by O Bod
... Nero finds himself on both sides of the equator as he closes in on his goal ...
Of All Places
Sometimes it's the Journey
Chapter 7: Bugs, Bugs Everywhere
One of my favorite things was stomping on cockroaches, but that was back home. Here, in Africa, roaches are reputed to reach monstrous dimensions, and I decided I'd best avoid them, so as not to end up on the wrong end of the crunch.
Arriving in Botswana from Zimbabwe, I found myself in the town of Maun. I was let off in some kind of commercial center, with a little gas station, stores, supermarket, etc. I glanced around, took in the surroundings and the people in their colorful attire, and decided that I liked the place, and probably the rest of Botswana, too.
First stop was the supermarket. I liked to visit supermarkets on my travels, to rub elbows with the locals and get a taste of the local foods. I didn't really need anything, but after wandering around the aisles a bit, I got a couple of bars of mint chocolate and a bottle of water, checked my pouch that I had enough Pula, and stood in line at the checkout. I had done the same thing a week before, back in Zim, but soon found myself in an embarrassing situation. Zimbabwe had been under colonial rule in the past, and it seems the image of the white rulers was still embedded in their collective memory. When I took my place at the back of the checkout line there, all the locals in front of me stood aside to let me pass, much to my protests and embarrassment. But here in Bots the white man has no such privileges, and I happily waited my turn.
After spending the previous week sleeping in an assortment of cheap backpacker hostels, pup-tents and sleeping bags, I decided to spoil myself and signed into a real hotel for a couple of days. Hotel Sedia, although small and a little ways out of town, seemed to fit the bill, with its bar, swimming pool, Internet, and other little amenities.
Gotta love Africa. Sure, it has its problems, or some parts do, some of the time, but don't we all?
Poetry in Motion
Waking up from a good night's sleep, in a real bed, in a real room, with a real toilet, I wash up and step outside to the sunshine. The restaurant/bar is right next to the pool, and I take a seat at a little straw table halfway between the pool and the bar. Though it is only mid-morning, there are already some people splashing around in the pool. I sit facing away from the pool, due to the sun's reflection, and order cereal and coffee, and a copy of the The Ngami Times. My cereal is some unidentified type of cornflakes, and I note with dismay that I got the end of the cereal box, powder and all, but don't make a fuss over that.
So eating the cereal with one hand, sipping on my coffee with the other, some soft rhythmic African music playing somewhere in the background, I proceed to scan the newspaper. There is an article about AIDS (prevention, help centers, orphans), then an article about some minor trouble on the border with Zimbabwe in the north (concerning hoof-and-mouth disease), and at the bottom a mention of a mokoro guide who was killed and eaten by a crocodile. No, nothing special in the news today.
Those mokoro boats, long wooden dug-outs, looked neat - I'll have to try to do one of those once I get into the delta, perhaps tomorrow. A leaflet in the lobby offers to go flying over the delta, "The best way to see the Okavango", it reads, but the price, $225 US, seems steep to me. Maybe if I can share it. The delta should be cool, anyway, and I'm looking forward to dark skies at night, to continue my little project. Suddenly there is a distinctive sound from the pool - I stop reading and look up.
Bang, splash, bang, splash. Yes, that definitely sounds like somebody swimming the butterfly stroke, and at a fast pace, too. I spin around and watch - there she is, moving down the center of a pool, as graceful as a dolphin. I was a bit of a swimmer himself, my specialty being the 'fly, too, and it is all I can do to stop myself from jumping in and joining her, but she is way beyond my abilities, and already at the other end.
Later, over a bottle of Windhoek, I befriend Katherine, the swimmer, who is already befriended by (and maybe even betrothed to) her omnipresent companion, Norbert. They hark from Lichtenstein, of all places, on vacation (or between jobs). I had memorized all the capitals in Europe as a child. Wasn't the capital of Lichtenstein Vaduz? Now I have my chance to show off a little. "va-DOOZ", I say proudly.
"Actually, it's pronounced va-DOOTS", Norbert corrects me.
"I'd love to fly there, if only to get a stamp in my passport that I've been to Lichtenstein".
"Well, normally you'd get there by bus, and there is no passport control - you'd have to ask the post-office to stamp your passport. I think it costs 5 Francs these days"
I shrug. So much for my knowledge of the world ...
Katherine and Norbert seem an odd couple, at least externally, Katherine being petite, athletic and energetic, while Norbert is on the paunchy side, much happier having the drink in his hand than being in the drink himself, so to speak. They also have different professions, Katherine being a physiotherapist, while Norbert is a software test developer. Norbert doesn't speak much, but when he does he is fond of saying "that looks like a bug", while pointing at a crack in the floor tile, a misspelled brochure, or an insect (which often causes him to laugh at his own joke).
They arrived a couple of days earlier, from South Africa, passing through Namibia on their way to Botswana.
"I hear Kruger Park is amazing", I remark.
They look at each other, and then Norbert speaks. "We were a little disappointed", he says, clearly understating the feeling. "We did see animals, but you can also see animals at a zoo. This was like a big zoo, with paved roads, tour-busses, concrete watering holes for the animals, and lots of rules for the tourists: Don't leave your vehicle, don't feed the animals, don't use a cell-phone, don't run over elephant shit, and so on."
"Why not run over elephant shit?"
"Everything is protected there, even dung beetles."
"But you did get to eat an elephant burger", Katherine reminded him.
"Really?" I ask, "I thought elephants were like on the endangered list, or something. What did it taste like?"
"Like a hamburger. Anyway, should have given it a big miss and gone straight to Botswana. Have you been to Chobe?"
Chobe Park is in Botswana, but borders also Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and (almost) Angola and Zambia. I was there just the other day. I saw an incredible display of animals, including bathing elephants, crocs, hippos, warthogs (which they call "pumbas", from the Walt Disney film), monkeys, antelopes, lots of birds. And all that was just on the boat tour. Later I joined a group on an open truck of sorts for a land safari, where we saw giraffes, zebras, and even a solitary lioness, culminating in a herd of elephants at sunset. A lucky break for me, who just happened to stop there on the way from Victoria Falls to Maun.
Faint of Heart
Three Degrees of Freedom
A Yoyo, a Pendulum, and a Top
Ah, Vic Falls, Zimbabwe.
Dusty little town, a couple of hotels, hostels, shops and tourist offices, monkeys and warthogs, young men peddling carved souvenirs and offering to change money.
I spent a week there, at a little backpacker's lodge within walking distance from the center of town. Mary was the proprietor, a young black woman who liked to wear a semi-transparent white blouse with an enormous purple bra underneath. A couple of other women worked there too, serving oily egg breakfasts from 7 till 9, scrubbing the floors (on all fours) until noon, and sometimes doing backpackers' hair in the afternoon, in elaborate multiple-braided African styles. There was also a smallish square concrete swimming pool on the grounds there, if one could call it that. I never saw anybody use it, though often the caretaker could be seen collecting leaves from the pool with a long net.
And backpackers would come and go, sometimes in groups and sometimes in singles or pairs. Once a group of some 30 descended on the lodge and took over the place. They were on a 30-day tour, arriving from South Africa, heading towards Kenya and points beyond, stopping at Vic Falls for a brief tour and a chance to rest and stock up on supplies. They seemed to do everything together: Eat, shower, shop, pack, braid their hair, etc. In the afternoon, when I was sitting on the veranda with my daily 4 o'clock coffee, listening to the constant African rhythms on the speakers (Oliver Mtukudzi is singing now 'Hear Me Lord' - how is it he isn't better known outside of Zim?), they all came out, each with his or her travel journals, and proceeded to write their memoirs. I didn't spend too much time at the lodge. I rented a bike, explored the town and surroundings on ground level, and then again by water and air. I cycled over to the "Big Tree", a large Baobab tree as wide as a house. There was a fully uniformed soldier guarding the tree, lest tourists carve their names on it. I cycled into Chinotimba Township trying to photograph local women with babies on their backs and huge jugs balanced on their heads.
One day I went over to the Zambian side of the falls. I cycled onto the bridge over the gorge, stopped on the bridge and did a bungee jump.
I wasn't afraid of heights but then again I wasn't drawn to the extreme sports, either. The main reason I did the jump was out of curiosity, and it was right there on the bridge, so, well, why not. I let them put on the harness and tie my ankles as they gave me the run-down, and then I was led to the end of the platform (reminded me of a pirate's plank), and after a quick countdown I leapt out and down towards the Zambezi River 111 meters below.
At first I was too disoriented to understand what was happening, and then I was moving too fast to focus on anything, and before I knew it I had bottomed out and was moving back up, and saw the guys up on the bridge giving me the "thumbs-up".
Why didn't I feel the bounce, I wonder. What happened, I think, is that the jump started as a freefall, accelerating from 0 to a speed of almost 10 meters per second after the first second, but within a second or 2 the elastic bungee cord started slowing me down, decelerating back down to 0 meters per second and beyond, till I was moving downwards at a negative speed, i.e. upwards, in one continuous motion, so I never felt a jolt or anything.
I was able to discern motion in 3 directions: My outward jump caused me to swing like a pendulum under the bridge, I was also spinning like a top, and lastly gravity was pulling me down, eventually turning me into a human yoyo, as the elastic bungee cord slowed my fall and then pulled me partially back up again.
Feeling that I missed out, I opted to take a second jump (included in the price when you bought the video). On my next jump, taking care to avoid the swinging and spin, I experienced the fall, the rush of air, the cliffs falling away, and the river below coming ever closer up towards me, until I slowed down and started bouncing up. And it was good.
Sure, there are higher jumps now than this one, and some places you can even dip into the water (they ask you if you want to, and then measure a little more bungee rope if you do), but this one sufficed. The view of the Zambezi River between the steep canyon walls was spectacular, and I thought that the 111-meter height was symbolic of something (couldn't remember what).
After the jump, I pedaled on to the end of the bridge, into Zambia, where they stamped my passport and bathed my hands and feet in kerosene, and I visited the Zambian side of the falls. They were holding some contest there, World's Strongest Man, but I only watched for a bit, and continued on the walk, avoiding baboons, taking pictures of the falls, trying to capture some of those permanent rainbows at the bottom of the falls, and eventually reached the Livingstone statue (and avoided the temptation of addressing the statue with "I assume").
At the park entrance area there was one of those African Curio markets. Times must have been rough - the merchants were practically chasing me, shoving the carved statuettes and bowls in my face. I jumped on my bike and rode back to the Zimbabwean side, where the merchants seemed friendlier. I ended up trading the T-shirt on my back for a batik tablecloth, an orange-and-black thing with elephants in silhouette.
The bungee jump was part of a package deal that included a rafting trip down the Zambezi River. There are 3 stages of the river here, from the wide, tranquil river above the falls, to the violent mile-wide waterfalls, to the swift run through the narrow gorge below, to the delight of rafters, in series of rapids with names such as "The Boiling Pot", "Devil's Toilet Bowl", "Jaws", "Stairway to Heaven", "The Washing Machine", and "Terminator". No boat makes it the whole way through without capsizing at least once.
On my last day at Vic Falls, I did the upper Zambezi, above the falls, on the lazy sunset "booze-cruise". The wide, quiet part of the river above the falls is dotted with islands, and one can see occasional crocs, hippos and even elephants swimming there. "Why aren't you taking pictures of the elephants?" I asked a Filipino tourist, as I snapped nearly a whole role of film.
"Oh, I've just been to Chobe", she answered. "Much better".
Low Hanging Fruit
Katherine walks around me, looking at my body. "Push-ups, eh?" she observes. "Don't you do anything else?"
"Well, I also swim, but not that much these days", I answer.
"Yes, about that", she says, examining my shoulder, where I said it had been bothering me of late, especially when I drive.
"Yes, typical", she mumbles. "A rupture of the longhead of the biceps, perhaps". She touches my shoulder, and I wince. "The supraglenoid tubercle tendon is inflamed. It appears you have degenerative changes in the rotator cuff muscles, around the glenohumeral joint, and are experiencing referred pain from that."
"Is that like in the neck?" I ask.
"Well, I wouldn't blame the cervical spine. My guess is that it is from an injury to the supraspinatus tendon below the acromion".
"And in plain language?"
"Typical swimming injury. Muscle imbalance - your push-ups might do that. If you also swim, you probably use too much muscle, so the little ones are strained."
"What do you mean I use too much muscle - that's what muscles are for!" I protest.
"No, you aren't meant to swim like that", Katherine counters.
"Maybe we're not supposed to swim at all", I say.
"Looks like a bug to me", Norbert adds, "or is that 'user error'?"
"I'd say 'user error'", Katherine answers, "but I can think of plenty of other bugs in the skeletal and muscular system. You've probably heard of tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, to name a couple".
"Maybe we're not supposed to play tennis, or type at a keyboard", I say.
"We're looking for bugs in the human body", Norbert explains, "like when female emotions run amok".
"And men's prostrate problems". Katherine adds.
"You see", Norbert said, "with Katherine's expertise in human anatomy, and mine in finding bugs, we are very well suited for this project."
"How many bugs have you found so far?" I ask.
"Well, we're just starting, thinking out loud, the easy ones first, of course".
Just like picking fruit, I think.
"One could be negative", explains Katherine, "and say that the body is like a fragile deck of cards, and any push can start a chain reaction and cause havoc, which is kind of true. Did you know that a breaking a bone can lead to kidney failure?"
"No, I didn't know that".
"It can. But we're taking a positive approach: The human body is one hell of a complex system, and it still functions amazingly well. Still, there are some minor improvements to be had, some bugs to be ironed out, and that's what we're looking for."
After a day of rest in Maun, today Norbert, Katherine and I find ourselves in a truck heading towards the Delta. The Okavango Delta is really a river that never made it to the sea - it spreads out into a delta, some 15,000 square kilometers in area, and just sits there, a huge oasis in the middle of the savannah. We first head to the village of Etcha-6, on the far side of the Delta. The village consists of little round huts; half-naked children are playing on the dusty grounds. One of them is running with a little wheel attached to a stick, making lines in the ground, and other kids are chasing him. When they see me and my friends, they stop and come over. We hand out some sandwiches, which the kids eat readily. Another short truck ride brings us to the edge of the water. We board a couple of small motor-launches (one with seats for us and our guide, and a flat one for our gear), and head out into the delta.
The first part leads us through an open area, with large spaces between the islands, and hippos and crocs can be seen here and there. Then we turn into a tight channel between two islands, and speed down there, turning and winding along with the channel, turning left here and right there. I have no idea how our guide knows where we are going, as each channel looks the same as the last one. All the islands are densely grown with papyrus plants, and they are whipping at our faces as we go along. Every so often we round a bend and scare an egret into flight. This goes on for an hour or more, rounding bends, turning here or there, papyrus fronds slapping at our cheeks. Sometimes the guide stops the boat and points out some animal to photograph, like a malachite kingfisher, or a crocodile, or a fish eagle, and then he hits the throttle again before we can grasp our seats again. It feels we are in some kind of video game, where we have to know which way to turn, and how to capture (or photograph) the most interesting animals. But the all-too-real-scenery, the movement, and the speed we are moving, makes for an experience that no electronic simulation can match, and I am enjoying myself immensely. I am vaguely aware that I am grinning from ear to ear, and hoping it would never end.
We finally reach an island, get off and unload our gear, and the motor boats leave, shouting that they'll pick us up in a couple of days. As the boats speed off in the distance, I look at ourselves and at our pile of equipment, and think that we are like in the series Survivor, stranded there. Tonight we go to council rock and vote one of the group off, and the last one standing will win. And then, looking around at the island, the papyrus, the birds, I know that I could spend a month here and still be sorry to leave. I stand there and miss it already.
Then we become aware that there are other people on our island: Three young boys from a nearby village, and their mokoro boats. The tallest of the three, and the obvious leader, is Peter, though he likes to be called 'Petros'. He and the other boys are crouched behind a bunch of trees on a small hill, and call me and my friends to follow them. They just heard a lion and want to get near it. We follow the boys cautiously, but never find the lion. We do see a couple of warthogs though, which are very funny critters: Fairly large animals (like a large dog), but have these spindly skinny feet, which make them walk with quick funny steps, as if they are always in a hurry. And they have these large heads, with those ridiculous little tusks sticking out sideways at the end. Pumbas.
We all go for a short mokoro drive before sunset, and our guides pole us around the channels near our island, between the reeds. The boats remind me a little of the punting boats in Cambridge, or Venetian Gondolas, but these boats are much thinner, like American Indian canoes, and could only support 3 people: 1 or 2 sitting in front, and the poler standing in the back. My boat is a traditional boat, a single piece of wood carved by hand from a tree, while the others have a newer fiber-glass boat.
In the evening we cook some chicken and vegetables, and the boys build a campfire which we sit around while we eat. Just like a bonfire I used to do in the scouts, but nobody is singing here, so I take out my trusty penny flute and play a few tunes. A bit rusty, but it seems to scare the mosquitoes away. Before turning in, I walk down to the water's edge and listen to the sounds of the night. There are lots of them. I strain to hear a lion's growl, but all I can make out for certain is a mosquito buzzing near my left ear. It most likely is carrying malaria, I think, but I recall that I am taking Larium, and that should protect me. I wonder if Larium is based on Quinine? As the story goes, when the first English explorers reached Africa and started to contract Malaria, the natives gave them quinine, extracted from the cinchona tree. The explorers reaction was something like "wow, this is really bitter! Mix this with a little gin to make the best gin-and-tonic!" and they proceeded to import it back to England. It is used till this very day against Malaria, and by the Schweppes beverage company (among others) in their tonic water...
Beyond the reeds, overhead, I can see many stars in the sky, but this southern-hemisphere view of the sky is unfamiliar to me and I can name no constellations. Not only the night sky (where is the Big Dipper pointing to the North Star?), but even the daytime takes some getting used to, with the sun to the north at noon time instead of to the south...
"Watch out for crocs", Norbert surprises me.
"Oh, I didn't see you there."
"Better me than a croc".
"Tell me, Norbert, is that the Southern Cross over there?"
"Might be. I wouldn't know. But what I'd like to know is why we can see the whole moon even though it's just a crescent."
I follow his gaze. It is a very bright crescent, but one could make out the rest of the moon if one tried. I had once read about this very phenomenon, but this was the first time I saw it so vividly. "That's the dark side," I answer.
"What! I didn't know you could see the far side of the moon. Isn't that always facing away from earth?"
"No, the dark side of the moon, not the far side. The dark side is the side that isn't facing the sun."
"So why can we see it now?"
"It's the reflection of sunlight off the earth", I say.
"I don't understand."
"I read about this. The sun, earth and moon form a triangle, right. The sun shines on the moon, but we see it from an angle, so we only see a section of the lit part of the moon, so it looks like a crescent. But the sun is also shining on the earth, and some of that light is reflected back onto the moon."
"So the dim part of the moon is actually lit from the earth?"
"That's what I understand".
"So the photons from the sun hit the earth, then bounce off to the moon, and then bounce back off the moon to our eyes on earth?"
"Something like that, I guess."
"Wow. So you still can't see the far side of the moon?"
"Unless we go over there and view it from the other side. Or the moon decided to turn around, or something..."
It is getting really dark now, with too many stars to single out any one in particular, but what I'm interested in is the moon, not the stars. After concluding that the moon rises at a different time, almost an hour later every day, we need to determine how later every day. That should pretty much wrap up the theory, because using that delay one could figure out the time. For instance, if the moon rises at 6 pm and sets at 6 am, then it would be at its highest point in the sky at midnight, and we can interpolate all the points in between (for example, halfway up the eastern sky would mean 9 pm). And if it is, say, two days past the 6 pm rising time, and we know the daily delay (let's call it delta - don't Latin names sound more impressive?), then we can figure what time the moon rises every day. A couple of days of observations should be sufficient, assuming that the delta is constant, that the moon rises later by the same delay every day.
Quaintness all around
I didn't sleep well, but unlike the other guys who complained that the field mattresses were too thin, my reasons had to do with my moon-clock. Something is gnawing at my brain, something amiss, you might say. Because you can't expect people to remember how many days ago the moon rose at 6 pm. We'll sort that out ...
After a quick bite and coffee, we pile into the mokoros, and the guides take us to another island, not too far away. On our way we pass another small convoy of mokoros heading the other way, with local villagers, some kids, straw baskets, and a large woman at the pole of the last one. They chat some in a local tongue, and then each party continues on their respective ways.
When we reach the island, we disembark and proceed to walk single file after our guides, who stop every so often to point out something of interest: A tree, the type from which they carve out the mokoro, pumbas in the distance, or black storks flying over head. Black storks are a curiosity to me - the first time Norbert mentioned them, I thought he was pulling my leg. Where I came from, they only have the white variety and that only in the fall. I like to watch the migrating storks back home. They are easy to identify when they are resting on a tree (just like the baby-carrying ones in the cartoons), but when flying at a distance they look a lot like pelicans. Pelicans, also large white birds with black-tipped wings and long beaks, migrate overhead that time of year, too. The rule, I recall, is that pelicans fly in V-formations, while white storks do not. Something about the aerodynamics of the wings. Perhaps pelicans smooth the air behind them for other pelicans to follow, like racing bikers, while storks only cause disturbance, like a motorboat does to a sailboat.
Petros points to some tracks, and says they are fresh lion tracks, less than an hour old. I offer to run after it, but they pass. We continue on our hike, walking single-file after our guide.
"So, are you looking for bugs?" I ask Norbert's back.
"Well, usually I write programs that automatically scan for bugs, but I also look for bugs manually, under strange situations, so I try to cover everything".
"You cover all possible combinations? Must take forever!"
"Well, we never cover everything. Sometimes we test random samplings under certain heuristics."
"What kind of bugs have you collected so far? In the human body, I mean."
Norbert was ready with an answer. "Do you know what I think is a bug? The way the body decides if it needs things, like food, fluids, oxygen. You feel an urge to breathe not when you need oxygen, but when there's a high concentration of CO2 in your lungs. Likewise, the indicator for hunger is usually not an empty stomach, but rather low sugar level, so if you have a sweet then that may satisfy your appetite. And how do you think you are thirsty?"
"Let me guess: An itch on your left toe?"
"Close - a dry throat. So if, say, you have a stuffy nose, and you're breathing through your mouth, then your throat will get dry and you'll want to drink."
"So what's wrong with that?"
"What's wrong with that?!" Norbert fumed. "It's like a bad piece of software. They came out with 'Human Body 1.0', their greatest creation to date, and they thought they had the ultimate killer app, and they send it out for Beta testing, and then it comes back with "how does it know it's thirsty?" So they say "Oh, guess we forgot that, but we don't want to tamper with the digestive system now, now that we finally got it working, so let's put in the throat - that shouldn't break anything. And so it goes, patch after patch, with no thought about scrapping it and starting over, because you already have all those customers out there, and you have to be backwards compatible".
"Are we still talking about the body?" Katherine asks.
I'm thinking, and then say: "What would you do if you could design the human body from scratch, without worrying about the previous generation?"
Norbert is slow in answering.
Katherine answered first: "Yes, Norbert, besides making all the women narrow-waisted and large-breasted."
"A bit sacrilegious, isn't it?," he answers, "Trying to improve on God's creation?"
"Since when have you been religious? But is looking for bugs in His creation any better?"
"Ok, ok. So a better human, ok. Better for the individual, or better for society, as a whole?"
"How do you mean?", I ask.
"Increased longevity is the classic example: Better for each of us, but a burden to society and the planet. Also, maybe it would be better for a person to have a baby in a week instead of carrying it for 9 months, but it wouldn't be good if everybody was doing it."
"There are many things I'd do differently," says Katherine. "For instance, I'd put the nose under the mouth. As it is now, the trachea has to get to the other side of the esophagus, which often causes choking and other problems."
She paused, and seeing my inquisitive expression, continued: "The nose in mammals is above the mouth, right, probably because we used to live in the sea and needed to keep our noses above water to breath. So they had to place some kind of trap-door so you don't get food down the trachea, that's the wind-pipe, or breath air into the esophagus, the food pipe. But we don't need that clumsy error-prone arrangement anymore, so it would be simpler to have the nose under the mouth. Then there are problems with how the body processes food, appetite, sugar, fat, and so on - also leftovers from ancient times. That would require a major redesign to suit the human body to modern times."
No Ill Feelings
Our party continues on for another 15 minutes (surprising how big the island is), until we come to a small woods. We navigate among the trees and shrubs for a while, until we come to the edge of a clearing. Peeking cautiously into the clearing, we see a small herd of elephants not 100 meters away - they seem to be bashing trees. I want to get nearer, but Petros holds me back. "Elephants can be dangerous," he warns. "Not like at the zoo."
On our way back to the mokoros, Katherine suddenly announces: "I got one!"
"One what?" I ask.
"Another body bug", she says, "The appendix".
"That's debatable. For one, some people think it might have a purpose yet. And two, it might still be a leftover from evolution, so it's not a bug - they still haven't gotten around to eliminating it yet".
"So it is a bug", she insists.
"It's a bug by design", offers Norbert, "it's meant to be that way".
"Is that like software people speak software lingo by design?" I ask.
"No, that's by definition", he smiles.
"What does that mean?" I inquire.
"Features can get into the product during different phases.'By definition' means that that is what makes it what it is, like saying that the sun shines during the day, or that people are born on their birthday, or that a ball is round. It doesn't mean that it's right. Then there are all kinds of severities you can assign the bug, from a nice-to-have feature, to a minor typo in the help manual, to the application crashing. We call that 'a show-stopper". A human who dies suddenly before 50 has a major bug".
"But we're not looking at individuals, are we?"
"Ok, then if human bodies have a 1 percent chance of dying before age 50, then that's a bug".
"I think I saw a web site once that listed all kinds of useless body parts", I say. "I remember the appendix and wisdom teeth were mentioned. Maybe body hair, too. Oh, and toes, too. Can't remember what else" . "I would think that we need our toes," Katherine said, "but there probably is a lot of redundancy. You have lots of pairs of stuff, like two lungs, two kidneys. You could probably do with only one testicle, too."
"Oh, here's another one", says Norbert, to change the delicate subject. "If you scratch a rash, then it just makes it worse, and itches more".
"What, are we already in the nervous system?" Katherine asks.
"I'd say the nervous system has many bugs", I offer. "Pain is one. At least intense pain. You shouldn't be able to torture people, and we shouldn't need Novocain."
"Or Epidural", adds Katherine. "Then again, some things should cause pain, as they are harmful, but they cause pleasure instead: Tobacco, sugar, drugs..."
"And once they fix pain, they should fix other feelings, like anger, jealousy, aggression, and so on", quips Norbert.
"I think you're confusing things", I say, "but this is fun. Is this debugging? I've heard of that".
"No", answers Norbert, "We're looking for bugs. Debugging is finding what caused a bug, and then fixing the bug. Say you set out to fix the jealousy bug. You start out in the brain, say, and trace the feeling to a specific circuit in some section of the brain. Then you might set what we call 'a breakpoint', then rerun the process, try to reproduce the jealousy bug. And when it stops at the breakpoint, you single-step until you find the bug, say the synapses are crossed, or whatever, and then you fix it, or construct a temporary workaround, or something. You follow?"
"You lost me around the time you said 'No'".
"Anyway," adds Norbert, "we should go about this in a more systematic way. Are we finished with the nervous system and the brain?"
"Barely started", answers Katherine. "Lots of bugs in the brain. What about mental illnesses. What about Epilepsy? Stuttering? Stupidity? Religious fanaticism? Forgetfullness"
"Women's emotions", Norbert says.
"You said that already", counters Katherine. "But you want to rap hormones? How about your testosterone? At the very least, it can be self-destructive for you guys, and can be blamed for ruining marriages, aggressiveness, fast driving, and gambling, not to mention baldness!"
"You probably won't know a hormone if you bumped into one on the street, anyway".
"So, do you guys want to go over all systems: Digestive system, Respiratory, Reproductive, etc.?" I ask, "or is it by diseases? Because all diseases can be thought of as bugs: Immune system failures, cancer, heart disease, strokes. And all those awful syndromes."
"Not all maladies are bugs. Some are recent, due to our technology, like jet-lag or scuba-diving bends. But evolution is supposed to take care of genetic bugs, isn't it?" asks Katherine. "Anyway, we're still on Orthopedics, you know: Bones and muscles, which I kind of know."
"Are there many bugs there?" I ask.
"Don't get me started", answers Katherine. "Did you ever hear of fifth metatarsal fractures? That's in the foot. How about shoulder dislocations? There are so many design flaws there. On the other hand, did you know that people who tear one of their two biceps muscles usually recover completely, with no ill effect?"
"So why are there two muscles there - just for backup?"
"Well, couldn't very well call it biceps if there weren't two muscles, could we? It would be a 'unicep'".
"See, that's by definition", adds Norbert.
We are quiet for a while, and then Norbert ventures: "I have a thought about baldness."
"Not that there's anything wrong with it!" quips Katherine with a wink.
"Anyway", continues Norbert, "Baldness, failing eyesight, arthritis, and all those things that happen to you when you age. I'm not saying that you shouldn't age, but it just shows bad planning. It's like they assumed that humans won't survive more than 50 years, and so they designed all the systems to last that long, and then the boss said 'Hey - those are the specs - I don't care what happens after that, and I won't be around after that, anyway...'
The evening finds me again standing on the shore, looking at the crescent moon (later than it was yesterday, and a bit fatter, too), gazing over the water (ready to sprint away if a croc shows its head), listening to the humming of the skeeters, and I have a realization: I don't need to time the daily moon-rising delay, it is quite simple to calculate. We know that the moon takes about 29 days to circle earth, so in that time it starts and ends in the same position. So if it makes a full circle in that time, how much does it move in a span of one day? By full circle we can mean 360 degrees, but measuring the circle in hours serves our purpose better, so in 29 days the moon accumulates an extra 24 hours, so how much does it shift per day? Easy: If it shifts 24 hours in 29 days, then every day it shifts 24 hours divided by 29 which equals something less than an hour... here, my calculator shows about .813556 of an hour, times 60 gives us 48.8 minutes.
I'm elated, feel we're almost there. I can pretty much calculate when the moon rises (I know, that part still a bit weak), and then by judging its height in the sky we can tell how many hours passed since it rose, giving us the current time.
Hey, it works for me
Third day on out little island, and we are going for a leisurely mokoro ride in the morning, no place in particular. The driver takes off from our island as usual, but then bears left, and takes us down ever-narrowing channels, until we can almost touch the banks on either side of the boat. There aren't many papyruses here, but mostly reeds and cattails sticking out of the water, and lily pads in bloom with yellow and purple flowers. And dragonflies, too. Something out of a Monet painting from the Giverny series.
When we get back to camp, we eat a light lunch, and then Norbert announces that he's going to go rest. I stand at the water's edge, keeping an eye out for crocs, playing with the notion that I can turn the constant humming of mosquitoes in my ears on and off at will. After about half an hour Katherine joins me.
"Norbert's taking a nap", she says, "Do you want to go on a walk, explore the island with me?"
"Sure", I answer, and get my water bottle and camera and we head off. We are silent at first, as I am feeling a little awkward and puzzled to be walking alone with Norbert's partner. Apparently Norbert feels that I am no threat, and I really am not, but how could Norbert know that?
"So", says Katherine, breaking the silence at last, "you say you swim a little".
"About twice a week, when I'm not traveling. I try and do a kilometer every time".
"That's not bad".
"Well, not a whole kilometer at once. Maybe a 'K', and then the rest in sprints. Once in a while I try to do a continuous kilometer, 40 laps. I try to do it in less than 20 minutes."
"And do you succeed?"
"Last time I did. Or I think I did. Probably didn't."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I don't have a waterproof watch, but there's this big second-clock at the pool they use for the swim-team workouts. So I try to pace myself to do each 50m in a minute, or less. So this last time I glanced up at the clock each 50, each time I turned at the wall, and the second hand appeared to be always at the same place, so I thought I was doing each 50 in exactly a minute, but when I finally stopped I saw that the clock wasn't moving at all."
A Shortage of Baritones
I thought about those days when I was a nine-to-fiver, and I was so entrenched in my daily schedule and so efficient at it that I added yet another half hour: 40 laps at the local pool before work.
I took pride in my efficiency.
A friend of mine, who competed in triathlons, once told me of a race he had won. The story left an enduring impression on me. "The secret", my friend said solemnly, "lies in the transitions. After the swim, you come running out up the beach towards your bike, which you set up in advance with your helmet on the seat and your sneakers on the ground by the rear wheel. Some people go for the helmet first, but that's a mistake. You should first put on your sneakers. You know, we all have those special triathlon ones, that you slip on, and pull-tie them tight. And then, with one sweep-movement, as you're straightening yourself to stand up, you grab the helmet, place it on your head and you're off." With that in mind, I took to pulling off my shirt and grab my towel in the same movement before leaving the locker room for the pool. Super athletes (sometime I pretend to be one) are super-efficient even when they are not competing. You know who they are in the locker room, before they even jump in the pool. They are the ones who shave in less than 60 seconds (you can spot one by their razor cuts...)
I knew most of the guys who'd swim at that hour in the morning, but only when I shaved did I have time to talk to anybody. There were 2 sinks in front of the mirror. Usually I liked the one on the right, because when I stood by the left one I tended to set off the automatic hair dryer, which would go off with such a blast that I nearly got a heart-attack every time. One time the right sink was taken by a bald-headed guy, who had just finished applying the lather and now was stretching his face with one hand while holding the razor with the other. I stood before the left sink, carefully avoiding the dryer, and looked at the mirror. Baldy's reflection glanced at me and said "Hi, there!" in a deep, melodious voice.
"Oh, hi Yuvie", I replied to the mirror. "Good swim?"
"Yup. I'm almost back to my old times. Lost some 10 kilos this past year, and my performance is up to par!", and he turned and winked at me.
"What performance are we talking about now?"
I looked around to see if anybody else was listening, and sure enough, this big guy finished dressing and got up to address Yuvie. "Excuse me, couldn't help but hear you speaking".
"We need a baritone at the choir. Meet Thursday evenings at 9 down at the community center. If you're interested, of course".
Back to Civilization
I couldn't swim a kilometer now if I had sharks chasing me, but this stroll through the African bush is pleasant. We stop to rest in the shade of some trees, right by a termite mound, which is almost twice my height. We each drink from the water bottle, and Katherine looks straight at me. "You know what I was wondering?" she asks.
"Take the statement 'It is not true that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure visible from the moon.' Does that mean that the wall is not visible from the moon, or that there are other man-made structures also visible from the moon?"
I have no answer to that, clever or otherwise.
"It's getting late", she says. "We should probably be heading back to camp."
Last morning on the island, and after a couple more mokoro rides, we are waiting at the camp to be picked up by the motor boats. While waiting, Petros asks me if he can try playing my penny flute, to which I consent, and in return I get to try poling one of the mokoros, but succeed only to turn it around in circles. And Petros has just a little more luck with the penny flute, managing to produce most of the notes on the lower octave.
We hear the engines of the motor launches approaching, to pick us up and take us once again through the narrow channels, papyrus fronds slapping at us left and right, to wake us up from our dream. But we still have a little time to conclude the game we started earlier, and at that point we just all started shouting out our pet peeves:
"Fungus between the toes!"
"Mosquitos!" shouts Norbert, slapping one off his face.
"Hey", I protest, "We're looking for bugs in the human body - that's an insect".
Norbert shrugs. "Looked like a bug to me", he says.
Chapter 8: Lox, anyone?
Tricks on your Eyes
I've been sitting near the bridge for the past 6 hours, watching the river empty out into the ocean. Or is it the other way around? Because at one point it appears that the waterfall is gushing from the bay into the river, which can't be, as oceans don't empty themselves into rivers. Or maybe it is a trick - for these parts seem to teem with 'impossible phenomena', like the 'Magnetic Hill', the 'Mystery Crater', the 'impossible house', and 'home to world's tallest man'. Most of these I dismiss as tourist-trap hoaxes.
But this is real, for the Bay of Fundy boasts the highest tides in the world, and at high tide the water level of the bay is indeed higher than that of the river, and the water gushes in. At the tip of the bay tides can rise and fall some 15 meters because of the shape of the bay, which acts like a funnel and as it narrows towards the end the water is pushed in and has nowhere to go but up. And here at the mouth of St. John River it is only half as much, but high tide is still over 4 meters above sea level at the gorge, and the water pours into the mouth of the river. I am fascinated by all the whirlpools which form because of the eddies and currents and rocks and tides, and they even had some suds that highlight the effect (probably due to the courtesy of the factory upstream). I've heard that whirlpools and whirlwinds north of the equator spin counter-clockwise, due to the Coriolis Effect, but as far as I can tell the whirlpools here had never heard of it, or else there are stronger forces at work here than earth's curvature and leisurely daily spin. Anyway, it is quite a sight to behold.
I get back into my rented RV and continue on my way. I have a triple-A book entitled 'Canada: The Atlantic Provinces', and I'm determined to traverse them, the 3 southern ones, anyway: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, which they abbreviated to 'PEI'. Together they comprise the eastern coast of Canada, or the south-eastern part, anyway. Maybe I'll do New Foundland and Labrador some other day. Traveling in a recreational-vehicle is quite an experience in itself, as I have never done such a thing. It is smallish, as far as RVs go, but it has everything one could need: 2 beds (one over the driver and a foldout sofa in the main cabin, if you removed the table), a sink, a small refrigerator and stove-top, and a bathroom, including a toilet and hand-held shower. A real house on wheels. And the whole thing is no larger than a minivan, so I can drive it and park anywhere in the city. You can't do that with the big motor homes, which can often be seen towing a small car behind them. When I entered a campground outside of town I saw the big RVs parked there (seems to me they park there for good) and the owners, often retired old geezers, would then go into the town in their little cars.
I find a small parking area for my vehicle, and step outside. The campground manager is standing there. "You need help with the hookup?" he asks.
"I've never done this before".
"Fair enough. You know how to level it, right?"
"Umm, I could use a little help there, too."
"Fair enough," he says again. "You're on you own? Normally 2 people do this. Let's go inside."
Inside he finds a little bubble-level on top of the fridge. "This is mainly so the gasses flow right, in the fridge and the oven. See - it's a little off center? I'd say you need two planks under your front right wheel, and one under the left-front one."
We do that, and then the manager shows me how to hook up the electric, water and sewer pipes. "How long you staying?"
"Just overnight, I think."
"Where you coming from?"
"You see the tides there? Something, isn't it? I can show you when and where you can see tidal bores."
"You know, when the tide comes in suddenly and it makes a wave that goes upstream in the rivers."
"Cool. Do you know a lot about tides?"
"So, tell me: The high tide happens when the moon is overhead, right, which is once a day. So why do high tides occur twice a day?"
"Symmetry, I guess, on both sides of the earth."
"Scratch that. I dunno. Going up to Kouchibouguac tomorrow?"
Kouchi-what? What's that?"
"National park. Beautiful - you can go canoeing there."
"I was thinking of heading on to Nova Scotia."
"Oh, then you have to visit Kejimkujik National Park. Great canoeing there."
Hmm, I'm thinking: canoeing, unpronounceable names ... "This whole area Native American?"
"You can say 'Indian' here. There are also Acadians. Enjoy your stay."
Early in the morning I drive into Nova Scotia, and pass by what looks like an Indian Reservation. Is that still the correct PC term, or is it called something else now? It is nice to be driving in Indian county, among tall trees and streams and Indian-sounding names, which all have meanings, like 'place were river flows'. I could picture the first white settlers arriving here from Europe and meeting the locals, some 400 years ago. They say the Vikings were in these parts over 1000 years ago, but most people don't seem to know that.
Nova Scotia means 'New Scotland', of course, and pretty soon I notice that many names changed from Indian-sounding ones to Scottish (or English) ones: Londonderry, Inverness, Oxford and Windsor.
Nova Scotia is almost an island. It is a peninsula narrowly connected to New Brunswick at its northern end. Except for the eastern part, which is indeed an island, called Cape Breton, which is often confused with the national park by the same name.
New Yorkers associate Nova Scotia with lox, the pinkish smoked salmon slices that one can get at a deli in Manhattan or thereabouts. I recall there was something in the paper some years ago about it being not as healthy as people liked to think. For one, much of the lox is from farmed salmon, which isn't quite your natural open-water swimming fish. And the color isn't purely natural either - apparently they feed the fish something that colors their meat 'salmon-color'. Enough to put me on a salmon-free diet for a few years ...
At Truro I stop for a late lunch at a cafand scan the menu. I purposely do not order the salmon, even though they made a point of preceding the item with 'open-water'. Still, one has to have seafood in Nova Scotia so I order clam chowder ("the white kind, please") and a lobster roll. Can't beat that.
On the way out of town I bear right and follow signs to Halifax and Dartmouth. The other road leads to New Glasgow and Antigonish - I decide to see those on the return trip. Antigonish sounds Scottish to me, kind of like Cavendish, but turns out I'm wrong there. It is an Indian name, meaning: 'The place where branches are broken off by bears gathering beechnuts'.
It is late evening by the time I approach Halifax, and I should probably start looking for a campground. There are some woods on either side of the road, and I see a small camper parked by the roadside. Backing up, I turn in and park next to it. A young woman steps out. "Greetings," she says cheerfully.
"Hello. This a campground?"
"No. But we're staying here. There's plenty of space here, if you want to park here for the night, too."
"What about hookup, food, bathrooms?"
"You're in a camper, aren't you? You should be able to go a few days at least without that stuff."
She is right, I realize. I have water, electricity, a toilet and all that. "Is there like a supermarket nearby?"
She explains how to get there, and then adds: "When you come back, try and park further away maybe - more space for all of us," and she gives me a smile.
I follow her directions, park in the parking lot and enter the little convenience store. What does one buy for a house on wheels? I stand by the refrigerator section. I don't feel like cooking in there, so eggs are out of the question, as are meat, rice, potatoes, soup, etc. Orange juice looks good - I get one of those, and some cream cheese. And a couple of rolls. Coffee, sugar, milk, breakfast cereal. That should do it. Should I get beer? Well, not much of a beer drinker, but I get a couple anyway, in case I run into somebody, for beer is a social drink (can't offer orange juice, can you?). I am all set now - I add a pack of mints at the checkout, pay and push the cart out to where I am parked. It's cool putting the food directly from the shopping cart into the fridge and kitchen cabinets - don't get to do that back home. Maybe one of these days I'll drive over to a fishing pier, buy a fish from some fisherman, and fry it on my stove-top. This is really fun, camping like this, but it this really camping? I remember, when I was a young-un in scouts, we had to hike for miles, set up a tent in the wilderness, go to the bathroom behind the trees, make a campfire, and sleep in a sleeping bag on the rocks - that was real camping. This, with the all-included camper - maybe they should call it 'campering'?.
Halifax is a delightful city, with a real fort on the hill and a picturesque harbor. I learned it was founded in the 17th century by immigrants from France and Britain, served as a British naval base until 1906, and it was fairly destroyed by an explosion in 1917. Walking through the farmer's market I stop at a stall of a Gypsy-looking woman, and end up buying a cellophane-wrapped package labeled '15-kinds-of-beans' for soup, as 'as a bonus' she threw in a small bag of some spice powder. This will make a great meal that I can prepare in the camper. Can even add something myself, like sliced hotdogs. That should make for a great icebreaker next time I find myself parked in the woods next to another camper ... I lunch at nearby Peggy's Cove (can't get enough of that clam chowder) and after hopping on the big rocks by the lighthouse I head east towards Cape Breton Island.
I stop to fill up at Antigonish, but see neither bears nor beechnuts. The gas station attendant seemed amiable enough, though.
"How do you get to Cape Breton Islands?" I ask him.
"Cape Breton Island?"
"I thought it's called 'Islands'"
"No, it's 'island'. But you probably want to go to Cape Breton Highlands, the park".
"I thought you said 'island'".
"There's the island, and then on the island there's the park. Both are well worth seeing. And then there's the Cabot Trail: You probably want to do that in a clockwise direction so you don't fall off the cliffs, what with your big van and all."
On the Cabot Trail I really feel I am in Scotland, both because of the landscape (foggy mountains, creeks and water) and the names, which include places like 'Keltic Lodge', and 'St. Ann's Gaelic College'. Apparently there's a Scottish festival there every year, though not at this time. At the museum I learn about the history of Scotland, with its dynasties, wars, clans and kilts. I get some sample kilts in the form of bookmarks.