Friday, 29 July 2011

Into Our Own

There are no events of solitude as thoughts will carve an influence, even in the most unsuspect places of emotion.

Page 177 of Into the Wild, almost at the end of the book. Sitting outside on the strangely smooth concrete step of our back porch and enjoying the fresh air of the last few hours of daylight and faint sounds of neighbors daily lives, rooster calls and chicken rustles. A day of staying home trying all remedies to cure my sore throat and slightly lethargic attitude.

After the nauseating fullness of consuming a peanut butter sandwich, I have come to this conclusion: You do not necessarily need to venture into the wilderness to find the sense of peace, exploration and wholeness. The isolated inspiration found in the pages of this book and more easily trotted on the trail. No. It is within my power, our power, to create this within our own daily life. It is within our personal control to look at the day with as many possibilities and live the lust of adventure to the fullest of each experience. To take on mundane challenges of live with as much vigor as the mountainside. With this, purpose and sanity are found in the civilization of reality to which the mind has the power to introduce the unknown. We are free. It is time we start living in the breeze of our movements. Abandon the self-imprisoned bars of norm, shackles of structure. To travel down the path. To make our own path even if it is not always over uncharted territory, into the so-called wild, through mud, ice or snow. It is within us to find wonders even in the regular. The most of each step in concrete or earth.

To banish the word struggle from our vocabulary and forge forth our own relationship with the nature of our surroundings and inner knowing of the self.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Unfettered Freedom

Photo Credit: Thomas Parente

“The environment of revelation, genetically and physiologically alien, sensory austere, esthetically abstract, historically inimical…Its forms are bold and suggestive. The mind is beset by light and space, the kinesthetic novelty… To the desert go prophets and hermits; through deserts go pilgrims and exiles. Here the leaders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to find reality.”

-Paul Shepard, Into the Wild

Ke Bokae "How Much"

Photo: Faisal B.

Ntema often talks about how life is a debt and everything you do to pay for it. I would argue the more idealistic view that lift is a celebration. Perhaps because of the many privileges I have been given. Conceivably because this is what I have to believe while still in the search. The hope that you can find a way to live for happiness. With no strong evidence I lost the case. Perhaps he is right. Life is not always cakes and streamers, balloons and butterflies. You still have to pay for the party.

Life is a debt. You either confirm to its premiums a means and installments; anyhow so ever you makth or wisheth, the best remedy to channel all your energies to the best ability and conform to your preferences and needs thereabout.

And so I challenge you to ask. Not what can you purchase, not how much can you get, not what can you attain. But, how much are you willing to give? Are you willing to live your life as a debt?

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe

“Welcome to Maun. Where people are people and people love people.” –lady at the bar

For mid summer retreat our Bots team ventured to the Okavango Delta in Maun to reflect on our experiences thus far, prepare for the challenges ahead and enjoy the company of the amazing individuals I am proud to call my friends. If you haven’t seen it already, I would highly encourage you to watch the Great Plains episode of Planet Earth, or search “Okavango Delta” on YouTube.

We woke up to be at the rank for 5:00am to catch a bus to Nata, from there continuing our journey onwards to Maun. The bus was not the usual Chobe Express, but as Thomas (who was up visiting us in Kasane during the week) pointed out her Ugly Step Sister, another similar version with a different driver, seats arrangement slightly changed but no more comfortable. A few hours outside Kasane we pulled over on the side of the highway. Squeaking sounds, burnt rubber drifting through our noses and settling on our taste buds. Engine hood up. Murmmers in Setswana. Thomas asked the traditionally conservatively dressed elder lady next to us – wait no, more then next to us, squished against us. Shoulders sticking, laps leggoed over one another, that kind of next to us. “What was going on?” We got the best most direct translation yet, “The bus is fucked.”

A wait later and we were on our way again, though Nata, road snacks, another wait, then onto Maun. At one of the health checkpoints when my bag was being searched the police officer asked me where I was from. I responded confidently “Kasane” smiling and joining the next line. Only a few minutes later did it dawn on me that was not the response he was expecting. I feel as if I have really adapted, this place is no longer new, it is my home.

Team Bots tourist shot, rocking the safari hats and sunburns

Arriving at Old Bridge Backpackers where we were to be camping for the next four nights, a place far more luxurious then a patch of ground and far less private. The riverside bar, tables and fire pit, when compared to our previous accommodations made the place look like a six star suite. It was quite the happening place. We all talked about how weird it was seeing other travelers our same age and how we didn’t know how to behave, as all social skills have been lost over the past month. At other places we were only surrounded by elder couples decked to the nines in safari gear or families with young kids from South Africa on break from school. Thomas did a hilarious impression of how awkward he would be introducing himself to an attractive girl… talking in slow broken English (as we have become accustomed to) repeating everything three or more times and running out of conversation after the typical “Dumella. Hi… I’m Thomas…Taaooommass…Thomas. Yes. I’m from Canada… Canada. Yes it is realllly cold there… yes not like here.” Hand signals included.

We did manage to meet some cool people as our social skills slowly bubbled to the surface. A group of six or so Peace Cores all stationed in various regions/small towns were together for a reunion. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to be placed here for two years in a location by yourself! We also met two attractive guys from Canada who just graduated from Concordia. They had bought a land cruiser and equipped it into a badass safari car with a few editions to which Is and I were left drooling over.

On Saturday, with the company of Koo (a friend we met from Korea) we went on a traditional canoe trip. Isabelle described it far better then I could:

“We got to Boro where there is a community trust project that runs mokoro trips. QPID actually even talked with the trust when doing Project Identification here in Botswana last summer. A mokoro (also spelled makoro or mekoro) is a dugout canoe that is flat bottomed and rides really low in the water. Traditionally they are made out of sycamore fig trees but now a lot of people use fiberglass because sycamore fig trees take a 100 years to mature so aren't really sustainable. And instead of using paddles you stand at the back and pole yourself along, with any passengers sitting spaced throughout. There are 75 guides in Boro, all of whom were born in the village and rotate through guiding trips. Mokoros are basically the main form of transport through the delta, since motorboats can only use the deep passages and a lot of the Delta is really shallow channels or just shallow water in reeds.

We were doing a whole day trip, from 8 to about 4, so we were able to spend a good amount of time in the water. I was so happy to just sit in the mokoro and relax and think. I was in the front of ours and the only thing I had to focus on was not swallowing too many bugs, since we were carving a path right through the reeds and I was practically a windshield. We saw a lot of bird life, and a herd of zebras, but no crocs. And we did have a hippo encounter…

Photo: Isabelle Jones

Staring contest with a hippo right in front of us!

We heard this HUGE snort right beside us and our guide started pulling us backwards so fast. So we waited for a bit and then slowly started moving forward again until we were at the edge of the pool. There were four hippos that we could see, but they kept submerging and then resurfacing. The tensest was when they went under water since we had no idea where they would pop up again. They just kept getting closer and closer and then all of a sudden one popped up 15 feet in front of us. That's when the hippo safety lesson started! Our guides started telling us what to do in case the hippo was to attack. First of all, if the hippo starts swimming for the boat you are supposed to stay inside of it, not jump out into the water. This is because the boat gives you a modicum of safety. If the hippo actually does attack the boat and the boat tips, you are supposed to swim away from the boat as far as you can underwater. You should not surface because then the hippo will attack you right away. He didn't give any tips on what to do if the hippo actually catches up with you. I wonder why? ”

It was odd that I was never really frightened the entire time, actually really relaxed. Which I cant determine if it’s a good thing that I’m calm under pressure or crossing the line to recklessly stupid. Thomas was defiantly freaking out more then the rest of us, grabbing the side of Lyndsay and my boat and refusing to let his guide go any closer. Out of character, as he is usually the one to coolly take control of the situation.

We had lunch on an island in the delta and then went zebra tracking on our first bush walk, and then getting the chance to pole the Mokoros ourselves. Thinking that it wouldn’t be much more difficult then balancing in a rowing shell I gave it a try. I was wrong it was extremely difficult the guides (and Faisal who is going to be the first Pakistan poler) made it look super easy. I was cherry tomato burnt by the end of the day but had a fantastic time.

Top Chef: Okavango was on. Lyndsay joined team girls and we whipped up massive slabs of steak, eggplant parmesan, grilled zucchini, red pepper, onion, portabella mushroom, baked potatoes with cheese, garlic bread, carrot cake for dessert and rum and hot chocolate to finish the meal and start the night. The theme was to be wine: we cooked almost everything in it. A marinade for the steak…flavor for the veggies…wine in place of water to steam… eggplant looking a little dry?.. add some wine.. and some more. This was easier then walking to the spout to get and then purify water.

After dinner wobbly and warm we started the midsummer retreat discussions administered by Thomas. We talked about the difficulties of being here, what we want to get out of the second half, what we can do to improve our work and overall in better the learning process. There were other discussion topics too, our group LOVES to talk. I remember just staring at their faces in the flickering candlelight feeling peaceful yet passionately engaged and overall just happiness. Sitting on a cushioned bench, coffee table with lanterns in-between us, the sound of the river moving next to us in the star light and the massive branches of the tree hanging over in a blanket of softly illuminated leafs.

Retreat discussion blended into to conversation. Joined by other groups of backpackers and their travels. One guy from Norway was crossing Africa on a shoestring via public transport. So many interesting stories from around the world. Faisal, Thomas and Lyndsay went to bed, as we had to be up at 6am for a 12 hr game drive the next day. Is and I stayed up chatting with Aiden and other Thomas. An intense argument over whether rowing or sailing was better (I think the answer is pretty obvious). More chatter.. laughing… Is and I drifting into the tent. And black. The deepest most comfortable sleep since being here.

We were woken up in the morning to Faisal’s “Is..Chloe.. come on get ready we are leaving NOW!” And we moved out into the murky morning, hustling to grab our stuff, changed right there and hop into the safari truck. I sat in the row next to Thomas who was less then impressed.. with us being late. I prepared myself for a bumpy six-hour drive but surprisingly was feeling quite fresh. I love how sleeping in a tent can do that to you. The open air of the vehicle also probably helped. The morning was aggressively biting, it was FREEZING! Driving along the highway I had brought my sleeping bag and all mummied up fought the cold wind and clouds of dust. After an hour or so we stopped inside the gates of Moremi Game Reserve (a world renound national park) which is partly in the Delta, for breakfast and tea. Is pulled out an Ibuprophine from her pocket and gave it to me. Yes we are classy. Faisal looked so funny, as if he had aged 30 years. His eyebrows and eyelashes were white with dust, hair salt and peppered. A drag queen undertone of powered foundation and bright red lips. My lips were also painfully chapped. I’ve been putting Vaseline on them every ten min and they still aren’t fully healed.

Starting off the drive was rather uneventful. We really didn’t see any wildlife which after Chobe being so heavily concentrated, left the others disappointed, Faisal asking the driver if it was usually this quiet. I was actually very content, warming up now, wind blowing on my face freshness and matted hair. I stared, watching the trees wiz by, body bouncing along. Autumn colors. We shared childhood stories. More staring at the landscape. I could feel the magic. I mentioned how it was like we were traveling through enchanted lands. Something from The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe. Thomas smiled and said he would have to share that with his mom, it’s her favorite book. I’m bursting with smiles. Joy. More and more often I can’t hold them back. Looking over and sharing a smile, the meaning of the moment. A secret acknowledgment that can’t be voiced. An appreciation of both wonder and discovery. Because I fail as a writer to accurately depict it, perhaps it is a secret not to be written. But I want to remember it because its one of those moments that even the thought rekindles the feeling. And everything is good. With as much beauty as the moment we were smiling for.

As we drove into the day excitement was encountered with elephant crossings, zebra spottings. But for the most part the zen state of relaxation, perhaps a potion of no sleep brewed with nature and a hint of hangover. Is and I giddily reflected on the hilarity of the previous night and just laughed as we generally do. Even at something as silly as “there’s a rock in my boot.”

We came across another car, a family that was stuck deep deep in the sand. We pulled over and for the time it took our guide Rex to help pull them out, attaching the cars by a rope, a joint shovel stick operation, we observed and walked around. Into the bush, into the sun, adding to my burn. We spotted a giraffe in the distance. Settled into a few games, or more then a few of ninja or binja as we have newly named it aka “bush ninja.” Binga: stealth as a lion, fierce as a hippo.

And all in tune we were “back on the road again.” Driving along my eyes grew tired, strained in a search of the long grasses and shadowed tree branches. We made it a competition. Because our group excels in states of competition. Everything is a competition. And basically I had to win, so I kept my eyes open, now alert pealed for movement and glued to the passing landscape. Kudu 5 points. Elephant, giraffe, zebra 15 points. Lion or leopard 100 points. Prize: winning.

We stopped for an amazingly delicious lunch of tuna sandwiches. As Is pointed out sometimes it is just the simple things that really do it. We climbed a nearby water tower for a pretty but not overly impressive view of the grasslands, a few scattered trees.

I keep forgetting to write about this but remembered when Rex pointed out the concave forehead of a female elephant. The symmetry or I’m not sure if you could call it that but the commonalities throughout nature and life amaze and inspire me. The golden ratio. The miracle that life is. For example you can tell male or female based on the head shape. Female = concave. Male = convex. Consistency animal to animal, elephants, giraffes, rhinos. Kinda cool I thought.

Photo: Isabelle Jones

We got the chance to see two waddled cranes, which bird man Faisal informed us are crazy rare. Rex was also quite impressed. “They are a special sight.” The way these birds interact what so beautiful. They are monogamous. Together for life. And mate every four years. Looking at these birds and their love as silly as that is and this sounds it is indefinelty what I want. So yes, I am jealous of a bird’s compassion and intimacy.

Photo: Isabelle Jones

Rare as the strength and courage of a crane “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage” –Lao Tzu

Another interesting sighting was a male zebra courting a few females in the herd. He was shut down, harshly rejected. And a “douche” as Thomas called him. Not really getting the message and trying again and again. His attempts ran off every time… and we drove away.

Though deep sand and rough off road terrain, our car almost got stuck twice but always managed to pull though, greeted by our laughter and cheers. We named him El Heify meaning “The Boss” in Spanish (because none of us knew the Setswana word). Heading out of the park the exit route to our way back was covered. Fully submerged in water that we couldn’t tell the depth. The boss took it on with a revving start, water splashing up into the car, nose diving into a pool about 3-4 feet deep and then somehow coming up on the other side. Even after stopping we were all bouncing in excitement. It was awesome. I will leave it at that.

Dusk settled in comfortably and then just like that a wild dog crossed the road directly in front of us. Then prancing off into the bush for its evening hunt. It was another really rare animal to see. I was excited a little and can appreciate it, but more then anything loved Faisal’s enthusiastic reaction to it. The extent to which it made his evening, easily made mine. He couldn’t keep himself inside the vehicle, climbing on top in hopes to get another glimpse or see another one in the pack. I love how much this trip has inspired Faisal and the keen interest he has taken in animal conservation. Even though he is well into his chem-eng degree, seeing the way he lights up at wildlife, I really hope he has the opportunity to explore that interest some more as well. Either way being around someone that is so passionate made me appreciate the experience so much more.

Dark now and out of the park we drove some more, chilly again and re-mummified in sleeping bags. Thomas and I talked, voices over the wind. Bots, home stay families, family dynamics, relationships, siblings, Queens, religion, life. Resting my head on his shoulder and drifting in and out of the darkness.

Returning to Old Bridge it was the boys turn to show us what they got. They made a jambalaya rice dish with chicken and salad (nothing we haven’t seen before) I’m kidding it was delicious and I will be fair and give them creativity points. The competition was undecided with no team willing to surrender. We need an objective judge (Davina this shall be your duty once were all back). Supper tired from the lack of sleep the previous night we did a few developmental QPID talks and enjoyed the songs of fellow backpackers around the fire then headed for the tent. Oh the tent.. the inside is sand invaded, no matter how many times we shake it out. And as for the outside… we were camped in a beautiful spot right by the river under a massive tree with fruits from Stella Luna. Now knowing why no one else had jumped on such a scenic tent site. Our shoes were filled with bat shit (literally I would empty them in the morning) and our tent was covered and I mean COVERED. We lay there inside packed tightly against one another, spooning not a matter of question but more as the only way we were going to fit. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Is and I giggling as if teens at a slumber party. Thomas reminding us that “guys its bedtime now.” We decided not to set an alarm and have a sleep in morning as nothing was set in stone for the next day. And fell asleep to the sounds of Faisal snoring and falling bat shit.

Isabelle and I with the first catch

I woke up with the sun as usual, but then chose to drift in and out of sleep, laying and thinking in the state between dreams and reality. After breakfast I sat in a hammock by the river and wrote. Is and I decided to go fishing off the bridge, which was more of a sand bank crossing the river. Digging in the mud for worms proved fruitless but after a while the owner gave us an old pack of bacon to use as bait. Thomas and Faisal decided to go to a basket-weaving workshop. We thought it pretty funny that the boys spent the day basket weaving while the girls went fishing. We enjoyed the sun and the simplicity of the day for quite a few hours, just hanging out on the bank. Various people passing, stopping for conversations or to casually ask for our hand in marriage. I had no luck with the fish, but Is caught two, both big ones! Literally after the first catch her next cast reeled in the second fish. The guy next to us informed us that they were “Large Mouth Thin Boned fish, a predator and therefore very meaty. He was right they were very delicious. We took them back to camp, gutted, de-scaled and cooked them up. When gutting them, there was even a smaller fish inside one. “Baby fish inside a bigger baby fish.” In the de-scaling process, scales flew everywhere, sticking to our clothing only adding to the discusting slops we had become. By now this was our fifth day without showering, in the same pair of clothes. A combination of mud, dust, dirt, bacon juice, peanut butter, other miscellaneous stains… fish scales added into the mix were no big deal. One of the guys working at the campsite even came up behind Isabelle and picked scales out of her hair later. Basically we are dirty people. We cooked and spiced the fish the traditional way Susan had shown me in Kavimba. A garnish of parsley with a side of peanut butter bread and we had ourselves one economically delicious meal. We cleaned the fish to its skeleton, found Lyndsay and the three of us heading back to the bridge to watch the sunset over the delta and await the return of the basket weavers. More organizational meetings around the campfire, banana burgers (a wonderful combination), beers and bed.

Fresh fish caught and cooked, self sufficiency at its best

Oh yeah.. during the weekend one of the retreat activities was the Rock game, which started off as bottle caps (rocks are extremely difficult to find here, there is mostly just sand). You give the bottle cap to someone on the team with something nice to say to them and these nice words circulate over the weekend… until someone had gotten and given one to everyone.. and they WIN! Actually Thomas had to explain that there is no end winner. But I was done first so refuse to believe this. Again, everything is better as a competition. As the bottle caps were passed around they become lost and turned into other things continuously. At one point Is and I spent ten minutes looking for a rock on the ground to replace the caps. I lost the rock we found and ended up giving Faisal a leaf…I received an eggshell from Thomas.

Heading home we boarded a large comfy bus with the group and then Lyndsay and I split off at Nata to continue our journey home. Because it was the long weekend all the busses coming from Francistown heading to Kasane were jammed full. At 2pm as the last bus passed though, we were lucky enough to snag two standing spots. I had to keep on reminding myself that we were the lucky ones. A bus that in Botswana is legally allowed to hold 27, that in Canada would hold 12, today was carrying 39. Passing the police checkpoint the conductor instructed people to duck. As uncomfortable as it was I surprised myself at my ability to stay positive. Also I want to take a moment to brag about the pro traveling skills I have developed. I can now sleep standing up on a bumpy bus. Off the highway and on to the pothole patterned dust road, rubbing against the people standing next to me. Bodies, feet, hands everywhere. I would periodically alternate feet standing on one and stretching the ankle of the other. Trying to bend my legs… making up a dance choreographed with miniscule movements. Calf raises…oops, no head hitting the ceiling. To motivate myself I made a little competition in my head of how long I could go without grabbing the seat for support. Competing with the other sardines. How long could I go without shifting positions. Games pretending I was surfing. Lots of thinking and shocking even myself, despite the discomfort was genuinely happy. The weekend was totally worth it. Lyndsay had enough room to sit in the isle and I’m sure wasn’t much more comfy. I’m actually quite proud of her for being able to do it. I’m someone who loves traveling and even so it was difficult so I can’t imagine what it must have been like for her. Anyways we got home safe and sound and that’s all you can really ask for. So many words for one weekend. So much laughter. So much love.

Photo: Thomas Parente
“What if God was one of us, just a stranger on a bus.”

Whoa that was a long one. If you got though this congratulations, you are a great family member/friend! That was 15 pages typed in word, I am blessed that my life has been interesting enough to take up that much space. And I apologize for not being more concise, believe it or not I left a lot out, but fully enjoyed reliving the memories and wish to give you as much detail, for if I can not take you with me physically, I hope that you have been able to share in the experiences though my words.

This weekend should be a quite one in Kasane, getting more integrated and involved with the community. And plenty of time to write…

Bots of Love


Half Way There

Photo; Faisal B.

Its mid summer, yesterday marking the half waypoint of my time here on project. I’m torn between two. Part of me that can’t wait to go back and the other part that never wants this to end. I would just love to hold on to the awe of new and thrill of adventure. One of the many things I want to take back with me is the relaxed attitude, characteristic of the Batswana life. I still want and need to be productive but also need to have faith and trust that everything will workout. I want to take the time to fully appreciate things. When you settle into a slower pace then the normal world wind of our everyday lives its true that your experience changes from that of a “point a to b” schedule to an enjoyment of this, of the moment, right now, that is your life. The sights, tastes, sounds and smells of everyday occurrences are enhanced with a gratifying meaning.

I want to take the time to speak with conviction and integrity the way Mr. Kashweka does. Each word meticulously and eloquently placed on his tongue. And the time to listen. To take the anxious rush of our everyday exchanges and conversations.

These are a few of the qualities I have recognized in Botswana so far and hope to imprint upon myself as I continue to reflect on the personal growth that we make everyday yet rarely take the time to observe.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Elevated Words

Photo: Faisal B.

A collection of quotes by our supervisor Ntema. Whether speaking normally, joking around, or bestowing philosophical wisdom upon us. He always keeps things around the office interesting…

He loves using the phrase “No progress” This usually comes up when we tell him what our plan is, what we are going to do, or what we have already done. I sure hope he actually means “No problem.”

When casually discussing the size of allocated plots:

“It is 5km by 5km and I can not walk that far unless I smoke a lot of shit.”

“An elephant charged me last night. I was just walking home there and it charged me”

“What did you do? Run?”

“Like Ussein Bolt. I think if he had been there I would’ve beat his record.”

“My people are the river people. And everything is from the river. Fish, water lillies and all aquatics. And the floods are coming and the flies come. And they do not relocate. They tell YOU to relocate. Because they adapt. This is how it is.”

“You laugh at me that I call him old man. But he is old. And he calls me young man. The trick is to be somewhere in the middle.”

“I’m kidding. Can I just say that in English? I’m kidding?”

“Um yeah you can say that, like a joke, yes.”

“No even if I’m an old man… I’m KIDdding. Like that hahah Kid-ingggg.”

… continues to laugh to himself while typing and quietly uttering kidding.

“Many ways to fool a cat”

“No one is perfect. Today you are a sinner and then you are forgiven and then a sinner again and then forgiven. It is just a process. So don’t worry. Just don’t worry.”

Conversation over surveying questions and gathering quantitative data:

“Sometimes you have to ask male or female. You see I could be Ntema. Put makeup on, nice and smooth. Look really pretty. But I am talking in a deep voice you see, and I have my nails and they are all nice with the whites and roses. Then you have to ask.”

After a Monday chat/briefing with Ntema, Susan, Lyndsay and I:

“I have closed the meeting with a prayer in my heart. And it is okay if you don’t hear it because God an and he knows that we are done.”

“You see now I am forgetting like a small baby man… What was that rude?”

“Nope, just funny.”

When giving us the keys to lock up the office:

“I can give you the key. But not my sole.”

“I was thinking about the roof and how it protected. Shielding me from the sunrays. And then I began to think how it was compared to life. Perhaps you do not realize it is there and its significance is neglected until it is gone.”

“There is time to rest when we are dead.”

Odd Etiquette

*note things are only what I have found based on experiences and differ from tribe to tribe, family to family and person to person.

-It is not rude to answer your cell phone during a meeting even if you are the one presenting. It is perfectly acceptable to take the call, have a conversation… “Oh hey hows it going?...dinner tonight, okay… okay… no way that’s really funny… cool okay… I will see you later.” And then continue on with your presentation.

-When talking on the phone no need to say goodbye, simply hang up abruptly. Air time is precious and expensive.

-There are three kinds of handshakes all of which I have awkwardly timed, mixed up or messed up at one point or another.

1. The friendly informal “whats up”: hold the persons hand, precede to have a thumb war while leading in and taping opposite shoulders.

2. The normal shake: three movements, first normal handshake, second shift hand to arm wrestling position, third back to first position.

3. Most formal greeting when meeting chiefs, community leaders or respected people: regular western handshake while holding elbow with opposite hand.

-Over all there is lots of hand holding. The hold on and don’t let go technique: basically the name says it all, hold the persons hand for the duration of the conversation. I still haven’t gotten used to this one and find myself wiggling my hand from their grip or unable to focus on the conversation.

-When eating the more grease on your fingers the better. Lick the chicken bones clean. If on a bus with no napkin it is okay to wipe it on your neighbors clothing.

-Depending on the family it is either totally okay or completely rude to leave food on your plate. When determining how to best tackle the enormous portion of palagee try and find out which one your host expects to see if the twenty minute eat team rule applys. Prepare for excruciating fullness.

-When eating dinner leave the table once you are done. It is considered rushing the others if you sit with them.

-Odd sounds. I’m not quite sure what is with this one yet. I used to think it was only our home stay mom who grunted embarrassingly loud and that perhaps it was only because she is old and in pain. Nope, assumption disproven. Colleagues at the office make the same noise.

Rasta Man

*Singing don’t worry bout a thing, cause every little things, gonna be alright

Our supervisor Ntema is quite the individual and when I say crazy I mean it in all the best interpretations of the word. Dreadlocks tied back in a loose pony tale. Pressed and collard shirts with half length colorfully patterned satin ties. Huge pearly white teeth gapped in the front, matching spaces top and bottom. A large voice and loud smile. Regular elevation “meetings”. Walking, tapping, singing to the rhythm of his own life. That is Ntema in the briefest form of what can not be explained. While it has taken me a while to understand him, and although I never fully will, I have developed a great amount of respect for him and am thankful to find myself in the presents of such an inspirational and intricately unique teacher.

Ntema commonly refers to himself in the third person as Rasta man. For example: “I don’t know why she be hating on the rasta man.” As he has informed me… The Rasta is not all about that what what. The Rasta is also an artist, a poet, a writer, a musician. To write of emotional and spiritual beauty. Because that is what is important. Not this. Not the outside. It is the beauty of the mind and of thoughts and you must actualize those thoughts into an entity. Initiate the process of action. That is the person. You don’t edit original talent.

*Singing this is my message to you you you.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Mans Best Friend

*Mathata following Lyndsay into the office

I found a friend – last night a dog followed me home. There are tons and tons of stray dogs here. Roaming the streets wild with glowing red eyes and untamed hair. They mostly do their own thing but are still intimidating when growling or in a bad mood. Its strange how they can sense that we don’t belong. I can feel their stares, same as the people we pass on the road, their barks echoing the curious Hellos. “Hey hey hello, what are you doing here?” it barked at me. Coming close and rubbing against my leg. Scared, I crossed to the opposite side of the highway thinking it wouldn’t cross, that the headlights of traffic would scare it away. Wrong. It followed and we walked home this way zigzagging back and forth across the road. The following morning the same dog was waiting at the gate as if for an appointment, he walked me to the gym and then all the way to the office paws on heals. He is strangely bold, unaware of social norms. He enters the office grounds and then follows me into the building, making himself comfortable on the doormat. Lyndsay and I decided to name him Mathata meaning “Problem” in Setswana. On the positive side, I no longer need to worry about walking home alone after dark. And just like that Problem became my solution.

Friday, 8 July 2011

A Magical Kingdom

Once upon a time there was a magical kingdom where there was nothing. And in the simplicity of nothing the beauty of the Earth sat in stillness. From this stillness peace was born and she reigned over the kingdom sharing in it with her sister happiness. They greeted the footprints of weary children. Welcoming them into the simplicity. But the footprints were not able to make a mark for they were only passing though and that was part of the magic. For eventually something found nothing and chased after him. More somethings poured in and the footprints grew heavier and larger. And then they walked away from the kingdom leaving imprints for others to follow. But we must remember that there is a magical kingdom where there was nothing.

Gold Plated Days

Long weekend on Kubu Island

*And the glass was not only half full. It was gold plated with a permanent refill.

This past weekend I ventured to Kubu Island in the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans for some more camping and hiking. An island surrounded by saltpans and honestly one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. A place where the magical imagination games we used to play as kids still exist, where songs are written and it is enough to just be. A simplistic freedom resting in the distance as far as you can see. Because I can’t to justice in my explanation here is the description given by the Lonely Planet Guide to Botswana and Namibia:

“The Sowa, Nxai, and Ntwetwe Pans collectively comprise the 12,000-sq-km Makgadikgadi Pans. During the sizzling heat of late winter, the stark pans take on a disorienting and ethereal austerity. Heat mirages destroy the senses as imaginary lakes shimmer and disappear, ostriches take flight, and stones turn to mountains and float in mid-air. Prospective drivers should keep in mind that saltpans can have a mesmerizing effect, and even create a sense of unfettered freedom. Once you drive out onto the salt, remember that direction, connection, reason and common sense appear to dissolve. Although you may be tempted to speed off with wild abandon into the white and empty distance, exercise caution and restrain yourself. You should be aware of where you are at all times by using a map and compass (GPS units are not foolproof)"

This is my new happy place. We all split and decided to walk in different directions along the pan. Walking this way in the vastness where you are surrounded by absolute nothingness and a silence so still you can hear your thoughts. The whole experience was so transcending and when not in awe at the beauty of the sun or stars, was smiling and laughing with the team. My face hurt cause I don’t think I stopped smiling all weekend.

With bravery and incredible tolerance for the other three-backseat drivers, Thomas challenged the opposite side of the road as we got to enjoy the comfort of having our own car for the weekend. Thomas’ home-stay dad Mots had lent us his 1998 Toyota Windom. After the fruitless car search of weekends past this in itself was quite the feat. We named her “Amantle” (Setswana for “something good”) she brought us that and so much more in smooth travel.

After not seeing a single check stop during our travels thus far, we were pulled over within the first five minutes of our journey. We were so lucky that Faisal (who knows how to drive on the opposite side, but failed to bring his license) last min decided it would be best not to risk it. And off we went… windows down driving dance party to Tik Tok. I defiantly didn’t picture myself road tripping this way through the African savannah but was loving every minute of it!

*Its not found on any map, true places never are

Driving past a diamond mine, we arrived in a small village where we were to pay for the campsite (all funds going to the community) and then continue the drive onto the saltpans… or so we had planned. The ranger took one look at our car and laughed…”yeah your not going to be able to get there with that.” He arranged for a truck to come pick us up and so we waited… and waited, and then we waited some more. I am getting used to this whole waiting game but even so we were all struggling to hold back frustrations as the afternoon turned to dusk and the truck finally pulled up. Hopping into the back we braced ourselves for a bumpy two-hour drive. Going over rocky hills and though deep sand it was clear that the car wouldn’t have made it. We sat huddling against the wind and listening to Thomas’s parental concern to dip, duck and dodge the thorny tree branches whizzing past us. The bush cleared and we found ourselves confronted with the immensity of the pans and painted sky of the setting day. And then the stars came out. And we sat in a silence of smiles. Riding hands above heads riding with the thrill of a rollercoaster. The wind was warm smelling of salty freshness and the landscape surrounding us flowing like an ocean in the darkness. We talked about the magnitude and content of living in this moment. That despite our earlier frustrations everything has a plan and we need to find the faith to enjoy the process of the universe working in its unknown and beautiful ways. Even though I have been told, “this trip will change me” I am always shocked when I realize how much it already has.

Thomas "ascending"

Sunset Yoga Over the Pan

Kubu Island is a national monument and a sacred sight for indigenous groups, predominately the San. These people believed God lived beneath the island’s giant rocks. Also an archeological

site, it is common to find artifacts such as arrowheads, cooking utensils and signs from the past life there. On one shore, there lies a stonewall that is thought to date back even further then 500 years ago, to the Great Zimbabwean Empire.

Camp was set up on the island our tent resting under the Baobob tree of Impala Camp 11. The story behind the Baobob tree is quite interesting, it was said that the tree mocked the Gods so they picked it up and turned it upside down. And so now even to day it stands, an upside down tree.

The fire was started and the boys began their meal to be judged in our Top Chef: Island Edition competition. The guidelines clearly set before our grocery-shopping trip was that each team would provide two meals, lunch and dinner within a set budget. The boys made grilled peri-peri chicken and a mixed vegetable salad followed by bear, banana boats and marshmallows (which are oddly strawberry flavored here). As delicious as their meal was they somehow failed to buy groceries for lunch…

Although they would never admit it, they didn’t stand a chance against Isabelle and I. The following day we provided cinnamon buns for breakfast (warmed by the fire), peanut butter sandwiches and bananas (to cover their lunch oversight) and then a dinner of garlic bread, whole grain cork screw pasta, tomatoes basil sauce, marinated and grilled zucchini, red pepper, mushrooms, onion, tomatoes and Russian sausage. Once again confirming that girls rule and a testimony to our over competitive nature. Stay tuned for Top Chef: Okavango Delta where the boys will attempt an unlikely comeback.

In the morning we got up to watch the sunrise enjoy some yoga and set off to explore the island and pan. Its strange that so far this is the best memory I will take back with me and one of the most difficult to find words for. Basically it was a great time. The Makgadikgadi Pans were once part of a giant lake that stretched over 60,000 sq. km. Approximately 10,000 years ago the lake evaporated, leaving behind a void of salt stretching the horizon. On the pan we walked and ran, all perception of time and space was lost. The ground was like an indoor track, soft and spongy making for a freeing barefoot experience. We looped the island, cart wheeled, did some rock climbing, lookout points, enjoyed the baobob fruit of rafiki, stood on pride rock, special places, followed by even more special moments, king of the castle, historical shrines, archeological sites, massive baobob trees, burnt to a crisp, high-fived, joked a lot, laughed constantly and returned to our camp for the previously described meal, beers and sunset over the salt. I think it was difficult for everyone to describe the mood. I will always remember sharing smiles and Thomas saying, “I am just so happy right now.” And so was I. There was no place I would rather be.

*Bots of Love

Around the fire that night we sang Oh Canada and campfire songs, shared stories and then ventured into the darkness through the bush and onto the pan. The four of us lay there under a blanket of stars. The vastness contributing to our giddiness of the moment. All I could feel was the others beside me… our laughter drifting into the night to be joined by that of the hyenas in the distance. A true testament that laughter is in deed contagious.

*The magnitude of greatness can't be captured, but we tried anyways

Photo credit to the talented Isabelle Jones, Faisal B and Thomas Parente. I can't wait for many more adventures to come!

The Snowball Effect

Picture: Conducting land transfer focus group (from left to right: Youth, Kazungula Ke Kosi (Cheif), Lyndsay, Myself, VDC member)

You might think it strange that I haven’t written much about day to day life and what I am actually doing work wise here. The reason for this is while work is super interesting and quite the learning experience it is also emotionally draining. I have had the opportunity to sit in on paralegal advice and mediation meetings with our boss and some of the different people passing through the office looking for help. And while these meetings are confidential I can insure you that listening to stories of abuse, emotion, trickery, and drama leave me feeling as if I have just stepped into a novel. As the words pour out of the people mouths, can see them as if written on the pages of the No 1. Ladies Detective Agency.

Lyndsay and my personal project has been to write an action study report on land transfers in the Chobe district. Conducting three separate studies in the communities of Kazungula, Losoma, and Pandamatanga. This has entailed meetings with Land Board, The Ke Kossi (Village Chief), Village Development Council, data collection from the register, running a focus group with key respondents and youth and also conducting interviews throughout the community.

We have first hand experienced what Ntema calls the snowball effect. A compiling of issues ultimately building off of each other. Landlessness further amplifying poverty, leading to alcohol and substance abuse, prostitution, increased HIV/AIDS, OVCs (orphans and venerable children). In alignment with Ditshwanellos mandate the programs goal is poverty eradication rather then poverty elevation. This problem is tackled with a multi dimensional approach of awareness, advice and advocacy. Through informing people of their rights and the value of their land we are able to target the problem of landlessness created by the increased number of land transfers by vulnerable people.

In the interview process we have come across three obstacles so far. First off the always impeding language barrier. Even though English and Setswana are the two national languages in Botswana, many people speak their traditional tribal language still and only have broken Setswana or English. In many cases Susan has had to help translate. We have slowly been picking up bits of Setswana and along with basic introductions have mastered the phrase “No I am not trying to buy your land.” The second thing working against us has been the issue of substance abuse. Finding ourselves limited to the mornings as after lunch an alarming number of people hanging around are drunk and along with extended conversation its just generally more difficult. The most personal and challenging hurdle I have encountered is that often when people hear we are from the human rights office they ask for help and so with no expertise other then an open ear and empathetic nod we listen to their stories…

No papers. Signed papers. Wrong papers. A young girl sick. Growing tumor. Shrinking heath. A toddler going hungry. No uniforms no school. A mother overworked. Searching for work. A dead father. Drunk father. No father.