Since 1983, I’ve missed one summer of lifeguarding in Galveston. That summer I missed was because after college I took a job teaching on a one-year contract in Botswana, Africa, and traveled at the end of my contract for about nine months.
My teaching job was in a small mining community on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Even living in the desert, I thought a lot about when I’d get to return to Galveston and work on the beach and tried to stay in shape. At first I’d run on the cattle trails through the hilly, rocky terrain.
I ended up not doing too much of that for two reasons. One was that it was rude to pass an older person without running through some rather lengthy introductions, including asking how they woke up in the morning and telling them how you woke up (“I woke up nicely”).
The second was that there were a number of dangerous animals once you got out in the country, including lions, elephants, black and green mambas and several kinds of cobras. I resorted to jumping rope or running on my laundry in the bathtub to wash clothes.
Finally, I realized that my school, which was on the edge of the village, was near a sports club that had a weird, small, round swimming pool. The pool wasn’t very big, but I made friends with a man called Lux who would let me in when no one was in the pool so I could swim laps.
I think I figured out that it took 100 laps to make a mile, but it was better than having to stop every 5 minutes to chat or running into something life threatening. The only scary thing was this group of baboons would come down from a nearby hill and watch me and point at me like I was crazy.
Sometimes I’d go for the weekend to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, which was the nearest big city. It was a tough trip involving a money exchange with some women of the Shona ethnic group under this tree, a border crossing, and about four hours of hitchhiking. But a bunch of Peace Corps volunteers from the states would go to this campsite and I’d get my fill of American culture. There was also a really beautiful 50 meter public swimming pools near the campsite. That was pretty amazing.
Once at that pool a guy was swimming laps in the lane next to me. Ocean lifeguards can spot each other in various ways, but I knew he was a guard by the way he swam. He was looking up every few strokes and had a really distinctive open water stroke. He also stopped periodically and checked on this group of unaccompanied kids playing across the pool. Before I could say anything he stopped me and said, “Where do you guard?”
Turned out he was a guard in Florida who was traveling during his off time. Go figure!