Friday, April 29, 2016

By the Numbers--Up to Date

Here's a newly updated list of the countries I've visited over the course of my life, arranged by the date of my first visit to the country.  I don't count my home country, Canada.   Of course, exactly what constitutes a country is a bit slippery.  My well-travelled friend Natalya Marquand holds that the only objective list is the 193 permanent members of the UN.  Others hold that these countries, plus the non-UN-member Vatican City, make up the 194 canonical countries of the world.  I think the reality is a bit slippier.  When I visited Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia, despite the fact that these countries aren’t universally recognized, I had to get a visa to visit them and cross at a border post manned by people in uniform who stamped my passport.  Somaliland not only has its own consulates and border guards, it even has its own currency.  And, to take an extreme example, anyone who claims that Taiwan isn’t effectively an independent country isn’t really recognizing what’s been de facto the case since 1949.

So my list of independent countries is a bit bigger than 194.  It’s about 204 countries; the number may fluctuate a bit, and it doesn’t include three countries (Western Sahara, Palestine and Tibet) with pretty legitimate cases but without their own border guards. One of the many lists of countries on Wikipedia lists 206 entries that either are recognized by at least one other state as being independent, or effectively control a permanently populated territory, but they include Western Sahara and Palestine which are at the moment illusory pipe dreams, to the distress of the people who inhabit them.  If I'm not counting Canada, that would make 193 or 203 possible destinations.

Anyway, without further preamble, here’s my list of the countries I have visited, arranged according to the date I first visited them.  The non-UN/Vatican members of the list are coloured red; there are eight of them, so if you’re counting by the UN+Vatican list, it’s 117 (out of 193).  I would make it 125 out of 203.  Whichever way you count it, I’m now well over half-way to my goal of visiting them all, and my to-visit list is now down into double digits.   

1. US

2.  France
3.  Switzerland
4.  Liechtenstein
5.  Germany
6.  Netherlands

7.  Tanzania

8.  Norway
9.  Italy

10.  UK
11. Vatican
12.  Greece
13.  Hungary
14.  Austria
15.  Czech Republic (Prague, then part of the now-defunct Czechoslovakia)

16.  Belgium
17.  Monaco
18.  Poland

19.  Australia
20.  New Zealand
21.   Fiji
22.  Cook Islands

23.  Egypt
24.  Turkey

25.  Spain
26.  Kenya
27.  Uganda
28.  Democratic Republic of Congo
29.  Japan
30.  Singapore
31.  Indonesia

32.  Philippines
33.  Malaysia
34.  Thailand
35.  Cambodia
36.  Nepal

37.  India
38.  Sri Lanka
39.  Pakistan
40.  Luxembourg
41.  San Marino
42.  Andorra

43.  China
44.  Portugal
45.  Morocco
46.  Tunisia
47.  Jordan

48.  Israel
49.  Syria
50.  Lebanon
51.  Chile
52.  Argentina
53.  Peru

54.  Bolivia
55.  South Korea

56.  Mexico
57.  Brunei
58.  Laos
59.  Taiwan

60.  Kazakhstan
61.  Kyrgyzstan
62.  Tajikistan
63.  Uzbekistan
64.  Turkmenistan
65.  Iran
66.  Bahrain

67.  Vietnam
68.  Burma

69.  Mongolia
70.  Palau
71.  Bangladesh

72.  Bhutan
73.  Cyprus
74.  Northern Cyprus

75.  Kuwait
76.  Azerbaijan
77.  Georgia
78.  Armenia
79.  Nagorno-Karabakh
80.  Iraq
81.  Bulgaria
82.  Serbia
83.  Kosovo
84.  Macedonia
85.  Albania
86.  Montenegro
87.  Bosnia-Hercegovina
88.  Croatia
89.  Libya
90.  Malta

91.  Ethiopia
92.  Somaliland
93.  Djibouti

94.  Denmark
95.  Abkhazia
96.  Russia
97.  Ukraine
98.  Trans-Dniestria
99.  Moldova
100. Romania
101.  Slovakia
102.  Belarus
103.  Lithuania
104.  Latvia
105.  Estonia
106.  United Arab Emirates
107.  Oman
108.  Qatar

109.  Slovenia
110.  Togo
111.  Benin

112.  Maldives
113,  Iceland
114.  Ireland

115. East Timor
116. Solomon Islands
117. Papua New Guinea

118. Finland
119. Sweden

120. Paraguay
121. Brazil
122. Uruguay
123. Zambia
124. Botswana
125. South Africa

Over the rest of 2016 I should add another 7 African countries or so (mostly from southern Africa) and then a few more in early 2017 from eastern and western Africa.  So many countries, so little time!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Upcoming Plans: Kruger, Mozambique and points north!

April 28, Cape Town

This is just a quick post to let you, my gentle readers, know what our plans are, and what we've been up to since leaving Livingstone 4 weeks ago.
Looking pleased and relieved to have bought Stanley
Terri and I flew down from Livingstone to Cape Town on Wednesday, March 30th, determined to buy an overlanding vehicle for our upcoming Africa adventure.  We stayed in a rather ratty little backpackers located on the loudest intersection in the city for the first 4 nights, but our search for vehicles was frustrating.  We couldn't find anyone selling a complete setup like we wanted (a pickup truck, or "bakkie" as it's called here, with a camper insert in the back).  Trying to buy the truck and the camper separately looked expensive, with Alu-Cab offering us a new, well-engineered but cramped camper (Terri called it a man-cave for its dark, low interior) for 190.000 rand (about US$ 12.500) without a vehicle underneath it.  We had a line on 2012 HiLux pickup trucks for about the same price.  Then we would need to buy lots of extra kit to make the camper liveable and fully functional.  It all seemed more expensive than we wanted, and more hassle.

We took a bit of time to look around Cape Town on a sunny Saturday afternoon, enjoying the pretty Waterfront with its markets and good food, and climbed Table Mountain on Sunday, but we mostly kept our noses to the grindstone, going to government offices futilely looking for a Traffic Registry Number (they weren't willing to give one to non-resident foreigners), visiting dozens of car dealers, spending time on the internet, and all in vain.  By the evening of Monday, April 4th, we were discouraged, and at a low ebb in our enthusiasm.  The only bright spot was that we had moved into a much nicer and cheaper place to stay, an AirBnB house in funky gentrifying Woodstock.  At that exact moment, my former colleague Charlene sent me a link to the Africa 4x4 Cafe website and on there we saw the perfect vehicle for us, a 2002 Mitsubishi Colt club cab pickup truck with a Blinkgat camper in the back, freshly returned from a big trip as far north as Tanzania under the ownership of another Canadian.  The ad dated from early February, and we were worried that the vehicle would have been sold long ago.  Without much hope, we sent off an e-mail and Terri went to bed.  Before turning in myself, I checked my e-mail one more time and found an e-mail from Etienne, the owner.  The vehicle was still for sale and he was very keen to get it off his hands, as he had had to return to Canada without having sold it.  There were a couple of people interested in it but they weren't going to look at the vehicle for another week or so.
Living out of Stanley
In the morning I told Terri that the car was available but was in Johannesburg, stored in a garage.  Within an hour, we had bought air tickets to Johannesburg for the next day, found a place to stay, rented a car and were upbeat and nervous.  On Wednesday, April 6th we were on a cheap flight to Johannesburg and, after a long delay at the car rental desk, took off in our US$20 a day rental car, listening to our GPS and getting lost.  We headed straight to the garage and looked at the vehicle.  It seemed like what we wanted, and after a day of nervous thought and trans-Atlantic WhatsApp negotiation with Etienne we settled on a price (a bit under US$10,000) and started the process of bank transfers to pay for it.  By Friday night we had paid the purchase price, started the process of getting our Traffic Registry Numbers (via an "agent" who presumably greased a few palms at the government office), gone through the huge quantity of camping, cooking, cleaning, repair and electrical equipment that came with the camper and settled on a plan.  We would borrow the car for a few days to drive it around and test out how we liked living out of the camper so that we would know what (if anything) we needed to buy.  Then we would return the vehicle to Johannesburg so that the paperwork of changing ownership, along with a few repairs (oil change, oil and air filter change and a new leaf spring for the back axle) could get done while Terri and I went to NZ and Switzerland respectively for brief business-oriented trips.  Then, when we returned, we would pick up our newly optimized vehicle and head for Kruger National Park to start exploring the continent.  Unfortunately, our tickets to NZ and Europe, already bought, were leaving from Cape Town and we were now in Johannesburg, requiring another cheap-o return air ticket to Cape Town on the delightfully named Mango Air.
Meeting Erin Conway-Smith in Johannesburg
Once we had our plan, everything happened relatively quickly.  We spent the weekend enjoying our laid-back backpacker joint (The Birches, in Linden) and visiting an old friend of mine (Angelo) from long-ago grad school days, along with a fellow Thunder Bay-ite, Erin Conway Smith, who is now a correspondent for the Economist based in Johannesburg.  We had interesting discussions about the ongoing political scandals in South Africa and some of the other countries of the continent that Erin knows.  In the afternoons we went running and cycling in the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens and shopped for groceries.

From Monday afternoon to Thursday morning of that week we took our new vehicle, freshly renamed Stanley (short for Henry Morton Stanley ; Etienne had called the vehicle Zulu) for a three-night camping trip.  We drove northwest to the Magaliesberg, to Sleepy River Caravan Park, where we spent two idyllic nights watching birds, testing out our gear, eating well and enjoying the star-spangled sky.  The only problem we found was that our gas burners weren't working well, presumably getting gunked up by dust; either we need a new stove or a pressurized air source to blow out the gas pipes.  The bed was comfortable, the working space inside the camper was ample, and the electrical system, with a fridge/freezer, storage batteries and a solar panel, worked idyllically.  The only downer was the horrible traffic we encountered in Pretoria when we went to pick up our Wild Card, the amazingly good deal on South African National Parks where for US$100 each we get unlimited access to all the parks in South Africa (although we still have to pay for accommodation).  
Stanley at Magalies Sleepy River
On Wednesday we spent a wonderful day exploring the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO-listed site commemorating the amazing paleontological discoveries in the caves northwest of Jo'burg.  
Robert Broom and our tour guide at Sterkfontein
Sterkfontein Cave was memorable, as much for the cave itself as for the early specimens of Australopithecus  discovered there.  That evening we camped in Krugersdorp Game Reserve and watched tons of birds and mammals, including ostriches, wildebeests, hartebeests, giraffes and bushbucks.  
Krugersdorp Game Reserve
It was again an idyllic spot to camp, and whetted our appetites for further adventures.  Thursday morning we drove back into Johannesburg, left the vehicle at the garage, got a lift to the airport and flew back to Cape Town.  Our AirBnB hosts, the irrepressible duo of Leonie and Shanaaz, surprised us by picking us up at the airport.  The next day Terri flew off to Auckland, while I stayed one more day before flying to Switzerland.
My mom, sisters and I gaping at the wonders of the universe 
Pub quiz with my friend Avery
Hugh playing quizmaster
My ten-day jaunt to my old haunts in Switzerland was fun, with lots of mountain biking, skiing, socializing, wine, abortive ski tours, indoor climbing, reunions with old friends and colleagues and even a Leysin Pub Quiz.  
My sister Audie mountain biking above Sierre
My court hearing (I'm in a dispute with my former employers) went well, but there was no immediate verdict, leaving me in suspense for a few more months.  And then, suddenly, I was back here in Cape Town, trying (so far unsuccessfully) to arrange vehicle insurance and buying a fancy GPS and map set for our journey.  Terri arrives tomorrow and we fly to Johannesburg on Saturday to pick up Stanley, buy some groceries and hit the road to Kruger National Park for a 6-day trip.
Me riding the El Dorado trail near Sierre
Skiing terrible snow in the fog
Taking our skis for a walk
Me showing my poor climbing skills
And then?  Well, the plan until today was to drive from Kruger straight into Mozambique, drive north along the coast as far north as the Quirimbas Archipelago, then double south and west into Malawi. From Malawi we plan to do a huge sweep through the outer reaches of Zambia, down into Zimbabwe and then a big north-then-south wave through Botswana and Namibia before finally returning to South Africa by mid-October, in time for another side trip to Europe to do some tour guiding.  After returning from this in late October, we might head to Madagascar for a couple of months before picking up Stanley from a secure parking spot and heading north.  We'd like to get as far north as Sudan before cutting across Chad into West Africa; this is the toughest part of the trip, as it's mostly regarded as being impossible to cross the Sudan-Chad border given current conditions in Darfur.  However with South Sudan suddenly reverting to peace, maybe a new route possibility will open up from South Sudan into Chad.  If we get into Chad, then we can drive west through the Sahel to Mauretania and then double back east along the coast before making a run through the horrible roads, expensive countries and unpleasant border crossings from Nigeria south to Angola.  The last leg would be driving back south from Angola through Namibia back into South Africa where we would try to sell the camper again.  

On the other hand, with political and security problems suddenly boiling over in Mozambique this week, we might have to curtail or eliminate our Mozambique leg.  Who knows?  Travelling in Africa you have to do your homework, but that doesn't mean the situation won't change radically while you're on the road.

We've created Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts for this trip, along with a Google Map, so I hope that at least one of these channels of digital communication helps you follow our progress over the coming months.  We're pretty excited, and I hope we manage to convey that excitement to you, gentle readers.  Stay tuned!!!!

Ostrich at Krugersdorp

Monday, April 25, 2016

24 Magical Hours in Chobe

Martigny, April 25th

I have been on a number of memorable African wildlife-spotting safaris in the past.  When my family lived in Tanzania in 1981-82 we took a trip through the Serengeti Plains, Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara that will be forever seared in my memory.  We visited our local park, Mikumi, several times.  I went back to Tanzania in 1995 when my sister Audie was working as a lion researcher in the Serengeti and got to experience the wildebeest migration there in all its vast glory.  I visited mountain gorillas in Zaire on the same trip, as well as wild, unhabituated chimpanzees in Uganda.  I thought that I had seen the best that Africa had to offer in terms of wildlife, and so I was not necessarily expecting a mind-blowing encounter with Africa when I accompanied Terri, Angela and the 15 students from Kumon Leysin Academy in Switzerland to Chobe National Park in Botswana.  I had barely heard of the name of Chobe, and assumed that it was an average, run of the mill sort of national park.
African darter in mid-flight

How very, very wrong I was.  The 24 hours we spent in Chobe were an astonishing feast for the senses and for the mind, and provide a rare glimmer of hope in the often gloomy world of African wildlife conservation.  I was absolutely overwhelmed by the diversity and number of big animals and birds that we saw, and now I wonder if we will ever top this experience as we travel, over the next few months, around the continent of Africa.
Pied kingfisher

We started with an hour-long bus ride on Saturday, March 26th from Livingstone to the strange border crossing at Kazungula, where the four countries of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana meet at a single point (OK, in the middle of the Zambezi River, but still at a point).  The drive took us through Mosi Oa Tunya (the local name for Victoria Falls) National Park and past a string of expensive lodges, many of them specializing in fishing, strung out along the river.  We passed a few giraffe and impala and baboons, but there were no great herds to be seen from the highway.  On either side of the park we passed villages that looked even more poverty-stricken than Ngwenya, where we had just spent a week working on our humanitarian project.  The houses looked more picturesque than in Livingstone as they were made of adobe and wood, but the surrounding fields looked parched by the drought that has blighted this year’s corn crop in Zambia and the rest of southern Africa. 
As we approached the border crossing, a huge lineup of trucks appeared on the side of the road, stretching several kilometres to the ferry.  The main ferry had capsized in strong currents a few days before, and now a tiny pontoon capable of carrying one or two trucks at a time was trying futilely to keep up with demand.  Most of the trucks were carrying copper south towards South African ports, although to my surprise almost none of the copper was from the Zambian mines in the Copperbelt.  Almost all of these mines have closed temporarily due to the low world price for copper, dealing a hammer blow to the Zambian economy.  Instead this copper came from across the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC); have you ever noticed that any country that feels impelled to call itself a Democratic Republic almost never is (North Korea, East Germany and DRC spring to mind)?  In fact even Republic may be a misnomer for the failed state that is DRC.  Their transport system and governance are so miserable that the copper mines choose to truck their product through four countries and across three international borders rather than to move it through DRC itself to the Atlantic Ocean.
Carefree elephants in the water

We were unaffected by the ferry woes as we had a private motorboat picking us up.  We said goodbye for 24 hours to Mr. Sakala and his trusty bus and clambered aboard the launch.  In a few minutes we had been processed into Botswana (my 124th country) and were in the back of two Toyota Land Cruisers that had been turned into open-top safari vehicles, headed to the nearby town of Kasane.  The differences with Zambia that were visible on this ten-minute drive were stark.  Houses were much more solidly built, with many private cars parked in driveways.  The roads were in immaculate condition, and prosperous-looking shops lined the main street.  People were well-dressed and were moving purposefully through the streets, with little of the enforced idleness that is so evident on Zambian streets.  We pulled up at the headquarters of Kalahari Tours, had a brief breakfast and then headed out on a boat cruise along the Chobe River.
Hey big ears!

The boat cruise was magnificent.  Late March is high water on the Zambezi and Chobe Rivers.   Despite the continuing drought, the rivers were running very high since they are fed by rains in the uplands of western Zambia and Angola.  We floated along reed-filled marshes that were full of colourful birds like rollers, bee-eaters and kingfishers, as well as bigger species like herons, egrets, cormorants and African fish eagles.  We had a great time spotting birds for the first hour or so before the big game showed up slightly upstream.
Family outing

Malachite kingfisher

Botswana is one of the few great success stories in African conservation.  Elephants in particular are doing better here than in any other countries.  Roughly speaking there are 600,000 African elephants left in the wild, with their numbers constantly dwindling due to the depredations of illegal ivory poachers.  Botswana can boast 250,000 of those, or nearly half of all the continent’s elephants, and Chobe alone has 130,000, or something like 22 percent of the total.  Much of this success is due to the vigorous anti-poaching efforts of the army and the park authorities.  As we entered the park, we passed a large anti-poaching camp run by the army.  With the huge money to be made in the wildlife trade, only a full-bodied armed presence seems to be enough to deter poachers. 
Never smile at a crocodile

Angela, despite growing up in South Africa, had somehow never seen an elephant in the wild, and was worried that she would jinx the rest of us.  Instead, we had an absolutely elephant-filled day, as we passed herds of twenty, thirty or even fifty elephants.  They were mostly feeding and walking beside the river, but many of them were in the river, swimming and bathing and generally having a great time.  As Terri pointed out, the herd did a good job of keeping the numerous young elephants safe in the midst of the group, constantly reassuring them with touches of the trunk.  It was an awe-inspiring sight to see so many elephants in one place; I had seen elephants numerous times before, but never in such quantities.
Babboon babies look cuter than the adults!
Even in the 1980s the ivory poachers were carving bloody swathes through wild populations and numbers were dwindling in Tanzania.  Here in Chobe, I felt as though I was in the land of the elephants, and it was intoxicating.  I particularly liked watching the elephants emerge from the river, glistening in the sunshine, trunks flopping about as they trotted up the bank.
There was more to see than just elephants, majestic though they were.  Pods of hippos, ten or fifteen strong, lolled in the river or were occasionally seen grazing on the shore.  There were scatterings of big buffalo and the occasional Nile crocodile.  Meanwhile the birdlife continued to astound.  It was hard to tear ourselves away to return to shore for a huge buffet lunch.
I've got my eye set on you...

That afternoon we went out on a game drive in our two Land Cruisers.  Our route led largely along the river and we saw a lot of the same elephants from a different perspective, but we were also lucky with other species.  I was ecstatic to run into a pack of African wild dogs, a little-studied species that has been driven to near-extinction in much of the continent by canine distemper.
Wild dog
We passed large numbers of impala as well as their larger cousins the puku (a new species for me).  Giraffe were everywhere, and we ran into banded mongooses.  The undeniable highlight, however, was watching a pride of 8 lions, mostly juveniles, hunting for kudu.  The hunt was unsuccessful, but watching the big cats stalking under the watchful gaze of an older female was unforgettable.

Spot the giraffe
We drove out along the river towards our evening’s campsite.  The sun was sinking, and we paused once to watch a magnificent sunset over the Chobe River with flocks of Egyptian geese darkening the sky.  We got to the campsite, already set up by the tour company, and tucked into a delicious meal around a crackling fire.  The night was perfectly clear, and I took the Kumon students out of the light of the campfire to look at the magnificent southern skies on a moonless night and to try to blow their minds with some of the huge numbers, sizes and distances of the universe.  That night we fell asleep in our tents to the muffled sounds of nearby animals, including hyenas and elephants, and woke up once in the night when a passing animal of some sort brushed against the canvas of our tents.
Young lion on the hunt

A reflecting elephant

Morning began early, with breakfast at 5:30 and a departure by 5:50.  We set off in the pre-dawn chill and stopped after half an hour or so to watch a sunset that was equal in splendour to the previous evening’s sunset.  Our big species sightings that day were two bands of hyenas hunting (one pack had the remnants of an impala) and a few silverback jackals hanging around the hyenas in hopes of a few scraps.
We also saw more mongooses, both banded and brown-tailed (???), and a magnificently muddy buffalo wallowing beside the road.  And then, suddenly and too soon, we were back at the park gate by 7:50 and back at the border crossing a few minutes later, crossing back into Zambia.  Although we were glad to see Mr. Sakala waiting for us, the contrast between the order and prosperity in Botswana and the more shambolic poverty of Zambia was striking.  Mr. Sakala’s bus had a slight smell of gasoline in it from having transported back a supply of smuggled Botswanan fuel for his taxi and his son’s car; the fuel shortages in Zambia seemed not to be abating.
Banded Mongooses

I think that the three factors that combined to make our safari so perfect were the sheer number of elephants; the amazing bird life (we saw three times the number of species in Chobe in 24 hours than we had seen in Livingstone in the previous 16 days) and the wonderful light reflecting on the river, making the pictures much more vivid.  It left me hungry for more amazing safaris, this time with our own wheels on our upcoming trip through Southern Africa. 

Silverbacked Jackals

I’m also glad to see that Botswana is getting it right in important ways.  Rather than succumbing to the dreaded “resource curse” that has done for Nigeria, DRC, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and other countries, Botswana has used its big diamond mines to develop the entire country and encourage widespread prosperity, good health care and education and a well-functioning government.  As well, it has done better than almost any other African country at maintaining its natural heritage and wildlife.  There are a lot of other countries that could learn a lot from Botswana!

One happy buffalo!
My next post will be about the plans for our upcoming overland driving trip.  Stay tuned!!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Volunteering in Livingstone

Martigny, April 23rd

Terri and I arrived in Livingstone, Zambia on March 8th, more than six weeks ago.  It’s funny to think that since I left Leysin last June, I had not spent three weeks in one place at one time until our three-week sojourn in Livingstone, and it seems unlikely that I will spend three weeks in any other place for a long time to come.  It felt as though I had given up my nomadism for a while, but since then we have restarted our peregrinations in South Africa, so it’s normal service resumed.
Terri, Angela and the 15 Kumon students at Victoria Falls

After two enjoyable weeks at my mother’s place in Ottawa and another week in Thunder Bay visiting my father, getting a flavour of the winter that I have missed by being in the southern hemisphere (although Ottawa has had a record-breaking El Nino-fuelled warm winter), I flew to London overnight on March 6th-7th and had ten hours between flights, so I hopped on the Tube and headed into the city to visit my friend Sean and his girlfriend Shelby.  We had an outrageously good tapas lunch at a restaurant in Katherine’s Wharf, a tiny chic yacht harbour tucked away near the Tower of London.  It was good to see Sean, whom I last saw in Bali 18 months ago.  We have crossed paths all over the world, from France to Egypt to London to Japan to Bali, ever since we met as bicycle tour guides working for Butterfield and Robinson back in 1997.  Sean had to hurry back to work, but I still had a few hours, so I went to the Botticelli Reimagined exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  The first part of the exhibit was kind of strange:  20th century uses of Boticelli’s Birth of Venus in all sorts of post-modernist settings.  The second part showed how the Pre-Raphaelites were influenced in the late 19th century by Botticelli, and was more interesting.  The main part of the exhibit, paintings and drawings by Botticelli himself, was fantastic, even if The Birth of Venus and the Allegory of Spring weren’t there as the Uffizi in Florence wouldn’t let them go.  I really liked the painting of La Bella Simonetta, the young mistress of one of the Medici.  Then it was time to snooze my way back to Heathrow on rhw  and the next leg of my trip, refreshed by a few hours of companionship and culture.

The flight to Johannesburg was uneventful, and once there, I met up with Terri, who had flown in from New Zealand a few hours earlier.  We had a reunion, catching up on the past three weeks, and then got on separate flights back north to Livingstone.  I was stamped into my 123rd country and emerged to find Terri waiting with Mr. Sakala, the driver/advisor who has worked with Terri on her Zambian trips since 2007.  We drove to YCTC, a youth vocational training centre run by the local Catholic diocese, and settled in for our long stay. 

Terri has been running a humanitarian trip for students from her former school since 2007, bringing in Japanese high school students to do work at a small pre-school that she has been funding for the past 9 years.  Even though she no longer works in Switzerland, the school ran a trip this year and we were on hand to help run it.  In contrast to previous years, we arrived a good 10 days before the students to give Terri a chance to do some time-consuming bureaucratic work and keep an eye on the construction of a new classroom building.  I had never visited Zambia, and had been hearing about this project for years, so when we both left our jobs last June to travel, we decided that it was a perfect chance for me to see the pre-school in action. 

My first impressions of Zambia were of heat, rain and a strange déjà vu.  I lived in Tanzania back in 1981-2, when my father worked for 2 years at a university in Morogoro.  Morogoro is on the train line and road leading to Zambia, and we would see heavily-laden copper trucks roaring along the road whenever we drove out of town.  Looking around Libuyu, the poor neighbourhood of Livingstone in which YCTC is located, I could have been back in Tanzania 35 years ago.  There were a few differences; cell phones have arrived in a big way, and the cars are all Japanese instead of the Peugeots, Volkswagens and Land Rovers I remembered, but the shanty towns, the women walking long distances with heavy loads on their heads, the dirt roads, the huge numbers of children and the Asian-owned shops were all familiar sights.  Although Zambia is held up as an example of Rising Africa (the 15-20 sub-Saharan countries that have shown sustained economic growth since about 2000), in the outskirts it looks more like Stagnant Africa.  Long line-ups at service stations for scarce gasoline, frequent power cuts and complaints of official corruption were drearily similar to my childhood memories.

I had never done voluntary humanitarian work, and I have to confess that my two adolescent years in Tanzania left me a bit skeptical of the entire aid industry, which too often seems to degenerate into empire building and boosting home-country industries, rather than bringing about lasting improvement in the lives of people in the target country.  Terri’s ongoing project in the poor neighbourhood of Ngwenya, though, was quite different.  
Some of the output of the Ngwenya quarries
It’s run on a shoestring, using money raised by students at her former school, the Kumon Leysin Academy in Switzerland (KLAS, or Kumon).  Students, Terri and (this year) her successor Angela raise money by selling snacks at school, running bake sales and a big charity raffle.  This year Angela and some of her enterprising students took fundraising to a whole new level with enthusiasm, persistence and the clever use of online fundraising tools, and raised far more than had ever been raised in a single year before.  That money, of course, goes far further in Zambia than in overpriced Switzerland and has a huge effect on the lives of over 100 pre-school and lower elementary pupils at the newly re-named Olive Tree Learning Centre.  The money goes to pay for half of the salaries of the teachers and staff at the school, as well as for the school lunch program and for occasional capital projects, such as the construction this year of a new building which will double the available classroom space. 

Brenda, the hand-washing monitor at Olive Tree
It might well be asked why a project that has been running for 9 years still needs ongoing funding support; one of the great complaints about aid and humanitarian projects is that they never become self-funding.  I had the task of having a look at the financial books this year and essentially the school funds about half of its ongoing expenses through school fees which, at 130 kwacha (about 12 US dollars) per term, or 36 dollars a year, are very modest but still beyond the very modest means of many parents in what is a very low-income area where huge family sizes are the norm.  If the school were to charge 300 or 400 kwacha a term (some of the schools for better-off students in Livingstone charge more like 600 kwacha a term), it would cover its expenses, but would in the process price out the very students that Terri has always wanted to help the most.  

School lunch line:  same as anywhere in the world
About a quarter of the students who attend the Olive Tree do so free of charge, as the school management feels that their families are too poor to be able to pay any fees at all.  The others pay a low fee that helps fund the school without making it a school just for the better-off.  The additional funding brought in by Kumon students is the difference between having another school for lower-middle-class pupils and having a school that makes a huge difference in the lives of the poorest children in a tough neighbourhood.

Olive Tree students 
The big construction project this year took up a lot of time and organizational effort.  Essentially a three classroom building, with two classrooms for the expansion of the school up to grade four and one multipurpose room that could be used for adult education or for income-generating activities to increase the self-funding capacity of the school, was being built from the ground up.  We watched the building rise from the extra plot of land that had been purchased a couple of years earlier.  One builder, a few permanent staff and some casual labourers methodically moulded construction blocks from sand and cement, laid a big concrete foundation slab and then began laying courses of blocks.  It all happened remarkably quickly, in a matter of perhaps six weeks in total.  What amazed me was the cost.  A fairly sturdy construction, tons of sand and concrete, doors, gates, windows, many man-weeks of labour, and it was all done for under US$10,000.  The same building would have cost 25 times as much in Switzerland, and 10 times as much in Canada.  Of course, the fact that building labourers work for 20 or 30 kwacha a day helps keep costs down.

At any rate, we watched the building foundations being prepared for the big day of concrete laying as we waited for the Kumon students to arrive.  Justin, the contractor, worked harder than any of his labourers laying blocks, mixing mortar and shoveling sand.  He had conferences with Mr. Sakala, our driver, who had been a builder in his day and was a masterful jack of all trades; they discussed the design of the building, the height of the concrete slab, the supply of bricks and sand.  I even got in on the act, trying to estimate the number of blocks we would need to produce, and hence the quantity of sand and cement we would need.
Starting to lay the foundation of the new school building 
The pre-school itself, still called the Little Angels Pre-School (the Olive Tree re-naming would happen while the Kumon students were there) was a hive of activity whenever we visited.  The school consisted of a main building with two classrooms and a tiny office, a cookhouse that had one room being used as a classroom during the construction (which had claimed one classroom as a storeroom for construction materials), a couple of latrines for the students and a chicken coop where the school supplemented its meagre income from school fees by raising chicks to adult size and then selling them for 45 kwacha (US$ 4) each.  It was a mildly profitable business that kept the otherwise chronically underemployed security guard busy. 

It seems as though every humanitarian endeavour in Livingstone has a similar income-generating activity (IGA, in the parlance) going to supplement funds from overseas donors.  Chicken raising is a popular one, along with sewing, vegetable farming and an Italian restaurant (Olga’s) that was founded to help support YCTC, the Catholic diocese’s training centre for underprivileged youth.  It’s a worthwhile idea to help projects become self-sustaining, but these IGAs run the risk either of not making enough money, or of falling into disrepair due to lax oversight.  Olga’s was apparently not making nearly the money that had been forecast, while YCTC’s IGAs (making furniture and selling clothing) were languishing because of cutbacks, lack of motivation and quality-control issues. 

The Olive Tree is attended full-time by two classes of pre-schoolers, and two half-day classes of grades 1 and 2.  The enrolment of almost 120 is about eight times what it was in 2007 when Terri got involved in the project, and the school is thriving.  The three full-time teachers run their classes with lots of energy and enthusiasm while the school lunch program for the pre-school classes has the pupils looking well-fed and healthy.  One day, walking around the Ngwenya neighbourhood around the school, Terri and I saw a number of students with the orange hair and bulging abdomens that are tell-tale signs of protein-poor diets and malnutrition.  I was amazed that the school was able to feed 70 kids four lunches a week on a budget of about US$100 a month.  That’s basically about 10 US cents a meal.  The staple starch of Zambia, maize-flour porridge called nshima (think of polenta) is unbelievably cheap, and it is supplemented by green vegetables, dried fish and beans.  And yet, despite these low prices, many of the parents of the neighbourhood, working piecework for the rock quarries of the area, are unable to provide enough food for their extensive families.  The school lunch is vital for the pupils, almost more important than the educational opportunities that are also on offer.  It amazes me how little money it can take to make a real, tangible difference in the lives of so many children. 

A joyful, tearful reunion between Terri and Miss Bwaliya
When we weren’t visiting the Olive Tree-to-be, we went to town to do grocery shopping, to buy construction materials and paint, and to visit some of the circle of friends and acquaintances that Terri has amassed over the years of coming to Livingstone.  The no-nonsense Irish nuns of the Little Sisters of St. Francis, Sisters Frances and Fidelma, provided interesting conversation and insight into the problems of trying to run charitable programs in Zambia.  Mr. Sakala gave us stories of economic mismanagement and official corruption.  Ms. Bwaliya, a dear friend who used to work at YCTC, told stories of her family and community that were straight out of Dickens or Victor Hugo, full of poverty, disease, untimely death and horrible crime; I was amazed at her ability to keep going and keep smiling in the face of such adversity.  Zambia has a huge number of orphans whose parents have died young of AIDS, and yet seems to have almost no street kids sleeping rough at night; the extended family takes in the orphans, swelling already large families to Biblical proportions. 

Saying hello to students at Luumono Elementary School
The main complaints that Zambians have about their country and their government are those that you might expect:  shortages of running water, electricity and gasoline; official corruption; a lack of jobs for graduates; and misguided economic policies that have hollowed out the small industrial base that once existed.  While economic growth has occurred over the past 15 years, its benefits do not seem to have been very widely spread.  There is still widespread and obvious poverty, and now that copper prices have fallen off a cliff and the copper mines that were once the leading exports are mothballed, and with a drought driving up prices of corn flour, many people are struggling more than before to make ends meet.  The story of decisions made in the 1990s to allow imports of cheap used Japanese cars and cheap second-hand Asian clothing were interesting and a bit depressing.  Livingstone had a Fiat car assembly factory, a Bata shoe factory and a textile mill that made blankets.  
Sister Bridgit, an inspirational young teacher at Luumono
Shortly after the cheaper imports were allowed, these three factories were gone, taking hundreds (perhaps thousands) of relatively well-paid steady industrial jobs with them and casting the former employees back into the more precarious world of informal employment.  It hardly seems the way to develop a modern prosperous economy, and it’s certainly not the route taken by Japan, South Korea, China, Malaysia and other Asian countries to raise the living standards of most of their populations.  With a hotly-contested election coming up later this year, Zambians fear both more economic populism and real electoral violence.

Zebras at the Royal Livingstone Hotel

At the end of the day, Terri and I often went to a couple of riverside restaurants to take in the breathtaking sunsets.  The Royal Livingstone has an air of colonial elegance and an unbeatable location, along with giraffes, zebras and impalas roaming the grounds.  One of the giraffes, a big male named Bob, took a dislike to me and would advance menacingly if he caught sight of me.  By the time we left Livingstone, Bob had been deported from the hotel back to a nearby national park for being aggressive with other hotel guests.  Terri and I would sit watching the sunset, sipping drinks and watching the passing birdlife.   It was Terri’s favourite spot to end the day.  We also went to the Riverside restaurant, just up the river, with an equally lovely view but without the genteel air of the Royal Livingstone.   Olga’s Restaurant, the Italian joint started as an IGA for YCTC (I feel like a proper NGO worker, spouting an alphabet soup of acronyms) and the Zambezi Café, a lively joint popular with the local Zambian middle class, were other frequent supper spots.  Then we would return to YCTC, often in the darkness of a power cut, and sleep under our sagging mosquito nets.

Bob the aggressive male giraffe

Then, suddenly, the day of arrival was at hand and 15 Japanese high school students and Angela, their South African-born supervising teacher, were at the airport (sadly, without their luggage).  The next 9 days passed in a blur, with work trips to the preschool, a cultural exchange with YCTC students, a class trip with one of the pre-school classes to a big cat centre and an amazing safari trip to Chobe National Park (across the Zambezi in Botswana, a trip which I will write about in a separate post).  The trip, honed over the years by Terri, was a good mixture of activities for the students.  Essentially Angela and the students had already done a lot of the hard work over the past 7 months in raising thousands of dollars to fund the project; that was their biggest practical contribution, and without that money Olive Tree wouldn’t be able to keep operating.  At the same time, though, Terri wanted the students to learn through doing and contributing, so we put the students to work making construction blocks, repairing broken windows and repainting the original school building.  They also taught lessons one day to the youngsters at Olive Tree, and escorted two or three pre-schoolers each on the trip to Mukuni Big Five, the cat sanctuary.  

Taro trying his hand at making construction blocks
I think that it was important for the Kumon teenagers to see the results of their fundraising, the smiling, irrepressible youngsters in their neat uniforms lining up for school lunches, eager to show off their poems and songs.  This sort of direct experiential learning leaves a much more lasting impression on teenagers than any number of academic lessons on the developing world.
Kumon students scraping before repainting Olive Tree
Taro discovers breaking rocks is tough

Daiki with three Japanese JICA volunteers
The impression can be so lasting, in fact, that students come back to Zambia on their own initiative to volunteer.  While we were there we spent a lot of time with Daiki, a former Kumon student who was on Terri’s first-ever Zambia trip in 2007.  He is now a graduate student in Switzerland, studying international development, and was on his second internship at YCTC.  He said that it was only a few years after the trip that he realized what a profound effect the trip had had on his conception of the world, and he was keen to try to help the students on this year’s trip get the most out of their experience.  It was great for me to have Daiki around as he was quite a good source of local information on what was going on at YCTC and in the wider community.  He also organized three local Japanese overseas volunteers who were working in the neighbourhood to come have dinner with the Kumon students one night and give insight into the life of an overseas volunteer.

YCTC dancers at the cultural exchange
The cultural exchange program with the students at YCTC got off to a slow start, with the YCTC group very late in arriving from their classes, but once it got going, it was a very worthwhile experience, with the Japanese demonstrating some typical Japanese skills like origami, calligraphy and wearing a kimono, while a group of YCTC students showed off their drumming and dancing skills.  Afterwards, there were throngs of Zambian students clustered around the tables getting their names written in Japanese characters or trying their hand at origami.  I think it was a good chance to bridge the huge gap in affluence, experience and expectation between the two groups. 
Drummers at the YCTC cultural exchange

Kumon students doing origami at the cultural exchange

Cheetah at the Mukuni Big Five centre

A caracal (African lynx) at the Mukuni Big Five
When we had finished the “service” part of the trip, on Friday morning, after six days of whirlwind activity, when we said goodbye to the pre-schoolers in the parking lot of the Big Five, it was finally a chance for the students to have a more touristy experience.  We went to Victoria Falls (my first visit after being in Livingstone for two and a half weeks) and experienced the awesome volume of water hurtling over the precipice.  At places the spray returning to the ground from the sky was like a second waterfall, drenching anything not protected by a waterproof rain poncho.  We could only really see one half of the falls, as the Zimbabwean half was completely lost in the dense clouds of spray.  
Victoria Falls, aka Mosi Oa Tunya, "The Smoke That Thunders"

Some of that Victoria Falls "smoke"
The waterfall’s spray is visible from many kilometres away on a clear day and is perhaps the most impressive part of an impressive natural sight.  That evening we had a celebratory dinner at the Royal Livingstone before heading off to the Chobe safari early the next morning.

One final coat of paint for the classroom.
When we came back from astounding Chobe, we had one final trip out to the Olive Tree, distributing some of the suitcases of donated clothing and sports equipment that the Kumon students had brought.  We talked through the figures:  the amazing amounts of money raised, and where that money was going to be spent.  We talked about what their efforts meant in giving youngsters in the poorest part of a poor country a bit of a head start through providing them with a safe space to learn and enough food to eat to be able to learn.  It was a bit heartbreaking seeing the crowds of youngsters from that neighbourhood who don’t go to school running wild in the streets, with little prospect of ever getting an education or a decent opportunity in life.  The educational needs of the community are far greater than one small school can provide for, but it’s better to do what we can than to do nothing. 
Mr. Sakala, his family and the Kumon students

As we waved goodbye to the Kumon group at Livingstone airport, it was a bit of a relief after 9 very intense days involving a lot of organizing and oversight, but it was also satisfying to have been part of providing both a possibly transformative educational experience to the Japanese students and a much-needed leg up to a worthy cause that is making a difference in the lives of a hundred families in Ngwenya township.  My long-held skepticism of a lot of large-scale aid projects is still there, but a small, focused effort like Olive Tree really does seem to be an incredibly efficient use of resources to do the maximum good.  There is still a ton of basic needs unmet in the townships around Livingstone (running water, sewage, electricity, health care, education) and it would be nice if the Zambian government did a better job of meeting these, but until (and if) that happens, projects like the Olive Tree will continue to play a vital role in trying to make a difference.  I am immensely proud of Terri and the program she has built up over the years, and I was glad to play a small part in this year’s trip.

Reunion with Natalie at the Royal Livingstone

And then, once it was all over, it was time for us to handle the last bureaucratic paperwork and have some fun.  On Monday, March 28th we met up with a former colleague of mine, Nathalie, who is now working at an international school in Lusaka.  It was great to catch up with her and with the group of colleagues with whom we were travelling.  Then on Tuesday Terri and I treated ourselves to a microlight flight over the falls.  It was eye-wateringly expensive at US$ 165 for a 15-minute joyride, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thrill, and provided by far the best overall view of the falls, as well as glimpses of giraffes, buffalo and hippos in the surrounding national parks. 
Terri going for a microlight flight

On Wednesday, March 30th we packed our bags, said goodbye to YCTC and to Mr. Sakala and caught a flight to Cape Town to start the next phase of our journey:  our overland trip around Africa.  More on that (and on the trip to Chobe) later!
Moe, Terri and Angela and the impressive fund-raising figures

Late afternoon light on the Zambezi

That smile says it all; it's why people volunteer