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What’s the last thing you want to do four weeks before your due date in the heat of an African summer when you are slow and lumbering as a beached whale and only want to lie on the couch under a fan eating squares of cooling dark chocolate? Get in the car and drive for 20 hours across the desert! Too bad: we don’t have a choice. And so today begins the grand adventure, a roadtrip from land-locked Botswana to the salty beaches of Cape Town, South Africa, 1,500 kilometers away, so we can usher Baby #2 into the world with style.
It is spring in Gaborone, so the animals are out on the streets. During the winter, you could be fooled into thinking you were in a normal suburban town or small city in the United States: clear wide roads, shiny office buildings, commuters in Toyotas and Nissans making their way through red lights to work. But the blossoms and new green growth of spring have brought the animals out of the woodwork. Driving to lunch you’ll need to slow down while a herd of cows lumbers across the highway in front of you. On the way to the gym you’ll have to pick you way through a dozen lazy goats sleeping in the grass. And little armies of chickens strut without fear in front of your car as you make your way home. Inevitably I am thinking about what’s on the dinner menu for the evening when I pass them.
Labor Day in America was on Monday (Yes, I still had to work. But I do get local Botswana holidays like “Ascension Day” so I shouldn’t complain.) This means midterm election season in the United States has officially kicked into high gear. Barely anyone votes in American presidential elections, let alone midterm ones (relatively speaking) so I don’t imagine this fact will affect too many people. But it will at least result in a slew of cheesy ads and a little mud slinging in tight races. Botswana’s own elections are coming up on October 24, but it’s the big one: the presidential race that only occurs every five years. You know it’s campaign time in Botswana because every ten yards or so on the streets, colorful placards with candidates’ faces on them are stuck on telephone poles. You also know it is election season due to the highly suspicious lack of power cuts the last few months—the government’s way of convincing the people what a good job they are doing providing electricity. I expect the country to be plunged into utter darkness soon after the polls close to make up for it. While waiting at a red light on the way to work this morning, I was able to take a good look at the most popular campaign poster plastered around town.
It was my birthday this week. The last birthday of my 30s, a golden decade that in retrospect seems to have passed in the blink of an eye. At the beginning of the decade I was living in Boston, working on my dissertation, teaching undergrads and watching every single Red Sox game. Since then I’ve lived in two different countries, moved back to California for a year, gotten divorced and re-married, had a baby and started working on a second. It’s safe to say my life is different in almost every way.
Yes, everybody hates the Ice Bucket Challenge now. Because it is just a stunt that doesn’t really encourage medical progress, or because it is a stunt that generates too much money for one disease, or because the tide of the internet turns fast and whatever was popular last week doesn’t stand a chance today. But like every American who lives overseas, my today is your yesterday: I am always hopping on the bandwagon a little late and more than a little unfashionably. For example, I finally got comfortable with skinny jeans, which means they have probably been over now for years. This is just the price you pay for the glamorous expat life: always late to the party. It should also be said that no one actually *challenged* me to the Ice Bucket Challenge, making me the girl who shows up late to a party I haven’t even been invited to.
I was pulled over by the police this morning. I was running late to work as usual (Lila’s various peanut butter incidents and unattended water bucket emergencies always expertly timed to coincide with my departures) when I almost whizzed past the police checkpoint strategically placed between Marina Hospital and Gaborone Secondary School. The checkpoint had gotten me once before: two weeks ago I had to pull over, open my trunk and dig around in my purse to show the officer my driver’s license, which gave him enough time to notice that my registration tags were expired. When he said he had to impound the car (“It is like you are stealing the road”), I shamelessly played the pregnant lady card, imploring “How do you want me to get to work then, walk?” while pointing to my already huge belly.
The most African thing about my life every day is my commute home from work. Because of a large concrete road divider on the main road to my house (see photo above), you can’t turn directly from the street to get to my place. Instead, you have to turn off the road 1/2 mile earlier, wend your way through rutted back roads full of children and chickens, and make about three unmarked left turns and four right ones to finally get to my driveway. I realize this makes no sense in print and I really need to draw a diagram. But this forced detour from the slick highway and exposure to a real middle-income African neighborhood reminds me that I’m not living in Phoenix or a downmarket Californian suburb, which is what most of the small capital city of Gaborone looks like. Long ago the town made a conscious choice to implement “mixed housing” in Gaborone rather than class-segregated neighborhoods, so the nicer, bigger houses (of which mine is one, even though the rent is only a $1,800 a month) are just one street over from modest shacks and a few hovels. Gated houses with electric fences are a stone’s throw from dusty compounds with four or five tiny houses on one plot.
In order to work in a foreign country, you generally need the permission of their government. This makes perfect sense but is one of those things you don’t think about until you find yourself in this particular situation. Botswana is a sparsely populated country (at barely over 2 million people), and it is fiercely protective of its own citizens, which translates into being a bit stingy when it comes to handing out work permits for expats. You have to demonstrate clearly that you possess a “special, valuable skill” that is not already readily available in the country, and that your job has already been advertised widely to give citizens a chance to nab it first. No work permit = no job, so the stakes are high, especially when you’ve already moved your whole family to Botswana at great personal expense and exhaustion of energy and you literally have no home to go to if they kick you out.
Photo Credit: J.O. Smith I’ve lived in Botswana for almost two years. What have I been doing all this time instead of getting down to business and starting a blog? Here are the things that have held me back: 1. Aren’t blogs dead? I think you are only allowed to keep a blog now in a completely ironic fashion, composed of video clips of piano-playing kittens or photos of real people from the ’80s wearing horrible Christmas sweaters. That is all too dreadfully hipster for me, and I felt that starting a blog would be like getting out the parchment, dipping my quill in ink, and scratching out a sonnet. Then I remembered I like things that are outdated, nerdy, and vaguely Shakespearean so that reason went by the wayside. 2. Moving to Africa keeps you busy for more than a few months.
So I had my first Botswana hospital experience. I suppose it was only a matter of time. After all, I headed to the Emergency Room in Pakistan only a month after moving there in 2009. This time I made it almost two years in Botswana before being forced to navigate the bureaucracy, fluorescent glare, unknown medical infrastructure and curious medley of bedside manners that compose an ER in a foreign country. I had so many chances to avoid the encounter. TUESDAY: It started as a faint throbbing behind my eyes, as if I had been peering at my laptop too long in the dark (which is almost certainly the case). WEDNESDAY: I made a series of good decisions including calling in sick to work to soothe what I now believe were the beginnings of my first migraine headache. THURSDAY: I got too cocky. With no headache in evidence, I plunged full speed back into my normal work, gym, social and home schedule. I was punished for it around midnight when a wave of the worst pain I have encountered since childbirth hit me and I could do nothing but stumble around the bedroom howling, hoping not to wake Lila.