Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lesotho, the Mountain Kingdom

I recently went to Lesotho in vacation. Lesotho is a country that is totally within the borders of South Africa. The lowest elevation in Lesotho is higher than the lowest elevation of any other country on earth. It is sometimes called the "Nepal of Africa." (And interestingly, it is home to the only ski resort in Africa).

The trip involved going hiking for 5 days up into the mountains, staying in remote villages, and then returning to our lodge. I greatly underestimated the distance we would be traveling and how rough the terrain would be. The trip is typically done on horseback, but to save on cost, we decided to hike it and only have a pack horse. In 4 days of hiking, we traveled over 80km (50 miles). 

The first day started out relatively flat and we crossed a river over a small bridge. After stopping for lunch, we continued on through several small villages. In each village children would run excitedly to the path and some even walked along for a while. After hiking for 6-7 hours, we stopped for water at a spring. We were near a village and someone asked the guide how much farther we had to go. He pointed at a mountain in the distance and told us we were going to climb it and that the village where we would spend the night would be just beyond it. My first thought was "Surely he must be joking." We had been hiking all day and done some pretty rigorous climbing. As it turns out, I was wrong. Our guide wasn't joking. We climbed the mountain, go over the other side and found the first village we would be staying it. It was a brutally long day but the little village we stayed in was great. It was perched on the side of a hill and was made up of maybe 2 dozen huts. It was also isolated. To get food or other goods, the villagers have to hike over the same mountain we did and then back again.

We got up the next morning around 5:30 to prepare breakfast, pack up, and hike to the next village we would be staying in. As we passed by a house on the edge of the village, several people came out and began talking with our guide. He translated that they had just bought a generator and a television but couldn't get either of them to work. The manual for the generator was in English and none of the people understood it. We had our guide translate the manual and then got the generator going. We plugged in the TV and the DVD player and everyone's eyes lit up and they smiled when we put on a DVD. I guess its possible no one in that hut had ever seen a TV before.

The days were spent hiking through beautiful, rugged terrain. Some of the paths were quite steep and there was a lot of hiking down one side of a gorge and then right back up the other. My legs were beat. Then we would get to the village where we were going to stay the night and I got to sit down and take my shoes and socks off. Words can barely describe the joy I felt removing shoes and socks after hiking for 8+ hours each day. 

We stayed an extra day in the last village to get a chance to rest and also to go on a short hike to see a waterfall. After all the walking, it was nice to rest my legs and the waterfall turned out to be worth seeing. We hiked for about an hour to get to a point where we could see it. Some of use decided to hike up to get underneath the waterfall and go swimming. The weather was cloudy and cool and the water temperature could not have been above 50 degrees but I still jumped in for a few seconds. Its not everyday I get to see a waterfall.

The last day was another long hike out and was pretty uneventful until the last 2 hours. A large thunderstorm moved in and it poured cold rain on us the rest of the way back to lodge. Everything I had got soaked and I was shivering. The wind blew so hard the rain seems to be falling sideways. We got back to the lodge and I took a nice hot shower and tried to wash a week's worth of filth.

The trip was exhausting, but well worth it. Lesotho is a fascinating and beautiful place and the villages we saw remain virtually untouched by tourism. It was also refreshing to see large mountains and grass after living in the desert for 20 months. It is a trip I would do again in a heartbeat.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Preschool Graduation

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a graduation for St. Joseph's preschool in a little village near Francistown. I was there with a good friend of mine who raised much of the money to build the school. He was there as the guest of honor and I tagged along and took pictures.  

Monday, November 21, 2011

Did That Really Just Happen?

Did that really just happen?

Did I really just see that?

Are you kidding me?

I have had many funny, weird, and otherwise bizarre experiences here. The following are some of the more memorable ones (so far):

I was in a car, driving on a rural road, when I saw a few trucks parks on the side of the road and a group of a few men standing around. The car slowed, and as we got closer, I saw what they were doing. The men had come across a dead cow and were butchering it right there on the side of the road. The men were walking away with large hunks of the cow and putting them in the backs of their trucks. The severed head sat on one truck's tailgate. I looked over at the driver and we both shrugged. Nothing about what we saw seemed abnormal.

Every year a certain type of caterpillar appears. The locals call them mopane worms and are highly prized as a delicacy. The caterpillars also happen to be quite beautiful. They are about 2-3 inches long and have bright orange, blue, or yellow streaks down the length of their bodies. I was walking home one day after work with a woman from the organization and noticed a particularly large mopane worm in our path. I stopped, crouched down, and pointed to the caterpillar. The woman got a big smile on her face and reached down to grab it. Before I could do anything to stop her, she had twisted off the head and squeezed the insides out on the ground. She then held it out and offered it to me to eat. I politely declined and was mad at myself for pointing it out in the first place.

I was standing on an already over-crowded bus when it stopped to pick up a few more passengers. One of the men we picked up crammed in and stood next to me. I looked over and he had a chicken in a plastic grocery bag under one arm. He had put the chicken in the bag and then tied the handles so that just the chicken's head was sticking out. The chicken spent the ride slowly opening and closing its mouth and I tried  to stay far enough away from it to keep from being bitten. When the man got off the bus in a small village, he set the bag with the chicken in down next to him while he collected his bags. The chicken just sat there, in the bag and didn't try to get out. 

I was in the dreaded middle seat on a bus, sandwiched between two rather large women. The temperature was in the 90's outside and both women fell asleep quickly. After a rather uncomfortable hour, I felt sweat dripping down my right arm. It was from the woman to my right.

I was taking my normal walk home, where I usually talk to the neighborhood kids and give them high fives. One little boy had just finished a bath, and when he saw the kids crowding around me, came running out -  not wanting to miss out on giving me a high five. So here I was surrounded by small children and this little naked boy, about 4 years old, comes running up shouting "high five!" I almost fall over from laughing, but I do give the kid a high five. I stand up and tell the kids I have to go home and they scatter, except for the naked boy and another little boy. As I turn to leave, I see the other little boy point emphatically to the naked boy's penis and start laughing.  

I was with several children and we were all hunched over, drawing pictures in the dirt. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a small boy walk over and stand behind several of the children. When I looked up to greet him, I noticed that his pants were down around his ankles and he was peeing on the other children. It took several seconds for the children to process what was going on. Once they turned around and figured out why they were getting wet, they all started bawling. The small boy pulled up his pants and scurried off before I could catch him. One little boy who had been peed on was so distraught that he ran over and tightly hugged my leg.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ridiculous Heat

The high temperature was over 100 from Thursday to Monday. I thought I was going to pass out from the heat. On Saturday I drank over 6 liters of water and it didn't seem to make a difference. Another volunteer told me it got up to 101 degrees inside his house, and  I have no doubt that it was that hot in mine.

My fan seems to have little effect and does little beyond pushing hot air around . I do my best to continually drink water and not move too much. I hope the rains come soon and cool things off a bit.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Quad Biking in Namibia

The Namib desert in Namibia is one of the oldest deserts on the planet and is home to the tallest dunes in the world. One of the major attractions in the dunes is quad biking. Everyone I talked to that has been to Swakopmund insisted that I try quad biking. I have been on a quad bike before, and while it was fun, I wouldn't put it in the "best-times-I-have-ever-had" category. I just didn't understand the hype surrounding the dunes and quad biking. I can now say I was wrong. It was easily one of the coolest experiences I have had in Africa (and maybe all time - seriously - no hyperbole). 

Words really don't do the experience justice. One minute I was looking at breath-taking views of seemingly endless sand dunes and then the next I was flying down a 150 foot tall dune at 50mph. It was incredible and is something I would do again in a heartbeat. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Namibia Vacation

I spent the last few days in Swakopmund, Namibia. Swakopmund is on the Atlantic ocean and has a mild climate because the ocean is so cold. The temperatures were between 50 and 70 F -  just what I needed after having a solid week of above 100 degree temperatures in Botswana. It is always interesting to get out and see other countries around Botswana. Despite their proximity, I have found the other countries in southern Africa to be quite different and Namibia was no exception. 

Namibia is the second least densely populated country in the world after Mongolia. It was a protectorate of Germany for many years, then became part of South Africa, and has only been an independent country since 1990. There is still evidence of German influence, especially in Swakopmund.

The town is quite interesting. The architecture is quite German and there were even restaurant menus and signs in German. There was fog each morning that would burn off in the heat of the day only to return later on in the afternoon. It vaguely reminded me of San Francisco.   

The highlights of the trip were the food and the ocean. 

Each morning, I got up and went to a little German bakery for an apple danish and a big mug of coffee. 

We also ate at a sushi bar. The place was at the end of a long pier and we sat outside looking out into the ocean. When I saw the first sushi roll I could have cried for joy. It was the first sushi I have had since leaving the US and it was quite good. I ate 8 rolls and could have eaten more. 

I also was craving fresh seafood, which is difficult - not to mention expensive - to come by in landlocked Botswana. We searched high and low for a fish market but couldn't find one. Then on the way back from the beach another volunteer and I saw some guys clustered around some faucets cleaning fish. We figured they would know about a fish market and asked them. As it turns out, there really is not a fish market in the town, but they offered to sell us some of their catch. We bought 3 large fish for the equivalent of 18 US dollars. They were even cleaned, gutted, and salted for us. That night we smothered the fish in butter, garlic, and lemon and threw them on the grill. The fish was bony but delicious and we even had enough to make fish tacos the next night. 

Another highlight was eating at the Brauhaus. Ever since traveling to Germany, I have loved German food and beer. The Brauhaus did not disappoint.  I had a liter of dark beer and an order of eisbein, which is a favorite of mine (and one of the better foods I tried in Germany). 

I also really enjoyed getting to see the ocean again. After being in a desert for 18+ months, I relish getting to swim in any body of water. The South Atlantic ocean is quite cold, and despte being a huge wimp about cold water, I got in and swam anyways. We got tossed around a good bit by the waves but it felt good to be swimming in the ocean again.

As with all vacations, this one was just not long enough. I could have stayed for a week or more exploring the streets and trying out new cafes and restaurants. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

When Helping Does More Harm Than Good

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a meeting at the community center where I go to help out. One of the subjects that came up was about a call the center director received that week. There was a volunteer organization (we'll call them organization X) who was having a conference in town and wanted to get out and do some community service. They had heard about the center and wanted to come out and plant trees.

We all agreed that this would be a nice project and that the center could certainly use a few more trees. We finalized the date and time for them to come and figured we would just have to show up to help.

It turns out Organization X needed a lot more help than they initially let on. They later called the center coordinator and asked if he could arrange getting trees for them to plant. This is quite a task here because there are only a handful of plant nurseries and they charge more than 100 Pula ($15) per tree. It is asking a lot from them to donate trees, both in time and revenue lost. Between the local nurseries and the ministry of agriculture, the center coordinator was able to scrounge up around 50 trees. 

Then he gets another call from Organization X and they mention that they are going to be really pressed for time. They ask if he would mind digging a few of the holes for the trees himself to get the project started. He went out the day before the event and dug a row of holes for the trees. As I can attest after digging my garden, digging in the ground here is not easy task. The soil is sun baked and is practically as hard as concrete. 

So now the holes are dug, the trees have been donated, and all that remains to be done is for this group to show up and plant the trees.

I show up to the center the morning of the tree planting early because I figure I will need to help out. Members of Organization X begin to arrive in their personal cars. Some of them are even dressed in suits and other formal attire. This should have been the first sign that something was up.

The leadership of Organization X addresses the children and other people who have showed up and since the talk was entirely in Setswana, I am not sure of everything that they said. After going through the various formalities, a prayer, and several short speeches, it was time to plant the trees. 

The children were very excited by this and they run over to the pre-dug holes to watch. The members of Organization X bring a few trees out and then place one in the hole. Something didn't look right about and so I walked up closer. The tree sapling was still in the plastic sack it was grown in. The guy hadn't even bothered to take the root ball out and planted the tree in the ground. He just picked the whole thing up and set it in the hole. 

I was about to say something about it when a bunch of the other members picked up a shovel and gathered around for a picture. Then they gave their shovels to another set of members and that group got their picture taken. They had taken a bunch of pictures where it looked like they had done a lot of work, but they actually didn't do anything. 

Then they grabbed their organization's banner and invited everyone to gather in front for a picture. I politely declined and tried to figure out what was going on. After the group picture, they thanked the center coordinator, got back in their cars, and drove off. All we had to show for it was some holes in the ground and 50 tree saplings still in plastic.

I was beyond mad about this. Not only had they not done any actual community service, but they had dumped all of the work onto the center coordinator who would now have to plant or give away all those trees, not to mention all the work he had done digging the holes. It was almost too ridiculous to believe. 

I guess the road to hell really is paved with good intentions.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Living Without Air Conditioning

"It's not as hot as hell here but you can see and feel hell."

The weather this week has been something else. The highs on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were all above 100. Some news reports said it got up to 107 yesterday here. It is miserably hot - so hot in fact - that even the Batswana are complaining about the heat. As I left work yesterday, I opened the front door and stepped outside. I was immediately hit by a blast of hot air, as if I has stepped into an oven or someone was holding a blow dryer in front of my face. A coworker who walked out behind me said, "Ah! Even the air is hot today!"

At best, extreme heat like this makes my life uncomfortable; at worst, downright miserable. I feel like I am always dripping with sweat and just walking around will leave my shirt soaked through and sticking to my back. 

Much like the winter weather here, when I first heard about the summers, I scoffed. After all, I had lived in a desert before. I even lived in Las Vegas during the summer. How bad could it really be?

What makes this heat so bad is that its hard to get away from it and cool down. I walk everywhere, so there isn't a chance to get in a car and blast the A/C. (Even if I did take a taxi, they don't run the A/C, they just crack a window). Then, when I get home already hot, tired, and sweaty from walking around, my house is hot. The tin roof and concrete walls that seemed to amplify the cold during the winter, now trap heat like a sauna. 

Once I am home my strategy revolves around sitting in front of a fan on its highest setting, drinking as much cold water as I can (I keep 7.5 liters in my fridge at all times), holding ice packs on my wrists and neck, and wearing minimal clothing. I try to do as little cooking as possible because the stove and oven quickly raise the temperature in the kitchen to unbearable levels. 

When it is time for bed I run a cold bath (and if I am really miserable, I add ice) and sit in it until I start to shiver. Then I jump out and get in bed with the fan turned all the way up, hoping that it will keep me cool enough to fall asleep. Most nights I am lucky to get more than a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. 

I have always preferred summer to winter and hot weather to cold weather, but I may be rethinking that in the coming months. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Desert Blooms

 I never thought I would ever miss rain, but I really do. Winter is the dry season here in Botswana and it last rained sometime in March or April. It was so long ago I really cant remember. Then last weekend, a storm rolled in. I could see the massive thunder clouds as they blew in, but I figured that they would just blow on by.

As I went to bed, I could hear the first rumblings of thunder and I opened my windows so I could hear them better. The flashes of lighting lit up the room and the thunder rumbled throughout the house. I was enjoying the thunder and lightening and then it actually started raining. The first rain storm in 6 months. I was tempted to run outside and dance in the rain. I particularly enjoyed smelling the wet earth after the rain.

After the brief rainstorm, the desert came to life. Gone are the barren tree branches and various shades of brown. Every plant in the whole city seems to be exploding in color. It makes my walk home a lot more scenic.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Blogging About Community Service

I wrote a post for my Fraternity's blog about community service and it was posted this week. You can read it here:

Friday, September 30, 2011

Botswana Independence Day

Today marks the 45th anniversary of Botswana's independence from Great Britain. 

In 1966, when Botswana became in independent nation, it was one of the five poorest in the world. There was only one paved road in the country. It was a 13km stretch and was made in the 1940's for a visit by the royal family. It stretched from the train station to a district commissioner's office. 

Diamonds were discovered soon after and the country's early leaders wisely decided that revenues from those diamonds should go the public good. Diamond revenues funded infrastructure, social programs, and most of the other development in the country. Between the years 1966 and 2000, the economy averaged 9% growth per year, making it the fasted growing economy in the world during that period. 

While there are still improvements and development to be done, Botswana has come a long way in a short time. Happy Independence Day to the "Jewel of Africa."

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Backyard Garden - September 2011

My little backyard garden is off and running. After a week or so of watering and hoping for growth, the seeds sprouted.  I now have corn, cucumber, broccoli, tomato, jalapeno peppers, basil, and cilantro growing. The only seeds that didn't sprout were the red peppers I planted.

The corn has really shot up and is already over a foot tall. The cucumber plants are also growing really well. I'm beginning to think that I should have dug a larger garden.

I am also really excited about the tomato plants. There is nothing quite like a perfectly ripened tomato fresh off the vine. All this initial success makes me want to dig another few plots and plant them too.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Gender Norms

I have been trying to think of ways to improve the after school art program I help with. On any given day there can be 10-40 kids whose ages range from 3-15. It is quite difficult to think of something that will be appropriate for and engage all the participants. 

I discussed this with a teacher who is helping out and she suggested we break them up by gender. She would do a project with the girls and I would do a project with the boys. I decided to print outlines of cars and have the boys get to color them however they wanted to. The teacher was going to make cardboard cut outs of purses and have the girls decorate them.

That Friday rolled around and I took the car outlines I had out to the center. The kids set up the tables and chairs as usual and sat down. I started passing out the cars to the boys but then several girls told me they wanted to color cars. I had enough, so I gave a car to every girl as well. The kids sat and excitedly colored in their cars. 

As soon as one of the kids finished he or she would run excitedly over to me and show off their completed cars. It went on like this until the teacher showed up with the supplies to make the purses. The girls immediately ran over to start coloring and decorating their purses.

When some of the boys saw what was going on, they went over and asked to decorate a purse as well. (So much for dividing the group by gender.) Those boys then proceeded to color, decorate, and then proudly show off the purses they had made. 

I laughed to myself a bit and think how bizarre that situation was. I guess it was a mistake to assume that only the boys would want to color cars and only the girls would want to decorate purses. The kids are so excited to do crafts that they really don't care what they are making. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Neighborhood Kids

Every day on my way home from work, I take a shortcut to my house from the main shopping mall. Along the way, I pass by several houses and lots of kids. The kids quickly run over to hold my hand or beg for things like candy. 

There was one precocious little boy who really stood out. He would run up to me, grab my hand, and start talking rapidly in Setswana. My friend translated what he said one day. He asked for candy, which did not surprise me at all. What did surprise me was his reasoning. He said that he could ask for money to buy candy but if we just gave him the candy directly, we could cut out the middle man. 

I had to laugh at that one, and if I had any candy I would have given it to him; even though I have a rule about not giving out anything. 

I now see that little boy almost every day. His name is Mangwato (Mang-wha-too) and he is on the right in the above picture wearing the red shirt. When I first used to see him, he would run out to see me yelling, "Lekgoa!" (White person!). I have taught him how to give a high five and how to say "high five" in English. Now instead of asking me for things, he will run out and ask for endless high fives. He also carefully inspects my bags when I come from the store and asks me in Setswana what I will be cooking. 

Now when I walk by he will come yelling either "Legkoa la me" or "Tsala ya me." The first translates into "My white person" and the second translates to "My friend." I find the "my white person" one particularly amusing. 

Now when I walk home I am bombarded with a chorus line of little voices yelling "high five!" from all directions. I stop and give all the kids high fives before heading home.  It is the perfect little pick-me-up after a day in the office.