Monday, October 1, 2012

Guest Blogger: Benida Solow (Honorary-Aunt)

This is a guest blog written by Benida Solow. Benida has been an honorary member of my family for as long as I can remember. In her post, she shares about her time in Botswana and about how it opened her heart to Africa. It was amazing to have her on our family trip and I will be forever grateful for all of her love and support throughout this entire experience.

"This was one of my all-time favorite travel experiences! The people, the place, the animals - I loved getting a glimpse into Tija's life as a Peace Corps Volunteer. That is something that I have always wished I'd done when I was younger. It is so difficult to imagine taking myself out of my life and away from my family for two years at this stage in my life so it probably won't happen. But, then again, who knows?!

Visiting Tija's NGO and meeting the wonderful women and kids will always be a truly memorable part of the trip. The kids are so adorable and were so thrilled to meet us and receive the stickers and animal cookies that we brought. To realize that they were just one classroom of little orphans and that there are so many more is so heart-wrenching. Yet, to see the big smiles on their little faces and know that we brightened up their day, literally brought tears to not only my eyes but to all of us that day. It was very cool to have seen the video on youtube of the kids singing to George and Laura Bush and then to see that same pink classroom full of the same little kids for real!

It was a challenge to learn how to use my new camera while being in the moment and wanting to capture the best photos possible and, at the same time, not wanting to be saddled with carrying around a heavy camera! A minor detail for sure but a consideration nonetheless. Good thing we were in the vehicle while most of the photographic moments were happening!

Revisiting being roommates with Tija's Aunt Patti was just as fun as it was way back in 1965! I am so honored to be included as an honorary auntie in this amazing life. Tija has a great house, she's surrounded by caring friends and the most perfect boyfriend a girl could want! Tuan, I can't wait to see you here one day!

What fun it was to cook in Tija's kitchen and then just throw the food waste out the window for the chickens and goats... now that's recycling!! And also going over to Lovey's house for a traditional home-cooked lunch was really special. I loved her welcome: "The house is small but the welcome is BIG!" That summed it up perfectly. I can't wait to try her recipe for dikgobe, although I may have to substitute some of the ingredients if I can't find them here.

It was a thrill to be able to go on a camping safari that was literally down to earth (funky mattresses with sleeping bags on the ground), yet we had the luxury of having our tents set up for us and yummy meals cooked for us. Compared to camping in Peru with Tina in 1971, this was definitely luxury! We even had hod water camp showers with a real shower head at the bottom of a canvas bag (Jena posted a picture of this!). Tija chose an amazing guide for our experience. Anthony (the guide), his brother Phatsi, and our chef Victor were all wonderful and full of warmth. We became a little family for those five days. We were shown an abundance of mammals, birds, and plants. Of the mammals, the three leopards we saw were my favorite. They were magnificently beautiful. And, of course, hanging out right next to two sleeping male lions was pretty amazing too! I also loved the male kudu - they look like mythical creatures with their long winding horns.

The Lilac Breasted Roller was gorgeous - no wonder it's Botswana's national bird - and the male Saddlebilled Stork was like a cartoon bird (or maybe he has actually inspired many cartoon birds wearing tuxedos!). I remember how excited we were to spot our first hornbill as we were driving to the Rhino Sanctuary! And then they were almost everywhere! And Tija, yes, you told us it was winter and that it would be cold buuuuut... 30 degrees Fahrenheit for our first early morning game drive? We definitely weren't prepared for that! Even with four layers of clothes and a blanket wrapped around each of us so that we looked like we were all wearing burkas, we still froze until the sun came up!

I was surprised to find that we didn't find many restaurants serving local "African" food. I guess the food at the Rhino Sanctuary came the closest to that. But, I have to say, I'm glad we weren't served any mopane worms! That would have been difficult for me after seeing the dried ones on the street in the marketplace in Gaborone! I have tried some pretty weird foods, including a few insects, but when they look like big fat caterpillars (even the dried ones), I don't think I could have done it! Victor's cooking on the safari was quite yummy and once he saw how much we all craved the Botswana spinach they got arms full of fresh spinach for us!

Our itinerary worked out perfectly! We ended our safari in Kasane at Kubu Lodge, which was beautiful and right on the Chobe River. I took a swim in their pool (to avoid the crocs and hippos) while everyone took their "real, hot showers" after five days in the bush. The next day, we drove up to Zimbabwe for a quick overnight visit to see the breathtakingly beautiful and amazing Victoria Falls. We stayed at the Shoestrings Backpackers Lodge, which wasn't as nice as the Old Bridge Backpackers in Maun but had good food and a really fun atmosphere. Then it was back to the Kubu Lodge the following day for some relaxation before flying back to Gaborone for our last night in Africa.

We didn't have time to explore traditional villages, see dancers, or do other cultural things and I am sorry I didn't just stay another week. Our two week visit was way too short! But, Tija, you sure succeeded in trying your best to fill every minute with something fun and interesting for us to do. I remember when, during the itinerary planning stage, some of us thought that spending an entire day just hanging out with the "Kums Kids" seemed like it wouldn't be something we would enjoy... Boy were we wrong! I loved getting to know Bokena, her brother, and her cousin, and spending the day with them. By the way, have you been able to visit adorable Bokena in her new home yet?

I am going to admit that going to Africa (except for Egypt) had never been a travel priority for me. I guess it was all of those movie images of Englishmen walking in line carrying guns while on a safari that I saw throughout my life that had turned me off. But this blog of yours sure sparked my interest and now that I have had a taste of Botswana and Zimbabwe and see what it is really like, I definitely want to go back and see and experience more! If you stay another year, I would love to come again, stay longer, and travel farther to see more! Tija, thank you so much for such an amazing experience!

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