Monday, December 22, 2008


(I compile this entry from Abu Dhabi International Airport where my connection to Delhi has been delayed about seven hours. As I try to pass those stubborn airport hours that always resist all your efforts, I've also realized I've forgotten something. In this entry, I have completely ignored the phenomenal pre-Malawi trip to Chobe National Park in Northern Botswana and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. I will try and catch up and post later, but for now i need to share the experience I just had for about two weeks in Malawi. So, here goes).

Saturday, 06/12/08

It’s overcast, the grey, looming skies teasing with spots of drizzle here in Johannesburg. This morning, with less than an hour of sleep under my belt, I said “see you later.” The golden-tinged post-dawn made the parting more difficult as I recalled long, winding minutes spent watching the sky expand and own and rule my field of vision and fields of thought. It’s true that people make a place, but a place makes a place too. I’ll miss the way the air feels, the way the ground simultaneously aggravates and caresses – an unexplainable contradiction of sensations that make up that ethereal, transient concept called home.

But it is true, too, that that the people make a place and that may have been the hardest part of that whispered, hidden “see you later.” Everybody, all the crazy, insanely nutty, eccentric and beautiful people who made up my Bots experience – and some individuals in particular – are now memories waiting to be retapped, revamped and reexplored. There’s a lot of unanswered questions as I sit here in the comforting chill of Sleek Backpacker’s Lodge in the company of Daniel, two Malaysians and an (overly) gregarious man from Mozambique, Telise.

Eish… Go siame Bots. I really very much hope to see you soon. And hello Malawi, tomorrow.

Sunday, 07/12/08

First, a quick flashback to the later hours of last night at the hostel in Joburg. Here’s a quick little snapshot: sitting with questionable Chinese food brewing and bubbling in my stomach, listening to PeterPan and Padi (two Indonesian rock bands) with two Malaysian girls while this psychotic Mozambiquan performs wacky dance and tai-chi in the garden. What the hell, I find myself asking again in Africa. These are the experiences that make up a youth and I can only smile, laugh and swallow them bit by bit to regurgitate and sift through at some later date.

We left to the airport in a rickety but fully functional and very able to “move” (our driver insisted) VW at 7:30 AM. The flight to Lilongwe was uneventful besides a few bumps courtesy of cloud cover and a few more courtesy of the brat behind me. Apparently kids are bad at reading even the most piercing of glares. Lilongwe is an unspectacular city but I can tell I’m going to love Malawi. First two things I noticed: 1) An apparent affection for public service billboards with one quarter occupied by the smiling face of the president and 2) GREEN! The landscape is a lush, soaked, vibrant green peppered with the clay and straw huts that speckle the outskirts of the city. The people are incredibly friendly as we discovered as we sat outside the bank talking to two gregarious Rastas, John Banana and Coconut. The hostel we’re staying at, Mabuya Camp, is hopping and I had a great, looping, extended conversation with Johannes, a Norwegian studying for a year at the University of Cape Town. Franka, a German math student who was studying at UB with us for the semester, arrived despite our worries after bussing through Zambia and we went to get some sustenance. Besides a long-winded hiccup when Standard Bank swallowed Franka’s card whole, we had a nice evening at an Indian restaurant. Once again Indians are omnipresent. We spent the remaining time watching the hours trickle away with the rain at the hostel. Tomorrow we take a pretty long bus ride to Nkhata Bay and hopefully catch the ferry to the islands in Lake Malawi. We weren’t willing to drop 7,000 kwacha (about 50 bucks) on a shared minibus with a British lady, Abby, so the bus it is. More – and hopefully with a little more depth and thought – from the islands. Boroko!

Monday, 08/12/08

We woke up early in the morning and made our way to the Shire Bus stop. to my disappointment, we were not escorted to carriages by hobbits scurrying around the hillside. Instead we entered the relaxed frenzy that is the bus rank. Throngs of people seemed to bustle and move while everything also seemed to be moving in a sort of extended slow motion. The line behind the ticket window refused to shrink and packed buses remained idle in their stops. Two hours and a few chunks of break later we were on the bus for Nkhata Bay. Abby, a British woman who works in a textile workshop on Likoma and Lauren, the manager of the hostel at Likoma were on the bus and along with Daniel and Franka we occupied the back row of seats. The seats were stiff and unstable and my bum slowly progressed from dull pain to duller numbness. The bus was densely packed with people standing shoulder on shoulder all along the aisle. Stops were made literally about every 5-10 kms, and when we were driving it was Malawi gone Formula One. The bus rattled and shook as we sped past village after village, blurs of lush tropical green dominating my window screen. At the stops, the same wares were offered through the windows: drinks, bread and maize, maize, maize. After one and a half cobs of corn and five hours I was done with the experience and ready for the islands but alas, there were about four more hours of holding on for dear life as I slid around my stiff throne. Finally, we passed some rubber plantations and we had reached the Bay.

We triumphantly disembarked and in between smiles and greetings made our way to the ferry that would take us to Chizumulu Island in the lake. We had been banking on the fact that ther would be ATMs at Nkhata, but noooooope. So it was time to be frugal. We watched Lauren and Abby purchase their first class tickets and bought our own second class ones not quite knowing what to expect. The second class cabin consisted of a small, four-walled room mainly occupied by bags and with a few benches that were already taken along with the bow of the boat which held most of the cargo. We made our way to the first-class deck, a large empty space with some mattresses and a bar and hung out with Lauren and Abby. A few hours later the ferry hadn’t left, it was now around 9 o clock, and I drifted into slumber. When I was woken up, the ferry was moving and the ticket-collector we had been dreading so much was standing over us, palm outstretched. We played dumb, and after a little “oh this is first class?”, we walked down towards the now completely crowded second-class cabin. Stepping over sleeping bodies, mothers wrapped like blankets over their children and in between raucous pre-adults sipping on ‘Greens’ (i.e. Carlsberg) and greeting with wide smiles and slapping hands. We finally found some empty space on the bow and settled down to sleep the five hours away on top of petrol drums. Yes, our sleeper cabin consisted of trying to make the thick plastic ridges and uneven placement of large barrels of petrol comfortable. It wasn’t. As I drifted towards sleep not from comfort but from necessity I saw a rat the size of a healthy cat climb a railing towards the front of the bow, turned to my side and saw a calloused foot inches away from Daniel’s face and I laughed a little bit. Oh, the experiences that make up a lifetime.

view from our coveted second class seats (i.e. fuel drums).

Tuesday, 09/12/08

The ferry finally pulled into the bay around the island at around 3:30 AM. I woke up from my neck-breaking petrol siesta just in time for the obscenely loud horn that would have propelled me off the drums and into the lake. Small rowboats made their way to the ferry and started bringing loads back to different points on the island. We got on the rocking rowboat and headed to Wakwanda, the only hostel on Chizumulu. On the boat was Nick, the owner, Franka, Daniel, myself and Quim, whose first words to me were “I’m from Cataluna, but I have a Spanish passport.” We got to the hostel and I could already tell, even in the pitch-black early morning, how beautiful it was. The air felt spectacular and we sat around the bar and talked over a couple of Greens. It was 4:30 before we staggered to our dorm, tucked behind a pavilion sitting area right on the beach. I fell asleep confused of dates, time, place, but it was a welcome confusion.

I woke up not quite prepared for what I’d see when I walked out of my dorm. The sun shines through a thin cloud cover, illuminating the azure expanse of water. Waves lap against a sandy, rocky beach and the regular blue/beige dichotomy of a beach is thrown a wild card with deep greens hugging the island. In the distance, what look like columns of black smoke rise from the lake in the horizon. It isn’t smoke, however, but thousands of miniscule lake flies feeding and being fed on. I sat down for coffee with Quim, the world-hopping Catalan and together we sat marveling in unison at the sheer tranquility that seemed to float in the damp air. It was bath time and despite it being a little brisk, I waded into the lake. The temperature was perfect and I could just feel how clean and pure the water was as I dove and propelled myself further off shore. I came out rejuvenated and after a few more hours of ‘relaxing,’ (what has become the key word of the trip, we decided to explore the island and headed off towards Same Beach, the supposed center of activity in the island. The walk consisted of winding, sloping trails through cassava patches and baobab trees, bulging at their bases. A chorus of “Hello!” and “What is my name?” and “Give me picture!” gave us our soundtrack, as children, who seem to make up the largest segment of the population, smiled and chased and laughed. It’s a beautiful island where lush grasslands hug the lakeshore. Eventually we started feeling our energy lagging a bit and asked Boise, a boy in Form 3, where we could get some mangoes. He led us to a towering mango tree, where the fruits hung like thick, juicy reminders of vitality and life. He epertly scale up the tree and a torrential downpour of mangoes ensued. As they hit the ground with resounding thuds, I picked up a ripe-looking one and peeled away the skin to reveal the moist yellow below. When I bit into it the juices filled my mouth and tickled my senses into sweet, gluttonous submission. We left with a backpack full and our sugar levels rejuvenated and made our way to the other side of the island back to the hostel.

the first thing I saw when I woke up on Chizumulu.

three columns of feeding lake flies on the horizon.

The smiling faces of the crowd of children following us down the dirt paths created a stark contrast with some of their bloated, malnourished stomachs. The poverty I’ve seen in Malawi, so far, is far worse than anything I’ve seen in the rest of Africa. That being said, a peaceful sort of self-sufficiency seems to exist on this fishing community. Very little seems to come from the mainland, besides essentials like those fuel drums we were sleeping on. The people seem happy here and much of the day in between catching fish and selling the fish is spent in sitting around – groups of people in staggered circles sharing gossip, or talking about the fishing bounty of the day.

We got back to the hostel and with the mangoes not quite having satisfied our growing appetite sat down for a lunch of Veggie Bean Burgers and planned out the relaxing the rest of our day would consist of. Quim seems to pay close attention to scheduling “doing nothing.” After lunch we borrowed some snorkeling gear and hit the lake The visibility was not as perfect as it would be on a sunny day but it was beautiful and felt great to snorkel again – a good second place to the scuba diving I cant afford because of the ATM incident. The fish were small but of myriad colours, species that only exist in Lake Malawi. More ecstatic doing nothing filled the hours afterwards until our pre-arranged dinner in the small local restaurant next door. When we tried to have lunch there earlier, the old woman was unprepared so we told her we’d be back for dinner at seven. We had a delicious dinner of grilled fish, nsima (mealie meal) and beans costing us about $1.50 each. We’ll be back tomorrow for sure as my thin wallet burns away at my pocket. We spent the rest of the night with good conversation, good beer and a beautiful view of the near-full moon from the beach. A magical force seemed to push the surrounding clouds away from the moon, forming perfect circles of clouds, as if the moon had been dropped into the night sky creating ripples on its surface.

the strange grassy/beachy terrain of Chizumulu.

So this is what peace feels like.

Night Above Chizumulu

A glow creates concentric circles
of ghostly diffused light.
Each shift further away from its source
yields a slightly darker shade.
Like fingers disappearing as they reach
for the most opaque, most mysterious parts of our universe.
Fingers disappearing in the most perfect act of perfection,
a perfect search bringing perfect peace.
Perfect, though, in imperfection.

Raining down thoughts,
like the tenderest mango shaken off the tree.

Inundate me in your waters.
Let me see me in your reflection.

Thursday, 11/12/08

We’re sitting under a tree on Same Beach waiting for the wind that will take us to Likoma Island. We just hiked, with our bags, over the hill across the island. The island barber is convinced the wind is on it’s way so the small sailing boat will be able to leave, but on this still beautiful, sunny day I’m not so sure. Wait! I’ve just been informed it’s ready. And yes there they are putting up the patched up blanket of a sail. Here we go.

I’m finally sitting at the bar of Mango Drift Lodge on Likoma Island under a giant mango tree. The place is stunning and a step up from the last island, so I’m glad we came here second. Sandy beach, a dorm-hut hugging the sand and a bar built around a mango tree with a ladder that is open for picking for all. The two juicy mangoes were exactly what I needed after the physical exertion of the past day. The boat ride was 3 1/2 hours going in windless heat at around 1 km/h. Entertainment was given through the plastered “captain” who was sucking on little packets of gin the majority of the time and reclining in the one spot of shade the rest. Some further entertainment was offered when Quim dropped his sunglasses into the lake and dove in after them. In a few minutes his head was a dot on the horizon and we were turning around amidst drunken curses from the captain. He lost his glasses ultimately but it provided some amazingly awkward silences and even more awkward nervous laughter.

Franka, myself and Daniel before the sun burned our smiles off.

castaway - Quim climbs back aboard

We pulled up to the island and were pointed in the direction of Mango Drift. We had to hike about an hour uphill, downhill and over crumbling stone bridges. Collapse seemed imminent as I felt all my remaining moisture draining out of me but we finally hit the beach. I sank into satisfaction over a few mangoes, four glasses of water and an ice cold beer. Satisfaction is so much sweeter when you work for it. And this place is SWEET!

dusk at Likoma Island

the mango tree-gone-bar at Mango Drift

Friday, 12/12/08

I spent yesterday evening in a state of suspended animation. void of any real awareness of time and place I spent a long time looking at the sky. The near full moon shone with a ferociousness that made the night look like early dusk. The sky morphed and transformed the clouds using the moon as their hub, their canvas to shift and create contradictory and beautiful masterpieces. first the moon was a silver beacon in the middle of an atlas of clouds that were giant shifting frozen continents. Then a cloud would contract and stretch as the dense overcast became a thin veil – a winking hint at the luminous brilliance that floated below. As the waves of Lake Malawi licked at the shores of Likoma Island, an elusive and deceptive sky painted epigraphs of transience and startling reality.

the beach at Mango Drift - paradise

Sunday, 14/12/08

I’m sitting in front of another perfect cove on Lake Malawi at Nkhata Bay. The lingering swell of the waves lapping at the rocky shore brings memories of the storm last night – the one that hit us when we were on the Ilala ferry from Likoma back to the mainland. It was sad to say goodbye to such a paradisaical place – an island where my days consisted of sitting, reading, writing, mango overdosing, underwater adventure and the extent of physical activity being a one hour long hike to town for dinner and back. We were told the ferry had come early (nothing comes on time in Malawi) so scrambled to get ourselves ready and board the motorboat to take us to the Ilala. We made our way around the island, stopping at Kaymara, the $300-a-night older sister of Mango Drift to pick up Lauren and Abby (weird to have had the same travel partners from Lilongwe on). We saw clouds forming and so we decided oil drums might not be as comfortable this time, so joined Quim, Abby and Lauren in first class. The first few hours, up until Chizumulu, were spent lounging by the bar. At Chiz I decided to give sleep a shot and curled up on a bench against the rail of the deck. Just as I felt my thoughts turn into that pre-sleep jello, a wall of cold rain slapped me in the face and people were scrambling to escape the horizontal downpour. As the ferry rocked and swung around it’s anchor and the captain shouted puzzling orders like “I want no injury! Please don’t let me overpanic!” on the loudspeaker – the seven of us, now including Nick, the owner of the hostel at Chizumulu, ran around to find a dry spot. Eventually, soaking wet, we filed into the dining saloon where I found a chair in the periphery of the sea of sleeping bodies on the ground. I fell asleep, head down against the table, like a folded leaf, rocking back and forth through the ride. I woke up to the invasive foghorn of the ferry that meant we had arrived. It was still raining as we disembarked and boarded a bus to Mayoka, a beautiful hostel a few minutes out of the town, nestled against a secluded rocky bay. We were welcomed by Gary, the owner, with tea, coffee and muesli and waited until it was late enough (it was 6 AM when we finally arrived) to wake up the man who was staying in the four-bed dorm Franka, Daniel and I would be staying at. Exhausted and soaked to the bone, I briefly admired the wonderful view from our terrace and collapsed into bed. It’s around 2PM now and I plan to spend the last few days in a similar way as the first – absorbed in a fully-conscious sort of slumber where thoughts, emotions and impressions can boil and simmer as I prepare to leave this wonderful continent.

right below our dorm - Daniel succeeding at doing nothing.

Tuesday, 16/12/08

hings can halt to a stop when underwater. Thoughts, movements can slow to a stasis as gravity becomes unfamiliar and sensations undefined. I went for an extensive swim today, and while I flipped and twirled in the depths, fully submerged, time and place lost all relevance. When I broke the surface I was next to a dugout canoe, with an old man steering from the back and the inside full of freshly picked mangoes. Where am I?

The last few days have been relaxation at it’s finest. Yesterday morning, Daniel took one for the team and bused to Mzuzu, the city nearby where there are ATMs, functional Internet and apparently beautiful tapestries with bananas on them, to stock up on essential and on short supply items – namely money. Franka and I went into “downtown” Nkhata Bay. It was market day and so the town was bustling with life. Makeshift stalls lined the streets selling everything from fresh fish to traditional medicine to soap. One man stood on a stage, sweating, dancing and auctioning t-shirts to a surrounding crowd of out-stretched hands. An entire marketplace was set up for selling clothes that had been donated through NGOs. How they ended up being sold for 100 Kwacha a piece seems a little suspect to me.

the hustle and bustle of Nkhata Bay on monday market day

a fishwife (it's a word, trust me, look it up) on market day.

We went into an old man’s house, whose name I now don’t recall, the father of a family Franka had met the day before. We spent a while with four of the seven sons as they showed us around town but what I enjoyed most was the conversation with the father, an absolutely fascinating man. Among other things, he worked as a police man in Zambia, where he learned Kung-Fu from imported Chinese masters and worked in Mobuto’s Zaire, building the gargantuan dump-trucks used for cobalt mining. Now he lives a quiet retired life of fishing and metal-working on this idyllic bay with his large family and owns some land he hopes to rent out. He had a lot of things to say about themes ranging from Mobuto and Cold War politics in Africa to the art of staying on a dugout canoe without succumbing to the non-existent center of gravity.

Nkhata Bay

After a while we made our way back to the hostel and I spent the rest of the day in superfluous mango-eating and lots of lounging, swimming, reading and writing. After dinner, Daniel and I stuck around the bar and played a creativity (and Carlsberg)-fueled game with two Australian girls, Zsofi and Lucy, and two American girls who have been in the Peace Corps in Lesotho for the past two years. By midnight I was fast asleep. Obviously I need my sleep. Clearly these days have been strenuous.

Saturday, 20/12/08 – Sunday, 21/12/08

We’ve gone full circle as Daniel and I sit in the garden of Sleek Backpackers in Jo’burg, watching our hours in Africa dwindle away. My remaining days in Nkhata Bay were spent in a simultaneous sadness of impending departure and excitement over the lush jungle of new experience that now exists inside of me. These reflections bounced in and around me like light through a maze of mirrors as I watched post-rain sun glisten over the lake or when I was a few feet under water or walking through town having conversations about Rastafarianism in Africa or eating the oft-repeated spread of salted fish, ncima, and some sort of green vegetable.

One of my favorite things about traveling is meeting people. Besides Quim, who was still around until the end, still relaxing, and still a source of non-stop entertainment, we’ve met some other interesting characters. These include some locals of Nkhata like Cheese-On-Toast, Chicken Pizza and simple (I’m not even sure what to say about those names…Cheese’s real name is Marcus Garvey, apparently, but he prefers his pseudonym). After a short improv jam session the night before, I met up with them at Butterfly Lodge next door on Wednesday night. Everybody picked up a drum and it’s fitting that I had my first real drum circle on one of my last nights in Africa. Eight pairs of hands, including mine and Daniel’s, slapped and battered at drumheads as rhythms spilt into each other and a percussive frenzy flew over Lake Malawi. Occasionally, Cheese interjected with Rastafarian dancehall vocal chants or Simple steered the jam session towards a more traditional Malawian approach. Forty-five minutes later the jam died down and D and I went back to Mayoka in time for the delicious fish barbecue.

With full stomachs, the party started after dinner and it was fortunate that everyone seemed in a festive mood on Daniel, Franka, Quim and my last night on Lake Malawi. We were up late into the night as things got progressively more boisterous until a few fights broke out and the owner was on the bar shirtless, and it was clearly time to call it a night.

Our wakenings were staggered the next morning as one by one, zombie-like creatures emerged from the woodwork, stumbling towards the sweet rejuvenation that is a Giant Banana Pancake. We had met Steven, a bear of a man with often crass and sometimes brilliant wit from Newcastle and his London-born friend Ben who may or may not have malaria the day before. They were headed to Lilongwe in a friend’s car and had three more spaces – perfect for Franka, Daniel and I who were going that direction. It was slightly more expensive (fuel is pretty damn pricey in Malawi) but worth the less sore bum than what the bus offered. We said our goodbyes, traded contact information and parted with our week-long travel buddy, Quim, and hit the road.

The drive was beautiful, one I could not fully appreciate through the high foggy windows of the bus. In our pale blue Rav 4, we snaked our way through the vibrant green landscape. Every once in a while we would pass a remote village, small brick and mud huts nestled against cassava plantations. As we neared Lilongwe, we passed through a low-hanging cloud and were enveloped with mist. It was hard to spot pedestrians and potholes and for a while we crawled through the eerie fog in a tense snail-like state. It cleared up and as night fell we reached Lilongwe said our goodbyes to the British Bunch and Franka, D and I settled down where we started our Malawi journey – Mabuya Camp.
It was a quiet night and a fairly early retirement after a brief conversation with two American guys traveling up to Uganda from Cape Town.

In the morning Daniel and I went to a pharmacy to buy pills for bilharzias, a not too rare parasite present in Lake Malawi, just in case. We said our sad farewell to Franka who continues traveling until March and too a taxi to the airport. At the airport we randomly ran into Anique, a student from Georgetown who we met in Cape Town, where she was studying abroad. She was with a friend who was huddled in the corner with malaria. We caught up in between interspersed “are you okay”s to the lump that was Jarvis in the waiting room. After a turbulent flight we landed back in Joburg and we said our goodbyes (they just keep happening). A sixty dollar taxi ride later – Joburg is #$%@ing HUGE and taxi prices reflect that – we had stopped off at Monika’s place to collect our bags and were settled in back at Sleek backpackers, the launching point of our journey.

At the hostel we met Gabriel, the Tanzanian manager and were reunited with the former employee who drove us to the airport, Douglas from Zim. They invited us out and at around 9 we hit the town. We weren’t allowed in to the bar at Rosebank due to our t-shirts and sneakers so we headed to Melville, a hip area I had heard of before. Fifgteen minutes later we were on 7th Street, a Cape Town Long Street-esque row of clubs, bars and restaurants. It was a mixed, shifting crowd as we hopped from bar to bar. Joburg, and SA in general, is such a diverse place and it’s history has left it far too divided. So I was happy to see everyone from the thugs of Soweto the Mini Cooper driving yuppies of the suburbs all having a good time on a single stretch of asphalt. We ended the night at a Boerwurst stand- hot dogs smothered in ketchup, mustard and chili sauce that I’ve noticed are hugely popular all over Southern Africa.

The next day, D and I spent the day recovering in the hostel, only taking a break to walk down the street for some grease-coated grease at a fast food joint called Yanky’s – a strange last meal in Africa for Daniel. At four D left to the airport and we had our dreaded “see you later.” It’s strange to say bye to someone you’ve spent, almost literally, every single day with through a barrage of new experience. But I’ll see him in a few weeks in icy Philadelphia.

I spent the evening in the company of Brian, a permanent resident here at Sleek. Brian is a 50-something, mumbling man from Liverpool with a complexion the colour of a matador’s cape. We drank Black Label beer and watched David Bowie and Billy Connolly DVDs until it was time for me to call it a night. An interesting character, with the lexicon of an especially foul-mouthed sailor, Brian was a great source of entertainment and conversation. A particularly touching moment was when after putting the Bowie DVD in, he went to his room and came back with a gold ring in his weathered (and red) earlobe. His eyes sort of glossed over, maybe from the effects of the beer, but I think it was him traveling through a warp of time and space back to those glory days at Hammersmith Apollo.

Today, I’m rearranging my life, sorting some photos and hugging Africa goodbye. I haven’t left yet or had any time to even thin about the last five months, but I already see someone new when I look in the mirror. I feel different. It’s going to be really tough to leave, but I’m looking forward to India to see family, see old friends and gather my thoughts amidst the (sort of) familiar.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Time? Events.

In a previous entry, as I tried to piece together the mental contents of an unreported week or two in Gabs, I referred to the state of my mind as 'clutter.' If I were to do a similar thing right now, as I try to sort through the haze of the month that I've been absent on this blog, I'd have to describe it as a maelstrom. Emotions of every shape, color and size have met in the recesses of my skull and fought, embraced, torn each other into pieces and built new towering edifices of chaotic contentment, entropic ecstasy from the wreckage. I'll try my best to make my way through this built up, swirling whirlpool and capture and relate some of these elusive memories. Some will no doubt escape, but I can at least hope some will make it on to this page, with sense and organization as well. It could be an unrealistic hope, but here goes. I'm not even going to try and throw proper chronology into the mix - it would be futile. As a professor here said, "Botswana is not a place of time, it's a place of events."

I Shout From Southern Africa: "Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU America!"

It's great to say that for the first time in my politically conscious life, I am proud to be an American citizen. After eight years of disappointment, disenchantment and political depression the injection of optimism that was this year's election results, feels like a sip of water after weeks stranded in the desert (I imagine). For the people now saying that we've put too many expectations on Obama and he's only going to disappoint, I have two responses for you. One, a little optimism can go a really long way - let's keep the momentum of the campaign going into the "real world" and see where it can take us. "Yes we can," may be overused, may be cliche, but it is not wrong and we, the world, not just the United States, should carry that message forward regardless of politics or allegiances. God knows we need it right now. All I can do for now is be happy with the box I checked on my absentee ballot and hope and work towards repairing the devastation of the last eight years.

Anticipations for the elections were high here, not just among the American exchange students but also the Europeans and Batswana. In the weeks leading up to November 4th, a conversation could be struck up with any passerby with just three vowel-dominated syllables. Obama t-shirts were on sale (we got a glittery WWF-style one of Biden and Obama under the glowing banner of 'CHANGE' for Daniel's birthday) and the buzz for the elections was surely humming zzzz's all over Gaborone. We booked the TV room for Tuesday night, the election results starting to come in at 3 AM Gabs time, and started the night at Khwest. After some poetry, some drinks and a sprinkle of Russian ranting courtesy of Walter we headed back to campus, wound down and wound right back up again around 3. The TV room was packed with the exchange students and some local and international grad students. Cheers rebounded off the walls and drinks were drained as the election veered towards Bams. When the final results were called at around 8 in the morning, a contingent of us, me included, ran through campus cheering and singing, quickly joined by undergraduates from their windows. I kind of wish I was in the States for the elections... But I'm also kind of glad I was in Botswana.

Art, Art, Art:

Art continues to whisper, tickle and tease its wide, sticky web around me and it's beautiful. While I'm not as active musically as I was at the beginning of the semester, somehow in someway I still manage to remain stuck fast to the comforting cob webs of the alive but ethereal air here. An exchange student from Germany, studying in the Netherlands, Sabine, collaborated with a UB drama group, Afro-Western Theatre, by writing and directing a beautiful production for them, "Black and White." She asked me to get on board as a drummer for the singing and dancing involved in the third act, and as I'm used to the low-level commitment levels of university musicals as a drummer, I agreed. It's always six or seven laid-back practices total and you're set. While it was similar here, the frustration level was, well, frustrating. Yes, severe meta-frustration was what the experience amounted to - besides the gratification of the final performance of course. The actors just didn't seem to care about the art they were producing as they would often not show up for rehearsals and demand to end early - eish, can't imagine what poor Sabine was feeling. Every time they got on stage it was magic though. They easily slipped into their roles of slave or slavemaster and with dynamic passion brought a dramatic vision to vivid life. The highlight of the experience, despite the sleep-deprived, hungover state I was in (the day after the elections) was when we took an early morning bus to Lobatse to play at a school for kids. Over some pulled chicken and some Liqua-Fruit juice, I enjoyed the dance troupes of the local middle schoolers - once again I'm utterly stunned by the level of inherent rhythm in the people here, it's as if the lower body can move to one beat while the upper body grooves to some overlapping polyrhythm. The kids' enthusiasm for the play was out of control. They frowned when the slaver abused his slaves and screamed in delight when the slaves succesfully rebelled. The main performance at UB was a great success too and I'm happy for Sabine for the massive amount of work she tirelessly put into it, and proud of the result. I also managed to slip in a shout out for ZimFest at the end of the show. What's ZimFest you ask? Read on.

Afro-Western Theatre at the school in Lobatse


So in October, after Elles and Maaike, two other exchange students here, went to Zimbabwe over the short break they decided they needed to do something about the desperate situation they witnessed there. A place where people have to go to the ATMs at around 4 in the morning, because they are out of money by noon and the maximum withdrawal amount is less than a dollar. A place where credit cards cannot be used, because the exchange rate is in constant fluctuation, hovering at an inflation rate of (officially) 231 million percent. A place where friends of mine have traded their shoes, or thermoses, or half smoked cigarettes for arts and crafts in the markets. A place in a political deadlock that seems unresolvable as the poor keep getting poorer and the hungry, hungrier and the sick, sicker. In response Elles and Maaike started an on-campus group ultimately named "Zim I Am!" It was to be a collaborative effort among exchange students as well as local students at UB in conjunction with an NGO (we ultimately chose the World Food Programme) to raise money for the countless people who have been trampled by the hooves of the oppressive, the greedy and the apathetic in Zim. We decided that a good way to raise money would be a fundraiser of some sort and I volunteered, due to my experience in concert organization as well as the great connections I've made in the GC music scene, to organize a concert-festival for charity. It was to be named ZimFest, and while I am so glad I took on the responsibility of organizing the beast, a beast it was - one I had to wrestle and spar with until it finally decided to cooperate.

The Zim-Fest poster. Daniel's design was so good, I caught numerous people peeling the posters off walls to take home and put up on their walls.

I immediately set to work on finding artists who were willing to play at this show for no money at all and a cap of one free drink an hour (which, unsurprisingly, didn't work). I'm so glad I have a friend like Mex, owner of Mexyland Studios, and without him we could not have made the event possible. He supplied an extensive group of artists, including some that I have recorded with like P.O.R.N. but also Fishmaan, DJ Onkz, a couple of other DJs, Dolly, Skibumba and a lot more. I also managed to reel in a few poets, some Zimbabweans who wanted to speak about the situation there and my friends, Berman and KK. There were a few scares along the way, like when Mex came over to UB to tell me half of his sound system had blown up the night before when some obnoxious MCs kept turning themselves up despite Mex's (subdued, I imagine) warnings. We had to rent a studio system, which turned out great because it was a pretty beastly PA. The set list morphed and remorphed a few times in the days leading up to the event and it was a good thing none of the poets that I had scheduled for the first two hours showed up - because neither did a crowd for the first three. The day of the show, I was a mess. Jistock, Monsters of Rock, or any of the other shows I've been part of organizing have NOTHING on ZimFest. With very little sleep under my belt - the elections, again - I walked under the sneering eyes of the merciless African sun, back and forth, up, down, around, in, out for hours without taking even a second to breathe. My lunch was a package of Topper cookies that I acquired in a quick relay-type exchange with the Mma by the North Gate. Mex only arrived with the equipment about thirty minutes before the supposed starting time of 3pm (to go on until midnight) and when I saw the amount of drinks that had been donated to us I freaked out thinking about the wasted time, wasted booze and pissed off artists I'd have to deal with if 1) Mex didn't show up and 2) no one showed up. Luckily, once it started rolling after sunset, things picked up. While the crowd wasn't as big as I would have liked, they spent a lot of money on booze - getting sauced for a good cause - and were a really responsive crowd. The performers were all top-notch, sound quality was great, and I think everyone had a good time. For a Thursday night large-scale event put on in two weeks I was pleased with the way it unraveled. It received decent publicity and while we missed our target, we raised a good deal of money. Starting from bout two hours into the show when I finally started breathing and sat down for a second I really started enjoying it. I hope it made a difference and I really really really hope the world (like South Africa for instance) can take its hands out of its pockets and do something about the heart wrenching state of affairs in Zimbabwe.

jivin with (from left: KK, Rebo, Berman). one of the best jam sessions I've ever been in, I think.

the modest but wild crowd.

Can You Take It To Cape Town?

First say that four times in rhythm...funky?
Now, I give you my answer. Yes. Yes we can take it to Cape Town and yes we did. Smack in the middle of our exams, Anna, Hannah, Brianna, Daniel and I decided we needed to collectively take our minds and lose our minds in Cape Town before using our minds for the finals. I am so glad we did. My finals went smoothly and Cape Town was one of the best weekends to ever end my week. We took an early morning bus down to Joburg, got mildly perturbed at cheeky taxi meters, got onto our plane and by the late afternoon I was looking out the window of the plane, my lower jaw comfortably rested against my belt buckle. Geographically, which is just the beginning, Cape Town is an absolute wonder. Surrounded by vast plateaus and gaping valleys, the city is nestled against the ocean. Skyscrapers are scattered across the city but the majority of the horizon is dominated by a vast amalgamation of sea, land and sky all seemingly blurring into a single explosive, layered wall of color. A crisp, brisk breeze tunnels through the city offering relief from the vengeful sun while teasing you to reach for a sweater as the sun makes it's descent.

Thanks to Anna's sweet hook up, we were staying in a nice house in Mawbray, a subtly vivacious neighborhood a ten minute metro ride from downtown. With a theatre, Indian take away, internet cafe, and a few happening bars on the same street it seemed like an ideal spot. NJ, the permanent resident of the place, works for Anna's study abroad program, Interstudy, in Cape Town and had empty rooms in the house which we graciously filled. He was a hugely generous host and we spent most of the rest of the weekend with him in our presence. A play by play would be overdoing it, but I'll offer some highlights.

The waterfront in Cape Town is something. Full of life, with the ocean air only adding to the vibrant aura of the place, we spent a lot of time peering into the shops, bars, and tour offices of the boardwalk. Unfortunately we were barred from the main tourist attractions of Cape Town - Robben Island because it was fully booked and climbing Table Mountain because of winds. We still managed to get to the foot of the mountain and look over the beautiful city. We also explored a decent chunk of the city by foot. Early afternoon on Saturday we were taken, by another Penn student who was studying in Cape Town, to Old Biscuit Mill, a Saturday morning fresh produce and food market. After Gabs, it was total overstimulation of the sensea. I floated around the warehouse, bloody mary in hand, trying my best to decide between the pesto stand, crepes, burritos, Indian food, pomegranate products in every shape and size you can think of, myriad quiches, three different coffee stands...need I go on? I ended up trying a vast array of condiments, eating three pieces of quiche, a simple and sensible sugar, cinnamon and lemon crepe, something in tsitziki sauce and two cups of REAL coffee - not the instant chickory tainted Ricoffy junk we get "this side." It was probably about an hour before I had gained enough self-control and figured out my bearings enough to start eating, but once I started it took discipline to stop.

Cape Town waterfront

why we couldn't climb table mountain.

clouds sit on the mountain and salivate at the delicious array of treats at the old biscuit mill.

"where am i?"

The night life in Cape Town is pretty out of control and, well, awesome. Kind of like the rest of the city. That's the extent of what I will say about it. Good stuff.

at table mountain

view from the foot of table mountain

I made some (obvious) simultaneously intriguing and disturbing observations as well. While more integrated than pre-1994 Cape Town, racial divisions that don't exist to the same extent in Botswana were clearly present. Besides the bar we went to in Mawbray the first night, all the other nightspots, especially on Long Street were mainly white-dominated as was the Old Biscuit Mill and the waterfront. The city in general seems to be fairly segregated, with most residencies in city center belonging to whites with blacks living in the surrounding townships only going into the city to work. South Africa is such a fast moving country, with political, social and economic maturation all occuring at the same time, all working towards a new South Africa where race is evercloser to irrelevance. Or at least we can hope that's the trend.

But - what a trip! Cape Town, I'm living in you soon. Once again the people are just as important as the place and I would be hard-pressed trying to find better travel companions than Daniel, Hannah, Anna and Brianna. Oh wait. I think I could think of one person that could have pushed things up a 5'1 notch...

Goodbyes, See You Laters, or Just Sighs of "Eiiiiish...."

Eish! Bye... No, see you later. Despite its order in the subtitle, this is the more common progression of thoughts during these fare thee wells. It all started with the abrupt and tragic "see ya later" to Ilana after we came back from Namibia. If you recall, I mentioned Ilana was not feeling well at the end of our return journey from Namibia. Daniel took her straight to the hospital from the bus rank and it turned out her kidneys weren't in the best of moods. I blinked and she was being med-evaced to Johannesburg, I blinked again and she was being brought back to the States. I'm happy to say she's happy and healthily shivering away that dauntingly frigid Philly winter, but damn do I miss her. My attendance rate to my 7 AM class (Ilana was in every one of my classes) dropped a little bit as I had no one to call me multiple times in the morning to make sure I was out of bed, and it sort of felt like an appendage of my Botswana experience had been brutally ripped off. I can't wait to see her back at Penn and relive the countless memories we still have.

The goodbyes picked up again in the last week or so as I prepare myself for the biggest one of all - saying "sala sentle" to Africa. But first, the people. I don't know if it is because there were so few of us exchange students here or if it's just something - here I go again - in the air, but in the past four months I've grown so close to many of the transient residents of Block 417. I've forged some relationships that will never be forgotten and surely will continue to be forged as I couchsurf across the United States, into Europe and back around the world. It would be a drastically different experience without the great company I've had here and it's pretty surreal to be in a group of thirty-odd people all being changed drastically in drastically different ways, whether they like it or not.

Outside of the exchange student group though, I revert to Ilana's timeless quote - "the people you can't imagine." I have met some of the most beautiful, most ugly, most insane, most reasonable, most creative, most boring, most irritating, most positive, most negative, most wonderful people I have ever been acquainted with. In particular I will be forever in debt to Mexyland Studios. If I had to say one thing made my experience here - it was Mex and the crew. As they helped me understand my new home and make it a home, they also helped me understand more about music and me. Which brings me to my next and most devastating "See ya."

Gabs, Bots, Africa... I shouldn't realize it at this point, I think, but the fact that I do shows how significant it is. Being in Botswana for around four months has really changed me as a person. It's taught me about Africa, but more importantly it's taught me a great deal about myself, other people, and what the web of relationships with people and places that I create do, should and should not mean to me. It's taken the open perspectives I've always held, and with outstretched, strained fingers stretched them further and further until there's nothing left but an infinite sky. There were countless frustrations along the way, even times when I considered regretting my choice but as I near the end, all I can think is positive, positive, positive. Even if I could, I wouldn't change a thing. I'd keep every decision, every event exactly the way it was just so this very experience could be perfectly recreated - complete, only with every imperfection. Forget this goodbye nonsense. I'll see Botswana soon.


Forgive the melodrama, but its hard - impossible - not to overdo it as I sit here in my sweltering, packed-up, sheetless room counting down the hours I have left in Botswana. Tomorrow morning Daniel and I go for a luxury, Penn-sponsored (gracias) honeymoon up to Chobe National Park and then to hop the border for a day into Zimbabwe to gape at Victoria Falls. We'll be back on Friday, in Botswana for one more night, say our goodbyes to the now comforting aridity and flatness of this land through an Intercape bus window, and then off to Malawi for two weeks. You'll certainly be hearing from me about that trip, probably from India.

Until then, keep being.

Monday, October 6, 2008


I recently returned from a nine day episode in gallivanting around the beautiful country of Namibia. I knew there would be a lot to say so I tried to write every day of the trip. The following is a play by play recount of the trip. I have taken some stuff out, thrown some stuff in, but its all stuff, and certainly not stuffy, I hope. It's a little long, but there's a lot to report, and I've been slacking recently so deal with it.

Friday, 26/09/08

It's hour 11 or so of a bus ride that left at 7, on the dot, this morning from the Gaborone bus rank. Dazed, but rattled with anxiety and anticipation, Rafael, Helge, Daniel, Ilana, and I filed into caps and a quarter of an hour late were sitting in our own little nook at the back of the bus. The bus ride has not been unbearable as I've spent much of it drifting in and out of snoozeland and it's great to see the parched trans-Kalahari countryside. The landscape is dominated by straw colored shrubbbery, peppered with occasional trees - the majority of which are no taller than this bus. It's almost as if my view out the window has consisted of nothing but repeated frames of aridity and deep horizons. As we head into the sunset on this road that refuses to turn, I embrace the curves and undulations of this tingling and electrifying anticipation of the new, independent, and adventurous. Where are we?

one of the several stretch breaks on the way to Windhoek

the Namibian border, about nine hours into the ride

I'm now lying on my comfortable, clean bed at the Chameleon Backpacker's Lodge in Windhoek. The rooms are spacious dorm style accommodations with six bunks, shower, and toilet. It's a beautiful hostel with friendly staf, a bar, pool, a pool, TV room, internet... The whole vibe kind of reminds me of what F-39 in Jakarta would be like if it was a hostel. We put all our rand coins together (the Namibian dollar is pegged to the South African rand, and we are yet to have withdrawn any dollars) and managed to but two Windhoek Lagers and a Savannah Dry. Sip, pass, sip, pass. It makes bonds, you know?

Anyway, rewind - so, we got in at around seven. It was strange driving in to Windhoek. It's a city! Like...a real-life city; wide open boulevards, lit up streets, quaint Germanic parks, but very very few people. Kind of reminds me of what Bogota would look like if it was scorched and then all the people were kicked out. We were standing idly by the bus, getting our bearings and talking to a friendly frequent Gabs-Windhoek traveler, when a thick American accent pierced through the quietude. "Rafael? Rafael?" ", he's that one." One of Rafa's Rotary Club peeps, Mary-Beth - a lady straddling her bike like a hunter looming over her latest catch, thick bracelets up her forearm and a general persona that seems like it could easily shatter the toughest of stone. Immediately, after a few firm handshakes she started helping Daniel, Anna, Ilana and I look for a cab as even though the hostel was close by, she said walking at night was a "hit-or-miss" and then muttered something about trolls under the bridge. We made our way back to the hostel and settled in to our rooms. It's a pity we couldn't link up with Rafa or Helge for dinner but there will be plenty of time for that. Tomorrow it's car rental, hostel booking and camping, maybe! I'm feeling a strange transcendence of place where the 'where am I's become more potent and its disorienting. I feel like I could be anywhere, but of course I couldn't. I'm in Africa. I'm in Namibia. I'm in Windhoek. Or I'm just floating in surreality and place names just make it easier for my head to organize and file.

Ilana: "This is what I live for. Multiple people in a hostel, writing journals."

Saturday, 27/09/08

I woke from an absolutely comatose sleep under the enveloping warmth of the Chameleon-issued blanket. We took freezing cold showers and had a simple breakfast of bread, tea and cereal and then we got to work. Daniel and Ilana went to go try and rent a car from Budget, for our trip down to the sand dunes at Sossusvlei while Anna and I stayed at the hostel to book hostels in Swakopmund and Windhoek for our return. Half way through the booking process we got a call informing us that Budget does not rent automatic like they had previously said and so we scrambled to rebook as we postponed our trip to the dunes until Wednesday. Instead, we decided to head to Swakopmund, on the coast, and booked three nights at the Villa Weisse. Now we had the obstacle of trying to get to Swakopmund. The Intercape bus, the one we had originally intended on using had already left so with some Internet browsing I found the Econolux, leaving at 1 Pm. We needed to get to the station by 11 to buy tickets. This is where the ridiculous, absurd adventure begins.

We find a taxi, I tell him the address after getting off the phone with the office and we[re on our way. Fifteen minutes later we're in Northern Industrial (bus office is in Southern Industrial) and the driver asks me to call them again. I do, and with a frustrated curse in Afrikaans (or at least I imagine it was), the driver hands me back the phone and we head back into the exact place we started. Now he, I, and everyone else in the cab is utterly confused so I call the office again. I try talking to the lady myself. In a heavy Afrikaner accent she starts getting angry at me: "It's not that hard! Past the Pick 'n' Pay, next to the Lewis!" "Yes! That's exactly what we did!" Finally we give up, pay the cab a portion of the fare (he did use about a tank of gas) and decide we'll try and get another cab who might know where it is. Frustrated and worried as it's now about an hour until the bus office closes we find cab. Before we leave i call the office again and give the phone to the new driver. After about ten minutes of multi-lingual bickering (I feel like there's a huge language *&@#storm here between German, English, Afrikaans, Damara, Xhosa and all the other languages around) I take the phone bask and speak once again to the now absolutely infuriated woman on the other end of the line. "Ok! How do we walk there? We're on Fidel Castro St." "What? WHERE?" "Fidel Castro St. Windhoek Central." "What? Windhoek? This is the Walvis Bay office." ... Ever wonder what would happen if you followed directions to a place in a different city? Well I have and now I have and it sucks. We finally found someone, a Motswana who runs a tour company, who knew where it was and we made it twenty minutes before the office closed. As i walked into the office an old man behind a desk looked up at me, said something in Dutch and then translated it: if it ends up right, it is right." I guess.

About five hours later we were in Swakopmund. As I stepped off the bus I got hit with an oh-so-missed gust of ocean air- the sweet, sweet smell of salt, sand, shells and tickled with the subtle pins and needles of the brisk Atlantic. We walked over to the hostel, a beautiful converted German colonial-era villa, and were just in time for happy hour. We enjoyed a few delicious Windhoek Lagers and the company of some Alabaman film makers - Ben, Adam, and April - and talked about everything from Malawian music to Sarah Palin to Kid Rock. Then we went to dinner at the Napolitana, one of the best meals I've ever had. I had read that unexpectedly Namibia has some of the best cosmopolitan restaurants in the world, and the best in Southern Africa, and I believe it. I devoured a calzone with springbok, green peppers, garlic and a hint of chili. My goodness. Everything just blended into a mouth-watering, tickling fiesta of the savory, the sweet, and the spicy. After recovering from the inevitable food coma, we headed to a pool hall next door to meet Rafa and Helge, who were also in Swakopmund. A few games of pool later, our skills significantly degenerated, we walked home through the brisk oceanic midnight, disoriented, happy, and submerged in the surreal.

Villa Weisse, our hostel in Swakopmund

shooting pool and the breeze in Swakop

Sunday, 28/09/08

I realize I haven't written a word about Swakopmund, besides that it is on the ocean. It's a small town of wide open avenues, old multicolored Germanic cottages, full of both adrenaline-seeking youngsters and tranquliity-searching old folks. The architecture of the place kind of reminds me of some corny (but pretty) Lego set, or if you're familiar with it - the Noddy series by Enid Blyton. Just beyond the clusters of pastel homes, giant shifting sand dunes of the Namib desert stand cut out against the clear, deep blue sky. The desert/ocean creates a strange but awe inspiring juxtaposition of the dry and wet, dead and alive, static and dynamic.

a church in Swakopmund - yes, it's a real building

Woke up at about 9, in time for a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast and booked quadbiking in the sand dunes for tomorrow morning! We began to feel the magnetism getting overpowering so we headed to the beach. I never imagined the liberating, utterly carefree ecstasy that seeing the ocean can bring after two months of landlocked dryness. I guess I've always taken it for granted in the past, but this time I made every grain of sand between my toes, every seagull cry, and every "swish" of a breaking wave count like I never have before. The Antarctic current was, of course, frigid but I managed to get about knee deep. To feel the tide push and pull me, crests lapping against the back of my knees was really incredible only heightened by the people around me - Daniel, Anna, and Ilana skipping and running along the beach, collecting the mussel shells that littered the sand. Daniel also had a lively conversation with Molly, the dead, eyeless, beached seal.

the excitement of an endless body of water after the Dam and my plumbing being the only water seen in months


the crew (from left): Daniel, Anna, Ilana, and myself

After about half an hour of absorbing and reabsorbing the sights, smells, and sounds we walked up the beach towards the boardwalk. I took a detour on to the rocks, closed my eyes and listend to the peaceful, yet strangely violent, bombardment of breaking waves. My meditations on contradictions were interrupted when a clearly English man in a fluorescent yellow hooded Ocean Pacific shirt, Liverpool FC hat, and slightly tinted, oval rimmed glasses stepped on to my rock and muttered "excuse me, sorry, there are only so many rocks to pass through on..." I let him pass and after a few minutes of staring into the blue on blue horizon we struck up a conversation. Tim is an English real estate selling, child adopting, Marakesh dwelling, Zen philosophizing middle-aged man. After a while, Daniel joined us on our rock and we plunged deeper into conversation as we were occasionally sprinkled with the ocean spray somersaulting against and over the rocks. We talked about materialism, Africa's drinking problem, and our generation's addiction to information - how I feel the need to refresh the NY Times web page a few times a day and how all of us were itching to know what went down at the presidential debate. There was nothing pretentious about him as he acknowledged, "just because I'm twice as old as you, doesn't mean I'm any more enlightened." He was 40-something...but he wasn't. Agent meant nothing as we delved into heavier and heavier subjects always making it clear that he was no more as knowledgable than we are. He was in Swakop visiting a producer friend there filming The Prisoner, a six-part Pleasantville-esque miniseries starring Ian McKellan and that guy who plays Jesus in Passion of the Christ and who apparently subsequently thinks he is Jesus. We walked through the the set (unfortunately no Gandalf sightings) and then had lunch with Tim at a cafe on the beach. Conversation continued to dazzle, confound and stimulate and then we separated ways. It's baffling how people can enter into your life for only a few hours, engage and interact with the depth Tim did with us and then disappear forever. Once again, everything is so transient yet permanent. Predictable, yet always utterly astonishing.

Monday, 29/09/08

We woke up at around 8 to try and get some errands done before our big appointment at 1030. We did some bus inquiries and rental car scrambles and then made our way to the Outback Orange office, for quadbiking in the Namib desert. There was no way I could properly prepare myself for the fun, adrenaline and carefee climbs and swoops of quadbiking...through sand dunes. I was a little nervous at first, although I have quadbiked once before right outside of Jakarta through jungle and rice paddies. As we prepared ourselves to leave the guides talked to us about the "rollercoasters": driving up 45-60 degree dunes, which are 90 degrees on the other side, on a slant and then dropping straight down. My heart rate increased and soared away as we left the parking lot towards the dunes. So. Much. Fun. We drove around and through the dunes for about two and a half hours and as I got more comfortable, the speed and risks (within reason, parents) increased until I was catching air over humps in the desert. At first I was so focused on not killing myself, it was hard noticing the beautiful scenery around me. But as I got more accustomed to the power of the bike and took full advantage of it as I floored, or thumbed rather, the accelerator I was able to notice the otherworldly beauty of the dunes. Huge, pristine, and empty sand sculptures constantly shifting with wind, under a clear blue sky and as we came over one dune, my heart got caught in my throat. Just beyond the dunes was a small, straight road, and across the two lanes, raging, flipping ocean. I realized I was witnessing one of the environmental wonders of our wonderful world and simultaneously having one of the best times of my life. During a juice break I spear-tackled Daniel down a dune and that was good fun too. We got back to Swakopmund unscathed and shaking with excitement and leftover adrenaline (or at least I did).

me and my trusty steed

daring Daniel daily dives down dunes

me, desert, road, ocean, what?

blue, beige, blue

We ended the quadding extravaganza by starting the afternoon in the perfect way - German meatloaf and a communal 3 liter glass vat of boutique beer. Yes, a three liter glass. We then wound up the day, just when we thought it couldn't get any better, with a visit to the beach, frisbee, a photoshoot involving the same dead seal, and a little more floating around in the supernatural and surreal. The night ended with a delicious sea food feast at the Tug, a tugboat converted into the nicest restaurant in Swakop. Oh, critters from the ocean deep, how I missed thee. Tomorrow it's back to Windhoek, city of Windhoekers...

frisbee on the beach

Tuesday, 30/09/08 and Wednesday 01/10/08

After a cramped shuttle ride back to Windhoek, we went to a lunch of toasted sandwiches and real coffee with a little appetizer of biltong, southern African jerky including of the oryx variety. We settled in at the Cardboard Box, the most popular hostel in Windhoek and I wasn't too impressed. We spent the afternoon with some cold beers, a colder pool, and the baking hot sun, watching the day dwindle away as we listened to an assortment of rock n roll classics blaring from the bar. At around seven we went to a "Nice" Restaurant (NICE, being the 'Namibian Institute of Culinary Education - witty, I know). We splurged on some fancy drinks and met up with Helge and Rafa and three of their colleagues at the after school center they are volunteering at at the NICE Sushi restaurant. SUSHI! SUSHI! SU! SHI! I missed sushi so much and while pricey the food was delicious. We hit the sack early but unfortunately I had a lot of trouble falling asleep due to the stuffy heat of the dorm coupled with some unwelcome thoughts.


Woke up tired and with stuffed sinuses but excited as Ilana and Daniel went out to pick up the car for our expedition to Sossusvlei. Excited no longer, however, as they came back with the devastating news of the car rental's more than sketchy lack of insurance plan for under 21 drivers. We have our fingers crossed that Helge and Rafa will agree to let us tag along when they go on Friday because apparently Sossusvlei is a must see. So, we called around and found space for us at the Roof of Africa Lodge. Daniel and I had the brilliant idea of walking there, so we all did. 40 minutes, 10 gallons of sweat and 3 blisters later we were lost. Luckily, Tadius, a man with a truck, offered to drive us and so Anna, Il, and D climbed into the back and I got into the co-pilot seat. As we drove, and realized how lost we really were, I talked to Tadius. He talked to me about while it may seem like the world is crashing down around us with Wall St in shambles and the scramble for power in South Africa, in places like Namibia you can feel peace and let your mind be free of all the nonsense. I suppose it's pretty true - I just need to follow it more.

We settled down in our dorm and spent a few hours by the pool, basing, soaking and reading. When we had had our fill, we decided to go back into town - by taxi, although I would have been absolutely okay with another hike across the city: builds character or something. We had lunch, served by a man with an impressive 50 Cent hollogram belt buckle and explored downtown, especially Post Street. Post Street is mainly a pedestrian path that cuts perpendicular to the main drag, Independence Avenue. I think. Look at me, Mr. Used To Get Lost Getting From The Restroom Back To The Table At Restaurants talking about directions. Anyway. The street is lined with stall after stall selling crafts of every shape, size and color. When the heat started becoming a little overwhelming we made our way to the Parliament Building, which is surrounded by a lush garden, reminiscent of the Secret one from that book/movie. We found a shady spot in the grass after examining a few magnificent lizards, and spent the afternoon in contemplation, conversation and cooperative creation (some highly successful rounds of the drawing game). Made our way back to the hostel after a pit stop at Pick and Pay and spent the night with a bottle of wine, picnic food, and a German version of the board game, Taboo. Things have worked out, just as that Dutch man at the bus station said they would, and so Friday we head out to the dunes at Sossusvlei with Helge, Rafa and some of their colleagues. I can't wait to lie in silence under a thick blanket of stars and think about where the hell I've been, what the hell I'm doing here, and where the hell I'm going...

the colors of the Post St marketplace

the Namibian House of Parliament

Friday, 03/10/08

We met up with Rafa and Helge at around 8:30 in the morning at Budget car rental and packed up the two little white VW Citis. It was Daniel, Ilana, Anna, and I in Rafa's car and Mikkel, Matilda, and Josephine (three Scandinavians working at the center Rafa and Helge were volunteering at) in Helge's. After a brief stop at Pick 'n' Pay where we stocked up on food and water and other provisions, we headed for our campsite by the dried up Tsauchab River, 90 kms from the dune haven, Sossusvlei. The car ride was about six hours, the majority of which was spent on empty gravel roads. I have to commend Rafa and Helge for their stamina as we drove for hours and hours through this gravel Rally track. The drive was absolutely beautiful. The Namibian countryside is something wonderful, unexpected, and eclectic. Martian rocky landscapes tower over straw-like plains, with occasional spurts of lush vegetation in and around the dried up river beds we frequently passed through.

most of the time we had the road to ourselves, but occasionally we were graced by some company

picnic stop

With few stops, constantly urged on by Helge's Germanic sense of urgency and time (you can't imagine the entertainment of a road trip with one Mexican and one German driver, it sounds like the beginning of a joke) we arrived at the campsite before sunset. We were all completely psyched when we saw how great the site was - a completely secluded clearing in the middle of the bush, fully furnished with braai stand, fire pit, tents with beds, bathrooms, showers, firewood. We heard about some natural springs nearby and so tried to make it before sunset and unfortunately overestimated the abilities of our VWs. As we tried to make it up the rocky road we were forced to turn around after a few meters as we felt thorn bushes tangling themselves in our gears. We made our decision, after much deliberation, that an intact car with tires was preferable to springs so we cleared a path in the bush, turned around and made our way back to the site. We found a natural balcony across the river bed, and watched the sun set over the mountains in the distance. I stared, overcome by the pure, untouched beauty of the place in silence as the burning ball plummeted towards the horizon. When we got back to camp, we took much needed showers and Anna, Helge, Mikkel and I took upon the role of fire starters. It was my first time really putting together a fire and even without ever being a Boy Scout, I'm proud to say I had a glowing braai pit going in aobut 20 minutes, and later got a bonfire started with the leftover firewood. We barbecued steak and chicken and along with bread buns and carrot salad and a delectable beverage selection of (more) Windhoek Lager and boxed red wine, we enjoyed a complete meal. sitting around the fire after the meal, we talked, laughed and even got a fairly successful jam session going with me on vocal percussion, Daniel on harmonica, and Mikkel and Josephine adding occasional interjections of vocals. Some time and some beers later we made our way back to our tents for a little bit of rest before an early departure to the dunes the next morning.

sunset at Tsauchab River Camp

firestata (like that song from the 90's)

Saturday, 05/10/08

I crawled out of my tent and dragged myself to the cars at 5:30, in the quiet pre-sunrise darkness. We left towards Sossusvlei, and stopped only to marvel at the sunrise on the side of the road. The sun climbed into the sky, and like fingertips spread out the clouds with its expanding glow. The drive to the dunes, after entering the park, brought even more wonder and fascination. One one side of the road - red sand dunes the size of mountains and on the other - rocky mountains that may have been dunes once. On the way we some wildlife - a herd (flock?) of ostriches that looked like they were heading for a Gangs of New York style face off with a smaller group of springbo, some oryx(es? ai?) including one with a unicorn identity crisis.

a staggering Namibian sunrise

the oryx unicorn

After parking in the 2WD lot, we took a 4x4 shuttle to where the big dunes were and proceeded to climb. Climbing a mountain of sand is tough, especially under the African morning sun and with little sleep under your belt. However, once we made our way to the top it was worth the struggle. The view of the vast desert in every direction plus the soft, enveloping feeling of the red sand tickled the senses and while I tried and tried, I found it impossible to really put what I was seeing in words. After about half an hour of sitting in silent contemplation, we decided it was time to get a move on if we wanted to reach Windhoek before dark. We ran down the steep dune - the texture of the sane and something to do with momentum make it possible to spring down the sheer dune faces without tumbling headfirst to a sandy death. At the entrance to the park as we were filling up gas, one of the service men pointed out that our car's rear-right tire was flat. Dr. Samuel, as we called this masterful tiresmith, got to work at it and after some time of hammering, submerging, pulling and pushing the stubborn conglomeration of metal and rubber he pulled out the 5 inch nail that was lodged in it and patched it up. In the meantime, the driver of the other car, Helge was freaking out, having a Kuh (that's cow in German) because he couldn't find his glasses. He has prescription sunglasses so it just meant it would be difficult if we were caught in the dark. We left right away and as we trailed behind Helge, absorbing all the dust his wheels were kicking up I could almost see their car shaking with anxiety. Luckily we got off the gravel and on to the tar road before night fall. With our car taking the lead, Helge had no problems following us to safety.

climbing the dunes

view from the top

Dr. Samuel gets to work while Rafa searches for either Helge's glasses or the treacherous oryx responsible for this tire mishap

We, in Rafa's car, looked ridiculous as we got out in Windhoek. Since we were following Helge the entire way on the dirt-gravel roads, we had absorbed all the dust he was kicking up. We were completely covered, head to foot in dust, my hair managed to transform itself into dreadlocks, and my clothes and skin had taken on a dusty, death-like hue. We had a good laugh watching the expression on people's faces as we cleaned the car and watched Daniel emerging from the gas station looking like something between Big Foot and one of those Japanese soldiers found on Pacific islands 40 years after WWII ended. After returning the car, Daniel, Anna, Ilana and I made our way to the Chameleon lodge, the place where we began our journey, and took much needed showers. We reconvened with Rafa, Helge, and two German girls also working at the center, at Joe's Beer House - a massive, outdoor restaurant, with all kinds of junk hanging off the walls. over some crisp, cold lager (did I mention Namibian beer is great?) and a juicy zebra steak we reminisced on how great the trip was. Exhausted, drained, but content we collapsed into bed and slept for the few hours before our bus was to depart at six in the morning.

Sunday, 05/10/08

Most hellish 12 hours of my life. For some reason our bus back to Gabs was a sort of compressed, cruel version of our one to Windhoek. The combi on steroids was packed like a sardine can with people standing in the aisle for all 12 hours, leaning on those seated (i.e. me). My shoulder became a hip and butt rest for many a sweaty body and while my rear progressed from throbbing pain to total numbness, my knees threatened to burst as they were pressed hard against the seat in front of me and alternatively into my throat. The pleather material served as a great surface for the adhesive of my sweat to plaster my back to the right angle seat. The driver and his sinister co-pilots blared a repetoire of about seven tracks over and over again for the full 12 hours at full blast. Ear-bleeding Botswana gospel alternated with Jerky Boys style comedy prank phone calls in shrill Setswana. Like Anna observed, it was like standing in the middle of an argument you couldn't understand and couldn't leave from...for 12 hours. We also hit a goat on the way and the smell of goat entrails didn't help the nausea and discomfort. I've never been so relieved to be anywhere when we pulled into the Gaborone bus rank. Unfortunately, Ilana was not feeling well and Daniel had to take her straight to the private hospital. She's heading for recovery and I'm sending her all my love and my best wishes through the airwaves. I told her she has to get better soon, so she doesn't really have a choice. Figured that would take care of it.


Overall, the trip was phenomenal. It opened my eyes, heightened my senses, tested my endurance and spirit of adventure, and gave me some memories I will never, ever forget, unless I have an accident while maintaining my new found passion for desert quadbiking.

There's nothing in the world like traveling in the right places, with the right people, at the right time.