Tag Archives: San

A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum

Our 2nd day in Roma (Rome) didn’t go as planned.  It was sunny and hot, very warm to be touring the monuments.  From our campground outside the city we caught the bus, then train, then metro to the famous Colesseum, a 2000 year old amphitheatre, the largest in the Roman Empire, originally capable of seating 50,000 people.  We did the audio tour, listening to tales of senators and citizens, gladiators and slaves, of Christians and lions, and of the glory days and the decline of Rome.

In front of the Colesseum

The Colesseum looks identical today to the way it did in the movie Roman Holiday (starring Gregory Peck and introducing Audrey Hepburn) which was released 59 years ago.  I’m showing my ‘new world’ short-sightedness here though, because it has looked pretty much like that for the last 1000 years.

Afterwards we crossed the street to wander up and around Palantine Hill, the centermost of the 7 Hills of Rome, and the supposed location of the Lupercal cave where the orphans Romulus (from whom Rome gets its name) and Remus where kept alive by a she-wolf. Palantine Hill was the earliest inhabited location in Rome and became the place where Rome’s wealthiest citizens lived, including the infamous emperor Caligula.  It was getting very warm and was approaching lunch time.  We had planned to grab some food and then visit the Roman Forum located on the other side of the hill.

I was having some weird heart palpitations and periodic shortness of breath, something that started a couple of days earlier and which I ignored until they became frequent enough that they couldn’t be overlooked.  I mentioned this to Diane, who insisted that I do something about it.  I suggested that we finish visiting Palantine Hill, but it soon became apparent that Diane wasn’t enjoying herself because of her worry for me.  We went to the nearby tourist office and inquired about a hospital.  They asked what my issue was, so I pointed to my chest and breathed heavily.  They suggested the Ospedale San Giovanni (Hospital Saint John) and told us what bus to catch to get there.  After wandering about to buy tickets and find the correct stop, we finally boarded a mini-bus and in a few minutes disembarked in front of the Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of the diocese of Rome, and the highest ranking church in Catholicism, above even St. Peter’s Basilica in nearby Vatican City.

Notice the heavenly light?

We found the hospital around the corner and walked through the security gate and into the reception area.  I spoke to the woman behind the glass who directed us through some sliding doors.  We entered a large waiting room where other people were waiting for their turn to see a doctor.  There was a tough woman controlling the room, calling patients in to see the triage nurse one by one.  She spoke only in Italian and waved her arms at us until a man sitting nearby stepped in to translate.  He said that Diane had to wait outside because she wasn’t a patient.

After about 15 minutes I got called (well, pointed at) and was led into another room where a much nicer woman sat behind a desk with a computer.  She spoke decent English and asked me questions like, “When did it start?”, “Do you have any pain?”, and “Any nausea?” (3 days ago, no, and no).  She checked my blood pressure, blood oxygen level, and pulse.  Afterwards I was assigned a priority, in my case ‘green’, which means that I wasn’t urgent.  I figured that was a good thing, although it probably meant that I was now facing a long wait.

I returned to the waiting room and struck up a conversation with the nice guy who’d translated for me.  He reassured me that this was a good hospital (perhaps they aren’t all good in Italy?)  He was an academic doing research in robotics.  When I told him about my degree, he thought he’d found a fertile audience, and launched into a lengthy explanation of the complex mathematics of robotic vision and sensing.  It was mostly beyond me, but at least it kept my attention focused on something other than my chest.  When I changed the conversation, he recommended a small restaurant slightly off the tourist map.  He wrote its name down in pencil, which mathematicians are fond of, in the margins of my map.  After the first 2 hours of waiting, he got called away, leaving me in the room with others who appeared to be much sicker than me.

When I got my turn, I was led down a hallway to a small examination room with a white-coated young woman (presumably the doctor) and another woman wearing scrubs (apparently a nurse).   The doctor asked me some questions, and spent most of her time typing on a computer.  She directed me to the bed where they checked my pulse, blood oxygen, and did an EKG.  Everything looked normal, so she listened to my breathing, ordered a chest x-ray, took some arterial blood (which is more painful, like having an IV inserted) and sent me back to the waiting room.

Eventually an orderly arrived to walk me down to the x-ray department where I sat for just a few minutes.  It more closely resembled a bomb shelter than a hospital, with metal walls housing compartments with heavy, sliding, metal doors.  Like a darkroom, each had a red light above to indicate when entry was restricted.  I was led into one of these meat lockers by a technician who spoke no English.  He activated something that sounded like a turbine, with a loud noise that grew in pitch and volume like a death ray from a science fiction movie, adding an intimidating sonic element to the experience.  I had 2 good old-fashioned film x-rays (nothing digital here) while standing in front of a giant bulls-eye target.  It felt more like facing a firing squad than a medical procedure.  Just before each image was taken, all the lights in the room went dark, as if the building’s power was being redirected to the beam focused on my chest.  Another orderly arrived to return me to the waiting room.  He didn’t speak English either but pointed to my last name but said something about his ‘bambinos’ and the ‘lee-on king’ (presumably praise for the Disney franchise).

Being a patient in an Italian emergency ward is lonely and boring, more so than at home.  I went out a couple of times to update Diane who was waiting and worrying outside the entire afternoon (except when she went get lunch), but the staff made it clear in broken English and sign language that I couldn’t keep coming and going.  Diane was a bit freaked when I came out looking like this, but I reassured her it was only from the blood tests.

Bent but not broken!

I did talk to a doctor in the hall from Uganda who spoke good English.  We talked about Africa and the young doctors I’d met there.  She asked why I was waiting and I gave her the short version.  She said, “Italian doctors like to do lots of tests”.  I wondered what all this was going to cost me.  Surely I had already passed the threshold where I’d need to make a claim on my medical insurance.

A bit more waiting before I was called in to the doctor again.  Apparently the nurse messed up the arterial blood draw getting venous blood instead, not the bright red of oxygenated blood.  So the doctor re-did the test, repeatedly probing my forearm searching for an artery.  I don’t like it when doctors do procedures usually done by others as they don’t have much practice.  After another wait, I was called in for the verdict from the doctor.  Everything tested fine.  She suggested that it might be stress.  I thought, “Perhaps I need a vacation from my vacation?”

The doctor gave me my results all nicely done up on computer, something she had done herself in between talking to and testing me (very different from Canadian emergency rooms).  I asked where I should pay and she said that they have a system to charge foreigners for treatment, but not at this hospital.  Pardon?  She said, “They might send you a bill”.  I thought, “I wonder how many of those they ever collect?”

After 5 hours in emergency

So I left with my wallet intact and a clean bill of health, relieved but a bit worried that they didn’t find a definitive cause for my symptoms, which have abated since.  Don’t I look relieved?

The doctor prescribed fluids!

Whatever happens, don’t run

Our train ride took us to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, the nearest city to Matabo National
Park, known to the locals as ‘Matopos’. This park is home to one of the best collections of San rock paintings, many of which are over 20,000 years old.


The San are better known as ‘bushmen’, the same ones found in the Kalahari Desert (which covers much of Botswana), and featured in the movie ‘The Gods Must be Crazy’. The San are a small-statured people, who traditionally lived in the brushy flat landscape that extends across all of Botswana. They are nomadic hunter-gathers who speak in a distinctive sounding language that utilizes lots of clicking sounds. The San have lived in this area for tens of thousands of years, and often dwelled among the many large bounders that litter the landscape. In many of these sites, they painted amazingly accurate pictures of animals and people, which have persisted to this day among the sheltered areas.

We came to Matabo to see the rock paintings, but we got more than we bargained for. Because the park is fifty kilometers outside of town and requires a 4×4 to get around, we made arrangements to go with a guide named Andy from Black Rhino Safaris. Andy is Zimbabwean, born and raised. His family lives in Zimbabwe, and they have survived the recent hardships that have devastated the country. Andy is a self-declared ‘professional hunter’. These days he is primarily a guide on photographic safaris, rather than hunting safaris, but he has killed at least one of almost everything there is to kill in Africa.

In addition to the rock paintings, the other reason that people come to Matabo National Park is to see the rhinos. Andy said that he could take us, ‘to see some rock paintings in the early morning, then once that was out of the way, we could go looking for rhino’. It sounded like a good combination to us, but we really hadn’t anticipated what was involved.

Just before noon, Andy stopped the vehicle, and called us out to look at the dirt road. He showed us where there were fresh rhino tracks. You could see the pattern from their skin imprinted into the soft sand. He told us that, ‘Several of them laid here during the night or early morning.’ At this point, he got his binoculars and rifle from the truck, and we set out on foot, hunting for rhino.

Andy was an impressive tracker, following sometimes imperceptible tracks on soft and hard ground, through the grass and the bush. He turned and twisted, gesturing with his arms as he followed the smallest of indicators. He showed us how to tell the difference between white rhino and black rhino tracks. He stopped to feel their dung and told us how old it was (based on how crusty and how warm). He could tell the age of a rhino track by assessing the overlapping tracks from other animals, and whether these other mammals, birds, and bugs were nocturnal or not. This guy was a real African bush man, right out of the old safari movies.

As we entered the brush, he stopped to whisper the only safety instructions, “Walk in single file, don’t talk, and whatever happens, don’t run.” That was it. Patrick wondered whether this should perhaps have been discussed previously, allowing time for a few questions. But Andy was hot on the track, so that was all we got.

After about twenty minutes, we heard a noise, and peering into the dense brush, Andy said that there were two white rhino in there. We saw only leaves and branches. Nothing resembling a rhino. He signaled us to wait while he went ahead to investigate. Before he left us, he whispered, “If things go really wrong, climb a tree”. Diane looked around, and noticed a severe lack trees that looked both climbable and rhino-proof. Patrick wondered how he was supposed to get to a tree without running.

From fifteen meters away, making signals like the Special Forces, Andy indicated that there were four rhinos, and that we should follow him. We circled around the rhinos, trying to find a vantage point where we could see them through the foliage. We found a spot with a good view of one rhino, about twenty meters away. The others were somewhere in the bush, and we kept looking around and behind us just in case. Presumably Andy knew where they were. Andy indicated that Patrick could step forward to take pictures of the visible rhino.


Here is the only rhino picture that turned out. In case you’re wondering, the rhino is facing the left, and its head is obscured by foliage. Although you can’t see it in this picture, Patrick was surprised at how long and sharp looking its horn was. Apparently the horns of rhinos in captivity get worn down, but in the wild they can be up to 4 feet long!

When Diane adjusted her stance to get a better view stepping on a twig in the process, the rhino snapped his (or perhaps her, we have no idea) head up to stare straight at us. After a few seconds, the rhino started to run directly towards us, accompanied by two others that appeared from nowhere.

We stepped back, and Andy started to yell. As the three rhinos closed in on us, his volume level increased. There was the slightest hint of desperation in his voice as he reached his crescendo. He also shouted to us, “Don’t Run!”, which was perfectly timed, as that was exactly what we wanted to do. Andy raised his rifle and removed the safety. Diane melted into bush beside us, trying to get very small. The rhinos were running at us full speed, and were within twenty five feet. At what seemed the last possible moment, they swerved around us to our left.

Afterwards, Andy asked if we were OK. He apologized and said, “That’s not what normally happens.” He also said, “Another two steps closer and I would have fired a warning shot.” Looking back, Patrick seriously doubts whether there was enough time to warn the rhinos, and still get off another shot with his bolt action rifle if they didn’t stop. Andy surmised that these white rhinos, which are typically more docile, felt trapped between us and a creek behind them (that he wasn’t aware of), and perhaps couldn’t see us clearly enough to know where we were and how many of us. Rhinos apparently have poor eyesight from straight on, with eyes located on the sides of their head and large, especially pointy looking horns blocking their forward vision. Andy then said, “I think this would be a good time to go for lunch. We can track some more rhino in the afternoon.”

We had lunch overlooking a hippo pond, surrounded by a troop of overly bold baboons. After a short drive, we again started walking to find rhinos. Diane was definitely torn. On the one hand, she hoped to see more rhino, but she was thoroughly afraid to do so. Perhaps we could find some well-behaved white rhino and view them from a distance?

Andy explained that we were heading into an area frequented by black rhino. They are smaller, faster, and much more aggressive than white rhinos. Andy said that if the rhinos that ran at us in the morning had been black rhinos, he would have needed to shoot. Apparently when black rhinos feel threatened, they charge first, and ask questions later. Actually, they don’t ask questions. Patrick wonders which of the three he would have shot, and whether the other two would have noticed before they impaled us.

We were walking up a dry creek bed. Andy said, “We’ll circle around through the rocks on the right. That’s where the rhinos often sleep”. Patrick was hoping that they slept there at night, and not during the afternoon, assuming that black rhinos would be even more aggressive when woken prematurely from their afternoon nap.

Andy stopped and said, “Can you smell them”? He then loaded another two gigantic bullets into his rifle, and said, “I always like to have a couple extra in the magazine when I’m going into black rhino territory”. Diane and Patrick looked at each other with raised eyebrows. We wove between the closely spaced rocks and trees, and Andy showed us the flattened places where the rhino rest. The terrain was gradually narrowing, and we dropped back down to the river bed. Later Andy told another guide that he was pretty sure the rhinos were there, but didn’t feel safe proceeding into such close quarters.

So we walked back to the vehicle and drove a short distance to an open area filled with eight foot high grass. Does grass even grow that high in Canada? We pushed through the grass following the path of least resistance, where other animals (presumably rhino) had passed before. Patrick was thinking of a joke:

Q. How do you find a rhino in the tall grass?
A. You know it when you feel it.

We didn’t find any rhino in the grass, but afterwards Andy said, “I hate walking in that tall grass. You never know what you’re going to find, until a rhino tears you a new anus”.

Unfortunately and fortunately we didn’t find any more rhinos in the afternoon. But we did have the most exhilarating day of art viewing we’ve ever had.