Final Post – Experiences in Spain

The jump from Rwanda to Barcelona was a shocking reminder of the economic gulf between a central African developing country and a mature European nation with centuries of history reflective in great monuments, developed infrastructure, Gothic cathedrals.

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The great cathedrals of Europe were born from the desire to bring heaven to earth in the form of magnificent stone edifices that would rise from the earth and rise hundreds of feet, defying gravity by the curving arches and great vaulted ceilings.  Once the structural engineering problems were resolved, over 200 cathedrals sprang up across Europe over the course of a century.

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Archetypal of Barcelona’s reputation as a center of design is the Sagrada Familia, which is a basilica, not a cathedral.  This project continues over 130 years after it was begun, and is expected to take another 25 years to complete.  It was designed by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, born in 1852 and who died by being struck by a streetcar in 1926.

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The NatGeo tour ended in Barcelona, but we took another couple of days to visit northern Spain (Aviles and Leon) to view architecture and to experience the culinary delights of Asturia.

Having now successfully re-integrated into the routine of life and work in Wisconsin, the Expedition begins to take on a dream-like quality, where recollecting the aspects of the many cultures and places seem more like a fantasy than real.  And yet the impressions are indelible and will be with us for a lifetime.  Thank you for following this travel log and I wish everyone were able to experience many of the sights and places that are now so valued.

Rwanda and the Mountain Gorillas – Africa Chapter Three

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From the initial landing in Kigali, Rwanda, the population density was an immediate contrast to Botswana.  Public transport is at a minimum, vehicles are few, and most people get around by walking long distances.  Carrying heavy loads on their heads, women in colorful dresses, this is Africa in development.

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The homes are made from vertical pieces of tropical hardwood, and horizontal eucalyptus split logs.  Wood is still cut the old-fashioned way – who needs a chainsaw when you have a saw this size?  As the women and men work in the fields of potatoes, corn, and Pyrethrum flowers, the older children take care of the younger ones.

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To the right, Patrick, our trek guide, finds the largest worm I have ever seen in my life.  What kind of fish could you catch with this bait?

As the story in Botswana was about preservation of endangered animals, there is a similar narrative regarding the famous Mountain Gorillas who became known through the research by Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.  With the full support of the Rwandan government, a nature preserve has been created and a 52 mile stone wall 6 feet in height built around the reserve to delineate boundaries.  Soldiers guard the few remaining gorillas and trackers keep an eye on them.  A medical staff is on call 24/7 to provide emergency medical support for injured or sick animals.  We were instructed to get no closer than 20 feet, but what do you do when an adolescent gorilla walks past you and grabs your leg, as if to acknowledge another creature friend?

The total number has increased in the past few years to a total of 880 in 19 groups that are tracked and monitored for safety and health.  We drove an hour from Mountain View Lodge in the north of Rwanda (2 ½ hours from the capital Kigali) parked our vehicle, and then walked another two hours through a small village, agricultural fields, and finally on a small winding trail that cut through bamboo forests, up to 9300 feet in altitude.  We were rewarded by spending an hour with 16 gorillas as they munched bamboo, pulled plants and ate roots, groomed each other, and played.  We were challenged by the dominant Silverback male as he stood and beat his chest for a brief but frightening 15 seconds.  He then promptly lay down and went to sleep, having communicated to his companions that he was providing leadership and safety for them.

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The other story about Rwanda is about a country that has gone through a horrific period 20 years ago that tore apart society and ravaged families and the economy.   This is what we often think about when the word “Rwanda” is mentioned.  Our guide was a beautiful young woman of 22 years old – Nadine –  who was two years old at the time of the genocide.  There is a photo of her hiding in a large church in Kigali where almost 2000 were killed in ethnic violence.  Look carefully at the photo above to the right and you can see her to the far left of the line of children, in a white blouse and blue skirt.  Within a couple of days, most of the children in this photograph had been killed.  Nadine escaped by hiding in a corner under debris until the killers had passed, not noticing her.   Altogether, close to one million lives were taken during this dark period in the country’s history.  Through reconciliation and a turn to the future, Rwanda is focused on developing into a modern country and providing education for its youth.  Many of the scenes in the country reflect the beauty of the people and their work ethic in rebuilding the nation and families.

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Africa Chapter Two

Selinda Reserve, Botswana

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The flight from the airstrip in the central Kalahari to the Selinda Reserve took just under an hour in a Pilatus PC12 transport turboprop, followed by a two hour drive to get to the camp site.  Normally taking an hour, we stopped to observe a richness of game, educated in beautiful detail by our guide Isaac.

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This location was purchased several years ago by Derick and Beverly Joubert, a lovely couple originally from South Africa.  They have made their life work the preservation of animals in the wild in Africa.  The Big Cats initiative has been supported for several years by National Geographic. The elephant population has increased significantly during their tenure of the 300,000 acre concession but other animals continue to be poached, particularly from neighboring countries where laws are not enforced.  Just last month the country of Botswana became the first African country to make it illegal to hunt and kill any wild animals, an enormous victory for the many endangered species.  It will take many years to repopulate the leopards, cheetahs, lions, and rhinos that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

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The Selinda Reserve would be high on our list for places to revisit, as the hospitality was superb, great food, and with each visit the financial situation becomes more secure for the operation.  There are now several camp sites operated under the same group, and with the banning of hunting, more will become available for photographic tourism.

Sunset - Selinda

Postings from Africa

When was the last time you were out of cell phone and internet connections for more than a day or two?  This was the first time for me in many years, and the total time was over six days.  Most of the NatGeo Expeditioners had withdrawal for the first 24 hours, but as the reality settled in, the next several days were surprisingly delightful.  The only use of a mobile device was photo-taking.  No emails, no meeting alerts, and no phone calls to interrupt the immersion into the outback of Africa.

Chapter One – Kalahari – Tau Pan Camp

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A “pan” is a large salt-flat area devoid of plant life due to the soil conditions.  We camped near one of these pans in the Kalahari desert/game reserve region, about 40 minute flight in a Cessna Caravan from Maun, almost directly south of the third largest city in Botswana. To make the trip in a land vehicle would have taken 6-7 hours due to distance and road conditions.

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Voti explains survival in the desert

Voti explains survival in the desert

One expects to see the famous animals of the Kalahari and in this sense we were not disappointed.  But one of the most interesting experiences was the two hour walk in the bush with a San tribesman by the name of Volta.  Volta showed us how to look for water in the desert by finding a special plant with a large buried tuber that is shredded and squeezed to yield life-saving water.

The language is utterly fascinating with the clicks and whistle sounds.  English is said to have 32 sounds; the language spoken by the Khoisan people has 142 sounds. Embedded is a short video that will illustrate the spoken language, where Voti says the word for “spear” in his language.

Volta gave a demonstration of making fire with only pieces of wood twirled into one another, and how to ensnare animals with a handmade trap for food.  A couple of hours with this skilled tracker convinced me of the creativity and resilience of humanity in a harsh environment.

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With the life-giving rains only a few days away, animals were drawn to the water hole located only two hundred meters from the camp.  We could spot jackals, lions, and many birds that came there to get relief from the heat (up to 105 F. during the day we were there).

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The heat and dryness of the day gave way to stunning sunsets and a brilliant sky of stars in utter silence.

Shangri-La Resort, Villingili Island, The Maldives

Arrival - the Maldives

Arrival – the Maldives

Guest welcome team

Guest welcome team

Back Office Tour

As most visitors and guests arrive at a resort, the last thing they want to think about are the systems that operate everything.  People want to get away from the mechanics of everyday living and forget about doing laundry, paying utility bills, preparing and cleaning up meals.

The difference with this property is that there was no infrastructure (or structures) on this island when it was purchased in 1999.  Since then, it has become a fully-functioning self-contained five star hotel. My curiosity leads me to wonder how the place operates, where the electricity comes from, how the systems in the back work to create a customer experience that is better than one might expect.  It could also be informative as we look for ways to delight our customers.  Perhaps Shangri-la is a benchmark for personal customer experiences that go beyond our standards.

http://www.shangri-la.com/male/villingiliresort/

Prior to 1999, the island was not inhabited, used just as a day excursion point, and as a local mentioned to me, a place to have an occasional picnic.  Villingili Island was purchased in 1999 (50 year ownership, now extended to 70 years). Construction of infrastructure began in 2004 and was completed in 2009.

Today there are 650 employees, half of whom live on the island in staff accommodations. A boat takes the other 300+ back and forth daily to two other islands where they live.

Leo - Containerized Cargo

Leo – Containerized Cargo

Logistics

Leo Freighter brings goods in containerized cargo, which are then unloaded at the dock and transported to various locations for warehousing and storage.  There is an office in Male, the capital of the Maldives, with customs-clearing, goods receiving, etc.

Daily employee screening

Daily employee screening

Security

All materials and staff go through a security check on the way in and out, including a metal scanner for all staff entering and leaving the property to ensure safety for guests and security for property.  89 CCTV cameras allow monitoring of people and events for efficiency and safety.

Systems

The premise of the resort operations is self-sufficiency, sustainability and social responsibility.  For achieving the goal of self-sufficiency, their systems include:

Four CAT diesel generators

Four CAT diesel generators

Energy production.  Four CAT generators have a total capacity of 1,200 KVA output.  Demand is usually 50% of output, peak consumes 75%, leaving spare capacity with one back-up generator. The diesel fuel is brought to the island by a ship which anchors to a dock.  The fuel is off-loaded by pumping through underground pipes to the tank farm.

Fresh water generation by RO

Fresh water generation by RO

Water production is as essential as power.  There are three reverse osmosis systems, each capable of producing 1.2 cubic meters of water each hour, 24 hours a day.  The RO water supplies all water needs, including showers, and is completely safe for drinking.  But then this generates a lot of waste water, which must be treated.  Much of the hot water is generated by solar collectors situated on rooftops throughout the building structures.

Waste water treatment

Waste water treatment

The waste water treatment plant is a major installation, handling all waste.  After treatment, the  gray water is used for watering and landscaping, with the treated sludge used for the farming of plants and food crops.
Trash and garbage are carefully sorted, packaged, and shipped off-island every 2-3 weeks. There are increased efforts to recycle on the island, particularly compost of food and paper materials.
Rain water is collected from building rooftops with gutters, routed to central collection points which then pump the water to holding tanks centrally located.  This stored water is used for irrigation and landscaping.

Mechanics shop

Mechanics shop

Support services for staff and guests include fully laundry services, mechanical shops for metal and woodworking, a flower shop, mechanical repairs of bicycles, golf carts (the transport “buggies” for guests and staff) and anything else mechanical.  There are two full-time tailors who work on staff uniforms.

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Full prep kitchens and bakery

Full prep kitchens and bakery

Food preparation is conducted in a central kitchen that serves all restaurants with prepared dishes, which are then “finished” at the local serving areas.  The staff have their own restaurant and kitchen with free meals served three times a day.

Aircraft operations: 60% of guests now arrive by private aircraft organized by the resort logistics center.  This resort is served by an airport located at Gan, just 20 minutes by boat from the resort.  A part of the commercial terminal is now exclusive to Shangri-la for receiving and dispatching private aircraft arriving from the Middle East, India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, etc.

Complete medical center on the island

Complete medical center on the island

The medical center is staffed with a full-time doctor and has good basic support for emergencies.  There is a hyperbaric decompression chamber, one of three for The Maldives, and used primarily for local fishermen who are not properly trained in SCUBA techniques and who occasionally run out of air at depth (in search of the big fish) and make a dash for the surface.

Fully operational communications tower.

Fully operational communications tower.

Communications are a delight due to the microwave cell towers and high speed internet service provided across the island, with multiple repeaters in each guest villa.

Summary

Nothing has been left to chance in the design and operations of this magnificent resort, and there are continuous plans to upgrade and improve on all processes and facilities.   The goal is to have all of this completely invisible to guests, other than the excellence of service and quality of food and amenities provided on a “round-the-clock” basis.

A common site

A common site

Shangri-La Villingili gets my five-star approval rating!

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang is a beautiful city situated in a mountain setting where the Mekong and Khan Rivers converge.  UNESCO has designated the entire town a World Heritage site due to its history as the old capital of Laos, and the structures which reflect both French colonialism and Buddhist tradition.

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We began the day early, before the sun rose, to prepare ourselves with baskets of rice for the Buddhist monks who file past the local town residences on the sides of the streets and offer small gifts and food (usually rice by the spoonful) for their daily food.  About 200-300 monks collect their food each morning early, and then retreat to the monasteries.

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Following the almsgiving, we went through the market which is open from dawn to 10am.  The fare is colorful and entertaining: baskets of large toads hopping around, crickets trying to escape their bowl, birds in small bamboo cages (these are not for food, we were told), eels, three sizes of white grubs…the list goes on.  I would need to get an English translation of a Lao cookbook to know where to start with food preparation.

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On the way to the river for a boat tour on the Mekong, we passed through small villages.  Everywhere children are a delight, and were happy to pose for us, with no expectation of getting anything in return (not always the case in rural areas where tourists come through).

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This man with a large and small elephant.  Traditionally used for carrying tons of wood from the mountains for sale or making furniture and buildings, the farmers can earn more by giving rides to tourists.  The small elephant is about 4 years old.

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The day ended by a 45 minute cruise down river on the Mekong, with the gentle light of dusk outlining the boats on the river.

Peleliu War Memorial

 

Bill Jr. with the 49 Koreans that he rescued from Peleliu caves

Bill Jr. with the 49 Koreans that he rescued from Peleliu caves

After completion of Japanese language school.

After completion of Japanese language school.

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A side trip that was taken by a handful of the Nat Geo explorers was to visit the small island of Peleliu, about 45 minutes by boat from the main island in the Palau group.  This had special meaning for me, as my father as a Marine had been in the battle of Peleliu in the fall of 1944.  He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions in saving 49 Koreans from almost certain death.

The statistics are sobering: of the 12,500 Japanese military and almost 5,000 conscripted laborers from Okinawa and Korea, less than 400 were taken alive by the Americans as POWs.  The remainder perished in one of the bloodiest conflicts of the war.  The Peleliu War Museum is being restored and modernized through the efforts of a couple of people, including a retired Marine officer, David McQuillen, who moved to Peleliu 4 years ago after his retirement from military service.

Here is the citation supporting the Silver Star awarded to my father.

William A. Linton , Jr.

Place of Birth: Korea, Kunsan
Home of record: Decatur Georgia

AWARDS AND CITATIONS

Silver Star
Awarded for actions during World War II.

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Second Lieutenant William A. Linton, Jr. (MCSN: 0-26230), United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity as Language Officer of the Intelligence Section of the FIRST Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Peleliu, Palau Islands, on 10 October 1944. Voluntarily requesting and gaining permission to enter fiercely-defended enemy territory in order to obtain the surrender of a large number of Koreans reported to be in caves in front of our lines, Second Lieutenant Linton risked ambush by entering and exploring two caves of great depth.

Encountering two groups of Koreans who could have cut him off from aid if they had chosen to attack him, he employed his fluent command of the Korean language and, through skillful persuasion, effected the surrender of both groups. Conducting the entire group of forty-nine through our lines, Second Lieutenant Linton obtained information from these prisoners which proved to be of material intelligence value to our forces. His skill, initiative and courageous devotion to duty in the face of grave personal danger reflect great credit on Second Lieutenant Linton and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

General Orders: Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force Pacific: Serial 00422

Action Date: October 10, 1944

Service: Marine Corps

Rank: Second Lieutenant

Company: Intelligence Section

Division: 1st Marine Division