Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

One of the more interesting aspects of my life here is hitchhiking, or “hiking.” As I’ve mentioned previously, hiking is the primary mode of transportation for volunteers as well as the good majority of Namibians. Not many of us have cars so traveling requires us to rely on strangers headed in the same direction.

Though seemingly random and a bit crazy, hiking is in fact a somewhat organized activity. Most towns and villages have a designated “hike point” or two where people looking for a ride will sit and wait. Drivers looking to make some money will stop at the hike point, usually located on the edge of the town or village, and will yell out the town or the direction they are heading towards. Then it’s sort of a scramble as those heading that way will negotiate prices with the driver until an agreement is reached and all parties are happy. Most distances have fixed prices that are more or less non-negotiable, but if a hiker is stuck with little cash he or she may be shown mercy by a generous driver.

There are three types of cars that dominate the Namibian roadways: combis, bakkies, and the Volkswagen Chico Golf. Combis are like VW vans and aside from the train, are the closest thing to public transportation we have here. Usually based in a large city and sometimes requiring an appointment, combis are commercial vehicles that can be seen traveling throughout Namibia, usually packed full of people and often towing a trailer filled with luggage behind them. As I’ve mentioned before, bakkies are the equivalent of our pick-up trucks. Because we have many dirt roads here, bakkies are the vehicle of choice for people who are on the road frequently for work or pleasure. Typically used to transport animals, open bakkies usually have an iron fence around the edges, and hikers usually ride standing up holding on to the fence. Closed bakkies are perfect for picking up hikers because the driver can cram up to 20 people (people often wearing large, consuming traditional dress, mind you) in the back and make quite a profit. The most popular car in Namibia, however, has to be the Chico: a tiny four-door car that sort of looks like a miniature wind-up car (also the kind of car I slept in my first night in Cape Town). While there are some fancy cars in Nam-- walking around Windhoek you’re bound to see plenty of Audis and BMWs-- most vehicles interested in picking up hikers are rather run down. It is not uncommon to take a hike in a Chico whose door is falling off or whose floor is missing. And because the cars are usually filled far beyond capacity, hiking often exposes a person to some rather pungent smells. “It stings the nostrils…”

Hiking from a hike point usually means you will pay for your hike, especially if you are a white person carrying the trademark volunteer backpack, though there are ways around this. Hike points are often located at service stations, and those looking for rides will just sit and wait for different cars to pull up to them. The more ambitious hiker, however, may actually walk up to cars while they’re refueling, and with lots of smiles and bad Afrikaans will flat out ask for a ride. Because license plates in Namibia are labeled with the town in which the car is registered, it’s pretty simple to find a car going in the direction you want to go. Usually if the driver can tell that you don’t have horns and are probably not going to rob him, he will oblige. And because he wasn’t planning on picking up a hiker, the ride is sometimes free. Another way to catch a cheap and often free hike is to walk along the highway and flag down passing cars, similar to what hitchhikers in the states do. I’m not partial to doing this by myself, but I hear a lot of the guys in my group do it and it seems to work quite well for them.

I got my first real taste of Africa time when I began hiking. Drivers leave when they are ready. If you’re lucky enough to catch someone going your way who either already has a full car or isn’t looking to make very much money, you will get a straight hike from point a to point b. This, however, rarely happens. For one, I’m not really sure there’s such a thing as a “full car.” The more full the driver can get his car, the more money he will make. Drivers will do whatever they can to fill their cars. They will make turns at hike points far out of their way just to check for hikers. It is not uncommon to ride with a child or young learner on your lap as young people are charged different rates and therefore do not warrant an entire seat to themselves. Most hikers have bags, and cars may or may not have trunks, so usually we are wedged in between one another and our belongings, trying to make as much space available as possible. And if the driver is unable to fill his car… well, you just might not be traveling that day. I once waited four hours for a combi to leave just to find out that the driver decided not to travel that day because he couldn’t fill the van, leaving me and my fellow travelers stuck in the middle of nowhere with no hikes in sight. Hiking requires an inordinate amount of patience and an internal reminder to breathe deeply and go with the flow.

Traveling a good distance from your home site usually requires multiple hikes, which is where things can get tricky. If you are only able to find a hike halfway to your destination point, and if that hike is slow to leave (a very common occurrence), hikers run the risk of ending up in the middle of nowhere, in between their starting and ending point, late in the afternoon or early evening, which is often a difficult time to find reliable and safe hikes. Thankfully we have volunteers in most towns on the main roads, so it’s usually not a problem to find somewhere to crash for a night. However, this is not the case for all hikers; it isn’t uncommon to pass a hike point late at night and see multiple people camped out and sleeping (no fun in the winter months).

Hiking also occurs in town. Since most of Omaruru knows where I live and where I work, if a car passes me going in the same direction that I’m walking I will often be offered a hike. There seems to be an unspoken etiquette here in Africa that if you’re headed in the same direction as someone walking, you should stop and at least offer them a ride. It is quite rare for me to make it all the way from the hostel to my office and back without meeting an opportunity for a hike. Even taxis, who are always looking to make a profit, seem to have a hard time passing me on my walk. I like walking and usually turn down these offers, but on days when I have a lot to carry or when the sun is blazing down on me or the rain is falling in sheets, I’m thankful for the kindness of these people.

Finding reliable transportation is a universal problem for volunteers. Because my job involves work at many rural schools throughout my region, and since my office has no vehicle, I’m often required to hike. Though I would choose a safe, reliable form of transport any day over a random hike, hiking does help put us foreigners at the level of the communities we serve. Instead of being chauffeured around in a nice vehicle, PCVs wait their turn, in the sun and in the rain, alongside everyone else looking to get a ride. Aside from when I’ve hiked with another volunteer, I have never been at a hike point or taken a hike with another white person. White people have cars; black people hike. Similarly, white people rarely stop for hikers; black people do. People are often confused to see me waiting at a hike point, which sparks conversation immediately. When people hear who I am and where I want to go, they are overly helpful, flagging down cars and negotiating prices for me. I once had a man give a driver the 3rd degree about his driving record and the importance of getting me to my destination safely. Afterwards, he insisted on getting my cell phone number and promised to call and check in every hour, saying, “Don’t worry, I got the driver’s license and registration numbers in case anything goes wrong. If I don’t hear from you tonight, I will call the police.” Needless to say, the driver was scared out of his mind; he dropped me at the door of the house I was staying at, carried my bags for me and charged me far less than he could have. A little Namibian intimidation goes a long way.

Some of the craziest and most entertaining stories I’ve heard from fellow PCVs since being at site have involved hikes. Indeed, some of the best stories I have involve hikes I’ve taken at one time or another. It seems almost anything can happen while hiking. I’ve had conversations about everything from American and global politics to the extent of my dowry. I’ve met people who could be characters in movies and heard stories that often leave me wondering, “Where in the hell am I?” I’ve seen fist fights break out and once shared the back of a bakkie with an old ouma who yelled and screamed the entire two hour ride while she continually beat her husband with a stick. I’ve been in more near accidents that I’d care to remember and have helped patch a flat tire and change a car’s oil on two separate occasions (both firsts for me). I have ridden many hours in the back of different bakkies (both open and closed), and have shared hikes with many different kinds of livestock and poultry. Some volunteers have ridden in the cabs and backs of loreys (semi-trucks); some have ridden long distances on farm equipment. The frequent hiker will inevitably end up in a car he or she will wish they hadn’t gotten into but will only realize so after the hike is well on its way. Tears are often shed and threats exchanged, but I’ve seen similar occurrences on many bus and taxi rides in the states. And when things get really bad and I feel as if I’m about to loose it, I take a deep breath and remind myself, “If I survive this, it will be a great story that nobody back home will believe.” That usually helps a bit.

10 days… :)


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