Letter from America

17 07 2008

Does anyone remember Alistair Cooke’s weekly radio piece “Letter from America.” It should have been a blog, he was a man before his time.

I am a South African and I’ve been in the US for about 2 weeks now, and I’ll probably be here for another week or so. So I thought it would be good to write something from here for all my South African readers. Some US readers may find it interesting also.

It’s quite a change being in rural northern Kenya a month ago with the arms trade and the teams clearing out land mines in southern Sudan and the primitive life, and then being in NY and LA.
We were on the tarmac at JFK for 4 hours, waiting in a line to take off, and that on the back of a 10 hour layover. That’s the last time I use a travel agent (no offense meant it you are one).

Right now I’m in a city that rivals Cape Town for it’s beauty… Seattle.
It’s a marvelous place, water everywhere you look. Eagles, Ospreys and Deer all around you, and the biggest trees you could imagine. Apparently the early colonial prospectors, looking for anything that could be used to bolster the slave driven, European rival-economies of 400 years ago, reported that the timber here was “too large to be practically harvested”. Of course industrial milling changed all that and Tacoma – a city 100km south of Seattle – was a millers paradise.
Actually at the moment I’m staying closer to Tacoma than to Seattle, right at the end of the Puget Sound in a beautiful little place called Gig Harbor (no u’s in harbor here). Mount Ranier is visible at this time of year, it’s a perennial snow capped peak engineered over the centuries by the volcanic release of the San Andreas fault. This whole coastal region before the rockies is beautifully punctuated by these massive mountains with their heads in the clouds.

One of the attractions here is a ride on a Seattle ferry, something which I insist on doing whenever I’m here (and my wife just rolls her eyes). And this afternoon is ferry ride time! These ferries take about 30-100 vehicles and a couple hundred people, maybe as much as 1000 – I don’t know; and are a little like a floating mall. And the scenery from the ferry is just gorgeous everywhere you look; the ride is about an hour and a half.
Seattle city is one of those places that just oozes culture and beauty. It’s intelligent in every way, an obvious reflection of the people and the culture, and it’s about as photogenic as a city can be.
Friday is independence day and we’ll go and hang with the patriots at a fare at Federal Way. Along with Ben & Jerry’s pink Harley ice-cream bikes; Air Force Tomcats and 2nd WW Mustangs (and a Harrier or two); and fundamentalist Christians with sandwich boards and flyers yelling “Turn or Burn!”
Now when I say ‘fare’ what I mean is about 5-10km of beachfront with stalls and shops and food (so much food) and trucks and music and games and activities… it’s a little overwhelming and impossible to do in one day.
And then the fireworks, which have to be seen to be appreciated.

But it’s pretty clear, being here, that the American lifestyle is under more pressure than ever before since the war of independence. Locals blame it on terrorism, oil prices and a myriad of other things. But the reality is that the American dream-society is crumbling from within. Somewhere an invisible line of liberality has been crossed; there has been one too many ludicrous law suits, and it seems to me that America has crossed a point of no return.
But still, it’s nice to bask a bit in the glow of a brilliant, but fading, star.


The owl at Sesriem

12 12 2007

It’s a long drive to Sesriem from anywhere. It’s in the hottest part of the Namib desert, in the Naukluft Park, central Namibia. Where the dust pours like liquid penetrating food seals and tightly closed lips.


But despite all the dust the air is so clean and sounds seem clearer. Our old faithful Ford F250 has taken a beating from this rocky land as the heat shimmers off her bonnet in the shade of a large thorn tree. We’re parked at the campsite at Sesriem, besides the few trees there is nothing living as far as I can see. As you look into the distance the horizon seems to dance like a mad thing. Tomorrow we will drive to the huge Sossusvlei sand dunes, the largest dunes in the world, and the ‘vlei’ itself. In a place like this it’s hard to imaging that we, soft, water filled humans, have had any impact on this planet at all.


It seems as if our hosts are as unforgiving as the land, we did not book at Sesriem. We thought we’d be the only people there; and we were right. A number of lovely, shady campsites lay vacant. But, you see, we haven’t booked so we stay outside the camp area. One gets the distinct feeling that here in Naukluft Park, they don’t need your business.


As soon as it is dark we’re over the fence and into the showers, as quietly as possible. There’s no hot water but, who wants hot water here. It’s good to be clean again, and tired.

Back at our camp I feel the need to be alone. I wonder if I will ever be so alone and so at peace again? The full force of the night sky invasion is revealed as the day slowly bleeds away in the west over the jagged peaks of the Witberg. The warm wind blows gently with the evaporating heat, it’s going to be cold again tonight.

The magnitude of the stars is quite overwhelming. There’s no moon tonight but I can see my way clearly through the short grass. I find a spot to lie down and just look at the stars, I have never seen anything quite like this.


Somewhere close an Eagle Owl is hunting, I can hear his deep call. All the red of evening is gone now, it’s just jewels on black velvet.

I hear the owl again, an anticipation starts to build in me… he’s hunting, flying against this spotlight sky… if he flies up, I will see him! Suddenly he breaks through the horizon and punches an arc across the stars. He’s magnificent, I can see every detail of his feather tips against the stars but I can only see shape, no shade or depth to him. His shape changes like a shadow puppet as his silent wings grip the warm black air like a shadow animation, then he’s gone again, and it’s quiet.


Such a spectacular sight! I want to shout and cheer; but there’s no sound, no endorsement. Just the brilliant stars, exposing me and my cheep, thrill-seeking, cosmopolitan attitude.

I suddenly feel like a tourist. Nothing here in this bleak, beautiful place is even trying to impress me; yet how impressed I am.