Category Archives: miscellaneous miscellany

Departures. Arrivals.

The Zimbabwe posts are on a brief hiatus as I cope with the effects of jet lag, homecomings, and a three-year-old nephew who is more or less in a hysterical state for 16 hours a day. In the mean time, some thoughts after 24-plus hours in transit from Joburg to New York:

1. South African hipsters discussing Sartre is not what you want to hear in the departures lounge at 1am.

2. Dubai International is like a retail Shangri-La – I mean, who WOULDN’T want to pick up a Swarovski crystal reindeer en route to terminal B?

3. The new no-holds-barred security measures for passengers arriving in the US aren’t half as bad as everybody says. My balls haven’t seen that much action in months.

4. Baghdad at night from 32,000 feet is like the Milky Way.

5. There is nothing at all to see over Greenland at 4am.

‎6. In spite of our best efforts to keep everyone out of the country, people will still sell their vital organs to come to the good ol’ U.S. of fucking A.

7. The NYPD is really not the best welcome wagon. Two cops had to escort a medical crew onboard at JFK to deal with a sick passenger. In trying to keep everybody in their seats while he received medical attention, they were full of whatever’s the exact opposite of holiday cheer. Our reception after 16 hours in the air went something like: “Welcome to America. Now stay in your seats AND KEEP YOUR FUCKING MOUTHS SHUT.”

8. There are times when you just ache to hear the word “gebrony.”

9. There is nowhere, anywhere, quite like New York.

10. It’s good to be home.

D.H. Lawrence and South Africa.

I picked up a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover at a second-hand bookshop last week. It’s a beautiful bound edition, printed in Stockholm- ! – in 1956. (A note on the copyright page warns: “This edition must not be sold in the British Empire or U.S.A.” Why? What exactly does Jan Förlag of Stockholm have to hide from British and American eyes? Are the book’s salacious sex scenes being spiced up with buxom Swedes?) I’d forgotten how much I love this book; the last time I read it, incredibly, was in Malindi, Kenya, where I found a copy at a book exchange in a low-budget traveler’s hotel. (About the only good thing to come out of Malindi, FYI.)

I was struck – and not for the first time – by the opening paragraph:

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future; but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

What struck me this time around, though, was how apt that gloomy fatalism seems for a reader in South Africa today. Hopefulness, resignation, a trace of gallows humor. Add a few broken robots, a stadium scandal, and a Malema tirade, and you’ve pretty much nailed SA c. 2010.

Things to do while your body falls apart.

A few weeks ago, just days before leaving Bujumbura, I lost a crown during an otherwise innocuous meal of stewed bananas and rice. It seemed like a dire omen. You know you’ve been in Africa too long when your first thought, upon spitting what looks like a tooth into your napkin, is, “Whose tooth is that?”

It was remedied easily enough with a visit to the dentist here in Kigali – the same dentist, incidentally, who treats His Honorable PK himself. Sadly, I couldn’t get a comment on the state of the Presidential Chompers. I was assured, however, that the president is “a very good patient” – no surprise to those of us who have endeared ourselves to the man’s winning smile through the years.

This kicked off a surreal three-week stretch where, instead of preparing for my impending trip to DRC, I’ve been in and out of doctors’ offices and pharmacies, having electrodes suction-cupped to my chest, offering up my plump juicy veins to the nearest needle, and searching for strange cocktails of prescription meds. This was not the triumphant, valedictory tour of Kigali I had in mind.

'What do you mean, do I have my insurance card on me?'

Part of me feels like I’m atoning for some forgotten sins committed on a booze-filled night in Bujumbura. Yet today, finally, I’m in good enough, patched-together shape to get the Chris Vourlias Fun Train back on the road. The only difference, of course, is that instead of enjoying a few weeks of free-spirited adventure in the wilds of eastern Congo, my top priority is to find a local witchdoctor who can work his juju to reverse whatever curse has been cast upon me.

So it goes. T.I.A.

My last thought before trundling off to the bus station comes from C.P. Cavafy, that beloved Hellenic bard, who always inspires me, after a prolonged spell of foot-dragging, to hit the road in search of my own Ithacas. The bags have been packed; the Chris Vourlias Memorial Traveling Library will be entrusted to the capable hands of my Honorary Custodian in Kigali; the laptop will be shut down for a well-deserved, 3-4 week sleep; and I, with just a few pens and pads in my backpack and a bundle of American bills wadded against my genitals, will be off in search of adventure. Kigali, it’s been swell. See you in Gisenyi.

Ithaca
by C.P. Cavafy

When you set out on the journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road be long,
full of adventures, full of knowledge.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
the raging Poseidon do not fear:
you’ll never find the likes of these on your way,
if lofty be your thoughts, if rare emotion
touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
the fierce Poseidon you’ll not encounter,
unless you carry them along within your soul,
unless your soul raises them before you.

Pray that the road be long;
that there be many a summer morning,
when with what delight, what joy,
you’ll enter into harbours yet unseen;
that you may stop at Phoenician emporia
and acquire all the fine wares,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
as many sensuous perfumes as you can;
that you may visit many an Egyptian city,
to learn and learn again from lettered men.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your final destination.
But do not rush the voyage in the least.
Better it last for many years;
and once you’re old, cast anchor on the isle,
rich with all you’ve gained along the way,
expecting not that Ithaca will give you wealth.

Ithaca gave you the wondrous voyage:
without her you’d never have set out.
But she has nothing to give you any more.

If then you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
As wise as you’ve become, with such experience, by now
you will have come to know what Ithacas really mean.

These are my readers.

Like any self-serious blogger and dedicated egotist, I spend a good deal of time Googling myself – sort of the writerly equivalent of admiring one’s abs in the mirror. I also study my blog stats like a Talmudic scholar, to determine, for example, how many of a given day’s 72 visitors might have originated from the U.S. American zip code 11204, which 100% of my closest relations call home.

The modest WordPress tracker – sort of the Li’l Stat Counter That Could – also offers a breakdown of the most recent web searches that led readers to my blog. This is both revealing and frightening. While even a casual visitor can appreciate why “burundi,” “february 2010 burundi coup plot,” and “burundi civil war” might appear in a recent list of top searches, one struggles to say the same for such popular searches as “black african [sic] women shitting outside” and “saddam hussain [sic] girls tree stump.”

For the record, not once in the brief and modest history of this blog has there been so much as a passing reference to “black african [sic] women shitting outside” – or inside, for that matter. Likewise, while I might have some very strong opinions about “saddam hussain [sic],” “girls” and “tree stump[s],” I have yet to compose a Unified Theory that might lead concerned readers to this blog in search of answers to their abstract but no doubt worthy queries.

I do also realize that, by blogging about “black african [sic] women shitting outside” and “saddam hussain [sic] girls tree stump,” I am virtually guaranteeing that future seekers of “black african [sic] women shitting outside” and “saddam hussain [sic] girls tree stump” will be directed to what, from their perspective, will be a very disappointing blog indeed.

To those future readers, I apologize in advance. And to the rest, thank you for your patience.

Brave new world.

I’ve been stooped over my laptop like a Talmudic scholar these past few days, trying to beef up the blog you see before you. This is no coincidence. Hoping to give my biggest New Year’s resolution a head start leading into 2010, I’m slaving away in an effort to do something I’ve shied away from for the past few years: join the Digital Age.

Admittedly, me trying to establish a web presence is like a Luddite trying to work a zipper. But I’m deferring to the judgment of those who know better: my friend Graham Holliday, for example, a Kigali-based writer who, having more or less conquered the world of old media, has been ahead of the curve in getting a new media foothold in Africa, of all places. (Though if you’re going to do it anywhere in Africa, you might as well do it in Rwanda.) Having already taught me how to repackage and resell a single story in multiple countries, Graham is sort of becoming my go-to guy on all things writing-related. Lucky Graham.

Then there was this excellent piece in the latest issue of Travel + Leisure, on how social media is changing the way we travel. Reporting from the frontlines of the 21st century, Peter Lindberg reflects on how

with minimal effort, in the comfort of a hotel lobby, I can plot a route to a restaurant I’m considering, download tonight’s menu, translate it instantly from the Catalan, read 47 detailed customer reviews, call up TwitPics of the razor clams, even take some guy’s virtual tour of the dining room. When I started covering travel 15 years ago, we hadn’t imagined search engines, let alone Skype. (Also? We walked to the airport, knee-deep in snow.) Last summer I listened to a Red Sox game live on my iPhone while on a layover in Hong Kong.

It should be observed, first of all, that Lindberg seems to present these developments as a good thing. (TwitPics of the razor clams?) The piece, however, is nuanced enough to recognize that for all we’ve gained through the crowd-sourcing wisdom of TripAdvisor, VirtualTourist and the like (let’s not forget my former employer, TravelGator!), we run the risk of losing the sense of mystery that is, really, the essence of why we travel. And the joy of exploring a place that is, ultimately, unknowable. (TwitPics be damned!)

This is no small thing. Lindberg describes a memorable encounter in the lobby of Barcelona’s slick Hotel Arts, where LL Cool J made an improbable cameo appearance to video Skype with a Chicago couple’s children. (“What’s up, kids? I’m here in Spain with your moms and pops!”) And he experienced

the weird sensation of being with a bunch of strangers who had all come to this spot to connect—yet not with each other. Here we were, a roomful of fellow travelers: tweeting, IM’ing, video chatting, sharing slide shows, and virtually bonding with people in other rooms, some halfway around the globe.

The points he makes – essentially an indictment of How We Travel Now – might not be the most obvious argument for why I’m suddenly blogging, social networking and tweeting my little heart out. (Which reminds me: follow me on Twitter! @postcardjunky). But the gap between the world he describes and the world I inhabit sent a little 20th-century shiver down my spine. Why shouldn’t I, too, have a place in the Twittosphere?

This coincides with the nomination by World Hum – a site to which I not infrequently contribute – of travel bloggers, collectively, as their Travelers of the Year.

Travel bloggers were in the spotlight at major new media conferences—both at BlogWorldExpo in Las Vegas, where they convened a panel, and at SXSW Interactive in Austin, where Sheila Scarborough and Pam Mandel drew a standing-room-only crowd. Travel bloggers also saw the rise of a conference devoted entirely to their work: TBEX, short for Travel Blog Exchange, held in Chicago in July. Kim Mance and Debbie Dubrow presided over a group of more than 120 bloggers, whose energy and passion for travel was hard to contain in one room.

With my own wayward travel blog having tapered off months ago, I felt an acute sense of longing. Was I missing the boat? Was I totally, irreparably irrelevant as a writer? I mean, even more than before?

Admittedly, the World Hum piece at times seemed to miss the point. Much is made of the fact that travel bloggers are suddenly reaping the benefits of the old media world.

Travel bloggers and Tweeters this year lounged on Hawaiian beaches, traipsed across the Lido deck of cruise ships and explored Mexican villages at others’ expense like never before—experiences they chronicled on blogs and in Tweets.

Press junkets are, in at least one reporter’s opinion, not exactly the best way to bestow legitimacy on the new travel media world. Some might argue the opposite. (The New York Times caused a stir earlier this year by canning a columnist who violated their notoriously stringent ethical guidelines. Matt Kepnes, on the other hand, of Nomadic Matt fame, has a very honest and admirably sane take on accepting freebies.)

Sifting through all the digital information overload, though, I came to the logical conclusion that a fresh year demanded a fresh start. And that if I ultimately want to succeed in my (at times half-hearted) mission to change – however briefly, however slightly – the way people look at this big, complicated, marvelous and misunderstood continent I currently call home, I needed to first join the conversation.

So here’s my New Year’s resolution in 2010: to have something worth saying, to have someone to say it to. So that we might, as Lindberg put it in his T+L piece, be “clustered around the virtual hearth of the [web]—together and apart, in our own huge worlds.”

Ringing in 2010.

Amid all the year-end round-ups, undoubtedly lost in the shuffle was this list of the “Top 2009 Global Pandemic Happenings,” courtesy of The Faster Times.

Notable also were cholera outbreaks in Zimbabwe between January and March. This disease of unclean water emphasized the dismal levels of sanitation inflicted upon Zimbabweans and caused 4762 deaths.

Also, giving props where they’re due, we see shout-outs to dengue fever, meningococcal disease, and something called kala azar. 2010, it seems, has its work cut out for it.

Over at The HuffPo, resident killjoy Georgianne Nienaber gives us another lengthy list of reasons why we should feel bad about ourselves (or, at least, the luckless Congo).

Meanwhile, back in Burundi, the new year is off to a sluggish start. Worn out by deadlines and my manic new work-out regimen, I decide to give the 12 o’clock countdown a pass, ringing in 2010 with old episodes of Lost and Evangeline Lilly’s perky breasts. Enough cannot be said about them. Later, apart from the few drunken hoots and hollers from the street below, I doze off on a night like any other. The only difference being the text I get at half-past one, from a Burundian medical student I met on my first day in Bujumbura.

Hi chris !Happy new year2010,may it bring peace on yr pathway,progress 4d plans,wisdom 4d work.Have great moments in afrika!

Oddly, I couldn’t have said it better myself.