Tag Archives: travel

The trail of three dreamers: the Inanda Heritage Route

August 7, 2017

Why would Nelson Mandela cast his first vote in an Indian township in the homelands of the Zulu when he came from the Xhosa people?  Today’s adventure in Durban took me some distance from the standard tourist fare. Instead, I was able to learn a little bit about the lives of three men who began bending the arc of South African history toward justice: Mohandas K. Gandhi, Isaiah Shembe, and John L. Dube.

My destination was the Inanda Heritage Route.  From the information I could find online, it was apparent that I would be heading well off the beaten path for this adventure.  I was able to navigate the construction site at the entrance from the M41 to the N2.  The red earth of Durban was very apparent!  I traveled south to the R102 and headed away from downtown; very shortly I was on the M25, traveling into townships and industrial areas.  The M25 was tarred, which gave me some confidence.  I grinned when I passed a garbage dumpster that was literally on fire; I hear the phrase “dumpster fire” frequently in relation to the news, and here was the real deal!  Every kilometer or so I saw a series of blue and white flags celebrating the people whose former homes I would visit today.  Soon I turned onto a small dirt road, flanked by shacks, that led up a short hill to my first site for the day.  An attendant waved me into the parking lot for Phoenix Settlement.

Mohandas K. Gandhi

While people associate Gandhi with India casting off English rule, few realize that the first two decades of his career in social justice took place in South Africa. When Gandhi arrived in South Africa in 1893, he was really struggling to get his law career into motion. After he was thrown off a train in Pietermaritzburg for trying to use his first-class train ticket, his consciousness that racial discrimination must be countered began to grow. He read Tolstoy, Ruskin, and Thoreau avidly.

IMG_9907In 1904, Gandhi decided to create the Phoenix Settlement on 100 acres of land to the northwest of Durban. He named his house “Sarvodaya,” meaning “progress of all.” Life for the community that grew there was very spartan; Gandhi held that human work should always target needs rather than desires (a theme John Ruskin popularized in Unto This Last). He began to spin his own thread to weave homespun clothing.

IMG_9919His wife and children moved to join him, as did activists from throughout South Africa. Gandhi began a newspaper, entitled the Indian Opinion, and published it from the Phoenix Settlement. He continued to live in South Africa until 1914.

In the closing days of the Apartheid government, different ethnic groups were deliberately played against each other. During 1985, the Inanda area, adjoining the Phoenix Settlement, erupted in riots. Much of the Phoenix Settlement, including Sarvodaya, was burned to the ground. After 1994, however, the democratic government recreated the main buildings of Phoenix from historic photographs. Today, the former printing press serves as a computer skills training laboratory for the surrounding community under the Gandhi Development Trust, charging only R20 ZAR (less than $2 USD) for ten hours of training in Microsoft Word!

I enjoyed my time at Phoenix.  The site acts as a guidepost to other historical sites linked to the Inanda community, with a museum featuring information about all three people I highlight in this post.  I had the place to myself for a bit, but then two busloads of students from New Hampshire arrived at the site.  They had come to Durban on a church mission trip.

Isaiah M. Shembe

Born in the 1870s to a Zulu family, Isaiah Shembe experienced a powerful vision while a young man, and he became part of the Wesleyan Church and then the Baptist Church. He became an evangelist, and his interaction with Nkabinde, a formerly Lutheran prophet, led him to create a healing ministry in 1910. Just a year later, he created the iBandla amaNazaretha (Nazareth Baptist Church), and he transformed a farm within walking distance of Gandhi’s Phoenix Settlement into the holy city of Ekuphakameni.


The replica staff was not bolted down. I am a rebel.

Shembe’s church has continued to grow in membership since his death in 1935, now incorporating millions of followers. Much of its appeal comes from his syncretic abilities, transforming the Zulu art of praise poetry into a powerful set of hymns. His hymnal, primarily composed between 1910 and 1940, may have been the first book ever published in the Zulu language. Today, one may see the “Nazaretha” described as an “African Initiated Church,” reflecting that its practices were defined by Africans for Africans. In 1976, the church suffered a schism, resulting in a new settlement being created a short drive to the west in Ebuhleni.

I was curious to learn more about the Nazaretha, but their towns were not set up as museums or monuments.  I would have needed to set up prior arrangements with a tour guide to visit those locations.  Instead I followed the buses of students from Gandhi’s site back to the tar road, through a couple of turns, and then hopped off the M25 onto a dirt track.  It jolted upwards to a ridge featuring the Ohlange Library and the Ohlange High School.  We had arrived at the Ohlange Institute!

John L. Dube

Born in 1871 to Christian converts at the Inanda Mission Station, John Dube was destined to become the first president of the African National Congress. As a boy, John Dube got into a fight at school, and American missionary William Wilcox was asked to have a word with him. Their relationship grew over time, and when Wilcox returned to the United States, John Dube came along, becoming a student at Oberlin College in Ohio. His collaboration with Wilcox continued, though, and Dube began raising funds for a school in South Africa by giving talks on a tour through several states, and he authored a book on the challenges of being caught between the traditional values of his home and the structures of the Western world. He alternated between South Africa and the United States between 1892 and 1900, gaining an ordination as priest by the Congregational Church and forming a relationship with Booker T. Washington, who impressed upon Dube the importance of career training for empowering young people with self-reliance.


This, the oldest extant building of the Ohlange Institute, is barely mentioned on-site.

John Dube began making his mark on South Africa in 1900, when he founded the Zulu Christian Industrial Institute, renamed a year later to the Ohlange Institute. His chosen site was, again, within walking distance of the Phoenix Settlement and of the Shembe town of Ekuphakameni. It ranked as the first educational institution with a black director in South Africa. Its initial enrollment of 63 students soon bloomed to more than 100; by 1917, women were also allowed to enroll. In 1903, Dube created a Zulu-language newspaper Ilanga Lase Natal (the Natal Sun). His message of “Honour the man who works” and scornful “demise of the idler” began reaching a wider community. The school’s finances had become threatened enough by 1924 that Dube allowed the school to become part of the “Department of Native Education” (note that while the Nationalists did not bring “Apartheid” to the government until 1948, the earlier government under Smuts had plenty of racial limits in place).

Dube’s enduring relationship with the American religious community put him in a difficult position. He was committed to non-violence, and the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion put him on the opposite side of the Zulu chiefs. Nonetheless, his prominence in fostering the growth of the Zulu community positioned him well for the 1912 convocation of educated South African elites to establish the South African Native National Congress, renamed in 1923 to become the African National Congress.

IMG_9955When Nelson Mandela cast his ballot in 1994 at the John L. Dube building of the Ohlange Institute, he walked to the memorial monument at Dube’s grave and said, “I have come to report, Mr. President, that South Africa is now free.” He explained his decision to come to this site with these words:

I voted at Ohlange High School in Inanda, a green and hilly township just north of Durban, for it was there that John Dube, the first president of the ANC, was buried… When I walked to the voting station, my mind dwelt on the heroes who had fallen so that I might be where I was that day, the men and women who had made the ultimate sacrifice for a cause that was now finally succeeding… I did not go into that voting station alone on 27th April; I was casting my vote with all of them.

During my time at the Ohlange Institute, the students of the high school on the site showed a lot of curiosity about their visitors.  One boy asked to have his picture taken with me.  A group of girls were giggling behind me, and when I turned around to say hello, one said, “you are handsome!”  We all laughed.

Mzinyathi Falls

With these three giants in my mind, I was ready for a moment apart from the world. I should be clear that the two sites I had visited (Phoenix Settlement and Ohlange Institute) were quite close to the M25 highway that burrows into the heart of this principally Indian township. Both sites had security gates and personnel guarding entry, and I could walk around each with a sense of security. The dirt roads connecting the sites to the highway were somewhat worrisome, with shacks or cinderblock houses beside them. My next destination was at least a kilometer off the M25, though, and I was unsure what I would find.


This mix of formal and informal buildings appears just above the falls.

Just navigating to the turnoff for Mzinyathi Falls was a bit shocking. On that route, the M25 juts north from a traffic circle that doubles as a public square / taxi minibus rank, and I missed my turn on the first attempt. I was soon back on course, driving past “tuck shops” built from shipping containers. When I saw the turn for the Falls, my face fell. The route south was just a dirt road of one lane. The Litchi-Car bounced and jostled merrily along, and soon the endless rows of shacks and cinderblock houses gave way to a ravine on the left side. No sign indicated that I had reached the falls, though, and I bounced on another quarter mile before turning around for fear that my car couldn’t navigate back up the slope.

When my eyes landed on the falls, though, I felt it was all worth it. Ironically, they were easier to see on the way back to the highway! I fell into conversation with Nehemiah, a Zambian who had come to South Africa to work in a friend’s shop (it didn’t turn out well). We stood at a half wall on the edge of the ravine, and I shot photos and videos of the cascade.

When one has been in a dry country for a while, the sound of water becomes a little magical, really. It does not surprise me that these falls are considered a holy place for baptisms by the followers of Isaiah Shembe.  I loved the rainbow reflecting off the water vapor at the bottom. Perhaps South Africa has “moved on” from being the Rainbow Nation, but I still take comfort in my belief that the leaders of tomorrow still feel inspired by luminaries like Gandhi, Shembe, and Dube.


On foot in Durban

August 6, 2017

My plan to visit museums today ran afoul of a simple scheduling problem: it’s Sunday. I reassembled my plans last night so that I would spend today visiting the center of Durban, taking in its beaches and historic center. Why not take advantage of the fact that the business commuters are staying away today?

I decided to drive my rental car to Mini Town, which sits at the northern end of Durban’s Golden Mile. I parked near some sports fields in an area used for overflow event parking at the Olive Convention Center. To be able to park in downtown for a full day with no charge was an unexpected bonus! I walked a couple of blocks and found myself right at the entrance to Mini Town.

On the Beach


The electric train has passed the trestle bridge at Mini Town.

I don’t really have much to say about Mini Town as an attraction. I thought that it would contain models of famous buildings throughout the world or even throughout South Africa. Instead, the great majority of its models are small buildings carrying logos and advertisements for local businesses. A few were rather nicer, such as the Durban City Hall and a couple of Muslim shrines. If you are a fan of model railroads, you might enjoy the site, because it is encircled by a track. At one point, it crosses a bridge over water, and the bridge has a central section that raises in order to allow a tall ship through the channel. With that said, Mini Town was mostly a bust.

I turned my face to the south and began a long trek down the beach. Durban’s beaches are quite lovely. They’re wide and sandy, just like the ones I enjoyed in San Diego, and the water of the Indian Ocean is a lot warmer than what one would experience in Cape Town! The beaches are lined with massive hotels, such as the Southern Sun.


A park sandwiched between the beach and hotel

One of the hotels had constructed a lovely park on the beach, featuring fountains and flowers. It looked like an excellent place for a picnic, but it was still only 10:30 in the morning.

I had not walked very far when I realized that I had made a serious mistake in omitting my hiking hat from my packing list. Even though we are in winter, Durban’s sun was making my head hurt. I pulled off the beach trail and found a flea market full of sales booths. Durban has long been home to a substantial number of people descended from the people of India; they were recruited to South Africa to support the sugar-growing agriculture of the area. Today, Durban has the highest concentration of Indian inhabitants outside India! Surrounded by booths of sellers, I was struck by the change in ethnic makeup. At Parow Centre in Cape Town, I would be surrounded by people from the Cape Coloured population (48.8% of the Western Cape population in the 2011 census), but in Durban, the Indian population is ascendant (7.4% of the KwaZulu-Natal population in the 2011 census).

I found a seller who had some buffalo leather caps for sale. It reminded me of one I’d purchased years ago near London (that I never get to wear in Cape Town’s climate). The listed price wasn’t too bad, just R150 ZAR, but I asked him if there were a Sunday morning discount. He suggested that R130 ZAR would be the Sunday price, and I took it. I think a $10 USD hat that keeps the sunburn away from my scalp is a bargain!

Down the beach I trod, watching people playing on the sand and hawkers trying to draw interest to their wares. A fair number of them were selling Zulu art, either the furry headdress of a warrior or colorful bead-work for earrings or chokers. Of course, one cannot really stop to look, because the moment he or she does, a crowd of salesmen will begin calling! A very persistent leather belt salesmen required direct communication before he went away.


Panorama produced through Microsoft Image Composite Editor

The beach has several piers pointing into deeper water. I walked out to the end of one to watch surfers attempt to ride the waves. On the whole, though, I did not see many people enjoying the waters. I am sure it would be quite different had I been visiting in summer on a school holiday!

uShaka Marine World

As I crossed into the southernmost beaches, the area became less inviting. It was clear that many of the people around me had slept outside last night, and the buildings were not in great repair, either. I kept my head up until I passed that zone.


I believe this is a restaurant!

At last, I found myself in the area of uShaka Marine World, a water park offering the “highest water slide in the Southern Hemisphere” along with Africa’s largest aquarium. I had considered spending some time in there, but I’d left my swimsuit in the car. I still enjoyed the fact that some of their attractions had been built inside a ship hull!


Lentil “Bunny Chow” at Nadia’s Curry Cafe

Instead, I visited its restaurants at Village Walk! Three years ago, researchers from K-RITH (now AHRI) had taken me to the Moyo Restaurant, where I had been wowed by a troupe of traditional dancers. I think that would be the first time I’d seen Zulu warrior dancing. This time, though, I opted for its next door neighbor, Nadia’s Curry Cafe. For my lunch, I ordered a “bunny chow,” that Durban-most of Indian cuisine! The restaurant cut an unsliced loaf of bread in half, and then they made a hollow inside it by pulling out a plug of bread. They poured my lentil curry into the hollow and added a salad on the side. It was delicious!

After lunch, I wandered through the uShaka shopping mall where I had bought my niece and nephews some beaded Christmas ornaments back in 2014. I was happy to see a team from the Department of Science and Technology running a table for National Science Week at the aquarium.


Farewell to the amusement park!

As I left Marine World, I was a bit unsure of my course. I felt that it was important for me to try to see the historic center of the city, but I had already walked some distance that day. Resting my feet over lunch, though, seemed to have restored them. I decided to strike out to the west toward the City Hall.

Don’t look like a tourist on foot in downtown Durban.

I would not recommend the walk to City Hall from the beach for most tourists. My walk North along Mahatma Gandhi showed me many building in poor repair. Several churches along my route were ending Sunday services, and I took a look inside St. Peter’s Catholic Church for a moment. As I continued my walk, I felt pretty out-of-place, and the ever-present taxi shuttle buses didn’t help my mood. I turned left on Margaret Mncadi and saw more of the same disrepair. A tourist map I acquired on the beach showed a “Revolving Restaurant” overlooking the enclosed harbor. I looked up at it from below, and I am not sure I would want to depend on its structural integrity. In any case, it was closed on Sundays. I turned up Samora Machel to reach the City Hall, and I was pleased to see buildings from an earlier era had been preserved properly.


A shady verandah at the Old Court House!

I started on the grounds of the Old Court House Museum (closed on Sunday). The style of the yellow and white building seemed to fit this area like an old shoe. The covered walkway around the building would have been a great relief from the relentless sun.

I was walking toward the city hall itself when a security guard stopped me and said I had to stay outside the parking area since it was closed for Sundays. I crossed the street into the Medwood Gardens and snapped a couple of photos of the massive building, trying to find the right moment to snap the photo so passing cars wouldn’t appear!


Find the right place to photograph the entire massive structure would be a challenge!

I continued to Church street and found another informal market in progress there, but a substantial number of panhandlers were nearby. I pulled my camera from my bag for a moment to capture the Post Office, and immediately people began approaching me for money.

I turned my heel on the area and struck a brisk pace back toward the beach along Dr. AB Xuma. I did see some much newer buildings that were clearly getting much more attention than the run-down district through which I’d approached city hall. The Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre was massive and gleaming! I wondered just when the building would end as I turned the corner to follow Stalwart Simelani North.  Eventually I reached the M4 on foot, and soon I was reunited with the Litchi-car.

I returned to my hotel for a lovely, lingering nap.

From the Beach to Bloem!

August 5, 2017

There are only so many places one can conveniently drive from Cape Town. The drive from Cape Town to Johannesburg, for example, would take thirteen and a half hours, by the book. My desire to see the eastern half of the country motivated me to plan a week-long road trip; I would fly to Durban to kick off the trip and fly home from Bloemfontein at the end!

20170817-Road-MapMy trip plan began in Durban, the third-largest city in South Africa (after Cape Town). I hoped to take in some of its tourist sites as well as learn a bit more about Gandhi‘s life in South Africa. From there I would drive inland to Pietermaritzburg, a smaller city founded by Voortrekkers. The next two stops were considerably less urban! My visits to Monk’s Cowl and Golden Gate Highlands National Park would let me see some of the most glorious mountain scenery in the country. While surrounded by South Africa, I would leave it by visiting the nation of Lesotho while staying in the nation’s capital, Maseru. Finally, I would visit the judicial capital of South Africa, Bloemfontein. I hope that this map makes the plan of this trip easier to follow!

My experiences with South African Airways has mostly been positive, but I decided to return to a non-governmental airline for this trip. I first flew with Mango Airlines in November, 2014, during my initial trip to the country. Coincidentally, my new trip would recapitulate that first flight as I hopped from CPT to King Shaka International in Durban. I flew on a Saturday afternoon, and Natasha was very kind to drive me to the airport through traffic crowded with sports fans on their way to Newlands Stadium.

The flight was quite uneventful. Mango used a Boeing 737-800, the same kind of plane one frequently sees with Southwest Airlines in the United States. The seats were plain, though reasonably comfortable. I believe South African airlines are less prone to packing passengers in like sardines than we frequently see in the States. Only two hours were required to go from coast to coast across South Africa.


The Litchi-Car

Perhaps not many people know this about me, but I enjoy driving quite a bit less than others. I feel okay when I am in my own car, but driving a friend’s car or a rental car is distinctly uncomfortable. For this trip, I had rented a car with Tempest Car Hire, which has an agreement with Mango Airlines. Despite the fact that most of my drive would be uphill, I opted for the least expensive cars they rented. When I arrived at the Tempest office at King Shaka International, however, a problem arose. Their records showed that I would drop the car off at Bloemfontein, so that was fine, but they looked at me quite blankly when I asked them to confirm that I could drive into Lesotho (apparently the border guards check to see if rental cars have written permission for crossing the border). At first, the administrators simply said no, but I asked them to reconsider since my entering Swaziland (another small, landlocked nation in the northeast of South Africa) was perfectly fine with their policies. A telephone call later, the staff handed me my letter within the rental contract. I wandered out to the car to see my chariot for nine days!

I know it’s quite silly, but I tend to give my cars a name. Strawberry, for example, has been a very reliable ride for me since I found her in December of 2015. To stay with the same theme, I decided that the pretty white Kia Picanto from Tempest would be called “Litchi.” Her first gear made me stall out on my first few tries to start from a stop, but soon I felt that I was learning her rhythms. I started my running battle with the car’s turn signals (here called an “indicator”), though; the headlights and indicators are reversed on Litchi versus what I have become accustomed to in Strawberry.

I had a small city map of Durban, but I did not have a map to get me to my hotel, the Road Lodge Umhlanga Ridge. I had some misgivings about staying in Durban proper; it’s a huge city, and it has a bit of a reputation as a rougher place (this may be entirely unfair, since Cape Town is now the ninth most dangerous city in the world by murder rates). As a result, I set up my room in Umhlanga, a northern suburb of Durban that has a growing economy and a legendary beach.

Alone in the dark without a map in a foggy rental car

20170817-Bad-NavigationMy drive to Umhlanga was my worst navigation experience in years. I entered the N2 southbound without a problem, and I made it through the toll plaza without stalling out the engine (the fee was just five and a half Rand, or about $0.41 USD). My attempt to improvise by hopping onto the M4 coastal highway ran into a snag when I got mixed up on the interchange and found myself heading back toward the airport on the N2! I was able to reverse course at the next exit, but the sinking sun cooled everything down, and condensation started to collect inside the windscreen. I dropped a window.

I still had the “M4” in my mind when the exit for the M41 in Umhlanga came up, and I careened southward on the N2, still looking for the right road. There were no nearby exits, though, and soon I was cresting a rise to the north of Durban. A moment of magic happened that jolted me right back into my memories of Durban in 2014; as I continued south down the hill I just mounted, I saw the first valley that is home to Durban. From a dark landscape all around me, I was suddenly surrounded by streetlights in every direction. It’s a very impressive way to first experience the city.

At long last another exit appeared, this time for the KwaMashu highway. I mostly knew the name of this road from Rob Byrne‘s traffic news on SAFM; during rush hour this road is frequently quite busy! I decided to take the exit and head east on the R102 (into Durban North). The road curved to the south, though, and soon I was almost to Durban itself. I took another road east to the coastal highway, and I was soon on the M12, headed north to Umhlanga.

In fact, I reached Umhlanga before I knew it! I drove through the lovely Umhlanga Ridge, a wealthy business district crammed with new buildings, and I turned east on the M41 at a traffic circle, which headed me away from Umhlanga Ridge, right back toward Durban. I had returned to the M4 along the coast before I was able to exit and beg a security guard for help. I was, by that time, very close, and Google Maps on my Android phone was able to get me the last mile. In the future, I will try to spend more time with that option first. (I’ve had no Internet at home for the last two days before my trip. Thanks, Telkom!)

At any rate, I was able to reach my hotel before seven P.M. I had to take a couple of tries at parking near it. My hotel is jammed between a NetCare hospital and the massive Gateway Theatre of Shopping. I was arriving just in time for dinner on Saturday night, and the roads were as crowded as you might expect. After looping through the hospital and mall areas a few times, I was able to maneuver into the mall parking lot, and a few minutes of stalking exiting shoppers finally acquired a “rock star” parking spot, just thirty feet from the hotel door.

I was at my “home” for the next three nights! After checking into my room, I trudged over to the mall to enjoy some pesto fettuccine for dinner. The evening would be a good one, despite my having driven roughly five times as far as necessary to get to my hotel!

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!

Cahokia: America’s first city

[Thank you all for returning to my blog after a two month hiatus!  The exceptionally busy time is past, and I can resume writing.  I’ve missed sharing these with you!]

Because I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, driving back and forth across I-70 has always seemed like a birthright.  When I attended the 2017 ASMS conference in Indianapolis, driving there from my parents’ home in KC seemed an obvious choice.  On my way back to KC, though, I stopped at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.  A comment from my brother had jogged my memory of Guns, Germs, and Steel, a core text of human anthropology.  The Mississippian cultural tradition, to which Cahokia belongs, could have been one of the original “Cradles of Civilization,” and I wanted to see it first hand.

At first glance, Cahokia is visually marked by the massive Monks Mound (with a base covering 14 acres / 57,000 m²) and many nearby mounds.  What makes this site significant?  Cahokia represents the first urban settlement within the borders of the United States.  Researchers have estimated that its population approached 20,000 citizens at its peak, between 1050 and 1100 A.D.  This development was possible because of plant domestication along the Mississippi River, starting as early as 3000 B.C. with squash, sunflower, and marsh elder.  The rise of Cahokia, however, probably coincides strongly with the arrival of corn, domesticated in central America.  Farming made city development possible, since adequate food supply allows diversification of labor into different functional roles.  I borrowed my title for this post, by the way, from William Iseminger’s book detailing decades of archaeological research at Cahokia.

I have mentioned several World Heritage Sites in my travels, such as the Great Wall of China, the Historic Center of Warsaw in Poland, or even the Cape Floral Region of South Africa.  The United States of America offers a total of 23 sites on the World Heritage list, and Cahokia Mounds was added to this list in 1982, putting it on a parallel with Mesa Verde or the Statue of Liberty!  It seems unfortunate, then, that Cahokia has never been granted National Historic Landmarks protection from the National Parks Service.  Instead, the State Historic Site has scraped together enough funds to acquire around half of the land originally covered by Cahokia; many of the original mounds of the city, in fact, have already been lost as farmers consolidated fields and as St. Louis expanded its reach.  The destruction of Powell Mound, the marker for the western boundary of Cahokia, illustrates the pressures on this site.

Walking around the site


Monks Mound (Mound 38) is the tallest structure remaining at Cahokia.

If I may reverse the order of the walking tour, I would start at Monks Mound itself, “North America’s biggest prehistoric earthen structure.”  In some respects, the mound represents a high platform (~100 feet above ground level) built atop a lower platform (~35 feet above ground level).  The name comes from a group of Trappist monks who farmed atop the lower platform during 1809-1813.  One might naturally ask of the mounds “what’s in there?”  In fact, several of the mounds have flat tops, and that’s because they served as platforms for important buildings; one will not find buried treasure in this type of mound!  It is worth noting that the mound builders lacked some key tools, such as the wheel and axle.  All the clay and mud of this mound was taken from a nearby “borrow pit” by individuals with baskets or pots and then walked to the construction site.  Recent research suggests that Monks Mound was built within a span of 20 years!


The view toward St. Louis from atop Monks Mound

The view from atop the mound is stellar.  The Mississippi River flood plain is vast and flat, so 100 feet of elevation is enough to see quite far.  In the picture above, you should be able to see the St. Louis Arch, at a distance of approximately ten miles.  This high elevation was home to a temple, courtyard, and high pole, with the temple measuring 104 by 48 feet.  The mound sends a clear statement about who ruled Cahokia, much as the massive construction of the Forbidden City sent that message in Beijing.

If Monks Mound represented Cahokia’s Capitol Hill, where was the city?  The large field in which I was standing for the first photo has been named as the Grand Plaza.  The 40 or 50 acres of ground are almost completely flat.  As our tour guide said, “Illinois is flat, but it’s not that flat.”  In fact, archaeologists have produced evidence that the Cahokians leveled the area by adding fill dirt of up to three feet across this large area, then added a sandy surface atop it.  The area likely played a fair number of community roles, not least of which was the field where athletes would try their hands at chunkey, a sport where players would compete to roll small stone discs onto the playing field and then launch a stick to land as close as possible to where the stone would stop its roll.


The Twin Mounds appear to have served as a ceremonial center for funerary rites.

The Grand Plaza extended south to the Twin Mounds.  Mounds 59 and 60 are approximately half a kilometer away from Monks Mound, and they appear to have functioned as a “charnel house” or site for funerary rites.  Mound 60 was a platform mound, so it is likely to have had a structure constructed atop it.  Mound 59 is not a platform mound but rather a conical structure named “Round Top”– it appears to the right in the photo above.  When these conical mounds have been excavated at other sites, they frequently contain burials; respect for the dead is one of the reasons that Round Top has not been formally excavated.  Since much of this site was unprotected for years, though, Round Top was occasionally pilfered by the curious.  The link for Mound 59 relates a story from 1915 of boys who began digging for treasure in Round Top.  They found a skeleton with a copper serpent on its chest.  One of the boys claimed it as his own, and it has been lost to history.

Formal archaeology has continued at this site for decades, of course, and one of the most interesting stories has come from Mound 72.  To an untrained eye, the mound appears quite small and dull.  Its unusual orientation and location away from others, however, drew attention from researchers beginning in 1967.  In total, the remains of 270 different people have been found in the mound.  Most of them appear to have been young women, killed ritually, but a group of 39 skeletons seem to represent individuals who died in violent chaos.  Their mass burial completely contrasts with the “beaded burial,” an individual lying atop twenty thousand beads made from shells imported from the Gulf of Mexico.  Certainly mound 72 demonstrates that residents of Cahokia were not held to be equal after death.


The palisade wall stretched two miles, a thousand years ago!

Cahokia was protected from possible attack by a two-mile palisade.  This wall ran outside Monks Mound, around the Grand Plaza, and encompassed even the Twin Mounds.  Rather than building the wall of masonry, as practiced by the Chinese in constructing an early segment of the Great Wall, the Cahokians cut down young trees, stripped their branches, burned the ends to prevent decay, and buried the ends in a long trench.  Since the trees rotted with time, the wall needed frequent replacement.  This demand for timber was apparently a big driver in the deforestation of this area next to the Mississippi River.

Early civilizations sought to regularize the cultivation of crops, and the Cahokians constructed “Woodhenge” to show the changing seasons.  A circle of tall poles are found to the west of Monks Mound.  At the equinoxes, the sun rises directly behind Monks Mound from that vantage.  Archaeologists have found evidence for at least five different constructions of Woodhenge on this site, ranging up to 476 feet in diameter.  Today, Woodhenge is somewhat separated from the rest of the Cahokia site as the nearby town continues to develop.  The atmosphere of the calendar is diminished only a bit by the gas station across the street.

Cahokia in context

How did Cahokia rate in the world of 1000 A.D.?  As I mentioned above, Cahokia was missing some key resources.  The Americas lacked the invention of the wheel (as well as domesticated animals for pulling wagons), and Cahokia is prehistoric by definition since the population had not developed a written language.  Cahokia had very little ability to work with metals; most of its copper came from up north, and they lacked techniques to smelt it, for example, to produce bronze.  Once corn arrived at Cahokia, its cultivation swiftly exhausted the soil since beans were not available for crop rotation.  These are some pretty big barriers to the longevity of this city!


Porcelain figurines from the Song Dynasty (National Museum of China)

By comparison, we might look at four cities that were the greatest successes of 1000 A.D: Córdoba, Baghdad, Constantinople, and Kaifeng.  Córdoba and Baghdad were enjoying the “Golden Age of Islam.”  Córdoba was the capital of its Caliphate under the Umayyad dynasty, and its population may have reached a half million inhabitants (about twenty-five Cahokias).  Baghdad, on the other hand, had already crested a million in population by this time under the Abbasids, who made it a renowned center of learning.  Byzantium had endured for almost a thousand years when it became Constantinople in 330 A.D., serving as the new capital for the Roman empire; by 1000 the city was experiencing the Macedonian Renaissance, with a population somewhere between that of Córdoba and Baghdad.  Kaifeng had been selected as a capital by the Song Dynasty of China when they came to power in 960.  The population of 400,000 struggled with typhus, but the armies this city controlled were sophisticated enough to use gunpowder in siege warfare!

Compare these major cities with Cahokia in the same era.  Its less diverse agriculture, limited availability of soft metal, and oral tradition without a written language forecast an unhappy fate when its descendants met those of the East.  In fact, one of the great mysteries for Cahokia is discerning which native American tribes are most related to the great Mississippian city!  By the time De Soto reached the Mississippi River in 1541, Cahokia had long since been abandoned.  A 2004 exhibit by the National Endowment for the Humanities attempted to show the richness of the culture that existed before contact with Europeans.  Tragically, that first contact led to plagues that ravaged the indigenous inhabitants of North America well before colonists began moving their boundaries westward.  To visit Cahokia, though, is to witness a high point of the culture of native America.

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

Prague: off the beaten track in Vyšehrad

An index to the Prague series appears on the first post.

For my final full day in Prague, I opted for a hike to the top of Vyšehrad, a hill castle guarding the south river approach to Prague.  This area is considerably less visited by tourists than is true of the Old Town or the castle (Pražský hrad).  I was unsure what to expect, but I felt sure that my legs would appreciate one last stretch before the train and flight back home to South Africa!


I loved these bright colors.

My stroll took me through some of the key historical buildings of the New Town.  I have already shared a photo of the New Town Hall, but I am sure I have not mentioned the delightful orange and white building next door to the Saint Stephen (Svatý Štěpán) church (built when New Town was new).  Just to the west, I encountered the large public park in front of New Town Hall.  I headed south to encounter the substantial Church of St. Ignatius (Kostel svatého Ignáce).  As I stepped into the vestibule, I encountered a homeless person, asking for change.  Since I had no Czech currency left other than some minor change, he was disappointed, and he responded with a phrase I recognized from reading spy novels (loosely translated “oh my god!”).  In the image below, I have shown the interior of St. Ignatius at the left.


Two Prague churches: St. Igantius (left) and the Benedictine Emmaus Monastery (right)


Who doesn’t need stillness from time to time?

It is plain that the church on the right places a much lower value on decoration!  As you might have anticipated from the photo caption, the next site I visited was the Emmaus Monastery.  I had not seen any tourist literature directing me to the place, but a helpful sign directed me to the entrance.  The friendly docent refused to let me pay the full adult admission and insisted on student admission instead (which was handy, since I only had a little pocket change).

I walked through the door into nearly total silence.  The square cloister was very peaceful, receiving only indirect light from the enclosed courtyard.  The pamphlet I had received at the entrance gave a helpful map explaining the art in each alcove.  The images were very old, dating from the creation of the abbey by Charles the IV in 1347, and the monastery had suffered bomb damage during World War II.  Restoration on the art has not yet returned its former glory.

I was strongly moved by the peace of the cloister.  After a quick look at the nave I included in the comparison above, I paused at the corner of the cloister for just a moment.  I sang a song for my friends back in Nashville.  The reverberations were very comforting.  I continued on to a small chapel that I had missed on my initial walk.  I was astonished to see the image of a spear head that I had last seen in Warsaw!  This chapel had once featured sacred relics believed to be from the Crucifixion, specifically nails from the cross and the spear that had pierced Jesus.  The art in this small chapel has been restored to a much greater extent than in the cloister outside.


A refurbished chapel in the Emmaus Monastery


This massive gateway dates from 1841.

Having spent some time with the transcendent, I was ready for a bit of a slog.  I trudged south along the evocatively named “Na Slupi” in the cold wind.  It seemed to be picking up speed, and a few snow flurries came my way.  I came to a rail underpass that was my route to the Vyšehrad access.  The roads led steeply uphill.  Soon I encountered the massive brick gate (cihelná brána) of the rooftop fortress.  I nearly fell on my backside trying to get a photo; once I stepped away from the roadbed, I was slipping and sliding on ice.

I should explain that Vyšehrad was prominent in the ancient history of Prague and regained standing in medieval times.  The castle atop Vyšehrad was the ducal seat of the Přemyslid dynasty during the 10th century, before Prague Castle was constructed on the opposite side of the Vltava River.  The area’s rebirth came about after the New Town extended to the south in the 1350s.  After the ancient fortress fell into ruin, a new Baroque fortress atop Vyšehrad was established after the Thirty Years’ War, in 1654.


The church looks pretty great for being nearly a millennium old!

My first stop inside the walls was a visit to the Rotunda of St. Martin.  The rotunda represents an ancient type of church architecture that pre-dates Gothic cathedrals by half a millennium.  St. Martin was constructed during the reign of Vratislaus II, who died in 1092.  The building has been decommissioned and renovated a few times over.  Its walls still contain a Prussian cannon ball from 1757!

I wandered south to the most external gate of the walls, Tabor Gate, originally built in 1655.  The information center was closed when I walked past, and most signs that I observed were in Czech, so I felt somewhat unsure of what I was seeing.  As I followed the walk back north on a bluff to the east side of the Vltava River, though, I was treated to some really lovely views of today’s Prague.  I saw a private boat harbor to the east side of the river, and ice had covered the entirety of its surface.  Soon, though, I came across some ruins.


Libušina lázeň was a medieval Gothic lookout tower.


The St. Peter and Paul Basilica

Legends surround this place, as well.  After the warrior Čech settled in this area, his son Krok produced three daughters.  The youngest daughter, Libuše, was famed for her wisdom and prophecies.  She was selected as leader for the land, as a result (and gave her name to the tower shown above).  When people complained that a woman should not lead by herself, she prophesied that her white horse would lead her servants to Prince Přemyslid, who would become her husband.  Soon thereafter, the happy couple launched the first dynasty that ruled Bohemia from Prague.

Even before the creation of the New Town, a church had stood at the crest of Vyšehrad.  The 11th century church was remodeled in the second half of the 14th century and again at the end of the 19th.  St. Peter and Paul has been an important part of Prague history as the political leadership shifted between Vyšehrad and Prague Castle and as religious leadership has shifted among the three principal churches of the city (the others being St. Vitus and Our Lady before Týn).


Final resting place of one of my favorite composers

The graveyard adjoining St. Peter and Paul came into vogue during the 19th century, and a quick walk through the grounds will show any number of beautiful memorials and tombs.  The classical composers Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana are both interred there, and I recognized Jan Neruda, a writer and poet, as well.  It seemed strange that this place at the edge of the city would have regained this prominence at such a late date.


King Wenceslaus looks out on a magnificent view of his city.

I was glad, though, that I could finish my visit to Prague at Vyšehrad.  My final moments of tourism saw me slipping and sliding across the icy hill top.  At last I reached a lovely equestrian statue of St. Wenceslaus.  It dates from 1680, when it was crafted by Bendl for the Prague Horse Market.  This area was subsequently renamed “Wenceslaus Square;” the statue currently standing outside the National Museum was a later replacement.  I think that the dukes, kings, and emperors who have ruled Prague would be delighted if they could see it today.  I know I was!