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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Easter Holiday

Trip to Maun
Recently, we travelled to Maun over the Easter Holiday. Maun is a
large tourism-centered village in northern Botswana. It is the seat to
most of the country's Okavango eco-tourism, and while we were there we
made sure to get in some excursions to see the wildlife of Botswana.
We stayed at The Old Bridge Backpackers lodged and paid a small fee to
setup a tent and camp there. The lodge offered bathroom and bathing
facilities so we weren't roughing it too much. There was also a bar
and a restaurant that allowed us to enjoy burgers, wraps, and pizza
most all of the day!
A batch of our fellow Bots11 volunteers joined us at the lodge and it
was fun to see our friends and go on excursions with them. Also,
during our time at the lodge our group became friends with some other
backpackers that were travelling through the area. Cameron and Jake
were a couple of Australian guys that had be travelling through
Namibia, S. Africa, and Botswana on a holiday. We all got along great
and their research of the areas offerings allowed us to do some things
we might not otherwise have known we could do. Firstly, we went with
them on a plane ride over the Okavango where we were able to take in
the vastness of the region and also see some animals (hippos, crocs,
elephants, zebras, impalas, giraffe). The one hour plane flight cost
~P500, which is a little expensive in terms of our meager Peace Corps
allowance, but it was worth it! Later that day we also took a relaxing
boat ride through some of the Okavango tributaries that were near our
lodge which was located on the bank of one of the rivers.
After a day of rest, we embarked on a full day 4x4 trek through the
Moremi game reserve. The Moremi reserve is one of the three major
reserves of Botswana's Okavango region. The drive started at 6am, the
open air truck we were sitting in with 6 other volunteers was pretty
chilly as we drove the hour or so to the reserve. Once we arrived at
the reserve our tour guides setup a cereal and coffee breakfast for us
and after eating we got started with the game drive.
During the drive through the Moremi reserve we first saw a small herd
of zebra and impala grazing only ~10m from the side of the trail! And
then up ahead we were able to spot our first giraffe and elephants.
The animals were generally uninterested in us but would occasionally
watch us closely for a few minutes and then would walk off into the
brush. The impala, giraffe, and zebra were plentiful for most of the
drive, and on the way back through the game reserve at the end of the
day we encountered a lot more elephants that were making their way
from the shade of the trees out into the open areas were they could
get more water and food.
Lunch was setup at the turning-back-point of the game drive in a large
open field. In the distance a large herd of elephants enjoyed their
time at a watering hole and it was the most memorable lunch we have
had in our time here thus far!
After lunch we loaded up in the trucks and made out way back through
the game reserve hoping that some large cats would be out as the day
was beginning to cool down. However, no cats were spotted that day but
the other truck took an alternate route home and happened across a
wildcat which is a species of cat that looks strikingly like a house
cat but is actually 100% pure wild animal (it is not to be confused
with feral cats, which are domesticated varieties that have adapted to
life in the wild). We were told that the wildcat was about twice the
size of a standard house cat and was napping under a bush near the
Instead of seeing a wildcat on our truck's drive back through the
reserve we were treated to an up-close hippo sighting. The hippo was
grazing a little ways away from its waterhole, and as we sat and
watched it grazing it began to make its way back to the water. The
hippo was accompanied by oxpecker birds, or something like them, that
hopped around on its body eating debris and bugs and also picking at a
pretty large gash on the hippos side. The guide said that lone
elephants and hippos are usually male because unless they are breeding
they tend to live solitary lives in their own separate territories.
The hippo was surprisingly graceful in its walk and stopped to stare
us down after sliding back into the water. As many of you might
already know, the hippo is Africa's most dangerous animal in terms of
actual attacks and deaths each year. They are notoriously territorial
and highly aggressive and kill more people than any other large
animals here. But the hippo we saw wasn't too interested in us and
allowed us to go on our way without any fuss.
After the hippo sighting we game across another large herd of impala
and learned that most heard as populated by many females and a single
dominant male. The male is interchangeable and often challenged by
other lone males that are looking for a harem of females to travel
The last major sighting of the trip was a large herd of 20+ elephants
that were making their way across the trail. They were led by the
dominant female elephant and a small calf. And as the female came to
the road about 10m in front of our truck she turned and balked at us
by stomping her foot, flaring her ears, and snorting. After their
gesture the rest of the herd stopped coming our way and turned around
and quickly retreated back into the trees. The instance was very
intimidating, given that the female was about twice the size of our
truck. But, as the guide explained, she was just unsure about what we
were up to and so decided to gesture towards us to make sure we
weren't planning on doing anything threatening to her and her herd.
After checking us out from a distance she and the calf retreated into
the trees again too.
That is all of the stories we have regarding our animal adventures.
The rest of the weekend we were able to relax and enjoy life near the
water. It was shocking how much relief we were able to enjoy was being
near a large body of water. The sounds of the water and its wildlife
along with all of the green vegetation and trees were therapeutic for
us and all of the other volunteers from our group that are stationed
in the desert regions of the country! At out site we rarely see water
outside of our sinks as it only rains about one time a month and
usually for only a short amount of time.
The trip from our village to Maun took us an entire day, and required
us to hitchhike for about half of the journey. But, as we have
mentioned before hitching is an expected part of travel in the remote
regions of the country because the national bus system's coverage is
sparse on the western side of the country. If you live on the Eastern
side, near the larger villages you are able to find taxis, buses, and
combi's (mini-buses and vans) that run regular routes all over the
place). But, when hitching you are usually able to negotiate with the
driver so that you only have to pay the price of the bus fare for your
distance of travel. Although there are some fancier cars in this
country most people either drive beatup Japanese trucks or corollas.
After spending most of my driving life in my own Toyota Corolla, it
was been a strange experience to see so many around and to be riding
around in cars just like the one I used to drive back in the US.
All in all, while travel in Botswana is usually an exhausting day-long
event, the time we had in Maun with the wildlife and our good friends
we well worth the effort! And we are looking forward to seeing more of
the country soon. But for now, school is starting up again and we are
both back at work. However, the maintenance people that have been
slowly working through each of the teachers' houses have finally made
it to our home. They are painting the interiors and also replacing the
kitchen counters and cabinets. To insure the safety and respect of our
property I have stayed home and worked on the computer while the men
went about their business updating our home.
Each day during this maintenance process goes as follows: 8am, the
painter shows up and starts mixing his paint bucket and then
disappears for an hour or two. During his absence the counter and
cabinet replacers may or may not show up. But eventually they will
make an appearance before leaving for 10:30 tea break. Everyone
returns for a flurry of work around 11am and then leaves again for
lunch around 12:30pm. By this time about 1 full hour of work has been
done on any one job. After lunch, the painter really gets going and
usually finishes up a room (our home has a living room, bathroom,
kitchen, bedroom, and short hallway). Needless to say, I will never
ever ever take American work ethic for granted when it comes to
contracting laborers for maintenance jobs. Even if there might be call
for complaint if workers leave a mess or are a little slow in the US,
it is a night and day difference when compared with the efficiency and
thoroughness of work in the US. I am sure this blanket statement
doesn't go for all of the maintenance workers of Botswana, but the
ones that have been contracted at our school leave a lot to be
desired. But, with that complaining aside, we are about a half a week
away from having our place to ourselves again were we will be able to
enjoy a nice fixed-up home.
And to top it off, we have a kitten to share our home with now too! Of
the three kittens we attempted to rescue and hand raise from the time
they were about 3 days old, only one of the kittens has survived. The
first kitten only made it a day or two and passed away. But the second
kitten was the one we had hoped to keep while giving the third to
another volunteer. However, after returning from Maun we collected our
two kittens from the volunteer we had left them with and brought them
home. The one we were going to keep (named Gizmo, after we noted the
similarity in the noises he made with the noises made by the cute
mogwai in the movie Gremlins) was not gaining weight and growing like
the other kitten was. And seemed to be developing some respiratory
issues. We consulted online/email vets and did as much research as we
could online but were never able to find a way that we could do much
to help our kitten get better without veterinary assistance. There are
vets located in Botswana, but they are in the larger villages that are
a days travel from our site. And after a night of labored breathing,
Gizmo died. It was a traumatic experience and after all of the work
and love that we have put into raising these kittens we are pretty
sure that we will never attempt hand-raising orphaned kittens again.
But the experience has been interesting and it has given us a new
distraction from the stresses of service.
The remaining kitten is doing very well and has transitioned into the
learning-to-pounce-and-stalk phase, so we have had a lot of fun
playing with her and trying to not let her get too used to playing
with our hands (as we have heard that too much hand-play can create a
cat that loves to bite and play with hands when they get older). We
are still working on picking out the perfect name for our kitten, but
here are a few of the names we are trying out: beardy, grey beard,
motsomi (hunter in setswana), girlfriend, one tusk, and fang. The list
goes on, but we will eventually settle on whatever seems to fit her
best. But for now, she will just be the kitten with a thousand names.
I will let my rambling account of the past few weeks experiences end
here. We are always available to talk by phone or email so if you have
any other questions or just want to say he, let us know!

- Michael

Sunday, April 1, 2012

End of a Term and the Start of Winter

As the first term of the school year comes to an end, we have
completed the first 6 months of our service. The reality of Peace
Corps service being about relationship building is very clear now that
we have finished the first quarter of our time here, and we are still
primarily trying to build relationships and understand the current
systems that we work within.
The relationships that I have been focusing on are with the students,
teachers, and administrators at the school I work with. Unfortunately,
after becoming close friends with some of the teachers at my school,
many of them have received their long awaited transfers to work in
other schools closer to their homes and families (alright, so it is
unfortunate for me but it is definitely very good news for them!).
My current plans are to continue working with the PACT club (a peer
counseling club) and to create clubs for bother English and Test
Taking/Study Skills. The teachers and administrators at my school
believe that creating these clubs will help improve the 56% passrate
at the school because students will become better readers of English
which is the language that their tests are written in. As it stands
right now, many students simply do not understand the questions posed
to them on tests and I often see tests in which the student has
rewritten the test questions in the spaces provided for their answers.
The students and English teachers also hope to create a school
newsletter in the English Club. Aside from that, I plan to incorporate
movies, internet, and various reading materials to help the students
become more comfortable reading English through materials that they
are interested in.
Next month, the new group of volunteers is scheduled to arrive in
Botswana. They will be Bots12, and have a very active Facebook group
already. Only 7 months ago Hayley and I were trying to come to grips
with the idea of moving to Botswana after two years of wading through
the Peace Corps system and were frantically talking with people on our
facebook group to learn more about what we were getting into. And this
seems to be exactly what the upcoming group is doing as well. I do not
envy their task of packing their suitcases! It was a two week process
of packing, weighing, unpacking, eliminating items, repacking, and
reweighing suitcases into the early hours of the morning.
As some may have already seen on Facebook, we have taken in a few new
born kittens. They had been crying through the night for a couple of
days in the abandoned lot next to our house. So once we were able to
locate them we kept tabs on them a day to see if there was any sign of
a mother and when we saw they were unattended to, we decided to adopt
them and try to take care of them. After two days one of the kittens
stopped eating and remained asleep all the time until it died. We put
it in an empty hot chocolate box and buried it a little over 1ft under
the sand in our backyard. We even took the time to make the grave with
an old floor tile that had been trashed in our backyard. After two
years, we discovered that the box had been exhumed and the kitten had
been eaten… We suspect the pack of dogs that roams the school grounds
at night. They are friendly dogs during the day that pal around and
get into trouble afterhours.
The other two kittens are doing very well. One has a grey tabby patter
and the other is black and white. The past week has been spent
beginning the weaning process and we are relieved that they are
finally starting to eat on their own now. Getting the kittens to
transition from bottle to wet food has taken a lot of time and almost
more patience than we could spare! I have a new found appreciation for
mother cats, and all mothers in general, for their innate ability to
care for kittens, and babies in general. I had not idea how much time
and effort goes into feeding and cleaning new borns until now!
We mash up dried cat food and mix it with milk because there is not
kitten food or wet cat food available in our village. Like all things
gourmet, items like fancy cheese, wine, wet cat food, etc are
available in plenty in the major cities of Botswana, but we live too
far away to take advantage of these offerings.
We plan to keep one of the kittens. News travels very fast through the
Peace Corps Volunteer grapevine, and another volunteer asked if she
could adopt the other one only a few days after we had made the
facebook posting about our new found kittens!

Although I began this post while school was still in session, I am
wrapping it up now that school is closed. The last week of school was
a free-for-all for the students because they had completed their end
of term exams over the previous two weeks and during the final week of
school the teachers spent their time in an in-school workshop and also
grading tests and inputting the grades into the schools networked
database. During this time the students were mostly left to their own
devices and spent their time talking with friends and playing games.
Now that the equinox has passed, the weather is changing noticeably
from week to week. Three weeks ago the morning began to be very cool
while the days remained hot. Two weeks ago the equinox passed and the
days were filled with very nice cool breezes. And now over the past
week the days have been on the cold side. We were disappointed to see
that the enjoyably cool temperatures of fall only lasted about a week
and not we are on a speeding freight train into the coldness of
winter. However, I am not sure if they are actually cold or they just
feel cold relative to the extreme heat we have become accustomed to.
At the moment we don't have a thermometer and so are unable to really
gauge the day to day temperatures be they feel like they are in the
60'sF which probably wouldn't feel so cold if these temperatures had
been more of a gradual change and had not been dropped on us within a
week. Anyways, the we were told that the winters are extremely cold,
especially in the desert region (the geological and environmental
conditions conducive to creating desert regions are known to bring
about extreme heat in the summer and cold in the winter) that we live
in and we are now starting to appreciate just how cold things will
become over the next month or so. One of the major downsides to the
winter season that we are starting to see is the fact that our clothes
take at least a full 24hrs to dry when in the summer time they took
only an hour or two.
Finally, we are planning to visit the Okavango region soon and so we
have high hopes for seeing the famous wildlife of Africa! So, soon we
will share pictures and stories from our first R&R excursion in
We continue to receive packages from family and friends on an almost
weekly basis! And they are all very much appreciated. These points of
contact with our home culture and love ones make the tough times more
bearable and the good times even better!
- Michael