Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Big Five

Visitors to the big game areas of sub-Saharan Africa are often exhorted to spot The Big Five.  And doing so is often a badge of pride.  The name The Big Five came about apparently because the five animals are reputedly the most dangerous to hunt.  

I've just returned from 10 days in the bush, so the idea of spotting The Big Five came up.  Fortunately we succeeded in seeing all five, including the most difficult, the leopard.

Here I am in my bush vehicle, ready to go.

The animals comprising The Big Five are:

The king of the jungle – the lion (incidentally, the lion hardly ever is in a jungle – it prefers bush land or plains)

I've got my eye on you.

Here, take my photo

Time to get out of the sun
Maybe it's time for a nap


The leopard – elusive and very difficult to spot (my favorite cat)

It's all mine

The elephant – my favorite animal by far

The rhinoceros – in danger of extinction due to the demand for its horn’s (non-existent) medicinal properties

A white rhino - a grazer

The buffalo – usually placid in a herd, but decidedly cantankerous when solo.

Don't come any closer

Many visitors are surprised by the size of the animals, so I thought I would provide you with some basic facts about each of The Big Five.

The elephant – or ellie as we like to call them

This is the largest terrestrial animal, with African ellies being somewhat larger than their Asian counterparts.

A large male African ellie can stand 4 metres (13 feet) high and weigh 7,000 kgs (15,000 lbs).  With its ears out and trumpeting, it is an awesome and terrifying sight.

Ears out an trumpeting

On one of our bush trips, a group of us were canoeing along the Zambezi from Mana Pools in Zimbabwe to the Mozambique border.  We stopped for lunch on a small island, whose side were small sand cliffs made carved out when the river was in flood.  We were in the midst of setting up our picninc lunch when an ellie walked out from under a tree.  It looked at us curiously, standing about 30 or 40 metres away.  It walked around another tree and peered at us again.  Then it walked back around the tree to take another look at us.  Without any warning, up went the trunk, a soul-chilling trumpet followed, and the ellie charged.

Our options were few.  Staying where we were was obviously not an option.  But jumping over the small cliff into the crocodile-infested, hippo-infested Zambezi didn’t seem very appealing either.  But we really didn’t have a choice, so we moved with some speed towards the top of the cliff – probably 3 to 4 metres high.  Just before we had to launch ourselves over the edge, the game ranger who was accompanying us, jumped in front of the ellie, waved his arms, and shouted.

The ellie skidded to a halt – literally – looked quizzically at the crazy ranger, turned and walked away.

Of course, we were very relieved and asked the ranger why he did what he did.  He replied that when young bull ellies charge like that, it is usually a mock charge – that they are just strutting their stuff.  ‘Usually’ we thought. 

We were very thankful to have someone with us with knowledge and courage, who provided us with a story for years to come.

In the Kalahari - running for a waterhole

As frightening as they can be, ellies are also softies.  I once watched a small herd drinking at a waterhole.  There was a tortoise at the edge of the water in potential danger of being trampled.  One ellie gently moved it out of danger with it foot.  Amazing.

People who spend time around ellies are constantly amazed at their behaviour.  They have a great sense of humour.  The story goes at the game farm where I have a share in a bungalow that a group of young men, highly intoxicated, were watching a herd of ellies.  The men were making a great deal of noise, as intoxicated men are wont to do.  One ellie apparently was so irritated at the intrusive noise in the quiet bush that it wandered over to the Land Rover in which the men were sitting, lifted the front of the vehicle off the ground, and dropped it.  It them repeated this to reinforce its point and walked off.  Needless to say the bush became very quiet.

Ellies, despite their size, are remarkably quiet when they walk.  Most people who spend time in the bush have stories about looking intently at some animal or other only to find an ellie or two are standing a few metres away.  They have walked up in complete silence.  A big ellie has a foot that can reach nearly half a metre across (that’s 18 inches or so). 

This is a small footprint - and I have a big foot

Ellies are vegetarian and go through a huge amount of leaves and grass a day, often up to 150 kgs (330 lbs).  They also consume up to 40 litres of water (11 gallons). 

Elephant teeth are very interesting.  Unlike humans who replace their baby teeth with one additional set, elephants have six sets, the baby teeth followed by five other sets.  Unlike humans, an ellie’s new teeth start at the back and push forward causing the old ones to fall out.  The last set typically comes when an ellie is about 40 years old (they can live to 70) and has to last the rest of its life.  If it doesn’t, the ellie loses the ability to chew and will die of starvation.

Ellie tusks are used for digging, debarking trees, lifting, and fighting.  Tusks are relatively soft and often wear down or break off.  The record length of an African ellie tusk is about 3 metres (10 feet).  Over the past couple of hundred years, elephant tusks have on average become shorter because of natural selection – the long tusked ellies were shot for trophies.  I’m sure Darwin would have had something to say about this.

Enjoying the water

Paddling in the Okavango Delta

The most fascinating aspect of ellies, other than their amazing social structure, is their trunk.  Made up of about 150,000 muscle fascicles, it is a remarkably versatile tool.  It can lift 350 kgs (750 lbs) and can take the shell off a peanut without breaking the nut inside.  It can hold 8 litres of water (about 2 gallons) which is used for drinking and spraying over its own body.  It is also used as a snorkel when the ellie goes swimming underwater – one of the great sights of the bush.  Last week I watched two ellie teenagers cavorting in a river pool, rolling on their backs, going completely under water except for their trunks.  A hippo that had been enjoying the pool, retreated behind some rocks and glared at the ellies’ intrusion into its space.

On the banks of the Chobe River - Botswana

Family portrait - face powdered

I can watch ellies all day (and night).  Normally they are placid, but one always has to be careful when one encounters a breeding herd - mothers and young.  As with all animals, mothers can be very aggressive when their kids are threatened or perceived to be threatened.

Talking of young, a baby elephant must be the cutest thing on four feet.  It is very small, often able to walk underneath its mother's belly.  It doesn't quite know what to do with tis trunk and sometimes trips over it.  And. like other kids, little ellies love to play.  A wonderful sight.

Well that’s enough for today.  Next time I’ll write about some of the other Big Five.

Stan - Thursday

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Strangers on a Train Part 3

Dear Murderous Ones,
I am heading to China for a research trip and, Great Firewall permitting, should have some fresh stories for you by my next posting. In the meantime, here is one more train story for you...

(Part 1 and Part 2).

Regular readers of this blog know that trains are my preferred mode of travel in China. I like trains because I can see something of the country, because I can get up and move around, read comfortably, use a toilet when I need to.

But mostly, because of the stories I get out of every ride.

Submitted as an example: the trip from Kaili to Kunming.

Richard and I had been stymied in our attempts to take the train from Nanjing to Guiyang and from Guiyang to Kaili. We were determined to at least take the train to Kunming. For that, we were told, we would have to go back to Guiyang -- though Kaili is on the rail line from Guiyang to Kunming and actually closer to Kunming than Guiyang, sleepers were always sold out by the time the train reached Kaili.

Except this once.

The lovely folks at the Kaili China Tourism Office, who had been among those telling us that getting sleepers from Kaili was impossible, had somehow managed to secure two berths for us, so we wouldn't have to double back to Guiyang. Nothing against Guiyang, but, you know, not the most interesting place I've ever visited.

We got to the Kaili train station, and understood why everyone had told us, it was "a little chaotic." The Kaili station is a pretty typical, old-fashioned small town station. You wait for the trains on the upper floor, which was standing room only:

EXCEPT right up at the front of the line, which was a posted "No Smoking" area, and therefore undesirable.

The train arrived. We made our way to our assigned car and presented our tickets to the conductor, a young, pretty woman (most of the conductors are young, pretty women. I am reasonably sure that this is a factor in their hiring).

Her brow furrowed. "Xiao wenti," she muttered. "Buhao yisi..."

There's a little problem. She's so embarrassed.

We have a pretty good idea where this is going...

No sleeper car. There would be berths in a few hours, so we'd have a place to sleep. "Not a problem," I said. "Just give us some place to leave our luggage, we'll go to the dining car and drink beer for a few hours."

This apparently would not do. The conductor asked if we would mine splitting up and staying in separate compartments—we could change to the same one later on the trip.

Fine by me.

I was ahead of Richard in the corridor that runs along the sleeping car, so I said I'd take the further compartment.

Walking in, my first thought was, "Boy, did I make a mistake."

My compartment mates: 3 middle-aged Chinese men.

Now, I have nothing against middle-aged Chinese men (I am pretty much in the "middle-aged" demographic myself) except for one thing, in this context: they snore. I don't know whether it's because so many of them smoke, but count on it—three middle-aged guys in a compartment, odds are overwhelming that at least one of them, and more likely two, will snore. Loudly (I have a convenient Snoring Magnitude Rating system, in which two Category 3 snorers are equivalent to one Category 5 snorer, and so on).

Well, I don't take trains in China for the good night's sleep. I smiled, shoved my bag under the lower bunk, put on my train slippers and tried to look inconspicuous.

That wasn't gonna happen.

This was a very chatty group, especially the fellow sitting across from me, a government official from Hunan. I immediately got hit with the questions: how long had I been in China, where did I learn to speak Chinese, what places had I visited, what did I think about China, etc. etc. etc. Another man joined us, a young guy with shoulder-length hair and a John Lennon T-shirt, from Wenzhou. With his accent, I had a hard time understanding him, which was too bad because he was very interested in talking to me.

The government official had traveled to the United States—either during the time of swine flu or in some capacity related to swine flu (#ChineseFail on my part). He'd been to Boston, to Washington D.C., to San Francisco, even to the Grand Canyon. Had loved the experience! And he'd learned a lot, particularly that, in his estimation, "America is much more developed and wealthy than China. It will take China thirty years to catch up!"

"Thirty years?" the young guy from Wenzhou said with a snort. "More like three hundred years! And do you know why? Because Chinese people have no freedom, that's why! Take your (former) President Bush..."

"Heh," I said. "Yeah. I don't like him."

John Lennon T-shirt wagged his finger. "You see? You are allowed to say this. We can't say these kinds of things about our leaders. You have elections, we don't. That's why China can't catch up to America."

You'd think there would be a lot of argument about this, or fear, or something, but no. Some chuckles, some nods. And then a discussion about my iPhone: which generation is that, third or fourth? How much does it cost in America? That cheap, really? (I tried to explain that the low price for the device came with a commitment to a lengthy contract but am not sure that I managed to get my point across)

I think about 20 minutes had passed before Richard poked his head in the compartment. I gave him the recap: "Official thinks China will need thirty years to modernize, John Lennon T-shirt guy from Wenzhou thinks it will never happen because Chinese people have no freedom. And iPhones are expensive in China." He sat.

A few minutes later, the same conductor who had looked at our tickets in the first place came by. Richard turned to me: "She totally gave me the third degree just now." On certain train routes, conductors will swap your paper tickets for plastic ones (and then back again at the end of the ride), and along with that, ask for your identification and if you're a foreigner, your passport. Her interaction with Richard had gone far beyond that: she asked all kinds of questions, about how long he'd been in China, where he was traveling and why.

Now she leaned against the doorway of our compartment. She saw my hand-made Chinese notebook and asked if she could look at it (it has all kinds of vintage images of Chinese leaders taken from old Newsweeks). Where had I bought that? And my postcards, from Guizhou, could she see them? She examined each image (I hadn't filled them out yet). We decided she was not so much about the third degree as she was curious. And chatty. She was from Kunming and had a lot of ideas about the best restaurants there (she wrote them down in my notebook, with my pen, which she also thoroughly examined).

This was a happy train, overall. Even the surly dining car attendant was giggling when I returned there after hours to buy a bottle of water—there she was, giving one of the train workers, a big guy with a big shaved head, a scalp massage, and she waved in greeting along with the others, wished me a good night when I left. Maybe it's that Guizhou vibe I mentioned, that just passing through is enough to make people weirdly friendly.

While Richard dealt with the world's friendliest, most adorable attack toddler in his compartment (he was fascinated by Richard's bag and glasses), I settled down for the inevitable night of snoring.

Sure enough. The quietest man in the compartment, the guy on the upper bunk who during our conversations had mostly listened, smiled and nodded.

I'd put him at Category 4.

Early the next morning, as we approached Kunming, John Lennon T-shirt came by. "How did you sleep?" he asked me.

"Hai keyi," I replied. Okay/so-so.

A few minutes later, he returned, to give me an energy drink and a pastry.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Siege of Acre

Funny that Zoe should bring up “levant” and Jeff “The Levant.”  My plan has been to bring up that area of the world today.

In the course of researching the British in East Africa at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, I came across the phrase “Not since the Siege of Acre,…”  I hadn’t the vaguest knowledge of what that could mean.

I know; I show my ignorance.  Readers often disbelieve my claims to have hated studying history in school, considering that I now write historical mysteries.  But I did loathe it.  No doubt my teachers tried to teach me about the several sieges of Acre.  But I was probably daydreaming or absorbing the facts only long enough to pass the test.  So when I came across that phrase, I had to look it up.  It turned out that the Siege of Acre means nothing to the story I am writing.  So was learning about it a waste of time?  Not at all.  Isn’t this what blogs are for—to tell what I learn that I can’t use in a mystery novel.  Here it is:

The city of Acre is one of the oldest inhabited sites in the Middle East.  It has been by turns Egyptian, Judean, Roman, and on and on.  All the many conquerors who swept through the territory vied for it.  Today it is part of Israel.

The town has been put under siege at least three times.  First in the late 12th Century, when it fell to the Christians and became their prime base in the area for the next hundred years.  It was the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

The most famous siege was one of the most important battles of The Third Crusade.  For most of the second half of the 13th century, the Mamluks had been taking Christian strongholds in the Holy Land left and right.  Europe sent in French and English knights to shore up their positions, largely to no avail.  The powerful of Europe were, by then, pretty much done with fighting the Pope’s battles, and nothing Gregory X said could get their backs up to go and fight the Muslims, again. 

By 1276, Henry II, the “King” of Jerusalem absconded to Cyprus and the Latin Kingdom was pretty much done for.  The Franks made their last stand at Acre.  The Muslims took the challenge.  They brought in all their many siege engines—catapults, mongonels, --and four armies from Egypt, Syria, and Tripoli.

Acre had been in the hands of the Franks for a century, but after only 43 days, the Muslims had taken all but the Templars seaside fort.  There ensued one of those insane battles over nothing.  The Templars negotiated free passage out of their fort to Cyprus, but instead of just leaving, they killed the Sultan’s men who came to escort them out.  Afterwards, when the Templar leader went to meet the Sultan, he was executed in turn.  The Muslims attacked the fort, breached its walls, and killed everyone inside.   With that, but for a few minor skirmishes, the Crusaders completely lost control of the Holy Land.   That was end of the Crusades.
Commodore William Sidney Smith
Then in 1799, the French arrived.  Napoleon was bent on conquering the Holy Land.  He figured he would take Acre in two weeks and be on his way to Jerusalem.  The citizens of Acre had other ideas.  They knew that before moving north to besiege them, the French had savagely sacked Jaffa and massacred thousands of Albanians on the seashore.  Acre’s people were not about give up only to be hacked to death by Napoleon’s troops.  They had Haim Farhi, the Pasha’s Jewish advisor to help them stiffen their defenses.  And the British Royal Navy weighed in on Acre’s side.  Between the city’s stubborn defenders and the blockade put up by the English ships, Napoleon came out the loser, having sacrificed 2000 of his soldiers in the process.   He decamped to Egypt.  A myth arose that he had one of his cannons shoot his hat into the city before he left.

It is still a source of civic pride in Acre that it once withstood an attack by the most famous general in history.

Annamaria Alfieri - Monday

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Getting From There to Here

Zoë Sharp in natural habitat
I blame Jeff and Stan. They ambushed me in the bar at Bouchercon last month. One minute we were recounting our favourite Flanders and Swann songs, with much juvenile giggling, and the next I’d been talked into joining this illustrious little gang. I’m still not entirely sure how we got from there to here.
I don’t even drink.
But, here I am, nervously smoothing down my hair and straightening my Sunday-best frock, trying to remember my lines and hoping not to be met with, at best, a blank-faced stony silence.
And it occurred to me that I really ought to introduce myself properly to my new bloggers and bloggees. So here goes.
I took a weird path into the writing game. Is there a normal one? I wasn’t a noted student, opted out of mainstream education at the age of twelve and did correspondence courses until I was legally old enough to go out and get a job. The local authority sent me to see a careers advisor when I was fifteen or so. I told him I was interested in writing. He said, “We’ll put you down for clerical.”
I’d already written my first novel by then. It still sits, unpublished, in a folder in the attic. A children’s story, but no fledgling Harry Potter. My father threatens every now and again to dig it out and see if it will fly on eBay. I have it well hidden.
A few years later I ended up at my local newspaper, selling display advertising — the ads in the front half of the paper, rather than the classifieds. A soulless job if ever there was one. Everybody suspects that half the money they spend on advertising is wasted, but they don’t know which half so they resent spending any of it. I lasted six months of impossible targets and nail-biting deadlines and picked up a temporary heart murmur for my pains. Towards the end, my manager — knowing I wouldn’t stay past the probationary period — asked the editor if there was any chance the editorial side would take me on. I’d already written advertorial copy and he knew that’s where my interest lay. The editor turned him down flat. “No qualifications.” They fired me.
I'm the idiot clinging to the back ...
I looked at getting those qualifications. Seven years of study just to become a cub reporter. I gave it up. Instead I sold pensions, delivered yachts, taught people to ride horses, and did a few other things I probably shouldn’t talk about too much. During this period I acquired my first car — a broken-down Triumph Spitfire MkIV wearing more different colours of paint than Joseph’s coat, with a six-inch nail holding one of the front brake calipers in place. Not my first choice but the best I could get for the money. I rebuilt it, worked out how to make it go round corners, resprayed it Brooklands green. And started to write about it.
Before I knew it, I was writing for the classic car magazines. In 1988, with an arrogance that frankly shocks me now, on the basis of a couple of accepted articles I gave up my job — no loss there — and turned freelance full time. It was four years before one of my magazine editors asked me what qualifications I had. By that time I could tell them they’d been sending me cheques for four years. What more did they want?
The freelance market was good, the rates reasonable, so I expanded the scope of my work. An editor asked could I supply words and pictures? I borrowed a camera and gave it a try. My fiction writing ambitions went on the back burner, until something happened to revive them.
I was sent to see a bloke in south Wales to do an interview. But when I arrived it soon became clear that the car collection I was supposed to be featuring didn’t ... actually exist. And he looked kind of shifty when I didn’t turn up alone. The bloke made some sort of lame excuse and we left, annoyed at the wasted trip. It was only afterwards that I started to wonder what he had planned. I’d made an appointment, so he couldn’t claim he wasn’t expecting me. The only thing that had thrown him was that I hadn’t come alone. And what then?
Say no more.
A couple of years previously, Brit real estate agent Susie Lamplugh disappeared after going to show a prospective buyer round an empty house. She was never found. It struck a chord. Especially when, after that abortive interview, every time my picture appeared alongside a regular column I was writing in one of the classic car mags, I received death-threat letters. Professionally done, with the words cut out of newspaper like a ransom note. Telling me I was scum, telling me they knew where I lived and my days were numbered. The police never tracked down who’d actually sent them.
As for my reaction, I learned self-defence from a little black belt karate and kyushu jitsu instructor with a benevolent smile and steel fingers. I did not, as has been erroneously stated in the past, learn to shoot in order to protect myself. I could already shoot to competition standard.

 But I did start to write fiction again. Maybe it was a form of escape, of regaining control. Maybe it was a desire to create a world where the bad guys died screaming. I wanted a strong female lead who wouldn’t buckle when she was put under threat, and one day Charlie Fox turned up on the doorstep of my mind, fully formed, with an attitude and a motorbike, a traumatic past, a failed military career, friends who loved her. She said, “I’ve got a story to tell. You might want to write this down.” I didn’t argue.

The result was KILLER INSTINCT: Charlie Fox book one. To date, there have been another nine series books, a short story e-thology, plus a novella, and this summer my first standalone, THE BLOOD WHISPERER came out. Over the winter I'll be working on book-number-the-eleventh.
And, in one of those little tweaks of fate that so rarely happen, several years after I turned freelance I got a call from the publisher of the newspaper who’d sacked me, offering me the editorship of another paper in the same group. I let them take me out for a very nice lunch to discuss the position, then turned them down. Maybe I should have told them I simply wasn’t qualified ...

It’s been my habit to have a Word of the Week every time I blog. For this one I’m going for absquatulate, meaning to leave abruptly or quickly, or to flee. As opposed to levant, which means to run off without paying a debt, or abscond, to run in order to evade capture or justice, usually taking something or someone along with you. If your dog gallops out of the house and hot-foots it down the garden, he’s absquatulating. If he has the Sunday roast clamped in his jaws while he does so, he’s absconding.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

To Preach or Not to Preach...

I had this really catchy title for my post today.  “From Never Neverland to One-Half-Too-Cleverland.”  I planned on exploring the differences between Mykonos and Athens, for on Tuesday I leave the former for the latter.  

It seemed the appropriate occasion for such a piece, what with Mykonos having come off a high season seemingly impervious to the financial crisis wreaking havoc upon the rest of Greece—the island still attracts rich tourists spending as if there’s no tomorrow, though the current crop hails from countries east (near and far) of here…and I don’t mean Cyprus—while Athens is laid siege by editorial headlines suggesting a polity unable to stay out of its own way: “A country striving for normality,” “Greece wanders in uncertainty’s wasteland,” “Doing business, but with rules,” “The specter of early elections,” and “Words are a dangerous thing.” (All from today’s Kathimerini, Greece’s equivalent of The New York Times)

But why get into all that on my last week in Greece?   Yes, the current government is dancing along a tightrope as special interest groups clumped on both ends take turns yanking on the line, desperately hoping the government can’t make it across (Feel free to work with me on the metaphor), but as a famous statesman once said, “What? Me worry?”

Honorable Alfred E. Neuman

Nope, not this week. Maybe next. This week it’s all peace and love, calm seas and rose sunsets, tranquility and food, and in keeping with that admonition, today we headed off to a late lunch at one of the most idyllic (and iconic) spots on Mykonos: Kiki’s at Agios Sostis Beach. You can’t get there by bus. Only by car, motorbike…or construction vehicle. (Sorry about that last bit of societal commentary, it just slipped out. I’ll try to control myself in the future.)

Agios Sostis Beach
View From Kiki's
More of a view from Kiki's
Good friends who live on Mykonos as many months each year as I do, suggested lunch there, at what “old Mykonos hands” know to be the chicest spot on the island.  In season, if you’re not in line for lunch by 1PM be prepared for an early dinner.  No line-jumping privileges for flashy spenders in this tiny, vines for a roof, gem.  I rarely get there during season as it’s on the other side of the island from my home, but in October (just before it closes) Kiki’s is simply magical. 

Inside looking outside

Don’t take my word for it; decide for yourself.
Some of the regulars
The remains of the meal
Sharing the remains of the day
Until next year, my friends
If you want to know about the car, it’s an old Volkswagon Kurierwagon.  My friends brought it with them from Germany many years ago, along with a deep love and appreciation for all things Greek.

Nuf’ said. 

Now on to Athens.