Monthly Archives: June 2014

Waterworld

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If you asked for one word to describe Bangladesh, it would have to be “water.” It’s everywhere, more than any place I’ve ever seen, and not exactly where it should be. It’s June, and the beginning of the monsoon season, a time when water begins to swallow up massive portions of land. It’s breathtaking in a bad sort of way.

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In particular in the south, it looks catastrophic from the air. Much of the landscape is only identifiable as land by bits of manmade items barely protruding above the waterline. Houses and herds of cows stand in the middle of what appears to be wide bays and channels, but in fact, is just land gone under. When this kind of flooding happens in the western world, a State of Emergency is declared. In Bangladesh it’s a yearly event, lasting for months. People leave their flooded homes and fields, returning when the water recedes.

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Statistics on Bangladesh are staggering. Perhaps the most important, to put it all into perspective, is this:

Bangladesh is the size of Iowa with a population approximately half the size of the United States. Imagine that for just a moment.

Now add this:

During a ‘normal’ monsoon season, approximately 18% or more of the country goes underwater.

But ‘normal’ is fast disappearing. In the 1998 monsoon season, two-thirds of the country experienced severe flooding resulting in death and destruction of property and agriculture. The sea is rising and cyclones are becoming more prevalent with climate change. If the sea rises just one meter, 17% of the country will disappear forever. In many southern areas, water is too saline to grow rice, let alone drink. Can it get any worse? Why, yes. Arsenic contaminates much of the groundwater as well.

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Where do people go in a country this size, and this populated? Neighboring India fortified their borders with Bangladesh by constructing a 4000 km wall, and prior to 2011 had a policy akin to ‘shoot and ask questions later’. Bangladeshis call it the ‘Wall of Death’.

It surprised me how often I saw smiles and joy on Bangladeshi faces, despite all the hardships and recurring tragedies they experience. Children, especially, flocked to the MAF floating plane, danced in front of the cameras, performed flips into the water, and laughed often (even after I accidentally knocked a boy over when I opened the car door). These things tend to put life into perspective for me. I hope I remember this the next time I can’t get a hot shower, or think that US tap water doesn’t taste good enough, or complain that it rains too much in Oregon.

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Rhino Charge

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It’s 7:00 am and a group of 30 men, women, and children from the Nairobi Karen Vineyard church is standing in a clearing in the wild bush listening to the rumble of cars approaching. We’ve been up since 5:00 am getting ready for this moment, food and drinks in hand, and ready to start cheering for the six off-road teams. Suddenly, clear and close, we all hear something unexpected – the wild trumpeting of a startled mama elephant. It was a beautiful and strange moment – that combination of wild, testosterone-laden off-road vehicles ready to take on the wild bush, and the sound of the true wild, just a little bit unhappy about it.

Changing a blow-out on the way to Rhino Charge. The drive took over 8 hours.Samburu women hang out near the entrance to the conservancy.An official leads the team of nine vehicles through the conservancy to the furthest checkpoint where we will set up camp.Mountain view on the way to the checkpointOstrichCampsite & Karen Vineyard CheckpointAudra CaddCadd Family with leaders Mandeep and BubblyVulturine Guineafowl - a beautiful and unusual kind with both striped and polka dot feathers.Josh and Dan erect the toilet tentPreparing foodBoys during a rare quiet momentThe view from a nearby hill overlooking our campsite and the Rhino Charge area.The view from a nearby hill overlooking our campsite and the Rhino Charge area.Preparing breakfast for the competitors at 5:30 am the day of the race.The Vineyard officials in their red shirts.The first six cars arrive at the checkpoint where they will begin the competition. All cars begin at one of the 13 checkpoints.Six cars that began at the Vineyard checkpoint, the farthest from headquarters.Car 02 team decides which direction they will head first. Josh & Audra feed some of the teams before the 7:30 am start.Part of our job is to cheer the teams as they arrive and leave.Bundu Fundi team 38 arrives at the checkpoint with runners in front. This team is the Avery family. The father lives in Nairobi, and the children, many doctors, come every year from England to compete in the Rhino Charge."No Bush too Thick", said before the team saw this year's terrain.Audra and Annette feed and rehydrate a newly arrived team.An elephant, unfazed by the sound of engines, hangs out near the back side our our checkpoint.Two of the runners on this team admitted that they chose to wear the wrong kind of pants.A team checks their map and coordinates to decide where to head next.Gabe serves fruit to team 30 contestants.Planes and helicopters regularly flew over the Rhino Charge areaDirecting a car to the X on the ground.Annette, a nurse, bandages some cuts on a member of team 30, already banged up and bleeding in the morning hours.Team 30 crosses a shallow ravine. Some ravines were straight 10-meter drops.Team 30 crosses a shallow ravine. Some ravines were straight 10-meter drops.A team tries to patch a broken windshield with duct tape.Team 10 gives the thumbs up as they leave the checkpoint.Audra waits with fruit for a car to arrive.Team 37 grabs what they can from the car before racing off again.Team 37 grabs what they can from the car before racing off again.A new arrival.Team 02 makes it back to the checkpoint they started at just before the deadline of 5:30 pm.Team 02's car is badly damaged.Team 02's car is badly damaged.Team 02's car is badly damaged.Several cars arrive before 5:30 pm, but did not make it back to their original starting point.All cars were covered in thorny twigs and branches.Martini, an Italian from team 13, competed for the first time, only making it to six checkpoints in 10 hours.Team 04 didn't make it back to their checkpoint, ending at ours instead.Team 02 came in 5th place overall.

This is the Rhino Charge – one of the most popular off-road competitions in the world in which teams are required to visit 13 points scattered over approximately 100 square kms of rough terrain within a 10-hour period. The winner must do it in the shortest distance, which means taking the most direct route possible. This year, the competition raised a record-breaking 102 million Kenyan shillings for conservation. Sixty-five cars entered the race – the maximum allowed – and Karen Vineyard ran one of the 14 checkpoints. It’s a lot of work and a lot of fun.

The location this year was an eight-hour drive north of Nairobi in the Kalama Community Conservancy, a Samburu region that benefits greatly from the Rhino Charge. The Conservancy is a dusty open landscape, thick with every thorny bush and tree imaginable, scattered throughout with ravines and low mountain formations, plus wildlife ranging from dik dik to leopards to elephants (and a few scorpions to keep us on our toes).  A large bull elephant hung out at the backside of our campsite the morning of the race, seemingly unfazed by the roar of engines.

Our job was to feed and rehydrate every team that passed through our checkpoint for 10 hours straight, plus our officials checked each car in. Six cars started at our checkpoint, and only one made it all the way back in the 10 hours, coming in 5th place. About 40 cars came through the checkpoint during the 10 hour period. All the cars have “runners”, guys (and the rare girls) who run ahead of the vehicle scoping out the terrain and best route, making sure the car doesn’t fly off a cliff or drop into a ravine unexpectedly. As the day wore on, the teams and cars start to look more and more ragged and beat up. Windshields smashed, doors twisted, tie-rods bent, and all kinds of other damage. The contestants all looked happy, whether they finished or not. Martini, an Italian on Team 13 and a first-timer to compete, beamed as they drove into camp just before the 5:30 pm cut-off, having only completed six checkpoints. With a wait-a-bit branch hanging from his turban, he looked like he couldn’t have been happier if he had won.

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10 of My Favorite Things

There are so many cool things I’ve seen in the last four months. I thought I’d pick 10 of my favorites from Madagascar and South Sudan since February, not in any particular order.

1. Babies on heads. Yes, there’s a baby in there. It’s what they do in parts of South Sudan. It’s simply too cool and a first for me to see. Motot, South Sudan

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2. Strange beauty.  We tattoo our bodies – they cut patterns. Kapoeta, South Sudan

3. Women who carry the heavy stuff on their heads.  It was the women, not the men, who carried the cargo from the plane to the clinic. It never ceases to amaze me what women can balance on their heads in Africa (even babies!). Mayendit, South Sudan

4. Children who make homemade balls. I’ve seen this in all sizes in the bush, including soccer balls, all made from found items. Mayendit, South Sudan

5. Rest for the weary. “Mama Eunice” (as her younger colleagues call her) with Medair, was ready for a break from work in the bush clinic, heading for Juba from the remote village of Ganyiel after MAF delivered a plane full of cargo. I’ve heard people talk about how it feels when they are in the middle of nowhere and hear the MAF plane approaching. Eunice has been evacuated many times by MAF, for medical and security reasons. Once when her team was running from gunfire, she fell and broke her arm. When MAF came to rescue them, she said it was “like angels” coming. People like Eunice are true VIPs. Ganyiel, South Sudan

6.  People who are easily entertained. The men in this village found the signing of a cargo sheet to be fascinating entertainment. Longochuk, South Sudan

7. Homemade Toys. I’ve seen incredibly creative home-made toys in the bush. Who needs Toys-R-US? Kapoeta, South Sudan

8. Pilots with hidden talents. I was quite impressed to see these two MAF pilots, Daniel and Ryan, jam after a day of flying in South Sudan

9. MAF planes taking off in the bush. I love watching the planes take off and land from bush airstrips. Usually I’m on the plane, not on the ground, so it’s a treat. This particular strip had tall grass that was nearly too much to land on. Madagascar

10. Beautiful Late Afternoon Light. South Sudan isn’t exactly a beautiful country. A lot of flat land. But on this day, the light turned the landscape into something magical. The White Nile channels criss-cross the landscape in the late afternoon.