Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The River Wild

Yesterday afternoon, I was walking home over the bridge and saw that not only was the river completely full and rushing west towards the coast, but there were people swimming in it! Now, I know us Midwestern river-rats shouldn't find that too unusual, but this is no Mississippi River. The riverbed divides the town, with the stores and nice houses on one side and me and everyone else on the other, so for most of us, crossing it in some fashion is necessary almost daily and cutting through it can cut off 20 minutes of walking time. For my first two months in Namibia, the riverbed was dry and overgrown; giving the illusion that there was once a river, but that it had dried up years ago. I was told early on that the river would indeed fill up, but I was beginning to doubt the locals. Until the rains came. People started saying, "The river is coming! The river is coming!" Within a few hours, the riverbed went from dry as a bone, to a rushing monster (that is not an exaggeration-- I literally walked to work crossing over an empty riverbed and by 9am, we could hear the river from my office as it rushed through the town). The water bares a strange resemblance to Willy Wonka's chocolate river. It is thick and brown from the mud, and there's no possible way to see the bottom, or what's around you for that matter, a situation that, from my experience, can become troubling here in Africa. I'm told that the black mamba snake lives in the dry riverbed so I can only assume that she enjoys swimming in the water just as much as the children do when it's full. And since PC did a sufficient job of introducing us to the black mamba and scaring the crap out of me during training, I've steered rather clear of the riverbed ever since.

SO, perhaps now you can imagine my surprise at seeing the river filled with people yesterday. There had to have been at least 50 of them in there, just having the time of their lives. Children young and old were splashing around or floating downstream in old tires. They screamed when they saw me crossing overhead-- "Miss Lin! Matisa! Matisa!"-- addressing me in KKG just to hear me attempt the clicks, and inviting me to join them, but there was no way. Aside from my unwavering fear of being swept away by this strange and unpredictable body of water, how could I explain to these people that I've seen catfish bigger than them swimming by my house on the Mississippi River in America, and that just the thought of what may be lurking in these waters is enough to keep me dreaming for weeks? They would think I was nuts.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

And, the Moscow Circus was in town

Traveling around Africa, Namibia in particular, is unlike traveling I have done anywhere else in the world. Traveling as a Peace Corps Volunteer is even more unique. For one, your average PCV has very little to work with when traveling. Most of us are financially restricted, which alone sets us apart from the average tourist in Africa. We generally do not stay in regular hotels or take reliable public transportation. Things like hot showers, washers and dryers and high speed internet are extreme luxuries impossible to pass up when given the choice between them and trivial things such as food. We prefer to frequent dive bars instead of swanky nightclubs that pose a cover charge to their patrons, and we choose supermarkets to dine in as opposed to restaurants whose menus price meals between N$30-N$40 (about US$5-US$6). However, it seems to me that traveling in this manner is the absolute best way to see the world. I spent this past holiday road-tripping through Namibia and South Africa with some good friends, meeting many interesting people, visiting numerous PCV's sites and projects, touring another country and in turn learning a lot about my own country. And on top of all of that, I think I was away from site just long enough to get reenergized and refocused. Hopefully it will last!

There is so much to write about I'm struggling to organize all my thoughts and stories so bear with me. Here is my disjointed recap:

If anyone plans to visit Namibia, especially if you plan to take a trip into South Africa, I highly suggest you rent a car and drive yourself. It is the absolute best (and safest and most reliable) way to see the country. Yes, we rented a car for our road trip. I know, it sounds a bit posh, and really it was for those of us who have been hiking for the past four months, but our car was really nothing to envy. We rented the most popular (and cheapest) car in Nam: the Volkswagen Golf Chico. This four-door machine offers its passengers a working CD player and radio (though there are no radio stations in the majority of Namibia), non-power windows and locks, and just enough room for four people to sleep incredibly uncomfortably when lost in an unfamiliar town, which we indeed opted to do on our first night in Cape Town.

Namibia has only one highway, the B1, which goes from Angola, straight through Nam and into South Africa. Border crossing from Nam to SA is sort of ridiculous. First of all, it comes literally out of nowhere. Namibia, especially in the South, is incredibly desolate. One could drive for hundreds of kilometers without seeing another car or human being, just rolling hills preceding more rolling hills. In some places it is so flat and barren that all you can see is the road-stretching out for miles ahead and the earth meeting the sky all around you (no wonder many people here believe the earth is flat!). And then out of nowhere you round a corner and you're at the border. We were greeted by a friendly Namibian or South African man with a gun who mumbled something that, after observing the other motorists, we later concluded was "get out, leave your car here in the middle of the highway and walk to that building over there." Fortunately or unfortunately, crossing was pretty anticlimactic. We had been prepared to pay off some bribes and try to sweet talk our way into and out of the two countries, but there was nothing like that. I spoke in Afrikaans to the border patrol workers, which amused them; perhaps that coupled with the presentation of our official Peace Corps passports helped provide the smooth crossing. Who knows.

Though uneventful, crossing the border did leave me a bit dazed. Once you cross, it becomes immediately evident that you have just left a developing country and are now driving through a well-developed, economically stable country. It seemed that everything in SA, from the roads and the landscaping to the service stations and the public bathrooms, had been monetarily attended to. Though exciting for us (public restrooms with actual toilets AND toilet paper… what?!), I couldn't help but feel a little bit sad for Namibia and for the relationship between the two countries. These countries were considered one in the very recent past, though you would never guess so by the looks of them. Namibia was clearly neglected during their occupation and it seems it has sort of been left to fend for itself since independence. I was aware that relations between Nam and SA (the countries themselves as well as the citizens) are a bit strained, but seeing that illustrated so blatantly was quite sad.

After a 900km drive, the fab four pulled into Cape Town just after 6pm. Since we knew very little about CT before arriving, we decided to follow the flow of traffic into what appeared to be the city centre, perhaps not the best idea when three of the four passengers (including the driver) haven't seen highway interchanges, multiple stoplights and traffic signs, or a city with more than 100,000 people in over 6 months. It was culture shock and sensory overload to the extreme. I felt a bit like an alien. And to top it all off, the moment we stepped out of the Chico we were greeted by the sounds of American rap artists Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams who were giving a concert in the city centre. The concert, combined with CT's bustling nightlife as well as the McDonald's restaurants and advertisements that greeted us almost anywhere we looked, all made me feel very close to the states that night.

A bit loopy, we spent our first evening in an Irish pub where we took shots of Jameson and heard Van Morrison's Brown Eyed Girl play. We had planned to stay with a friend in CT but weren't prepared for our cell phones to not work OR to run into "pay-phones" that apparently require some secret South African code to use. As the night wore on, our visitor's jetlag combined with our serious lack of any alcohol tolerance allowed us to easily decide that, since we had already paid N$40 to park the Chico in an overnight parking ramp, it made the most sense to save some money and sleep in the car. After a few hours of restless sleep we were politely awakened by a security guard who informed us that our time had expired. From there, we proceeded to the ocean shore where we found some huge boulders, set up our sleeping bags and slept for a few more hours before watching our first Cape Town sunrise. I couldn't imagine a better way to spend our first night in South Africa.

That morning we found some cheap breakfast at a hostel where we decided to book a room for our second night (the Chico and the rocks, though incredibly accommodating, sort of lost their novelty after the first night). We spent the day wandering around CT and trying to readjust to a world that offers N$10/hr HIGH SPEED internet, movie theatres showing the latest releases, and a KFC, McDonald's or Subway Sandwiches around every corner. I sent a fax to America and ordered a root beer float all in one day. Very exciting.

Though sleeping on the rocks was a memorable experience, we were left exhausted and, deciding to lie down for a "nap" at 6pm, we crashed for the night. We were all wide awake at 5am the following morning, which worked out perfectly since we had an 8am appointment 2hrs down the coast to go shark diving. Sounds extreme, I know, but it was actually pretty mild. To start off, it was unbelievably cold that day. Now, I know I've probably become pretty thin skinned living here in Africa, but 10 degrees Celsius on an overcast day on the ocean is damn chilly. At a temperate 12 degrees, the water was a bit warmer than the air, a fact the guides continually reminded us of to try to reassure those of us feeling a bit apprehensive. Because of the cold and the high number of tourists who get hypothermia after jumping in the water, the guides (one of whom graduated from CU in 2003—such a small world!) only put people into the cages if sharks are hanging around the boat. It was so windy out on the water that the captain decided to anchor us right off shore from a small island home to, they told us, 60,000 seals. Now I'm no shark, but you give me the choice between rotting heads and smelly fish guts or a nice warm baby seal… I'm gonna go seal every time. The sharks did approach the boat to go for the bait, and it was cool to see such massive animals up close, but definitely not cool enough for me to sit in that frigid cage for 30 minutes waiting for them to feel hungry. Before leaving, the guides, half-serious, offered to let anyone crazy enough to jump in the cage do so just to say they did. Of course Mark (being Mark), along with a strange British man who got naked in front of all of us before putting on his wetsuit, decided to go for it. Mark's lips were still blue hours later.

Cape Town provided me the opportunity to actually feel like a 23 year-old American female, something I haven't felt in many months. As I have said, I really have no social life in Nam. I will sometimes have friends over for dinner or I will watch a movie at someone's house, and very rarely I will pay a visit to a shebeen, but when comparing my life here with the lives of some of my friends back in the states, I am quite pathetic. Though my lack of a social life no doubt keeps me out of a lot of trouble and saves me from many culturally-inflicted headaches, it is still sometimes hard to not feel a bit ridiculous when I begin to count the number of full-length novels and "super-addict" Sudoku puzzles I've finished during my free time here. But the nightlife in CT made up for lost time. Everything in Cape Town is very Euro-American influenced, especially the club scene. Many clubs have cover charges and live bands, and drinks can cost almost as much as I would be willing to spend on a really good meal out in Nam. We met up with some other volunteers, as well as some locals, and did a pretty good job of staying away from the more classy places. Thankfully, my lifelong exposure to seedy bars in downtown La Crosse helped me feel right at home:)

Like Namibia, South Africa also has locations, or "informal townships" as they are diplomatically referred to by those not residing in them. Though they look the same as Namibian locations and seem to follow the same general criteria, they are massive in comparison to what we had seen previously. Now granted, CT has over 3 million residents, nearly double the population of the entire country of Namibia, but these settlements had to have had at least 100,000 people living in them. While locations in Nam generally do have a few nice government houses mixed in, these locations seemed to be made up entirely of shacks. The US Embassy tells us that Namibia has the greatest disparity between the rich and the poor but it's hard to believe having seen Cape Town the way we saw it. Without having to go too far out of one's way, it is possible to drive through wine country and past the unbelievable wine-funded mansions (many of which rival anything I've ever seen in the US) and then to cross to the other side of the interstate and see the makeshift living quarters so many Cape Townians have been forced to set up. Though it does upset me, I can sort of understand how SA could leave Namibians high and dry after independence. Though one would think that after a 100-year occupation, SA would feel a bit of a responsibility to help Namibia find its feet after the liberation, we are, in all fairness, a separate country and should be expected to survive on our own. However, in a country like South Africa with so many advances and such a solid economic, and where many citizens have SO MUCH, it's pretty unbelievable that they let so many of their own people live in such inhumane conditions.

It is a rare occurrence, but every so often a person steps into your life for a brief moment yet has such an impression on you, you are left thinking about him or her long after they have gone. This happened to me on our last day in Cape Town. We took a ferry over to Robben Island, the island home to the prison where Nelson Mandela and numerous other anti-apartheid activists were held during the apartheid regime. If you are ever lucky enough to visit Cape Town, even if you are just passing through, you absolutely must take the time to visit Robben Island. You will be so thankful that you did. We were taken on a tour of the prison by one of 14 former prisoners, all of whom now spend their days taking visitors through the prison and providing a glimpse into what their lives were like while incarcerated. I don't know our guides name, or very much about him at all really, but he and his stories remained in my thoughts for days after we left South Africa. He was arrested when he was 18-years old for participating in an anti-apartheid protest. I cannot be certain that it wasn't a violent or threatening protest, but from what I know about that time, I can tell you that it didn't take much for a young black man to be arrested and thrown in prison. He served five years of a seven-year sentence and was released in 1990. Since then, he and a few others have been living in houses on the island, their daily lives still revolving around the prison itself. He spoke honestly and emotionally about his time in prison and his relationships with Mandela and the other prisoners. Even in prison he could not escape the racial separation he had experienced his entire life, and he talked about the harsh conditions he and his fellow black inmates were forced to accept while favoritism was shown to prisoners of a lighter skin. He walked with us past his former cell and the cell belonging to Mandela and showed us the courtyard where those not in solitary confinement were occasionally awarded a few hours of daylight. The overwhelming effect the prison still had on him was very apparent. Often times, he would go off on tangents about politics or the current state of affairs in SA and how, he felt, not much had changed in the past 10 years. Mark, Luke and I took our time wandering around the old building and ended up being the last ones to leave. I had so many questions for this man but I kept them to myself. I wanted to invite him to come off the island with us and spend the next month telling us his complete life story. But in the end, the three of us just shook his hand and thanked him. He smiled and thanked us in return, and then turned around to go back into the prison and meet his next group. Not too many years from now, these former prisoners turned tour guides will be gone. Their stories will no doubt remain and be relayed to Robben Island's future visitors, but it will in no way compare to hearing them firsthand. Since being in Africa, I have met so many people like this man; people telling unbelievable life stories of war and poverty and struggle—things so far from anything I have ever experienced, they are nearly impossible for me to imagine. This continent is full of fascinating stories and, thankfully, full of fascinating storytellers.

As far as persuasion goes, that's all I've got… are you booking your ticket yet?? :)

On our way back up through Namibia we spent some time at the sites of some fellow volunteers, swapping travel stories and milking the last of our vacation time. All in all, I had a really nice holiday. Cape Town was a fabulous break from my reality here and I am very happy I had the chance to visit. When it comes down to it, I think I will always prefer showering to bucket bathing, laundry machines as opposed to hand washing, and chicken instead of goat, but towards the end of our week in SA I was really ready to get back to Namibia. We have our problems and a lot of work is needed here, but our travels made me realize that overall, I'm quite happy here…. Then again, I've only been back to work for a week. Ask me how I feel in two months:)

…And yes, the Moscow Circus was in Cape Town. Could a person ask for anything more?

Happy late birthday, Nolie.
Happy early birthday, mama.
I'm told that I will be home in less than 100 days… :)