Monday, June 27, 2011

Taking the Bad with the Good

I'll begin this blog by reiterating how great the people here in Gaborone really are. If you need directions, help finding something in the grocery store or mall, or just feel like striking up a random conversation, the people here are wonderful.

Now, what you are about to read may lead you to believe differently, but please, keep that first statement in mind throughout the following paragraphs. Before I get into the "meat" of the story, some prep work is required. Before we left Canada, we were told about the theft in Botswana. When we arrived in Botswana, we were told about the theft in Botswana. Don't walk around with your laptop, camera, cell phone, anything of value really, in plain sight. Any opportunity that presents itself will be taken by someone and the result will leave you with one less item in your possession. Since I got here, I've been careful with my laptop. I've been careful with my camera. I haven't, however, been careful with my cell phone. I take it out everywhere, walk around with it in my hand, think nothing of it - it's honestly a cheap piece of junk that gets me by. Or at least it was until last Thursday.

One of my roomies and I decided to get some exercise and go for a walk. It was still light outside so we decided to take a little path and discover, what we hoped would be, a shortcut to the grocery store near our house. That was mistake #2. Technically mistake #1 was leaving the house with my cellphone in one hand and my keys in the other. As we came to the end of the path and were presented with a decision as to whether to turn right or left, two teenage boys came strolling down the path. We didn't think anything of it. We pass people all of the time. It's no big deal. Well, this time it was. One of them grabbed my phone to which I reacted by clutching it tighter and yelling at him. I guess I wasn't scary enough, what with my 5'3" frame and all, because he proceeded to bite me until I let go of the phone.

Now let me clarify; it's not the piece of junk phone which I've since replaced for around $30 or the $50 in airtime that was on it when he took it that upsets me. Not in the least. I mean it was annoying to have to go and buy a new phone, but that was taken care of with little effort. What bothers me is the insecurity, stupidity, violation, frustration that I now have to get over. I will get over it, it'll just take some time.

Please remember, after all of that, that Botswana is a wonderful place to visit. Although it has been deemed a 'middle to high income' country (which is ridiculous by the way), there is a lot of poverty and, in turn, desperation. In the grand scheme of things, the vast majority of people here are the most kind-hearted people you will ever meet.

Alrighty, now for the good stuff! Thanks to one of the other volunteers here who knows my love of books, I was invited to come and help pick out books for the library at the Stepping Stones International centre in Mochudi (that's where her placement is). Of course, I was thrilled.
When I walked into the school hall where the collection of books was being held, 'thrilled' doesn't even come close to describing the emotion that came over me. I had heard that there was a possibility that the books had come from Books for Africa, and while a part of me was hopeful, I was pretty sure I wouldn't be that lucky. When I walked into the room and saw the hundreds of brown cardboard boxes with the red Books for Africa logo on them, I nearly screamed, fainted, cried, and/or all of the above. Some of you will know and understand why. For those of you who don't, I'll try my best to explain why this was one of my life's dreams come true.

Over the last two or so years, we've (by 'we' I mean my fellow WUSCers at Brandon University) collected used books (textbooks mostly), packed them, and shipped them to Better World Books. As partners with Better World Books, we were able to choose from a number of literacy organisations that we would further like to partner with. That organisation is Books for Africa (BFA). By partnering with BFA, the money from our sold books and/or the books themselves is used to further fund literacy projects in Africa - like the Botswana Book Project. So you see, being in that room with all of those books (even though they weren't Brandon University books) meant that I saw my work come full circle. I saw the smiling faces of the teachers and community group leaders as they carried out boxes and boxes of books. It was incredible. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the hours spent unloading book collection boxes, packing books into shipping boxes, and loading those boxes onto the truck, is worth it. Sometimes it's frustrating, all of the time it's back-breaking work, but being in that room, surrounded by those books, will make future shipments from our little prairie university so very worthwhile. One thing I can tell you for sure, is that from now on, the money raised from our books will be specifically designated to the Botswana Book Project.

Before signing off, I need to bring your attention to Pam Shelton who is otherwise known to me and many others I am sure as Wonder Woman. William Moulton Marston created the original Wonder Woman with a mission to bring ideals of love, peace, and sexual equality to the world. Pam Shelton has a similar mission, but in addition to peace and love, Pam seeks to provide education to build an informed nation; and build education she does. Judging from my glances at her listing of book recipient, 30+ schools and community groups received books from the shipment she brought in. If that in and of itself is not impressive enough, Pam doesn't see a single penny or pula from the donations that come into her self-founded organisation. She doesn't have an office space or an office supply budget and she doesn't pay herself a salary. She does all of it, each and every ounce of it, out of the goodness of her heart. Pam Shelton is my hero and who I want to be when I grow up. She is living my dream and if I had to leave Botswana right now, I would go home having had the experience of my lifetime.

One last tidbit (I know I said that already) to those of you who know me. You can bet that as soon as I get home, I'll be planning a fundraiser for Pam and her incredible Botswana Book Project! You can also bet that I'll be needing your help :)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Jump Jivin' in Joburg

As much as my time in Botswana is about the volunteering I am doing here, I also manage to find time to travel at least a little. Last weekend found me in a rented van with 2 of my roomies, 2 good Batswana friends of ours who happen to be amazing dancers, and two hired drivers (also the cousins of one of our friends). We were heading to Johannesburg in South Africa for a dance competition of which our two friends would undoubtedly be the stars.

The drive there was a little tense at times considering it was dark, our driver was a bit inexperienced (or something), and the highway was way worse than any I've experienced in either Manitoba or Saskatchewan (Canadian joke, sorry to anyone who's a non-Canuck).
You really cannot imagine how thrilled we (those are two of my roomies, Emma and Angela) were to find out that our B&B was a little slice of paradise - a rather chilly paradise, mind you - but paradise none-the-less. We piled on the blankets, tucked ourselves in, and before we knew it, our alarm awakened us for our first official day in Joburg. Up 'n' at 'em , a nice hot breakfast, and out the door to head to Soweto (a name formed from South Western Township) where the dance competition was taking place. Soweto is the biggest township - which is basically a nice name for a slum - in South Africa, or perhaps in all of Africa; I'm not too sure on my facts there. What I am sure about is that Soweto was formed during the Apartheid as a place for the black people to live apart from the white people. It's really only expanded since then and while it's rather well developed now, the remnants of what it used to be are still fully present. The houses (which are better than shacks, but not much) are small and so closely packed together that it would be difficult to walk between them. It is also still very dangerous and although I wasn't there long enough or out and about enough to see the poverty first hand, I do not doubt that it exists in abundance in Soweto.

Moving on...the big plan for Joburg, in addition to the dance competition, was to make it to the Apartheid Museum. Other than being one huge city, Johannesburg really doesn't have much to offer except this widely acclaimed museum which showcases the depressing history of the country. Our friend's aunt assured us she knew where it was (close to the hall that the dance competition was being held in) and she had no problem taking us there. We were pumped. Where we actually ended up, however, was the Hector Pieterson Museum which only showcased one devastating event (the death of Hector Pieterson) that occurred as a result of apartheid. It was informative if nothing else and therefore not a complete bust.

Now for the dance competition. We knew it would pretty much be an all day thing. We knew that it likely wouldn't be on schedule (because nothing is here). What we didn't know was that being "behind schedule" meant 8 hours behind. The entire competition was supposed to end at 4 p.m. We left at 11:30 p.m. after finally seeing our friends dance. If we had been able to watch Tshepi and Mike dance more often throughout the day, it would have been phenomenally better. Instead we watched the same groups of young and inexperienced ballroom dancers over and over and over again. Now don't get me wrong, I love dancing. I love any and all forms of art. I even liked watching the dancing for the first few hours, but by hour 5 or 6, I really just wanted to cheer on our friends and back to the B&B to rest. Seeing Tshepi and Mike Samba, Cha Cha Cha, Rumba, and Jive pretty much made up for the long day of sitting in the bleachers though. They were fantastic and if Botswana had better resources for the arts, I am sure they'd both be famous professional dancers.

Take a look for yourself - Tshepi and Mike Dance the Jive:

In short, Joburg was gigantic, fast-paced, and the random people that I passed on the street weren't nearly as friendly as the ones here in Botswana. I can honestly say, I missed the quiet life in Gabs last weekend and was glad to arrive back "home" on Sunday.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Dangers of Living in Africa

Alternate title: Why You Should Always Buy The Suggested First Aid Kit

Upon planning to volunteer abroad, I was given a list of suggested things to bring along on the trip. One of these things was a first aid kit. I contemplated not buying one, because, I mean really, what would I need a first aid kit for? It just so happened that upon buying some cargo-type pants, I spotted travel first aid kits that were relatively inexpensive and after a brief consultation with my mom, decided it couldn't hurt to take it with me. Into my suitcase it went. I was pretty sure I would never even open it.

Let's jump ahead about 5 weeks now to June 14 at approximately 8 p.m. My roommate, Angela, usually does the cooking and I do the cleaning. It's not that I can't cook, I just prefer not to. She likes to cook so it works well. On this particular night, Angela had some other things to take care of which required her to be out of the house. I could have waited for her to return, but I wasn't sure how long it would take and, after all, I can cook. So I got some chicken out, put it in the oven, cut up some vegetables, started reheating some rice; life was good. Upon checking the chicken, I realised I had the oven on broil, not bake and one of the pieces was burnt. That was the first "shit" moment of the evening. Ok, no big deal, just get another piece of chicken out.

Before I continue, a little background information on the chicken is required. It was frozen crispy chicken schnitzel (incredibly delicious as a side note) but the freezer at the grocery store does not really keep things all that frozen. With that said, the pieces of chicken were slightly thawed allowing them to stick together.

Alright, now on with the dangers. The last two pieces of schnitzel were frozen together so in order to cook them, I needed to pry them apart. Easy right? - WRONG! Out came a knife and I proceeded to attempt to pry them apart. I say attempt, because I never did get them separated. Instead, the knife slipped and plunged its way into the meaty part of my hand just below my thumb. I have no idea where the knife ended up or the chicken for that matter; all I know is I dropped them, squeezed the skin on my hand together to attempt to stop the bleeding, turned the elements on the stove off, and went to my bedroom/bathroom to assess the situation.

It wasn't gushing blood, so I figured that was a good sign. I washed it and thought to myself, 'What the hell am I going to do now? Do I need to go to emergency? Can I handle this alone? Am I going to pass out?' Then, in the midst of what I am pretty sure was at least mild shock, I remembered my first aid kit; the one I almost didn't buy; the one I was sure I would never need. I pulled it out, unzipped it, and found butterfly stitches! Two butterfly stitches, a dab of Polysporin, a bandage, and an Advil for the pain and I was set...maybe. In the morning I was still pretty frazzled and after cleaning the cut again with antiseptic wipes (from my first aid kit) this time, I once again returned to wondering if I needed stitches.

I decided I better go to a doctor of some sort. I called a cab, went to the clinic we were shown during orientation, waited about an hour and a half and saw the doctor. He took a close look at it through a magnifying glass, told me I was lucky it wasn't worse, put some cream on it, bandaged it up, and sent me on my way. NO STITCHES!

So now, with all of that said, ALWAYS buy the suggested first aid kit because you never know what dangers lurk around the next dinner table.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Pleasantries and Perturbances in Pretoria

After some last minute planning and frustrations with Africa's High-Cost/Low-Volume policy on tourism, Angela and I decided to spend our long weekend in Pretoria, South Africa. Thursday, June 2nd was Ascension Day here in Botswana. I have no idea what the holiday is for, but I am guessing something of a religious nature. We both asked for Friday off, booked the bus, booked the hostel, and away we went. Let me now enlighten you, dearest reader, with our adventures.

The Taxi - Our bus was leaving at 6:30 a.m. from Gabs so the night before we called to arrange a cab - no problem. He was set to arrive at our house at 6:00 a.m. 6:00 a.m. Thursday morning came and went so we called again and the driver assured us he'd be there in 15 minutes. 6:15 a.m. came and went so we called again and the driver assured us he'd be there in 3 minutes. Thankfully, he arrived. We get in, we tell him we're going to the bus station near Main Mall. He says, "the bus rank?" And we say, "NO - the bus station near Main Mall." "O - ok, he says." One thing we have definitely come to be very aware of here is that the cab drivers NEVER listen.

The Bus - The bus was nice, packed, but nice. It should take about 4.5 hours to get to Pretoria from Gaborone, but the bus took 8. It took us about 2 hours to get through the border; fill out paper work to exit Botswana; fill out paper work to enter South Africa. It really wasn't much of a hassle, there were just about 100+ people doing the same thing we were doing. That, plus a few stops along the way to let people on and off and finally we arrived in Pretoria.

The Hostel - We booked our hostel with and basically took our chances. 1322 Backpackers International was a little slice of paradise.
We really couldn't have asked for a much nicer hostel for the $20 a night that we paid. Our first night the power went out and even though we are in Africa, we are far enough south that it gets damn cold here at night, like see your breath, below zero cold! I know we are supposed to be tough Canadians, but at night, if not dressed properly, we freeze our temporarily African asses off! With the power out, the little heater in the room wasn't working so we bundled up in layers of clothing, climbed under layers of blankets (2 folded in half, so technically 4) and dreamed of the hot African sun! Our second night the power went out - not cool South Africa - not cool at all! Thankfully, our third night, we had lights, internet, and HEAT! I actually didn't have to sleep in my slipper boots and two fleece sweaters.

Dinner, Hooka, and The White Box - After finally arriving in Pretoria on Thursday and settling into our hostel, Angela and I decided to take a walk and explore Hatfield (the area around our hostel known for its restaurants and bars). We had some yummy pasta at Mimmos Restaurant where the drinks were two for one and the chocolate brownies were served warm with ice cream! Our next stop was a Moroccan Hooka Cafe where, at 27 years old, I willingly inhaled tobacco into my lungs for the first time. It was melon flavoured and I only got a small head rush once. And now for The White Box! We contemplated, momentarily, walking (about 10 minutes) back to our hostel after our evening out. If walking at night in Gabs is not recommended, walking at night anywhere in South Africa (including Pretoria) is definitely not recommended. After being followed about a block by a man saying "Thank you Ma'am for the white box" over and over and over again, we decided we better call a cab. The white box, you see, was my leftovers from Mimmos and there were just so many men begging on the streets. While it was really quite sad, it was also very frightening. We put the "white box" in Angela's purse and waiting outside a brightly lit restaurant for a taxi to take us to the hostel.

Pretoria Art Museum, Union
Buildings, and Fleecies - Friday we got up, had a little breakfast and headed out. It took us about 45 minutes to walk to the Pretoria Art Museum and we just so happened to walk down one of the streets where a number of embassies were located. Pretty cool to see if I do say so myself. The art museum was small, but interesting. Being the nerd that I am, I plan to look a little more into both Township and Resistance Art, two areas that really interested me while touring the gallery.
Our next stop was the Union Buildings which were a fine site to see. I decided that they are best described as a glorified mix of Ottawa's Parliament and the International Peace Gardens. We got a little lunch and relaxed for a bit in the park that surrounds the buildings. The park actually reminded me a bit of Central Park in New York (albeit on a much smaller scale), a beautiful green space in the midst of a huge city. After some reading in the park, we took the jaunt up the steps as high as we could go and took in the magnificent view of Pretoria.
The entire place is basically dedicated to World War I. I'm not sure exactly why, but I am sure I could be a bit more knowledgeable if I just did a little research. Maybe someday... To end our second (or first full) day in Pretoria, we stopped at Hatfield Square where we bought warmer clothes a.k.a. fleecies. Well, I bought a fleecy, Angela bought some warm pants and a few sweaters too, but by far the best purchase we made: the boot-style slippers for about $10! So comfy and so warm. We also bought some scrumptious food to cook for dinner, but we soon arrived back at the hostel to find that the power was out for the second night in a row. Sigh...and deliver it was - which, by the way, is a genius idea, one delivery company and about ten different restaurants to order from. You call the one company, place your order with them and they take care of the rest. It's brilliant!

The Cradle of Humankind -
For our second full day in Pretoria we decided to
book one of the tours that the hostel offered to coordinate for us. We decided the Sterkfontein Caves and the Maropeng Museum, all part of the Cradle of Humankind, sounded pretty interesting. "Interesting" really doesn't even begin to describe the day we had. It was brilliant, magnificent, and every other word like those that a thesaurus could come up with! The basic idea behind the entire set up is to educate people on the evolution of the human species. I knew quite a bit about evolution prior to visiting the museums and caves, but it was still fascinating. Our guide was great, and despite the ridiculous questions(Do you believe in God? How did people breathe back then, like was there air? How do you know they cooked their food?) and comments (I'm still not buying any of this) from certain people in the group, the tour was truly indescribable...guess you're just going to have to come to Africa and see it for yourself! Basically, we climbed down about 60 metres and briefly toured through one of the main caves. There are thirteen total in the Cradle of Humankind. In short, we saw where fossils were found; we saw casts of famous fossils; and we were really just in awe of the sheer magnitude of the caves and the historical timeline of our species.

The last part of this post will encompass our wonderful (written sarcastically) bus trip back to Gabs. About an hour out of Pretoria, we pulled over on the side of the road because we had mechanical issues. After waiting for around an hour, a mechanic (or so they say) showed up, did what I think was nothing, and we got back on the same bus. Another half hour or so into our journey we pulled into a small town where we, once again, got off the bus and this time waited another hour and a half or so for a whole new bus. Fun times! At this point we were also told that "normally" the bus makes it across the Botswana border before it closes at 12 midnight. "Normally?" - so there was a slight chance we would have to spend the night at the border if the new bus didn't hurry itself up. THANKFULLY (yes, capital letters are required) the bus didn't take long and we made it home to Gabs around 11:30 p.m. only about 2.5 hours later than we were supposed to. It could have been worse; we could have spent the night in the bus at the border!

Ok, so I lied; before signing off for good, I just have two more little B-bits to share.

1. We met this incredible couple, Oksana and Arlo, at the hostel. Oksana is originally from Russia, but, after doing a high school exchange in Alaska, decided to go back and do her university degree there. While doing that, she met Arlo and the two of them have been in Alaska together ever since. So what is so incredible about this couple you might be thinking? Well, let's see. Almost a year ago, they quit their jobs, sold most of their possessions, and decided to take a trip - Around The World! When we met them they had been through the U.S. and South America and were making their way through Africa to move on to Australia and New Zealand. Eventually, they'll end up in Russia and decide at that point whether they can afford to tour Europe. To say the least, I was in utter and total awe. It does get better (if you can imagine anything better); they are video blogging about it: Postcard Valet. Just one more thing about them because I really can't get enough of their story; they have budgeted to travel on $100 a day. Let me just say...I hope this is me and Brendan in 5 years time. Let the saving begin!

2. Ok, last thing, I promise.

That's me sitting out on a rock at the top of Kgale Hill. The "hike" was more like a mountain climb. It was hot. It was sweaty. It was so worth it. Behind me you see a decent part of Gaborone and, again, the photo just doesn't do the view any justice whatsoever.