Under the Big African Sky, last part

So many times, traveling in third-world countries, I find myself in bizarre situations, like being in the back of a tiny grocery store in rural Zambia and hearing David Cook and then Adam Lambert songs on the radio (American Idol contestants).

We went on a late-night safari and as Shari and I were sitting and looking for wild-game animals with floodlights, I said, “You thinking what I’m thinking?” Turns out we were both deciding, “What would I do if I were left out here all alone all night?” (Does the capacity of the human brain to think about completely inane subjects ever amaze you?)

We had a long debate only slightly less pointless than the one my kids had, driving across Nebraska a few years ago. I was amazed at how hot under the collar Cade and Emma got discussing, “Who is more famous, Akon or Gwen Stefani?”

Anyway, our consensus was that we’d climb a tree. And then if an elephant came along, we’d walk alongside him. (Trust me on this. It’s a good plan. We can defend our thesis. We know stuff, now that we’ve been to Africa.)

One time we were sitting waiting for the night-safari bus and our guide, Nick, Shari, and I had this convo as “Tiny Dancer” came on the radio and Shari didn’t know who recorded it:

Me: It’s Tina Turner. She’s gotta be pushing, what, like 70? And she has the most amazing body, still.

Shari: Thanks to a lot of plastic surgery, I’m sure.

Me: No, it’s her LEGS. They’re ridiculous. Did you see her on American Idol a couple years ago? Any 20-year old would love to have those legs. There’s no plastic surgery for great legs.

Shari: Whatever! Calf implants. Lipo. Cutting out the skin above the knee.

Me: Oh.

Nick (snorting): Geez. You Americans. That’s stupid. Just move your body around and eat salad.

Well, doesn’t that just sum it up. It’s such simple logic, you know. How much pain and agony and premature death could be avoided here in the First World if we all did that. (Around the world, by the way, women are far more natural–far less cosmetic surgery even in other First-World countries.)

Under the Big African Sky, part 5

Americans wring their hands fretting about getting enough protein. Here are some of my African friends who eat nothing but plants, mostly greens. Do they look like they lack for muscle mass? Meet the hippo, rhino, water buffalo, elephant, zebra, and giraffe. Do you know that the water buffalo is terribly dangerous to humans? Did you know that hippos kill more people than any other animal in Africa?

Did you know that when zebras get sick, they don’t lose weight? That’s because unlike the elephant, who will eat anything, zebras are very selective and will eat only a couple dozen grasses that are very high in protein. When they’re sick, the way you can tell is the way their mane falls. This seems to corroborate my theory and observation that when we increase muscle mass using plant sources, that muscle is highly durable.

So please check out photos I took of my vegetarian friends in Africa and tell me if you can’t sustain health and muscle mass eating plants. I don’t introduce you to try to win you over to being vegetarian. I say it to help you see how high-protein, muscle-building, and powerfully nutritious raw plant foods are, so you eat more of them.

My least-favorite things in Africa, part 4

Things I don’t love in Africa:

1.           Eating the Mopanie Worm. It’s a delicacy, the roads are covered with them, and locals eat them dried. Supposedly they’re very nutritious and high in protein. I have a personal philosophy of NOT eating caterpillars–in the photo below, I’m only hamming it up in my “kiss and release” program.

2.           Sugar companies and cane fields. It’s where much of the mischief begins (see me in front of the sugar cane field below).

3.           Townships. Over half a million live in this one, near Pretoria, in the photo below. I hate that so many live without things I take for granted every day.

4.           Malaria. I refused to take the pills. I bought some all-natural bug spray but used it only once. I guess I trust my immune system more than the drugs that make you nauseous, sensitize you to the sun, and you have to take for a month before and a month after.

5.           Ostrich and buffalo billatong (jerky), for sale everywhere. No thanks.

6.           The fact that making the “Go Texas Longhorns!” sign is flipping someone off. It seemed like such a friendly gesture, before, and now it will be forever vulgar in my mind. (I had a long debate with our guide regarding my opinion that the American gesture for that sentiment is so much more intuitive.)

7.           Elephant dung–it’s everywhere in the streets “on safari” and you have to dodge it. But, check out my video of a male dung beetle making good use of it, rolling the female dung beetle along, eggs safely inside the ball of elephant poo.

My favorite things in Africa, part 3

My friend Shari and I have traveled in 12 countries, in 3 continents, the past 4 years, together, plus many other countries separately. We seem to be amazingly lucky. We’ve been in, or missed by a day, five devastating natural disasters: a huge fire (South Africa), a landslide (Hong Kong), a 6.5 earthquake (Costa Rica), a volcano eruption (Iceland), and a flood (Peru).

These are things I love in Africa:

1.           Wonderful fruits I don’t even know the name of. I got out of the car to ask villagers what this amazing little red fruit is. We bought a bag of them from people standing on the side of the road on the way to BlydeRivierSpoort. What they said sounded something like “Dilahdwa.” Anybody got a better name than that? WHY ISN’T ANYONE IMPORTING THIS STUFF?

2.           There are 73 dialects in Zambia and amazingly, people seem to know what language others speak just by looking at them.

3.           Mango farms. They’re everywhere. I ate dried mango till my jaw hurt. We cut up fresh ones in our hotel room daily–the best fruit on the planet. I think avocadoes and mangoes are my two favorite foods in the universe. Right after chocolate.

4.           African babies. The people and the animals. Check out this baby elephant that crossed our path.

5.           Rocket and Peppadew Salad. They don’t use dressings in Africa, just a little olive oil. Rocket is a green, and peppadew is a sweet-sour pepper I am in love with.

6.           The South African practice of saying “Pleasure!” instead of “You’re welcome!” I can’t get enough of that. It makes it sound as if you’re completely thrilled to be doing an act of service. One of my 2011 goals is to say, “My pleasure!” when someone thanks me.

7.           That I was briefly a millionaire in Zambian ketchwa. Actually it’s horrible that the exchange rate is 5,000 to 1, allowing me to achieve that status for $300. And I didn’t even need it because everyone wants your dollars in Zambia.

8.           Nelson Mandela. Racism is alive and well in post-Mandela South Africa, unfortunately. My perception is that his tenets of tolerance and forgiveness for the oppressors who incarcerated him at Robben Island for many years are far from fully realized in the government and people of South Africa. I watched Invictus on the plane home: a good movie about Mandela inspiring and leveraging the national rugby team to unite South Africa and ease racial tensions.

9.           Lions walking in front of your car. A pack of wild dogs, or a family of 60 baboons, lounging or clowning in the road. Kid you not.

Tomorrow, things I don’t love so much in Africa.

Under the Big African Sky, part 2

In the village of Muukuni, everyone lives in huts made of mud and straw. The “palaces” of the female and male chiefs are just BIGGER straw-mud huts. Virtually everyone drops out of school at age 15 because their families cannot afford to send them to secondary school through age 18.

I am fascinated by this very large village comprised of smaller villages–with fenced compounds for each family. I believe I was there for a reason, and I intend to find out what that is. They don’t seem to have any help in sending children to school. Only 3 in the village with 3,400 school-age children have had the chance to go to college, which makes them local celebrities.

My guide, Philip Muwba, is 32 and wishes he could study to become a math teacher. Instead, he has a part time job giving tourists elephant rides. My other guide, Lumba Simulube, is a single mother of a 4-year old daughter, and she would love to study to be a nurse. I asked how many children would LIKE to go further in school, and they said, “Many! They just can’t afford to.”

But after age 11, parents must pay for uniforms, exams, and tuition. The exciting thing about this village I found in Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia), different than working with villages further north in Africa, is that Victoria Falls (one of the 7 natural wonders of the world) is just minutes away. So the large town of Livingstone has grown up around it, with secondary schools and a college where young people from the village can be educated. I am gathering more information to find out how directly I can work with those schools and the University of Zambia four hours away.

It’s very inexpensive to send an African child to school. I am hoping to put together a great way to sponsor the students who excel in school but have no way to access higher education. I have a contact in the village who is highly motivated to help ambitious, smart kids who have a desire to help their people, become educated and return to help their people. I hope to put something together that’s really cool and tell you about it, but first I have to research how you get money directly to the educational institutions to sponsor kids, etc. I’m talking to my full-time humanitarian friends.

Check out my photos of the children in the village fascinated by the photos we took of them. (You could entertain them for hours by taking their photo and showing it to them, as they have no mirrors and have never owned a photo of themselves.)  

We took four of the kids from the village (with their adult chaperon) to our five-star resort for the day. I can’t even describe how fun it was to watch 12-year old Precious, 6-year old twins Austin and Herbert, and 2-year old Kala, swim in a pool for the first time. Eat in a restaurant. Play with my two iPods. Watch soccer on TV. Kala couldn’t stop stroking my white skin and hair. All firsts for them.

They were completely fascinated by ice floating in glasses of water, and couldn’t eat enough of it. Ditto shaking salt on food. Shaking it on a plate and dipping their fingers, or their food, in it. It was an experience I will never forget.

Under the Big African Sky, part 1

I love to travel, to see how others live. How they are the same, how they are different. How they eat, not least of all. I’m thrilled by names, places, people, animals, transportation. A tiny international airport in Zambia where they hand-write the tickets and cats wander the waiting area.

I spent four days roughing it in the five-million-acre Kruger National Park in the province of Mpumalanga, “the place where the sun comes out.” It’s fun just to SAY Mpumalanga.

And our guide, Nick–probably worried when he saw two blonde American women–warned us that his motto is, “TIA.” Or, THIS IS AFRICA. Rough translation, don’t even think about whining. My own version of it, when I’d see something crazy, was, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

We met lots of Africans, and not one who had ever been off the continent. Their mouths would gape open with astonishment when I described to them that the week before I got to 95-degree Africa, I was skiing in snow waist-deep. I told them it’s so cold where I live that the hairs in your nose freeze, so you have to wiggle your nose to break up the ice. And your breath makes a frozen vapor cloud. They can’t imagine it.

One asked me, incredulously, “How can the children write in school? Aren’t their fingers stiff?” Central heat (or AC), of course, is something they’ve never experienced.

In the village of Muukuni, 7,000 people live, the vast majority without jobs. No electricity, no running water, no internet. The women carry water in pots on their head. The only junk food I saw was a little hanging stand at the entrance to the village–but only the occasional tourist who visits buys it–and apparently not much, since the vendor’s bags of potato chips were sun-faded.

In my world travels (23 countries on 4 continents the past 4 years), I’ve found few places untainted by Western culture. Even rural Vietnam and China had far too much processed food. The ONLY places on Earth that don’t have processed foods are the places where the people have virtually no access to cash.

Muukuni Village is one of those rarities. The vast majority of families have zero income, and there is no government aid. Unfortunately, they also have leprosy, extreme poverty, and a high mortality rate. The chief can be put to death if the Council decrees so, and once they decided to poison the chief. When he didn’t die, they buried him alive.

My guide, Lumba Simulube, told me her large family was orphaned in 1996 when her father died of a nosebleed. Since you don’t generally die of that, they assume he died of a hex his brother put on him.

Only four in the village own a car–for commercial purposes.

There are things I like about village life. For instance, there is zero crime. Maybe that’s because everyone is poor (so who would you steal from?). But part of it has to be this: look at the photos of the community jail. While I was standing next to it, a couple of young men were escorted in by the village elders. They are questioned, and they are caned by an old woman, only if they refuse to be accountable for their actions. Look at all the kids gathering around–it’s rare that anyone needs discipline, so the kids were fascinated.

The crimes of these youth?

They are referred by parents if they use bad language, disrespecting elders, or refusing to do their jobs.

American processed-food outreach knows no bounds

I seem to be rather clumsy. First of all, I’ve been initiated as a cyclist:

After three months and about 1,000 miles, I finally wrecked my bike. Thanks to a kid changing lanes as I hauled down the canyon at 15+ mph. (Kid was fine.)

See the photo of us on the balcony (on our cruise vacation we just got back from). You can see the road rash on my shoulder. (I have some other banged-up parts that don’t show. Ow.)

Emma and I may or may not have sung karaoke Love Story (Taylor Swift) with an audience of several hundred and a live band including backup singer, see photo below. I may or may not choose to put the video up on YouTube.

But then I was swimming in Cabo a few days ago, where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific at a place called The Arch, see photo of Emma below. (Sea lions! Sea turtle! Many beautiful fishies!) And I accidentally got smacked into a reef because I was checking out said beautiful fishies and apparently got too close just as a wave came in.

Anyway, my arm was all cut up. I don’t think my fellow passengers minded, since they figured THEY’D be safe in a shark attack. But the inflatable-boat captain who drove us out to Chileno Bay gave me a lecture, probably for everyone’s benefit, about staying away from the reef.

That’s why we call it ECO SNORKELING, he said.

Well, that’s just rich, I thought. A lecture on keeping the wildlife healthy, from a guy dumping Frito-Lay products by the bagfuls to feed the fish, to entertain the tourists. (Not that I didn’t feel guilty for donating part of my forearm to the coral–I very much regret any harm I may have unintentionally inflicted on it.)

Turns out that saltwater fish feel the same way about Frito-Lay that folks around here do. It was an all-out feeding frenzy.

I’ve been in over 20 countries in the past 3 years. In December I go to Africa. One thing that strikes me in my extensive travels is the Monroe Doctrine of the vast American processed-food empire. American outreach–the worst parts of our culture inflicted on helpless others–knows no bounds. I thought I’d seen it all in rural Vietnam when I saw a two-year old with black, rotted teeth, riding a tricycle and drinking Coke. I’ve seen impoverished Mexican mothers feeding their newborn infants Similac–no doubt given them free in the hospital to encourage them to bottle-feed rather than breastfeed.

And now we’re feeding the tropical fish fried corn chips.

Peru, part 6 with photos

I wrote earlier of a village we discovered with three people living there who are 110 to 120 years old. These are photos of one of the village elders, with the ancient Incan rings she found when she was a child on her hand.

The other photo is me with Kynet and Marco, whom I wrote about earlier. Marco is 4 years old and has cerebral palsy. Here’s my thought. If this mother in a third-world country, no recipes and no education, with a battered old blender and $200/mo. in income can feed her child a marvelous, whole-food diet . . . can we?

Peru, part 5

I did, of course, take a Total Blender along to Peru to teach the orphanage’s cook. The kids were enthralled with how high tech it is. Here’s Carlos drinking a green smoothie and a not-great photo of me making it. I went to this open-air market (that’s how you buy food in Peru) and chose a lot of interesting things, including fruits kinda like we have in the U.S. and kinda different. Tree tomatoes. Apples that are long and skinny. Little, super-sweet bananas. A variety of spinach I’ve never seen.

My big mistakes were using cactus berries, which I thought would darken up the smoothie, but which actually just made too-big chunks of seed in it that had to be spit out. (I couldn’t find any berries that are dark in color.) And not using any ice (nobody has any) or frozen fruit. It wasn’t the best thing I’ve ever made, to be sure.

The Sunflower Orphanage, Peru Part 4

I have much more to tell you about our trip to Peru and especially the Sunflower Orphanage. In the swings (THANK YOU to GSG reader Patti for these photos!) are Purfita, Dayana, Janina, and me.

Janina is so cute and sweet, but she is impish and lets you know EXACTLY how she wants things to be! Dayana makes beautiful jewelry and drives a hard bargain. But she also wrapped a set of earrings up with gobs of paper and tape, and she and Janina presented them to me as a gift.

When I think of how badly I would like to take one or more of these girls out of Peru, I have to turn my brain away from the thought before my heart shatters in a million pieces, as impossible as that is.

The day we finished building this swing set, it rained all afternoon. The kids, though, took turns swinging all day long and into the night. No swing ever stood still. Classmates stood above the orphanage looking in, jealously. Some of these kids have never been in a swing. (Don’t worry, they figured it out. It didn’t take them long to learn to yell, “Empujame!” Push me! And to jump out at the height of the motion.)

In this photo with Cristofer, who is 7 years old and new to The Sunflower, whom Emma and I adore, we are hauling grass and rocks away before we built an outdoor wash basin. Cristofer rode in my wheelbarrow over and over, and it’s easy to carry him since he’s the size of a 4-year old! Seventeen percent of kids in Latin America are malnourished and Cristofer came as one of them. Now he gets three meals a day thanks to the generosity of Americans who sponsor kids at the Sunflower, run by two of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.

I looked high and low for a humanitarian organization that is truly dedicated to the welfare of street children and orphans, where virtually all of your money reaches the intended cause. I already know the founders. But I wanted to go there to see it, touch it. And I asked the kids, the intern, everyone, lots of questions. This organization, and this amazing home, is the real deal. Let me tell you a couple of examples of why I love this place:

One day I was pushing kids in the swings and Gabriel saw one of the teenage girls get into a swing with a big handful of grapes. He stopped his swinging and walked over to her, to ask for some. She give him half. Then he went back to swinging but noticed 5-year old Janina standing nearby. He slowed his swing to a stop, silently reached over and gave her half of his grapes. Then he started swinging again.

He never even knew I saw this. I never saw a fight the whole time I was at the orphanage. I never heard an argument, never saw meanness or selfishness. (I wish I could say the same about my own kids.) These children were rescued from savage abuse. From hiding and trying to survive in the jungle. From begging on the streets. From alcoholic parents. Many of them don’t even know their own birthday, how old they are. Many have no memory prior to age 8 because of that magnificent ability the body has to protect us from horribly painful memories.

Nora is an MD and PhD cancer researcher at the famous Houston MD Anderson Clinic. She came with a GSG reader (and often translated for us, including letters to the kids as we left, since she is a native of Argentina). Nora decided during the trip to sponsor a beautiful, quiet girl named Margot. (That means she pays the $37/month that covers Margot’s meals, and Nora is going to skype with Margot and send her clothes and shoes.) Margot was confiding in Nora the gossip at the Sunflower. “Papi Leo,” she whispered, “might convert this place to be an orphanage!” Margot ran away from two previous orphanages. At the Sunflower, the gates are always open, but no one has ever run away. The kids seem very genuinely happy to me.

Margot has no idea the Sunflower IS an orphanage. To her, it’s just . . .

HOME.

Here’s where you sponsor one of the kids:

http://www.genhu.org/greensmoothiegirl.html