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Sunday, October 13, 2019

A quick update: I got my star!






Just not quite in the way I envisioned.   After my son, Elan, went home after the induction, he told his six-year-old daughter, Violet, that Zeyde (me) was sad because he didn’t get a star.  Violet suggested they could make me one.  So on Saturday, along with her father, they spent the day to create a star just like the ones on the sidewalk.   When I walked into their house for Thanksgiving dinner, there it was taped to the floor!

I thought my grandchildren wouldn’t appreciate who I was unless I had a star on the sidewalk to show I was important.  I was wrong.  They always knew I was important – not as a writer or a producer - but as their zeyde.   It wasn’t the star I thought I wanted, but it was the star I needed.  It made for a very special thanksgiving.   I have a lot to be thankful for.
If you haven’t read the whole story it’s at:    www.grobetrotting.com

Jeff

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Why I have that sinking feeling - going down with the ship


It was a landmark day last week – with the emphasis on “land.”  I sold the family boat.  It had been in the family 40 years – almost as long as my children.  It had seen two children, three grandchildren,  in-laws, friend and five cats in its lifetime. It had seen us through good times and bad and for the most part always proved dependable.  Not that it didn’t come with a price.  For what we invested in, moorage, maintenance, and fuel I could have put three kids through university.  But in the last year it was beginning to show its age.

my first boat - with my sister in back
I’ve pretty well always been around boats all my life; which is a bit strange because I don’t come from a nautical family.  My dad couldn’t swim and  was terrified of boats.  But once a year he would take me out for a one hour fishing trip at the boat rental next to the ferry terminal in Horseshoe Bay.  My old man was more afraid of the ferry than any other thing – if he was confronted by a hungry lion and a ferry,  the lion would win out easily. 

The yearly fishing trip lasted well into my teens – by that time I was very experienced with boats – having been the waterfront director at a summer camp for several years.  I should point out in all the years we went through this father-son ritual we’d never caught a fish – not even a bite.   My father referred to it as “dragging a herring around the ocean.” He once commented that if he were a herring, the safest place to be would be at the end of my line.  After the one hour fishing trip we’d retire to the local eatery for a bowl of clam chowder and fish and chips.

On our last trip my dad insisted on “driving” even though  he had virtually no experience with a boat.  We were fishing at a leisurely pace when my father spotted a speck on the horizon.
“They ferry’s coming,” he shouted.
“It’s at least twenty minutes away,” I replied letting a little more line out.  

My dad hanging on
A few minutes later the ferry was a slightly larger speck.
“We should head back into the bay,” my father pronounced.
“Dad, we have the entire Pacific Ocean.  The ferry will miss us.  Don’t worry.”
During this conversation the ferry had made its way closer to us on its way to the slip in the bay.  It was still about a mile and a half away when my dad shouted, “We gotta get outta here,”  and twisted the throttle on the outboard motor handle all the way over to full speed.
My father was a gentle guy, not really that strong, but his fear was so great that when he twisted the handle to full, he did it with such force that he snapped the cotter pin inside the handle.  The throttle was now useless, and we were stuck on full - racing into the bay.
“Do something,” he shouted at me.

the BC Ferry Queen of Slugs
My father was now terrified and swinging the boat back and forth in panic.  As I mentioned, I had a fair amount of experience with boats. 
“Just calm down and aim at the boat rental place,” I said to him in as calming voice as I could muster.  When we get close I’ll disconnect the gas line and we’ll drift in.  It will be fine.”
“Do, it now,” he demanded. 
“No, we’re too far out.  At this speed we’ll run out fuel in 2 seconds.”
“No, we should do it now.  I don’t want to ram the dock.”
And with that he reached down and yanked the fuel line from the engine.  Sure enough, 2 seconds later the engine died leaving us stranded right in front of the ferry slip with the ferry bearing down on us.
“Turn it back on!  Turn it back on!”  he shouted. “The ferry…   the ferry… “  He was so terrified that he couldn’t even finish he sentence. 

“I can’t.  The engine won’t start with the throttle jammed in the full position.”
At this point the ferry has noticed we’re right in its path and begins to blow its horn five times – telling us to get out of the way.
I’m seriously worried my old man is going to have a heart attack, when I notice a boat load of sea cadets heading towards us.  I wave them down and they pull us to the dock. 
End of another father-son yearly adventure.

Admiral Groberman
My experience with boat building began when I was 15 at summer camp.  There was a derelict old rowboat that had washed up on the shore.   I convinced some of my fellow campers we could fix it up and sail it to the other side of the lake in search of junk food and pop.  We’d return with our booty and be the kings of the camp.  Sort of like King Rat – but with cheezies and coke instead of rat. 

We knew nothing about boat maintenance - but decided on the brute force method of construction.  We managed to cut a new bottom out of a piece of old plywood, then lacking any sort of glue, decide to hammer as many nails as we could find to secure the bottom to the boat.  After a quick coat of paint, among much fanfare from our fellow campers, we head out to  sea – or in this case, the far side of the lake – about a mile or so.

We aren’t more than a hundred yards off shore when the boat begins to leak like a sieve.  (foreshadowing many boats I would own in the future).  We didn’t have any life jackets or other safety equipment.   We did have our hats and two of us pulled on the oars while the third guy bailed with all his might.  We had picked him, because he couldn’t swim a and he put his heart and soul into bailing.

The camp counsellors who thought we were nuts, and only going to go  paddle a few feet off shore before turning back set out in the other camp rowboat to rescue us.  Unfortunately the camp only had one set of oars  - which we were using.

We managed to get to the far shore only to find the store was closed.  It took another four hours to get back where were threatened with being sent home in disgrace if we ever tried a stunt like that again.


It only whetted my desire to own more boats. 

The first sailboat
In my early twenties I took a sailing course and that started a life long  infatuation with sail boats.   In my  I talked my best friend  in to going partners in a small sailboat.  We bought a 14 foot wooden Blue Jay dinghy.  It had sat idle in some guys backyard for more than a decade and he was anxious to get rid of it – we’d soon find out why.

After cleaning it up and giving it a fresh coat of paint we took it to the local marina for a maiden voyage.  The marina had a lift where you put two straps around the boat, lifted it up, swung it out over the water, and lowered it into the water. Then you’d  climb in, disconnect the straps and sail off.  Our problem was that when we lowered the boat into the water it kept going lower and lower, the more we lowered it the deeper it went – and the more water accumulated inside the boat.  It leaked like a sieve. 

Gizzy - the rowboat
We eventually rescued it, and after about ten tubes of cocking got it more or less watertight. That was the first of many boats.  

the African Queen Kayak
There was the small skiff I bought for the children that got crushed between a neighbour’s cabin cruiser and the dock.  Then there was the kayak that my niece forgot to tie up that ended up floating away and getting directly in the path of an oncoming BC Ferry  sitting there half sunk like the “African Queen,”  waiting for the Rosa.  The outcome was different  as the ferry sliced through the wooden kayak like a knife through butter.

Elan, My mother and Mother-in-Law 
A few years later, with my son in his early teens, I bought “a carpenter’s delight.”  I bought a12 foot fiber glass speed boat - sight unseen - with the proviso the seller deliver it to my house.   Later that day I got a call from a neighbour.
“Hey, Jeff, was there a tsunami that I didn’t hear about?”
“What are you talking about, Lorne?”
“It looks like something washed up on your driveway>”

When I got home there were bits and pieces of what might have been a boat strewn across the driveway and lawn.

With my son’s help and copious amounts of fiberglass we managed to slowly piece the boat together again.  With a fresh coat of red paint, with white trim, it did look pretty good.  A day before I was to take it to the cabin there was knock on my front door. I was confronted by a stranger.
“Is that your boat out there?” he asked pointing at the boat on the trailer on the street.
“Yes, why?”
“I was driving by and saw it.  It brought tears to my eyes.  I had the exact same boat when I was a kid.  It was best time of my life.  Do you want to sell it?”
I declined, which in hindsight might have been a mistake.

The boat didn’t come with an engine, so I bought a used one – a very used one.  It was over forty years old and had a horrible habit of occasionally catching fire – the less said about that the better.

The ski boat
That was replaced with a slightly larger 16 foot boat with a slightly newer 35hp engine.  That was plenty of power to take the kids water skiing.  The problem was the adults also wanted to go skiing and the little boat didn’t have enough oomph to drag them out of the water.  If they could do a dock start it would manage to pull them.  If they tried to cross the wake to either side it would swing the transom and skew the boat wildly from side to side.  Sometime it looked like the skiers were pulling the boat.

The man eating O'day
Then there was the 40 year old Oday sailboat that kept losing its mast at the worst possible moment.  I spent nearly four winters working on it, and four summers watching it bob at the mooring while I waited for parts.  That  boat absolutely hated me.  I had scrapes, cuts and bruises where the boat would go out of its way to bite me.

But through it all the cottage’s main boat, the Gambier  Eagle,” watched quietly and was always there when we needed her.  She carried not only people, but groceries, building supplies, whatever was required of her for nearly 40 years, until last year.

THE SINKAGE

We’d pretty well decided last year that we were going to sell the boat.  The time had come – the sinkage incident just confirmed it.   The boat was old – and becoming undependable.  Something you didn’t want in a boat when your transporting kids and grandkids.   If you have an old car and it breaks down, you just pull over to the side of the road and call for a tow truck – it’s not life and death.   In the case of a boat if it breaks down – it will probably be at the worst possible moment and there’s nowhere to pull over.   By the time help arrives the boat will be on the rocks or worse.  

The Gambier Eagle above the sea
I also began to worry about the boat when it was on the mooring at the cottage.  With climate change we’ve been noticing bigger and bigger storms and I was worried about the boat being washed off the mooring in the middle of a storm – and what could I do?

Every morning I’d get up and the first order of business was to go look out the window and see if the boat was still there.  I was also getting more and more timid about taking the boat out in rough weather.  At my age I didn’t have the strength I had when I was 40. 

 The alternatives were to buy a newer  more dependable boat or just rely on water-taxis.  If the children and grandchildren might be using the boat I might have been tempted to buy a newer boat – but they weren’t.  My daughter lives in Alberta and my son, who’s wife’s family already has two cabins, was planning on moving to Australia, so that just left us.

That left the water taxi alternative.  During the summer there were many scheduled water taxi runs or we could charter it if there were no convenient runs.  It would still be cheaper than owning and maintaining the boat.  With the decision made the only problem was getting rid of  the old boat.

There are very few options for getting rid of a used boat:
1.       Leave it in somebody’s driveway and run away – I didn’t have a trailer so that wasn’t possible
2.       Accidental burn it to the ground – The insurance company would frown on that.
3.       Give the boat away to a charity – The charity offered me their boats!
4.      Try and see if a boat broker would take it – the boat was valued to low for them to be interested
5.       Craig’s List.

So given the alternatives, I was left with sticking a few posters up at the marina and Craig’s List.  Craig’s list was at the bottom of my list. If you’ve dealt with Craig’s list you’ll understand my dread of having to use it.  It’s the home of the brain dead and time wasters.

I prepared the ad below:



It didn’t take long.  The following are transcripts of actual phone calls.  They are not the exception – they are the rule:

Hello, I’m calling about your boat.  Is it still for sale?”
“Yes, what can I tell about it?”
“What does it look like?”
“Well, sir, if you’re looking at the ad you can see it.  There are three pictures on there.”
“Yeah, but what does it REALLY look like?”
“It looks like the Queen Mary,  Good-bye”
“Hello, Does it have a trailer?
“Sir, it says in the ad in capital letters “THERE IS NO TRAILER!!”
“Okay, if it does have a trailer would my car pull it?”
“Good bye”
(Vietnamese guy)
“Hello?  If I buy boat will you teach me to drive it?”
“Good bye”
"Hello, Does it have a trailer?”
“Hello?  I have a boat will you trade yours for mine?”
….
“I’m going away for a month, will you hold the boat until I can see it?”
“Can I have a sea trial?
“Sir, I’m selling a used boat, not an aircraft carrier.”
….
“What kind of trailer does it have?”

Occasionally I got an email with questions.  One in particular was scary.  The  guy didn’t realize there was actually a place in the email to put the message.  He tried to put all his questions into the SUBJECT: category, so I go something like:

SUBJECT:   Boat for Sale  Hi I’m intersested in yur bot, can you call me at 555-555-5555. I’d like to no if it

…and that was it.  I called him:

“Hello?”“Hi, you sent me an email about my boat.”“Yeah?”“Well you tried to put your message in the subject line.”“So?”“Well you’re supposed to put it in the body.  The subject line only holds a few words.”“I’m not good at the email thing.”“How old are you?”“29.”“Okay, so what do you want to know?”“Does it come with a trailer?”“No, it says that in the ad.”“Do you know where I could get a trailer?”“Try Craig’s list.”“How fast does it go?”“That depends on how many people and stuff you have on board.”“Can it go fast?”   I’d like to see it but I can’t go today ‘cause I have to take my mom for a brain scan”“See If they’ll give you one as well.   Goodbye.”

It got to the point where I dreaded answering the phone.   But the calls weren’t the worst part.  Occasionally I’d get  a call from someone who claimed they were legitimately  interested and wanted to actually see the boat run before  finalizing the deal.

The marina is  an hour and a half from our house – through some of Vancouver’s worst traffic.  Having assurances the caller is definitely going to buy the boat subject to seeing it run.   Half the time they don’t show up at all, or after hearing it run (and it run’s well), would inform me he doesn’t have the money to buy it,  or needs to get his wife/girl friends  permission. 

Finally after lowering the price  I get a party who seems reasonably sane.  He agrees to put down a deposit subject to hearing the boat run.   I send my son out again, with a bill of sale and a receipt book.  Upon his return I ask my son if he gave him the deposit.  My son said  the guy told him he’s buying it for someone else and has to talk to them - which he didn't mention on the phone.

That’s the last straw.  I email the guy and tell him that wasn’t the deal.  If he doesn’t transfer the full amount by five o’clock I’m selling it to someone else. 

That actually does it.  He actually transfers the money and the next morning we go out to  give him the keys. 
As the boat slowly leaves the marina I pray silently:
“Don’t sink.  Don’t sink.  Don’t  sink”
The boat slowly leaves the marina and heads out into the ocean. I watch it until it’s a small dot.”
An hour later I get an email from the guy:
“Made Gibsons in only 40 minutes – nice ride.”
I smile as I change my email address.
So, I’m now boatless for the first time in my life.  You’d think I’d feel a lot of relief.  Last night I dreamt I won a boat…  and it was broken.  So now I can feel the same angst I had when I owned a boat without actually owning one.  Ain’t  life wonderful.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

My Unexpected summer trip

Stairs are not my friend 

I took an unexpected trip this summer.  It’s the longest trip I’ve ever taken -12 weeks!  It wasn’t a trip that was on my bucket list.  Actually, if I had to rate this particular trip, I’d put it somewhere below North Korea, Iran, or Hamilton.

The trip started suddenly – without warning.  I was carrying a bag of seat pillows down a ramp from our summer cottage.   Rather than take two trips to carry all the pillows, I figured I could save 30 seconds by doing it all in one.  So I piled them up over my head and headed out of the cabin.  There are two ways down from the cabin – one is a steep set of stairs -the other is a gentler ramp.  Now, I’m not totally stupid – I stopped and thought a moment.

“Boy, it sure would be dangerous to try and walk down a set of stairs when I can’t see where I’m going,” I thought to myself.  “The safe sane choice would be to take the ramp.” 
Which is what I did.  I marched down the ramp, my head buried in pillows, stepped off the ramp and…
Actually, I hadn’t proceeded all the way down the ramp…  so I stepped off into….    air.

The next thing I know I was lying on my back on top of a stack of pillows – which is a good thing.  Unfortunately, my ankle was the first thing that hit the ground, and all I knew is it hurt like hell.
“Can you move it?” my wife asks.
I can move it a bit.
“Then it’s not broken,” she states. “probably just sprained.”

So for the next week I limp around the cottage, mow the grass, weeder-whack the path to the well, and take copious amounts of pain killers and beer.
A week later we arrive back home, and the ankle doesn’t seem any better, so off I go to see my family doctor.  She takes one quick look at it.
“What are you doing here?” she askes.  “You need to get to the hospital.  I think you’ve ruptured your Achilles tendon.

The next several days are spent in the emergency ward – generally sitting and waiting.  The staff has arranged a game to keep you occupied.  It’s called the triage game – it’s where you have to wait your turn then tell the clerk what happened while he clacks away at the computer – sort of like checking in at the airport.  Lots of waiting in line, much clacking of the computer, and not much happening.

From there it’s sit down and wait and until the next clerk calls you up and repeats the process.  Then you move to the next area and wait some more.  Finally, after four hours you actually get to see the emergency room doctor.
“So what happened, Mr. Groberman?” he asks looking at my ankle that’s the size of a watermelon.
“What?” I ask him.  “You don’t know?  You must be the only guy in the hospital who doesn’t know.”  It’s been written up so many times it’s going to be made into a movie.”
“Would you like to go outside and wait some more?” he asks.  Evidently, he’s not big on sarcasm.

After a five-minute examination he looks up at me and says, “I think you’ve ruptured your Achilles tendon.  We better take some x-rays to see if you’ve broken any bones as well.”

Another two hour wait to get x-rays, have them read and see the doctor again.
“Nope,” he announces.  “No broken bones.  I guess we’d better take an MRI to see how bad a rip it is.  90% of the time they don’t need surgery.”

Unfortunately, the MRI machine is booked up and I’m told it might be a couple of days before they call me.  If I don’t hear from them in two days, I should call.   I’m then told to wait for the cast guy to come and fit me for a boot.
“I have a real wide foot,” I tell him.  “Short and wide.”  They used to call me the duck at school.  He comes back with a spiffy looking grey boot that resembles a ski boot.  I can’t get into it.  It’s too narrow. 
“I’ll have to put you into a bigger size,” he announces. 
And off he goes to rummage around the back.   He arrives with a much larger size.  Although it’s wide enough it’s obvious I won’t be seeing my toes for some time.
I’m fitted out with a pair of aluminum crutches and sent on my way.

Two days later I haven’t heard from the MRI people so I call the hospital.
“We see you had a stent put it in, but we don’t what kind. We’ve been trying to get hold of your doctor to find out.”
I point out to them they had given me an MRI about five years earlier after my fight with a lawnmower – and I didn’t explode.  Don’t they have a record of that?

“Just a minute, sir.  I’ll check with the technician.”  A few minutes later she returns to the phone. “Can you come in an hour?”

Getting the MRI was a piece of cake – particularly since I didn’t have to be rolled inside the big toilet paper roll.

Then I’m told to go back to the emergency ward and wait and wait and wait.

Finally after about four hours, I’m ushered into the see the ER doctor – a different one this time.

 “So, what happened, Mr. Groberman?” he asks.  I resist the urge to hit him with one of my crutches.

“Why don’t we look at the MRI?” I suggest.  I’ve learned through experience doctors like you to be involved in your illnesses.  It’s as if you attended medical school with them.

He retreats for a few minutes and returns with the MRI.  “It appears you’ve ruptured your Achilles tendon, Mr. Groberman.”
“I think that’s the consensus of opinion,” I reply sagely.  I somehow feel undressed not having a stethoscope jauntily hanging off my shoulder.
“You know,” the doctor continues, “in most cases they don’t operate on these things.”
“90% of the time,” I add sagely.
“Exactly,” he agrees, “But in your case it may be the exception.  You’ve got 30mm tear – a bigee.”
“Is that a medical term?” I ask.
“I think I’d like an orthopedic surgeon to look at it.  I have one on call he’ll be by in an hour or so.”

So it’s back in the hall for another hour.  Finally, I see what looks like a first-year medical student approaching me.

“Hello, Mr. Groberman, I’m Dr. Smith, your orthopedic surgeon.
And once again I have to go through the whole rigmarole which I’ve done so many times, that I recite it in a dull monotone voice while he studies the MRI.

Once again I’m asked to consult on the best treatment.  My tear is on the borderline of needing surgery.  He suggests that we see if my heel will heal without surgery, although there is a higher risk or re-injuring it.
“That’s what I’d do,” he tells me.
“I’ll remind you of that when you wreck your ankle,” I tell him.

So the long and short of it is I’m going to be in the soft-cast for 12 weeks, then will need a few more months of rehab to get back to where I was before the accident.

Getting around is a bit of a problem. I can move around flat ground pretty well on the crutches, but your hands are taken up with the crutches so you can’t carry anything.
“Why don’t you get one of those scooter things?” my friend Larry asks when he and Tom came to visit.
The scooter thingee
“When my daughter broke her ankle, she rented one. It’s sort of like a kid’s scooter.  You put your knee on it and scoot around.
“That’s why they call it a scooter,” Tom offers.
“It has a basket on it to put things in it.  You can go anywhere in it.”

I’d never heard of such a thing, but a quick internet search showed me that I could rent one nearby.  Which is what we did.

The device works well.  It’s got really good ball bearing wheels so just a slight touch will get it going.  The problem is the brake.  It doesn’t work very well.  That’s because the tires aren’t rubber.  They’re made out of granite – think of Fred Flintstone’s car.  They brake doesn’t grab them well which is not a problem if you’re on level ground.  The problem is going downhill – as I found out the other day when I took it for a test spin outside.  Going up the gentle slope to the mailbox wasn’t difficult, but coming back was different.
“Gangway!!”  I shout at people on the sidewalk walking their dogs.  “Scooter out of control! No brakes.” 
People flung themselves left and right as I whiz by.  Luckily the ground levels out half way down the block and I am able to bring myself to a stop.  

My wife suggests I might like to go up to the clubhouse and sit on one of the lounges by the pool.  Except the walkway between the pool’s edge and the chairs is very narrow.  I barely avoided having to have my scooter fished out of the pool.

in search of my parrot
Ever in the market for something better I come across a device called the i-walk.  It sort of looks like a peg leg.  Your knee sits on a platform with a crutch underneath.  The whole apparatus straps to your thigh and you can sort of hobble swinging it out in front of you.  The videos make it look simple.  They have folks walking their St. Bernards, going up stairs, playing soccer…  
So, I had to have one.  Of course, being cheap I bought a used one on Craig’s list.  If I had bought it at a dealer they would have properly fitted it. 

There was a lot of trial and error trying to get it on, then walk with it.  It isn’t anywhere as easy as the video.  But after two weeks I sort of have the hang of it. 

Of course if I want to go anywhere I have to take all this crap with me.  It’s like traveling with a toddler.  I need my crutches, my scooter, my i-walk, my eye patch, my parrot.
When I strap it on and head into the Safeway I get a lot stares.
“Wow, that’s quite the device,” an older lady says. “It looks like it’s really fun.”
“Would you like to try it on?” I offer starting to unbuckle it.  She scoots on down the aisle.

So would I recommend this trip? Definitely not.  Here’s my travel tip.  When carrying stuff – take two trips not one – and watch where your going.


Thursday, April 11, 2019

Homeward Bound: The nightmare trip home

Saturday February 23
Today is our departure day.  It is also the last day of a rotation for Shaka and our crew.  Once they get us to the airstrip they have several well earned days off.  They’re very enthusiastic about getting us off to an early start.  Last night when we returned to camp, we found we’d be eating under the stars – the dining tent had been struck while we were out chasing the dogs.

We’re up early for breakfast.  We’ve no sooner sat down then we can see our tents being collapsed one after the other.  By the time we finish breakfast there’s no sign that a camp ever existed. It is going to be a very long day. Unlike my outward-bound trip where I had four nights in various places before my safari began, I decided to head home in one big push and get it over with.

We bid goodbye to crew and pile into the land cruiser for the last time.  I’d been nervous about the charter flight home – not because I’m afraid of small aircraft - but because I’m concerned I might be over my luggage weight allowance.   I was under my 20Kg allowance for my international flights, but I’d noticed the weight allowance for the charter flights was only 15kg.   Throughout our trip Shaka kept complaining I had a hippo hidden in my luggage when he hefted it into the trailer.  I moved as much of the heavy stuff into my carry-on to lighten my checked luggage a bit.  We arrive at the grass airstrip just in time to watch our ten-seater Cessna 202 glide in over the tree tops and taxi to a stop.   

I needn’t have worried about the weight of my luggage.  The pilot just tosses it into the plane without a second thought.  As opposed to a six-hour trip over rough roads our flight to Maun takes only half an hour – and that includes another stop to pick up two more passengers.

Maun, the fifth largest town in Botswana is not really a town.  It’s still officially classed as a village, and the village airport leaves a lot to be desired.  Supposedly it’s scheduled for a major overhaul – which can’t come too soon. 

The small departure area is packed to overflowing.  Luckily, for me, most of the crowd is trying to check-in to the South African Airways flight to Johannesburg.  There seems to be no order at all - with people shoving and pushing to get to the front of the queue. 

I’m flying Air Botswana.  When I manage to push myself to the far end of the small terminal where the Air Botswana check-in is, I find I’m the only person in the line-up.  After receiving my seat assignment I shuffle the three feet over to “security,” which consists of one antiquated screening device, that opens onto the departure area. I put my stuff on the rollers and proceed to the other side to retrieve my screened baggage.  Unfortunately, when I reach for it, I knock over a four-foot-high stack of trays.  I attempt to catch the falling tower but only succeed in knocking over an over stuffed garbage can that disperses a stinking and sticky mess of garbage as it rolls to the far end of the hall.   The fact there is no air conditioning doesn’t help matters.

A silence falls over the whole terminal as everyone observes the disaster I have created.   As the security people begin to sweep and mop up the mess one of them looks at me and says, “It’s a good thing you’re leaving our country, sir, before you destroy it all.”
I nod, smile, and find a corner to cringe in and wait for my flight to be called.  

There must be only four flights a day that depart out of Maun International airport.  All of them depart at 2:00pm.  I guess this makes for a short work day for the workers, but creates an overpacked departure lounge.  The only amenities in the lounge are two washrooms – one of which is out of order.

Slowly the departure lounge empties as the various 2:00pm flights are called.  Finally there’s only my flight left.  Our 2:00pm flight leaves almost on time – 3:30pm.  I’m not terribly concerned because I have an eight-hour layover in Johannesburg.

There are two airports I detest.  The first is Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris.  It’s huge and seems to have been laid out in a manner to deliberately confuse the traveler.  In addition, it has some of the rudest people I’ve ever encountered.  The second is O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg: when they built this airport they must have used Charles De Gaulle as a model.

 Now I understand why Charles De Gaulle is so large- it serves Paris – with a population of 2.1 million people.  Johannesburg, on the other hand, has only 1 million.  The folks at Johannesburg are very helpful – but it comes with a price. If you look even slightly confused, someone will  immediately be at your side - asking if they can help.  When you explain you’re only looking for the KLM check-in they grab your pack and offer to show you the way.  It’s only when you’re half way there you realize this is an undercover porter and he’ll be looking for a tip.  All I wanted was “It’s over there.”  I’ve been through the airport several times, and they get me every time.

One thing I’ve learned is if you’re going to be trapped in an airport for more than 3 hours it’s worth paying for a corporate lounge (unless you happen to be one of those lucky people who travel so much you have lounge privilege’s as a perk).   For about thirty dollars you can buy four hours of comfort –probably about what you’d pay for a meal at a decent restaurant in the airport.

I chose Aspire which has a chain of lounges around the globe.  I made my choice based on the number of positive reviews it had compared to other lounges. My flight leaves at midnight;  but the lounge (and all the other lounges) close down at 10 pm which means I should check in around 6:00pm to get my full four hours.  I arrive at the lounge around 5:30 and sweet talked my way in a half hour early. 

I’m impressed with the lounge.  It has a full complimentary bar complete with a bartender, a large buffet with four choices for the main course, complimentary WIFI, and best of allshowers.
The lounge is packed; but by 9:30pm I’m the only guy left.  I see now why they close at ten.

My overnight flight to Amsterdam is fairly uneventful. I arrive in Amsterdam around ten in the morning, and only have about an hour and a half wait until my final flight to Vancouver.  By now, even with having a shower in the lounge and a nap, I’m beginning to have serious doubts about my choice of trying to make it home in one jump.  I’ve already been up about 28 hours and still have 12 hours to go.
But hey, only one more flight and I’ll be there.  How bad could it be?

Pretty bad!

I knew I was in trouble the second I notice the big guy waddling down the aisle with enough luggage to spend a month in Vancouver.  My understanding is we’re allowed two pieces of hand luggage:  one that slips under the seat in front of you and the other that can go in the overhead bin. My one small piece of hand luggage has been examined and tagged “approved for cabin.”  This guy’s luggage has no tags.  One of his pieces is the size of a steamer trunk.  By the time he has finished, he has completely filled one entire bin and half another and is busy stuffing his duty free and small pieces under the seat in front of him.  That’s when the flight attendant informs him he is in the wrong seat and points to an empty seat – next to me.   It turns out he’s from Turkey and visiting relatives in Vancouver.  He tells me he doesn’t believe in checking his luggage – no kidding - and not a word from the cabin crew about all the luggage he’s dragged onboard.

But the large Turkish gentleman is only half of my problem. The worst part is heading down the aisle – a small Indian guy, maybe 5’5 and 115lbs.  He plops down right between the Turkish guy and me.  We aren’t in the air five minutes and the two of them get into a heated argument.  It’s like watching Laurel and Hardy having a fight. 

The Indian guy starts shouting at the Turkish guy and gets up and stomps up the aisle – only to be chased down the aisle to his seat by a flight attendant – since the seat-belt light is still on.  Things quiet down for a while until the seatbelt light goes out and he takes off again.  I ask the Turkish guy what the problem is.  He tells me he doesn’t know – he thinks the guy is crazy. 

A few minutes later the guy shows up standing next to my aisle seat.  He is quite excited and festering a lot – I don’t understand a word he’s saying so I do what I normally do in situations like this – smile and nod.  Eventually he disappears again up the aisle.   A few minutes later I hear a commotion happening up in business class.  It’s followed by an announcement: “Is there any medical personal on board?  Would they please identify themselves?”

I figure somebody in business class has choked on their caviar.  This assumption is quickly dismissed when I see the purser chasing the little Indian guy down the aisle.  They eventually get him in his seat.  They move the Turkish guy into business class (why not me??) and put an older Indian gentleman who seems to speak his language beside him.  I think I hear the purser muttering about duct taping the guy into his seat.

The little Indian guy is vibrating like a taught violin string – but the older gentleman seems to keep him calm – until they serve the ice cream.   As soon as the flight attendant puts the ice cream in front of him he begins screaming.  The flight attendant is standing there not knowing what to do, the purser is chugging down the aisle – when I spring into action.  I reach over and take his ice cream.
“Here,” I tell the flight attendant. “I’ll take his.”

With the ice cream removed he settles down again.  I pull the purser aside and whisper to him.
“You guys have to radio ahead and tell them to have somebody  with a butterfly net at the gate in Vancouver to get this guy.”
“We have this under control, sir,” he tells me.
I look over to the guy who’s vibrating again and back to the purser. “Right, I see that.  But you don’t understand.  If you let this whack job loose in immigrations, they’ll kill him.”
“Surely, you’re exaggerating, sir,” he tells me with a condescending smile.

“Have you not heard of Robert Dziekanski?  He was acting like this guy and they tazered him to death.  Granted he had a stapler - with a full magazine, but I think you better warn the folks in Vancouver.”

When we arrive in Vancouver I notice there are several Mounties waiting by the door, so I guess they took care of him without further incident.  I’m so exhausted at this point I’m not sure I’m  hallucinating the whole thing.

Finally, after 42 hours I’ m home.

All in all, it’s been an interesting trip.  Would I do it recommend it?  Well….  If I could do things again, I’d probably opt for the lodges (if I could afford it – they’re expensive in Botswana).  If you haven’t gone on safari before and want the best bang for your buck then I’d suggest looking into going to Kenya or Tanzania where you can have a nice lodge experience for about the same cost as my Botswana tenting safari.  The trade off is that it will be much more crowded.

That’s it for a couple of weeks until I’m off on my next trip to Shanghai, Tokyo and a repositioning cruise back to Vancouver.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Showering With the Elephants


Elusive Wild African Dog
Wednesday February 20th

Today, is another travel day: our third and last.  We’re getting into a routine now.  Today we’re heading to Xakanaxa Lagoon -  another part of the Okavango delta – to an area known as the Mopane tongue.  It’s about 45 km away; but it doesn’t matter how far it is - we’ll still be on the road for about 8 hours to give the guys time to set up camp and prepare dinner.  The roads on this portion of the trip are much better than on our other two travel days – but “better” is a relative term.

Because the distance we’re travelling isn’t great, Shaka has built in a long lunch break into our trip.  Since we’re going to be stopped for a couple of hours, he decides we should have some chairs to make our long break more comfortable.  Unfortunately, the chairs are at the bottom of the trailer - underneath all our baggage, so we have to unload all our luggage to get to them.

After lunch I decide to have a nap in the vehicle.  Being a short guy, I can stretch out over three seats quite comfortably.  I’m not asleep ten minutes when I’m awakened by a commotion outside.  I find the rest of the group huddled around our luggage beside the trailer.  They seem quite agitated and are poking at something with sticks.  I get up, grab my camera -since I have a sneaking suspicion that the sticks and noises can mean only one thing – snake!  Maybe a black mamba –the most venomous snake in Africa!

I muscle my way into the crowd, and find them poking at….   a pair of my underwear -that slipped out of my bag when we unloaded the trailer.  They are trying to pick it up with a stick and put it back.  It’s not even dirty underwear!  With a disgusted noise I pick the gaunche,   slip it back into my bag,  and stomp back to the vehicle. Amazing!  These people don’t fear hippos, lions, or leopards – but a pair of underwear?   It must be a European thing.
Our campsite on Xakanaxa Lagoon

Our new campsite is the nicest yet.  It opens onto a small grassy plain offering some nice vistas.  Supposedly our tents and  contents are supposed to be the same at each campsite; but I’ve noticed some subtle changes.   For instance, at the first camp I had a black toilet seat, now I have a brown one.  I also notice my bush shower doesn’t have the same flow it had in the previous two camps.  It just sort of dribbles – like me.  
The "borrowed" bush shower

I complained about my shower during dinner and one of the Brits breaks out laughing; it appears he had the same shower at the last camp and is delighted I have it now.   During dessert I excuse myself from the table, travel back to my my tent, lower the bucket and sneak over to the back of the Brits tent.  I unzip the back tarp, lower his bush shower and replace it with mine and head back to my tent and install  his in place of mine.  I return to dinner with a smile on my face. 
“What are you smiling about?” one of them asks.
“Nothing,”  I reply.

Thursday February 21st
Even though we’ve only traveled a short distance from our last camp I notice a big difference in the climate.  It’s quite cool in the early morning – enough to warrant a fleece or jacket. By ten am it’s getting warm - by noon it’s bloody hot!  

We return to camp around noon after seeing the obligatory zebras, giraffes, impalas, etc. etc. etc.  After a week it’s getting almost routine – still no wild dogs are cheetahs – I’m beginning to lose hope that we’ll see them.
pass the soap
After lunch it’s too hot to nap in the tents so we all lounge outside the tents waiting for the water to arrive for our afternoon showers - which is the highlight of the afternoon – for several reasons.

The water is delivered in order of the tents; so being in tent four I get mine late.  While I’m waiting for my water, I hear a shout emanating from tent two.
“Groberman!   What did you do to my shower?”
“Nothing,” I reply with a sweet smile on my face.
There is more cursing, but I ignore it as my water has arrived.  I’ve never enjoyed a shower more - but it’s cut short by a shout.
“Elephant in the camp!”
I rinse the soap out of my eyes and look out of the screened window – and sure enough there’s a big elephant standing just outside my tent!
“Get lost,” I shout. “Find your own shower.”
…which is exactly what he does!  He stomps off a hundred yards to a pond and begins to spray himself.  How about that!  I speak elephant.  Check out the video!

A few hours later a small herd of impalas wander by.  This is a great site.

Friday  February 22nd
Today is our last full day on safari.  I don’t know if it’s just me but there seems to be a lack of enthusiasm in our group.  After more than 80 hours of animal watching in little more than a week it takes a lot to spark interest.  Even the most ardent birdwatchers in our group don’t seem to care.
“Look a pink billed lark!” Shaka points out.
Washrooms! The highlight of the day
It’s met with stony silence.  Shaka stops the car.   Several of us pretend to take a picture so he’ll move on. 

The most enthusiasm exhibited is when we stop at the park gate and there’s a race for the restrooms.  In the afternoon we run into a small pride of lions – the first ones we’ve seen since Chobe.  We never spot any wild African dogs, so it’s a bit of a relief when we pull back into the camp at dusk.
As we’re getting out of the vehicles one of the Germans looks up and exclaims.
“Aren’t those African dogs?”
Sure enough, milling around right in front of our tents is the elusive pack of dogs we’ve been searching for. 
“Back in vehicle,” shouts Shaka.
Dog Day Afternoon
We pile back into the vehicle and take off after the dogs.  The dogs can cover an incredible amount of territory in just a day.  We are travelling after them at more than 40km/hr and the dogs are pulling steadily ahead.

“They can run like that all day,” Shaka states.  “While Lions and leopards are the sprinters of the animal world, these guys are the long-distance runners.  They’ll simply wear down their prey.  They’ll actually let one or two of the pack chase hard, then fall back to rest and let the fresher animals continue the chase.   When they finally exhaust their prey, they can strip the carcass in a matter of minutes.”
I notice one of the dogs limping running way behind.  
“What about that dog,” I ask. “By the time he gets there there’ll be nothing left.”
“The pack will look after him,” Shaka replies. “After they gorge on the kill, several of them will head back to him and regurgitate some of their meal for him.”
We follow the pack until it’s too dark to see then head back to camp.  The day and the trip concludes on a high.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Hyenas are no laughing matter


Monday February  18th 

We’ve now set up camp near the Khwai river on Okavango Delta.  There’s a reserve and a community area.  That’s different than a park.  In the park there’s no commercial activities allowed – with the exception of a few sanctioned lodges.  The reserve is an area where the animals are protected, but some commercial activities – such as mining – are allowed.  The community area has no restrictions and where the people live.  Our camp has been set up in a campsite in the community area.
Real washrooms!

Looking for Dogs
We rise at our usual early time and head out into the reserve.  We have to sign in and that’s when we make a staggering discovery – They have modern washrooms at the reserve and park gates!   They even have showers!  There is a stampede for the washroom.  People return with big smiles on their faces.  Since we’ll be passing in and out of the gated areas every day the hated “long drop” toilets are now designated as “emergency” only.   There are also several posters up asking people to let the researchers know if anyone spots or takes pictures of the wild dogs.  I’m tempted to put a note on the bottom to let us know as well.

Bridge on the River Kwai
The habitat near the Khwai River - not to be confused with the Kwai River in Thailand (although some of the bridges over the river Khwai look like the bridges in the movie, Bridge over the River Kwai) is lush and green – in contrast to the Chobe park. The majority of the reserve is populated with a thick mopane forest. 

Bridge on the River Khwai
Shaka spots a vulture circling in the distance and heads off road to see what’s attracting him.  We find jackals crunching on the bones, while the vultures wait their turn.  Shaka figures what we’re looking at was a happy, but slow-moving wildebeest who fell prey to lions a few hours earlier.  I comment that I expected to see more vultures.  One of the Brits comments that Vultures are now endangered – particularly in neighbouring South Africa.  When I wonder what’s killing them, he tells me it’s locals.   Evidently there’s a belief that sleeping with a vulture head under your pillow will increase your odds in winning the lottery – I’m not making this up – here’s the link.
Save the bones for me:  jackals
I can just see Lottery Night In South Africa.
Host: “I’m here with Robert Kubayi, our most recent winner of Powerball Plus.  Congratulations, Robert.  Can you share with our viewers your secret for picking the winning numbers?  Birthdates?  Anniversaries?”
Lonely Vulture
Robert (Holding up vulture head): “Actually, John, it’s my lucky vulture head.  I slept with it a week and had a vision.”
Host: “Really!  Don’t you think that’s superstitious claptrap?  Aren’t you worried about what you’re doing to the environment?”
Robert: “This is the third lottery I’ve won this year!”
Host: “So, where do you get one of those?”  

Lest you think this superstitious nonsense is only restricted to Africa, it’s a little-known fact that in the Godfather I after Luca Brasi put the horse head in Woltz’s bed both of them won the trifactor in Hialeah!  Look it up!
The elephant is getting pretty close

We saw lots of elephants and hippos, along with antelope, zebras and Giraffes.  Around sunset Shaka stopped outside a hyena den.  I have to admit of all the animals we’ve seen the only ones that truly scare me are the hyenas.   All the animals in the park don’t seem to be concerned about the vehicles.  They look at them as sort of moving scenery - they don’t seem to know or care that there’s “meat” inside them.  All of them, that is, except the hyenas.  They’re sort of like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park – they KNOW that there’s something edible in there.  And if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that the car is wide open – no locking the doors and rolling up the windows.  The open car is sort of a hyena eating station.
hyenas sizing us up
As the sun sets the hyenas stream out of their den and surround the vehicle.  One of them actually begins to bite the tires.  His teeth are so long and so sharp that Shaka is actually worried he might actually puncture it.  The others stand on their hind paws and look up at us.   

Hyenas are one of the truly scary predators.  Even lions are afraid of them.  They are extremely intelligent – some say smarter than chimpanzees.  They hunt in packs and are highly effective and fear nothing.

I’m glad when we finally head back to camp. 
“How far is their den from our camp?” one of the Germans asks.
“About 2km,” answers Shaka. “They sometimes come through the camp.  They won’t bother you as long as you keep your tents zipped up and don’t have any food in the tent.”
Sure enough, around two in the morning I hear hooting and roaring as the pack as come to visit.   I’m not sure how an eighth of an inch of canvas is going to keep a 150lb hungry carnivore out of me tent. I’d rather share my tent with a snake and two lions than a hyena.  I pull the covers over my head and pray.   Eventually they go away.  I don’t get out of bed till I get my morning wake-up call.

Tuesday February 19th

mokoros
This morning we’re scheduled to take a water safari on mokoros. A mokoro is a type of boat used on the Okavango delta.  It looks like a cross between a surfboard and a canoe.    It’s propelled by standing in the stern and poling it along the river like a punt. It was traditionally made by digging out an ebony or kigelia tree.  It’s now a popular way for tourists to get a different perspective of the river.  The bad news is that the hippopotamus thinks it’s a wonderful game to sneak up under them and overturn them.

Shaka drives us up to the river where the Mokoro guys are waiting.  The first thing we notice is that the mokoros are no longer made out of wood.  They’re made out of fiberglass.  The guy in charge points out that they are much lighter and easier to carry.
“And for the hippos to flip over,” I add.  This gets me a dirty look as he pulls out a clip board with the liability release forms for us to sign.   I try and scan it to see if hippo liability is covered, but it’s snatched out of my hands.

Hippo looking for mokoro to tip
We’re assigned two to a boat with a guy to pole us along and act as a guide.  As we quietly glide along the river the guide points out the obligatory birds. 
“Is that a fluted seersucker?” I ask.  
“Ignore him,” the Brit I’m sharing the mokoro instructs him.  
We see interesting flora and fauna as we glide along.  For me the highlight is seeing an African Boa.  I’ll take snakes over birds any day.  We also see some small crocodiles.   We can hear hippos laughing around the bend, but the guides won’t get anywhere near them.
“Very dangerous,” our guide says.  “More people killed by angry hippos than any other animal.”
“What kind of birds are those?” I ask, pointing at two small grey lumps swimming towards us.
“Oh, Oh,” says the guide. “Those are hippo ears.  There’s a hippo swimming right towards us.  Be very still.”
We hold our breath as the hippo glides by not three feet away.   
After an hour of poling up river, we pause for coffee and cookies, then get back in our mokoros and head back to our starting point where Shaka is waiting.

During the afternoon we spot a leopard.  We actually don’t spot the actual leopard.  We see the signs that a leopard is nearby – namely five other cars surrounding a tree.  We drive up to see what they’re look at to be treated to a leopard fast asleep in a tree - no doubt dreaming of leaping down on one of those pesky cars and scaring the bejesus out of the occupants.   After a while the other cars depart and we wait a bit.  Our patience is rewarded when the leopard, seeing the show is over, nimbly climbs down the tree and slinks off into the bush.


Tomorrow another travel day to our final camp.