Saturday, July 16, 2011

My First Trip to Africa

The Life in Botswana memoirs are actually letters my parents sent to their family and friends in the States and in Norway. The next group of posts in this series consists of all the safaris they went on during their years in Gaborone, with their new friends in Africa or their American friends and family who were lucky enough to visit them during their four-year stay. I was very fortunate in that I was able to take two trips to visit them, once in 1989 and again in 1991.

I’m glad that my father wrote these stories when he did because I am terrible at remembering details, especially decades later. I was excited to go to Africa for the first time, and for taking three full weeks off work – the longest stretch of time I’ve had off since my college days – then and NOW! I was living and working in Manhattan at the time, for a catalog agency. I had just been offered another job at a small printer and was planning on giving notice when I returned. So, as you can imagine, I was in pure vacation-mode!

My first stop was in London, for three days of sightseeing. I was meeting (and staying with) my someday-to-be sister-in-law’s father and his family. They were gracious and warm to me and made me feel like a member of their family. I did a lot of sightseeing in that short window of time, went to the theater, shopped at Harrod's, and still had time to learn a lot about English football and pubs.

My 12-hour flight from London to Gaborone was uneventful, other than the stopover in Lusaka, Zambia, where we deplaned under military guard. Escorted by AK47s being carried by men in uniforms, we were told not to leave the one-building airport and not to use our cameras. It was a little unnerving, so I was happy to board the plane to Gaborone, our final stop.

The Gaborone airport was much smaller than the one in Lusaka – or maybe it just seemed that way since it was not in a police state! Six months earlier I had a very hard time saying goodbye to my mother at JFK airport, so I was excited to see her and spend more than a few minutes just looking at her and catching up with our lives.

Before we left on our safari trip up north, my mom and I spent a lot of time driving around Gaborone while my dad was at work. She showed me all her favorite stores and gave me the big tour of the capitol city. We went to the African Mall – an outdoor strip of businesses and shops, the local museums, and numerous craft shops, both in town and just on the outskirts of Gaborone. I was amazed that my mother could remember where these places were – some were on very remote dirt roads with not a sign in sight – as she was never very good with directions. I made a note to myself to come back to some of the jewelry and basket shops at the end of my trip, if I still had any money.

I learned quickly that the ex-pat community is like living in a very small fishbowl. The first night in Gaborone my parents took me to a large cocktail party with my father’s co-workers from AID and the American embassy. I mingled and met several nice men, one of who asked me out to dinner the following night – he was the consul general at the embassy. One night while we were at dinner, my friend got up from the table to go to the bathroom and within minutes a man who had been sitting at the bar came over and asked me out. It was actually a friend of his! This scenario was to be repeated many times over the next couple of weeks anywhere we went. I was getting a lot of attention in this limited world of ex-pats and, to me, it bordered on the comical. Apparently SWF were rare in Gaborone. I think if my parents weren’t already living there, I might have seriously considered moving to Gaborone just to improve my social life!

I stopped in Paris for three days on the trip home. My three years of high school French classes came back to me easily, though I quickly learned it was best to use the following greeting when entering a shop or café: "Je ne parle pas Français". It worked almost every time. I spent my time visiting the usual touristy spots: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and even a boat cruise on the Bateaux Parisiens. It was sad to end my journey, but I am thankful to have had such a wonderful trip and now such rich memories.