Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Weekend Update (Aug 27-29)

This past weekend embodied all things Botswana: the prize cows and goats at the Botswana International Trade Fair, the 10km race that was actually 15km, the combi ride to the wrong side of town, and the Lucky Dube concert that went on until 6am. It was a big weekend for us Batswana.

First National Bank “10km” Running Race
Esther and I entered what was supposed to be a 10k running race on Saturday morning at Game City (a shopping center). As the race was advertised to start at 6am, we were there promptly at 5:45 and, as always, were the first ones to arrive. It mystified me how everyone else running somehow knew that the race wasn’t going to start until 6:45 and arrived right on time. And of course, the race started while Esther and I were in the loo. Although slightly discouraged at the missed start, we quickly recovered our optimism and ran with fervor. We were again slightly discouraged when the 10km race turned out to be a 15k race. One of the organizers pointed out to us as we were running that more people join if a race is advertised as a 10km... Nevertheless, we ran on and managed to each win a cooler, a water bottle, and a cap, and got our picture taken with the First National Bank mascot!

The Botswana International Trade Fair
Later that day, my Mom and I headed over to this week’s attraction, the Botswana International Trade Fair, where I believe everyone in Gaborone had gathered.

One of the prize winning cows:

The Lucky Dube Concert
The Daily News advertised that Lucky Dube, an older South African reggae star, was playing at the Blue Tree, and that tickets were being sold at the trade fair. There were no tickets to be found, but, unphased, Esther, Erin and I headed to the Blue Tree at 7pm. When we arrived, we were lucky to find tickets. There was a remarkable negotiation where we paid across a chicken wire fence, stuck our hands though the chicken wire to get them stamped, and then got an extra arm stamp for the car. When we asked what time the concert was starting one of the 15 guards replied, “Just now, just now”. So we headed inside and, as always, we were the first ones there. After relaxing for an hour or so with drinks, pap, and seswa (a boiled, shredded meat dish), we realized that despite our obstinate waiting, the concert was not going to start for us. We went home with big plans to return around 11pm, because then, surely, the concert would be in full swing. Sadly, despite our best intentions to rally, we all fell asleep, completely dressed. However, I did hear practically the entire concert from my bedroom between 3-6am. It was, in fact, terrific reggae music!

The Sunday excitement was a combi ride (a public transport minibus) for 2 Pula (50 cents) to the Broadhurst Mall. Chris and I mistakenly jumped onto combi number 5 instead of combi number 1, but the driver took pity on us and dropped us off at the right place. At the Broadhurst Mall I strangely felt that I was blending in better than usual among the Chinese street vendors, and had a pang of homesickness.

When I first arrived in Gaborone I thought it so odd when people strolling down the street turned to me, with big smiles, to say “Ni Hao”- apparently this means “hello” in Chinese. Being half Thai and half Belgian, I don’t think I look at all Chinese. But then again, I can’t tell the difference between a Kenyan and a Matswana (a person from Botswana).

A reader may think from my blog entries that I do no work, but my project team has in fact been making considerable strides. The study I’m working on is called “Tshedimoso” (pronounced tse-di-mo-so), which means “enlightenment” in Setswana- we truly have high expectations of our patients. The study is looking to enroll 100+ patients with acute (within 3 weeks) or recent (within 6 months) HIV infection. Patients will then be followed for 1 year with monthly blood draws, and their immune responses and viral diversity/evolution studied. Although there’s little incentive for patients to enroll, almost everyone who has qualified has enrolled. The study started about 10 months ago, but there are currently only 14 patients enrolled- acute/recent infections are just very difficult to identify. However, the new, larger Tshedimoso A-team (1 PI, 1 study physician, 2 nurses, 1 technician, 1 driver, and 4 Fogarty fellows) is set to “revive” this study, and our first and foremost job is to improve recruitment. So far, we’ve worked on advertising (posters, business cards, presentations, radio/newspaper ads etc), developing relationships with new recruitment sites, and concurrently the Fogarty fellows have been developing lab-based projects to analyze prospective samples. The work is sometimes slow, with long meetings, and meetings where no one shows up, but overall moving forward.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Sandboarding in Joburg (Aug 13-15)

Esther, Erin and I made a last minute decision to go to Joburg to visit Sudeb for a ‘southern Africa Stanford reunion’ weekend. On the road to South Africa, we were stopped at a speed trap for going 80km/hr in a 60km/hr zone (which we weren’t) and asked to pay 400 Rand (which we didn’t have). Together we scrounged up 100 Rand, which didn’t cover the bribe, but was apparently enough for a real ticket. So we were sent down to the local police station and paid our ticket to a stunned policeman who I’m sure hadn’t dealt with a ticket in years. He couldn’t find the receipt book, wasn’t sure where the stamps were, and took a long, long time to write it. Not surprisingly, the other three cars that were stopped never showed up at the police station.

In Joburg, we got lost at the airport and our friends had to come pick us up from there. Then we spent several hours in the NICD lab drinking tea and encouraging Sudeb to finish his PCRs. When we had had enough tea, we drove ourselves to a restaurant for dinner and were promptly turned away because of dress code (we did look like tourists from the bush). We finally had dinner at around 10pm in Sandton and then felt too tired to do anything other than go to bed- things would be better in the morning. And they were, slightly. We joined a group of people to go sandboarding in a mine dump in Benoni (a suburb just east of Joburg) which was terrific! How many people can say they’ve been sandboarding on a mine dump! This is best described as a post-apocalyptic adventure a la Mad Max (as coined by Erin). Thanks to Eleanor for organizing and inviting us. Given the amount of sand that we took back with us (I found sand in my ears two days later!), it was reassuring to know that they do check the levels of dangerous chemicals every six months.

Sudeb looking slick as usual!

Group Photo

Esther tearing up the slope

Shayne the official photographer

On the way home, we got completely lost in the dark and kept circling the Cradle of Humankind- it was like a mysterious magnetic force that wouldn’t let us out of it’s grasp. Erin also saw a flying impala, which was in fact a “giant ass bat”. When we finally neared Botswana, we missed the border crossing and had to find a B&B to stay at overnight. Esther was also feeling sick. Then we locked the keys in the car at a gas station in Zeerust. We were quite the town attraction for about 30 min, with everyone coming to give advice and rigging tools to open the doors. There were cheers when someone opened a window after breaking off the sun shield, and we were able to crawl into bed. We crossed the border early the next morning (with the only annoyance being the customs official asking Erin to marry him) to make it back in time for an 8am lab meeting. In retrospect, it was clearly a dangerous and imprudent situation, but all things considered, I was exceedingly proud of the way the three of us were able to handle adversity and laugh at the situation (albeit a little hysterically).

Friday, August 12, 2005

Running in Gaborone (Aug 12)

Running is possible in Gaborone, and fun! It's a little like cross-country running - avoiding combis, running in sand and dust, over broken sidewalks, getting lost. And except for the occasional speeding car, it’s been very safe. Chris (my Mom) is brave and goes running by herself at 5:30 in the morning! I don’t go until 6:15 when the first rays of sun come out. Apparently, though, there were several others out at 5:30. There was even a woman lying in the middle of the road - my mom first thought that she was injured and needed help, but it turned out that the woman was just doing her daily sit-ups in the middle of the road!

Gaborone City (Aug 11)

Alright, Governor, you wanted pictures, here are pictures!

BHP Entrance

A Field

Princess Marina Hospital Entrance

The Mall

Monday, August 08, 2005

Weekend Activities (Aug 6-7)

Otse Village: 45k south of Gaborone

Mokolodi Game Reserve: 15k south of Gaborone

I had my first Batswana braii on Saturday with many ex-pats and several locals, where we tasted the regional specialties of chakalaka, pap, and beef. It’s a little overwhelming to meet new people, in a new country, who are mostly ex-pats…but I maintain optimism.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Settling In (Aug 4)

Entertainment seems somewhat limited in Gaborone, but a popular hangout seems to be the Palm casino, where I learned the first rules of blackjack (always double on an 11, unless the dealer has an ace; 16 is bad). No bets yet though.

I’ve also joined the Active gym and have been going to this surreal spin class. We jive to techno Paul Simon music and do half the class in the dark - very surreal at 6am. I definitely stuck out as the white person who was not keeping rhythm (“relax your shoulders...left-right-left-right”).

I now own bedsheets! Erin and I have been going to the Old Naledi and Block 9 clinics (suburbs are called "blocks", "extensions" or "phases"...one is also called "New Canada") in the morning to learn about the patient recruitment process for the acute infection study, but also to have a chance to interact with people. We ventured to the Main Mall today and lunched with enormous portions of pap, samp, beef stew, curry chicken, and 3 types of veggies- for $1.50 each!

Arriving to Gaborone (Aug 1)

After dealing with airline strikes, a 12-hour layover in London, a lost boarding pass, belligerent passengers, and a 44 hr door-to-door travel time, it was an enormous relief to finally arrive at the (very small) Gaborone International Airport. Flying into the city, my first impression was that there were a lot of cows around the airport and not many buildings. Esther and Andy (my temporary roommates) let me park my bags in the apartment before driving me over to meet everyone at BHP and then to buy sheets and groceries- it was a relief to see a familiar Pick n’ Pay grocery store as well as a Woolworths! I have already received lots of advice on must see places and am planning all sorts of exciting trips- of course only after working long, hard hours. I was also surprised to find out how warm the winter is- it makes me wonder about the summer. This week will mostly be settling in, meeting people, and visiting the clinics before (hopefully) starting work next week.

Mountaineering on Mt.Shasta (July 23-24)

Right after flying back from D.C., Geoff and I drove to Mt.Shasta to join a mountaineering trip. The first day, we hiked for about 4 hours to camp at 9,000 feet. On Sunday, we woke up at 1am, started hiking at 2 am, and finally reached the plateau of Mt.Shasta at noon…never again…although the views and glissading down the ice actually did made the climb worthwhile. And we learned something about ice axes, crampons, and roped climbing. My favorite moment was baring my rear end to all the climbers, because there’s really nowhere to hide on a mountainside full of snow.