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Chapter 1: Patience Is A Virtue

We've been here for about 2 1/2 weeks so far, and I haven't done a lick of work yet.  The main problem is that South African Airlines has lost my computer and Julie's printer.  We did manage to arrive with Julie's computer (a carry-on laptop), so I'm not completely cyber-deprived, but I can't really do much real work on my project without a relatively beefy machine.  Apparently SAA only owes us up to $500 (or is it 500 Rand? not sure yet).  So, after a week of waiting for the computer to magically appear at the airport, we decided that it's probably gone for good (stolen seems to be the best consensus), and I ordered a new machine from a local outfit.  Our landlord referred us to Computer and Technical Services Botswana, or CATS for short.  The folks at CATS understood my requirements and were optimistic about getting me a machine within a few days.

A little over-optimistic, as it turns out -- so far they've managed to promise and fail to deliver twice in the past ten days or so.  Today we stopped by CATS (again) and spoke with Derek, the technician who's building the machine. He does have a good excuse, I'll admit: The Republic of South Africa has decided that as of Oct 1 (in contravention of a 5-nation free-trade agreement) they require payment of VAT (i.e. sales tax, something like 10 or 15%) for goods sold into Botswana when the goods cross the border, after which the buyer can apply for a refund of the VAT, less a 1.5% "processing fee".  Ordinarily stuff going into Botswana would have no VAT collected on it, just the regular customs duties.  So anyway, the government of Botswana has cried foul, and meanwhile South Africa has closed all but three of the entry points from SA into Botswana while they haggle.  The trucks are reportedly lined up for miles at the border crossings that are open (two of them are hours of extra driving to the north or south).  So, the parts have been delayed.

However, I don't think the border woes really tell the whole story. For one thing, both times that Julie and I have stopped by CATS to hassle Derek, he's appeared after a few minutes, complaining about the incessant phone and how overworked he is, and proceeded to spend half an hour chatting pleasantly with us.  The first time we conversed in great detail about the hot weather in Botswana, the need to drink water constantly because "it's a dry heat, you know", his personal weather station that he has at home, his hobby of driving a Land Rover out into the Kalahari and taking incredible temperature measurements of the air inside the cab (38 C !), outside the cab (42 C !!), and the surface of the sand (64 C !!!). On the second visit he told us about the border situation, and then spun a yarn about how he had to buy a new car which was imported from South Africa, and it was at the dealer all ready to go, but lacked one important piece of paperwork.  It seems this paperwork was impossible to optain because the official who normally takes care of imported cars had locked the country's one and only rubber stamp required to stamp these particular papers in a cupboard at the customs office and then gone on holiday.

As I'm beginning to realize, southern Africa operates with a very different notion of time efficiency than we're accustomed to in America. Of all the purchases of goods or services, favors, appointments, bureaucratic tasks, etc that Julie and I have been involved in since we've been here, they mostly have run beyond the expected or promised schedule.  Our airplane baggage (the six out of eight pieces that actually arrived) dribbled in over the course of several days after our arrival (none of them arrived with our original flight).  The new computer.  Our hot water: first it took a day or two to get gas cylinders.  Then another day to get the required regulator for connecting the cylinder to the house's gas pipe.  Then several days to wait for the hot-water-heater expert to come figure out why the heaters couldn't be lit.  Then another few days before he could come back with tools and spend time with the heaters.  A day for him to not show up, then another day before our frustrated landlord managed to get one of them (shower) working, sort of, himself.  The other one (kitchen) remains inoperable.  Our trash disposal service took several days of reminding the landlord to remind the guy who hauls away and burns the trash before things started happening (we still don't have the promised trash container). The telecom ministry doesn't have phone directories, check back next week. Opening a bank account took two successive days and waiting in several different lines, and we're still waiting for some mail from the bank so we can go pick up our cards (they promised within a week, ha!), so we can actually get money out of the account.  Yadda yadda yadda.

[Hindsight: they did get the kitchen hot-water working soon after this was written. We never did get a trash container, but I did join a football team w/ the trash guy. More on that in a future installment. We scrounged a phone book at some point. We never did get working bank cards or a checkbook... we had to do everything w/ cash or credit cards for a full year! -tu]

Finally, at the immigration office, we began to understand the lesson that this country is trying so hard to teach us.  In the window of the building outside of which the perrenial queue of aliens waits to speak with an immigration officer, someone has taped a computer-printed sign which reads: "Patience Is A Virtue".

Chapter 2: Could It Be The Petrol?

It looks like we'll be buying a truck this week.  We would have done it last week, or even the week before, but our local dealer, Firoze, spent last week in Pakistan, so we decided to wait for him to come back.  We decided that he must be relatively honest, for a used car salesman, since while making friendly banter with us he can't seem to refrain from criticizing Clinton and America's morals or pointing out the benefits of arranged marriages and polygamy as delineated in the Koran.  We've been independently referred to a garage to evaluate prospective vehicles, so I feel we'll be able to work a decent deal.  So today Firoze set us up with our first candidate, a Toyota Hilux 4x4 pick-up (here they call them "bakkies" or "vans") with a double cab (four doors).  I believe it's a 1995 model.  I'm not sure what Toyota calls the Hilux in the US, but it's basically the size of Nate's old Ford truck.  [Nate's my brother who owned a Ford 150. The Hilux doesn't exist in the U.S., but it's sort of a cross between the Tacoma and 4Runner. -tu] It will probably cost us somewhere around $12K.

I was feeling pretty good when I pulled out of Point Motor Sales behind the wheel of this giant jacked-up Hilux with the fancy bush-bar on the front, but I was immediately flustered by the side view mirror which is loose and kept rotating out of position, and the directional which is on the right side of the steering column instead of the left (I kept turning on the wipers when I meant to signal a turn), not to mention the unfamiliar clutch, the low revving engine, the high vantage point, etc. I started to worry when the engine sputtered when I stepped on the gas. What kind of junk was Firoze trying to stick me with?  I got three-quarters of the way around the first roundabout on the way home when the engine cut out.  I rolled out of the circle and up the Western Bypass 50 yards or so before coming to a stop.  The engine would not stay running; as soon as I put it in gear it would die.  Finally it wouldn't even try to start.  I was none too happy.  I hadn't picked a very good breakdown spot, either.  The Western Bypass is a divided highway with two lanes each direction. It's the closest thing Botswana has to an Interstate.  Unlike most Interstates in the U.S., though, there's no shoulder, so I was parked in the right lane with my hazard lights on, presenting a sudden obstacle to people zooming out of the roundabout. I left a note in the window, locked the truck, and walked a half mile or so to the nearest corner mall.

Naturally the coin payphone outside was out of order, so I ended up using the phone in the Motswedi Sports Bar to try to track down Firoze before he went home.  I described my predicament to Firoze, who suddenly shouted "Could it be the petrol?"  I had to admit, it could be the petrol.

We did have a couple of anxious moments though when I tried to describe where I was by naming the businesses in the mall (keep in mind we're less than a mile from his dealership, on the main road towards the city).

Me: "I'm on Molepolole Road.  There's a big BP gas station here"
Him: "I don't know this BP station"
Me: "Umm... do you know the Bonnington Supermarket?"
Him: "No"
Me: "Motswedi Sports Bar?"
The One English Guy In The Bar Eavesdropping (shouting): "Tell him it's near the Grand Palm Hotel!"
Him: "I don't know this Sports Bar"
Me: "What about the Hyper Liquorama?"
Him: "Oh yes!  Hyper Liquorama!  I will send someone with petrol to pick you up immediately!"

It was the petrol.  In my defense I'll just mention that the needle really wasn't quite to the empty mark, I was distracted, and most importantly, what kind of car dealer, who operates out of a Shell station I might add, lets a customer take a test drive on fumes?

Chapter 3: Mogatla Wa Podi

I have managed to achieve one important item of business here: I signed up for a Setswana course.  I had my third class tonight (for which I was late due to the petrol incident).  So far I can say Hello, how are you, what is your name, my name is Thatcher, I come from America, I stay in Gabane, etc etc.  Which is actually far more useful than you might think.  Virtually everyone you meet in a business or office here speaks excellent English (albeit with a tricky accent).  Batswana (Tswana people) are extremely polite, friendly, and basically very nice and helpful (which is good, obviously) however their norms of politeness are different from ours, and if you don't know the proper way to say hello, people think you're rude or you just don't like them, and they tend to be unresponsive and cold (especially if they're not used to dealing with foreigners).  For example, until you say "dumela" or at the very least "hello" to someone, they will virtually never smile, make eye contact, say anything to you, or otherwise acknowledge your existence. Furthermore, the onus of saying "dumela" first is on the person *arriving* at a particular place.  This arrangement can lead to some very awkward moments in retail establishments, for example, where the American is conditioned to expect a "Can I help you?" and a professional smile within 7.2 seconds of entering a store.  In Botswana, you might as well wait 7.2 years.  However, if you know to say "Dumela", and can then exchange a few pleasantries, people seem just genuinely glad to be near you, not to mention making it their personal mission to help you find the sock display.

Within the framework of politeness, there are the various formal greetings and less formal variations in the language textbook.  There also seems to be a rich set of hip, informal ways to say hello, goodbye, etc.  One of my favorites is the thumbs-up sign, which here in Botswana can be accompanied or replaced by the phrase "mogatla wa podi" (pronounced something like "moe hock' lah wah poo' dee") which means literally "tail of a goat".  This made no sense to me, until the next time I saw a goat (about two minutes later). Since I'd been here I'd seen probably seven thousand different goats, but I'd never noticed that their short tails are always sticking straight up, looking remarkably like a thumbs-up sign.

That's it for this installment.  Mogatla wa podi! | Thatcher Ulrich