Thursday, October 24, 2013

Winner winner chicken dinner

My cousin Shawn gave me his copy of "Beat the Dealer," by Edward O. Thorpe years ago. Mr. Thorpe was responsible for casinos going from two to six decks in the shoe after he developed a card counting method that took away the house's advantage. I devoured that book over and again until its dog-eared pages were all bloodhounds. The book came with a chart that one could memorize on what pairs to split, when to double-down, etc. based on the dealer's up card. I spent way more time on that chart than on any of my college courses. I even geeked out and kept track of my college wins and losses(a couple hundred more w's) in a little notebook. My roommates and I used to sit around pounding beers and flipping cards as fast as we could while adding and subtracting ones to prep for our weekly trips to rob the natives.

Casinos are a great way to get a piece of culture when traveling. Someone said not to look for virtues, depravities can't be faked. I spent some time in a casino the first time I was in Amsterdam(in between the coffee shops and hookers, of course.) That was the first place I gambled where others could put money on your hand. I was up a couple hundred gilders(yep, it was a while ago) and all of a sudden lots of people were betting on the way I played. I double-downed cuz Thorpe said I had to and Dutchmen groaned as they placed more chips on the table. Then the dealer pulled a picture on a hard six-teen and people cheered, some of them even flipped me a chip or two.

So when I went to the capital city(in case you're wondering, it also has goats and cattle roaming the streets) to sort out my stolen passport and realized that it had a casino, I decided to have a look.

Tinted windows, clock-less walls, and free drinks for the players, yep I'll give it a go. I stood behind the only blackjack table that had a dealer and waited for a seat to open up. Then I realized only two people had money on the table. I asked the dealer if I could sit third base. Statistically the seat right before the dealer is the best over the long run. That's the first thing you need to get into your head if you're gonna be Thorpeian about your card playing, hot seats and hot shoes are for suckers. The dealer told me I couldn't cuz the 'Mouna modala is sitting there.' Okay, I guess that's the first thing to realize about a Bots casino- respect for old men even extends to the table. So she ousted someone younger than me and I took a seat right next to the shoe.

I changed 400 Pula and watched the pile ebb and flow while I struggled to dust off the chart. Luckily even the dealers move painfully slow in this country and I was able to keep a count though I was way out of practice. I got into the rhythm of the cards snapping, the fluidity of the chips re-distributed, and the chatter of the players. I kept hearing the dealer say something that sounded like, "Surrender." One time she said it and everyone but me tapped behind their chips. The dealer took half their bets then turned up her down card. Hard fourteen. Picture. She paid me and everyone at the table asked me how I knew. Cultural insight, for sure. That's how the Motswanans got this little paradise called the Kalahari Desert, they didn't want to fight the Zulus or the Boers for the fertile lands they'd occupied for centuries so they surrendered and moved.

All of a sudden I was playing cards with four people betting behind my hand. She dealt me two eights. I grabbed another chip and spread my pointer and bird. Mouna madala shook his head and said, "Eesh." You always split aces and eights, said I. "Ahh but you are taking a gamble." No shit mister, this is a casino. I bought me a new pair of kicks with the winnings and had enough left over for breakfast.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Reggie Jackson

Duck season opened the first Tuesday in October at high noon when I was a kid. The first time I skipped school, my dad picked me up with a canoe on the truck rack so I could, "Help on the farm." I bounded down the stairs and put on my hunting vest as I hopped into the old green Ford.

New to child-rearing hint: your child will think you have super powers, can beat up other parents, hang the moon each night, etc. for about eleven years. Wanna get five more years out of them? Play hookey. Encourage them to dodge the man, show them that the box everyone is supposed to squish into doesn't apply to them. Be warned, some of this will backfire later.

'A Sand County Almanac,' by Aldo Leopold is required reading in many intro environmental courses. We had a copy at Camp 25. Gary left it with an inscription pleading visitors to read the tenth chapter when visiting the area at that time of year. Mister Leopold captured the magic of the month, birds squawking as they headed south, the new crispness in the air foretelling of winter months to come, the miracle of chlorophyll retreating from the leaves back to the trunks of the trees, leaving a brilliance of color poets struggle to describe.

I had a hard time when I moved to Alaska. October sucks there. Fall colors have already given way to the bleakness before the snows. Rain comes sideways. Darkness steals seven minutes of sunlight every day. Friends with more money in their pockets leave to surf Baja.

Guess what? October sucks in Botswana, too. The first time around, I thought it was just cuz I was new to the place and unused to the heat. But no one prepares for this, the first maddening heat of the season. How could one? Pain is stored in the short-term memory. (A good thing. How much would life suck if you could still feel the first time you stubbed a toe?) Realizations I had an October ago like the fact that it's possible to sweat from one's kneecaps, come rushing back.

Tempers flare. Super nice pilots originally from Argentina explode when they see hard-side bags well beyond the 15kg limit. A smile and shake of the head a month ago becomes a verbal tirade about pulling the clothes out of the bureau before putting said bureau into hard-sided bag. People quit jobs. Others pick up the slack and hate every minute of it. Humor eludes, waiting for the statute of limitations.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What the World Wildlife Fund knows but won't tell you

Yesterday was my second Independence Day in Botswana. Last year I watched the Eagle Island staff get shellacked by the nearby village in a soccer match. The 47th year of independence found me at Selinda Camp, a wonderful lodge close enough to the northern border for one to climb the tallest termite mound behind the staff quarters and get three bars from a Namibian cell tower. The game viewing at Selinda is off the hook, out of hand, pumping at the moment. We saw four herds of buffalo with more than 300 head each, a pride of eight lions, and a herd of elephants so thick one could walk across(if one were insane) in a half hour flight.

The guests and I were invited to a dance celebration when we landed. Mousadis(Matswana women) tied skirts around the waists of all the ladies while informing them that it's the law of the land that no woman can be seen in trousers on Independence Day. I do love irony.

The 47th year of Independence also ended commercial hunting in Botswana. Here are some of my insights after a year in country reading(Blood Ivory by Robin Brown is a good place to start), listening and thinking about the shooting of things for money in Africa.

Cat hunting was outlawed five years ago. Prior to that, if a farmer had an issue with lions or leopards taking cattle, he contacted a professional hunter(PH). The PH brought in a client that paid the farmer for the privilege of protecting said cattle. Farmers cried foul when the law was enacted making commercial cat hunting illegal. The government acquiesced by allowing farmers to kill one lion or leopard per day if in the act of protecting one's cattle. In the past, a farmer tolerated the occasional lion kill because a hunter gave him thousands of dollars to kill a lion that took a hundred dollar cow. Now farmers kill every cat that gets close to the herd. One can't blame them for protecting their livelihood. That is the current completely legal and accepted practice. Better? Not even debatable if one leaves emotion out of the discussion.

Farmers will cry foul soon about the damage from elephants. There's no reason to believe that the government will react any differently to the elephant problem. Except that they may once again sanction culling of the herds as they did in the past. Who will they employ? Well, last time they used PH's shooting from helicopters. Herds were completely wiped out as opposed to just taking the most mature animals as a trophy hunter does. The argument that lions will keep the elephant population in check holds little water, especially since the lion population continues to suffer since the end of lion hunting.

Roosevelt created the National Park system because he wanted every generation to be able to hunt elk. Hunters are greedy that way, they want to be able to keep hunting. Sure there are bad eggs but with hunting outlawed only outlaws will hunt. It's estimated that three thousand mounas(Matswana men) are now out of jobs due to the hunting closures. What do you think people talented at tracking and killing animals will do to feed their families?

PH's and their crews keep poaching in check not only by employing those skilled at hunting to do so legally but by patrolling areas. The government proposes requiring each photographic concession to hire a patrol of four men to monitor poaching in their areas. They will not be allowed to carry firearms. How hard would you look for armed and desperate men?

The hunting concessions that are now open for photographic concession bidding are the areas that were deemed unattractive for picture-taking tourists when the concessions were re-divided to encourage photo-tourism in the 1990's. I've flown over some of those areas and I can agree with the original assessment, not places I'd spend thousands of dollars to visit.

Speaking of thousands of dollars, the average legally taken elephant was estimated to be worth $100,000 in licenses, fees, charter flights, etc. to the Botswana economy. The meat went to the village nearest where the elephant was taken. That's about ten times what the average photographic tourist puts into the economy. Monies will still be pumped in, but illegally and disproportionately.

But what concerns me most can best be understood by relating an amusing scene I witnessed(several times by now) when I first arrived between a camp manager and a chef.

Chef: We are out of spinach.
Manager: Why didn't you tell me yesterday when I placed the fresh order?
Chef: Yesterday we had spinach.