Catch and Release

April 25, 2009

I love fly-fishing. No news to those who know me. I only started two years ago, but the pastime is somewhere between covetousness and obsession. I still have a lot to learn, but it is one topic that I enjoy studying.

Fishing of all sorts is very popular here in KwaZulu-Natal. At St. Lucia/Cape Vidal we watched a bunch of “sportsmen” who were surf casting. They were using something like telephone poles with 30 pound test to catch a few fish in the 4 – 6″ range.  They were using bait–and fishing within a few meters of people swimming including us. I wasn’t impressed. I also saw a guy with monofilament line casting some sort of bait out and catching what can only be described as aquarium tropical fish along the coral reef–and keeping them. Why he wasn’t just using a net was beyond me. The barbed hook was likely to do a lot of damage to a 1″ “keeper”.

Those who know a little about fishing may be getting the sense that I practice what has become known as “catch and release” fishing. This is an ethos that evolved in the fishing community in the early 1980’s and particularly amongst trout fishermen, and particularly trout fly fishermen. The idea is relatively simply. Anything that you catch, you release without injuring. The logic is also sound. In the 1970’s, many of the famed trout streams across the United States were becoming fished out. There were many stories that began with, “back when I was younger, the average trout caught was 18″, now we are lucky to get a 12″ trout…” That was heard all around the land. If the story was tiresome, it was also true. Trout grow to 10″ by the end of the second year, and in rivers where fish were caught and cooked, very few trout survived past two years without gettting caught.

Thus the catch and release ethic was born. If you want to enjoy sportfishing, you need to return the fish to preserve the breeding stock. The logic and ethic has taken over in the fly fishing community to the point that by the time I started the sport, it is almost unheard of to kill the fish that you catch.

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I went Natal Yellow fishing today with a graduate student at UKZN. His name is Matt. A local. He grew up in Pietermartizburg, and is an avid fly fisherman. He wanted to introduce me to the Yellow Fish. It is a bottom feeder in the carp family. Not the type of fish that one would typically think of as a sportfish and definitely not an eating fish. But they are indigenous to Natal, they can grow quite large–the record Natal Yellow Fish was over 9 pounds caught about 40 minutes north of Pietermaritzburg, and they can be caught on a fly rod. Those are more than enough reasons for me to go Natal Yellow fishing.

Matt took me to a private stretch of water below the dam at Albert Falls Nature Reserve. The water comes over a waterfall and into a pool, and it is here that there are some large yellow fish enjoying the highly oxygenated and food rich water coming over the waterfall. The fact that it is private means that only those who have permission from the owner can fish here, and it is under a strict agreement that all fishing will be catch and release. That is not a stipulation that I would find difficult to abide by.

We arrived early on a beautiful morning. After Matt gave me the run through of the type of flies that I would use (San Juan Worm with a nymph dropper for those interested in the technical details), we started fishing. I’ll spare you the suspense. I never caught my first Natal Yellow Fish, and I still have yet to catch a fish using a nymph. That is not really the main story here.

About forty minutes after we arrived, a group of four young Zulu boys arrived with cans of worms and various and sundry fishing gear. Technically they were poaching–illegally fishing on private property. Practically they were hungry. Frankly they did not have a very good chance of catching much. Three of the boys had sticks with about five feet of fishing line. The fourth had a well-worn spinning reel. They seemed a little in awe of the rhythmic spectacle of two men fly casting 15 meters of line toward the water falls. I don’t know whether they had seen fly fishing before, but it was far different from what they were doing. They moved out of sight to poach a different hole.

About forty five minutes later they returned empty handed. As it happened, Matt had just hooked up with his second big yellow fish. His rod was doubled over and was quivering under the tension of a large fish. The boys came to a stand still about three meters behind him watching in rapt attention. I was about 10 meters away, and likewise stopped to enjoy the show. I never tire watching someone play a large fish. This fish was no exception. He worked the fish for probably close to four minutes and finally carefully landed a 26″ yellow fish in his catch and release net. As he disengaged the hook, I could see the anticipation in the boys faces. And then four jaws dropped incredulously and the Zulu furiously started as a flick of the tail sent the fish into the murky water below. The boys chattered to each other and walked away dispondently. About five minutes later I saw the boy with the spinning rod catch a 4″ yellow fish and then smack it against the rock and put it in his can.

The catch and release ethic makes perfect logical sense, unless it smacks up against the reality of a pervasive poverty in South Africa. This was not an ethical decision that I had to make today due to my incompetence yellow fishing, but I began thinking what would I have done if I did catch a fish. We were fishing on private water with the permission of the owner on the agreement that we could fish as long as we released anything that we caught. And yet, here are four hungry young boys who in several hours caught one 4″ fish…hardly enough for two bites of food when cooked.

Matt must have had the same thoughts swirling through his mind, because in the car home he brought it up. I asked him if he saw the looks on their faces when he let the fish go. He said that he didn’t have the heart to look at the boys.

What should we have done? What would you have done?

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I confess. I am a political junkie. I have absolutely no stake in the outcome of the South African election. I gain or lose nothing personally in whatever the eventual outcome (except for a possible move in the exchange rate), but I have been drawn into many conversations with South Africans over the last several months about the election and find myself fascinated. I love democracy, and it has been great to find out how South Africans view the privilege of voting. It is especially interesting to talk with black South Africans who still remember their first chance to vote fifteen years ago.

It has been a remarkably quiet election day across South Africa. There have been isolated incidents of violence, some voting irregularties and political grandstanding from the parties, but nothing like the violence that had been seen in the past.

Analysts have been calling this the most closely watched and anticipated election since the first true democratic election in 1994. The main reason is that this year the outcome of the election is not entirely a forgone conclusion. The African National Congress has held an overwhelming majority in the country since 1994. In the past election they received nearly 70% of the vote. The constitution can be changed with a vote of over 66%, so there is a significant push by the dozens of competing parties to capture that elusive 33%. As of this writing, the few polls that have been conducted suggest that the ANC will probably receive somewhere between 60 – 66% which is a real reduction of their past performance, but nonetheless a significant majority. The ANC will remain that way for the forseeable future, or in the words of the soon to be president, Jacob Zuma, “until Jesus  Christ returns”. News of the ANC’s demise is, no doubt, exaggerated.

Whether Zuma is a prophet remains to be seen, but hearing and reading the stories of one of the world’s newest democracies celebrating another election is exciting. Long lines were recorded all over the nation and it is expected that up to 80% of the registered voters will have participated today.

I am reminded of a Peggy Noonan piece written in 2000 entitled, The Meaning of the Vote. It is somewhat dated in the details of the election itself (Bush/Gore before the Supreme Court settled it), but I love how she closes her essay. I think about this every time I go to vote myself. Democracy is an incredible blessing not to be taken for granted.

A final word for those who will vote, and who even look forward to it and, corny as it is, feel a spring in their step as they go to the polls.

The other night I was dining with another family and I turned to a mother and said, “I actually get choked up when I vote. Do you?” I said it because it’s true but also because kids were there and I wanted us to do a little spontaneous commercial for democracy.

And she said, “Oh yes,” and I was surprised. She told me she takes her kids to vote with her, so they’ll remember.

I do that too, I told her, I take my son. I let him press the lever with his finger over my finger.

When I vote I get kissing sickness, and have to stop myself from embarrassing my son. But I want to kiss the curtains of the voting machine, I want to put my lips to them quickly in gratitude. I would like to kiss the metal knobs and paper with the candidate’s names.

My heart beats quickly when I’m in the booth, and my hands tremble a little. I get choked up as I wait on line. I go and sign in at the big registration desk and I am so proud to write my name, it gives me satisfaction, and I make a joke with the ladies who hold the book, and I look at the people on line and smile and I notice a lot of people are kind of–there’s a heightened feeling.

I know I should be thinking things like, “Good men died so I could do this,” and “God bless the Founders,” and in a way I guess I do, but really I’m thinking, Thank you God that I’m so lucky I can vote, isn’t it wonderful this country has been voting for more than two centuries, aren’t we the luckiest people on earth that we have this gift. And we all do it together and we’re all equal and Bill Gates has a bigger boat and a bigger house and a bigger pool than the girl at the counter at the deli next door but his vote is no bigger and has no more weight.

She is his equal.

We are all equal. In the eyes of God, in the eyes of the law, and in the voting booth. It’s really wonderful. It leaves me choked up. Maybe it does you, too…

What’s In Your Wallet?

April 22, 2009

It seems that I posted a few hours too soon about us not having been a victim of any criminal activity while in South Africa. I discovered this afternoon that someone had stolen our Capital One credit card information at some point in the past few weeks and made over $2000 in charges over the weekend. To Capital One’s credit, they flagged the transactions which were posted in Johannesburg and put a block on the card. They did not reveal what triggered the automatic block, but I am grateful that of the $2000, we are only potentially on the hook for $600. After speaking with their fraud division today, the most likely scenario is that we will be credited for the entire amount after the fraud investigation. Credit card fraud is another ongoing reality in SA, and now we have our own personal story to add to all of the others.

Freedom certainly is not free today.

Freedom Isn’t Free

April 22, 2009

Folks have asked me over the past few months what it is that I miss the most about the United States, and I usually respond with “pizza”. This usually raises some eyebrows and causes a general sense of defensiveness concerning the doughy substance covered in some approximation of tomato sauce, mozeralla cheese, etc. that is served up here in the malls. You need to keep in perspective that I say that I miss pizza in rural Virginia as well. I’m from New York, and we New Yorkers take our pizza very seriously and, sorry, but South African pizza is not the real deal.

I usually wink and tell them that after pizza what I really miss is my freedom. This usually raises the eyebrows even further. “What are you talking about”? is the most common response.

I miss not having to always be looking over my shoulder nervously, checking and double-checking to see if the car is locked, if we have hidden the cameras/computer/wallets every night, if we have armed the alarm properly, if my office door is locked every time that I leave, wondering whether I should drive with windows down, wondering whether a street that the GPS is suggesting that we should turn onto is safe, quickly and seldom using the ATM, nervously watching and admonishing the children constantly when we are out, and the list goes on and on. There is a degree of low level anxiety every day while living in South Africa. The US Consulate lists the safely threat rating in South Africa as “critical” for embassy employees…the highest rating possible.

That said, nothing has actually happened to us individually or as a family, although there seemed to have been a close call a few months ago. This pervasive feeling is a constant reality of life. There are certainly days when we let our  guard down and wonder whether it is all overblown, but then we drive through Pietermartizburg and see all manner of dodgy things happening and hear the stories. Everyone has a story of a friend or a family member or themselves that were victims of a crime.

We have felt freedom on a few occasions, and that is when the homesickness really sets in. At Hluhluwe we could walk out onto the back porch and leave the doors open. In Swaziland, the crime did not nearly feel as palpable, and in Shakaland, it felt like we were safe. However, even in these places of relative security, we felt more like we might feel in a larger US city…cautious but not threatened.

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I don’t go running at night any more. That may not seem like a big deal, but I have still not been able to figure out how to make running work with my schedule. The “safest” time is to run early in the morning-5:30 am. I’m not really a morning person, and the times that I have tried to get up that early and run have usually resulted in me waking the entire house up by the time I disarm the alarm, and unlock the two gates and the front door to get out of the house. Running at night is out of the question. When I tell people that my usual running time in Virginia is 9:30 pm after the children have gone to bed, they immediately respond with “you musn’t do that!”

I have stopped riding a bike. The first reason is that I don’t have one, but that problem could have been overcome as I was offered one when I first arrived and told the person that I have been training for a triathlon. I don’t want to ride his bike. The drivers are dreadful, the roads are narrow, and I don’t want the responsibility of the relatively high likelihood that the bike will be stolen.

There are so many things to love about this country. The people are wonderful, the scenery is magnificent and there is so much potential here.

But on this election day, I miss my freedom. And a slice of meatball pizza.

Here are some of the places and faces that have captivated us in the past several months that I put together for a seminar at UKZN. It is challenging to compress so much into four minutes, but captures some of the scenes.

Hope you enjoy. (Warning 36Mb):

Music by Ladysmith Black Mambazo

The presidential elections in South Africa are looming. The outcome is as much in doubt as the 1 vs 16 seeds in the NCAA basketball tournament. Jacob Zuma will be the next president of South Africa. He is the head of the African National Congress and will be elected on April 22. There are several opposition parties vying for the presidency, but they are the Radford’s in South African politics. Their greatest hope is that the ANC will receive less than 66% of the electorate so that they cannot change the constitution. Our biggest concern is that there will not be violence between the ANC and the Inkhata Freedom Party which is strong here in KwaZulu-Natal and has engaged violently with ANC supporters in the past. In 1994, there was nearly a civil war between the ANC and the IFP throughout KwaZulu-Natal.

If you want to read more about Jacob Zuma, here is a recent article in the UK’s Daily Mail.

Here are Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s comments in Pietermartizburg’s The Witness on Zuma from last week in Durban.

For those who are interested, the charges against Zuma were all dropped last week thus clearing the way for a smooth election.

We have been nominated for the coveted “Worst Parents/Best Tar Heel Fans of the Year Award”. It is an award given annually to the family that displays the qualities of outstanding loyalty to the UNC Tar Heels, but in the process inflicts untold psychological damage upon their children–damage which may require decades of counseling and medication.

Dook fans would argue that any parents who root for UNC are abusing their children, but in order to be considered for this award, one needs to do more than simply indoctrinate your innocent children into the Carolina Blue traditions. Simply being a member of the “light blue mafia” is not nearly enough to win this august award. Herewith, I make the case for two Tar Heel families, a Clemson fan and a South African for the 2009 WP/BTHotY Award:

We begin with the coveted UNC Golden Gourmet Peanuts:championship-cupThese were imported from Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, North Carolina–getting past customs in Johannesburg, South Africa. The children have been asking to sample the peanuts since our arrival in January. We told them emphatically…not until UNC wins the national championship. (n.b. expiration date November 2009, so they will not taste so great several years from now.)

28 March 2009: 4:00 am (UNC-Gonzaga Sweet Sixteen)

The Augustine’s and new Tar Heel convert and South African native Adrian Murray arrive at Jeremiah von Kuhn’s apartment at 4 am in time for the tip off of the UNC-Gonzaga game. The game is shown on ESPN on digital satellite TV in South Africa. Jeremiah has DSTV unlike the rest of us. The Passaro’s arrive fifteen minutes later. Total tally: 5 adults, 6 children under the age of 12.  Jeremiah is a Clemson fan, but agrees to both host us and cook eggs and bacon along with Adrian, thus disproving the rumors that Clemson fans are worthless. There is at least one great Clemson fan in this universe and his name is Jeremiah von Kuhn.

three-cheers-for-clemsonThe Americans promptly fired up the laptops not content to rest at 4 am. Kristi is copying photos from our various trips, Paul working on some spreadsheet or sending important emails or whatever it is that businessmen do, and Brian is trying to hack into the Tar Heel Sports Network. Paul usually gets up at 4 am, so he is looking particularly chipper-Brian not so much.tar-heel-laptops-on-fireFortunately, at least Brian was successful as the UNC-Gonzaga game was not the featured game, so we listened to Woody and Eric for most of the game only catching the last fifteen minutes on TV.

The kids celebrated the 98-77 victory at 6 am:unc-child-abuse-part-1

Lightning strikes twice:

30 March 2009, 4:00 am (second half UNC-Oklahoma Elite Eight)

The Augustine’s, Adrian and Jeremiah repeat the March Madness celebration of two days earlier. We arrive at the gate at 4 am and are greeted by Jeremiah. We announce that we are here for the “Worst Parents of the Month Conference”. Jeremiah readily agrees that we are in strong contention for this months award. Tip-off time for the game was an hour earlier on the East Coast, and thus the Elite Eight game started at 3 am in South Africa. We arrive for the start of the second half. Not watching the entire game could be the one hitch in our otherwise strong resume for the WP/BTHotY Award nomination. The girls have vacation from school, but Brian does not have the day off from work. We all celebrate the 72-60 victory while holding the South African flag. If you look carefully, you can see Ruthie’s sleeping feet sticking out from under the flag. They don’t make 3 year old’s the same any more.unc-child-abuse-part-21

Preparing to watch the Final Four, we are excited as we are all traveling to Swaziland to stay at the Ezulwini Sun hotel. We figure that they would be sure to have DSTV in one of the most luxurious hotels in all of Swaziland. Not exactly. We had DSTV, but not ESPN and the Tar Heel Sports Network was not connecting either. So we wake the kids up at 5 am on Tuesday, 7 April to listen to the second half of the UNC-Michigan State national championship game on the CBS Sports radio broadcast. We celebrate the Tar Heels National Championship with a breakfast of eggs, bacon and golden gourmet peanuts.

Our official nomination reads as follows: The Augustine’s of Bridgewater, VA and Passaro’s of Chapel Hill, NC, Tar Heel Fans for Life, are nominated for the prestigious “Worst Parents/Best Tar Heel Fans of the Year Award” for cheering for the UNC Tar Heels in their National Championship run in the 2008-09 season. They are nominated for waking up six young children during the middle of the night to watch or listen to three NCAA games in two countries six time zones away, for using gigabytes of expensive data time to listen to the UNC-Dook game, two ACC and several NCAA tournament games, for importing Tar Heel gourmet peanuts, Jersey Naps napkins and UNC bottle openers to South Africa and for converting one South African and one Clemson fan into Carolina Tar Heel fans for life. (We’re stretching on the Clemson fan.)

GO HEELS! Let the psychological studies begin.dth-unc-nat-champ-040709