This blue marble

– and yet it spins


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Temple of knowledge

tartudec-3Once it was a chapel. Then it was a university library. Now it is the university museum. Tartu used to be one of the grand university towns in Europe. It was founded 400 years ago under the Swedish rule in a country called Livonia. Neither Livonia nor its language Livonian exist anymore. Then it was opened under Russian rule by the Baltic Germans (Yes. There were Germans living in the Baltic countries. European history is confusing). And finally, some 100 years ago, it was again re-opened as an Estonian university. Obviously under Soviet rule for quite a while.

It is befitting that the university museum is an old church. Because despite of wars and politics, critical thinking prevails. Ideas remain the sacred driving forces of not just humanity but of nations.

(Tartu, Estonia; December 2017)


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How to get lost on Zanzibar

stonetown-2.jpgThe easiest way to get properly lost on Zanzibar: go to Stone Town. Or Zanzibar Town, as it is also called. Just walk in between the old Indian merchants’ houses and Arab palaces, beautiful wooden doors, and wooden lace-carved windowpanes. Notice traffic sounds exchange with laughter of children and shouts of local women and you will already be lost in the maze of alleys and tiny shopping streets. stonetown-1Some are enchanted by Stone Town, as a living monument to the eye of the vortex that Zanzibar was between gold and ivory trade, slave trade, and Indian, Arab, and Portuguese seafarers. While the palaces, the gruesome stories of the slave trade, and the little shops have their appeal, each time I visited I could not wait to escape the noise and the cramped streets for the turquoise blue waters of the beaches. stonetown-3But if you find yourself in Stone Town, do not miss these: the Anglican Cathedral standing on top of the slave market, housing a memorial; the Mnemba Spa shop for souvenirs; the Palace Museum for a peek into the life of a Sultan; the covered, souk-like food market; and the Forodhani Gardens for night-time street food fiesta.

I wish I could tell you more about Stone Town. But it really did not attract me to stay long enough. Go see for yourself – and kindly give me tips of what not to miss next time!
stonetown-4(Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)


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In Etosha

etosha-4 Zebras, giraffes, kudu, oryx, antelopes, elephants, lions, marabou, secretary birds, rhinos, and a 2,000 square km salt pan visible from space. Etosha National Park is more than 200 km in width and we quickly realized we must properly plan our outings so as to not be stuck outside of the campsite gate after sunset. Driving at a speed limit of 60 km/hour means the return journey can be hours, depending on how far one has ventured. etosha-3Etosha is mind-boggling in size, and yet small compared to its initial size of 100,000 square km. Today, only one-fifth remains, and at 20,000 square km it is larger than Kruger in South Africa (for comparison, the famous Masai Mara in Kenya is only 1,600 square km). It was created in 1904 by the Germans to put an end to hunting and poaching. Back then it stretched into Kaokoveld, across to Skeleton Coast and the Atlantic, and into Damaraland. Later it got reduced in size when native Namibian tribes were given land back, and everybody was given the opportunity to build a farm.etosha-5Today the roads are all paved and one can drive around like on a Sunday outing, which is a very strange experience for the experienced safari goer. Only the area just south of the salt pan is accessible, and huge areas of land above and below are completely shut off from tourism. The animals are mostly a little way away from the road and compared to Kenya it is not possible to veer off on a dirt track to get closer. The distance also means binoculars are imperative.

Etosha means “Great White Place” in some local language, referring to the endless salt pan that sometime was a lake. Now it floods only for a few days, when the rains come. Otherwise Ethosha is a dry landscape, with bus and low forest and great grassy plains. There are a number of waterholes, and several are man-made, to draw crowds of wildlife watchers.etosha-6South Africa’s and Namibia’s national animals, the springbok and the oryx, are everywhere. The oryx looks like a graphic designer took a brushful of black paint and drew some defining lines on a goat-like large animal. Impala, kudu, steenbok, hartebeest, wildebeest, giraffe, elephant, and zebra – all the usual suspects are here, although they look a little different from the ones I’ve seen in Kenya. The zebra has more pronounced shadow stripes, and the hartebeest is more brown than ruddy. We also spent time admiring swanky secretary birds, prehistoric-looking kori bustard birds, jackals, and klipspringers. No baboons, but they were all over the campsite at night, heard going through the trash cans in search for leftovers.

Etosha is so large one can easily spend three entire days driving around. And because there are pools and restaurants at the camps, as well as airplane rides and guided morning and night drives, it is easy to max out and stay 3-4 nights. That, too, is the time required to ensure one sees a leopard or a cheetah. And yes, I did say “pools” and “airplane rides”. Etosha is like a well-planned theme park for kids as well as adults. I am not sure whether I should admire it, be sad, or laugh. Perhaps, whatever it takes to introduce new generations to wildlife is a win for this planet.etosha-2(Etosha National Park, Namibia; July 2017)


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Skeleton Coast

skeletoncoast-4Skeleton Coast. No need to try to find a more catchy headline for this post. And unfortunately for many, Skeleton Coast has during the centuries caught a lot of souls and ships in its traps. With dramatic consequences. This is the end of the world, you see.

Vast stretches of shoreline from Namibia to Angola are out-of-bounds due to diamonds in the rough hiding in the dune sand. If you look for them without a modern, trustworthy 4WD vehicle you will not survive long: in this lunar landscape there is no shade, no water except for salt water, and it is either foggy or hot during the day and very cold at night. skeletoncoast-2Skeleton Coast hides countless skeletons of ships and unfortunate crews. The wrecked ships are scattered along the shore: old wooden ships like the Seal, and more modern, metal-hull vessels. Even warships have met their fate in the sharp underwater rocks and neverending swells and rip currents. The most famous warship is the Dunedin Star which wrecked near the Angolan border in 1942. The rescue ship stranded, as well. The rescue plane sent to get the two crews out got bogged in the sand and could not take off again.skeletoncoast-1How long, dark, cold, and scary must the nights have been for those hunkering down on the shore, waiting for weeks in makeshift shelters. Most sailors and crew did not know how to swim and getting to the shore from the breaking ship was a nearly impossible task: life rafts got lost and broken in the swells.

After traveling through the vehicle-hostile Namibian country for 2 weeks, a truck convoy was able to rescue the two crowds. Everybody survived. This was a fate much different from other strandings.skeletoncoast-3(Skeleton Coast, Namibia; July 2017)


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Touching a lost civilization

livingmuseum-1Lifestyles of thousands of years are quickly forgotten in the turbulence of the past two centuries. In Africa, 200 years is some 8 generations, and thus it was about time that a group of Damara people began to research and recount for their old ways, before all was forgotten. Out of this came the Damara Living Museum: a traditional village made up for tourists, where Damara craft and life is put on display by people enacting their customs for work.

The sun was hot in the desert and everybody wore loincloths. Only a couple of women covered their breasts. Our guide was a young, pregnant woman with full, beautiful pregnancy breasts. She was a gorgeous creature. Men were dangling bones and what looked like donkey or oryx tail hair from their loincloths.  Some had leather headwear, to protect from the sun. In summer, the day temperature can climb up to 50 degrees centigrade, thus one may wish to concentrate one’s garments over the head. But the nights are still freezing cold. Fortunately these modern Damara people probably went home to a hut with proper blankets, but how did their ancestors manage all those tens of thousands of years previously? With furs? It is not as if the animals around here are donned with insulating pelts.

We were also taken for a bushwalk to learn about local medicinal plants. Surprisingly many bushes that I recognized actually have known medicinal uses! Even oryx dung was used as a strong potion to stabilize a woman’s menstrual cycle. The ladies explained that it is strong enough to kill an unborn baby. In addition, we were shown how to hunt oryx, and how to trap dassie-rats. Although it was taboo for women to hunt in the Damara culture.

This type of tourism is the best kind: it keeps old traditions alive and feeds local people. It is sad, however, that the only reason the beautiful age-old culture of the Damara exist is for tourists, or in some protected, often distant, areas. “Progress” wipes out so much knowledge, craft, and time-tested ways of life. livingmuseum-2(Twyfelfontein, Namibia; July 2017)


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Ancient African art

twyfelfonteinThe Cro-Magnon people of Europe drew mammoths, deer, and moose. The San people of Africa made giraffes, oryxes, and wildebeest. Both depict hunts, hunted animals, and the styles are quite similar. If you look closely you can even see an animal with double sets of legs, like the one at Lascaux which is suspected to be like an animation of a walking animal when properly flashed with light. The Cro-Magnon people drew shamanic apparitions, as did the San people: if you look closely at the Twyfelfontein rock painting site you can find a lion with a deer-like animal in its jaws. The lion has a long, angled tail, with a pawprint at the end. As if from a trance dream.

The rock drawings of Twyfelfontein are similar to the ones in Lascaux. We people share a universal, collective mind, regardless of where in the world we live. Which drawings are older? The San people who drew the Twyfelfontein paintings are said to be the oldest original people of Africa, but these drawings are only about 2,000-6,000 years old; while the paintings in the Lascaux caves have survived 17,000 years. The oldest known rock art, in Indonesia, is dated 40,000 years back in time. On the one hand, the Twyfelfontein art is much younger. On the other hand, the Cro-Magnon people seem to have stopped making rock paintings some 10,000 years ago, while the San people did it until they were banished to the nearly rock-less Kalahari desert when farming became popular after Namibian independence.

Living prehistoric culture is unfortunately very easy to kill.

(Twyfelfontein, Namibia; July 2017)