Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Into the Wild

I'm not a very nature-y person. I definitely envy people who are wholesome and outdoorsy, like my sisters. People who hear the word "camping" and think "I'm going to have a great time" and not "I'm going to get eaten by a bear."

I have a completely irrational, totally stupid and yet entirely unyielding fear that I am going to eaten by a lion in a very particular way. And I have anxiety dreams about wild animals all the time, usually ones that involve me trying to Get Indoors and instead being singled out by said wild animals to be eaten.

My mom says she used to have similar dreams about tigers until she decided to "be the tiger." Her advice to me was to "be the lion." So sometimes I tell A, "I am the lion." It is not really helping yet.

Also, as anyone who has ever been outdoors with me knows, I don't like when things land on me, especially bugs (though this also extends to airplanes, etc.). Even lady bugs. I especially resent bugs that are "harmless" and therefore somehow to be welcomed in food, clothes, etc.

The last time I went "camping" I spent the entire weekend in our cabin watching re-runs of The West Wing.

So even though I like the idea of being outside in theory--like hiking is nice, if it's a pretty well-trafficked trail and I get to go home at the end--in reality, I am afraid of being outside. I don't even like some particularly not-domesticated parts of Central Park.

But tomorrow, in the spirit of doing things that are outside my comfort zone, I'm getting in a car with four friends for 8 hours or so and going camping in some place in northern Botswana that is best known for how desolate it is.

Also, there are lions. Wish me luck. See you Sunday.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Extension Gunners vs. Serowe Miscellaneous

We went to our first soccer game yesterday, held at the University of Botswana stadium. There is a huge national stadium in the works, but it's not completed yet. Anyway, the game was between the Extension Gunners and the Serowe Miscellaneous (obviously the best name for a team ever). I think these are local teams from around Gaborone, though some teams in the league are from farther out.

A wore his new jersey of the Township Rollers, also known as Palastina, as in Palestine, for vague, not-all-that political reasons we don't really understand (they are tough?).

This resulted in tons of people getting excited and yelling "Rollers!" "Palastina!" when they saw him, which was really fun, until someone from their rival team gave him the finger.

As we approached the stadium, there were lots of people lined up selling penny candy, frozen bottled water, sausages cooked on tiny gas grills, etc. These little "tuck shops" pop up everywhere people go. A and I stood outside and put tons of sunscreen on, which fascinated and amused the ladies working the tuck shops. In general, though, it is not that weird to be white here, and in fact there are lots of people from all over the world that live here--Chinese, Indian, Russian, American, Canadian, South African, Israeli, etc. But we were the only white people at the game.

Tickets were about $4, and seating was open, though basically all views were blocked by a barbed wire fence. We sat on the shady side with the Serowe Miscellaneous fans, who wore red and white. The Extension Gunners fans wore black and white and occasionally very strange costumes, like the one man wearing a diaper and a skeleton mask, carrying a telephone and a sign that said "Note to Teenagers: This is not your mate." Indecipherable.

(Doesn't this photo look dramatic?) Anyway, the Gunners won, and it was quite a fun atmosphere, though people were about as drunk and annoying as people are at American sporting events. After the game, we got a ride to Pilane, the other apartments owned by Penn, and on the way I tried to take a photo of the sunset, which is amazing and hard to capture.

Don't look directly at it! Then we headed to Red Lantern, a Chinese restaurant that was recommended by a lot of people. P, A, and I are all fans of Lantern, a great pan-Asian restaurant in Carrboro, North Carolina. Red Lantern was a bit different--for example, there were lights shaped like fireworks outside that turned on and off. Ordering Chinese food from a menu that is not really in English via a Motswana waitress and trying to order only vegetarian food is quite challenging. But it worked out, mostly, and we had fried peanuts (aka peanuts--not sure what we were expecting), chinese pancake with egg and onion (my favorite), fried potatoes with chillis, and some tofu thing that I thought tasted suspiciously like beef and couldn't really enjoy as a result. Chinese food is hard to do vegetarian.

After Red Lantern, we made a brief appearance at the Gaborone Sun, a resort-type hotel, with casino, golf course, pool, restaurant, etc. Social life to some extent revolves around this bizarre place, but we like it because it's not all expats, and lots of local people hang out there, too. Anyway, the boys gambled while the girls hung around. Adam lost 100 pula (about $14) at the blackjack table. He is clearly developing a serious gambling problem. I about $2 in slot machines. Tonight we'll probably go to the Sun again for jazz and Indian food, a Sunday night tradition!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Books and food

On Thursday, we ate outdoors again, in celebration of the holiday of Sukkot. Okay actually it was a goodbye braai (Afrikaans for "barbeque") for a resident who is heading back to the States this weekend. There is quite an impressive grill at Pilane Court, where the other Penn visitors live. They also have an outdoor bar and patio. And a pool, though it's not as nice as ours.

While everyone else ate hamburgers, chicken, kebabs, and sausages, A and I enjoyed our sad little veggie burgers. Oh, I'm sure it's healthy for us to have an 8 month meat break, and actually they have decent veggie burgers here--a lot like Morningstar Farm--but I do miss meat. There was plenty to eat though: pasta with feta and basil, roasted potatoes, butternut squash, salad, cookies, and amazingly, rice krispie treats. All I care about is food, in case you were wondering if I care about anything else.

We talked to a new friend, D, who told us about his unlucky sister, who has been struck by lightning, gotten lost hiking alone on her honeymoon and spent the night in the wilderness while her new husband sent search and rescue after her, and when they got back home, their house had burned down. A has had some dramatic luck as well, but D's sister has had it much worse, which for whatever reason made me feel better.


I accompanied L to a book sorting at a school west of here. The school auditorium was completely full of boxes of thousands of miscellaneous books, all mixed together, brought here by Books for Botswana. The arrangement was that if you came and helped sort books, you could take up to 400 for your organization. L and I sorted books for 4 or 5 different groups at onec, which is a Lot of books. It was pretty fun to sift through piles of books, and I was impressed at the quality. They had a lot of new books, as well as a lot of crappy books from the '70s about how to care for your spiritual self by eating more fiber.

One find was a compilation of the best of Tikkun Magazine from the past 20 years. A strange thing to run into a liberal Jewish publication in the middle of Southern Africa.


L also took me to SOS Children's Village, an NGO I am hoping to work for. The children there are orphans and live with children of other ages in a family unit with mothers and aunts. They aren't allowed to be adopted once they enter SOS. It seems like a really neat and successful organization and they certainly seem to need volunteers in their school.


Last night we had dinner at Moghul, rapidly becoming our favorite Indian restaurant (and our Indian friends think the food is good there, which makes it legit). Then A and I watched three hours of Veronica Mars season two.

Also N, our Indian roommate, is going to teach me how to make Indian food, and our housekeeper is going to teach me how to make Tswana food. So yeah, food is pretty much all I care about.


I finally finished Norman Rush's 700-page novel Mortals today, which I have been reading on and off since May. So relieved to be done with it--read the NYTimes review to find out why.

Now I'm debating whether to finish Great Expectations on my Kindle or stick to the new idea I came up with which is to read only books by Africans or about Africa while we're here. What do you think?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

We get around. Slowly.

Frequent commenter Julie Hilton Danan was wondering how we get around Gaborone. There are two ways.

a) By car. Eventually, we plan to buy our own car for the year. In the meantime, we rely on certain pre-approved drivers, whom we call when we need to go somewhere. Some of them have fun names, like "Mr. T." It costs about 25 pula to get anywhere. (Divide by 6 for dollars.) On Saturday nights it seems to be hard to get a car. There is also a combi (like a shared van) we can call if we have more than 4 people. There do seem to be some taxis, but they're not pre-approved! And I have no idea how to use the combi system so far (see photo above that I did not take). There are buses between cities, which I haven't taken yet.

b) By foot. Mostly, we walk places, which is complicated by the fact that we never know which direction to look when crossing the street (they drive on the left here), the roads make absolutely no sense, nobody knows the names of any streets, including the ones they live on, and there are rarely sidewalks. You basically walk on the right side of the road until a car comes, then you walk in the dirt on the side of the road. Also it's incredibly sunny, there are these trees with insane thorns (I will post a photo of these soon), and occasionally threatening dogs (not stray dogs, which would worry me more--people's pets).

A few people ride bikes in town and they do not recommend it.


Tonight, we had the three medical students who are living at the other apartment building over for a Sukkot dinner. There was no space for a sukkah anywhere, but we said kiddush and motzi and "lashev b'sukkah" on the balcony and tried to figure out which stars the Southern Cross is. Then we came inside and ate. (Meanwhile, our housekeeper used my recipe for pizza to make her family pizza. It came out great and I was so glad!)

For the seven of us, I made hake with lemon and pepper, sweet potato chard gratin (replaced chard with mystery greens from grocery store--it was still really delicious--also subbed in cheddar and parmesan for gruyere), brown rice, a salad, and vanilla ice cream with this cake for dessert, greatly modified as I used pears instead of apples, couldn't find molasses, forgot to buy white sugar, and accidentally used double the butter. I also had no measuring cups or spoons, so in a way it was a Sukkot miracle that it was still a good dinner.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

This is Africa. There are bugs.

(Roach drawn to actual size.)

"This is Africa. There are bugs." says a sign posted in our apartment warning us not to leave food out. Well, we haven't left food out. A and I love eating in bed and watching TV (we once ate baked ziti straight out of the pan in bed--is this making us more attractive?--to be fair, we'd had a bad day), but we've been very good about not bringing food into our bedroom here.

So it was sort of surprising (I screamed) to see a "novelty-sized" (A's words) cockroach in our bedroom, right up where the wall meets the ceiling. I've killed about one mosquito per day in our bedroom, we've got a bit of ant problem (and a bigger ant poison problem) in the kitchen, and I've seen a few small, discreet New York-sized roaches in the bathroom. Also there are flies. But this thing was enormous--bigger than a Texas-sized roach.

So I screamed and ran out of the room with my hands over my head, and told A, who was in the bath, to kill it. A, ignoring the fact that obviously the only reason I'm marrying him or anyone is so that they will take care of bugs--I love sexism when it benefits me, like when women aren't obligated to go to services or carry heavy things--finished his bath.

When he got out, he made P kill it. P did an excellent job, and I made sure the thing actually went down the toilet, as I recalled that in Texas, roaches were sometimes revived by an electrical shock when they hit the water (someone please challenge flag me on this--I have no idea if I made it up).

Monday, September 20, 2010

Of course there are Jews in Botswana

I keep comparing this experience to my year in England in my head--there are a lot of weird similarities. Like the fact that everyone speaks English but I still can't understand what they are saying.


We spent Yom Kippur with the Jewish Community of Gaborone. It is a mix of South Africans and Israelis, who are mostly involved in the diamond trade or setting up cell-phone companies or industry. They live in beautiful houses, with lots of security and servants. (We only have ONE servant.)

Then there's us (me and A and P and another student, K), with our patchwork ethnic purses and comfortable sandals, looking kind of dirty, not wearing any jewelry. We are here to save the world! (Except for me.)

So it's a weird contrast, and people use words like "third world" and talk about how nothing works in Gaborone. We are much more euphemistic.


The babka at the break fast we were invited to was amazing. Unfortunately, it's from Johannesburg and A has kind of banned me from ever going there. So I ate a lot of it while I could.


After break fast, we couldn't get a driver to come pick us up to go see "Karate Kid" at Riverwalk, so we headed back over to our apartment and sat on the balcony eating crackers and processed gouda (it looks like American cheese but isn't) and drinking our favorite beers: Carling Black Label and Castle.


Today at clinic, we literally had a ratio of 1:1 between volunteers and children. Talk about feeling useless. The volunteers were way better at the circle games.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Ke lepile" and other useful Setswana phrases

On Wednesday, I took the day off--spent the morning unpacking our bedroom and playing with our housekeeper's grandson, who is 10 or 11 months. A and P (P is the other fellow doing research this year) picked me up and we went to Riverwalk, one of the malls around which a lot of life seems to revolve here.

We ate lunch at a little pub-like place, and I was reminded of why I gained 20 pounds when I studied abroad in England--the best-looking vegetarian things on the menu always involve potatoes and cheese. (In England, there was also late night chips and mayo, baked potatoes with cheese, toastie cheese sandwiches, scones, crumpets, muffins--I never really understood why people complain about English food. Throw enough butter in something and it's awesome.) Anyway, the expat/restaurant food here resembles English foods, so need to watch out for that.

Then we headed over to buy phones--I finally kind of know how to use my phone!--and then to the Pick n Pay--a grocery store. I love foreign grocery stores. I will have to go back and really take my time and pick out some fun things. I just want to let you know that even though they had flour tortillas, vegetarian "chicken" patties, and frozen pre-made samosas, they do Not have black beans. We can't find black beans anywhere here. So you see, we are roughing it.

They didn't even have black beans at Woolworth's, a department store that contains a small, more upscale food section. It had a bigger and more attractive produce section and luxuries like lemons and pre-grated cheese, but no black beans.


On Thursday, I had my first day at the children's clinic. In the morning, I met up with L, a woman who I was introduced to through a fellow from last year. L works with young children at a nearby orphanage and is also the wife of one of the doctors here, and I was so glad she offered to walk me to the clinic, as I'm pretty positive I would never have found it on my own.

She also told me about some of the wildlife here--there is a type of yellow bird that builds several hanging nests and then struts about, inviting the ladies of the species to come check out the nests, see if they want to move in. We watched one of these in her backyard for a while.

The clinic was incredibly nice. I couldn't believe it actually--it feels like you're in the U.S. L also showed me the pediatric ward of the public hospital next door, and the difference was enormous. While the outpatient clinic is newish, funded by grants, and run by Americans, the inpatient peds ward is part of an older, public hospital with some serious and quickly evident problems.

Anyway, I joined up with a couple of other volunteers--two Batswana and one German--to run the playgroup, a two-hour somewhat structured playtime for kids in the waiting room. HIV-positive kids come in for monthly check-ups, and they can be in the waiting room for a while, missing school, getting nervous about their appointments, and just generally being bored and doing nothing. We started with the Lord's Prayer (more on Botswana and religion to come), then played circle games (imagine me playing "telephone" in Setswana--I was the weakest link, needless to say), and then opened it up for hula-hooping, puzzles, legos, basketball, etc. Most of these kids have been coming here monthly for a while, so they're used to the playgroup and jump right in.

While I was sitting with some kids during unstructured playtime, one of the Motswana volunteers, D, offered to teach me a little Setswana. Here are the key phrases she taught me:

Dumela mma/rra - Hello ma'am/sir
Lekai - How are you?
Ke teng - I'm well.
O mang? - What is your name?
Ke na Shira - I am Shira.
Ke lepile - I am tired.
Ou lepile - You are tired./Are you tired?

I think I must look jetlagged.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

We live in a resort in Florida

When we first drove into the city from the Gaborone airport (btw, Gaborone is pronounce "hah-bah-roe-nee" but people often say "Gabs"), we passed a lot of relatively nice-looking houses.

Then we got to where the really rich people live. Then the driver turned onto a side street, making it apparent that we are the really rich people. We live in a compound, with a 24-hour guard and electric fence. There is an immaculate garden with flowering trees of purple (I'm allergic to this one like crazy), yellow, and magenta. There is a swimming pool and a deck with a barbeque.

We also have a maid, H, who comes every day except Sunday, washes and irons our laundry, does the dishes, cleans the floors and bathrooms. This is much nicer than any lifestyle I could afford in America. It is uncomfortable to be white and waited on by black people...and yet it is extremely comfortable. In other words, we are basically colonialists.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Foreign places are foreign

There's something weird about the way that all foreign places feel similar in certain ways. Maybe I just haven't been anywhere interesting yet, but the places I have been have a lot in common, like European brands, UHT milk, separate hot and cold taps, electric kettles, American brands with weird/wrong logos, etc.

Of course, Gaborone is unique and special in its own ways. For example, you can get apple/orange juice blend:

But I'm getting laughably ahead of myself. Long before we had even considered the possibility that apple juice and orange juice could be mixed together, we had to say our goodbyes:

and get our stuff (4 big suitcases, one carry on, one backpack, and one purse + Paul's stuff!) to JFK:

take one 15 hour flight and one 1 hour flight, split up by a miserable 5 hour layover in Johannesburg:

and suddenly we were here!

(That is Botswana out the plane window. Actually, it is probably South Africa.)

My first impression of Botswana was that it is a lot like Texas. It is full of red dirt, and it is pretty much flat. The air is hot and still. There are cacti. I felt right at home, and overall, it feels quite natural to be here. More to come but for now I am posting because the internet is slow here during the day (we share bandwith with the UPenn offices).

Sunday, September 12, 2010

One day to departure

What would we do without Target? How did human beings ever exist before you could buy affordable yet trendy peanut butter, travel adaptors, face wash, and pants all in the same place?

Before our trip to Target, I asked my sister L, the real world traveler in my family (who has spent time in Cyprus, Greece, England, Italy, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Thailand, Laos, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, and probably at least ten more countries I can't remember) the ONE thing she would recommend I pack. Here's the long list she gave me in reply (with asterisks next to what I actually got):

a jump rope
peanut butter*
green tea
an eye mask*
ear plugsflash drive (would probably bring a hard drive for a trip this long)*
a moneybelt*
a journal*
those blister bandaid things
throat drops*
a headlamp
more adaptor plugs than i think i need* (four!, plus power strip)
a clothesline & rubber plug for sink
baby wipes or similar*
a travel towel* (okay, a regular towel. what is a travel towel?)
and a LOT of ziploc bags in different sizes*


I just want to reflect on the pre-departure experience briefly, namely the fact that people in America are really, really scared of Africa. A friend, hugging me goodbye, said quietly and with only a hint of irony, "Don't die in Africa, okay?"

I just got off the phone with one of my relatives, who told me as one of her two pieces of advice that if anything happens, I should just get on a plane and get back here. The other piece of advice was "stay safe."

First of all, have I mentioned I have a bit of an anxiety disorder? Constant reminders from friends and family that they feel like they may never see me again are like candy for the anxiety monster.

Secondly, I just want to clarify that Botswana, unlike say, the places I make blanket assumptions about, is actually quite safe. Africa may seem like a monolithic mass of HIV and refugees and blood diamonds, but it's actually a highly differentiated mass of HIV and refugees and blood diamonds. Of those three things, Botswana only has two! (Do you know which? Make a guess in the comments section!)


This is probably my last pre-departure post. Thanks for bearing with me as I attempted to blog about an experience I wasn't having yet. I promise my next post will at the very least have more photos.

Monday, September 6, 2010

One week to departure

Slept like a baby last night. Slept so soundly I don't even remember my dreams. I want to blame A for my bad sleep (we slept at different friends' apartments last night), but I had a lot of crazy dreams when I was at home in California without him, too. I think it's me.

After my four shots on Friday, I discovered I still need one more shot--yellow fever, for if we go to Rwanda or Tanzania. It's at least $125. (editor's note: it ended up costing $250.) The health budget grows and grows.

A started packing today, which made me nervous because I prefer to be the prepared one.

I cooked a bag of split peas for dinner that have been sitting in our cupboard for six months or so. As usual, was more excited by the prospect of making them than actually consuming the final product. Maybe it needs cream or something? They always just taste kind of bland to me. A didn't even try any, the bastard.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Finally, a not anxious dream!

Last night I dreamt that I was smitten kitchen's apprentice, and we were meeting with one of our students and her parents while I ate a bowl of frosting. I don't think that counts as an anxiety dream. Just an awesome one.

Maybe it helped that A, a medical student, gave me four shots last night--two in each arm. That was a distraction.