Sunday, December 21, 2014

Solstice number two, 2014

A fair number of you stalked me through the first half of the year. I went underground in an attempt to shake the tail. I had a minor surgery with major blood loss. I know, I know, face injuries always bleed a frightful amount.

I attended the wedding of close friends in Colorado in August. I heard the food was good but I didn't eat as is my custom in large groups. Sometimes I fill a plate and push bits around until they disintegrate while watching others dig in like Tony Soprano on a New York Italian (sandwich, not whore). As far as wedding bands go, the rest of you knot-tiers have a much higher bar to meet. Those boyz rocked twice as much as they rolled.

The husband made me take his motorcycle for a ride as it had been neglected all summer. I re-aggravated that exposed nerve associated with why Mr. Young's proclamation hadn't been, "We're going to Oklahoma." Bee and seagull worship aside, that place is stunning (a word used too often in parts of the Southern Hemisphere).

I hopped a train in a half-assed circumnavigational attempt on the contiguous states. Couldn't bring myself to leave Boston for Florida. Next time. Those of you that haven't ridden the rails in this country have missed out on some amazing scenery and delightful conversation. Tops involved an ex-con and an Amish gentleman debating the problems with the attention span of our country's youth.

I met up with my pen pal in NYC. They're right, it's a hell of a town. Hot tourist tip: the cheapest beers in the city (unless you date a bartender) are Bud pounders on the Staten Island Ferry. And the ride is free and beautiful, you can even see Trenton, New Jersey.

I'm currently sock sorting in Wisconsin. Mokodi is the Japanese word that springs to mind. It means the same but different. The same is grading skins is grading skins the world over. The different is no crashing rental cars or partying with movie-star midgets.

Whether you celebrate this time of year by lighting candles, sacrificing goats, or humans, I extend a hearty, "What up?" to you and yours.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

World Cup, Whirled Peas?

I agree with Chuck Klosterman and his assessment of the beautiful game's popularity in the United States. The kids destined to be picked last love soccer because all they have to do is run back and forth to participate. There's no need to get anywhere near the ball to look like you are pivotal to the match. Kids get their pictures in the yearbook and then never have to think about sports again.

Most athletic American kids still choose ball sports where you actually have to touch the ball or individual sports that require you to directly compete. Maybe in a generation or two that will change. The fact is that the USA sends its fourth-tier(fifth maybe if you count hockey) athletes to the World Cup.

I've been asking everyone who's going to win the World Cup. I spent a bunch of time in Jo-burg while waiting for the heli to get out of the doctor's office and was often the only "English" guest in the hotel. The most interesting thing I heard(and I heard it many times) was that Africa needs a continent-wide team to field for the World Cup. I pointed out that football is the least expensive sport, a village only needs one ball and it's the one sport aside from running that Africans could/should be able to compete at a world level and was consistently met with disbelief in my inability to feel sorry for Africans.

Has the world ruined Africa's ability to help itself after years of handouts? I don't know, but I do know that if Argentina knocks Belgium out, conversations at Gentse Feesten on the last day(called the "Day of empty pockets," when all the beer prices are cut in half) will not be about how Europe needs one team for the World Cup. Europeans would riot if Spain and Germany had to play for Greece or France in an all-Euro team. And the rest of the football world would riot, too. But I bet very few would say boo if an all-Africa team were proposed.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Is there a doctor in the house?

In the house of pancakes? That's a question Dean Warham once asked. I bet no one has ever asked, "Is there a mink farmer's son in the house?" People with mongoose problems don't know enough to ask.

The grandkids hung downstairs after Grandpa's funeral when my brother asked, "Do you guys want to go see a bear den?" We had found it while rabbit hunting. The cousins were up for it, so Kyle and I took them to look at a sleeping black bear. Several of us touched it, just cuz when do you get a chance to poke a wild bear, right? Right.

The second wild animal I touched was a mink. We were about to put inner tubes in the Pestigo River for a float when I saw a mink scurrying away from us. I gave chase. It was a magical moment of perfect coordination, running across wet rocks with a sweet bend and grab. I got it by the tail and as I picked it up, it occurred to me that if I didn't let it go I'd get bitten. My friends sufficiently awed, I released the beast. More interesting living through chemicals.

A late afternoon freight haul meant I had to overnight at a different camp. I dig the change of scene, personnel, and menu. My first flight yesterday wasn't until later in the morning so I was on aggressive standby. That particular camp serves employee breakfast right after the morning meeting so that's where I was chilling with coffee. The camp manager efficiently checked in with every department and when finished said, "Okay, what about the mongoose?"

Mongoose? What about them? You know those rings that stay on the milk jug after you twist open the jug? Well, a mongoose somehow managed to get one around its neck. A truly banded banded mongoose. The crew had been trying to catch the creature for some days to remove the band before it began to starve the animal White Fang style.

Tossed towels did as well as the box propped up with a stick on a string. They caught the animal a time or two but had no plan for holding the animal to cut the band off. Hell yeah, nightstops rock.

That day's plan held promise. They put a folding table on its side and draped two corners of a mosquito net over the table. The other corners they attached to fishing line and rods. Eggs thrown in the middle of the mossy net served as bait. I watched with interest, not announcing my skill set, not yet.

It worked too well. When they sprung the trap they had more than a dozen devils writhing around. The air was filled with ohmygods and holyshits. "Do you have any leather gloves?" I asked the manager after they lowered the fishing rods and let the mongoose(geese?) escape.

They didn't but they did manage to find some thick vinyl dish washing gloves. I donned the gloves and waited. What are they biting on? Eggs, mongoose love 'em so much that less than ten minutes after being netted, two snuck and sniffed toward the re-baited trap. One of the two was our target. "Now!(and I rarely use !'s, but this one is warranted)"yelled the manager. Hooks set, two mongoose in the net.

The manager had to show bravery in front of his staff, he stepped in and closed the top of the blue net. I grabbed a mongoose tail with each of my paws. It took a while to ascertain which mongoose was our huckleberry because the band was the same color as the net and the mongooses weren't interested in holding still.

I saw that the one in my right hand was our man. The manager made a silt in the net near the mongoose in my left hand. Half a second later its head was through the hole, I yelled, "Clear," the onlookers parted like the Red Sea and I let go. It shot away grabbing for traction long before it hit the ground. I turned my attention toward securing the head so we could get at its bling.

The mongoose let out a frightful howl, much bigger than one would think a creature of that size capable of bellowing. It's a last ditch defensive mechanism to make a predator pause in shock to facilitate escape. No dice, I wasn't letting go. The manager removed said item with a scissors, I let go, and boy, did it go. The most interesting Thursday I've had in a while.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Amazing Stradivarius Man

I am asked by most of the guests if I take malaria meds. If you're in Africa for a one-off trip you should probably dose up on everything the Western Doc wants to give you. But living here, malaria is just one of the fun things you live with. Taking meds for years is crazy, they are prophylactics and can mask the symptoms, and if I'm gonna load my body with chemicals, I wanna buzz. So how do you deal with it? If you feel flu like symptoms you go to the camp manager and ask for the malaria test kit. If it turns pink it's a girl, if it turns blue you get a ride to town and get treated. Malaria is quite curable if caught early.

So I don't worry too much about the whole thing. The mosquitoes aren't bad here especially when compared to other places I've lived. I don't even use repellent, or didn't.

I woke one morning about two weeks ago with a pimple on my ankle. First thought of the day, 'When is the puberty thing gonna end? My forehead is growing and I have new hairs on my ears that need attention so why am I having teenager issues?

The pimple grew and swelled my ankle. After about a week it went from mildly amusing to quite painful. I showed the camp manager. He said spider bite. I said cool, now what? Now we draw the pus out with the anti-venom suction kit. Juan(pronounced with Jacques style 'J' sound at the beginning and 'John' vowels) grabbed the biggest end for the suction kit to cover as much of the swollen area as possible. The plan was to keep stepping down with the end pieces until the goo came out. Whew diggity, it's a good thing that pain is stored in the short-term memory. Imagine if you could remember every time you stubbed your toe. By the time we got four sizes down I was sweating from the sensation but finally some yellow stuff filled the clear tube and relief mixed with the pain.

For the next week the swelling continued to go down as did the pain. Winning? Nope. Woke up with one well-turned ankle (a term in every Louis L'Amour novel I read as a kid, bummer that that was all a guy had to go on back in the day was to sneak a peak at an ankle) and one cheese curd eating, Packer fan, ankle.

I had to do a transfer from a campsite upstream that involved buzzing a jet ski driven by royalty (less on that story later) on my way to Maun. While in town I showed my wound to the Doc that does our med-evacs. She worked tropical medicine for a time. Misha takes one look and says, 'I wish you wouldn't have messed with it. Violin spiders can be very dangerous. I'm glad you came to me. We have time to treat it before you lose the foot.' Wanna gross out? Google image 'Violin spider.'

So I'm taking ten pills a day and dousing my foot with anti-septic and bathing in bug dope.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Keep the tips

I kicked it enjoying another cup of coffee knowing I only had one flight at 1345. The camp manager found me and told me that I needed to contact World Headquarters. I spoke with Hannah on the sat phone and learned that I needed to pick up the Doctor for a med-evac from a place I'd never been and then bring the patient directly to the hospital (also a never been.)

I got the skinny from Andrew on both LZ's, hung up the phone, filled jerries with fuel for the trip back to Maun and cranked up. The Doctor's helipad wasn't in the GPS but I knew she lived upstream of a point that was in the GPS so I put those coords in and aimed a little to the left.

We found the injured party quite easily because they waited for us on a soccer pitch behind a gate into Chobe National Park. Buildings stick out like beacons in the unchanging landscape of the Kalahari Desert. I did an orbit and landed. While the engine was cooling down I spied a man in uniform with a machine gun approaching. I put up a hand for him to stop. He stopped so I figured I wasn't in too much trouble for landing in the Park.

I got out once the blades stopped turning and introduced myself. He said it was fine, just that he needed to make sure I was after the man with the bandaged hand not rhinos.

The Doctor did an assessment, re-bandaged and we were off. The hospital sits south of the airport and I was approaching from the north. I requested clearance to cross the active runway and land at the hospital. 'Negative, you do not have clearance.' Maun International(and I use the term loosely) Airport is quiet except for two hours of every day when people are brought in from bush camps to catch the flight to Jo-burg.

Of course this was one of those times. There were several planes in the circuit with two on final. I did orbits and said, 'Tower I was told by ground crew that I have approval to land at the hospital. I have a doctor and patient on board. Can I have clearance to cross the active runway or may you please call an ambulance to meet us and give me clearance to land on the apron.' Three sixty knot orbits worth of silence. 'A2-Hotel Lima Alpha you are cleared across zero eight direct to the hospital. Advise on the ground.'

It's really cool that they put a helipad in when the Maun Hospital was built but you gotta wonder how they chose the site. 'Look at this spot, it has trees, wires, and lamp poles, plus the mechanical turbulence from the building will make the towering approach jump from high risk to super high risk. It's perfect.' It was the first landing at the helipad with a patient and things went well, considering. Hopefully we can work the kinks out for next time.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Best Grilled Cheese Sandwich Recipe

Surprise your friend by saying hello in the Jo-burg airport when she thought you were only going to meet up after going through customs in Windhoek, Namibia. Wonder if you've slipped through a wormhole when the driver is waiting for you at the airport with your name spelled correctly on the sheet he's holding. Get further confused when an operational electronic billboard rises above litter-free streets to welcome you to the capital city. Walk from the hotel to the iconic Joe's Bierhaus and order beers that aren't lagers to wash down the plate of ostrich and oryx steaks. Throw the waitress for a loop when she brings the bill by saying, 'In my culture, the woman pays.' Walk back to the hotel in a warm downpour, hoping you haven't made too many wrong turns but knowing that it don't matter none cuz hypothermia doesn't exist at 30 degrees C. Get the rundown on how to pitch the rooftop tent, keep dust from impregnating all the camping and cookware. First stop, fill the tank, second stop, grocery store. Buy food, wine, and mozzy repellent (though your travel partner won't use any even after her ankles look like the kid that got the worst of it before chickenpox vaccine was invented.)

Brown bread
two eggs
bleu cheese

Load the back of the baakie (truck), turn on the fridge, hit the highway. Head north and east to Etosha National Park. Meet the first unfriendly Namibian, the woman who's job it is to welcome you into the park. Marvel at how easily the rooftop tent pitches. Let roaring lions serenade you to sleep. Wake and strike the tent while it's (relatively) cool. Drink coffee. Head north, see giraffes, zebras, and a leopard. See litter along the road and realize that you may indeed still be in Africa. Spy an Augusta-Westland 139 and wonder what in the wide world of sports it's doing in northern Namibia. Check the map, realize that Angola is on the other side of the river. Continue to drive a bit too fast on a road the map doesn't recognize. Come over a rise and hit a dip full of water with too much speed, break the two eggs, let the bleu cheese marinade in the yolk white mixture, get a fright. Slow down.

Sneak off the road and camp illegally just south of Epupa Falls. Mess around with shutter speed while taking pics of the falls, go for a swim in the pools where the locals are washing bodies and clothing. Try to follow the road to complete a loop. Turn around. Ask the commander at the police post if you should carry on. 'Ah it is difficult.' Okay, yo-yo back to the next turnoff.

Become mesmerized by the constantly changing scenery. Caramelize the onions on the one burner propane stove, preferably while watching a killer lightening storm from one of the most beautiful and desolate places on the planet. Check out the nest of sociable weavers and wonder if the trees ever fall down from the weight of the nest (they do.)

Swim in the Atlantic Ocean, keeping an eye on the pile of shoes and clothes on the beach so you know how strong the rip is moving you.

Wonder why everyone said, 'You gotta go to Swampkumund,' until you realize that it's cuz that city has lots happening if you spend all your time in Maun, Botswana. Wrap the leftovers from the second dinner not created on your one burner to put in sandwiches the next day.

Work up an appetite by climbing Dune 45. Enjoy the view from the top, all alone. Fascinate in the gecko that lives on the dune that puts on the brakes by splaying his legs and tail in the air and digging his belly into the sand.

Roll the dice by booking a scenic flight in a 210. Thank the French family for taking the empty seats and making the flight more affordable. Take pic after pic of dunes and coastline and fairy circles and wonder what it would've done to ship morale if you crashed on that coastline.

Sautee the pears. Layer the bread with caramelized onions, pears, and bleu cheese. Patiently and continually turn the sandwiches so the bread doesn't burn while your traveling partner watches, convinced that charcoal is on the menu for the evening. When you can lift up the top slice of bread and the rest of the concoction comes along for the ride, the gooey goodness is ready to eat.

Cut the sandwiches in half. Serve with boxed chardonnay, opera music from a park employee's cottage, and a billion stars in the sky.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

This one time, in the Serengeti

I arrived in the Dar es Salaam airport and tried to find the visa line. Eastern Africans que much like Indians, which is to say not at all. A uniformed man with a gun on his hip randomly takes passports, completed visa forms and entrance fees from new arrivals and throws them in a basket. I finally got my turn and he looked at the fifty dollar bill and said, 'One hundred dollars.' I pointed to the sign on the wall and said that I didn't need multiple entries so it should only be fifty dollars. He said, 'One hundred dollars.'

I checked out the duty-free shop and spied 'Brut-Alaska' cologne. I took a sniff. They got it wrong.

My flight to Kilimanjaro wasn't on the departure board. A voice behind me asked if I was going to Zanzibar. 'Not this trip,' I said as I turned around. The Belgian informed me that her flight also wasn't listed and that she had inquired to be informed that, 'That man who does the board is on leave.' 'Sounds about right,' says I.

She had just come off the mountain. We split a beer, the big one cuz big or little it'll run ya 4000 shillings. The Belgian nurse was very jealous that my family would be meeting me in Arusha. Her family refuses to leave Europe so she travels on her own. Even though it wasn't on the schedule, her plane boarded on time, as did mine.

The 'rents and my sis/hubby got to Arusha a few hours after me. We hugged it out and I told them that we would get breakfast at 0600, the transfer to the airport at 0700. Fast forward to the next morning. Six a.m. and the driver shows up and says we gots to get. We rush to the airport sans brekkie, wait for the pilot to pitch, get dropped off at an airstrip in the southern part of the Serengeti with no one waiting to pick us up. So far, so African.

And so was the bush. Eastern Africa has game densities that are hard to conceptualize. The plains stretch away for miles and are filled with wildebeest and zebras and gazelles and the things that eat them. We found a cheetah with five cubs less than an hour into the game drive that began from the airstrip when people showed to pick us up. From there it was on to lions from three meters away. Super fun to watch my family experience that for the first time.

The whole Tanzanian portion of my leave was wonderful. It's been way too long since I've spent more than a long weekend with my family and the most time I've spent with the newest member, my sister's husband Pete. She chose wisely.

Pete and I had what must be the best beer and potato chip episode ever. We kicked it while the African wild dogs slept off breakfast. Not sure why the name was changed from 'Painted dogs,' not ferocious enough, I reckon. Anyway, the dogs were sleeping and I suggested that we just hang and wait. By that time we had seen approximately 17 bazillion wildebeest and seeing as wild dogs are the most endangered predator on the continent and a pack of 13 needs to eat a baby wildebeest for breakfast, skip lunch and have a sensible (baby wildebeest) dinner, and they don't hunt at night, I reckoned we'd get to see another kill if we were just patient.

Two Kilimajaros (the beer, not the mountain) later, the hungriest dog woke up. The social structure of the dogs demands that the one whose stomach is growling initiate a play session with the pack to entice them to hunt. After the session, the dogs trotted off and we followed.

It didn't take too long to get a mother and baby separated from a group. Dogs have a reputation as violent killers because they eviscerate the victim by pulling the guts out and beginning to eat while the animal is still alive. The kill looks violent but in some respects is better than the way the cats and hyenas do it.

Dogs can't choke their victims because their jaws are so small. Ripping the guts is painful but quick. You'd be hard-pressed to identify the species two minutes after the first bite. Lions sometimes take twenty minutes to fully choke an animal. If you're gonna die anyway, you'd probably choose two minutes over twenty, wouldn't you?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Might want to stock up on Visine, too

My favorite Onion headline(print version only, the newspaper didn't even have a website back in 1995. The final print version came out this last December.), "Area Bowl Cashed," popped into my head the other day. The internet articles of late are full of estimates on chicken wings, nachos, and even prostitution tied to the last game of the American football season. I wonder why no one is wondering how much weed will be smoked during XLVIII. Both teams hail from states that have legalized recreational marijuana use. Will the jet stream carry second-hand smoke from the Tacoma Narrows over the Rockies down to I-70 gather some hot knives steam to go across the Great Plains in the first ever Stoner Vortex? Now that's what I call a Super Bowl. I also wonder where the Roman numerals would be without the NFL.

In other news, the last of the X-mas cards made it to Botswana. A couple came via the post but most came through what the late Senator Ted Stevens called a series of pipes and tubes(and somehow got mad shit for it even though it was a great way to explain what Al Gore never said he invented but, "Took the initiative to provide the funding for." But that's too big a sound-bite for the average pigskin loving American to remember. Whoopsy, tangent alert.) from my friend, Mik THE SHIT.

Mik takes pics of the cards and emails them to me. Every year I get cards that have photos of all the kiddies and often the family dog. What would be great is at least the names of the head(s) of the household. Holiday cards are a great way to stay in touch and I certainly appreciate the extra effort required to keep someone with itchy feet such as myself in the loop. I started my wanderings before you parents were parents so I don't know who Becky, Billie Jean(the one I love), or Bobby belong to.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

While you were having your Arctic Vortex

Rain blessed the whole of Botswana until people began to threaten to complain about it. It's a sin to wish for pula to quit falling here. But it got close. Average annual rainfall here is 400 millimeters. We got around 450 over the course of six days.

I can't tell you exactly how much rain fell because of a hole in the training program here at Eagle Island. Morris taught Tom to check and if necessary, dump the rain gauge every morning but didn't tell him to record the data. One wonders if Tom ever considered the pointlessness of a contraption designed to capture water only to empty it later. Plus the rain gauge lives on a pole placed in a low spot so once the rains began to fall faster than they could soak into the sand, people quit emptying it, with or without recording the data. The peoples that inhabit the Kalahari are akin to lions, they can cross water but will avoid it at all costs. The number 450 comes from the rain gauge downstream at Gunn's Camp which is presumably better tended then the one at this camp.

Airstrips closed due to a plane's inability to handle gooey surfaces. I dug it cuz they needed my helicopter to hop passengers to the nearest strip still firm enough to land planes. I got soaked but since temps hit the high twenties, I stayed plenty warm and reasonably comfortable. As a former(and in the future, current) rainforest dweller, I can get wet while working or playing.

The rising waters flooded the mongoose den. We watched the family move to higher, drier digs. More than a dozen kits hitched rides in the jaws of adult females. Males led and flanked watching for predators, avian and terrestrial. They hauled the kits one at a time to minimize exposure even though it took more effort in the way of extra trips.

The band exercised well founded caution. A yellow-billed kite snatched a snake during the fourth trip. The bird had been circling the whole time the mongoose moved the kits, but in the risk versus reward equation, judged the heavily guarded kits not worth it. By keeping an eye on the progress and the potential to swoop down for a snack if the band made a mistake the kite was ready to grab the bush snake that had been scared out of hiding by the back and forth movement of the mongooses.

The Big Five get most of the attention here, especially for first timers. I like looking for lions as much as the next guy but I love to hold still and fascinate in the smaller creatures' struggle.