wet and dry areas of the Moremi Reserve, where we saw more giraffes and babboons, plus added a few new species to our sightings list: reedbuck, waterbuck, and lechwe (all antelopes); vervet monkeys; a hippo; bateleur (a black, raggedy eagle); kite; and egrets. The sightings today were not as fast and furious as yesterday, but BK never gave up, always scanning the horizon intently.

We've now seen 5 different antelope species. BK told us that they're the #1 dinner for carnivores this time of years, and David took to pointing out "tasty impala snacks." There seems to be an infinite supply of them.

The lechwe were surrounded by egrets, who ate the insects in their footprints. Other antelopes carried tick-birds with them, and the giraffes were often accompanied by oxpeckers. We saw only the hippo's ears, so we're hoping for more later.

We returned from the drive before 10, napped, and went at 11 for what we jokingly call "second breakfast," a heavy buffet and omelet station. Then we took our siesta during a pleasant thunderstorm that cooled things down. Lunch was another huge smorgasbord at 2.

Our afternoon game drive was partly waterborne - we left the camp by motorboat. As we boarded, Barbara, the camp manager, showed us a resident small crocodile, and demonstrated that it comes when she calls it.

Out in the winding water trails of the delta, we soon saw a few more hippo ears, and stopped to watch them from a distance. (The guides are notably more cautious with hippos than other animals.) After several tension-filled dives, one of the hippos popped up and opened his mouth wide for us. David got some good pictures. We didn't see many other animals, but we did get up close to a maraboo stork's nest (the boat bashed the tree it was in, unfortunately). We then took a mokoro canoe ride, silently gliding through the reeds as our guide poled us forward, and enjoyed the experience and the tiny frogs we saw from there. Other sightings were cormorants, pepper herons, and open-billed storks.

It was a full day, and we went straight to bed after dinner.

Trip Journal Nov. 20

We left for the airport early to catch an Air Botswana flight to Maun and pick up the tickets for our return flights from Livingstone. The ticket office opened a half hour late, but otherwise everything went smoothly. It was a relief to learn that the travel agency I had wired thousands of dollars to in advance was actually delivering on their promises.

Our Air Botswana flight was on a plane type we had never heard of (Soviet, maybe?), but otherwise ordinary. Maun turned out to be just a small town, on the map only because it is the starting point for most Botswana safaris. It is a few western-style buildings, plus some clusters of tin houses and round mud huts surrounded by livestock pens. It was about 90 degrees, and everything looked parched. The airport had no security - we just walked in the international arrivals door, but could have just as easily walked in the domestic door. Our charter flight to Xakanaxa camp (pronounced kakanaka, with click sounds for the x's and emphasis on the 'na'; or just called "X Camp") was even less formal. The plane was an ancient 6-seater Cessna that spewed exhaust in a disconcerting color and had some broken seats and cockpit gauges. David got the copilot's seat because the plane was completely full.

Our one charter flight turned out to be three because the fight operated like a public taxi service. First we dropped off 3 people and some groceries, then we picked up two more, then finally we were on our way to our camp. The flights were hair-raising for their turbulence and bumpy landings on anthole-ridden sand airstrips. At our second stop, two impalas ran in front of the plane while it taxied, and a babboon casually browsed beside us.

From the windows, the scenery changed gradually from dry, scrubby plains to the greener Okavango Delta. The area had had one rain so far this season, and there were some remaining puddles surrounded by animal footprints and paths. As we began to see evidence of underground water systems, we started to see animals - first an elephant, then herds of impalas. We saw more elephants as the Okavango River came into view.

We landed on the Moremi Game Reserve airstrip, and a driver from Xakanaxa took us to camp in an open-air Land Rover outfitted for deep water. As we walked into the camp, two bushbuck ran past us. Our large and luxurious tent had a porch overlooking a winding branch of the Okavango, was furnished with pretty polished woods, and included an outdoor shower.

Our very first camp activity was a midday siesta, since the animals (and people) don't like to be out in the heat of the day. At 3:30 we left for our first game drive. Wanding through the terrible one-way 4x4 tracks, we saw an astonishing array of mammals: banded mongoose, side-striped jackal, dozens of impalas, a troupe of babboons, three giraffes, zebras, and a lion. Plenty of birds, too: red-billed hornbills, guineafowl, wattled cranes, blacksmith plovers, iridescent blue starlings, maraboo storks, Egyptian geese, and a hoopoe.

Since it's the beginning of spring and the rainy season here, many of the animals had babies born in the last week. The baby impalas made a good show of hopping around when they weren't hiding behind their mothers, and the baby babboons were great fun to watch at play. The youngest ones had sparse fur and huge pink ears, and wobbled when they walked, but still tried to climb everything. Older ones wrestled and played tag. The group of zebras - about ten, including some babies - grazed within 20 feet of our jeep, and the giraffes, while more skittish, let us get close too.

The wattled crane was our first endangered species sighting, and the hoopoe, with its ornate orange comb, our favorite bird. The lion, a big male sleeping casually despite the jeeps encircling him, was our first species from the "big five" list (the others are rhino, leopard, elephant, and buffalo). The drive was fantastic, but the experience can't be captured in this language of checklists. After a "sundowner" drink at sunset, we returned to camp for a tasty buffet dinner and a good night's sleep.