Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Number one comment

He said, "You sound American," I said, "Alaskan," she said, "Did you send in an absentee ballot?" So I went into my little spiel about how I'm not getting excited about another politician until the metric system is at the top of the platform. You see, I believe the reason the U.S. hasn't adopted the measuring system used by the rest of the world is the same reason that the Cyrillic alphabet was developed. It's an invisible fence to keep citizens from being able to communicate with their neighbors and in turn, the rest of the world. Few Americans hold passports, if they did, they'd travel more, if they traveled more, they'd realize all sorts of things that the people in power don't want them to realize like universal health care is cheaper in the long run, the stuff industry puts in the American food supply is making the populace ill, maybe we shouldn't be attacking that country, etc. When I was guiding, I often challenged guests to come up with a better reason that we still base temperature on the freezing of salt water and the blood of horses. None ever did, can you?

Turns out she's a retired state senator. And they are the rarest of travelers we get; overfed, newlywed, nearly deads. The tri-fecta. Plus they're American. Americans are further down on the list behind Aussies, Brits, French, and Germans as far as volume goes.

Grandpa Patrick told me many times to never get old. By the time he walked with two canes, he said it on a regular basis. I've always thought about it in two ways; body and mind. This couple went and got old. The body breaks down and there isn't a lot one can do about it. But carrying extra pounds doesn't keep one young, that's for sure. So aside from staying in reasonable shape the rest of it's in the mind. Complaining about the size of the pina colada instead of realizing that one shouldn't even ask for one of those in Africa is just one example.

This couple was old. She needed a ladder to get herself(including the carry-on baggage hidden in her stretchy pants) into the front seat of the R-44. I had to do multiple laps around elephants in the middle of floodplains before they spotted the three-ton animals. And they had one camera between them so the chatter over the headset mostly consisted of him saying, "Did you get a picture of that, Cathy?" and her saying that she hadn't. He waved to all the animals he saw. How does one pass the bar exam and think impalas might wave back?

Cathy struggled with the camera. It cracks me up that people stare at the screen on the back of the camera trying to see if they got a good shot in the middle of a scenic flight instead of just taking another picture and deleting the shitty ones later, on the ground.

What started out amusing and quickly turned to annoyance was the way she kept leaning away from the subject instead of adjusting the zoom. I had to explain to her that when she leaned too far, her fat ass fought to push my collective down and that the collective was a fairly important part of the "stay out of the treetops" equation.

Now I'm not quite the jackass with a camera that Cathy is, but I'm not a photographer. That's the main reason I don't constantly post photos, most of mine are deletable. The other reason is that by the time I've fought the heat and concentrated on not losing my composure(puns are fun) I don't often have the extra patience required to upload via African internet.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Do they really need more lead in their pencils?

I saw four of the Big Five yesterday before I was airborne even half an hour. It started with a lone lioness trotting across a floodplain. Depending on who's asking, 50% of all the African elephants live in Botswana so I see gobs of them every day. I noticed a flock of egrets and swung that direction, sure enough, they followed a herd of buffalo numbering three to five hundred. I didn't see any leopards from the air but I did see my first rhino.

We have two species of rhinoceros in Africa, white and black. Both are dark grey. The earliest white folks in this part of the world spoke Dutch which has morphed into Afrikaans. When they described the mouth of one species, they used their word for wide which sounded a lot like "white" to the Brits. Just like "Alyeska" became "Alaska" or Mexican cowpokes started out as "Vacqueros" but became "Buckaroos."

They're roughly the size of a pick-up truck and have two horns made of keratin. Some people believe that ground rhino horn cures all sorts of maladies from fever to limp dick. Of course the list of weird items to perk one's sex drive is as bizarre as it is long. Some of my favorites are oysters (no doubt made up by a guy that had caught a bunch of the snot bags and needed to get rid of them), tiger urine (how exactly does one acquire that cat's piss?) and of course, rhino horn.

Rhino horns are made of the same thing as fingernails. Ground-up toenails put anyone in the mood? Even so, more than 400 rhinos have been poached in Southern Africa this year. We sure are a strange species.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Dumela Pula!

Stifling. Oppressive. Sweltering. These words describe the time between 0800 and 0300. That leaves five blessed hours a day where one can function at 100%. Two and a half of those hours must be used for sleep. Sleep before three a.m. might be lack of consciousness, but it ain't rest. Finally in those early morning hours the day cools off.

I do my preflight check and planning in that window just after dawn. I concentrate on the things that need my full attention before the sun begins baking the earth and my brain along with it.

Robinson sent out a safety notice concerning operation beyond 46 degrees. It says basically that they have no idea how the machine will perform above those temperatures. Maybe when I'm done with Botswana I'll apply for a factory test pilot position with the Robinson Helicopter Company.

I can tell them how their machine performs at and above those temps. It does so with great protest. It doesn't want to operate in those conditions any more than the pilot does. Have you ever tried to do anything moderately demanding above 46 degrees? Good luck. It's even too hot to fuck.

You know where the wealthiest people are buried in this country? I pulled to the side of the road, trying to get a better look at what crops were being grown. I thought, I don't know, African ginseng or...then I saw the headstones. Everybody puts up these little shade tarps, two-dimensional coffin covers above ground, so loved ones can spend eternity in the shade. The rich (dead) folks get the spots under the tree.

The cumulus clouds built with tremendous speed. Wispy clouds turned into towering thunderheads. The wind cranked up from the East, bringing more evaporative moisture with it. Then the wind just stopped, everything was calm and the air smelled of burnt ozone. The silence broke with a gust of wind from the opposite direction. Lightening and rain pummeled down. Little puffs of sand rose up in protest when the first drops began to hit, but soon the earth was saturated and just had to lie there and take it. I stood out in it, looking up, getting beautifully, wonderfully soaked. The downdrafts brought violent coolness.

The first rain since April, the storm over nearly before it had begun, less than twenty minutes all told. But now, an hour later in what is normally the hottest part of a very hot day, it's quite pleasant. Seven months of dust washed clean from the now bright landscape. No wonder this place uses the same word for money and rain.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Silent lucidity

The baboons wander through here most every afternoon just before sunset. I never see them on windy days. Probably because the trees aren't close enough together and they have to travel part of the way on the ground. My theory is that they don't feel comfortable with terrestrial movement when they can't hear things that may want to eat them so they stay in the canopy.

The baboons climb up the date palms around the camp manager's cottage as the sun sets. They spend the night at the tippy tops where the leopard can't get them. Most of our other primate cousins also seek sanctuary before darkness falls because we just don't see as well at night as other creatures do.

One time-honored tradition where I grew up was lifting a couple of Old Styles from the pantry, finding a pick-up truck and shining fields for deer. If they looked into the light, the mesmerized deer had no chance of running while buzzed up high schoolers loosed arrow after unsuccessful arrow.

A man I worked with in Yakutat shot deer for Cook County, Illinois. The animals thrived on gardens, flower boxes, and parks in the Chicago area. Steve and his crew drove around the city with a silenced .223. His partner would hold the light and Steve would shoot the deer right between the yellow glowing orbs. By the time he retired, upon shooting his 1000th deer inside the city limits of one of America's largest population centers, the deer had learned to look away when they saw the light coming. Most of later his kills were between the ears at the back of the head.

Humans don't have a tapetum lucidum layer in the eye, but many creatures do. What the layer of cells does is reflect light back into the eye after it's bounced off the retina to increase low level light viewing.

Myth surrounds the color given off by the layer but the fact is we don't yet know why some cats eyeshine is blue while others give a green or yellow glow. I learned last week that hippos eyes appear red in the beam of one's torch.

I walked home after dinner, scanning both sides of the trail for elephants and hippos. I also shot my beam up in the likely leopard perching trees. Just as I reached the turnoff for my trail, I saw a gray form in a small clearing. At the far end was one red dot. The hippo was bedded down and facing away from me.

It started to swing around and rise in a blur. I let out a little yelp, dropped my water bottle and beat feet for the safety of Guest Cottage #10. Another ten feet and it may have had me. Luckily those fat fuckers with their stubby legs can't climb stairs. It snorted at me and continued toward the water.

I stayed on the porch for a while, letting the adrenaline leave my bloodstream, the folks from Australia inside Ibis Cottage none the wiser as to how close I came to ruining their vacation.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Live and let die?

Life on a mink farm gives extra meaning to seasons. Summer growth gives way to Autumn, when the animals begin to put on their thick fur coats. Winter harvests and a sigh of relief for a year's work done. Early Spring marks breeding season, when the cycle starts again.

By mid-April, we eagerly anticipated the first litter of the year. We could hear the mewing of the newborn kits from halfway down the aisle of the quiet shed in the still morning. My family viewed the first litter as a harbinger to the entire crop. If the first mother to deliver had a bunch of healthy kits it usually meant we would be rewarded for the long hours of attentiveness we put in during breeding season.

We'd find one litter by maybe the 17th of April(at the earliest, also my parents' anniversary, the date picked because it's really between busy seasons on the farm), and one or two a day until the 21st or so when we'd find hundreds of new litters every morning, the sheds a cacophony of kits crying for more milk. We covered the nest when we found a litter. We also turned the mother's card(her genetic records) sideways. For months afterward, we walked through the sheds with necks cocked at an angle to glean information from the cards. One day my brother said, "How about we turn all the cards sideways after breeding season, that way we can turn them straight when the kits come in?" Sore necks disappeared from the crew. Genius.

Mink come into the world hairless and about the size of your little finger. By ten days or so, they can make it out of the nest box and begin to explore their world. We often searched the ground for kits that had ventured far enough to fall out of their pens. (That reminds me of a catch and release owl project, maybe I'll check on the statute of limitations before I share.) At twenty-one days they open their eyes and start to eat solid food.

I bring this up because I can say with a certain amount of expertise that the striped mongoose kit I spotted yesterday was about ten days old, healthy and well-fed.

A band of maybe fifty mongoose live in my neighborhood. They come through in a wave twice a day. The mongoose spread out eating everything they find, from ants to adders. They're pretty fun to watch, if one finds a snake or lizard, he'll stand on his hind legs and meef (the term for the sound they make, perfect onomatopoeia) to his band mates for some help with the hunt.

I heard the mewing on the short cut to the hangar, he/she(I could have sexed it but that would have left human smell and altered the course of its destiny) crawled along the elephant path. I wanted to stay and observe. Would his mother return in time to carry him by his scruff back to the den or would he become birdsnack? Would he be able to pass on his rambunctious genetics or would they be lost along with his mother's because she stayed away from the den too long?

It remains a mystery, I found no sign of him on my return hours later.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Even the Super Hot Ones?

I went to the Maun Police Station the other day, which has very little to do with this post. It's part of a bigger episode we'll get to later. Boxes of free condoms sit on counters in every room. Eagle Island Camp keeps theirs by the employee message board. The condoms come from the Botswana government. It's all part of the plan to reduce HIV in the country.

Current estimates put the infection level at 25% of the population. Some experts say that that number is way too low because infected people receive the same drugs each month at the free clinic that have kept Magic Johnson alive for the last twenty years.

Problem is, the drugs mask the symptoms of HIV/AIDS and people unwittingly have sex with infected folks. Condoms are unpopular here. If a girl wants you to take her home, she whispers in your ear that she wants you to give her "some of your power." She doesn't want you to put your power in a plastic bag, ya dig?

The dowry system still rules here. The Botswana gubment set a maximum fee of six cows just last month. Prior to that, some families wouldn't let their little princess go for less than a dozen, especially if she had finished high school.

But what if your family works in liquor store instead of the fields? Then you need to give her family dikgomo kgetsi. That literally translates to pocket cows. It's gonna set you back 3500 pulas if you knock up a girl (for the first time only, if she's already had a kid, the subsequent ones are worthless) out of wedlock or 6000 to marry.

So here, you might as well buy the cow cuz you won't get the milk for free.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Just think if lions ate lettuce

I had a full day on Traditional Night. I've been in camp long enough that it's changed from day of the week to meal of the week. I can figure out the day if I think about it, when I see Magidah and Kelefe rolling the grills out to the patio, I know it's Braai night, which means BBQ'd spare ribs/Wednesday.

Anyway Traditional started with an 0700 pick-up at Kanana and a transfer to Nxabega (Usually the 'x' sounds like a 'k' but in this case, it's silent. Fucked, huh?). My passengers sat on the Botswana Tourism Organization board. They needed a helicopter to get to a few camps that were airstripless.

So I land at 0655 and watch my guests roll up in a Landcruiser. They stayed two nights in the Bush and each of them had more luggage than I took to Africa for a two year stay. My outside air temperature gauge read 28. I had plenty of room to get to translational lift but that was the easiest take-off of the day.

The Nxabega staff greeted us at the helipad with song and cool drinks. I checked in via sat phone and learned I had four scenic flights to do. After three lumpy men and bags, a solo take-off was a major wheelie-popper.

I busted out the scenics, then hopped BTO from camp to camp until dusk. Going solo, max gross, solo, scenics at 30 knots, solo, max gross, solo improves one's skills immensely. Take home lesson, raise the collective slowly.

And there's a new leader for stupidest tourist question ever. "Are elephants vegetarians?"


"Then how do they get so big?"

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

My friend will pay

A well-traveled friend once told me that it's a good idea to get a few phrases down in the native language where ever you find yourself. Residents appreciate the effort you put in to learn some of their tongue. Start off by learning how to say hello, please, and thank you for the food.

In Setswana 'hello' is 'dumela' but it doesn't end there. One must inquire about the wife/husband, the children and whether they are well before the greeting is finished and we can move on to the part where I tell them that I don't speak Setswana.

One can learn a lot about a culture by its language. The people here have no word for 'thank you' and they use the same word for 'please' and 'I'm sorry.' (One of my friends that on occasion drinks too much, always wanted a word that means both 'thank you' and 'I'm sorry.') It's as if there's no reason to thank a person just because he behaved the way that he should have.

Once you get the basics down, you can move onto harder phrases. Or you can use your skills ninja style. Sit quietly. Realize when they are talking about you. Let them laugh. Then in a harsh tone tell the speaker to, "Kak in de millie!" There will be shocked silence followed by laughter because you told the jokester to go shit in the cornfield.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Recycled Jokes

Yesterday I jump started my first R-44, flew solo in Botswana and entered controlled airspace without annoying Approach or Tower with my radio work. The radio work is straight forward here, Civil Aviation Authority-Botswana follows ICAO standards but depending on who's in the tower, the operator's accent can be hella thick. They follow a standard script so based on how long they chatter back, one can figure out whether to add, "and looking for traffic," to the transmission.

Back in Maun, I got in the Jetranger with the owner, two Spaniards and a bunch of luggage. We convoyed out with the R-44's. A family of eight chartered a ride with us rather than a four hour drive to their remote camp.

Then I hopped in the R-44 to go pick up guests for my first ever scenic flight without a co-pilot. The Russian-Kiwi must have given a favorable report of my decision making for Andrew to push me out of the nest. Jumping from one type of helicopter to another minutes apart makes one pay attention. The Japanese have a word for it, "Mokodi," the same, but different.

So I met the guests, gave them a safety briefing, and lifted off for their scenic flight. "How long have you been doing this?" came through my headset. I looked at my watch and said, "About four minutes." Then we laughed and laughed and I pointed to a giraffe to change the subject. If I'm asked today, I'm gonna say, "Oh don't worry, I've done this once or twice."