Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Things I Will Miss About Botswana : The Kids

This is a new series I will be running from now until the time I leave Botswana.

There are a lot of little kids in the "neighborhood" around my house. Most of them are too young to go to school so I see them playing in the streets any time I walk by. There are two brothers (far right and far left in the picture above) who I taught how to give me a "high five." They speak no English except now they run and yell, "High Five!" endlessly whenever I walk by. They then taught every other little kid in the area how to say it and so I get bombarded from all sides when I walk down the street.

I have tried to teach them my name, even my Setswana name, but they have never used it. Instead, they have taken to calling me "Lekgoa la me" which translates into "my white person" or "my foreigner." I find it very funny to be followed down the street by a bunch of kids running, waving their arms wildly, and yelling, "My white person!" over and over again. Its not like I wouldn't stick out otherwise.

I recently taught them how to give a "high ten" and a "low ten." Now mixed in with the constant cries of "high five" are "Dira Ten!" which is a mixture of Setswana and English for "Do 10!" I can be having the worse day ever, but those kids will immediately bring a smile to my face and they have this amazing ability to make my day better. 

When I was going through the recruitment process, my recruiter told me that volunteers who served in Africa sometimes had problems with being a minor celebrity, especially when they had to adjust back to life in the US. I don't know if I quite feel like a celebrity but I do know that I will miss having these little kids drop everything and come running over just to give me a high five.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Only in Botswana

This is one of my new favorite stories from my time here:

The other week, I went to the post office to pick up more boxes from Mother Bear Project. When the bears are shipped they come in several large boxes, each containing 50 bears. This presents a small problem for me. First, the postal workers don't like to lift the large boxes, so I have to walk around to the side door and carry the boxes out myself. I grabbed them one by one and then placed them on the curb outside. 

The next problem is finding transportation because I obviously cannot carry all four boxes at once. I stood at the curb and tried to flag down a taxi to get me home. That morning, I had gone to the post office early to avoid being stuck in line. I did manage to avoid the lines, but not the morning commute. Every taxi that passed by was full of people. I stood there on the street for a while and tried not to get frustrated.

Then a red car passed by me and the driver immediately turned around and came to park right in front of me. He jumped out and seemed happy to see me. "Mopati!" he said, "Do you need a ride? Where are you going?"

I am pretty sure I have never seen the guy before. I smiled and pretended that I knew him because he obviously knew me. I told him I was trying to get a taxi home and he offered to give me a ride. We loaded the packages and I got in. We talked about the weather and other small talk as I tried to figure out where I knew him from. When I tried to give him directions, he laughed and told me he knew the way. 

We pulled up to my house, I unloaded the boxes, and then thanked him. He told me it was great to see me and that he would see me again soon. 

I still have no idea who he was but I did get a free ride home. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Maputo Fish Market (Mozambique Part 3)

(Part 3 of a series. Click here for Part 1 and Part 2)

There really is nothing too special about the Mozambican capital, Maputo. It is a very large, crowded, and incredibly dirty city. That being said, a major highlight of being there for me was the fish market. Other volunteers had told me about the market and it sounded great. There were people selling fresh seafood in the front and then several restaurants behind that. You would buy your fresh seafood and then take it to a restaurant to have them cook it.

The market is bordered by  a low, corrugated metal wall and there was a small doorway leading in. Before I could even get to the door, there were several guys around me telling me to come to their places. "I have the best! Come to my restaurant!" yelled one. Another leaned in close and whispered, "I give you best price. Best price." I waived all of them off and walked in.

There were several booths with all sorts of seafood offerings. One booth had a pile of lobsters, another had massive fish, beside it was one with massive king prawns, and then there was one with buckets full of clams. The clams were intermittently shooting small jets of water out. It was overwhelming to walk do the aisle and have everyone yelling in Portuguese and English to come buy from them.

I walked through the market several times to see what was available and settled on eating shrimp. There were several women selling shrimp and I shopped around, not really wanting to haggle too much. One of the women had king prawns (large shrimp) that were easily 6 inches long. She asked for 800 Metacis ($30) per kilogram so I walked away. Another woman had regular sized shrimp and started off by asking 400 Metacais ($15) per kilogram. After some negotiation and walking away, she lowered the price to 200 Metacais ($7.50) per kilogram, but only if I bought 2 kilograms.

Now with 2 kilograms of shrimp in a plastic bag, walked over to the restaurant side to find someone to cook them for me. Once again, I was quickly approached by several guys and they all had different prices. I found a guy that offered to grill the shrimp for 90 Metacais ($3.30) per kilogram. He laid out a tablecloth and we sat under an umbrella in an outdoor eating area and had a beer.

I started to get worried when 30 minutes and I had not seen the guy. After the run of bad luck on the trip, I began to wonder if the guy had simply taken my shrimp and walked away. We looked around the area but couldn't find him. After 15 more minutes he appeared and assured us the food was coming soon.

He came back carrying a large white platter with the shrimp laid out. They had been grilled and then coated with with butter, lemon, and garlic. It was some of the best shrimp I have ever eaten. They were so good that Tess, who is normally a little squeamish with shrimp, peeled and ate them just as fast as I did.

All figured up, I paid about $21 for 4.4 pounds of cooked shrimp and it was easily the best meal I have had in the last year. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Paradise Found (Mozambique Part 2)

(This post is a continuation. For Part 1, Click Here)

We arrived off Inhaca Island after an uneventful three hour ferry ride and the boat dropped anchor. Because the tide was out, smaller boats met the ferry to take us to shore. The island had a very "tropical" feel and looked beautiful from the boats. I couldn't wait to enjoy the beach and the ocean.

The plan was to find a place to stay and if nothing was available, go back to the capital on the return ferry later in the afternoon. There were all sorts of people who waded out into the water to meet the small boats. They offered to carry bags and show people around the island, for a fee. After noticing the bags we were carrying, one guy offered to show us to a nice place to stay. I was a little wary but we followed him onto the island. He took us to a little place that was owned by a local guy named Fernando. Lucky for us Fernando spoke some English and had 3 rooms available. The lodge had showers, a self-catering kitchen, and the rooms were very nice. We dropped our bags off and set out to explore the island.

We asked around for a good place to eat and where the best beaches were. We found a great little bar and restaurant that had fresh fish and good beer. The problem was the beaches. The best beaches were on the opposite side of the island about 12km from where we were staying and too far to walk. We got a few quotes for transport to and from the beach but they were all around 2,000 Metacais (about $75). As we left the restaurant, we noticed a guy sitting in a big Land Rover. We asked him if he gave rides to people and he offered to do it for 1,500 Metacais ($55).  

The guy's name was Virgil, but he went by the nickname "Peri Peri." He had been an economist for the government of Mozambique and had even worked for the United Nations. He is retired and has lived on the island for the last 12 years. He was a fantastic tour guide and told us all about the island. He even let us use his beach umbrella and some masks and fins to go snorkeling. I was still a little hesitant to be paying so much money just to go to the beach for the day but the beach was beautiful. We had the beach to ourselves for the entire day and spent our time relaxing, swimming, and snorkeling. The water was a little murky but the snorkeling was good. The water was incredibly deep and dropped to 40+ feet only feet from the shoreline. I spent a good portion of the day diving down as deep as I could on a single breath and watching fish. It was a difficult place to leave.

The other great thing about staying on the island is that besides tourism, a major source of income for people on the island is fishing. Every day after lunch the fishing fleets would return and sell some of their catch right off the boats. We bought a large fish that weighed over 1.5 kg and 1 kg of squid for 350 Metacais ($13) and had fried fish and calamari that night. Fernando, the lodge owner, even showed us how to prepare the squid and make it into calamari strips. The next night, we bought some more fish and made fish tacos. It was so nice to eat seafood again. In Botswana it is very expensive and not very fresh so I never eat it. 

Our time on the island came to an end too quickly but I enjoyed getting to swim in the ocean and overindulging in seafood. It was not quite the vacation we had planned but things ended up working out pretty well, all things considered. The last day on the island was quite windy because there was a tropical cyclone passing between Mozambique and Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The wind was blowing steadily and had whipped up the waves in the bay. There were waves ranging from 3-5 feet. The ferry ride back was pretty rough and there were several people on board that got seasick. There was even a time when I thought the boat was going to capsize because of a big wave. 

We finally made it to the docks back onto dry land to spend the remaining days of our vacation back in the capital.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Paradise Lost (Mozambique Part 1)

Mozambique has been at the top of the list of countries I wanted to travel to ever since I first got to Botswana. Volunteers from the previous group would return from trips and share stories and pictures of time spent relaxing on beautiful, tropic-like beaches and eating fresh seafood. I craved a vacation where I could sit on a nice beach with a cold drink, eat fresh seafood, and just relax. 

The problem with a trip to Mozambique is that it is a bit tricky to sort out the logistics of getting there. Mozambique requires that all Americans get a visa before entering the country. To get this visa, I had to physically appear at the Mozambique Embassy and pay them for the privilege of entering their country. It was no small feat working out how to get down to the capital and it was quite costly. 

Once the visa issues were sorted out, we began to work on the travel plans. Getting to Mozambique on my budget involves several buses and dozens of hours worth of bus travel. From my house to the town we wanted to go to in Mozambique, would mean 4 different buses and cover a distance of 1,900km (1,180mi) one way. I definitely looked forward to the destination, just not the journey. 

The journey actually turned out to be for the most part uneventful. We had an 8 hour layover (if there is such a thing for bus travel) in Johannesburg. The bus depot there is not in a safe area so we jumped a bus to a suburb called Sandton. There is a big mall there and we figured we could find something there to keep entertained. I felt like a fish out of water in the mall. All around me were chic designer stores selling things for more than my monthly stipend and very well dressed people whisked by me with their shopping bags. So here I was, standing in one of the poshest areas of the city wearing a plain t shirt and my ragged, beat up, and stained khaki shorts. I was definitely out of my element. 

After killing time at the mall, we got on our overnight bus to Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. The bus left at 10:00pm and would arrive in Maputo at 8:00 the next morning. I  reclined the seat as far back as it would go, got comfortable, and then popped a sleeping pill. I managed to not only sleep the whole way there but the attendant had to wake me up when the bus got to the border. We had arrived just before the border opened and were waiting along with other buses, combis, and private vehicles. When the border opened it was a mad rush to get in line and a little chaotic. 

We passed through the border without any hassles and continued into the city. We found our hostel, dropped our bags, and set out to explore the city. Maputo is a very large city that seems to be crumbling right before your eyes. All around there are architectural reminders of its time as a Portuguese colony but also of the country's brutal 16 year civil war.

We found a cool little food place in a back ally that served a dish with shrimp, rice, and salad for under $4. It was the first time I have had shrimp in two years and it was amazing. We also quickly discovered how little English the average Mozambican knows (if they knew any at all). The official language of the country is Portuguese and we were limited to very basic communication and hand gestures.

We went to bed early that night because we had to be up at 5:00 to catch the bus going north to Tofo. We had heard great things about Tofo. It has amazing beaches and is a place where you can find whale sharks. I was especially looking forward to maybe getting the chance to snorkel with a whale shark.

A shuttle came to pick us up the next morning to take us to the bus rank. We got on the bus going to Tofo, paid our fare, and waited while they packed every available inch of space with sacks of rice, various other goods, bags, and people. It was going to be a hot, crowded, and quite uncomfortable ride. I tried to nod off, but couldn't find a comfortable position. About an hour or so out of the capital, We suddenly came up on a large line of trucks and cars on the side of the road. The line stretched easily over a kilometer and people were milling all around the road. The driver drove down to the end of the line and then stopped to ask what was going on. As it turned out, there had been major floods in South Africa and that water had raged down the river into Mozambique. The flood waters had washed out a large section of the road and water was rushing through the gap. This road is the only way to get from the capital to cities in the north. We were pretty much stuck. The driver parked the bus and wandered off. 

Rumors abounded. One was that the road was going to open by noon, another said 2pm. Yet another one was that the road would be knocked out for a month. We ended up sitting and waiting for the better part of 6 hours before the driver decided that we would head back to the capital. Our beach vacation to Tofo was off. Compounding our misery was that the driver had spent a large portion of our fares putting fuel in the bus and could not pay refunds for tickets. They offered to take us again for free the next day. 

We limped back into the capital and tried to figure out our options. There was no way that they were going to fix a 10 meter stretch of road overnight and so we looked through a guidebook for other options. Maputo is in a large bay and does not really have good beaches (raw sewage is dumped directly in as well). I did not want to sit in the capital for the whole vacation. We learned from the guidebook that there is a small island at the mouth of the bay and is only a 3 hours ferry ride away. The guidebook talked about "pristine" beaches and made it out to be quite nice. We decided to give it a shot. It was too late in the night to make reservations anywhere and so we decided that we would just go out there and hope there was some kind of cheap accommodation.

We wanted to get to the docks early because the ferry could leave at any time between 7 and 8:30 based on the tides and winds. We all got up early again and looked for a taxi. There were five of us and to save money we asked the taxi driver if we could all just pile in. (This is not an uncommon occurrence in Botswana. If there is space in a vehicle, they cram people in). The driver didn't have a problem with it and we set off for the docks. While waiting at a traffic light, a police truck passed through the intersection in front of us. The officers caught sight of us and the truck lurched to a stop in the middle of the deserted intersection. Five police officers carrying machine guns got off and directed the taxi to pull over. A police officer approached us and asked to see everyone's passport. It is a law that all visitors must carry their passports at all times and this is commonly checked by police looking for fines or bribes.

The officer then told us that it was against the law to have so many people in a taxi and that he would have to arrest us all. We tried unsuccessfully to argue that the taxi driver should be the one fined or in trouble. Our taxi driver settled low in his seat and just stared down at the pedals. I had a feeling he knew exactly what was going on. The officer again told us to get out of car and that were going to be taken to jail. Someone mentioned that it should just be a fine and the officer then asked how much we were willing to give him as a "fine." One of us offered up some minuscule amount and he quickly raised it to 1,000 Metacais (about $40). He took the cash, got back in the truck with the others, and then they left. It was a total shakedown from start to finish and it was infuriating. (And I would be willing to bet the driver was in on it as well).

In hindsight we should have called his bluff to go to the station or mentioned that we were going to call the US Embassy but we didn't want to miss the ferry. There was only one ferry per day and some days it didn't run at all. Any delay because of the police could potentially mean getting stuck in the capital for a few more days.

Everything with the vacation seemed to be falling apart and now we had basically been robbed by the police. We got on the ferry and hoped the island would be worth seeing.  

Monday, January 16, 2012

Teddy Bears in Botswana

A few months ago, I got an email out of the blue from an organization called Mother Bear Project. Mother Bear gets people to knit teddy bears which are then sent all over the world to Orphaned and vulnerable children. I agreed to let them send me some bears and after a few months, I was staring at 4 large boxes sitting on the Post Office floor. The boxes were so large that the postal workers refused to bring them to me and I had to walk around to the back and move them myself. Inside the 4 large boxes were 200 teddy bears.

The only requirements when I handed them out were that I was to take a picture of each child receiving his or her bear. Each bear has a little name tag that has the first name of the person who knitted the bear and the organization wanted to send the pictures to their knitters to show them where the bear ended up and to motivate them to knit more. 

This past Saturday, along with the help of a few friends, I distributed all 200 of the bears. That day at the center was controlled chaos. I had the kids in a big line and brought them into the room to get their bear and get their picture taken 2 at a time. It took about an hour to get them all handed out. The reactions of the kids was interesting. Some were overjoyed and had beaming smiles. Others seemed dumbfounded and walked around like a deer in the headlights. I even made 4 babies cry. They were just fine until I walked up and tried to hand them a teddy. They each took one look at the teddy, then at me, and then started bawling. One even tried to jump out of his mother's arms to get away from me. I guess not all children like free teddy bears after all. A lot of the children have never been given a gift in their entire lives and it was a special experience to get to see all the reactions.

Here is a link to the pictures I took (and it is a cultural thing to not smile in pictures, so don't think that the children were not happy to get their bears):

And here are some links if you are interested in finding out more about the Mother Bear Project:

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Backyard Garden - November and December 2011

The garden is still going despite my best efforts. I got a bunch of cucumber and the tomatoes have been small, but good. The broccoli is still coming it but doesn't seem big enough to eat yet.