Greetings from the micro-dust capital of the world.
I'm writing this in Windhoek Namibia where the humidity sits around 20% and the ultra-fine red dust particles glide through the air on the gentlest of breezes waiting for some poor soul wearing contact lenses to come along. People frequently change their disposable lenses every few days in this dust I am told, or simply wear hard lenses. Hardly anyone bothers with contacts at all.
This capital city is as modern as any in Europe or America. In fact, I feel like I am in California much of the time, except for the strange clicking speech I hear quite a few people using. Even the racial demographics and social customs here in the city are not all that different from those in the Southern California area, except I learned first hand it is the white skin folks who experience subtle signals of racial discrimination. While only about 5% of Namibians are white, here in the city probably 25%-30% of the people I see on the streets and in the up-scale stores are white. The owner of the restaurant where I had lunch today says his clients are mostly white for two reasons: black shoppers generally have less money to throw away on "fancy" food and second, they tend to avoid places where they see only white patrons. I had lunch in a little sidewalk cafe in a shopping mall yesterday where all the patrons also were white! Elsewhere in the country the true ratio is more obvious I am told: very few white people in the extreme north of the country. It makes me wonder if remnants of the old apartheid mentality have survived up here just north of South Africa. Namibia is still loosely affiliated with South Africa. The Namibian Dollar is pegged to the SA Rand.
The American dollar is strong here: 8 Namibian dollars/US dollar. My room in the first class 4 star Kalahari Hotel has a rack rate of under a hundred US dollars and I managed to finesse a $65/night rate. It is one of the best houses I've used during this trip: everything works and I find elegant little surprises in every detail: the shower curtain is clamped at one side, the large bar of bath soap is luxury quality, the book of matches have wooden stems, the bed sheets are oversize and high thread count, the complimentary supply of morning coffee/tea packets is over generous, etc. One of the most wonderful discoveries is that every morning the included breakfast is the same elaborate feast layout presented as the Sunday Brunch a couple days ago when I arrived. I am in pig heaven. May have to go on a diet, if I stay here much longer. For more background information on Namibia take a look at this web site. Or, enjoy some professional photos here.
Almost immediately after crossing the border into Namibia from Botswana reality set in: there is no public transportation between the border and the nearest town some 150km distant! "Don't worry." the immigration policeman repeatedly reassured me. "You will get a ride eventually. Don't give up. Keep asking. This happens all the time." As there were three other groups of people all in the same fix and very few vehicles in sight, I did not feel reassured! I began questioning the sanity of my chosen travel strategies. Even late in the morning here in the desert the chill convinced me night time would require a lot more body coverings than I had stuffed in my small backpack, should I be forced to spend the night without shelter here.
One of the other waiting strandies with a half dozen items of "cargo" got a ride with a fellow driving the pickup I'd been watching. A couple with a small child driving a small sedan drove up to the immigration post and the guard motioned me toward them. "No. They have a small child and I wouldn't want to intrude." He shrugged his shoulders and I continued walking around waiting and wondering if I'd ever get a ride. Finally, in desperation I approached the driver of a mini-van and explained my dilemma. He identified himself as just the driver-guide for his clients, but agreed to check with them about giving me a lift to the nearest town when they had finished with the immigration formalities. His clients were German: a young couple and their 11-year-old daughter. "No problem." The father replied and we were off and on our way to Gobabis.
Gobabis is a small, dead desert town and Saturday at mid-day I could see almost no activity. As I walked the town asking about lodging, it became apparent how limited were the choices, none of which looked suitable. Finally, in desperation I checked out the Gobabis Hotel, which several people had recommended. Amazing grace prevailed and inside the dilapidated building with the poorly designed un-inviting signs I found advanced civilization! The friendly receptionist showed me a selection of rooms and I took the "expensive" one at 200 Namibian dollars ($25!). One of my truly wonderful discoveries, I would have stayed longer had there been anything at all to do or see in or around the tiny rural town.
At breakfast a boisterous rough looking guy sat down at the adjacent table and nervously insisted on telling me his life story. He did not look like the Namibian Prime Minister's assistant for budget affairs and systems. I questioned him closely about his systems expertise and soon realized he certainly knew as much about systems as I did, and soon concluded his hyperactive nervousness had nothing to do with some sort of confidence game. In fact, he turned out to be just the quirky sort of person, who fascinates me and he did, indeed work for the government.
I explained my need to find transportation to Windhoek some two hours away and he eagerly offered me a ride. On the way we talked about the government, the economy, the racial divide and his friends. When we stopped to refuel the car another vehicle with a black driver briefly blocked the way to the pumps. "What's this guy going to do; run right into me?" he cursed, "bloody Kaffers." Such crude language coming from this guy didn't surprise me, but made me wonder about his standing in the mostly black ranks of the Namibian government!
Though well educated, his twenty years in Africa had replaced young idealism with mature disillusionment. He made it clear that the black majority still needed European experts and actively recruit as many as they can get. When we reached Windhoek he gave me a mini-tour of his city noting as we parted what a good life could be managed by anyone with even meager resources.
I'm checking out of the hotel this morning and taking the luxurious Desert Express Train in a couple hours. So, I'll end this postcard and hurry back to the hotel to get my stuff.
Chilly and dusty, located in a desert on the west coast of the country, Swakopmund is the premier Summer holiday destination for Namibians and some South Africans. The town is all about relaxing and self indulgence; the slow pace reminds me a lot of Big Bear Lake California where I went to high school.
Being a bargain hunter at heart, I jumped at the chance to take a (cheap) deluxe overnight train ride across the desert to this coastal tourist town. The Desert Express is Namibia's answer to the extraordinary Blue Train in South Africa. People around here don't like the comparisons foreigners commonly make with the South African train, but the two services are similar. This one is cheaper ($222 for a 24 hour ride!), but it is nowhere near as luxurious as the Blue Train. On my trip a large group of noisy, chain smoking Italians more or less took over the train along with a group of 12 Americans making me the only solo traveler on the train. I learned again that romantic experiences like this are much less fun when traveling alone.
In addition to the ultra-comfortable sleeper transportation, the trip included a couple mini-safaris of sorts. Yesterday about an hour into the trip they took us to the private Okapuka Ranch game park where we watched "wild" lions being fed big chunks of raw leg-of-antelope red meat no more than four meters from the timber walls separating us from the oblivious felines.
Our particular run had some unexpected excitement. Half way through the 20-hour ride at about 22:00 the train rolled over a rotten rail and jumped the track. Fortunately, the derailment happened in slow motion on a section of track that demanded slow rolling, being scheduled for early replacement. Some of us didn't even know there had been an accident until much later the next morning, because when we boarded the train earlier in the day they had told us to expect a five hour stoppage in the middle of the night to make sleeping easier.
The next morning before dawn we were awakened to watch the desert sunrise... and as it happened the phenomenal process of wrestling a 110 ton locomotive back up on the tracks. After a gourmet breakfast on the train, the railroad staff got us all transferred to a bus for the last 150km to Swakopmund. On the way we stopped at the dunes in the Namib-Naukluft National Park where many of us climbed some of the steep sand hills. Different.
It is winter here in Swakopmund, cold and overcast... dreary. Aside from the sand and weather this holiday town in many ways is a lot like Santa Barbara; tourists flock here during their summertime, December-February. Few tourists bother this time of year, so I thought I might really enjoy the un-crowded ambience. Right now I am not so sure. I did get a great 4 star hotel for about $56/night. The Hansa Hotel television even has the Discovery Channel! This cyber cafe feels pretty good, too.
Check here for pictures I took of the lion feeding, derailed train, dunes and around the town of Swakopmund.
The beggars here are weird: they stand outside stores patronized mainly by foreign tourists drawing attention to some torn part of a garment they are wearing and chant in English: "Money, money, money. Give me money." One father(?)-son team had the 10-year-old boy chanting: "Give me money. I want to buy something." Try as I may to maintain my equanimity, every encounter with a beggar leaves me with an emotional dilemma. Some of the people decidedly are truly needy, but giving them money eliminates the incentive for finding real solutions to their economic problems. Most I am afraid, are obvious confidence artists who have perfected the performance of "pathetic pleading" guaranteed to touch the heart of even the most jaded "rich foreigner." Signs posted around town urge people to decline requests for street handouts, something I always do since learning in Bombay that Indian beggars rake in three times the national average income of a legitimate hard working adult male in that impoverished country. Beggars are everywhere, of course. Living in Santa Barbara I had plenty of time to watch some of the least needy beggars of the world and instantly recognize most of the usual scams.
In the face of cold logic my decision to rebuff beggars makes sense. But when that little girl of six walks up in (theatrical) rags, tugs on my sleeve and flashes those sad big brown eyes pleading, begging in a strange language which no one needs to understand in order to get the message, all my logic knots up into a tight ball which drops right down to the pit of my stomach.
I don't know how to solve the admittedly serious and pervasive African poverty problem and these personal encounters with beggars have done little to help me understand the true dimensions of a challenge that has existed in every country on the earth since the beginning of time. Religions with which I am familiar teach believers to help individually. Logic suggests the creation of a safety net is the responsibility of government and social institutions. Evolution seems to have hard wired us for pity... and created a subset of humanity all too ready to take advantage of that predisposition. Well... that's a lot more than I intended to say about the strange begging habits here in Namibia.
I love getting comments from friends who tell me about their own current travel activities. Invariably folks add, "Our ramblings are nothing like the adventurous project on which you've embarked." Looking back on all my world hopping I see some variables that have little to do with the length or hazardousness of travel. The most exciting parts have always been in the planning and remembering. And, it is the most mundane events that sometimes make the best adventure: anticipation is priceless and memories are treasures beyond tally.
It doesn't seem to matter if I am anticipating a weeklong trip to visit friends in the next state or a yearlong international sojourn to discover the meaning of life. I wonder if that might not be true also for friends who have compared their "anemic" travels with my "red blooded" wanderings. Ordinary events of all kinds take on magic qualities in the after-telling. At the time they are happening I just do what must be done and I am convinced that the way I personally go about it is for the most part genetically predetermined. Genetic predisposition is such an overpowering force in our lives and generally goes unrecognized in the same way we ignore the fact that cultural imperatives also predetermine much of our actions. So there you have it: the devil makes me do it. I don't really have much of a choice.
I also didn't have anything to say about which gender, language or religion would be mine at birth. Forget freewill. It is a much-overrated concept identified by the ancients to make each individual increasingly responsible for natural animal behavior no longer tolerable among growing herds of intelligent beasts.
To get a bit more philosophical: I now believe we have the beginnings of tools to make better use of each human being's unique genetic endowments. These tools will allow us to more clearly see early in the life of every new child what strengths and limitations will circumscribe its needs and accomplishments, allowing us to make adjustments in the customized educational resources offered to each kid. Finding the wisdom and political will to take advantage of our new scientific knowledge and biotechnology will be the major challenges of the current millennium.
What is so obvious to me at this stage of my own reading is fully appreciated by no more than a tiny group of academic experts around the world in areas of study related to behavioral genetics. Wider scientific appreciation and public education will not happen anytime soon. Like the discoveries of Archimedes, Darwin, Galileo, and countless others, I am certain it is destined to have a major impact on the course of civilization eventually. When it does, it will usher in a new golden age for humanity. If it doesn't, I'll eat my hat. You may hold me to that promise. I am sure our grandchildren will be alive to reap the benefits... probably before the year 2040!
Back here on planet Earth I continue to see things uncommon in my everyday life back home. For example: young men occasionally grab their crotches and hold on for up to a minute as they pass people (both men and women) on the street.
Public nose picking is a high art in many places I've visited. I've seen (only) guys work at getting accumulated crusts out of their large nostrils on busses, in restaurants, in up-scale shopping centers. They never seem the least bit self-conscious.
I am rarely out of earshot of what sounds like a party. People love to laugh and laugh they do everywhere. I am beginning to think a lot of people on this continent are hearing impaired as one can hear individuals engaging in animated shouting conversations, often with a tinge of hostility in their voices.
There are many San (Bushman) people working in the city. They are so easy to recognize; they look just like the star in the film "The Gods Must Be Crazy!" Like they were portrayed in the film, all San people I see are small gentle folk with light coffee colored skin and speaking that unique language punctuated with clicks. I even learned a San word myself that contains a click: "*no" and after a little practice actually can pronounce it. The trick is to start humming an nnn... sound and then add a tongue click followed by changing the "nnn" sound to the "oh" sound. The San word means, "be quiet."
The African continent continues to be in turmoil and people are on the move. The easy and cheap availability of transportation makes it possible for anyone looking for economic opportunity or an escape from social unrest in their own village to rush to a new place perceived as better. Many try to (illegally) make their way up into Europe, but most flock to other African cities all over the continent, almost always merely exchanging one set of problems for another. In any larger town one can find immigrants from all of the other fifty countries of Africa and the hundreds of different tribes and ethnicities.
Large cities like Windhoek are great for observing the full spectrum of native ethnicities found around the African continent. Colors range from "white" albino (I've seen a surprisingly large number of them) to jet-black. Facial features range from delicate European to jutting chin and broad nose. Body stature ranges from tall skinny "bean poles" to short, large bone "Neanderthal." There is no single typical African phenotype. People have told me they can recognize people from other tribes by their appearance alone, while others tell me they must hear speech or see characteristic tribal garb to know their origin. If I were to create a composite "average" native African, he would not be that much different from an "average" American other than generally darker skin color.
In larger cities people are as fashion conscious as in any comparable European or American city. Forget the naked savage African stereotype from the pages of National Geographic. Almost everyone wears Western garb, even in the poor rural areas I've been so far.
On no fewer than a half dozen occasions, I have been stopped on the street and told that I look a lot like Kenny Rogers: old white guy, short white beard, and American clothes. Several times I could see they were waiting for me to deny being the celebrity. It now seems possible that some of the younger people I have seen staring at me on the streets previously might be due to mistaken identity. American movies predominate in theaters wherever I've looked.
The other night I had a delicious Zebra steak dinner, tender. As I enjoyed the familiar "beef" flavor of the red meat I couldn't help thinking how like horses are the Zebras: horsemeat can't be all that different. (Apologies to my horse loving friends.) Then, seeing it listed on numerous cafe menus I finally ordered a bacon and banana Toast (sandwich). Hey! It's not bad. Between two slices of white bread buttered on the outside, the bacon actually is a piece of ham (lunch meat) and the banana is sliced cracker thin. The resulting assembly is toasted like a grilled-cheese sandwich. The banana adds little to the flavor of the preparation, but changes the texture in a particularly pleasant way. Try it. You'll like it! If someone watching you says it looks horrible, just say "*no" and tell them it's a Bushman concoction.
When I leave here I'm headed south toward South Africa, probably stopping in Keetmanshoop to avoid traveling at night. I think I'll end up in Cape town, but that might well change as I get closer to the border and learn more about the transportation options.
PS: Many of my postcards get mailed long after I've left the places described, sometimes weeks later. If you really get curious about my actual present whereabouts, drop me a line; I always mention my current location in replies to your welcome letters. If I do disappear on one of my ill-advised explorations, letters from my last checkpoint should give Embassy people a place to start their search for the missing American. F
Just before we got into Swakopmund the bus paused in the Sossusvlei dunes to allow us to view and climb the sand piles, if so inclined... and I mean inclined! Some are steep: 38 degrees up!
Greetings from southern Namibia,
Keetmanshoop Namibia is a town so small I walked it several times in the first hour I began exploring. It took not more than 30 minutes to thoroughly crisscross an area of about 4 blocks by 6 blocks. A relic from the German colonial past, it is a typical small town not unlike what one might still find in rural mid-west America.
I stopped here because this is as far as the overnight Intercape bus from Windhoek to Cape Town got before nightfall. I had hoped to find other daylight transportation the next morning heading south into South Africa, but there wasn't any. My next daytime option into South Africa turns out to be the weekly train (now discontinued) for Upington to the east. So, I'm hunkered down waiting for the Saturday train.
The first of two hotels I used here stood about a half block from where all the buses stop on the highway and initially seemed like a good choice when I expected to find another bus the next day. The six-block walk to and from town where I had found an Internet cafe offered a bit of exercise. My prior experience with Namibian towns had left me unconcerned with street crime after dark. For two days I fearlessly walked the un-lighted roads in the dark to and from the hotel. But, on the last trip the second night something happened to change my mind.
A boy of about eleven approached me from the shadows as I entered the darkened grounds of the Canyon Hotel. He appeared to be begging: "Give me a dollar; give me a dollar; give me five dollars!"
I kept walking trying to ignore his persistence, eventually commenting over my shoulder "That's a very bad habit to get into at so young an age." Finally, in exasperation at being hounded I raised my voice and spit out "No!"
He quickened his pace and moved ahead of me, dramatically stabbed his hand into his pants pocket, pulled out something I could not distinguish in the dim light and shouted: "O.K. Give me all the money!"
I slowed down slightly, now only twenty meters from the entrance to the hotel building and gave him one of my most withering father looks and said in a stern voice: "That! is an even worse habit to get into." He hesitated wary of my challenge, backed off as I jerked to face him, jumped back smirking and took off running into the dark.
Only then did I notice my heart racing and acknowledge the possibility that this kid had actually attempted to rob me brandishing a knife. In not more than 15 seconds I came upon a security guard standing outside in the circle of light around the hotel lobby and told him what had just happened. He smiled at me and said "O.K. O.K."
Outraged, I replied: "Well, it certainly isn't O.K." He smiled more broadly, making me realize later he must not have spoken English.
Inside, the receptionist's more sympathetic response to my report produced an expression of shock as she replied: "How much did they get?" She insisted that such criminal activity had become an increasingly frequent problem and almost always turned out to be the work of illegal immigrants up from South Africa. My attitude about danger in the dark changed there and then for the rest of my time in southern Africa. The next morning I moved myself to a hotel in the center of town: Bird's Mansion, close to everything including the cyber cafe to which I'd been walking in the dark.
For two days I took it easy waiting for the Saturday train, found a women's hair salon willing to trim my white shag, took lots of pictures and talked to people around town. After dark I stuck to downtown streets with good lighting. Eventually Saturday arrived and I got myself over to the station four blocks away for the seven AM morning departure.
The loading platform seemed to be the social center for the town's teen-age boys who milled around joking and shouting at one another. One of the railroad plainclothes policemen seemed to be horsing around with them and at one point pulled his gun from under the back of his shirt and pointed it jokingly (?) at some of the boys.
Only one passenger car among perhaps ten freight cars sat on the rails. It had two compartments: my first class cabin accommodating twelve passengers and a second class compartment for perhaps 50 more people. Only the conductor and I sat in my compartment while perhaps half of the seats in the other held passengers and their voluminous baggage and cargo. An indescribably unpleasant odor periodically crept out from the back compartment.
Two scruffy young men crammed their grubby bags into the overhead luggage rack of my compartment and plopped down in the front seats until later challenged by the conductor to show first class tickets. After an attempt to wheedle a concession from the conductor they moved reluctantly to the back compartment. My guess is that I might well have been the only first class passenger to ride on that train in months, and that people who regularly made the trip got frequent upgrades to the more comfortable seats.
PS: Here is a National Geographic online map I like of the African continent: NatGeoAfrica
Keetmanshoop Namibia: An old steam engine sitting outside the railway station, now replaced by more modern equipment for the 12 hour run to Upington in South Africa twice a week.