The story of my travels to Eswatini are difficult to recount for two reasons. Primarily, I fear that the story will be considered in some way that makes me seem foolish or rash. However, I also struggle to tell the story of Eswatini, formerly Swaziland, because I don’t quite recall the finer points. May admissions boards and future bosses gloss over this story or else miss it entirely in this unwieldy archive of a half-Gap Year’s education.
It starts on a Kombi from Johannesburg, from which I disembark early to try Nando’s Chicken. For those as unaware as I was about this chain, Nando’s is a South African-based Portuguese fast food chicken restaurant immensely popular among the English. As an American, it goes without saying that I knew not of the appeal prior to consorting with the English over the last six months. I walk in and order chicken wings in a hot sauce, along with potatoes in Peri Peri béarnaise sauce. The meal is a mixture of foreign and domestic that I have come to know perfectly summarizes the Portuguese palate. My intercontinental intrigue is replaced with deep satisfaction as I dig into my meal. I am a mess when I am finished, and eagerly wipe my fingers on the provided napkins at both my table and the next. Swaziland’s first meal puts a smile on my face.
Lost In Eswatini
Like any drifter, I’ve learned to not let the challenges of life bring down the simple pleasures of the road. I stroll away from the restaurant with a smile, even though dusk approaches and I haven’t a clue of where to find my bed for the night. And, I get no internet and no reception on this small country, which I will soon learn has only one sluggish internet provider. Restaurants don’t offer WiFi. Neither will my Airbnb, which I booked the night before. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Thankfully, I have a strange recollection of my booked property being on a certain diagonal street across from a golf course. I make that my destination, using the half-loaded Google Map which somehow lies saved on my phone. When I arrive, unsurprisingly, I find nothing but the aforementioned golf course where Eswatis are driving and putting on this warm fall afternoon. I should mention that I am not alone in this country. I have a friend from here (see my writings on Barcelona and Andorra for the backstory) whom I suppose I could call in an emergency, though she lives several towns away and I have no desire to bother her. Instead, I bother a few bartenders preparing for their dinner rush for a WiFi password, and I am able to locate my Airbnb-dot and read the description. Unfortunately, there is no address, but I manage to download a photo in hopes that I’ll simply recognize the property strolling down the road. I will not be able to, but lack of address makes this lead one of my strongest.
The downloaded map-dot takes me to a preschool by a high school at the bottom of a hill. I’ve hit a dead end. Not literally--I am actually on one of the largest thru-streets in Mbabane--but that’s beside the point. I see a young man exiting the preschool and inquire as to the location of my photographed Airbnb. He doesn’t recognize it, but thinks he knows of a guesthouse a block north and will happily take me there. I express my gratitude as we walk. He is in high school, and we struggle to construct a durable conversation. Instead we give one another one- and two-word answers until the guesthouse comes into view. A group of drunk men on a curb yell at us, and invite my new friend to introduce me. He smiles awkwardly and tells them he can’t.
“Those friends of yours?” I ask.
“That’s my teacher.”
The guesthouse is a bust and as the sun gets a little too close to the horizon our only option is to apprehend the corner-drunks for directions. They are friendly, courteous, and kind. Scout’s Honor. The teacher, who seems the most sober, agrees to call the Airbnb and get directions for me. I sense that none of these beer-swillers has a single bad bone in their bodies and I easily put my faith into Mr. M who negotiates with the property owner for ten minutes before he gets a sound address. When the high school student tries to sneak away, he is reprimanded for being rude, though I tell him repeatedly he can leave, hopefully saving the full embarrassment of a weekend run-in with his high school teacher. I sit on a cement slab with some of the guys, endlessly pleased at how well these first couple of Eswati hours have turned out.
“I ‘ave Victah right he-ah! We ah jus' trying to fin’ ya plehce!” Mr. M howls, as if he has engaged in some kind of reverse hostage situation where he is trying to get rid of the strange white boy in exchange for peace of mind and resumed libations.
Patrick, Airbnb host, is not having it. The exchange lasts several minutes until trust is mutually assured and Patrick shares the address.
“‘'Awp in mah cah!” Mr. M tells me.
In the car I learn two very important things: A) Mr. M teaches economics at the local high school, and B) Mr. M is much drunker than I thought. We swerve the entire block to the Airbnb, going no more than fifteen intoxicated miles an hour until we reach the gate. Patrick, and his wife Flavia, are waiting for me nervously. They are Ugandan by birth, but Eswati by naturalization. I will learn that Patrick is a doctor specializing in HIV and AIDS treatment. His career and money are apparent enough by his vest and rigid posture. I, the incredibly willing hostage, am handed over and we all shake hands and introduce ourselves.
“I can tell, you ah a good pehson. An’ Victah will be sef in yah hans,” Mr. M slurs. “Remembah: Human trafficking is punishable by LAW in Swazilan’!”
Patrick and his wife are one part amused, and three parts worried, but we all continue to shake hands nervously as if extra finger-contact will make the drunk man trust the suspiciously proper Ugandan couple. Or else make them trust the drunk man who drove up from nowhere and began discussing the legality of human trafficking unprompted. I am trying my best not to curl up in the corner and start laughing until my lungs come loose. Finally, we all exchange numbers for no reason other than this rapidly-precipitated distrust, and Mr. M eventually pulls away. I slip him some South African Rand, and he smiles appreciatively, if not hazily.
“Is that person your friend?” Patrick asks.
“Nope. Just met him. He gave me a lift” I reply, beaming.
Patrick and his wife Flavia are not nearly as amused as I am, that’s for sure.
I am one of the first to stay at this brand-new Airbnb which has no WiFi, no other guests, and apparently no formal address either. I tell Patrick he should really post the real location so this doesn’t happen every time a customer visits his place. He seems taken aback that the guy who just got a ride from a totally intoxicated stranger has criticism for his new investment property, but acknowledges that he’ll get on it. I assure him that as a Google User and Local Guide, I will even put his place on Google Maps. He smiles and accepts my critique more readily, now that I’ve done my part to rectify the situation. He assures me that--when I return to Swaziland--there will be WiFi.
Any football foodie or Superbowl Party wallflower knows that chicken wings are far from filling, and this residential neighborhood seems to offer few dinner options for me. Fortunately, Patrick, Flavia, and their tiny daughter are headed to the supermarket and offer to drive me there to purchase some food. I never get a chance to, however, because I come across Mr. M and one of his friends in the parking lot, on a beer run.
“VICTAH!” Mr. M shouts.
“Long time no see; how’s it going?” I reply, cooler than you would ever think me capable, I assure you.
The tension on my hosts’ side is palpable as my new best friend sways and yells in front of the nice family and their young daughter. I offer to buy a six-pack for my new friends, if only to save Patrick et. al. from the embarrassment of another interaction with Mr. M.
At the liquor store, Mr. M is the least popular figure, as he yells and makes everyone visibly uncomfortable. I decide that I will spend the evening with this man and his clique, curious what a group of high school teachers get up to on a Saturday-night curb gathering. As it turns out, the Economics professor talks economics, the math teacher counts beer cans, and the English teacher sits pensively in the corner, lost in thought, as their mutual farmer friends talk subsidies and Swazi politics with me. I can’t remember the consensus, but I’m sure everyone agreed the Eswatini government was doing something wrong.
As the crowd slowly pickles, Mr. M assures me that he will not be the one to drive me home. He will “tek me to his home. Intraduce mhe to [his] waf...an’ chil’ren.” I agree to the terms and when Economic Thought grows thin and Mr. M grows homesick we hop into his car and climb the hill to his on-campus home. This after quickly dropping off a friend who lives on the other side of town, but would rather be dropped off at a bar a few blocks from his place. I should have walked. I meet more Eswatis there, though, including a cop who seems to be real good friends with Mr. M.
“I tehch his daughtah,” he explains as we pull from the bar. It is only now I notice the dozens of empty beer cans around my feet.
“At least we have a cop on our side” I think.
At home I meet Mrs. M, and the two children of the M clan, plus a niece who is staying over. The energy in the room is the opposite of the liquor store. As we watch local soap operas, which I cannot understand, love fills the air. I have been invited into their home, and their beautiful faces look at me as if I am the newest addition to the family. I am indistinguishable from them, aside from my alien skin color, as we sit down for dinner of meat and pap, or maize porridge. Before long we are finished, and it is time for the Mrs. to give me a smooth ride home, only occasionally catching the gas pedal on empty cans of Sibebe.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.