Monday, October 19, 2009

A Different Kind of Journalism

I wanted to be Christiane Amanpour, or hell, Murpy Brown. My very first job - in a real newsroom - promised such a future. But then I got my second job in television...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Blind Date

Enjoy the top of my head as it tells you a heartwarming tale about life and love in Los Angeles. (Note to self: next time, lower the mike.)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Victoria Falls

In addition to the second-highest bungee jump in the world, Victoria Falls hosts a fine set of waterfalls coincidentally named...Victoria Falls. It's one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It's purdy. Plus, there's a bridge there that you can jump off. There we are, contemplating it.*

I was teased about my rented poncho, but got the last laugh at my drenched comrades, thank you very much.

*My slightly off-point pointing is an homage to my dad. Any vacation that brought us to a tourist sight was commemorated with photos of my sisters and me pointing to said wonder. But dad had an old camera with a viewfinder that was miles away from the lens. What he saw didn't quite correspond to the photo he took, thus a collection of snapshots of the Rowland girls pointing randomly into the distance. I asked one of my companions to take a shot of me pointing at the bridge, for old time's sake. "but you're not pointing anywhere near it."

I know.

For Real

We capped off our trip with a quick buzz through Chobe National Park, and it is simply impossible to take a bad photo here. These pictures came off of my little snappy digital thingy, and not some big thwacking professional rig. (I did take some closeup shots using my 35mm camera with the giant zoom, but I have no idea where one gets actual film developed these days.)

(Click on any photo to see it all huge on your monitor. Then click the back key to return to this page.)

Botswana takes its wildlife seriously. Poachers are shot on sight, and those that survive are sent to prison for a very long time. (In fact, the reason there are no rhinos in Chobe is because they were too much of a lure for poachers, putting other animals at risk, so they've been relocated. Sorry, rhinos.) This policy isn't just good for the critters, it's a sound business decision. With their diamond reserves dwindling yearly, Botswana needs the cash generated by tourism, and a well-stocked parade of elephants is quite a draw.

And damn, did we see elephants. They're everywhere. Like racoons. We also encountered a good number of giraffes, impala, kudu, warthog (Pumba!) hippos and fornicating baboons. The only thing I didn't see was a big cat. Half of our team did. They were in another jeep, and witnessed a showdown between a lion and a mother elephant, and reported back in breathless detail: The lion was stalking some nearby impala, when a baby elephant wandered close. (note: baby elephants is tasty.) The lion slinked under a nearby bush and the mama charged over, reared up on her hind legs and - bellowing - brought her full weight crashing down on the bush. Dramatic as that sounds, I was just as happy to have a bit of distance twixt myself and an enraged elephant, not to mention a jittery carnivore. I have newfound respect for that Mutual of Omaha guy, "I'll stay here in the jeep, while Rusty checks on the lion...."

Thursday, July 9, 2009


Yes I did.

Monday, July 6, 2009

When Dudes Fly

Our dedication ceremony featured dancing like what we saw in the school gym, only all grown up. And my, how they've grown. These dancers are just young adults with day jobs and homework, but while our kids get summer gigs at McDonalds, they sweat their butts off perfecting the moves that have been passed down for generations. They were amazing, and absolutely idolized by the little kids in the neighborhood, who all gathered 'round to watch. Some of the elders got in on the act, too. And stayed.

A New Home

The end of every build includes a house dedication ceremony. This team's occured at the new home of Mantu and her daughter. (We did the most work at Inya's house, but hers isn't move-in ready like Mantu's is. The next team will most likely have their ceremony there.)

Words were spoken, keys were presented, ribbons were cut. It was a simple little affair, really, but still we were reaching for the hankies. This little tin-roofed home doesn't leak, and its concrete floors don't harbor bugs. It has real windows and doors that lock. It may seem like little more than a toolshed to suburban America, but to Mantu, it's a life-changer. And the thatched-roof hut across her courtyard that she used to call home can now become what it was meant to be: a toolshed.

Chow Time

It's not often I have the opportunity to dine on something before I've even heard of it. Okay, maybe quinoa, but that's a plant that tastes like sand, so I'm not going to count it. Not so the mysterious kudu which, when served on a bun with lettuce and tomato, tastes like a slightly overcooked turkey burger, with a little spicy kick. So I figured the kudu was something rather turkey-shaped, with wings and a beak and perhaps some festive plumage. Imagine my surprise when this majestic guy emerged from the brush, all twisty-horned and grandiose, and our guide said, "look....a Kudu."

Tonight I'm having the salad.

Friday, July 3, 2009

All the Single Ladies

The kids here are really shy....for about a minute. All it takes to coax them out of their paper-thin shells is a digital camera or a wobbly-sung tune. They know all of them. There's not a TV or computer or copy of US magazine for miles, but start humming Beyonce, and you immediately have a chorus of schoolkids chime in with "if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it..." complete with dance moves.

It's spooky.

Workers, Playtime

Two Tracys and a Handful of Matts

In a group of twenty people, you're bound to get some repeat business in the name department. Distinguishing characteristics help keep them straight.

Ohio Matt works in organ and tissue transplant, and his shop talk is a laugh-riot at dinnertime. New York Matt has what has been described as "orgasmic" hair, along with the fitting last name of Amore. And Texas Matt is from Texas.

But how does one differentiate between two East-Coast Tracys, both bestowed with the gift of gab and a tendency to sunburn?

Well, Tracy Harding is 5-feet-4, and I teeter in at about 5'10," so we were immediately dubbed Little Tracy and Big Tracy.

Big Tracy had a problem with this.

Then, on day 2, Harding picked up a hammer in her skinny little fist and proceeded to bury a 4-inch nail in three strokes (that's about twenty strokes fewer than Amore, fyi). Thus, Hammer-Time Harding was born.

And I can go back to being Tracy.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


Botswana is known for basket weaving. And really, the baskets are gorgeous. Who doesn't love a nice basket? Not you, who are getting one for your birthday...and most likely Christmas.

I opted not to get one for myself. In fact, I decided before arriving here that I wouldn't get anything for myself. (If you've been to my apartment, you'll agree this is a wise decision. And a pathologically difficult one for me to make.)

But then I passed the haircut dudes.

On the main road of Molepolole, there is shack-after-shack of entrepeneurs offering their haircut services. Who knew one small town could need so much grooming? And every establishment is advertised with a sign that's usually painted by the proprietor, whose training has been focused on hair, not art. I love art that's made by non-artists. (The collectors call it Outsider Art, I just call it awesome.)

I fell in love with this man's sign on our drive into town, and have eyeballed it every day on our way to and from the work sight. I asked our host, Phatsimo (pat-SEE-mo), if she thought the barber would sell it to me. She looked at me like I was insane. And yes, it's a look I've grown accustomed to.

Our van driver, Tebi, was up for the challenge - that's him in his best negotiating white sweater vest. Tebi brokered a killer deal that was still deemed fair by the shop owner. (Or so says the owner's brother, who...erm....may have sold it without asking.) The other barbers on the strip began offering me their signs, but none came close to the coveted Potato Cut in design and execution, so I politely declined.

It's no basket, but I think it's the best work of art Botswana had to offer.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Let's Learn Setswana!

Because you never know when you might be exchanging pleasantries with a Botswanan over a nice serving of Kudu.

Of course, the first thing we wanted to learn were the curse words, but guess what? People here do not swear. Ever. "But what if you hit your thumb with a hammer?" "we say Eesh!" "What if somebody almost runs over you with his car?" "Eesh." "And your wife is in the passenger seat?" "Eeesh."


Even their slang term for us, makgoa, is lovely. It's from the days when white people came by ship, and looked like the color had been washed from them. "Those that have been spit out by the sea." In Cantonese we're gweilo, which means "western white devil." And while I more resemble the latter, I prefer the former.

So here are the words they're allowed to share with the makgoa.

Dumela rra ... Hello sir! (Dumeleng borra ... Hello sirs!)
Dumela ma ... Hello ma'am! (Dumeleng bomma ... Hello ladies!)
O tsogile jang? ... How are you? (formal)
Ke tsogile sentle. ... I am fine. (formal)
O kae? ... How are you? (informal)
K teng. ... I'm around/ I'm ok.

O mang? ... What is your name?
Leina lame ke ___ ... My name is ____
Ke itumetse ... thank you
Anka ... please
intshwarele ... I'm sorry

bokae? ... how much?
eng? ... what?
ka go reng? ... why?

metsi ... water
dijo ... food
ntlo ... house
ntsa ... dog
koko ... chicken
podi ... goat

Now get chatting!

Barrel Roll

Inya's yard has a passel of adorable children (she, her eldest daughter and the neighbors all look out for each-others' kids. I keep losing track of whose is whose.) Inya's also got the cutest tick-riddled puppy, and the occasional herd of just-passing-through goats.

And she's got a barrel.

When we're waiting for our next assignment from MT and his stone-faced assistant, Thebeyame, we turn over the barrel and hop on. Sam, our youngest team member, spent a summer at clown camp, and can walk on the barrel backwards while juggling. Showoff. The little kids took to it really quickly, too. Showoffs.

My sisters and I used to barrel-walk at our grandparents' house in Tupelo. In fact, we would barrel-race. That was in the 70s. But unlike riding a bike, barrel-walking does not come right back to you.

Which explains most of the bruises.


MT's assistant is Inya's brother, Thebeyame. He's a little less impressed with our fine masonry skills than his boss is, and clearly annoyed by our habit of putting down the shovel and picking up the camera every five minutes.

But Thebeyame loves how we mix cement.


There are four work sites on this trip, at varying levels of completion. Inya's house had a foundation and one row of bricks, and that's the one I've spent most time at. (It's got all the cute kids...and the barrel!) But I've had the odd day over at Mantu's house, which is getting the finishing touches, and Tekoestsile's place, which was just at the digging-the-foundation trench stage when we arrived. There's a fourth site way out yonder in spider country that's about chest-high, wall-wise. Subsequent teams will help complete those.

What I love about Inya's place - in addition to the kids and puppies and barrels - is her foreman, MT. He has a mile-wide smile and infinite patience. We know we're here to be the pack mules. By hauling bricks and mixing cement and digging trenches, we're freeing up the craftsmen to actually build the houses.

But building is the fun part. MT lets us build. We suck at it and slow him down, but he humors us anyway. At least for a short while...


One thing I love about Habitat trips is how they throw me together with people I probably woudn't meet every day, like the missionary couple from Texas and the organ harvester from Ohio. My roommate, Carol, is an Irish Catholic inner-city schoolteacher from Chicago. And I mean Chicago. Her accent is unmistakable. When Carol swears, she will actually use the phrase "H-E-double hockey sticks," then turn around and let loose a streak of profanity that leaves even me speechless. She's generous, hilarious, and a wonderful storyteller.

And she's not a girly-girl. Thank heaven. Africa has its share of crawlies and critters, and if I'd been paired with a squeeler, I'd never get any sleep. (The other Tracy and I once spent an entire morning pulling ticks off of a puppy. Jealous? I know you are.)

Carol and I came to our room to find a spider the size of a silver dollar, which is small potatoes here. (Go google "Baboon Spider." I'll wait.) We let the spider stay. Later, Carol came out of the bathroom and said, "grab your camera, the spider's dad is in here." I ran in and saw....nothing. It had disappeared. And now lurks somewhere in our room. This makes us less open-minded about this whole spider thing.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

It's a Pants-Off Dance-Off!

The schoolkids near one of our build sites were involved in a traditional dance competition. Tracy H. and Lilly-Anne walked to the main road for a cigarette break, and overheard the kids rehearsing (who says there are no advantages to smoking?) The teacher invited us to the big show, which we eagerly attended, skipping lunch and arriving in our work clothes. Our big dusty gang of Makgoa (gringos) was a bit of a curiosity, but nothing compared to the spectacle on stage. The kids danced in traditional dress, and their enthusiasm was infectious. We were so moved. Check out the winning team...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Lesson of the Day

Stay upwind of the cement pile.

Digging, Hauling, Mixing....and waiting.

With 20 team members spread over 4 build sites, the logistics can get a little hairy. Our masons aren't used to delegating - houses are often built without the help of a visiting team of eager Americans - so some days we find ourselves being told "wait" for the bulk of the morning, only to be given an avalanche of backbreaking work after lunch. We're thinking, "wouldn't it have made more sense to spread these tasks over the course of an entire day?" A good question...that goes unasked. We're here as their guests. I uncharacteristically keep my opinions to myself. Buyt there's an upside to the downtime: it gives us a chance to meet the neighbors, and what neighbors we have! Schoolkids by the dozen come to meet the makgoa (literal translation: they who have been spit out by the sea. loose translation: gringos). Matt Amore is a fan-favorite with his camera and curls, and the kids go from shy-to-diva in the time it takes to click the shutter.