Zambezi: Part One

I recall watching a Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom episode that featured the Zambezi River. The TV show host, Marlin Perkings, showed animals nervously drinking from the muddy river, hoping to quench their thirst and not become dinner for the huge crocodiles that lurked nearby. It wouldn’t be a nature show if it didn’t show the waters erupting in flurry of reptilian jaws as some poor antelope was snatched and dragged into water and its doom, completing the ‘Circle of Life’.

Back then I wanted to be Mr. Perkings and witness the life and death dramas played out every moment on the African plains and riversides. I didn’t know that, to catch those sequences of life and death struggles, film crews waited days, sometimes weeks to shoot just one clip. Life and death and everything in between plays out at its own pace oblivious to the wants and machination of Man. But I didn’t know that back then. I thought Africans saw such happenings daily, like we see cows, pigs and chickens on local farms or dogs and cats in our urban homes. All one had to do was go there and witness these spectacles play out like scheduled Broadway shows.

Fast forward about 50 years, as much life experience and the luck of being selected by the Peace Corps to serve in Namibia. I now know that even back then the Wild Kingdom film crews were lucky to get the shots they did. Even so, when the opportunity to go to the Zambezi Region of Namibia came about I couldn’t help but hope to see African wildlife near rivers or hanging out and doing whatever it was that African wildlife does. Specifically, I wanted to see elephants in the wild. I’ve seen zebras, and giraffes, warthogs and baboons, herds of Rock Hyraxes and Springboks, flocks of Love Birds and flamingoes, even a huge colony of penguins, but I’ve yet to see a single elephant in the wild. The Zambezi trip was a real chance to rectify that.

The trip to the Zambezi Region was work related, I’m part of media crew and we were to document the daily routine of a teaching volunteer assigned to a remote village.

When I first found out that I was actually going to spend 2 years in Africa I fully believed that I would do it living in a mud hut, cooking my daily gruel over an open fire and spending my days building schools, aqueducts, or figuring out how to grow crops in a land with an annual rainfall of less than a tenth of an inch per year. Never mind that I hadn’t so much as camped in my backyard and every houseplant I owned was artificial because I always managed to kill the live ones. We Americans have such a narrow view of the rest of the world. So it was a big surprise when I learned that my assignment was in a fairly modern town, my home for my two year stay is a relatively large 4 bedroom house with hot and cold plumbing. My office has a large, sun filled window and air conditioning. On most weekends I can get a croissant that rivals the best I’ve had anywhere. I was honestly more than a little disappointed. I really wanted the ‘African Experience’.

As it turns out, not every Peace Corps volunteer winds up in offices in some urban center, some actually do get to stay in mud huts and eat traditional foods while executing their Peace Corps duties. The volunteer we interviewed in the Zambezi Region was one such lucky person. She stayed in a Silozi Homestead and taught science at the local school.

When I learned that I was going to go to the Zambezi Region with my media crewmates I was excited. Five-plus days in a region famous for its wildlife, its simpler way of life, its very ‘African Climate’. How could I not be stoked? We even planned to sleep in tents during our stay. Turns out we had to because the village is so remote there aren’t any commercial or semi-commercial lodgings available. We’d set up our tents outside the volunteer’s compound, cook over an open fire (on occasion it turns out), and live, as much as we could, like the locals. We’d truly be getting a fuller sense of the ‘African Experience’.

To top all of that off, there was a very good chance we’d see elephants in the wild! Oh boy! Oh boy! OH BOY!!!

The day came to travel, which I normally have no problem with. As a Peace Corps volunteer, we are not allowed to drive anytime during our service. A cruelty meant to keep us safe. So, we travel as the less affluent Namibians do, we hike. A fellow volunteer and media crewmate, Maggie, hiked with me, so the first leg of our two-day trek was with familiar company and through familiar territory. We hiked to Otjiwarongo (pronounced, “Oat-gee-var-rongo”), the gateway to the northern regions, then to Rundu (Pronounced: “Rune-doo” and you trill the ‘R’.) where we took lodging and met up with the rest of our team.

All packed up and ready to go!

Rundu is a large town as towns go in Namibia. It has all of the amenities, including rush hour traffic. We spent one night in there and found a transport to Katima, the capital of the Zambezi Region. If you take a look at a map of Namibia you’d see why this leg of the journey is so interesting. Zambezi is the easternmost region connected to the bulk of Namibia by geo-political isthmus, a strip of land that starts in the Kavango East Region to the west, with Angola to the north and Botswana to the south. The single major roadway is B8 and, as I was told, “here, there be elephants!”

We were lucky enough to get a driver who had a small 7-seat vehicle, which we filled with equipment and ourselves. I sat in the copilot seat, camera ready to record the largest land mammal in its natural setting. Of course I was excited when we set out that morning. Partly cloudy skies meant a cooler trip, and I had a commanding view of the road ahead. After an hour or so of our 5 hour trip we started seeing elephant crossing signs. I took them as a good omen. Elephants would soon appear grazing languidly along the roadside, mother pachyderms shielding their rambunctious kids from trucks and other road hazards, agitated bulls flaring ears and shaking their huge heads, trumpeting at our intrusion. My hands became sweaty as I griped my camera in anticipation.

They promised elephants!!

After 2 hours the only animal life we saw were dogs, donkeys, cows, goats and, occasionally, their herders. Not exactly wild, but the cows, donkeys and sheep tended to play in traffic, crossing the road whenever the moods struck them. Still the signs we saw promised elephants, and began to be emphatic about it. First you’d see the elephant crossing sign then several meters behind you’d see another, but one had a ‘!’ sign above it as if to say, “Elephants! No, really! We’re not kidding!! Elephants!!” If my excitement was waning it was rekindled after seeing these signs. There must be elephants ahead. Patience, Vern! Patience!!!

Donkey determined not to let us pass

4 hours into the trip and the signs promising elephants, even the insistent ones, seemed no more than a lie. We had passed fields, rivers and flood plains with pools of water, perfect places for elephant hangouts, or so I thought, but we saw none. Our driver explained that it was mid afternoon and the beasts were likely deeper into foliage, were its cooler and away from people.

Trust us! Elephants here!

Well, that’s just great! No elephants! Maybe we’ll see some on our return trip.

We arrived in Katima late in the afternoon. Katima is the largest town in the Zambezi Region and also a shopping hub for the region. You can pretty much find anything you might want or need in the stores and shops, but the best place to go if you want to see real Namibian shopping is the open market, where local vendors offer up everything from fish, to handmade tuxedoes. It’s a cacophony sounds, smells, and sights all vying for your attention. It’s hard not to look like a tourists there. Even I stood out, my mannerisms were so un-local-like. I supposed me whipping out my camera didn’t help me blend in much either, but I couldn’t help it. There was beauty everywhere.

My teammates spent plenty buying chitenges and souvenirs. Even I bought a traditional dashiki.

We camped out in the living room of a local volunteer which foreshadowed our sleeping arrangements for the next seven days. Concrete floors are not the most comfortable, especially for an aging body like mine. Sleep was elusive.

The next day we got a ride to our final destination late in the afternoon. When we finally arrived at the small village, a little more than several homesteads near a minor crossroads, the sun was setting, we still had to setup our tents and arrange for dinner.

Did I mention that I’ve only slept in a tent 3 times in my life, and have set up a tent twice before? I’d never set up a tent in the dark and the tent I had, one I borrowed from a friend, looked easy enough to construct, so I wasn’t worried. It had only one tention pole, after all. How hard could it be?

Woman and child fetching water in the village where we stayed

45 frustrating minutes later my humble temporary abode stood, somewhat lopsided, in the sand. To the credit of its designers, not my ability to figure it out, the tent accepted me and my belongings without collapsing and I was able to get into my sleeping bag without too much ceremony. After a light dinner and media team meeting I settled into my new sleeping arrangements determined to make the best of the experience.

So ends the first part of my Katima journey. More to come shortly.

Stay tuned.

Vern

Namibia Observation: Odd Rain

I’ve mentioned how dry it is here in the Namib Desert, but I think I might have gotten some of my facts wrong. While it is certainly very dry, depending on the time of year and where you are in the Namib, things can get downright soaking with water.

If you live in the seacoast town of Swakopmund, for instance, drying your laundry can be a challenge. I’m told that, if you’re lucky, it can take 2 days to dry some things, and often laundry is wetter after a day of hanging out in the fog and humidity than when it was first hung.

Not so in Arandis, Usakos or Karibib, towns about 40-100km inland from the Atlantic and about 60-120km north-east of Swakopmund. On almost any given day I can hang out a dripping wet bath towel and fetch it, as dry as Mars, an hour, maybe an hour and a half, later. I say “almost” because there are a few days here, especially in Arandis which is the closest to the ocean of the three towns I mentioned, and especially during the summer months (November thru April), when dense Atlantic fog rolls in and dampens everything. On those mornings trees with condensation ladened leaves produce showers beneath them with each breeze, and buildings, especially those with night-cooled metal roofs, have little sandy mud and water moats all around them.

There are even rarer days when there is actual rain that falls from actual clouds. Storms, complete with thunder and lightning, will drench the desert. Pools of water, some knee-deep, will form, and dusty streams and dry riverbeds are renewed as rainwater gathers and follows gravity toward the ocean.

I mention all of this because I just stepped outside. It‘s 3 AM. Instead of clear skies filled with stars and a cool, dry desert wind I was met with clouds and a relatively warm and damp breeze, and a distinct smell of moisture. It’s winter here and rain just does not happen this time of year, yet, when I checked my weather app I see that it predicts a 60% chance of rain in about an hour. If we get anything it’ll likely be no more than a sprinkle, but I want to be in it. Having gotten used to Florida weather, I miss water falling from the sky.

It’s an hour later and, sure enough, it started raining! Just now! Not heavy, but enough to wet the streets. There’s even some lightning too! And yes, I stood out in it. It felt amazing.

Wet streets at 4AM

Just as quickly as it started, 10 minutes later, it was done. Barely enough to form small puddles in the street. Already the pavers in my back patio are drying. Soon, if I hadn’t witnessed it, been out in it, I would have found it hard to believe it happened at all.

But it did.

Epilog: It’s 8 AM an it has sprinkled a bit since the wetting rain 4 hours ago. Now it looks like there one last shower coming before the sun and the dry desert wind pushes the moisture West. My neighbor, Michael, tells me the rain isn’t normal. He thinks it’s cool. I agree.

The wind from the East is picking up. The weather forecast calls for the rain to end and for more typical weather for time of year, high, dry winds and high temps, to return Tuesday.

Maybe another brief shower

Ah well. It was fun while it lasted.

Stay tuned.
Vern

It’s Been A While…

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, it’s because I’ve been rather busy, which is a good thing.

To the top of Dune 7

I’ve travelled to Luderitz with the Media Committee team on a project. That was a blast. Been back to Windhoek several times for different reasons, and to Okahandja. I have several weeks of a respite from traveling, but that will change soon as I need to go to Okhabdja again, then Windhoek, then out to the Zambezi region.

I haven’t been sitting idle while here at site either. Movie Night is still moving along. Last Friday we showed Jumanji and even though it was chilly we had a nearly a full house. There’s a lot to get done with Movie Night still. We need to set up the advertising process, advance the renovation of the amphitheater (walls and seats are the next focus), and finalize the whole process for making it self sustaining. It’ll get there.

Movie Night in full swing

One of my primary projects, Dreamland Gardens, had a major move forward. I was able to get a fully funded grant to buy and install two 10,000 liter water tanks and fix their irrigation system. I’ve been busy working the details of that and it’s moving along nicely.

My adult English class was a minor hit and I was able to get help from colleagues to offer remedial English to adults to augment the classes I offer. I’m going to offer my original class again and offer and second level class that focuses on research. The skills I’m teaching may not seem like they are business related, but actually they are. Being able to write a clear, concise and reasonably well researched essay can help learners create business plans and job proposals that are a step above their peers. It can be the defining difference in winning a job, loan, or grant. Combined with what my colleague are offering, learners taking our classes can advance their reading, writing and comprehension of English well pass what they’ve learned in public school. At least, that’s the goal.

English Class for adults

My supervisor seems happy with what I’ve been up to, so much so that he wants to expand it. He’s also asking me to mentor a handful of local small businesses. So, my time on site will definitely be full for the next quarter at least.

It hasn’t been all work, work, work though. The Peace Corps staff asked several of us ‘veteran’ volunteers to host trainees in what called ‘Exposure Visits’. The purpose is to give the trainers a taste of what life is actually like at various sites around Namibia.

I got 4 trainees (the house at my site is big by local standards and I can easily accommodate more if people don’t mind sleeping on the floor). The visit happened on a weekend when there was a Namibian holiday, so some of the planned meeting and greeting I had set up didn’t happen. Instead I was able to give them more of a environmental and cultural experience with the help of my friend and colleague, Engombe Florian, who drove us literally everywhere. The girls (Laura, Alex, Courtney, and Hailey), hiked, spelunked, climbed, and otherwise explored the desert around my site. We had a blast! We saw wildlife (ostriches in the wild), climbed mountains, and explored abandoned sites and more. Also, as part of the cultural exposure experience, we attended a local hip-hop concert.

Exposure Visitors getting exposed

I know that sounds like a vacation rather than work, and for them it was a bit of a time-off, but the point of exposure visits is to let the trainees experience some of the things they were taught about and warned against during their two-month long training. Women especially need to take notice since the culture here tends to be male oriented. At the concert, for instance, they were exposed to how aggressive young male Namibians can be in their quest for a hook-up. I, with Chris, a fellow PCV at my site, and Engombe watched over my charges as the concert progressed. We had to intervene a few times when situations got a bit much.

In all, it was a very positive experience for them, and me, since it offered me a glimpse of what female PCVs have to go through.

Today is the first full day I’ve had where I can do my normal household routines: washing clothes, sweeping and cleaning, and preparing the main meal for the rest of the week. (This week it’ll be pasta with meat and mushroom sauce.)

So, that’s what I’ve been up to. I’ll try to be a bit more diligent in posting more often. Can’t guarantee it though.

Even so, please…

Stay Tuned

Vern

The Trip to O-Land

“I was sick that day,” he tells me.

Larry is of average height and build with short cropped hair and skin as smooth and dark as Swiss chocolate, but you would not know it to look at him now. He is hunched forward with one hand on the steering wheel, the other on the manual shift knob. His eyes, normally clear and vividly brown, are now dull and veined. He’s been driving for 7 hours with just a few short stops for gas and restroom breaks. I am a willing, but largely useless passenger. I’m not allowed to drive, one of the Peace Corps’ seriously enforced policies meant to keep me safe in a country where traffic accidents is one of the leading causes of death. Never mind that it’s also one of the leading causes of death in every industrialized nation on earth and yet I have survived over 40 years behind the wheel driving, but a policy is a policy and I’m relegated to reprise my role as copilot and entertainment director on this trip north.

Typical road hazard in O-Land

As a copilot, I’m horrible. I don’t know the roads, I have no map and my phone’s connection to the internet is dicey at best, Google Maps is not going the happen. And for most of the trip I felt I was failing in the entertainment department too. My experience with people for whom English is not their mother tongue has led me to believe that any conversation with deep subject matter is likely a lost cause. Language is the barrier. Though Larry’s english is impeccable, he still has problems (as most people do when learning American English) with American cultural references, inferences and allusions, and it’s surprising how much of our day to day conversation is made up of such. Still, I tried. Jokes, facts about this and that, even a brief run through the American political landscape, none of it seemed to ignite a conversation of great length and more often than I wanted we fell into a mildly awkward silence.


Bakkies are the most versatile vehicles around

All of that changed when we stopped in Otjiwarango which serves as a gateway to all the regions in northern Namibia. The regions directly north of Otjiwarongo are collectively known as Ovamboland or O-Land. The area gets its nickname not only from its inhabitants, who are primarily of Ovambo decent, but also because the names of the four regions and many of the towns and cities within them all begin with the letter ‘O’. The four O-Land regions are Oshana, Ohangwena, Oshikoto, Omusati. (I asked Larry about the names and he said there’s no real reason for it, it just is. Then he tells me a joke in which some foreigners were trying to talk to a woman who only speaks oshikwayama and after trying unsuccessfully to ask the woman to get into a car someone suggested that they preface each English word with ‘oshi’. The the resulting instruction was, “Oshi-please oshi-get oshi-into oshi-the oshi-car!” Apparently it worked!)

The Oshana Region, is where Larry was born and raised and his excitement on returning to his home region plainly showed in his actions. Instead of me trying to find things to talk about Larry would point out places and explain some of the history or memories he’s experienced when he was a child. He’s normally a guy who laughs easily and seems to know everyone, and that trait was most prevalent here. Anytime we stopped anywhere in O-Land Larry would see an old friend or acquaintance and they’d laugh and talk about old times.

We were driving through the town of Oshakati, the largest in the Oshana Region, when he pointed to a fairly new building near the center of town. Out in front of the mauve colored structure was a black granite obelisk surrounded by a short, ornate fence. “It happened there. It used to be a bank, a First National Bank branch,” he said, then pointed to a grassy area not far from the building. “That’s where I was waiting with a friend. As I said, I wasn’t in school that day because I was sick. I was 14.”

The strip of grass, perhaps 5 meters wide and several hundred meters long, is now surrounded by a wire fence. “The fence wasn’t here then.”

Larry parked the bakkie (pickup truck) we rode in and we walked over to the fence. Leaning lightly on a fence post, he said as he pointed, “We were right over there.”

All around us people went about their endeavors, much as they likely did 30 years ago. Everyone but a few cabbies looking for fares ignored us as we walked across the street and stopped in front of the obelisk. “30 people died,” he said. “Mostly women. Professional women. Nurses and teachers. It was a payday for them.”

On the obelisk was a list of names. Above the names, an engraving of the Namibian flag and these words:

The 20th Commemoration of the victims of the bomb blast at the FNB Branch
The following sons and daughters of Namibia were brutally massacred in a bomb blast at the FNB Oshakati Branch 19th February 1988:

Then the names: Johanna Onesmus, Beata Sheetekela, Silia Amaambo, Lahja Omagano Shilongo…


Monument commemorating those who dies in the blast

Larry studies the names for a moment. I wait in silence. Time hasn’t shorten the list for him. I think he reads each name to himself. After a moment, he sighs, turns and walks back to the bakkie. I follow.

We are in O-Land for meetings with some local entrepreneurs. The meeting isn’t until the following day and we need to find our accommodations for the night. And dinner. We leave the mauve building and black obelisk and find food and shelter between Larry chatting up old friends. He’s very happy to be home.

The next day the meetings go well, we’ll be helping some farmers establish several commercial gardens that will provide jobs and fresh produce to the area. After a few more meetings with local organizations who will also be involved, we pack up to head back south. Before we leave we make one last stop. The obelisk.

“There is a businessman who is now a friend of mine, his cousin’s fiancé died in the explosion,” he tells me. “They were both heading into the bank when a man asked the brother for a job. He stayed outside to talk to the man while his fiancé went inside. Then the explosion happened as she was about to leave. She died later, on the 26th of February. The cousin says he would likely be dead too if that man hadn’t asked him for a job.”

I wonder if the cousin gave the man a job, but I don’t ask, it seems inappropriate somehow. I do ask who planted the bomb and why. “There is speculation, but no one knows for sure who planted it. No one took credit for it. They didn’t have video surveillance like they do today. Since no one took responsibility, no one knows exactly why. It was during the time of apartheid and many bad things happened during that time.”

He gives one last look at the site and the names on the stone, then we start back. You would think the ride south would be somber, but that isn’t who Larry is. While in O-Land we visited his mother and other relatives, delivered gifts to role models who inspired him, and toured places he once explored as a kid. These are obviously good memories and he’s glad to share them with me.

Instead of heading directly south he detours so that our path skirts Etosha, a huge national game reserve, in hopes that we’d see something interesting. We do! We see springbok grazing, a herd of zebras crosses the road in front of us, and not far away a small herd of giraffes watch us go by.

Zebras!!


… and giraffes!!

The detour has added at least two hours onto our five hour drive back over dark gravel roads. Just at sunset we got a flat. We’d hit a sharp rock that put a gash in the left rear tire about the length of my hand. I finally felt like I had something to contribute and helped change the tire. While doing so it became obvious why vehicle maintenance is critical in Namibia, especially if you travel the backroads.

By the end of the drive Larry was a spent man, but he somehow managed a smile. My guess is that he’s happy to be back with his family, but I also believe that, as it might be for most Namibians, any reason to go north is a good reason to go north. It’s returning home, recharging the spiritual batteries, to walk through memories, both good and bad, and re-center one’s self. I think he managed a smile because he got to go north, to go home.

I get that.

Stay tuned.

Vern

Another Blog Editor Test

OK, this is another editor called BlogPad Pro. It looks like it has every bell and whistle a blogger could want, except a clean, uncluttered writing environment. Which is a shame because this app has captioning and nice tools to properly imbed photos and videos.

I think what I’ll have to do is continue using Notes then copy/paste what I’ve written and add photos here. I guess I can live with that, until I can’t.

BlogPad Pro seems to have it all, and maybe a bit too much

 

If any of you have blog editor suggestions please let me hear about them.

Stay tuned,

Vern

 

Testing Blog Editors

I’ve been writing all my blogs on my iPad’s Notes editor, which allows me to upload the text directly into WordPress for publication. The problem is that it doesn’t work for imbedded photos.

What I used to be able to do is upload the text into Draft, edit and insert photo there, complete with captions, then publish. It was an extra step, but I didn’t mind. Then WordPress changed something and there is no longer an option to add a caption to uploaded photos. To get captions into photos I have to add some HTML code, another step. That was one step too many. So, I went looking for a WordPress compatible blog editor.

 
The next few posts will be from editors I’ve downloaded. This one is called BlogTouch Free. As the name implies, it’s free to use, but I haven’t investigated it enough to know what the paid options are. So far, it looks pretty good.
But, from what I can see, this tool offers not captioning either.
The search continues.
Stay Tuned.
Vern

Namibia: Observations: The Night Sky

There are still many places on earth where light pollution hasn’t blotted out the stars, I’m glad to be in one of them.

One a clear night, like tonight, there are so many stars out that it’s hard to see some of the constellations. Orion is always the easiest to recognize, but others get lost in the speckled immensity of the Namibian night sky.

The Milky Way is easily seen as a smudgy swath of luminance bisecting the night. Looking at it makes it hard to believe that the smudge is the cumulation of millions of suns so far away that their individual light, dimmed by unfathomable distances, can only be seen as a tiny pinprick.

The Milky Way as seen from my backyards

Those bright spots are set in a sea of black. At least, we see it as black, but in fact, it is filled with energy that we are shielded from and can only perceive with the aid of our technology.

But I don’t care about that. I just enjoy looking up and getting lost in the vastness of it all.

What’s also interesting is that aircraft of any type is rarely seen over many parts of Namibia. I’ve been at my site for eight months and I’ve seen only one aircraft, likely a jet flying so high that its flashing running lights moved slowly against the starscape.

Orion Constellation (the three stars are the belt)

That’s not to say that I don’t see interesting things moving around in the sky at night. I’ve seen several meteors and a flock of relatively low flying birds. All a lot of fun to see, but the weirdest thing I’ve seen is what I call a brief battle in space.

While enjoying a beautiful night and view of the Milky Way I saw a series of bright flashes.

The first light, almost directly west of me, flashed then died, lasting maybe half a second. The second flash was not as bright as the first and dimmed slower. Maybe a second and a half. It was to the right of the first by maybe 1 degree.

Then another light way to the right about 15 degrees flashed like the first but not as bright. It flashed again about 2 seconds later, then went dark.

The last light was in the vicinity of the first but more to the right by about 5 degrees. It flashed for a second then died away.

That was it. The whole show lasted maybe 15 seconds. I watched the area for another 20 or so minutes, but no more flashes occurred.

Alien space ships zapping each other to smithereens? Americans and Russians duking it out in low earth orbit? Distant stars going nova in sync? Your guess is as good as mine. I saw lights flashing, you take it from there.

The weird flashes, the Milky Way, the gazillion stars. The night skies here are amazing.

Stay tuned.

Vern

Namibia: Getting Around

As of February 15, 2018, I have served 1/3 of my 24 month commitment to the Peace Corps here in Namibia.

There’s a saying that seems appropriate about time flying, having fun, and so on. For the most part, I have to say that I’m having a blast! I’m really feeling integrated into my community (Peace Corps speak for people recognizing you and saying hi), I feel like I’m contributing to the greater good of Namibia (more Peace Corps speak for teaching classes and providing counseling to those seeking business advice), and I feel I’m doing well in cross cultural exchange (still more Peace Corps speak where I talk about life in the States and get schooled about life in Namibia). As with any venture, there are ups and downs, but this one has, thus far, been mostly up.

My job with The Rössing Foundation requires that I travel through many of the northern and western regions of Namibia ( a definite ‘up’). As a member of the Peace Corps Namibia Media Committee, I get to range even further into the country. While I’ve only been in country 10-ish months, I’ve been able to travel to places many PCVs don’t get to go as part of their normal duties. And as another saying goes, getting there is half the fun. Which brings me to what I want to talk about in this post: travel in Namibia.


Women crossing a flood plane near Onesi

There are several ways to get around in Namibia, which you choose depends on where you want to go, what you need to carry with you when you go, what you can afford or, if you are lucky enough, who you know. There’s the normal compliment of motor vehicles available to the adventurous traveller, which we’ll get into in a bit, but there are also (slow) trains, planes, and bus services. These tend to be limited to major towns and cities in each region and not all services are available to even these. I have not taken any of these, those I may catch the Intercape Luxury Bus Service if I need to go south. Others have used the Intercape and liked it.

Most people who own vehicles own pickups, except here they are called bakkies. They are usually white, usually 4WD, usually capable of seating 5 in the cab, and the bed is likely covered. I’m lucky, I have a friend who owns a bakkie and doesn’t seem to mind giving me rides if he’s headed where I’m headed. As you may imagine, bakkies are the workhorse vehicles of choice here. Regardless of whether it is open or closed, bakkie beds are loaded up to overflowing with anything and everything. It is not uncommon to see 10 or more people in a bakkie bed, often riding along with their luggage.

A typical ‘Bakkie’

The only vehicles more popular than the bakkie are the small 5-seat sedans favored by cab drivers. Realistically these sedans comfortably seat 4 adults, but cabbies will cram 5 in regardless of the size of the adults in question. (More on this later.) Small children may ride free if they can sit on your lap. I’ve seen at least 3 small kids ride this way, which brings the passenger tally up to 8. Watching people climb out of these wee vehicles always reminds me of circus clown cars.

A typical ‘cab’

Next we have the kombies, which are small buses capable of seating 7 to 15 depending on the size. Again, the advertised seat count is theoretical. These are typically used for intercity transports and typically haul trailers for luggage, packages, even furniture and small caged animals. Like cabs, kombies can be in various states of repair (or disrepair). If you really want to experience travel in Namibia, go by kombi. Opt for the larger ones that at least look like they’ve maintained. You’ll find that Namibians are generally friendly, generous, and have a great sense of humor. You can practice your Afrikaans, Oshikwanyama, and other local languages.


Kombies at the Rhino Hikepoint in Windhoek

I’ve come to believe that kombies drivers are frustrated Indy 500 driver. They are only supposed to go 100kph, but they tend to move somewhat faster, passing double-length trailer trucks like they were standing still, all while pulling a loaded trailer and carrying more people than they should.

Kombie trailer loaded with goats

The well heeled urban Namibian is likely to drive a Euro-luxury sedan from Mercedes, BMW or Audi. These tend to be black or dark gray with heavily tinted windows. Like in the States, these are status symbols.

Well heeled Namibians who live out in the sticks drive expensive 4WD RangeRovers, LandRovers, LandCruisers and the like. Here, 4WD is actually needed, the rural terrain is unforgiving and road service practically nonexistent. Even some parking lots require 4WD because of deep sand or sharp, shifting rocks. And everyone carries full size spares that have been pressure checked. I’ve taken 3 trips to the north and have gotten flat tires twice. And I don’t mean a nail-in-the-trend type flats, these were rip-a-hole through-2-inches-of-rubber type flats. And both happened many kilometers from the nearest town. Unpaved roads harbor sharp rocks that can challenge even 4×4 tires. Spare tires are essential.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m not allowed to drive (this even though my duties can carry me far and wide), so I am forced to get around like the average Namibian; I hike.

Hiking is done in one of three ways: you can call a transport company and arrange to be picked up, you travel in air conditioned comfort, and they drop you off at your destination. (This is hiking only in the vaguest sense.) You can go to a hike point and climb on one of the kombies or get a private car heading in your direction, or you can head out to the highway, put out your thumb and hope someone picks you up. That last one is not as unpredictable as it sounds. Many are quite successful getting around using their thumbs. Still, as it can be anywhere, hiking can be dangerous. Namibia, is a relatively safe country to be in, but bad people can pop up, or in this case, drive up anywhere, and there are long stretches of road where there’s not even a mobile phone signal. Extreme caution is advised.

Hiking the B2 Highway can be a lonely and dangerous endeavor

Hike point travel is far more reliable and these places are typically brimming with cabs, kombies and private vehicles vying for your dollar. In fact, the drivers can get so worked up that they jostle and shove each other, yelling at you to pick him over the ten others yelling at you. For women, especially young women, it can be a nightmare. The drivers will often grab her belongings and shove them in the trunk of his car, forcing her to either go with him of demand her stuff back. I’ve seen women crying while trying to get a ride.

Hike points are not for the meek.

Drivers mobbing a cab at a hike point in Windhoek

Normally I take the far more comfortable and predictable transport company, but today I wanted to ‘rough it’, and walked to the road leading to Windhoek and tried my luck.

Hiking from the side of the road is a bit less intimidating than hike points. You can stick your thumb out to passing RangeRovers, trucks and VW GTIs, but they seldom stop ( I suppose there are many factors that play into the decision to stop for a hiker. I would likely only stop if the hiker was alone and neatly dressed.) The vehicles that do stop are old sedans and small 7-passenger quasi-station wagons (think micro-vans like the Mazda MPV and you’ll get the idea). These are enterprising Namibians who fill in the transportation gap by picking up hikers and charging a bit less than what you might pay at hike points.

The 7-passenger thingy is what I caught into Windhoek this morning and I can tell you that the only 7 passengers that can sit comfortably in that vehicle are a troop of emaciated, vertically challenged Oompa Loompas.

As luck would have it, my fellow passengers were of normal dimensions, except for the woman next to me, who grossly exceeded her already small seating allotment to the point were an imprint of the door trim I was squeezed against will likely stay with me for the remainder of my service here.

My overly ample, but pleasant seat mate

I suppose we were luckier than most, our vehicle had air conditioning running. Normally very loud music is substituted for AC. I guess the thinking is that if you make the music loud enough passengers will be more concerned about bleeding eardrums than sweating brows.

It seems to work.

Hike point hiking is really how it’s done here, though the Peace Corps frowns on it. I get their concern, too much can go wrong. Vehicles tend to be poorly maintained, drivers can be overly aggressive, and the environment can be dangerous to the less worldly. On the other hand, you can meet really interesting people and feel closer to the environment. There are inconveniences (like the rather large one this morning who pressed so close to me that when I felt my stomach rumble it turned out to be hers), but I honestly believe its worth it. The woman next to me was very kind and caring, offering snacks to those around her (Namibians share, it seems to be part of their DNA).

I also enjoy the scenery. Regardless of which part of the country I’m traveling through, I’ve found the views mesmerizing and often breathtaking. For a guy whose driven through much of the U.S. and rarely seen anything more interesting than a herd of white tail deer grazing along the roadside, sitting in the passenger in on a Namibian road is a treat. I’ve seen baboons, warthogs, and ostriches. Cows, goats, sheep and donkeys will wander onto the road as well. And if you’re very lucky, you’ll be forced to stop while a herd of zebras cross in front of you. While stopped you might see a small herd of giraffes grazing at a safer distance from the road.

You never know what you’ll try not to run into, cows, donkeys, …


…warthogs or baboons,…


…or a herd of zebras crossing the road.

It can be a lot of fun.

I will continue to take the more comfortable passage if available, but I now have no qualms of taking to thumbing it. It’s all part of the adventure.

Stay tuned.

Vern

Namibia: Dog’s Life

Namibia is at once incredibly beautiful and incredibly unforgiving. To live here, especially in rural areas (which is a vast majority of the country) creatures, including us humans, must adapt. The environment offers challenges found in few other places on earth.

For instance, in the Namib Desert, one of the oldest and harshest deserts on the planet, you can still find animal activity. I’ve seen ostriches, springbok and scrub hares. I’ve seen the tracks of these creatures and those of other animals I didn’t recognize. But there are tracks that even a purblind urban kid, like myself, can immediately recognize, those of dogs.

A pack of strays in the desert

While the African Wild Dog’s population is under serious threat and is considered endangered, the average mongrel can claim no such protection. Dogs are everywhere, and if I had to guess I’d say that dogs are the second most populous mammal in Namibia, right behind humans. (By way of reference, there are approximately 2.3 million people in Namibia, which has an area a little larger than Texas, and Texas has 10x the population.)

You find dogs wherever you find people, and their lot in life is intricately tied to the humans they live around. In the town of Okahandja, for instance, where homes are surrounded by walls and barbed wire, dogs, at the very least, serve as living doorbells (they bark only when someone approaches the gate of the compound), but more often they are kept as burglary deterrents. You’ll find far fewer strays in Okahandja than you’d find in Arandis, where walled homes that corral dogs are the exception.

‘Watchdogs’ behind a fence in Okahanja

As with the humans they live next to or live with, dogs adapt. In Okahandja they seem quite content to stay behind their gates and bark in exchange for a daily meal. In Arandis, they’ve accepted their station as second class citizens and eek out lives subsisting on whatever food is discarded, which is often very little. In homesteads in the north dogs are part of the typical farm menagerie. There are strays, but it seems that most dogs have human homes.

Small dogs seem to like the height advantage fences provide

In the more expensive areas of Swakopmund and Windhoek one can identify several recognized dog breeds, but in the outlying ghettos, dog lineage is as mixed and varied as the ingredients in a pot of beef stew. I’ve seen Rottweilers, Pitbulls, Shitzus, and more than a few Schnauzers. One of the more impressive breeds I’ve seen are the Rhodesian Ridgebacks. They are a medium to large sized animal with brown to rust colored fur and a distinct tufted ridge of fur running the length of its back.

The Ridgeback isn’t the only dog in Namibia with that distinctive fur feature, however. I seen short legged, long bodied pooches with a crop of unruly hair starting at the shoulders and running along the spine. I saw one such canine while in the East Kavango Region of Namibia. It was in a primary school. The dog wandered in among students and adults as if the school were its home. It stood glancing up at the adults, tail wagging lazily, waiting for notice, but getting none. At last it turned and ambled away looking sad and dejected.

Life can be tough for dogs in Namibia

I asked friends about their observations of the relationships between dog and man in the areas to the south. One reports, “Keetmanshoop is more similar to Okahandja. I thought the dogs I saw were strays at first, but after closer observation realized they all have owners and a place to come back to, they just aren’t kept inside the gate all day.”

Further to the south, another tells me, “The dog population in Oranjemund is pretty large. Most, if not all, of the dogs are domestic pets. Rarely do you see any strays or wild dogs. There is a pound or kennel where you can house dogs while on vacation or pick up new ones. Oddly enough, there are a ton of mini dachshunds! Nearly every house has a beware dog sign in Afrikaans and Oshiwambo!”

And to the west I’m told, “Luderitz is completely divided between the town and location. In town the dogs are fenced in and bark at anything that moves.

In the location there are stray dogs and dogs that sit outside of house but they rarely make noise.”

I feel like this sometimes…

Adapt, survive, and if you’re lucky, prosper. It’s a dog’s life.

Stay tuned.

Vern

Happy New Year!!

This year is quickly drawing to a close and it’s been a whirlwind, roller coaster, and tsunami all rolled into one big adventure. I talked a bit about what I’ve done, haven’t done this year, and what I intend to do next year in an earlier post, so I won’t recap here.

This post is simply to wish my family and friends, both old and new, a Happy New Year, and to offer a few suggestions for the coming year.

While my path involves what may appear to be exotic places and adventurous doings I’ll admit here, that, for the most part, it’s a 9 to 5 punctuated by the occasional “OH WOW!” moments. Many of you have just as interesting, and dare I suggest more interesting, though less far flung engagements and you should let others know what you are up to. So, I invite you to start a blog like this one.

Yeah, I know that there’s Facebook and Instagram, but I believe those places are less personal than a bonafide blog. Here you can offer up your insights, opinions, photos and other discoveries you encounter in your day to day journey without all the glitz. It’s just you and your readers. And really, that’s the interesting part. Letting people know that you and the people you meet are as human as they are, and vise versa.

So, make it a New Year’s resolution to create and keep a blog and invite your friends and family to subscribe to it. I think you’ll be glad you did.

When I say the term, “2018”, for an instant my mind defines that to mean a time in the distant future where space travel, flying cars and robot overlords are as common chewing gum on the sidewalks of New York. Yet, in a week, 2018 will be here and none of those things are common (they’ve been promised for years, but we may actually see all three within the next 10 years, if we survive the next 3). As much as the shenanigans of 2017 has dimmed the faith in humanity for many, I continue to find reasons to keep the faith because I firmly believe that we, all of us, are greater than the sum of each of us. (Did that come out right?)

In my family and friends, and a vast majority of the people I meet, I see a future of diversity over divisiveness, of acceptance over ignorance, of good will over ill will. I think it’s far too optimistic to believe, as the the Beatles did, that love is all you need. It’s far more realistic at this time to believe that tolerance is really all we need. You don’t have to love or even like everyone or their ideas. Just be and let be, and we may yet survive this.

So, with a hopeful and faithful eye on the coming months, I wish you all a joyful, prosperous, and adventurous New Year.

Stay Tuned,

Vern