I know you are all probably itching to know more details about my site (ok, I’d like to pretend that you’re all itching to know more details about my site, and I’m in Africa, far, far away and missing you all, so just indulge me on this one :o), however my two day journey to Shakawe (“Shaks” for short, for future reference), which involved spending a night in Maun and 16 hours on busses, each way, proved interesting enough (to my extremely un-traveled American sensibilities) to warrant its own entry.
I should begin by pointing out that the transportation system in Botswana is far superior to that in many countries, in that it is actually fairly reliable, most major roads are tarred (paved), busses generally keep to their schedules, and public transport is actually quite easy to navigate (as it should be, considering the sparse population is—about 2 million living in a country the size of Texas)—so my observations are just observations, not complaints about Bots or its infrastructure. Having said that, here are a few things I learned:
16 hours on a crowded buses in 90+ degree weather with no air conditioner or open windows (Batswana do not like windows open on the bus, and in the event that you are fortunate enough to have access to one to open it, it will almost immediately be shut by a nearby Motswana), while sitting amongst a group of people who have scarce access to deodorant is a very, very long time.
Cattle, goats, and donkeys are EVERYWHERE in Botswana (there are more donkeys than there are people in this country—actually). Drivers do not slow down for animals. Animals do not respond to honking. By the end of an 11 hour trip, one is certain to develop an alarmingly high tolerance for near-death-experiences.
The busses in Botswana vary dramatically. One of the busses I rode had plush reclining seats, overhead storage, and a few TV screens (still old and in rather dubious working condition—broke down twice—but overall, much nicer than I’d have expected before arriving in Bots). Another was a slightly glorified combi, almost entirely rusted out (there were actually small holes under my feet where I could see through to the ground), with the doors barely hinged on, and kept closed with the same sort of lock used in a bathroom stall, the windshield full of cracks, and no casing over the steering wheel or dashboard (both of which frequently began smoking…which was still not enough to convince my fellow travelers to open a window). When a Motswana tells you not to take the 10:30 bus, it means you should NOT take the 10:30 bus.
There are almost a half-dozen check-points on the road between Gaborone and Shakawe. Checkpoints for what, I’m not sure—there is no border crossing and (as mentioned before) an extremely low population. However nearly 6 times all of the passengers were required to disembark, carry our large bags outside, and wait in line as a police officer shuffled through our luggage and checked our IDs. The truly bizarre thing about the whole process was that passengers were only required to have their large luggage sorted through—purses, shopping bags, etc., were not even required to be presented at the check point. It is at this point that I will remind you that as a PCV I am prevented from making any sort of political or controversial comments. I can’t, however, prevent those of you who know me to make inferences about my opinions…
As an American, I am still astonished by the level of trust that exists in Setswana culture. There are several instances when the bus makes some small loops in order to stop in villages slightly off the main road. If a passenger has to go to the bathroom, s/he gets off at a stop before the loop, and the bus will pick the passenger back up—you get off the bus, leave all of your belongings, and just assume that the driver will come back for you, and even wait for you…and they do, and when you get back on, they don’t even check your ticket. Moreover, if you don’t have exact change for your ticket, change is given at the end of the ride—you just remind the conductor that you are owed change, tell them how much change you are owed, and they give it to you, without any sort of documentation…and we’re talking LONG bus rides—11 hours with people getting on and off all along the way. It would be incredibly easy to manipulate the system and ask for change when you weren’t owed any, or ask for more than what you were due…but this culture relies very heavily on trust and community, so it does not seem that this system is manipulated frequently.
Kgalagadi Batswana know their stuff. Though Botswana is a beautiful country, and a portion of the ride was through the Delta region, the majority of the views on the trip are just bush—and to me, at least, 16 hours of bush, well, it pretty much looks the same. However, to my great astonishment, there were several occasions in which elderly Batswana men signaled to the driver that they wanted to get off in what appeared to be literally the middle of nowhere—no paths, no sneakily-placed landmark like a stick in the road or flag, no houses or rondevals anywhere near. But the men were all well-dressed, and seemed to know where they were going when they got off (and, indeed, there were men waiting in similar spots to be picked up throughout the trip as well), so I am quite confident that they did, in fact, know where they were going. But it is truly astounding—on an hour or so trip, I can imagine how one might be able to recognize a certain bush or a certain tree, but we are talking about hours and hours at a time, hundreds of miles, with no clear landmarks. It is truly evidence of how well some Batswana really know their country…or maybe how little we Americans really know ours…
Flirting. Ahh, this could (and might well soon) have an entry all its own. But suffice to say that gender roles in Botswana are very different from those in modern-day America. Very different. Being a white person (lakgoa), and particularly a white girl, and particular a white girl all alone, means not only that I stick out like a sore thumb in every possible context, but also that literally at least every other man that I encounter—and I use “encounter” in the loosest possible manner, meaning pass on a street, see in a grocery store, walk near, etc—will immediately propose, tell me he loves me, ask me to have his American baby, ask me to take him to America, demand that I give him my phone number, etc. Not only are these the chosen opening lines, but of the men that decide to approach me with this tactic, only about half stop when I decline their requests. The other half will pursue me, try to grab my arm to kiss it, etc. This is absolutely not an exaggeration—it is a cultural difference that is extremely exhausting for me, and, frankly, there are days when it takes every fiber of my being to hold my tongue even just on a walk to the store. It even happened when I was in the hospital—I was barely conscious, and a nurse told me that he needed my phone number in case of an emergency (which, of course, does not make sense, but when you’re barely conscious and in a hospital in another country, 15,000 miles away from home, you aren’t exactly thinking clearly), so I gave it to him, and he proceeded to call about every hour for two days after I left the hospital—the normal tactic when a man here gets your number. So, you can imagine how much fun it is to sit alone on a bus full of men for 18 hours/2 days each way.
I’m not sure exactly how useful this collection of observations is, but I’ve feel compelled to document them while they still seem unusual—it is hard to believe how quickly I’m finding myself adapting; the first month or so was nearly unbearable, but now it seems as though many of the obstacles that I thought I would not ever be able to overcome are things that don’t even cross my mind any more. I have several other posts in the works, to be posted as soon as they are finished…but, honestly, I want all of this here for me as much as for you all…so it’s just coming out a bit at a time! Love you all, miss you all, and please keep the letters coming!!!! Seriously, they are my favorite things in the world!