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The Self Shelf: A Week in Botswana

Published: January 21, 2011
Section: Opinions


For the seven months before winter break, I had known that I was going to spend a little more than a week in the small sub-Saharan African country of Botswana. Many of my acquaintances pointed out that this was ample time to change my plans. Encouraging tidbits like “Wow, that’s really brave of you, going to Africa in the summer!” and “Don’t get malaria!” abounded. Having known a bit about Botswana and, specifically, Gaborone, I knew that it was actually pretty temperate and that it didn’t even have the breed of mosquitoes that spread malaria. Nonetheless, cheery comments like this did nothing to improve my temperament when I actually had to step on the Airbus.

But you may be wondering why I was going to Botswana during winter break in the first place. The answer is the Worlds Universities Debating Championships. As a member of B.A.D.A.S.S., I had the honor of representing Brandeis, along with four of my friends, at what essentially amounted to the world cup for debaters (except annual rather than every four years). I was fairly intimidated by the prospect of facing off against people from all around the world but, by far, the prospect of traveling out of North America for the first time in my life scared me the most. At the same time, however, I was excited to visit two continents during the trip. I would have a 12-hour layover in Munich and a 4-hour layover in Johannesburg before the final flight to Gaborone. In total, it would amount to 40 hours of flying there and back but this realization did not bother me. Little did I know how my body would react to all of the traveling.

On Christmas Day (the cheapest flight we could get), I found myself on the tarmac taxiing towards a great unknown. The first flight was eight hours and I quickly realized that sleeping on a plane was extremely difficult for me. The flight had left at six o’clock in the evening but I just could not sleep. So, at two in the morning Eastern Standard Time (eight o’clock in Munich), I grabbed my bags and loped off the flight. We had decided in advance that we would venture out into the city during the layover. And it was well worth it. As a history major, Munich carried a sense of antiquity that kept me in wonder throughout the journey. Ornate churches from the 15th century that put my imagination to shame kept me enthralled throughout our tour of the city. Also, if you ever find yourself in Munich, I would recommend eating lunch, dinner, and probably breakfast at the Hofbrauhaus–it has some of the finest food and finest beer you will ever taste.

After this surprisingly memorable 12-hour sojourn in Munich, we set out on an 11-hour flight to Johannesburg. I managed to snag a fitful three hours of sleep, leaving me in a state of heightened tension by the time we got to Johannesburg. Three hours of sleep in 56 hours had beaten my sensibility into the ground. In no mood to talk or simply wait out the layover, a friend and I walked out of the airport to explore. And to the delight of both of us, we were able to spend some time at a hotel spa before our final flight.

Upon arriving in Botswana, my first realization was that the plane was the only one at the airport. I looked around at the empty runway and saw a dust storm on the horizon–as cliché as it sounds, only then did it truly hit me that I was in Africa. We arrived at the campus where we were staying in a state of dishevelment (especially myself). I was given a few welcoming materials, a roll of toilet paper and a smile before arriving at my room. The first aspect I noticed was that the lights didn’t work. This problem was rectified relatively quickly (there was a desk light) but it would foreshadow a slew of small technical problems that would hamper the tournament. We unpacked our bags and headed to dinner where, after one glance at the food, I realized I would probably be converting to a largely vegetarian diet for a while. After this, I collapsed immediately into sleep, in spite of the heat.

The first few days were a little grating for me. I was still recovering from my journey and I was getting used to the reality of my new accommodations. It’s amazing what you take for granted on a daily basis. Even at Brandeis, I hear complaints all the time but they seemed so miniscule when you had problems like water shortages. Actually, the smartest thing I did at the tournament was to buy a 24-pack of water on the first day. But as I adjusted to my new conditions and the summer heat, I slowly realized that the trip was going to be pretty awesome. Acclimatization aside, the presence of four seemingly endlessly optimistic friends certainly helped. The lone setback was when I realized that the traveler’s cheques that my parents had encouraged me to bring were worthless because the bank refused to transfer them into Pula (the currency used in Botswana). Thus, I was 5,000 miles away from my home with no cash. Luckily I had a credit card which helped me ward off starvation in the days ahead.

After a few days of mingling and going to cultural events, the debating began. It was scheduled as three days with three-hour long rounds of debate per day. My days also included hours of waiting as the tournament desperately tried to sort through the results of the last round. A typical day of debating would last from eight o’clock in the morning to nine o’clock at night. There were myriad delays with the tournament. The most memorable occurred when the vegetarian food for lunch was three hours late on the second day, nearly resulting in a riot in the main cafeteria as hundreds of people waited in vain for their meals. As for the actual debating, it was mostly what I expected. It was difficult as the other debaters from around the world specialized in the style used at the tournament whereas we did not. Nevertheless, we would later find out that we had done reasonably well and had certainly outdone expectations.

After the three days of debate, there was a break before the breaks (playoffs) were announced. In the meantime, we were set to go on a daylong safari in South Africa. Unfortunately, that was canceled as the place had double-booked and decided to honor the other guys. They apologized and postponed us to the next day. In the meantime, we went on another excursion to local villages and a nature reserve (a mountain gorge). While touring the villages, I discovered that the local children were afraid of my red hair, which provided my friends ample amusement throughout the rest of the trip. As for the gorge, a friend and I were able to literally climb a mountain cliff, which made for one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

The next day, we were still glowing from our previous experience. We got on the bus that was finally going to take us on the safari at 8:30 in the morning. About 20 minutes into the ride, however, the volunteer who was guiding us there reported that the trip was canceled. Apparently, she had just called to confirm our reservations and found that those same guys who had contributed to the postponement yesterday were doing the same today. In the end, we canceled our reservations. Once we got back, the first thing we asked for was our money back. The volunteer, terribly apologetic, reported that we could only get our money back in Pula. We respectfully declined this option and asked for American dollars (the currency we had paid in). What followed was an amusing conversation that I will probably never forget.

We asked where the American dollars we had paid with were and received the response that another bus driver had them. Upon asking the name of the bus driver, the volunteer told us she didn’t know. When we asked where this bus driver was, she told us he was somewhere in South Africa. The very idea of a random bus driver driving around in South Africa with thousands of American dollars (there were 50 people on the trip) was so incredible that we ended up taking the Pula. We figured it was better to get something back now than nothing later. Yet I still occasionally wonder what ever happened to that driver with the American money. Nonetheless, this setback, while disappointing, was not too much of a downer as it allowed us to watch quarter finals of the tournament.

The next day, we were taken to a military barracks where the final round was. Monash University ended up taking home the championship (and they most certainly deserved it). After a surprisingly good final banquet (by far the best food we had eaten all week), we prepared to say our goodbyes to Botswana. The tournament on the whole had been what a friend of mine described as “an incredibly enjoyable disaster.” Problems like the vegetarian food not arriving, never-ending delays and difficulties with the excursions (our safari had not been the only one to be canceled) had sullied what had otherwise been a fantastic experience. Additionally, allegations of corruption abounded as apparently the financial aspects of the tournament didn’t quite add up. Nonetheless, I enjoyed my time in Africa and definitely was happy that I made the decision to go all those months ago.

On the way back, we stopped at Johannesburg again and Frankfurt, which was enjoyable, although not as much as Munich, before heading into JFK. I got one hour of sleep during the entire period. By the time I touched down in New York, I was exhausted beyond belief and quite literally fell asleep as soon as I sat down in my parents’ car (much to the dismay of my mother, who wanted to know everything and anything about the trip). Looking back on it, it was an incredible experience that I was extremely lucky to have. Additionally, the travel lessons I learned (don’t assume banks will take traveler’s cheques) will help me as I hopefully travel more of the world throughout my life.

Finally, I didn’t contract malaria.