US Mail

Old Post Office in Downtown Baltimore. (I used to work here!) (Image courtesy of Click_Americana)

Author, David Brin, wrote a post apocalyptic novel centered on a down-on-his-luck loner who, during a time of great need, stumbles upon an old US Mail truck full of undelivered parcels and letters. To feed himself he hatches a scheme to pose as a representative of a restored US government, a mailman delivering a backlog of mail. His scheme worked out better than he’d wanted because he unknowingly creates hope to the far flung and desperate people of the towns he encounters and soon others follow his made up lead, creating mail routes, delivering messages between towns, connecting people, bringing news, and providing a means of communication that was destroyed in the apocalypse. The communication, in turn fosters a sense of unity, of belonging to larger whole that was and might still be the United States of America.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Kevin Costner directed and starred in the screen adaptation of the book that was released in 1997 to a lukewarm reception. I loved the movie. I had read the book many years before and while the movie diverges from the book, the gist of the story is there and I believe it is well worth your time to find and watch the movie if you don’t have time to find and read the book.

I was reminded of The Postman recently after having the delivery of several packages traveling through our postal system delayed. I was initially annoyed, but then I checked myself. I had spent almost 3 years in Namibia where the postal system is privately owned and must operates in an environment markedly different from our own.

At first blush the towns and cities in Namibia are similar to towns and cities you’d find in any country. There are streets with street names and numbers  associated with houses and businesses. But there are also informal settlements where roadways are not always planned and houses, businesses and the residents within appear and disappear as needs arise. Even the more permanent settlements have a haphazard nature about them. Daily home delivery of mail would be a daunting challenge and is just not attempted. 

One of my first part-time jobs when I was a kids in high school was working for the US Postal Service. In the winter I sorted letters, but in the summer I delivered mail, filling in for vacationing letter carriers. My routes were usually in poorer neighborhoods in Baltimore, but even there mail was delivered to the houses or mailboxes associated with an address. In Namibia you have to rent a box or use a box rented by someone else. Packages remained at the post office until you come to pick them up, and that only if there was a way of contacting you. So, if you didn’t have access to a post box and you didn’t have access to a phone or email, you didn’t get mail. Period. Many Black Namibians have never received a letter through their postal system, ever. By contrast, in the US, if we have an address, we get mail, whether we want it or not. I doubt there are many US citizens who have never gotten mail delivered to them at their home at some point in their adult life. 

This recent holiday season saw a huge influx of mail here in the US as many homebound shoppers turned to online purchasing as opposed to going to stores, waiting in line and running the risk of getting Covid-19. Oddly, instead of long lines in stores I encounter even longer lines at the local post offices with people mailing packages to relatives all over the country and beyond. The combination of increased online shopping, increased parcel and letter traffic from Christmas mailings, and  post office staff dealing with Covid-19 created a perfect storm that overwhelmed the system, causing delays in delivery. For me, packages that normally take 2 to 3 days to reach its destination took 5 days or more, which can seem a lot longer if you are waiting for something. But even in this the US Postal Service has ways to alleviate to stress if not the wait.

Packages and letters sent through their Priority Mail service get tracking numbers which you can use to find where your package is in the system. You can also set up phone alerts that flags you when your package reaches different points along its route to you. If you’re concerned about a gift arriving while you’re not there and being opened by someone in your household (or to thwart Porch Pirates: thieves who steal package left on your property) you can have the post office deliver the package to an alternate address or business where someone will be there accept the package for you.

For years now, in this age of email, text messaging and other forms of instant communication, the US Postal Service has seemed more like an anachronism than a viable modern service, a throwback to an era where letters were written by hand, stamps were licked by tongues and messages were deposited in the blue metal mailbox sitting on a nearby corner. Many may see the US Postal Service as an almost forgotten entity relegated to delivering junk mail and paper bills. Even when the service is called into action to play an important role in our democracy it appears not up to the task. This recent election put the US Postal Service in the news as politicians unjustly and often without merit claimed the postal service introduced problems with mail-in ballots to purposefully interfere with the results of the elections. There were problems, unfortunately, but they were unintended and resolved quickly.

In the 1990s and as recent as 2018 there was talk of privatizing the Postal Service, however such suggestions have never garnered much appeal. The public, though it uses the service less with each passing year, expects the US Post Office to be part of what it means to live the US. The existence of the US Post Office was written into the US Constitution and as such, is as much a part of the social-political landscape of America as Congress and the presidency.

But the service is actually quite healthy. According to the US Postal Service, each day it handles 472 million letters, packages, and other correspondents, delivering them to more than 160 million addresses in the USA and its territories. By volume, the numbers are even more impressive: The US Postal Service handles nearly half of all mail by volume on the entire planet! It does it all without costing the US taxpayer a dime, its revenue is entirely funded by product sales and services.

So, as this very interesting year full of surprises and uncertainty comes to a close, one thing a citizen of the U.S. of A. can depend on: Even if your package or card is delayed because of snowstorms or the system is overwhelmed by a tsunami of seasonal packages, take a deep breath as I did and remember that the motto of the US postal carrier remains true; “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Stay tuned

Vern

Exercise Your Happiness Muscle

Happy, Healthy Holidays

Holiday lights at Crane’s Roost, Altamonte Springs, Florida
Crane’s Roost, Altamonte Springs, Florida

Of all the holidays we have here in the US, Thanksgiving is my favorite. I like it because it hasn’t been completely corrupted by the rampant commercialism that has usurped the true meaning and intent of Christmas. Thanksgiving is about giving thanks, being mindful of the good in our lives, enjoying the company of family and friends, enjoying food (lots of food), but most of all it’s about being present, being in the moments that tends to be the most meaningful in our often harried lives.

For those of you not familiar with the holiday, Thanksgiving, as it was taught to me in grade school, celebrates the survival of a set of European settlers/refugees who left England because of religious persecution. These “Pilgrims” were apparently poorly equipped to deal with life in the wilderness of what is now Massachusetts, a state in the north-east US. 

As the story goes, the local Native Americans felt sorry for these poor souls and helped them survive their first year (and are likely regretting it ever since). To celebrate their survival and new found friends the Pilgrims organized a big feast and Native Americans and Pilgrims broke bread, communed and gave thanks for what they had. 

Of course, there’s a lot more to the story and over the years a lot of poetic license has obfuscated the true events surrounding the Pilgrims and their Native American hosts, but the general idea of feasting, communing, and giving thanks is what the holiday has come to mean. It’s celebrated in Autumn because that’s when crops are harvested and preparations are made to survive the winter. 

While I don’t much care for the story of the supposed First Thanksgiving, I do like and practice the concepts of giving thanks, being mindful, and appreciating and enjoying my friends and family. It is what contributes to my general happiness.

I read an article recently titled ‘Yale Happiness Professor on 5 Things That Will Make You Happy’, written by Laurie Santos,  Professor of Psychology at Yale University, that outlined 5 concepts that, if practiced and incorporated in our lives, should lead to a happier existence. The very short version of her list is as follows:

  • Being Social: Get out and be with friend and family, even if it’s done remotely.
  • Being Thankful: Focus on the good in your life and appreciate it.
  • Being in the Moment: Try not to worry about past or future events, instead focus and enjoy what’s going on now.
  • Rest and Exercise: Getting adequate rest and getting off the couch keeps you physically and mentally strong and positive.
  • Being Kind: Sometimes it’s easier to say it than to do it, but acts of kindness, no matter how small, enhances our wellbeing and the wellbeing of those who receive our acts of kindness.

(It’s a good article and well worth time to read it.)

A quick review of that list and you can see that celebrating Thanksgiving checks off almost all of the items. So, yay! Go Thanksgiving!

My daughter, however, likes to remind me that her favorite holiday is Christmas. She loves the trappings of the holiday; the lights, the music, the festive atmosphere, the gift giving and the anticipation and joy my grandson experiences. My friend, Rita, also reminds me of the religious significance of the holiday. Being a devout Catholic, it is one of Rita’s most favorite holidays as she enjoys and participates in the pageantry and inspiration that affirms her faith in often spectacular ways.

20 meter (about 70 feet) Christmas Tree in Crane’s Roost, Altamonte Springs Florida.

In deference to the opinions of these, two of my favorite people, I will admit that, for me at least, Christmas comes in a close second to Thanksgiving as a favorite holiday. I do enjoy gift giving, the lights and pageantry that is found in no other holiday. I also like the fact that Christmas, or the festive nature associated with this time of year, whatever the reason, is celebrated worldwide. 

As nearly everyone is well aware, 2020 has been so full of stress that it threatens to spill over into 2021. It’s become increasing tougher to remain positive, especially when several items on the Happiness List above are a challenge to achieve, but I implore you to try. Even if it’s just a small act of kindness. In fact, if you’re feeling curmudgeonly negative or stressed, or just feel the need to brighten your day, that’s how you should start.

Lights on Park Avenue, Winter Park, Florida

Let that guy pull into traffic ahead of you, open the door for the woman behind you, chat up a stranger while standing in line (while practicing safe social distancing, of course), find something to compliment a person on, then compliment him or her. It doesn’t matter if the object of your kindness is someone you wouldn’t normally engage, it doesn’t cost anything except a few seconds of thought and maybe a few more seconds of effort. You may not be immediately overwhelmed by a glow of positivity for your good deeds, but in time the resulting benefit will become apparent and you find it is well worth the effort.

Make it a habit and you’ll enjoy the benefits all year long, and the other items on the Happiness List won’t be so hard to achieve. It’s kind of like a muscle, a Happiness Muscle. Exercise it and it will get stronger. Soon you’ll be an Arnold Schwarzenegger of Happiness.

So, in the spirit of this holiday season, I wish joy, health and huge bulging biceps of happiness to you and yours.

Stay tuned,

Vern

Omajowa: The Mushroom King

It’s just the beginning of the rainy season in northern Namibia. Areas that were baked in the unrelenting Namibian sun for most of the year welcome the deluge that starts in late December and continues through March, dumping meters of water and supplying much of the yearly supply of fresh water to the traditional farms and towns that dot this ancient ancestral home to the Herero, Himba, Damara, Ovambo, Kavango, and Nama peoples.

It’s during this time that these subsistence farmers plant their basic food crop, mahangu, a type of millet that is pounded into a meal and eaten as porridge with almost every meal. They will plant maize and other vegetable and feed crops that will rapidly grow to maturity during the life-giving rains. It is also the time of year when once dry lakes and riverbeds come alive with barber fish, a type of catfish that is released from hibernation by the flood waters.

Omajowas sprouting from a termite mound. (Image courtesy of Atlas Obscura)

It is during this time of year that you can find omajowa, a variety of mushroom that sprouts from the many termite mounds that punctuate the northern Namibian landscape. What makes these particular mushrooms interesting is the size. From tip to tip they can grow up to a meter long and a fully developed cap can be the size of a dinner plate! 

Yeah, we’re talking BIG MUSHROOMS!

Not only are they big, they are delicious! My first encounter with these big, tasty beauties was in January, 2020. I was traveling to Ondangwa with my host organization, The Rössing Foundation, when we notice some locals flagging cars and waving what looked large white bones. We pulled over and I was instructed to remain quiet. It seems that the haggled price increases dramatically if the sellers hear an American accent. (I wonder why?)

Haggling for omajowas

After several minutes of intense haggling we came away with several enormous, but slightly immature mushrooms. I was told that getting the mushrooms before the caps fully developed insures a more tender and flavorful experience. 

We stayed at a guest house and one of the staff volunteered to prepare the mushrooms for us. She cooked up 4 for us and kept 2 for herself. The result was a big bowl full of what looked like sautéed diced chicken. The flavor was interesting, falling somewhere between chicken and veal or pork and the texture was like chicken breast.

In March, 2020, not long before I along with all PCVs worldwide were sent home due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, I had another opportunity to experience omajowa. During another trip to the north, where my colleagues and I drove through calf-deep water for kilometers in areas that, just a few months before I saw the desiccated remains of livestock that succumb to the drought in the area, I was lucky enough to buy several of these stupendous mushrooms to try my hand at preparing them.

Keep in mind that I’d only seen these immense mushrooms once before and had never cooked them. But, after talking to several friends about how best to prepare them, I figured I’d give it a go.

Step 1: Skin it

These giant fungi have a fibrous epidermis that is edible (I’m told), but not desirable. So ya gotta skin them. Luckily they peel fairly easily, like a big white carrot.

Skinned!

Step 2: Chop It

The stem is round and fibrous and look a lot like scallops. I decided to cut the cap into strips, each about the size of my palm.

Chopped!

Step 3: Season It

I broke out my small pan, added a dollop of butter, some chopped green onions and garlic, then added the shrooms. Like all mushrooms I’ve prepped in the past, these reduce in size as you cook them. I sautéed until they started to brown on the edges and the meat was tender with a fork. I lightly salted them. That was it!

Seasoned!

Step 4: Enjoy!

One gigantic mushroom was more than enough for me and I had enough to share. It was DELICIOUS! It’s a shame Namibia can’t export these beauties because they would be a huge culinary hit worldwide. 

Enjoyed!!

Portabellas can’t match them. Shitakes are no contest. Whites take a backseat. In fact, every edible mushroom pale in flavor, texture, and most of all, size, compared to Omajowas, The Mushroom King.

Stay tuned.

Vern

I’ve been busy…

Yes, I know I haven’t updated this is quite some time, but I have an excuse (though I’ll admit now that it’s not a good excuse).

See, I’ve been busy. Since coming back to the States admit the Covid Pandemic has not been the best situation for a guy who likes to move around. I haven’t been able to travel to see my son, daughter and grandson, and that’s really taken an emotional toll on me. Rather wallow in a pit of despair, I’ve decided to go all in on producing videos.

Earlier this year I started a video project to highlight Orlando, Florida and the surrounding area. I have gigabytes of footage and was in the midst of putting it all together when I had another idea; I needed a road trip. If I stay stationary for too long I get really unsettled. The restriction to travel brought on my the Covid Pandemic had started to loosen and I saw my opportunity. I just needed a goal and a purpose.

When I was in Namibia I had produced a video for my friends at Educators of America, a non-profit dedicated to helping teachers teach. That video focused on teachers in Namibia who Offered their perception of what it is like to teach in Namibia. I think it turned out ok, especially considering that I was fairly new at video production.

The goal of my road trip was to produce a similar video featuring teachers in and around the Buffalo, New York area. I think the resulting video shows some improvement on my production techniques.

While traveling I came upon so many jaw-dropping vistas and had so many encounters with friends that I took gigabytes of video, initially not intending to do anything with it but to preserve the memories, but as my trip progressed I found that I needed to document, then produce something the chronicled my trip. I’ve finished that video today.

Take a look. Hope you enjoy it.

Stay tuned,

Vern

Technology: How far we’ve come!

It’s the middle of 2020 and there’s so much going on and our tech is such a key part of our lives that it’s hard to imagine what it was like before we all carried these devices. Today, technology is everywhere. It is invasive, protective, liberating and restricting. It enhances our lives and can just as easily ruin them. We can’t seem to live without it, but there are times when we wish we could.

We can communicate with nearly anyone almost anywhere in the world instantly. We can pay our bills, order food, book a vacation, and work and never need to touch paper, handle money or physically be in any specific place to do these things, we can do them remotely, anytime, anywhere and without a traditional desktop computer.

We can see places we’ve never knew exited, listen to music we might not have ever heard, experience the awe and mystery of different lives, different cultures, different views, different languages and never leave our homes.

We can capture the beauty that love and respect for one another can bring to light or expose the ugliness of hate and intolerance that used to exist in the shadows of our society. And we can share what we find with the world in an instant.

We can do it all with our mobile phones.

Our technology is so ingrained into the very fabric of our lives that you might think that it has always been that way, but in truth, it wasn’t so long ago that the very tech that we take for granted today didn’t exist. Before 1973, handheld mobile phones we used now was the stuff of science fiction. There were mobile phones in cars, but they were only for the rich. Then Motorola introduced the first truly mobile handheld phone and it was a brick of a device. The underlying infrastructure to support such devices barely existed and it wasn’t until the advent of analog cellular technology, allowing increased mobility, that the mobile phones became something viable for the more of the population.

As mobile infrastructure morphed and grew so did the adoption of the technology it supported. Smaller devices that became increasingly capable and, most importantly, cheaper quickly became the focus of the consuming public. 

Then, something strange happened, having a mobile phone transformed from an oddity and toy for the rich, to a fashion statement, to a necessity for living in a modern world. Being able to contact friends, family, employees, and associates whenever and wherever they might be became a new social norm. But the bulk of that communication did not need the immediate attention that voice calls demanded, and that’s where texting fit in.

In the background, analog cellular service was being replaced by digital service which could, given enough bandwidth, deliver the Internet to mobile phones. Thus the Smart Phone was born. Then, not only could you make calls and send and receive text messages, you could send and receive photos and documents, use applications that used to only be found on desktop computers, and, most importantly, browse the Internet. But the experience was sorely lacking. Webpages weren’t designed for narrow bandwidths and small screens. Just reading a webpage was often a challenge and if the page offered any kind of interaction, like scrolling or imbedded movies, the mobile devices of the day just couldn’t handle it.

In 2007 Apple changed all of that when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone. While it wowed the crowd present at the introduction the mobile phone industry didn’t quite know what to make of the device that had no hardware keyboard, no stylus, but sported a huge (3.5”) screen and 5 buttons.

imgres

Photo courtesy of Business Week

By today’s standards the first iPhone was laughably simplistic. Watch the video of the introduction. Jobs gets applause when he uses his spreading fingers on the phone’s touch screen to enlarge a photo, flicks his finger to scroll through his contact list and taps his finger to enlarge an articles on the New York Times webpage. Remember that what Jobs is showing had been available on mobile devices before the iPhone, but none of it was integrated and optimized to be used on a mobile device with a touch user interface before. It was, in a word, revolutionary.

Today’s iPhone sport more computing power than high priced, high-powered, cabinet filling computers had just a decade ago. We can shoot and edit videos, compose music, interact with virtual objects, play games against opponents anywhere in the world all while taking a call or video chatting with friends. Our phones alert us when a child is lost, warn us when tornadoes approaches, defend us when we are threatened, entertain us when we are bored. Our phones can record our interactions with law enforcement, spread conspiracy theories and bring secrets and inadequacies to light, and promote both truths and lies with equal measure. And we can do it all in real time, in high resolution, and with high quality wireless sound.

Back in 1978 I bought my first computer, a TRS-80 Model 1. I worked part-time at a local Radio Shack for 6 months to save enough to buy it. When I brought it home my wife and neighbors all asked me the same question, “What good is it?” Back then a 25” color TV and a touch-tone landline phone was the epitome of consumer electronics. My answer to their question was that the clunky set of hardware sitting on my dining room table was the future. Looking at my iPhone 11 now, even I couldn’t imagine then how true that  statement was.

Check out Steve Jobs introducing thefirst iPhone in 2007 here

Stay tuned

Vern

Home Again, Home  Again! 

Seems I barely had time to get things done in Namibia before the dreaded COVID-19 virus forced me and Peace Corps Volunteers worldwide to come home. I think I’m luckier than most, I got to see my primary projects to completion and even had time to get a secondary project off the ground. I also was able to be in Namibia for almost 3 years. That, in itself, is something to crow about.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts you’ll know that one of my projects was getting a solar power system setup for a groups of miners and their families. The system provides power to their workshop so that they can run the tools they need to process the stones they mine. The system also provides power to recharge batteries the miners can take back to their homes to power lights and small appliances, it avails ample power for a community refrigerator so that they can buy and store fresh meats and vegetables, and it provides power for security lighting for their market. I was also able to get roadside signs installed to alert travelers of the market well before they reach it, which should increase visitor traffic once tourism starts back up. There are about 50 families that will benefit from the project and I can’t tell you how happy I am that it was completed before I had to leave.  

Unfortunately, COVID-19 happened which pretty much shut down the country. If you think we have it bad imagine you earn your living digging semi-precious stones out of an arid desert. Your family lives there too. Water has to be trucked in. The land is too harsh to garden so you must buy what you need to eat and live from stores 20 or more kilometers away. You can make a living mining these stones, but you are solely dependent on tourists. Now imagine that suddenly there are no more tourists and you begin to see the plight of the miners and so many of their countrymen. I continue to get some reports from colleagues in Namibia and some stories are hard to hear. I remain hopeful that the situation will improve quickly.

As I mentioned, Peace Corps Volunteers worldwide were sent home. I can’t imagine how hard it was for the director of the Peace Corps, Dr. Jospehine Olsen, to make that call, but it was the right call to make. As the seriousness of COVID-19 became increasingly apparent around the world and countries, and more significantly, travel companies began to restrict flights going into and out of known infected areas, travel option became fewer. While we felt relatively safe in Namibia, getting a bit over 120 volunteers home in the event of an emergency was becoming mounting challenge. While many of us wanted to see our efforts in Namibia through to the end, leaving when we did was the best choice. 

It happened quickly. Many of us didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to our friends with whom we’ve lived and worked beside for so long. And there isn’t enough words to express the gratitude to the staff at Peace Corps Namibia for getting the volunteers home safe and sound. It was a huge effort to find flights and out-process 120+ in a matter of a few days, an effort that normally takes several weeks.

Here’s a video I put together of our evacuation. 

So, I’ve been back in the States for 4 weeks now. So much has changed. More on this in my next post, and I promise it will be soon. Until then…

Stay tuned.

Vern

Cross Country

(Note: this was supposed to have been posted two weeks ago. Gettin’ crazy over here!)

Over the course past few weeks I have been traveling, literally, from one end of Namibia to the other, all for a good cause.

One of the projects I’m working one is called Building Cultural Bridges (BCB). It is the brainchild of Mike Lynch and Brett Claydon of Educators of America (EOA), a nonprofit that seeks to help students by helping teachers. BCB is an offshoot of EOA and its focus is to connect kids in different countries via teleconferencing equipment, in doing so these young people are able to directly converse and exchange cultural and academic ideas regardless of distance. Its a great program and I’m happy to be part of it.

My role has been to help facilitate the program in the Erongo Region of Namibia, and to that end I’ve helped to host several video conferences between students here and in Buffalo, NY. 

The program isn’t just to get the students talking, teachers on both sides of The Pond can and do use the conferencing equipment to chat and coordinate meetings and other projects for the students. One question does come up often, however: What’s it like to teach in (insert country here)?

It’s a valid question and one that often gets overlooked when chatting with counterparts in other countries. This brings me to the reason for my recent cross-country trekking. Mike asked me to produce a video that focuses on the teachers and their environment here in Namibia. That may sound like a simple request; interview a few teachers, slap a video together and I’m done.

Nope!

One thing I’ve learned during my stint in the PC Media Committee is that a good video is well planned. So, I started planning, and that’s when the logistical details started popping up. I wanted to give a broad perspective of the teaching environment here and the people who choose to teach in it, that meant I needed to talk to teachers in as many different geographical locations as possible, which meant I would need to travel. Those of you who have followed my blog for a while know that PC does not allow volunteers to drive, so we are relegated to using the often dicier public/private transportation options. At best, you can meet some interesting people and enjoy a pleasant, air-conditioned ride for a relatively small amount of money. If you’re not lucky it’s be a cramped, smelly, dangerous, hand basket ride to Hell that is not for the faint of heart. I’ve been lucky and have had to endure only a few of the latter.

It seemed that the Namibian God of Transportation (No such deity, but there should be) smiled on me because Mike and Brett of EOA were making their annual visit here and were scheduled to head to Oranjemund (pronounced “O-ran-ye-mun”) and I was able to catch a ride with them to interview two educators, one from a private school, the other, a principal of a public school.

And so, my journey began.

Brett and Mike took the faster, less traveled, but far more scenic route, which is over dry packed dirt most of the way. They rented a 4×4 so we were able to maintain a decent speed even as the terrain grew more varied and the road less maintained. We headed out of Swakopmund down to Walvis Bay, then on C-14, a road that roughly paralleled the coast, but is much further inland.

Out of Walvis Bay the terrain is mostly flat with occasional inselbergs to break up the monotony. As we traveled further south the flat desert gave way to rocky hills and, gradually, into low, ancient mountains. We stopped at the Tropic of Capricorn to take pix. Further on the landscape became wild, rocky and raw. At one point we had to stop and just take in the view. It was otherworldly.  

Rough_rock_Pan

It’s like I stepped onto another planet.

We continued south to Aus, where we dropped off some supplies to friends and continued south on C-13 which borders a “Diamond Area”, an area where travel is restricted because of diamond mining. It’s a huge area and one of several in southern Namibia. After a few more hours on the the road we arrived at Oranjemund. As you might imagine, the chief industry for the town is diamond mining. For a long time the town was restricted and only residence were allowed free access. Others had to get a pass and were checked when leaving to make sure no diamonds that might have found left with them.

(The Orange Rive that borders South Africa (background). The wind on top of this hill nearly blew me off it.)

Oddly, wild oryx freely roamed the town and have done so for decades. These are large ungulates stand in size between white tailed deer and elk. They sport long, straight and very sharp horns and have been known to successfully defend themselves against lions. On a morning stroll, I walked pass several that seemed completely oblivious to me. Interacting with these beast, however, is strictly forbidden. They are wild animals and can get aggressive if you stand between them and food. 

So, should I try to feed, pet, or even get close to an Oranjemund Oryx?

Nope!

I was there on business, not sightseeing or oryx petting, so I got my interviews and other shots around the town. I caught a kombi back to Windhoek while Mike and Brett went on the Luderitz.

The very next week my host organization, The Rössing Foundation, needed me to head up to Oland (the area in northern Namibia so called because most towns have names that begin with ‘O’ and it’s mostly populated by people of the Ovambo tribes). I made arrangement to interview two teachers there and, with barely enough time to catch my breath, I was off again.

I’ve traveled to Oland many times so the route was familiar to me, but the last time I visited the area, as well as the rest of Namibia, was in the grip of a devastating drought. I talked about this in detail in an earlier post. Since my last visit the area has seen an abundance of rain. What was parched and dusty is now green and wet. Places where my RF supervisor and I drove across the last time we were here is now under at least a meter of water. The animals that survived are loving it. Cows, donkeys and goats that looked horribly thin now have less pronounced ribs and hips as they lazily munch on a veritable sea of vegetation.

Oland is home to an area that, even in its driest, has a beauty that’s hard to match elsewhere in the world. The area is between Otavi, Tsumeb, and Grootfontein and is called The Maize Triangular because it’s where most of Namibia’s corn is grown. The area is criss-crossed with extremely old mountains that are covered with shrubs and small trees. When the rain come these mountains are covered in a blanket of greenery that defies description. 

(Heading towards Tsumeb.)

Interviews in Oland done, I head back south. I still have several teacher interviews to do, but those will likely be local, an hour’s travel at most. I’m also putting together a video for the Rössing Foundation, another for COSDEC (which I haven’t started yet because of the travel. Sorry Katrina!), and I’m developing a video making workshop which the few folks who know about seem very excited about. And I only have about 5 months left! 

Gettin’ crazy over here!

And now I need to start thinking about what my next chapter will look like. I have some ideas.

Stay tuned.

Vern

The Journeymen

As much as I’ll complain about not being able to drive while in the Peace Corps, not doing so (driving, not complaining) has afforded me the opportunity to meet some interesting people while taking ‘public’ transportation. (I emphasize public because the system is very different than what I saw as public transportation in the States. Here, getting around requires you to ‘hike’, which is catching a ride in anything from a private car to private trucks, or going to a hike point and catching something going in your direction. I’ve talked about hiking in earlier posts.)

Yesterday, while at Rhino Park, a more orderly hike point in Windhoek, I struck up a conversation with a group of German Journeymen. I’d seen their kind before in Swakopmund, but thought they were a group of oddly dress young men celebrating something. In reality they are apprentice graduates who travel around the world living off their trade and gaining experience. The group I met yesterday were carpenter journeymen. 

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German Carpenter Journeymen in full regalia

There were 7 of them, all dressed in traditionally styled, heavy black cotton denim or corduroy bellbottom pants, a heavy, pocketed waistcoats, white cotton collarless shirts, and an assortment of odd hats. Everything from bowlers, to top hats, to wide rimmed carpenter’s hats, always black. I felt bad for them because they had to wear that outfit in the hot, humid Namibian sun and while stuffed in the back of a crowded kombi.

This groups, as I found out from our chat, was heading to the coast hoping to find work. I pointed them to Walvis Bay where they may find dock work, and to a backpacker’s inn where could sleep cheaply.  

To say they stood out would be an understatement. 

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No, I didn’t get their names. Yes, I should have.

One of the things I think we Americans lack are traditions like this. We have apprenticeship and journeymen ranking in some trades, but they only play lip service to what the terms mean, especially journeymen. The very term says what those who choose that route should be doing, journeying, discovering the world and using the skills you’ve learned to make the world a better place, and in return, gain experience in your trade.

I wish I had time to talk to these guys some more. I’d like to find out the depth to which they were committed to the years they traveled. I did learn that some had gone far and wide, to Japan, Brazil, and other African countries. Did they learn new techniques in their craft? Did they find themselves in places where their craft could be used to help, like hurricane ravaged Dominican Republic, or earthquake damaged villages in Tibet? These are places I can see where you gain the most experience while helping. Accommodations would be extremely limited, conditions would be hard, resources scarce, and they’d have to think beyond the textbooks to solve real world problems. What better way to advance your knowledge in a trade?

I did wish these boys luck on their journey and hope they gain and give as they go.

Ahhh, the people I meet!

Stay tuned.

Vern 

The Dry Season: An Update

It’s been nearly a month since I visited Oland and saw the devastation the ongoing drought has wrought. When I wrote the post, ‘The Dry Season’, it had started to rain in many areas in northern and central Namibia. Today was the first time since the rains have come that I’ve had a chance to travel out of the Erongo Region to Windhoek. 

As I have explain in ‘The Dry Season’ post, the lack of rain had made everything brown and dead looking. When I last traveled to Windhoek on the Trans-Kalahari Highway (B2), which heads northeast from Swakopmund to Usakos and Karibib, then east to Okahandja, where the terrain graduates from sand and the occasional inselberg to the north and rugged Khomas Mountains to the south, to rolling brush and bush covered hills and valleys, the area between Karibib and Okahandja looked like one vast tinderbox waiting for a match. 

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On a road south of the Brandberg Massif. This area hasn’t seen rain in months.

This week I had to go into Windhoek and this time the area between Karibib and Okahandja was transformed into an endless carpet of green. The area got some decent rain and is still getting an occasional shower. It’s enough to wake the bushes and the few hardy trees. Even the rocky hills, which don’t hold water, are now covered with green like stringy green comb-overs valiantly trying to cover bald spots. The further inland I go, the greener it got. I even saw puddles of water in once bone-dry riverbeds.

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Hills and clouds along B2. When I came through here a few weeks ago it was all brown under a cloudless sky. 

I’m sure the wildlife welcomes the change. I hadn’t seen the seemingly plentiful warthogs scrounging along the roadside in a very long time. This trip I saw two. I also saw a small troop of baboons, normally another common roadside sight that seemed to have disappeared during the dry season. The few cows that I saw grassing near the road were still skinny, but they looked far healthier than those I’d seen on my earlier trip.

This is the time of year when many Namibians head north to their homelands and farms. I’ve talked to some of my friends and they are overjoyed with the amount of rain they’ve gotten. Even here, in the Erongo Region, people seem happy and somewhat relieved with the amount of rain their families and friends up north have gotten.

Rainy season typically ends around the end of March to early April, that they are getting lots of rain at this point bodes well for the drought stricken and thirsty north, and all of Namibia.

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For the sake of comparison; this is a stretch of the B1 highway outside of Okahandja taken 3 weeks ago, just when the rains were starting.

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And this is the same stretch taken yesterday. What a difference.

To be clear, the drought is not over, this rain is just a reprieve. It will take several years to undo what more than 7 years of low rainfall has done, but as an African proverb says, ” A little rain each day can cause a river to overflow.” Keep your fingers crossed that these rain will eventually cause the the rivers to overflow.

Stay tuned.

Vern

Kapana

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(This picture was taken outside my house last Wednesday. It has nothing to do with kapana, I just wanted it show it to you. We get some fantastic sunsets here, but this one topped them all. It looked like the sky was on fire. And in case you’re wondering, that is an empty pool in the bottom of the photo. It was built for the miners and their families back when Rôssing Uranium ran the town and took care of their miners. Water was free and plentiful back then because uranium prices were high. Water now is too expensive to keep it filled, so it’s become a half forgotten relic, and reminder of better times.)

Every place has street food, fair that you’d find in markets, tiny shops, and street corners anywhere in the world. The best street food is often in places most tourists don’t venture. In Mexico it’s burritos, tamales and  tacos. In Thailand it’s khao pad. In Namibia it’s kapana.

During our first two months in Namibia the Peace Corps restricts our movements. Volunteers aren’t allowed to travel and explore, and for good reason. Those two months are spent orienting us to the environment and culture to better prepare us for the inevitable culture shock every volunteer experiences. During that time we have chaperoned excursions into Windhoek and other places, controlled exposure to the sights and sounds in which we’ll be immerse in for the following 24 months.

On one of those outings chaperons took us to the Open Market in Windhoek. If you’ve watched any movie or TV show where intrepid adventurers casually stroll through third world markets intaking the smells, sights, sounds and tastes of their surroundings, then you have an idea of what the Open Market we visited was like.

I’m familiar with these types of markets. I grew up in Baltimore and in several places in the city there are markets like this where vendors occupy cramped stalls and sell everything from furniture to food that would make you wanna smack someone, it’s so good. 

On one of my chaperoned visits I was introduced to kapana, which is any variety of seasoned grilled meat cooked while you’re standing there and served with a powdered spice mixture, a salsa of tomatoes and onions, and sometimes pap, a thick maize or mahagu (a local wheat-like grain) porridge you eat with your hands. 

The meat can be beef, pork, mutton, goat, chicken, and in some places, donkey. It is marinated, cut into filets and grilled. When you’re ready to buy you point out the cut of pre-grilled meat you want and the vendor will cut it into bite-size pieces, grill it some more, then serve it to you either on a plate and you can stand at the stall and eat, or you can get yours to take-away (to go) and they’ll wrap the heated meat in whatever they have available, often old newspaper. (So it’s best to bring something a bit more sanitary if you want your lunch to go.)

Last Thursday, while heading to Rehoboth (a town about 100km south of Windhoek) my supervisor decided to stop at the open market to get lunch. We had been nibbling on a bag of potato chips just before, so we used that bag for our take-away order. We didn’t get salsa or pap, just the meat. He ordered mutton, and beef liver.  

It was raining when we arrived, but it was lunch time and the stalls were humming with business. While waiting for our food to cook I shot a short video to give you an idea of what it’s like. What you’ll see is a small section of what must be 15-20 kapana vendors, all selling similar foods. When you walk up they offer you samples. We tried several and settled on the guy in front of us in the video.

That’s my supervisor with the potato chip bag in the foreground. He’s adding some of that powered spice to our lunch.

Yes, it doesn’t look very clean, and on hot days the flies are horrible to deal with, but, man! Kapana is my favorite. And kapana in the Open Market in Windhoek is the best place to get it.

Stay tuned.

Vern