Monday, March 16, 2009

Chronicles of Namibia--Part 4

Note: You may want to read Chronicles of Namibia--Parts 1-3 before you begin this one.

In the blackness before dawn we each packed a small bag for our 2-day excursion into Zambia. Overnight, a band of sophisticated goats had claimed Chris's backyard, forming some kind of a "squattocracy." We shuffled past these suave goats, hopped in the Hilux, tossed Chris the keys. He turned the ignition and simultaneously triggered a sound with a Mario Brothers device on the keychain, like we had just begun level one. After the jumbo mushroom in Tsumeb, I think we all experienced a fair amount of personal growth, and now we were nothing less than super. Chris drove along the dimly lit road past some darkened buildings and rolled up to the gate, which was shut. And the gatekeeper was gone too, so Chris went on a search. He rang up a few numbers and rapped on a few doors until he found the "on duty" gatekeeper snoozing on a bench in the corner of a room in a nearby building. The gatekeeper opened the gate and we rumbled onward in the pink predawn light until we reached the dirt lot by the petrol station. This was the bus stop. The delay at the gate was minor. We were on time.

The bus was not on time. We waited at the stop for over an hour before it came. Chris, who had caught the Intercape (Africa's Greyhound) at this stop before, had warned us to expect considerable tardiness, but we kept on with our determined punctuality. The others rested in the car for a bit to pass the time while I took a look around. Cows and goats dotted the lot. A guard in uniform watched over the petrol pumps. Across the road there was a swarm of walking children. Each child wore a brightly colored t-shirt, each t-shirt much too large for its wearer. I knew the children weren't in school because it was the weekend, but at this early hour I really had no clue what they were up to. It sure was neat the way they stuck together.

Chris came out to join me. We found a crushed aluminum can, tried to play hacky-sack with it, then I got talking about Botswana.

"I've heard it's very expensive, but like they say, you get what you pay for. These guys staying at our hostel in Windhoek had just come back from Chobe National Park; they said they went on a three-hour safari and saw everything. They loved it. But one of the guys was all whiny about how a giant fly bit off a chunk of his face. He said it hurt real bad," I said.

"Hmm...that's interesting," Chris replied coolly, "Well, the only thing I've really heard about Botswana is how men in certain tribes have been known to come over here and abduct Namibian children. You see, a lot of these kids don't have a certificate or any official record of their birth so the Botswanans come take them away, kill them, and use their body parts to make voodoo dolls, and no one ever finds out about it. It's really fucked up," Chris said.

I was horrified, speechless for a full ten seconds before I talked again.

"You know, we were thinking about going to Botswana, but Nick would've had to notify the Peace Corps way in advance. And besides, we're only here for a couple weeks, and Botswana would be too much to fit in. Plus, I don't think we're allowed to take our rental car over into other countries. That's why we're leaving it with you. Thanks for looking after it, by the way."

"Yeah, no problem. Oh, I was meaning to ask you guys, when you're gone you don't mind if I drive into town to get groceries, do you?"

"Of course not, go ahead, do what ya gotta."

"Cool, I'll be careful with it."

The others were awake now. Nick and Karen stayed with the car and chatted with Chris. Rob wandered off with his camera to get a good angle for the imminent sunrise. I, too, observed the colorful progression of the new morning sky: Neon pink bloomed into tangerine, blonded, and blasted white light into the top of the tallest tree. And my eyes followed the edge of the light as it crept down, down, down until the whole tree was lit. The sun was done with its introduction; it was day.

And our bus was here. We checked in, tossed our bags into the little luggage caboose, and boarded. The people on the bus were mostly white with a few nicely dressed blacks. I suppose the cost of Intercape travel is considerably higher than the cost of hitch-hiking which explains the lack of native Africans opting to ride the bus. It was a double decker, and we sat on the top floor towards the rear. There was enough space for each of us have our own seat, so we closed the window curtains and sprawled out for some bus sleep. With the exception of a few stops and jostles, we slept all through the AIDS-stricken Caprivi strip, all the way to Katima.
Katima did not look like a rural roadside village, but, rather, a typical town from the south. Karen and I had downed jumbo cokes on the bus ride, and now we had to pee. After searching inside stores and inspecting sideyards for a private place to piss, Karen bought some access to a cheap toilet. I held it. When our bus was refueled, we got back on, and I found a secret john unbeknownst to us on the lower level. What a relief! Seriously, the relief was terrific. I got back to my seat where there was a Zambia immigration form waiting to be filled out. Katima was just a kilometer from the border.
As we rolled toward the border, our mammoth two-story beast of a bus did not deter the crowd of rambunctious Zambian hustlers. In fact, the bus had the opposite effect, a magnetic effect, for this was an ideal opportunity to rip off, rob, or harass unassuming travellers crossing into, or getting out of, Zambia. When we stepped off the bus the crowd kicked up a cloud of dust and smothered us. I clutched my subgarment money belt with one hand and deflected wads of Kwacha (Zambia's currency) with the other as I weaved closer to the dilapidated border patrol fence. An officer stood by in drab garb wielding a rifle, but did not make much of a move to quell the turbulence. I suppose, in these parts, this was normal, and intervention would've only made things worse. This was the kind of Africa I knew only because of films like "Blood Diamond" and "Hotel Rwanda." When we found refuge inside the one-room immigration shelter, we were sweaty, dusty, and flustered. "T.I.A." I muttered to myself, "This Is Africa." With jittery hands we fumbled for our passports and some American cash, plopped it down, pushed it across the wide table to the immigration officer. (For entry, American/European/wealthy tourists must pay a handsome surcharge to help stimulate Zambia's economy.) Half-grinning, he counted the cash before stamping us into Zambia. Together, we dashed and jockeyed our way back to the bus without too much trouble or interference, and started into Zambia.
We were oblivious to the new terrain, and we failed to tell our driver that he overshot our stop in Livingstone. When he did stop, we were a good thirty minutes down the road. We realized what happened, consulted the driver who agreed to take us back. We had a few minutes to kick back while the driver checked in some new passengers. I devoured a handful of lemon-poppy seed rusks, which are a kind of crunchy breadcookie, and left a pile of crumbs in my lap and on the seat. Continuing my sloppy munching, I wandered off the bus into the high afternoon sun. The moment I stepped down on the grass a grey baboon sprung from the bush, eyes on me, scampering with a purpose. It halted before me. My brown eyes met its orange eyes for an instant, then it stood poised to swat. It wanted my rusk. With its orange eyes fixed and following, I raised the rusk, pirouetted in a fluid motion, slipped the morsel in my pocket, and displayed two empty hands. As I stepped slowly backwards, the baboon scanned each hand like a hungry mutt at the dinner table. Another passenger captured the primate's attention, and I got the hell back on the bus.
The mob that met our bus in Livingstone was not unlike the one we met at the border. The main distinction was less dust and more buildings. When we got off to fetch our bags from the luggage caboose, the people engulfed us. In the thick of it all, a boy (probably a teenager) had the courtesy to ask us where we were going. His accent was strong but understandable. When we told him we were staying at Jollyboys, he offered to carry Nick's pack, free of charge. These hustlers hadn't gained my trust yet, and probably not Rob's or Karen's either, so the boy had asked the right person: the Namibian. And Nick obliged. The boy hoisted the pack, led us out of the crowd, down the street, presumably towards Jollyboys. The boy did not look healthy. His eyes were glazed over, yellow, and crossed. His lips were discolored like someone had flicked white paint at his mouth. His skinny frame leaned forward to compensate for the weight of the pack. But he led cheerfully, guiding us across the main drag, along the sidewalk, showing us the town, showing us the way. We cut through a lively cultural dance led by a jangly dancer wearing a beaded mask with no eyeholes. Then some dogged hustlers tried to sell us Zimbabwe's famed 50 trillion dollar bill and some copper bracelets, but we shook them off. We stuck with our guide. Though his appearance may have startled, this joy-exuding boy was someone to emulate. Turns out he was the embodiment of a jolly little hostel called Jollyboys.
Jollyboys Backpackers was a playground and a safehaven for budget travellers like ourselves. The main shelter had a thatch roof supported by wooden beams. In the center, a staircase led up to a sunny loft. On the floor, multicolored reading pillows circled the staircase. To the left, a swimming pool, and behind that, tables and a bar. To the right, a stony path led to some dorm huts and campsites. At the check-in desk, a friendly Briton named Sue confirmed our plans for tomorrow and kindly directed us to our rooms. Rob and I stayed in an eight-bed dorm hut called "Tango" or "Tonga"--I can't remember which. Nick and Karen shared a two-person room nearby. When we washed up before dinner, the bathrooms had some clean, good-spirited caricatures painted on its doors and walls which I found quite charming. In fact, the whole place seemed to be decked with weird-but-welcome decor. For dinner, we took Sue's recommendation and set off into town to seek a fancy pizza joint called Olga's.

It was still light out, there were four of us, and other Jollyboys patrons were roaming about, so we felt pretty safe walking around town. Olga's was located on a wide dirt sidestreet and, like every establishment in town, it was protected by a tall cement wall topped with coiled barbed wire. Since it was dinner hours, a gate was open, and we walked inside the restaurant. In the back annex, we got a table partially outdoors, under a roof. We immediately ordered tall sodas and two pizzas. Karen pegged us as "ravenous," which was more than accurate. We ordered a third pizza, scarfed it, paid, left. Livingstone was dark. We tripped up and down the crumbly curb, dodged people, minded the shadows in our periphery. Nick had coached us earlier about walking with intimidation, strutting, and we were doing that as best we could. I think my bandanna helped my strut. We got back to Jollyboys, and went straight to the bar. I tried a Mosi, the official beer of Zambia, and it sucked. We decided to call it a night and retired to our rooms. Rob passed out on the top bunk in a cocoon of white mesh. Before the trip, I'd helped him pick out the mesh for 33-cents-per-yard in the fabric section of Walmart. This part of Africa was fraught with malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The mesh was Rob's defense. Long sleeves and a bedsheet were mine. Our guard was up, and no mosquitoes would have our blood this night. Before bed, we had each assembled a day pack for the following day. We did not know then that the following day would be, perhaps, the greatest of our lives.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Chronicles of Namibia--Part 3

Note: You may want to read "Chronicles of Namibia--Part 1" and "Chronicles of Namibia--Part 2" before reading this one.

Rob and Karen got up first. Well, technically, everyone else staying in Okahuejo got up first. The large sought-after African mammals are most active at dawn when the sun isn't forcing them into the shade for midday siestas. The four of us understood this, but we were very tired, so we slept in until about 8:30 AM. After the brai, Carl's mom had given us a bag of slender tomatoes. Now most were smushed or spoiled from the turmoil of being in the car (when a bird hits your windshield the natural reflex is to step on the food at your feet), but I managed to salvage a few for breakfast. I rolled up the tent while the others repacked the car and gooped up with sunblock. Rob drove us back through the deep puddles and out of the campground area. At the exit gate, where the paved road became gravel, Rob and I did a Chinese firedrill, and I was the driver. I pushed it into first, gave it some gas, let up the clutch, and we inched forward where the wild things are.

The gravel road was smooth, flat, and straight; I had no problem getting the Hilux up to a nice touring speed. For miles on both sides there was little vegetation to block our visibility. The savanna was wide open for our wandering eyes to see. As we came upon a group of grazing zebras Nick reached over the back of my seat, put headphones over my ears, and played the opening number from Lion King.

"There's far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found
But the sun rolling high
Through the sapphire sky
Keeps great and small on the endless round

It's the circle of life
And it moves us all..."

It was cheesy and magical, and it moved me. It really set the tone for the rest of the day. A typical sequence would go like this: see an animal, stop the car near the animal, ogle the animal, photograph the animal, try to identify the animal. Rob bought a comprehensive animal guide at the visitor center which was just a few pages long and therefore, very user-friendly. When we pulled up next to a group of storks, we turned to the bird page. That's when we pinned a name to the dimwitted kamikazi bird-scoundrel that met our car glass the day prior: Guineafowl. But we refrain from uttering their name. They seek to instill fear in others. They are terrorists.

At one point we turned off the main road onto Rhino Drive with the hope of seeing a rhinocerous. It was a skinny bumpy road with a puddle at every trough. Since the bushes were thick and we weren't seeing much wildlife, I decided to drive a little more playfully. Driving near edge of the road thorny branches would scrape the sides of the car and sometimes poke inside the windows. That pissed Nick off a little. When I plunged into puddles the muddy water would douse the cracked windshield and spray inside the car. Karen, specifically, got wet and she was a good sport about it. Sadly, we did not see a rhino. Later, after pulling into a rest area, we got out of the car. It was brown. It used to be white. Huge globs of mud were caked on the flaps behind each tyre. I kicked a flap and a fat mudcake thudded on the pavement. I thought this was awesome so I did it a few more times. We got out the PB & jam for lunch and tapped our bag of oranges before getting back on the road.

On his previous visit to Etosha, Nick recalled having some safari success along dik-dik drive, a small tucked-away road just before the park exit. So that's where we went next. Moments after turning on the drive we saw a pair of warthogs trotting in a rocky field. The warthogs may have been my favorite sighting of the day. Then we entered a green forested stretch populated with countless giraffes and zebras. They were in the road, beside the road, standing up, laying down, eating, watching, natural and candid. We took a zillion pictures. Next we saw a pair of the drive's namesake munching on some already half-eaten plants. Dik-diks are basically dwarved deer, reminiscent of Bambi, very cute and very rare. Thus it is quite appropriate that hunting dik-dik is illegal in Namibia. It was a real privilege to see them. A while back, Nick had the privilege of eating one. His ride accidentally flattened the poor thing and, in general, it's encouraged to retrieve, dress, and eat the roadkill you create so that's what they did. (No, we did not fetch the carcass of our bird-scoundrel)

It was getting late in the afternoon, but instead of leaving the park, we all agreed to make a pass around the Fischer Pan. The pan was far from the car, but with the aid of binoculars we could see scores of game sipping by the edge. I was amused by the lonesome anomaly of the "twee palms"; a handful of palm trees drooping over a small savanna pond. There was a jeep of euro-machomen parked near the palms, hogging all the tranquility, defying the park rule to stay inside your vehicle at all times. I mean, Etosha's a dangerous place for a relatively welterweight homo erectus animal to be strolling about. Hell, for extra safety people in fence-protected Okahuejo erected their tents on their car roofs! Anyway, we didn't care to be associated with the meaty manprey or to witness a wildebeest mauling, so we drove back to the main road and continued right on out of the park towards the town of Tsumeb.

Tsumeb is nestled next to mountains in such a way that all the water in the sky has no choice but to pour down on it. In the wet season, it rains there almost every day. Conveniently, the rainfall en route to Tsumeb provided a free wash for our muddy car. As we neared the town Nick pointed out a cavernous pit carved in the side of a mountain. It was a recently abandoned copper mine. Apparently, a notable portion of Tsumeb's economy relies on it's copper mining industry. In town we met Dave, another Peace Corps volunteer and friend of Nick's, at a supermarket. For dinner, we bought some pasta and some much needed green vegetables to balance out our carnivorous diet from the past few days. We drove out of the town center, into a neighborhood, and through a retractable gate to the home where Dave's host family lives. The driveway was like a swamp made from baseball dirt, but the house was very nice. It had a large back porch and a yard filled with green grass, lemon trees, and guava trees. Inside there was a spacious kitchen which connected to a spacious living room which connected to a spacious TV room. There were at least three extra bedrooms available for us to sleep in. The house was, by Namibian standards, royalty.

In the kitchen, we chatted and prepared dinner. I helped slice veggies, including a humongous fungus of a mushroom I found lounging on the counter. The stalk of this mushroom had the girth of a small tree and a top the size of the upper third of an NBA basketball. Turns out about a quarter of this mushroom was enough to feed 8+ people. Dave handled the meat. At first we could not identify it, but eventually decided it couldn't possibly be goat or donkey, and elected to call it beef, which was fine with us. Nick, in prime Italian fashion, cooked us delicious pasta and garlic bread. While the food was cooking, I went in the backyard barefooted in the rain with Dave. Together we picked ripe guavas (firmness as an indicator) and ripe lemons (color as an indicator) from the trees. For a plump yellow lemon dangling in the high reaches of the tree I jumped, extended, grabbed it, and came crashing splashing down through wet branches. Man, I was soaked.

After some garlic bread appetizers, we had dinner, and again, the meat was fantastic! Not to discredit the tenderness of Nick's pasta or the healthfulness of the mutant mushroom/verdant vegetables, but against this meat they did not stand a chance. It's interesting though because Dave only added seasoning salt, cooked it in a pan on a hot plate and the results were beyond divine. This leads me to believe that it's more about the quality of the cut of beef than the care it takes to prepare it. All hail the beeves of Namibia!

Dave was kind to wash most of the dishes and get blankets for our beds. When we asked about showers Dave said, "Sure! Go ahead, but make sure you mop up when you're done...I prefer baths." I found out later what he meant. There was no showerhead. Instead, there was a hose with a faulty nozzle on the end of it. It was like a permanent thumb pressed over the end of a garden hose, and, as a result, water sprayed wherever it wanted to. After two minutes, I'd had enough. I spent the next ten mopping up the floor and wringing out the mop in the tub. My shower was not an efficient one, but it was better than none at all.

In the living room, Rob was fading fast on the couch while I talked with Dave. Nick and Karen went to bed. I asked Dave the same kind of tough questions I asked Ginny hoping to strengthen my grasp of what it's like to serve in the Peace Corps. I learned Dave is 30 years old, originally from Arizona (when his plane landed and he saw the dry land of Namibia he said,"Darn, I'm still in Arizona."). He was married for a while, but divorced. He waited tables for 12 years, and aspires to be a counselor like his father some day. Though his work for the Corps can be tedious and disheartening, he plans on serving for an additional third year. He told me, "I'm not here to change the world, I'm here to share my culture and to learn about their culture. But maybe while I'm here I can also have a positive impact on some people." Then Dave told me about his tomato garden project. Volunteers from around town had pitched in and by January (Namibia's summer) some juicy red produce was going to be had. At Christmastime, Dave flew back to Arizona to see his family. But before he left, he asked his faithful volunteers to watch over and water the garden while he was gone. When Dave returned the garden was a wilted mass of desiccated plant matter. Dave asked the volunteers why they hadn't taken care of the garden. But they insisted that they had taken care of the garden and showed not a hint of remorse about letting Dave down, much less each other. I asked how he dealt with it. "I laughed a lot," he said.

We needed a recharge, and we had nice beds, so we slept in. By late morning we went walking around town on a mango search. After no luck at the marketplace vendors on main street, we followed some trails lined with tall plants, crossed a couple footbridges, and made our way to a dirt clearing inhabited by a little community of shacks made from metal scraps. I've never felt so white and like I didn't belong as I did during the five minutes we spent circling the shacks. Because of this feeling I walked with my head down and didn't make any eye contact. Meanwhile, Rob took a few pictures and a few movies, discreetly and not so discreetly. No mangos, so we left, and I was happy. On the way back to the car we bought a bottle of clear nail polish. Supposedly nail polish can prevent glass cracks from creeping, and we thought we'd try it out.

For lunch we ate at Hungry Lion, Namibia's McDonald's. Their reputation is "slow fast food." I recall that Karen's chicken sandwich had too much mayonnaise. Back in the car, Rob and I applied the nail polish to the glass with concise brushstrokes. The polish wasn't entirely transparent, but if it stopped the cracks from getting worse, then we saw it as a valid sacrifice. We pulled up to the diesel pump and, without warning, an attendant slammed his squeegee brush on our windshield. And boy we had a hell of a time getting him to stop. Our windshield was a fragile creature glued together like Frankenstein--we had to defend it.

In an hour or two, we neared the large town of Grootfontein, but turned off instead to see the Hoba meteorite. It was a 50+ km diversion on an unpaved road. But to see the largest known meteorite on earth, hell yes it was worth it! When we arrived, it was just us and the gift shop cashier. On our ticket, meteorite was spelled "meteoriet". As we walked to the space rock we heeded the advice of an important sign: Beware of Falling Meteorites. Then, of course, it began to rain. The Hoba weighs 60 tons and rests at the bottom of a small amphitheater. It is partially submerged in the ground and about the size of a car. It's box-shaped. We did our thing, surfed the meteorite, took pictures, and got back out to the highway. On the way, Nick chugged a carton of some kind of chunky yogurt and cottage cheese hybrid.

We cruised upland a bit before stopping at a road checkpoint. This was called the "red line." It divides south Namibia from the north. My understanding is that it's primary purpose is to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease from the north to the south. They ask all cars to pass over a sterilizing rug. I suppose the assumption is that we've rolled over some cowpies during our haul, and they don't want us to transfer the waste-dwelling germs to the other region. At the checkpoint they also checked Rob's American driver's license. It makes you wonder how they'd ever be able to detect a fake. Even if they could, what would they do about it?

The north was very different from the south. It was more primitive and wild. There were lots of roadside villages comprised mostly of huts made from mud and thatch. Beside the road there were dirt trails frequented by a good many people, and some people would wander in the middle of the road. I suspect they were transporting trade items or visiting friends in the adjacent villages. During the drive we saw a lone teenage boy driving a large herd of brown cattle. The cows looked sleek, muscular and beautiful in the African sun. Some of the bulls had a deadly set of horns. We went through some patches of blue rain and saw rainbows. For fun we would toot the Hilux's pathetic constipated horn, then cease our tooting when we passed civilization as to not disturb anyone. We saw some donkeys porting goods on their backs. We saw naked children bathing and playing in road ditch puddles. We saw goats and stopped to let them cross the road. So, you see, there was a lot to look at along the way.

By late afternoon we came into Divundu, which is no more than a dirt parking lot, supermarket, and petrol station. We turned onto a gravel road and drove 7 km until we reached a gate to some kind of youth center. One of Nick's Peace Corps friends lived there, and he offered to put us up for the night.

"We're here to visit Christopher Kramer," I said to the gatekeeper, who was squinting in the evening sun. She appeared puzzled, and did not respond.
"He's Asian..." I said.
No answer. She peered in the car at the others who had begun to spit out alternate descriptors.
"He's oriental."
"He teaches in the computer lab."
"His name is: Chris. Kramer."
Still no recognition. Then we said a word she knew.
"He's Chinese."
"Oh, Chris," she said with a smile. She pulled open the gate and let us through.

The Divundu youth center is a sprinkling of small buildings along the Okavango river. The buildings are interconnected by footpaths. It has the look and feel of a summer camp. Chris lives in the last building where the road ends. He has a back porch hammock and his backyard quickly becomes the riverbank. I watched the sun reflect off the water and listened to pretty singing coming from the neighboring building. Chris came out serenely and greeted us with his voice. Among Peace Corps volunteers, he earned the nickname "the voice" because his smooth velvet baritone could make just about anybody's heart skip a beat. He had a deep jagged scar on his forehead. A few months earlier, he went to Windhoek to meet his parents (from New Jersey) who had flown over for a visit. The night before the flight arrived, Chris got in a taxi with a man. After a few blocks, the man stabbed him in the head with a screwdriver. Chris bled all over and was put out on the street. His money was stolen, his head was bleeding. Somehow he got to a hospital where he was stitched up. In the morning he met his jet-lagged parents, with a bandaged head, wearing bloody clothes. What a badass.

Chris took us for a tour around the place. We saw the computer lab (also a home to termites) where he teaches fundamentals to students who, he claims, actually want to learn, and thus his work is fulfilling. He took us upstream to a section of river with a rocky island in the center. Nick, Chris, and I hopped like ninjas from stone to stone out to the island and climbed to the top. The views up and down the flowing river were pleasant, and we waited there for the sun to set. Rob started to come out to meet us but lost his footing and fell in. He hugged a rock to avoid being swept away by the current. When we helped him up, his lower half was all wet, and his phone, waterlogged. Afterwards, Nick and Chris made a point to tell Rob that the Okavango is swarming with alligators. Rob was frazzled. Walking back, we saw a tree with juvenile monkey fruits. These fruits, named for the animal that eats them the most, supposedly taste alright when ripe and the sphere of outer skin can be used to make souvenirs or musical instruments. Then Chris took us to the "bunny farm." A dozen or two rabbits were fenced in a pen, hiding and hopping. I asked Chris what they were for. His reply was: "Probably the same thing most animals in Africa are used for, to eat."

We chilled inside Chris's place for the rest of the night. He had several spare rooms, a futon, and a cot to accommodate us. For dinner, Chris was kind to cook us a stir-fry. It had spiced vegetarian meat (though not real meat it was tasty all the same), green peppers, and Chakalaka (Africa's own delicious blend of sweet chopped veggies and curry). Chris cooked the rice with some tea-colored water he poured from a pre-boiled jug. Here, in Divundu, the tap water wasn't fit to drink. We ate on the futon in front of Chris's laptop, which reeled off six consecutive episodes of Futurama. The simple activity of laughing at cartoons with friends really hit the spot. Especially for Chris, who had long been deprived of people familiar with his favorite shows, the sort who could appreciate the jokes with him; I think he enjoyed our company that night. Soon we called it quits because we had an Intercape bus to catch around 5 AM the next morning. I took the cot next to the back window and fell asleep to the rush of the Okavango.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Chronicles of Namibia--Part 2

Note: It may be in your best interest to read the preceding post "Chronicles of Namibia--Part 1" before beginning this one.

"If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, expands to new territory, and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously." -Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park

"Hey, did you guys sleep alright? My stomach is killing me."

It took me a moment to detect where the voice was coming from. When my groggy eyes could finally process an image, I saw Natalie sitting on a mattress, bent over, grimacing, clutching her stomach.
"Do you think it could be the meat from the brai?" I asked.
"I don't know, but I have to hitch out of here and be at work in two hours and I feel like shit."
Doubled over, Natalie quickly gathered her things, stuffed her sack, bid us farewell, went out the door. Two minutes later, she was back. She needed to use the bathroom. And because there was no toilet paper available, I let her borrow my roll. After a second farewell she stood out on the main drag with her thumb out. Our group was back down to four.

Rob and I heard Nick and Karen stirring in the other room, so we went to check on them and to tell them we were going to pick up some food at the grocery store up the street. They said "Cool beans."
This was the first time Rob and I had walked alone in Africa without the security of Nick, our beloved bodyguard. So we were a bit wary, feeling the eyes on us, checking our money belts and patting our decoy wallets as we walked. We got to the store just fine and grabbed some provisions including a jar of peanut butter, three cans of jam, snack crackers, two large tanks of purified water, a bag of oranges, and two loaves of freshly baked bread in hand-tied plastic bags. Also, Rob bought a tub of powdered, dehydrated milk because his malaria prophylaxis prescription indicated that the medication is most effective when taken with milk. My malaria medication was a little different than Rob's and explicitly warned about the side effect of increased sensitivity to the sun. After we got back to Nick's, Rob and I rummaged through our packs for sunblock. The Namibian sun was up, it would not relent, and we could not run from it's shine.

Us and our stuff got in the car, and we were off! Cruising out of Usakos, the mountains were dry, brown, and all around. Before too long we pulled in at a rest stop in Okahanja, where we each bought a 1.5 liter glass bottle of Coca-Cola (the soda tastes better in glass than leachy plastic, and in Namibia it's made with real cane sugar, not high fructose corn syrup). Then Nick, who always has our best interests in mind, bought fifty NamBucks (approximately five USD) worth of spicy hot beef jerky, locally called "biltong," which we all came to affectionately call "chilli bites." In step with the meat at Carl's brai, the chilli bites were exceptional. In our vehicle we sat chewing on pieces of chilli bite fat as we sped across the open land. We passed through a few towns, some lush, some sparse, but each had its own feel and character. We also passed a slew of private ranches probably owned by rich German outdoorsmen (Namibia was formerly a German colony). Along the way we counted the tall termite hills scattered throughout the savanna landscape. We also enjoyed the company of a gang of baboons having a party in the road.

By lunchtime, we rolled into Otjiwarongo to meet Ginny, a 50-year-old Peace Corps volunteer serving in the town. As our Hilux halted in a Supermarket parking space, we saw maybe a dozen men roaming the lot perimeter, watching. We got out and locked each door manually with the key. When we could not get the back door to lock, indeed we were fretting some, but then Nick simply mimicked a lock-pull-check motion and we were set. Due to crime, it's common in Namibia for security officers to patrol the parking lots, so we sought out the designated officer for this particular lot and asked him to keep an eye on our vehicle. Then we met Ginny and bought some mango/litchi/guava juice cartons for the road before sitting down at a raw-looking wooden table in a pizza shop down the street. We had to speak loudly to overcome the chatter of the wobbly fan spinning above us, but we quickly learned that Ginny is retired and originally from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. While we all enjoyed the nourishment of two greasy, meaty, bacon-y pizzas, I was keen to quiz Ginny on her Peace Corps work: what's wrong with the Peace Corps, what things give her satisfaction, what things could be improved. Her answers were not the clearest, and my questions were not very clear either, but I have deduced what I learned down to a few points: 1) the Peace Corps bureaucracy inhibits progress, 2) satisfaction comes in small doses, helping one person at a time, 3a) to help causes associated with the Peace Corps it's best to send supplies & equipment (i.e. textbooks, pens) 3b) do NOT send money. Ginny was kind to cover the bill. We thanked her, emptied our bladders, and tanked up on diesel fuel before roaring out of town due north headed for Etosha.


"Holy shit!"

"What the fuck was that!"

"I think I hit a bird."

"What do you mean 'you think'?"

"What the fuck was that!"

"Okay, fine, I hit a bird."

"Haha! Did you see that? The carcass fell right out of the sky and flopped behind the car like a baseball mitt!" Nick said.
"Yeah Rob, you killed the shit outta that thing!" I said.
"Fuck! Look at the windshield! We didn't buy insurance!" Karen said with a degree of distress.

Rob had done all he could do to avoid the manic pheasant-like bird flailing about in the road. But he sure hit it, and it sure broke our fucking windshield. The bird crashed into the right side of the glass and left behind a coarse cluster of cracks. Extending from that cluster a long winding crack wrapped around the rest of the windshield in a sort of figure-eight. At least our crack was elegant. After the blow, we had no choice but to cope and keep our course.

Our bird-induced cursing had subsided by the time we arrived at the gate to Etosha National Park. The guard scribbled down our plate number with no acknowledgement of our wounded windshield and let us in. Etosha beckoned us at once. The grasses were emerald and the sun illuminated the land like a film set. Appropriately, as if on cue, Nick began to hum the theme from Jurassic Park. Suddenly, to the left, my eyes fell upon a most grand picture: under an explosion of white clouds in a meadow of yellow flowers a herd of sun-brightened springbok wandered before us with an almost utopian politeness. Like toothless infants, we were agape, wide-eyed, and smiling. We snapped happy photos as members of the herd crossed the road in single file and pranced to the green bushes on the other side. When our attention went back to the road, we saw a big spotty gangly thing up ahead with it's head up in a tree shaking up some leaves--GIRAFFE!! We snuck up stealthily making as quiet as possible the buzz of our diesel engine. The giraffe was so interested in the tree leaves that we rolled within a few feet of it virtually unnoticed. When I watched it, a sense of wonder swept through my body; the awe could escape only in the form of tingles on my skin. Like an ancient messenger from a time before humankind, this animal was a reminder of how old and precious life is. It radiated the age of the earth. And when it's legs eased into a slow gait what we witnessed was sheer prehistoric grace.

Rob parked us in Okahuejo next to the visitor center, and then ran off. He had to shit. He probably got the same thing that plagued Natalie that morning. Meanwhile, Nick was at the visitor's desk wowing the staff by speaking in Damara, a native African "click" language. His clicking eloquence granted him, and the rest of our party, Namibian status and therefore, a small discount. Literally, in the sign-in book, under nationality, we got to write down Namibian. When Rob was feeling better he maneuvered the Hilux past some RV's to the campground. There were no people there, just deep puddles. Without too much hesitation, Rob plowed through the water and carefully backed into our campsite. When we got out of the car we saw a trio of wild jackals skulking about the campground. I had seen warning signs about them inside the visitor center. Jackals seem to fit the same "don't-feed-them" niche as bears in the American northeast, except jackals are a little smaller and a little more rabid. Luckily, as Rob and I jammed our tent stakes into the hard soil, a nearby RV site roasted up some meat which lured the jackals away from us pretty much for good.

It was dusk now with dark clouds and loud thunderclaps booming miles away. Nick and Karen were scouting out the watering hole on the far edge of camp hoping to see some elephants. Since it was the wet season, there were plenty of other water sources elsewhere in the park, and thus no thirsty animals were to be seen. So, we all went to the bar. Nick bought us a round and we chatted and relaxed. Then a cell-phone-sized rhino beetle dive-bombed and crashed into our table. It was thrashing on it's back hissing like a mad windup toy. Before I knew what had really happened, Nick flicked the beetle away like a paper football, and our conversation resumed. Minutes later, SMACK! A rhino beetle had effectively bitched-slapped me in the face. Now these beetles had our full attention. We flicked them, flipped them, played table hockey with them, etc. They were humiliated perhaps, but they were not harmed. On the walk back to our campsite the beetles were everywhere, flying, crawling, hissing in the night. They had numbers on us, and there was nothing we could do about it.

After warm showers in the bathhouse (the only warm showers of the trip), we were all refreshed. At our campsite we opened a can of jam and a jar of peanut butter to make sandwiches before bed. Thankfully the jackals did not catch wind of our late dinner. Nick and Karen slept together on a blanket in the back of the Hilux. Rob crawled in the tent and fell asleep within seconds. He snored like a dump truck. I know Rob is naturally predisposed to excessive sleep, but he had been the sole driver of the trip so far and it was definitely taking its toll on him. Also, for Christmas, Rob received a new camera with superior zoom, but he had had few chances to take pictures with it since his hands were always on the steering wheel. So, even though I did not have much experience driving a stickshift, I decided right then that I would do the driving the next day. The enveloping hiss of insects was pierced by the howl of some far-away animal beyond the sturdy perimeter fence. I sighed, put in my foam ear plugs, and went in the tent beside the dump truck. There, lying horizontal on hard African soil, I did my best to pass out.