God’s on the Bus. So close to Gaborone…so far from my travel goal of 192 (give or take) countries before I die. So what to do on a Saturday night but take the Intercape bus to Gaborone, Botswana and Immigration where the travel god will bless me with yet another passport stamp. And it did turn out to be something of a religious holiday. The bus rolls northwest out of Johannesburg through Illinois farm country—the corn is as high as … Right about here the on-board TV comes alive with what appears to be holy roller, fire and brimstone preachers straight from Elmer Gantry—except these have an Afrikaners accent. Through the farm country we go with pro-life ads, Christian pop and, through the small farm towns where only black South Africans seem to be fooling around and shopping and doing their Saturday night visiting. Starts getting dark as the umbrella thorn trees grow green and dense, earth reddens and fat brown and white cows and donkeys snack by the roadside against the sky-mountain purple dusk.
So still…where are endless roadside stands, knots of aimless men, women heading to somewhere with large baskets, kettles, bags perched elegantly on their heads. Where’s the trash? The smell from the smoky fires and the roadside rubbish? This, my friends is another Africa—southern being very different than western/central Africa. THIS IS PEACEFUL ORDINARY EVERYDAY SOUTHERN AFRICA.
At the bus stop I catch a taxi to the Gaborone Sun. I did try…I did…to find a reasonable normal hotel or guesthouse on line but Gaboronians aren’t big on response to such queries so when I finally decided to go I just booked what I could find easily and American Express-booked a resort gambling ex-pat-in-town-for-the-weekend-from-the-bush camp hotel. DO NOT DO THIS unless you’re coming overland from the deadly jungles of the Congo or have just gone by camel from Cairo to Casablanca. If this is your kind of hotel you should have stayed at home in Amarillo. The hotel staff is very nice however and quite astounded to have a little old lady appear in jeans and a backpack. Tucking myself in for the night to CNN earthquake disaster coverage was already boring…only CNN can repeat so much minutia about every disaster detail of every catastrophic calamity so that even the words and photos of death and destruction of the worst kind have a lulling effect. But I do love you in a kind of obsessive way, CNN.
Sunday Morning in Gaborone. Early, I’m rested, up, showered, out to breakfast. Instead of describing the breakfast myself I’ll let the author of my latest South African murder mystery do it for you. I was reading this while eating and I couldn’t do better myself. “across the deep tan industrial carpet flecked with tiny fern-like organic motifs…into the international-cuisine pine-and-etched-glass emporium with its compound-noun multi-cultural opulence. Sliced melons, German Hams, sausage links, glass jars of muesli and bran flakes weighted down the oversized teak table-top…an endless supply of full, dark coffee….glasses of papaya juice. Globalization. The last time … the juice was called “paw-paw”. Strange fruit.” Author Jane Taylor’s character goes on to describe the guests (except for me), “…Up-country South African parliamentarians, Nigerians, the deputy CEO from a Swiss blood bank attending a symposium on disease control, a French delegation from Rwanda, two Belgian forensic accountants investigating a tax fraud, and an American academic commissioned to write a hagiography of a South African left-liberal novelist. The American’s notebook computer was open in front of him as he jotted down a description of the group mingling around him.” (Of wild dogs: Jane Taylor, Double Storey Books, a division of Juta & Co. Ltd, Mercury Crescent, Wetton, Cape Town, 2005)
The idea I want to convey is that this crowd in some shape or the other is in every “resort” hotel in every developing country. I have always been so envious of the concept of ex-pat, knowing I’d make a more loyal American abroad than I can ever be at home; I’ve wanted to be one of them but I’m actually not so sure anymore. Whether cultural liaison or AIG rep or missionary or aid worker their lives seem to run parallel in every country. While my bus trip may not exactly introduce me to real life in this or any other country it is a tiny but bona fide experience!
Sunday morning then. After breakfast I try mightily to gather some ideas from various staff about what to do. “No, no,” they say, “you must rest, you can do nothing, everything is closed, it is the day people go to church and rest, you must rest too.” Now if I were economically-wise I would not be in Gaborone today…but even for me all of the dollars (rands, pula) I’ve spent on the bus and this hotel have to have been for something more than the passport stamp…don’t they? I get a little map of sorts and head for the Parliament and government buildings and the Main Mall. As your trusty Lonely Planet will tell you Gaborone primarily consists of malls and fast food joints but they are closed too on Sundays it seems.
Out the door for what turns out to be a perfectly perfect 2 ½ hour morning jaunt in the warm overcast Botswanian morning. Church-goers walking the neatly swept streets to a scattering of imposing and simple structures among the thorn trees and thorn bushes here on the edge of the desert. I know there are other trees but so far Google hasn’t yielded the information I need to name them. The people I can better describe. Race and tribe are obviously surer things here than in South Africa. The people are mostly Tswana, dark sculpted people of facial dignity and strength. They’re dressed very like our parents and grandparents dressed for church. The women in conservative, crisply-ironed, dark or brightly-patterned dresses, the men in suits or white shirts and slacks. Children spit and polished. They walk at a comfortable pace, not fast, not slow, small groups, obviously even here most people are sleeping in on Sunday morning. It’s a mile or two before I reach the government complex.
Government…as it should represent itself. Here a surprise. Pleasant buildings. well-maintained. Modest. MODEST. No armed secrurity—obvious at least. NO ARMED SECURITY. Am I in Africa? I’m certainly not in DC! Where’s the opulent Presidential Palace where you will be shouted at if you take pictures? It is not like Botswana has nothing anyone else wants. It has DIAMONDS. The biggest building in the neighborhood is in fact Debswana, the conglomerate of De Beers and the government of Botswana, with the majority of profits reverting to the country and apparently not into the private bank accounts of the government leaders. Seretse Khama Ian Khama is the president, son of the first great leader of Botswana who married an Englishwoman and was exiled to Great Britain for some years. The son is said to be quiet, smart, modest, unmarried, a pilot, wildlife advocate and fitness fanatic. Sounds like Barack’s single brother. Well, actually the Obama brother I’ve seen on TV appears to be rather crazy so I take that back. I am so impressed. I am sure this is government as it should exist. With apparently no one, local or international fundamentalist, gunning for the leader. I stroll from this quiet retreat in the heart of non-blood-diamond political power down the Main Mall, a collection of tacky storefronts offering loans, fried chicken, cheap clothing and videos. Only a couple of vendors are about so I purchase my Botswana souvenir, a brown and gold woven wall hanging for about $3.
Sunday Afternoon in Gaborone. I don’t know this yet but the adventure part of this trip is over. I’m back by noon, greeted by awed desk staff who say “you WALKED, wow, you are strong for such an old person is the subtext of course but that’s okay…if I’m going to get to every country in the world I need to be able to walk the streets when I’m there.
The Gaborone Sun. Gift shop. Decide not to buy the $300 ostrich feather scarf but do get one of South Africa’s gossipy fat Sunday papers. It’s not the Times…well actually it is the South African Times…less serious than our Times perhaps, but then a colleague arrived from the states yesterday with the NY Times for me and the Sunday Styles features an article on a new fad, bus-drinking…in comparison an article about Zuma’s fourth wife’s luxury home seems relatively weighty.
God of nomads, bless Gaborone and the Intercape bus company. No, god bless travel and passport stamps and new countries and curiosity. And thank you for Sunday in Gaborone oh mighty toothpick tree.
A note: I feel rather guilty about not exploring further somehow in this rather odd and elusive country. Two bits of information then: 1) Read Michael Stanley’s murder mysteries starring Detective Kubu (A Carrion Death and A Deadly Trade). They are much better in my humble murder mystery-expert opinion than the Women’s Detective Agency books. Not quite as simplistic. And then I found this poem on line at Off-the-Wall Poetry, a Western Cape web site. I share it to counteract any sense that Botswana is all mall and KFC.