Tuesday, September 1, 2009

SWAZILAND - July 27-31st

Swazi with the Kids

A week after returning from Zanzibar, and just barely recovered from the Big Cough, I jumped onto a bus with 50 primary school kids and a few teachers for their annual trip to Swaziland. I will spare you the blow by blow gruesome details of the launch…except for a few. I was told we would leave at 6pm for an all night bus ride. When we left at 8pm, it seemed like we were doing well. After taking 2 hours to get through the South African border crossing (yes, it takes the personnel that long to stamp and type in 55 people’s information into their data base) we then discovered that one child’s passport had been left behind. So it took another 2 hours to return to retrieve that. Somehow it became one am before we left the border town which is only 45 minutes from our departure point… 5 hours to travel 45 minutes.
I grabbed a seat to myself up close by the driver where I had some leg room. But no heat. It was FREEZING all night. I was totally unprepared for this and the dear principal shared her blanket with me, but most of the time was spent shivering to stay warm. And the driver was constantly getting lost. He would get on the phone and tell someone on the other end what signs he was seeing, and the next thing I knew, we would be turning around and retracing our steps. Ahhh, my kingdom for a GPS!

We survived a second border crossing getting from S.Africa to Swazi, and arrived at our “lodging” by 10am (most people say that the drive should take between 6-7 hours). I thought we were in a broken down juvenile detention center, by all appearances. The kids stayed in rooms on the floor with wall to wall raggedy mattresses. The teachers had their own room with equally scrungey mattresses on the floor. Prior to the trip I had said that I would like to have my own room, so I was given the room that the owner’s small children stayed in. Sabi (my 16 year old friend from the Mission with whom I brought) and I had the Deelux quarters – a flush toilet, bunk beds, and a shower that sometimes worked. We felt pretty lucky. The others had to bathe by waiting in line outside for the water to be boiled in a big tub, then they would take their little plastic tubs to a concrete room and, hunching over the warm water in the cold room, wash themselves. Needless to say, this took a lot of time, so the morning schedule of “we absolutely must be ready and out of here by 7am tomorrow morning” always turned into 9am at the earliest, with the teachers the last to straggle onto the bus.

In, now familiar, Basotho fashion, things never went as planned.
Disorganization and waiting were the norm. But, in spite of my perspective on this, many things were seen and done by the students. And what impressed me the most is that the kids never seemed to mind the endless hours of sitting and waiting on the bus. Some memorable experiences for us all included the Swazi Cultural Village, the museum, the Parliament, a little game park with a huge hippo, and the crafts market (guess which was my favorite?). Swazi is well known for its crafts which include batiks, baskets, cloth, jewelry and many more items.

On my final afternoon I was determined that I would spend some time in a store called Gone Rural (www.gonerural.com) which I knew had beautiful items. (It is made up of 700 village woman artisans who are able to work at home and then sell their products at the main store.) But, after spending half the day sitting in the bus, I didn’t want the kids to wait for me, so I made the bus drop me off and I said I would get myself home. In hindsight, I think I was desperate to have a little control over my time and activities, at least for a couple of hours. The shop was a straight few kilometers up the road from the “detention center”… or so I imagined. After finishing my luxurious shopping time, I hit the road for a nice walk ”home” on a rather featureless highway surrounded with maize fields. As the sun began to set I realized I had better get myself off the road and into transport. (Do I need to say here that I was beginning to realize that I had done a completely idiotic thing and that chagrin and fear were now settling in?) So, I began to hitch. A couple of cars whizzed by, not even glancing at me. The sun was now down with the final rays of light fading. The next car that approached turned out to be a police car –oops? Good news or bad? For my “safety”, they said, they wanted to drive me to my place. But, where is my place, and what the heck is it called? It turns out it is much much farther than I had remembered. And it wasn’t a straight shot at all, but it involved a turn and I couldn’t remember which way. And, I didn’t know the name of the place we were staying as it didn’t have any signs on it, if it did have a name. And they had no idea of what I was talking about as I described it. So we drove and drove, and I am feeling completely stupid and apologetic and LUCKY beyond words. Finally, the policemen spotted the bus parked in the back side of the facility. As we drove into the concrete sprawling guest house, I had the biggest smile on my face, knowing that I narrowly escaped making Darwin’s Award for Natural Selection.
A postscript to this which I heard the next day from the owner’s wife: The police returned to the place asking to speak to the owner. They wanted to see the facility, asked a lot of questions about its operation and generally made the owner extremely paranoid. They had no idea that I had introduced the police to it, so they wondered why they were being investigated. It was funny to me, but maybe not to them!

Overall impressions of Swaziland are that it is a country with much more wealth and infrastructure than Lesotho. It is one of the top three countries for HIV infection but the government seems to be tackling this head-on with posters and billboards and free condoms at every turn. They are well set-up for tourism with game parks and lodging and information readily available. They have a king that is revered and a one-party government, with the king choosing half of the parliamentary representatives. They are keeping their historical culture alive through the cultural village, dance and music. The people are friendly and there are wonderful crafts to enjoy.

The bus ride home was also an overnighter but this time I was prepared for the cold. I had my sleeping bag on board. I can only shake my head as I report that the bus driver was lost again several times on the way home. And upon arrival at the border gate, we had two hours to sit in the predawn light, waiting for the gate to open. My goals were simple – to spend more time with this primary school and the teachers, to get to know Swaziland a little, and to show my friend, Sabi, a world she might otherwise not see.
Mission Accomplished!