Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ethiopian Air crash

In the middle of the night last Monday night, an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 took off from Beirut airport in a violent thunderstorm. Shortly after takeoff it burst into flames and plunged into the Mediterranean Sea, about two miles offshore. Ninety souls were on board; all perished.

It was likely the very same plane we had taken, safely, comfortably, to Addis Ababa last month; we kept picturing the flight crew's faces.

All the next day we could hear the helicopters passing over the area, looking in vain for survivors. Boats from five countries joined in the search. School was cancelled and government offices shut down in a gesture of mourning. There had been 54 Lebanese, 22 Ethiopian and a smattering of other nationalities on board, inlcuding the American-born wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon. Addis is an important transfer point for many cities in West and South Africa., and there are many Lebanese business people, mostly Shiites from south Lebanon, who work in Africa. Last month we had transferred at Addis for Johannesburg.

On Thursday the pings from the black boxes were located, six miles offshore and in a deep trench 1300 meters (425 feet) below. A submarine (Cam and I saw it today!) will photograph the wreckage, and determine whether the boxes are still inside the wreckage of the plane or are outside. If the box is outside, it will be easier to get to. Only 14 bodies have been retreived so far--perhaps most of the victims remain belted inside the remains of the plane.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Beirut marathon and Harissa with Cam

A sunny day in December in Beirut, from our balcony

And a glimpse of Beirut Marthon runners/walkers from our side balcony. 30,000 people participated in the 5, 10 and 42 K races. Entrants from Ethiopia and Kenya have won it every year since inception, 2003.

And in January, Tom, Cam and I went up the coast about 30 minutes' drive to Jounieh, where we hopped a telepherique (cable car) up over the highway, passing inbetween a number of apartment buidings , up the mountain to Harissa.

After the cable car you board a reticulated railway for the last bit of climb.

It was a little hazy, but the view was great.

At the top is a large statue of Mary.

And a huge church.

More view

Pix from Lesotho trip

Jetting (NOT) in

Cam's rondavel

Tom and Ben enjoy coke in a bottle

King Moshoeshoe's mountain

Tom and Paseka

Ben atop King Moshoeshoe's mountain

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Christmas to remember in Lesotho

We decided to abort our planned Christmas adventure to Malaysia, and instead head to Lesotho, in southern Africa, where Cam had recently gone. Aboard Ethiopian Airlines, we traversed the entire African continent from north to south, from Beirut to Addis Ababa where we changed planes for Johannesburg.

Flying over Ethiopia into Addis, the window revealed a patchwork of cultivated fields of various shapes, some of them triangular, and only a quarter or third green. Addis comes into view, clearly a big city but not terribly dense. Apartment blocks several stories high. Heading south out of Addis my interest is really piqued--I spent nearly two years in neighboring Kenya three decades ago, and now the lakes of the Rift Valley unveil themselves one after the other--Turkana, Rudolph, Nakuru! where I lived, and maybe Naivasha--I can't wait to cnosult the atlas when I get back. On the other side of the plane you could see Mt. Kilimanjaro as we pass, just south of the Kenyan border in Tanzania, but I am happier to have had my view on this side, of the lakes I remember.

Coming into Johannesburg, large, spread out, almost completely one storey except for a small downtown area with some blocks of taller buildings. From Johannesburg we transfer to a turbo prop plane, about 30 - 40 seats. I ask T the difference btween a regular prop and turbo. He points out an air intake beneath the propeller, that turns a turbine. The plane heads to Bloemfontein, South Africa, where a taxi awaits us for the 150 kilometer transfer to Lesotho (there are direct flights from Johannesburg but none with a convenient connection time for us).

Ben says South Africa is greener than when he saw it in (our) summer two years ago when he worked in a refugee camp in Zambia. It is summer here now, in December, and cultivated fields are green--bigger here than further north in the continent, and more rectangular, though there are quite a few round ones--how do they do that?? Twenty hours of travel finds us in Lesotho. It is December 21st.

Lesotho is a beautiful country, hills and mountains, quite green this time of year though it is easy to imagine it being brown. Lesotho is an independent country, a kingdom, completely surrounded by South Africa. The capital, Maseru, seems propserous, people are well dressed. And beautiful--such beautiful women! People are nice, smiling. But we have heard and learn for ourselves that service in hotels is not good. And hotels are more expensive than across the border.

In the countryside cinderblock houses have largely replaced the traditional rondavels--the round, earthen-walled houses with beautiful thick, conical, fiber roofs. We pass beef cattle, corn fields, sunflower fields. We travel to Thabo Basio, about 40 kilometers from Maseru, where Cam has been staying. Lovely area, home to the gravesite of King Moshoshoe, founding hero of Lesotho.

We learn that Cam had been in a terrible car accident some days before. One man, a 27 year old father, had died, and a young woman seriously injured. Cam suffered a concussion and a small cut requiring several stitches. Tom and I attend a condolence visit to the family of the dead man. His widow and son are there, along with his parents and other family members. How deeply moving to sit there, in their home, knowing our son had been spared and theirs had died. We leave humbled and drained.

Our hotel room TV has three channels. South African soap operas aren't half bad (they certainly beat the Young and Restless or whatever it is we have in the US). Characters speak an African language (we learn there are 11) often mixed with English midesentence, and what is not in English is subtitled. One show has a deaf character who signs (subtitled). Some have all black actors, others mixed.

We climb the hill behind our hotel to visit Moshoeshoe's grave. There is an amazing view from the place (sorry no photos for now--Tom has the camera in Beirut and I am in S. Africa as I write this).

After Christmas, back in Maseru, at dinner at the hotel I order the veg. curry, the only non-meat item on the menu. They don't have it. Ben tries for two different chicken dishes, neither available. At breakfast there is no milk for coffee or cereal. Ben says from his time in Africa before that if an item is mentioned on a sign outside a store or restaurant, you can be sure it is not available (in the hotel's defense, it was the end of a long holiday weekend). As we stroll the town, no internet available on Sunday, we find a "pharmacy" selling soy flakes, eye glasses and not much else, proving his point. In the hotel, you press the "up" elevator button to go down. It's Africa.

It is December 28th, time for Ben to leave. We learen that his flight is cancelled, South African Air Link having to check all the propellers on its planes. He ends up taking a later flight, changing his onward ticket, and staying the night in Johannesburg, rescued by Tom's sister in law who lives in Pretoria.

Tom and I leave Lesotho to return to Bloemfontein, South Africa. Sou Thafrica, they say. This time we are in a rented car, Tom doing very well with the left hand drive, only annoyed rather frequently by hitting the windshiled wiper instead of the turn signal.

I am surprised how widespread is the Afrikaans language. All the whites I have encountered seem to be fluent (or nearly) in English, but speak to me first in Afrikaans. Blacks speak Afrikaans. We are told (by blacks in Lesotho) that if you speak Afrikaans you can get a job. Also surprising to me is how few people of apparently mixed race there are. Seems to be a lot of racism. But how different is this provincial capital from Johannesburg or Durban or Capetown?

Tom heads back to Beirut on New Years Eve. I stay to be near Cam.

Ask me how many days 'til the World Cup! (156). But I can't seem to find an English daily newspaper, so have no idea of [other] world news. When I do locate one English paper, I am treated to the following headlines: Crocodile Victim Still Missing; Dams Not Up to Task, Say Farmers; and He Missed his Brother, so Dug Up Grave". The TV (6 channels here) offers news in Zulu/Sesotho; Randa/Tonya; Sesotho/Tswana and Spedi (how do they do 2 -3 languages??); Afrikaans, and English. Aside from soaps, other offerings of the day include" Judge Judy, Dr. Phil, Rasta Women of Limpopo, and How to Go on a Date in Queens.

I love it when people say "Pleasure" after you say thank you when they have helped you. It is short for "It way my pleasure", don't mention it. Interesting place! To visit, anyhow.