Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Chinese Traffic

I read with interest that the Chinese plan to reduce pollution for the Olympics starting 8/8/08 (the number 8 is a lucky number for the Chinese people) has gone into effect and still there is serious pollution in the city. Only half the cars are allowed on the road each day and many polluting factories around Beijing have be shut down. My own experience in Beijing is that there are clear skies about 20-30% of the time and high and low pressure weather conditions are the most overriding influence.

All large Chinese cities are heavy polluted due to a combination of things. Many cities are along rivers with mountains around them which causes a thermal blanket trapping pollution below until weather changes allowing the pollution to disperse. Sand storms from the west can cause near black out conditions in some places, including Beijing. And then there is gasoline pollution.

I have traveled extensively in China and never had I seen one SUV. I lot of vans owned by the government (including travel organizations), yes, but no privately owned SUV's. The rich in China drive new, black, BMW's or Audis. There are no gas guzzling old cars and most cars, including taxis are small cars on the scale of what is used in Europe.

Most traffic outside the big cities consists of bicycles, pedestrians, 2 cylinder tiny tractors, and overloaded slow moving trucks painted blue. Then there are occasional livestock who have no sense of danger and can move unpredictably, requiring drivers to creep past.

In cities with 4 or 6 lane traffic, new drivers over 30 are super cautious and help cause traffic congestion by sometimes driving in the left or middle lanes. Young drivers with really good reflexes (especially taxi drivers) dart in an out of traffic, drive on the shoulder, and create 3 lanes of traffic when the road only has two. By our standards, they would be called insane drivers. When they want to turn left (Chinese cars are left hand driver just like in the U.S. except Hong Kong), they move their car into oncoming traffic forcing the opposite moving traffic to try to move around them or to stop. Drivers pull into traffic or even when there is no traffic, when they see a space without regard as to whether traffic behind them have to brake hard or swerve around them.

Almost all cars and trucks are standard shift. The slow moving, exceptionally overloaded blue trucks belch much black smoke which indicates inefficient burning of the gasoline.

Taxis are cheap because China subsidizes gasoline, so if your have strong nerves this is a good value.

So, having expelled all this various information, I predict there will be some days during the Olympics where there will be serious pollution. I hope this embarrassment will further spark the government to take care of the world's citizens.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Llongwe to Mangochi and Back

After I received National Institute Health IRB training I was an official observer at three different male circumcision rites near Mangochi, Malawi this past Sunday and Monday. This project is an official research grant funded by NIH. Due to reasons of confidentiality, I will not be reporting any data or photos about my experiences during the circumcisions. But I will say that any the expectations of what I thought I was going to see do not represent what is currently happening. The boys were between 5-8 years old, so the hope of imparting information to them about AIDS/HIV prevention during these rites would not be appropriate due to their age. My word that I was circumcised, however, was sufficient for me to enter the ceremonies.

Our travels were to Yao tribal villages on the Eastern shore of the southern end of Lake Malawi near Mangochi. We stayed in Mangochi near the point where the lake starts the Shire River, which eventually flows into the Zambeze River in Mozambique. This was the passage way that David Livingston found this way to Lake Malawi, although some portage was required around some falls.

As I have mentioned previously, the Yao people are mostly Muslims due to their role in the slave trade business with the Arabs back in the early 19th century. Yaos settled in the southern part of Malawi and Mozambique. Male Muslims are not allowed into mosques unless they are circumcised so it is an important part of their religion.

We travel to Mangochi through London, Johannesburg, and Llongwe traveling the last 180 miles by van from Llongwe. While waiting to go to Mangochi, we stay as always at the Capital Hotel in Llongwe, now run by Sunbird. In recent years, the hotel has been upgraded with new carpeting and furniture, but wireless Internet access really requires you to take your lap top to sit just outside the business center in order to get any speed.

We arrive on Sunday and leave on Wednesday afternoon for Mangochi, allowing for considerable down time. Whereupon, I indulged in two full body messages on separate days, which rank as some of the best I ever had. One of the reasons is that she messaged my butt where the legs join the hips. This are is often neglected, probably because of modesty concerns, but it feels soooo good. The cost is 3000 Kwatchas or about $21 but you must pay in cash because the spa is run separately from the hotel.

We arrive at Mangochi after dark at 7PM. Malawi is between 10 and 15 degrees below the Equator so the amount of daylight is fairly constant throughout the year. Being winter here, the sun rises about 5:30 AM and sets about 5:30 PM but there is only additional hour more of sun in their summer. The nights are chilly, in the upper 50’s and the days are in the lower 70’s and they are comfortable if the wind is low and the sun is out.

We stay at the Villa Tafica Lodge, a restored mansion of the banks of the Shire River and next to Queen Victoria Memorial Tower and later dedicated to a ship that sunk and the lost of 127 lives.

Looking from the bridge, the Lodge is on the left. Malawi women carry all kinds of things on their heads. It is truly amazing the weight and variety of things they tote.

Some examples

And just below the bridge, we saw this sign.

One late morning we went to Mkokola Lodge on the shores of the smaller lake Mangochi to have lunch. After as hour’s trek on dirt roads, we came to this beach.

This was taken at the grounds showing these beautiful red flowers common to Malawi and a Baobab tree (called the tree of life locally). These trees grown a trunk the size of a Redwood tree, but never grow taller than 100 feet. This is a small one. Some are carbon dated to be over 2000 years old. They are succulents and are only found near lakes.

One of the circumcision villages we attended had a traditional dance by the women starting about 9 Pm and lasting all night. In the morning they were still there and one of women encouraged Judith to dance with her. So she did.

Here are some other village scenes.It's wash day.

The routine when taking picture of children is to show them their photos afterwards and they point to themselves with great joy.

Young girls carry their siblings around just as their mothers do, wrapping them to their backs with a blanket.

The children take care of the young and each other. They are very happy with their lives. Some are mal-nourished however showing signs of being anemic.

Many have not seen a white person and when stepping out of the van they gather round and stare at you. Judith’s blue eyes and hair especially are a source of amazement.

And they have an opportunity to see sunsets like this.

The country side is beautiful and varied. I took these from the van traveling back to Llongwe.

A market along the highway.
Malawi a very poor country. However, it has great beauty which is undiscovered. Someday, the lake front will be developed and the standard of living will be improved. But the people are happy now. I hope they remain as good hearted as they are now.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Life in Malawi

I am sitting on a balcony adjoining our room overlooking the Shire River in Mangochi, Malawi, Africa. It is 6 PM and dusk is at hand. There is a welcomed slight breeze brings the strains of a pulsating African rhythm closer to my inner dancer. It is a most enjoyable moment. Then the power fails and everything is dark. The hotel’s generator kicks in to provide general area lighting, but the moment is interupted.

I decide that this could be a metaphor for life in Malawi, at least for a Westerner.

For every rewarding day or moment of feeling “life is good”, there are constant streams of items that come up that require problem solving and/or patience. But to a Malawian, this is normal.

Yesterday, we were invited to witness a male circumcision event that was to begin at 10:00 AM at one of the nearby (I estimate about 15 miles) villages. Keep in mind that we are in a different time zone here called African time or time. This is the type of time where things take place an hour or two later (or more) than expected.

We show up at 10 AM Malawian and talk to the traditional authority (chief of all the villages in the district) and find out things are not ready to happen and to come back at 11. Apparently he hadn’t received his honorarium (a chicken) from the village sub-chief who has arranged for the ceremony. Also, the men are still building the thatched roof of the ceremonial camp. So instead of waiting around for another 30 minutes, we saddle up and drive another 20 minutes to another village to assure things are all set up for the main circumcision event that is our primary goal which is to take place on Monday. After our colleagues talk to this chief to make sure that indeed everything is set for Monday, we return to the first village at about 11:30 knowing that 11 o’clock didn’t really mean 11 o’clock.

We are told to come back at 2 PM. We are hungry by now and there is no restaurant nearby, so we return to Mangochi and eat. Again figuring 2 PM didn’t really mean 2 PM, we come back just before 4 PM to find out the circumcision just took place about 10 minutes ago. Four men including me go to the circumcision “lodge” and observe what is happening... I am allowed to take some photos.

We arrive back at our hotel just before 6 PM and shortly after, the power goes off again.

The kitchen here has a limited menu. Still, so far they have temporarily run out of milk, eggs, Coke, and bananas. The internet café next door has no ink for their printer. And at this announcement I noticed that neither Judith nor I felt any frustration but accepted the news. And I thought this is how you need to adjust your attitude while visiting here because there is nothing you can do to control or change things. Just try to work around them and learn that this is life in Malawi.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

We are off to Malawi, Africa

We are off to Malawi, Africa again soon.

Several studies have shown that male circumcision has been shown to significantly reduce the effects of AIDS/HIV in men. In Malawi, about 14 % are descendents from the Yao tribe and they are Moslems. Some may know that Moslems practice circumcision just like the Jews. In some places in Africa and in Malawi, male circumcision is not performed at birth or 8 days after birth, but is done at initiation rites where boys pass into manhood.

The boys are about 10-12 years old and after the circumcision is done they are allowed to recover from their wounds as they are told about sex. They are given all the birds and bees information about the functioning of the male and female sexual organs. The information is given out by the tribal chief and each of the boys’ sponsors, usually an uncle or older brother. Fathers are not allowed to attend the rites, nor are any women. And all males attending must be circumcised.

Rarely, but sometimes boys died. If they don’t come home, the parents are not allowed to ask any questions about what happened. The emerging men are not suppose to ask any further questions about sex after their rite of passage.

Judith has a grant to study how AIDS/HIV information can effectively be passed along to these Yao boys-becoming-men and how might the circumcision procedure be improved.

My main mission in this trip is to attend the rites (after showing my right to admittance) and observe what goes on etc.etc.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions concerning this. That is, can I take photos, recording, movies, etc. And something could happen so I could not attend. But, the expectation is that I will be allowed to.

I expect some of this may be unpleasant but it is such an opportunity that I am looking forward.

No Place to Work on Your Tan-Snoqualmie, WA July '08

Snoqualmie, WA—Salish Lodge

Every Independence Day for as long as Judith and I have been together (9 years), we have gone to the local Independence Day Parade in Evanston. The process begins when lawn chairs are allowed to be placed along the parkway of the Central Street parade route 2 or 3 days ahead of time along with other items to mark your “dibs”. Veteran parade goers place their items close to the reviewing stand in order to witness bands actually playing music instead of just marching by and securing the shady side of the street. Then food is ordered or prepared. On the 4th, the car is loaded with additional lawn chairs, a portable table and a couple of ice coolers, one for food and one for drinks. The trek must begin early enough to secure a parking spot within 4 or 5 blocks. You can imagine the rest of the work required.

The parade is really nice and patriotic themes abound and in the liberal community of Evanston, the Republican float and the Right to Life float are rightly politely booed, giving a feeling of community to us so inclined. But, his year, we had relief from this pleasant ordeal.

Judith is frequently asked to sit on various review boards where federal NIH grant requests are picked apart to fund only those deserving, by a majority of the reviewers. To Judith this is an opportunity to go somewhere nearby and spend a weekend at some luxury surroundings, spending all the money she makes as a reviewer.

The reviewers meet in Seattle and Judith books us at the Salish Lodge, overlooking the Snoqualmie Falls, just 35 miles outside of Seattle. And we leave on July 3rd, leaving the 4th open for something unstructured.

The Salish Lodge was built in 1919 and completely remodeled in 1988. It was used in the TV show Twin Peaks as the Great Northern Hotel. We have one of best views of the river as it starts its descent.

The Lodge is written up in several travel magazines and is listed in the book “1000 Places to See Before You Die, USA version.”

It has a gourmet restaurant and there are several tables with views of the falls. So for about $50-60 per person you can eat very well with entrée, starter, wine, and a shared dessert. The food and presentation were outstanding and the staff was so well trained. I could not help thinking that the young staff people would carry their experience forward in their lives to their benefit.

We also enjoyed the spa and each had a message after hot-tubing. The real attraction, of course, is the falls. It is 288 foot fall, more than 100 feet longer than Niagara.

For the Snoqualmie People, who have lived for centuries in the Snoqualmie Valley in western Washington, Snoqualmie Falls is central to their culture, beliefs, and spirituality. A traditional burial site, to the Snoqualmie, the falls are "the place where First Woman and First Man were created by Moon the Transformer" and "where prayers were carried up to the Creator by great mists that rise from the powerful flow.” The mists rising from the base of the waterfall serve to connect Heaven and Earth.

Clearly, the Snoqualmie had/have a different view of the world.

Watching the mist rise and disperse in the surrounding is akin to watching fire. The mist ebbs and flows, constantly moving and creating its own little eco-system. At times the mist rises about 350 feet from the river below, challenging photographers to time their shots if a clear view of the Lodge is wanted.

And with a little enhancement from Photo Shop, a more dramatic photo can be produced.

This photo was taken the first evening we were here. We only briefly saw the sun again. This is no place to work on your tan.

So on the 4th, we drive to the small town of Carnation to enjoy a small town 4th of July celebration. We didn’t stay for the fireworks, however. It would involve staying about 4 more hours.

This is the town hall and nearby still working gasoline station. Take a good look at a dying breed.

There are pony rides for the kids (all girls).

And the monster car winner featured in their parade.

And the restored car show.

I remember riding a rumble seat once back when cars had running boards.

This Ford reminds me of my Uncle Frank’s car, minus the purple paint. This car was started with a crank. Notice the horn.

These cars had a manual choke on the dashboard, gear shift on the floor, automatic starter button on the floor. No radio, CD, or tape player. No cigarette lighter to hook into cell phone, iPod, computer, or GPS system.

I leave Sunday for home while Judith goes to work. I live a hard life.