Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Too late to change identity

This is a very, very personal story. It took me several days to decide that I want to share it. Stop reading now if you find skeletons in closets disgusting.

Many years ago, my great aunt Margarita, my paternal grandmother's younger sister, came to visit me in Stockholm. It was the first and only time she traveled outside the Soviet Union. I have told her story in a novel and partially in a blog post, so I won't repeat it, and it is only marginally relevant to what I want to tell now.

We were walking in a wood just outside our house, and suddenly, out of the blue, she said: “There is something I need to tell you. You may have heard rumours… They are not true”.

My family has a long tradition of rumours, lies and omissions, secret adoptions and illegitimate children; so I wasn't surprised, but I had no idea what she was talking about. She went on: “I have your granny's and granddad's conversation books from when they were evacuated during the war, and the truth is there”. I still had no idea what she was talking about. My granny lost hearing, ostensibly after childbirth (although with all the lies I am now not sure). During the war they were evacuated from Moscow to a small city on the Volga river, probably sharing a room with several other evacuees. My father was ten years old. Clearly if my grandparents had things to talk about, using notebooks was an appropriate solution. So what did they talk about, I didn't ask. “People said that your granddad could not be your father's father”, Aunt Margarita went on, “because nine months before his birth you granddad was away”. Now, after learning that you are adopted or that one of your parents is not your parent, learning that your granddad whom you loved dearly wasn't your granddad is a huge shock. I wasn't prepared for it. Twenty years earlier I learned that the very same granddad had a second family and a daughter ten years younger than me. It was a shock because it changed my view of him, but as I said things like that weren't unusual in my extended family. I had always wondered about my grandparents' relationship. They never shared a room (but neither did my parents so it was not until I was in my late teens that I learned, from novels, that it was habitual for spouses to share a bed), and granddad always spent summer holidays elsewhere. He also went somewhere every evening – ostensibly to teach evening classes. Somehow, I have always been slow in interpreting obvious facts.

“People said that your granddad could not be your father's father”, continued Aunt Margarita, ”but your granny explains it in the notebooks. She went overdue. She was pregnant for eleven months”.

Now, not even I, naive as I am, could believe this. If Aunt Margarita had never mentioned it, I would have never considered the possibility. My father didn't look much like my granddad, but this didn't justify any doubts. The natural question to follow was: If not granddad, then who…? Did anyone except granny know? Did she know?

It turned out eventually that everybody knew except me. A cousin on my mother's side knew, and that was really none of her business.

Next time I was in Moscow, I asked Aunt Margarita to see the notebooks, and she said she had burned them. This didn't sound credible to me. Why did she have them in the first place? When my grandparents were in evacuation, she was in deportation in Kazakhstan and didn't return to Moscow until 1956. If granny for whatever reason had kept the wartime notebooks, why did she suddenly give them to her sister? And why did Aunt Margarita keep them for more than thirty years only to burn them right after she had tried to persuade me that granny had been pregnant with my father for eleven months? Did those notebooks ever exist at all?

Dismissing the eleven-months-long-pregnancy theory, every piece fell into place. I remember Uncle Andrei well. He was practically part of the family, always with us on holidays, frequently in for tea and dinner. He gave me wonderful presents: toys, clothes, picturebooks, which I didn't of course contemplate then, but that weren't easily available in Russia in the early 1950s. He could get these lovely gifts because he had the privilege of travelling abroad, and he had the privilege because he was accompanist to a very famous violinist. One thing I remember particularly vividly: my teddy's shirt became shabby, and Uncle Andrei made him a new one. I still have the teddy. Every other link has disappeared, the last probably the picturebooks that I had brought to Sweden and that my children eventually tore to pieces. This was before I learned the truth, otherwise I probably would have saved them. Or probably not at all. I am not sentimentally attached to material objects.

I have very few photographs from my childhood, but I do have a picture of myself, aged one, my parents, my grandparents and Uncle Andrei. I had seen this picture scores of time before I learned the truth, but I had no reason to pose any questions. Now of course there is not doubt which of the two older men was the young man's father.

When you are very young, you don't contemplate why some people disappear from your life. I was an extremely shy (or maybe extremely intimidated) child who never asked any questions about anything, not even most innocent questions, so I would have never asked why Uncle Andrei no longer came to visit nor spent summers with us. I do remember, however, meeting him on the landing outside our apartment which was next to the violinist's apartment. He smiled at me, but didn't say anything. He must have been coming to the violinist regularly, but I only met him once.

I have no idea why he suddenly wasn't welcome any more. He had been by granny's side for almost thirty years, her secret, or not so secret lover and her son's father, and my granddad had tolerated it. Something must have happened, and I had no one to ask. Least of all could I ask my father, but he must have known all along and lived with it his whole life. Did he ever meet his biological father after the quarrel? They moved in the same musical circles so it is almost inconceivable that they didn't meet, but did they talk? Were they close at all? Why didn't I ask my father while I still could? Simply because in my family, we didn't talk about such things. All was lies, secrets and pretence.

Now, you may think, does it really matter? Despite his other family, my granddad whose last name I still bear, loved me. He was a fabulous storyteller, and every evening I would come to his room – he was the only family member who had a room of his own – and ask him to tell me a story or draw a picture, which he also was good at. I would sit on his lap. Sometimes he would show me family treasures otherwise locked in his desk drawer: his mother's diamond earrings, war medals, miniature Fabergé eggs, all in lovely boxes with velvet lining. He would tell me about these objects again and again, and I was never tired of them.

He died shortly before I moved to Sweden. I was with him when he died. (Death is very ugly, by the way). He was my granddad.

And yet…

There are interesting family legends on that side. For instance, that our very Russian-sounding last name was adopted by our distant Greek ancestor, Nikolai Stamati. We have traced granddad's ancestry four generations back to a Stepan Nikolajev, so Nikolai Stamati must have been at least a generation above, which takes us to the dark eighteenth century where no records have been preserved in Russia. It seems that granddad's relatives who managed to escape from Russia after 1917 took back the old name, but I haven't been able to find them. Stamati is a common name.

Another legend says that some generations back we were related to the famous Swedish aristocratic family of Oxenstierna, and I still have a brass seal with the Oxenstierna coat of arms, so there must have been some connection. Granddad's mother's maiden name was Reutersköld, which is another Swedish noble family, and while Oxenstierna could be a myth, Reutersköld is a fact. Her mother, my granddad's grandmother, was Victoria Reutersköld, and of all the retained family possessions I value most a silver sugarbowl with the monogram VR.

Neither Stamati nor Reutersköld are part of my ancestry anymore. Nor are the four generations of the Nikolajevs. My name is no longer mine.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Miriam Mitnick. I am Jewish.

I have no Jewish identity whatsoever. My maternal grandmother was Jewish, but she didn't keep any Jewish rituals. I would probably qualify for Israeli citizenship. The overwhelming majority of my parents' and grandparents' friends were Jewish, because they were musicians, artists, scientists, and all were secularised Jews. At least half of my classmates were Jewish, but I didn't learn anything about Jewish culture until my husband started writing a book about Jewish history. (He is not Jewish).

For the past thirty years I have lived with the unconfirmed knowledge of my Jewish grandfather. It didn't make any difference. And it did.

To make a long story short, some time ago my daughter finally persuaded me to do a DNA test. She gave me a DNA test for my birthday. I had been reluctant for a whole number of reasons, but then I thought, what can I lose? (A fourth of my identity, my seal, my sugarbowl, my name, my second cousin twice removed who is the only relative I still keep contact with).

The results have come. I am 45% Ashkenasi Jewish. (I am all sorts of other things, and as I have always known, not a drop of Russian, but that's another story). I have over a thousand DNA relatives in the database, most of them in the USA, and their last names are Cohen, Levine, Shapiro, Friedman and Goldberg. Happy belated Passover, cousins!

It is of course much less of a shock than when I first heard Aunt Margarita's disclaimer. I was prepared for it, and now I know for sure. What shall I do with this certainty? It's too late to change identity and become an observing Jew, not least because I have never been an observing Christian either, and while I have kept family traditions for Christmas and Easter, they have always been precisely that: family traditions. I have been to Israel several times, and I like it, but I don't feel any affinity with the country. I have zillions of Jewish friends, but the reason is that they are my friends, not that they are Jewish.

Maybe the main problem is not embracing Jewishness, but letting go of the other part. Somehow, all these years I have fooled myself into believing that I can keep both. But then, my strongest identity has always come from my German granny's side: traditions, songs, family anecdotes, food recipes. They are still with me. So maybe I am not Miriam Mitnick after all. Maybe I am Maria Tietz.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

A tribute to my mentor

My old professor, Vivi Edström, has passed away.

She was 95, and she had lived a long and happy life. Yet it definitely feels that an important part of my life has gone with her.

Vivi was the first Chair of children's literature in Scandinavia, which was a big thing back in early '80s. And she was at the Comparative Literature department in Stockholm, not Education, not Library and Information, not Childhood Studies, and not even Sociology of Literature in Uppsala where the first PhDs in children's literature were awarded. For Vivi, children's literature was literature, fullstop.

I remember coming to her office for the first time. I had been in Sweden for three weeks, but I had an oral recommendation from the Director of the Swedish Children's Books Institute whom I had meet the previous year in Moscow. I wanted to study children's literature because it hadn't been possible in Russia. I had read Vivi's book Form in Children's Books: A Study in the Art of Narration – I am not sure how I got hold of it in Russia. There I was, scared to death, as I always am with new people and in new situations. Although I had studied Swedish for thirteen years, I had never been to Sweden before, and I hadn't had many opportunities to speak it. Many years later Vivi mentioned that her first impression of me was “scared girl with big eyes”.

I enrolled in two courses, Children's literature and Young Adult Literature and wrote a final undergraduate dissertation on the topic that eventually became my PhD. Vivi gave me special privileges to attend her graduate seminar where I met my future fellow students. She was generous and supportive. I was accepted into the doctoral programme next term, and after a while Vivi managed to get me a four-year studentship, which was unusual at that time. She was like that, always finding way to promote her students and sharing her favours fairly among us. She got us various awards for our theses. She would pass on to us tasks that she didn't want or had no time to do: leading book circles and teaching professional development courses, writing reviews and even more prestigious stuff; for instance, I contributed, on her recommendation, a chapter on children's literature for a History of Swedish Literature with University of Nebraska Press. She also edited several volumes in Swedish, on picturebooks and on children's poetry, and we all contributed to these.

Vivi and I didn't always agree, and she could be quite harsh. Several times after supervisions I came home in tears and told my husband that I would never again set my foot in the department. Vivi strongly opposed my wish to write my thesis in English; my argument was that all my primary and most of my secondary sources were English. It was habitual then, and perhaps still is, in Comparative Literature departments in Sweden to study one particular writer, preferably dead, and even “XX's early writing”, so my Proppian structuralist approach felt alien. I learned later that the night before my defence she called several colleagues asking whether they thought I would pass.

A typical glimpse of our conversations:

Vivi: I think you should let chapters 2 and 3 change places.
Me: But I have just changed them as you told me last time.
Vivi: Good, now we see that it didn't work.

One term I was Vivi's TA for the dissertation seminar on children's literature, and at the first session I introduced myself and said that the professor would join us any minute. Only she didn't, and I had to spend two hours talking to students without preparation or any qualifications apart having done the course myself. Next term, I was entrusted with teaching this course on my own. I had to use Vivi's syllabus, and one session I found particularly challenging. When I told Vivi, she said: “Next time, let them work in groups”.

Toward the end of my PhD as I was considering my future career, Vivi said: “Don't bother about publishing articles, they don't count. Write books”. (Ironically, these days I have to tell my students the opposite).

Vivi was President of the Selma Lagerlöf Society, Lagerlöf her other passion and academic interest apart from children's literature. She invited me to join the board of the Society and pushed me toward Lagerlöf research, which became decisive for me subsequent career. You couldn't get a permanent position in Comparative Literature with children's literature research only, you needed to show that you could do ”real” literature as well. Lagerlöf became my real literature area, and I wrote a book for the Society's series and several other things. Vivi and I spent many nice hours together as I was driving us from Stockholm to Värmland, Lagerlöf's home province where Society's annual meetings were held. I used to drive Vivi home from the University after seminars or guest lectures – it was in the opposite direction from my place, but not too much out of my way. I thought it was quite natural since I had a car and she didn't, but she mentioned this as one of my special virtues at my defence banquet.

We co-edited a volume on Lagerlöf, and I contributed a chapter. Vivi didn't like my interpretation of earthly and heavenly love.

Vivi: You are wrong.
Me: There is no right or wrong in literary analysis; this is the way I see it.
Vivi: You cannot make this claim.
Me: You are not my supervisor any more, you cannot tell me what I can or cannot claim.
Vivi: You are wrong.

This is Vivi in her essence.

After retirement she withdrew from public academic life. She published more books, including one on Jane Austen, but otherwise she took up painting and had small exhibitions and enjoyed life. Every now and then she invited me for tea.

When I got the chair in Cambridge, Staffan called her to brag on my behalf. Well, she said, that's what Masha had always wanted, hadn't she?

In her study Form in Children's Book, Vivi was the first in Sweden and probably among the very first in the world to claim that formal features of children's literature were just as important, or even more important than content, what she referred to ”children's literature here and there, representations of this and that”. She wrote about the significance of narrative perspective and temporality long before these concepts became commonplace in international children's literature scholarship. She was a pathfinder and a flagship. Swedish children's literature research would not have flourished as it has without Vivi. We all owe her. And I certainly would not have been where I am if I hadn't had the privilege of being her disciple.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Getting to the edge

I posted something on Facebook yesterday that elicited a storm of comments which I tried to respond to, but there were so many that I believe people didn't read them all. I felt most friends misinterpreted my post, and rather than replying to individual comments I will offer a more detailed explanation here.

Yesterday I signed my retirement agreement. It was straightforward. My Head of department asked whether there was any reason to make a case for extending my employment (we both knew there wasn't, but he was obliged to ask); whether I needed any post-retirement support from the department to further develop my career, which we both laughed at, but again, he had to ask. I stated that I had no intention to continue teaching or supervising on hourly-paid basis. He informed me that as Professor Emerita I would keep my university email address and library privileges. He said that there was only a tiny office available to discarded professors, and I assured him that I wouldn't need it. He asked me whether I had any questions. I didn't. Then he pushed toward me the form where he had written this all down, and asked me to sign. He had a beautiful fountain pen, the kind my son-in-law would approve of. I hesitated. I took a deep breath. I signed. We exchanged a couple of jokes. Then I left his office and walked over to mine. I got rather emotional.

What I posted on Facebook was a one-sentence summary of the above: signed the form and felt emotional. Asked for sympathy from people who had done it and people who hadn't.

The response was a total surprise. Most friends thought I was upset and anxious. Some shared their own or somebody else's experience of retirement saying that anxiety was normal, but would eventually go away. Some suggested self-help books and mentioned counselling.

Half of friends thought I had retired as of yesterday, although I said in my original post that I still had eighteen months to go. Many asked whether I really had to retire.

Lots of friends stated with confidence that I would never “retire” but go on working as usual, just with more time for my own research, writing books and articles, attending conferences and delivering guest lectures.

I was deeply moved by all kind words from colleagues and students about my contribution to scholarship and being a role model. I even received some personal texts and emails from people who mean a lot to me. Thank you, everyone. It makes such a difference to feel appreciated. After all, I have spent forty plus years in this area.

However, I need to clarify some points.

Firstly, as I have already said, I am not retiring yet for a while. But there is a procedure that my Head of department had to follow. Cambridge bureaucratic machinery is slow.

Secondly, yes, I have to retire. I have no choice. Although it is illegal in the UK to force people to retire, two employers just don't care two pins. You can easily guess which. In fact, the Other Place is re-considering its position, but This Place isn't. I believe historically it was done to prevent derelict professors sitting on their chairs, physical and academic, until they dropped dead. It's crucial to open jobs for younger generations. When I took the job, I knew that it lasted until a certain date which was not negotiable. (Although at that time I didn't know it was illegal). Therefore I had prepared for the idea, and I don't feel upset.

Also I see lots of retired colleagues around me who are enjoying it.

What I shared on Facebook was a moment I hadn't anticipated, to which I reacted unexpectedly strongly. But not in a negative way. I was similarly emotional (and anxious) when I signed my current contract; I was emotional as I signed papers when I got married, or when we bought our house. Isn't it perfectly natural? Looking back at it, I wouldn’t want to be without this experience. The final moment just before there is no going back.

As to what I intend to do with my post-retirement life, since I have been planning it for a while, I have quite a clear picture of it. I will not go on as usual. I won't write any more academic books or articles. I think I have done enough for a lifetime. I received a prestigious international award for a lifetime achievement thirteen years ago, and I have done quite a lot since then. I won't go to conferences, because I don't want to become one of those conference props inevitably causing irritation. I have been to enough conferences in the past forty years. I won't offer any “services to the profession” because there are younger colleagues who can do it better and need it for their careers. In other words, retirement means retirement. One friend suggested I could find a job at another university with a more generous retirement policy, but why? I am looking forward to my freedom. I feel I have deserved it.

I don't think I will have problems keeping myself busy. Five years ago I thought that I would get myself a large dollhouse when I retired, but then I changed my mind and got it there and then. It is far from finished, and I have other miniature projects, both ongoing and planned. My goal is to become a fellow of the International Guild of Miniature Artisans. You have to be exceptionally good, so it might take some years of practice.

I will certainly continue with book binding. I will take cooking classes. I may go back to pottery and paper-making.

I also want to take up falconry on a more regular basis. Not sure whether I am prepared to commit myself to a bird of my own, so I'll see how I feel then. The first step in falconry is to be able to tie a falconer's knot, and I am pathetically bad at knots. If I find it too challenging I can volunteer at a hedgehog rescue.

I still have my beautiful garden, and unless we are kicked out of the UK after Brexit, there is a lot I could do. I also want to grow orchids. I only have three at the moment, but I want get various sorts and to learn more about them.

Speaking of learning, I will learn a new language. Some people do crosswords or sudoku to keep their minds going, but I have never understood the point. Learning a new language is supposed to be a good exercise for the brain. Preferably a language radically different from the ones I know. I am deciding between Hebrew, Japanese and Welsh.

Some Facebook friends suggested travel, but I am not sure I want to travel. I have travelled so much, and I am finding the effort of being transported to the places you want to visit hardly worth the pleasure of being there. Again, if we are allowed to stay in the UK, there are plenty of beautiful places I can visit close to home. Although I would like to walk Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I will need to train seriously for that. So it will also take some time, both gym and walking.

I also have a bunch of grandchildren whom I have neglected so there will hopefully be opportunities to get to know them better.

If I have any time left, I will report to headquarters.

Finally, being an optimist, I say: I may be dead by then, so why worry?

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

African diaries, part 8 and final: Victoria Falls

Read the previous chapters of this story: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.

We only had a short drive from Chobe to Zimbabwe border, and although Dumi had anticipated possible delays, it went quickly and smoothly. Dumi was clever to start early: there were other groups arriving as we were getting across. And he was perfectly efficient at passport control: collected all our passports, forms and cash for the visa, and it was all done in minutes. We were in Victoria Falls by 9.

Now, the Falls as such is an attraction, but apparently VicFalls is also the capital of extreme adventures, including bungee jump, gorge swing, white-water rafting and other things I wouldn't do if you paid me. The only thing I seriously considered was Lion Walk, which was pricey, but I thought it would be a chance of a lifetime. On closer inspection, of the three hours, including pick-up and drop-off, one hour would be a talk on lion rescue programme, and then maybe, with some luck, you'd be able to follow lion cubs for half an hour in a large enclosure, so I decided against it. Anton was considering gorge swing, but at the last moment chose a 13-minute helicopter flight. Some people went horse-riding and fishing. All these activities had to be booked at various places so we didn't reach our hotel until 10.30. There, we said farewell to our wonderful tour assistants, Tabiza (also our marvelous chef) and Ambition. The rooms were not ready yet, so we unloaded our luggage, left it in the lobby and walked 2 km to the entrance of the park. It wasn't a particularly enjoyable walk, since most of it was along a busy road without sidewalks, but eventually we came to the park, where, as Dumi had recommended, we would need at least two hours to go through the sixteen viewing points.

I will not describe the Falls because there are not enough superlatives to convey the experience. I won't post all the pictures Anton has taken because pictures cannot do it justice. Just one, to prove we were there.

If you remember my first post, I had no huge expectations, because I had seen Niagara. Just shows my ignorance. Next time I come to Victoria Falls, I want to stay for three days, go to the park when it opens and stay until it closes. And I will make sure I come at full moon because then they also open at night.

There were lots of noisy people whom I tried to ignore. The difference between VicFalls and all the other places we had been to was obvious. This was a major tourist attraction, noisy and crowded. I would have liked to stay at each point – all sixteen of them – for much longer, just sit there and watch. But we were already, with a lunch break, running late because Anton was to be picked up at the hotel for helicopter flight. We had planned to walk to the bridge connecting Zimbabwe and Zambia, that we had seen from the park. 

But we were getting hot and tired and took a taxi back to the hotel. It was nice to lie down on a proper bed after a nice hot shower.

Anton came back absolutely euphoric, and when I watched his video I understood why. This is just one picture. We had walked half of it - ostensibly the most spectacular part, on the left here - up to the gorge. You need to cross to Zambia to see the rest.

Of course, I regret I didn't do it, but I know I couldn't have taken the risk. Deviation: I once was invited to fly a glider and was silly enough to accept. From that experience, I only remember the ecstasy of being high up in the air, with almost 360 degree view of the mountains, in absolute silence. The friend who had invited me only remembers how I puked all over his precious aircraft. I didn't want anything like that happen on a helicopter flight. The close-up view of the Falls was stunning enough.

We walked to town again. During our morning movements, Kory had spotted a women's craft market, and we decided that it was the right place to buy souvenirs. It was a huge industrial building, and there were dozens of women with their ware displayed on the floor: bowls, carved animals, jewellery, scarves. They were really nice things, and the women begged us to buy something, anything, just a small thing… “Welcome to my shop. What's your name? Where are you from? Please buy something...” It felt horrible to buy from one, but not the other, and I hoped they were a cooperative and shared profits, which Dumi confirmed. Still, I feel bad I hadn't bought more because I can always find someone to give a small gift, and it would have gone to a good cause. But it was getting late and dark, and we had a table booked at a place that both Lonely Planet and Dumi recommended. The food was good, but not remarkable, while the atmosphere felt genuine. Our last dinner in Africa.

In the morning we only had a couple of hours before airport transfer, and Anton and I went to the bridge. I am glad we did, because seeing the gorge from the bridge was quite a special experience. We had seen those masses of water the day before, and all this water had to pass through this very narrow gorge, which means it must be as deep as hell.

Dumi had told us to bring passports to the Zimbabwian checkpoint, but tell them we only wanted to go to the bridge. We were given a piece of paper that said: “2 people, to the bridge”. We crossed the actual border, but turned back before the Zambian checkpoint. 

That was it, and I won't describe the long, long journey home.

The trip has been life-changing in many ways, all positive, and it filled some serious gaps in my geography and history. I know it sounds trivial, but things do look different from another viewpoint, when you are there. Now, over two weeks since I returned home, I have still not quite sorted all impressions, but writing about them was helpful. And, although I kept saying to myself that it was definitely my last long-haul trip, it has made me wish to travel more. Who knows what my next destination may be?

Here were are, great travel companions, through thick and thin. And our fabulous Dumi, whose knowledge, enthusiasm and skill made the experience so genuinely brilliant. 

Anton has made a visual summary of the trip that you can watch here.


Sunday, 13 August 2017

African diaries, part 7: Chobe

Read the previous chapters of this story: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Back to Sepupa boat station, where out truck waited, we were quickly on board since we once again had a long travel day, over 300 km, including border crossing back to Namibia and Caprivi Strip which has an interesting history. My guess is that the road on Namibian side is better, or maybe there isn't even a road on Botswana side. The drive was uneventful, and we were at the camp by early afternoon. It was again on a high river bank, with a lovely view. At dinner we were told that there was possibly a leopard roaming in the camp. Much as I'd like to see a leopard, this wasn't encouraging. By this time I felt quite confident in my tent, but there was some distance to the facilities, and I didn't like the idea of confronting a leopard in the middle of the night. 
The next day was mostly travel day again, because, although Caprivi strip looks tiny on the map, it is 450 km. We crossed over to Botswana and drove through Chobe National Park, where we were not allowed to do any game drives (that is, loops on smaller roads) because it wasn't part of the trip; we just went straight through it and were at the camp by 3. We were staying at this camp for two nights, and the campsite was on the edge of a very posh lodge with a restaurant, swimming pool etc. We allowed ourselves the luxury of just sitting down in the bar, doing nothing apart from watching monkeys. There were also other animals walking around the premises.

In case you wonder, these are mongoose.

I remembered a colleague who, hearing about my itinerary, said: I grew up in Zambia, and we used to go to Chobe for holiday. I could now see why. It was a fancy resort, not just a camping site.

We had to get cash for the rest of our trip, and strangely, the lodge didn't have a cash machine so we had to walk to town, which was just around the corner. There was a long queue, apparently caused by it being pay day. The machine only allowed to withdraw 2,000 pula (I had no idea how much it was in any familiar currency), so I had to use two different cards. There seemed to be a significant charge for cash withdrawal, but there wasn't much we could do about it. We needed money for Victoria Falls, and Dumi said there was shortage of cash there. Zimbabwe uses multicurrency: South African rand, pula, US dollars, pounds, euro – but not Namibian dollars. I had given up on trying to understand.

Everybody was a bit down this day. Some were still recovering from stomach problems, but mostly we were all tired, physically and emotionally, overloaded with impressions. I was thinking that I didn't want to see another animal any time soon. But I was wrong.

In the morning we took an optional game drive in Chobe National Park, in a open vehicle.


It was disappointing. We saw some hippos, a couple of elephants and a group of giraffes quite close, but somehow it all felt anticlimactic. The best part was hot coffee with biscuits on a hill with a nice view. 

There were no activities between the game drive and lunch, and I decided to have massage. When we arrived the day before I saw an advert for spa and told myself it was just what I needed after a long time on the bus. There were several options, and I took the most exotic: maasai stick. It turned out to be a wooden thing with two balls attached on each end. It was used by maasai in Kenya to hit animals on the head. The masseuse didn't know who came up with the brilliant idea of using the stick for massage. It was like being massaged with a rolling pin. I felt revived.

I had very low expectations of the afternoon river cruise. I thought we would sit on a boat and admire the view, which was undeniably pretty, and it would be nice to have some fresh air for a change from being inside a bus. But right as I thought nothing could get any better, there was another highlight. The boat went slowly, stopping when there was something interesting to see, and there was something all the time. And the boat got very close. 

Tons of elephants, including a tiny baby, and two bulls who fought or pretended to fight. 

And now I know why elephants wave their trunks when they have ripped out grass: they shake off sand! I had seen them do it often, but had no idea. 

Zillions of buffalo. Antelopes. Various rare birds, including marabou. (Marabou is included in the list of seven ugliest animals in Africa – I don't know why, I think they are cute). Hippos. And at least forty giraffes, galloping down the slopes and then walking slowly along the shore. Even the guide took pictures, and when we told Dumi afterwards he said it was very unusual with such large herds. It was spectacular, ending with yet another glorious sunset. 

 We all agreed that it was the best possible conclusion to our wildlife adventures.

Because next day we were going to Victoria Falls. 

To be continued. 

Saturday, 12 August 2017

African diaries, part 6: Okavango Delta

Read the previous chapters of this story: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

As I said before, the Okavango Delta was what made me interested in this trip in the first place, so I was excited when we started getting closer. From Etosha we had a 600km drive, first till Grootfontein where we replenished our supplies, then north to Rundu and further east into Caprivi Strip. But very soon after we left Etosha we crossed the Red Line, which is a sad page in Namibia's history. 


Although we weren't asked to leave the bus and walk through a pool of disinfectant then (we were later), you could see the change in the landscape immediately. During our long drives from place to place, we saw few traces of human presence. Just vast expanses of desert, with the few exceptions that I have described. North of the Line, there were endless villages along the road, some looking quite poor, some better, but it was as if we entered a different world. Which was of course exactly what we did.

We saw signs for primary schools along the roads, few and far between. I asked Dumi whether there were any school buses, and the moment I asked I realised what a stupid question it was. Of course there were no school buses. Haven't I heard and read reports from my colleagues' and students' field work in Africa? Dumi said children sometimes had to walk ten kilometres one way to school. Sounds terrible, but on the other hand they did go to school. I may be naive and old-fashioned, but I believe in education. The children we saw along the roads were walking to or from school, rather than herding cattle, like we saw in Madagascar. Namibian adult literacy rate is 80%.

Apart from villages there wasn't much to see, so I slept a bit. We reached the camp at 3.30 which felt a blessing. The camp was on a high river bank, with a great view. On the other side of the river was Angola. 

There was an optional boat trip, about which Dumi said contemptuously: ”You will see absolutely nothing”. But some people went anyway, and they were allowed to alight in Angola for three minutes and take a picture of themselves with a piece of paper that said: ”Illegally in Angola”. In retrospect, I should have done it – just my thing. Instead we went to the bar and had beer (Anton) and juice (Kory and me) and watched another glorious sunset. Because of the river, the landscape was almost rainforest, and the frogs were singing, and there were lots of birds.

In the morning we drove south to Botswana border. We would cross Nabimia-Botswana borders three times in three days, each time painlessly, but I have a traumatic relationship with border crossing. This will be a deviation, but I must explain. Growing up behind the Iron Curtain and then travelling between Sweden and Russia, being searched at the Finnish border each time, nervous that something was wrong. Feeling humiliated travelling by car to France when I had to get transit visas for every country we passed (the Germans were particularly nasty). Feeling humiliated at JFK because, in my US visa stamp, they had crossed out the standard “multiple indefinite” and written ONE ENTRY. It got less stressful when I got a Swedish passport, and since then I have crossed from USA to Mexico and back, from USA to Canada and back (on one occasion I crossed twice, going to Niagara Falls first in the morning and then at night), and I even crossed from Germany to Austria before it joined EU. You get used to it. Having now lived in the UK for nine years, I am more used, once again, to passport control, wherever I travel, but it somehow feels different when it is an actual border, overland. It is all wired somewhere in my brain: border crossing = danger. And now I have all these stamps in my brand new passport. For Zimbabwe, we had to pay for the visa. Dumi looked at me with some anxiety, until I explained that although I live in the UK, I have a Swedish passport. Zimbabwean visa costs almost twice as much for UK nationals.

Back to the first Namibia-Botswana crossing: apart from two forms to fill, it was very straightforward, and we walked across the no-man's-land from one checkpoint to the next. Then we had another hour's drive, and we were now in Botswana time zone, losing an hour. I couldn't figure out whether it made me more hungry or less. Lunch was by the river and boat station at Sepupa. We were leaving our truck there, taking only daypacks and water canisters, and going by boat to an island right in the middle of the Delta. (Well, not really, rather on the edge of the Delta, where the Panhandle opens into the Pan).

We also met our new guide who introduced himself as Frog. I thought it was funny, but people have all kinds of names that have funny connotations in other languages. However, it turned out that Frog was his artist name. He said his real name was unpronounceable for Europeans (it had about fifteen different clicks in it), but he had chosen Frog to reflect his character. Later in the camp, we were all asked to choose animal names that he could remember, because our names were unpronounceable for him. Fair enough.

Anyway, Frog was our Botswana guide, and he was taking us into the Delta. Before we started, he asked us to sign a liability disclaimer. One of us wondered what exactly the implication was. Answer: “If I tell you not to jump into the river, and you jump into the river and get eaten by a crocodile, it's your responsibility”. Later, on the island, he told us that the password into nature was “respect”. Password, you know, he said, what you need to get into your computer. Password into nature is respect.

Our supplies and cooking equipment went in one boat, and we all went in another. This is me, in my silly hat, on the right.

Photo: Susanne Trudsø

These three hours going on a boat through the Delta are among the happiest of my entire life. This was what I had come for. Sure, we saw come crocs and a few hippos and masses of interesting birds. 

 But the boat ride itself, through tributaries that meandered this way and that so eventually you lost all sense of direction; waterways that narrowed and opened again. I know I have dreamed it many times, exactly like this. I enjoyed every second. I think many of my fellow travellers were bored. 

Photo: Susanne Trudsø

Finally we went into narrow channels where the boat hardly passed through, with tall papyrus plants on both sides. And then we were on an island, called Pepere (meaning “papyrus”), that you will not find on Google maps, as far away from everything as you can imagine. 

Have I mentioned that I have a particular love of islands? I have even written an academic paper on the subject. 

There were permanent tents in this camp and real beds with linen, which felt nice for a change. There were two local women who cleaned the tents. They were not invited to share dinner with us, but had to wash up, which made me feel bad. I asked Frog where they lived, and he said in a village eight hours away by boat. He himself also lived far away and only went home twice a month in tourist season.

After dinner we had a briefing. We were not allowed to walk around on the island (except between the tent and the toilet) because at night hippos, elephants and crocodiles came ashore. This wasn't a joke: we saw fresh footprints in the morning. If we did see a hippo or elephant we should not flash our torches at them because they would attack. “Respect” is the password. I wondered whether the animals knew it. There were also baboons who had learned to open tent zippers, so we were advised not to have food in tents.

All night, cicadas were singing.

We had late breakfast next morning, 6.45, and started at 7.10 which must be some secret local time. First a short walk across the island where we took mokoro, which is more like a punt than a canoe, maneuvered by long poles. Two people per boat, and a poler, who was friendly but not very talkative. There wasn't much need for talk because the scenery was amazing. 

Through a narrow channel of papyrus to the next island, where there were supposedly lions, leopards, buffalo, elephants and other animals. Strict orders: keep as close together as possible in single file (walking elephant paths), do as you are told. Indeed, within five minutes there was an elephant and no fence or anything between it and us. Frog told us to freeze. I had a short moment of contemplating death by elephant – probably very painful. It moved around us slowly, but didn't come closer. I cannot say how long we stayed there, motionless: maybe five minutes, maybe ten. Then it went away, and we could move on. I asked Frog later what he would have done if the elephant had attacked us, and he wouldn't say. Some people admitted having panic during the elephant encounter and said they hadn't quite enjoyed it.

We saw no other animals, but Frog showed us fresh footprints and fresh elephant dung. This was a different feeling from viewing animals from the safety of a car or bus. He also showed us some carcasses of buffalo and warthog, which the lions had killed only a week before. Completely clean of meat. I am not sure I would like to witness a kill.

We took the mokoro again, for a longer trip, and saw a lot of hippos in a lagoon. Hippos can hold their breath for seven minutes, so it's a bit like whale-watching: you see it go down, count seven minutes, and then out they come, not always where you expect. But because there we so many of them, we saw several at any given moment. We kept a respectful distance. 

Then we came back to our island and the camp and had lunch. Six people had upset stomach. I know it's common on such trips, but it felt awful, and I was mortally scared to get it too (I had a very mild round later). We had a couple of hours to rest, which was what we all needed. Then we gathered again – those of us who were ok – and Frog talked to us about the Delta, its animals and its people, and also its future, if Namibia builds a canal higher up the river to supply water for its own agriculture. Suddenly it all got into a larger context. 90% of water in the Delta evaporates. Maybe it makes sense to try and use it before it evaporates. But who knows how it may affect the ecology.

Then Frog took us on a short walk on our island. We saw two warthogs, but mostly Frog told us about trees and plants and their medicinal uses (particularly for upset stomach). Suddenly we were by a gigantic baobab. We must have seen it all along without realising it was a baobab, hidden behind other vegetation, because it was right by the camp (me for scale). 


Then we went out in a boat to watch the sunset over the lagoon (those crazy Europeans and their sunsets!). 

Next morning was another blissful boat ride through the Delta. It was very early and freezing cold, but I enjoyed the ride too much to mind the cold.

I had this strange idea. What if the whole experience was a simulation? A huge, well-designed augmented-reality game. So if we were to go on the same trip another day, there would be the same elephant encounter (and maybe you need a special bonus to see the lion kill), and the same hippos going down and up again in the same places. While the real animals have been dead since long time ago. This would make a good story, but I won't write it. It may be true, but we will never know.

I also kept remembering Ray Bradbury's short story “The Veldt” - the landscape and the whole atmosphere was inviting.

After the first full day in the Delta, when I had seen what I had come to see, I felt that I must come back and stay longer to see more. Then it felt that I had seen all there is to see. Or else I was so overwhelmed by all impressions that I could not take in any more. I would have liked to see lions and leopards, but apart from that – more papyrus, more water, more hippos, more of the same? As with deserts, mountains and other experiences: after a first taste, you may return to study it closer, but you may not. Anyway, we had no other choice than to move on.

To be continued

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

African diaries, part 5: Animals galore (in Etosha national park)

Read the previous chapters of this story: 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The day we left Spitzkoppe was probably the hardest and the most boring of the whole trip. I was in the front seat to the right, but there was really, really, really nothing to see. We were to cover 530 km, which is a long distance even on a German motorway, and we were on unpaved roads, and the estimate travel time was nine hours.

I am full of admiration for Dumi, our guide and driver. I just cannot imagine how he managed it. Driving a busload of fussy European tourists for nine hours on unpaved Namibian roads… But to be fair, we weren't fussy. We were patient and disciplined, and when we were given a ten-minute comfort stops – boys to the left, girls to the right – we were back in the bus in ten minutes; and when were we given thirty minutes in a supermarket to get our water and whatever else people wanted, we were back in thirty minutes. We all knew that the drive would take nine hours and were prepared. One of us got motion sick, and although I know it's a horrible thought, I was glad it wasn't me. I had been worried about motion sickness because I get it every now and then, on a scale that few people have witnessed, still less experienced. It's not just throwing up; if it hits me, I am knocked our for days (yes, I have been tested for all kinds of diseases, and nothing was found, so it's just my bad luck). I wear patches for flying, but they make me tired, sleepy, thirsty and disoriented, so I didn't want to wear them during the trip, taking terrible risks. My empathy with the poor motion-sick companion was total, while I was also glad it wasn't me, because a young motion-sick person evokes pity, a old motion-sick lady evokes disgust. Sorry, I couldn't help it. I sat through the day imagining myself motion-sick and wishing I had never come to Africa; so this day was particularly strenuous.

However, the last 100 km before we got to Etosha national park was a good paved road, and by the time we entered the park we were all excited, anticipating to see lots of animals, maybe even a rhino if we had luck. And what did we see less than a minute into the park, at the first waterhole? A rhino!

We only had time for a very short loop, but we saw giraffes, zebras, impala, kudu and jackals, so it was a good ending of a difficult day. And the best was still ahead.

We reached the camp site Okakeujo exactly at sunset, and Dumi kindly allowed us to run to the waterhole without setting up camp first. It is an artificial waterhole into which water is pumped. The horizon was still yellow-orange, and by the water there was a group of elephants, with another one approaching, and they greeted each other politely. There were two small ones. And a herd of giraffes. You could almost not see them in the twilight, but they were reflected in the water, moving slowly and graciously, and I could have watched them forever. 

 When Anton took this picture he said I would make it my cover photo on Facebook. Maybe he was joking, but I have.

Because I had just followed the group and had no idea how to get back to our camp lot, I had to go back when others went back. After dinner we went there again. The waterhole is floodlit, and it's magic. First, there was nothing, and then there was a rhino, moving slowly and freezing every now and then. It left, and another came and left, and another… and another. I believe they were several because they were of different size. 

This picture shows a smaller one. Imagine one almost twice as big, two huge horns, closer and in perfect profile, white against the dark, its reflection in the water. No picture, but I will never forget it.

I asked Dumi whether we could run quickly to the waterhole before we left in the morning, and there were no animals there, as if there had never been any. Maybe we had dreamed them? 

We drove in loops in the park, mentally adding animals to our catalogue:
      tons of antelopes
      zillions of zebras (and mind, it's zEbra, not zEEbra!)

      giraffes, one with a tiny baby

      wildebeest, aka gnu (I think gnu is a better name)
      red hartebeest
      another rhino
      secretary birds
      kori bustard (with whom Kory naturally felt particular affinity)
      something that some people thought maybe possibly was a leopard, but the rest of us didn't believe them
      and finally, at the very end of the day, three elephants very close by the roadside.

I was very happy that we got to see elephants so close, because I had seen them like that in South Africa and was eager for Kory and Anton to have this experience.

Dumi would stop whenever we saw anything interesting, and Tabiza gave us fascinating facts about animals. When he couldn't answer a question, he stealthily consulted a book. 

We had lunch at Halali camp, midway through the park. While Tabiza prepared the meal, we were again allowed to go to the waterhole, which was a natural one, with a viewing platform high above it. There wasn't much activity in the middle of the day, but when I went there again after lunch, I saw a group of elephants leaving, so I guess if you stayed long enough you would see a lot. But we had to move on.

In the afternoon we drove out to Etosha pan that I thought was horrible and Anton thought was the highlight of the day. It is a neverending dry surface of salt, possibly as dead as a place can be. 

Everybody was fascinated, but I just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. This picture is supposed to show me dying of thirst, but we didn't stage it very well. 

For the night, we stayed at yet another camp, Namutoni, on the eastern side of the park. Its waterhole was nothing like Okakeujo the day before, and strangely, I felt completely fed up with animals and also very tired. The next morning we drove a final short loop in the park and saw hyenas and a dik-dik, the smallest antelope in Africa, ridiculously small, like a toy. Then we had another long day on the road. 

To be continued.