Barriga Breaking in Botswana: Not for the Faint-Hearted

When I last left you, we had taken an introductory look at the Barriga Break.  My cheeky sister, a co-founder of the Barriga Break, commented on that post, “Sometimes I think my life is nothing but one long Barriga Break interrupted by occasional bouts of hurtling.”  I say to her now: you ain’t seen nothin’, honey, until you’ve spent 2 months in Botswana.

When we arrived in Botswana on January 20, our landlords Audrey and Dennis met us at the airport, and KC and I both distinctly recall Audrey saying (‘though she does not remember it), “You can relax now; you’re in Botswana.”  And so it began…

A little background: we adjusted our travel plans once KC began researching the options for buying a car to get around Africa.  Botswana has a nice little reputation as a good place to buy used Japanese cars because, unlike South Africa, it doesn’t have strict protectionist laws prohibiting the import of second-hand cars; in fact, it welcomes them (although the dealers do refuse to work on anything but new cars bought from them, which seems to me to be cutting off your nose to spite your face, but hey… whatever).  So we added a 1-hour flight from Johannesburg and flew to Gaborone, the capital of Botswana.

Park near our house with kombi stop in background

Park near our house with kombi stop in background

We are living in the suburbs, and the closest grocery store is 5 km away, or two hours of walking roundtrip with only the groceries we can carry in our daypacks.  After our first trip on foot, priority #1 was quickly established: we need bicycles!  Which meant we needed to figure out the public transportation in order to get ourselves to a bike shop.  (We took taxis a few times, too, and after our Cairo cab experiences, were relieved to find not a single cab driver charged us more than 30 pula ($3.64) to get anywhere in the city.)  Audrey’s knowledge of the kombis (mini-vans which run a fixed route and leave their starting point when the van is full) was only theoretical, having never ridden them herself, so we traipsed off to the nearest kombi stop and asked a fellow would-be passenger how to get downtown (oh, the joy of being able to speak the language!). First she pointed out the proper kombi, then she insisted that we take it when it arrived and was too full for all of us.  We can take these kombis anywhere they travel, including to other towns, for 3.50 pula (42¢) each.

While part of our Barriga Break included the drama of buying used bicycles and waiting for them to be cleaned up and ready for pickup, I’ll spare you my near-meltdown on the day I walked in after waiting a week to find another man wheeling my bicycle to his car (they’d inadvertently sold the same bike to both of us). I eventually became a proud owner of a mountain bike and KC fulfilled a longtime wish of owning a fixed wheel.  Gaborone, while having plenty of typical drivers who simply do not see bicycles, is in general a pleasant city for bicycling with bike/pedestrian paths along all major streets, and drivers who are almost as courteous as those in Portland, OR.  Now that’s sayin’ something.

An unpaved biking and jogging/walking trail near our house

An unpaved biking and jogging/walking trail near our house

Paved bike path along busy street in Gaborone

Paved bike path along busy street in Gaborone

Once enthroned on our new wheels, KC began the serious quest for a car.  I confess I stayed home; having done this with him in the United States, I knew better than to tag along in the height of the African summer so I could stand around in the blazing sun while he crawls around under cars, looking for whatever it is he looks for under there.  Between KC’s trips to the used car lots, we continued the Advanced Barriga Break, Botswana-style.  A few examples of how we’ve spent our time over the past two months:

The bikes give us freedom to toodle around and explore the city, mostly running errands or going to an afternoon movie.

We study up on things like “how to winch your 4×4 out of deep sand” and “how to identify the venemous snakes of Botswana.” Just in case, you know… We’ve already met a woman whose dog was attacked by a puff adder (and survived thanks to a quick vet).

The dance floor at Mountain Valley on Sunday's jazz nights.

The dance floor at Mountain Valley on Sunday’s jazz nights

Audrey and Dennis invited us to Mountain Valley, a McMenamin’s-esque place in Audrey’s “home village” (where one’s family hails from and usually keeps a small farm or livestock) that sells cold drinks, “pap” (maize meal, a traditional staple of the diet here), and marinated (raw) Botswana beef (undoubtedly some of the best we’ve ever eaten), which you toss on a do-it-yourself braii (BBQ).  On Sunday afternoons they play jazz…  we love it there and will make our 3rd trip tomorrow evening.

We go to the mall.  Daily.  If you know us at all, you know how strange this felt to us, but all the grocery stores are attached to malls, and there are 26 malls in Gaborone (did I mention the population is 230,000???).  One English expat living here for the past 20 years told us that there wasn’t a single shopping center prior to 2002, and then 26 popped up over a 10-year period.  It’s a little crazy, actually.

KC waiting in the ATM line at GameCity Mall near our house.  Note the crazy "personal space" in the queue; they always stand at least 15 feet back!

KC waiting in the ATM line at GameCity Mall near our house. Note the extreme “personal space” in the queue; they always stand at least 15 feet back!

In short, we’ve laid low and absorbed the city and the energy of the people around us.  It’s a mellow city and people are friendly.  The concept of “botho” reminds me of mahalo in Hawaii: for instance, it’s considered rude to not greet someone you pass on the street (we can see this changing in the younger generation, but when greeted, they still always respond with a genuine “dumela, mma!” (hello, ma’am!)).  Or like the generous woman at the kombi stop, when we asked a neighbor one day for directions to a small convenience store we’d heard of and she walked with us until she could point out the entrance.

Car wash in our block

Car wash in our block

Summit of Kgale Hill, Gaborone

Summit of Kgale Hill, Gaborone

My first pedicure, compliments of lovely Linda, who I met at a local charity beauty pageant.

My first pedicure, compliments of lovely Linda, who I met at a local charity beauty pageant

Goats on our street

Goats on our street

We’ve observed that much of business is conducted like Mma Ramotswe in her A-1 Ladies Detective Agency*: when we stopped by an insurance agent’s office, we spent 45 minutes visiting with her while she called around to various businesses and checked in with her next-door neighbor to find us the best deal on a car alarm.    In another example, prior to arriving, KC sent an inquiry to the “information” email address on the government’s Transport Department website.  Not only did he get an immediate response saying, “yes, of course tourists can buy a car in Botswana, and here’s how to do it,” it also came with an invitation to visit the gentleman’s home village and an offer to pick us up at the airport.  The only thing missing is the Turkish tea tradition.

Ingenius "tuk shops" are everywhere and you can buy anything from passport photos (with printers running off car batteries) to airtime for your cell phone

Ingenius “tuk shops” are everywhere and you can buy anything from passport photos (with printers running off car batteries) to airtime for your cell phone

There are good reasons for this feeling of requiescence.  Botswana is a relatively wealthy country with huge diamond reserves and a government that partners with DeBeers to manage them, splitting the profits.  From 1885-1966 it was British “protectorate” with local tribal leaders governing the territory, meaning it’s never suffered the abuses of colonization or apartheid as have so many of its neighbors.  It’s called by some expats “Africa 101” because it’s such an easy country for people from developed countries to adapt to.  And its corruption scoring by easily bests surrounding countries by factors of 1.5 – 3.3.**

And yet, as pleasant as it has been in many ways, two months of relaxing in the suburbs has gotten a bit old.  We’re feeling a little stir-crazy and anxious to escape this extended Barriga Break.  Just in time, too: KC has found the perfect little Toyota Hilux and we’ll soon be off to explore Botswana and the Kalahari Desert!

*For fans of the A-1 Ladies Detective series, we live very near the film set and I’ve been to Zebra Drive!
** Not all is roses in Botswana.  Despite its high per capita income, the country does not have a corresponding high ranking on the UN’s Human Development Index (see a brief analysis here at a sociologist friend’s blog).  Although the government is receiving acclaim for responding to the AIDS epidemic with free drugs, Botswana still has the 2nd highest AIDS rate anywhere with 25% of adults infected by the virus.  And the otherwise progressive government has an appalling human rights record when it comes to the indigenous SAN population.  I am reading a book on this topic and hope to delve into this further in a later post.


  1. Re: GameCity mall ATM photo: So which one is KC?


    1. I can’t stop laughing about this comment! Especially since his white ankles, which match the shoes of the guy in front, have been the subject of much angst since we arrived. They’re not getting any less white… The ultimate Oregon tan.

  2. If I had never met you guys I would never be siting here reading a blog post about Botswana and I’d be missing out on so much! Thanks!

    1. Sitting outside tonight at our bi-weekly excursion to Mountain Valley, we looked up and a tremendous fireball streaked across the sky. I’ve never seen anything like it and got a tad worked up, but our local friends shrugged and said, “It’s a shooting star; welcome to Africa.” I feel really lucky to be here, and I’m glad you “get” it.

  3. This Botswana blog was so interesting. Really gives a good overview of life there. I wish we had the concept of Botho here in the States as an accepted and expected manner of living with others-especially in New Mexico, where civility in many instance is lacking . Interesting, however, that Botho is not practiced now toward the indigenous people. Doesn’t that sound familiar!!

    Nice car!


    1. Yes, the treatment of the San people by the government and in terms of general racism is some of the worst I know of and compares to our worst history back in the 1800s with Native Americans. So it’s even more disturbing that it’s still going on today (will we never learn?!). Last year they won some crucial rights in the highest court to access ancestral lands so there is finally some progress. I wish you were here; we could go see their rock art!

      1. San rock art! I would love to see it, but so far away….

  4. Great post cuz! A few comments/questions:

    1) Isn’t it amazing how popular malls are in other countries? Granted, they’re popular in the US as well, but they take it to a whole new level in other countries! The most crowded I’ve ever seen a shopping mall was in Lima, Peru. On a Sunday. Around 7 pm. It was just a regular Sunday, nothing special and yet there were more people than what you’d see in a US mall during Christmas.

    2) I assume, if you’re riding your bikes to the movie theatre, there’s not much of a theft risk? That’s definitely a problem here in Bogota….there are hundreds of miles of bike lanes but there’s too much of a theft risk to use them for anything other than a leisurely ride. No one would use a bike to commute somewhere and leave it locked up outside.

    3) Yeah for other foreigners who take public transportation! Seems like all the other foreigners I’ve met while living abroad rely exclusively on taxis for transport. But I’m a Feicht through and through and public transport is generally 1/2 to 1/5 the cost of a taxi.

    1. Thanks for the good comments, Ed. I confess I tried to copy your style of blogging when I wrote this… you write the best observations on daily life of all the bloggers I have followed. To your comments:
      (1) This is the first “mall” experience I’ve had, really. So far we’ve been in the heart of the big cities where there’s not really space to jam a mall. I seem to recall you’ve had some funny shopping experiences (underwear?!?!) in malls in South America and southeastern Asia.

      (2) We’ve learned that theft in Gaborone is typically that of “opportunity.” For example, we went to the grocery store last week and locked our bikes around a tree with our chain/padlock. When we came out the security guard was standing by them and pointed out that we’d missed the tree and had only chained the bikes to each other. The other thing is that bikes, surprisingly, aren’t that common here; I’ve never seen a single bicycle parked anywhere (except ours). It’s perfectly flat and the city is covered in great bike paths, so it’s a shame, but it also means a thief with a pair of bolt cutters would have to have really good timing to come upon a bike parked just about anywhere.

      (3) Agreed on the public transportation… I actually enjoy it even at home, much to KC’s dismay. An interesting note on the foreigners here. Gaborone isn’t a hotbed of tourism (that’s further north in the country), so the foreigners for the most part live here and make up 2 distinct groups: NGO workers and diamond company execs. Hanging out with some diamond folks one day, I met the Minister of Minerals of Botswana (a woman, incidentally). Hanging out with a bunch of NGO workers the other day we got some great tips on the best roadside food vendors near our house where we can get lunch for both of us for 12 pula ($1.65). In this apect, I rather prefer the young, poor NGO kids; whether from choice or financial necessity, they still have their sense of adventure!

      1. Awww….you know what they say about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. 🙂 Sadly for you,I’ve copyrighted my observational blogging style. So you now owe me $114,985.65 in damages. Cash and credit cards are accepted. Money from Payday or the Game of Life are NOT acceptable forms of payment!!!

        Yeah, it was in the philippines where I had underwear shopping issues. I now reserve all my shopping for the US, unless it’s something I really, really, really need.

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