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 a small fee, you can get a demonstration of the alleged Coriolus effect.
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.
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.)
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).
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.
We finally made it to Doha, touching down a little after midnight Sunday.
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. ￼
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.
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.
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.
At last the official video of the Choir! Choir! Choir! event that I wrote about October 15 has been published. Here it is. Very different from the real-life participant experience, but at least as delightful, in its fashion.
While 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).
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.
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… and The Shire. 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.
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…
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… …watching a dad ignore his toddler daughter making her way up the climbing wall at the fabulous playground in Christchurch…… 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.
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.The 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.
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.
There were amazing skies… and magnificent trees.
I’ll probably forget most of it. But part of why I write this blog is to help me remember.
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.
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:
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.
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.