Monday, October 6, 2008

Namibia

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 We put all our rand coins together (the Namibian dollar is pegged to the South African rand, and we are yet to have withdrawn any dollars) and managed to but two Windhoek Lagers and a Savannah Dry.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?" "Um...no, 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 town...to 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


ditto


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.

5 comments:

tanyaa said...

Technology projects often refer to the “last mile” —the final leg of providing connectivity to a client, such as a school or teacher training college. Going the “last mile” —extending wires and cables into schools in developing countries—is deemed critical in the journey toward full integration of ICTs in schools.

Yet, as the experiences of dot-EDU initiatives in Namibia demonstrate, going the last mile is often not enough. Wiring schools is only part of the solution, albeit an important one. ICT for education projects must go the “extra mile”—complementing and supplementing the provision of wires, cables and satellite signals with human, technical and educational supports. These supports form the critical last steps in successfully integrating ICTs in schools.

Since 2001, USAID has supported three successive initiatives related to the integration of information technology in education in Namibia:
The Computer Assisted Teacher Trainer Activity (CATT), under the LearnLink program, and more recently;
The Initiative for Namibian Education Technology (iNET), under dot-EDU; and
The Alliance to Promote Information and Communication Technologies in Namibian Schools, under dot-EDU as well.
------------
Tanyaa
Internet Marketing

Linda said...

David put me on to this. Great photos of the desert, reminds me of good times in Oman.
Looks like you are having a wild time!
Enjoy! JIS just the same, and I'm as busy as ever!!

Linda

Yzerfontein said...

Lovely posting, just great. I run an African travel site, we chose this blog entry as our blog posting of the week. You can see it at our newsletter entry on Europcar/Imperial. Please keep up the great writing.

SouthAfrica said...

Hi Sebastian. We've just chosen this blog posting as our top southern Africa posting for the month. Congratz, & keep travelling them adventures.

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