My quick trip to an obscure and beautiful kingdom.
Enter the Kingdom
The inception of my idea to visit Swaziland happened a few months ago, just after Halloween.
Our friends Raquel and Jesse came down to visit us in Eugene and spent a night. At some point over breakfast, we started talking about my upcoming trip to South Africa. The two of them had met each other over in that part of the world, which eventually led to them dating. In Swaziland, actually. At a children’s home.
I mentioned my plans to revisit a similar place I had volunteered at in Johannesburg three years earlier.
“Well, if you’re interested in visiting Swaziland while you’re there,” offered Jesse, “I have some contacts.
Actually, I didn’t think that trip would be too likely at first. My time in South Africa was going to be short… three weeks, and I knew from my past visit how slowly things moved over there. The prospect of shaving off some time to leave the country seemed unlikely. Then I started to reconsider. Despite being another country, Swaziland looked close to Johannesburg on a map. If I planned it well, a visit could be possible.
I figured that this would likely be my only chance to visit a totally new country to me in 2016. Superficial as it might be, I’ve seen at least one new country each year since 2010. I might not be able to keep that up forever, but I also wouldn’t mind putting off the end of that streak.
Plus, Swaziland would be my 39th country, and that would put me one away from the milestone mark of 40. Again, I know it’s superficial, but it’s fun. And speaking of superficial goals, I started to think that it might be fun to have visited all of South Africa’s neighbors within my lifetime. After all, I could already check off a couple countries, and over the years I’ve really come to love the region.
In the end, you make it there
I made Friday morning bus reservations to go from Johannesburg to Mbabane, Swaziland’s capital. And things started off wonderfully when the bus company never emailed me back, and I spent the whole morning wandering around the bus station to look for the office with no luck. I made reservations for a later bus, hoping that would go a lot better, but knowing that getting there would be a bit of an adventure.
On top of all that, I didn’t have an exact address for the place I was going in Swaziland. The orphanage didn’t have an actual address. What I had were instructions on how to take taxis to a small town called Ncesi where I could find a guesthouse for the night, until the next morning when I should go further up the “dirt road.” We were warned via email that arriving at night might not be the safest option.
Anyways… the bus showed up and I decided we would just have to wait and see what would happen on the Swaziland side of things. After all, I was told that this journey could take anywhere from four hours to seven and there was a big difference between arriving a bit after five, and arriving close to nine.
With me was my friend Cheri, who I’d been brainstorming with to make plans on how to further support kids who age out of orphanages and care centers across the region. I figured it would be worthwhile to see another center in a totally different setting.
The ride was gorgeous, going through a few South African small towns and mountainsides. I slept for about half of the way, and by the time I woke up Cheri had befriended one of the passengers next to us. Her name was Daisy and she ended up being the most helpful person we met in Swaziland. She invited us to spend the night at her place so we could just worry about making the trip to the orphanage in the morning. She worked for an international NGO and her place was beyond comfortable… definitely a different sort of setting than what I would’ve expected from Swaziland.
When we woke up and saw the journey we would have to make to get to the orphanage we were especially thankful to Daisy, who hooked us up with a driver to get to Ncesi. That drive took us about 45 minutes, through some really scenic mountain passes. We arrived in Ncesi and discovered why so few people had ever heard of the place… it was essentially three small stores and a row of taxis. We went in one of the stores and found it was almost empty of food. Just a few soft drinks, bread, peanut butter, and household products like toilet paper.
We got some drinks and waited for a driver to arrive from the center. We talked to a woman and her baby, and it turned out the woman helped take care of the store.
“Do you want this?” asked the woman, motioning to her baby.
“Hm?” we asked. “He’s adorable.”
“Yes, but he’s so hard to care for. That’s his dad and he does nothing. Do you want to take care of him? He’ll be a gift?” She motioned towards the man who was supposedly the kid’s dad. He was napping in front of the store.
“I think he’s your gift,” we replied.
I decided to pass no judgement, knowing that life in rural Swaziland was quite difficult and that she just might have been kidding. Before she left, she brought the baby to say goodbye to us, which may have been an indicator that it was mostly in jest.
We continued to sit and waited right by the “dirt road” and that turned out to be a good enough description. Ncesi was such a small town that there was no mistaking the dirt road.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from traveling to a place with no clear idea how I’m gonna get there, it’s that somehow, at the end of the day, you get there. Just like Matt Damon says in The Martian:
“If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”
Mbabane and Beyond
Swaziland is the sort of country that you don’t see too much of in the modern world.
Whenever I mentioned to my South African friends my plan for a side trip to Swaziland, they all seemed pretty interested in letting me know as much as they could about the king. My friend Max in particular gave me plenty of anecdotes about King Mswati III, the absolute ruler of Swaziland. It became apparent early on that the king has a reputation for polygamy. He’s currently at fifteen wives and counting, and in recent times has been criticized for taking a few teenage wives.
Swaziland is a pretty easy country to miss on the map. It’s a little bit smaller than the size of Delaware and is predominantly rural, agricultural, and mountainous. On a more technical note, it’s also one of the last remaining absolute monarchies in the world, the last one in Africa, and the last one that exists for reasons beyond religious ones.
While South Africa was being colonized, Swaziland was able to hang on to a lot more independence, so while tribal cultures and kingdoms were once the norm all across the region, Swaziland became the one piece of the map where it was able to survive into modern times.
Swaziland is a totally beautiful country, and when you talk to most people who have been there, they’ll mention mountains and nature reserves. What stands out even more than that is the reputation that the Swazi people have for being extremely courteous and helpful.
For a country more on the obscure side, there’s quite a lot for visitors to do in Swaziland. Of course it’s a matter of being able to afford the nice things Swaziland has to offer, which many Swazi people can’t. And the country happens to face a lot of social problems. Sadly, it has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS infections in the world, a high poverty rate, and one of the world’s shortest expectancies.
Of course all this stuff so far was either anecdotal or textbook information. I learned most of what I know about Swaziland from visiting myself.
My goodness this place is gorgeous
We made it to our final destination, the orphanage. It was at the top of a mountain with no name. The view right outside the guest house was of mountains beyond mountains, like the Arcade Fire song, further than anyone could see. We were on top of our own mountain, and the entire time it was hard to believe the view.
In spite of a drought that had been severely plaguing the country, the grass was extremely green and being grazed on by large, healthy cattle.
A rock sat right outside the house, and it just begged to be sat on for hours, offering in return an unbelievable panorama.
When I finally managed to get up from the rock, I went to go meet the kids. So much of it was familiar from when I first met the kiddos in South Africa. As I expected, the Swazi boys were shy initially, but it took only one round of hide and seek to break all the ice. They taught me their variation of the game, and we played for several hours.
They also took me to meet the pigs. Since Swaziland is so agricultural, pig rearing is a part of the education they get at the center. There must have been somewhere around thirty pigs at the place.
The days in Swaziland ran slow and long, and we got to go on a hike with the Swazi boys and a couple of volunteers from the UK. We went down narrow paths that wove through the tall brush grass, heeding the warning we read about black mambas.
We often found ourselves hiking right alongside large cattle to one side, and endless rolling mountains on the other. The sun kept everything nice and warm, but it never got too intense. The boys would stop and climb basically every single fruit tree, allowing us to stay under the shade while they went to fetch new fruits for us to try.
Throughout the rest of the day, we let things pass slowly… hanging with the Swazi boys and spending some time talking to Charmain, who had been running things at the center over the weekend.
The sun started to go down, slowly, as most things happen in Swaziland. I suspected that we would be in for a beautiful night.
I sat on the rock a little bit longer, and ultimately, I have no idea how long I was sitting there. I only know that by the time I got up, the sun was completely down and the sky was filled up with countless stars.