I spotted my first Obama shirt on a teenager in Gaborone, when we were leaving the national museum. Gaborone is a very small city; the museum is the only real tourist attraction. Most people check their bags at the door before they go in, in exchange for a claim check, but the woman didn’t give us claim checks because we were instantly recognizable, being the only whites in Gaborone. Codrin claims there is a small Romanian population there, but we only saw two white women during our excursion to Gabane, and they were South African, so go figure.
Remember the night we arrived at the lodge in Gaborone the reception told us the room was 250? Apparently he was on a different page as the owner, who told us when we were checking out that it should be 300 because there are three of us. Not that we’d have a problem paying 300, but not when we were told 250. We also had to pay for an additional night because we were leaving after checkout time, even though we were catching the night train. We argued with the owner over the additional 100 pule, and she threatened to call the police on us. Ioana stuck to her guns: we were told 250, we’re paying 250. Fine, the woman says, pay 500 and get out. No problem, we were leaving anyway.
This experience, in conjunction with the parliament building experience that morning, left us a little shaken, and I think we were all a little relieved to be leaving Gaborone. It’s a city of only 200,000 people and we stick out like a sore thumb. We had first class tickets to the train, so we got our own waiting room and a sleeper cabin, which made for a very nice night.
Codrin and Ioana are smokers. They don’t smoke a lot, but they smoke enough that they need a cigarette, and they usually need one at the most inopportune times. 5 minutes before the train leaves? That’s time for a smoke! Bus stopped? Smoke break! We’re getting kicked out of the hotel? How about one more smoke! Border crossing? Perfect time to light up. Smoking aside, the trip has been relatively bump free.
We got to the Francistown train station at 6 in the morning, and by 8:30 were on a coach bus to Maun (after Codrin and Ioana had to have one last smoke, of course). It was supposed to be a 4 hour trip, we ended up pulling into Maun at 2pm. There was a security checkpoint about an hour outside of town. One major problem in Botswana right now is illegal Zimbabwean immigration; most Batswana attribute the Zimbabweans for the hike in crime in the past couple years, and increased exposure to disease. Forcible removals of illegal, and legal, immigrants have been commonplace in Botswana.
I had an opportunity to pick up the Gaborone newspaper to read on the bus. The biggest concern in Botswana right now is HIV/AIDS, which I wrote in a previous email has a 23% prevalence rate in Botswana. This causes the life expectancy here to be a miserable 33 years, which is expected to drop to 27 years by 2010 if current trends persist. I also wrote that Botswana seems to be tackling the problem head on, with everything from public service announcements to prosecutions of HIV-infectors–people who deliberately infect others with HIV. One interesting segment on the paper was on the theatre and arts exhibition that had recently taken place, highlighting human rights abuses of Zimbabweans in light of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I didn’t know there was a theatre scene in Gaborone, it wasn’t in the guide books. One very interesting thing took me a couple times to notice: a proliferation of hardware stores in Gaborone (and, as we found, in the countryside as well). The hardware store fills a very specific demographic need. People who are truly “do-it-yourself” do everything themselves–they have no need of a store for parts of things to put together. People who are very rich, on the other hand, can afford to have things done for them, from plumbing to building to tiling their bathroom. For there to be so many hardware (and furniture) stores in Botswana suggests to me that there is a very specific and vibrant middle class here, which has enough money to afford to improve their homes, build, etc, and actually desires to do part of the assembly and work required, but doesn’t need to build everything from scratch. I don’t think that class exists in many countries, especially in Africa.
Botswana is highly dependent on the diamond industry, which is starting to dry up after 30 years when the mines were first discovered. Whether Botswana will be able to retain its economic growth in the years to come is uncertain. Currently, Botswana is the safest country in Africa and has the stablest democracy, uninterrupted by coup since 1966. As I wrote in an earlier email, the economic growth has been a steady 5% per year since 1970. Should these trends continue, and if the fight against HIV is taken under control, Botswana seems to be the country to watch in the upcoming decade.
Now we’re in Maun, and we checked into a hotel near the bus station for one night, until we can find a better place to launch our safari through the delta. Maun is the tourist capital of Botswana; it’s known for its tours through the fourth largest delta in the world, a rich environment filled with wildlife.
I’ve been in the internet cafe for 30 minutes and have seen more whites here than I’ve seen in all of Botswana so far; and what’s most interesting is most of them speak Tswana. They’re locals. One man I talked to originally came from Houston, but moved here 20 years ago and has lived here since, running a holding company for local businesses. He has a young son who evidently was born here. One more anecdote: when I gave my street name, Pequot, to the receptionist at the hotel, she asked me if I was from Connecticut. Apparently, she worked at Foxwoods for a year to get her training for the hotel business.
Our plan is to stay in Maun so we can do an excursion into the delta. Then, we will try to get to Livingstone, from where we can go to Victoria Falls. We’re a little behind due to our stay in Johannesburg but we’ll make it up; we have a bus to catch from Zimbabwe to Windhoek on the 23rd.