Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How to read this blog...

Don't deprive yourself of loads of fun by reading just the blog posts at the top of the blog. Older blogs posts are the bottom of this blog, and newer posts are at the top. So, start at the bottom and work your way up so that you read the blog posts in sequential order. Or you can be a contrarian and go backwards. You contrarian, you!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Where Is Caton Contest 2: Know Your Namibian Road Signs!

For the typical American, driving through Namibia is an entirely new experience in every sense. First, the roadways aren't littered with McDonald's restaurants. Horror of horrors! 

More importantly, driving cross-country takes true courage, much like driving cross-country in America during the 1930s. One doesn't simply hop in the car and motor off into the horizon, complacently certain that all will go smoothly. Well, you could, but you'd be dead wrong. Rather, you're forced to consider basic survival measures: Are your tires properly inflated? Should a tire (or two) go flat, have you got a can of tire repair fluid? Should you break down in the middle of the desert, do you have sufficient water to satiate your thirst for at least a day? Have you got enough fuel (there won't be any along the way)? Is it likely that the roads on your map are safely traversable in a Volkswagen Polo? Do you have any CDs comprised of anything other than the horrific German-language country music that litters Namibian music shops?

Then, there are the road signs. Fortunately, most are written in English, so they're at least legible, even if they are inaccurate. I once drove 45 minutes at 140 kilometers per hour to reach a town that signs insisted was 35 kilometers away. This is where a great many of you will roll your eyes and say, "I'm from America, Caton. I don't know kilometers." Come now. Does that make any difference? You don't have to understand the metric system to spot the fallacy in that Namibian sign posting.

While the road signs may be written in English, that doesn't make many of them any more intelligible. That's where you come in. To help introduce you to the adventures of Namibian driving, I've decided to hold a contest: Know Your Namibian Road Signs!

How the game works:
Below, you'll see a column of photos depicting road signs that I passed in Namibia. You'll also see some really bad guesses that I took at the meaning of each of the signs. Your task is to guess the true meaning of each road sign.

How to play:
Send me an email at catonwalker@gmail.com that guesses the meaning of each of the road signs numbered 1 through 5 (Hint: I've already given you one of them).

Send in your responses by Friday, August 8, 2008! Once I receive all emails, contest results and winners will be posted on www.whereiscaton.com! Everyone is "encouraged" to play! Or else you'll be forced to drive across the Namib desert. Alone, and without sufficient fuel!

1Beware: Undead Bisected Man About
2Caution: Erroneous Tic-Tac-Toe Board Ahead.
3 Mis-shapen Plus Sign (+) Ahead
4 Beware of Discolored Punctation
5 Caution: Warthogs

Friday, February 22, 2008

Driving Clear Across Namibia

After bidding farewell to Matt and disposing of my exceptionally disagreeable rented Hyundai Atos ("At Hyundai, we believe the driving experience should be at least as pleasant as a prostate exam."), I boarded a British Airways flight to Windhoek (roughly pronounced "vend-hook"), the capital of Namibia. ("Nuh-mi-bee-uh." Four syllables, people.) For regular readers of my blog, you'll notice this is the point where I'd typically say something like "Namibia is known for many things," and I'd follow up with a list of notable items. However, let's face it - that isn't true. Namibia isn't famous in the least, and most people wouldn't have heard of it at all had Angelina Jolie not recently chosen to give birth there. In reality, few people could even find Namibia on a map. Fewer still could properly spell "Namibia," and, among those, I suppose a good percentage would incorrectly pronounce it "Nambia." Most people, in fact, would likely guess that "Namibia" is a brand of diapers for "active seniors."

Importantly, however, Namibia's lack of notoriety is one of its primary charms. Unlike many other places in southern Africa, Namibia feels completely authentic. For one, this is one thirsty country; less than one percent of its land is arable land. The rest is devoted primarily to the country's namesake - the vast and desolate Namib desert. Given the distinctly inhospitable conditions, Namibia is also blissfully devoid of human meddling; with approximately six residents per square mile (2.5 people per square kilometer), the country is the least densely populated on Earth. Namibia is the romanticized version of Africa.

During my short flight to Namibia, I decided to chat up my seat neighbors about a proper itinerary for Namibia, considering I didn't have one. At all. I told them that I'd planned to rent a car and set out to explore the country. Wide-eyed, they solemnly reminded me that one simply doesn't go galavanting about the Namib desert; the desert is vast, it doesn't care for outsiders, and I could easily be stranded for days should I have car troubles. This cleared up any doubts I might have had - I was driving across Namibia! So after a night in Windhoek, and with a stomach full of gemsbok, I took out across the country toward the coastal city of Swakopmund (pronounced "Swa-cop-moond").

I can scarcely articulate the natural wonder that is rural Namibia. As I left the capital, I drove through shrub-covered hills that I could have easily mistaken for the hills of central Texas. As I progressed farther, I drove through unending varieties of desert: gray, rock-littered gray desert; iron-colored desert; massive dune-filled deserts comprised of gently moving sands; flat white deserts complete devoid of flora. I could go on. In short, I was amazed by the variety and beauty of the deserts. All the while, I marveled at the vast African sky above me (example pictured at right). The skies of southern Africa are a rich blue, its clouds take unearthly shapes, and the sun pierces the sky in a way it does nowhere else. I was entranced.

My entertainment options (ie, my Volkswagen's radio) were slightly less enchanting. It didn't take me long to realize that the radio's "seek" function was completely superfluous. The only necessary knob was the power (i.e., on-off) switch; I had the option of either listening to the radio station in Namibia, or not. I decided that I would, and was continually bemused by the content. First, I'd hear an announcer scold Namibians for wasting water ("It's a wonder that I should even have to address our listeners with this issue. Surely everyone knows that we live in a desert and water is therefore quite scarce indeed!"). Then, he'd repeat the same message in German (I presume; for all I know, he could have changed the subject entirely), Afrikaans, and at least one indigenous language. Then, I'd listen to a brief weather report rendered particularly unbrief by the requirement to recite it in at least four languages. And, finally, a bit of music.

Once again, no need for a selection of format; this is, after all, the radio station. No sooner had Britney Spears cooed to me in a fit of lust, I was shocked to hear Texas country band Lonestar profess their love to me before finding myself clapping along to a german Polka song. In fact, much like Americans seated around a parlor radio during the 1930s (so I presume), I quickly became quite satisfied with the one-size-fits-all formula of Namibian radio, and soon began to revel in the least likely forms of entertainment. I was particularly delighted to be serenaded by Tina Turner, who informed me that I am, in fact:

...simply the best, better than all the rest
Better than anyone, anyone I've ever met
I'm stuck on your heart, and hang on every word you say
Tear us apart, baby I would rather be dead

Well, thank you, Tina. You're not so bad yourself. And I must add that, for a woman of your vintage, you've got a really impressive pair of legs. Of course, I suppose anyone would if they'd spent as many years trying to outrun an angry, drunken Ike Turner as you have. I'm sorry, Tina. Was that over the line? Okay; no need to kick me...

After a scant 3.5 hours of desert, I finally arrived at Swakopmund, the self-processed adventure capital of southern Africa. I decided to forego adventure for the moment, however; I needed some food. Delighted to be in a town with an authentic German ancestry, I set out to find some bratwurst and sauerkraut. So, repeating Tina's mantra in my head, I drove into the city center, parked my car, and set out on foot.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Eating my way out of Johannesburg

After completing my Safari Field Guide Training, I realized that my plans for the next five months consisted of the following: a return flight from Hoedspruit (pictured at left) to Johannesburg, a three-week volunteer program in Cape Town (but not for another month), and nothing else whatsoever. So, once I set aside the flight (one hour) and the upcoming Cape Town program (three weeks), I determined that I had four months, six days, and 23 hours to fill. That's quite a lot of time. Of course, given that this period was to be filled with a rigorous schedule of doing W.W.I.P. (whatever, whenever I please), I've certainly had worse problems.

Fortunately, my new friend Carina (Carina was a fellow student at my just-completed course) had ties to South Africa since her parents live there. In fact, they live just near the airport in Johannesburg, so thanks to her endearing sense of Portuguese hospitality, she foolishly invited my friend Matt and me to stay at her house until Matt could seek medical attention (for an apparent mild case of malaria) and until I could formalize an itinerary.

This turned out to be a fantastic four days (Well, it was for me. Matt, meanwhile, was busy anxiously awaiting blood test results). You see, this was my first experience in a Portuguese household, and I loved every second of it. These Portuguese people really know how to show a visitor a good time. Foremost, it was nothing short of a gastronomic adventure. Every morning, I stumbled into the dining area to find a smorgasbord of yogurts, cereals, fresh nuts and fruits, toast with ham and cheese, sweet breads, jams, jellies, marmalades, and all manner of juices (I'd never heard of strawberry juice, but I did enjoy it). No sooner had I regained the ability to walk, Carina's mother would shoo us out of the house to an outdoor patio table loaded with freshly-cooked meats, pastas, vegetables, (more) breads, and desserts for lunch. After a brief afternoon reprieve from the force-feeding, Carina's father would then heard us into his SUV and drive us to a nearby casino for yet more gluttony.

In all, my time at Carina's house consisted of little more than trying to understand Portuguese newscasts, sleeping peacefully, eating, more eating, and struggling to muster a response whenever Carina would pile pasta on her plate, look at me solemnly, and say, "You see, Cay-tonne, for thees I am so fat."

Me: "Oh, Carina. You're not fat at all."

Carina (peering at me with the highest degree of incredulity): "Yes, Cay-tonne, I am fat. We do not discuss thees anymore."

Me (already peering at another bowl full of something delicious): "Okay. Are those potatoes? Yes, I'd love some!"

In fact, I found myself saying "yes" quite often, and not just in response to offers of food. Since I was able to mutter a few phrases in Spanish to Carina's family (as native Portuguese speakers, they can apparently under Spanish quite well), they seemed to have the mistaken impression that I could understand Portuguese. So, I'd get all sorts of questions from them and, since "yes" is one of the few words I know in Portuguese, I typically used it as my default answer anytime I was asked a question: Would I like some more bread? Yes, please. Would I like fish for dinner? Yes, please. Would I like to watch an American movie? Yes, please. Is it true that people in Texas eat rattlesnakes on a regular basis? Yes, please. Where do I plan to go next on my round-the-world journey? Yes, please. Am I on the run from legal authorities in America? Yes, please. Do I plan to leave your home any time soon, or ever? No, I quite like it here.

I did understand that last question.

Sadly, after four days - and at least as many pounds in new flesh - it was, in fact, time to leave. In theory, I'd had a full four days to plan my next adventure, but, between eating and saying "yes," there really wasn't much time for anything else. So, at the very last minute (10:00 am, to be exact), I logged on to a travel website and booked a ticket on a 12:00 noon flight to Windhoek, Namibia. Why? Well, Namibia's just to the northwest of South Africa, and it seemed as good a place to go as any. 

So, I drove to the airport in my horrendous rented Hyundai Atos (Though I can't read Afrikaans, I'm fairly certain even the Hyundai billboards in Johannesburg described the tiny Atos as "Even more disagreeable than your previous vehicle - your deceased mule."), bade farewell to Matt (he was off to Cape Town), and I was off to Namibia.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Photos from Safari Field Guide Training

My photo album from my four weeks at safari field guide training is now posted online. Please click here to be directed to the online photo album. Once you see the album, click on a photo to enlarge it. I recommend clicking on the first photo and then progressing through in order by clicking "Next" above each photo.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Name That Poo! Contest Winner!

Thanks to everyone that emailed their entries to the Where is Caton Contest: Name That Poo! I'm pleased to announce that we have a winner! Though I had many spirited attempts, none got more than 3 out of 5 correct, save one. Melanie of Minnesota, USA got a perfect score!

Congratulations to Melanie. She really knows her sh**!

By the way, the correct answers were as follows:

1B: That isn't an entire elephant dung; it's just a piece (I couldn't possibly pick up the whole thing). The bits of wood (from tree bark) tell us that this had to come from an elephant.

2E: Lion scat will closely resemble that produced by your neighborhood dog or cat. In this example, it's clear that the lion had consumed a good deal of fur. The fur is clearly visible in this specimen.

3A: Despite its size, the Southern Giraffe produces remarkably small dung. It's a bit like a llama; the pieces are small, but they are quite numerous. Giraffe dung pieces have tell-tale indentations on both ends of their cylindrical shape.

4D: This wildebeest dung has been partly processed by resident dung beetles.

5C: Horrifying, I know!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Things I Nearly Stepped On, Part 2

Though the presence of humans caused most of the animals to flee our camp (see prior post), other animals were a bit slow in getting the proverbial hint. Anytime one chose to walk about the camp, it was imperative to keep an eye out for creatures that might be willing to sting, bite, or otherwise cause one harm. This was particularly true at night, when the predators were active. Walking alone at night without a flashlight (torch) would have earned me a nice tongue lashing from the instructors; in the bush, it's always entirely possible that I could have been attacked and eaten by the resident lions. I'm pleased to report that I wasn't.

That said, I did encounter a few dangerous cohabitants of the Karongwe Game Reserve, including at least three of which could have easily introduced me to my demise:

Though often quite diminutive, the puff adder (pictured at left) is the deadliest snake (at least for humans) in all of Africa. This isn't because the puff adder is particularly aggressive, but because he is particularly lazy. You see, as you're out walking in the bush, snakes can feel you (or at least the vibrations you create) long before you get anywhere near to them. Since they'd rather not be bothered with you, snakes typically slither away to safer environs before you even notice them. Not the puff adder; he just sits lazily and, should you be unfortunate enough to get near to him, he'll casually strike. And he's got one of the fastest strikes in all of snakedom (Yeah, I made that word up. So what?), so you've no hope of out-maneuvering him. Worse, even 1 ml of his venom will do you in. In short, you do not want to get in close confines with a puff adder. Incidentally, my friend Pieter and I found this little guy slithering alongside our camp's swimming hole. Mistaking him for another species of snake, we promptly set to putting him in a cardboard box to play "show and tell" with the the other students back at camp. This won't go down as one of my smartest decisions. If you're feeling extremely adventurous, you can view post-bite photos of a puff adder victim by clicking here.

As it would happen, lions can be somewhat hard to see when they're dozing away the day in a thicket of brush. Those are two lions in the photo at right. And, yes, it was just as difficult to see them in person as in that photo. As I approached these two, I didn't see them. Fortunately for me, I was driving a Land Rover. Unfortunately for them, they were directly in my path. Had my instructor not implored me to stop (I couldn't imagine why he was asking me to do so), I would have run over these two girls. I can only imagine the paperwork I would have had to fill out had that happened. Of course, that lions are often camouflaged so well is exactly why one must take care when walking in the bush. Stumbling across a rare species of flightless bird is one thing; stumbling across a pride of voracious predators is quite another.

Speaking of well-camouflaged predators, you may notice something rather peculiar in the photo at left. That is a Nile crocodile which, curiously, can no longer be found anywhere along the River Nile. In South Africa, however, they can be found all over the place. Crocodiles are most notable for their least endearing attribute: they are the only predators that actively hunt humans. This little guy was approximately 2 meters (6 feet) in length, and would be happy to ruin anyone's sunny afternoon swim.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Where is Caton Contest 1: Name that Poo!

While on our daily bush walks at safari field guide training (see previous post), the instructors placed heavy emphasis on two activities: (1) flagrantly forcing the students to risk heat stroke and (2) instructing the students on various methods of tracking wildlife. Experts (like my instructors) can track wildlife by taking note of obscure clues like broken twigs and misplaced mud. Laypeople (like me) are taught to rely on a more primal method of tracking wildlife - looking for wildlife excrement. In lay terms, "excrement" may be described simply as "poo." Whether you're an expert or a layperson, you should be familiar with this stuff. Naturally, I was. 

The course's emphasis on poo identification sometimes took questionable turns, such as our somewhat frequent Impala Dung Spitting Contests (that's exactly what it sounds like; participants insert a specimen in their mouths, then spit said specimen as far as possible). More often, however, our poo searching was comprised of more mundane activities. For instance, I learned that: (1) "dung" is produced by herbivores (e.g., elephants); (2) "scat" is produced by carnivores (e.g., lions); and (3) "feces" are produced by omnivores (e.g., you). I found this revelation rather troubling: If feces are produced exclusively by omnivores, then how can we use the verb "defecate" to describe the excretion activities of herbivores and omnivores? So, I implored my instructors to consider adopting a new verb for herbivores based on the word "dung" (deduncate). My suggestion was enthusiastically dismissed.

So, to help introduce you to the world of poo identification, I've decided to hold a contest: Name That Poo!

How the game works:
Below, you'll see two columns of photos. Photos 1-5 depict various types of poo. To the right, Photos A-E depict photos of the animals that produced the poos shown  in photos 1-5. Your task: Match the poo with the animal that made it!

How to play:
Send me an email at catonwalker@gmail.com that matches each of the poos 1-5 with the poo producers A-E (e.g., 1A, 5D, and so on). If you guess correctly, you may win exciting prizes, like the admiration of your friends and family. What's more, you may wish to revise your resume to include appropriate designations such as "poo enthusiast."

Send in your responses by Friday, June 6, 2008! Once I receive all emails, contest results and winners will be posted on www.whereiscaton.com! Everyone is encouraged to play! Even if you don't give a sh**.

1
A
2B
3 C
4 D
5 E

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Snorting Towards Ectasy

After a week or so, the animals that had inhabited our camp during our absence (see previous post) began to notice a pattern: these humans spend most of the day here, and they don't appear to be leaving. Perturbed as they were by this grave inconvenience, most of the animals soon slithered, scampered, crawled, or trotted away to make their homes elsewhere.

That said, the camp was in the middle of the bush, so animal encounters were still rather frequent. Each night, spotted hyenas roamed the camp (often immediately beneath my elevated deck) looking for morsels of food that we might have left lying about. On occasion, elephants lumbered through the camp, casually ripping branches off the trees (and whipping the resident vervet monkeys into a screeching, branch-shaking frenzy). Since all of these visits were nocturnal, however, I was rarely awake to witness them. So, given that I was aware of them, I preferred the daytime wildlife visits.

One afternoon, I trudged to my tent (which I'd long since abandoned in favor of my elevated deck), only to find my favorite animal - the incomparably ugly warthog - standing in my path. The warthog wasn't nearly as smitten to see me as I was to see him, so he immediately high-tailed it in the opposite direction. When I say "high-tailed it," I mean it quite literally; when alarmed, warthogs flee with their tails vertical in order to alert other warthogs of danger. The vertical tail has the added benefit of making the warthog even less attractive, and thereby more endearing.

Naturally, the warthog's flee sequence was accompanied with several snorts of disapproval. Honestly though, the warthog rarely expresses disapproval in any other way. The snort is, of course, the warthog's primary form of self-expression. With humans, self-expression comes in countless forms, be it through speech, song, writing, or (at least among the least credible human specimens) "interpretive dance." With warthogs, however, it's just the snort. I've personally witnessed snorts of disapproval, snorts of fear, snorts of trepidation, snorts of contentment, and, on at least one occasion, a snort of confusion. I imagine that the universe of snorts is far larger, however; there must be snorts of glee, snorts of surprise, and possibly snorts of love. In short, a snort for every emotion and an emotion for every snort.

It's fortunate that warthogs can't read this blog, or else I'd likely hear a snort of boredom.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Things I Nearly Stepped On, Part 1

Upon arrival at my safari field guide training camp, our head instructor informed us that we comprised the first training session of the year. Given that our session began in early January, and that all sessions last for four weeks, this struck me as rather obvious. Clearly, this guy was going to need a refresher on "how to use a calendar."

However,  before I had an opportunity to explain the intricacies of the Christian calendar to the instructor, he expounded on this point: "The camp is empty during the six weeks before the first session of each year. During that time, the animals have a way of quickly making themselves at home in the camp. Just this morning," he added, "we removed a black mamba (pictured at left) from tent one." This intrigued (and alarmed) the girls living in tent one, who immediately inquired about whether or not black mambas are deadly. The instructor looked at them dryly: "Oh, extremely. And nearly immediately. It's a good thing we found him rather than your foot."

Needless to say, this story put all of the students (including me) on a high state of alert. This is quite fortunate, considering I nearly stepped on a snake that very evening. In fact, I nearly stepped on at least four creatures during my first night at the camp:

Though this arachnid (it may have eight legs, but it is not a spider) may not appear very threatening, the solifugae (rhymes with "centrifuge") may be counted among the most fearsome predators in southern Africa. Though only active at night ("solifugae" is a Latin term meaning "those that flee from the sun"), this large arachnid (pictured at left) is a voracious hunter and will devour almost any small creature that has the misfortune of scuttling past the solifugae's hole. While the solifugae doesn't pose an immediate threat to humans, I can assure you that brushing aside one in bare feet is not a pleasant experience.

My right foot narrowly missed a common egg-eater snake like the one pictured at right. I did not, however, miss the high note when I squealed in response; I acknowledged this slithering beast with all the aplomb of a young girl. With just the right amount of ignorance (which I happened to have at the time), the egg-eater bears an uncanny resemblance to the African puff adder, which unceremoniously kills humans with less than 1 ml of venom. Fortunately, I lucked out; the egg-eater has no teeth and therefore poses no threat to humans. Had I been a hapless egg, however, my encounter with the egg-eater would have ended in tragedy.

The giant African land snail (photo at left) is, by any measure, an enormous snail. This snail is far larger than an adult's fist and, as I discovered after my curiosity got the better of me, is quite heavy, much like a large paperweight. Were we all the size of GI Joe action figures, this creature would lay waste to our cities Godzilla-style. Fortunately, he moves quite slowly, so we would have time to gather all of our belongings and casually out-walk him. Or out-slither, rather.

While completely benign (at least to humans), the striped skink lizard can nonetheless prove an unwelcome visitor as they seem to take particular pleasure in hiding in tents, always ready to spring forth from their hiding places (subsequently startling their victims) at the most inopportune moments. This little guy (photo at right) took offense when I moved into my tent and decided to scurry across my bare foot when I wasn't looking.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Taunting Wildlife: Scorpions

Whenever you take a walk among nature in southern Africa (or even in North America, for that matter), you may often see little holes in the ground. Though they may appear lifeless during the day, these little holes are quite often repositories of nocturnal life, particularly for gruesome-looking creatures with exoskeletons.

If such a hole contains a scorpion, it's surprisingly easy to fish them out of their hole (in broad daylight) using a twig. This scorpion was huge and mean as could be. He was easily larger than an adult's outstretched hand, which is the absolute last place you'd want to put him. A sting from this guy would easily land you in the hospital.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Bongani Parade

Despite an intense schedule at the safari field guide training course, our instructors did allow us approximately two hours of "free time" each day. Of course, this time was intended as "study time." I did no such thing. Rather, after 28 years of being fastidiously studious (thereby learning how to properly use words like "fastidiously"), I spent most afternoons goofing off. It was a bit of an experiment for me. "Well, Caton," you say, "...and what were the results of this experiment in goof-offery?" In short, it was great fun!

Goofing off was comprised of several trivial activities. For instance, for the first time ever, I took naps (thought I didn't need the sleep). I also learned to play poker from my new friends (and mentors in vice) Pieter and Matt. When not sleeping or gambling, I also enjoyed playing beach volleyball. On occasion, I was too lazy even for that.

During our afternoons off, we also spent a good deal of time providing free babysitting services to 18 month-old Bongani. You see, Bongani's guardian was one of the ladies that worked at the camp. We were never entirely sure of Bongani's maternity (whether this guardian was Bongani's mother or grandmother was a topic of frequent debate), and we didn't have the slightest clue regarding Bongani's paternity. We did, however, love Bongani.

Interestingly, "Bongani" is actually a fairly common name among speakers of isiZulu. In isiZulu, "Bongani" means "thank you." I can only imagine the confusion caused by having a room full of people named "thank you," but, somehow, this never presents a problem for the estimated 11 million Zulus in southern Africa.

Like everyone else in the camp, Bongani followed a rigorous daily regimen. If he could write his own schedule, it would look something like this:

08:00 (or whenever I please): Wake up, wail loudly to announce my rousal.

08:30: Eat breakfast while trotting aimlessly about the camp. Drop no less than half of my breakfast on ground.

09:00: Ride around the camp on my guardian's back as she performs cleaning duties (see example photo at right). Maintain an appearance of complete indifference.

11:00: Get removed from guardian's back, walk about the camp. Engage in cacophonous fit of crying after discovering that sand, when exposed to intense sunlight, is hot. After being carried back to a shady area by the nearest adult, immediately repeat process. Repeat no fewer than ten times. Cry even more loudly each time.

12:22: Climb up to the sleeping deck shared by Caton, Pieter, and Matt. Carefully inspect their belongings, "confiscate" any candy. Steal Caton' iPod, talk into it as if it were a cellular phone. Steal Matt's chips as he attempts to play poker. Urinate on Pieter's bed.

13:45: Collect students' valuable scattered around the camp (e.g, flashlights, study materials), dispose of said valuables in trash bin when nobody is looking.

15:00: Commence afternoon nap.

16:47: Awake from nap, wail loudly to announce my rousal.

18:50: Crying fit. No reason necessary.

19:30: Try in vein to out-run guardian when she comes to collect me for bed.

20:02: Go to bed, cry self to sleep in protest.

Bongani's schedule (and included mischief) aside, it was loads of fun spending time with him. Bongani's laugh was infectious, and his numerous mis-deeds were endearing. What's more, we were constantly taken aback by his happy demeanor. Though Bongani's toys consisted entirely of random items fished from the trash bin, he always seemed entirely content. One day, Pieter, Matt, and I conspired to bring a small toy (a stuffed elephant) back from one of our trips to the Kruger National Park. Having never seen an actual toy intended for consumers, Bongani was befuddled in the extreme, and promptly disposed of the toy in the trash bin.

Though he had no interest in consumer products, Bongani did love a good parade. I've attached a clip of me pulling Bongani around the camp in his "parade float." Watch as Bongani waves hello to all passers-by. 

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Taunting Wildlife: Crocodiles

Afternoons at the Game Reserve weren't always bursting with action, so we had to make our own action. Occasionally, we'd make a stop at a nearby lake, where we'd attract the attention of the resident crocodiles. This is the first such crocodile that I met - a Nile crocodile approximately 2 meters (more than 6 feet) from head to tail.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Taking leave of civilization (and my senses)

After a brief stopover in Cape Town, it was time to move on to my real reason for traveling to South Africa. You see, I had several weeks of classes to attend.

I decided to take a safari field guide training course. This is where you go off to a game reserve in the African bush for four weeks; give up modern amenities like electricity, hot water, and common sense; and train to become a certified safari field guide. In theory, you could then go on to get a job with a game lodge taking tourists out to view African wildlife. At the end of the course, you have the option of sitting for the FGASA (Field Guides Association of Southern Africa) certification exam, the passing of which entitles you to work as a safari field guide. In fact, many of my fellow students did just that; at least one is now working as a "professional" guide in Botswana. You also have the option of goofing off, like I did.

"Now Caton," you say, "why would you go off and do a thing like this? What inspired you to spend four weeks tempting fate among African wildlife?" As it would happen, I have two very good reasons. My reasons are as follows: (1) I wanted to, and (2) I could. So there.

My goofing off aside, the program is rather intense. Each morning, we were up and away by 5:30, and the day typically concluded around 7:30 each night. According to the company that facilitated the training, the program's daily schedule is as follows (my comments are in captions):

"We follow a routine of rising early, typically before sunrise, drinking coffee and biscuits and then leaving camp for an outing in the wilderness [By the way, I've no idea why they thought it necessary to put some of these words in bold. They just did.]. The outing could be a game drive following up on the roar of a lion heard during the night, a walk learning about the plant species in the area, or a trip to the garbage dump to practice dry heaving thanks to the putrid odors [Okay, I added that one, but they did make me do that one day. It wasn't pleasant.]. Students return to camp late in the morning for a hearty brunch which is followed by a lecture on the subject of the day. Study and rest time is then followed by afternoon tea and another outing into the wilderness until sunset (if walking) or well after dark (if doing a game drive)."

That's all fine and good, but I've compiled a better representation of our daily regimen. Please note that the following schedule is presented in military (i.e., 24 hour) time. If this confuses you, please take care to avoid other dangerous and confusing activities, such as operating kitchen cabinets. That said, here's my daily regimen:

05:00: Wake-Up call from "on duty" students (those that had to prepare the biscuits and coffee before everyone else wakes up). Ignore them and pretend to be asleep.

05:08: Begrudgingly wake up after "on duty" students (or course instructors) make snide comments to one another about how lazy you are for sleeping in until eight past five in the morning. Curse self for failing to cover a portion of your body with the mosquito net while asleep.

05:15: Stumble to toilet. Do your business, albeit with very poor aim.

05:20: Poor cup of tea. Scald self with hot water. Mutter expletive to self under one's breath.

05:28: Scramble to get dressed in time for 05:30 departure. Hope a scorpion hasn't found its way into your clothing as you dress.

05:32: Feign incredulity when instructor informs you that you are late for 5:30 am bush walk; insist that you're on time according to your watch.

05:33: Begin game walk.

05:35: Lose interest in game walk.

07:30: Take break from game walk, ask instructor about life in Angola in the early 1980's (because it's actually quite interesting). When conversation topic turns to foreign affairs, patiently remind the Dutch students that you have no direct control over American foreign policy. 

07:45: Re-commence game walk. Begin to enjoy game walk now that you're awake.

08:13: Inadvertently step into golden orb web spider's web for the third time of the day. Apologize to said spider and remove web pieces from your hair. Contain urge to scream like girl when spider crawls up your arm.

10:30: Return to camp. Eat eggs, bacon, and toast as if you haven't eaten in a week. Complain about sweetness of orange juice (from concentrate), to which the camp cook refuses to add enough water.

11:00: Arrive for daily lecture, try not to fall asleep thanks to the combination of the heat and a full stomach.

13:00: Commence afternoon "study" break. Rather than study, take nap, followed by rousing game of beach volleyball in the nearby riverbed.

15:30: Afternoon tea break. Wonder aloud how a combination of white bread, sliced tomatoes, and mustard qualifies as "tea food."

16:00: Commence afternoon game drive. Repeatedly stall Land Rover. Blame the Land Rover for its refusal to shift into second gear. Insist that you never have this problem at home.

17:23: Nearly get eaten by lion when sitting on the tracker's seat (due to other student driver not noticing said lions and nearly running over them). See photo of "tracker's seat" at right; it's the guy at the front of the Land Rover.

18:43: Discuss differences in the Portuguese and Spanish languages with Portuguese co-student. Decide that Portuguese is way too complicated and ask why on Earth they thought it necessary have a separate language from the rest of the Iberians (i.e., the Spanish) anyway.

20:15: Arrive back at camp for dinner. Devour poor-quality steak like a homeless dog.

20:45: Exhausted, trudge to bed and fall fast asleep.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Photos from Table Mountain

My photo album from atop Cape Town's Table Mountain is now posted online. Please click here to be directed to the online photo album. Once you see the album, click on a photo to enlarge it. I recommend clicking on the first photo and then progressing through in order by clicking "Next" above each photo.

The World is Her Toilet

I arrived in Cape Town on a beautiful morning and immediately made my way to the delightfully overpriced Cape Heritage hotel in central Cape Town. Given that I had one afternoon to spend in Cape Town, I ventured to the lobby to research afternoon tourist activities. Nobody was at reception, so I approached the bellman:

Me: Hi there.

Bellman: Hello, boss.

Me (unaware that "boss" is considered appropriate slang in South Africa): Um, yeah. I was wondering if you could direct me to the nearest tourist trap. I only have one day here, so I need to get ripped off as soon as possible.

Bellman: You could go to the V&A Waterfront. There's also a tourist bus that gives you a tour of the city, but it stops running at 3 o'clock, so you should...

As he chatted away, I peered up at Table Mountain (pictured above at left) behind him.

Me (pointing at the mountain and interrupting him): What about there? Table Mountain? Can I go up there?

Bellman: Oh, yes boss. I can fetch a taxi to take you to the cableway (NB: The cableway refers to a gondola that takes visitors to the top of Table Mountain).

Me: The cableway? Can't I climb it? Aren't there any trails?

The bellman sized me up, looking me up and down to determine whether or not I might be healthy enough to undertake such a climb.

Bellman: Yes, boss. You could, but it's not safe.

Me: What? I could fall or something? I'm pretty good at walking. I have loads of experience.

Bellman: There are bad people. You should not go alone.

Me: But it's a national park. There's a crime problem in a national park?

Bellman (looking at me like I'd just asked the stupidest question ever): Yes, boss. You should take the cableway.

Though I'd heard that South Africa has a rather troubling crime problem, this was going to take a bit of adjusting for me. I quickly learned that I simply couldn't do many things to which I'd become accustomed in the US. Solitary evening jogs, for instance, wouldn't be possible for the next few months.

After a short taxi ride, I arrived at the base of the cableway. The cableway seemed to be the thing to do in Cape Town on that Sunday afternoon; the place was teeming with tourists.

After a rather long wait, I climbed into the gondola along with 50 of my closest friends, all of whom eagerly pushed and shoved one another (and me) to secure for themselves the best view. As the gondola began its ascent, a curious thing happened: the floor began to rotate, thus enabling everyone to enjoy (at least for a moment) a pleasant view no matter where they stood. My fellow passengers let forth a flood of "oohs" and "aahs" at this technical wonder, known to you and me as the rotating gear. The gear counts itself among other space-age technologies, such as the wheel and the hammer. Ooh and ahh, indeed.

As I approached the top of Table Mountain, I began to fear that I had unwittingly bought a ticket to a glorified Disney attraction. Here I was, ascending a mountain on a gondola sponsored by Visa (see photo at right) that carries 900 dumpy tourists to its precipice every hour, me among them. I was further disturbed to find a gift shop at the upper platform, and hundreds of tourists milling about on concrete paths gruesomely cut into the rock. Some were boozing it up with overpriced beer and wine from a mountain-top cafeteria. Do you suppose that's what people think is natural for a mountain top? A cafeteria? When Sir Edmund Hillary ascended Mount Everest, I doubt he turned to his crew and said: "Okay, boys! Put the New Zealand flag right here, and set up the cafeteria just over there! You didn't forget to the bring the stale $12 muffins, did you?"

I walked for a good bit, trying to find a bit of solitude. I eventually found a nice spot atop a rock facing west (the sun was beginning its slow descent into the southern Atlantic Ocean). Indeed, the view was breathtaking. I was well above the cloud line, so I peered down through cloud breaks to catch glimpses of Cape Town's beautiful Camp's Bay, with its white sands and crystal blue waters. For a moment, one could almost forget the material threat of a shark attack for anyone foolish enough to swim too far from the Bay's beaches. Indeed, my Table Mountain experience was improving rapidly.

Just then, an English family found a spot near me. Their young daughter was prattling away:

Girl: Oh, Mummy! The view is simply beautiful!

The little girl had the most proper southeastern English accent imaginable. She didn't just say "beautiful;" she exclaimed "bea-uuuu-ti-ful!" I thought only the kids in mid-1960s Disney movies (e.g., "Mary Poppins") talked like this. Her mother, however, looked inexplicably perturbed.

Mother: Quiet, darling! We musn't disturb the other visitors. Let's remember to use our quiet voice.

Girl (now whispering): Yes, mummy!

"Well," I thought, "This place just keeps getting better! Not only is the view astounding, but even the small children are polite and well tended-to!"

I drifted into a near-trance, completely stupefied by the sunset before me. I then heard a strange trickling sound. I looked in all directions. What on earth could be making that sound? It's not like the mountain could just spring a leak. Just then, I noticed the English family again. I was horrified to see the little girl - the same one that looked as if she'd just stepped off a Disney soundstage - hoisted into the air by her mother and nanny, and eagerly draining her bladder. Nice. They've just taken it upon themselves to turn this UNESCO World Heritage Site into a UNESCO World Heritage Toilet.

Fortunately, no amount of errant urination could mar my visit to Table Mountain. The views from atop Table Mountain are humbling and surreal. I can't recommend it highly enough. If you should visit, however, please note that toilets can be found near the cableway, just above the cafeteria.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Playing Musical Chairs with Shirley Temple

After a few days' rest in Houston, I took off from the US again, not to return until summer 2008. I headed for southern Africa, which isn't terribly easy to reach from Texas. All of the Johannesburg-bound flights from the US were full, so I arranged a two-day stopover in London, the benefits of which were two-fold: (1) it enabled me to visit my childhood friend Melissa in London and (2) it gave me a splendid opportunity to destroy two large bags holding six months' worth of clothing. Forget visiting Buckingham Palace. If you'd like a true London adventure, try carting a massive piece of luggage through the London Underground, only to watch helplessly as it disintegrates on a stairwell, belching forth its contents on to the dirty concrete floor. You can then play a rousing game of "Pick Up Your Stuff Before It Gets Trampled By Commuters." You'll find that Londoners are happy to do their part by ignoring you completely or laughing at your misfortune.

After a harrowing journey to Heathrow from Melissa's flat (the new bag I bought to replace the aforementioned bag also broke, this time in the middle of the street in front of a speeding bus), I finally settled in my seat for an overnight flight to Cape Town, South Africa.

One of the unfortunate realties of solo air travel is that I'm constantly engaged in a thankless game of musical chairs aboard the plane. Almost invariably, I arrive at my seat to find that my seat neighbor appears inexplicably distressed. In my attempt to be a decent person, I then find myself in a regrettable conversation:

Me: Hello there. I believe I'm seated next to you. You look a bit concerned. Can I help you with something?

Distressed Person: Yes, actually. You see, due to my own lack of planning, the airline committed a grievous offense and separated my spouse and me. So, would you mind switching with him/her? I do realize that you'll be giving up a window seat on an exit row (extra leg room) near the front of the plane that you specially reserved three months ago. I also realize that you'll be moving to a middle seat at the rear of the plane between a morbidly obese alcoholic and a screaming baby. And while I could just as easily switch my seat, therefore allowing you to keep your more desirable seat here, that option would fail to benefit me at your expense. So, would it be okay if you sat in the nightmare seat for the next 10 hours so that I can sit next to my spouse? Granted, my spouse and I do dislike one another, but at least we'll be able to exchange hateful barbs in close proximity.

Me: Certainly! Anything to help. Now, I know you find all of this quite unnerving, but if you could please stop wiping your nose with my sleeve...

Distressed Person: Oh, sorry. I assumed it was okay you treat you like rubbish in all respects. But thanks for agreeing to move! It's good you said "yes." Otherwise, I would have had to devote the next 10 hours to subjecting you to a guilt trip, and that would have been so much trouble for me. So, you can find my spouse in seat 178K, just past the braying donkeys and overflowing lavatory. Tell him that I was able to find a complete idiot to take his seat. I'll try not to cackle with self-satisfaction as you walk back.

Me: Oh, thanks...

Lo and behold, the instant I sat down in my seat (recall that I'm still talking about my flight to Cape Town), a woman approached me and asked me to switch so that she could sit next to her husband. For this particular flight, her request made no sense whatsoever. Since I'd upgraded to business class for this flight I, like all passengers, was sitting in a solitary "pod" (see photo at right). Therefore, there's no benefit in sitting next to a loved one; you can't see them or exchange hateful barbs with them. But, in my attempt to be a nice person, I moved anyway.

My move did confuse the flight attendant, who promptly brought me a Shirley Temple that I'd never ordered. Who drinks Shirley Temples? Oh yeah. People that ask to switch pods. I considered taking it to the woman with whom I'd switched seats, but decided that honoring her seat request was enough; I was in no mood to be her cocktail waitress also. So I downed the Shirley Temple myself, and found it surprisingly refreshing.

As I toyed with the cherry stem left over from my ridiculous cocktail, I noticed a group of airline employees carrying a very physically disabled woman to the seat next to me. She was unable to sit up, so they converted her seat into a bed for the entire journey. After plopping her down in the bed, tossing a duvet atop her, and cinching her in, they scattered immediately, much like a group of cockroaches when someone turns on the kitchen lights. Though I couldn't see her, the woman didn't sound so hot; she was gurgling and moaning. I began to wonder if I would need to intervene and offer assistance, which I was wholly unqualified to do.

Just then, a young woman appeared, and immediately set to assisting my invalid seat neighbor with diligent care. Clearly, this woman was a professional nurse of some sort. Over the next 20 minutes, the young nurse popped back and forth between her seat and my neighbor's no less than 15 times. I was getting exhausted just watching her, and it seemed odd that the nurse shouldn't be able to sit nearer her patient. "If there's any time to volunteer a seat change," I thought to myself, "this is it." So, I gingerly approached the nurse to discuss my generous offer.

Me: Um, hello there. I'm sitting just here and I was wondering if...

Nurse: Oh, hi! What can I do for you?

Judging by her accent, she was clearly a South African. What's more, she had one of those lovely smiles that only a selfless person like a nurse could have. She beamed with her warmth and heightened sense of empathy.

Me: Well, I noticed that you've been busy helping this woman and I was wondering if you'd like to change seats so that...

Her warm demeanor turned frigid in an instant. She gave me this look that seemed to say "you awful, awful man."

Nurse: You know, she may be disabled, but she can't hurt you.

Me: Wait, no. I...

Nurse: Don't worry, I'll take care of her myself. You won't be at all inconvenienced by her.

I looked down at her patient. She too shot daggers with her eyes; it's as if she were gurgling at me in disgust.

Me (struggling for words): I just thought that it might be more convenient for you if you were able to sit next...

Nurse: She won't affect you at all. Now, if you would allow me a moment to do my job...

Soundly defeated, I went returned to my seat. The nurse avoided me for the entirety of the flight.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Photos from Peru

My photo album from my Peruvian travel adventures is now posted online. Please click here to be directed to the online photo album. Once you see the album, click on a photo to enlarge it. I recommend clicking on the first photo and then progressing through in order by clicking "Next" above each photo.

A Grievous Oversight

I received a recent email from my new friend Kristina from Wisconsin, who I met on my whitewater rafting trip just outside Cusco, Peru. You may have noticed that I failed to mention Kristina in my Peru blog entries. Suffice it say, Kristina also noticed my failure to do so. Rather incensed, she took it upon herself to send me a transcript of my conversation with her. In deference to this oversight, I've elected to include said transcript below. My additions are in italics.

Caton: Hi, I'm Caton.

Kristina: Hi, I'm Kristina.

Caton: Oh my god, you changed my life. Thank you for your inspiring words of wisdom, and your unselfish offerings of kindness. You have truly shown me "the way". I was about to trek up to Machu Picchu to take a nose-dive off the top, but instead I will continue my round-the-world trip and periodically update my blog on my happenings, depending on the internet connection in each geographical region I'm in. You also cured my paralysis.

Kristina: Oh, okay. That's great, and not at all creepy. So, do you have a last name, Caton?

Caton: It's Walker. Caton Walker.

Kristina: You were paralyzed, you say?

Caton: Well, not anymore. Duh. I met you! So, can I email you after I leave Peru?

Kristina: You bet. Just as soon as I make up a false email address.

Seriously, this girl's got quite an imagination. They're growing more than corn up in Wisconsin.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Botulistic Doilies and Pisco Sours

After a laborious pen-purchasing episode, I was ready to embark on a City Tour of Lima. That's where you and several other tourists load onto a mini-bus (the ubiquitous mini-bus will continue to rear its ugly grill throughout my world travels) and putter about the city while listening to a woman point out things that aren't particularly noteworthy: "Oh, so that's the Venezuelan embassy? And you're going to stop the bus and give us five minutes to take photos of it? How kind of you." 

My favorite part of the tour was listening to her divergent commentaries in both Spanish and English; she'd often tell me all about something in Spanish then, presumably due to language limitations, tell me something entirely different when she "translated" into English. For example:

In Spanish: If you look to your left, you'll see a former aristocratic home that has since been converted into a luxury boutique hotel, the first of its kind in Peru. This building was commissioned by a Spanish noble in the 17th century, and is noted as having among the oldest and most well-preserved examples of the traditional "Lima balcony" in the entire city. It's rumored that its pastel yellow color originated in the original owner's love for his youngest daughter, whose favorite color was yellow. This daughter went on to marry the regional viceroy, and was subsequently killed by an outbreak of smallpox in the early 18th century. If you look just below the eaves, you'll see a relief of her face, which was added to the building by her grieving father.

In English: That building is yellow.

Fortunately, Lima itself easily overcame the limitations of my tour guide. In the course of an afternoon, we saw many colonial treasures, including the Basilica Cathedral of Lima, Peru's Government Palace, and the Plaza San Martin.

My favorite, however, was the Convento de San Francisco (pictured above at left), a Baroque masterpiece that was completed during the 17th century. What's more, the workers who toiled on the convent clearly built a sturdy building; the place survived a devastating earthquake in 1746. Even more impressive, I can personally attest that the convent withstands the weight of loads of morbidly obese American tourists every year, and with veritable aplomb. So here's to 17th Spanish engineering. It appears the conquistadors were as good at engineering as they were at genocide.

Obese tourists and earthquakes notwithstanding, the most interesting (and tititalling, if you're into the macabre) attraction at the Convento de San Francisco is its catacombs. In short, the catacombs are a series of underground caves where convent management likes to stash its dead people and then show them off to tourists. And they do it with style. Nobody's exactly sure how many bones are crammed into the convent's catacombs, but anyone can see that someone has put a great deal of effort into organizing said bones in an aesthetically pleasing manner. In one area (pictured at right), someone seems to have made a type of bone "doily," with skulls carefully flanked by outer rings of arm and leg bones. It's one of the most delightfully gross things you'll ever see. I couldn't help but wonder how all this started:

Two convent residents, a Bishop and a Monk, are walking the courtyard one day.

Monk: Man! I just tripped on another bone. Maybe we should do something about these bones lying all over the place.

Bishop: I couldn't agree more. We should put them down in the basement.

Monk: Works for me. I'll have some on the nuns sweep them up and toss them underground.

What? I didn't say he was enlightened monk. In fact, for purposes of this made-up story, I gather he was quite sexist.

Bishop: No, no, no! I was thinking we could pick each of them up, and then arrange them into really pretty patterns.

Monk: What? The bones?

Bishop: Yes, yes! Wouldn't that be a good idea?

Monk: No. As a matter of fact, that does not strike me as a good idea. You know, handling bones is a great way to develop a nasty case of botulism. And I must add that botulism is no fun at all. It's often accompanied by anorexia, uncontrolled vomiting, and excruciating muscle paralysis.

Bishop: What? I don't follow.

Monk: Botulism. It's a bacterial infection. You can get it from handling the bones of dead things like, you know, people.

Awkward pause.

Bishop: Yeah. That's where I'm going to have to differ with you. He then holds up his fingers to do quotation marks in the sky. You see, I'm more of a "Pre-Age of Enlightenment" Catholic. So, I don't really connect cause and effect. I don't know about all this "handling bones" mumbo jumbo; all I know is that if indeed you do get this botulizzle...

Monk: Botulism.

Bishop: Whatever. Like I was saying, if you do get this "botulism," it's because it was the will of God. It's all up to Him. That's the only possible explanation.

Monk: Um, okay. So, following that logic, if you were to take a nap in the middle of the street, and subsequently get stepped on by a horse?

Bishop: ....will of God, most definitely.

Monk: Wow. Well, we're just going to have to agree to disagree. You can play interior decorator with your bones all you want, but I'm going to sit this one out.

Bishop: Oh, I'm afraid that's not advisable.

Monk: Huh?

Bishop: Well, another thing about the pre-Age of Enlightenment church is that we burn people at the stake who disagree with our worldview.

Monk: You mean me? Burned at the stake?

Bishop: ...to a crisp.

Monk: Oh. I don't like the sound of that at all.

Bishop: Well, sorry. I don't make the rules. I just light the match.

Monk: What? The self-igniting match won't be invented for another 200 years.

Bishop: Well, fine. I light the whale oil or whatever. Either way, I'd suggest you repent unless you're yearnin' for a burnin'.

Monk: Yearning for a burning? That's nice. You should put that on a bumper sticker or something.

Bishop: Thanks. I'll be sure to put that one on the back of my donkey cart. So, what say you to getting burned alive for your treacherous ideas?

Monk: I was thinking that we could arrange the bones in a doily pattern! 

Bishop: I love doilies!

Monk: Yeah. Your hot pink vestments would suggest as much.

And that's how the catacombs of the Convento de San Francisco came to be.

So, after my city tour was completed, I finally joined Isabel for an amazing dinner at T'anta, a rather famous restaurant in Lima, which is the brainchild of Peru's resident celebrity chef Gaston Acurio. You really should click here to learn more about him, particularly if you're lucky enough to live near one of his restaurants in Chile, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Spain, or Venezuela. Sadly, I didn't get to enjoy my dinner (or my accompanying Pisco Sour) as long as I would have liked; I took off directly from dinner for the airport for an overnight flight to Houston. And, with that, my trip to Peru was finished. 

Monday, January 7, 2008

Would you like to take that pen for a test write?

The Inca Trail trek left me mentally invigorated, but physically exhausted. So, I nearly fell into my bed at the Hotel Marqueses (Note: Both the hotel and my Inca Trail trek are operated by SAS Travel in Cusco, which is a fantastic outfitter in all respects). The next morning, I woke at a wholly unreasonable hour to return to Lima.

Upon my arrival in Lima, I found my way to the Hostal El Patio (photo at left) in the city's Miraflores district, which Andrew and Rosanna (mentioned in my prior post) had recommended. Like every other aspect of my Peru trip, it was sublime. Once there, I immediately set to pestering Isabel (who you'll likely remember from another prior post), who was home for the New Year. Naturally, Isabel was extremely gracious, and even seemed pleased that I was in Lima. If she wasn't, she at least gave an enviable performance. Either way, it was decided that she'd introduce me to some authentic Peruvian cuisine the following night.

To pass the time, I thought I'd tour the city, but first I wanted to send off some postcards. However, I had a small problem: I didn't have a pen. One might think that this problem could be easily rectified, but, alas, no. I piddled all over Miraflores trying to buy a pen, but all of the convenience store owners looked at me as if I were crazy for thinking that I might find a pen at a convenience store. For that, they explained, I'd need to find a pen store. A pen store?

As luck would have it, Miraflores does have a pen store, albeit a 15 minute walk from my hotel. I walked in, quite curious to see what a pen store looked like. As it would happen, it was an emporium approximately the size of a large convenience store. Except it was filled with glass counters, all of them bursting with pens. Apparently, the store had recently expanded their breadth of offerings; one of the glass counters displayed a dizzying variety of protractors. However, I didn't come to Lima to measure any angles, so I instead approached a saleswoman (who's ever heard of a pen saleswoman?) at the counter.

Me: Hello, do you have any pens that...

Saleswoman (interrupting me): We have all types of pens, sir.

Me: Yes, clearly. Well, I'd like a very simple black pen. I just want to write some postcards for friends in the US.

Saleswoman: What type of tip would you like?

Me: What?

Saleswoman: We have ballpoint pens, felt-tip pens, fountain pens, ....

Me (now it was my turn to interrupt): I just want a ballpoint, please.

Saleswoman: Of course. Fine point, medium point, or wide point?

Me: Um, medium I suppose. Do I have to make any more choices?

Saleswoman: No. You already told me you want black.

Me: Good.

Saleswoman (ushering me to another counter): Okay. This is our selection of black, medium ballpoint pens. Which one would you like?

Me: Ugh...

After (finally) selecting a pen, the woman took it out of the case and gingerly handed it to me as if it were a priceless Fabergé egg. In attempt to show the pen its due respect, I picked it up with both hands and carefully examined it. Of course, this was all for show; I had no interest in inspecting the pen. I just wanted to buy it and leave so I could get started on those postcards.

Me (pretending to be impressed): Very nice. I'll take it.

Saleswoman: Wait. You don't want to test it?

Me: I'm sorry?

Saleswoman (whipping out a blank piece of paper): You test the pen before you buy it.

Me: Um, okay.

So, I wrote my name a few times, pretending to carefully assess the pen's performance. Finally, I'd had enough:

Me: Okay, it's very nice. Can I buy it now?

Saleswoman: Of course!

Me (shuddering to ask the price given the complexity of this pen purchase transaction): And how much is it?

Saleswoman: One sole, please.

One sole? That's $0.30! All this for $0.30?

Me: Okay, here's one sole. Thank you!

Saleswoman: No, sir. You have to take this purchase order to the cashier counter. Pay there, then return to me, and I'll have it wrapped up for you. You then return to the cashier for inspection before you leave the store.

Oh geez...

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Fun with Llamas

Just in case I'm not boring you enough, I thought I'd invite one of Machu Picchu's resident llamas to help bore you. Have you ever noticed that llamas chew in a nearly perfect Figure 8? I hadn't. If you think this video is interesting, it's nothing compared to the other Machu Picchu llama videos that you can find at YouTube. Check them out by clicking the "YouTube" logo at the bottom right of the graphic just below.




Oh, and if you actually do find this video interesting, you need to get out more. This really isn't interesting in the least.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Parting Clouds and Parting Ways

After using my imagination to (inadvertently) insult the Inca culture and all its descendants (see previous blog post), I was snapped out of my culturally insensitive and historically uninformed daydream by Andy, one of my fellow trekkers. Andy pointed out - in the kindest way possible, of course - that we ought to keep moving rather than standing alone amongst the ruins conducting inane inner dialogues.

Andy was a ridiculously nice person. In fact, I'm still shocked by how wonderful all of my co-trekkers were. Without exception, all 19 of my co-trekkers were well-mannered, considerate, well-educated, amiable, and all-around "good people." Everyone got along splendidly, and spending time with each of these people was a joy. What's more, we comprised a veritable United Nations: There was, of course, Andy (from the UK); Kate, his Kiwi fiance; Andrew and Rosanna, a UK couple so sweet they could give you diabetes; Rosa and Conrad from the US; Edgar and his sister Jennifer from the US; Teresa and her father Roger, also from the US; Erik and Dejane from South Africa; Morag, Tamar, and Dor from Israel; Amy and Tom from Australia; and Alexander and Robin from Sweden. In fact, given how genteel everyone was, it's probably not accurate to describe the group as a miniature UN; the real UN is far less civilized (I'm talking to you, Mssrs. Chavez and Mugabe). I think Andrew put it best: "You can always find at least one ass-hole on one of these trips, but I think we've found a loophole." Personally, I would have shied away from the hole metaphors (respectively, "ass" and "loop"), but I agreed whole-heartedly in principle.

A note to my faint-hearted readers: My apologies for the foul language, but it's a direct quote. I can only hope that I didn't give you "the vapors" or something similarly debilitating.

Now that that's settled (i.e., two thumbs up for my co-trekkers), I should move along, just as Andy requested. After two more nights of camping in the clouds (one near Sayaqmarka and another at Wiñay Wayna, a majestic set of terraced ruins near the end of the Inca Trail), we awoke at approximately 5:00 to begin our walk to Machu Picchu. After a few hours, and one dizzyingly steep climb up a set of nearly-vertical stairs at the Sun Gate (which didn't live up to its moniker thanks to choking fog), we stumbled upon Machu Picchu. I mean this quite literally; the fog was so think that I didn't even realize that I'd arrived at Machu Picchu:

Me (talking to nobody in particular): There seem to be more stone walls than normal. Why do you suppose that is?

Rosanna (always politely pretending that my questions aren't painfully stupid): Well, I believe that's because we're here.

Me: Here?

Rosanna: Yes. This staircase we're on is the entrance to Machu Picchu.

Me: Oh. How anti-climactic.

However, within 15 minutes, it became clear why so many people consider Machu Picchu to be a magical place. Almost if on cue, the clouds parted, ever-so-slowly revealing the ruins. With a splendidly eery view of the lost city (well, okay, it was found some time ago) behind us, we posed for the obligatory group photo (above), and made our way down to the city. Within another half-hour, we had a mountain bathed in sunlight, and we spent the next few hours exploring the city, admiring the jaw-dropping views (there really are no other mountains like those found in the Andes), and taunting the llamas that wandered about the ruins doing their llama thing (i.e., eating grass, and consequently helping unwitting tourists to redecorate the bottoms of their shoes). Within four hours, we were on a bus, on our way down the mountain to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes (literally "hot waters," like the US town of Hot Springs, Arkansas).

After a bizarre train ride (How many train rides have you been on that featured a dancing ghost figure and an alpaca fur fashion show, complete with pulsating techno music?) and another minibus ride, we arrived back in Cusco. Though my legs felt as if they were made of cast steel, I soon turned into bit of a softy. While I was glad to take my leave for some sleep in a proper bed, saying goodbye to my new friends was not fun. So often, when we embark on such a rewarding adventure, returning to real life is more difficult than if we'd never left. Though my "real life" is as good as anyone could hope for, I was thankful that I wouldn't be returning to real life for another six months.