Thursday, August 16, 2012

Good Times in Gaborone, Botswana

Well I am still in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana and other than the few days I spent with Virginia and Britt in the town of Khakhea (thanks again!), I have been in Gaborone for basically a month now.  This was never the plan and I certainly didn’t expect this to happen but, A) preparing/gearing up always takes longer than expected, B) I’ve met tons of cool people here, C) what is a ‘plan’ anyway and why do I need one? D) I’m having too much fun to care it’s been a month.   So with that out of the way, here is what I’ve been up to:

Through, I met Paul.  (By the way, CouchSurfing is the greatest thing ever invented for travellers.)  Paul is from London but is here in Gaborone for a year on work.  I tied up my bags onto my bike and began riding to Paul’s place which was fairly close.  This was the first time I’d ridden my bike, or any bike for that matter loaded, and while I was a little concerned when I first felt it, as soon as I started moving it was easy enough.  Then disaster.  About 5 minutes in, the cotter pin holding the crankset came out.  Without a hammer I was unable to fix it, and pushed my bike the rest of the way to Pauls’ (very nice) townhouse complex where I met him and moved in.  Thanks Paul, you are an awesome host!

(left to right: Paul, Philipp, Ally and Stuart)

After moving my (once again) broken bicycle into the garage and my bags into a nice room with a queen-size bed (it’s a 3-bedroom 4-bathroom place he has to himself), Paul asked me if I wanted to join him and some friends to the ‘2012 Biltong & Pot Festival.”  Naturally I said yes and off we went.  Basically biltong is beef jerky and pot refers to the style of cast iron pots used to cook stews over fires. 

Both of these are generally South African things, so the audience was in large part South Africans and/or Afrikaners who live in Gabs (Gaborone) hanging around earing copious amounts of meat and buying in bulk to bring home.  Not that I was complaining, it was delicious! 

That evening was the heavy metal show I had been planning to see.  Some time ago on, I saw photos from FrankMarshall on Botswana’s ‘Heavy metal cowboy scene.’ At the time I thought to myself “huh, that’s interesting’ but nothing more.  Then I found myself in Botswana, and then I happened to see a hand painted sign on a fence for just such a show!  The show was at a bar called Eros Bar in Tlokweng, and the bands preforming were Skinflint, Remuda and Amok.

I arrived fairly early with Ally (again, the guy on the right), who used to listen to Botswana metal up in Maun where he is from and where much of the scene started.  There were only a handful of people there, so I sat down and started chatting to a few of them.  He was humble about it and only casually mentioned it, but here I was, with Frank, the guy who took those original photos I’d seen which got the Botswana metal culture worldwide coverage (it was also on CNN) and his awesome sister Rachelle!  It was awesome to chat with them, as they knew a lot about the metal culture here and knew tons of the guys in the scene. 

Now I’m not really even a metal fan, but I love live music, meeting real people when I travel, and interesting subcultures, so this was awesome for me.  It’s funny actually, because when I was traveling in India, I found myself at an underground metal show as well! 

Let’s be honest, metal music is a mostly white culture.  Because of this finding a thriving metal scene in Botswana of all places, is pretty unique.  But the other thing that makes this scene truly unique is fairly obvious in this photo: the way they dress.  Black leather, chrome spikes, cowboy hats, chains, skulls, ammo belts, these guys take style in a whole new direction and do it with passion and dedication.  I love it.  I posted photos from this event on Reddit.coms /travel and /metal sections, and within two days my photo album had over a quarter million views!  During the discussion of the event, someone asked me “How did it feel to be the least metal and most Fabio guy there?”  My response was that it felt fine!  Everyone was extremely friendly to me, wanted to have their photo taken, wanted me to help publicize the scene, wanted to talk and wanted to buy me drinks.  They look tough, but man they are some of the nicest people I’ve met.

The fans were certainly wild.  These guys in particular were fond of spraying beer on themselves and on each other. 

I’m not sure where you buy black leather and cowboy hats in Botswana (and apparently they try to keep their sources a secret), but containers of this stuff winds up in Botswana because of this scene and I’m told you can buy good used leather jackets for as little as $25! 

One of the scenes elder statesmen.  A more reserved style, but still full on cowboy and full on America!

Skinlint, the headlining band of the show rocking out.  So how was it?  Fantastic.  As I said, the people were friendly, the music was good, the energy of the crowd was out of this world and man I never thought I’d be able to say I wound up at a metal show in Botswana.  Thanks to everyone there, and when I come to Maun in the north, I’ll certainly come to another show!

So the next day, this was pretty much the polar opposite of an African heavy metal show, a mostly expat farmers market!  We drank cappuccinos, admired the organic produce and local crafts and did a wine tasting.  This didn’t feel like Africa at all, but certainly interesting to see out here in Gabs. 

That night back at Pauls’ place, we had a nice BBQ dinner, then relaxed on the couches and watched the Olympics on TV.  I never thought I’d wind up in a nice house, enjoying wifi and 4 channels of Olympics in HD here in Botswana, but here I was and it was exactly what I wanted.

The next day it was time to get a few things done: laundry, work on my bike, emails, etc.  That said, I figured someone had to use the pool.  Paul has lived here 4 months and never been in the pool, and I doubt many other people ever have either.  It may be 80 degrees and clear sunny skies, but it’s “winter” here, so everyone things it’s actually cold.  I decided since the pool looked lonely, and since I had a perfect view from the balcony in my room (yes, I have my own balcony at Pauls place) I had to jump in at least once and get a photo to prove it was used.  I guess I got lucky, because I got this one first try using the self-timer.  Not bad eh?

That night Paul, Philipp and I went to the theatre to see a performance of Blue, Black & White, a one-man show (with Mophato Dance Theater group supporting in the background) about Seretse Khama, the first president of Botswana.  It is a very interesting story about Khama marrying a white woman in the UK, the design of the flag and Botswana gaining independence in 1966. 

Wow, is it really the first of August?  I guess so, but I stopped paying attention to the calendar when I left the USA.  The only dates that matter to me are when my visas for a country expire or when I have a flight.  I’ve said it before, but this is exactly the near absolute freedom I was seeking when I headed out to Africa in December.

So my bike, I took it back to The Bike Shop to fix the crankset.  A very easy fix, but I didn’t have a hammer and they did it for free.  (I highly recommend this shop by the way).  At this point I was starting to get pretty fed up with this bike… I brought it to Gaborone Garage and Cycles to get some spare parts, and they wanted to fix the crooked handlebars.  The Bike Shop had looked at it but decided not to fix it because if it was removed, it would not go back together without a lot of new parts due to the shop I bought it at, Duka City (NOT recommended) building the bike improperly.  They put the wrong size parts together, and then smashed it into place with a hammer so it would stay.  Gaborone Garage and Cycles thought they could fix it easily and soon my bike was in pieces and would not go back together. Ugh.  They said they could fix it, but couldn’t give me any estimate, but said they would call me before doing the work. (they didn’t, more on this later).

With my bike in pieces AGAIN, I walked down the street past one of the areas where women get their hair done.  Certain parts of the streets are just like this, filled with women (and yes, it 100% women) sitting in plastic lawn chairs getting their hair done by other women.  Hot tip: most of the women in Gabs have fake hair.  I asked, and was told it costs 100-200 pula (about $13-$26) to have the fake hair braided in, and women often have it done twice a week.

A few meters past this, I was about to cross the street when one woman got my attention and said she would do my hair for free!  To be honest, I’m shocked it took 7 months for this to happen, but obviously I said yes and sat down in the plastic chair in the dust on the side of the road.

Wow, I didn’t realize my hair was getting this long… The whole process took about 45 minutes and I certainly became an item of curiosity to the locals during that period but it was great fun.  It involved a lot of pulling and was somewhat uncomfortable at times, but not too bad really.  I chatted with the one doing my hair, as well as the other women around me and found a number of them are from Zimbabwe, which seems to be fairly common around here actually. 

It was another night at Bull & Bush, meeting Paul (London), Leo and Lekgotla (Botswana) Jess (Canada) and more for dinner and drinks.  Everyone got a kick out of my new hair.

Most days I’m riding around town taking care of errands and this day was no exception.  I woke up with a problem, which was my braids were starting to come undone already.  I guess being a white guy with only wavy hair meant the braids didn’t stay in as well as they do on the local women.  I thought about how to fix this and came up with a brilliant idea: I’d seen an orthodontist a few days before, and having had braces in the past knew they had tiny rubber bands.  I figured these would be perfect for putting on the ends of the braids to keep them together and headed to the office.  It took some coaxing, but knowing how seriously women take their hair and explaining why I needed them, they said yes.  Once they gave me a pack however, I was told get out before they got in trouble! 

After visiting my other Zimbabwean friends at their pool table at the bus rank, I headed back to Main Mall to pick up some mending I had done.  First item was a pair of boardshorts I had the zipper replaced on (one of my most worn pieces of clothing actually) and a long sleeve shirt.  It only cost 45 pula (~$6) and while I love being able to fix things that in the States would be tossed, to be honest she didn't do a great job…

I returned to the ‘road side hair salon’ to get the once piece of hair that was coming undone fixed, and while I thought they would be impressed by my ingenuity with the tiny rubber bands I’d acquired, instead they decided it would be better to just redo the entire thing, only FAR tighter.  Chatting with the women as before, I mentioned how tight it was, and how it hurts to lay down on a pillow at night on freshly done braids.  All the women got a good laugh out of this as we were obviously sharing a common experience, told me to take some pain killers or drink before bed, and I felt like I’d been initiated into a secret club. 

The next morning Paul and I headed off to Mokolodi Nature Reserve, a small game park just outside of the city.  The idea was that we were searching for snares set by poachers who were trapping, killing and selling animals caught in the park for meat.  We met in the morning and set off in the safari trucks to a fence on the far end of the park.

We walked through the bush paralleling the fence where they had problems in the past, but within 45 minutes we were back at the truck and at the end of our search.  Maybe I’m just more used to hard work and crashing through the brush, but I couldn’t help but feel like we’d really done nothing.

I didn’t know what to expect from a park right outside a city, but I was plesently surprised.  Although we pretty much just blasted through the park without even slowing down, I still saw (very briefly) giraffes, zebras, warthog, ostrich, springbok, kudu and a few others.

On Sunday I was supposed to join some Americans I’d met on a little rock climbing journey but it was called off at the last minute.  Once again, I intended to hike up Kgale Hill, but once again decided against it because I was alone, I didn’t see any other people around and I’d been warned about robbers in the area.  Instead, I wandered back home, stopping at Rail Park Mall to watch a dance group preforming for a few minutes.

Thanks to a combination of having plenty of time on my hands, good HDTV service, and Pauls interest in the Olympics as well (being from London and all) I think I’ve watched more Olympics this year than any other year ever.  Not that I’m complaining, it’s been great!

So I’d intended to ride across Botswana on a classic Humber bicycle, but the knockoff I’d bought had been one disaster after another.  I intended to replace it with the original Humber, which I didn’t realize was available when I bought the one I did and is far better quality, but that was going to be 1450 pula, about $188.  This was my plan until returned to The Bike Shop, and realized I could get one of these built by Specalized, Globe Live 1 bikes.  It is still a simple, single speed bike with classic styling, but it is also a modern bike built to US requirements and due to a special deal The Bike Shop had, I could get it for less than the old fashion Humber, only 950 pula ($123)!  .  To be honest I was a little sad that I’d be losing some of the magic of riding an original Humber through Africa, but not only was it a modern bike I had a lot more faith in, it too good a deal to pass up this time and I was upset at the other bike shop (Gaborone Garage and Cycles) and didn’t want to give them any more of my business. 

It’s not exactly designed to be a touring bike either, but it feels great, the integrated front rack is awesome, and I really like it already.  All I did was add some bigger tires (which meant removing the fenders as they no longer fit) and put a rack on the back for my gear.  Now it’s time to get rid of the other bike…

While at The Bike Shop, I met Michael (left), an exchange student from Austria.  I was already planning on going to Bull & Bush (yes, again) to meet Liz (right) from Canada, who I’d met on Main Mall a while back, and invited him to join us for dinner.  After riding together towards our respective homes in the dark, Michael and I decided we ought to ride together again, and made a plan for a ride later in the week.

Without going into too many details (because I’m over it) Gaborone Garage and Cycles charged me 520 pula to repair an 800 bike, without asking me if I even wanted the work done.  They didn’t even manage to fix it properly, in fact, it was worse than before, and this resulted in a shouting match with the owner.  Not proud of it, but both of us were clearly in a bad mood at that moment and it happened.  I wanted a full refund and was going to take my bike, in pieces to the shop I bought it at (who ruined it from the start when they built it incorrectly), but it didn’t work out that way.  They did end up fixing it, and I took it back to the shop I bought it from and demanded a refund.  At this point I’d paid about 600 pula to fix a brand new bike that cost 800 pula and I wanted this piece of crap bike out of my life.  This bike and all the problems it had caused me has been the biggest frustration of my whole trip basically and I was done.  After much haggling, I got the shop to take the bike back (at another big loss to me) and it was finally over.  Take a deep breath, let go, move on.

That night, I joined Paul and Philipp for dinner at the convention center.  The rib special was quite good, and helped put me in a better mood after a difficult day.

I awoke early (7am is early for me these days!) and at 8, met Michael on Main Mall to go on a little bike journey.  He’d bought his mountain bike the same day I’d bought my Globe 1, so we were both looking forward to putting them through their paces.

We had no planed route, so I pointed a direction and we set off not knowing where it would lead us.  Hot, flat, dry, mostly empty.  This is Botswana, and while it sounds boring and needlessly difficult to most, it is actually what I came to this country for! 

A while in, we realized we were headed towards the Tlokweng border post with South Africa, where I’d first crossed into Botswana from SA.  No problem, let’s go the border just for kicks and turn back!  To have something to do there, we decided to find some coffee, but there were no shops.  We ended up having coffee with a bored office worker who was clearly happy to have someone to talk to, and we had a great time chatting with him as well.  (no, he’s not in jail, that’s just security bars the office to keep the public from the office workers in case of any trouble).

On the way back, Michael and I had a snack under a tree, and that is where I had to remove the fenders on my bike due to the addition of the larger tires.  The bike ride was only a few easy hours, but it was great fun seeing some different areas at a different pace, giving the bike a bit of a test and hanging out with a new traveller friend.

I’m even getting tired of typing Bull & Bush, I’ve been there so many times!  But there is a specific reason we came here tonight.  Once again, I was hanging out with Paul and Philipp and we met at Riverwalk Mall to see the new Batman movie, something I was quite excited about being able to do.  About an hour into the movie, blackouts hit the mall and surrounding area, so, no more movie.  This is supposed to be ‘the premier shopping destination of Gaborone,’ but not only do the lack a generator, they even lack any sort of emergency lighting in the theatre in the event of power failure!  The few people at the movie stumbled out via light from their cell phones, and using a small batter powered light, the staff stamped our tickets to allow us to return another night.

So that is why we were at Bull & Bush again.  But because of that little power mishap, we got to see a great sports moment, Botswana’s Nijel Amos witting the countries first every Olympic medal, a silver in the 800m! 

Another rather dull day riding around town running errands.  This time my big mission was to find tie-down straps, which I will be using for attaching my bags and water to my bicycle.  I probably went to 6 different shops to find a simple item that if I were home I would know exactly where to find it, but that’s part of the fun out here, haha.

That evening, I met Michael on the University of Botswana campus.  The school, just like the whole city really, is quite new and generally seems quite well done.  I was impressed to see the huge swimming pool and diving platforms, and the dorms had nice courtyards with covered areas.  As I continued on, I passed through an area where seemingly hundreds of students were hanging out in the street and parking lot drinking, playing music from their cars and generally partying. Obviously colleges in the US party as well, but I was a little surprised to see it going so strongly out here, right in the street.  Also, people here like to break glass bottles, shards of glass were everywhere and I had to carefully weave my bike through it all to avoid punctures.  That said, as soon as you were away from this ‘party epicentre’ the entire rest of the large campus seemed very clean and quiet.  It all seemed very familiar really, very much in tune with any college in the States. 

I met Michael and soon was in the dorms hanging out with a number of other exchange students drinking beer and playing guitar.  Yep, school is the same everywhere on earth!  One person from the group, Zoe was actually from the Tacoma area so I got to chat about some northwest things for a bit.  It was a pretty low key night that included some interesting discussions with other students and it really brought me back to my days on campus in college.

It wasn’t easy to find information about it, but Gaborone having a ‘25th Anniversary Silver Jubilee celebration’ and eventually we made our way to the UB stadium (where I’d watched the rugby games a two weeks back) to enjoy the show.  The bleachers were packed so we had to stand which made for particularly poor viewing, especially given the chainlink fence and barbwire in our line of sight. 

When we arrived there was a comedy troupe preforming, then some traditional music and dancing.  The show took a break for lunch, and we decided it was time to move on. 

This day also had another big event, a big rap show at the GSS grounds, which is basically a big patch of dirt by the Main Mall.  When I’d arrived earlier in the day with Paul and Philipp, there was a performer on stage, but about two people in front watching.  The grounds were mostly empty, except for a handful of people hiding from the sun under the sparse trees out the edges of the field.  By 5pm it was a totally different story.

Hundreds of young people mingled around the field chatting, drinking, cooking over BBQs, dancing and enjoying the show. 

At one point, one or two cars decided to rev their engines and then do doughnuts in the field, which both kicked up huge amounts of dust and really got the crowds riled up.  I enjoyed it as well.

As usual, I stand out a little bit, and as usual the locals are happy to smile and chat with me.  These guys were passing cups around and trying to teach me some of their dance moves.  I’m not sure how well I did them, but I tried my best at least and we all got a good laugh out of it.

I’m don’t actually know the names of any of the performers, but I had a good time at the show and was glad I went.  It was quite a scene, and between this and the metal show I attended earlier, I was doing my best to get my live music fix, something I’ve been missing on my travels so far. 

That said, this show was here I had my first ever problem with theft.  While I was standing in the crowd watching the show and taking photos, someone opened the top of my backpack and stole my sunglasses.  This is actually the first time I’ve ever had something stolen from me during my travels, but it is still upsetting.  This is the kind of thing that can happen anywhere really, and I should have been more careful, but now whenever someone asks me about problems with theft/safety when traveling in Africa, I can no longer say I’ve been lucky to be trouble free.  So congratulations, you got some horribly scratched sunglasses and made your country look bad, nice work…

Just like the metal show to the farmers market, this was another big change, rap show to bike race!  Earlier in the week when I was at The Bike Shop I was told about the first ever Cyclo Grand Prix race happening at Airport Junction mall.  It sounded cool, and they had a Humber/single speed race division so I decided I had to come!

There were many divisions, open (the most serious of the races), mountain bike, kids, Humber and teams.  The course was about 500m long, winding around the parking lot of the mall and had some pretty tight turns that caused a number of wipeouts I saw.  Made for exciting racing for sure!

Not just a bike race, it was also an exhibition to promote bike culture in Botswana.  Part of doing this was having a trials bike rider from South Africa come and preform.  He did all kinds of jumps, and balance tricks, hopping between the boxes and the van as well as over spectators laying on the ground. 

There was a tent full of spinning bikes, a group of motorcyclists who rode around the track, a Ferrari acting as a pace car, a big pit area, bridge to get over the course, it was all pretty cool to see happening in Botswana.  Not only that, but the entire event was put thought up and organized in one month.  Nice work guys.

So my race.  The Humber division was actually pretty large, around 30 people.  Many were on the same Globe bike I had, and many were on the proper old Humber.  In the future these need to be two different divisions because the modern bikes dominated, but to be fair I was beat by more than one guy on the old Humber.  There were two heats of four laps and top ten moved into the finals.  It was basically a sprint race.  I had no trouble staying in the top ten, so it was up to the final race.  Obviously I was just here for laughs; I haven’t spent significant time on a bicycle in years and am generally out of shape from traveling but I still did my best in the race.  Somehow of all the races, this was the only one with price money, 2000 pula for first place!  This gave plenty of motivation to everyone and naturally I didn’t stand a chance against proper cyclists! 

This crane company was one of the sponsors of the event and from the hook was the random drawing price, a 15,000 pula road bike, about $2,000!  They were drawing names, and said “This persons initials are S…B….” and for a second I thought I really might be the winner, until they said it was Sean Brewer or something, what are the odds?  All in all, the first ever Cyclo Grand Prix race was a fantastic event and I’m sure next year it will be even bigger and even better.

That night, Ally and Philipp came over and Paul and Philipp cooked a lovely dinner.  Thanks guys. 

So the usual question, what’s next?  Well, the obvious thing is my cycle trip across the country.  I’m finalizing my gear right now, which included having my small backpacking tent shipped here from all the way from home and trying to make sure I’m prepared to camp in the bush.  From the gear side I’m finally getting close, but there may be a new and exciting twist to the bike trip as a result of someone I met at the races.  That said, it’s still in the idea phase so I don’t want to revel it yet, sorry, haha.  I’ll probably end up in Gabs for another week or two and by then I really hope to set off on my ride north.  I’m a month into my three month visa, and I want to start sooner rather than later, as I don’t want to be in a hurry for this ride. 

Well, that’s it for now, until next time everyone.