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Recent entries

  1. A podcast with Michael Geist on technology and politics
  2. Next steps
  3. On what electoral reform reforms
  4. 2019 Fall campaign newsletter / infolettre campagne d'automne 2019
  5. 2019 Summer newsletter / infolettre été 2019
  6. 2019-07-15 SECU 171
  7. 2019-06-20 RNNR 140
  8. 2019-06-17 14:14 House intervention / intervention en chambre
  9. 2019-06-17 SECU 169
  10. 2019-06-13 PROC 162
  11. 2019-06-10 SECU 167
  12. 2019-06-06 PROC 160
  13. 2019-06-06 INDU 167
  14. 2019-06-05 23:27 House intervention / intervention en chambre
  15. 2019-06-05 15:11 House intervention / intervention en chambre
  16. older entries...

Latest comments

Michael D on Keeping Track - Bus system overhaul coming to Guelph while GO station might go to Lafarge after all
Steve Host on Keeping Track - Bus system overhaul coming to Guelph while GO station might go to Lafarge after all
G. T. on Abolish the Ontario Municipal Board
Anonymous on The myth of the wasted vote
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Links of interest

  1. 2009-03-27: The Mother of All Rejection Letters
  2. 2009-02: Road Worriers
  3. 2008-12-29: Who should go to university?
  4. 2008-12-24: Tory aide tried to scuttle Hanukah event, school says
  5. 2008-11-07: You might not like Obama's promises
  6. 2008-09-19: Harper a threat to democracy: independent
  7. 2008-09-16: Tory dissenters 'idiots, turds'
  8. 2008-09-02: Canadians willing to ride bus, but transit systems are letting them down: survey
  9. 2008-08-19: Guelph transit riders happy with 20-minute bus service changes
  10. 2008=08-06: More people riding Edmonton buses, LRT
  11. 2008-08-01: U.S. border agents given power to seize travellers' laptops, cellphones
  12. 2008-07-14: Planning for new roads with a green blueprint
  13. 2008-07-12: Disappointed by Layton, former MPP likes `pretty solid' Dion
  14. 2008-07-11: Riders on the GO
  15. 2008-07-09: MPs took donations from firm in RCMP deal
  16. older links...

All stories filed under foreign...

  1. 2006-06-20: Canada's role in the War in Afghanistan
  2. 2006-08-10: My Heart is Africa
  3. 2006-08-17: My Heart is Africa - The Nairobi Railway Museum
  4. 2006-08-28: My Heart is Africa - Carnivore, and seeing the animals we ate
  5. 2006-08-29: CBC's Henry Champ and the ... Soviets?
  6. 2006-09-05: Border madness
  7. 2006-09-12: A few differences between our countries
  8. 2006-09-26: My Heart is Africa - A cross-cultural wedding
  9. 2006-10-26: My Heart is Africa - On Safari: Lake Nakuru's flamingos and the Naivasha Highway
  10. 2006-11-28: Nation vote makes international news -- that is, outside of both Quebec and Canada
  11. 2007-10-31: On cross border shopping and tax cuts
  12. 2007-12-26: American health insurance
  13. 2008-02-20: Recognising Kosovar independence will have little impact on Quebec separatism
  14. 2008-04-23: The Democratic Primaries and Us
  15. 2008-08-13: Bush prepares his October Surprise
  16. 2008-09-26: Is the US bailout the largest heist in world history?
  17. 2010-02-09: Keeping Track - Why Canada should adopt the Turks and Caicos

Displaying the most recent stories under foreign...

Keeping Track - Why Canada should adopt the Turks and Caicos

Going for the slightly off-beat in this month's column.

What would you say to Canada, the Caribbean nation?

Since prime minister Robert Borden first brought it up in 1917, the idea of Canada absorbing the British island chain of Turks and Caicos has periodically surfaced in Canadian discourse. As we look out at our short, cold days and ponder whether our passports are up to date for a trip to Florida, perhaps it is, once again, time to consider offering the Caribbean nation Canadian citizenship.

The idea is not new, and since Borden's proposal nearly a century ago, both Canada and the Turks and Caicos have brought up the notion periodically over the years. The islands are not independent now, being still under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, and so changing allegiance to a fellow Commonwealth member that would pay more attention to it would not likely be a major problem.

Geographically, the Turks and Caicos are well positioned. They are just north of Hispaniola, the island that Haiti and the Dominican Republic share, and just east of Cuba. Canada would have an international presence in a part of the world where we barely exist today, able to assist in much more real terms with disasters such as last month's earthquake in Haiti.

The population of Turks and Caicos is around 23,000 people. That's about the same size as the University of Guelph. For providing 23,000 people access to universal health care and a seat in Parliament, what could we get?

We would expand our 202,080 kilometres of cold, northern coastline by 389 km of tropical beaches, and expand our 9,984,670 square km country by 948 square km, an increase of nearly one per cent of one per cent. While dramatic, that is not the reason.

Giving Canadians a domestic location in the Caribbean Sea would have major economic benefits for Canada, as well as the tourism-dependent Turks and Caicos. It is one of many territories in the world still governed by the United Kingdom, who wouldn't miss it. As a part of Canada, it would be treated as a special place, not as one in a litany of overseas possessions; the Turks and Caicos would be the only inhabited Canadian territory not contiguous to the rest of modern Canada.

Thousands of Canadians travel to the southern United States and the Caribbean every winter to get away from our short days and long snow squalls, many staying down there for the entire winter. It all results in a lot of money directly leaving our economy with little more than a collective sun tan to show for it. If a substantial portion of those Canadians wintered in Turks and Caicos, the island would benefit from the massive amount of investment and all Canadians would benefit from keeping our expenditures within our borders and from having a warm place to go on a domestic flight. Even scuba divers could rejoice at having a place to go deep in Canada in February that is not cold.

We are a people known for cottaging and travelling for recreation. Many Canadians would not think twice about taking the five-hour flight from Toronto to Vancouver to see friends. The Turks and Caicos, on the other hand, can be reached from Toronto's Pearson airport in under four hours.

Not to say that there would be no drawbacks. Turks and Caicos are right in the path of more hurricanes than you or I care to think about, for one thing. Moreover, it would risk casting Canada to the world as a neocolonial power. However, while none of us will admit it, Canada's history is rich in annexations and expansion, and so adopting a friendly little territory just south of the Tropic of Cancer would not be completely out of character for a country that peacefully absorbed a neighbour as recently as 1949.

Canada is, fundamentally, a country that cares about others. How could we go wrong offering a little piece of Canada to the Caribbean community?

Besides, were Canada to absorb the Turks and Caicos, we would need to change our national motto. We would be Canada, A Mari usque ad Mare usque ad Mare usque ad Mare. It would be worth it just for that.

columns foreign 720 words - permanent link - comments: 0. Posted at 22:08 on February 09, 2010

Is the US bailout the largest heist in world history?

I'm baffled by the American reaction to a proposal to buy 5% of the country's entire GDP worth of privately held debt, drive the national debt to over ten trillion dollars -- that's $10^13, or about $1560 for every person on the planet -- and not help a single person that actually needs the help in the process.

With the US deficit already running at half a trillion dollars per year under Conservative-style mismanagement, this move will drive that number up dramatically. With Canada's GDP being about $1.3 trillion, the US deficit this year could well equal 100% of Canada's GDP. Anyone who claims at this point that who is in charge of the government has no bearing on the state of the economy needs to take a good long, hard look in the mirror.

While injecting $700 billion (plus or minus $700 billion) into the economy sounds great, one has to wonder where it will come from, and where it will go to. Near as I can tell, it will come from the people across the country who have lost their homes, and go to the people who took them. But don't worry: the trickle-down effect will save the economy!

Canada has gone from boom to bust in just two years of Conservative government, with only Alberta's oil boom keeping Canada out of a textbook recession. Just a month after taking office, CMHC under Conservative guidance started permitting longer mortgages that would drive Canadians deeper into debt. That has changed very recently, but it shows the mentality currently at the top in this country.

foreign money 275 words - permanent link - comments: 2. Posted at 11:02 on September 26, 2008

Bush prepares his October Surprise

With three months left to influence who his successor is, President Bush is sending the US military on a "humanitarian" mission to Georgia, the former Soviet republic currently at war with Russia. Setting up American troops to be facing Russian troops in a hot war cannot end well.

foreign politics 53 words - permanent link - comments: 0. Posted at 12:10 on August 13, 2008

The Democratic Primaries and Us

I have to ask my fellow Canadian bloggers: if American bloggers had taken as keen and active a partisan interest in the Liberal leadership race two years ago, spinning and defending, insulting and chastising our candidates, how would you react?

elections foreign politics 45 words - permanent link - comments: 8. Posted at 10:13 on April 23, 2008

Recognising Kosovar independence will have little impact on Quebec separatism

It is a matter of credibility for Canada. Like it or not, we contributed militarily to what amounts to Kosovo's war of independence. To not recognise Kosovar independence now would be a reversal of a position we backed up with our own military.

In 1999, Canada sent 16 CF-18s into battle, dropping a significant proportion of the bombs dropped by NATO aircraft in that war. Canada partook in the bombing of Serbia to drive out the Serbs from Kosovo. The result has been de facto independence for Kosovo for the 9 years since. Now that Kosovo has declared independence, it only makes sense for Canada to recognise what we helped make happen.

The argument that recognising Kosovar independence would affect Canada's relationship with Quebec makes little sense. Quebec is not an oppressed region desperately wanting out by the near unanimous consent of even its majority French population. Even at the height of separatism in Quebec, the province could not even muster 50% support for a negotiation of any sort with Canada in a referendum with a deceptive question.

The FLQ attacks and the October crisis of 1970 hardly merit being called a war of independence, and it certainly did not gain widespread and lasting acceptance by the population as a legitimate means to secede. No foreign countries have felt a need to bomb the rest of Canada out of Quebec.

I see no real parallels between Kosovo and Quebec. The backgrounds are different, the scenarios are different, the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia and the relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada are completely incomparable.

So let's get on with it.

Congratulations Kosovo on the official declaration of what has been true for almost a decade, the independence of your country.

foreign politics unity 302 words - permanent link - comments: 0. Posted at 10:18 on February 20, 2008

American health insurance

I'm in the States visiting my in-laws. Reading through today's local paper, there is a story about a new law in the neighbouring state of Massachusetts which is being touted as universal healthcare. The idea is simple: everyone must buy health insurance, or face fines.

I don't know of any place in the world other than the United States that forcing people to buy health insurance on pain of fines can possibly be considered universal healthcare. For people who cannot afford healthcare insurance, adding a fine on top of their other expenses is not going to help matters.

For reference, this law is signed by former Mass. Governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Ugh.

foreign 118 words - permanent link - comments: 1. Posted at 14:24 on December 26, 2007

On cross border shopping and tax cuts

Where is the demand for lower salaries to match US salaries to match the demand for lower prices to match US prices? Why are we borrowing another $60B of interest payments against our future in tax cuts?

Our prices and our salaries are generally related; the money you are paid has to come from somewhere. In order for Canadians' demand that our prices be lowered to match US prices to be met, we will ultimately pay the price in lower Canadian salaries to match US salaries. While it is nice to get a better price by going south of the border, that money is directly leaving our economy and will also ultimately contribute to the lowering of Canadian income. If prices in Canada are lowered to match US prices too quickly and the US dollar recovers from its decline, we will be hurt again by having unaffordably low prices in Canada that consumers will not tolerate being raised. It sounds great in theory and I am not one to shun a better price, but there are greater ramifications to the national price match than just saving a few dollars at the checkout counter.

The one caveat though is if the much-feared SPP's plans include a currency integration, which I do not doubt, then the price and salary match will inevitably come sooner or later. With the dollar where it is at, if we as a country were to collectively convert all our currency to US $ at today's exchange rate as we integrate currencies, we would stand to do mighty well. But then we'd be stuck with an integrated currency, for better or for worse.

Which leads me to finance minister Flaherty's mini budget, which gives us, collectively, $60B more in tax cuts. That brings us to what, $200 billion in tax cuts in the last few years? What could we have done with $200 billion? If it were up to me, we'd have paid off 1/3 of our national debt and used the interest savings of another $10 or $15 billion a year to pay off more of the national debt. Once it's gone, then I'll take my tax cut. Until then, any tax cut is little more than borrowing against our future. Any dollar we don't put against our debt now will be two we have to pay later in interest payments and debt that remains.

When will the current governing generation stop borrowing from ours?

foreign money 415 words - permanent link - comments: 0. Posted at 10:24 on October 31, 2007

Nation vote makes international news -- that is, outside of both Quebec and Canada

From my IRC log this morning, I found this three-am conversation between three mostly European Linux kernel folks on the topic of the vote:

03:05 <ahu> Quebec has become a nation!
03:06 * jeffpc wonders what cdlu will have to say about this
03:07 <peterz> uh, city in .ca?
03:07 <peterz> its own nation
03:07 <peterz> whatever for
03:07 <jeffpc> peterz: a province
03:07 <peterz> ah
03:08 <peterz> so now canada is smaller?
03:08 <jeffpc> seems so
03:08 <ahu> it is a nation within a country it appears
03:08 <jeffpc> huh?
03:08 <peterz> like a state, in the united states?
03:08 <peterz> we are but we are not
03:09 <jeffpc> ahu, peterz: I always thought that provinces were much like .us's states
03:09 <ahu> no idea
03:09 <ahu> these things quite often revolve around taxes

Thank you, parliament, for helping to make this matter so clear for the world.

foreign politics unity 163 words - permanent link - comments: 1. Posted at 09:54 on November 28, 2006

My Heart is Africa - On Safari: Lake Nakuru's flamingos and the Naivasha Highway

Inspired by Scott Griffin's book, "My Heart is Africa", this is the fifth instalment in the story of my short, eye-opening vacation to the East African republic of Kenya for my brother's wedding earlier this year.

We went back to our hotel cottage for our last night in Nairobi. The corners of our beds had been folded over and the blinds closed for the night, ostensibly a luxury that I never really got used to. Over the previous week a lot had happened. I made mental note of the level of pay of the average person around. From what I could gather, Lucy, the full-time housekeeper where we stayed, was paid generously at around 5000/= per month, an amount equal to around $70 US per month. On this salary, she was raising two children.

While we were in Nairobi, a plane had crashed short of the runway at Wilson airport, killing its occupants. The newspaper story indicated that people from the nearby Kibera slum had come out to try and rescue the occupants, indicating that this was something the residents were rather used to doing. Flying culture, it seems, is a little different there.

On this last night, also, the local newspaper showed not one, but two major corruption scandals breaking in the national government. The 'AdScam' corruption scandal in Canada that had brought down our government just a few weeks earlier seemed rather piddly next to these stories.

Our week in Nairobi had been quite the experience, but it was time for the next step. I arranged with John, the matatu driver, before going to sleep to pick us up in his car at Wilson airport at the end of our safari and take us back to Naivasha to chase the steam excursion we had learned about at the Nairobi museum a few days earlier. I would get my train after all.

I really had no idea what to expect on a Safari. The closest impression I had was of the cad in the South African movie, "The Gods Must be Crazy", with his completely open two-floor safari bus. Somehow I didn't think this is what it was actually going to be like. Whatever it was going to be like, I would find out in the morning.

We were thirty-six people going on Safari. Six people would be leaving part way through, and six others would be joining us, for a total of forty-two, but we'd have thirty-six at any given time. All of us crowded around the check-out desk at the Windsor sorting through the chaos of checking out a large group who could not take all their bags.

Everyone had repacked their bags so they would have no more than one suitcase and one handbag per couple, plus cameras and whatever other hand-held gear people wanted. Everything else had to go into a pile in the lobby of the Windsor to be taken over to my sister-in-law's house for the week, at which point we would try and figure out who was what's again and head off to the airport.

After a while, everyone's checkout was more or less sorted and we migrated outside to await our vans. Within a few minutes, a fleet of six clean, white matatu-type vans drove in like a swat team, with large antennas bouncing off the back-left side of each, sporting tennis balls in the middle preventing them from impacting the sides of the vans.

Each van could seat eight people, plus the driver, and held two spare tires, giving us a total of 12. With 36 of us, six vans meant that one could break down and we would be able to abandon it without leaving anyone behind, though two failing could be a bit of a problem.

We each chose a van and boarded it. Our van was driven by a large fellow named Dominic.

Our fleet of six vans departed the Windsor and began the hour long trek across Nairobi and out the far end. We passed Kibera one more time and continued out of the city on our way to the Aberdare, a major country club below Mount Kenya, the second highest mountain in the country behind Mount Kilimanjaro, which straddles the equator and reaches an elevation of around 17,000 feet.

As we left the city in earnest we passed a sight I wasn't quite prepared for. Cyclists were merrily going about their business with rather incredible loads. One appeared to be a moving ball of hay with no bicycle or cyclist actually visible. Not too long after, we passed another cyclist with a stack of plastic trays easily eight feet tall on the back of his bike.

Eventually, we pulled into a parking lot with dozens of other safari vans at a little shop. It was mid morning and the temperature was already up. I was not particularly interested in the souvenir shop, the first of many we would see on our safari, but did make use of the stop to pick up a couple of litres of water at around 100/= per bottle, a fraction of the cost of water at the Windsor.

We stayed there for most of an hour before heading off toward Mount Kenya once more. We soon found ourselves on a two lane road with another two lanes dug up, clearly in preparation for a widening of the road. There was no evidence of any kind of work crew on the road, but it was nevertheless prepared. Particularly rough parts of the existing road were covered in rocks and old tires in an effort to prevent its use.

As we approached our destination for the day, we were once again reminded of the total absence of vehicle standards as we pulled up behind a dump truck climbing a hill with black diesel exhaust virtually obscuring the truck on an otherwise clear day.

Kenyan emissions standards

Mount Kenya came into occasional view and the height of it clearly demonstrated a phenomenon I learned about in flight school. Mountain waves created a curious little series of clouds coming off the top of the mountain. It looked like a sine wave with each iteration being a bit less intense until it was no longer visible some distance from the peak.

We parked at the Aberdare country club and learned that we would only be allowed to take one small bag with us up the mountain to the Ark, where we would be spending the night. Anything else should be checked and left behind at the Aberdare. It took a while to sort this all out, but we eventually did and wandered as a group, along with scores of other tourists and their safari groups, over to a building for lunch. I don't recall what we had for lunch, but I do remember some large birds being un-shy to help people eat bread-rolls after we had had our fill.

The whole group of tourists was herded onto three busses, our group managing, somehow, to all be in the same one, and we headed off to climb the mountain to the Ark.

We exited the Aberdare and went a little ways up a main road before heading onto a single lane unimproved back-road for the hour-long trip to the Ark. This road is the roughest road I have ever travelled on, and being in a tall bus made it a wholly unpleasant trip. We bounced and wound our way up the mountain, to an elevation of around 9000 feet.

We came over a hill and onto a straightaway on this road, and all came to a stop. There was a gap in the trees, and, across a valley, we could see the Ark's shape in the distance, with an elephant walking in front of it.

We continued on, arriving a few minutes later. We were unloaded by a raised wooden walkway, and after a safety briefing that included a warning not to exit the building at any time without being a part of an organised tour by park rangers, headed the few hundred feet down the walkway to the Ark.

The Ark is named after Noah's Ark and is ostensibly shaped like the biblical shape. It is boat-like, with each room containing two single beds on opposite walls and a small window, There is a rear deck that overlooks a watering hole and several viewing platforms around the facility from which to watch passing wildlife.

Each room is equipped with a buzzer and the staff sound them during the night if any of various rare animals come by. Different numbers of buzzes represent different animals.

Shortly after our arrival, the elephant left, not to return while we were there. A large variety of birds, bison, antelope, and domestic-size wild cats came through over the course of the evening, providing plenty for us to see on this first day of safari.

We went to the dining room for a sub-par dinner and then resumed walking around watching out various windows and viewing platforms as animals came and went. There were informational sessions held by staff that were quite interesting.

Eventually, we returned to our room. I climbed into my bed, and quickly jumped back out of it. Not only had our sheets been turned down here, as they had been at the Windsor, but part of the luxury is apparently putting a hot water bottle in the bed. After determining that this was the sole culprit to my bedtime surprise, I removed it and climbed back in for the night.

I don't recall the buzzer ever going off.

In the morning, Mount Kenya was visible a few miles to the north and was appropriately lit for photos. I took one good shot of it and then gathered my stuff together for our return back down the mountain.

We loaded up the busses in preparation for our departure, and just as the last people were boarding, some elephants showed up on the site. The general consensus on our bus was that the elephants knew the schedule of the tourists fairly accurately and only came out when it was quiet and touristless.

We took our long trek back down the mountain which was nowhere near as bad as going up it, perhaps because I had the night to mentally prepare myself for it, and returned to the Aberdare. I took the opportunity to get into a different safari van. My driver from the day before was a perfectly good driver, but I like to sit up front and talk to the driver and, well, mine wasn't very talkative. I had heard that a driver named Moses was a lot of fun, and got in next to him, with my wife and parents joining me in the back.

Moses was younger than Dominic and was a lot more fun. He had a lot to teach us, and I quickly learned that his name is actually Luku. Moses, Dominic, and the other drivers' names were their baptismal names used for the benefit of tourists rather than the names used among themselves, which in turn was yet another one that I cannot remember.

Moses is from the Mombasa area, on the coast of Kenya. He has a wife and kids who he sees occasionally between week-long safaris. He, like nearly every local I met, was among the happiest people I've ever met, seeming to enjoy every minute of every day.

Our convoy left the Aberdare after sorting out our bags and we headed in a generally northerly direction. After about an hour and a half we arrived at a curio shop with a big hand-painted sign out from that read, with a basic black map of Africa dominating the sign, "You are now on the EQUATOR Alt. 2265M". The "EQUATOR" was written in red across the centre of the sign with the first part at the top and the altitude at the bottom. The elevation at this point on the equator is around 7,431 feet, if you prefer that over the 2,265M from the sign.

At this equator checkpoint a local came out and, predictably, did the water demonstration, showing that 50-odd feet north of the equator, the water spun counterclockwise, while 50-odd feet south of the equator, the water spun clockwise. Under the equator sign, the water did not spin at all. To accomplish this, he used a small bucket of water with a small funnel, and a second bucket to pour the water into. As he poured the water from the full bucket to the empty bucket via the funnel, he added matchsticks to the water so that the direction of the turn would be visible.

While I saw a demonstration on Discovery channel some months later demonstrating how easy this is to fake, it was still a neat demonstration if only for the entertainment value.

After seeing this demonstration, we were encouraged to tour the associated shop where large collections of mostly not particularly useful souvenirs could be purchased at far above their actual value. Some people bought items, and then we had the next part of the show. Our names were collected, and the operator of the shop distributed certificates to each member of our safari stating that we had crossed the equator, for which she was richly rewarded with tips.

After around half an hour, we got back in our convoy and took off for the next stop: our first venture into the Rift Valley.

We came up to the top of a long hill and started down it, shortly coming to a series of curio shops and a lookout point. Our van, having become detached from the convoy, pulled off and we all hopped out.

The view of the rift valley from this point is not one that can be described. I have no words for it, and photos cannot do it justice. Way down below us the road we were on was visible as was a microscopic safari van which we figured was one of ours. The enjoyment of the view was short-lived however as locals with memorable teeth descended on us and tried to sell us more souvenirs. A woman tried to sell me a plate with a painting of the rift valley on it for 800/=, dropping the price to 100/= before finally giving up on me actually buying it. Feeling badly for her, but not wanting to buy anything, I retreated to the van where Moses assured me it was OK to ignore her.

As we departed the curio shop and lookout, Moses tried to raise the other vans on his radio to see where they were but they were out of range and did not reply.

We started down the hill eventually winding our way to the floor of the rift valley, arriving in a town whose name translates from Kikuyu as 'Hot Water'. After passing through this town, we took a left turn and continued a little ways before stopping at another mass collection point for safari vans. After a short stop we were on our way again, heading along the floor of the Rift Valley toward the town of Nakuru. I was not sure what awaited us there.

We arrived at the entrance to Lake Nakuru National Park nearly an hour ahead of the other vans. It turned out one of them had a flat tire behind us, and the others had stopped to help out.

As we waited, parked in the shade outside the gate to the park, we saw a number of new things.

I have seen dust devils around here, before, a couple of times in my life. A small column of dust a few feet tall sweeps up and blows away. It is not generally very exciting.

A little ways off, a zebra stood still, not doing anything in particular. As we watched, a large dust devil came up and swept by the zebra, which moved a few feet as it passed before resuming not doing much. As we watched, it became apparent that dust devils happened every couple of minutes somewhere in the area. In the distance, lake Nakuru was visible. The lake had a bit of a pink hue to it.

At the same time as the zebra was getting a dusting, a number of small, playful monkeys showed up. One of them climbed into a large unoccupied Land Rover's open window near us and exited the vehicle a moment later holding a piece of paper. It then ran off with its prize.

A few minutes later, another monkey jumped out of a nearby tree and ran madly across the field with another monkey in hot pursuit. It quickly became apparent that the first was holding a banana. Watching the monkeys provided us endless entertainment as we waited for the rest of the vans to show up.

Eventually the rest of the vans showed up and we entered the park, following curvy gravel roads toward the lake. We passed a flock of pelicans and an assortment of other birds. Shortly, the lake came into view and a stunning sight appeared before us.

Lake Nakuru's flamingos

As far as the eye can see, lake Nakuru is covered with flamingos. The whole lake is pink from the numbers of them. It defies the imagination.

We got out of our vans and walked around the beach near the flamingos. The beach stank but the view was amazing. I walked towards the birds along the beach and found that they were able to keep a constant distance from me as a group. As I walked toward them, they all moved at the same speed as me creating a gap in the flock. I could get no closer. Very few of the birds flew while we were there, so there was no chance of getting a stunning photo of the whole flock taking off.

After taking in this sight for a while, we collected back in our vans and prepared to leave. In the distance, under some trees, a number of adult rhinos were visible.

We took a wrong turn somewhere in the park and ended up taking a little while to exit, ultimately succeeding and finding our way back out to a main road. We left Nakuru for Naivasha where we would spend the night at a resort called the Lake Naivasha Sopa.

At this point we had not yet had lunch, though we were assured that when we arrived lunch would be waiting. It was around three in the afternoon. We drove north back out to Hot Water and headed west for Naivasha. Naivasha is connected to Nairobi on the map by a large primary highway, but on the ground this highway is still under construction.

The dry dust covered highway is roughly five lanes wide. We know this because, through blinding dust, we passed four other vehicles in a configuration from the north side of the road to the south side of the road that can be roughly described as: westbound, westbound, eastbound, westbound, eastbound. We frequently came to near complete stops hoping for the dust to settle enough to see the road in front of us. I took no pictures, my primary source of notes, through this stretch of road as I was more concerned with holding on for dear life.

There were several occasions where the condition of the travelling lanes, which were next to the highway under construction, was so bad that the ride was more comfortable if we simply went off-road, often zig-zagging all the way across the road looking for that pristine bit of dirt or unbroken pavement on which to travel.

Eventually, we passed a water truck wetting the road in an effort to keep the dust down. Following this truck were a number of women with large buckets trying to catch the free water. After an extended period on this rough road, we turned onto another highway, also under construction to go the rest of the way to the hotel where we would spend the night.

Just in case I thought the Naivasha highway was bad, this one made the previous one seem a bit like a cake walk. This highway was a wide, four lane highway, however it, too, was not finished. In this case, however, there were not roughly five travel lanes available for the bi-directional traffic, there was only one, and the dust and visibility were just as bad. The raised bed for the highway was not yet paved, and completely covered in large stones dissuading travellers from using it. Cars, trucks, and busses haphazardly shared one soft sanded ditch, resulting in heart-stopping meets between vehicles and zero-visibility criss-crossing of the unfinished highway at certain points where the safe side of the construction transitioned to the opposite side. Occasionally there were gaps wide enough to pass safely, but these were mostly ignored.

A photo my father took from the back seat captures the chaos very well, showing a fully loaded passenger bus on a severe angle hanging over the safari van in front of us. Moments later, this same bus hung over us to such an angle we literally were looking up not over, at it.

Naivasha's main highway

After a long, if not particularly far, drive in these conditions, we pulled into the Sopa. The passengers in all six vans reported breaking into spontaneous applause for the drivers at this point. Upon dropping us and our luggage off, the drivers all had to return along this highway to where they would be spending the night and one more time to pick us up in the morning. Being a safari van driver would be a shade more stressful a job than I would particularly like.

We entered the Sopa late in the afternoon, tired and hungry, and found no food available. We scattered to a number of sofas around the main lobby area and awaited the arrival of some grilled cheese sandwiches. They came slowly, as they were made, and we devoured them in short order.

Our rooms in this hotel were cottages, much like at the Windsor. At this site each cottage contained four large, luxurious rooms and was the last place we stayed which actually had televisions. We were strongly warned not to travel outside of our cottages after dark because of the risk of being killed by hippos. Armed guards would escort us at night.

My father went for a swim at the hotel pool, losing his brand new Transitions glasses which he had been using to great effect to reduce the influence of the intense sun on his eyes, causing a bit of a panic.

Dinner was a large buffet whose contents I don't recall. As we ate, some people in our group noted that outside the window to the dining room was an inoffensive looking but large animal: a baby hippo was grazing on the walkway. We learned that the hippos sit in the cool water all day in nearby Lake Naivasha, but come out at night to eat and will ram and kill people that get in their way.

With this happy thought comforting us, we recruited a security guard who took us under armed escort back to our cottage where we retired for the night.

The next morning we would head for the large region on the Tanzanian border called the Masai Mara, the home of the Masai people, and do our first game drive.

foreign 3922 words - permanent link - comments: 0. Posted at 18:07 on October 26, 2006

My Heart is Africa - A cross-cultural wedding

Inspired by Scott Griffin's book, "My Heart is Africa", this is the fourth instalment in the story of my short, eye-opening vacation to the East African republic of Kenya for my brother's wedding earlier this year.

February 3rd was the day before my brother's wedding. The day's key events were the wedding's rehearsal -- and the assembly of the wedding cake.

My parents had brought most of the ingredients for the wedding cake's four layers from Canada, an adventure in its own right. My mother had spent some time during the week experimenting with ways to make the cake in the small oven in the house of my sister-in-law's family.

The day began with my mother starting work on the cake. Each layer would take a couple of hours to make, and there was no room for error. If a mistake was made and a layer did not work, my brother would just have less wedding cake to work with.

There were four layers to be made for the cake. Only three of them would be present at the reception following the wedding. The fourth would be given to the rather large local choir whose exact function I did not yet understand.

The first layer was made without any problems. My mother assembled the ingredients, put the layer in the oven, and took it out when it was done some time later. Late in the morning, on the second or third layer, I heard from my perch upon the throne in the guest house washroom some unholy cursing coming from the kitchen in the adjacent building. The colourful language brought everyone who was around, only my father, wife, and cursing mother, at the time, to the kitchen to see what was up.

An uncooked layer of cake lay in the oven, the timer indicating that its stay in the oven was nearing completion. The oven was off, and cold. The power had been cut to it.

In a land of unstable utilities and high budget consciousness, my sister-in-law's mother cut the breaker to the washing machine when done with it, and turned off the adjacent breaker to the stove out of force of habit, on her way out of the house to run errands. The oven, which had to be precisely preheated to cook the cakes properly in the conditions we were in, was cold. Fortunately, it had been turned off just as the layer had gone in and it was not damaged.

That was the end of my time around the cake construction. That adventure would continue without me. My father and I went to the Windsor hotel while my wife stayed behind to help my mother bake. The wedding rehearsal was to take place in the afternoon and, lacking any particular official role in the wedding, I took to taking pictures of the proceedings.

We checked in and went to our new home. We would be spending the next three nights in a cottage at the Windsor. I noted our cottage contained two master bedroom type rooms which private washrooms and locking doors on both ends, one end being a series of large glass doors and the other being normal doors. The washrooms had multiple wall sockets so tourists could plug in their razors no matter where they came from, an interesting feature I would see more of. There were also small lizards kicking around, which was an improvement over the small, almost cute ants we had spent the previous days sharing our meals with.

We returned to the main lobby area to have lunch at the restaurant next to the pool at the hotel, and then returned to our room, wandering outside to our veranda overlooking the Windsor's golf course. Every few minutes a golf ball would pass, followed shortly by a golfer accompanied by a caddy. In some cases, the golf balls even stayed within the limits of the green, but it seemed to be more the exception than the rule.

The veranda sported four uncomfortable metal chairs that begged for cushions. We shortly found these and sat around waiting for preparation for the rehearsal to begin. Eventually, my brother showed up and I snapped my first photo of the day showing my brother in focus through out of focus bushes with his right hand on top of his head and a strained look on his face. The rehearsal was about to begin.

The rehearsal itself was mostly unremarkable. My mother's brother was asked to be the celebrant for the wedding and proved beyond a reasonable doubt in the rehearsal that he was a good pick for the job, at least by appearances. I got rather preoccupied photographing people's comings and goings around the site, and avoiding the frequent golf balls that landed in the immediate vicinity of the rehearsal, followed shortly by the golfers and their apologetic caddies. Truth be told, I don't recall paying much attention to the rehearsal. My job would be, along with my sister-in-law's brother, an usher. It wasn't a job that required much practice.

Various speakers practised their readings and my brother and his very soon-to-be wife traded rings and quickly took them back before giving each-other the wrong idea, as family, the Windsor's events coordinator, and some monkeys looked on.

The best man had arrived the night before and was doing his job well. The rest of my brother's friends had arrived several days earlier from England, but the best man had moved back to Brazil since being asked to be the best man and his journey to the wedding was hampered by his wife becoming ill just days before their scheduled departure. His arrival relieved some significant stress for my brother.

Following the rehearsal, I headed back to our cottage. Everyone else scattered, though I really don't know where to. I was expecting my wife and mother to show up around 5 and so sat back in the room to relax for the hour or so until their arrival.

I turned on the TV. Most channels were grainy or completely unavailable, but BBC World worked well and suited me. I hadn't seen much news in the week since I had arrived in Kenya. After a little while, someone knocked on the cottage's front door. I went to answer it, and a staff member from the Windsor came by to inform me that there was a burned out light bulb in our cottage that had been reported, but he didn't know where. We were quickly able to identify the offending light, though I hadn't reported it. I asked him if he had any batteries for the remote that I could try. He disappeared and re-emerged a few minutes later with a pair of AA batteries. I put them in the remote and found no improvement. He apologised, saying that the Windsor had ordered new remotes.

Time marched on. Five came and went. Six came and went. Seven came and went. I was hoping my wife would call with an update from the house where the cake assembly line was going. I headed up to the pool area of the hotel briefly and then returned to my room, finding not much more that I wanted to do in that area.

A little after seven, someone knocked on the door. I answered it and found another Windsor staff-person. She told me she was here to prepare the room for the night. I scratched my head and wondered what on earth she would do, and politely declined.

Eventually, my mother, my wife, and my father who had returned to the house to help, showed up carrying one layer of the wedding cake. Some of the cake was on my wife's shirt which seemed like an impractical way of carrying it, but I suspected it wasn't intentional. Sure enough, they had taken a taxi back from the house with the layer of the cake intended for the wedding choir. They had asked the taxi driver to drive carefully, as my wife would be carrying the cake in her lap. He didn't really heed the request and my wife's shirt did at least some of the holding.

We put the cake on a shelf and headed off to find dinner. We wandered down to the restaurant downstairs of the main hotel lobby, finding some of my extended family crowded around a table. We sat down at an adjacent table and began mixing with the existing table, much to the entertainment of the waiter.

That night, my wife and I stayed on the hide-a-bed in the cottage's living room while my brother pondered his last unmarried night in one of the bedrooms. In the morning, wedding prep went into full swing, but I don't really remember much about the hours leading up to the wedding. I put on my suit for the first time in nearly a year, noting that the dry environment did not make my suit feel excessively hot. My brother, his best man, my father, and my brother's father-in-law dressed up into rented British morning suits and prepared for the moment. As they got dressed, the official photographer and team of videographers recorded the event for all to see many times over.

Three tents were set up for the wedding. Twin tents straddled an unprotected aisle for the procession, and a third covered the stage area. The chairs were draped in white with some chairs having red and some having gold decorations. The aisle's floor consisted of a white carpet covered in rose petals with an arch at the entrance.

My job as an usher was pretty simple: hand out the limited supplies of programs and direct people to grab seats, with the bride's family on the left, the groom's family on the right, and their army of friends padding my brother's family's side to at least try and match the attendance of the bride's family. A large array of chairs was set up facing the attendees to the left of the stage and it soon became clear that this would be where the choir was to sit.

The families and friends assumed our seats, and about two thirds of the choir assumed their seats. My uncle took his spot at the podium and my brother's wedding was under way, just one year, seven months, and a week after mine.

Music started and all eyes turned toward the cottage row behind us. The missing members of the choir were dancing slowly toward us, facing right, then left, then right again. Soon the beaming bride emerged from a cottage behind the choir, preceded by her sisters in bright red dresses each holding a bouquet, and flanked by her parents. The procession approached slowly but surely, taking what seemed an eternity to reach the arch at the end of the aisle. On arrival at the arch, the music switched to the traditional "here comes the bride" as they finished their procession the last few steps to my patiently waiting brother.

My uncle started off by welcoming everyone to the wedding. It then proceeded on to a mix of traditional wedding readings about the meaning of love and the obligations of marriage, interspersed with the choir singing an assortment of songs on the topic, mostly in Swahili. A priest was also invited to speak to the wedding and he set about a long speech, more or less repeating the content of most of the readings that had already been given. He then ad libbed about my brother and his wife, joking repeatedly that my brother was a bad Jew. The jokes would have probably been very good coming from a Jew, but that's how it goes.

The wedding was very nice as far as weddings go. The choir's presence, in every sense of the word, added a lot to the wedding. Hearing singing in Swahili is a unique experience in its own right, but having a black Kenyan choir singing Swahili songs for a Goan Catholic marrying a white Jewish Canadian is really quite the fascinating mix.

Following the exchange of rings and the recessional, there was a general retreat to a sunny, grass hill below the cottages adjacent to the wedding site and golf courses for photos. Over the next hour or so, every conceivable combination of relatives, friends, and the wedding party themselves arranged themselves in lines to be photographed by every conceivable combination of cameras and photographers, with the official photographer trying to get his shots in edgewise. Noone was really in charge of organising the photography, though several people assumed contradictory control, though it all worked out well in the end.

From there, the wedding party escaped back to the house in a poorly disguised convoy of cars marked by a flower-covered Mercedes. My immediate family left in one of the last cars of the convoy to help set up our particular role. The rest of the guests followed in their own cars, with a private security officer watching over the fleet of cars parked outside the house's locked gate. The matatu brought the group that did not have cars.

Among the neat ideas for this wedding was the use of a Polaroid camera for the guest-book. Instead of each guest signing the guest-book at the reception, my wife and I had a booth set up at the gate and photographed each person or group as they came in, putting the developed Polaroid into the guest book with some tape and inviting each to sign below their photos.

The official photographer and videographers for the wedding looked at the Polaroid camera with wonder and amazement. They had not ever heard of such a camera, much less seen one in operation. They had a good deal of difficulty coming to grips with the fact that the Polaroid technology is so old in the West that it has more or less been relegated to the history books. My brother apparently spent quite a bit of time and effort touring London trying to gather enough Polaroid film for this effort to even work.

In all our time taking these pictures of each guest, my wife and I got so caught up with it that we totally forgot to put in a picture of ourselves, a problem that remains unrectified more than half a year later. We are the ghosts of the guest-book.

After everyone arrived and before the sky did its equatorial near-instantaneous transition from day to night, the cake was cut. At our wedding, it was still frozen, making for an entertaining effort to get our first piece off the cake, but this one went off without a hitch. My sister-in-law and my brother fed each-other pieces of cake, with my sister-in-law giving an extra push embedding the cake around my brother's grin.

As the evening wore on, it became apparent that the official photographer, using a film SLR camera with a single 50mm lens, was quite envious of the digital SLR camera with 18-200mm lens I was using. He kept joking that we could trade cameras, asking if I could please leave mine behind.

The reception carried on, with increasingly drunken speeches followed by one of the best DJed dances I have yet seen, not that I have a lot of experience with dances. On the dance floor members of my family somehow managed to kick off a full blown execution of the Hava Nagila and while I was in the washroom, I found out a moment too late, managed to get my brother and his wife hoisted on chairs in good Jewish tradition.

At the end of the evening, my brother set about removing his wife's garter while blindfolded. Apparently this tradition is common, though I had never personally seen it before. My brother made endless and hilarious efforts to remove the garter from a couple of different people before finally finding himself in front of his wife. After its recovery, he threw it into a crowd of presumably single young men attending the wedding, and the reception's recessional began with everyone present linking hands in the air to create a tunnel through which the new couple would pass. The wedding was over.

We climbed into our matatu and, to the sound of drunken, singing Brits, returned to the Windsor.

The next day was a day of rest and recovery for all involved. My main activity was tracking down usable Internet access.

I went to the Windsor's net cafe, where I attempted to connect to my home machine. I was dismayed to find that the proxy limits service to web only and asked the employee about it. He told me that the network is split in two, with an unfiltered network going to the staff computers. To use that, he led me up to someone's office up a flight of stairs and set me up on their computer, where I was finally able to use the secure shell to connect to my home machine. Some time later, as my wife and I checked our respective emails, the office's main employee entered and wanted to know what we were doing at her computer. We explained and she asked if she could have it back. We obliged and went downstairs to pay the net cafe's exhorbatant rates.

On the first of February, four days earlier, we went to an Internet cafe in the basement of the Diamond Plaza in Nairobi which charged one shilling per minute, which is as cheap as it sounds. On one wall was a row of computers, and on the other, a row of VoIP phones. As long as no-one was on the phone, the Internet connection was quite usable. My father and I had spent an hour and forty minutes there, and paid exactly 200 shillings for the two computers for that time, less than $3. Not bad. At the Windsor, the rate was ten shillings per minute for a comparable quality of connection. But then again, a small bottle of water cost 300 shillings at the Windsor, where the same bottle cost only 100 in most other places. Separating tourists from their money is a bit of a game.

Later on, we stopped by the net cafe again, and the geeky technician informed me that he had rewired one of the computers to be on the unrestricted network, so I was able to use it periodically through the rest of the day.

We went outside to the pool where most of our group was spending the day. My wife lay down on a beach chair and declared she would sunbathe. She then proceeded to cover herself with towels from head to toe, complete with a hat over the towel over her head.

At dinner, we more or less took over a room of the restaurant in the basement. My family set up at one table, with my brother's friends set up at another one up some stairs and behind a cubicle type divider. As the meal progressed, bread rolls were exchanged without human escort between the tables.

This night would be our last at the Windsor and I took note of our location posted in the front lobby of the hotel: The Windsor Golf and Country Club is at 0117'S by 3649'E at 5,680 feet elevation. In the morning we would leave for our Safari.

foreign 3236 words - permanent link - comments: 0. Posted at 22:19 on September 26, 2006

A few differences between our countries

Last week, I spent a week with my in-laws in southern Vermont. I had last been to the States for more than a few hours back at the end of 2005, making this past eight months the longest gap in US visits for me since 1994, when I attended a boarding school less than a mile from the US border. There were a few subtle differences that I noticed that I really don't need to discuss, but will anyway...

One of the first things to note is that it's an election year in the US. That's not unusual in its own right - half of all years are election years down there - but it really brings the differences in our democracies into focus.

In a lot of states, every conceivable office is up for election. The President is elected every second election, each senator is elected every third election, congressmen are elected every election, the Governors are elected every second election, as are the lieutenant governors and all the state representatives, and every other public office from the district attorneys down to the county sheriffs, to assistant judges to, my personal favourite, the registrar of deeds.

Of course, in a televised democracy like the US, each one of these positions requires an election campaign, and each candidate in each campaign needs to have their television ads. The result is an incomprehensible array of disjointed and contradictory ads on television, often for different states on the same channel only adding to the confusion. How anyone can figure out anything that's going on in the US politically at a state or lower level is completely beyond me. When elections are not in session, US television ads are already far more lengthly and obnoxious than their Canadian counterparts, but in election silly season there's really no point in even turning the idiot box on.

Another thing that struck me in this visit was the fast food. We had mostly very good, home cooked food on our trip, but on the way home we spent a couple of days exploring New York state's vast and obscure rail lines. Meals on the road are most easily and expeditiously handled with the help of fast food and, so, we stopped at a Burger King near Oneonta, NY on Friday night and ordered two double whoppers, or whatever it is they are called at that chain.

When they arrived a few minutes later, my wife and I both stared at these enormous burgers before us and wondered if we were in the same chain as the one we knew in Canada by the same name. The burgers tasted different and were significantly larger than what we were used to from fast food joints.

On the same topic, my wife picked up a pack of double-cream Oreos before we left Canada which my 16 year old brother in law mostly, but not completely, polished off the night we got to the states, and so my wife picked up their US counterpart - double-stuf Oreos - while we were preparing to set out for our trip home.

On the highway, I tried one of these Oreos and frowned. It looked and tasted quite different from the Oreos I know, though they're clearly the same brand and ostensibly the same kind of cookie. They're bigger, the cookie part is lighter in colour and harder, and the cream is thicker and more sugary than the Canadian version. The US cookie is all round much worse than the Canadian one, though my wife disagrees...she's American.

The final difference I wanted to note is that it is hard to go more than a few miles without passing a police car in the US, though at least they don't have the spike strips and armed roadblocks prevalent in Nairobi. From the time we left the house we were in in Vermont to the time we left the town a few minutes later, we passed no fewer than three police cars from two jurisdictions (state and local). By the end of the trip I'd seen more than I can count. The only discernible result is a much greater adherence to speed limits in the US. The limits on the interstates are mostly 65 miles an hour, with occasional drops to 55, and most traffic does not exceed about 72 (116 km/h). When I crossed into Canada, I made mental note, I was being pushed and passed on both sides at 85 miles an hour (137 km/h) on the QEW. To me, the faster speeds are more reasonable for limited access highways, but nevertheless these higher speeds are far more prevalent on this side of the border.

Once across the border, I did not see a single police car between the border and my house.

foreign 806 words - permanent link - comments: 0. Posted at 19:59 on September 12, 2006

Border madness

We came down to Vermont on Friday for a few days with my in-laws, leaving home at noon in an effort to beat the labour day weekend border rush. It didn't help.

We left at noon, stopping at Bayview Junction for half an hour to see the work there, and then headed off to the border. On the QEW, a sign said "Fort Erie, no delay for cars. Queenston, slightly delay." Queenston, being the more direct crossing for our route was still our choice.

We got on the 405 figuring a slight delay wouldn't be a big problem, and headed for the border. We started seeing traffic warning signs almost immediately. Heavy traffic 4 km... Heavy traffic 3 km... soon, we came around a corner and saw a police car parked on the side of the road with its lights flashing, intended to get drivers' attention.

Right beyond the police car was stopped traffic.

The signs had said "slight delay" so I didn't think too much of this. 15 minutes I figured, we would be through it. Pretty soon I realised we were pretty far from the border and as we moved around one car length every thirty seconds to a minute I revised my estimate to an hour.

On the right, trucks kept passing at the start of the truck-only lane. At one point, someone commented on the CB that the people in the cars finally had to experience what truckers go through all the time. Another commented that it looked like a 2 and a half hour delay to them.

I wasn't exactly encouraged by this thought, but we kept heading toward the border, one car length at a time. Beside us, people were getting out of their cars and walking along side, mostly to smoke cigarettes. Some people were going car to car to meet their traffic neighbours. Every once in a while a car passed in the adjacent truck lane.

On the CB radio we heard that a truck had broken down and lost its air on the bridge at the border, further complicating the traffic situation as it could not be easily moved with the air brake system locked in its emergency state.

As we approached the bridge, all the cars we had seen run in the truck lane earlier were trying to negotiate their way out of the truck lane backward, heading back for the start of the traffic jam, with their gamble having failed miserably.

By the time we got to the bridge, the truck was gone but a minivan was blocking the centre lane, broken down. We proceeded slowly, being assigned a lane by a man in a safety vest for a customs gate. Two and a half hours after arriving at the start of the traffic, we pulled up to an impatient customs officer who asked us a few standard questions and waved us on in around 30 seconds. We proceeded the remaining 7 or so hours to our destination without incident.

In Canadian border lingo, a "slight delay" is two and a half hours. You have been warned.

foreign 520 words - permanent link - comments: 0. Posted at 19:47 on September 05, 2006

CBC's Henry Champ and the ... Soviets?

Are the Soviets still launching Soyuz capsules to space? I thought that Russia took over from the Soviet Union a decade and a half ago.

I enjoy Henry Champ's coverage of American issues (though not half as much as the cynical and blunt Neil McDonald) for CBC, but yesterday and today on CBC News Morning he's made a bit of a blunder.

As NASA debates whether or not to take the space shuttle Atlantis off its launch pad and return it to the vehicle assembly building in anticipation of hurricane Ernesto, Henry Champ and many other reporters have been at the Kennedy Space Center reporting on every bit of news coming out. Yesterday, in Champ's discussion of it, he referred to the fact that the Russians would be launching a Soyuz space capsule in early September which would cause a conflict at the space station if Atlantis goes up. Except he didn't say that, he said the Soviets were sending up a Soyuz.

I thought he might correct himself or be corrected, but he wasn't. Then, on the same topic, in the same place, while giving the latest update, he did it again today.

Meanwhile, the Confederates are taking the shuttle off the launch pad.

No wait, that's not it...

foreign 217 words - permanent link - comments: 3. Posted at 10:11 on August 29, 2006

My Heart is Africa - Carnivore, and seeing the animals we ate

Inspired by Scott Griffin's book, "My Heart is Africa", this is the third instalment in the story of my short, eye-opening vacation to the East African republic of Kenya for my brother's wedding earlier this year.

The following day passed with an exploration of a mall in Nairobi where we spent much of the afternoon. My father was busy trying to track down some kind of device that could be used as a cooling rack for the wedding cake that still needed making for the wedding which was just a few days away. No-one was really able to help us with that and we eventually used the front protective grill from the household fireplace.

Family and friends started to pour in, and my brother's new family set about tracking down a charter bus to use as needed for the next week. A 30-seat matatu was found and the driver, John, and I would later become friends.

Most of my brother's friends and the other relatives and guests coming in for the wedding stayed at a luxurious resort and golf club called the Windsor, about 15 minutes from where we were staying. As we were staying in a gated community, the matatu could not enter from the side closest to the hotel due to a low permanent structure specifically designed to prevent matatus. This minibus would have to come in from the other end.

The matatu showed up on the first night we needed it, and my brother's father-in-law and I went to the main entrance of the community to inform the gate-keepers that this matatu was authorised on the premises. The security guard refused to allow the matatu in, and my host quickly became irritated with his refusal. The guard insisted that he had to have a letter from the head office before allowing a matatu into the community. We cut the engine and refused to move, obstructing the exit to the gated community, until they let the matatu in.

The stand-off escalated quickly, and was diffused just as quickly when my host left me to go talk to the matatu driver while he headed home to get a letter sorted out. I hopped out and walked toward the matatu, which at that moment gave up, turned around and drove off leaving me stranded. I realised my options were limited, and double-timed it back to the house, arriving about 10 minutes later.

Eventually, we all drove out to the gate in cars, boarding the matatu, and then us and the matatu proceeded to the Windsor to pick up the bulk of the gang.

We were due for our first tourist-oriented adventure. Any time you tell someone you are going to Nairobi, their first reaction is to say "you must go to Carnivore!" Carnivore is a restaurant that specialises in unusual meats, such as zebra and crocodile. It is as much about the show as it is about the food.

In our matatu full of my extended family and my brother's work colleagues - British computer engineers - we headed off for Carnivore. On our way, I sat up front with the driver in the death seat. As we drove through Nairobi, I asked why there were so many cars downtown at 8pm. John, the driver, told me that it's because they're out drinking. "So half the drivers on the road are drunk?", I asked. "No," said John, "they all are."

Taking comfort in the size of the vehicle I was in, we discussed other topics the rest of the way to Carnivore.

As we travelled, we passed several police checkpoints. As we were in a matatu, these were no longer a simple matter of a wave-through. As the police saw white people though, we were generally hastily moved along. The drive to Carnivore was long, taking close to an hour. We had to traverse Nairobi from pretty much the north-east corner to the south-west corner.

We arrived and headed in to our reserved table. Our group crowded around a large table and the show began.

The menu for the evening consisted of: leek and potato soup, rump steak, leg of lamb, leg of pork, lamb chops, beef sausages, chicken yakitori, chicken livers, pork sausages, chicken gizzards, pork spare ribs, chicken wings, camel, crocodile, and ostrich meat balls, with an assortment of desserts. It was served by curiously dressed people holding what can best be described as swords with hunks of meat on them. The swords were stuck on our plates and pieces chopped off.

The camel was so tough as to be inedible. I tried a second piece later on to see if I just got a bad piece, but it was simply like chewing rubber. The flavour was interesting, but the rugged nature of the animal is quite apparent in the meat. The ostrich meatballs tasted like... meat balls. The crocodile, on the other hand, while served in strange little boney cubes, tasted rather fishy and was pretty good. In spite of the exotic meat marketing, the best meat available was the chicken hearts that came with the livers.

After the meal, we went to the other half of the restaurant which was acting as a night club, with a dance taking place and a good deal of booze being served. A few of us went to an outdoor veranda and listened from afar.

Eventually we returned to the matatu, and John had to do his part for the evening's entertainment before we left. He reached in the van to turn on a switch and we watched as the van lit up into a series of entertaining sequences of flashing decorative lights. The trip back to the Windsor was marked primarily by drunken singing from the back.

The next day, the 2nd of February, saw our first adventure beyond the limits of Nairobi. Climbing into John's matatu, we headed out of the city en route to the Elephant Orphanage. On our way there, we passed the entrance and John apologised, saying he needed a card for his cell phone.

I was quickly learning that cell phones are an integral part of life in Kenya. Ground lines are totally unreliable and, while they exist, I never once saw one used while there outside of the Windsor. Cell coverage, on the other hand, is extensive, and prepaid minute cards are readily available in the most unlikely places.

We pulled up a steep almost 2-lane hill on this main road and at the top we pulled off. John jumped out his right side door and walked over to a small shanty with some indication that it sold cell phone cards. He bought a card and returned to the van, managing to turn it around with little fuss. We headed back down the hill, and pulled into a dirt road.

We were met by a game warden who made John sign us in, and we then proceeded to drive up a windy, bumpy gravel road until we got to a gravel area that passed for a parking lot. We piled out and headed for the orphanage's show area.

When we got there, a baby rhinoceros was walking around being taken care of and shown off by two handlers dressed in bright blue-green shirts. Within a few minutes, the rhino was taken away and a moment later a train of baby elephants were paraded into the field. Meanwhile, baboons showed up in the distance and walked around merrily, mounting each-other and otherwise distracting the audience.

The youngest of the elephants was fed in front of us. As the elephants are all orphans, there is no mother around to feed them. To keep the youngest elephants comfortable with the feeding process, a blanket is put over them and a milk bottle given to them. The idea is to simulate being under the mother, and this trick apparently works quite well.

A family of wild boars came out of the woods and walked by as we watched the elephants, providing us another animal that I hadn't really thought about seeing before. They ignored us, carrying on aimlessly. The elephants, meanwhile, were brought right up to the dividing rope and we were invited to feel them. Soon, they were on their way and the hour-long show was over.

We piled back into John's matatu and headed a little ways to the Giraffe Centre in the Nairobi suburb of Lang'ata.

Another of the quirks of Kenya is that nearly everything that costs admission has either "resident" or "non-resident" rates. We paid our non-resident rates, which were many times that of the resident rates, and entered the Giraffe Centre, where those who wanted it were provided with food to feed the giraffes. A number of people in our group took this up and we spent some time amusing ourselves by watching each other's hands get cleaned by hungry giraffes.

We went up a flight of stairs to be at the same level as the heads of the giraffes and this is where I learned of the animal's habit of head butting, narrowly avoiding a head-butt when getting a bit too close.

One of the handlers at the Centre convinced a nearby giraffe to stick its tongue out, showing its rather phenomenal length. We learned that the giraffes like to eat a very thorny plant, but can do so because their tongues, while not impervious to the damage caused by the thorns, heals rapidly and the giraffe's saliva is antiseptic. Most of the trees around the giraffes had no foliage below the height of the top of the tallest giraffe's head and warthogs ran around underfoot, at least once getting stepped on by a giraffe that really couldn't care less while we were there.

After feeding the giraffes for a while, we wandered over to a small food counter at the Centre and our whole group ordered lunch, which we spent most of the next hour mostly waiting for and rapidly devouring. Lunch at a consistent time, we learned, did not appear to be a major local requirement.

We left the giraffes and headed for the third and final pre-safari wildlife reserve. Mamba Village, a crocodile and ostrich sanctuary, two of the animals we had eaten the night before, was the highlight of the day.

The admission cost here was significantly steeper than the previous two places, and was the only place that I can recall on our entire trip to Kenya that had prices posted in US dollars as well as Kenyan shillings. With the large group and evidence that large groups were somewhat rare, a crocodile handler put on a full show for us.

We started with the small crocodiles. He climbed into the pen and talked about the crocodiles while standing among them, occasionally poking them, constantly on the lookout. He noted that while the crocs this size could hurt, they were still too small to kill him.

He climbed out and walked us over a short distance to another pen where larger, adult crocodiles lived. He told us that crocodiles work as a team, holding their prey at either end and turning rapidly in opposite directions to rip them to shreds. He said that they are fed just once a week, noting that one of the more fun ways to feed them is to provide live chickens which try in their hopeless way to fly across the water, getting snapped up along the way.

Using a piece of what appeared to be rubber hose, he bopped the adult crocs on their noses to provoke them, making quite a show of it as they splashed around, apparently more annoyed at his presence than hungry for a quick meal of the speciality meat currently standing next to them with a stick.

He told us that crocodiles' sex is determined by temperature at which the crocodile eggs are incubated. When eggs are laid at Mamba village, they are loaded onto trucks and sent to Mombasa, several hours east, for hatching. Considering the condition of Kenya's roads, it is truly remarkable that any of them make it all the way.

After climbing out of this somewhat more dangerous crocodile pen, he grabbed a pair of egg shells to show around. One was an ostrich egg, the other a crocodile egg. He noted that the ostrich egg is roughly equivalent to two dozen chicken eggs. The egg itself was about the same size as his head. A small hole in the end of the egg indicated that this particular one had fed him for a few days, which he acknowledged with a grin. The crocodile eggs, on the other hand, are much closer in size to chicken eggs.

In the never-ending burning equatorial sun, we all walked a few hundred metres out to the ostriches, where, as we had with the giraffes, we busied ourselves feeding these massive birds. They're very quick, able to snatch food out of your hand before you've fully realised they were aware of its presence. The ostriches were a lot of fun, but it was eventually time to go.

As we left the ostriches, we stopped in a little shop inside Mamba Village where souvenirs of various descriptions could be bought. "Karibu!" exclaimed the shop-keepers, the Swahili for "welcome", and I grinned, thinking of "caribou" in the context of all these animals.

We left Mamba Village to return to Nairobi. A little while after departing, we were pulled off at a police checkpoint and the officer looked in my window, noting the tourists. He exchanged words with John in Swahili for a brief moment and said, with a big grin, that he hoped we were all having a good time and he wouldn't hold us up from enjoying ourselves, waving us on. Thus ended our first taste of what we would see on the safari to come.

Next, though, was my brother's remarkable cross-cultural wedding.

foreign 2331 words - permanent link - comments: 0. Posted at 23:40 on August 28, 2006

My Heart is Africa - The Nairobi Railway Museum

Inspired by Scott Griffin's book, "My Heart is Africa", this is the second instalment in the story of my short, eye-opening vacation to the East African republic of Kenya for my brother's wedding earlier this year.

We got up on our first day in Africa to the sounds and smells of a breakfast cooking. Our hosts had hired a chef named Martin for the week to make us our meals and he was hard at work preparing omelettes and stir-fried shredded potatoes. The food was very good and we set about taking in our new environment.

I noted that Martin himself was not eating any of the food he had prepared, and shortly found him behind the building eating a creamy white food made of maize, his main dietary staple and pretty much the only food many of the people there could afford.

We were staying in a gated community near the American compound, a prison-like fortress complete with guard towers built by the Americans in Nairobi in response to the 1998 Nairobi embassy bombing. Most of the residents of our neighbourhood were white or east Asian, with a constant stream of black workers walking back and forth along the main road, heading to and from their workplaces.

Labour in Nairobi is extremely cheap. Around one million people live in the part of Nairobi known as Kibera, which I am told is the largest slum in Africa, consisting largely of shanties and dilapidated buildings. The Kenya Railway track heads through the centre of the slum on its way toward the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Unemployment in the city is very high, and a daytime servant costs around KS 1000 a week -- about $14, with income taxes kicking in for people making as little as KS 10,000 or around $140 per year. Foreigners who work for NGOs like the United Nations, or for foreign companies or governments, but live in Kenya need not pay income tax.

Everything in Kenya, we learned, was called Kenya something: Kenya Police, Kenya Shilling, Kenya Railway.

Our first day was marked mainly by rest. There was an intense, never-ending heat from about 10 in the morning until about 3 in the afternoon, in which most people sat in chairs and read books, or otherwise occupied themselves in non-physical activity. The heat was not as overwhelming as I expected, owing to the high altitude and low humidity. The heat this summer back in Southern Ontario has been far worse.

In the afternoon, we left the house for the first time and I got my first look at Africa in daylight.

We walked down the street, heading to see a nearby restaurant. We walked around back, where we expected to find peacocks. We found two beautifully coloured birds walking around the grounds of the restaurant rather aimlessly, though they turned out to be Ugandan cranes, not peacocks.

We had a few days until my brother's wedding would become the main event, and a couple of days before the rest of the family and friends would arrive, so, to occupy the time and see what I wanted to see while I could, I asked our host, a retired professional Safari organiser, about the possibility of renting a small plane and instructor to see Nairobi from the air. He called some friends and the next morning got an answer. A one hour flight would cost us around $950 -- and we would not be able to over-fly most of the city, thanks to airspace restrictions. We quickly dropped the idea and I set my sights on another one of my obsessions.

Prior to our arrival in Nairobi, I had found that there is a railway museum in the city sporting a variety of old steam engines that had been used on the East African meter-gauge rail network. After asking around, a volunteer was found to take us downtown to see this museum.

On the second day, my parents, my wife, and I crowded into the car of a cousin of our host's and we drove up out of the driveway. We unlocked the gate to get out of the driveway and pulled onto the road, locking the gate behind us, and began our first daylight driving adventure.

We drove out to the end of the road, passing the manually operated gates to the community, turning left onto a larger road. We passed a shopping centre and worked our way toward downtown. The soil on the side of the road was a red tint that I had not seen in soil before. All along the road were street vendors, selling everything from vegetables to driving lessons. The pot-holes made "unimproved" roads in rural Maine look luxurious, and bone-jarring bumps were just a fact of life. Cars and light trucks with a large hand-painted wood sign reading something along the lines of "driving school" were parked occasionally along the side of the road.

As we entered downtown, we experienced something I was not entirely expecting. There are a number of large roundabouts in Nairobi. They are dotted with traffic lights at each intersecting road. There are police standing on the inside curb, sometimes with automatic weapons. But I'll be damned if I could tell you what the traffic laws are that they are probably supposed to enforce.

Traffic travels in about three lanes around these roundabouts. The traffic lights change colours, though no-one pays much attention. They might as well be Christmas lights. Occasionally, a driver will realise that the light in front of him is red and he'll stop, causing a chaos of screeching tires and swerving vehicles to avoid him. Traffic is now stopped, and the traffic from the other road may now proceed until someone there, too, notices that their light is against them.

A huge proportion of the traffic on the road is in the form of overcrowded minivans with a driver and a conductor known as matatus. A tourist guide from a few years prior to our visit described these as deathtraps and warned "to be avoided at all costs". A more recent version of the guide downgraded this to "do not sit in the death seat next to the driver". These come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The most common is white vans with a yellow stripe along the side. In the stripe, it says the names of the various cities this van may work in. The yellow stripe is mandated, to distinguish it from privately owned vans. Any privately owned vans that look like a matatu have "Private" written on them. Other variants of these matatus are large minibusses and full busses. Most matatus have emblazoned names and elaborate decoration.

For 30 shillings, anyone can ride a matatu. Each one has two crew members. The driver ostensibly drives the vehicle, though it isn't always clear that anyone is from seeing them careen down the roads, while a conductor hangs precariously off the side of the bus or van trying to pick anyone up who will come. The more passengers they get, the more they make.

Stuck in traffic between patrolled roundabouts, vendors peddled sunglasses, cigarette lighter cell phone adapters, posters, and pretty much anything else they could carry ran between the cars, trying to sell their wares to anyone with an open window. We were cautioned to keep our doors and windows closed and locked to avoid grab thefts, though the driver had her window open and put up her hand and said "esante" to each vendor, Swahili for "thanks", to indicate her lack of interest in their products.

We pulled into a parking lot with dozens of matatus and hundreds of people milling about in every conceivable direction, slowly driving down the line of small white vans to the Nairobi train station. We took a right at the station and followed a fence-line along the edge of a freight yard until we arrived a minute later at the Nairobi Railway Museum. Admission was KS 200 per person, KS 100 per still camera, and KS 200 per video camera. We spent the next hour there, the photos from which are available on my trainspotting website. The guest-book suggested that it had been at least two days since the previous visitors had arrived at the museum.

We left, and I wanted to see the Nairobi freight yard. We pulled off next to a pedestrian bridge over the yard near the station, and my father and I climbed up amid a sea of people. I walked along the bridge, taking pictures of the yard facing the direction of the station, wishing I had brought my SLR camera for this outing and not just my point and shoot as I had done because we were going downtown, an area generally to be avoided by tourists. Two small blue 2-axle diesel locomotives worked in the distance, too far for me to get good photos. The general reaction of people on the bridge was to completely ignore us, and we wandered back to the car and headed back home.

Our driver, the sister of our host, commented with a grin on my white knuckles as we headed back, driving in traffic that makes even the 401 through Toronto look phenomenally safe. Oddly, though, I remember seeing only one accident while we were in Kenya, a simple blind spot lane-change accident. Everywhere we went along the road, police checkpoints were a fact of life, using large, menacing spike strips arrayed so as to force all traffic to zig-zag through, but generally only stopping matatus. There are no environmental regulations to speak of on the roads in Kenya, and it was not uncommon for us to find ourselves behind a large truck billowing dark blue smoke.

Back at our temporary home at the north end of Nairobi, we began contemplating the rest of our time there. At the museum we learned of monthly steam excursions that run between Nairobi and three other cities in rotation. The Sunday of our departure, there would be an excursion from Nairobi to Naivasha at a cost of around KS 6500, around $90, per seat. We would be on safari until the day of the excursion and would not be able to make it back on time by land, but a few people were flying back to Nairobi from safari on the last day to catch a connecting flight. Some quick research in the form of pestering my brother turned up the fact that there were two vacant seats on the plane, and I quickly turned over the money for my share of the charter flight to get back to Nairobi.

The plane would not get into Wilson airport on time to ride the train, but I would see it. I would find a way.

foreign 1810 words - permanent link - comments: 1. Posted at 15:42 on August 17, 2006

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