“Which African country are you visiting this weekend?”
Nevertheless, faced with a dwindling number of weekends remaining, we’ve been motivated to squeeze in as much travel as possible. There’s still a lot on our bucket list: Namibia, Tanzania (can you climb Kilimanjaro in a weekend?), Mauritius, Mozambique, Garden Route, Lesotho … Where to go?
How about a small, landlocked kingdom known mostly for big rocks, witch doctors, polygamy and one of the world’s last absolute and most criticized monarchs? How about Swaziland?
Even better, why not make it a group outing?
Along for the 350km (217 mi.) road trip was fellow American and Fulbrighter, Ryan (sheRyan), and South African, Micah. Thanks to the scenery, the conversation and a lunch stop at a place called Wimpy in a town called Carolina (where Jenny proceeded to be “that girl” by ordering her fries “extra done, almost brown”), the drive was a cinch. Before we knew it, we were in the capital city, Mbabane, checking into our guesthouse, Ematjeni.
Except, that’s not entirely true. First, there was the whole issue of the border crossing. In Oshoek, on the South African side, we parked the car and went inside the border post to obtain departure stamps. The process didn’t take long, but as we each checked our passports, proud of another entry, we noticed that the immigration officer’s stamp was dated not for the current day, May 11, but for March 11. Somehow, instead of 2012-5-11, we all had 2012-3-11. As if we had left South Africa two months ago.
Should we say something? Is it better to risk the awkwardness of a doomed-from-the-start customer service encounter on this side, or a denial of entry on the other?
Resistance is futile. Press Your Luck. Back to the car! On to Swaziland!
Sure enough, on the Swazi side at Ngwenya, the highly disengaged immigration officer, after placing perfunctory stamps in two of our passports, finally realized that we did not have a recent departure stamp from South Africa. Fortunately, we were able to explain that her counterpart simply used a bad stamp. She rolled her eyes, put ink to rubber to paper, and waved us through.
We chuckled our way to the car, buckled in, and drove 15 feet to the final checkpoint, where a woman sitting on a stool, not in uniform of any kind, flagged us down.
“Where is your receipt?” she asked.
“What, receipt, mama?” I replied, showing respect for her age and position, assuming it was an official one.
“Road tax,” she said. “You were supposed to get it inside. Park over there, go in and pay 50 rands.”
“Uh, OK,” I said, confused. There were no signs or indications inside that a road tax was part of the deal.
I drove off the asphalt roadway onto a short, dirt path and parked on a rocky incline. While the rest of the crew waited, I grabbed a R100 bill and went back into the border post. There was a counter window with a small sign that read “ROAD TAX” to my left, so I hurried over to stand in the queue. Of course, it turned out that the people in the queue were trying to pay for something else, a baggage fee, so the ROAD TAX lady told them to move on. Suddenly, I was at the window.
I slid the R100 bill under the plexiglass. The woman behind the counter just looked at me. “For road tax,” I confirmed, as if she hadn’t just made it perfectly clear that road tax collection was her only job.
“Fifty or a hundred?” she asked.
My instructions were to pay R50, which is what I planned to do, but I found it odd that she would offer a choice. Wouldn’t most people choose the smaller amount? Wait, did she think I was driving a tractor-trailer? Do I have that look? Was the Official Deodorant of the Springboks failing me?
“Mmmm, fifty,” I said, confidently. She asked for the vehicle registration number, which I provided, then she provided the all-important receipt, and we were off.
Then, before long, we were at the guesthouse, enjoying a view of the mountains while sipping tea and eating chocolate cake with Nutella frosting. Swazi sweetness.
Later that night, we met up with our chomies Anna and Nellie, more smartypants Fulbrighters, for dinner at the pride of Mbabane: Malandela’s. Oh, and every other expat in Swaziland seemed to have the same idea. Did we avoid the 15-top table of Americans seated out on the patio? We can neither confirm nor deny.
The next day was meant to be an inspiring hike to the top of Sibebe Rock, a 3 billion-year-old granite dome that Lonely Planet ranks as the #2 thing to do in Mbabane. Most of the other things seem to involve eating. And, as it happens, most of the things we actually did that day involved eating, as well. Instead of hiking, we went … shopping.
Micah and I tried to retain our Dude Factor while the others wandered in and out of the shops at Ngwenya Village. After visits to and purchases at stores like Quazi Design and Gone Rural, we regrouped and bought chocolates. Our review: Amarula truffles, yes; super spicy chili sauce chocolate balls, no. (My fingers are getting heartburn just typing the words.)
Then, the day became completely African. Or, at least completely eSwatini.
First, we drove to the Finnish Embassy, not to ask them why their names have so many vowels, but to peruse the art gallery and gift shop within. Then, we went back to Malandela’s, or more precisely to the flagship Gone Rural store, adjacent to Malandela’s. Finally, and this is one of those things you have to see to believe, we went to dinner at a restaurant inside the Italian Consulate.
Yes, Casa Mia and the official representation of the government of Italy share the same address. At the consulate’s security gate, if you just tell the guard you’re coming for dinner, he will let you right in. We tried it. It worked.
The Consul General himself was our sommelier. His ex-wife was our waitress. Their homemade tagliatelle was amazing.
While carbo-loading at Casa Mia, we decided that the next morning, Sunday, would be better for a hike. With a long drive ahead, though, we opted not for the famous Sibebe, but a more relaxed trek around the mountains behind Brackenhill Lodge.
Then, faster than you could say, “Is that guy watching us pick ripe guavas from his orchard?” it was time to say goodbye to Swaziland, without so much as an audience with the king.
Next time, Mswati. Next time.