30 April 2004

Highs and Lows

Wedding plans and jetlag - that's what this week has been about. Oh, and a silly little poster called "The Little Chip That Could" which is one of the things I'm working on for the Open House (open to the public!) at work next week. Nothing like squeezing in the highs and the lows right next to each other -- one minute I'm dreaming about my upcoming wedding and a safari in Africa, the next I'm nauseous from lack of sleep and stressing about whether the mouth and the eyes are too low on the little computer chip cartoon I'm drawing. Sad.

One of the reasons I love to travel is for the way it provides the opportunity to reset things. Travel helps you to pull your feet up out of the sand where they have become trapped. It helps you to see things fresh. In some ways it makes you more like a child, more dependent, more aware.

Trips like the one from which I have just returned remind me that I am, much to my dismay, a creature of habit. And, unfortunately, my habits are often bad habits.

For example, I am habitually impatient -- you should see me in my car, or, wait, maybe you shouldn't.

I am habitually glazed over. Like a donut. I don't see and I don't care. Out of habit, I miss the sunrise and the name of the person I just met, the face of that person I just passed on the street (that person? what person? I didn't see a person.)

Also, I am habitually reserved -- I prefer to keep my thoughts to myself, which isn't always bad, I suppose, but it can lead to a greater problem which is habitual laziness. This is a shameful habit.

Another habit of which I am sometimes guilty is pretending that I am a spiritual person when the truth is that I am not. Rather, I am, in reality, only wanting you to think I am a spiritual person, or maybe wishing to myself that I were one. Either way, the truth is that I am often insensitive to spiritual things. When I'm trapped by this habit, I think of God as a nice idea, warm and comforting, like a good genie, and not as a live coal to the lips, fearful, holy. And that's if I think of him at all.

See? That's what traveling can do for you. I'd recommend it, if you're ready for it to mess with your life. Of course, I'd recommend it more if it weren't so expensive. There's always the return to earth and the bills and the dirty dishes. Where were they while I was gone? Couldn't they have stayed away a little longer?

So, anyway, I'm here now, and trying to learn from what I just went through, so that I don't have to learn the same lessons over and over and over again.

26 April 2004

Back Home

Well, I'm back home, which means that the real work has just begun. Waking up early is nice, but that 3pm jetlag sleepiness is going to kill me.

Being back home also means I can upload bigger files. Here are two short little movies from the trip. The first is from a school that we visited in Soshanguve. The second is from the early morning in the game park.

School

Pilanesburg

(Note: Both movies are approximately 4MB in size. I'd suggest using a high speed connection.)

23 April 2004

Notes On Peace

We're getting down to the end now. At first glance, it seems like we've been running around too much to appreciate the place we're in, but when I stop for a moment I start to remember...

Here, from a letter I wrote to Jen, are some of the moments from this trip that I'll remember:

- The wonderful mornings -- I'll remember getting up early most mornings, sitting on my front step under the trees, eating a bowl of cereal in silence and quietly greeting the day.

- Watching the sunset from the hillside garden in front of the Union Building in downtown Pretoria.

- Watching the sun slowly come up while we sped across the plains on our way to the game park, everyone else around me sleeping. It was one of the most beautiful sunrises i've ever seen.

- Sitting in silence looking out across the valley that afternoon in Pilanesburg watching a herd of elephants (and a baby!) stroll down the hill across from us. Just below them a herd of grazing wildebeests. To the left three giraffes grazing with their heads sticking up through the trees.

- Standing in the middle of Church Square in downtown Pretoria, eating an ear of fresh corn, feeling the amazing feeling of being the only white person in sight, watching hundreds of people swirl around me in the bright morning sunshine.

- Riding home in the microbus from Soshanguve after an afternoon of taking pictures and visiting as the late afternoon sun slants through the windows.

- Standing by myself in the animal blind at Pilanesburg, feeling the cool breeze from off the water, listening to the hippos snorting in the mud, the young crocodile hiding motionless in the grass just below me, the kingfishers squawking.

- Listening to the night breeze outside my window almost every night as I drift off to sleep.

- Shaking Francis's hand (street kid from pretoria north) and watching him grin and saunter off like the Mr. Cool he wants to be.

- Driving down to the gas station to get ice cream bars in the middle of the night, leaving the window open so I can smell the night air from off of the tree-covered hill above us.

- Running until I can hardly stand up, playing soccer with the kids from the "House of Safety" (parents dead, in jail, abusive, etc)

Those are just a few of the moments. I'll add more (with pictures, I hope) as I have time.

20 April 2004

View From The Hill

We spent the afternoon yesterday in Pretoria at the Union Building which is the administrative seat of the national government of South Africa. This is a remarkable time to be in South Africa as last Tuesday was National Election Day, only the third one since the abolishment of apartheid in 1994. Driving through the townships, we saw long lines of people standing in the hot sun waiting for their chance to vote. They seem to "get" the idea of democracy. I haven't heard the final numbers but the voter turnout was very high and put our record in the USA to cryin' shame.

So, anyway, we sat in the grass in front of the Union Building and listened to the tour guide give the history of the building. After that we spent an hour interviewing Alycia, who is one of the participants in NieuCommunities South Africa, shooting video of her walking through the garden. Then we took pictures of the beautiful sunset over the city. After that we went home and ate pizza.

[enlarge the picture]

Morning Report

For the record, sitting out on the verandah early this morning, I saw a Crested Barbet and a Hadeda Ibis.

Work Week

The pressure is back on as we're clicking past the days until we leave. I'm tired most of the time, even with a full night of sleep. Trying to make sure we have what we need -- we've been spending the afternoons doing interviews, juggling schedules, meeting with people, hoping we're thinking clearly as we plan for a final product which has yet to take shape. If you're praying for this trip, pray for us that we can keep our perspective fresh and that our creative vision will be clear. We don't want to be disappointed when we get back home. And most of all, pray that we find the heart of what it is that is going on over here and that we tell the story well.

18 April 2004

A Special Post For My Father

My father is an ornithologist, avidly into the avians.

By about 10am yesterday at Pilanesberg, I realized that it was going to be an extraordinary day when measured in terms of wildlife viewing. This included a profusion of birds, all of which were brand new species to my semi-trained eye (except for the lovely globe-circling Black-Shouldered Kite).

So I bought a little bird guide at the visitor center and started writing down what happened to fly (or, in the case of the Ostrich, stroll casually) by the car.

So, in honor of my father, here is the list of the small percentage of birds I saw yesterday which I could actually identify:

Pied Kingfisher
Giant Kingfisher
Grey Heron
African Darter
Blue Waxbill
Southern Red Bishop
Rock Pigeon
Fork-tailed Drongo
African Hoopoe
Crimson-breasted Shrike
Black-eyed Bulbul
Ostrich
African Black Sunbird

Day Off

Amidst all the running around of the last few days, we took Saturday to have fun. We got up at 4am to leave for Pilanesberg National Park which is about 1 1/2 hours northeast of Pretoria. We spent the day on a veritable safari -- elephants, hippos, rhinos, zebras, giraffes, one very sleepy lion, and much more. Very much fun and really incredible to experience. We drove the roads of the park for the entire day, finishing with the search for a lion that we'd heard about from one of the rangers we met along the way. We found him just as the sun set, the aforementioned drowsy lion, that is. He was yawning in the grass about about a hundred yards from the road. Our cars parked on the shoulder attracted the attention of other visitors and by the time we left the two lane road had become completely jammed with curious people peering into the bushes, the cars bristling with long lenses and binoculars. That lion must have felt like quite a celebrity.

The picture above is the early morning sky as we sped across the plains. The panorama below is the view from one of the "hides" overlooking one of the big water holes. You may not be able to see them, but there are three hippos in the water to the left. There's an ostrich in the distance. There are a couple Pied Kingfishers on one of the branches and a number of African Darters (birds) scattered around. And that's just for starters...


[enlarge picture]

15 April 2004

Where I've Been For The Last Few Days

Well, we've hit the ground running here, busy going somewhere all day and into the evening, and the blazing southern hemisphere sun hasn't given us much of a break.

Yes, i'm really here now.  The flight was short, or at least seemed short (about 10 hours).  I read for awhile and slept awhile, but it was really hard to fall asleep because i kept thinking about Africa being out there beneath my window.  It was a powerful, moving experience even at night -- the land below so dark and yet so alive at the same time, like some monstrous presence out there just beneath me.  a little frightening too -- there is so much darkness on this continent. Somehow it seemed appropriate to see it at night, as if its true nature were coming out.

Landing in the morning in Johannesburg was one of the best airplane wakeups I've ever had.  There were low hills here and there and every now and then a big rocky point.  Pretoria is in a long narrow valley surrounded by hills -- very pretty.  the light is wonderful in the morning and the evening and the temperatures have been great, hot in the sun but with cool breezes all day long.

The place we're staying in Pretoria North is like a little oasis.  We are lodged at the Pangani House (owned by NieuCommunities), which is located in a quiet neighborhood on a hill at the edge of the city.  The Pangani House used to be a guesthouse.  It is an old, rambling, one-story house built in the early 1900s by a British army colonel, painted in bright colors, with antique furniture and a pretty veranda out front with the air of colonial Britain clinging to its shadowy corners.  I can almost imagine Rikki Tikki Tavi showing up on the step. Just up the hill above the house there is a little brick building about 6 little "hotel rooms" where the participants stay.  Andy and I have one of these.  We've got two beds, a fridge, and a shower to ourselves.  Very nice. Very peaceful.  The whole place is shaded by huge spreading trees so that all day long the buildings are covered by a wonderful, leafy, green canopy.  Nice place to wake up.  Nice place to sit and talk.  Nice place to have dinner.  Nice place to come home to after a long, hot day.  Nice place to enjoy the evening breeze.  You get the picture...

We've spent a lot of time out in the city with people from the team here. Yesterday and today we spent time in one of the black townships about 20 miles out of Pretoria. The white government created these townships in the apartheid days to keep the blacks separate and contained. Most people have heard of Soweto -- it is one of the more famous of the townships. Yesterday we were in Hammanskraal and then today in Soshanguve. Both of these are poor areas with small houses, mostly made from concrete (the good ones) or plywood and tin.

I can't begin to tell you the stories now, but today we spent a great deal of time on house visits with volunteers from a black South African organization called "Home of Joy" that looks out for the needs of children who have been orphaned by AIDS. There are hundreds of kids in these neighborhoods who have lost their parents to AIDS. Some of them have been taken in by relatives, some of them live on their own in the tiny houses built by their now-dead parents. You cannot visit a place like this and not be moved.

And, yet, the stories and videos that we've all seen from Africa are true. We were greeted with smiles and waves, treated like honored guests. Polite and dignified adults. Laughing, friendly children. I put my hand on the shoulder of one tiny little bald boy, his head barely up to my waist and that was all it took: he followed me around the rest of the afternoon.

Why are things this way? Honestly, I don't understand it.

13 April 2004

Johannesburg Morning

After a long night on the plane the sun came up and we saw South Africa below us. Off to the east the Kalahari Desert and then below us the open plains of northern South Africa.

And how about this: have you ever wondered while watching one of those Disney movies set in the African desert (I guess I'm thinking of the Lion King here) if those colors they use at sunrise and sunset are actually accurate? I have. I've always been a little doubtful especially when it comes to that peculiar shade of green they use, always thought it was made up. I mean, really, the sky can't really be that warm, yellowy-green, can it?

Well, I found out: Yes, it can.

[Here's a bigger version of that picture.]

12 April 2004

The Dark Continent

7:45pm (Belgian coast) -- Another miraculous sunset out my window. We are crossing the Channel. I am seated at the back of the plane on the right and the sun is turning blood red, setting through the vapor trails. We are heading almost straight south and the night will be long one. We should be arriving in Johannesburg just as the sun is rising.

10:35pm (North Africa) -- We are crossing into North Africa, coming ashore between Constantine and Annaba. I can tell by the shapes of the clusters of light on the ground below that I am somewhere very different. There are no "grids" and the lights seem to string out like running vines. Soon we will be over the Sahara. Tunis to my left and Algiers to my right and Orion my companion in the southwestern sky. What a vast world this is!

11:30pm (The Sahara Desert) -- We are almost directly south of Tripoli. The stars above us are blazing brightly; below us all is black, not a light to be seen in any direction.

11:55pm (The Sahara) -- A string of towns like footprints across the desert. Ghat far off our starboard wing.

More later...

11 April 2004

Heading South

...and we're off. Leaving for our flight to London and then on to South Africa in a few minutes. Looking forward to seeing the sun.

About Yesterday

Yesterday we rode the train to Edinburgh across the green fields of Scotland's narrow mid-section. Arriving at the Edinburgh station, the first and most obvious element of the city is the castle which is situated on the top of a rocky cliff directly above the train yard. We set out immediately, as I'm sure most tourists do, to climb the hill toward the castle. Apparently most of Edinburgh's visitors yesterday were of like mind because the street only got more and more crowded as we climbed higher. The tourist shops were bustling. William Wallace was posing with housewives and fraternity boys on the streetcorner. After a hectic hour navigating the crowds, we split up to explore the city.

I went down the hill and away from the center, immediately drawn toward a high, rocky bluff to the east. It turned out to be an old hunting park called Holyrood Park surrounded on three sides by the city and, on its eastern side, by the Firth of Forth (which is one of the best names for a bay that I have ever heard.) I climbed to the top (823 ft.) and sat for an hour writing in my journal and taking a few pictures before moseying my way back down into the city.

Back in the city center, the Goths were swarming (no, really!) In one of the central squares, a large group of very young, very somberly dressed kids were standing around. They were smoking and shouting and hugging and walking around with a great deal of carefully-rehearsed nonchalance. They made me curious so I stood in the middle of the crowd (maybe 125 or so) for awhile and struck up a conversation with a couple of them when they passed too close to ignore me. It turned out that they always do this, that there are a couple clubs close by that they all frequent. They were very polite and interested in me, wondering where I was from, why I was in Edinburgh. They ran to get friends to introduce to me. I took pictures of a few of them, including a boy named James who was wearing a rather non-Goth outfit which included a bright pink wig and a pair of enormous fake breasts under his denim jacket.

We stayed to watch the lights come on up at the castle (an exercise which would have been much more enjoyable in the company of my wife-to-be) and then made for the train station and home to Glasgow.

Surprise

"On the evening of that Sunday, when the disciples were gathered behind locked doors, Jesus came and stood among them. He said to them, 'Peace be with you, alleluia.'"

Now that would be a surprise.

The Scots

Outside the queen's residence in Edinburgh:

"A Scotchman must be a very sturdy moralist who does not love Scotland better than truth."
- Robert Croucher, quoted by Samuel Johnson

"There's only one thing in this world worse than being Scottish: that's not being Scottish."
- P. Hansen

"A Scot is a man who keeps the Sabbath, and everything else he can lay his hands on."
- C. Murray

10 April 2004

A Tiny Place

Just got back from a day in Edinburgh. The best day of the trip so far. It's too late to write the details now but I'll fill you in soon, including such tidbits as my climb to the top of the mountain and my Goth photo shoot. That and some lovely sheep stomach for dinner...

A quote I ran across:

"Traveling makes one modest -- you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world."
- Gustave Flaubert, quoted by Paul Theroux

Goodnight and happy Easter.

09 April 2004

Tired

It's Friday evening here and I'm tired. It's been a WORK week, for sure. We are getting our job done, but I scarcely feel like I'm traveling, exploring a city on the other side of the world. We've been struggling to organize our ideas. Yesterday, finally, we saw some light -- I spent two hours sitting in the window of an espresso shop, writing down ideas, trying to visualize Scotland on video. That gave us a direction to go. Today we went. As a result, things feel more under control than they have yet.

I'm finding that it's a struggle sometimes to work cooperatively on a project. It is stretching me to collaborate. I'd much rather run the show. I guess I don't share well. Who knew?

On the bright side, the Glasgow weather has performed admirably for us. Little showers of rain, maybe once a day. Often cloudy, sometimes splashes of sun, occasional bright blue sky, we've been able to be outside as much as we have wanted. It has been relatively warm all the way through. I have yet to take my wool jacket out of my suitcase.

I'd recount my day for you but it would be a spectacularly boring story...

08 April 2004

What We're Doing Here

Any thought in the back of my head that this trip was going to be a bit of a vacation has long been banished (well, maybe it is a bit, but a very, very small bit.) We are busy from morning to night and struggling with the task at hand. It's a little like driving down the freeway with your eyes closed -- we know we're moving fast and that there's not very much time and that the simple decisions we make here will make a big difference down the road -- and I think we're both a little daunted by the size of the job.

For anyone who doesn't know, the overview: We are spending these three weeks with two teams of people from the organization we work with (CRM); one in Glasgow and one in Pretoria. I'm functioning as the producer/interviewer/photographer, Andy is the videographer/photographer. We're working to understand what we're seeing, organize it, compile it, and shoot it so that it can be communicated clearly to people who know nothing about it. And do it in a visually interesting way. This, I am discovering, is difficult work.

07 April 2004

Church Pub or Pub Church?

Down the street from where I'm staying in Glasgow, there is a pub. This is not remarkable. The remarkable part is that the pub is situated in an old stone church with a towering steeple, maybe hundreds of years old. In some way, this makes sense to me: when the idea of God ceases to be relevant in the society, the society begins to find its own solutions to the problems it faces.

By the way, the light here is wonderful. And the sunsets aren't bad either.




05 April 2004

Layers

So how DO you get through the layers? How do you re-sensitize yourself to the world?

This is how I'm going to try: By looking closely. By paying attention. By not judging.

Notes from the Road

6:15pm (Barstow, California) -- We're on the way! Taking off into the evening sky, we tilt up over the Pacific before swinging eastward over the Mojave Desert. The arid hills below are glowing bright orange in the setting sun.

8:15pm (Las Vegas, Nevada) -- The sunset over Nevada is beautiful and peaceful. We are flying high and smooth with a clear sky above and below. To the west the horizon is a blazing red line that quickly cools to a deep cobalt, high altitude blue.

6:02am (southern Greenland) -- The miraculous, wild beauty which is Greenland from above. The pack ice along the eastern shoreline is broken up into smaller pieces than it was when I last passed over it. The man across the aisle from me reminds me of a potato. He is short and round and has not moved in his seat since the plane took off.

5:30pm (London) -- On the street in front of St. Paul's, the sun is reflecting off the rain-shiny pavement. The bare trees are glistening with drops. Everything is bright. The sign in front of Starbucks say "Pop In For A Visit."

8:40pm (Manchester) -- In the air again, the lights of the towns below look like spiders splayed out across the countryside. As we fly over, they seem to creep in and out from beneath the carpet of low-lying clouds.

9:02pm (Glasgow) -- Glasgow is all orange lights. There must be a rule about it.

02 April 2004

My List of Important Things

My fiance and I went down to the ocean a couple nights ago. The point was to get away from the noise and to spend a little quiet time together before my trip.

[Planning a wedding is like inviting a bear to dinner. You can never be sure what he's going to eat (the food on his plate? the plate itself? the furniture? me?) and you must maintain the highest vigilance to keep him from taking over the house. If you're not careful, he can chase you right out the door.]

We stood on the beach and looked at the stars. Which was good. We sat on the lifeguard tower and slid around it, staying in the shadow, when the beach patrol 4WD came by.

And gradually I noticed what had been there all the time, although it took a second walk down to the water to really begin to see it. It was this: a sense of space around me, a no-man's-land like the space between the two Koreas or around the Federal Correctional Institution in Victorville that we drove past two weeks ago. Like I was wrapped in heavy flannel. Like everything I have been saying and doing, everything I have been experiencing, has had to pound its way through the layers in order to get my attention. This, of course, requires everything to be loud and violent, extreme, harsh. This is a sad state of affairs.

It is the way I get sometimes when it seems that are too many weeds and not enough hands to pull them.

It is also the way I get when I am not keeping things in the right order.

At times like these, I will sometimes look at my List of Important Things and find that the things of monumental importance, the mountains, have somehow been relegated to positions of relative dishonor, like, say, number 34 on the list, and the miniscule bits, the specks of dust, have accomplished a revolution and are sitting pretty at the top, number 1, 2, and 3.

What is going on here? Who has been tinkering with my List? I would like to blame it on the devil, or the culture around me, or indigestion, but I think I know the answer. The answer is me. Whether through apathetic inattention or intentional distraction, I am to blame.

Now I am getting ready to leave on a trip which will require my careful attention and my persistent alertness. I am not entirely sure if I can pull it off -- fortunately, I will have about 24 hours of travel/meditation time to prepare myself -- but at least I am watching for it.

As for my fiance, she was the one who suggested I go back down to the water's edge and wait a little longer. She was also the one who held my hand while I babbled on about everything else but the real problem for minutes on end. I am surely blessed.

As for me, I am grateful for bells that ring from church towers in the morning.

01 April 2004

What To Read

I've been looking for a book to take with me on this trip. It's nice to read something relevant when you're traveling somewhere new. I picked up the autobiography of Nelson Mandela today in the bookstore, but it has somewhere around 8 million pages and I'm feeling a little bit of advance jetlag. And besides there are all those boring facts.

So I'm trying to find something a little shorter, and funnier, with a nice balance of historical erudition and entertaining (but thoughtful) personal observation. This should all be mixed with a bit of postmodern irony and a dash of world-weary commentary. In addition the book should attempt to deal compassionately with the struggles of the downtrodden masses (in a balanced and democratic way) and yet maintain a cool, reserved composure, showing the author to be informed, intellectual, at a distance, full of refined opinions. The book should be popular, so I can mention it in passing. The book should have pretty, textured artwork on the cover. The book should make cultural observations and witty comments accessible only to a certain, priveleged cross-section of society. The book should quote Noam Chomsky. The book should be hip. And cool. And hot. The book should be like sitting in a Starbucks (with the air conditioning set to "Arctic") on the corner of Mumbai and Mogadishu.

Do you think they have any like that?