Thursday, January 19, 2006

My Own Little Private Botswana

It is currently 82 degrees Farenheit at Seretse Khama International Airport, which we all know serves the beautiful African nation of Botswana. More than a year ago now, when I first imagined a Fulbright Fellowship, I thought I might apply there. Not the airport, the country. You know: fewer applicants, better chance. I thought I could spend a year abroad in a pith helmet and khaki shorts, walk around in knee socks and learn to wax my mustache. I would take to using a cane, I told myself, and write an African novel in the tradition of Naipaul (Oh how I love In A Free State).

But then I came to my senses, came to the country best suited to me, artistically and personally, and now ... oh, how I long to be in Botswana, to be strolling the streets of Tshabong or Selebi-Phikwe, if only for the weekend. Because 82 degrees Farenheit, this is a magical number. 82 degrees F, 28 degrees C. In a word, warm.

In Kharkov, it is currently another word, and though that one is not fit to print in a family magazine, this one is: inhumane. If this were a gulag, the prisoners would have the day-off. The temperature used to have to drop to something like -31 degrees or something for the prisoners to win this rare reprieve, but even if today is only the forecasted low of -21, it feels like -32. Yahoo tells me so. Snow falling like we got all the snow for Kharkov and much of neighboring Belgorod too. Winds at 26 kilometers per hour, and all of it coming out of Siberia like some foreign oil minister's bad dream.

I've seen on the news how some villages in Russia have had weather that's dropped to -60. The radiators burst, the ice built up on the walls inside the homes, snowdrifts in the kitchen. They interviewed one lady in front of a bus. Even the looters aren't working, I'm sure.

Here, my radiators are humming along just fine, though I do long for a non-communal control of the heat. I'd like to crank it to eleven, turn my apartment into my own little private Botswana, eat a peach in my undershorts. But I must make do with either this city-wide or building-wide heat. Turned on in October, off in April or May, I suppose, and the temperature regulated by someone other than me the whole while. Used to be like this when I was in Germany, my birth country, but I only know such a thing from my parents, as I was barely sentient myself then, not even two years-old when we left.

I am wearing two pairs of thermal underwear, American and Norwegian. Two wool sweaters, a long-sleeve, and a wool thermal undershirt. Socks: two pair, one wool. I have never loved wool like I have loved wool this year.

I awoke this morning thinking of the birds. I'd seen them outside my window just the day before, when the first dusting of snow began to fall. Stupid birds, I thought. Why do you winter here? Botswana, I thought to tell them. Winter in the former British Protectorate of Bechuanaland. Fly out over the Kalihari Desert, see the salt plains of the Makgadakaki Pans.

But these birds couldn't be so stupid, and so I got to wondering where they spent their summers if they were wintering here. The Ice Continent? Greenland? If not very stupid, these birds were stronger than any I've known, refugees from the horrors of Deepest Antarctica or some other floating glacial island that carries on it little more than a few twigs for a small and shabby home in the arms of a bare, two-pronged tree.

This morning, the birds were gone. Saw only one black crow, who swooped down in front of my window as if directed by the hand of Ingmar Bergman. A friend in the states had emailed me about a recent trip she'd taken during winter break. After swimming in the Indian Ocean one morning, she returned to find a kangaroo sitting in front of her tent. A kangaroo, I thought. This was the symbol of a decadent life. A kangaroo wouldn't last ten minutes in Kharkov. A pouch? What do you need with a pouch? Down fur, that's what you should have. Feathers at least. Go talk to the birds.

The trams aren't working today, the snow piled up too high. More of this forecast for days, as far as the extended forecast extends. If there weren't contact with the outside world, the internet and TV, I too could believe in The End Times, that this was all a portent, a sign, that we had sinned and this was our punishment.

But in the modern world, even in coldest winter, I'm more enlightened. Somewhere, I know, somewhere ... Botswana.


katrina said...

What an incredible experience that must be. And the snow must be beautiful.
When my husband went to Moscow a few years ago he said it was bitter cold and snowing in April.
I hope you have long underwear.

WittyName32 said...

Hey, Kat -- yeah, quite an experience. I got out in it for a few hours today - to buy another blanket. When I got home -- and just before I had to go out again -- the zipper on my winter jacket broke. The one with the down fur. I felt like a kangaroo as I stepped out the door. What'm I doing with this pouch?