Saturday, December 25, 2010

I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas

But instead, I'm getting a sunny, hot one.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Perks of Peace Corps

I particularly enjoy a cup (or two) of coffee in the morning. It allows me to relax, wake up, and get my caffeine fix. I was deeply disappointed when I arrived in Botswana and found out that there really wasn't any real coffee.

As a former protectorate of Great Britain, the country seems to have universally adopted drinking tea. I really have nothing against tea (and even drink it with milk and sugar) but it just doesn't compare to a steaming cup of strong, black coffee.

On any given day, I can walk into my local grocery store and find several different varieties of instant coffee. Instant coffee is particularly bad in the US, but here, the grinds are mostly chicory. The end result is a very weak drink that somewhat resembles coffee and tastes awful. I only drink it if I am truly desperate.

If I am very lucky, one grocery store in town will stock some ground (real) coffee but I find that more often than not, it is past its expiration date and doesn't taste all that good to begin with.

Then, one day last week, I found out about a coffee company in the US called Rise Up Coffee. On their blog the owner posted this:

"You can take the man out of the Peace Corps, but you can't take Peace Corps out of the man! I was a volunteer in Micronesia and feel a great debt of gratitude and respect for the purpose and practice of PC. Knowing the great significance of even the smallest "luxury" during my own Peace Corps service, we've decided to send our coffee to any PCV currently serving in the field. We've already been contacted by a couple of volunteers in is on it's way!"

I was excited to say the least and quickly sent off an email asking if they were still offering the coffee. I got a quick reply and was added to the mailing list.

My coffee arrived along with some bumper stickers yesterday and I cannot tell you how nice it is to sit and enjoy a good cup of coffee.

If you are thinking about buying coffee in the coming days or weeks, here is my shameless plug for Rise Up Coffee. Buy it here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Team Building

Last week I helped run a team building retreat for Light and Courage. The staff wanted to work on a few issues and have a day to summarize the year. We went out to Shashe Dam, which is about 35 km south of Francistown. I had the staff members go through 3 different team building exercises that are quite tough. There were some struggles, but the group was able to complete all of them eventually. We had good discussions about ideas that worked and didn't work and then I tired to apply what they learned from the activities to their job at Light and Courage. I am not sure if everything translated well but we did have some discussion. All in all, I thought the retreat went quite well (and much better than I thought it would).

Sunday, December 5, 2010

On Safari (Part 4)

We set out on our last day to do a quick morning drive before heading back to Maun in time to catch the bus back home.

We wanted to go back to see the lions before we left and drove out that way. Alwyn quickly picked up some lion tracks and we found three female lions resting in the shade a few hundred yards away from their kill. Two of them were the lions we saw the day before and they were joined by another (probably the one who was calling). They were very full and we watched them lounging in the shade.

We continued on to the kill to see if there was anything left. We were surprised to find two male lions eating what little there was left. Seeing the female lions was incredible, but seeing the males with their manes was even better. We watched them eat for a while and while it was stomach churning at times, I couldn’t stop watching. After a while, the lions had finished eating what they could from the bones and headed off.

It was a perfect weekend spent with good friends. I still cannot quite believe that we got to see so much (and I am sure I left parts out of this). I definitely have the “safari bug” and can’t wait to get out and do another one.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

On Safari (Part 3)

After some lunch and a much needed nap, we headed back out later that afternoon. We drove around for a good bit, seeing animals the whole way. The idea was that we were going to do a long drive, see more animals, and then end the day by the lions we saw before.

As we headed back towards the lions, we came across a small herd of elephants as they crossed the road. They had a young elephant with them and were cautious around us but we were able to sit and watch them for a while. You don’t quite get the perspective of just how massive elephants are until you see them in the wild.

We headed back to check on the lions, and the two females were moving around and feeding on their kill. We parked nearby and watched them. We heard lion calls from two different directions. Alwyn whispered that the other lions in the pride were trying to find out where the kill was and one call was from a male lion nearby. He then told us that the females here would not answer back because lions sitting on a kill do not call out to other lions.

No sooner had he said this that both of the lions in front of us started to call. Alwyn laughed and said that’s what he got for speaking too soon. One lion continued eating and we moved around to get a better look at the other lion which was sleeping. A hyena showed up a few hundred yards away and began creeping closer to see if it could get in on the kill.

We moved the truck again to get closer to the kill in case something happened between the lions and the hyena. As soon as we started to move, the back left tire wobbled and made noises. Somewhere along the way, the tire had punctured and was now fully deflated. There was a spare and a jack on the truck so we didn’t worry too much and got close to the feeding lion. All of the sudden, the sleeping lion bolted upright and went after the hyena. It was shocking how quickly the lion went from bloated and panting on the ground to upright and stalking.

The one who was feeding took a few more bites and then got up. She walked right towards where I was sitting on the truck and then past me. I almost could have reached out and touched her. It was definitely a heart racing moment when the lion (seemingly) looked at me and then walked towards me.

After the lions had gone away chasing the hyena, we decided it would be a good time to change the tire. We drive a little bit away and then got down to take a look at it. As it turns out, we had a jack, a spare tire, but no tire iron. There was no way we could get the tire changed. We were several kilometers from our camp and for a brief instant many of probably had nightmarish visions of having to sleep in the truck right next to lions.

Alwyn decided to drive back to camp on the flat and while it was a long, slow, bumpy ride back, we made it. The tire iron was in the trailer and we quickly changed the tire, made a fire, and ate dinner.

As I was trying to get to sleep in my tent that night, I heard more lion calls.

Friday, December 3, 2010

On Safari (Part 2)

We woke up at 5:30 to have breakfast and get ready for our first game drive. As soon as I opened my tent, I could see a herd of impala about 100 yards from our camp and a few Zebra also wandered by. I drank some instant coffee and got in the truck to head out.

Shortly after leaving our camp, we saw another herd of impala (All told, we probably saw 500 of them over the weekend). We also saw another herd of zebra that were quite playful. We stopped and watched a few wildebeests with their young and saw a single giraffe and a single ostrich in the distance. It was almost too much to take in. At points, I could see animals in every direction that I looked.

There were also a lot of toppled trees. Alwyn explained that the elephants rub their tusks against the trees to knock the bark off. Once this bark is stripped, the tree will die and then the elephants come along and knock them over to eat the bark when food is scarce. We continued on and headed towards the river. Alwyn is an expert tracker and at times he would lean out of the side of the truck and look at an animal track. He would say things like, “buffalo, passed through here yesterday afternoon” or “female lion that walked through here last night.” I have no idea how he could tell this and it was fascinating. Alwyn caught site of some lion prints and we tracked them.

We passed by a tree surrounded by bushes and one of us in the back called out that they had a dead animal in the bushes. Alwyn backed the truck up and we found a fresh water buck carcass and two female lions in the bushes. They were so full that all they could do was lay under the brush and pant. Alwyn explained that lions only eat about every 3-4 days. Because they do not know when their next meal will be, they binge eat. A lion’s stomach can expand so much to take in all the food that it squeezes the lungs and the lions literally pant because they cannot take in a full breath. We sat no more than 15 feet away from the lions and just watched them.

The interesting thing about being out on safari is that as long as everyone stayed in the truck, we were safe. Most wild animals see the truck and view it as one object, not as a truck with 8 people inside.

We left the lions to digest and decided to check back in on them in the afternoon. We continued on to the river and saw several hippos. They were underwater but occasionally, one would stick its head out of the water or would float a bit. A little known fact about hippos is that they kill more people than any other animal in Africa because they are fiercely territorial.

We left the hippos and headed back to camp for lunch and a nap. Along the way someone made the comment that they were surprised we hadn’t seen an elephant yet. No sooner had that been said that an elephant walked out of the bush, right next to our truck. Alwyn shut off the engine and we watched the elephant walk right past and down to the river. We followed him and watched him drink water from the river and eat some of the grasses. Alwyn told us that the elephant we were watching was over 40 years old and told us about how elephants have 6 sets of molars that they go through in a lifetime. The elephant we were watching was very careful to bite the grass off before the root and avoid getting any of the sad or mud in his mouth. This was probably because the elephant was down to its last set of molars and didn’t want to wear them down too fast.

We watched him for a while and then headed back to camp.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

On Safari (Part 1)

Brian Jackman, the 2004 Travel Writer of the Year, once wrote, “Everything in Africa bites, but the Safari Bug is worst of all.” I couldn’t agree more. Over the weekend, I went on my first African safari and had an incredible experience. The PC volunteers who hosted us for language week arranged a safari for all of us to go on after we finished our language training. All week I was like a kid waiting for Christmas morning and it was hard to sit still on Friday waiting until we could leave.

We left Maun shortly after finishing up our language lessons on Friday and headed to a place called Kwhai in the Moremi Wildlife Reserve. Other than a brief rain shower, our ride up was uneventful. We got into the park just as night fell and found our campsite. We quickly set up our tents and our guide got a fire going and prepped for dinner.

We were all milling about, unloading the truck and standing around the fire when our guide, Alwyn, froze and cocked his ear. “Lion!” he yelled, and headed towards the truck. We all quickly looked at one another and in the same moment all bolted after him, thinking that there was a lion in camp. Alwyn shut off the engine and stood there. He quickly laughed when he saw that he had spooked all of us. He explained that he had heard lions calling and wanted to turn off the engine so we could hear it. We all stood in silence and then we heard the lion call again. A lion’s call is hard to describe in words, but is short of a roar. A lion’s call kind of sounds like a heavy huffing sound and I would never have guessed what it was without being told. Alwyn explained that it was two different groups of lions calling to each other to meet up to hunt. The lions were a few kilometers away but we could hear them clearly.

We sat around the fire and Alwyn cooked up some spaghetti. As we sat there fighting off the bugs. I heard a rustling sound behind me. I turned to the volunteer next to me and asked if he heard the same thing. I looked around and everyone was seated in a chair by the fire. The sound was not one of us. I turned on my flashlight and aimed it at the sound. It was a hyena which had snuck into our camp and was 15 feet behind me and he quickly ran off. We joked about “almost being eaten by a hyena” and Alwyn told us that we should not worry too much about a solitary hyena. Someone then asked if lions would walk through our camp. Alwyn said that in this part of the preserve, the lions are somewhat used to being around humans and are not curious about their camps. He told us that since there is nothing you can do to keep lions out (even fires) that we shouldn’t worry as long as we were in our tents. He has a story about waking up next to a lion but didn’t tell it to us.

Alwyn has been a guide in Botswana for over 15 years and has guided all kinds of people and even helped out for some television shows. He helped the filming of some footage that appeared in “Planet Earth.” The scene where lions take down an elephant was filmed in the Moremi Wildlife Reserve (not far from where we were) in Botswana and Alwyn served as a guide and helped out. We sat and peppered Alwyn with questions and listened to his stories until it was time to turn in.

All through the night I could hear the lion calls as well countless other animal noises, bird calls, and insect chirps and decided that I really didn’t need to leave my tent for anything.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thanksgiving in Botswana

I spent the last week up in Maun in a language workshop with several other volunteers and two Peace Corps language trainers. It was great to get to see everyone again and it helped me get motivated to study more Setswana. The language training was intense but fun. We worked on language for about 8 hours a day and I have a few more phrases to use every day.

Maun is about 6 hours northwest of where I live and is a major tourist hub in Botswana. Most of the safari companies are based there and everywhere we went we saw tourists. It was quite a different experience. Aside from all of the tourists, Maun is beautiful. It is near the Okavango Delta and because of all the water, everything there is very green. It almost felt like we were in a different country.

On Thursday, we learned vocabulary about cooking and commands. I can now say things like "hand me that knife" or "hand me that cup over there." We also got to cook a full Thanksgiving meal. Our hosts found 2 frozen turkeys and we also made spinach souffle, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and had cranberry sauce. It was almost like being at home.

Before the meal, we all went around and said what we were thankful for. After I thought about it for a bit, I realized just how much has happened in the past year and how much I have to be thankful for. As hard as it is for all of us to be away from home around the holidays, being able to get together and eat a somewhat normal Thanksgiving meal was quite comforting.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Botswana Parable: The Old Man and the Donkey

Heard this parable today and enjoyed it.

One day a man and his child needed to go into town. They only had one donkey to use and so the old man put the child on the back of the donkey and led it along the path to town.

They soon encountered a woman from another village. "What are you doing?" she asked. "You are an old man. You shouldn't be walking in such heat. Let your child walk and you use the donkey."

The old man switched places with his child and they continued down the path. Soon enough, they bumped into a man along the way.

"What are you doing?" asked the man. "You let your young child walk in this heat while you rest and ride on the donkey. You are a bad father!"

Not wanting to be a bad father, the old man quickly picked up his child and they both rode on the donkey.

As they came close to town they encountered a young woman. "That poor animal," she cried. "You two can both comfortably walk and here you are over burdening this poor animal in the heat. You both should be ashamed."

The old man and his child got off the donkey and the man pondered what to do next.

The two entered town soon after, both struggling to carry the donkey. The people in town all fell about laughing at the man. They called him "stupid" and "crazy." "No one in their right mind carries a donkey," proclaimed one man. "It should be the other way around."

Ashamed, the old man and the child quickly returned to their village.

It just goes to show that you can't please everyone at all times and just because someone has an opinion, it doesn't mean that they are right.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

If The Phone Doesn't Ring, It's Me

Ted Turner once said, "To be happy in this world, first you need a cell phone and then you need an airplane. Then you're truly wireless." I disagree with the happy part (probably because I don't have a jet) but it is nice to have a cell phone here.

The above picture is the model I have. Many people here refer to it as a "throwaway phone" because it is so cheap and simple. Despite this fact, it serves its function well, and I will not be too sad if I lose it or if it gets stolen. One curious thing about my phone is that the speaker is on the back of the phone. To hear people I sometimes have to turn the phone around backwards.

It even has a flashlight at the top. In Setswana, this phone is called "sedi la me" which translates to "my light." When I first got the phone, I remember thinking that a flashlight was a stupid thing to put on a cell phone. As it turns out, its a great thing. I cannot count the number of times I have used it to find something in the dark, light my path at night, or using it when the power goes out (which has been frequent in the last month).

The phones here work a little differently because the vast majority of them (including mine) are prepaid. There are three major companies that offer service and if you need more airtime, you simply find someone who is selling it. There are easily thousands of places to buy it in Francistown, from the post office all the way down to the street vendors. You get a little card with a code on it, input that number into your phone, and then you have more airtime. I like having the phone be prepaid. I don't have any bills to pay and I can never get charged for overages. If I don't have airtime, I cannot make calls or send texts.

It costs me about 6 Pula (about $1) per minute to the call the US and is as much as 3 Pula (about 50 cents) per minute to make domestic calls. On my $9 a day budget and at those prices, I don't call too much. I do send a lot of texts (1,986 since I got my phone). Texts to any phone in Botswana are 25 Thebe (about 4 cents) and I can send one to the US for about 1 Pula (15 cents).

The price of talking on the phone leads to some curious behavior here. It is not considered rude to answer your phone no matter where you are. You never know who might be calling and since it costs nothing to receive a call, you might as well talk on someone else's dime (or Pula). I have seen people answer the phone at ceremonies and in the middle of meetings. This wasn't the "Hey. Let me call you back" conversation either. This person answered the phone and sat there having a conversation in the middle of the meeting.

Also, because it costs money to make a call but not receive one, people will dial your number and then hang up as soon as you answer, hoping you will call them back. I have found this one to be especially annoying because it is always from a number I do not know. I had one person do this dial and then hang up routine 5 times over the course of a Sunday.

It is still a little mind boggling to me that I can have a little, cheap phone that will make or receive a call to someone 10,000 miles away in the US. Having a phone doesn't exactly fit into the Peace Corps Volunteer stereotype, but it sure makes life here a little easier and a lot more connected.

Monday, November 15, 2010

My Very Own Billboard

I spotted my Setswana name in big letters on a recent trip. This is one of a series of billboards at the bus rink in the capital city of Gaborone.

As part of my training, I lived with a host family and they gave me the Setswana name "Mopati." My name has many different translations and it depends on who you ask. If you look in a dictionary it translates to "a suitable wedding partner." Other definitions include "partner," "one who helps out," and my personal favorite, "sidekick."

I had to get a little help with the translation and it roughly translates to: "A journey becomes shorter with a partner (sidekick)."

Its not quite a traditional African proverb, but it works.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lending a Helping Hand

I often go to another volunteer's project in Francistown to help out. It is called Mother Theresa Resource Center and it offers after school programs for the kids in the area. Typically on Saturdays, the Rotary Club comes out to do a feeding program and I often go to help out and play with the kids. It is often the highlight of my week. On a recent Saturday, a few other volunteers pitched in to help with a work day. We put in some tires to keep people from driving on the soccer field, cleared out an area for a new basketball court, prepared garden plots, and set up a compost bin.

Digging holes to put the tires in.

Then filling the holes back in with the tires.

The kids really got into it and wanted to help.

More helping.

We kind of made a straight line.

The garden plots

From here, I hope we can get the garden plots going and teach a few people in the community how to tend them and have gardens of their own. I am working with the other volunteer to line up some funding and supplies and hopefully we will have the garden going by January.

We might even have the kids paint the tires as an art project.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

My Favorite Picture I Have Taken (So Far)

This little guy's name is Zhu Zhu (I'm guessing at the spelling). He babbles constantly in Setswana and always has a huge smile on his face. He will run over to me whenever he sees me and asks to be picked up.

The other day, he wanted to try on my backpack. I put it on him and we both laughed. It almost touched the ground.

No sooner had I turned around that he had opened the zipper and was rooting around inside.

I yelled over at him jokingly, "Legodu!" (Thief!)

My voice startled him and he jumped and quickly stood up. Once he saw me he laughed and said, "Ga ke legodu." (I am not a thief.)

He then reached down into my bag, pulled out a packet of tissues, and asked, "Ke eng?" (What is this?)

I have no clue what the word for tissue is in Setswana so I just told him the word in English. I pulled one out to show him what that were used for and he was amazed.

One of the best parts of being here is getting to interact with the kids and Zhu Zhu is by far my favorite.