From Bots to Germany: A Story of Culture and Temperature Shock

I went from summer in the Kalahari desert to winter in Europe in one 24 hour period. This is a short story about culture and temperature shock.

How did I end up on the other side of the world in two such extremes? This story had started four and half months earlier, in July, when I left my home in the United States and started my semester abroad in Gaborone, Botswana. Botswana is a peaceful country situated in Southern Africa, and much of it is dominated by the Kalahari desert. This country is famous for two main things: the Okavango Delta, and diamonds. It was about as far from my home as I could think of.

I studied communications and volunteered at a local game preserve called Mokolodi. I travelled around Southern Africa with other exchange students; I saw the beauty Africa had to offer, ate food I wouldn’t have touched back home (goat meat? Ox tails? Impala?), and I even got a tattoo just for good measure. At the end of it all I boarded a plane from Gaborone, to Düsseldorf (with a stop in Johannesburg and Frankfurt between).

Although I love to travel, and although being “different” is something I am used to, I will admit that constantly sticking out like a sore thumb began to wear on me. With my fair skin that burned easily, red checks, freckles, and boyish haircut, not to mention my visible tattoos and American accent, there was no way for me to blend it. Some of the attention was friendly and curious, but a lot of it was what I imagined zoo animals receive. I had other students try to surreptitiously take photos of me, among other things. Additionally, my closest friend was unusually tall for a woman, was Ghanaian and not a native Motswana, and had white yearn in her dreadlocks. This is to say that the pair of us attracted more notice than some of the other foreign students. I began to look forward more and more to arriving in Germany. This would be my third trip the country, and my knowledge of the language covers the basics. I feel quite at home in the culture there having grown up in a very German household. The plan was to meet up with my Dad, who had flown in from Ireland, and meet him at a train station in a different part of the city. I had started my journey at dawn in a dusty city in Southern Africa, and now it was nightfall in Germany. The plane ride in between had given me plenty of time to think about how much I was looking forward to being on home-away-from-home turf.

Bundled into my new blue peacoat (thanks for bring it all the way to Africa for me, Mom!) I stepped out of the airport onto the train platform. I breathed in the cool crisp December air. It was night and the platform was cheerfully illuminated. I felt an internal shift as my body came to some sort of a settling point. I think in some way, some part of me that I wasn’t even aware of had relaxed for the first time since July. I had loved Botswana, but I also loved that I could find my way to a ticket booth and purchase a train ticket with ease. I loved that the train platform felt friendly and familiar. I loved my new jacket. I love the anticipation of adventure in another country.

I sat down on a bench to wait for my train. With a thrill of delight I realized that I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that not only would my train actually arrive but that it would arrive on time. One thing about Bots- the country and everything in it runs on it’s own time. I had longed for German precision and now I was in it’s beating heart: the railway system. A young woman approached me and asked me something in rapid German. I didn’t follow it, so I shook my head and said, “I’m sorry”. She blinked in surprise, and then replied in English,

“Oh, no problem!”

Being mistaken for a German citizen was just about the most exciting thing that could have happened. I smiled to myself and settled into my jacket against the chill air. I was looking forward to reuniting with my Dad and celebrating with good German beer. Sometimes it is just nice to fit in again.

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The Big Africa Blog

Oh boy. This post is a doozy. While on a strange internet adventure it occurred to me that I have not shared one of my largest writing achievements: my Africa blog. I faithfully recorded my study abroad semester in 2011 in which I spent the latter half of the year in Botswana, Africa, attending University of Botswana. There’s a lot of content, and some of it is in rough shape. Full disclosure- I haven’t read it all the way through in years. But I love it just the same.

Here is the link.

It pretty much covers life for a twenty one year old college student far from home. I had the most glorious hands on experiences with the animals I had always dreamed about (see the cheetah above?). I helped raise an orphan vervet monkey in my spare time. I had days when I couldn’t even deal with leaving my dorm room, let alone getting good grades in classes that sometimes weren’t in English. I had a lovely host family for a week. I swam with a whale shark in the Indian Ocean. I cuddled dogs (against my host family’s wishes). I observed the sun setting over the Okavango Delta and knew that I would never see a sunset more beautiful again. I sang the Fresh Prince of Bel Air song to foreign students around a campfire somewhere in the Kalahari. I cut class so that I could watch ‘Wishbone’ when I felt really homesick. I didn’t see a single meerkat, but I did watch a herd of elephants walk around the vehicle I was in. Who doesn’t want to run through a darkened fish market in Maputo, dodging huge rats? Who doesn’t want to drive through South Africa in the dead of night, fearing annihilation via hitting a wild zebra on the road?

Yeah, there’s a heap of content there. So follow the link above, feel free to skip around, or even just look at the pictures. This blog is far from neat or clean, but it is a heartfelt account of the time I lived so very far from everything that I knew and everything that was familiar. I can remember feeling drained as I tried to recount the things going on around me, but I am so glad that I pushed myself to do it anyway. It’s time I give myself a little credit and go back to see what I put down there.

How My Time in Botswana Helped Me Find Roller Derby

It’s kind of a cliche that travelling or doing a study abroad trip help you to “find yourself”.  Don’t get me wrong, they often do.  This post is not about some cathartic moment out in the African bush being surrounded by elephants and figuring life out.  (If you want to read about that, you better hope that my submission for a travel writing scholarship gets picked- then you can read allll about those kind of moments).  

This is about how my friend Diana came over to my dorm room and innocently asked if I wanted to watch a movie that she liked.  Since Diana is one of the coolest people on the planet I said sure.  The movie was Whip It and it’s all about a girl in rural Texas who stumbles across the sport of roller derby when it was in the beginning of it’s modern day incarnation in Austin.  The movie is directed by Drew Barrymore, who also acts in it, and also features some people you might not expect to see out on the track, like Kristen Wiig (my personal hero), Eve, and Ellen Page.  

Anyhow, if you’ve seen it you know: it makes roller derby look reeeaaalll glamorous.  And the sport it glamorous, to some degree, in a sweaty-dyed hair-tattoos-and-glitter kinda way.  Modern day flat track derby doesn’t look like Whip It much, apart from the relationships between skates.  That is dead on.  I didn’t know any of this when I watched the movie though, so I fell in love with this broken bones kind of excitement for the whole rest of my stay in Botswana.  When I returned to the states I brooded over my new-found roller derby love.  In Bots, there is no opportunity for derby, or even just roller skating.  Suddenly back in Madison, WI there was an established league and a rec league waiting with open doors.  

Ah, Bots
Diana, her sister Maria, and her wonderful mother

Shit, bluff called, now I needed to act.  So I spent a summer learning to roller skate around my neighborhood on $7 used roller skates.  In the fall I joined up with the Mad Wreckin Dolls who taught me how to actually skate, how to fall safely, how throw a hit (appropriately), and how to take one.  I learned how to block and how to jam and I was even voted MVP jammer, a feat which is still my crowning athletic achievement.  

Wreckers!
#12 S.P. Arrow
That’s me as a jammer

I stopped skating eventually as life got busy and I began to value my free time more.  I still skated outdoors for fun on my Frankenstein outdoor skates built from various pieces of other skates.  Now here I am Denver, CO and the siren song of the track is calling.  Today I purchased my new WFTDA insurance- something required for all skaters- and I have all my gear ready to go.  I start skating again on Thursday.  Here we go, game on, cheers to a new adventure.

I have Diana, Botswana, and Drew Barrymore to thank for it.