A year on, I still sometimes feel the searing heat, recall the sting of dust in my eyes, remember the profound thrill of daily wildlife encounters. I was so moved by Botswana. Not just because of the animals, the acres of wilderness or the stunning colours, though all these played a part. Not only because it was a special holiday for us and lived perfectly up to our expectations. I was also moved by the opportunity to glimpse a culture for which I had no existing frame of reference. It felt like a privilege and I hope I was appropriately respectful.
The Batswana, on the other hand, appeared to rate us largely according to their ages, their locations and our fiscal potential. In rural areas the immaculately clad school children greeted us with alacrity. They cheered and waved as if we were their celebrity idols. Older relatives, who had no prospect of profiting from us, stared. Their stares were often mistrustful, sometimes contemptuous and frequently weary. Semi-feral dogs regarded us hungrily or, being engrossed in some amorous or combative encounter, paid us no heed. Occasionally, our friendly overtures were rewarded with a stiff wave from a group of unsmiling women but in the end, I stopped waving unless they did first.
Why are you here, they seemed to ask. Do you really think you’ll learn about us sitting in your safari truck with your pale skin and your Tilley hats?
And the answer is, we won’t. Reading Alexander McCall-Smith and snapping a few native animals from the security of a 100% guided tour does not give us much insight into a way of life.
But we were there; spending our money and showing our families and friends what a magical place Botswana is. With luck, this will mean that tourism, along with beef and diamonds will continue to sustain the economy long after our memories have betrayed us.
In the towns, it was a different matter. Hawkers and pedlars were everywhere. They approached with effusive bonhomie and no trace of their rural compatriots’ reserve. Many of us were charmed by a friend of Bibi’s who shook our hands and tempted us with tee-shirts, irresistibly depicting the details of our trip in whimsical form. Giddy as children, we ordered our sizes, colours and layout preferences. They were ready for us within a few days. I wear mine often, delighting in its exotic presence among the highland heather.
Who knows if I will ever return to this fascinating land. I hope I do but there are other places I yearn to see and my life has an increasingly limited amount of travel time available. I do know that the memory of my visit will always be with me.
For now, I revisit often; via my photo albums, through my blog posts, in my daydreams, and from inside my tee-shirt. Thank you Botswana. You widened my view of the world in a most majestic way.