n keeping with my recent theme of discussing the little things, the “Few Minor Adjustments,” as one of the Peace Corps training manuals puts it, which Peace Corps Service entails, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of those details that has been plaguing me of late: my car. You may have noticed the growing number of affectionate Prius references in recent blogs, evidence of my subconscious longing seeping into my stories. Now, I am well aware that even in America owning a car is a luxury that not everyone has, and that many people actively make the choice not to have a car. But I have to confess: I love mine. I love the ease of being able to go where I want when I want; I love to blare my music and rock out in the confines of its privacy; I love the sound of the windshield wipers swishing around in the rain and the feeling of sticking my hand out the window in the summer wind. (As an aside, I’m all for public transport, and would gladly trade my car for it if I lived in an area where it was widely available and accessible. But that has yet to happen, so my car it is.)
Although there are cars in Botswana—actually, they are more prevalent than I expected, even though I have yet to befriend a Motswana who owns one—as Peace Corps volunteers, one of the cardinal rules is that we may not drive while on duty (which is 24/7, except for reported vacation days), and if we do, we face the penalty of being sent home, so it’s a policy that most volunteers take extremely seriously. This rule exists in part for our safety, and in part so that we will really experience full cultural immersion—life as a Motswana, rather than as an American living in Botswana. And I must say, on the latter count, it is quite effective.
It’s remarkable what a different world this would be if I had access to my very own car. It’s not so much that walking is so bad; indeed, since it is, by far, the most common mode of transport here, the village is designed to be accessible by foot. It’s the premeditation, the extra thought and energy that walking requires which make it a challenge. Before running an errand, I must calculate the most reasonable path, evaluate whether any other stops should be made—since some stores are quite a distance away, it is not worth making more than one trip in a short span of time—determine exactly what I need to buy and whether I will be able to carry it. It’s not like hopping in a car, backtracking a bit if I’ve forgotten something, and buying as much as you I fit in the trunk. And then there’s the weather. Since it is already extremely hot in the afternoons, and there is little shade, it is vastly preferable to make any long-ish trips early in the day or late in the evening, so if there’s something I need, it is prudent for me to plan my day around it—again, something that wouldn’t even cross your mind as you cruise in the comfort of a climate-controlled car.
And (now, I’m sure this is going to sound extraordinarily silly, but, as you can tell from the length of my blogs, I’m all about full-disclosure) walking in sand is hard! Really hard! You know that part of the beach, before you get to the bit where the sand is all smooth and packed down from the surf? That’s what the ground here is like, everywhere. Not only that, but with the exception of when I go running, I wear sandals exclusively—it’s far too hot for “real” footwear—and the sand here is not just plain sand. It’s littered with shards of broken beer bottles everywhere (excessive alcohol consumption is a large issue here), thornbush plants which scrape my legs, and little sticky thorn thingies all over the ground, which constantly manage to find their way into my sandal and me with a stabbing pain when I least expect it. There is also cow, donkey, and goat feces strewn about like land mines which must be avoided at all costs (particularly given my previous statement about my choice footwear).
Not to mention the fact that I’m an American; I like my privacy. Although it is extremely welcoming the way nearly every person that I pass initiates a conversation, and I am appreciative of every opportunity to integrate and show off my smokin’ Setswana skills…well, like I said: I’m an American and I like privacy. There are some days when I just don’t want to talk to anyone, when I just want to get where I’m going and not stress over what to say or how I look or fend off the constant barrage of wanna-be suitors. But without a car, this is not a possibility—if I want or need to go out, it will inevitably lead to a plethora of conversations and interactions. Again, I feel the need to emphasize that this is not a bad thing—it is not intended as a criticism of Setswana culture; on the contrary, I think Americans are the odd ones out for maintaining the isolation that we do. But, again, for better or worse, I am an American, and there are some values that I simply can’t—and don’t especially want to—shed.
Plus, having a car saves so much time. For instance, a bus ride from Shakawe to Maun, the nearest large village, takes six hours. In a private car? Three to four. (The bus must go in and out of each small village along the way to make all designated stops in addition to stopping anywhere someone requests to get off or on.) Walking to the Kgotla or social work office takes twenty minutes. Driving—maybe five.
Not to mention the valuable rocking-out time that is lost. Now, I am not ashamed of my musical stylings. But, again, I like privacy, and I just can’t bust out the same groove in my uninsulated concrete house with my windows open and people all around, as I can when I’m in the beautiful little bubble of acoustic bliss that is my car…and I actually really, really, really miss it.
Anyway, I realize that this is an especially superficial blog (and actually, the last one was as well), but like I said, sometimes it is those little things that wreak the most psychological havoc, and which also lend the most perspective on just how much most Americans have at our disposal. Once again, the temporary stress of living without these amenities for a few odd months pales in comparison to the actual experience of life without them, and, once again, strengthens my overwhelming gratitude for all of the luxuries that my life has afforded me up to this point. And as I approach my four-month mark here in Bots, and find myself already counting the days until my return to family, friends, and the comforts of home, I can’t help but wonder (ok, you got me, I’ve been watching Sex and the City—thanks, Laura!!!) whether in 22 months I’ll be dying to reimmerse myself in the luxuries of home—showers, cars, bathrooms—or ready to renounce them as superfluous and unnecessary. Only time will tell, I suppose, but even I am surprised by how much more I miss them than I expected to—even if they do feel a bit foreign to me at the moment.