Tag Archives: international

Thaba Bosiu: Sunrise of a Nation

An index to this series appears on the first post.

August 11, 2017

I awoke early this morning, filled with purpose.  I was traveling to another country! Clarens, in the Free State, is very close to the northern periphery of Lesotho, but I was driving to Lesotho’s capital, Maseru. As a consequence, I had a couple hours of driving ahead of me, and Free State highways are renowned for their potholes. Until this day, those seemed like urban legends, but the stretch of R26 between Fouriesburg and Ficksburg taught me differently. Litchi bounced along, but she didn’t lose her grip on the road. Of my KFC breakfast at Ficksburg, the less said the better. From there, I hopped down the road to Ladybrand, where I had a surprise. When I merged onto the N8, heading east, the road swooned down a massive slope. That is not what I had imagined in entering “the kingdom in the sky!” Instead, the border crossing came at a bridge across the Mohokare River (which later flows into the Orange).

The Border

I botched my first border crossing with my new passport. The South African side seemed mostly intent on passing people through, and so when I arrived at the Lesotho side, the inspector was alerted by the absence of my exit stamp from South Africa. I ended up parking my car, walking back across the border, and then asking the South Africans at the pedestrian booth to stamp me. Then I walked back across the river, visited the tourist booth for a map, and then returned to the Lesotho inspector for my entrance stamp. Solved! I also got my first taste of Lesotho hospitality. I met a wide variety of Basothos in the course of the day, and none of them treated me like a stranger. I felt greeted like a long, lost friend!

Let’s have a word or two about this landlocked country. First off, one must pronounce the name as though it were spelled “Lehsootoo.” The people of this group are called “Basothos,” and the language they speak is called “Sesotho.” We see something similar with prefixes in other languages, such as Zulu and Xhosa. Although the official currency of Lesotho is the loti, the value of one loti is pegged to the value of one South African rand, so one can spend ZAR as though they were loti (highly convenient). To summarize conventional wisdom about Lesotho, one would say “impoverished,” “HIV epidemic,” and “politically unstable.” My visit, however, was to touch something special about its foundation.


My goal in visiting Lesotho was to visit Thaba Bosiu, in many ways the nation’s historical and even spiritual capital. Before I launched into that visit, though, I decided to establish myself the the Kick4Life Hotel, just south of central Maseru (the capital and also my point of entry from the Free State). I knew very little about this organization before the trip, but I must say I was deeply impressed by the impact this organization has produced. All of its customer service people at the hotel, it associated restaurant, and at Thaba Bosiu put in extra effort to make me feel at home. I think the “Football for Hope” effort is paying serious dividends for its participants.

Driving in Maseru was a bit challenging. I am accustomed to the approximate adherence to traffic laws that we see in South Africa. For example, I don’t blink when I see a shuttle bus taxi picking up passengers on the shoulder of the national road. It’s expected! Maseru releases the rule-following impulse a few more notches. Their main highway leading south from the capital, the A2 (don’t expect labels on Google Maps, BTW), is littered with speed bumps so that drivers don’t kill pedestrians. I saw people reversing their cars into oncoming traffic with little warning. On two occasions, I saw cars driving against oncoming traffic by using the shoulder. It’s only workable because there are far fewer cars on the road in the city than one might expect.  I was jarred when I encountered a long funeral procession, led by a motorcycle cop.

Thaba Bosiu

With an omelet in my belly from the hotel (and some time rationalizing Google Maps with the insufficient tourist map in a hand-drawn sketch), I was ready to plunge ahead! Thaba Bosiu is within an hour of the border, but I must say my navigation was weakened by a variety of factors:

  • I had seen photos of the site that were of the wrong mountain.
  • When I saw the cultural center, I thought it was a resort rather than recognizing it as another “living museum.”
  • I was looking for a road leading south from the B31 to a visitor’s center.

All of these contributed to a bad bit of navigating. I drove right by the Thaba Bosiu Cultural Village, entirely missing that the mountain across from it was Thaba Bosiu. The mountain I thought was Thaba Bosiu came soon after, but I didn’t see any way to get there except some doubtful-looking dirt roads. I continued for another five km, when finally the blacktop of the B31 gave way to very bouncy rutted gravel-on-dirt. I stopped right where I was. A herd of cows was being guided forward by two young teen boys and a primary-school aged boy. I tried my pronunciation of “Thaba Bosiu,” but that didn’t seem to help. Showing the spelling on my hand-drawn map, however, elicited a response from one of the teenagers, directing me back where I had come. The small child said “money!” I pulled a couple R10 notes from my wallet, and the teen speaker reached into the car to grab them. I let the herd pass, and then I U-turned and headed back in the right direction.


The junior herdsmen and a lovely vista

I tried my luck with the dirt roads to the peak I thought I recognized. The road kept winding on and on through a mix of formal (mostly cinder block) and informal (shack) housing. I stopped by a well-built brick building, some distance from the peak I thought was the right one. A woman reclining in the building entrance explained that I was looking at the peak after which the traditional chief’s hat was designed! She pointed back toward Maseru. The huge plateau back to the west was Thaba Bosiu. She mentioned, as an afterthought, that I was standing in the city hall for the modern Thaba Bosiu settlement.


The modern Thaba Bosiu city hall and the “hat mountain”

After some photos from the site, I returned to my car and headed back to the west. In no time at all, I found the information center. The docent (a Kick4Life graduate) sat down with me at a table to profile King Moshoeshoe, the central figure of Basotho history. (Pronounce it like “Muh-shway-shway,” quickly.) As a young chief (1820), Moshoeshoe was faced with a problem. The Mfecane had resulted in a brutal social Darwinism throughout southern Africa in which tribes that could muster large armies absorbed their weaker neighbors, thus releasing desperate refugees into neighboring areas, sparking more conflicts. Moshoeshoe’s solution was to find a home for his band that was secure from attack. He made the bold decision of moving his tribe from Butha Buthe (near the northernmost point of Lesotho) to Thaba Bosiu, essentially the distance I had driven that morning.


Panorama of Thaba Bosiu, seen from the east


Looking back down the “ancient pass” at the Cultural Village

Why Thaba Bosiu? The Basothos gave it this name (“Mountain at Night“) as a neat bit of propaganda; they alleged that the mountain had magical properties that would make the apparent hill in daytime grow ever larger at night! The plateau, being considered as a World Heritage Site, has an area of approximately two square kilometers, more than enough for a substantial village, and the surface offers several water springs. Seven passes allow one to reach the top.  150 years ago, each would have been guarded by a trusted family member. I decided to make the trek by the “ancient” route rather than the nicely paved ramp. I reminded myself several times on the ascent that I am a middle-aged professor. I felt proud to make it by that route, though!


Moshoeshoe’s home atop Thaba Bosiu, constructed with help from allies

Moshoeshoe was also a gifted negotiator. He allowed other refugee groups, running from the Zulus under Shaka or the Ndwandwe or the Ngwane to join his band, but in each case he demanded that they contribute whatever skills that they could. He applied this logic to his contacts with whites, as well. He welcomed missionaries who had education to offer, and one can still see a Blue gum tree atop Thaba Bosiu along with several stone buildings that came about through his interactions with Westerners.


A century-old bluegum tree beside a stone kraal

The Basotho position atop Thaba Bosiu was sufficiently strong that the group could repel assaults by hostile tribes and also by aggressive Voortrekkers; the settlers of the Free State made a few attempts at “King of the Mountain,” but the plateau surface never fell to attack while defended by the Basotho. His diplomatic skills were his best weapon, though. In 1868, Moshoeshoe asked for British protection from the Boers, and he retained control of the territory even with that help. In 1884 Lesotho was listed as a separate British protectorate.  Moshoeshoe, incidentally, was personally responsible for the tradition of blanket-wearing among the Basotho.  He acquired a blanket from a trader in 1860 and began wearing it around his shoulders; those who revered him soon took up wearing blankets rather than the traditional “karosses.”


I liked the understated elegance of Moshoeshoe I’s tomb.

One should not think of Thaba Bosiu as a simple historic site. When King Moshoeshoe died in 1870, he was buried at the top. When King Moshoeshoe II (a few generations down) died in 1996, he was buried at the top! This plateau continues to have cultural relevance for the people of Lesotho. When I approached the top of the pass, I saw two people begin their descent by the same route. The man was dressed in a brilliant green robe and carried a religious staff. The woman was dressed in brilliant pink and also seemed ceremonially dressed. I saw remnants of candle wax and other sacramental leavings across the plateau. In times of trouble, the Basotho look to Thaba Bosiu as a source of strength.


The eastern view from the plateau

Lesotho had been granted the status of a separate protectorate by the British, then called “Basutoland.” At Moshoeshoe’s death, the British tried to annex the protectorate to the Cape Colony, but the Basotho raised havoc in the Gun War, leading to the British relinquishing effective control. When the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910, the Basotho rejected being included. Lesotho turned away from later proposals to integrate the nation into South Africa, particularly once Apartheid laws had been enacted. They were granted independence from Britain in 1966.


I first learned of Lesotho from my friend Marky Pace, whom I met in the Nashville in Harmony choir. I wanted to do something special in her memory since she had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in this country many years ago. My poem, written the day before at Mushroom Rock in Golden Gate, is titled “For Marky.” I read it from the shelf of Thaba Bosiu, where one can overlook the mountain that gave the chiefs the shape of their conical hats.

“Life is too short to shake hands,”
she said with a hug.
Her memory brought friends
from far and near.

Her family, by choice and by blood,
lives powerfully,
Touching others with her spirit
of joy and love.

As I reach a place that shaped her,
I am moved by her once more.
As I return to the world I’ve chosen,
I will strive to be present, like Marky.



Are you ready to start a molecular biology M.Sc.?

Professors receive a lot of requests from international students for admission to post-graduate training.  In South Africa, that training could be for “Honours” (a one-year course), an “M.Sc.” (a two-year Master’s program), or a “Ph.D.” (typically three years, post Master’s).  For students changing from one country to another, however, the question of “equivalencies” is key.  Could a four-year B.Sc. (Bachelor’s of Science) from Egypt, for example, be treated as the same thing as a three year B.Sc. followed by one year of Honours in South Africa?  This post gives an example of the questions I asked as I recently tried to determine the right level of admissions for an international student.

The international office for my university had declared that a student’s four-year degree was certainly equivalent to a three-year B.Sc. in South Africa, but it left to the department’s discretion whether or not Honours training was required before a M.Sc.  To support the department’s decision, I decided to build an interview from questions that would delineate the limits of the candidate’s knowledge.  I used the roster of topics for the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics 2017 Honours as a guide.  I used the number of didactic training days for each topic as a weight:

Field Duration
Molecular Biology 8 days
Mycobacteriology 7 days
Biostatistics 12 days
Bioinformatics 8 days
Immunology 8 days
Cell Biology 8 days
Scientific Communication 2 days

I also gave some consideration to the M.Sc. project the student would pursue in my laboratory.  In this case, the work related to the reproducibility of mass spectrometry experiments.  After pondering before my word processor, I selected these questions for the candidate’s interview:

# Field Question
1 Cell Biology What biological processes are described by the Central Dogma of molecular biology? Walk us through each.
2 Biochemistry What do we describe with Michaelis-Menten kinetics?
3 Computer Science How does iteration differ from recursion?
4 Analytical Chemistry By what property does a mass spectrometer separate ions?
5 Medicine In HIV treatment, what is the purpose of a “protease inhibitor?”
6 Biostatistics What role does the “null hypothesis” play in Student’s t-test?
7 Medicine What type of pathogen causes tuberculosis?
8 Genetics What is the purpose of a plasmid vector in cloning? What features do such vectors commonly contain?
9 Cell Biology What cellular process includes prophase, metaphase, anaphase, and telophase?
10 Mathematics The log ratio (base 2) between two numbers is 3. What is the linear ratio?
11 Immunology What is an antibody, and what is its relationship to an antigen? What are the major families of antibodies?
12 Computer Science What is the purpose of an Application Programming Interface (API) or “library?”
13 Biochemistry What do we describe as the secondary structure of a protein?
14 Genetics Of what components are nucleic acids constructed?
15 Biostatistics What is a Coefficient of Variation?
16 Mathematics If I divide the circumference of a circle by its diameter, what value do I get?
17 Immunology What type of immune cell is the primary factory for antibodies?

The interview, conducted via Skype, lasted approximately an hour. As I asked each question, I gave the question orally and pasted the text of that question into the chat session. Remember that as an American, I have a “foreign” accent for the English-speaking population of Africa! I did not want that to be a factor in the candidate’s performance. I was grateful that our division’s Honours program coordinator, Dr. Jennifer Jackson, accompanied me during the interview, both to monitor that the candidate was treated fairly and to ask follow-up questions of her own.

Why did it take an hour to answer these questions? As is customary in post-graduate education, each answer opened the door to a series of other questions. A student may give an answer that covers only part of the question, and the follow-up will poke into the omitted area to see if it is an area of weakness, almost like a dentist with an explorer goes after a darkened area of a tooth to see if it represents dental decay!

Another factor that I want to measure for students is the degree of integration that they have achieved in their educations. To recognize that a word has been mentioned in class is not sufficient; I need to see that students understand how key concepts relate to each other. This synthesis is sometimes hard to evaluate, but it’s important. A student who doesn’t understand how a concept integrates with others will not be able to apply the principle or recognize when it should come into play.

Before the readers of this blog begin showering me with applications, I need to emphasize that the questions I framed for this particular interview are not the questions I would ask of another candidate. The ones above were chosen to reflect the background of the candidate, the diploma program to which he or she had applied, and the nature of the project I had in mind.

I hope that this post will help you decide whether or not you are ready to plunge into post-graduate education!

Young David steps out of his comfort zone

Sometimes, a look through the scrapbook can be a very humbling experience.  I resolved this month to finish a project I launched in 1994.  At last I am publishing the journal I recorded during my first trip to Europe!  For the first time, I am bringing together the forty-two journal entries, my photographs, and the video camera footage that I recorded during my clockwise circuit around the continent.  Before you jump right into the journal, though, could I ask you to read a few thoughts?

More time has passed since I wrote that journal (23 years) than I had lived at that point (I was 20 years old).  The experiences of the last two decades have certainly left their mark.  Since that time, I’ve graduated from two degree programs; I’ve filled my passport with stamps; I’ve built my career in academia; I’ve achieved some level of comfort in finance; I’ve married and divorced.  All of these changes make it hard to recognize the person who wrote those entries as the same person writing this blog!

Setting the scene

19941002-Lyon photo01

I’m sitting by “Le Crayon,” the tower of Credit Lyonnais.

The David who wrote this journal was experiencing profound discomfort.  As a fellow in the University of Arkansas Sturgis Fellows program, I was strongly pushed to spend at least a semester of my junior year abroad.  My undergraduate advisor, Doug Rhoads arranged for me to visit the laboratories of Jean-Jacques Madjar at the University of Lyons, where Thierry Masse mentored my project.  The fact is that I did not enjoy “wet bench” research, and I was becoming concerned that my Biology degree could equip me for a career I did not want!  To complicate the matter further, we never formalized my visa to work in the laboratory for a year-long stretch, and so I needed to leave France well before even a semester had passed.  Scheduling this journey through many countries was my fall-back plan, and my mother was working with the University of Arkansas to get a formal plan in place for the spring of 1995.  In short, I felt that I was failing in this first real test of applying my academic skills.

If you mainly know me as a globe-trotter who uprooted his career and moved to South Africa, you might be surprised to know that as a young man I disliked travel, and I feared change.  Ask the members of Yates Lab how huge a step it seemed to me to move from Seattle, Washington to San Diego, California in the year 2000.  I spent six months poring over maps and dawdling over last details in Seattle.  To go back further in time, I was always the first member of the family to feel it was time for us to return to Kansas City when our family took long road trips in the summer time.  If you read the journal, you will see a David feeling perpetually out of place and coping badly with exhaustion and self-induced malnutrition because I wasn’t willing to spend enough money on food.

The most redundant feature of the journal is that the 20-year-old me was completely agog at the young women I encountered on my travels.  Although a disproportionate number of my friends since elementary school have been female, I must say that I was essentially undateable until my mid-twenties.  I would summarize by saying that I routinely put women on a pedestal and couldn’t see myself as desirable.  This aspect of the journal is high on my list of cringe-inducers.


I had already given up cursive in college.

What should we call the nexus of judgmental, puritanical, dismissive, and obsessed with money?  I am reminded in this journal that the person I am today was distilled from common mud.  Today I am not immune from these traits, but I do try to improve myself with time.  I have been tagged with the label “stubborn” more times than I would like to admit, but I hope that I can manage open-mindedness and respect for others at least from time to time.  In particular, I struggled to read the passages I wrote about the Turks in Budapest or the drive-by racism I dumped on Latin culture.  At least I realized that smug American chest-thumping was not preferable.  My memories of myself from that time have been substantially white-washed, but my text makes it clear I had a long way to go.  In my memories of that time, I mostly remember that the international relations scholar from Turkey taught me that a bishop or a castle is generally more reliable than a knight in the chess end-game.

From 1994 to now

Travel in Europe today is considerably simpler than it was in 1994.  Moving from country to country is considerably easier because of the Schengen agreement that eliminates customs at borders between countries and the Economic and Monetary Union that makes the Euro the only currency you need for much of the continent.  The traveler’s checks that fueled my travel are not needed in Europe; instead, you feed your bank card into an ATM, and out pops money.  My single telephone call home from Vienna would be likely replaced today by Skype; I could use my phone or computer in the WiFi of any hostel to chat right away with folks at home.


My account book, in many currencies

I wrote my journal narrative in a spiral-bound notebook, and I kept strict accounts of every franc, Deutschmark, schilling, crown, etc. in a separate small notebook, both of which I acquired while living in Lyon.  I was very fond of Pilot rolling ball pens at the time, and so each page is filled with cramped blue writing.

While my parents used 35mm slide cameras to capture my early years, I carried a 126 film cartridge camera made by Vivitar with me to Europe.  As you will see, many of the images I mention never made it to print when I developed those films, and the term “focus” does not really apply.  In three cases, I used Microsoft’s Image Composite Editor to stitch together multiple photos into a single panorama.

19940618 Lyon cathedrals photo06

The two most visible cathedrals of Lyon, France

Computer video has come quite some distance since 1994.  I originally recorded the video on an analog Sharp “Video8” camera.  When I subsequently upgraded to a miniDV camera, I was able to transfer the video from the old camera to a new one via an S-video cable; this process recorded the video in a digital format on the new tape.  I was able to transfer that digital video without loss to a desktop computer with a FireWire card.  To deinterlace and compress the section of video I’ve posted to YouTube, I used the “yadif” filter of FFMPEG:

ffmpeg.exe -ss 00:00:09 -i input.avi -vf yadif -t 00:45:05 -c:v libx264 -preset slow output.mov

With those comments in place, I hope you enjoy reading the journal, a project 23 years in the making!

The photographs of a life in motion


At last count, my trusty Canon EOS-M2 had produced 9099 images for me.

The last two months have been chockablock with professional and personal activities.  As a result, I have neglected my blog!  I know what my next post will address, and I have plenty left to say on other topics, too.  I will return to writing posts when I can sneak in some extra time (late June?).

In the meanwhile, I hope you will enjoy these albums of photographs that I took during the busy travels of 2016 and early 2017.  Looking back at that period, it is amazing to me that I traveled so much!

Inside South Africa

Date Blog Post Images
20161221 Table Mountain Google Photos
20161216 Cape Point Google Photos
20161213 Robben Island Google Photos
20160908 Kimberley Google Photos
20160702 Northern Cape Google Photos
20160319 Eastern Cape Google Photos
20160312 Cape Agulhas Google Photos

Outside South Africa

Date Blog Post Images
20170113 Prague Google Photos
20161019 Warsaw Google Photos
20161015 Berlin Google Photos
20160926 Shanghai Google Photos
20160917 Beijing Google Photos
20160611 London (no post) Google Photos
20160416 Ghent Google Photos

Should you leave the United States?

Almost three weeks have passed since the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, and some of you are still hurting.  Some of the initial horror has passed, but the ongoing political news may be arousing fresh worries.  Perhaps you look to the January 20th, 2017 Presidential Inauguration with suspicion that four horsemen will appear in the skies.  Sure, some of you joked about it before the election, but should you seriously consider moving outside the United States?

Push and Pull

The advice of Dan Masys, my first department chair, has been endlessly useful to me: the best moves are those where the push is in the same direction as the pull.  In other words, it is less satisfying to run from something awful when one doesn’t feel drawn to something new.  For me, the decision to leave in 2015 was tied to my excitement about being able to make a difference for biotechnology education in South Africa.  Before that I had seriously considered acquiring a law degree through night classes at the Nashville School of Law, with a shift toward biotechnology law research.  If you do not have something that draws you, moving away from the United States will likely feel like a surrender rather than an advance.

For many, the desire to be of service to the world will be a strong motivator.  I feel a loyalty to humanity, wherever it can be found, and I’ve signed on as a Global Citizen.  For some, your movement may be tied to religious motivations; many of my friends who preceded me in visiting South Africa did so through their churches.  Perhaps you studied a foreign language in high school or college and want to gain real mastery in the language and the culture of a corresponding country.  My French training from high school and college has come in handy on several occasions with immigrants from Francophone Africa!  Coming to South Africa fired me with new energy for my career.  I hope that you find something in the rest of the world that renews your spirits.

What are the practicalities of moving abroad?

When I first developed the notion that I might move abroad, I really didn’t know all the challenges that would present themselves along the way.  Let’s separate this topic to a few practical realities:

Can you get permission to reside and work in another nation?
Relatively few nations welcome free immigration to their shores.  Even if you intend to volunteer your labor for room and board, you should be sure to get a visa that allows that activity.  I was a bit surprised how hard I had to work in order to acquire my temporary residence permit for South Africa; it took six months after I received my formal job offer.  Some nations, such as Australia, use a formal “points” system to determine whether a person qualifies for a visa.  People at a more advanced age will be glad to know that many countries offer a retirement visa option (this example is from Thailand).  The requirement for retirement visas normally hinges on applicants showing a suitable bank balance.
Can you afford to move to another nation?
My move was the “deluxe” option, where my new employer paid for a shipping container for my worldly goods.  I spent months selling down my inventory of furniture and electronics.  Even so, when my goods arrived, they barely fit into my three-bedroom townhouse in Cape Town.  The cost of packing a household into a shipping container, moving the container, and unloading it in a new country can easily reach $10,000.  If you are changing nations on the cheap, you can generally bring two 28″ roller bags without incurring extra charges on airlines.  Having lived out of two roller bags for two months, I know it’s possible, even for someone used to creature comforts.  On the question of affordability, I must say that the U.S. Dollar is at a high value versus the U.K. Pound, the Euro, and the Chinese Yuan, despite what the financial naysayers have been saying.  Here’s the ten-year comparison to each currency (can you spot the Brexit vote?), where a higher trace means the dollar buys more of the other currency.

All charts from Google Finance

Can you handle the trauma of an international move?
Moving abroad is emotionally taxing.  You will encounter considerable disbelief (and demands to justify yourself) from people who could never imagine leaving “home.”  You will bang your head against bureaucratic barriers, rail in vain against expensive SNAFUs, and you will assuredly ask yourself if it could ever be worth it during that torturous process.  As an academic, I had moved away from my friends every few years during my training, and I still found it hard to leave Nashville, a city that had been my home for ten years.  I sought relief from unmanageable stress through moving, and it certainly seemed ironic that I would choose a course that would bring some of the worst stresses to my door.  It can be very worth your while to work with a counselor while navigating this process.  It is not for nothing that “moving” frequently appears on lists of top stressful situations.
Can you maintain ties to loved ones in the United States?
To move abroad is to lose sync with many of the people you know.  Right now, my friends in the United States are basking in the glow of Thanksgiving with family, assembling their Christmas trees, and shivering in colder weather.  I went to work on Thursday, and the weather here has me sweating in a T-shirt in the “cool” evening hours.  My family keeps its ties together through occasional Skype calls and shared photos albums, as well as my once-a-year visit to the United States.  I knew this part of the move would be hard, and I was not wrong on that score.

Reaching the decision to “go”

You may already be feeling the tug to emigrate.  Perhaps it’s more “push” than “pull” so far.  If your concerns stem from the outcome of the election, I expect that the push will increase in magnitude over the next four years.  I would love to be wrong about that.

One way to test that feeling is to apply for an international job.  I always find that my decisions are much easier when I have enough information to know what lies on the other side of a gulf.  Knowing what my career would look like in South Africa removed one of my biggest doubts.

Another way is to invest some of your savings in stocks from that country.  Do you shudder every time the price jags up or down?  How would you feel if you were paid in that currency?  (The South African Rand took a serious tumble just after I arrived in the country.)  Though the Rand’s weakness leaves me on pins and needles much of the time, I am certainly delighted at how inexpensive items at the grocery store are.  There are compensations for weak currencies, especially for retirees who keep their retirement savings in dollars!

Depending on your financial standing, you may be able to schedule a trial visit.  I visited South Africa in November of 2014, after I did not get the job I hoped for.  Instead I delivered a tutorial workshop for the students at that university.  The visit helped me to feel comfortable with the colleagues I would find in my new division, and they worked hard to fund a position just for me!


This November, 2014 photo features Novel Chegou and Gerhard Walzl, two of my divisional colleagues, along with Paulin Essone, now a researcher at UCT.

For many people, the answer will be “stay” rather than “go.”  I sometimes joke that I’m a bad person to ask why Americans do the things they do.  I left, therefore I am probably not representative of my countrymen and countrywomen!  Just the same, I hope that my experience can help smooth the way for other Americans who want to see the broader world.  It is a rich and beautiful place, and I know that my life will be immeasurably enriched because I chose to step out of my comfort zone!

Taking a gander at Ghent

Attending a scientific workshop does not always allow for enough time to explore the city in which the workshop is held, but the organizers of the 2016 HUPO-PSI had left some blocks of time free for visits to the city.  Even better, the schedule included some dinners in historic locations within the city!  The meeting itself was taking place in the historic Het Pand cultural and convention center for the University of Ghent.  The facility was once a Dominican monastery on the banks of the river Lys.  Its gardens made for an excellent group photo!


The participants of the 2016 HUPO-PSI were involved and unafraid to sign up for tasks. It’s a great group.

The first night of the conference, the organizers had set up for the entire group to visit a beer brewery.  Ghent has a great reputation in beer since its history has allowed a considerable mingling of French, German, and Dutch influences.  The Lys river represented a fault line for beer production.  The hops-based brewers on the right bank could not be reconciled with the herbs-based, hop-free brewers on the left bank.  Our group would be hosted by the Gruut City Brewery, a firm that was established in 2009 by Annick De Splenter, who completed her Master’s degree in attempting to recreate the herb mixes that had historically been used for hops-free brewing.  The brewery conducts its beer tastings in the Monsterium PoortAckere, not far from the city center, located in an area that has been occupied as far back as 1278.  I was happy that my friend Dirk captured a photo of me taking in the sights of the chapel.


Surrounded by beery bioinformaticists, Dave enjoys the sights of this chapel from the 1800s.

The following day was an incredibly busy one.  I learned I was facilitating the birth of a new working group for HUPO-PSI in quality control, so we began powering our way through the requirements.  Happily, our group was able to complete its agenda before 4:30 PM, so I had two and a half hours to explore the town before our 7:00 PM dinner at the lovely Pakhuis restaurant.  I immediately stepped next door to enter the Sint Michielskerk.


St. Michael’s allows photographs!

While it is not the most famous church of the city, I did love the height of St. Michael’s windows, letting abundant afternoon light into the nave.  The church features some lovely paintings and stained glass.  I paused before the the “Christ on the Cross” by Van Dyck.  I also love an elevated two-story speaker’s platform that’s simply covered in ornate carvings.  It’s a relaxing place to unwind from a challenging day.

One of the most characteristic views of Ghent appears when one turns the corner upon leaving St. Michael’s.  The bridge adjoining the church points directly into the Korenmarkt, in the historic center of the city.


Looking to the east from the bridge next to St. Michael’s


A look to the north from the bridge shows the lovely buildings to the east of the river.

I pressed to the east, and I found a building I had loved when I first visited Ghent in 2009.  It was the Masons’ Guild Hall.  The figures atop its gable are dancers.


Some architecture is so lovely it’s worth dodging traffic to get a good photo.

The citizens of Ghent have a reputation for rebellion, and their bell tower and the Castle of the Counts both bear stories that speak to this reputation.  It was typical of cities to adorn their bell towers with chicken weather vanes.  Ghent went a different direction, not only making the bell tower taller than that of the adjoining church but placing a golden dragon at its peak.  The Castle of the Counts is an unusual one in that it is found in the city center rather than at a strategic bit of geography nearby.  My guide reported that the castle was unusual in that it was designed to protect the nobility rather than the peasants of the town.  Whether or not that is true, it’s worth noting that Wikipedia has a disambiguation page to determine which Revolt of Ghent one wants to learn more about.  The inhabitants of the town have since been given the nickname “Noose Bearers” in memory of a humiliation meted out in the aftermath of a rebellion.


The skies were so blue!

The bell tower features a small museum in the building at its base, but the day was already quite advanced.  I continued to St. Bavo’s Cathedral.  Since it is further from the Korenmarkt than St. Nicholas, one might think that St. Bavo’s Cathedral is less significant, but this is untrue.  A quick walk around the nave will demonstrate that each chapel in St. Bavo’s is highly ornate, and one should not miss the museum down in the crypt.  The church prohibits photography, but I took one snapshot down there (without a flash).


I find it thrilling to see the columns of an ancient church hiding in the crypt of a massive Gothic cathedral.

This area is all that remains of a Romanesque church dating to around 1150 AD.  The crypt also contains a variety of the ceremonial clothes of church leaders.  On my way back to the hotel, I snapped a photo of St. Nicholas, so conveniently close to the Korenmarkt.  The tall tower at the junction of the transept and nave lets more light into this church than is common.


The tower of St. Nicholas only looks bigger because I’m standing next to it.

On the final evening of the conference, I was delighted to visit the Castle of the Counts at last (I hadn’t managed to see it during my preceding visit).  It’s a brooding building.  I am glad, though, that it has been restored after being bombed by the Allies in World War II.  With my friend Erik Deutsch, I toured its small museum of armaments.  Did you know that an executioner’s sword does not have a point?  I had never realized that before.


…to crush your enemies, to see them driven before you…

I loved this two-handed sword in its collection, especially since I am a fan of Conan the Barbarian.  This one probably dates from the sixteenth century.  Erik and I had a great time at the castle ramparts, looking out at the skyline of Ghent in all directions.  We were both more somber near the close of the tour at a square room used for torture right next door to a chapel with a cross-shaped window.

The touring had worn us out, though, and what better place to recuperate than a pub at the Korenmarkt?  I decided to wind down with a glass of beer made from cherries!


Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

April 16, 2016

Attending a conference in the United States most often means flying from one city to another, never needing a passport.  Generally, one drives to the airport, boards a flight, and then takes a taxi or shuttle bus to the hotel serving the conference.  From South Africa, attending most conferences will require considerably more effort!  Join me in my travel itinerary to take part in this year’s HUPO-PSI meeting in Ghent, Belgium.


Two flights take me to a beautiful, though now troubled, country.

Cape Town International Airport is centrally located, though accessibility does not mean “high property value,” in this case.  For example, the airport is always contending with homeless people trying to establish an informal settlement on the site where the runway expansion is planned.  Leaving my car there for the duration of the meeting did not seem like a secure option.  The department arranged a taxi for me, instead.

I have mentioned that the mini shuttle buses serve as taxis for the general public, but I hope to steer clear of them.  Instead I rode a private taxi from a particular company.  I was glad that the driver arrived ten minutes early, though I neglected my rain jacket as I pushed the last items into my bag.  During the twenty-five minute trip, the driver asked my impressions of Cape Town, and I said something positive about my experiences so far.  He then gestured toward some people sitting against a wall near the road.  He made a sneering comment about lazy people expecting a handout.  He then claimed “it’s their culture,” singling out one of the two largest language groups in the country.  Then he “praised” another ethnic group, saying that a husband-wife duo would make a great housekeeper-gardener team.  The temperature in the cab dropped several degrees.  As we parted ways at the airport, I suggested that he consider whether giving voice to such dismissive comments about “culture” with a complete stranger were really a good idea. (On my return from the airport, a different driver from the same company was very good company.)

The airports in South Africa are all quite new, dating from the 2010 FIFA World Cup.  I was able to convince British Airways to apply this trip to my American Airlines frequent flyer account, and I gained access to the British Airways departure lounge for the first time in my life (they afforded me Sapphire Status, but it was all over before my return from Europe).    There were no restaurants in the international departures terminal, but free food and drinks (open bottles of wine, actually) were plentiful throughout the British Airways lounge.  I poured myself a glass as I enjoyed the wireless signal.  Is this what my future will look like?

The flight to London on British Airways, by contrast, was quite ordinary, except that the ticket provided by the conference put me in an interior position in the middle section of four seats.  The entertainment system had a good store of movies, though the touch screen wasn’t responding well.  The flight crew reset the system for the whole plane, but it made no difference.  Mostly I felt cramped, with a seat back that slouched without my hitting the button.  Even so, I managed to sleep at least six hours on the 11+ hour flight.  While it is certainly faster to reach Europe by air than to reach the United States, it’s still an incredibly long distance.

I was glad that I didn’t need to retrieve and then re-check my bags at London Heathrow.  Instead I enjoyed some more quality time at the British Airways departure lounge!  My pain-au-chocolat and orange juice hit the spot as the sun rose for Sunday morning.  I walked quite a distance from one gate to the other, plus taking a shuttle bus; terminal 3 and terminal 5 are not neighbors.  Just before boarding the plane, I stopped at a kiosk to change some rand to Euros.  I handed in 200 rand, and I received a shiny 10 Euro note in return.  Google later told me that the current exchange rate should have given me 12.17 Euros.  Remember, just because they’re waiving commission does not mean you will receive a fair rate!

After an uneventful short hop to Brussels, I de-planed for the last leg of the journey.  The first change I noticed was the presence of assault rifles everywhere at the airport.  Because of last month’s terror attack, the airport is a heavily armed zone, with soldiers and police sporting impressive weaponry.  This pattern extended throughout the city.  The airport seemed strangely empty, and when I left the terminal to reach ground transportation, I could see why; the usual mob of executive car service and taxi drivers were sequestered on the far side of the road.

The airport rail station was a casualty of the terror attack.  Now I needed a bus to get me to one of the other train stations.  The MOBIB station accepted Euro coins and, ostensibly, bank cards.  I tried my South African debit card and did not even get a PIN number prompt before rejection.  Then I tried my Visa credit card from the United States.  Frustratingly, the machine asked me for a PIN to use it (even these new chipped credit cards from the States do not work with PINs in that context).  My 10 Euro note was not usable with the machine since it needed coins, but a taxi driver was able to remedy that problem in a flash.  My foul mouth calmed down once I had my MOBIB ticket in hand, and I boarded bus 21 to the Luxembourg train station.  I decided to alter that design, though.  Instead I came off the bus at the European Commission building (“Capital of Europe“) and popped onto the Metro (the same ticket grants one access to bus and metro lines within an hour).  Jumping off at the central station for the metro network, I walked a few blocks southeast.  My oversized gray luggage case bounced nervously on the cobbles.  I turned a corner and KERPOW!  I was in the Grand Place or Grote Markt, a one-of-a-kind square lined by buildings dating as far back as the 14th century.


The guild halls of the Grand Place are one-of-a-kind

As if on cue, the skies opened up, and a hail/sleet mix skittered on the pavement.  I captured a few images of the buildings despite the weather, and a fellow with an Eastern European accent took a snapshot of me.


By this time, I certainly wished I’d brought my rain jacket!

With that, I walked in the general direction of the central train station.  I learned from a few conversations along the route that my limited knowledge of French would get a workout if I spent much time in Brussels.  I have grown accustomed to being understood by everyone in Cape Town, so switching to French for others to understand me was something of a novelty.  I was happy to see another statue in tribute to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as I drew near to the train station.


Don Quixote and Sancho Panza know how to mix it up.

My financial stress continued at the train station; the automated ticket machine failed on both my cards.  Happily, the manned ticket counter used my Visa with no problems.  My ride to Ghent was very rapid, and the smooth passage on the rails gave me a chance to record my thoughts in a notebook.

By this time, my relationship with the oversized silver luggage had deteriorated to the point that I felt the need to punish it.  I walked to the Ibis Hotel near the Ghent Opera House (perhaps a couple of kilometers).  A person in a more tractable mood would have taken the convenient streetcar instead.  My very long travel day came to an end.