Thursday, September 30, 2021

A visit to Kruger

 Michael - Thursday

The Kruger National Park is South Africa’s iconic game reserve – a huge area of pristine bushveld wilderness that stretches along the border between South Africa and Mozambique. It extends 360km from north to south and 65km from east to west. It was proclaimed as a national park in 1926 and additional areas were added over the years. About 400 square km in the very north was subject to a successful land claim in 1996 by the local people who had been displaced by the previous government in order to extend the national park. However, they decided that rather than resettle the area, they would adopt a conservation strategy and run a variety of private lodges in the area, which had never been extensively opened to tourists before. Since then a further 2,000 square km was added by the incorporation of a variety of privately-owned game reserves along the western border. These do not form part of the national park, but now have no boundary fences with Kruger and follow general conservation guidelines set by the national park. (The Olifants River Game Reserve where I have a share in a bungalow is one of these.) The greater park is host to over 500 species of birds and all the lowland mammals including all the big cats, elephant, both species of rhino, and buffalo.

Such a comfortable spot...

I was invited by my friend Aron Frankental (whose superb photographs have appeared here and even on the cover of a Kubu book) to join his family at one of the special family houses that he’d booked in Kruger to celebrate his seventieth birthday. (The celebration had been delayed by covid, but better late than never! Stan unfortunately couldn’t join us because he’s currently in the US.)

Ground Hornbill going about his business

Agama at Lower Sabi camp

Hyena with cubs

Skukuza is by far the largest rest camp in the park, and there’s a separate village which houses the administrative and research centre for the park. It’s large and busy, and it wasn’t Aron’s original choice. Last year he’d booked the whole of a small rest camp but covid ruined that plan. However, it turned out that the house has a wonderful situation in a quiet, private position right on the border of the camp with frontage onto the Sabi River. It has six bedrooms each looking across the lawn area towards the river, and a separate communal lounge and dining area.

Wild Fig house Skukuza

The view from the house

A visitor to the house

We had a wonderful four days, and it was great to spent time with Aron’ sons and their delightful families. I haven’t visited this area of the park for many years, and it was interesting to see how it’s developed. As with so many things, there were positives and negatives. Kruger has introduced many new ways of catering to tourists and making the experience more enjoyable for them. Open vehicles driven by licensed private guides, night drives to appreciate the wonderful nocturnal life, much better restaurants and shops. Even the picnic sites where you’re allowed to get out of your vehicle and wander around, now have shops where you can get a decent cappuccino and other treats. A clever innovation that struck me was a bank of carports protecting your vehicle from the scorching sun whose roofs consisted of solar panels that are used to power all the facilities. I was really impressed.

The Shalati Hotel train on the Sabi bridge

Then there is the impressive Shalati hotel situated on the old railway bridge spanning the Sabi near Skukuza. It’s five star accommodation with wonderful views of wildlife and the river, and the price is fair at $1,000 per couple per day including all meals, drinks, and game drives.

The rooms are beautifully done with picture windows

But… Why does there always have to be a but?  The house we stayed at with its attractive design and super setting has been allowed to deteriorate. Although it’s clean, it lacks basic maintenance that has resulted in faulty plumbing, jammed doors, and gaps in the tiles. One tired sliding door eventually gave up altogether and collapsed, fortunately without injuring anyone. Skukuza management has the resources and facilities they need. Apparently, it just doesn’t have the commitment to keep things at the quality that visitors would be entitled to expect given prices that are fair but not bargains.

Spot the lion...

Skukuza is easily accessible from surrounding towns for day visitors and the road from there along the beautiful Sabi river is sealed and one of the best roads for game viewing in the winter when the animals congregate along the watercourse. Lions are always the most sought after sightings, and the traffic jams over a busy weekend would do justice to Johannesburg gridlock. The good news is that the animals have learnt to completely ignore the cars. Stay alert – the impala don’t even glance as they step into the road confident of their right of way. Elephants, however, may take a slightly different view. If pushed too far, they may push back!

Wednesday, September 29, 2021



My two months in West Africa--Nigeria, Niger, and Ghana--were spent researching for my next Emma Djan novel, LAST SEEN IN LAPAZ (LSIL). The first draft had already been written and was with my editor during those two months. With perfect timing, she was ready with the first edit not long after my return. The following partial quote is ascribed to Ernest Hemingway:

"Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing … I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times….The first draft of anything is shit."

Museum and former home of Ernest Hemingway, where presumably he wrote his shit first drafts (Shutterstock/Joseph Sohm)
Museum and former home of Ernest Hemingway, where presumably he wrote some of his shit first drafts (Shutterstock/Joseph Sohm)

The italics in the above quote are mine, because it's true. Even this blog is not in its original form. I would echo Hemingway to say, "The first drafts of my novels are a mess." The time sequences are all jacked up, some of the characters are dull or shallow, the ending doesn't make any sense, and so on. Sometimes I look at the editor's markup on my pages (e.g. "this makes no sense," "cut this," "what does this mean?") and gloomily think, "I can't even write," and go to bed depressed.

That being said (cut this--overused expression). Sorry, I'll try that again. Despite the initial stab to the heart on receiving the first edit, a writer plods on, determined to get it right.

In LSIL, human and sex trafficking form the backdrop against which a mysterious murder takes place. The novel has an international flavor involving Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, and Europe, but there is another stream of trafficking within a relatively restricted area between Nigeria and Ghana that I call "local."

Sex work in international migration
Sex work in this setting is invariably coerced and often begins by exploiting the desperation of poverty-stricken girls and young women who see no future for themselves in their home countries. Someone tells them that if they can get to Europe, e.g. Italy, they can own successful businesses that will make more than enough money for them and the family back home. The reality is far different from the fable.

Sub-Saharan routes of migration (Shutterstock map modified by Kwei Quartey)

Nigeria contributes more migrants to Europe and Ghana than most other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, regardless of the route. Benin City supplies a disproportionate number of these migrants.

For most West African migrants seeking to escape to Europe, the initial destination is Agadez, although that has begun to change because EU has worked with the Nigerien government to implement a 2015 anti-smuggling law designed to limit irregular migration through Niger, and that has forced previously open migration underground and increased migrants’ vulnerability to forced labor or sex trafficking by criminal networks. There is no longer open loading up of trucks with migrants in Agadez heading for Libya. Because of the 2015 law, it is all highly secret now, with some migrants remaining in Agadez in ghettos for prolonged periods as they try to raise money for the rest of the journey to Libya. For many women, that means sex work (men will find employment meager and hard to gain). The sex workers I met in Agadez were all from Nigeria.

If a migrant survives the journey across the Sahara to Libya, the main danger there becomes capture and detainment in detention centers, where violence and sexual abuse prevail.

Sex work in local migration
Nigerian sex workers who don't try to get to Europe may attempt to go to Ghana instead. Why? The money is better. I'm no social economist, but it may be significant that Ghana's GDP per capita growth rate is greater than Nigeria's by far, despite Nigeria having seemingly inexhaustible amounts of petroleum. Identical to international migration to Libya and beyond, Nigerian women form a significant proportion of sex workers in Ghana. The means of transportation from Nigeria to Ghana may involve speedboats off the coast in order to avoid the tiresome hassle of crossing three borders.

Just as in Europe, the "madam" system works in a similar way in Ghana. The madam, often an ex-sex worker herself, bears the cost of bringing girls from Nigeria on the pretext that they'll be working in custodial jobs. Once the girls arrive, they discover they owe money to the madam, who saddles them with a debt multiple times the cost of smuggling them in from Nigeria. This forces them into indentured servitude. By these means, madams can make a staggering amount of money--enough to buy at least a mansion and a couple of expensive vehicles. Although violence toward the sex workers under her command is often the purview of men, madams have been known to stab or beat their workers for misbehavior or failure to pay their monthly dues.

Multiple "hotels" in Accra are simply in the sex business. While a number of euphemistic names like, "guesthouse" or "movie-house" are used to name these places, the result is the same. The sex workers use the hotel as their base and don't venture out very far. They, too, use phones, but mostly for setting up sessions at the guesthouse and not so much for online apps. Below is a picture of one such rather grubby guesthouse in Accra, which I won't name at the moment, although I do reference it in LSIL. The madam just happened to pull up in an expensive vehicle just as I was videoing Ninja-style.

Alligator guesthouse in Accra used as a brothel
Guesthouse in Lapaz, Accra. The murky conditions are well-suited to the cause. The madam's shiny SUV is on the left. (Photo: Kwei Quartey)

Voluntary sex work
Voluntary sex work is without threat of violence, even though there may be dire circumstances pressuring a woman to go into it. Here, I'm talking about upper-class sex workers catering to well-off clients who can afford to pay up to $1000 a night for sexual services. In Accra, examples include attractive University of Ghana and Wisconsin International University College female students (again, often Nigerians) who use sophisticated phone apps and even social media sites like Instagram and Twitter to enhance their online visibility. Not under any coercion, these voluntary sex workers can stop whenever they wish or for whatever reason. As an aside, one of my sources tells me that up to forty percent of female students at the University of Ghana engage in sex with their professors in return for good grades. That seems like an awfully high percentage, and I can't independently confirm it. Nevertheless, it may still involve coercion as well, i.e. a lecturer's threat to fail a female student in his class unless she has sex with him.

Accra's upscale neighborhood of Cantonments, the location of several embassies including the French and American, is a source of high-paying clients for sex workers who hang around the Cantonments roundabout, which is conveniently dim at night and close to a number of posh hotels or luxury townhouses/apartments within driving or even walking distance. In this case, the hotel is not necessarily taking part in the trade, and claims no responsibility. Nonetheless, they can make money off sex workers indirectly, because hotel occupants may pay for expensive suites where they can hold sex parties.

Luxury apartments in Cantonments, Accra
Want to spend a million bucks? Live here in Cantonments (Photo: Kwei Quartey)

Luxury townhouses and apartments near Cantonments Circle, Accra (Photo: Kwei Quartey)
Luxury townhouses and apartments near Cantonments Circle, Accra (Photo: Kwei Quartey)

The tangled web
This is indeed a tangled web of lies, deceit, broken dreams, and violence, but there is little political will to change it. Parliamentarians in the Ghana government, for example, are some of the biggest clients of sex workers, and one member of parliament actually owns a guesthouse. Lust for money and sex in its myriad forms are driving and maintaining the system.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Not What You Expected

Annamaria on Sunday???

Urgent message from Susan: "I hope I am not waking you – I just realized this is my MIE week and I am MIA – I am in Hokkaido on a hiking trip in the inn where I'm staying has no Internet. I have just enough signal to get a text out but I can't get a blog posted.  I'm very sorry!! Will you please light yours up early if it's ready?"

It turns out that they were supposed to have Wi-Fi at the hotel, but as Susan describes it, it stops working if you blow your nose. I have obviously said yes. Susan sent me a couple of pictures show me where she is. I have her permission to share them with you. The first is the mountain she just climbed:

The second is the Onsen of the inn where she is staying ay the base of the mountain, where she will be soaking while I am doing her job for her today.

Here, along with the photo of Susan above, are a few more of Japan that I cherish as souvenirs from my time with her there nearly three years ago.

I usually write my blog on Sunday, but this week I would have been doing it on Saturday anyway. You see on Sunday I am going out to the Chianti, where we will be celebrating the 90th birthday of a very dear friend.  So while Susan is soaking in hot spring water, I will be drinking wine and dining fabulously on delicious, home-made Tuscan food.  If this isn't enough to make you so green with envy, here are the pictures that I had planned for my Monday blog. I had intended to call it 'For You, Kathy. Others May Also View." And to dedicate it to said Kathy, one of our most faithful and articulate MIE subscribers. 

You will notice that there is food among these, but no pastries. A promise is a promise, and I had promised Kathy that I would not tempt her with gorgeous photographs of succulent, creamy, sweet, delicious,  beautiful-to-behold pastries that are so plentiful here that one can barely take thirty-steps along a street without coming across another gorgeously arranged window full of them!  But it isn't only about goodies here.  It's also about this!

Fall in (love with) Florence!

Eureka, I am Inspired!




I’ve started writing my next Kaldis book. So far, I have this killer opening:


“He regarded himself as a swashbuckling pirate awash in Mediterranean adventures. Part Errol Flynn, part Johnny Depp, and part good old Hyman Diamondides.  Trouble was, Hyman lived in Brooklyn, and the only boat he’d ever been on was the Staten Island Ferry, an experience that still terrorized him.”


I’m serious folks. Honest.  I cannot say where that opening will take me, but something about it sparked the magical process that inspires so many artists to create.


Those words may never see the final version, but they’ll undoubtedly serve as my guide for negotiating clear-eyed through vast stretches of seductively easy prose, battling bare-knuckled against seemingly insurmountable plot obstacles, accommodating characters with rebellious minds of their own, and resisting the narcissistic draw of on-the-nose preaching.  Yes, in those opening three sentences I place blind faith that the writing gods, in their wisdom and alchemy, will bring me once more to the Promised Land of a finished book. Amen.


Having attained that good mood, I shall not risk losing it by commenting on any of the many deservedly comment-inducing matters of the day. Instead, I shall share with you a half-dozen jokes posted in READER’S DIGEST as among “The Most Hilarious Jokes of All Time, According to America’s Beloved Comedy Writers.”  They may not be to everyone’s taste, but what is?


Joke #1 [All cartoons by Brandon Specktor] 


A turtle is crossing the road when he’s mugged by two snails. When the police show up, they ask him what happened. The shaken turtle replies, “I don’t know. It all happened so fast.

Joke #2

A poodle and a collie are walking together when the poodle suddenly unloads on his friend. “My life is a mess,” he says. “My owner is mean, my girlfriend ran away with a schnauzer, and I’m as jittery as a cat.”

“Why don’t you go see a psychiatrist?” suggests the collie.

“I can’t,” says the poodle. “I’m not allowed on the couch.”

Joke #3

A priest, a minister, and a rabbi want to see who’s best at his job. So they each go into the woods, find a bear, and attempt to convert it. Later they get together. The priest begins: “When I found the bear, I read to him from the Catechism and sprinkled him with holy water. Next week is his First Communion.”

“I found a bear by the stream,” says the minister, “and preached God’s holy word. The bear was so mesmerized that he let me baptize him.”

They both look down at the rabbi, who is lying on a gurney in a body cast. “Looking back,” he says, “maybe I shouldn’t have started with the circumcision.”

Joke #4

A man is walking in a graveyard when he hears the Third Symphony played backward. When it’s over, the Second Symphony starts playing, also backward, and then the First. “What’s going on?” he asks a cemetery worker.

“It’s Beethoven,” says the worker. “He’s decomposing.”

Joke #5

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He’s not breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls 911.

“I think my friend is dead!” he yells. “What can I do?”

The operator says, “Calm down. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.”

There’s a silence, then a shot. Back on the phone, the guy says, “OK, now what?”

Joke #6

A guy spots a sign outside a house that reads “Talking Dog for Sale.” Intrigued, he walks in.

“So what have you done with your life?” he asks the dog.

“I’ve led a very full life,” says the dog. “I lived in the Alps rescuing avalanche victims. Then I served my country in Iraq. And now I spend my days reading to the residents of a retirement home.”

The guy is flabbergasted. He asks the dog’s owner, “Why on earth would you want to get rid of an incredible dog like that?”

The owner says, “Because he’s a liar! He never did any of that!”

That’s all, folks.  For this week.

PS.  Just to remind you last minute shoppers, only five days remain to purchase an e-book version of my tenth Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis novel, THE MYKONOS MOB, across all e-book formats for $1.99 via this link.