Tag Archives: Swaziland

The Scenic Road

Ingrid got put to the test on our way out of Swaziland. Instead of following the suggested directions, as given by our travel agent and google map, Dad decided that the quickest way to our destination was over the mountain – which I think we all know, is never the quickest way.

Up, up and upppppppp went.  Hours later, after driving over unpaved, rocky mud roads used solely by logging trucks,  we finally passed through Bulembu, an eerily quiet, pitiful mining town on the border with South Africa. At the itty bitty border cross the lonely control guard showed us her crochet work.

It was all so surreal – this random road we picked, the wide eyed stares as we passed in a red, two door Ingrid. Finally at the isolated border, I heard a German man in the other line say, “I’d like to enter Swaziland.” Without any hesitation the border control says, “NO.” (She waits a few seconds until the awkwardness is palpable, then says in a slow easy manner)…. “I’m Kidding!

With that and the crochet still sitting on the counter, I lost it. I got the giggles and had to walk outside. Funny how months later this memory seems to encompass the whole series of ridiculous moments that had culminated  that day. 

Anyway,  the point is that Ingrid served us well and made it through the mountain challenge out of Swaziland and back into South Africa. 


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Finding Advice & Arts in Swazi

In Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland, we walked around the old “mall” commenting on how some things were exactly the same and how other buildings had really been built up.  Jokingly my dad mentioned that we ought to just find a Peace Corps volunteer and ask for some advice and… HAZZAH!

 As if the universe was listening, we spotted what looked like a young American. After enthusiastic introductions, Connor drew us a little map and pointed us in the right direction to where we could meet the current country director and new trainees.

If only all diplomacy was so forthright, friendly and generous.

So we drove north past Pigg’s Peak to meet the new PC country director and a bunch of new volunteers who were midway through their in-country training. I think it really meant a lot to my dad to meet the new staff and share some of his experiences from twenty years past. Everyone got a kick out of the randomness of the reunion, and it was actually really fun.

With quality nostalgia under our belts, we continued on. Our next stop was at the weaving studio of Coral Stephens Handweaving. We toured the workshops, got to see products on the loom and meet some of the weavers.

For me, with a degree in fabric and textiles and a real love for African arts, this stop was perfect. Swaziland’s rich history of traditional arts full of basket weaving and textiles makes my heart pitter patter with joy. 


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Revisiting Swaziland

I wrote earlier about my return to Swaziland during the Bushfire Music Festival in May. My first trip back was fantastic, and I was excited to get to return with my parents. I looked forward to hearing their stories and perspective on how things have or haven’t changed. Moreover, if there’s one thing that’s fun about revisiting places with your parents as an adult – it’s hearing the less edited versions of stories.

Several years ago, on a long road trip with my father, I remember rehearing lots of tales that I hadn’t heard since I was a kid. So while most of the anecdotes were familiar, all the sudden they had a few more honest and scandalous details. (Of course that’s what you were doing/smoking in Amsterdam in 1967.)

Anyway, we loaded up Ingrid and hit the road. Our first few nights, we stayed at Riley’s Rock Lodge in the Milwane Wildlife Sanctuary. (Same game park from May, just better digs.)

The lodge is an old stone house that has been refurbished as a little hotel. It has a great view of the Swazi mountains, beautiful gardens, birds, bees, bush babies, and extra friendly staff. 

During the day we returned to some of our old stomping grounds. We found our house that went down the mountain. We even visited with current residents and their kids. Of course it looks a little smaller than I remember, but not too different. 

Now this was really a blast from the past! The hot springs pool is no more or less rundown than it did when I was 6.

At night we sat around a big bonfire and ate dinner with the other guests. You are sure to meet a variety interesting international visitors when traveling in Africa, particularly in Swaziland, since it’s definitely off the beaten path. 

I didn’t get any particularly juicy details from my parents’ expat life, but nevertheless it was enjoyable and interesting to hear stories of working in southern Africa at the end of apartheid and during the release and subsequent election of Mandela in neighboring South Africa. 

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Chapa vs. Kumbi

One of the most striking details that I noticed while in Swaziland was the distinct sense of personal space and propriety.  One situation that struck me as particularly clear example of this was the bus system.

In all the African countries I have traveled in, the most common and affordable way to get around is to take a “bus” – bus means a big van that follows a route, and picks up anyone on the street going more or less the same way.  In Mozambique this sort of transportation is called a chapa (pronounced shah-pah), in Ghana it’s called a tro-tro, and in Swaziland it’s called a kumbi.

Chapas in Mozambique (and for that matter in South Africa and Ghana) get  filled to the brim with up to 24 people, basically as many passengers and boxes that can possible squeeze into the car. The door man will hang out of an open sliding door, clinging to the closest person and roof. Each time someone gets out the rest of the row either has to move out quickly and hop back in, or the cornered passenger literally craws over a row of passengers to exit.

(click for bigger image)

In Swaziland however, it was like being on a different planet. Courtney, Sarah and I sat there in shock and loving all the extra wiggle room as strictly 12 to 14 people got on. 3 people per row and no squeezing! Perhaps not quite the same adrenaline rush as the fear of missing your exit or drop off, but totally impressive nonetheless. 


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Part III: a homecoming of sorts

I assume that most of you reading this are friends and relatives, though maybe not all, so I’ll go ahead and tell you that I lived in Swaziland as a child for several years.  I  think that was probably one of the most influential periods of my life; it certainly inspired a lifelong affinity for Africa and a real love of travel.  After 18 years of being away, I finally had the opportunity to return to the mountainous Kingdom of Swaziland.

Even at the border there is a clear difference between these two African nations.  Crossing from Namacha in southern Moz over to Lomacha in Swazi, was rather like a breath of fresh air. The roads are paved, there is less litter, the buildings are better maintained, people sport traditional garb, and English is spoken.   I am not saying that Mozambique is worse for it, (well, maybe I am) but it was sudden opportunity to re-acknowledge the stark  deficiency  in infrastructure and development that heavily weigh on Mozambique’s shoulders.

But OH Swaziland!!! It was more beautiful and magical than I even expected.  I felt an instant sense of being in more familiar territory.  The landscape is dramatic – sweeping grassy mountains, foggy mornings and fields of  organized agriculture.  I remember several years back when I moved to Sonoma, California thinking that the landscape there really reminded me of Swaziland and Kwa-Zulu Natal. But now returning to Swaziland as an adult, I kept thinking that it reminded me of the striking Sonoma terrain (with a few more exotic animals thrown into the mix).

And so it was through this great surreal landscape that we made our way to the festivities. Christopher, Courtney and I loaded once again into a series of chapas, busses and finally hitchhiked our way to our next locale.

We met up with 10 other Peace Corps girls and their friends at the Sondzela Backpackers Lodge located in the Milweni Nature Reserve.  Our house was surrounded by free roaming wildlife – zebras, warthogs, impalas, springbucks, and one particularly well-mannered ostrich called Eeeshhh.

Then we made our way to the Bushfire International Music Festival, and basically spent the next 3 days dancing and having a great time.


One thing that I really love and miss about Swaziland and parts of South Africa, is that people just walk around wearing a mix of western clothing and traditional garb. Not every one, but it’s certainly not out of the ordinary to see it.

The men in particular get to wear a dashing combination of fur head bands, patriotic fabric, leopard hide loincloths, beads, and sheep fluff. (I obviously don’t know the proper names for the parts of the costume.) Like all good fashion, it gets mixed up depending on the person and event, but it’s pretty awesome. 

The festival was a multi cultural mix – with lots of focus on traditional Swazi music, arts and crafts. There were two stages, but the main one featured an array of different styles of Afro-jazz, pop, and gospel.  Though none of us knew any of the bands, it certainly didn’t stop us from participating. Some of the highlights included the band Freshly Ground, the African goddess/singer Lira, and the funk-gospel band Ringo.

I got several funny though memorable comments while I was cuttin’ a rug.  One went like this:

African man next to me: Are you Swazi?

Me: I just smile, furrow my eyebrows and don’t say anything.

African Man: You must be, because you certainly don’t dance like a Mulungu!!!

HAH! I laughed and smiled even more. I’m not exactly sure what he meant but I think it was in reference to how into-it we were getting. I wasn’t trying to dance like an African woman and I’m not naturally blessed with “Zulu booty” but still I took it as a compliment. Thanks?!

After three days of non stop dancing, story telling, people watching, nature walks, cold weather, rain, fog, mulled wine and lots of laughter – it was time to head back home. Christopher made his way back to Johannesburg to catch his flight and I started my 2 day journey back to Vilankulo. 


I’m so happy that I got to share the experience of going back to Swaziland with Christopher. I have been waiting to return for years, probably since I left when I was seven, so part of me was nervous that the experience would shatter some of the idealistic memories I held from my youth. Needless to say, it was a really important trip for me and in many ways felt like a homecoming. I don’t know if I told him enough, but I was so grateful to have my friend there from home to validate and share the experience with. Every stop along the way, from Vilankulo to Bushfire was memorable. It was a trip of a lifetime.


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