Travelogues: To Africa!

Greetings from South Africa! As you may know by now, I’m on a research trip to build out the Precision Array to Probe the Epoch of Reionization, or PAPER, out to a 64-antenna radio astronomy array. My advisor, Rich Bradley, and resident technical wonder, Pat Klima, and I have spent two days in Cape Town in preparation for our journey to the desert, so I thought I’d share a few of my experiences, expanding out the brief notes that I’ve been jotting along the way.

(As usual, all writing on this blog is solely my opinion and does not reflect the attitudes of any of my projects, institutions, colleagues, etc…)

June 20: The flight begins

The first leg of the trip is very familiar to me as it’s the brief and nearly parabolic hop from Charlottesville to Washington, DC, in a prop plane. As soon as we hit cruising altitude, we began our descent. Beats the traffic into the city by car! We had to navigate the new-ish and rather bizarre airport layout, which involved going up and down sets of escalators and stairs to a train to our terminal. There was a rather sad dearth of outlets at our gate, but once I grabbed one, I made a point to start reading through my backlog of tagged astro-ph papers. (Thank you, Mekentosj Papers.) This also marked the first of two times, so far, that I’ve been blatantly cut in line at a counter by a South African man. Is this a “thing”? Or am I just doing the “standing in line” bit wrong. The driving is all flipped, so maybe I’m missing something…

As we’re waiting for the plane, I overhear a group of teenagers and their chaperones talking excitedly about their trip to Africa. I think, what a great experience for them! To pass the time, they start doing… Bible quizzes. Oh, oh boy. They are modern day missionaries. Well, I guess that is to be expected, though it’s certainly something that I haven’t paid much attention to in the past. Hopefully they won’t be doing Bible quizzes on the 16+ hour flight ahead of us.

June 21: What day is it?

OMFSM. That was a long, long flight. We had 8 hours to Dakar, an hour stop there during which we stayed on the plane, and another 8 hours to Johannesburg. The first leg of the flight, my section was SO hot that I couldn’t get any sleep, though my body needed it. Several rows up where Rich and Pat were seated was freezing! Um… air circulation fail? I should have claimed an empty row to lie down and sleep in early in the flight. Lucky bastards who thought of it first, I am jealous of you.

I did have a very nice seatmate, a Peruvian woman now living in the US, but who travels all over the world for work. She is currently engaged in sanitation education in small Africa villages, but has worked in marine biology, soil reclamation, and various other interesting fields. She also pointed out, as I was knitting my scarf for Tim, that in Peru, knitting clothing for a man means that you are trying to keep him. Darn, if that’s all I had to do, I wish I’d known that before! (Kidding, dear.)

Early on in the flight I discovered that there were not one, but THREE evangelical Christian groups on the plane. One even had matching shirts. It’s hard not the be judgmental of that right off the bat, because they seemed like very nice people. A woman of one group was explaining to another what kind of work they do, such as education and health promotion. I was pleased to hear that, since doing good is doing good, no matter the motivation. The other group responded that their primary mission was to evangelize. No bones about it. Well, that’s not very helpful in my eyes, but I guess to them, saving souls is a far more charitable act that taking care of mere bodily needs. They mean well, right? The first woman then mentioned how they teach Christian values about sex being within marriage, and I can assume that the spurning of contraceptives goes along with that. That is just a little too far for me, since shunning contraceptives in poor, HIV-ravaged areas actually does HARM as it spreads disease and most certainly does not empower women to make their own life choices about children. Whereas the creep towards modernity leads families to having fewer children later in life, such people can only be held back by embracing outdated notions of sex and contraception.

So, apologies, world, for some of America’s cultural exports.

I eventually got a few hours of sleep due to sheer exhaustion after Dakar. Or, who knows, maybe they put a sleep agent in that bug spray that they use in the cabin after that stop, just to make sure that no disease-carrying insects have stolen aboard for export to South Africa. The region to where I am going is malaria and yellow fever free, so let’s keep it that way! I did also develop major allergies during the second half of the flight, and that was not pleasant. I hope I’m not allergic to the African continent!

Finally, we arrived in Johannesburg, navigated our way through baggage claim, customs, bag re-check, currency changing, airport security, and finding our gate. Then our moved gate. All on very little sleep. I call that a win. Hello, Southern Hemisphere!

June 22: All I want is to be horizontal

We made it to Cape Town! I had a lovely two-hour flight from Johannesburg, complete with a spicy beef dish for dinner and lovely conversation with a British fellow. He’s a business man who is trying to change the attitudes and practices of the business culture towards being more aware of and responding to climate change. I, of course, apologized on behalf of the rampant denialism of my fellow country men and women. We talked about world politics, climate change, astronomy, and manned spaceflight. I got to talk all about the PAPER project and helped him recognize his inner “space geek.” Overall, that was the most enjoyable leg of the whole trip.

We got to the Cape Town airport and noticed a large sign recommending “approved” taxi services. So, we walked past several men holding signs saying “approved taxi” as they didn’t actually have a company name associated with them. Nice try, guys. Over at the taxi stand, we found the legitimate taxis, and right off the bat the man showing us to our car complained about the “illegals from Zimbabwe” that were sitting around with signs. It wasn’t clear to me what was illegal, their taxi service or the men themselves. Nor could I really tell if they were scammers looking to rob tourists or just unofficial drivers trying to make a buck. Like a good cautious traveller, I didn’t dare to find out.

The hotel had two different security gates through which to pass, but neither seemed particularly strict. They let our “approved” taxi right on by. It wasn’t just for the hotel, but also a fancy-looking golf club and a few office buildings. Finally, we got checked in, and I went to my room intent on sleeping in a real bed for the first time in way too long. I checked the bed for bed bugs as usual, though I don’t know if they even have that problem here as we do in New York, but I was more interested in what was on top of the bed. With a little welcome note on the pillow, where you would often find mints of chocolate, there was a small package of brown food. But it wasn’t chocolate. It was beef jerky. For real… complimentary beef jerky. I was hungry, so I ate it without a second thought and found it pretty good. Afterwards, I then reflected on the absurdity of showing up in a new country and eating the first free beef I find. However, I do not regret my decision.

I flipped through the TV channels briefly before heading off into blissful sleep and found none other than Mike Rowe on the Discovery Channel. I was already finding Cape Town to be very familiar after all, other than the Afrikaans accents and bizarre car layout. (More on that later.) Well, and the free beef jerky, I guess.

Stay tuned for more South Africa travel adventures. I finally get to see the Square Kilometer Array office and much more…

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