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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 transparency.org 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.