Thursday, 21 July 2011

Bots of Love

I believe that everywhere you go, every person you meet effects you in some way. Simple interactions shape single days, and those days go on to shape experiences, and experiences ultimately shape a person. Since arriving here in Botswana I have met many interesting, colourful, and wonderful people. I am surrounded by cab drivers who recognize me, street food vendors who ask about my work, colleagues who constantly make me laugh, a home-stay that challenges and embraces me, and so many others. And although I know that even if I were here completely alone those people would still create a home for me, I also believe that so much of the experience I am having is thanks to the other members of QPID Team Botswana. As Davina (WE MISS YOU DAVINA!) once said, “Team Bots is so in love!” Thanks to Davina and Thomas we have a team of intelligent, passionate, and adventurous cooperants that seem to mesh miraculously well.

This is my Bots family.
Bots of Love on QPID Mid-summer Retreat

Thomas dressed as Esteban
Thomas is our Site Director, our team leader, and sometimes our personal psychiatrist. This spring he graduated from Queen’s Commerce and the extra two years of schooling and life experience he has on us often most shows in our tent at bedtime, when he reminds us to be quiet because there are others sleeping. In all seriousness, Thomas is an inspiring site director; he deals with every challenge we face (except impending hippo mauling) calmly and rationally. He is always there to listen, easy to talk to, and ready with constructive criticism and advice. Not to mention, he looks pretty fine in head to toe safari gear! He is Thomas, Thuso (Setswana for “helper”), Esteban the South African chicken farmer, Smelly Tom, Lil Tom, Uncle Thomas, and a really great friend and fellow adventurer.

For some reason she likes Iron Brew...
Lyndsay is my fellow third year Development Studies major, always ready to share a knowing smile when someone on the team preps a comment with “And, I apologize to the DEVS students, but...”. She is also one of the incoming QPID Project Directors for the upcoming year, and so has a unique perspective as a cooperant. She is short, fiery red hair, dressed in black, and “catnip for Batswana men”. Anywhere we go Lyndsay receives compliments and marriage proposals. Lyndsay has strong ideals and is not afraid to voice them, making her a strong addition to the voice of our team. Also, she tells more dirty jokes then the rest of us combined! She is Lyndsay, Lorato (Setswana for “love”), Lynds, assumed future wife and muse of many Batswana, and ready to take on any challenge she is faced with.

A slightly unfocused Chloe/Safari Barbie
Chloe is my partner in travel planning crime. She is going into third year bio-medical computing, which seems as complicated as the name sounds. With Chloe I can laugh for hours, making the smallest thing into the biggest joke; usually until we annoy the hell out of the rest of the team. We are fellow adventurers, planning future trips and travels to the minutest details and not understanding why the others don’t believe these trips will actually happen. Chloe is such a strong person, literally climbing mountains and also overcoming any challenge that she has faced here with a smile. She is also always ready to laugh at herself when she makes a comment that justifies one of her nicknames, “Barbie”! She is Chloe, Neo (Setswana for “gift”), Safari Barbie, NEVER Clo (sp?) and an amazing friend that I am so, so glad I met and look forward to exploring new places with in the future.

A windswept Fais on safari
Faisal is my cooperant partner, the third member of Team Francistown, and the second part of the Dream Team. He is going into third year bio-chemical engineering and frequently startles the rest of us with his incredibly non-engineerish poetic musings. Faisal is zoologist, birdwatcher, and photographer. He is “ep”(no “ic” necessary), super chill, ready to annihilate any challenge, and constantly moving into my perfectly framed photos just as I push down the shutter. Our biggest problem as a cooperant pair is that we get along too well, so now we're attempting to be the more annoying one and push each other’s buttons. It’s not working. I can rant to Fais, I can laugh with Fais, and we can get shit done when we need to. He is Faisal, Kabo (Setswana for “to give”), Fais, Fai, Fai-Fai, Facial, “Citizen of the World” and the best cooperant partner I could want or ask for.

Safari Jane going for a run
And last but not least there is me. Obviously you all know who I am (or maybe you don’t if you are just lurking this blog). I am Isabelle, going into third years DEVS and an abysmal speaker of Spanish with Spanish minor. I am First-year Castle kid, 6-weeks-old in a canoe, horse-back rider, avid bookworm, super awkward and professional procrastinator. Those are some of the things that you all know about me. But being here, as we all knew it would, has changed me. It’s hard for me to see all those changes, but I’m still going to try to put some of them down. At the very least, this should prepare you a little bit for who I’ll be when I get home. I am “Mmm” and “Ah!” I am slower talking, slower walking. I have renewed faith and reverence for the beauty of the world. I work to live instead of live to work, and pursue every moment to the fullest. I am a lekgowa (lee-koo-wah, white person) to the world and Motswana in my own mind. I am Isabelle, Naledi (Setswana for “star”), Safari Jane, Is, Isa, ISA (when shouted to by Mma O it takes on a whole new meaning!) and absolutely loving life here in Botswana!

Hippo Escape and Other Useful Lessons in Delta Survival

I could live with this view. Could you?
I am in love with the Okavango Delta. Everywhere that we've been fortunate enough to travel to so far had been absolutely beautiful (which I hope I have made clear in this blog!), but for me Maun and the Delta takes the cake. I can definitely see myself living there. Maun itself is a very touristy town, but my plan is to buy some property on one of the many channels running out of the Delta, build myself a house right on the water and only go into town for groceries. Slightly reclusive but perfectly happy. Chloe has said that Kubu Island and the Pans is her new happy place because it was so quiet and peaceful, and the Delta is my new happy place. There was something so serene about being surrounded by water. The crazy thing is that we only saw a tiny, tiny piece of it!

Fais and I left Francistown early on Friday morning (Thomas was in Kasane with Chloe and Lyndsay) and got on one of the most comfortable buses I've taken since being here. It was still a little 12 person Canadian mini bus but this time it only seated 22 instead of 27... major upgrade! Plus it had an in-trip entertainment system, a flip down flatscreen that played movies the whole 6 1/2 hour trip! This is as luxurious as transport gets over here. My favourite movie that we watched was "Crocodile", an 80s horror movie about a 50 foot croc on a rampage who was on a mission to kill every member of a group of partying teens who messed with her eggs. On the ride we passed a group of over twenty vultures feasting on a dead wildebeest and also had to stop for some ostriches that were standing in the middle of the road. Pretty neat :)

We were the first ones to get to Maun so we headed off to the site where Fais had booked us in. It was called Old Bridge Backpackers and was right on a bay called the Hippo Pool (but there aren't any hippos there anymore!) with the "Old Bridge" (a footbridge) spanning the bay. There was a bar, some picnic tables and couches, a couple reading chairs, a hammock, and big fire pit and even a small swimming pool! And then also a communal kitchen we could use to cook since we weren't allowed fires where we pitched our tent. It had a really cool vibe, a real backpackers with loads of young people and overall relaxed and friendly. Everywhere we've traveled so far we've been the only young people, usually with older couples or young families being the other people there, so some of us (read: Chloe and I) found ourselves a little awkward socializing.

View from my mokoro

On Saturday we went on a mokoro trip in the Delta with a guy we met at the backpackers (Koo from Korea). We had to take a boat for about 30 minutes to get to a small village called Boro where there is a community trust project that runs mokoro trips. QPID actually even talked with the trust when doing Project Identification here in Botswana last summer. A mokoro (also spelled makoro or mekoro) is a dugout canoe that is flat bottomed and rides really low in the water. Traditionally they are made out of sycamore fig trees but now a lot of people use fiberglass because sycamore fig trees take a 100 years to mature so aren't really sustainable. And instead of using paddles you stand at the back and pole yourself along, with any passengers sitting spaced throughout. There are 75 guides in Boro, all of whom were born in the village and rotate through guiding trips. Mokoros are basically the main form of transport through the delta, since motorboats can only use the deep passages and a lot of the Delta is really shallow channels or just shallow water in reeds. I was so excited to do it because it is the quintessential Delta experience, but also a little nervous because it can be pretty dangerous. The mokoros can be tippy and also there is danger from crocs and hippos who are known to ram or attack boats if they come into their territory. “Although hippos in Africa kill more people than lions or crocodiles do, they are only dangerous when they feel threatened or their space is invaded. Their agility and speed must never be underestimated...” Hundreds of people use mokoros every day so the odds were in our favour, and I felt very safe with our guide who said he had never been in trouble with a hippo.

The Dream Team (photo cred Thomas!)
We were doing a whole day trip, from 8 to about 4, so we were able to spend a good amount of time in the water. I was so happy to just sit in the mokoro and relax and think. I was in the front of ours and the only thing I had to focus on was not swallowing too many bugs, since we were carving a path right through the reeds and I was practically a windshield. We saw a lot of bird life, and a herd of zebras, but no crocs. And we did have a hippo encounter. That was the only time I was ever the least bit nervous throughout the day. That and when Fais decided he wanted to stand up and the boat became a lot less stable. Anyways we had been going through shallow water and channels (where there aren't hippos because they prefer deep water) and then our guides said that there was a hippo pool up ahead that we could check out. I think our guide was the most experienced, because we led the way in. I was literally the closest person to danger the whole time. Anyways we led the way in and were just getting to the edge of the pool when we heard this HUGE snort right beside us and our guide started pulling us backwards so fast. So we waited for a bit and then slowly started moving forward again until we were at the edge of the pool. There were four hippos that we could see, but they kept submerging and then resurfacing. The tensest was when they went under water since we had no idea where they would pop up again. They just kept getting closer and closer and then all of a sudden one popped up 15 feet in front of us. 
15 feet away from me
That's when the hippo safety lesson started! Our guides started telling us what to do in case the hippo was to attack. First of all, if the hippo starts swimming for the boat you are supposed to stay inside of it, not jump out into the water. This is because the boat gives you a modicum of safety. If the hippo actually does attack the boat and the boat tips, you are supposed to swim away from the boat as far as you can underwater. You should not surface because then the hippo will attack you right away. He didn't give any tips on what to do if the hippo actually catches up with you. I wonder why? Writing it out makes it all sounds super dangerous, but even though I was nervous I was never actually scared. I guess I just trusted my guide. Not sure whether that was smart or not, but it definitely made me more comfortable than Thomas, who kept nervous laughing and asking his guide to move their boat back. 

Fais was a natural
After the hippo pool we had lunch on a little island 20 metres away where we could still see the pool. After lunch we got a chance to pole the mokoros ourselves! It was a lot harder than it looks! Then we kept going for a little bit, tracking a zebra herd, and then came up on shore and continued the tracking on land. Our first game walk! We also got more safety lessons at this point. Apparently we had missed the memo to wear cameo, so first Sow (our guide) talked about how our clothes made us more noticeable to predators and big game. Then he talked about all the different escape methods. Elephants and buffalo like you to be downwind of them, and to be at least 50 metres away. If a leopard is too close you shouldn't look it in the eye or directly in its face. Stay still if you come across lions. Don't run at all from predators and run in zig-zags from big game like elephants and buffalo. Stay quiet and walk in single file. 

After we got back from our adventure in the Delta we went grocery shopping to continue Top Chef Botswana. The girls totally owned once again, although this time the boys refuse admit it. We made roasted veggies (zucchini, red pepper, onions, portebello mushrooms), eggplants and tomatoes with melted cheese, backed potatoes with melted cheese, garlic bread and steak. White wine was used throughout as a marinade/all purpose addition. We also provided a box of white wine and hot chocolate with brandy and carrot cake for dessert. Even without knowing the boy’s meal I think it’s clear that we won! During and after dinner we did work for QPID, as this weekend was our mid-summer retreat. It was mostly discussion about what we have thought so far, challenges we have faced, what’s been great, etc.  After our meeting we had a few beers with some fellow Canadians that we met, and Fais, Chloe and I stayed up late talking with some people by the fire.  

Baby monkey...
The next day (Sunday) we went on a 6am-6pm game drive in Moremi Game Reserve, which is partly in the Delta, although we didn't get to that part. It took about 2 hours to drive there from Old Bridge and it was FREEZING. We had all brought our sleeping bags as blankets, and Chloe even zipped herself up in it while in the moving car! Once we got to Moremi we had breakfast, including Nescafe instant coffee which tasted amazing since I haven’t had coffee in over a month. And then we started our trip. Over the day we did an 80km loop, driving for the most part on well used roads through the Park but also sometimes through water when it crossed our paths on the smaller tracks. At one point we even had to cross this one section where the road was flooded and we couldn't see how deep the water was! We started driving and the hood of the truck went under water and water started pouring in by our feet! And this is a kitted out Landcruiser safari truck....not exactly low riding! I don't swear a lot but it was fucking awesome. At that point Chloe and I dubbed the truck “El Jefe”, meaning the boss or chief in Spanish! At one point we tried to help another truck that was stuck in the sand, which resulted in our truck getting stuck in the sand. So while our guide Rex was working on getting us out we played a game of Ninja in the middle of the African Bush. We were Bush Ninjas...Binjas! One of the kids who was in the other truck (a Batswana family on vacation for the long weekend) even joined in with us, and I think he had a good time.  
Baby zebra...

A tsessebe...definitely not attractive
Of course we also saw some pretty cool game. Some stuff we had already seen before, like elephants and impala, zebra, baboons, wildebeest and warthogs. But we saw a lot of new really cool things too! Lots of different kinds of antelope; including a  Tsessebe, considered to be the fastest antelope in Africa, but really just looks like an over grown goat. Some cool bird species like the wattled crane which is super rare, bateleur eagles, and an eagle owl. We saw two hippos out of water, where they look even uglier. And then we saw some really rare things that made us very lucky and very happy. A caracal/desert lynx (“A sighting of caracal in the wild is always a special one”), a side-striped jackal (“they are not common in the southern African sub-region”) and an AFRICAN WILD DOG!!!! The Wild Dog is like the jackpot of all safaris! In Thomas’ game drive book it is rated five stars which means, and I quote, “Slam on the breaks and get excited!” Even though we didn't see any big cats the wild dog made it all worth it! Check out this link to learn more about them:

Fun fact: Wattled Cranes are monogamous and mate for life

An African Wild Dog heading to bed?
Getting back the boys made dinner of salad with a jambalaya type rice dish with chicken in it. It was really good, but I'm pretty sure the winners are clear. We also did more QPID discussion and retreat activities, including an exercise that Thomas had started the day before called the Rock Game. Basically there are two rocks that need to make their way around the group, one person at a time. When you have a rock you need to give it to someone else and tell them something that you admire or like about how they have been on the trip so far. So in the end you give four rocks and get four rocks. It was an early night after all the shenanigans the night before, so we all settled down to sleep pretty quickly. Actually Chloe and I had to be told to shut up by Thomas because “it’s bedtime” since we were laughing so much.

With my catch!

We decided to take the rare opportunity to sleep in the next morning and not set an alarm. I was actually so surprised at how long we slept! Usually when I'm camping even without an alarm the latest I can sleep is 7:00, 7:30. Especially since the latest I've slept since getting here is 7:15. But we all slept until 10:15!!! It was so nice. Thomas and I had planned to go horseback riding but since it was so late we decided to just take it easy for the day. I even got a chance to just lie under the hammock (Chloe was in it) and read. Around 2:00 we were going to go do a basket weaving workshop but Fais had gotten his hands on two fishing rods so I wanted to just stay on the old bridge and fish. Chloe decided to stay with me. So the boys went basket weaving and the girls went fishing! AND I CAUGHT TWO FISH :) They were Large Mouth Thin Bones, a predatory fish, of a good size! So Chloe and I brought them back to the kitchen, de-scaled and gutted them, and then fried them up. Nothing in the world tastes better than fish that you catch and prepare yourself! After the boys got back from basket weaving (they had 2 square inch disks to show for their hard work) we hung around, did some QPID stuff and then ordered dinner from the bar. I had a banana and bacon burger which was, for all you K-towners, almost as good as Harpers. 

We were up early the next morning to catch the bus back from Maun to Francistown, and the ride was much less enjoyable. It was very hot and every time I opened the window the person sitting beside me closed it right away. Gross, especially since I was also pretty dehydrated. Anyways, I got back to my house where Mma O was still away and I washed my sheets, cleaned my room, made some dinner and watched a movie. It was the first time I've been alone for more than two hours since leaving Toronto on June 7th and it was heavenly.

The past five days have been an unreal experience. The Delta is an amazing place. Everyone who reads this post needs to watch the Great Plains episode of Planet Earth, or at the very least search “Okavango Delta” on YouTube.

This week we will be picking up our finished Batswana traditional clothing from Bettina’s aunt, conducting interviews at the office to put together an organisational structure report, and sticking around Francistown for the weekend. Stay tuned!

Sala sentle!

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Great Grey-Green Greasy Banks of the Limpopo River, All Set About with Fever Trees

One of my favourite bed time stories when I was a kid was “The Elephant’s Child” by Rudyard Kipling. I can still remember my Dad picking up our green covered copy of The Just So Stories and reading through it, his accent changing slightly with the character voices. All the different stories in the book had their own charm, but “The Elephant’s Child” is the one which really stuck with me.

The story tells of how an inquisitive young elephant, with his “'’satiable curtiosities”, goes on a journey through Africa to find out what the Crocodile eats for dinner after his family won’t tell him. Guided by parting words from the Kolokolo Bird he heads towards the “great grey-green, greasy banks of the Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees” to find out. When he finally gets there and asks the Crocodile his question the Crocodile urges him to come closer and hear the answer. When the Elephant’s Child leans down to hear the whisper the Crocodile promptly bites the Elephant’s Child’s nose. A tug of war ensues and the Elephant’s Child’s nose, which originally was “no bigger than a boot”, slowly stretches and stretches out until he frees himself from the Crocodile and is left with the long trunk which we all know. To find out the end of the story and read the whole thing in Rudyard Kipling’s much more appealing writing, check out this link:
Dramatic clouds for one of the first times
Driving through a blocked sunset

This past weekend (July 8-10), I got to live out a childhood dream and visit the great grey-green, greasy banks of the Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees. Thomas, Faisal and I set out for Tuli Block on the Botswana side of the Limpopo (South Africa just a stones thrown and an electric fence away). The journey there might have been the most adventurous transportation undertaking so far. We left Francistown around 2:30 and arrived at Molema (our campsite) around 7, after hours of driving on an increasingly empty tank, in the middle of funeral processions (2!), and finally down 5km of dirt road that would have been bumpy in a 4x4, let alone our low-riding Toyota sedan Amantle! Along said 5km of “road” we not only ran into multiple dry river beds and rocks, we also ran into 3 or 4 young elephants grazing in the dark and a couple herds of impala. By the time we got to the campsite in the pitch dark all our nerves were pretty high. Poor Thomas, the driver for the weekend, even refused to look at the elephants as we scooted past them with only a couple feet to spare. I love driving, but I definitely did not envy him then!

Our camp under the nyala tree
Molema Bush Camp was our home for the weekend, and in some ways it was both the closest and furthest we have gotten to real bush camping. Our beautiful campsite, under the shade of a massive nyala tree, was fully outfitted with a fire spot, huge brick braai, two tent platforms (just a square, evened out, raised dirt platform), a tap, an outdoor sink, a shower with hot water and a toilet! Pretty luxurious for camping if you ask me! On the other hand, Molema is situated deep in the bush. There is no fence around the property, it is about 20 metres from the Limpopo, and animals go where they want. While we camped without fences in Khama and Kubu, both of those locations had little danger of animals entering camp. We were to soon find out this is not the case in Molema.

After slaving away to start a fire (yey for team efforts and three sets of lungs/bellows!) we sat down for a dinner of cheese melted on French bread, cream of chicken soup, and some sausages. Top Chef Botswana was put on hold as I was missing my teammate. But it was still delicious! Throughout dinner and the campfire stories after animal calls that we identified as baboon were getting louder and closer. We braved it out for a while, but in the end the roars (literally, I can’t describe it in any other word) got the best of us and we retreated to the safety of our tent. At least, I thought it was safe. Thomas had other ideas. While Fais and I were peacefully ignorant in our deep sleep, Thomas was lying awake, presumably psyching himself out and listening to the animal noises that he said were right outside our tent. I guess after a while he had enough of lonely misery, because the call “Is....Is....Isabelle.....Isa....Is!” slowly crept through my dream and brought me back to reality. The conversation that followed went a little something like this:
Thomas: You awake?
Thomas: Do you hear that?
Thomas: Its footsteps! Listen!
Thomas: There! Did you hear that?!
Is: Thomas...that’s just your stomach!
Thomas: No its not! Listen!
Is:....Ok. I heard that.
So then there were two of us. Lying side by side in our cheap Game (like Canadian Tire) tent, listening to the clear animal noises coming from mere feet away. We needed our resident zoologist so I tried to wake Faisal up. Here’s something you need to know about Fais: he can sleep through anything. After body checking him a couple times and saying his name as loudly as I dared he woke up. And promptly fell back asleep again without giving us any peace of mind. After listening for a little bit longer and freaking ourselves out more and more, I decided to adopt a Motswana perspective. What happens happens, everything happens for a reason. So I rolled over, turned my back on Thomas, and fell back asleep.

In the morning we inspected the group of our campsite and Thomas was greeted with gratifying proof of his late night scare. Two feet away from where his head was inside the tent were two very deep and big baboon footprints. Clearly he had been sitting there for a while, probably listening to Thomas and I whispering on the other side of the tent. Walking around the campsite we found tracks EVERYWHERE. Baboons of all sizes and some impala as well. Then, taking a short walk, Fais and Thomas found LEOPARD PRINTS about 15 metres away from our campsite. This place was the real deal. After cooking some delicious breakfast of beans on toast over our fire we headed down to grab my first look at the Limpopo.

The great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo
There wasn’t really much of the river itself at the time, as its in its dry period, but looking at the banks you could imagine how beautiful it would be in full flow. Even low, it was clear to see that the water was indeed grey-green and greasy. It even smelled a little greasy! We took a stroll down on the river bed, looking at all of the different animal tracks, although the animals themselves didn’t make an appearance. To be honest, I was a little bit glad about that. There really weren’t that many places to run to! We saw loads of bird and impala tracks, some absolutely enormous elephant footprints, and a single set of tracks that we had a hard time identifying but turned out to be hippo! Heading back we decided to take the road. I’d like to take a minute to remind you that Molema was in the middle of the bush, and the road we were walking on was used for self-drive safaris. We were all on edge, especially when the baboon roars got louder and closer. Eventually we decided to head back to the relative safety of the river bed, and ran back down ripping branches off of dead trees to use to protect ourselves. “I learned this from The Gods Must Be Crazy II” said Thomas, as he held his stick over his head.

After a quick lunch we got back in trusty Amantle and headed back down the treacherous road towards the Tuli Game Reserve, where we were booked into a night game drive. Getting to Tuli we were shocked by the lush green gardens surrounding the main lodge and other buildings. It was in sharp contrast to the dry surrounding landscape that we had been driving through for two hours. Once at check-in we were informed that we would not be able to do the night drive as we had originally planned, since one of their safari cars had broken down. After some tense negotiations, led by the strong-willed Thomas, we were booked into an afternoon drive for a discounted price. In the end I’m actually glad that we went on the drive we did.

This drive was different than the ones we had done before. For one thing, the safari car was not covered, it was completely open air. For another, in contrast to the densely populated Chobe we actually had to drive around the park looking for game, as opposed to stumbling upon them. Our guide often leaned out the side of the car to look for tracks to follow. Finally, there was some serious off-roading on this trip. Our guide Simon drove like a boss, steering up and down steep riverbeds, through deep sand, and around logs and trees like it was no big thing. Later, when we were heading back to Tuli Lodge in the dark, he even managed it with one hand on the wheel – the other holding a flood light that he constantly swept the surrounding grounds and trees with to look for game.
Posturing: Fully flapped ears. The bush isn't much protection!

On the drive we saw way less game than expected, which almost made it more exciting when we actually did spot something! When we came across two male elephants it certainly was exciting, as the male elephant did full posturing (fake charging) with nothing other than about 10 feet of empty air separating us! When you’re not expecting it, an elephant trumpeting is extremely nerve-wracking. Especially when he is also shaking his head and flapping his ears at you! We also saw a couple giraffes, loads of impala, steenbok, klipspringers, and a porcupine. But the crowning glory of the drive was coming across a den of spotted hyenas in the fading light. We sat there for about 20 minutes, watching them in their home life; the cub being scolded back to their den, the rest of the family heading out on a hunt, and the one grown female left behind to watch the cub watching us. It was amazing to be able to see the softer side of the often hated scavengers.

One of the juvenile hyenas

Driving back in the dark was a little tense. You couldn’t help but think that at any moment a leopard was about to jump down on top of you from the overhanging trees. And then getting back into the car for the long two hour drive back to Molema, wondering what was going to jump out of the bushes into the road. Poor Thomas. I really did not envy him at all. Finally back at camp we made ourselves a dinner of rice and curry and literally fell asleep on our stools in front of the fire. This time, when Thomas woke me up in the middle of the night to talk about the noises I promptly rolled over and ignored him. Apparently the tactic worked because I fell right back asleep and Thomas said he did too! Once again though he was justified, as we found more baboon and this time mongoose tracks outside the tent in the morning. We started the long drive back to Francistown fairly early, and it was no less tense than any of the other driving on the trip—this time because of the completely empty gas tank. The indicator was far below empty by the time we rolled into Bobonong to fill up. And by fill up, I mean put as little gas in as possible while still having enough to get back to Francistown. Gotta love cheap students! By the time we were back in Francistown at our carwash the tank was below empty once again.

All in all a fun weekend away with the boys and definitely many challenges annihilated by Team Francistown.  


Friday, 8 July 2011

Some Frustrations

As all of you have been regularly reading this blog know, I am so happy here in Botswana. The only thing I have been able to complain about so far is that I am being served too much food, which isn't even really a legitimate complaint. But last night I was faced with my biggest challenge and frustration since being here: SOLUS

SOLUS is the online program used by Queen's University for class enrollments, tuition payments, and countless other slow loading applications. It was meant to be the newer, faster and better version of the outdated QCARD that so many students loathed for years. Originally, I was on Team SOLUS. It is easier to navigate, has more options and features, and even is decorated in a pretty blue colour! But after last night, I would be happy if the system crashed and never returned to the working world wide web again.

You see, yesterday I had my enrollment appointment on SOLUS; my time slot to register in classes for the upcoming year. My time was 4pm Eastern time, or 10pm here in Botswana. No big deal; I asked Kabo if I could use the office and lock up when I was done, and Fais and I chilled until my time came. The anticipation was brutal. As the clock ticked closer and closer to 10 my stomach progressively became tied in more and more knots.

The minute my computer clock switch to ten the battle began, with me frantically hitting "enroll" over and over until SOLUS told me it was "Processing". I don't know why, but even though I was nervous I still had this calm feeling that everything would be OK and I would get into all my classes. After all, a psychic I know told me I would be happy. Ahh, blissful (and willful) ignorance. 5 minutes turned to 10, and 10 crept towards 15 and SOLUS was still "Processing" my request. And then it happened. The page turned white and then switch to a new page. Big red X's flashed across my screen. My stomach dropped and the world blurred. Out of the five classes I had tried to enroll in, I got into two. Fight or flight, fight or flight?

I chose flight, moving on to my Winter term enrollment instead of trying to frantically fight to enroll in my back-up Fall classes. This time, I had none of my earlier naivety. I warily hit enroll and waited in the calm before the virtual storm. The results were a little better, three classes out of five. Combined between Fall and Winter classes, I had achieved the status of a Part-time student.

Around 11:30pm, after trying for half and hour to enroll in some of my back-up courses (all of which failed me) and sending out about a dozen emails to Profs and Department Heads pleading to let me into their courses, Fais and I decided to pack it in for the night. Failing to get hold of a taxi to come pick us up, we set the alarm, locked the doors, and headed out into the dark. We were both on edge, seeing as it was the latest we had been out since being here. However after walking to the main road and waiting for about five minutes we managed to hail a taxi and get ourselves home without incident. I didn't get to bed until after 12 (my new record!), and slept restlessly.

I was up at 6 this morning to bathe, wash my hair (always a struggle), and pack for our weekend trip. Despite  being up so early Fais and I still managed to be late for work, since there seemed to be no taxis driving through our neighbourhood. This was made worse by a call from Thomas saying that everyone was standing outside since we had the keys. Great.

After getting to the office and finding everyone already inside (Thank God!) I set up camp and started the battle all over again. As of now, I have had some small victories. I now am enrolled in three Fall courses and four Winter courses! One more Fall course and I can move back up to a full-time student! I will keep fighting until I leave the office at 1 to start our weekend in Tuli.

It's strange; I always thought that university was a place where you could pursue subjects and courses that you were interested in and passionate about. My on-going battle with SOLUS is teaching me that that might have only been the idealistic dream of a young girl.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Spring Break...KUBU!

I have been grappling with the idea of writing this post since leaving Kubu Island on Sunday morning. Actually earlier, since while on the island I knew that it would be hard to put the experience into words. But since Fais, Thomas and I are leaving tomorrow for our next weekend adventure I have to get this out today.

We’ve been fortunate enough to do really wonderful things since we arrived in Botswana. Many of the local people I’ve talked to haven’t ever been to Kasane, or Khama, or Lepokole. Sometimes we even have to explain what and where they are. All of those trips have been mind-blowing, and beautiful, and so hard to put into words that my thesaurus can’t handle it. Kubu was just as incredible, but in a very different way. I wouldn’t say that it was better than any of the other places we have visited, mainly because they just don’t compare.

Kubu Island is a rocky island (duh) in the Soa Pan of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park area. Basically the Pans are what’s left of the huge, 16,000km squared Lake Makgadikgadi which dried up centuries ago. The area is of colossal archaeological significance, as there have been multiple finds that are evidence of prehistoric human activity. Kubu Island itself is a national monument and considered sacred by indigenous groups in the area. (Thanks to Wikipedia for this info!)To read more about Kubu check out their website

Chillin with Amantle (on the right)
Chloe, Fais, Thomas and I left for Kubu on Friday July 1st – both Canada Day and Sir Seretse Khama Day here in Bots. Lyndsay opted to spend the weekend in Kasane, and Chloe had quite the adventure getting down to the Ghetto. After securing a safe hitchhike for herself on Thursday night, Team Francistown raced to find her a place to stay. It was down to the wire but just before she arrived Mma Tshabo (Fais’ mom) graciously gave permission for her to stay with them.  For the first time transportation didn’t top our list of worries; Thomas’ home-stay dad Mots had lent us his 1998 Toyota Windom. “Amantle”, as we named her (Setswana for “something good”) saw us safely almost all of the way to Kubu. We were all filled with true road-trip spirit—belting out Don’t Stop Believing and I’m Yours proudly—and the ride was much more comfortable than any bus could ever be.

In Mmatshumo we left Amantle sitting in the shade and jumped into (after a semi-patient four hours of waiting) the pick-up that would take us to Kubu. The ride was the bumpiest and most engaging ride so far. Ducking under overhanging thorn trees and bushes while winding down the dirt road over rocks and ditches we frequently burst into exuberant laughter.

After about 30 minutes of ducking, weaving, and wincing, we caught our first site of the Pans. This is where the trip gets a little hard to describe. Because of our long wait in Mmatshumo, we had missed the sunset. Earlier we have been bitching about waiting around, but all that fell away when we left the trees and brush behind and emerged onto the Pans. The sky was painted in the soft watercolour pinks, purples and blues that can only be seen stretching behind a recently set sun. Slowly, the soft pinpricks of stars joined the canvas. Sitting in the back of the truck, racing across the impossibly flat sand in the growing darkness, we all threw our arms out into the strangely warm air in reckless abandon. “I believe God will give us energy and we will fly like never before”. For the rest of the ride we sat in comfortable companionship, staring at the spreading stars and every now and then trying to voice our emotions before falling silent again, realising that it was impossible to find the words.
Top Chef Botswana: Boy's Team
Arriving at Kubu we quickly set up camp in the dark at Site 11: Impala. As Chloe and I pitched the tent Fais and Tom started in on their first attempt at winning Top Chef Botswana. Earlier we had decided to make cooking for the weekend a little more interesting—Girls vs. Boys. Each team was responsible for one lunch and one dinner. The boys blew their whole budget on dinner; point one, girls! But it was a delicious dinner; peri-peri chicken cut over a salad with cheesy bread on the side and banana boats for dessert. After some stargazing, campfire songs, and a loud and proud Oh Canada to celebrate Canada Day we headed to bed, much warmer than in Khama.

Blurry but delicious. Peri-peri chicken salad
Thomas in the sunrise
The alarm went off at 5:30am to rouse us for the sunrise. None of us were interested in leaving the warmth of our sleeping bags. Turned out to be a very good thing since when I left the tent at 6:40 the sun still hadn’t come up. Determined to see the rise and get some good photos, I grabbed my camera and Chloe and I ran down to the edge of the island. Standing at the edge of the island, staring out onto the Pan, we were washed in the warm glow of the African sun slowly climbing over the horizon. Soon the boys joined us and a full fledge photo shoot started our day at Kubu.

After a breakfast of cinnamon buns (courtesy of me and Chloe), the exploring began. It is hard to talk about the pans because when they are described they just seem boring. White. Big. Flat. Quiet. Those are the most accurate adjectives to describe the landscape. Not exactly awe-inspiring words. But to experience it is completely different. Walking out onto the pan myself, I felt a sense of peace settling over me—the quiet sinks over you until you feel like you’re dreaming. But the longer I walked the more the silence became deafening; I still felt peaceful and settled but I was aware of the alien power of the Pans. The silence and solitude of the white void are both friend and foe.
The empty expanse of the Pans

Baobab fruit
The rest of the day was spent hiking around the Island. We climbed the rock formations, walked through “The Shrine”, looked at the remains of a settlement of the Great Zimbabwean Empire and ended up back where we started. The whole Island is only 1km long. So after lunch we started out again, this time walking barefoot on the salt and sand, eating the fruit of the baobab tree and paying our respects to the gigantic baobab that guards the entrance to the island. We made it back onto the Pans just in time to have another photo-shoot, this one in front of the setting sun.

Team Ftown and Chloe
Chloe and some yoga in the sunset

Back at camp Chloe and I set up our bid for Top Chef. Using a 2.25 litre cooking pot, a couple of sticks, and a copious amount of aluminum foil we whipped out a dinner of pasta in a tomato basil sauce with vegetables and sausages, grilled zucchini, red pepper, and onions, garlic bread, and roasted sausages. It might have taken a couple hours to cook but we were declared the clear winners of Top Chef Botswana: Round One. Success!

Earlier we had planned to do our star-gazing for the night out on the Pans, so after dinner we put a log on the fire and headed out. After stumbling around the island in the dark trying to find our way to the Pans (even with headlamps it was confusing) we finally found the road and lay down a couple paces off from it. Lying four in a row on Chloe’s sleeping mat we made our own constellations and laughed at the funny moments of the past few days. I could have stayed there all night but we were rudely interrupted by the noise of a pack of hyenas uncomfortably close in the darkness. Spooked, we booked it off back towards our campsite, turning around every now and then expecting to see eyes glowing back at us.

As Chloe put it as we were walking around the island earlier in the day, Kubu Island is somewhere where I would come back to. I’ve tried my best to describe it, but I have no doubt that I didn’t do it justice. The only way that you will ever truly be able to understand is to go and see it for yourselves. If you go, let me know and I’ll jump at the chance to once again be a tiny speck fading into the mirage; walking on the Pans into the distance.                 

Praise the name of the Lord! Hallelujah!

Last night I fully submerged myself in the religious life of a Motswana.

Religion here in Botswana is an unquestionable part of everyday life. Meetings are opened and closed with prayers, the day starts with gospel music spilling from stereo systems, and church is not only for Sundays. Mma Othusitse attends services on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays and sings the praises of the Lord every moment in between. Food is blessed before eaten and there are prayers before bed.

Back home, I do not go to church every week. In fact, I do not go to church every month. Prayers before bed are sporadic. The only time God is thanked for food is when I have gone from an 830 class to 430 class without eating anything. Yet I am not an atheist or agnostic. I have faith; I just don’t make time for it. Faisal, Thomas and I talked about this one day enjoying our after work treats at Milky Lane. It seems like an epidemic of indifference has taken hold of North America. That seems like a sweeping generalisation, and maybe it’s not completely fair. I know many devout people back home; but the pulse that religion puts into life here pales anything I have seen in Canada in comparison.

The first time I prayed with the Othusitse family plunged me headfirst into the difference in religion as I am used to it and religion here. Thando was muttering muted prayers under her breath and Mma O, inches away from me on the couch, rocked back and forth with her head bowed. Eyes closed, she chanted prayers and praises, with crescendos and decrescendos colouring the moment. I was shocked by the aggressive nature of it. Gone were the silent, peaceful moments that I associate with prayer. In their place were harsh moments of raw passion; loud and forceful. It struck me as an almost perfect physical manifestation of how religion is for my family here. Religion and faith are not passive; they are the driving force.

The Sun rising over the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans

Last night I visited Mma O’s congregation for the first time. I was welcomed as a guest into their church, their second family. Sitting in the front row, in a seat of honour, I was welcomed to the service as “our brethren from Canada”. From that seat it felt almost like the sermon was only for me. I wish that I was able to write down everything that was said. The pastor preached with such fervour, such passion, such pure belief that differences in practice faded into oblivion. As she lead us, resolute, “Praise the name of the Lord! Hallelujah!” I found myself nodding my head and joining in with the choruses of “Amen”.  

Throughout this trip most of us have been talking about some kind of renewal of faith. For me, watching the orange glow of the setting sun sweep over the Chobe, standing under a dome of stars at Khama, riding in the back of a truck watching watercolours pour across the sky and anticipating the soft light of the stars to follow, walking alone out onto the white void of the Makgadikgadi Pans and so many more tiny moments have instilled in my an unwavering belief that the world is too beautiful to be a coincidence. As the pastor put it last night, “I believe in God because human beings know so little and nothing.”

Coming back home, I still might not go to church every week. Prayers at night will most likely be quiet and calm rather than raw and mountain-moving. And probably after a while I will stop thanking God for my food (unless the dreaded full day of classes rears its ugly head). But I doubt that I will ever be so nonchalant about my faith again.             

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

We Are Ghetto Fabulous!

Francistown is fondly called “the Ghetto” by most Batswana that we meet. In fact, on the side of a building in the middle of the bus rank a banner proudly proclaims "We Are Ghetto Fabulous"! And I am starting to love the Ghetto! It is definitely not a huge, bustling metropolis (we can walk from one side of the city to the other in about 30 minutes), but at the same time it is far from a quaint rural village. As the second biggest city in Botswana at 115,000 people it is WAY smaller than Kingston. But it is starting to feel like home.
                Fruit, shoe, music, and clothing stalls line the sidewalks and the sides of roads, but the sellers never hassle or call out at you as you pass by. The most popular wares are bananas, oranges, phone credit top-offs and bowls of tiny candies. It seems like everyone is trying to sell the exact same thing at the exact same price, something that our resident Commerce student Thomas finds a little ridiculous.
                The sidewalks are also filled with people. At any point in the day the streets of Francistown seem full of people. Amazing are the women who casually walk by balancing HUGE parcels on their heads; boxes, shopping bags, blankets, bowls of food (!)...we’ve pretty much seen it all. This is a skill I am determined to master before leaving!
                But you have to be careful about being pushed off the sidewalks by the other people, the roads can be treacherous! A lot of people seem to own cars here and the roads are usually full with traffic. Add in taxis and combis (mini-buses) and there are a lot of obstacles to dodge. It’s especially important to stay alert because it seems like the only place where pedestrians have the right of way here are the marked crosswalks. If a taxi or car hits a person crossing at the crosswalk they can be charged. Anywhere else, pedestrians are fair game. Even after being here for almost a month my heart still jumps into my throat when my taxi driver is zooming towards a jaywalker, no signs of slowing down, leaning on the horn to let the person know that unless they move out of the way FAST they are going to be roadkill!
                All of this just adds to the charm of the Ghetto. I’m so used to them now that it just feels like a normal part of life. But the best thing about Francistown is that since it is so small, we have started to create our own “places”. Finding hole-in-the-wall shops and restaurants that we can call our own. We have Milky Lane for Thursday after work milkshakes (fruit juice for me!), where servers Kabo and George know us and are hopefully starting to learn our orders. Then there is The Thorn Tree restaurant, where we go to treat ourselves for lunch, and loads of ex-pats eat. Just yesterday we claimed a barbershop called African Style when Thomas got a haircut there. It was a real barbershop, with music pumping and guys hanging out outside waiting for customers. And we also now have a car wash; a place near where Fais and I live where we went to wash the car after our trip this past weekend. It feels great to go places where people actually know us, instead of always having to explain who we are and why we’re here.
                Francistown might not be as modern as Gabarone (we don’t even have a movie theatre!), or as picturesque as Kasane, but it has definitely become a home away from home. I am proud to be able to call myself a resident of this Ghetto Fabulous city!

To Work We Go

                If you managed to conquer my second novel of a blog post, you will have already read about the work that I’m going to be doing here at True Men for the summer. But after working at the organisation and with my colleagues for almost a month now, I think that I can give you a better look.
Sign out front
                The work that Thomas, Fais and I are doing is still very self-directed. Our boss Kabo has given us pretty much a free rein which is both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes I have to remind myself that we need to keep pushing ourselves to start working on different projects, because no one is going to tell us what to do. And the atmosphere in the office doesn’t help much; everyone is very laid back and there is no talk about meetings or deadlines. It is a fun game to look around and try to guess which people are actually doing True Men work and who is just taking advantage of the free internet! Some people are definitely more consistent in wasting time.
                The interns are a different story all together! Besides me, Fais and Thomas, there is Bettina, Oabaloka, Lebogang, and Shanganane (Shaks). And we get shit done! Last week on Wednesday and Thursday we ran a workshop for all the Peer Educators working for True Men. Lebogang was the “Master of Ceremonies”, Bettina and Oabaloka presented on Counselling and Group Counselling, Thomas talked about Professionalism, Communication and Presentation Skills, I went over Sensitivity Training, and Fais wrapped up with Mental Preparation and some stats and facts about HIV/AIDS. Even though me Fais and Thomas presented in English, the rest was in Setswana, so sometimes it was hard to keep track of what the Peer Educators were saying. They all seemed to find the Myths about HIV funny though...”washing with Coca Cola can prevent HIV got a huge laugh on both days. Fais had to remind everyone that people actually believe these things!
The True Men Office
                Next on our list is to keep working on developing the website, brochure, and newsletter, as well as planning out some internal development projects. Hopefully Kabo continues to be happy with the work we’re doing!