Sitting in a cafe in Gaborone, Botswana.
The bus here was delayed but only by an hour; the border crossing was fast and we were in Gaborone by 9. Driving in we passed by a brightly lit shopping center with an LCD billboard and I thought for a second we were back in the suburbs of Chicago going to Target.
A woman named Maduo, a Batswana who rode the bus with us from Johannesburg, directed us around the corner from the bus station and through the main square, the Mall, to where she knew of a guest house. Maduo works in the human resources department of the University of Botswana, which actually has an exchange program with the University of Chicago and other Midwest colleges. She walked us (Codrin and I carried her bags) to the lodge, which was a bit beyond our price range. So she called a cab for us, waited around for ten minutes, then took the cab with us to another lodge on the outskirts of town, in extension 10. This lodge had a double room, but he was asking 350 pule ($50) for it. The single was comparable. We asked him if we could put three people in one room, and he rrefused. So we did what any savvy traveller would do, we left our bags with Maduo and Ioana and Codrin and I walked 50 meters to another lodge next door, walked right in and asked if they had a room for three. They didn’t, but they could put three in a double for 250 pule. Sold. This room had a double bed and a twin, and the lodge serves breakfast included and has a pool. We went back to the first lodge and told the man we had found a plae next door for half the price. At that point, you would think he would offer a room for the same price, but he didn’t so we went on our way. The man who had driven us had been waiting so he took us to the lodge next door. We bid farewell to Maduo, who had spent an hour and a half of her night helping us find a place, and settled in.
Gaborone is a small city, about the size of Westport, but has a vibrant business district, shopping malls and the Mall is like downtown DC. Botswana has the fastest growing economy in Africa, at a constant rate of 5% a year since 1970, and it shows. Every store here is a recognizable franchise, including a KFC, PEP (a South African superstore) and Woolworth’s. Despite the economy, this country is still very conservative. Homosexuality still carries a 7-year sentence, and AIDS here is the second highest prevalence in Africa, largely because of lax standards concerning rape and sexual assault. However, unlike South Africa, Botswana seems to be taking an active role in tackling the problem; there are HIV-awareness billboards all over the place, and most Batswana wear red ribbons. In fact, in South Africa I didn’t see one public service announcement, condom giveaway, or person on the street giving out flyers.
We plan to spend the day doing the 5 or 6 tourist sites in Gaborone (there are more in Westport!) and buying a ticket to Maun, the tourist capital of Botswana. We might meet up with Maduo later for drinks. Apparently there’s an expat bar, although with the number of bars available I don’t know if we’ll go to that one.
Today we wandered from the Main Mall to the main government park, which is a lovely green park with a statue in the middle square. Facing the park is the parliament building, a broad, white building with columnades and modern sculpture. It is open to the public and has an inner courtyard with a fish pond. We took pictures of the building, and then went into the courtyard and took some more. There was an information center, but parliament was not in session so we didn’t want to stay for long. We were taking our last pictures of this serene and picturesque complex when a guard started yelling at Codrin in incomprehensible english. Then he started yelling at me. So I went up to him and he asked “Who authorized you to take pictures? Where did you get authorization?” I responded that we were just taking pictures, there were no signs to say not to. He said “You cannot take picture here, this is government building. I am going to take you to jail.” “What?” I said. “I am going to take you to jail. Directly to jail, not later, not tomorrow, now.” “Sir, I’m sorry, but we will delete the pictures we took, we didn’t know.” “You cannot take pictures! You cannot take pictures here!” Codrin, Ioana, the guard and I kept going back and forth in the columnade of the parliament building, but he wasn’t doing anything. He was just talking to us, not withdrawing a weapon, not physically engaging in any sort of arrest. Codrin started to argue more aggressively with the guard, and then started walking away. The guard followed Codrin yelling at him, and then came back to me and Ioana telling us to come with him, and motioned elsewhere. Of course, we’re telling him we will delete the pictures, we’re sorry we took them, and so on, and when we asked if he wanted us to delete them, he said “No! Do not delete. Come with me!” So we immediately took out our cameras and deleted the pictures, as quickly as possible (we don’t want any proof that we actually took any). By this time, Codrin is completely ignoring the guard and walking off, and Ioana and I are on the fence between listening to the guard and starting to go. If he was going to arrest us, he would have done so already, right? Finally, the guard started following us out of the complex and then started motioning toward another government building, which actually looked like a jail. It was painted white and all the windows were barred. He said “Let me assist you” and started leading us around this new building. He kept repeating “Let me assist, let me assist!” and we started to follow him, but after about 5 seconds we decided it would be better if we insisted where we were going first before we went any further. It turns out, he was now trying to help us by leading us to the public relations office to get permission to take photos. He went from arresting us to being our best friend within five minutes. This is Africa. We thanked him and left. On the way onward to the bus station, we surmised that after spending five days in Africa, the first crime we experienced was our own.Codrin and Ioana stopped for a smoke on the other side of the highway, as we walked to the bus station. We needed to get to Maun as soon as possible. Gaborone is lovely but there’s not much to do in the way of sightseeing, one day would be plenty. The bus station was not so much a station as a parking lot the size of three football fields, filled with pay-on-the-bus busses that go everywhere in Southern Africa. We had a hard time figuring out the system, but we found a bus that was leaving at 6 the next morning for Francistown, and from there we could get a ride to Maun. We figured this out after we had walked past the bus “Station” completely to a shopping center, where there was a Bata shoe store and a Pie City where we bought a couple beef and kidney, and spinach, pies. I bought ice cream on the street. The temperature at this point was over 90. When we were eating our pies, Christina Aguelera was playing on the speaker system. We couldn’t finish all of our pies, so we were left with 2 of them (they’re small). Ioana made a quite ironical comment: ”You know how your parents tell you when you’re a kid to eat all your food because the children in Africa don’t have it? Well now we’re in Africa and we’re not finishing either.” Really makes you think. Codrin suggested we could give the extra food to someone who was starving. But, actually, there were no such people. We haven’t seen a single beggar, malnourished or otherwise poor person in Botswana so far.
From the bus station, we got an combi to a village called Gabane, on the outskirts of Gaborone. We paid 3 pule a person, about 50 cents, for the 25 minute ride. We got to Gabane and walked about a kilometer down a dusty road to a pottery and wares manufacturer, where we shopped for about an hour. When we got back to Gaborone, we decided to take a cab to the train station and see if we could take a train to Francistown. As it turns out, there’s a night train with first class sleepers for $25/person–not bad for an 8 hour trip. So we’re leaving on the night train tonight, and will be in Francistown by morning and Maun by tomorrow night.
One more anecdote. When we were reserving the tickets at the train station, the woman asked me for my name. She was writing our names on a sheet that was numbered with letters A, B, C, etc next to each of which there were 5 or 6 lines. I surmised that these were cabins on the train, and by putting our names in one of the letters she was putting us all in the same cabin. So I noticed that one of the letters–D–had only 4 lines, as opposed to the others which had more. So I asked if we could put our names in letter D, so we could have our own cabin. She was writing my name in G, and every time I said “D, can we put in in D?” all she heard was “D, D, D, D!” So she started writing my name: ”Mr. D…” and then I said “M, A…Wait, D! Put us in D!” So she erased part of my name and continued to write “D, D”. By the time she had finished writing my name it was “Mr. D DMayder.” As it turns out, the cabin in D only fit two people and the others fit 4. So after we had reserved tickets for the three of us, we decided to buy the fourth ticket and get a private cabin. So I asked if we could get another ticket. ”What’s the name?” she asked. I said “Mr. D, D, D, D, D…”
When we got off the combi back to the Mall Ioana asked, as we were getting out, how much it was for three people. Instantly the driver said “10 pule”. Yea, right. That was after a 2 minute trip, when the combi we took earlier was 25 minutes. Plus, 10 isn’t even a multiple of 3. But it was still $1/person, and we couldn’t complain. We paid him and left.
I have to go, we’re off to the museum. Update from Maun soon.