Thursday, August 04, 2005

Cultural tourism, my ass

You want to hear something amazing?

I went running this morning.

On my way home, I set today as my start again date. I figured that it would give me enough time to get over jet lag and whatever else and reasonably expect to be able to get out of bed in the morning to run (because it’s too, too hot to run after work in the summer here).

So this was the plan.

But in my wildest imaginings, I never expected to stick to the plan. It’d been a month since I’d been running regularly, and I was fully and completely out of the habit. No way was this little intention going to be enough to get me going.

Yesterday, I tried to make a running date with my officemate, but she has the flu and didn’t feel up to it.

So, with little doubt about the outcome, I nevertheless set my alarm early enough to get in a short run, and went to sleep.

And then, when the time came, I woke up. And got up. And put on my running shoes. And went out the door and started running.


And you know what? It felt great.

I’m definitely a little out of shape, but it wasn’t tragic. And the month of (sort of) rest has helped heal all the little aches and pains I got from building up my mileage so quickly this spring. I’m hoping that if I’m careful to rebuild my mileage now, they won’t come back.

Of course, this is only day one. Let’s see if I can keep this up….


In other Believe it Or Not news, two days of eating fruits and veggies and sleeping well have finally beaten down this flu and sore throat that plagued me my entire last week in Botswana.

There might be something to this healthy living thing after all.


But you all wanted to hear about Guide Asshat.

Actually, his real name is Mr. Chapman, and his company is called Termite Mound Guide Training, which I am telling you now so that should any of you ever go to Botswana, or if you know anyone who does, you will know exactly who to avoid.

Now, this story is probably far less exciting than your imaginings of it. It’s also very, very long. So I will try to be concise and entertaining. We’ll see how it goes.

If this were a movie, the trailer would go sort of like this (please imagine the following intoned by the deep, booming voice of the movie promo guy):

Three westerners alone in the land where lions roam. They thought they were hiring a guide to lead them safely through the baboon-riddled Okavango Delta. They thought they were in for the trip of their lifetime.

[cue dischordant music and the following montage:
shot: three white people huddled at a gate in the dark;
shot: tents ripped open and clothes strewn all over the ground,
shot: three whites and a black man in khaki arguing amidst the shadows and flames of a raging campfire;
shot: an empty mokoro (dugout canoe) floating on shallow water;
shot: more arguing;
shot: baboons circling;
shot: hippos bellowing,
shot: more arguing;
shot: one white girl and one black man walking into the bush in the early dawn;
shot: a land rover bouncing along bush roads, the passengers silently taking in the passing scenery. ]

They thought wrong.

Hee. Hollywood always sensationalizes things.

I’m not usually one for hiring guides to begin with. The whole pre-packaged bus tour where they tell you where to go, what to eat, and what to look at all day long is really not for me. I’m all for finding my own way, and if I get lost, all the better, because that’s when the really interesting stuff tends to happen. That’s when you’re forced to ask people for help and read a map and end up in a neighborhood you might never have otherwise seen. But, the way I see it, you hire a guide for two reasons:
1) to facilitate the journey so that you see and do everything you want to in an organized and efficient manner; and
2) to help guard against inexperience and danger in an unfamiliar place.

And in the Okavango, we really didn’t have much choice. It’s hard to get to Moremi Game Reserve (an open protected area in the inner delta where you find the most wildlife) — you need a sturdy four wheel drive vehicle — and hard to find your way around on the roads once you’re there. Add the danger of lions, hyenas, crocodiles, and who knows what else, and you really need someone who knows what they’re doing.

But it’s also very expensive — Botswana maximizes its profit and minimizes the ecological impact by charging very high prices for safaris there, thereby limiting the number of tourists.

So we (= me, Gabriele and Daniela, two Italians volunteering with me) figured we’d have to shop around a bit to find something good that we could afford.

But on our first day in the park, as we woke up from our impromptu camp near the gate, where we set up the night before when we discovered that nobody at the park knew we were coming or had any provisions for us, we were asked to participate in a census of the animals (yeah, you take the good with the bad on this vacation).

And as I walked the length of the park, counting zebras, impalas, and kudu, I discovered that I wasn’t walking anything close to a straight line when I bumped into another counter, who should have been at minimum 20 meters to my left.

We began chatting, and he revealed that, in addition to training wildlife guides (one of whom was leading that morning’s park census) he led tourist safaris. He seemed knowledgeable and friendly, and appropriately chagrined at the pathetic outcome of the census (from where we walked, we could see several other bunches of counters, which meant the result would be totally invalid).

The prices he quoted seemed ridiculously high, until I realized he was talking about pula instead of dollars, and so I took his contact information and brought it back to G and D at the camp.

We liked his prices and his promises (two days, one night, in Moremi, a traditional mokoro trip at Mboma Island) and we liked that he was a local, as opposed to the South Africans who seemed to own all the other budget companies.

There were some warning signs that we ignored (all of a sudden, it seemed, we had to pay our own park fees; it wasn’t okay to pay in dollars after all; he didn’t have the itinerary ready when he said he would) but we swallowed our doubts, paid in advance, and got ourselves to the gate at our agreed departure time: 4 am.

It is SERIOUSLY cold at 4 am in Botswana. All of the day’s heat has dissipated, and sunrise isn’t for another three hours. I was wearing long sleeves, two layers of fleece, and a wool hat, and I was still shivering.

And our guide? Didn’t show up until 5:30.

Five. Thirty.

We? Were not pleased.

He made his apologies and excuses, offered us a significant refund (to be paid on Monday—how could we be so naïve?), and convinced us to continue with the trip.

So off we went, to run several last minute errands for him, to pick up cigarettes for the driver, to pick up his trainees and assistant guide (who had overslept and weren’t ready, even though we were nearly 2 hours late), and finally, FINALLY, were on our way.

The day went passably well. He didn’t always seem to understand what we were saying or have appropriate replies to our questions, and his trainees needed to cook a full hot lunch (it took 2 hours) rather than having a quick, cold lunch, as we’d agreed to earlier and brought for ourselves, but on the whole, we were beginning to forgive him for his lateness.

Then, after our abbreviated afternoon game drive (see: lateness; long lunch, above), we returned to camp to find all of our belongings strewn in the dirt, and long tears in D’s brand new tent.

The baboons, they had attacked.

Guide Asshat: “I knew I should have left someone back here to stand guard.”

Hmmm. You think?

After dinner and a lengthy argument to convince his lazy-ass driver to take us to the bathroom (we were forbidden to walk alone or to go to into the bush because of predators, but you would have thought we were asking the driver for a kidney, instead of for him to, you know, do his JOB), we were hit with the worst news.

Guide Asshat: “So this is a holiday weekend and there are no more bookings available for the mokoro tomorrow. Plus, it turns out that we have to be out of the park by 11 am, so we wouldn’t have had time to go there anyway. It takes 4 hours to get from here to the gate. We’ll have to leave first thing in the morning.”

Uh, what? We had agreed to a TWO day trip. We had paid for a TWO day trip. And our itinerary clearly included a mokoro trip on the morning of day TWO.


It’s funny. I was so angry at the time, but I can’t even manage to channel that outrage to write this. It was such an utter failure: he was late, incompetent, and completely reneged on every agreement we had made. But we were still in Moremi, it was beautiful, and there were elephants. I have pictures of the elephants.

There were further indignities the next day, as when he took us to a campground/gift shop for “cultural tourism” (what?) and when he demanded time after time that we take his picture in various poses and backgrounds (yeah, right), but I was beyond thrilled when we finally got back “home” (it hadn’t felt so much like home before we left on that disastrous trip), where our Batswana friends were excited to see us and Ras was cooking lunch.

The only thing left was to get our 900 pula refund for the parts of the trip that didn’t happen. He was supposed to come on Tuesday morning at 7 am.

Raise your hand if you think he showed up.

Stay tuned as the saga continues…


Blogger Flatman said...

Too bad that didn't go so well...but it sounds like you had the trip of a lifetime anyway!

I am glad you met new friends and had fun. The fact that you would go back is a testament that you had a good trip!

Oh, and way to go on getting back to the running so fast. I am impressed!

4:56 PM  

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