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Updates from Africa 12

Updates from Africa 12

So we’ve been consistently on the road for the last couple days and we’re now settled in Cape Town.  I’ll give a brief account of what happened in the past two days.

On the morning of the second we caught our shuttle with Michael to Windhoek. It was the typical 5-hour drive, nothing very eventful.  We stopped at the same rest stop for biltong (basically jerky) on the way.  We rode back with the Second Girls.  We arrived early enough to do some shopping, especially for luggage, and Codrin wanted to look at some masks at a mall we had been to.  The shopping mall, where our favorite Mugg & Bean is, turned out to be where we saw the strangest sight we’ve seen so far: A group of native Namiba women, bare breasted, lathered in orange makeup, replete with traditional jewelry and with their babies wrapped around the nape of their backs, walking through the shopping mall with plastic shopping bags.  We ate at Mugg & Bean, and then Ioana went off back to the hostel and Codrin and I went to the casino to play some more blackjack.

That night the plan was to go to dinner at a Cameroon restaurant but we ended up lounging around the hostel until everything was closed so we just drank a bit and went to bed.  In the morning Michael picked us up to go to the airport.  The Windhoek airport is a charming airport in the middle of the shrublands.  There is nothing in sight of the airport, and it takes 30 minutes to get there from Windhoek.  We had some trouble with our bags; we were 30kg overweight between the three of us and had to pay a lot to get our bags onboard.  The bureaucracy was terrible, which was surprising considering we haven’t really had any problems yet in that department.  We had to check our bags first, then go to a separate office and pay, get a receipt and go back to make sure our bags got on the plane, but the receipt printing took forever because the woman didn’t know the computer, and long story short we went through security 10 minutes before boarding.  But as it turns out, we ended up being the first people through the gate because we were rushing so much we didn’t realize we were slightly ahead of schedule.  As we were taking off, it occurred to me that I had never given Namibia a second thought, and Windhoek (let alone Swakopmund) was a place I had never heard about until we started planning this trip.  It makes me wonder how many other unknown, untapped jewels there are in the world for the interested traveller.

The flight to Joburg was uneventful.  We got back to Doris Street around 4 and the VIP Guesthouse was closed.  We called the number, and the cell phone, and no one picked up.  So we had a cab, three suitcases, three backpacks, three smaller backpacks and various other bags and we really couldn’t afford to wait there.  For whatever reason, even though we told Sarah we were coming that day, no one was there.  So we were again homeless in Johannesburg with our bags; more than we had the first time we knocked on the gate of the VIP Guesthouse three weeks ago.  We remembered there was another guesthouse down the street, so Codrin and Ioana watched the bags and I took the cab to Diamond Diggers Backpackers, where we found a room. One cab ride (and an extra 100 rand) later we got our bags into our new guesthouse, which was an enormous compound with a swimming pool, bar, jacuzzi and internet cafe.  They didn’t have a three-person room, but they had an empty suite for 8 which they gave for just the three of us.  Codrin went off to play poker at the casino, which is the only one we had found that had poker, and he had been itching to play all week.  Ioana and I called Renata, our waitress at Rodizzo’s three weeks ago, who had offered to take us out for drinks when we were back in town.  While we were waiting to be picked up, a woman approached us on the street and told us to be careful because there were black people in the neighborhood.  We thanked her politely and told her our ride was just coming.  Renata is apparently part of a very typical set of 18-24 year olds who live at home and still depend on their parents for rides, despite taking classes at the university.  So Renata’s father picked us up and dropped us off on the other side of town at a bar called Cool Runnings where we met up with Renata’s friends–about 20 of them–some of which go to University of Cape Town and whom we’ll be hanging out with when they go back to school in February.  The scene reminded me of how high schoolers get together; everyone has to go home by the end of the night, and no one lives on their own.  It really disorients social life, but it also prevents the sort of partying-til-you-pass-out mentality that accompanies any college campus in the United States.  We met some interesting kids at the bar; at the end of the night Ioana and I ended up paying for a bulk of our tab, which we were completely willing to do.  I have a copy of the receipt in my pocket; it is 71 items long.  But it was a fun, fun night.  We have some friends to call up and meet when we’re back in Johannesburg.

Ioana and I got back to the hostel around 2; Codrin came in at 4 in the morning announcing that he had one 10,000 rand playing poker. Apparently his 10-hour stint at the casino had been quite profitable. In the morning, we checked out and Codrin and I went back to the casino to play poker (I ended up playing blackjack for most of the time).  Ioana wanted to do some writing so she went to Nelson Mandela Square, which apparently is lovely and it’s something we’ll have to do when we go back.  Around 6 we took a shuttle to the airport, flew to Cape Town, and I’m here now in the dorm room with Codrin and we are officially “Settled in.”  We’ve met some people on the program but not all; everyone is quite tired from their 20-hour commutes and it makes me, for one, feel very relaxed that I’m already acclimated and “Africanized.”  Go figure.

This trip has been quite expectation-shattering and interesting.  I don’t really have a “conclusion” for this pseudo-journal I’ve been writing, because this really isn’t the end of anything.  The Cape Town program starts tomorrow, and I really don’t know what to expect, aside from the fact that it will be scholarly.  Hopefully the past couple weeks will give me a heightened perspective on the issues we will be studying, but only time will tell.

January 5, 2009Comments are DisabledRead More
Updates from Africa 11

Updates from Africa 11

So New Year’s was a blast.  We had a slow evening.  We went to the shopping mall and bought smoked game, potatoes, vegetables and spices, went back to the room and cooked a New Year’s feast for dinner.  We had a kitchen area in our room which we used–and abused.  When we were done there was a pileup of dirty dishes and leftover food that would make a garbage man weep.  We didn’t feel like cleaning that night, or the day after, so our room began to faintly smell like day-old potatoes and rotten cabbage.  The food was delicious though.

We got a ride to the Beach Bar around 9.  The Beach Bar is a year-round operation but their biggest party is New Year’s to which the entire population of Swakopmund swarms for a night of champagne, dancing, and bonfire.  I have mentioned that while we were travelling from Livingstone we had met several people along the way, including The Girls, The Second Girls (another pair with whom we took the shuttle to Walvis Bay a week ago), Aaron from Vancouver and Scott, Lindsay, Quentin and Desmond, the latter of which had to go back to Canada early because he’s a seventh grade teacher.  We never expected to find anyone we knew at this party, which covered 500 meters of beach, a picnic table area, the wraparound bar which could accomodate 200 patrons at once, and the dance floor where American techno and pop music boomed base tones relentlessly into a sweating, thumping, fleshy orgy of post-colonial white African hip hop culture.  As it turns out, we ran into the Second Girls twice, found Scott and Lindsay on the dance floor before Scott went off with Quentin to be his wingman, and most importantly we ran into Ginelle, who had served us at the Swakopmund Cafe the day before.  We found out from her that she only received $18 of the $60 tip we left her, which was probably part of the reason she had quit that day.  Ginelle is only 17 and applying to Universities this month, but it was interesting hearing, once again, the same talking points we heard in South Africa about the blacks and why they were bad and why the whites couldn’t get jobs, etc, etc. This time, though, I had to reconcile what we had learned from Herman about how much better Namibia is than South Africa with what Ginelle was saying, and ultimately I determined that the key difference between the white Namibian and the white South African is political; in Namibia, whites are not bothered being represented by an all-black government because they don’t see the political system as a racially divisible one.  Ginelle also enlightened us on a new race, the Coloreds, which are apparently non-whites who “Are basically white,” so they are distinct from blacks.  She listed a bunch of types of Coloreds, including Indians, who apparently “Act white” as well.  The whole thing is very confusing for me and I don’t know how I’ll be able to cope with this racial logic which saw its last major incarnation in American culture forty years ago.  This is apparently the post-colonial mind; especially from the side of the ex-colonizers. Although I don’t think it’s appropriate to label whites who live in Africa as ex-colonizers, because they’re just people and families living where opportunity took them.  I don’t think it’s fair to blame whites in Africa for the poverty gap, just like it’s not fair for whites to lash out at blacks for their recent post-apartheid misfortune.  I do feel for people like Ginelle who feels a real threat to her opportunity due to Affirmative Action and other policies enacted to combat the racial poverty gap.  Maybe all is needed is time for old wounds to heal, and it seems to me that Namibia is allowing the healing process to happen a lot easier than in South Africa.  As Ginelle called over a dark-skinned friend of hers from high school, to kiss her on the cheek and wish her a happy new year, I could only wonder what the charge of her generation will be if Namibia, and other ex-colonies in Africa, is to rise out of the economic and political consequences of colonialism.  I guess that’s what this study abroad program is going to be all about.

There was no countdown for the new year; instead, people checked their own cell phones and improvised one.  When the organizers of the party thought it was time (by our calculation they were a minute early), they lit a massive bonfire which had been prepared out of fruit cartons, tree branches and forklift pallets.  It was 2009.  We toasted our champagne with some new friends we met from Walvis Bay and brought in the new year, feeling the intense heat of the fire on our faces and looking at the bright orange flare, beyond which was a black ocean where the last remnants of 2008 were rotating slowly towards midnight.

We got back around 3 in the morning.  The next day, we slept in until 10, stayed in the room until 5 and went out at 8.  It was a completely unproductive day, but a needed rest.  Besides, everything was closed! We went to dinner at the Western Saloon, which served up a delicious line fish for our last meal in Swakopmund.  Ioana went to bed and Codrin and I played blackjack at the casino for a couple hours, finally turning in at 2.  In the morning, Michael picked us up at the guesthouse and we drove 5 hours back to Windhoek.  We bought two large suitcases in town, to carry our souvenirs.  We already have a new suitcase we bought a couple weeks ago.  We have so many masks we could start a store.

We’re excited for our return to Johannesburg and our reunion with Sara, her husband and Antonio.  We should be in Cape Town the night of the 4th.  Incidently, the mayor of Cape Town won the 2008 World Mayor award.  Cool, huh?

Happy new year, all, welcome to 2009!

January 2, 2009Comments are DisabledRead More
Updates from Africa 10

Updates from Africa 10

When I had finished writing the last update Ioana and I left the internet cafe and Codrin was gone.  He said he was going to the shop next door but he wasn’t there, so we wandered around a bit looking for him and then went off to the cafe for another drink.  It turns out Codrin had found a barber and was getting his hair cut, and when he came back looking for us we weren’t there either.  Ioana and I had a quick coffee and coke and then went off to the Woermann Tower, which we were told provides an excellent panaroma of the city.  The tower, built in 1905, is off of a charming courtyard and hotel where Prince Albrecht of Prussia stayed in 1907, and is the most famous building in Swakopmund.  We climbed to the top and got a great 360 degree view of the city.  You can look out over the ocean, then as you turn you see the ocean turn into desert, and with the ocean to your back it looks like the city is in the middle of the desert.  It is a large town, too, about the size of Westport.

When we walked around the city we realized that we were essentially in Germany.  Everyone spoke german, the architecture was European and colonial and on every corner there is a cafe, a beer house, or a public park.  The city is perfectly manicured, and if it were not for the cars driving on the left side and the desert backdrop you would think you were in a German city.  It is interesting, though; the entire downtown area was built at the turn of the century–the last century–so you see cornerstones from 1900, 1905, 1907.  It occurred to me that nowhere in Germany can you find a city center built before World War I, and that adds a sort of German cultural authenticity to Swakopmund.  This was the center of German colonial Africa, and remains a German city to this day.  Yet at the same time, the people are unquestionably Namibian.  They go to Namibian schools and participate in Namibian politics, and most importnantly, as we found out from Herman the day before, they do not regard themselves as expatriates in colonial Namibia.  This is particularly surprising for us considering the whites in South Africa who we talked to who couldn’t get out of South Africa fast enough because of stagnant opportunity.

Ioana and I explored the downtown area a bit more, and found a hippie next to the tower who branded her cafe a “Soulful” place and stapled a feather to Ioana’s purchase of herbal salts and bathing oil.  She asked us to come back tomorrow for a healthy smoothie with no additives.  We walked to the waterfront and found another craft market where traders laid their wares on tarps and bargained with uninterested passerbys.  Then we caught a cab back to the guest house.

We are staying in the Sea Breeze guesthouse, not to be confused with the Sea Wind guesthouse, right across the street.  A problem we encountered in Walvis Bay, that seems to apply here as well, is the extraordinary lack of attention the owners of these guesthouses pay to their guests, to the point where you can’t find them when you need them, even when you’re checking in, and where they don’t know how to get a taxi for us to get downtown.  Codrin got back to the guesthouse an hour later, and around 8 we went out again but since we couldn’t get a taxi we hitched a ride with a Batswana couple, visiting from Francistown, who were going out to dinner.  They had driven to Swakopmund from Botswana, a 18-hour drive.  The woman went to college at the University of Cape Town (as did Herman, actually), so we talked about Cape Town for a bit.  While the man drove, he took occasional drinks from a beer he kept in his lap.

We got downtown, it was dark, and rather deserted.  Codrin went to sleep early so it was just Ioana and I walking around.  There isn’t much of a night life, but there are plenty of restaurants open.  The problem, as The Girls told us yesterday, was that you have to get a reservation.  We walked through darkened streets until we found a pizzaria next to a “Western Saloon.”  We went into the saloon, complete with a door split into two halves at waist level.  It was adorned with license plates from Texas, Florida, Arizona, and pretty much every state in between, with saloon-style decorations like turn-of-the-century newspaper stories about wanted outlaws and a collection of Native Americana.  The place was also replete with Confederate Flags and bumper stickers.  They had a collection of foreign currency, and we asked them if they had Zimbabwean and they said their Zimbabwe bills were stolen.  So I gave them some of my $50,000,000 bills and the waiter brought out a sign from the men’s bathroom which read:  “Zimbabwe:  The only country where a roll of toilet paper, which has 72 sheets, costs $1000.  It’s cheaper to change the $1000 into $100 bills, wipe your ass with 72 of them, and keep the $280 in change.”  After donating our hard-earned $200 million to this Western Saloon, we were told the kitchen was closed so we could only drink.  Fine with us, we figured we’d eat at the pizzaria next door after we had a beer.  However, when we got to the pizzaria, it was 10 minutes after their kitchen was closed, too.  Then we went to the beer house, and their kitchen had just closed as well. Luckily, there was a movie theatre across the street, so we sat down on the pedestrian street and ate dinner of concessions:  Biltong, popcorn, candy, chips and iced tea.  The whole meal was US$8, for two people, and filled us up really well.  Even concession food:  amazing.

We managed to find a cab back to the guesthouse and crashed.  We slept in until 10:30, and then hightailed it downtown to have a lunch at our favorite Swakopmund cafe.  I got my haircut, Codrin went to the market and Ioana is writing in her journal at the Soulful cafe next to the Woermann Tower.

New Year’s tonight!  Apparently there’s a leap second being added at the end of 2008 so New Years is going to come a tick later.  Have a good one!

December 31, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More
Updates from Africa 9

Updates from Africa 9

Our second night in Walvis Bay we ate at Raft, the same restaurant on the bay we had eaten at the night before.  We were served by the same waitress, Claire, and petted the same Norwegian Ridgeback, Motley, who moseys around the restaurant with a card on his neck telling patrons not to feed him.  He loved our table because he enjoyed our kudu meat and french fries as much as we did.

In the morning we woke up early again and walked to the waterfront where we had planned our second day trip, this time on a bay cruise and 4×4 drive through the desert.  Our boat, the Gambit, departed late because of a slow-loading catamaran that left before us.  The boat seated twenty and our guide gave the tour in english and german. There was also a French family on the “cruise.”  As we departed from the dock, the guide started calling out to the pelicans and throwing fish in the water.  Out of nowhere, our boat was swarmed with pelicans–giant birds with long beaks and an impressive wingspan.  The guide, who was also driving the boat, threw fish as we drove and the pelicans would speed up to the boat, often going as fast as we were or faster, to catch up to the fish.  He would also hold a fish out so a pelican would come right up to the side of the boat to snatch the fish.  The coolest part was when a seal hopped onto the back of the boat, prompted by an enticing offer of fish.  The seal slapped its fins to slide into the main deck with us, and we all took turns petting it.  These are not trained or domestic seals–they are wild, living in the harbor, and clearly profiting from regularly scheduled tour boats which they probably compete over with vigor.

The cruise was about an hour and a half, and we went around Pelican Point, the sandbar that creates Walvis Bay, and were in the open Atlantic for the first time.  The point of this cruise was to see the dolphins, which we did see–scores of them, running in front of the boat, on its flanks, and behind.  They would only come up so you could see a dorsel fin, but the fins came up enough that you had an idea of how populated this bay is with marine wildlife.  The sandbar that culminates in Pelican Point has seals lounging in packs of hundreds. In December, they give birth, so we could see lots of seal cubs, no bigger than beagles, soaking in the sun.  The wind pattern that created this sandbar by carrying sand from the desert is the same pattern that diverted the flow of the river and made the sand dunes.

The dolphins were not as interesting as the seals.  As we were coming back around the point another, much larger seal hopped up onto the boat for its morning meal.  This one, which the tour guides had named Cassanova, was injured around the eye and our guide explained that the injury was a lot worse a week ago.  The entire boat delighted in the friendliness Cassanova showed toward people, especially considering that he was a wild seal.

On our cruise, we passed some seemingly deserted Russian fishing ships, two of them, which were moored together and anchored.  Our guide explained to us that the ships belonged to the Russian-Namibian fishing company Namsov, which had been fishing in Walvis Bay and off the coast of Namibia since the Soviet Union (hence “Sov” in the name). They were only authorized by the Namibian government to catch certain types of fish in season, and when they were caught breaking this law the captains of the ships and the officers were put under house arrest–on their ships.  So we passed by these abandoned ships, 200-foot steel fishing ships, rusting from non-use and contemplated the two captains and their officers living in exile until Namibia decided their fate.  I guess the lesson of this story is, do not break maritime fishing laws in Namibia.  Codrin estimates that $1 billion is lost every year from illegal fishing off Namibia’s coast, and it seems that there are very harsh laws in place to combat this problem.

There were many more Russian ships in the harbor, and some actually abandoned ships as well.  We also passed oyster farms in the bay and learned about Namibia’s oyster export industry.  As we would learn, Namibians love oysters.  Speaking of oysters, we were dropped off at the sandbar to begin the second half of our trip, and were served a beachside lunch consisting of oysters, pasta salad, egg rolls and tofu.  And beer.  Windhoek Lager has been brewed since 1519–that’s a nearly 500-year-old beer!

The three of us strapped into a 4×4 Jeep and our driver started to drive south along the beach toward Sandwich Bay.  Our driver’s name was Herman, but although “Herman the German” would have been a perfect nickname, he was actually only half German and half Afrikaans.  Herman was really good at driving on sand, and we drove on lots of sand.  And it was bumpy.  There were no seatbelts in the backseat, so Ioana and I were jostled around the back of that car like dice in a Yahtzee shaker.  We had just eaten–oysters no less–so I was more than a little sick from the drive.

The sandbar was wide, but as we drove along the water the beach narrowed and the dunes closed in from the left.  Apparently, you can drive all the way along the beach and the desert until you reach South Africa, and the first place we stopped was the old colonial border between British South Africa and German Southwest Africa.  After World War I, much of Namibia was absorbed into British South Africa, and Namibia stayed a colony of South Africa until 1988.  As a result, Namibia was the most recent country in Africa to gain its independence.  Walvis Bay–the commercial center of Namibia–stayed a South African colony until 1994 when Mandela became president.  Herman explained to us that he was born in Swakopmund, and when he was a kid he needed a visa to go to Walvis Bay, 30 minutes away.

Herman also told us that Sandwich Harbor, where we were going, was inaccessible twice a day because of the tides.  Only during specific times was the beach wide enough between the desert and the ocean for a 4×4 to get through.  When we drove in, the beach was about as wide as a 8-lane highway.  The reason the ride was so bumpy, Herman explained, was the tracks from other jeeps that had not been blown away due to an unusual lack of wind.  We would try to stay in other tracks but that didn’t lessen the bumpiness of the ride.  We stopped at one point, and Herman drove the Jeep up an incline onto a sand shelf that overlooked the ocean, with a steep dune behind us.  Then, suddenly, he threw the jeep into reverse and we shot backwards up the slope of the dune.  He braked and somehow the jeep stayed in place, with its nose pointed straight downhill.  We got out of the jeep on the surface of the dune and admired the stretch of beach ahead of us, which we saw, from pictures Herman showed us, had changed drastically in 20 years from global warming.  There used to be a large natural harbor of fresh water formed by the sand as a filtration system, but since the sea levels are rising this harbor is all but gone.  The fresh water system which used to be a complete river is now restricted to the aquifers which we had drunk out of the day before, and this system is dependent on a specific sea level and weather pattern.  The life of the desert, in this way, depends on how this fresh water system survives.

We drove about five more kilometers into Sandwhich Harbor, another fresh water lake adjoining the ocean and a monstrous 200-meter dune on the other side.  The car parked, and we started to climb the dune.  At first, it didn’t look that difficult, because the incline wasn’t steep.  It also wasn’t that hot; although the Namib desert is a desert, it is breezy and receives copious amounts of cool ocean air. What made the climb difficult was the sand.  Climbing on a hill of sand is like climbing uphill on a stairmaster.  You do a lot of stepping but you don’t move very far upwards.  Every two feet you climb up, you sink one foot down.  The side of the dune is packed down naturally, but if you break the surface there is soft sand underneath. Also, the wind is constantly blowing a loose layer of sand off the top, which is actually how the dunes form and move over time.  As we climbed higher and higher, you could look back and see more and more of the bay stretched out before us.  It hugged the fine line between the desert and the sea, and was really a sight to behold.  At the top of the dune, the wind was so powerful it could knock you over, which we had to be careful about because the leeward side of the dune, as we found out yesterday, is a much sharper dropoff.  We took some amazing pictures though.

On the drive back, Herman took us into the desert instead of just on the beach, and we drove on the dunes.  Unlike the quad bike, the 4×4 is much bigger, and since we weren’t controlling it it was a little scarier as well.  We had long known that Herman was an expert driver on sand, but we were not prepared when we reached the top of one of these monstrous dunes, the jeep tipped precariously forward and we looked straight down one of these slip sides into the sandy valley below.  Herman gunned the car and we shot downward, then he pulled up the side of the dune in front of us, then shot down the other side of that dune.  It was like we were on a roller coaster with no safety rails and no chain lift.  We essentially–if I may use this term–halfpiped the dunes.  There was a cadre of 4 or 5 jeeps in our group, and the jeep ahead of us at one point got stuck going up one of the dunes, and idled in the sand with its nose straight up in the air for a minute, then somehow turned around, and billowed down the slope to get momentum and tried again.  Herman cracked that the other driver was new at this.

When we were done driving the dunes, we drove back to town through the desert, this time going through a field of sand mounds planted with !nara bushes.  The !nara fruit is the only one in the desert and it is the food on which the animals and humans who live in the desert survive (the ! in the name is a click in the Topnaar language).  As we drove back, I talked to Herman about Namibian politics and learned a lot.  He explained that Namibia didn’t really have the racial undercurrent of South Africa, which we had noticed as well.  The government has been stable since independence.  I asked if there were any whites in government and he said there was one Israeli minister who people had voted for because his name sounded native – but he didn’t express any discontent with this lack of race-based representation.  This impressed us, because in South Africa we had seen everywhere a constant expectation of racial division and political fragmentation based on race.  There are plenty of whites in Namibia, but they don’t feel a need to be represented as white.  I asked the question expecting a rant, like we had heard in South Africa, that the whites don’t get any representation and their jobs get taken away.  But Herman explained that he loved Namibia, that it was safe and everyone had jobs and although it was briefly a part of apartheid South Africa no one held any grudges or seemed to care about racial divisions.  I realized at this point that I hadn’t noticed race in Namibia since we’ve been here–that the whites and blacks who live here are Namibians, and identify as such.  Furthermore, Namibians are happy.  Herman says the economy in Namibia is better than in South Africa (I haven’t verified if this is true yet), and there isn’t nearly as much crime.  He says he doesn’t lock his door at night and when there is a murder in Namibia it is front page news.  As a matter of fact, in Swakopmund I picked up a paper and the front page story was a car accident.  Can you imagine if the New York times carried a story about a car accident on I-95 as its front page story?

Herman drove us back to the hotel, and on the way we talked a bit about Namibian tourism as well.  He said the most high-profile thing that had happened to Namibia was when Angelina Jolie decided to have her baby here.  She and Brad Pitt rented a couple houses in a lodge and had family and friends stay with them for two months–in Walvis Bay.  Then, the funniest thing, he told us that he was their guide and they had become friends when the couple was here.  He said that “Brad” was very smart, and “Angelina” was shorter than she appears in the films, and the fact that our driver was referring to two of the biggest American movie stars on a first-name basis was quite bizarre. Herman then told us that one time, when they were out for drinks (“We were quite inebriated at this point”) a woman came up to Brad Pitt and told him that he looked like George Clooney, obviously not knowing who he was or that he was in Walvis Bay.  Our driver got drunk with Brad Pitt!  And then we found out that he’s not even a full-time driver. He owns five companies in Namibia, in mining, tourism and trade, and only drives part-time for the fun of it.  His wife just started a real estate company.  He says Namibia is the best place to start a business in Africa and I intend to take midVentures into this country while it’s hot.

That night, we went back to Raft.  Although we got a good recommendation from Herman for a restaurant, we couldn’t find a cab or anyone who would take us downtown.  Instead of walking 2 kilometers we walked back to Raft and saw Claire and Motley again.  The food in Namibia, if you have not yet figured this out from my updates, is delicious.  We ran into the owner of our hotel at the bar and told him we’ll see him back at the hotel in the morning for checkout.  He was picking up this gorgeous woman who is just one more reminder why Namibia is the place to return to, and why this will be a very happy new year.

We checked out at 10 am the next day and slowly got our bags together for our trip to Swakopmund, or “Swakop” as the locals call it. Swakopmund is essentially a German city on the Atlantic coast of Namibia, and it has palm trees.  It has charming shopping streets and a vibrant city center lined with cafes.  We haven’t had time to go to the beach yet, but we spent 2 hours at a cafe taking in the street life.  We ran into The Girls, which is our name for two nice young women who we met in Livingstone, and took the bus with us to Windhoek. The Girls, from New York, are on mission in Livingstone and have this month off to travel.  So we caught up with them a bit.  It’s amazing how we keep running into our Livingstone companions–Aaron in Windhoek, The Girls here, and as I’m writing another woman we met in Livingstone just walked into the internet cafe.

We have really one day to explore the town before it closes for New Years.  The New Years party tomorrow night is going to be the biggest in Namibia, and probably southern Africa.  The entire beachfront will be converted into a bar, and there we will party in german revelrie until the sun comes up.  At least that’s the plan.

December 30, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More
Updates from Africa 8

Updates from Africa 8

We spent our last day in Windhoek not doing much.  We slept in til 9 and then planned out our last couple days.  The original plan was to do another safari from Windhoek, but it turns out that a lot of the desert is better seen from Walvis Bay, the first European trading town on the west coast (about an hour from Swakopmund).  We had originally planned to go to Walvis for a day, but we decided to leave Windhoek early and spend three nights in Walvis.  We had a really hard time finding a place, everything was booked because Walvis Bay and Swakopmund is where everyone in Namibia goes to celebrate the New Years (and all the German tourists).  We finally tracked down a hotel with a double room available, which we would have to cramp into. Something is better than nothing.

We then went off to China Town.  We thought there would be an actual neighborhood, but the cab took us to an industrial park outside town that looked deserted and not very interesting.  Codrin really wanted to go so he got out of the cab; Ioana and I took the cab back downtown to get some lunch.  We ended up eating at Mugg & Bean, which is a San Francisco chain that I’ve never heard of, and consequently is delicious.  Ioana and I ordered 4 meals for two people and ate every morsel.  We ran into our new friend Aaron at Mugg & Bean and made plans to meet him for drinks that night at Joe’s Beerhouse, which is the place to be in Windhoek (we had heard that from several people). Our delicious lunch being complete, and contemplating what Codrin ended up doing for lunch in the middle of “China Town”, we got a cab back to the hostel and jumped in the pool.  We played with a volleyball with a young Zambian girl, who I thought was 15 but Ioana thought was 20, and her companion, a 60+ balding white man with yellow teeth and a heavy southern accent.  The dynamic between them was, at best, weird.  He would kiss her on the forehead in the mornings, and then tell her to take a shower, which she would do with obedience. She was a really nice girl and Ioana suspected she was into me.  Who knows.  It was a strange couple and we didn’t really want to inquire any further.  Apparenty the man had been all over Africa in the past year, but we don’t know where he is from, or why he is staying in a budget hostel with a young African girl as his companion.

That night, we went to Joe’s Beerhouse and indulged in zebra, kudu (antelope), crocodile and ostrich with a side of fried potatoes, and some local Windhoek Lager.  Our culinary experience in Namibia has been, to say the least, a delight.  In the morning we woke up early and went off to the markets to buy some souvenirs, since they were closed the day after Christmas and there isn’t a lot of market shopping on the west coast.  We bargained down some more masks on the street, then went to Mugg & Bean again for lunch.  Codrin was evidently a Mugg & Bean virgin so we iniated him with a angus beef burger with fries.  Ioana ordered the oriental burger, which came out and it was three times as tall as a normal burger with a toothpick through the middle:  Chicken, beef, vegetables and dripping in cheese sauce.  Since the burger was taller than an average hand, Ioana had to pick it apart to eat it.  We have this on camera.

We got back to the hostel and hopped a van with some fellow backpackers who were heading to Walvis Bay.  It was a 5 hour drive, not very eventful, with a pit stop at a gas station where I got some biltong (jerky-like sausage) and a Russian roll.

We dropped off our four companions in Swakopmund, so got a glimpse of this city where we’ll be spending New Year’s.  Swakopmund, like Walvis Bay, is a small town of low-lying houses and roads lined with palm trees.  They both are next to the ocean, but more importantly they both border the Namib desert on the other side.  Driving south from Swakopmund to Walvis Bay, we were presented with a puzzling environmental paradox.  On our right, the glistening Atlantic Ocean, over which, somewhere, was home.  On the left, a vast expanse of dune-riddled desert, mountains of pure sand cascading towards us.  We saw some sandboarders creating wakes of sand and a couple rentals for quad bikes.  In 20 minutes we were in Walvis Bay and checked into our hotel, which ended up having a three-person room open for us.

That night, we went to the nearest restaurant we could find, a restaurant on stilts in the middle of the ocean, which overlooks the city, the sandbar which designates the bay area and pelicans which danced on the shimmering water as the sun set.  I had grilled crayfish, Ioana enjoyed a surf n’ turf and Codrin had more zebra meat. Did I mention how good the food is here?

We had planned our next day’s excursion, and in the morning we got up early and went downtown, where our historical tour of the Namib Desert awaited us, complete with quad bikes.  Quad bikes are like double motocycles which are jet skis for the desert.  Each four-wheel bike holds one person and they are fully automatic. There is a start button and a gas lever you push with your thumb, and hand brakes.  Not rocket science for even those like Codrin and a 10-year old boy in our group who don’t drive.  We got a quick safety lecture, donned our ski goggles and zoomed off into the desert, which bordered the quad bike parking lot.  Our guide was a middle aged German who had a dry sense of humor and wore a cowboy hat.  He was the only one with rainbow reflective goggles; everyone else got blue or orange.

The Namib Desert is the oldest desert in the world, and when our German guide led us over one dune we were in the heart of it.  This section of the desert is composed entirely of massive dunes, all of which are crescent shaped and oriented in the same direction.  They each have a gently sloping side and a sharp dropoff where sand is looser and forms a crest, in the crux of the crescent.  We were told we had to stay in the guide’s tracks, because there are numerous hidden “holes” hidden in the banks of dunes that can collapse and cause injury.  For the most part, we rode down and up over the dunes and through the valleys, occasionally stopping for the group to get together.  Like the mokoro riders in the Okavango Delta, the guide seemed to know where he was going despite no discernable trails in the sand and few landmarks.  The first place we stopped at was part of what used to be a river bed.  The dunes were formed over thousands of years as the river changed course, and as a result tracts of mud were left.  Ten thousand years ago, this particular area was teeming with game and wildlife, and human beings, who were “stuck” in the Garden of Eden, as our guide described.  They could get all the food they needed to eat but they were surrounded by desert.  In any event, the first place we stopped was one of these ten-thousand-year-old mud plains. Over time, the mud hardens and becomes fossilized, and frozen in the mud are thousands of footprints.  We walked over this “mud”–now hard as rock–and saw elephant tracks, rhino, cheetah and–spookily–human tracks, all over the plain.

All over this desert there are sprouts of green plants and this, our guide explained, is a result of there being a giant aquifer under much of the desert.  The plants get the water from underground, and the few animals get their only water from eating the plants.  One beetle absorbs water from the fog which infrequently settles over the desert. Speaking of fog, when we went into the desert it was overcast and cool–doubly so when we were driving at 40 km/hour.  After an hour or two the skies lifted and left a hue of solid blue.  The pastel contrast between the blue sky and the orange sand was beautiful.

We had been riding for an hour and we drove up to another plain, but this one looked white from a distance.  When we approached we saw that the “white” was actually a bed of broken oyster shells.  We found out that oysters are always broken and eaten near to the ocean, which indicates that this area used to be by the sea.  More importantly, this area used to be inhabited by humans, as much as ten thousand years ago.  In the desert, as the dunes move (about 4 m a year) they expose these previously buried habitats, and as a result all signs of human existence here are preserved right on the surface.  We wandered this ancient habitat and found beads, made from bone and ostrich eggs and crafted with stone, flintstones that were used as tools, and, spookiest of all, human remains.  There are scattered bones and skulls all over the place, and handles for pots and shards of pottery nearby. There is one almost complete skeleton which is squeezed between some hardened mud layers.  The skull and ribcage poke out in an eerie display.  What is most remarkable is that our guide found this area a month ago; it has been completely untouched and unexcavated since it was buried by dunes ten thousand years ago.  I picked up several beads from the ground, despite the fact we were requested not to remove anything.  I understand the impulse of archeologists like Carter and Bingham to pick a little treasure from the ancient ruins–there is such an abundance of it, and it is so priceless.  I didn’t remove any bones although it was tempting.  I think I was slightly terrified of disturbing the sanctity of an ancient burial ground.

We did a lot of driving through the desert and saw some remarkable wildlife, including springbok in the wild (this is after we’ve been eating springbok for a week).  We went to one more ancient mud flat and our guide got down on his hands and knees and started digging into the sand.  I thought he was trying to chase a crab or something that was buried, but as he was digging the sand he was removing got muddier and soon he had reached water, about sixteen inches down.  He hunted around and got a half oyster shell (again, what was an oyster shell doing in the middle of the desert), and explained to us that the water he had reached was naturally filterd by the land, and was part of the underground aquifer.  The water is more pure than tap water in town, he said, and scooped up some of the muddy water with the shell and took a sip.  He then passed the shell around and we all took a sip. The water was sweet, and really did taste good.  He explained that the Topnaar people live in the desert on this water, even today.  Codrin had been off using the desert as his bathroom, as the Topnaars do (a fact our German guide reiterated for us many times) and when he returned we had all finished drinking the ground water and told Codrin he should have some.  He took one look at the brackish water and thought we were trying to trick him into drinking it, not knowing that we had all just had some.  The group took his reluctance and ultimate refusal to drink the water to be quite comical.  The guide had the two young children on the trip close up the hole he had dug, and then we were off again, buggying across the desert, down sheer dune faces and up again, the sound of our engines echoing off the sand walls and into the clear blue sky.

It was then time to meet the Topnaars.  The entire quest thus far had been geological and historical–as in natural history.  Then it took an uncomfortable anthropological twist.  We were driving through a valley surrounded by low shrub and we stopped.  The guide, who evidently speaks the local language, approached a clearing where we soon saw a single man had made a makeshift shelter out of cardboard, aluminium and bush.  He came out and the two men chatted, then our German guide told us that this man is a Topnaar.  “He lives in the desert and will die in the desert,” he said, “He has no desire to live in town.”  The man stood by his clearing with a tupperware container filled with dried seeds.  The guide continued, “he’s going to give you some seeds that he has harvested from the fruit trees we saw.  He uses these seeds for his diet.”  He took the container of seeds and passed them around, and we all ate one.  Then he passed around another container of dried fruit, that was a little sandy but otherwise digestable.  He told us as he passed that we could give the man some money if we wished.  All the while, the Topnaar stood silently as the fruits of his labor were passed around for our consumption.  Some people in the group paid him, and we drove about 100 meters further and stopped at another makeshift shelter in the desert.  This one was composed of a refrigerator box, tarp, and half of a large aluminium Coke bottle like the ones used in advertisements.  Our guide took us around back and showed us a Topnaar–another man–carving seeds out of the desert fruits we had seen on the dunes.  We could take pictures, we were told, of this particular exhibit.  Our guide had told us that the Topnaar were dying off because of HIV/AIDS, lack of medical treatment and the children going to school and entering Namibian culture, away from the desert.  As a caveat, he told us when we were at this second indigenous home that this man’s wife had just died, and he is alone.  The other man we had seen, his wife had died recently too, we were told.  This added a little more somberness to the already depressing situation.  We thought we were out of this awkward situation when we got back on the bikes, but one dune later and we were at the “home” of another Topnaar, whom the German spoke to for a minute and then came out to the group.  We formed a semi circle around him and our guide said “Now he is going to count to twenty in his language.”  This man was wearing a t-shirt, sandals and a baseball cap with the Pepsi logo, all dusty and worn.  When he had reached “akka”–four–our guide noticed that someone in the group was taking pictures of this display of linguistic anthropologism so he approached the man and took the cap off his head, to provide the tourist with a better picture.  It was a subtle gesture, but a saddening one–presumably, he wanted to give his client a more authentic rendering of this man as he rattled off something as simple as numbers to the gawking and eager foreign crowd.  We had ventured into the desert, and had been taken to the Topnaar habitat to witness them in the wild, to see how they eat, where they sleep, how they live.  We took pictures and our guide made the zoo more authentic by taking away the only sign that maybe, just maybe, they don’t live solely for the purpose of entertaining tourists.  It was a genuine reminder of the very real imperialist attitudes in this part of the world, how ancient societies are still marginalized, mummified, turned into exhibits and held up to be photographed and inspected.  These few Topnaar are members of a dying tribe, and it was upsetting to me to see the remnants of their ten-thousand-year-old way of life transfigured into a touristic commodity.  It was not so much their participation in this particular program that upset me–after all, they are making a living off of we fools who oggle them from behind our camera lenses–but the attitude of our self-proclaimed anthropologist guide, who up until now had impressed me with his breadth of knowledge and respect for this ancient desert and its people.  Our guide had told us that he “found” this Topnaar eight years ago, and since then the man had become a painter.  He had his paintings on display, solid-color abstractions of desert animals and wildlife on cloth napkin-sized canvases, and we were told that we could buy them for N$100 a piece.  We didn’t buy any.  For me, at least, this experience was too sour to be immortalized in a desert painting whose creator and his culture would be dead before the colors faded.

We drove off back to town, and as we got closer we could see the ocean in the distance.  The air was cool and breezy the entire time we were in the desert, which was lucky for us since we got back around one in the afternoon.  We parked our bikes, paid the guide and remarked that the entire four hours was certainly worth the $50 we had paid for it. Quad bike riding is a lot of fun and I hope I can do it again some day.

We didn’t have a car, so the guide dropped us off downtown in his 4×4 and we went to another delicious restaurant for lunch.  It was Italian; Ioana had pasta, I had a crepe and Codrin had an anchovy pizza, which he was surprised to find had fish on it.  For dessert, I had a pancake drenched in melted marshmallow and chocolate sauce. Everything was topped off with a bottle of white wine.  Have I mentioned how good the food is here?

Codrin and Ioana are currently on siesta and I’m going to join them. I’ll send more updates soon.

December 28, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More