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.