Friday, May 23, 2014

Exam Period Getaways: Mozambique and Swaziland

Apologies, I tried to post this on Sunday before we left for Kasane/Victoria Falls, but I didn't have access to a good internet connection. So here it is. Expect another post soon(ish) about the latest trip, possibly after I return home. I can't believe I have less than 48 hours left in the country!


Thursday May 1st as many of you many know, was International Labor Day which is a national holiday in Botswana and much of the rest of the region (and world). Friday the 2nd was technically the last days classes but all of my classes had ceased meeting already. After gathering the nearly 10 items required for a Mozambique visa and paying a visit to the High Commission, I was able to travel with four other women from my program to Bilene, Mozambique, a small beach town on a lagoon adjacent to the Indian Ocean.

We hired a driver, Sylvester, and he drove through the night on Wednesday instead of spending our limited daylight hours on the road. The drive was about 18 hours in all, including the two stops for border crossing at South Africa then Mozambique. Sylvester had downloaded a collection of contemporary pop and R&B to play on the drive, but the USB component of his stereo wasn't working. So our only option was a pop-country-Christian worship CD by some American Idol wannabe with a throaty twang, which Sylvester listen to on repeat to keep himself awake. By the end of the trip, we could all sing along with every song, including this little gem:

About 10 km outside of Bilene, we heard a faint thud, but the car kept driving normally and Sylvester didn't seem too concerned. When we arrived at Complexo Palmeiras, our accommodation, we saw that one of the back tires was completely flat-- a slow puncture from driving over a screw. A fellow camper helped Sylvester patch the tire and he went to fix it the next day.

Upon moving into our chalet, we found out that "self-service" accommodation actually meant a mini fridge and a braai area. So we set out for the fresh produce vendors just down the road from Palmeiras. None of us speak Portuguese, but Kirsten is fluent in Spanish which really helped. We bought supplies to cook a few meals and we borrowed a couple of butter knives from the restaurant which we used to chop vegetables. We spent about four hours cooking enough food to satiate all four of us, but it was fun to have a challenge, especially after spending most of the day lounging on the beach.

Keely, Kirsten and Gabby chillin in front of our chalet

The next we took a boat out to the sea, or more accurately a dune that separated the lagoon and the sea. We had met a South African family at the beach the day before and they invited us to come with them on a chartered boat. They had three little girls with them and two little boys. I hadn't been around kids in a long time, and it was fun to experience everything from their energetic point of view. The oldest daughters of the woman who invited us was 20, and she introduced us to a guy named JJ, who is basically the only person who guides any kind of tourist activities in Bilene. JJ was with his friend Jaco and the two of them took us up to a viewpoint above a small bay where we could see sea turtles surfacing. Later they picked us up and more than made up for Bilene's lack of off-season nightlife by braaiing for us and showing us a really good time.

The next was actually JJ's 21st birthday, so we got to celebrate with him a bit. The guys picked us up in a boat and took us on a tour of the lagoon. We ended up at an adorable resort that serves waffles with ice cream and cocktails in fresh coconuts-- the perfect breakfast!

We left around 3pm, Sylvester hoping to make it out of Mozambique before nightfall when police checkpoints become a nuisance for foreign vehicles. By 3am we were almost to Pretoria, and most of the way through our journey. We had been stopped four times in South Africa by dubious "police checkpoints," each time being asked for a bribe, but Sylvester managed to get out of each situation without paying. But at 3am, I awoke to see our hazard lights bending shadows in the tall grass on the side of the highway. We were in the middle of the bush and we were out of gas. A couple of the others girls got extremely agitated (understandably), but I remained surprisingly calm, although fully aware that we were all in a very dangerous situation: SA is rife with violent crime. Sylvester tried to call his cousin in Pretoria but he couldn't get through, so he decided to try and flag someone down in the sparse traffic. As several cars simply hurdled past him and into the night, we decided that we would probably attract more sympathizers than Sylvester. Keely, Gabby and Kirsten stood outside and within a few minutes a car stopped. The driver was a middle aged woman driving her son to university in Pretoria for his final exams. She told us she worked at the border post and seemed just as alarmed at our predicament as we were. She kept saying things like "don't you know where you are?" ... "you are not safe here"... "they will rape you." Sylvester took his small gas jug and the car faded into the blackness. We prayed that no one else would stop and try to "help" us before Sylvester returned. I armed myself with the frying pan we'd bought, and told two of the others that the glass bottles they were drinking from could be turned into shanks if necessary. About 20 minutes later, we see headlights behind us. Someone steps out of the car and approaches the fogged up driver's side window and knocks. We all panic, until Kirsten announces that it's Sylvester. Apparently there was a petrol station just 8km down the road.

The whole ordeal only lasted around an hour, but the panic left us all flustered for the rest of the trip and definitely made things tense with Sylvester. We had already paid the balance on what we owed him, but we regretted not waiting until the end to do so. We couldn't get out of the car fast enough. In hindsight though we can all laugh about it, and it makes a great story of course. I definitely still think about the trip in a positive light.

We breezed back into town just time for me to study for two days and take the two final exams I had on the 7th and 8th, then start planning my next adventure...

Part One: Failure to Launch

We had made all of the necessary arrangements for accommodation and activities and a few close friends and I were ready to go on our last free-wheeling adventure of the semester, to the tiny Kingdom of Swaziland, landlocked by South Africa and Mozambique. With a little hesitation (and desperation) we contacted Sylvester to drive us, and he charged us his typical incomparably cheap rates.
We planned to leave Sunday at 10pm and drive through the night to Swaziland, about 1000km away. I made my way out to the parking lot, right on schedule, only to learn that Sylvester’s car had broken down. At 2pm. Apparently he hadn't found it pertinent to tell us until 9:45pm—he assumed he could rectify the situation on his own. Scrambling to save face and business, he offered to let us rent his 5-seater, which Prince would drive. We awaited his phone call which would allow us to leave, but as the night wore on we became increasingly certain that we would not make it to the South African border by the midnight closing time. Sylvester also expressed apprehension about Prince driving through the night—he said he trusted himself to do it, but not Prince.

We found out the next morning that this was only part of the story. After going to bed after midnight, we all woke before 5am, when Sylvester said he would bring the car so we could cross the border right when it opened at 6am. Sylvester called just before 5am to tell us that he would not be bringing the car because it was not in his possession—and hadn't been even when he promised it to us. He had lent it out, and the car was not even in Gaborone. Sylvester assumed he could get the car from the man in the morning, and once again was wrong.

So we all sat in my room, calling around desperately to find alternatives, but nothing was turning up within our budget. We began to accept that the trip was a failure. Sylvester, however, was not ready to give up. He frantically searched for alternatives while we all spent the day in limbo, eating the food meant for our trip and lazing around the CIEE office. We met with Sylvester there, and had a conversation with him, mediated by Amelia. He completely understood our position—that we considered his actions unprofessional, selfish and dishonest and his humility was somewhat disarming. Nonetheless we didn’t think he would come up with any kind of reasonable solution besides a full refund. But come 8pm, as we were all drinking our feelings in my dorm room, we get a call from Sylvester that he has borrowed a car and can pick us up in two hours. Our trip would simply be bumped an entire day and we would arrive back on Friday rather than Thursday (cutting it close for move-out). But we rallied our adventurous spirits and decided to pour our gin into plastic water bottles and head towards the border with a crazy Zimbabwean at the wheel.

At first things were awkward and tense with Sylvester, but eventually his warm, funny and lighthearted personality won us over and we all forgave and moved on from the rough start to the trip.

Part Two: A Quaint and Magical Kingdom 

Once we got to Swaziland, the rest was easy. The country facilitates tourism well: most people are very friendly, tourism info is abundant, and attractions are very well-marked by signs.

 We arrived in the morning and checked into the lovely and mostly deserted Hawane Resort. We had already cancelled our reservation, but arrived with the hopes that a mid-week, low-season walk-in would be welcome, and it was. We had the whole hostel to ourselves during our visit. The hostel at the resort is an old stable converted to cozy and kitschy dorm-style accommodation.

We ventured out of the hostel to Mantenga Nature Reserve and Cultural Village around midday, where we took a short hike to a waterfall and got to tour a replica of a traditional Swazi village (Bantu people, not San/ “bushmen”) and enjoy a presentation of traditional Swazi dance.

Cooking dinner at the hostel

On Wednesday we got a late start, sleeping in and making a decadent breakfast in the minimalist kitchen (team effort and a little creativity). We got out of the hostel later than we had hoped, but we still got to see and do quite a bit. We went to Ngwenya mine, the oldest mine in the world. It was originally used by the San 40,000 years ago for ochrite (used on the body and for painting) and then by Bantu people from the north for iron which they smelted to make tools and weapons. During the mid-20th century it was used by American companies for high-grade iron ore. Mining operations were still taking place when we toured—an Indian company is using improved technology to make use of the low-grade ore originally discarded by the Americans.

After the mine we stopped at a craft market and glass shop, where Swazi artisans use recycled glass to make beautiful and useful items. There was observation deck where we could see the glass-blowers at work. They make around 1500 pieces per day.We then headed to yet another craft market, this one centered around Swazi Candle, a locally famous artisan candle store. Everything was beautiful, I had such a hard time making decisions about what to buy!

Getting carried away with sunrise photos:

Thursday, our last day, we got an early start and packed in a lot of adventure. We started the morning with horseback riding. Our hostel offered a free half-hour of horseback riding for those who stay two nights or more; Nahara, Sylvester and Prince had never ridden horses before and opted to stick to a half hour. Anandi and I decided to extend to an hour, and we went on a separate ride. Although I couldn't take any photos, I focused on taking mental pictures. The Swaziland countryside is so beautiful and idyllic. We rode over rolling hills painted amber, kelly green, sage, and mauve. Terraced farming graced gentle slopes across the reservoir, which was rimmed with reeds and lily pads.

Breakfast feast

After we returned from the trip, Anandi Nahara and I headed out with Sylvester toward Malolotja National Park where we hiked down into a valley surrounded by sloping, mostly bald mountains and to a waterfall that looked like a gash cut into a basalt cliff. At the top of the falls was small pool perfect for bathing. Since no one else appeared to be on the trails we decided to take a dip, a perfect break from hiking. On the way our of the park we also had couple of wildlife sightings!

The pool just above the falls

A herd of zebras and elans

We returned to the hostel for lunch, and headed out on our last adventure of the day, the historical site of some San rock paintings. The site includes art between 400 and 4,000 years old. The paintings were mostly made by Sangoma (traditional healers), who after entering the power/spiritual world would communicate what they saw using paintings. Most of the paintings that are visible were made in red ink, made from ochrite and the blood of elans (a type of antelope). Black ink was made from charcoal and was used to depict the Bantu people, who are drawn with their livestock. San people are depicted in red.

Bantu people depicted with their livestock

We left Mbabane around 9pm and made it back to UB by 8am, in time to pack and spend one more night in the dorms.