Sunday, August 1.
It’s half-past four when I groggily start what is bound to be a very long day en route to Ghanzi. Mokolodi’s resident roosters are already serenading the stars from their treetop perches; the lodge’s pregnant sow is also busying herself about the place, nosing through the dust for scraps. A young German couple, who are sharing a cab with me on their way to the airport, are engaged in some very complex and zealous ablutions in the bathrooms. These two have displayed a certain military rigor during their time in Mokolodi – a devotion to their well-thumbed and -bookmarked guidebook, a rigid schedule of early mornings and earlier nights, and a passionate fanaticism for ziplock bags. They are the sort of travelers for whom a two-week holiday in Botswana is a grueling Iditarod of malaria pills and photo ops. I wouldn’t wish them on anyone, apart from each other.
I am happy, though, to split the cost of a cab into town, for which the ever-reliable Rafael has appeared like clockwork at quarter-past five. There is a listless flow of early-morning traffic on the streets – mostly taxis like our own, shuttling travelers to the airport and bus station. At the latter, a few quiet, orderly queues have formed on the curbs; buses idle, brightly lit from within. There is little of the panicky disorder I associate with African bus stations in the early morning hours – the frantic scrambling to secure cargo to rooftops, the endless processional of somber families carting their households to distant villages. At just a few minutes to six, the Seabelo bus pulls up, lights ablaze. A young steward hops out the door and begins handing out luggage tickets. “I am sorry,” he says. “I am sorry we are late.”
The route to Ghanzi – an administrative outpost on the far western fringes of the Kalahari Desert – is clearly not one of the country’s most-trafficked. Ours is a disreputable little bus, with the seats falling off their frames and bits of toilet paper used to plug holes in the windows. It is a tight fit – already I pine for the comforts of the Intercape bus company, with its promise of “30 percent more legroom.” Idling alongside us, the luxurious buses to Maun – tourist capital of northern Botswana – look as sleek as greyhounds. Not without a certain dose of skepticism do I eye the Seabelo Travel & Tours company’s boasts on a nearby billboard: “Awarded the International Gold Star for Quality.” Lean men pace the narrow aisle, selling sweets, airtime, socks, pies (“fresh and hot”). In front of me, a man in a handsome, tailored shirt is showing pictures of his girlfriend on his Blackberry to his neighbor.
After making our way through the congested station the city opens up before us. Already on this Sunday morning there are young boys in school uniforms walking alone, or in pairs, on some indefinable missions. Old men with small, battered suitcases wait at the bus stops. Women built like gas ovens stand with children nestled in their bosoms and thighs. The light is a deep, pre-dawn blue. Just minutes from the city there is nothing but sky and earth, the flat, dry plains covered by scrub brush and reaching toward a long, low, flat shelf of rock on the horizon. Cows and goats make diligent work of the dry grass in the fields. Sparse settlements of boxy concrete homes scroll by. In the distance, the sun rises through a bank of clouds like a great red coin. A man in a pinstriped shirt gets off in Moshupa. Chickens scratch at the dirt by the bus stop. A woman in a pink dress hangs laundry in her yard.
The road is long and straight and smooth as a kitchen counter. This vast country passes in dry, flat monotony. There is a brisk boarding and disembarking in the towns we pass. Signs offer injunctions to “Obey road rules!” Others remind us to use condoms, abstain from drink, get tested for HIV. Another urges: “Promote DEMOCRACY! VOTE on ELECTION Day!” The date is 16th October 2009.
I doze off and wake up in Jwaneng. In 1978, the largest diamond deposit in the world was discovered here. It is a small, prosperous town. We’ve stopped in the parking lot of a Score supermarket. Women circle the bus selling shrinkwrapped packages of fried chicken and chips. They carry squeeze bottles of ketchup and vinegar. It is just past eight, and the shops are closed. Supreme Furnishers, Ludvic Beauty & Hair Salon. Much coming and going to the supermarket to stock up for the long hours ahead. Young women in bright orange uniforms push their brooms across the parking lot. A billboard says, “It Is Your Sparkling Town. Maintain Its Cleanliness.”
The country passes. Donkeys swishing their tails by the roadside, small kraals ringed by thorn bush fences. Great empty spaces. Botswana is a country of less than two million in an area roughly the size of France. The emptiness overwhelms you. For miles there is nothing to train the eye on. Suddenly, a family emerges from the bush like a mirage, carrying luggage. Hours from Jwaneng we stop in Kang, a small town on the fringes of the Kalahari. A great piling off for lunch at the Bigfoot Restaurant. Women sit in little wooden stalls selling hard candy and biscuits. A young man sits on a plastic chair under a plastic tarp, offering haircuts with an electric razor. Two boys with bare feet dig through a garbage can on the side of the road. They smile shyly when I greet them.
The final leg of the trip is hot, oppressive. We are passing through the Kalahari – nothing but an immensity of sky and tawny blades of grass and mile upon endless mile of thorn bush and desiccated trees. The windows on the bus are closed – one of the great mysteries of African travel. (A friend in Ghanzi will tell me later that Batswana are warned by their doctors that fresh air causes sickness. This is actual advice given by actual medical practitioners.) Nearly seven hours out of Gaborone, and I am ready for this journey to be over. The severe desert landscape makes you long for warm smiles and cold beer. At one junction we pass a group of San herders, dressed in American-style cowboy hats and boots, rounding up their cattle on horseback. Later we pass a man kneeling, as if in some ancient devotional posture. He wears a yellow knit cap and a yellow t-shirt and blue jeans rolled up at the ankles. He is paring a stick with a small knife, scratching with great intensity. Beside him is a jerry can and a pile of gray, smoldering ashes. We stop and he exchanges some words with the driver. Then we continue on, leaving him to his work.
An hour later, finally, Ghanzi abruptly appears before us. You would think this barren corner of the Kalahari would be an inhospitable place to put a town, and you would not entirely be mistaken. The first white settlers arrived in the 19th century at the prodding of that great swashbuckling gold-digger, Cecil Rhodes, who was hoping to establish a buffer settlement to ward off eastward encroachment from the Germans in what was then the territory of German South West Africa (present-day Namibia). I imagine even those first hearty Boers did a double-take at the coarse earth where they would soon be planting their roots. But there was a permanent water source nearby – more valuable than Rhodes’ gold in the Kalahari – and the town soon grew and prospered. Many of those first South African settlers remained; today their descendants own most of the vast ranches surrounding the city, in what is the cattle heartland of Botswana.
A few minutes after I’ve gotten off the bus, my friend Chloe arrives – like everything in this town – in a cloud of dust. I had met her through CouchSurfing – a website I’ve often turned to in my travels – and arranged to spend a few nights with her as I research my San story. Watching her trudge through the afternoon heat, she seems, at first glance, to cast a forlorn impression. The reason why soon becomes apparent: she just arrived a month ago at the start of a two-year commitment with the Peace Corps, and she’s still adjusting to life in a dusty, provincial, African town that is a very long way from her home in Astoria, Queens. Rural African life, I assure her, will take a bit of getting used to. She seems skeptical, but good-natured about the whole thing. Her first choice for a Peace Corps placement was the South Pacific – “the island-with-a-palm-tree fantasy,” as she’s quick to admit. The irony of finding herself in the dry heart of land-locked Botswana has provoked, I’m sure, many a bitter chuckle in recent weeks.
It is a ten-minute walk to her house, and already I’m remembering the mixed emotional bag that marked so much of my time in small African towns: how quickly the mind moves from a joyful sense of peace to a crippling boredom – and back again. There are a few small shopping centers in the middle of town and then a few pleasant streets of government housing before the bush begins. Chloe herself is being put up in a government house – a tidy one-bedroom, built in a rondavel style, with a small kitchen and living room that will soon be dominated by a very large spare mattress. Outside is an unkempt yard and across the neighboring fence are a group of children laughing and squealing at their obscure backyard games. (Chloe, who has much time on her hands, has been cataloguing the various sources of entertainment for neighborhood children. Her favorite involves four kids lying side by side in the middle of the road – she’s never lingered long enough to catch its tragic denouement.) It is a quiet place to live a quiet life. Chloe has already found herself walking home by herself at night from bars an hour outside town. Even the drunks seem good-natured, harmless. With time, I think the place might start to grow on her.
We spend the afternoon shuttling between the town’s two supermarkets – the South African chains, Choppies and Spar – which Chloe unapologetically admits is a daily ritual. It’s hard to blame her – the sight of such naked commerce and prosperity in a land as desolate as the Kalahari does funny things to the pulse. I remember too well the tugging at the heartstrings produced by well-stocked shelves in Nairobi or Maputo, after weeks of surviving on the meager wares of small, thrifty, upcountry shops. It is, in its own small way, a reminder of a normal life, of home. I suspect I, too, will be a familiar face at the Spar checkout line in the days ahead.
Chloe’s other reminder of home is a worthy one – an external hard drive stocked with American movies and TV series, which makes the rounds of hard-up Peace Corps volunteers around the country. There is something touchingly tribal and archaic about the sharing of this valuable relic, like the passing of a peace pipe. I remember, too, the narcotized pleasure of sinking into glitzy Hollywood fare after a long day in a foreign land. (Long-time readers of my previous blog will recall the two-day binge on 24 that saw me through some difficult days in western Tanzania.) After the long ride from Gaborone, bracing for the even longer week ahead, there’s no shame in curling up on the couch with a new friend and tuning out for a few hours. In this way I pass a restful night, bundled against the winter cold of the Kalahari and dreaming about home.