How we found sanitary pads on the way to the Congo

Rabson, talking to us on Lake Bunyonyi

As I explained in my last post, Steve and I made this trek to Africa because of the Ugandan grannies. But after flying here via Qatar (and stopping there for three nights), the granny research consumed only four days. It seemed a shame to come halfway around the world, then turn around and go home after such a short time. Also, another adventure called to us.

Several years ago, Steve and I became aware of the plight of the bonobo (along with chimpanzees, Homo sapiens’ closest relative left on earth). There’s a bonobo sanctuary in the heart of Africa that is doing great work for this crucially important but highly threatened species. After visiting the grandmother project, Steve and I wanted to visit that sanctuary.

This isn’t easy. Lola Ya Bonobo (literally “Paradise for Bonobos”) is located outside the city of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The second largest country in Africa, the DRC is also one of the most tragic. It’s ridiculously rich in resources, mineral and physical, yet it’s one of the poorest countries in the world, with one of the bloodiest histories. It does not welcome tourists. As far as I could make out, it has no tourist industry. To go there, someone has to invite you, the invitation has to be approved by multiple ministries in the Congolese capital, and you have to send your passport to the DRC’s embassy in Washington DC to receive the crucial stamp.

Here’s the one in my passport, acquired after Lola Ya Bonobo invited us and all the bureaucratic hoops were jumped through.

Transportation options are limited, but the Rwandan airline does fly to Kinshasa nonstop from the capital of Rwanda, Kigali. The flight is only two and a half hours long, and Rwandair has an excellent reputation. The only problem (for us) was that this flight only operates a couple of times of week. Steve and I couldn’t get to Kigali from Nyaka (the Ugandan village where the granny program is based) on Sunday, and the next nonstop wasn’t until Wednesday (i.e. tomorrow).

Happily what initially looked like an irritating delay turned out to be a pleasure. I learned that we could be driven from Nyaka to Kigali via the site of Uganda’s most beautiful lake, Lake Bunyonyi. We planned to hole up there for two nights, review the work we’d done in Nyaka, and write about it. But yesterday morning, we couldn’t resist spending a few hours in a boat on the lake.

For $20 a person, the hotel where we were staying arranged for a motorboat, a guy to drive it, and a soft-spoken 23-year-old guide named Rabson. Rabson looked very young, but he’s been guiding for about three years, and I quickly found him to be quick-witted, conscientious, and knowledgeable.

The morning had started off a little drizzly, but as we putted along, the sky cleared. Lake Bunyonyi is the deepest lake in Uganda, and it’s filled with 29 islands, most uninhabited. It has no dangerous animals like crocodiles or hippos, and almost no fish.

Only tiny ones like these, skewered for sale at the local market.

The islands create a landscape that reminded me a bit of the New Zealand fiordlands. But the steep hillsides surrounding the water are an intense tropical green, dotted with banana groves. People swim in the lake, and it provides drinking water to the local villagers.

As in so much of Africa, kids were gathering it here.

Rabson loves birds, and he pointed out many interesting specimens to us, including these.

A pied kingfisher
Uganda’s national bird, the grey crowned crane

He recounted the history of some of the islands. Then he began talking about something that startled me: namely, how most kids in Uganda reach puberty without knowing anything about menstruation.

When girls suddenly begin to bleed, it shocks and horrifies their classmates. Girls have no access to sanitary pads, so they use torn-up t-shirts or leaves or other crude substitutes for sanitary pads that sometimes trigger infections. But Rabson had met someone who was trying to do something to change that and he wanted to take us to meet her.

Steve and I had seen so many African marketplaces over the past few days, I wasn’t dying to see another, but we held our tongues. We sensed it was important to Rabson to share this.

Our boatman pulled up to a dock on the mainland. We disembarked and walked into the jumble of stalls and food sellers that takes shape there every Monday and Friday. We followed Rabson up the dirt path to a compact wooden shack, where a friendly face beamed at us from a window, welcoming us. Rabson pointed out the poster on the front of the building, explaining the project, then his friend Harriet Rwosa stepped out and invited us inside.

If someone told me Harriet was educated in England, I would have believed them; her English is excellent, an ebullient flood of words. But she’s lived all her life in this village. We learned that she’s 27 and married. But she only went through the local high school. Although she yearned to continue on at a university, her parents lacked the money to send her. Like most girls, in her school years Harriet had experienced menstruation as a curse. Every month it kept her out of class, causing her to to fall behind her male peers, a new experience for her. Time had passed, and somehow she’d gotten the idea to design and market cheap, reusable sanitary pads that would enable girls to continue their education, even while menstruating. About a year and a half ago, she’d made her first pads on a little foot-powered Singer sewing machine, and she had marshaled the funds to create a little craft shop to support the purchase of materials to make more pads. Some were lined with a soft toweling. For others Harriet uses a local fabric that resembles flannel. It costs more, she told us, but it’s also more absorbent.

For $10, you can buy 3 pads for a girl. I gave her $20.

As inspiring as Harriet was, I felt equally moved by Rabson, who believes in what Harriet is doing and is trying to help any way he can. As we walked back to the motorboat, he told us he had been bird-watching on one of the bigger islands when he happened to meet Harriet, there to pass out pads at the island high school. She told him about the project, and Rabson immediately understood its importance. One day when he was in the fifth grade of primary school, he had shared a bench with a 13-year-old girl. When she stood up at the end of class, blood stained her clothing and the bench. Today Rabson mimes the reaction of the other kids; their shock at the sight of this frightening blood. They jeered, hooted, cruelly mocked their classmate. She was so mortified and humiliated, she never came back to school. Rabson says not long after this incident, she was married and had a child, but her husband later left her. Her life was ruined for lack of a sanitary pad, something that Rabson still clearly finds appalling today.

He disapproves of giving out free condoms, without also handing out pads to girls. Having sex is something you choose, he declared. But you don’t have a choice about menstruating.

This is true. Hearing Ugandan 20-somethings testify to it, seeing some moved to action by it, inspired me and touched my heart. It made me wish I could return to make a documentary about passionate, energetic Harriet and the lives she’s already changing.

I almost certainly won’t have a chance to do that; it’s not my talent. But I’m grateful to be able to write about her here. I’m thrilled to be spending the night in a really nice hotel in central Kigali, overlooking the Hotel Mille Collines (the inspiration for the cinematic Hotel Rwanda.) I’m happy to have a good fast internet connection to publish this post. In just a few hours, we’ll take that flight to the Congo, where it’s unlikely we’ll have much in the way of WiFi or phone service. But I plan to write every day about our experience in the bonobo sanctuary, and I’ll post the results as soon as possible.

Ugandan grannies: better than any tourist attraction?

Can you spot the San Diegans amongst the valiant Ugandan grannies?

The world is a big place, and Steve and I hunger to see as much of it as possible before we die. That’s why we rarely go back after an initial visit to most countries outside North America. The list of places we’ve traveled to repeatedly has been short: France, Italy, Japan. I’m thinking, however, that I need to add Uganda.

Before our first trip here, in 2013, I would have bet it would be our only one. That was our first (and I would have predicted only ever) visit to East Africa. In the course of it we also swept through Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya. But just a few months before we went, something extra got tacked on.

We have a close friend, Leigh Fenly, who in 2006 co-founded a San Diego organization called Women’s Empowerment (WE) International. Its goal is to improve the lives of some of the poorest women in the world. In the spring of 2013, WE had been approached by a group with a project in southwestern Uganda that was providing tiny but invaluable loans to older women who were raising grandchildren orphaned by AIDS. Amazingly, Steve’s and my itinerary would be taking us not far from Nyaka (the central village), and we managed to adjust it to allow for a one-day visit. We came away so moved and impressed that WE began a partnership early in 2014 with the Nyaka AIDS Orphans Foundation’s granny-group project.

Steve and I also agreed to be the liaisons between the San Diego folks and the Ugandans, a job we’ve continued to fill ever since. In that role, we returned to Nyaka accompanied by another WE member in 2017, and our current travels (this time with 6 WE leaders in tow) were driven by the desire to go back for another on-the-ground assessment of how the Ugandan “micro finance” project has been playing out.

We’ve been dazzled. In our two days in the field, the 8 of us interviewed more than a dozen individual grandmothers, learning about what they’ve done with the loans they’ve received from their groups. We also met with two large granny groups located near the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (home to some of the last mountain gorillas in the world).

One of the groups we visited has developed a robust business making handicrafts and selling them to the foreigners who come for the gorilla tracking.

Progress that was already starting to be evident three years ago has continued and seems to be accelerating.

For example, the first one-year loan ever granted (back around 2007) to one of the two groups we visited Saturday was for 200,000 Ugandan shillings — about $75. The group then made tiny loans — the equivalent of $5 to $10 — to individual members. Each woman would have the money for three months, then she would have to pay it back, along with about 15% interest. With so little money, a granny might only be able to buy a chicken or two. But she could hatch some of the eggs, sell others, and come away with a bit of extra cash — money that more often than not she would use to pay her grandkids’ school fees.

Over the last six years, as WE has donated money raised in San Diego, the Nyakans’ central revolving fund has grown from just $7,000 to almost $250,000 (including profits from the interest on the group loans and about $175,000 from WE). That’s meant granny groups have been able to receive bigger and bigger annual loans. The group that began with a $75 loan now has a loan of more than $4000.

Virtually all the grannies grow crops that their families eat, as shown here by the hands.

Grannies with bigger ideas have been able to get bigger and bigger loans to help them realize their dreams. Take Meleth, for example. She’s 52, currently raising 6 grandchildren (one disabled).

Meleth at the counter in her salon/beauty product store

She joined her granny group just a few years ago and has since become its treasurer. She’s gotten two substantial loans, first one for the equivalent of about $82, then another for almost $200. She’s used that money to build up a beauty salon that would be respectable even by Kampala standards. She’s installed a hair dryer and a wash basin; has diversified into providing decorations for weddings and other celebrations, as well as catering. She told us she currently serves 25-30 clients during her typical six-day week. (A Seventh-Day Adventist, she closes Saturdays.)

Because of her loan money, 54-year-old Robinah started a restaurant that she estimates feeds 40-50 customers a day. Business is good, but she thinks it would be even better if she could buy a refrigerator and sell cold drinks. (That would cost between 1 and 1.5 million shillings, about $275-$400.)

Robinah

Many grannies still do simpler things: acquire goats or chickens or pigs; hire help to grow more cash crops like coffee. We met 65-year-old Ketty Turiyatunga at the Friday market in the little village of Nyamirama. She was filling baskets with sweet potatoes that she hoped to sell for about a dollar. Her loan was for less than $14, but she seemed happy to have it.

Margaret Tumuhimbise, 67, has a small loan too, but she uses it to buy products like tomatoes to supplement the pineapples, sweet bananas, and maize she grows and sells at a stand in the local market.

Margaret currently cares for 4 grandchildren and a great-grandchild, whom she’s holding in this photo.

Note the uniform Margaret is wearing. On our first visit, no grandmothers had uniforms, but by 2017, one large group had had some made. Since then more and more groups, maybe 60% of the 10,000 grandmothers who are currently Nyaka granny-group members, have used their profits to buy the distinctive outfits. They wear them with pride. Folks respect and admire and even envy them now, whereas just a few years ago, they were despised for being dirty and poor and old and bad-smelling. Now they all have soap and toothbrushes. Now they have hope they won’t ever have to beg again.

The Nyaka group’s leaders are talking about getting another 10,000 grandmothers organized into groups that will receive loan money. They envision doing this within just a few years. Some dream of expanding still further, going country-wide.

I have to confess that Steve and I were skeptical seven years ago. Billions have gone into aid for Africa over the course of our lives, and much of that money has been squandered. But, started by a Ugandan, run by Ugandans, decentralized and shaped by leadership at the village level, this program looks like success to us. Even if Uganda didn’t have any great natural beauty and touristic pleasures, I might be tempted to return some day to see if the human thrills continue.

As in the past, the granny group members greeted us with joyous dancing. This is an electrifying experience.
The village kids look on, curious and somewhat amazed.

On the road in Uganda

When you drive west from Kampala along the Masaka Road, heading in the general direction of Rwanda and the Congo, about two hours outside the Ugandan capital you cross the equator. I’ve done this twice, and both times it’s been a jolly experience.The Ugandans have erected circular structures on both sides of the highway, to mark the invisible line that divides the northern hemisphere from the southern one. Both Africans and visitors from other continents get a kick out of standing with one foot on each side of the line. Folks queue up to get their pictures taken.You can buy coffee or a snack or a host of souvenirs.

For less than $5, I got this table mat, made from bottle caps that have been flattened, covered with cloth, and stitched together.

For a small fee, you can get a demonstration of the alleged Coriolus effect.

It involves pouring water down a drain and watching it swirl down in different directions on each side of the line. But Steve whispered to me that this was hokum.

And whether it’s true of not, you can get a certificate attesting you have witnessed it in person.

Steve and I did not come to Uganda for any of this. We’re not here as tourists nor as religious missionaries, though we are on something of a mission. For years, we’ve been enthusiastic members of a San Diego-based group called Women’s Empowerment (WE). Founded about 14 years ago by two friends of ours, it is dedicated to raising funds to help impoverished women, primarily through a variety of “micro-loan” programs. Seven years ago Steve and I checked out a Uganda organization with which WE subsequently became partners. Since then, we’ve served as the liaisons between the San Diegans and the Africans. We returned in 2017 to see firsthand how the program was developing. Now we’ve returned for another close-up look, this time with six other WE members accompanying us.

The hardworking crew in Kampala.

Yesterday we had a great meeting in Kampala with the Uganda organization’s administrators who are based there. But the group’s main work takes place in and around the village of Nyaka, in the far southwestern corner of the country. We’ll spend 8-10 hours on the road today getting there. Then we’ll be traveling around visiting a number of the grandmother groups that are the primary beneficiaries of the loan program. I doubt that I’ll have any time for blogging until Sunday, when we’ll depart for the next phase of our adventure.

That will take place south of the equator. (The next time we cross that line we’ll be airborne, flying home.)

The three coolest things in Doha (Qatar) — and why I still wouldn’t want to move there

Sad as we were to lose half a day of the time we’d planned to spend in Doha (capital of the little Arabian kingdom of Qatar), Steve and I still managed to cram a lot into the remaining day and a half. I formed some strong opinions and was most captivated by three things:

1) How new so much of it feels. I’ve never been any place that felt newer. Although this part of the world is ancient, the city of Doha is racing to receive the world in 2022 for the World Cup, and much of the effort is just now coming to fruition. A gleaming subway system that includes three respectable lines opened less than a month ago. A brand-new business district (Msheireb) appears to be built but is (mostly) still not yet occupied. The slightly older business district known as West Bay rivals Shanghai in the flashiness of its skyline.

2) A small section of the old heart of the town has been preserved. That’s where we stayed, next to a market area (Souq Waqif) that looks cleaner and feels safer than any other Middle Eastern souq I’ve strolled through. The Qatari vendors don’t ever hustle or hassle visitors. It was pleasant, if a trifle bland. What seemed quite extraordinary, however, was the nearby falcon souq. Falcons are an ancient, still venerated, part of Arab cultures. But we’ve never seen such a concentration of shops selling nothing but falcons and falconry gear. Qataris train the raptors to hunt (for sport), and the shopping we observed looked very serious. One merchant told us the cheapest birds go for 2000 reals (about $550), while the biggest and most gorgeous ones fetch 200,000 to 300,000 ($55,000 to $83,000).

The fierce birds sit quietly, with their hoods on.

Falcon hoods R Us!

3) We visited two museums, and both were knock-outs. The Museum of Islamic Art, designed by architectural superstar I. M. Pei, contains hundreds of exquisite objects…

rugs to glassware…

…armor to ceramics, and much more. The building, exquisite on its own, interplays beautifully with the striking site.

The National Museum of Qatar, which opened less than a year ago, impressed us even more.We walked in hoping to erase some of our almost-complete ignorance of the country, its history, and recent development. In less than three hours, we succeeded. Or more accurately, the museum’s designers did, through story-telling tools combined in ways we’ve never experienced anywhere else. No gallery is a simple cube. Rather, walls meet obliquely, creating complex spaces, and most of those walls are used as giant projection screens, filled with mini-movies that, together with music and other sound effects, complement the objects and interactive displays.You start out a million years ago, and stroll right up to the present (including most of a gallery devoted to the onerous embargo placed in 2017 on Qatar by its Arab neighbors, harsh treatment that continues today. A clear understanding of what underlies that brouhaha is one of the few things we failed to come away with.)

I walked out of the national museum swollen with pride in Qatar; imagining how I might almost want to move here (if the weather weren’t hellish nine months of the year.) My knee, which I injured less than a week before we left San Diego, was throbbing; we’d walked for hours. But Steve wanted to make a quick metro trip to the other side of the bay to at least glimpse what was at the street level of that stunning skyline.

I couldn’t resist that either, so we rode the metro for three stops and emerged to gawk at the buildings……and stroll up the wide boulevard that runs alongside the metro station. Cars whizzed by, but we saw almost no other pedestrians. After walking just a few blocks, we were about to turn around, when a wacky architectural detail caught my eye. I captured it with my telephoto lens, then wheeled to return to the metro station. At that point, a youngish man dressed in the long white gown and headgear that locals wear stepped up to us and asked if we had IDs. “Who are you?” we queried. “Police,” he replied.

He took our passports and photographed them with his phone, then gave them back. We turned to go, but he followed us. We needed to wait, he ordered.

“Why?” Steve demanded, glowering. Another young guy dressed in jeans and a t-shirt stepped forward and identified himself as a plain clothes cop. We had been taking photographs of the nearby 12-foot wall, he explained. This was forbidden.

We were stunned. We pointed out that no signs warned of the photographic prohibition. We were clueless tourists! How were we to know?

Over the course of the next half hour, no one ever answered that question. They pointed out small, hard-to-miss signs on the wall that said, “Don’t Come Near” (in English and in Arabic). We retorted that these were hard to see and more importantly said nothing about taking pictures.

More men appeared, some wearing military uniforms adorned with patches reading “General Head Quarter.” They shrugged. They assured us there was really no problem and that we could go in just a minute. But then they took away our passports and disappeared with them into the complex. Time passed. Eventually, I began insisting that I really, REALLY needed to get to a toilet and VERY SOON! This was not quite true, but I hoped it would make them uncomfortable and expedite our passport release. Still more time passed. I crossed my legs and started hopping up and down, hinting of dire imminent consequences. I also showed them the photos on my camera, which really did not include anything other than this……and this:

(Actually, you can see the forbidden wall way in the distance, if you enlarge my street view.But how threatening should that be?)

Finally after close to 40 minutes, another young man in the white robes and headgear appeared. He shook our hands (or mine at least; Steve continued glowering). He offered no explanation but he did give us back our passports and let us go.

Racing back to the metro station, Steve and I agreed we had never felt scared. But we both felt keenly aware those guys could have complicated our departure from Qatar. We’re happy they didn’t. (I’m writing this from our plane, en route to Entebbe in Uganda.)

I still like Qatar. I’m happy I got to visit it. But any pipe dreams I might have nursed about returning went up in smoke outside that mysterious walled compound.

Made it!

We finally made it to Doha, touching down a little after midnight Sunday.

For some reason, there is a giant gold thumb in the old souq in the center of Doha’s old town.

We didn’t turn off the lights in our hotel room until almost 3 am. But we slept soundly till 10 and felt remarkably good. 

I love the lobby of our very nice (quite new) hotel.

We felt good enough to stroll around for several hours, during which we saw at least one thing we’d never seen anywhere else before: blocks and blocks of shops selling falcons and gear for hunting with them.

Tomorrow we will have a full day here, and we’re aiming to see at least two of Doha’s stunning museums. Our six-hour flight to Uganda takes off early Tuesday morning (if someone doesn’t decide to send it to Hawaii instead). I’m looking forward to writing more then.

Don’t try to get to Africa this way

It’s not the easiest thing to get from San Diego to anywhere in Africa. But this time Steve and I appear to be doing it the hard way. The irony is, it seemed to start so well.

We had scored inexpensive tickets traveling on Alaska Airlines from San Diego to Boston, and then continuing on Qatar Airways to Doha, the capital of Qatar. These tickets would enable us to stay in Doha (a place we’ve never visited before) for three nights before continuing on to Entebbe in Uganda.

The first flight was at 9:50 am and we were inside the terminal by 7:44. We had our boarding passes by 8, and the signs all said we’d be on time. Outside, the sun gleamed off the plane parked at our gate. We went for coffee and doughnuts and returned around boarding time, when the first creepy thing happened: a tug began pushing “our” plane away from the gate. “Wait, stop!” I wanted to shout. “We’re not aboard yet!”

But no one was, and a minute later, the sign changed to Delayed — first to 10:20, then 10:30, then 10:40 am. Our spirits dipped, but when we returned to the gate around 10 and saw another plane parked next to “our” jetway, they rose again. Boarding started soon after, and by 10:40, everyone was seated, ready for take-off.

The captain’s voice over the loudspeaker smashed everyone’s good mood. He sounded annoyed, not with us, but with whichever imbecilic manager had decreed that our plane was needed to fly to Lihue on the island of Kauai, a route on which Alaska is aggressively competing. Everyone and their luggage would have to get off this plane and onto some other one.

The infants on the plane (and there were a bunch of them) all began screaming, an apoplectic chorus, and many of the grownups looked almost as unhappy. I was aghast, but I wasn’t panicking. Our flight from Boston wouldn’t depart until 10:15 pm. We had been facing a long wait at Logan, so this would shorten it a bit, but not catastrophically. Then the ground crew announced that a replacement place wouldn’t arrive until after 1 pm; it wouldn’t reach Boston until around 10:30 pm.

Here’s the Alaska plane we all had to get off, to free it for a lucky Hawaii-borne group. Aloha!

Poof! went our visions of a swift easy transit to the Middle East. We could barely see the Alaska gate staff, the line of querulous customers trying to reach them was so long. I jumped on my cell phone; called Qatar’s customer service. The guy I talked with made what sounded like a intense effort to find some other path to Doha for us. But the flight from LA was leaving in three and a half hours. There were no flights, so we’d have to cover the distance on the ground in two and a half — not something we felt like gambling could be done. Other Qatar flights from other cities all were leaving earlier than the one from Boston. The guy on the phone finally told me Alaska would have to fix the problem.

It took some gal on Alaska’s International desk in Iowa almost an hour to figure something out for us. She said she could get us on a nonstop flight from San Diego to London that was leaving San Diego at 2:50 pm. Once in London, we could connect to a nonstop Qatar flight. It wouldn’t arrive in Doha until after midnight Saturday night (versus the 5:30 pm we had originally been scheduled for). But in our beggarly positions, we didn’t feel we could be picky. We searched for the British Airways check-in counters, where we would have to go to get our boarding passes.

Somehow the young lady in Iowa had gotten the time of the flight wrong. It turned out to be 6:35 pm, not 2:50. Waiting for the check-in counters to open, we considered getting Lyfted home and back, since home was the only place we could think of to nap in. (We couldn’t get into the secure part of the airport until we got our boarding passes. But we couldn’t get our passes until the BA counters opened. I’m here to tell you, the NON-secure part of San Diego’s Terminal Two has no place where any normal person would consider napping.) Reluctantly, we decided against trying to go home and then return. The likelihood of meeting up with some other problem that would keep us from catching our flight (a traffic accident? a Lyft strike?) seemed all too real. The hours dragged by. We finally got those boarding passes; moved to another gate area. I tried to rest, but sleep eluded me. More than eleven and a half hours after we’d entered the airport, our 747 lifted off from the tarmac.

I’m writing this onboard now, with about 17 hours left to go. Our connection in London is short. That might get screwed up too. But if it doesn’t, and we reach Doha, I’ll post this, maybe in the morning.

With any kind of GOOD luck, we could even still have a day and a half to see Doha’s sights. Then we’ll move on to Africa, where bigger adventures loom.

More than once, we were thankful we travel with carry-ons. (Here are our four, plus our lunch bag. Checked luggage would have significantly complicated the nightmare.

Should you go to the land of the kiwis?

IMG_2050.JPGWhile flying home Saturday, I reflected on our four weeks in New Zealand. Kiwis kept asking us along the way, “What have you enjoyed most?” And I couldn’t tell them. We enjoyed so many things. You might think it’s a no-brainer; that everyone should go to New Zealand, even you. But the truth is more complicated, I think. 

Two reasons NOT to go to New Zealand seem evident (to me). 

  1. It’s REALLY far from almost everywhere. For our flight from Auckland to San Francisco, we were aloft for almost 12 hours (and then it took hours more to get home from the Bay Area.) That’s a long time to be cooped up in a metal tube at 36,000 feet. Even if the flight is free (as it was for us, using frequent-flier miles), the long passage takes a toll.
  1. The New Zealand dollar has lost almost a fifth of its value against the dollar over the last four years. But travel there still feels no less expensive than it is in the US. Meals in restaurants cost about the same, as do hotels — and why not? New Zealand is at least as advanced a country as America. If you’re on a budget, so many other destinations offer much more bang for the (US) buck (e.g. Ecuador or India or Vietnam or Portugal, etc.)

On the other hand, you still might want to come to New Zealand:

3. To experience nature. My good friend (and travel blogger par excellence) Doris has commented as she’s read my posts that she’s not terribly interested in New Zealand because it looks a lot like Iceland (where she has already traveled). I haven’t been to Iceland yet, but I don’t doubt that’s true. However, I’ve retorted that New Zealand is also carpeted with vast emerald farmland that reminded me of Ireland. It has deer farms…IMG_2061.JPG and The Shire.IMG_2051.JPG We drove through stretches of the South Island interior that felt like the American Southwest. We hiked through tropical rainforests that filled me with a sense of rapture. We floated through those caves illuminated only with incandescent larvae. We walked on beaches devoid of people but filled with sensuous driftwood.IMG_2064.JPG

Steve and I partly went to New Zealand at this point in our lives to take advantage of the hiking and trekking we’d heard about. We were not disappointed. Indeed Kiwis struck us as having more of a passion for striding through the outdoors than any place else we’ve been. 

On the other hand, you can enjoy tremendous natural beauty in America too. It may be less concentrated than it is in New Zealand, but you don’t have to travel as far to get to it (see point number 1 above.)

4) Related to but different from coming for the nature is coming to participate in crazy action sports. Bungee jumping was invented in New Zealand…

IMG_2059.JPG
Here’s the birthplace. People still bungee jump today, but alas we missed seeing the action.

To that a head-spinning list of other crazy adventures have been added: luging, sky-diving, jet boating, paragliding, whitewater rafting, and more.

I used to think maybe this was a marketing ploy — something Kiwis had dreamed up to attract tourists. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but over the past few weeks, Steve and I have come to think it also reflects something in the character of New Zealand’s residents. They appeared to us to be tough, hardy folk. Seeing the “pleasure” sailors out on Auckland Bay in icy winds so strong they would have caused the issue of small-craft warnings in San Diego…IMG_2066.JPG …watching a dad ignore his toddler daughter making her way up the climbing wall at the fabulous playground in Christchurch…IMG_2065.JPG… or trekking with the gang on the Routeburn in the storm. It made us suspect New Zealanders relish the wild adventure options themselves.

5) New Zealand exposes one to a different relationship between native peoples and their Anglo invaders than anywhere else we could think of. We didn’t know this before we came. We understood little to nothing about kiwi history. Learning that the first humans didn’t set foot on either island till around 1200 AD — and that they were Polynesians (hailing from Fiji or Hawaii or similar islands) startled us. The Maoris (as those first New Zealand settlers became known) had lived here less than 500 years before Captain Cook arrived. The Englishmen (and other white folk) who flocked here after Cook’s reports managed to get a whole bunch of the land out of the Maori hands. 

But about 100 years after they did, the pendulum began to swing the other way. The Maoris have since gotten some stuff back. Reparations have been made. (We heard at one point that more than 98% of the “reconciliation” process has now been completed.) 

The net result is that today, to us hasty visitors, it looks as if Maoris enjoy more respect and a more central place in New Zealand society than the natives anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. We liked that.

4) Visiting New Zealand is more like visiting one of the planets in the Galactic Association than anywhere else we’ve ever experienced. (The Galactic Association is Steve’s science-fictional invention. It promotes settlement of 8 planets by pioneers from earth.) 

Before the first humans arrived just 800 or so years ago, no mammals lived in New Zealand (except for three tiny bat species.) It was all birds, a vast variety of them, including the giant flightless moa and the huge and terrifying eagles who hunted them.IMG_2052.JPGThe Maoris brought invasive dogs and rats, and other animal (and botanical) invaders followed. Battles between the natives and the alien predators are being fought intensely today.IMG_2053.JPG

Still, where else on the planet can you hike through wild, wild country and know there are no bears, no snakes, no big cats or elephants — just birds, whose songs are slowly fading as the possums and wallaby and rats eat them?

Is that a good reason to travel to New Zealand? Certainly all of those (except for the adventure sports) were reason enough for us. As a bonus, we have memories of being stopped on that road to let modern shepherds guide their flocks across the highway.IMG_7.JPGIMG_2047.JPG

There were amazing skies…IMG_2048.JPG and magnificent trees. IMG_2049.JPG

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I’ll probably forget most of it. But part of why I write this blog is to help me remember. IMG_2062.JPG

9 years after the apocalypse — what it’s like to be a tourist in Christchurch

I knew two bad earthquakes hit Christchurch in 2010 and 2011, but they didn’t become real for me until the night Steve and I were eating dinner in Kaikoura. Looking out the window next to our table, Steve exclaimed, “Is that a bobcat?” The animal he was staring at seemed too small to be that, but it lacked a tail. “He lost it in the earthquake,” our waitress (the wife of the owner) told us. Her house in Christchurch had also collapsed, she added, and she and her husband had lost the five restaurants they owned. They’d recently moved to Kaikoura, trying to start over. This lady was a hearty, jokey sort of person, but the way her face subtly tightened when she talked of the disaster betrayed how overwhelming it had been. Watching her face, I struggled to keep mine composed.

A few days later, on the Routeburn Track, I asked one of my fellow trekkers, a longtime Christchurch resident named Louise, how the quake had affected her. She used to work in one of the high rises that had collapsed, she told me. “Nine of my friends died in it.” Two others had lost their legs. For a while, the funerals had been incessant.

Over the two days we spent in Christchurch (our last bit of time in New Zealand), the quakes got more and more real. The first thing we did Thursday morning was to head to Quake City, a facility dedicated to explaining what happened on those two fateful days. One of the things that shocked me most was learning that the two earthquakes which all but destroyed the central city were far from the worst that’s expected for this region. The huge fault, the one capable of moving with a force of more than magnitude 8, runs up the east side of the southern Alps, just an hour or two outside Christchurch.

What I also didn’t know is that most Christchurch residents never thought they were vulnerable to earthquakes; they had never felt any jolts for most of their lives. The 7.1-magnitude temblor that ripped the Canterbury plain in 2010 was thus a shock both physically and psychologically. But it struck at 4:35 in the morning, and while many buildings were damaged, no one was killed. The February 2011 event was an aftershock, only a magnitude 6.3. But its epicenter was within the city’s limits and only a few miles below the surface. The peak ground acceleration packed a force of almost 2 Gs, a motion more violent than that ever experienced in any urban center (or so they told us.)

Only two tall buildings pancaked, but the violence delivered in those 24 seconds smashed the tidy, conservative center city and turned into a place that looked freshly carpet-bombed. In large sections, solid ground also turned into a sticky goo that sank cars, trees, buildings. It resolidified into something that gripped with the strength of concrete what it had ingested. Quake City documents these changes well. Most mesmerizing were the filmed first-hand stories recounted by a cross-section of citizens. Watching their faces, listening to their words, the quake felt as real to me as anything apart from living memory.

But the funny thing is, if Steve and I hadn’t read and heard what we did, we wouldn’t have suspected what had happened less than 9 years ago. We walked miles and miles through a city that’s tidy again. We noted many empty lots and many buildings that are fenced off, or braced, in obvious need of repairs.

Note the fence around the still-damaged brick building. You see many of these.

The stone cathedral that was Christchurch’s great landmark still bears gaping holes where the bell tower and some of the walls fell.But there are urban centers in America’s rust belt that look worse. And few cities anywhere have mounted the kind of makeover that’s underway here.

Christchurch is now an urban planner’s paradise. The planners have made sweeping godlike decisions. They’ve decreed that the new city center should be low-rise and surrounded by a belt of green space; that it will be divided into a few discrete “districts” — one for retail, one for entertainment, others for government and safety services, residences, and a few other designations. Tens of billions of dollars have been spent or budgeted to make this a reality. The Kiwis have repaired a vast array of unseen infrastructure (underground water pipes, etc.) and they’ve built some stunning public facilities:

A new city art museum
A gorgeous new central library
One of the best children’s playgrounds I’ve ever seen anywhere.

They’ve re-engineered the river that winds through the center or town, landscaping it and creating lovely pathways.There’s much more to come, including rebuilding the cathedral, finishing the zoomy convention center that’s supposed to start operating next year… …and building a deluxe sports complex…

As this has gone on, intriguing temporary creations have sprung up to fill the voids. A temporary Anglican cathedral was built from cardboard tubes…Artists have been commissioned to paint murals on the sides of newly revealed building sides…… and create other works to fill the civic gaps.

Passersby were welcome to lounge in this “hammock forest.”

This all makes central Christchurch a fascinating place to stroll through — at least during the day. At night, Steve and I found most streets in and adjoining the central city to be eerily empty. Our Airbnb flat was just a few blocks outside the center, but the nearest supermarket was well over a mile away (in the CBD’s “Retail District”). I love packed, jumbled, textured cities like Tokyo and Rome and New York; the hyper-orderliness of Christchurch made me uneasy.

Over time will it be balanced, somehow, mellowed out by the other changes that have occurred here? More than one resident testified to a profound transformation in the residents. They used to dress drably, one woman recounted. “It was almost as if they couldn’t be bothered to look nice,” she said. But in the aftermath of the destruction, people grew noticeably more stylish. The artsy vibe today is unmistakable. Another guy commented that before the quakes, the city was a bastion of white complacency. But the quakes vaporized social barriers; made outsiders welcome. “Then we had the murders at the mosque last spring,” he said. “Before, I think a lot of people would have said, ‘That’s too bad, but it’s the Muslim’s problem.’ Instead, when it happened, within hours people from every strata of society were streaming there to help out. It was an attack on all of us.”

There’s so much of the world we haven’t seen, Steve and rarely return to many places. But I’d love to pop into Christchurch in 20 years to see what becomes of it.

Goodbye road, hello rail

Around noon Wednesday, we returned Car #3 and added up the total mileage covered with our three rentals. Steve safely piloted us a total of 2,124 miles. He says it felt like twice that long. The extra concentration required by the left-side driving on narrow roads never ceased to be tiring, although after three-plus weeks, it was far less foreign than when we started. We never regretted making this as much of a road trip as we did; the freedom it gave us was delicious. But we also were so happy we were able to shorten the driving portion, just a bit.

It was about a week ago, in the middle of Mt. Cook National Park, that it struck me we might not want to drive back across the South Island (through Arthur’s Pass), given that there was such an attractive alternative. There’s a train, the TranzAlpine Railway, that covers that passage. Lonely Planet says it’s one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys. Months ago, I thought we would certainly want to take it, but then I changed my mind.

On that road-weary afternoon, I wondered if I might change it back. Thanks to the wonders of the wired world, we found we could still book two train tickets and modify our car reservation, dropping Car #3 off Wednesday morning in Greymouth instead of at the Christchurch airport Saturday, when we fly home. Frosting on the cake was that because the car-rental agency needed for a car to be moved to Greymouth, it would only cost us $9 a day, instead of about $35.

We felt jubilant. Then three days later, I got an email informing us that a landslide had just destroyed part of the track! But, the message continued, we could take a bus from the Greymouth train station to Arthur’s Pass, then board the train there and ride for three hours through the most scenic part of the line! If we chose this, they would refund us half of what we’d paid for the train tickets!

We caught the bus at the Greymouth train station.

I may have been dumb not to plan to take the train in the first place, but I wasn’t dumb enough to turn down this second chance. It felt divinely inspired. The 90-minute bus ride was just as pretty — and vastly more relaxing — with someone else at the wheel. On the hair-raising, serpentine uphill near Arthur’s Pass, heavy sheets of rain lashed our vehicle, and then they lashed us as we dashed from the bus to the train. (So we never would have been able to hike in the forest there, one reason the drive had seemed attractive.) The train was one of the nicest we’ve ridden anywhere ever, with new immaculate toilets, huge windows…optional pre-recorded guiding commentary, an open-air viewing car…

…and TV screens showing a map of our position. But who would choose to look up at them with scenes like this outside the window?

No further landslides impaired our progress. We reached Christchurch station at 6:15 pm and took an Uber to our Airbnb apartment. We’ll have three final nights here, getting around with more Ubers and on foot, before taking to the air Saturday morning. I wish I could take the train all the way home.