Project: The African AIDS Pandemic

African adventure 'life changing' trip

by John Carr

Though I had scrupulously arranged to take all my finals early so I could depart on December 12, 2007, the end-of-semester ice storm threw me a curve ball.

After I had slowly navigated through snow to Tulsa and spent the night preparing to depart in the morning from the Tulsa International Airport, a brief news flash on the television in the early hours of the morning indicated the airport was out of electricity, out of de-icer, and therefore closed. Furthermore, I heard finals week was canceled for the remainder of the students. Panic and frustration ensued.

Fortunately, a reroute was available the next day leaving Springfield, Missouri. The journey took 30 hours from Springfield to Johannesburg, South Africa with layovers in Detroit and Amsterdam. Leaving the ice and snow behind, I landed in Africa in the middle of their summer at 10 p.m. on Thursday, December 13.

How I would travel through the countries I was to visit was one aspect of my trip I had thought about for several months when planning it. Resources on the Internet indicated there was an effective bus and rail system in Botswana. However, I resorted to renting the cheapest car I could find — a tiny, five-speed Toyota Tazz. Driving a standard transmission automobile on the opposite side of the road was confusing at first, but after nearly 8,000 miles and five weeks later, it seemed second nature to me. Road conditions varied widely: there were roads comparable to ours but also roads with foot-deep potholes and elephants blockading them.

I discovered the train system in Botswana had been down for months and the bus system was extremely crowded and dangerous. The Africans, however, take care of their lands. Trash along the roads was minimal to none. At a gas station, a local moved a snail from the asphalt to the woods to protect it from being run over.

After a few days in South Africa, I made my way to Botswana. Traveling through the country, I encountered countless police road blocks. There would be a dozen or sometimes more unarmed police officers stopping each car. It turned out, though, that the police were friendly and generally inquisitive about who I was and what I was doing in their country. Instead of saying “Bye!” most would say “Have a safe journey!”

I slowly navigated up the eastern side of Botswana where the majority of the population resides, since a large section of the country is covered by the Kalahari Desert. While in Kasane, Botswana, I went to Zimbabwe for a day. Then, I traveled across the northern border of Botswana into Namibia. After traveling across a very remote strip of Namibia, I re-entered Botswana on the northeastern corner and slowly navigated down the eastern side of Botswana back into South Africa. Then, traveling east across South Africa, I visited Mozambique and Swaziland.

While on my journey, I learned a lot about African culture and the views Africans have about Americans. Africans generally seem to live a more laid-back life. Travel by hitchhiking is very common. Most huts in rural communities do not have electricity, and the electricity can be unreliable where it is available. Lodging varied from Western style in South Africa, to huts without electricity or heated water in Botswana. One night I awoke to find a bat flying around my room.

The wildlife and landscape were unbelievable. Herds of elephants, migrating zebras, breathtaking giraffes, deadly hippopotamuses, frozen-still crocodiles, fearsome lions, wary leopards and the nearly extinct rhinos roam the land. With nearly 20 percent of Botswana set aside by the government for protected nature reserves, these lands are among the last in the world where one can venture into untamed territory where the animals still rule. African legends are filled with stories of these animals and landscape they roam. Legends say the Baobab trees were thrown down from heaven by God; however, they landed upside down which yields their unique, yet beautiful structure.

Throughout my travel, I interviewed several professionals, visited hospitals, clinics, and organized homes for HIV positive people. I mingled with locals about the HIV/AIDS problems. I was able to witness the crisis first hand. Within any society, there are bad apples which I discuss in these articles. However, I found the people of Botswana to be friendly. With very little crime, I felt safe in Botswana. I was commonly greeted by strangers along my journey with a “Dumela rra.” This is Tswana for “Hello, sir.” The first time it said to me was by a stranger in a gas station in a small town in Botswana. He said it several times and to his surprise he realized I did not know what he was saying. He smiled and taught me the Botswana greeting. The Africans were happy to share their culture and their deep sense of pride in their land. This journey changed my life.