Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Thanks for the good times South Africa; Botswana, it’s great to meet you!

Another day, another nation.  Ok, it doesn’t happen that fast, but I’m writing this from Gaborone, Botswana, my 5th African nation on the trip and one that will no doubt be a drastically different experience than anything I’ve done so far.  Why?  Mostly because I plan on riding across the entire country, a nearly empty desert, solo, on a single gear ‘african-style’ bicycle.  This ought to be interesting… But first I need to get you up to speed by wrapping up my time in South Africa and sharing my first week or so in Botswana, a country that has already deeply impressed me.

I’d returned to Ikhwezi Lokusa farm the previous night back in East London, but was only planning on a short visit: picking up a package shipped from home, saying goodbye to the place, and helping out Tim by driving his mom from East London right back to Port St Johns where I’d just come from.  Jandre and Luke were both out of town working, it was only Alex, a friend Zani and of course Xolile, Yoliswa Ntsika. 

Because of this, work was a little more laid back than when all of us could be plugging away on bigger projects and we decided it was a good time to go for a surf.  I’ve only been surfing about 4 times before with no actual instruction, but of course I loved it when I’d tried it before and was excited at the possibility to get a bit more in.  We checked out two or three different beaches around East London before settling on where to actually put in and after a prolonged struggle squeezing myself into a far-to-small wetsuit, paddled out into the surf.  How did it go?  Haha, not well.  I felt like I was bashing my head against a wall as I tried to paddle out past the break, which I never did get beyond.  I got put through the spin-cycle a few times, jammed a toe into the sand on a wipeout which quickly turned black and blue and swallowed saltwater a time or two.  Despite the frustrations and exhaustion, I did manage to briefly catch a few foamies and still had a good time. 

Cooking dinner by candlelight that night with Alex and Zani since the power had gone out for a bit. 

The package I was coming to pick up contained important things from home: my compact and lightweight Feathered Friends down sleeping bag, Thermarest and MSR Whisperlite camp stove.  I also bought a new cooking pot set and a few other critical items I would need to be totally self-sufficient on my upcoming bicycle trip.  The rest of my time back on the farm was spent ‘working’, writing my previous blog post, doing laundry, sorting through my things and lightening my load yet again (I say this as I just added all kinds of new camping gear, haha).

I only ended up spending two nights back on the farm before it was time to say goodbye for good.  Xolile, Yoliswa, Ntsika, Luke, Alex, Jandre, and the dozens of other people I met through the farm, thank you all for everything!  My time on the farm was an eye-opening experience in a number of ways.  The biggest was the realization that I really enjoy that lifestyle and might end up doing it back in the Seattle area when I come home, so I have all of you to thank/blame for that!  I can’t make any promises, but I’d really love to come back to the farm in a few years to see how it looks and how the whole project is going. 

That morning Alex and I drove to the bus station in town where I bought my tickets on the overnight bus from Umtata to Johannesburg and Johannesberg across the border to Gaborone, Botswana, and waited for Tim’s mother Ann to arrive.  Once she did, we set off on the 4-5 hour drive to Amapondo and Port St Johns.  I’d expected to be doing all the driving, but it turned out Dean, a guy who had worked at Amapondo before showed up with Ann and drove the whole way.  The drive was uneventful, but some of the towns were quite scenic in the fading daylight. 

Unlike the entire time I’d been at Amapondo earlier, round two brought clouds and rain.  I guess it is winter after all in Africa?  Not that it stopped me from doing much; I met a group of American Peace Corps volunteers and quickly made friends.  I’d been to the blowhole previously but they didn’t know the way so once again I found myself playing tour guide which when it’s not an actual job I kind of enjoy.  Despite the sideways rain and treacherous path, I led them up and down the ladders and paths to the blowhole while regaling them with all the horror stories I’d heard about the spot.

The path back to the backpackers passes Ben’s place.  Ben is another of the local legends and if I remember the story correctly (I probably don’t) he ran away from home at 6 years old to start an adventure, hitch hiking up the coast of South Africa and finding himself in Port St Johns.  He didn’t stay too long then, but about 30 years ago he returned and has been squatting in the forest on the coast in a series of wonderfully unique structures living a life straight out of a fairy-tale. 

The Peace Corps crew and I headed up to the airstrip to shoot some fireworks they’d bought for Independence Day but hadn’t used, but due to the rain we ended up just having a drink and returning to Amapondo.  That night was also the birthday of Maz, (Tim’s sister who helps run the place) so there was a big party planned and everyone was getting in the spirit, which yes, included face paint.

Dreadlocks and drinks, looks like Amapondo and looks like a good time!  (Left to right) Annie, Maz, Aiden and… I forget her name, sorry.  (Aiden looks a bit terrified there, but I promise he was having a good time as well).

Ann, Maz (and Tim’s) mother proving the party has no age limits. 

I think just about everyone used the next day to sleep in and recover, as the party went into the early hours of the morning but in the early afternoon the perfect event was setup for those of us ‘in the know’, a curry cookout up at the airstrip.  How many times have I been up here in the last two weeks??

The wind picked up and it became a bit cold, so once everyone had eaten everything was packed up and we headed back to sea level.  Some were not content to hang around Amapondo, so we set off for one of the truly local bars, the Green House Tavern, which is really just a shack with a pool table big speakers and a metal cage around the beer fridges.  From there we moved on to Mad Hatters (for some reason), another backpackers in the area and when that was boring everyone returned ‘home’ and had an early night.

The sun was back out this morning and the tides were especially high, refilling the lagoon below the lodge.  I’m not sure how long I sat watching the huge waves, but the ocean is an amazing force I never tire of observing.

Back up at Tim and Annie’s it was all about the slowly prepared meal.  A few of us got together to enjoy the views, cool, chat and have a truly relaxed afternoon, you know, after all that hard work we do out here!  Unfortunately this was going to be my last day with everyone in Port St Johns, but I was glad to be able to spend it with Tim, Annie, Kai, Eden, Ann, Mathew, Simon and Merica over a glass of wine and a good meal. 

In the morning it was officially time to say my goodbyes.  Tim and Annie, thank you both so much for the kindness and friendship you both showed me over our three (ish) weeks together.  I know both of our futures are a bit up in the air but I sincerely hope I am able to reconnect with you and your family in the not too distant future.   Port St Johns has been a major highlight of my time out here in Africa so far and I owe that entirely to you two for inviting me out in the first place! 

With goodbyes finished, I headed into town where I caught a local taxi from Port St Johns to Umtata.  It’s a cheap and easy form of transportation, but they don’t leave until they are full so you never really now when they will actually leave.  Combine that with the fact that they will stop to pick up or drop off people anywhere along the line, and you certainly don’t know when you will arrive either.  All you can do is plan ahead, leave plenty of time, prepare to wait, expect to have a tightly packed and bumpy ride and go with the flow.  Not a problem for me.

I caught a TransLux bus from the Shell Ultra City (basically a large gas station) and settled in for the overnight drive to Johannesburg.  The ride itself was totally uneventful and almost entirely in the dark, meaning I didn’t even get to enjoy any of the scenery along the way.  Oh well, to be honest I’m sure I didn’t miss much, but I always have this nagging feeling on overnight transport that I’ve missed out on some important transition between point a and point b.

The bus arrived in Joburg shortly after 7am and I had most of the day ahead of me to wait for my next bus.  I’d initially looked into getting a bus that would have arrived even earlier, 4:30am, but the man at the ticket counter advised against it as a potential safety issue.  So here I was with 8 hours to kill sitting in the bus station.  Yes, I could have stashed my bags and gone out into the city, but I didn’t.  As you probably know, I’m not one to worry very much and I frequently put myself out there when I travel but today I decided to play it safe.  Joburg is a notoriously crime ridden city, every story I’d heard from travellers having problems or being robbed took place here and I just didn’t want to be bothered.  I was only here to get to the next country over, Botswana, so I lazed around the station reading, playing on my computer and staring off into space.  Time passed very slowly.

As I was lining up for the bus from Joburg to Gaborone, I met a young German guy who had just arrived in Africa to visit his girlfriend.  We had a nice little chat, I tried to share some travel wisdom to this fresh arrival on the continent and then our conversation was cut short by having different seats on the bus.  Oh well. I was heading into the dry center of Africa and it showed. 

While it took about 7 hours to get between the two cities, way too much of that time was spent at the border between South Africa and Botswana.  I don’t know if it was an unusually busy time, but getting the visa stamp was chaos.  There were probably 100 people, all pushing for two windows in the immigration office.  There were no lines, no instructions, just every man for himself.  Luckily the process itself is very easy, fill out a 3x4 inch paper with a few questions, hand over your passport, and get a free stamp for 90 days.  Perfect, I wish every country was this easy….

So now I was in Botswana huh?  What was I doing here again?  Oh yah, I came because back in Tanzania I had a stupid idea, ride across Botswana on a single speed bicycle!  I’d read the three or four pages in my guide book about the country but beyond that was totally in the dark.  I did this on purpose really. 

I had a faint idea of what to expect in Botswana, but even arriving in the dark I was impressed: this was a clean, modern, organized city, words that don’t usually come to mind when you find yourself in major cities in this part of the world to be fair. 

I awoke from my room, at a place called ‘Cute Accommodation’ and bumbled around the room indecisively for a while.  A note on rooms in Gaborone, they are not cheap, nor was this place actually ‘cute’.  This was literally the cheapest room I was able to find, and it cost me 220 pula, about $28, for what consisted of two small beds with rainbow colour sheets and a TV that got one channel, in black and white… There was a shared kitchen that was messy despite not really having any other guests and a single shared toilet and shower that weren’t great either.  Not that I need luxury, you ought to know that about me already, but I was paying almost $30 for this??  Thing is, the first few days in a new country are always the most expensive until you start to get things figured out.  I begrudgingly accepted this fact of life and set out into the (clean and organized!) streets of Gaborone, or ‘Gabs’ as people tend to call it.

My first destination was the Main Mall, which is a pedestrian zone of shops, stalls and good people watching.  While most stalls were more modern, this seller preferred to stay old school, selling a selection of beans and even some fried insects (the red tub) which I had a taste of.  The verdict?  Not bad, just like a really dry and dusty potato chip, so not much good either…  Oh, they also seem to love hot dogs here which I find strange.  On Main Mall there are probably 6+ venders in the space of two or three blocks and not many other choices of what to eat unless you go into the (usually fried chicken) restaurants. 

At one end of the Main Mall sits what seems to be the entire government of Botswana.  This building, with its 70’s style water features, is the Botswana Parliament building.  Also look at the globe with Africa at the front rather than North America.  It’s one of those ‘well duh, you are in Africa’ things, but a nice little reminder to those of us in the western world that other perspectives exist and need to be accounted for. 

A quick note on Botswana and the government, which will give some important background to the country and specifically why Gabs is such a modern city. (From wiki) “Since independence, Botswana has had the highest average economic growth rate in the world, averaging about 9% per year from 1966 to 1999. Growth in private sector employment has averaged about 10% per annum over the first 30 years of independence.”  Combine that with the lowest rates of corruption in the whole of the African continent and the richest diamond mine on earth and a population of just two million people and you have an African nation that stands out from the rest.

Ah yes, Mr Alidi.  I was just wandering around Gabs, as I like to do in any city and a man came up to me chatting a mile a minute (that would be 1.609km a minute for my metric friends).  I meet these kinds of people all the time; part friendly local, part small time hustler, part weirdo but generally harmless and able to show you a few places you need to go as well as take you some places you would never have gone.  I told him about my proposed cycle trip and he gave me recommendations, led me to a bike shop and pointed out a few other things.  This photo is near the Parliament building, at a war memorial.

A kind of sketchy local bar he took me to, where we met his ‘cousins’.  I wanted to get home before dark, so after two beers I parted ways.  Hungry and looking to try a local favourite, I headed into…. KFC.  Yes, as I said earlier fried chicken is everywhere and KFC has a massive presence, though much more in South Africa than here in Botswana.  The meal was filling and good for a laugh, but not much else, maybe next time I’ll try a different brand, haha.

By this point I’d chatted up a few people about bicycle prices and gotten some numbers: 1,400 pula and 840 pula.  Hmm. I was tired of walking around and wanted the increased mobility to explore the city a bike would offer me, as well as itching to start prepping for my cycle trip across the country.  I began doing my usual thing, just asking people on the street for advice.  At a gas station I was told to check out a place called Trans, but after a long walk found they didn’t actually sell bikes.  They told me to check a place called Trade World and when I asked another local where that was; we ended up walking and talking together for about two hours, finding two more shops selling the bike for 830 and 800.  So, 800 pula later, ($103) I had the bicycle that was going to take me across Botswana and beyond!

Or so I thought.  After peddling for 30 seconds, the chain fell off and jammed between the frame and wheel.  Off to a good start… another friendly local (did I mention Botswana, or at least Gabs feels like the friendliest place I’ve ever been?) stopped to help and showed me how to fix the bike using the tension adjusters on the frame.  Turns out they just slapped this bike together so it looked good.  Nothing was tightened or adjusted property, this was going to take a little work.

So why this bike?  Well, a few reasons.  This is the style of bike I’ve seen throughout Africa.  They use these things like pickup trucks; hauling lumber, water, charcoal and anything else you can think of.  In Malawi, I sat on the back of one and they use them like taxis.  They are simple so there are few things to go wrong, you can find parts everywhere, and all it takes is a guy with a wrench sitting under a tree to repair them.  Also, I wanted a challenge, I want to do something different, it makes people smile (everyone tells me ‘Those are bikes for old men in the village, why not get a real bike?”) and honestly, I just think it’s funny.  Lots of people have cycled through Africa; I still haven’t met or heard of any doing it on a bike like this. 

Ah, food.  So there are many ways to eat when you travel: restaurants, cooking yourself or street food.  While the place I was still staying had a kitchen, I opted for street food.  Around the government district (and a few other places) you can get what they call ‘white box lunches’ which can consist of beans, rice, corn, veggies, chicken, or whatever.  For breakfast it’s just beans, but this costs you 5 pula, about 70 cents.  I think I paid 10 pula for this lunch pictured here, just try and cook a meal like it yourself and see how much money you spend.  The street venders are very clean and professional looking, far nicer than well, every other street food I’ve eaten in any other country actually.  Tastes pretty good as well.

I spent the rest of the day running errands.  One important stop was the US Embassy.  My passport was starting to run low on visa pages so I went to have more added.  I’d looked on the website, and if you are in the States this process means mailing your passport to DC or whatever and waiting four weeks!  I emailed the embassy in Gaborone, received a reply in under an hour, and when I visited, was the only person around.  About 45 minutes later (and the same $82 fee you pay in the USA for the service) I walked out with what I needed, they even apologized for taking so long. 

I decided to go for a bike ride and explore Gabs.  Everything was going great until about 15 minutes in my bike fell apart again.  This time it was a cotter pin that holds the crank together, meaning I couldn’t peddle.  Disappointed but still laughing about it, I walked my bike towards my room, again being stopped by two different locals telling me how to fix it and where to go when I saw a sign that caught my interest.  A while back, I saw photosonline by photographer Frank Marshall on a heavy metal scene in Botswana, where the fans dress up in black leather and cowboy gear.  I was intrigued but didn’t think I’d ever end up in Botswana.  Well, here I was, and there was a poster for a metal show!  I decided right then that I was going, and made a note of it to find more information.

I’d heard about Bull & Bush a few times already and took the 3.30pula combi ride out there.  It’s a big place, one of the most popular restaurant/bar/clubs in town, and has a good mix of locals, young people, expats and travellers.  Within 5 minutes I’d met a local guy and was introduced to an American and a European guy who works for DeBeers Diamonds and started buying me drinks.  As the night went on I met more people, including some South Africans who I agreed to join for a rugby game in a few days and Jeroen Swolfs, a Dutch photographer who is three years into a project called Streets of the World,where he is traveling to the capital cities of every nation on earth andshooting photos of street life.  Once again, meeting people like this is a big part of why I love to travel!

Saturday morning rolled around, and because I found out about a place called Beams Campsite where I could sleep in my tent for ‘only’ 80 pula the previous night (and happens to be right next to Bull & Bush), I packed my bag which has grown far too large at this point and pushed my broken bike across the city trying to find a repair shop I’d learned about the previous night as well.  After having a local guy tell me he knew where the shop was, picking up my bike, carrying it nearly all the way through the Rail Park Shopping Mall, getting kicked out by security and having to carry it all the way back, I found The Bike Shop on my own but it was closed. 

Originally I’d planned on just locking my bike to a tree with a note on it, but my better judgement took me to the police station to ask for help.  They happily agreed to let me leave my bike in their courtyard until Monday, near a pair of safes that looked like they had been forced open with explosives or something.  After sharing a few stories with the officers between frisking suspects who were also in the room and a few notes in their log book I was relieved to have a place to keep the bike, and headed off back into the city.

Back on the Main Mall I ran into Jeroen who was off to the bus rank to take the photo he was going to use to represent Botswana in his book and I decided to tag along.  He’d met some guys playing pool the day before (pool tables are everywhere in the streets out here, a common social gathering spot) and was returning this evening during the best light.  As we walked, a guy sniffing glue out of a plastic bag began following us to the table.  Addicts like this are pretty rare in Botswana (unlike some places) and while our new friends at the pool table tolerated his presence for a short while, he became more aggressive and they eventually forced him to leave.  Two white guys at the table obviously attracted a little unwanted attention, because shortly after that a very drunk man who they knew well started causing problems as well.  Initially he was friendly, Jeroen let him take a photo with his nice camera and I let him try on my sunglasses, but he too became aggressive and the guys had to physically restrain him before forcing him to leave.  To be fair, it sounds worse than it was.  we had great conversation with the guys and they were looking out for us the whole time, Jeroen got the shot he needed for his book, I had a great evening and that was that.  We ended up going to Bull & Bush again that night and after making more friends, being invited to 2 or 3 different countries and closing down the bar at 2am I retired to my tent to get some sleep.

Today was the day I’d finally see a rugby game.  After three months in South Africa I’d seen a few on TV and heard plenty of talk about it, so I hopped a combi and set off to the stadium.  If you are curious, the rope in the photo is attached to the sliding door, allowing the driver to shut the door from his seat.  Crafty!

The game was taking place at the University of Botswana’s stadium, so I saw a bit of campus on my way including one of the many new buildings that is currently under construction.  According to the numbers Botswana has slowed in the past few years but you certainly wouldn’t know from the number of cranes that fill the skyline.

I paid the 20 pula ticket price (which was good for all 3 or 4 games that day) and met Andrew (in the yellow hat) in the bleachers.  Andrew is a rugby coach, player and fanatic.  He was coming out to visit his girlfriend, and before he even arrived he’d looked up rugby clubs to play with, games to watch and seemed to know half the people on the field.  I got a bit of an education that day as a result, which certainly makes the game more interesting.

We watched two games, including the home team winning and then guess where everyone wanted to go after the game?  Yep, Bull & Bush, third night in a row!

That night I met a ton of other people in Gabs, including a few I’d seen on CouchSurfing, Tija, who grew up in Seattle, a great guy named Leo and a bunch of his friends. A lot of these are young people working for non-profits here, or volunteers or out in Africa on internships.  After an early night at B&B we headed back to Leos place to hang out a bit and he invited me to crash at his place the next night. 

Monday was another day spent running around the city doing errands.  I brought my bike from the police station to the bike shop for repairs and checked out shipping costs to send more things home.  Shipping from Botswana isn’t cheap…

I walked down Main Mall, knowing I’d run into at least one person I knew and sure enough I saw Tija sitting on a bench (in the white shirt).  I was also meeting Virginia that day (on the right), a Peace Corps volunteer who I was going to CouchSurf with and all of us ended up at Kwhest, a restaurant/bar for lunch. 

The CBD, or central business district.  This is a part of town that is nothing but brand new construction, much of it done by the Chinese.  Every building is done in this hyper modern style and while it looks fancy right now, in twenty years I think people are going to be kicking themselves… Anyway, this is the massive growth and development I was talking about earlier, and if no one told you, I’m sure you’d never guess this was Africa.

4th night in a row, Bull & Bush.  To be fair it’s a good place close to Leo’s place where I was spending the night, and I’d had excellent luck meeting and making friends here so why not?  Also the pizza actually is good, just like the travel guides say.

In the morning I met Virginia at the bus rank and we hopped a bus to Jwneng, about two hours away.  Not only was I excited to do some more CouchSurfing and get to meet two cool Peace Corps volunteers, I was very curious to get outside of Gaborone and see what the roads and villages looked like, as I was going to be spending a lot of time out there on my bike ride.

In Jwneng, Virginia and I met Britt (left), who bought an ‘egg suitcase’ at the grocery store since her village doesn’t have very good shopping and we grabbed another bus to her village of Khakhea. 

Jwneng, which means ‘A place of small stones’, is home to the Jwneng Open Pit mine, the richest diamond mine on earth.  Opened in 1982, the pit is currently 350 meters deep and produces 12-15 million carats of diamonds a year!  I’m trying to get a tour, but security is pretty tight as you can imagine…

Khakhea is a village of about 3,000 people but you wouldn’t know from looking at it.  ‘Downtown’ has two or three shops, a restaurant a bar and some wandering donkeys.  That’s about it.  I was actually surprised to see a restaurant, but I’m not sure it was actually open for business. 

Britt has been living in Khakhea for the last year or so through Peace Corps and spends most of her time at the youth center.  Here the kids are learning a dance to perform at an event they will be holding soon.

One of the current projects, something Virginia was coming out to help with since she had recently completed the same in her village, was to paint a map of the world on one of the buildings in the center.  We taped off the section where the map would be and started by painting the oceans.

Another project Britt organized at the center was planting some crops.  Yes, it’s as dry and barren as it looks, and the ‘soil’ is almost entirely red sand.  They mixed some cow dung into the areas that were planted, but I’m still not sure how anything is able to grow out here.

Botswana is known for its beautifully clear skies and Khakhea was no exception.

Morning visitors.

Botswana also has a strong democratic tradition and this was a local meeting of the chief and the village people to discuss issues of importance.  Britt got to announce that one of the people she has been working with in the village has been selected to visit the United States and introduced Virginia and I to everyone.

A while back I thought about Peace Corps, but decided against it because it was a two-year commitment and that was too much for me, I wanted total freedom and honestly have achieved it out here.  That said, visiting with Britt and Virginia did allow me to play Peace Corps volunteer for two or three days and I was able to learn a lot about how it all works, what it looks like in the real world and a bit about how both the locals and the volunteers feel about the whole program.  Very educational. 

Few people in Khakhea own cars, and besides walking donkey carts are the most common transportation and hauling method. 

Britt’s house, a three room box with no running water and an outside pit toilet is actually a very nice place.  It is well furnished thanks to the government of Botswana, has a kitchen with a stove, oven and fridge, a good size bedroom and a good size living room area.  Unlike many volunteers, it is close to the youth center where she works and thus can go home for lunch or anything else.  I made a delicious grilled cheese sandwich with an egg inside.

After eating we headed back to the center and got the kids started on drawing the map.

Britt leading kids in a game.

Rather than join at the youth center as I’d done the previous days, I decided to wander the town by myself.  I’d be doing a lot of this in the coming months so time to jump right in. 

As usual, my wanderings paid off and I met Moses, a local farmer.  He immediately said he wanted to show me his fathers’ cattle and their borehole (well for pumping water), I didn’t even have to ask. 

The borehole, 50 meters deep and able to run year around.  Water is a major issue in Botswana, being a landlocked country of mostly desert and semi-desert.  The blue of the Botswana flag actually symbolizes the motto ‘let there be rain.’  In the background of the photo you can also see the Khakhea salt pan, a long dried up lake and another symbol of the water issues this country faces.

Because I was trying to get back to Gaborone for the heavy metal concert, the next morning it was my time to leave Khakhea.  I caught the bus on the side of the road and had to stand up nearly the entire way because it was so full. 

Britt, thank you so much for letting me stay at your place, it was great to meet you, to see what you are doing in your village and to get an idea of what is ahead of me as I travel through this country.  Virginia thanks for making the introduction and bringing me along.  You’re both awesome and both welcome to visit me in Seattle any time!

Oh look, fried chicken and French fries, typical Botswana food!

That evening I met up with Leo and his friends again.  We started out at the nearby football club for food, stopped by two other friends’ places and sat by fires outside enjoying the cool evening and the conversation.  Thanks again Leo for letting me sleep at your place!

Well, that’s it for now.  Next up?  Right now I’m staying with Paul, another CouchSurf host from London and having a great time.  I’ve already been to a biltong festival (basically beef jerky, it’s huge in South Africa), the heavy metal show I mentioned above, a tiny farmers market and tonight we are going to the theatre!  I’m still prepping for the bike trip, but right now I’m enjoying the wifi and HDTV at Pauls place watching the Olympic games, haha. 

Stay tuned, I’ve always got something interesting coming up!