A Weekend in Botswana’s Countryside

Welcome to a world you never knew you were missing

Herbal aromas fill the air as my friends and I cruise down a dirt road on the back of a donkey-pulled wagon. Our local driver isn’t particularly friendly, and many of my peers watch nervously as he somberly whips the asses in front of us again and again. The animals seem uncomfortable, and their gloomy trot slowly starts to become frantic and hurried. In a properly catastrophic fashion the road reaches a hill, and gravity suddenly brings our already speeding cart to a rollercoaster-like velocity. The rickety metal joints rumble and shake. The American girls scream. Our driver looks back at us helplessly. Before we know it, we’ve smashed into the donkeys pulling us and veered off the road. As our cart comes crashing to a stop, one donkey wails and falls to the ground. Everybody is rattled, and all we can do it watch helplessly. Disaster, right?

Maybe not. As soon as we stop moving, the driver doesn’t miss a beat. He calmly jumps to the ground, unchains the fallen donkey, pulls the cart away, and forces the injured animal to stand up. Some of my friends wince — PETA probably wouldn’t be happy. I’m shocked that the hurt donkey can even walk, and all of us are absolutely floored when our driver hops up and starts riding the animal that was so recently lying helplessly on the floor in front of us.

I’m no anthropologist, but this experience feels a bit emblematic of Botswana as a nation…

In every way I can think of, this is a country built on optimism and perseverance. The people here aren’t only humble, but they’re strong and genuinely full of an incredible hope. When the British annexed tribal land for colonial use in 1911, the people remained hopeful and eventually achieved peaceful independence in 1966. When the country was financially destitute in the late 1960s, the people remained hopeful and eventually developed a booming diamond industry (which is one of the biggest in the world today). When HIV/AIDS brought the average lifespan down to 41 in 2005, the people remained hopeful and eventually developed one of the best healthcare systems in Africa. Time and time again, Botswana proves itself to be resilient in amazing ways — even perhaps (in a very small way) through the actions of a young man chaffering American students down dirt roads.

It didn’t take long for shock to become excitement. Before we knew it one of our classmates was being lifted onto a donkey for a triumphant ride around the crash site.

My name is Allen Ortega and I’m a sophomore at the University of Southern California. From July to December of 2016, I’ll be studying at the University of Botswana in the country’s capital, Gaborone. This weekend I finally escaped the city and got a taste of “real” Botswana village life. While both of my excursions were extremely toursty and choreographed, it was incredible to walk the roads and see the sights that natives have enjoyed for endless generations. I’m excited to share my experiences, please enjoy.

Bahurutse Cultural Village

Any seasoned traveller will rue the day he’s forced to attend a “cultural experience” with a group of 20 other tourists. Flashbacks of disrespectful kids, loud teenagers and visibly infuriated locals tend to run through my head. Fortunately for me and my American classmates, Bahurutse does a fantastic job of exposing groups of outsiders to local culture without creating a situation where they’ll be disruptive. While many tourists like to ask for the most authentic/grassroots experiences possible, I’ve found that a more catered approach tends to be most pleasant when it comes to big groups. Separate from the true village where locals live, the cultural village is comprised of several huts, a common area and a kitchen (with full bar) solely for the purpose of accommodating eager tour groups such as mine.

We arrived at 10AM and were met with traditional celebratory calls involving yelling and tongue movements. The tribal chief came out to greet the men and then the women in accordance with local customs (if this was upsetting to anyone, tensions were surely resolved when women were given beds for the night and men were given floormats), and we were offered a heart breakfast of traditional fatcakes.

After breakfast, we left Bahurutse and proceeded to hike through nearby grazing grounds to a local river used for shamanistic healing by locals. En route, we saw huge numbers of cows, bulls, sheep, donkeys and rams roaming the plains. These animals all belong to people in the villages, but are generally allowed to wander freely as they grow and develop. It’s really incredible to see free animals conducting daily business. In stark contrast with the livestock in America which live heavily orchestrated lives separate from people, local animals are accustomed to human presence and feel much more a part of the world than they do back home. It was startling and eye opening to eat beef for lunch after a long morning spent walking the same paths as bulls and cows.

We returned to the cultural village for dinner and were greeted by a matriarch who fervently encouraged us to listen to our elders and remember our heritage. Truly an important message that resonates across cultures. This was followed by a lovely night of traditional dancing, dinner, and drinks with our local guides.

Mokolodi Nature Reserve

Mokolodi was exactly what an American would expect from an “African Safari.” We were given Mimosas to start the day, driven around the reserve in a long Jeep-like tour bus, and given a gourmet lunch under the guise of a “Braai” or local barbecue. We got to take photos of boars, impalas and kudu, which was nice. At the end of the day, that’s how I’d describe Mokolodi. Nothing special, nothing particularly interesting or even unique to Botswana (except for the wildlife, which is always stunning). Mokolodi was nice.

Two female kudu at Mokolodi Nature Reserve

I mentioned this earlier, but I can’t emphasize enough how optimistic and warm the people of Botswana have been, at least towards me. While this weekend had its ups and downs, I was continually floored by the warm smiles, playful banter, and genuine curiosity that locals continued to come armed with.

Whether it’s on the bus to school or in a taxi or on the street, I consistently get enthusiastically questioned about my life and asked to chat about all kinds of topics (from politics to women to WWE, literally). At the end of the day, I think this has shown me how simple human connection really is. From one side of the globe to the other, it’s not hard for people to come together — all we have to do is try.

We were given Mimosas to start the day

In the coming weeks I hope to meet genuine local friends and have authentic adventures here in Botswana. Traveling alone or in small groups will (hopefully) help me capture more raw experiences without disrupting local life. Over the course of the coming months, I’ll be visiting Namibia, Victoria Falls, Durban, as well as a multitude of villages around the country. I’m also volunteering at a clinic and veterinarians office, which I’d love to write about soon. For now, thanks for reading.