Sometimes, the best vacations are the ones that you didn’t bother to plan. That sounds kind of corny, but seriously, that’s a hard thing to do! The decision to let go and be okay with anything that happens along the way is one that takes a lot of risk, after all.
On the flipside, you will always exceed expectations when you have zero to start with! That is just what happened when I decided to go on safari alone in December.
As a recap of where we last left off, I continue to pour sweat from all orifices of my body, and I did eventually recover from the “Peace Corps Plague” a.k.a salmonella poisoning. I don’t even feel the heat anymore; the sweat just has a mind of its own and continues to make an appearance even if I’m not feeling hot.
Thus, I decided it was time to put aside the work of community integration and HIV/AIDS and take a break to explore the beauty of Botswana. How the heck could I come to live in the top safari destination in the world, and never see an elephant??? That seemed like blasphemy to me. I would have otherwise literally and figuratively been ignoring the elephant in the room.
So, a friend and I planned a trip to Kasane (ka-sa-nee) together just after Christmas. Kasane is a village wayyyyyy at the northern tip of Botswana, on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia. It’s where all the cool kids go to see safari animals because it houses Chobe National Park, which is not fenced in, so the animals roam freely through the village and along the Chobe River. Elizabeth Taylor was once married at Chobe Marina Lodge in Kasane.
I live in a village in the South of Botswana in the desert, on the border of South Africa. The cool kids don’t come to my village. The scorpions do, the camels do, but that’s it. Kasane is literally on the other end of the country. Botswana is about the size of Texas, if that gives you a picture of the distance, or it’s “far far” as people often say here*.
One week before we were set to leave, my friend informed me that unfortunately she wouldn’t be able to make it. “Shucks,” I thought, “there goes the entire vacation! I’ll just sit at home instead.” It then it occurred to me; I moved to Africa by myself. I sure as heck could figure out how to get to Kasane by myself, too!
The difficult thing about traveling here is that the best way to get around the country is by bus, and the bus schedules aren’t actually written down anywhere. It’s all word of mouth. You just ask the people in the village if they know what time the bus leaves and hope they’re right. So, I couldn’t exactly plan anything ahead of time.
I decided that I would take the bus north 7 hours to Molepolole and visit my host family for Christmas. Then, I would take the night train further north from Gaborone to Francistown, and from there I would take a bus to Kasane.
When I got to Molepolole, it was exactly the fresh breath of air that I needed. If you recall, I was in very low spirits back in December after recovering from salmonella poisoning and feeling isolated and alone. My family welcomed me home with open arms, and it was exactly the love and support I needed. I got my old bed back, and I shared the bedroom with my two sisters Dineo and Bina, and my niece Didi. They had been anticipating my arrival and my mother, who I call “Mama” or “Mme” was there waiting with a smile on her face and making sure I was okay. They even bought a special Christmas tree, which we all decorated together.
On Christmas Eve, my family sat out in the backyard cutting up vegetables and talking into the night to prepare for a feast the next day, while our dog Spotty kept jumping on my lap to give me kisses. The next day, we were up early slaughtering a goat and a few chickens, and cooking all day in the yard. I helped make the butternut, cabbage and popcorn for everyone to munch on while we worked.
That night, about 50+ people came over and sat outside and partied. My mother gave the crowd a special introduction of me as her daughter “Mpho” (that’s my Setswana name, it means “gift”) to the family, and then we ate and danced into the night. A popular song here is “kae idibala”, which translates to “I’m fainting” and at one point everyone was rolling around in the driveway pretending to faint while that song played. It was hysterical!
I passed out around 10 pm because I’m an old lady these days, but everyone stayed up dancing in the driveway until about 4 am. When I woke up the next morning, there were people sleeping in every room of the house. Cell phones were lost, hair was disheveled… it was a good night, clearly!
The next day, we took a trip to the local pool in town, where I taught my niece Didi how to swim and avoided the children jumping on my head in the deep end. I felt so rejuvenated and thankful to have this wonderful family. My mother and I left early so she could take me to the bus stop. I got on the bus in my wet clothes, and headed to Gaborone so I could take the train to Francistown.
The night train is no joke you guys. It’s so fancy! I slept in the top bunk of a bed in an all-female cabin. The woman on the bed below and across from me had her young toddler son, who I’m guessing had never seen a white person before. He was pretty freaked out and spent the entire night staring at me in wonder, and his mother kept apologizing, but it was fine. The kid was cute, and I was tired. Stare away, kid.
When I arrived in Francistown around 6 am, I called my friend Cathie and asked if I could take a shower and freshen up at her house before the next leg of the trip. She had a few other volunteers at her house that were still there from Christmas, and was waiting for me with a big smile on her face. Guys, she has an actual SHOWER, and it has HOT WATER! My heart exploded to see such a positive group of women at the house, as I was still a bit unsure of what the heck I was doing traveling around the country by myself. They gave me the reassurance that everything would be okay.
I would describe Francistown as like the Florida of Botswana. There is a big mall with modern shops, fancy hotels, stocked up grocery stores and a downtown area with many other shops. What??? Where am I?! There is even sushi!! In landlocked Botswana, there’s freakin’ sushi! It was a shock compared to my village life in the desert.
The view of the amazing Francistown mall:
Cathie and the girls were kind enough to show me around Francistown, and we stopped for morning tea and biscuits poolside at the Cresta hotel. We took a short trip to the grocery store for me to stock up on food for Kasane, and then I departed to catch the bus because I had heard that there may-or-may-not be a bus at 1 pm that goes to Kasane. “Great! Kasane is only 5 hours away, so I’ll get there before dark,” I thought to myself.
I was wrong. Very wrong.
Yes, there was a bus, but it didn’t get there before dark. As I sat on the sprinter waiting for it to depart from the bus rank, I saw four other volunteers get on the same bus. We greeted each other, and then squished into our tiny seats for the long ride. They were getting off at Elephant Sands, a resort with elephants that is just outside the village of Nata on the way to Kasane.
The sprinter buses at the bus rank in Francistown:
A few hours into the trip, the van started clunking and making noises. We pulled over, with the van broken down on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and smoke coming from the hood. The volunteers and I sat on the side of the road hoping for the best as a group of men crawled under the van to fix whatever was broken. Just as I had decided to brave the snakes and pop a squat and pee in the bush, I heard one volunteer say “hurry Abbie! The van is fixed, we’re leaving!” I pulled up my pants and made a run for it before the bus left. Unfortunately though, this delay meant that I wasn’t going to make it before it got dark.
I didn’t have any phone numbers for a taxi in Kasane, and I didn’t know anyone there. I figured I would get to the bus rank and see taxis around and flag one down. It’s a huge tourist destination, so how could there not be taxis?
Well, by the time the bus pulled into Kasane it was dark and pouring rain. And when I say pouring, I really mean it was a downpour. I couldn’t see more than two feet in front of me! There were no taxis at the bus rank. I got off the bus and the bus driver shouted to me “You don’t want to walk around Kasane alone at night, or you will become dinner to the animals!”
She wasn’t kidding. This is a real thing here. You don’t want to cross paths with a water buffalo or god forbid a lion. It hit me at that moment that I am living an actual life where being eaten by a lion is a reality.
GREAT. I might die. This could be the end… and I’m alone on the side of the road with no way to get to my hostel.
So, I began walking in the rain alone, and eventually found a taxi that was picking people up. He was about to speed off when I pounded on the side of the car and asked him to take me along, too. “No way! I’ve already got customers, you are inconveniencing me,” he said. “PLEASE, sir, it’s not safe for me to be out here at night.”
He told me he would charge me 40 pula instead of the usual 25 pula for the ride, and when I climbed into the front seat of the car, I realized he had a vodka bottle in his hand and was very drunk.
What other choice did I have? It was either take my chances getting eaten by a lion, or take my chances with this guy and his vodka.
So, I opted for the vodka man.
He drove me way out on a dirt road, and at times, it seemed he was driving me into the woods to cut me up into pieces. But I had to trust him, and trust that everything would be okay.
And it was okay. I arrived at my backpacker’s camp in the pouring rain. A man named Eric greeted me, and told me to wait in the manager’s office and use the WiFi. I was in a bad mood and stressed out and just wanted to go to bed.
But after sitting there for a few minutes, I began talking with a girl named June from South Korea, who was visiting with her boyfriend from Spain and I felt more relaxed and present. Who cares that I’m covered in mud and soaking wet? I’m on vacation!
Eric returned to tell me my room was ready, and when he picked up my backpack to carry it to the room, he flashed me the most beautiful smile I had ever seen. I hadn’t noticed how good looking he was when I arrived in a bad mood, but now, that smile couldn’t be ignored.
“Oh wow… that man is beautiful!” I thought to myself.
They gave me a cute little roundavel, for only $10 a night. It was perfect! Just enough to fit a bed, with a fan and a bed net. The backpacker camp also had an open kitchen with pots and dishes, and a running shower, friendly dogs and quirky art everywhere.
The next day I slept in and awoke well rested. Game drives that go through Chobe National Park leave at 5:30 am, so I missed the boat for safari touring that day. This would be my day to relax. It turned out that my sitemate from my village, and a mutual friend of ours, Goaba, was also planning to come to Kasane that day and stay in the exact same camp where I was. What a coincidence!
Before they arrived, I decided to go explore the town of Kasane. Eric offered to walk me to the bus stop to take the kombi into town, when suddenly there was a downpour. We found ourselves hiding from the rain in a small hut on the side of the mud road, and chatted for a while. He told me he was a safari guide, and just helping at the camp right now because the owner is a friend of his and he has a house nearby. It was at that moment that I decided I would need to kiss this man before I left Kasane. It was inevitable, I couldn’t help it, it was just one of those things that had to happen.
The view of the rain from our hiding spot:
Flash forward, Goaba arrived with her friend, Refilwe. The rain cleared up, and there were a group of men also staying at the camp that were from Francistown and Gaborone, who were also on vacation. I immediately felt like I was among old friends I had known for years. We laughed and talked for hours, and they were conscious to speak English when I was around. They brought the beer, we cooked and I played ‘90s R&B on spotify.
It turns out the guys were friends with the owner of the camp, who also owned a safari company. We all piled into the back of his safari truck and he took us on the most spectacular game drive in Chobe National Park. We watched the sunset as we saw elephants, giraffes, baboons and wild dogs run by.
After the game drive, we all agreed that we would continue the week together and do a boat cruise and visit the snake park, and end the week with a big party at the camp on New Year’s Eve. Yes, I held a python, and you think you’re rough and tough until you find a python around your neck, and then it’s not fun anymore. Refilwe handled it like a champ, though.
When you visit these parks, they charge you an extra fee if you are not a Motswana. It doesn’t matter that I am a resident of Botswana, they still would charge me a fee if I raised my hand and told them I was foreign. So, when we went to the snake park, and the guide asked if anyone was foreign, our friend Peter spoke up before I had a chance and said, “We are all Motswana here. No one is foreign. And we would like the tour in English while you’re at it.” The woman looked confused and shifted her eyes to me, but didn’t ask any questions.
Flash forward to New Year’s Eve, and we were ready for a big party. The music was going, men were cooking serobe (smashed goat intestines) and we were all dancing.
Eric had told me earlier that day to save a dance for him. He came over and danced next to me while I held a glass of champagne in my hand. I leaned over to him and said into his ear “In America, at midnight, we are supposed to toast champagne and kiss someone at midnight. I have a problem…”
“What is the problem?” he asked.
“Well, I have the champagne taken care of, but I don’t have anyone to kiss at midnight,” I replied.
His eyes lit up. “Oh… Who will you kiss at midnight then?”
“Hopefully YOU!” I said.
“That would be wonderful!” he said.
So, at 11:55 pm with butterflies in our stomach, we secretly climbed to the top of the tree house in our camp. We kissed as everyone’s voice in the background counted down to midnight, with fireworks shooting above our heads. I knew that if this was the way I was starting 2019, this would be a special year.
I came back to the party a little while later, and one of the women at the party wanted to know where I was.
“You have been gone a long time. Where did you go?” She asked.
“Oh…I just had to step away for a moment,” I said.
She looked very confused.
“I don’t understand… where have you been?” She said.
“I went THAT SIDE,” I replied.
Calmness spread across her face as if she immediately understood and was content with my answer.
“Oh, so you were bathing!”
“Yes, bathing…” I said.
For some reason, many the phrase “that side” is used constantly by Motswana and it seems to satisfy many answers to questions. No one ever asks where the side actually is, or what it means. People just say the phrase and everyone seems to know what it means. “I live that side”, “I went that side”, “the person you’re looking for is that side.” It all seems to make sense to people, so I went for it!
The next day, I climbed into the car with Goaba and Refilwe, and we said goodbye to our friends. We were headed back to Francistown, where we would spend the night on Cathie’s floor along with two other volunteers, MJ and Karin, who were also traveling south.
As you drive out of Kasane, you are required to stop at a checkpoint and take every pair of shoes you have in your bags and on your feet, and drop them onto a wet mat. This is apparently to mitigate Foot and Mouth disease.
Just as we drove out of the checkpoint, Refilwe said, “look at these two women standing on the side of the highway. That’s crazy!”
When I looked over, I saw poor MJ and Karin, standing on the side of the road. “Wait, I know them!! They’re going to the same place as we are! We should stop and make sure they’re okay.”
It turns out their bus had broken down, and they had been standing there for two hours looking for a ride. I guess you could say that it’s fate that we drove by at that moment. So, we all piled into the car and drove to Francistown together.
The next day, Goaba and Refilwe left for Gaborone early in the morning and I spent the afternoon shopping and living it up in Francistown. I had sushi for lunch, and bought fabric to make a dress.
That evening, I arrived at the train station, ready to take the night train back to Gaborone, and then would catch the bus in the morning back to my village. I had my giant backpack with me, and Cathie told me that we could check the bag so that I didn’t need to carry it into the room with me since there wasn’t much floor space and it seemed like a great idea to me.
I asked the woman if I could check my bag, and she told me to walk to a building further down the train tracks and check it there. I got to that building, and the woman there took me into the first class waiting room, and pointed to a couch in front of everyone, and said “Check it there.”
“Uh, you want me to leave my bag here?” I asked.
It turns out they don’t use the word “check” to check a bag here. She thought I was asking for a private room to look through my bag. I explained that I wanted her to take my bag and put it in a safe room. I still don’t know what word they use here instead of “check”, but she understood and I gave her my bag and sat on the couch.
A few minutes later, I saw a group of women in a circle talking. One of the women, who was carrying a baby in her arms that was feeding from her breast, came to me and said “Mma, do you have a laptop in your bag? We discussed it, and we do not think it is safe for you to leave your bag on the train. Someone could go through your bag and steal your belongings. Do you have a laptop?”
I thought about it, and she was right. I shouldn’t have given anyone my bag. It wasn’t safe. So, I left the room and hunted down the man with my bag, and asked for it back.
Americans in Botswana have a reputation of being wealthy and not bothering to learn the local language or customs, so I was conscious that perhaps this woman wanted to know if I had a laptop in my bag to establish that I was wealthy, though I was very grateful for her help. She may have assumed that I was a tourist, and had lots of money.
When I returned to the waiting room, I could hear the women talking about me in Setswana. The woman approached me once again and asked me if I had a laptop. She proceeded to ask me what was inside of my bag. Did I have valuables? What was inside? Did I indeed have a camera or a laptop? She was insistent.
Finally, I responded to her in Setswana. “Nyaa Mma, ga ke na laptop. Ke moithaopi fela, ke nna mo Botswana. Ke labogela thuso ya gago, mma!” (No Mma, I don’t have a laptop. I’m just a volunteer, and I live in Botswana. Thank you so much for your help!)
The look of shock on this woman’s face was palpable. She was completely speechless! The legkoa had just spoken Setswana to her!
Legkoa is what they call white people, or specifically English people, in Botswana. It literally translates to “something vomited up from the sea.” It’s not flattering to be called legkoa, but nevertheless, it’s the word used and often is not meant to be derogatory.
About five minutes later, after sitting in shock in complete silence, I heard the woman lean forward to her friends and say “legkoa o bua Setswana!” (the legkoa speaks Setswana!).
She then approached me again, and asked where I was from. I explained that I am from the USA, and a volunteer in the Peace Corps.
“I went to Delaware for two weeks once,” she said. “And I hated it. No one came out of their house!” and then walked away.
She’s right, though. The community-centered culture is so different in Sub-Saharan Africa than it was in the US. Everywhere I go, I know I will be taken care of. I think that’s the reason why I felt so comfortable traveling around this country alone. I knew that each step of the way would include people who genuinely just want to help and will take care of me.
Family doesn’t include only those who are related to you by blood. It’s a mindset. And I feel like I am surrounded by people who are my family everywhere I go, and I am theirs. They know I will help them anytime, and they will always help me.
It’s almost offensive not to ask for help when you need it here. That was proven to me when I went on this adventure, and this vacation turned out to be better than I ever could have imagined. And it’s all thanks to the decision to let go, and be open to anything that happened.
One aspect of this beautiful place that I plan to keep inside of me forever moving forward is this concept of family everywhere; I plan to live in the spirit of service and share it with those I meet, just as everyone does for me here.
*For some reason when people say things twice in Botswana, that means it’s SUPER serious. I’ve learned that there is “now” and “now now”. When someone says “let’s go now” it really means “let’s go whenever we get around to it”. But if they say, “let’s go now now” that means, “get off your butt and hurry! We need to leave right now!” I once made the mistake of not realizing my supervisor said just one “now” when she said, “we need to leave now! Go home and pack!” and I ended up running home as fast as I could, throwing some clothes in a bag and then sitting on my front stoop for about three hours. It was then that I realized she hadn’t said “now now” and it was my mistake for misinterpreting. Likewise, if you call for a taxi and don’t say that you want them to pick you up “now now” they may just show up a number of hours later.