Dumela. My name is Faisal Bakhteyar and for summer 2011, I will be interning at True Men Trust, an organization targeting HIV/AIDS issues in Francistown, Botswana. Through this travel blog, I hope to share with you my thoughts, experiences, and adventures in the most unadulterated manner.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Weekend in Gabs

For the weekend of July 29th-July 31st, Thomas and I headed to the capital city of Gaborone while Is joined the Kasane girls for a trip to the Caprivi Strip in Namibia. Along with our usual motives of just exploring a new location, there was some QPID business to attend to in the form of project identification with development organizations.

Our journey started off on the wrong foot. After finishing up work at 1PM, we headed to Thomas’ house to get the car. With a 6-hour drive ahead of us, we were in a rush and didn’t have time for impediments. Driving at night is quite hazardous with single-lane highways and all the animals roaming this country. Time and time again I’ve heard of deadly accidents on the roads here. Just a couple of weeks ago, my host sister was heading back to Gabs when her car was involved in an accident because a giraffe that was being chased by hunters had come in front of the car. So, Thomas went to start the car and nothing happened. We had returned the car to Mots on an empty tank and initially thought that was not enough gas in the tank. With no choice but to go fetch fuel from the closest gas station, we grabbed our bags and set out on foot, obviously stressed from the fact that time was of the essence. As we were walking by a house, a man said hello and asked us where we were heading. We told him that we were going to go get petrol from the gas station and he said he’d take us after he moved all his boxes from his car to his home. Joyful at this stranger’s kindness, we helped him move the boxes to his house. Before Thomas picked up a box, he turned to me and said “man this guy is an angel”. He then grabbed a box, looked down at it, and then looked at me with a look of shock, surprise, and bewilderment. The box was labeled “Angel Cosmetics” with the “angel” a lot more prominent than the “cosmetics”. We broke out in smiles from the coincidence and strangeness of the entire situation and continued with our task. The man took us to the nearest gas station (which would have been an easy hour walk) and dropped us off to the house. We were resourceful enough to cut a bottle to use as a funnel and funneled the fuel into the tank. The car, however, still wouldn’t turn on and so we popped the hood and proceeded to play around with the battery and after about 20 mins, we had ignition. All along, the battery cable had been loose and just required some shaking to engage. Finally, at 3PM, we were off.

To cover the cost of the car, Thomas and I decided to fill our backseats with fare paying hitchhikers. Yes. Gasp! We picked up hitchhikers. I’ve said this before but hitchhiking is part of life here and without it, you can’t get around. So many times we’ve depended on people letting us into their cars and it was only appropriate for us to allow hitchhikers into ours. Its not sketchy here like it is North America or anywhere else in the world. Last time we hosted hitchhikers on our way back from Tuli Block, we all assigned each other personalities, which we kept throughout the drive. I was Raj, the Indian cardiologist working with Doctors Without Borders. Thomas was Esteban the South African chicken farmer whose accent was the way it was because he had studied and worked in the UK and Australia. And then there was Is, or Floral Sunshine. Floral was a hippie in love with the Earth and didn’t get along very well with Raj the cardiologist. This time around, we decided to be ourselves with the hitchhikers for the sake of keeping our sanity. The drive was grueling and stressful, especially for our awesome driver Thomas, but he was awesome and we arrived in Gabs at around 10PM.

Though F/town is considered the Ghetto, we were 10 times more scared driving through Gabs than we have ever been in F/town. I had seen on the news the day earlier that thieves would hide in bushes behind bus stops and do their deeds on unsuspecting citizens. Mots had told Thomas not to stop at red lights because thieves could come out of nowhere. Basically, we were on edge. Gabs itself is a very spread out city and so after 20 minutes of driving, we retired to our accommodation. We stopped at the Mokolodi Backpackers but the only space they had was for $80 a night. In an effort to conserve our money and be adventurous, we decided to sleep in the car. We found a dark empty plot of land that was walled off and pulled deep in and turned off the lights. Our dinner consisted of short-bread cookies and milo for me and chips ahoy and milk for Thomas. With the wall on one side, dense bush on the other, and absolutely no lights, it was nervy. We both slept very uneasy, frequently waking up to look around.

At 6AM, before the sun came up, we decided to leave and find breakfast so that we wouldn’t be spotted being all sketchy. We found it at the Southern African equivalent of McDonalds called Wimpy. We then rushed to the Mokolodi Nature Reserve for a meeting with the Education Director and 2 cheetahs. Mokolodi Nature Reserve is a private educational reserve located just out of Gabs focused on enlightening the youth and rehabilitating injured or ill wildlife. It currently is part of the Rhino Breeding Program with 7 White Rhinos and also houses offices for the Tusk Trust, and Cheetah Conservation Botswana. We first drove for about 40 minutes through the reserve sitting next to the CEO of the Botswana Telecom Company who was also visiting the cheetahs. The enclosure was fenced off from the rest of the reserve and we past 2 gates before we saw feathers littering the ground and the cheetahs just getting some sun. Apparently there was a brief safety lesson in which the guides warned that we weren’t supposed to make yourself look small in front of the cheetahs, not to kneel or sit next to them, and not to pet them anywhere but the head. I heard none of that. Thomas and I jumped out of the truck and rushed to one of the Cheetahs and stood in absolute awe.
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Photo credit: Thomas Parente
Duma was the first to get his head rubbed and I was obviously the first to jump on the opportunity. His fur was a lot softer than I thought it would be and he was basically a mega house cat. Sitting in the sun, getting his head scratched, purring like mad. One thing about the purr is that it sounds like a motorcycle. His entire throat was visibly vibrating and just being next to such a beast was just weird. You could tell that he enjoyed the company. As the rest of the group admired Duma, Thomas and I wandered over to Letoatse and sat with him for some time. His coat was much lighter than Duma but he was just as big. As the group of 7 others came to Letoatse, we went back to Duma and rubbed his head a little more. The guides told us that he was getting impatient which was total bs because after we took 2 steps back, Duma got up, stretched, and walked right to us and sat down again. After 15 or so minutes, it was time to leave.
Duma's tear
We headed back to the reception where we met the Education Director of the Mokolodi Education Center and discussed business. After, Thomas and I snooped around the sanctuary where injured and rehab animals were kept. There was a HUGE Martial Eagle (Africa’s largest raptor) with a broken wing that stood probably 3 feet tall, 2 crippled vultures, a blue heron, and 2 problem vervet monkeys. The monkeys were ACTUALLY problematic creatures. I had just bought a really nice postcard from the curio shop and put it on the wire mesh while I was photographing the restless monkeys. The smaller one ran up to my postcard, grabbed it, pulled it through, and sat on a tree holding my card. He then proceeded to rip it in half, drop one side to the ground, and lick the other. I haven’t found nice postcards since.  What to do.
Cheeky little monkey

Thomas and I then explored the city, which was wayyyy too busy and chaotic for our liking. It only has a population of 300,000 or so but it was too much for us. We secured tent accommodation at the Mokolodi Backpackers and decided that it was best to get rest after getting little rest the night before. The place was so luxurious compared to any other place we had pitched a tent. The tent had 2 mattresses with a lamp and we were handed hot water bottles to keep us warm. The night was spent chitchatting around the fire with 2 lovely ladies from Norwich University studying medicine and a Dutch gentleman just completing a short volunteering trip. Coincidently, the same ladies had been at the Old Bridge Backpackers in Maun while we were there.
Luxury camping

Well rested, we woke up early, and played around with the resident Great Danes. His USB fell out of his pocket onto the ground and it was only appropriate punishment for laughing at my postcard situation the day earlier that his USB was munched upon by a huge pot-bellied pig. Somehow it still works.
Thomas playing with the Great Danes
We said our goodbyes and headed to the 2011 Botswana Consumer Fair at the fairgrounds. Here we met with a number of organizations, and discussed current affairs with the various government departments that were present. In the end, I got a ton of insight into the country in the 5 hours we were there. Best conversations were had with an official from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks responsible for approving game hunting licenses and a representative from the Department of Mining Affairs.

We picked up 3 more hitchhikers and headed back to Francistown hoping to be home before dark. As we took a short break in Palapye, a peer educator from True Men approached us and asked us we had space in our car. Luckily we had 2 spots and so the rest of the ride involved deep discussion about HIV/AIDS with the peer educator and a Zimbabwean bus driver. Again, we learnt a lot more from them than we had when we were doing our own research on the social issues in Botswana associated with HIV/AIDS.

Home Sweet Home. Back in the Ghetto, we waited at the bus rank for Is who was on her way back from Namibia. Heading home, we shared stories and if you want to read more about her experience read here: http://wanderingis.blogspot.com/ . As a short reflection on our weekend in Gabs, we did a ton of cool stuff, but I would never want to be a cooperant doing a project there.

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