Sunday, June 25, 2006

THE HEART OF AFRICA

The Congo: We just returned from a full week in what has to be simultaneously one of the strangest, most tragic and most wonderful places in the world, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is a place made infamous by Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" novel in 1899. It is a vast land of jungle and savannah, the size of the western U.S. It is a place where 3.9 million people have died as a result of a civil war and related conflict, since 1998. A place of holocaust and hope.

The DRC is to be distinguished between the "other" Congo, to the northwest, a smaller country known as Congo Brazzaville. The equator runs through the northern portion, along with an immense river (the Congo River), but we were so far south of that steamy and humid jungle that the air still had the cool chill of winter, a brisk breeze blew much of the time, and everyone bundled up in sweaters and jackets.

Our visit started when our plane landed in Ndola, Zambia, and we proceeded overland by Range Rover north to the border (about a two-hour drive), across the border (an amazing and incomprehensible experience in itself, which took about two or three hours), then on up to Lubumbashi (another two hours).

We visited three cities in the southernmost portion only, known as Katanga Province. Our first day or two was divided between Lubumbashi (World Vision's headquarters office for the DRC) and Kipushi (which is nearby, about 30 km). For the third and fourth days we took a small commuter plane up 300 km to Kolwesi (it's at least an 8 hour drive, which in my case and due to the nutzoid roads in the DRC, might have resulted in brain damage), then back to Lubumbashi for our final day. We were accompanied during the entire trip by Vianney Dong, World Vision's communications director for the country, who is based in Kinshasa.

Kolwesi is near the source of the Congo River, a lake visible from our small aircraft as we came in for a landing at the Kolwesi Airport.

The area we were in was formerly controlled by big mining companies. The environmental devastation is obvious (huge mountains of tailings from cobalt/copper mining operations), but the devastation on the people in the area, resulting from when the mining companies collapsed or pulled out about 10 years ago, is even more obvious. Some mining is now occurring once again, but most people now live in desperate poverty, as subsistence farmers and/or street vendors.

There are tens of thousands of street children between Lubumbashi and Kolwesi, and most are out there as a result of abuse and accusations of "sorcery" (basically they are scapegoats for their parents' problems, mostly malaria and AIDS). This is a huge story that needs to be told, and I am working on writing it up. In many cases, I believe even evangelical pastors (hopefully out of ignorance and not simple greed) may be complicit in this travesty. They are charging parents money to "diagnose and treat" situations in which the children end up being accused of sorcery and turned out to the streets. It's heartbreaking.

One small center in Kolwesi which is seeking to help these kids has hundreds show up at their doorstep each day. The center is run by volunteers, completely unpaid for their efforts, including the director, who is herself a subsistence farmer. The funds they need to spend on food and rent for their small office come mostly from World Vision assistance and from the older children knitting and selling sweaters. They have one small room (the size of my bathroom at home) where they sleep nine homeless boys at night. No adult supervision, but it's deemed safer than the streets.

The entire area is plagued by an influx of thousands of truck drivers, mostly from South Africa and Zambia. In addition to various goods, these men import South Africa's HIV problem into the Congo. Street children -- females in particular -- in their desperation to simply survive, are ripe targets for these predators. Getting these kids off the streets would save hundreds and perhaps thousands of children's lives in this area of the world.

The other big plague here is malaria. Probably four out of five people have it, and it takes an enormous human toll. One small clinic we visited had a half dozen children lying miserably in bed. I asked what they were suffering and all but one were there because of malaria.

I was also privileged to interview kids and staff at the province's only school for the deaf and mute, a Christian school called Ephrata, supported by World Vision. Children are commuting in to the school, daily, from up to 30 km away. By commuting, I mean they are walking on Katanga's dangerous roads. Many start at 3 a.m. so they are walking in utter blackness every morning. Can you imagine how dangerous this is? In May alone the school had two children struck by vehicles, in separate incidents. I met and photographed one (in the adjacent photo), who is recovering from injuries very similar to the ones I received in my bike accident. He was struck by a motorbike.

The school wants to build a dorm facility where students who have such a long walk may stay during the week, to minimize the dangers. They are looking for funding.

I am blown away. World Vision is doing so much with so little here, but they are barely scratching the surface. They estimated in Kolwesi that they are reaching only about 10% of the people who desperately need help. The needs are enormous.

We also wanted to visit the Goma area in eastern Congo, but were vetoed due to insecurity. (The city has recently been shelled and raked by machinegun fire from rebel strongholds.) But the tension even this far south in Katanga Province is evident ... there are armed UN patrols and police with automatic weapons everywhere. I read there are more UN troops in the DRC (about 17,000) than any other single country in the world. Even the World Vision office in Kolwesi is guarded by hired police with automatic weapons. It's eerie.

While we were driving in Kolwesi we saw a man severely beating a woman in the street. The driver of our Range Rover skidded to a stop and our staff jumped out. They managed to talk the man down from his rage and partly rescued the woman by inserting their bodies between him and her. I have new levels of respect for what these folks are up against.

The people of Katanga Province impressed me as creatively resourceful and industrious. But in many ways they need a lot of help, in terms of expertise, training and resources.

If you visit the Congo, you will absolutely love the people. They are hungry for contact with the outside world. Everywhere we went, Mandy and I were treated like the King and Queen of England.

At one health center where I was interviewing staff and patients, the whole time we were there we hyeard the sound of loud music and celebration from outside. I asked Vianney about this and she said, "The local churches heard you were coming and organized something." When we went out front there was a "band" of about 50 or 60 native dancers, singers, and instrumentalists (most banging on various types of homemade drums made of hollowed-out tree stumps), and we were also surrounded by hundreds of onlookers who soon joined in the dancing. It was the wildest party I ever saw.

We proceeded from there by foot to our next appointment, a football (soccer) match I think they had organized just for our visit. One team of sponsored children versus another. There were hundreds of onlookers. As we approached the field (we were a little late and the match had already started), people left the sidelines in droves and came streaming toward us. We were pressed by so many excited children, just shaking our hands and touching us, that World Vision staff were forced to intervened and create a corridor so we could join the game without getting trampled!

There is an amazing pre-existing infrastructure in Katanga Province, built by the mining companies. Huge hospitals, schools, roadworks, even tracts of nice homes. But since they left, everything has degraded. Feels like being in some sort of post-holocaust B movie. Nothing seems to work anymore.

I am eager to share the stories that came out of our visit, so be sure and visit the World Vision blog where we will be doing this. I've just posted, first of all, the story of our wonderful visit with Gracia, our sponsored child, and her family. If you are not already a child sponsor, I hope you will become one after reading this!!!

Saturday, June 17, 2006

LIONS, AND TIGERS, AND RHINOS ... OH MY!

I've always enjoyed "Northwest Trek" because of the amazing display of animals that are native to the Northwest. It gives you a real sense of appreciation for the diversity of life that God created on this planet.

Well, this weekend we visited the South Africa Lion and Rhino reserve, and I must say, it makes Northwest Trek look like a sandcastle next to the Taj Mahal.

The Reserve boasts nearly every kind of African animal imaginable, with the exception perhaps of giraffes ... I'm not sure why they didn't have giraffes. (And if they'd had them, you'd think we would have been able to see them!) And many animals not native to Africa.

Most (not all) are more or less roaming freely on the Savannah, in large, fenced-off sections. You drive your car right through the savannah on these very authentic African roads, but you drive slowly and at times can't drive at all because you are surrounded by lions, cheetahs, rhinos, or other animals.

They also have a reptile sanctuary with practically every deadly snake known to man. Fortunatley, these aren't freely roaming the Savannah. And a more enclosed section of the reserve where you can examine dangerous and rare animals (like white lions and bengal tigers) up close and personal.

And a platform high over a swampy area where you can watch hippos do what hippos do best -- snooze peacefully.

Anyway, I won't waste your time with more words. You need to see the photos. We took more than 150. I wish Blogger would let me post them all. Here goes:

Larry and Mandy hold the front page of our local paper, the News Tribune, in a photo with Ronga, a rare white Bengal tiger, who we discovered enjoys an ear scratching just like any other putty-tat. (We're hoping the News Tribune will post this photo, as they often do from readers abroad.)

I wasn't aware that one could actually pet a rhinoceros and walk away unscathed, but here you go. Mandy is doing it. Turns out the big tough things also have a soft spot for having their ears scratched. I'm beginning to wonder if humans and snakes (which have no ears, right?) are the only creatures who actually don't enjoy this.

King of the beasts and king of the road.Driving through the savannah (in the "lion zone") we soon found ourselves in the midst of a pride of lions. (You discover why they call it a "pride" when you get in the midst of one.) Had you dared, you could have leaned out the window and touched them as they walked by the car. (I found it interesting that they warned you not to have any soft or loose objects on the outside of your car which could be chewed off. I guess this includes human heads and arms.) They acted just like they owned the road. Well, I guess they probably did! It took us a full half hour just to get through the pride ... you don't want to offend them.

Dang it! Blogger is doing it again. I'll work on an alternative method for getting the rest of the photos to you, so check back.
OKHAHLAMBA

Okhahlamba (pronounced "Oka-schlamba" with a gutteral sound for the "sch") is a rural highlands area halfway between Johannesburg and the ocean, bordered by the high ridges of Lesotho on the west. It is a geologically beautiful area of high cliffs and mountains, lakes, and grassy savannah.

Okhahlamba is the Zulu name for the area, and the Afrikaner name for it is Drakensberg. I haven't yet figured out exactly which name to use, since I am neither Zulu nor Afrikaner.

World Vision has an "area development project" in the region, in which poverty and AIDS are endemic among several hundred thousand people. Some live in towns and others out in sprawling mud brick huts out in the tall grassy fields. It was our privilege to spend the week with this program and try and document some of the things that they are doing. You can read more about our week on World Vision's blog, http://blog.worldvision.org.

We left on Friday to drive back to Johannesburg, about a three or four hour drive. But we decided to stop on the way at a beautiful part of the northern end of Drakensberg called "The Amphitheatre." It is a valley ringed by 1,500-foot cliffs and geological formations. A waterfall plunges down from the high Lesotho plateau and becomes the Rugela River.

We hiked about halfway up from the furthest point you can park in this national park area, up along the Rugela River toward the waterfall. We hiked for about two hours then had to turn back so we wouldn't be caught by darkness. But it was an enjoyable workout and beautiful hike.

I mainly wanted to use this blog to show you some of the photos from the hike. But Blogger will only let me upload these two for some reason. The one above is a view of the cliffs of "Cathedral" during our hike. Below is a shot from the beginning of the hike.

This hand-made wooden bridge crossed the Rugela River early in the hike. Most of the "rivers" I have seen in South Africa, so far, are little more than a bubbling creek. Though I'm sure they have larger ones.

Monday, June 12, 2006

A WEEKEND TO OURSELVES, THEN SOUTHWARD

Sunday in Johannesburg had two very interesting parts for us. Sunday morning we attended "Rhema Bible Church" in the suburb of Randburg. With 38,000 members, it is one of the largest churches in the world. I'm guessing that the 10:00 service we attended probably held around 6,000 or 8,000 people. It was exuberant worship.

Waterfall at botanical gardens near Johannesburg.Then Sunday afternoon, after a nap, we went to some botanical gardens to the northwest of our B&B. They had a beautiful waterfall and a lot of very interesting birdlife. Some photos are attached.

After a pleasant weekend in Johannesburg, we have finally "fled the big city." This morning we checked out of our B&B in Johannesburg and drove southeast about four hours to a beautiful area of South Africa known alternately, in Afrikaner, as Drakkensberg, and in Zulu, as Okhashlamba (check sp). This is a geologically dramatic area of high plateaus rolling hills, long placid lakes, and ringed to the west by the beautiful mountain ranges of Lesotho.

We are staying in a central town in the region, called Bergville, where World Vision's Okhashlamba Area Development Program is headquartered. We have met the manager of the ADP, Joseph Dladla, and he is going to very kindly show us the various projects that are a part of the ADP over the next two days, starting at 8 a.m. tomorrow morning.

Until then we have some time to settle into our B&B, which is called Anthony's and is just off the main road. It is operated by a very gracious Afrikaner named Carol. Once again we are protected by a very large German shepherd, this one MUCH friendlier than the last two. Every chance he gets he wants to lick our hands and be stroked.

The B&B itself sits on a hillside overlooking a valley between us and the dramatic mountains I mentioned earlier. We are grateful that it is farther off the beaten path than the last B&B, and therefore quieter. We have a lovely cottage with a central living area and kitchen and two attached bedrooms. Mandy is happy to have her own bedroom this time, she says she has had a hard time sleeping the last two nights on account of my snoring. (What, me snore? Yeah, right.)

The cottage is made of stone or concrete and very cool inside, so there are electric warmers in each room. At first we thought we wouldn't need them, but after we turned them off it became apparent why they were there as it grew cool quickly. Remember that it is the dead of winter here. But it is still quite pleasant outdoors until the sun goes down.

It was very quite breezy here this afternoon. We have a large pecan tree off our front porch so the porch is now covered with leaves ... and nuts. There are pecans lying all over the porch, just waiting to be picked up and cracked. They are delicious.

After a nice nap I went on a brief walk with "Shepherd" out as far as the main road. I disturbed some sort of large bird, the size of a goose but with a long curved bill, to one side of the driveway, it squawked angrily and flew over my head to land on the other side of the yard. It stalked around as if it belongs here. Maybe a pet? The dogs didn't seem to bother it.

Darkness has just fallen and as I was sitting out on the front porch and typing this, I suddenly got swarmed by mosquitoes. The first I've seen since being in Africa. So I quickly retreated inside to finish this.

Well, I'm back, but not until after a wonderful dinner. Carol, the woman who runs the B&B, has a long history with World Vision and its project here, and she is full of interesting information. Among our B&B mates are two women from New York who are working on a documentary about AIDS sufferers and anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs). Very interesting. I'm going to enjoy this place a lot!

Early tomorrow morning, we join our project staff and we'll see what the day brings!

Thanks for reading, and for praying. I have lots of photos, but Blogger is still not letting me upload. So check back!

Saturday, June 10, 2006

THE CRADLE OF HUMANITY?

To the northwest of Johannesburg, atop a high plateau of rolling savannah, sits an area pockmarked with limestone caves. They claim the name "The Cradle of Humanity" because the purported remains of some of the oldest hominids have been found in these caves.

Today we descended deep into one of these caves, with a group of other awe-inspired tourists, known as "Sterkfontein." It is deep within this cave, probably 300 feet below ground level, that in the 1980s someone discovered, in a pile of dirt removed from the cave, a number of foot bones and a broken off legbone which radiocarbon dating placed at 3.3 million years of age. Because of the broken off legbone, scientists thought the rest of the skeleton might still be in the rock of the cave somewhere, so they returned and were successful after a two-day search. Digging carefully away at the rock they eventually uncovered an entire skeleton.

That skeleton, nicknamed "Littlefoot," is still mostly imbedded in the rock. The place was carefully guarded by an iron gate replete with alarm system. Our tour guide informed us they are still digging the skeleton out, after these 20 or so years. I asked when he thought they might have it completely removed. "Come back in 5 years and ask me again," he joked, and everyone laughed.

I was perplexed by a number of things at Sterkfontein. One was why, if this is such a magnificent find (the oldest complete hominid skeleton ever discovered, supposedly), they aren't more eager to get it out of there.

The sterkfontein cave contained a number of "death traps" or vertical tunnels to the surface through which numerous animals, and even people apparently, fell to their deaths. Such was the unfortunate fate of Littlefoot, it seems.

I am also perplexed by how unquestioningly people accept the basic premises of evolutionary theory, which seems to be regarded as indisputable fact by the people who put together exhibits such as those at Sterkfontein. They talk about fish evolving into mammals, but then show you a fossil of a fish found so many millions of years ago, and tell you that exact same fish swims in the waters of South Africa today. So how come it hasn't evolved into something else? Something better? Why is the same animal fundamentally unchanged?

And if they are pulling thousands and thousands of animal fossils out of these caves, as they claim (and I saw several rooms full of fossils), why haven't they found even one fossil of some species that is in transition to another species?

It seems that if macroevolution as a theory were to be taken seriously, there would need be at least one example of one species in transition to another, in the fossil record. Doesn't anyone wonder about that?

The Bible says that God created every animal "after its own kind." In other words, you don't transition from one species into another. Which would explain why there is nothing in the fossil record to support that particular theory.

I have studied the Bible very carefully and nothing I've ever seen come out of the world of science ... including hominid skeletons that are millions of years old ... violates anything I have read in its pages. Sure, some people jump to conclusions and construct artificial timetables and make certain assumptions and think the Bible supports the notion that the human race is only 6,000 years old. But there's plenty of room in the Bible I am reading for every proven scientific reality out there. The Bible presents no offense to science.

But science certainly appears offended by the Bible sometimes. Scientists scoff at the notion that an intelligent designer created all the order around us, which the law of entropy assures us is proceeding from that original ordered state into a state of disorder. (Once again, consistent with biblical truth.) In violation of their own principles they suggest that the intricate and amazing design we know of as life proceeded basically out of random chance. From a state of disorder to a state of order. Hmmm. So much for the second law of thermodynamics.

Well, don't get me started. Arrogance just bugs the heck out of me. We seem so sure about things that we really can't know much about because we weren't there when they happened. We need a good dose of humility.

In college I read a book called The Nature of Scientific Paradigms, or something like that. The basic thesis was interesting. It said that about every hundred years ago or so developments in our understanding of how things work so significantly shift our "scientific paradigm" that things we took for granted a hundred years ago become totally inane.

A hundred years is a very short timeframe when held up against the scale of creation and the history of our planet. A hundred years from now, who knows what we will think about all the theories we currently cling so tightly to? A mere hundred years. We need a little humility.

Friday, June 09, 2006

A WEEK IN AFRICA ... SOME IMPRESSIONS

Hi everyone. It's Friday evening here in South Africa (Friday morning there at home in Washington), near the end of a very long but productive week, and I thought I would take a quick break to let everyone know how we're doing, and to get some of my impressions of Africa down "on paper."

Mandy and I arrived here in Johannesburg last Saturday, so tomorrow morning we'll have been here a full week. We've had some adjustments, but I really feel like we're starting to get comfortable. We're staying at a very nice bungalo, a bed 'n breakfast called "King's B&B" in Roodeport, which is a suburb of Johannesburg.

We've worked pretty hard since getting here. We had one full day in Soweto, which is the world's largest ghetto, interviewing and taking photos at World Vision projects, which generated about two full days of work to write up the stories and post the photos to the internet so communicators at World Vision could use them. Some of what we're working on is also being posted to the World Vision blog, so you can read that and see Mandy's great photos at http://blog.worldvision.org/. There are about 5 million people in Soweto, and 37% of them have AIDS. It's desperately poor and very sad.

So, we're looking forward to the weekend. We're even thinking about going to a big game park and looking at the lions!

Johannesburg is very interesting. It's a huge city, a lot like LA, and bustling with people. It's at about 5,500 feet in elevation and it's early winter here, so it can get fairly cool at night (and there is no heating in our bungalo, so we sleep with warm blankets). But during the day the sun shines most of the time and it is warm enough for shirtsleeves.

There is a lot of crime (theft mostly) so we take good security precautions. Our B&B is very secure, surrounded by walls topped with electric wire and even patrolled by German shepherds. Cost of living is fairly low; we went out to a pretty nice restaurant and had a good dinner tonight for a total of about $11 for the two of us. And that's considered expensive here. Our B&B, which is really nice and includes a great breakfast, is only about $30 or $40 a night. South Africa would actually be a great place to vacation. It's beautiful, and cheap, and probably about the most modern place in all of Africa.

We're renting a small car, and it took me a few days to get the hang of driving it. Everyone drives on the left side of the road and the driver sits on the right side of the car. It has a manual transmission so you shift on the left, which is hard to get used to at first. But after driving for 6 days I think I'm getting pretty good at it. It may be hard to go back to right side driving when we get back. Your brain gets adjusted so after awhile you don't even have to think about it much. But the first few days it took so much concentration it made my head hurt.

Other than driving on the roads, most of the differences are in lifestyle. Things are definitely slower here. "You're on Africa time now" is a common saying. And the other thing that's very noticeable is a definite class distinction. The menial labor or very servile jobs are always done by blacks. There are some blacks doing higher level jobs, but not near as many. Apartheid is gone, but much of the culture hangs on.

This will be our last weekend in Johannesburg for awhile. Monday we're driving about three or four hours (toward the southern coast) to a small village out in the country called Okhahlamba. (If you try to pronounce that, I guarantee you won't get it right. It's pronounced something like "Okaschlamba" but with a kind of Germanic gutteral sound.) If you're looking at a map, Okhahlamba is right on the eastern edge of Lesotho, but still in South Africa. It's supposed to be very beautiful, with a dramatic mountain range behind it (on the Lesotho side). Lesotho is very mountainous and actually gets snow in the winter. We will visit there later in July ... when it's colder!

We'll stay in Okhahlamba for three or four days, doing more research and photography in projects there. Then for the following weekend we may either drive out to the south coast, to the Durban area, to go sightseeing and explore KwaZulu-Natal, or perhaps just stay in Okhahlamba for the weekend (if we really like it), or return to Roodeport. Right now we're playing it by ear.

Then the following Monday we fly 2,000 miles north to the Congo, where I'm sure it will be much warmer! We will spend a week in the Congo, doing research in several projects there. After that we will spend up to a week each in Zambia and Zimbabwe, then return to South Africa for a few days before flying back to London, then home on July 19.

So far I have been a lot busier than Mandy, although she's probably been catching up on more rest than I have. She also is becoming an expert at South African TV, which is mostly full of B-run movies or old, cancelled TV shows. Anyway, she's looking forward to hitting the road Monday.

So, Mandy and I are both excited and doing well, though we miss home. We have gotten good resource so far and things are coming together. Technology has been a little frustrating, but we're learning how to deal with it.

I intended to attach a few of what I think are her most interesting photos from Tuesday's visit to the Soweto Township of East Orlando, but Blogger isn't cooperating again. Please check http://blog.worldvision.org/ for photos, for now. I'll post some here later if I can.

We miss you all. Drop us a comment!

Monday, June 05, 2006

June 5, 2006

In the Office

Just wanted to give a quick update to say we spent our first full day with World Vision's wonderful Southern Africa regional staff, in their office here in Roodeport, South Africa. What a great group of folks. We are especially indebted to Chantal Meugens for all the work she is putting in getting us set up logistically.

We haven't yet taken any new photos today, so I have nothing to post that you haven't already seen below.

Today we spent getting to know our staff here, and getting logistics worked out for the various countries we'll be traveling to, and getting our internet connectivity working. We've been using dialup at our accommodations, so it's a relief to once again be able to transmit by broadband! I just wish I had some photos to show you. The grounds here, where the office is located, are breathtaking. Maybe tomorrow.

Exciting! Tomorrow, I learned, we are going into the Soweto Townships for a special event with World Vision sponsored children. So our first real resource will probably be transmitted Tuesday evening (our time ... Tuesday morning your time). Stay tuned!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

June 4, 2006


OUR FIRST WEEKEND IN AFRICA

The flight from London to Johannesburg divided the great continent of Africa neatly into two halves. When we first approached the coast from the north, I was astounded to see an enormous, brightly-lit city gleaming below. It was Tripoli. And the lights were the last I would see until day began to break somewhere over the Congo.

After Tripoli, Africa slid by underneath, vast, silent, and shrouded in blackness. After day broke, we could barely make out the blue ribbons of rivers, and the vast undulating plains first of jungle and then savannah.

At one point during the long night Mandy nudged me and pointed. But I had removed my contact lenses for sleeping. "What is it?" I asked. "That light," she said. "I think it's a star -- but so bright." Even without my contacts I could see the gleam, low on the western horizon. Following the path of the sun. Probably a planet like Venus.

But near the far end of the continent, Johannesburg arrives like a return to civilization. The city has more than 15 million people, our driver told us. The streets seemed saner than London, and in most ways it reminded me of my old hometown of Los Angeles.

The B&B we checked into was fantastic, its bungalo-style rooms spacious and well appointed. It sits on a main road in Roodeport, a suburb of Johannesburg where World Vision has its Southern Africa regional offices.

Saturday was filled with napping and trying unsuccessfully to stave off the travel fatigue. A rental agency delivered a car with a manual transmission. I don't mind driving manual, but having to manipulate the shifter with my left hand while seeking to navigate down the left side of the road has me thinking in reverse and feeling tied up in knots. I was able to do a few blocks without killing us on Saturday afternoon, to pick up a pizza, then Sunday ventured out to church and, starting to feel more comfortable, halfway across town to a large park where we practiced photography. Then out again for shopping and dinner. I now feel I am starting to somewhat get the hang of it, though I'm not sure if I'm feeling so exhausted now from the concentration or the jetlag. Probably both.

I think our main challenge at the moment is just the sense of isolation. I expected more from church -- to find a friend or someone we could share our long journey with, but none showed up. Made me wonder how often strangers far from home may feel the same way about my church. We must recommit ourselves to take that risk and talk to people we don't recognize.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed spending time with my daughter. She is brave, and daring, and a worthy companion for such an adventure as this.

Well, it's evening and after chatting with my wife (who is just waking up on a Sunday morning) by instant messaging, I feel better and think I will sleep well tonight. I managed all day without a nap and so I think that means I must be getting back into a "normal" rhythm. Tomorrow morning we meet up with colleagues at the office and our assignment should begin to take shape.

Right now, I miss home something fierce. But we'll see what tomorrow brings.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

June 2, 2006

EN ROUTE TO AFRICA!

Since our flight to Johannesburg had London at approximately the halfway point, we finagled a stopover of two days and one night. World Vision's internet staff at our London headquarters (located at Milton Keynes, about an hour north of London, with a small office in the heart of London itself) graciously hosted our short visit.

Lost and Found

After a smooth, nine-hour flight on British Airways, we were grateful to arrive at Heathrow Airport at about 11 a.m. local time (which was really about 3 a.m. back in Seattle -- yawn). However, our tiredness turned into panic when we discovered, after waiting in the customs line, that my passport was no longer in my possession.

We made our way back to the plane and explained our predicament. They let us on board and we searched all around our seats, but could not find the critical document. I had removed it from the passport holder in Seattle in order to board, so I concluded I must have dropped it there.

I guess I am a fundamentally disorganized person, I am always losing things. I've also discovered that usually, when I lose something important, if I pray about it, it turns up. So, as we waited in the gangway, we prayed and asked God to help us find it. No sooner had I said amen than an excited maintenance worker came rushing out of the plane, my passport in hand. He had found it lying on the floor, somewhere near our seats.

Mandy said he looked disturbed when I threw my arms around him and hugged him, but I didn't care. I wanted to hug God, and he was the nearest one I could find.

So we made it through customs, and ever since Mandy has determined that she would be the keeper of the passports when we are in an important place like the airport.

After customs we were met by David, from World Vision UK's internet staff, who treated us to a rush hour drive out of London and up to Milton Keynes. Our hotel was located right across the street from the WVUK office. We went in and said hi to everyone, then retired for a quick nap before a meeting and dinner.

I won't bore you with talk about the various meetings we had while there, but dinner was fun. When in English, you have to go to an authentic British pub. This one sat on a canal. David explained that a network of canals crisscross England, and these were navigated continually by pleasurecraft. When he said that, I envisioned speedboats, but was surprised to see instead a sort of long, covered dugout. Basically they were narrow little houseboats. People who are well off or retired frequently live in these boats and cruise lazily around England's canals. Cool.

When at an English pub you also have to eat fish 'n chips, so Mandy and I both obliged. But a new addition to the treat was mashed peas with vinegar. This required a certain amount of courage from me, as I am no fan of peas per se, and when they are mashed they are certainly not any more appetizing. But these were tolerable and I was able to down the whole lot. We washed it all down with ale and ice cream and brownies.

Friday morning we checked out of our hotel, had some more meetings, then boarded the bullet train back for London with all our gear. The bullet trains are cool, they are fast, and they are quiet. Rocketing through the English countryside at what must have been close to 100mph at times was the way to go. Then we hired a taxi for the brief ride through London to the office.

The WV office in London is surprisingly close to Buckingham Palace -- just a few short blocks away. It is a one-room office which is used mostly for advocacy work, and was unoccupied on the day we visited. So we stowed our gear there, then set out on foot for a bite of lunch and some touring. We got to pose with the Buckingham Palace guards on horseback (sorry, the photo of us posing didn't work out, but here's one of the guard on horseback), then headed another few blocks away to the National Art Museum.

Mandy has an intense appreciation for fine art and it almost killed her to only be able to spend two hours in that amazing place, looking at original paintings by Van Gogh, El Greko, Da Vinci, Rembrandt and many more famous artists throughout history. They were so close you could touch them, but I suppose if you tried you would certainly regret it. The stern-faced guards in each of the many rooms we visited also informed us unsmilingly that absolutely no photos were allowed.

After this we headed back to the office, picked up our gear, then caught a taxi back to Heathrow for our 11-hour flight back to Johannesburg. We were tired but happy.