August 4, 2010

Drive My Car

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.

Rest Stop

So often it is the small, unexpected differences, the things that I took entirely for granted and never expected to miss, which have wound up being the source of the most stress and lamentation.  Example #1: Public restrooms. 

Ahh, everyone always loves a good bathroom story, right?  I’ll indulge you in my favorite one from before I left the States.  As most of you know, I have spent a substantial portion of my life on roadtrips on the stretch of I-5 between Seattle and Portland; usually beginning at home in Portland and ending at Mighty-O vegan doughnuts (sigh; I never should’ve told this story, now I want one!!!!  Nobel Peace Prize to anyone who can figure out how to ship them to Botswana while they are still fresh.  Well, maybe not a real Nobel Peace Prize, but a Chelsea Award for Awesomeness, certainly.  Anyway…) or Bamboo Garden vegan Chinese, Araya’s vegan Thai, or Wayside vegan homestyle cookin’ (sigh; see previous parenthetical statement).  All of these trips were, fueled by excessive quantities of coffee— gargantuan Gilmore Girl-esque proportions—and, of course, a significant amount of water as well (coffee is a diuretic, after all, and one must stay fully hydrated at all times).  Although this does seem to be a recipe for disaster, having made the trip on numerous occasions, I know the road like the back of my hand, including each of the rest stops and choice gas exits (exit #13—especially pretty on a clear night; great view of the stars, but usually passed over in order to hit my favorite gas station in Kalama, exit #30; exit #53—well-placed between major cities, and always, always, always, always has coffee and Oreos, even though lots of other rest stops are only staffed during the cushy peak-travel hours; exit #90—alright, but I prefer the Fred Meyer, Starbucks, or Taco Del Mar at exit #102, or if I’m feeling crazy, holding out for my gas stop on Berkley Street, exit #122, next to the $1 Chinese Food sign; and last but not least, #143 near Sea-Tac, but only going North, as it’s just south of Seattle, which abounds with acceptable restroom opportunities, even at night), so rarely did my trips to and from Seattle pose any problems. 

Except on one notable occasion, a fateful day when I was heading to Green Lake and Mighty O.  This spot is fairly close off the freeway off exit #169, and I was feeling confident, so I decided to throw caution to the wind and skip rest stop #143, and hold out until I arrived.  Although this involved a certain amount of chance, I had made this judgment call on many occasions before without repercussions, so I was confident in my decision.  Unfortunately, I had picked the wrong day to toy with fate.  Traffic was wretched—even more wretched than usual—and my destination was of particular concern, because there was a Husky football game, which meant my exit, which was shared by the University of Washington, may as well have been a parking lot I (I have always hated sports…).  So, by the time I was finally able to get into moving traffic on the street, the situation had grown dire.  But no problem—there was a Shell station on the way; the impending crisis would be easily averted.  However, upon stopping at the gas station, I was greeted by a lovely “no public restrooms” sign.  At that moment, I had to make a critical decision—proceed to Mighty O, which would require me to find street parking and potentially walk a ways before getting to the bathroom, or drive ever so slightly farther to the lake, and use the public parking and public restroom.  Because of my disdain for parallel parking, the answer seemed clear, and I proceeded to the lake.  So I stopped in the first parking lot.   But there wasn’t a public restroom nearby, so after wandering and trying not to look too frantic, I managed to spot another gas station across the street and made it there, where I was immediately shot-down by a cruel “out of order” sign.  The attendant offered to let me use the employee-only stall, but it was sufficiently skeevy, and he was sufficiently creepy to prevent me from ending my quest there.  Besides, there were several other bathrooms at Greenlake—I’d just dash back to my car and visit one of them. 

But alas, that was not what the Universe had in store.  The next bathroom was being cleaned, and the one after that landed me in the parking lot, stuck behind some dumb guy who was insistent on sitting with his blinker flashing a painful rhythm like the tick-tock tick-tock of a clock, holding me and several others hostage, while he waited for a family to haphazardly assemble themselves, their toys, and the remains of their picnic into their car, so that he could claim their parking spot, which was, of course, only minimally superior to the several available spots in the row behind us.  The situation was growing more dangerous by the second, and I found myself clutching the steering wheel, nearly in tears, and scorning the Universe for not letting me simply have a place to use the restroom—how hard could that be; is it really THAT much to ask?

To my great relief (and that of my Prius and everyone who has traveled in it since), the next bathroom attempt was a success, and to this day I am immensely grateful that the end result of this ordeal is a delightful story (you WERE delighted, darn it!) rather than a tragic end to my beloved car (hehehe, if you’re reading this, Lindorac©—INBB©!!!  Sorry everyone else; couldn’t resist—inside Fanson friend joke ;oP). 

But, now that I have arrived in Botswana, I see that there is a greater lesson in all of it: the many luxuries that we take for granted, and the impact that being deprived access to such amenities can have on daily life.  You’re probably thinking something along the lines of “I hardly ever use public restrooms—how could this possibly have an impact of any real significance?”  True, lack of public restrooms seems to be among the more trivial aspects of living in a different culture, but it actually does alter the course of my daily life.  You see, I am a full-blooded eco- and health-conscious American (earlier story about greasy doughnuts and Chinese food aside), which means everywhere I go, roadtrip or not, I’ve got my stainless steel Kleen Kanteen water bottle or French-press insulated coffee mug in hand (thanks, Mom!  Also, side-note: if anyone is reading this whilst consumed by the flurry that is the Peace Corps application process, I highly, highly, highly recommend purchasing an insulated coffee press travel mug the instant you receive your invitation.  If you have even a remote fondness for coffee, you will thank me fort this piece of sage wisdom.  And friends and family of volunteers/recent invitees, if you are looking for the perfect gift that will make your special person love you forever, this is it!!!  But once again, I digress…).   In America, catering to my endless thirst is no problem, because it is extremely safe to assume that anywhere I go, there will be a shiny, reasonably clean bathroom waiting for me—in the office, at friends’ houses, stores, restaurants, coffee shops, gas stations, shopping centers, etc.  It never even occurred to me to think out where and when my next bathroom opportunity might be.  So if I was thirsty, I drank.  If I was craving that wondrous magic energy-generating elixir known as coffee (or, in my case at the moment, “OH MY GOD!  COFFEE!!!!  REAL COFFEE!!!!!!” synchronized with nearly giddy jumping up and down), I had some.  And if I needed to go to the bathroom, I just went. 

But here, that is not so.  The only public restrooms I have seen have been in large shopping malls in large cities, and one that is on the 10 hour bus ride between Gaborone and Maun.  My office does have restrooms, but not all do, and, actually, not all households in the area even have a bathroom or pit latrine of their own.  What do people here do, you ask?  Just what you’d expect—people just go outside.  Now, as most of you know, I’m pretty rugged; I go backpacking, and am perfectly comfortable doing most things the “natural” way.  But the problem is, with the exception of when I go running, I’m almost always in areas that are extremely populated—houses and rondevals everywhere, and people walking all around.  It is rare for me to walk more than 100 feet without passing at least one other person.  Not to mention the fact that the Kgaladi bush doesn’t exactly provide the same concealing buffer as the shade of the dense evergreen forest that I’m used to camping and hiking in—indeed, one can literally see for miles here.  So while it is entirely socially acceptable to relieve oneself in the bush, even in the downtown areas in my village, well, it’s just a leap that I can’t quite make.  And because I get around by foot, if I find myself on a long trek to the social work office or catch myself waiting upwards of an hour in line at the post office to pick up a care package (YAY CARE PACKAGESS!!!!!!!!!), it’s not like I can just hop in the car to get quickly home.  Indeed, my lack of beverage-consumption planning has led to several long, painful walks, cursing every step and the empty water bottle or coffee mug in my hand. 

In addition to my impromptu lessons about proper hydration planning, another tricky adaptation has been getting in the habit of always keeping toilet paper on hand.  Even should you find yourself in a situation where you are graced with a bathroom—pit latrine, or a glorious flushing toilet—etiquette here dictates that each person is responsible for supplying his or her own TP—even at offices, restaurants, and friends’ houses.  The same is true for soap, or hand sanitizer (again, thanks Mom!) where no running water is available.  And don’t even think about such foofy things as paper towels or hand dryers (which, admittedly, I rarely used anyway; that’s what pants are for [see, I told you I was rugged!])—ha!  I actually haven’t even thought about paper towels since I left Gabs!!

Again, I know that these things are obviously quite trivial in the big scheme of things, but it’s the barrage of little differences like this; the fact that every aspect of life here is different, that so much of what I have always regarded as basic common sense must be discarded and re-learned from scratch, which makes Peace Corps service so psychologically challenging.  Those moments where I am already feeling overwhelmed, and then something small, like not having a bathroom when I need it, goes wrong, and I feel like the entire world around me is crumbling and everything I know is wrong.  Of course, eventually, gradually, I’m adapting to all of these things and one by one they aren’t getting to me so much.  But there are a lot of these little things, and a lot of little adaptations, and the process of changing fundamental assumptions is not without its toll—including the sense of being culture-less, as I realize that I have not (and probably won’t ever) fully acclimated into my new culture, but have still managed to drift away from my own culture (which I’ve already discussed, and will probably continue to discuss, in great detail).

And yes, I am well aware that I could have easily gotten to the cultural-exchange/moral-of-the-story part without making you all trudge through my (surprisingly entertaining) US bathroom story, but it’s called setting the scene, folks!!  Plus, I’m perpetually insanely homesick, and sometimes it helps to reminisce about fond stories (of course sometimes it makes it worse…seriously, any mad scientists out there willing to do a thesis project on maintaining organic vegan doughnut freshness in the mail for up to 2 months?!), so I’m sure none of you minded my little self-indulgent jaunt through memory lane, right?! :oP

P.S.  I’m not cheating with my song title/song reference trend.  Rest Stop is a Matchbox Twenty song.  Totally legit, check it out. :oP

August 1, 2010

Make Me Fall Down, Make Me Get Up

It’s a tad alarming just how similar Peace Corps service is to running a marathon.  At times, I am absurdly grateful that long-distance running was a hobby of mine before I left for service here in Botswana, because psychological challenges and strategies for success in both are almost the same. 

It begins with a goal.  Not just any goal, like managing to complete a grocery shopping trip without forgetting something (which my tomato-less pasta sauce proves I am apparently incapable of), but a major challenge, something that on some level, even you aren’t sure you can do (actually, in that respect, perhaps my grocery-shopping goal isn’t entirely off the mark): I want to run a marathon.  I want to join the Peace Corps.  Then you research—what marathon do I want to run, when and where, how do I train; what exactly does Peace Corps service entail, how do I apply, all the while feeling sudden pangs of anxiety that you may be in over your head—maybe I’m not the kind of person who can run a marathon or join the Peace Corps…maybe that’s something only special people can do.  But, you resist those fears, and begin training and the application process.  Slowly pushing yourself, practicing, over-running, under-running, getting training injuries, planning your days and weeks around training time.  Filling out papers after papers, interviews after interviews, and trying to live life with a constant feeling of uncertainty.  You live in a constant struggle, endlessly evaluating your own strength.  Sometimes it feels crazy to put yourself through so much stress for a goal like this—even just getting to the race/getting into the Peace Corps is so painstaking, how could it possibly be worth it?  But something in you keeps you going.

Race day/Peace Corps service.  Suddenly, you find yourself actually here, actually able to possibly fulfill this goal.  Initially, you’re swept away by the adrenaline—all of the runners together, jittery with excitement, itching to get out on the trail.  The gun fires off, and the collective energy is so strong, the rhythmic sound of feet hitting the pavement carries you along for the first mile or so, for which you are so well-prepared.  Just as PST begins—it’s almost not even really the Peace Corps, because the excitement of it all, and the company of others are what get you through.  But then, as that energy dies down, people begin to settle in to their own pace.  Some rush ahead, some fall back, but the groups dissipates, and suddenly, you’re all alone.  And then it hits you that you’ve got a long, long, long way to go, and even though there may be a few more bursts of adrenaline here and there—some cheerleaders along the way, some breathtaking views—really, from here on out, your own success is entirely up to you.  It’s the same sort of feeling as when you suddenly find yourself alone at site, and the significance of your commitment smacks in your face.

So you begin setting small goals for yourself, to distract from the gravity of what lies ahead.  “I’ll just keep running until I hit the ten mile marker,” you tell yourself “then, if I’m really feeling bad, I can stop--no guilt; ten miles is a lot, and many people can’t even do that.”  Or “I’ll just make it to IST—then, if I still want to leave, I’ll leave.  Not many people can last for 6 months away from home—even that is an accomplishment.”  Of course, on some level you know you’re only tricking yourself.  Once you hit that goal, the first thing that hits you is that getting there wasn’t actually that bad.  And, hey, if you’ve made it that far, why not try for a little more—it still doesn’t mean you have to finish, but, you know…if you can get to the half-marathon mark, that would be pretty cool, right?  Of course, the euphoria of self-confidence over reaching the first small goal wears off quite quickly, and you realize you’ve just pushed yourself farther in—and that the farther you get, the more you feel you have to finish, so that everything else you did won’t be for naught.

Some parts of the path are harder than others.  Sometimes it’s difficult because of what you’re presented with—a large hill, slippery footing; difficulties at work, the challenges of life in a developing country—and sometimes they come from within—pushing through a sore knee and blistered feet; feeling so homesick you can hardly get out of bed.  The truth is, a part of you wants to stop every step of the way.  Even as someone who loves running, there are times when I feel like the earth has centered its entire gravitational pull below my feet alone, and going on seems impossible.  There always seem to be plenty of reasons not to go on—you’re tired, you’re thirsty, it’s hot, you could be sitting at home watching a movie, or doing something, anything else, instead.  And the same is true with the Peace Corps.  Almost every volunteer I have spoken to said that not a day of their service went by when they did not consider ET-ing (early terminating—aka leaving) at least once; and that has certainly proven true thus far for me. 

Of course there are good times, too, moments where the gravity of what you are doing hits you in a good sort of way; moments when you feel overwhelming gratitude to even have the opportunity to face this challenge, after all, there are people who can’t walk, and you’re running a marathon; there are people who are sitting in a tiny cubicle hating their life (no offense/sorry guys!!!), and you’re in Africa watching monkeys play in the trees as the sun sets—how could you possibly even think of complaining?  But regardless of whether times seem good or bad, it’s always the same little spark that somehow keeps you going. (I have to quote: Are you ready to quit? Are you ready to learn? Are you ready to find the spark inside and let it burn?  - Breaktown, Hanson).

That’s the thing about both marathons and Peace Corps service.  Even though both have some benefits that can be put into words (staying healthy, endorphins; saving the world [while maintaining full modesty, of course ;oP], travel, career benefits), the reality is that it’s impossible to explain the real motivation for either.  When you tell someone you want to run a marathon or join the Peace Corps, the reactions you get all immediately slide off into two categories: “Wow, I would LOVE to do that someday / I wish I had done something like that when I had the chance / I already did it myself” or “Good for you” with the not-so-hidden subtext “Why on earth would you want to do that?”  And honestly, I can’t really answer.  But there’s something about those little successes, and that big success, when you’re done that are like nothing else in the world.  That feeling when you pass through the finish line—body aching all over, covered in salty sweat, looking like a wreck, and almost ready to fall apart—somehow makes it all worth it.  Well, it did when I finished my first marathon, that is…I’m putting all my faith in the possibility that the little voice inside pushing me through my service will hold the same sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when I COS.  At times I think it will and at times I think it won’t, but that voice is here, for better or worse, and apparently, so am I. 

I’m almost to my second Peace Corps mini-goal—my first was making it through training, and in a couple of weeks I will be at In-Service-Training; where all of the Bots 9 volunteers return to Gaborone for two more weeks of training and instruction on how to proceed with our service here in Botswana.  I know I’ll need to set a new goal after that, but for now, I’ve got my eye on that one (and on finishing my Community Assessment; the large assignment that we are required to complete during our first two months of service—eek!!).

Incidentally, I’m also trying to train for a marathon while here…it’s in April…well there are a couple then, depending on where my travel budget is (one’s in Cape Town—how cool would that be?!).  The sand is killing my knees and I know the heat will make it pretty tough, so I may decide to settle for the half (but really, that’s cool—running an official Half in Africa is pretty rad).  I know it probably sounds selfish to do something like that while I’m here, but I’ve found that running is very frequently literally the only thread keeping my sanity in-tact; it’s just something I need to do.  And also, obviously, Peace Corps service is very, very different from a marathon, in that the ultimate goal of PC service is to try to help others, whereas a marathon is just for yourself.  But the reality is that they both entail a great, great deal of personal struggles, and it’s ultimately up to you to make it work…well, you and the encouragement of crazyawesome friends and family who make enormous sacrifices to support you…y’all know who you are…I couldn’t do/have done any this without you (and, yes, that includes the marathon; for those of you who don’t know, my incredibly amazing and constantly inspiring friend Katherine coached me through my training, and ran with me at my painfully slow [for her] pace, the whole way…and of course there are too many of you guys supporting me now to begin name-dropping…you are all so, so, so incredible, words can’t begin to thank you).

Dog Blog!!

Ok, I’m taking a momentary break from my commitment to song reference blog titles, but, come on, how many things that I write about rhyme with “blog”?  It had to be done, folks.  Plus, this is a pretty special blog post because it is about my doggy, Rocky!  And he’s the most special doggy in the world (totally unbiased opinion, of course).

So as most of you probably know, I’ve been pretty insistent about not adopting any animals during my Peace Corps service—I will only be here for two years, I absolutely cannot bring any animals back with me, and the notion of "companion animals" is among the greatest cultural differences between Americans and Batswana.  The way that American animal-lovers treat animals is very, very, very, very, very, very different from the way animals are treated here, so the odds of finding an animal a home that I feel comfortable with here are extremely low, and I believe that adopting an animal, wherever you are, is making a commitment to ensure that they will be cared for, long-term, not just while it’s convenient for you (and, incidentally, I would be on the first plane home if something happened to my mom and she could not care for my cats any longer). 

So…how is it that I have a dog, you ask?  Is it because of the hundreds of dogs literally starving to death in the streets—my heart finally broke and I took one?  No;  carry dog food wherever I go and feed as many as I can afford to, but most of them actually belong to people here; they just don’t take care of them the way most American animal guardians would.  Plus, it’s a huge slippery slope—there are hundreds of dogs, everywhere, all suffering so much that even most non-animal-people in America wouldn’t be able to stand it and would take one in, but there are so many, I cannot help them all, and any help I can give one of them would be so short-term, better to put my resources toward trying to help them all here and there.  Plus, it is socially acceptable here to beat dogs quite violently and for no apparent reason—I’ve seen men, women, and children, completely unprovoked, walk up and violently kick sleeping dogs in streets or parking lots.  So there are few dogs that are not extremely scared of people—to socialize an animal, show him/her love, and then abandon him/her…I won’t do it.

So, really, how did I end up with a dog?  Ironically, the reason I have a dog now, is the same reason I wasn’t going to get one in the first place.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog, a few weeks ago while on a walk with a friend, an incredibly sweet, already neutered, and reasonably well-cared for dog appeared out of nowhere, immediately bonded with me, and followed me all the way home.  After a week of him following me, and me talking to people about his history, I felt confident that they story I kept hearing about his past was true: he was the byproduct of just the sort of thing I was trying to avoid.  He belonged to an American volunteer who had him neutered and provided him with a loving home, but then, at the end of his time here, left him behind—some stories said that the volunteer gave him to a Motswana who did not want him, others said the volunteer just left.  In the meantime, because the dog was so friendly, and was accustomed to being well-cared-for, the dog had succeeded at getting enough food from the local Pakistani restaurant to keep himself in pretty good shape.  Because he so clearly wanted to be my dog (and I had already fallen in love—you all know what a total sucker I am), and because he was already socialized and abandoned by someone else, I decided to keep him, and spend the next two years trying to find him a permanent home with someone who shares my views on the way companion animals should be cared for.  So now I have a dog.

So, let me tell you a little bit about him!  (Warning: this next paragraph is just going to be me rambling at a proud mother; fast forward to the next if you're just reading for the cultural-how-are-things-different-in-Botswana insights.) He is BIG!  Maybe 70 pounds or so?  As many of you know, I have done extensive work with cats and farmed animals, but almost none with dogs, so I don’t really know dog breeds, but I think he’s mostly a yellow lab mix.  He’s incredibly smart—I can’t believe how quickly he has learned my routine, my places, and all of his street-savviness, as well as his manners (COMPLETELY house-trained, even though I know it’s been a couple of years since he’s been in one).  Initially when I adopted him, he had a big biting problem—not aggressive biting, but playful biting, since for the past couple of years his only real companions have been dogs, and they play pretty rough here—but he almost immediately learned to stop, and believe me, I have NO idea how to train a dog, so it certainly wasn’t because of me.  He gets along remarkably well with all of the other dogs in town, but he does like to maintain the alpha status, which is kind of cute, albeit worrying at times, and he finally totally trusts me—even though he had been following me, and staying with me, it was almost two weeks before he finally totally showed me his belly.  And he’s really silly; he loves to herd all of the animals around here, even though he has nowhere that he’s actually herding them to, and he loves to go running with me (and I go running for 1-2 hours most of the time; he tries his best to keep up the whole way) and letting me get ahead, then waiting and running as fast as he can to catch me.  And at night at my house, he loves to sleep by my bed, but if he thinks I’m staying up too late, he goes and hides behind the curtains (so it’s dark), and falls asleep and snores really, really, really loudly.  And he loves chasing cars—he’s the ONLY dog here who does that…I hate it, but there’s not much I can do to stop him.  Probably all normal dog stuff, but he’s my first dog and I love him, so I think it’s special and exciting and there’s nothing you can do to stop me. :oP  Oh, and I named him Rocky, but I don’t really know why…he just seems like a Rocky!

Now, although I have not had a dog in the States, I can still say with confidence that the experience of having a dog here is very, very, very different.  First of all, unless you are lucky enough to have a government house, which all have fenced yards, or do not live on a shared living compound like myself and most Shakawe residents, there’s no way to really “keep” a dog.  Keeping them inside would be inhumane (not LETTING them inside, that’s always humane, and my Rockydog sleeps with me every night I’m at home; it’s KEEPING them inside that’s not safe).  It’s incredibly hot, houses are not insulated; and my house, like many here, is only a tiny 15’x15’ room.  The windows are far too high for him to see out of so even if the temperature and space weren’t issues, he would have nothing to do all day.  And, again, unless you live on your own property with your own fence, which almost no one here does, you cannot keep them in your yard unless they decide they want to stay there, because people are constantly coming and going, the gate always opening and closing.  So that means that most dogs, mine included, either spend the day on their own, exploring, or they follow you and sleep outside wherever you are (or follow you, then decide to go exploring because whatever it is that you’re doing is too boring, and, let’s face it, we’re humans, so it probably is). 

For a dog like Rocky, who now has a loving mom who takes case of him, it’s a pretty fun way of life for the most part.  No leashes, no rules—even though it is socially acceptable to beat dogs, it’s also socially acceptable for dogs to go anywhere they want (as long as it’s not inside), including other people’s yards, farms, business, etc.  It’s even ok for dogs to mark any territory they want.  One day when I came out of the grocery store, I was horrified to see Rocky marking someone’s car—I was sure he was about to get beaten, and I was about to get an earful.  To my great surprise, the owner of the car stepped out, completely unfazed, and didn’t do a thing—and I’ve seen it happen with my and other dogs ever since then without anyone giving a second thought.  It’s also kind of a big party scene for the dogs—although almost all of the dogs are in pretty awful shape, they all seem to know each other, and love to play and go on adventures together.  After all, Shakawe is full of chickens, goats, donkeys, and cows to chase, and the river to frolick in (although I really wish I wouldn’t—it’s not even safe for people to go in because of the crocodiles).  Of course they also fight, especially at night—I don’t have to worry about keeping Rocky quiet, because all night long the village echoes with the painful sounds of dogfighting.  And for most of the dogs, their “adventures,” center around the common goal of finding food.  But for Rocky, when he stays with me, he gets to have a belly full of food and a night full of sound sleep after a day full of fun, rather than spending the night struggling for survival after a day of hunger and scavenging.

Although this world creates a lot of entertainment for Rockydog, it is also a big source of stress.  Sometimes Rockydog decides to go exploring and then cannot find me—he will go missing for a day or two, and I will later find out he has been to my friends’ houses, my workplace, etc., and waited for me when I wasn’t there.  (I’ve asked people to call me if he comes looking for me, but since people don’t care for animals the same way here, I haven’t been able to get anyone to do it.)  Worse yet, since he doesn’t feel like he has a “home base,” whenever I have to go somewhere by car, it’s literally heart-breaking—he follows the car as far as he can, and then doesn’t know what to do. 

As an entirely neurotic pet-mom, it’s maddening.  Sure, he’s a tough dog and has been taking care of himself for a long time…but there are so many cars and drunk drivers, and so many crocodiles in the Delta, and even though he’s stronger than most of the other dogs, if his alpha tendencies land him in a fight, one bite in the wrong spot could mean he’s a goner.  Or if a person attacks him, and he bites the person out of self-defense, he’ll have an automatic death sentence.  Not to mention the fact that I adore him, miss his company like crazy when he’s not around, and it kills me that he might think I’ve abandoned him and that he’s going to have to be homeless all over again. 

Honestly, his running away has been a great source of anxiety for me, but, as with most of my experiences here, it’s forcing me to grow, and to accept that a lot of things are simply out of my control.  And his companionship has already helped me through so very much—and given me one more reason not to ET, even on those especially difficult days.  And fortunately for me, even though I don’t have a government house with a fenced yard, the other PCV in town does, and she is also a huge animal-lover.  Thanks to her kindness, I’ve been trying to make that feel like “home base,” and it seems to be working—he now goes there most of the time if he’s looking for me, and she either lets him stay with her in her yard, or calls me to let me know to come get him (he’s still my dog—he follows me everywhere, when he knows where I am, hehe…).  And I am so, so, so grateful, because I have to leave soon for IST (in-service training--y'all know you've missed those Peace Corps acronyms), which means I’ll be away in Gaborone for a couple of weeks.  Without the other PCV’s support, I am quite sure that the thought of leaving him for that long would cause me to have a complete emotional meltdown. 

Anyway, just another small perspective on life here in Bots; this time through the eyes of a dog.  Please send good thoughts/prayers/etc. that I’ll be able to find him a really good home before I leave—I’m already stressing over it!! (Yes, even Botswana Chelsea is still apparently completely Type A and neurotic when it comes to animals. [I'm sure you'll all kindly keep any comments about my neuroticism on non-animal issues to yourselves...haha :oP.])