Friday, February 20, 2009

Chronicles of Namibia--Part 1

"He'll write a book someday," Nick said as he watched the twentysomething ride away on his bike.

"Why do you say that?" I asked.

"He's got a hell of a story to tell...when you have story like his, you have to tell it."

The above exchange took place sitting on a balcony at the Craft Centre restaurant in downtown Windhoek, Namibia. Nick had just introduced Rob, Karen, and I to his friend and former Peace Corps housemate, Ian. Some months earlier Ian had told Peace Corps officials he'd be in Malawi for a couple weeks. Three months later, the Corps sent out a hunt for him. When he was found, he was booted from the Corps and given a flight home, which he instantly turned down. Since then, Ian has been a vagabond, traveling by bicycle, sleeping by tent, self-sentenced to wander until achieving spiritual fulfillment. It was merely chance that allowed us these ten kind minutes with the elusive rambler.

I am no Ian by any means, but I do have a story to tell. It starts...

As the plane descended, I observed the dirt roads etched in the expansive grassland below. We touched down just before dusk. Stepping out onto the runway, I peered at the hollow purple sky. It looked like it was going to burst, but it did not. Inside the airport Rob, Karen, and I met our taxi driver, Ellis, who drove us thirty minutes in the dark to Windhoek. Hyped on adrenaline we bombarded him with many questions along the way, and he answered them calmly and unfazed. He dropped us in front of the Cardboard Box hostel for which we had booked a reservation. We clanged through two metal gates and entered the lobby. I plunked my pack down and raised my head up to see a scruffy, long-haired kid leaning in a doorway on the other side of the room. He must have been standing there for a whole minute before we recognized him, but then we hugged the crap out of him for the next three. With Nick, our quartet was formed.

Karen and Nick shared a "shag pad" while Rob and I each filled a spot in a six-bed dorm room. Nick nonchalantly scooped up a seven-inch millipede from our dorm floor to play with, then we paid a visit to the hostel bar. There we sipped draughts and lagers and listened to Nick tell us about his adventures. Nick is easily the best storyteller I know, and his stories provided a much-needed pep talk to get us in the right mindset for our two-week road trip. Soon bedtime came, but it was impossible to sleep because a gaggle of drunk girls was shouting the question "Are we human, or are we dancer?" until at least 4 AM. At about 7 AM, the Dutch couple sleeping in the bunks below Rob and I got up and so did we. Free coffee and pancakes were served, so we had our share. When we were all up and fed Nick led us out into Windhoek, Namibia's capital. The city is hilly with wide roads. The sidewalks are sort of crumbly and the air is sort of dusty. We approached some street vendors for some fatcakes (balls of dough soaked in a bucket of oil) and bought a few. After some errands and a stroll through city centre, it was time for lunch. That's when we met Ian.

Afterwards, we walked over to Hertz to rent a car, but they made it difficult, so we rented from Budget down the street. Then Rob took the driver's seat, a very tough seat to sit in considering the following information: 1) Namibian's drive on the left side of the road, 2) the steering wheel is on the right side of the car, 3) the stickshift is on the left side of the driver's seat, 4) Windhoek's roads are crowded with seemingly reckless drivers 5) it began to rain. Rob's great escape from Windhoek was not flawless, but then we all agree that he deserves some kind of medal of honor. In the next hour or two, our 4WD Toyota Hilux rumbled into the small town of Usakos, Nick's Peace Corps site.

We swung around and parked in his dirt backyard. A girl was on the porch picking at a raw fish in a pan. Nick tended to his green basil garden thriving in the porch shade, out of the Namibian sun. Inside, there were some empty spacious rooms and then there was Nick's, which was full and cozy. We dumped out the goodies from our suitcases onto Nick's bed and he grinned like mad. And when Rob unloaded the holy PlayStation 3, Nick's face lit up like fireworks and he squeezed Rob real tight. Next we went down the road to a little internet cafe to shoot off some emails to our families to let them know we had arrived safely. Then we were joined by Nick's Peace Corps friend, Natalie, who hitched in from the neighboring town of Arandis, known for its excess of uranium, and we were five. Nick showed us the building where he works and walked us around Usakos, which is really no more than a T-intersection.

By early evening we ventured on out of town, over the Khan River bridge (the Khan is just a dry winding sand channel), and up to Nick's friend Carl's place. Carl's family has long driveway with a nice home at the end of it, and a vast piece of open land behind that. As we strolled up, the sky started spitting big rain loogies on us, so we took cover in chairs under a shelter with two walls and roof. Wearing his trademark smile, Carl provided prompt service and was quick to serve a platter of tall glasses filled with orange Fanta. After some soda and chit-chat, the sky cleared. We gazed out on the land, watched the horses grazing down in the field, and admired a rainbow stretching out from behind a mountain in the distance. Moments later, out on the western horizon, a radiant orange sunburst shot through some purple storm clouds. I was pretty much jumping up and down about the glory of the sunset. Soon the sun was down and we were all huddled around Carl's firepit.

In Namibia, they call a barbecue a "brai", and that's what we were having. Carl is an extraordinary brai chef, and he cooked oodles of kabobs, steak, and chicken for us. What a guy! He had the juices seared in real nice and just the right amount of char on them. That combined with the fact that Namibian beef is untainted and grass-fed, this meat was fantastic. We ate and talked on his porch in the massive African night, then, completely satisfied, we threw the bones to Carl's delightful dogs who crunched them up down at our feet. For dessert Carl's mom prepared a thick white pudding-like concoction in a bowl. Carl tried to fool us that it was curdly milk, but when we swigged it down, it was really just a delicious brandy-enhanced milkshake. Carl walked with us back down the road to the Khan River bridge. Each of us shook his hand and thanked him for his generosity and hospitality.

It's a scary thing to walk on the side of the road at night. It's very dark, the vehicles move fast, and not many of the nighttime drivers would pass a sobriety test. Thankfully, we made it back safely to Nick's place. On his laptop we watched a sweet video of him playing marimba at a joint in Capetown over New Year's. Turns out he shlepped two large authentic marimbas hitching his way back from there. I admired them propped up in the corner of the room. Natalie, Rob, and I laid on mattresses on the floor and stayed up late exchanging stories. Natalie did most of the talking. Her Peace Corps tales had us captivated well past 2 AM. After a 15 hour flight, a big switch in timezones, and a poor first night of sleep, there is only one thing we could have been running on: the mystique of Africa.