A Day in Swaziland

Trip Start Jun 18, 2010
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Trip End Jul 31, 2011


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Swaziland Backpackers

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

We had planned to spend four nights in Swaziland, to get to know this tiny country wedged between South Africa and Mozambique. All we knew about Swaziland was that it is one of the last real monarchies in the world, it has a very unique and interesting culture, and it has one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in Africa.  Interesting facts, but we wanted to learn more.

Unfortunately, four nights in Swaziland turned into just one full day.  Somehow, we mixed up the days that the bus gets into Swaziland from South Africa, and had to arrive a day later.  Then, Expedia pushed back the flight that we booked to get back to Johannesburg by a few hours.  The new flight wouldn't work, because we would miss our connection to Thailand.  So, after a few frustrating phone calls to South African airlines, our only option was to fly back to Johannesburg a day early.

Determined to make the most of it, we arrived at Swaziland Backpackers in the Ezulwini valley late on the 27th.  We joined other guests and the staff for a braai (barbeque).  The grilled chicken and sausage tasted so good after our plain and boring canned meals in Kruger.  We met some interesting travelers.  One couple was biking around the world for 3-4 years.  I guess you won’t get out of shape if you travel that way.  Amazing.  We also watched the hostel manager do fire poi (swinging around balls of fire attached to strings) and play the Australian didgeridoo (spelling?).  Between fire ball sessions, the manager managed to call a friend who could give us a tour of Swaziland the next day. 

At 9 am the next morning, we met our guide, whose name sounded something like Dimswani.  He was wearing a long, colorful skirt, the skin of an African wild cat as a loincloth, and a Nike jacket.  With our guide and two girls from the Netherlands, we hopped onto a minivan (or kombi), the preferred method of public transport.

The first stop of the tour was the craft market in the city of Manzini.  Suddenly, we realized we were back in Africa.  South Africa was so developed; it felt like the U.S. with lions and leopards.  But, Manzini brought us back to the intensity and adventure of Africa that we fell in love with on the Oasis overland trip.  We crammed on the minivan, squishing four people into a row of seats built for two.  We stepped off the minivan, already sweaty and disheveled and into a chaotic mass of people.  Men shouted destinations where there vans were going, and women carried babies on their backs.  Smells – both really good and really bad – overwhelmed us.  Suddenly, life was lived out loud again.  We walked past tiny stands selling plastic bags of drinking water, fruit, candies, cell phone credit, cell phone parts, tennis shoes, and who knows what else.  Our guide led us through the city and to local foodstalls, where we tried sour porridge for breakfast.  The porridge was made from sorghum and it tasted okay, but it was difficult to eat of lot of it. 

We took in the beautiful jewelry, paintings, carvings, and other crafts at the market.  We were surprised to see a lot of cat furs with spots on them.  After just coming from Kruger, it made us sad.  So many cats are endangered, that this didn’t seem completely legal.  Lew tried to ask the guide about it, but he just explained that it is part of traditional Swazi attire and didn’t want to say much else. 

After another minibus trip, we were at Swazi candles.  It seemed strange that our guide would choose to take us to a candle shop on our one day tour of Swaziland.  But when we got inside, we understood.  Walking into Swazi candles is like entering another world, maybe a Dr. Suess book.  The shop holds thousands of candles in every shape and color.  We looked at bright tie-dyed spheres, psychedelic hippos painted with rainbow flowers, and turtles with zebra stripes.  The colors were so bright and fun, but we didn’t wind up buying any candles.  They were all just too beautiful to burn!

We took another minibus and got off in front of a non-descript row of shops.  We walked behind the shops and up a hill onto a road.  And then we kept walking.  We turned onto a dirt road.  And then we kept walking.  We walked and walked for what seemed like a very long time.  Eventually, we finally reached Mantenga National Park.  We paid the entrance fee and were prepared to walk another kilometer until a park employee offered to give us a lift.  We were finally at the Swazi culture village.

Before seeing some culture, we needed lunch.  It was already 2 pm, and we were really hungry after the unexpected hour-long hike up a mountain.  We had a fantastic buffet at the park’s restaurant that overlooked the river.  We tried to make conversation with the two girls on the tour with us as we devoured chicken, salad, sweet potatoes, pap, rice, spinach, a few unidentified items, cake, custard, and fruit salad.

Stuffed, we slowly made our way to the traditional dance stage.  The singing, dancing, and drumming was out of this world.  Swazi dance is powerful and involves a lot of warrior-like moves where legs are kicked up and over the dancers’ heads.  An old medicine man appeared and seemed to be calling all sorts of spirits with his weird and wonderful dance.  Lew was pulled down from our seat to learn some moves with one of the women.

The tour of the traditional Swazi village was the most interesting part of the day.  Traditional culture is still really, really important to modern-day Swazis.  During our minivan trips, we saw a lot of men wearing traditional attire (including animal skin loincloths) rather than Western shirts and pants.  Traditionally, each family lives in a compound made up of beehive thatch huts and surrounded by fences made of sticks.  The man is the ruler of the compound, but his mother is the most important.  The man usually has more than one wife.  (Even today, polygamy is big in Swaziland.  The king has over ten wives).  Each wife has her own little section where she cooks and makes beer.  The man alternates between wives and even had a hut where he can take new girlfriends.  If he brings a new girlfriend home, the wives cook them food and clean their hut.  Another interesting fact:  woman aren’t allowed to eat cow tongues because they’ll talk too much, can’t eat cow brains because they’ll become smarter than the man, and can’t eat pigs feet because they’ll walk away.  Yeah, we’re not moving to Swaziland.

After the tour, we hiked up the road with our guide to see a nice waterfall.  Luckily, we got a ride to the bus stop from one of the park rangers.  One last minibus ride and we were back to our hostel.  It was a long, fun, and tiring day, and we definitely saw as much of Swaziland as we possibly could on our short trip.  We learned a lot from our local guide and got to see real Swazi life while we traveled around on the minibuses. It was so nice to spend some time in Swaziland, to say goodbye to Africa before we left for good.

The next morning, we caught a flight to Johannesburg.  At the small airport, we met a girl from New York City who had been volunteering at an AIDS clinic in Swaziland for six months.  She told us about the work she was doing and how it was so frustrating.  Swaziland is known for their culture but it seems that the culture is what is slowly killing the country.  The stigmatism associated with AIDS makes them not want to get tested and the polygamy advocates people to have multiple partners.  This combination puts the AIDS rate at close to 50% in Swaziland (500,000 people have AIDS in the country)!  It was comforting that people from America are helping.
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