Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tunisia with a smile

The more I travel, the more I learn. And the more I learn, the less I know I know. And, the less I know I know, the more I want to learn. And so, you see, it is a vicissitude, a vicious cycle, without beginning or end. I have travelled since before I can remember, and I will, inshallah, travel until I can no longer remember. It is a ceaseless, restless urge, a reckless yearning, a plaintive need. Maybe it will quell with the passing of years, the permutations of life, the finding of love and the holding on to it. Perhaps. Perhaps.

But there is something visceral, for me, in travel, a stirring of senses, a churning of desires. I have seen life fall apart. I have staggered through its rubble, numb. And I have changed because of it. But that which remains, at the core, is me. And part of that me, not all, but part, is travel. I will probably never be rich, never own fancy cars or expensive houses, never be famous or more than ordinary. But I will travel.

It hit me, again, that prickling of restivity, that immolant spark of curiosity, triggered by many things, not long ago. Recognizing the symptoms, I sighed and logged onto the internet. I tallied up my accounts, fingered the dirty bills of Egyptian pounds I had accumulated over months of English tutoring, calculated the funds and checked the airfares. Tunis. Hmmm. Cheap, developing country. Inexpensive to travel in, 'exotic', safe, close. Done. I worked some more, studied hard for exams, struggled through lesson plans and meetings. Suddenly, the Eid was upon me, a week of no school, no work, and 8 days of adventure.

I was wedged, quite literally, against the front window of a bus and the rattling door that scraped against the highway, careening alarmingly into the setting sun. Behind me, next to me, surrounding me, were similarly uncomfortable passengers, pushed up against one another as each bump jostled their precarious balance. “Good?” the driver asked, leaning over several passengers to smile at me. I smiled wanly back, willing his concentration back to the road. Travel during Muslim holidays in Islamic countries using public transport is not recommended. The BibleQuranTorah, otherwise known as my Lonely Planet guide to Tunisia, failed to mention this. I had fought, for many hours, to obtain my square inch of dirty bus floor, to cram myself onto an overcrowded overcrowded and speed towards my next destination. I made it, of course. The bus driver even took the bus off route, delayed his return to Tunis, to find me a taxi. When I offered to pay extra, he refused, demanding less than the actual fare. “Bon vacances!” he called cheerily as I disembarked into the night and an unknown town.

My Tunisian friend, Anis, marvelled at my determination. “I've never met anyone quite so...independent.” “Let me teach you a new word. Stubborn.” At his quizzical stare, I produced the Arabic translation and he nodded, emphatically. “Yes, you are very stubborn.” I took it as a compliment.

Sheer stubbornness got me through Tunisia. Not intelligence, coyness, grace or flirtation. Stubbornness. Running around bus terminals, tugging on sleeves and asking every person I could how to get to the next city. Pushing through throngs to achieve a seat on a minbus. Shouting in Egyptian Arabic. Being barely understood in said language. That is not to say it was not consummately enjoyable. It was. Flitting through Roman ruins, palm groves, desert oases, ancient medinas, bustling markets...how could it not be? But the journeys there, that was half the fun, at least.

I began in Tunis, arriving on a windswept night of black waters, glittering lights, and cool winds. Tunis is a port city, on the Med, cooled by a sea breeze and warmed by a golden sun. The ancient Romans made Carthage their playground; the modern Tunisians have added electricity, swanky villas, and roads, but the views they enjoy from Byrsa hill, heart of ancient Rome, remain the same, sweeping views down the water, blinded by a thousand hues of blue . Add a few Roman pillars, headless statues, crumbling glory, and you'll find me clambering amongst this strange melange of old and new, shaded palm groves harbouring Roman temples, high walls sheltering the President's palace.

Anis, a friend of a friend, told me I'm a guest in his country. Then he put me in his car, asked if I'd ever seen the movie Taken (if you recall, a film about kidnapping foreign female tourists and turning them into sex slaves) and drove me north. At the site of Utica, the former Roman capitol (albeit briefly) we disentangled ourselves from the car and set to exploring the half-excavated city, choked by weeds and wildflowers, replete with still vivid mosaics and Punic coffins. Then he took me to his family and a dinner of spicy couscous, lamb, laughter, and garbled attempts at French and Arabic. Then he left me, the next morning, at the bus station, somehow finding me a place on a bus that, it seemed, the entire population of Tunisia also wanted. The queue in front of the ticket window included screeching women, men climbing on other men's shoulders, people choking each other...general chaos.

After that, the natural stubbornness he so eloquently decried asserted itself. I found my way to Dougga, a magical Roman city built on a hill presiding over the fertile valleys beyond. It was here, resting against an ancient Roman pillar, shaded by an olive grove that I smiled. It was slow at first, just a twitch at the edge of my lips, but it spread, split my lips into a wide grin, a beam, as they say, from ear to ear. Whatever lay ahead, whatever lay behind, faded into the simple perfection of ancient Rome brushed by a Tunisian sun, the beauty of the past discovered by the present.

From this moment of peace came many more. A kind man at the bus station, informing me, courteously, my bus had arrived early, leading me to the queue, accepting my thanks with a shy acceptance. In the palmerie of Tozeur, a desert oasis far in the south, stumbling amongst the prickly trunks and waving fronds, wading through a clear spring, discovering hidden mosques- humble, ramshackle, built with faith and hand- and swaying bridges, laughter rippling in the undulating shadows. A waterfall tumbling out of the desert sands. A lizard crawling through my hair. A black ghost drifting through the brick-worked medina of Tozeur. New friends met on a rooftop. A coliseum rising above the tumble of El-Jem, filling my vision with memories of Gladiator (parts of it were filmed there), expanding to stay my steps as the entirety of its grandeur revealed itself, mysterious, echoing, ghostly. Lady Gaga blasting on a mini bus. Nadia, my seat mate, leaning over and whispering to me, “Take my phone number and call me if you need anything.” The temples of Sbeitla (yes, I know, more ruins) towering over a desolate plain. Sheep that escaped the slaughter, dotting the fields. And shopping, of course. Bartering for Berber jewelry in old souqs, cuddling new scarves and curious wooden puppets. The sea cliffs of Sidi Bou Said, cluttered with picture-perfect white houses and blue doors (a city ordinance actually, the colour design) stepping down to the water.

Peace is not a continuous road; it is rutted with weariness and annoyance. Crowded train rides, harassing men, unheated nights, shared bathrooms. But that smile returned, again and again, unbidden, independent, stubborn.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Race for the Cure, Egypt Style


I seem to have most occasional updates to this most itinerant blog of mine. It is not as if nothing ever happens to me. Quite the contrary. Alot seems to happen to me, though most of it too prosaic and base to really be of interest to an audience (or too inappropriate; one needs to be marginally cognizant of future employment when splashing her comings and goings across the interwebs for the generally uninterested human populace to see. Employers, and most especially government agencies, are severely lacking in a sense of humor.).

So where does that leave us? Well, it leaves me sitting in this most lovely of cafes at 1 in the morning, watching traffic flash by along Qasr El Aini, listening to the bubbles of sheesha and the strident voices of Arab pop stars on television, staunchly ignoring the backlog of homework and lesson plans cluttering my life. Maalish. No worries. Hakuna Matata. Inshallah, it will all get done, semi-on time and questionably well done. Have another tea, sit back, and enjoy the ride. Welcome to life.

We all need a car accident in our lives. Ok, maybe not an actual accident,with shattered glass and folded steel, but a hypothetical one at least. We need a jolt, a jarring, a jimmying of our current existence, something to tell us, 'yes, you are still alive, but that could change in the barest blink of metal and concrete and screeching tires. So do something useful for a change.' Or so a dear friend of mine tells me, marveling at the scars on his hands and the sensation of feeling life sift through his hands as the steering wheel lurched into a wall. My car accident happened last summer, when the jumble of my personal inadeqacies and mistakes hit a wall called reality, sat up, and took stock of the situation. Selflessness is stupid. Selfless people have no self. But selfish people have only fish to keep them company. Ok, bad analogy. Maalish.

So I did something moderately selfish and moderately selfless last week. I went on Susan G. Komen's Race for the Cure. In Egypt. Selfless, because my participation contributed to something greater than myself, to the awareness of a cause seldom voiced in Egypt, breast cancer. Selfish because it was held at the coolest venue ever – the Pyramids, and a greedy little part of me wanted to be able say. “Oh yeah, so, you did the Race for the Cure in your rinky-dink little hometown? I did mine at the PYRAMIDS! Mwhahaha.”

I am not Egyptian, in case you hadn't noticed by the glaring atrocity of my blonde hair, mischevious blue eyes, and Nordic height. I, therefore, am able to judge Egypt unfairly from my ethnocentric, American stereotypes that are clearly superior to anywhere else (can you tell I've been spending too much time with anthropologists. Geez.). As such, I expected the event to be disorganized, chaotic, and frustrating. It was none of those things. The shuttle bus awaited me at 7:30 am in Maadi, departed on time to the pyramids and deposited me at the front gate amid a swelling mass of similarly white-shirt clad Racers. I found my friends easily, despite the burgeoning crowd. We passed smoothly through the gates into the Pyramids proper, boarded a waiting bus and drove 10 minutes to the start line of the race on a fairly average plateau overlooking the last remaining wonder of the world in the clear glory of a blue Cairo morning. We milled amongst the multitudes, danced a bit to Michael Jackson, jostled near the starting line as the announcer told us the race would start, 'inshallah' in 10 minutes. It wasn't an unpleasant wait. Veiled and unveiled women, young and old, men and women, stood excitedly around us, playing drums and singing, waving banners and parading. An unseen signal released the horde upon the poor tourists merely attempting the visit the pyrmaids. 20,000 strong, we flooded the plateau of Giza in a sea of white and pink, sprinting, jogging, and strolling downhill, swirling amongst the pyramids, clambering atop their stones for photos, around the tourist buses stuck on the road, amidst the camels and horses, past ancient funerary temples and halting in front of the Sphinx, sweaty, laughing, and somewhat sun-burned, even at 11 in the morning.

A ceremony of sorts was held at the pavilion facing the Sphinx featuring music, loud Arabic orations, and general revelry. Jackie, Mark and I instead ditched the party and struck out into Giza, grabbing some street food, a taxi, and, eventually, a long Metro ride home.

This is the first time in five years that I have spent more than one year in a single location. The first time I could not merely flit away come May or June to a new adventure, leaving the wake of my old one behind. The first time I have a home of sorts, however dysfunctional, to return to. Casual acquaintances to remember and inquire after their summer. Favorite cafes and haunts to revisit and be welcomed like family. It's nice. Cavorting whimsically through careers, lives, friends, loves, and countries sounds terribly romantic, but this odd desire to be settled, semi-permanently, wars against it. I don't mean 2.5 kids and a white picket fence, but, permanency. Permanency. Stability? Selflessness? Selfishness? Somewhere in this amorphous world of vague terms lies a future. I suppose that's where I come in. To find it.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Watching

I look up, up, past the faded, torn, uselessly fluttering pendants strung across the sky, past the ferny leaves of an unnamed tree, through an opaque sky suffused in pollution to a single, resilient star above Cairo. A tiny yellow butterfly flits through the sheesha smoke of the cafe, dipping and dancing in intoxicating scents of cherry, peach and apple. A stray dog limps by in the shadows, barking at the rattle of a passing taxi. Cards shuffle at a nearby table, diamonds and hearts and words exchange hands, implacably. The metro tracks rumble as a train shuffles onward, bearing the veiled sighs and weary eyes of another day. Somewhere, a cat snarls, mewls and silences.

A sliver of Cairo, one of millions. I could be here 20 years and see nothing, Travel from the verdant streets of Maadi to the dusty tombs of the dead, from the congested chaos of Nasr City to the quiet arrogance of Zamalek. Circle the city in a day, get lost in the call to prayer and the bright lights glittering against the Nile, the donkey cart straining across the highway, piled with tomatoes and cucumbers and zucchini and bright peppers, the black Mercedes, tinted windows and shiny facades, purr past. But I have only a few months, a handful of moments, a dearth of time and a glutton of desire . But that, I suppose, could be said of life as well, at the end. Looking back, calculating and evaluating, regretting and smiling.

I was in bed, it was one of those rare moments of imperfect contentment, too hot to sleep, too engrossed in a novel to want to, when I looked at the hour. 3 am. And it brought me to another world, another time, another clime. I looked at myself, then, curled beneath blankets as snow fell outside my window, nose buried in a book. I wanted to say hi, do you recognize me? This is you, 6 years older. I thought of you, just now, remembered how you used to spend your nights wrapped around a book. You'll take a break, for a few years, run around the world losing yourself and, yes, finding yourself too. But, one day, there you will be, somewhere in the stirring sands of a distant desert, falling in love again with words on a page, startled when dawn taps you on the shoulder with an apologetic smile. I didn't say anything, though to that girl. And she didn't even notice me, silly thing. Too caught up in the Da Vinci Code. Watched her for a few moments, cheesy grin pasted on my face, before I returned to the much more expedient task of finishing The Book Thief. I wondered, fleetingly, what future me might be watching, what secrets she could whisper in my ear. But I didn't notice a thing, too caught up in my book.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A toast

I followed a white whale today. Yesterday, I watched the wings of a bat flutter through the fingers of a palm tree. Last week, I heard the rhythm of the Red Sea bubble and grunt and splash and creak. I felt the prickle of a sand dollar and let it lie, half-buried beneath a shifty shoal. I saw the sun touch the mountains of the Sinai with a golden finish, saw it rise and set over a desert plain. I tasted love at the bottom of a lukewarm drink, glimpsed it flit away and nestle among the smile of starlight. Something shifted, something burned, everything changed.
Everything, and nothing. Days passed. Life happened. Words twisted the air, wrinkled and rent it. I slept. I grumbled. I laughed. I cleaned. I complained. I cursed. I learned. I ate. I noticed. I noticed a baby sleeping on the platform of the Metro, tiny fist clenched at the indignation of a dream. I noticed a blood-red moon rise over a decaying city. I noticed 20 million people sigh as a canon pierced the air. No more Ramadan. No more fasting. Slightly less inefficiency. And I danced. I danced in the silk blue folds of the sea, tangoed with groupers and flirted with lionfish. I danced on the side of road, at 3 am. Ruined tire and scruffy rocks, semi lights flashing, cigarettes burning. Forget Burning Man. It was Burned Rubber, Egypt style. I danced in the arms of another, I danced in the arms of no one.
Let me take you somewhere, for a moment. Listen to the tangle of foamy waves against a rocky seashore. Rush and recede, ebb and flow, purr and shush. Bubbles from a sheesha, clouds of fruity temptation from across the table. You let a glass, slippery and sultry, settle on the table. Look up, suddenly. Clusters of constellations, winking and twinkling, teasing and tantalizing. You recognize Venus, or is it Mars. Over the sea, across an undulating water, an unknown city of lights. Happy September 11th. Hello Saudi Arabia. To those 19 souls who crossed an ocean 9 years ago? Burn in hell. And you drink to that.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Passing through...


“You’re beautiful.”
“Excuse me?” I blinked at the Egypt Air clerk confusedly; normally, I would have expected such a comment from the male populace of Egypt, but my general state of exhaustion and the chaos and emotions that accompany leaving left me somewhat vulnerable to predatory check-in attendants.
“You are beautiful.” He smiled at me, and I smiled skeptically back. He ran through the usual questions, and handed me my boarding pass, brushing my fingers as he did so. I rolled my eyes, grabbed my carry-on, and found a strong coffee in the eating area to jolt me awake until boarding and pass out time.
Oh, Egypt. I stood on Qasr El Aini Street, looking out over downtown mere hours before I needed to depart, and I breathed deeply—breathed in the pollution, the car horns, the smell of falafel and grease from the little stand around the corner, the playful breeze rippling off the Nile, the crescent moon hung like a pendant in the sky, and my favorite scent in the whole world—sheesha, fruity, intoxicating whiffs of sheesha-- from a café. It took me two years to discover true love, sustainable love—not the oriental, extravagant fantasies of my 20-year old self, gallivanting on horseback around the pyramids every other week, filling my room with baubles from the Khan, and dining in the ultra-chic Sequoia on a whim. That Cairo, although exhilarating, was a quick fling, a self-destructive satisfaction; my new Cairo is certainly less extraordinary—it doesn’t involve moonlight gallops on horseback or frequent trips to posh restaurants in Zamalek, but it is stable, replete with simple pleasures and new discoveries. It is sitting in an ‘ahwa with Christal in Maadi, sipping herbal tea, listening to the clatter of backgammon dice against the wooden board and the bubble of sheesha from the men sitting around us. It is trying different fooul restaurants downtown to determine the best, where to find the cheapest aish. It is waking up covered in a light sheen of sweat, my windows open wide to the shimmering heat of summer and the hum of neighbors’ voices. This is what I miss; oh, and I suppose the people too.
So it was with a melancholy heart that I left Cairo; not that I really remember leaving—I was pleasantly slumbering (snoring) before the plane even turned onto the desert runway. I blinked, once, ate the food being thrust at me, and woke again as the plane touched European soil in Amsterdam.
I am blessed with amazing friends—my roommate owns a flat in a French village outside of Paris, and the keys to it jangled in my pocket as I exited the airport, a week of French epicurean and sartorial decadency at hand. At the Eurorail office, I asked for the next ticket to Paris. “Ummm, not until 7, maybe 6:30?” It was not yet 10 am. “Errrr, ok. How much?” “133 Euros.” “Is it normally that much?” “Well, if you book in advance it’s cheaper, and it’s a holiday.” Rawr. I handed over my hard-earned Euros and napped on the floor of the train station.
I dragged my giant green monstrosity of a suitcase off the train in the Gare du Nord train station of Paris and lugged it down the stairs that lead the RER (suburban rail) and Metro, assuming this was the proper route to Chantilly, my final destination. After waiting in queue for about 5 minutes, I approached the ticket machine, typed in my destination, and got an error message. “Ummmm.” I turned to two French girls standing behind me. “Chantilly? Do you know where Chantilly is?” My French was still a bit rusty, and I had not slept in several days. They consulted each other. “I think, that machine there.” One gestured to an SNCF machine nearby. Seeing the clueless expression on my face, she said, “Come,” and found the next train to Chantilly on its screen, departing at 10:37. I inserted my credit card. DENIED. I tried my other one. DENIED. “You need, you need this special chip,” she said, showing me her credit card that did, indeed, have a symbol for an electronic chip. “Upstairs, you can go to a booth.” I hoped they were not merely trying to get rid of me. “Ok, merci beaucoup!”
Back I trudged to the upper world of the Gare du Nord. Ahhhh SNCF! I saw a long row of windows with ‘ferme’ signs in each of them. Closed. “Merde,” I muttered, glancing at the clock. 10:20. If I didn’t catch the next and last train, I would be sleeping in the train station for the night. Standing in front of one of the machines, frantically considering my options, I noticed a man at a machine next to me purchasing a ticket. Unlike my attempts, his yielded an actual ticket. I almost called him over, but I was still hesitant and he headed off in the other direction. 10:25. The man was coming back in my direction. “Excuse me? Do you speak English?” I asked in a tentative, breathless and slightly panicked voice. “Yes.” And he came over to my machine. I explained my conundrum and asked if I could give him cash if he would pay for my ticket. “Of course, no problem.” A few minutes later, my ticket in hand, I looked around the train station. 18 different platforms stretched across its breadth, none of them saliently labeled and several of them puffing ominously. “Do you know where this train is?” He led me across the station to the departures board. “Ah, there, 10:37, yes?” I nodded. “18, right over there.” I thanked him profusely as he rushed off to catch his own train and I slid into the doors of the Chantilly-bound train gratefully.
I leaned against the seat wearily and closed my eyes. “Billet? Bonsoir, mademoiselle.” I wordlessly handed him my ticket as he tried again. “Bonsoir?” “Bonsoir, merci,” I responded haltingly as he clipped the ticket. He smiled cheerfully and moved onto the next passenger. “Bonsoir!”
I descended in Chantilly and followed two people down the tunnel and up through the exit to Parc Hugo. Shadows and rustling trees, dark streets and a glowing moon filled the strange world around me. I hustled to catch up to couple ahead. “Umm, pardon. La rue de connaitable?” “Oh, you should have gone other way,” responded the woman, her male companion also pausing to interject. “But you can go this way. Take the next right. After two,” and he opened and closed his fists while I looked on helplessly. “Lights,” piped in the woman. “At the second light, turn right. Then left. There you are.” “Thank you!” I called as they turned off on a side street, leaving me alone in this strange world of leafy avenues, Baroque villas tucked behind lacy iron fences, and wide cobblestoned streets. All was quiet, not the Cairo quiet always suffused with the distant honk of cars and the hum of air conditioners and faulty wiring and bowabs shouting, but a quiet in which the earth itself seemed to exhale in the warm spring air.
A white, furry dog galumphed past, its owner several steps behind. “Ummm, pardon. La rue de connaitable?” “Bonsoir, mademoiselle.” He proceeded to rattle off in mellifluous French the route I should take. “D’accord. Continuer tout droit, tourner la gauche, au fountain, tournez a droit, et continuez.” “Ouais….Viens!” And so I was led to my street by a Chilean man and his frolicking white dog. At the start of rue de connaitable, he stopped and asked, I think, if I needed more help. “Non, merci beaucoup beaucoup!” He retreated. The street of Connaitable is lined, on either side, with creamy, connected houses, two stories high, tall, red shuttered windows marking the upper floors. Softly glowing streetlamps lit my passage into Marie Antoinette’s France. Bakeries, shuttered for the night, still wafted a faint scent of delicious bread into the street; restaurants with decadent offerings lay behind closed doors; an equestrian boutique advertising the nearby polo club displayed breeches and soft leather saddles in the window; and then, finally, number 76. I walked though the carriage house doors, through a small stone passageway into the courtyard in the back, cluttered with amorphous shapes sunk into darkness, relieved only by the faint glow from a nearby, curtained window. I turned the key in the lock, holding my breath. Click! Breathing an audible sigh of relief, I dragged my luggage through the aperture, up the very narrow staircase, and into the flat that is to be my abode for the rest of the week.
Although it was almost midnight, and not a soul stirred the quietude of the street, I threw open my tall windows and gazed at the moon I had seen the night before from a different continent and a different life. I rested my elbows on the low iron railing and let my soul exhale, slowly, in the balmy night, let my insecurities and stresses and troubles float into the cloudless night sky sunk into a cobalt blue sewn with tiny diamonds sparkling from the heavens.
This trip was never intended to be fraught with the bombardment of excitement that Africa was; it rolled along, languidly, whimsically, jauntily. On my first morning, I clambered out of bed and threw open my curtains to an increasingly cloudy sky, brooding clouds racing to gobble up the periwinkle vault above. Hmmmph. I clattered down the stairs and strolled (in France, one must, stroll, saunter, or perhaps sashay; walking is forbidden) down the street and into the nearest bakery where my senses were deliciously assaulted. For supper I ambled to the local supermarket and raided the meat and cheese section—ham and decent, European cheese. On a whim, I bought a bottle of wine, just because I could. That was the day of the Dreaded Paper, which I finished that evening. In celebration, I walked to the local Tabac and bought two bottles of Diet Coke. Very French.
Unbound by scholarly musings, I decided a Promenade was in order; I strode down the Rue de Connetable, chanced upon a flea market in the village square and spent a good hour selecting my first French outfit, continued past the Royal Stables resembling a Gothic palace more than a place to keep horses, under the stone archway restricting traffic to one-way inside Chantilly, past the glorious chateau surrounded on all sides by a small lake, and into the woodlands along a dirt path next to the palace grounds. Straight, smooth trunks reared up on one side of the pathway; the other side was bordered by an ancient, crumbling wall. Green light filled my vision, and the verdancy of the foliage contrasted with the leaden rain clouds drip drip dripping on the path. Half an hour later, without meeting a soul save an ornery snail, hearing only the whoosh of wind through wet leaves, I discovered a small village and lay on a bench in a little garden, reading.
To go to Paris or stay in Chantilly? This was the dilemma I found myself faced with the next day. I settled on Paris, and made my way to the train station. An hour later, I stepped off in Gare du Nord and descended into the Metro system, hopping on the purple line to St. Michel. I emerged into the watery light of afternoon and the bustle of Parisians rushing purposefully down the broad sidewalks. Ahhh, Paris. Without further ado, I spotted my quarry, Promod, only the world’s best clothing store. Emerging with a lighter wallet and an arm full of clothes, I did not feel yet like returning to the halcyon atmosphere of Chantilly. So I took a side street, found the Seine and Notre Dame, crossed the river, proceeded another 10 minutes or so, and then came upon another Promod. Half an hour and another shopping bag later, I decided it was time to return to Chantilly.
On Friday I finally penetrated the mysteries of the chateau and coughed up the 19 Euros to see the castle itself, the grounds, the Royal Stables and a dressage show. My pictures hardly do the chateau justice; someone told me it is famed for its elaborate, rather ostentatious façade, and I agree. As Akshaya, who will arrive in our story later this evening, said of its appearance, “And this is why the French Revolution happened.” Happily, I found the castle populated by two Asian tourists, French schoolchildren, a few old men, and me. There were no queues, no crowded rooms, just me and the ghosts of a doomed family.
Pass through the gilded gates and walk up the sloping ramp to the main courtyard; pause, and drink in the delicate, flourish-covered spectacle in front of you. A channel separates the palace from land, connected to the lake surrounding the chateau. Intricate stone figurines, florid shapes and fantastic imaginations cover the front of the castle; pass under the ominous iron grille and enter the inner courtyard; walk further into the castle’s mysteries and discover the marble-encased beauty of its halls, chambers, chapel, and corridors; priceless paintings and stone statues, stained glass windows and painted ceilings; sumptuous velvets and ornate antiques all attest to an époque of unparalleled luxury and unconscionable wealth.
But then walk outside, and marvel at the miles of gardens, lawns, and fountains on the property, the small hamlet where the Comtes could emulate a more bucolic life, the wallabie farm because the duchess wanted them, the Chinese garden full of burbling waterfalls and sinuous koi. We’re not done yet; walk across the field to the Royal Stables and enter its echoing hall filled with the soft grunts and whuffs of the show horses stabled in its interior. Although partly under renovation, it is easy to see the sumptuous world the dukes had created for their horses; indoor arenas, outdoor practice rings, large stalls for their prized equines.
While waiting for Akshaya (you may remember, she’s an ex-roomie from that first year in Cairo), I went first to a fromagerie, a cheese store, and had the proprietor select three savory cheeses for me and then to Café Noir (I love the prevalence of alcohol in Europe) and downed three glasses of wine while taking advantage of their wifi. Then, off to the train station at 10:30 to welcome Akshaya with big hugs and giddiness and laughter.
Akshaya was a Paris virgin before visiting me; I am happy to say I initiated her into its many splendors. Before leaving Chantilly the next morning, we chanced upon the Saturday market and each bought equally gaudy outfits to commemorate our French adventures. And then, off to Paris! Getting lost a bit in the bowels of the train station, walking everywhere, from Notre Dame to the Hotel de Ville where we saw an exhibit on human rights, to the Centre Pompidou and a horribly unfunny mime to the Louvre and the Seine and quaint side streets, through the Tuilieries Gardens and the Place de Concorde, all of which were overrun by fervent rugby fans with painted faces, flags, matching outfits and raucous cheers, up the Champs Elysees to the Arch De Triomphe and past the absurdly overpriced designer boutiques, back into the Metro, to the Odeon area where we bought candy and finally admitted defeat. She fell asleep on my leg that evening (I had no linens and my bed was narrower than a twin, so she was unfortunately relegated to the floor) while I chatted online and eventually settled her head onto a pile of clothes.
Though we had seen the Eiffel Tower the day before, and she had emitted a little squeal when she first saw its phallic thrust above the rooftops of Paris, we ventured the next morning to its base, where we frolicked on the lawn in front, took silly pictures, made disgusting faces at the love-stricken couples, and lay gazing at it in wonderment. Who knew, when we parted ways three years ago, that Paris would be our next reunion? That she would be in law school at Columbia, and I in grad school at AUC? It gives me hope for the location of our next rendezvous. It was Mother's Day in France, that day, and, as we sat on the Metro, we saw men rushing past with bouquets of flowers and men stuffing books and perfume into cute gift bags. Men, it seems, really aren't that different the world over; why not procrastinate when you can buy early?
We rushed to catch the train back to Chantilly, did a short walking tour of the city by daylight, packed our things, bid au revoir to the small flat that cradled my dreams for a week, caught the train back to Gare du Nord, arrived with 10 minutes to catch our departing train to Brussels, transferred to a train bound for Amsterdam, watched the conveniently placed red light district and the lingerie-clad prostitutes in Brussels flash by, shivered as the sun slipped from the sky, the canals and fields passing the train faded from sight, and disentangled ourselves at Den Haag, Akshaya’s home. After an attempt at taking the tram, we found the track ‘blocked’ by a car parked too close and would have waited several hours until a crane arrived to move it…cab it was. Short night of sleep, back to the train station (for me) the next morning, onto the airport, and home, finally.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Musings from a Beach

For me, it’s Dahab. That place where the world ceases to turn, where life slows to a gentle amble along the seashore, where the waves laugh against the rocks, where the smell of incense, sheesha, and fresh seafood waft through the air, where palms cast sifting shadows on the sand. It’s a place that is both imperfect and idyllic, a place where I can sit and tilt my head back, let the breeze tangle my hair, and know tranquility. I realize it sounds a bit clichéd, a bit corny, but every time I come to this place, every time my bus passes through the final checkpoint of the Sinai, I feel, well, exhaustion after the 9 hour bus ride, but also a lightness of being and a glow of inexplicable joy. In reality, it is only a rocky beach, a few shoreside cafes that serve overpriced food, jellyfish-prone waters, and tempering breezes, but it is happiness.
So, I’m writing this at 2 am, coming home after a night of dance clubs and French fry snacks, a day of sunshine and saltwater. Everyone else has retired, and the garden of my Bedouin camp is bathed in shadows and quietude, the bathroom light providing the only means of illumination. The dreadlocked hippies next door have put aside their hashish and Jack Johnson for the night; the wild dogs howling outside and the man snoring in the tent a few feet away remind me that I am not the only soul in this starlit world.
Well, I wrote the above two paragraphs, glanced at the clock and bolted off to bed. Nights are lovely, but daytime is the best part of Dahab. Right now I’m sitting in the Funny Mummy restaurant, the Red Sea drifting calmly a few meters away. Saudi looms on the horizon, dark mountains towering esoterically, turning golden in the sunshine. The water is so calm I feel like I could step of the edge of Egypt and glide my way across its sunlit surface, peering down at the brilliant coral and lurking barracuda, sinuous eels and the translucent jellyfish.
I just bopped a kitty on nose, and it stretched languorously onto its back, paws stuck comically in the air, yawning profusely. The splash of hooves against the rocky shore precedes a beautiful bay horse walking past, its rider eliciting business. Next time, perhaps. Alas that my weekend of leisure will end in a few hours and I will be crammed on a mini bus back to the chaos of Cairo.
Not that I don’t love Cairo, of course. But, with every lover, little tiffs interpret the gentle flow of affection, usually assuaged soon thereafter. So it is with my current home. I love its markets and its vibrancy, the fact that I can go dancing in the Four Seasons and then, at 3 am, walk a few blocks away and buy a 50 cent meal. Horseback riding under a moonless night, when the pyramids surge into view after cantering up a sand dune. The sensual markets of luscious peaches, voluptuous melons, tangy berries, bright red tomatoes, smooth cucumbers, rotund eggplant, and crisp apples.
But, rawr, certain moments try one’s patience. I was walking through Maadi one night, after a class ran late, to the main artery of my neighborhood, Road 9, where one can find somewhat reasonably priced groceries at the local end. I took a shortcut, as is my wont, and was almost to my destination when I heard a car screech behind me. Zift (Crap). Car harassment is a common occurrence everywhere in the world; men really never change. But Cairo men seem to not understand that women don’t actually respond to catcalls, honks, and other such techniques.
Well, I found one of the very persistent types that night. A car door slammed behind me and I heard the slap of shoes against the pavement. I quickened my pace and saw the cheerful glow of Road 9 ahead. “Hello, long walk. My name is Mohammed. Come into our car.”
I turned onto Road 9 and walked down it swiftly, resolutely ignoring the man shouldering his way down the road next to me. “Come on, what’s your name? Why are you ignoring me? Don’t be scared.”
I risked a quick glance in his direction. Uh-oh. I, in my baggy sweatpants and a tee-shirt, had attracted one of the tallest Egyptian males in the country. Most are scrawny, underfed and/or malnourished, and short. Mohammed reached out and grabbed me. “Come on, be nice.” His friends drove past slowly in their car, leering. I stepped onto the sidewalk; he followed me, blocking my way. He reached towards my face and snatched my glasses. I screeched, literally, at him in Arabic only, shouting and threatening to call the police. “But I am the police.” He pulls something out of his wallet, ostensibly a form of police id. “ Come on, I don’t rape girls.” And then I lost it, darted past him and his friends and rushed into the nearest supermarket, where the workers stood lookout until Mohammed and his friends finally tired of their games and left.
I continued along the road, shakily, until I arrived at my favorite fruit stand that was just closing at 1 am, run by a woman and her young daughter. Greeted with a gap-toothed grin and an ahlan, I selected my peaches and apples and paid a paltry sum. Maa salaama, ya gamila! Cackled the woman as I shuffled off, and I turned to smile. Like any city, Cairo brings out both the best and the worst of humanity, and one can take an experience like that night and allow it to mar this place. I choose to learn from my experiences, at least as much as a (very, thanks to the beach) blonde me can; why should I consider Cairo any safer than any major world capital its size? Foreigners, at times, get lulled into a bubble of false superiority, that because some Egyptians treat us with sugary obsequiousness, that because our jobs pay more in a month than many locals make in a year, we are omnipotent. Most of my female friends, despite the verbal harassment, will say they feel safer in Cairo than in any other large metropolis, that the Arab sense of hospitality will extricate them from any situation that escalates beyond the norm. To be honest, I used to belong to the same camp when I had only just arrived to the Middle East, when I saw the superficial veneer of chivalry and was yet unable to chip away at its shallow surface.
Bollocks, I now say. Of course, our Arab neighbors and friends would react indignantly, would defend us under the duress of harassment, just as I would similarly expect neighbors and friends to in most of our homelands. But, complete strangers? A few, to be certain, like anywhere in the world. The world is full of nice people and mean people. But would the entire street rush to our succor, compelled to do so by the purported generosity and hospitality somehow unique in the Arab world? Hell no. And, it’s good I’ve been learning that lesson this year; it spirits away quite a few disillusions and is facilitating a necessary change in behavior and mentality.
But the Middle East will always surprise you. About a month ago, I unfurled myself from a long night’s slumber and cranked Jazy-Z and Taylor Swift over the Friday morning sermon filtering in through my window. Christal bopped her head into my room. “Morning, sunshine!”
“Morning, gorgeous! Hey, are you up to anything today?”
“No. No plans whatsoever.”
“Wanna go to the zoo?”
And so we went. The concept of ‘zoo’ is fundamentally different in Cairo. Interaction between guest and animal is strictly forbidden in America and Europe; we are there as observers, as visitors to gaze from afar at animals in a simulation of their natural habitat. The Giza Zoo has a different take; after walking from the Metro stop in Doqqi past the usual collection of jumbled stores selling spices and incense and shoes and whole goat carcasses and Mercedes and fresh orange juice and tight clothing, we wound our way around several green parks (Cairo never ceases to surprise me; I think I know it all, but then I discover a neighborhood full of flower gardens and giant palms amidst the choking traffic of Giza) full of families picnicking and finally encountered the formidable gates of the Zoo.
We pushed our way to the front of the ticket line, purchased the 20 LE tickets, and jostled our way through the crunch of Egyptians exiting and entering through a narrow outlet. Within 10 seconds, we began to be accosted by hawkers selling food, drinks, souvenirs, lion pettings…Wait, lion pettings? “Christal, wait a sec?” I stumbled through negotiations until Christal intervened and, together, we agreed on a price. 30 LE, including a photograph. Christal opted to merely watch, slightly appalled, I think, at the exploitation of the zoo’s animals. Happily, I harbor no such qualms.
The photographer strode off purposefully towards the lion enclosures, passing bushy-maned lions roaring in their cages, stalking back and forth as the crowds milled. “Big or little?” The photographer asked, in Arabic. “Big?” I asked, in question, but he took it as my response and led me through a door that held several bored-looking lions flopped down in a cage. The keeper smiled toothlessly at me and rattled their cage. The males leapt to their feet, padded to the bars of the cage, and growled, shaking their manes. Cuddling with pissed-off, agitated, and who-knows-how-hungry adult lions? “Small!”
And we were led to another door that held half-grown lions, adorable little furballs that blinked sleepily as I approached and let me hug them and kiss them. Probably drugged. Of course, the photographer attempted to charge us more, claiming that he took two pictures, and therefore they would cost twice as much, and I think I paid him 4 extra LE and shooed him away.
Almost every exhibit allowed the guest to interact with the animal in some form, for a bit of baksheesh, of course. All of the antelope-type critters had keepers standing beside them, holding hay that guests could hold over the edge of the cage. The monkeys, aside from being fed by food thrown in by guests, were also attended by keepers that had fruit on long poles they allowed visitors to poke through the cage. The black bears reared on their hind legs and swatted massive paws through the cage bars as their handlers walked around the edge of enclosure, occasionally feeding bits of meat. Wisely, they didn’t let visitors get too close.
At the hippo pools, I walked up to the edge of the cage, plucked some greens from the handler’s cart, and stuck my hand in a hippo’s mouth; you never realize quite how massive those jaws are until your hand is dwarfed by the sheer size of the tongue and stubby teeth. Leaning against the rails of the elephant pen, Christal and I found little pieces of apple thrust into our hand by the keeper, and then an inquisitive, grey nose, attached to a long trunk, pluck it from our hands and place it delicately in its mouth. The elephant made its round of the crowd, delighting the children and adults alike as it nosed its way into their hearts (no pun intended, of course).
Zoos are problematic to begin with; anytime you confine a wild animal to a limited habitat, its quality of life decreases. This may sound rather arrogant, but I’ve seen several of these animals roaming in the wild, elephant herds crossing the plains of Botswana, lions loping through the Serengeti, and zoos are woefully inadequate in terms of space. Does that mean they shouldn’t exist? Not necessarily.
Cairo could certainly improve its zoo; the cages could be larger, cleaner, better organized, less harassment, the keepers better paid. But the animals were stimulated! In the wild, animals remain engaged from the environment around them- predators and prey, weather, fellow species. But, normally, zoos confine separate species to individual cages and leave them to graze laconically or sprawl across the grass. I’ve never seen animals so animated as in Egypt.
And the people watching was nearly as fantastic as the lion petting and hippo feeding and elephant nosing. Families from the villages encountering the animal world for the first time, wrinkled old crones exclaiming over the monkeys and blonde-haired foreigners, families lunching on the grass, gangs of boys making lewd comments toward me, young couples shyly holding hands; truly a menagerie.
I don’t consider myself a snob in most respects. I will squat over a squalid hole and pee with the best of them, but the Cairo Zoo defeated me. I paid the bathroom attendant a pound to use the bathroom, entered the ladies’ side, and found myself crushed in an unwashed horde of aggressive women vying for three toilets. As one person squeezed into the door and shut it, three more pushed forward and formed a formidable barrier in front of it, knocking repeatedly, cracking the door open and checking the occupant’s progress. And the stench was slightly nauseating, even by my Egyptian-acclimated standards.
I confess I fled back to Christal and we proceeded towards the exit, walked back to Doqqi, and passed the Sheraton.
“Hmmmm, Christal, bathroom stop?”
Foreigners who complain about Cairo have a few valid points; but our status as ‘wealthy’ white people allows us access into venues unavailable to the average Egyptian. I emptied my bladder in 5 star luxury, wiped my behind with American toilet tissue, dried my hands on freshly laundered towels, all because I look the part of Western. It’s quite unfair, really, but I didn’t complain that day. We exited the marble-encased Sheraton and had a lunch of greasy finger food at a local joint for 2 dollars and then paid 20 cents for our Metro ride home.
And now I’m back in Maadi, having typed and dozed my way through the Sinai, still awed by the beauty of the sheer cliffs and glittering lagoons and moon-washed mountains, by the lights of 4 nations shining in a Red Sea night. The indolence of the last 3 days must cease; school and work clamor for my time, wonderful roommates poke their head into my messy room (“So, how was it?” “Interesting. Dahab is always lovely; it’s one’s companions that add fodder for my future memoirs), and sleep murmurs my name. So, good night, my dears, may peace find you, wherever in this wide world you are. A-salaam alayikum.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Cairo to Cape Town

Namibia stretched to the limits of my vision, a periwinkle sky falling off the edge of the earth. I closed my eyes and heard the soft rustle of savannah grass wiggling in the wind, the lonesome call of a Zazu bird, the buzz of insects hovering, the crunch of footsteps on gravel, the clink of tent poles, and the hum of voices floating above me. We were on a dirt road off a gravel road off a semi-paved road, broken down in the middle of nowhere. It harboured a quiet beauty, this place; it didn’t flaunt perfection like Victoria Falls; like much of Africa, its charm came after observation- a lone acacia framed in the setting sun, a dry riverbed still green and growing, a distant vista of rock mountains turned copper at sunset. And as I watched the sun fall from the sky, I could imagine no campsite more dazzling.
They say God created Africa first, when he still had imagination and ingenuity. When he could still create sweeping vistas and endless herds, graceful falls and tall dunes, desolate coasts and teeming plains. It is a place to spend a night watching the panoply of stars cross the heavens, miles from any civilization, a place to drive for hours into the middle of nowhere to sit and watch a Botswana sunset splash across the sky in fiery oranges and molten reds, a place where elephants still have the right of way, a place where earth and sky expand to fill the horizon and you wonder how there is any room for people at all.
My sojourn began in my small bedroom in Cairo, when my flatmate, Lauren, fastened a silver chain around my neck. “It’s St. Christopher,” she explained, “the patron saint of travelers and surf boarders. I got it in L.A. Which is why St. Christopher is on a surfboard.” My surfing saint never left my neck in the month I spent in Africa. Why take unnecessary chances?
I intended to fly from Cairo to Jo’burg, from one overcrowded metropolis to the next. And I did, eventually. Thanks to multiple delays by Ethiopian Air, however, I received a free day and night in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Most people, I suppose, might find this a bit inconveniencing, or concerning, though I found it neither. As travelers are wont to do, I made friends waiting in the shuttle from the airport to my hotel- Afrikaners heading home for the holiday. We bonded over cheap drinks in the hotel bar and mutual laughs at our situation. I mean, really, how many people can say they’ve gotten stuck in Ethiopia?!
Although the bar offered a nice view of the surrounding countryside and two dollar drinks, I slid off my stool and over to the front desk. “Are there any local markets we can visit?” “Yes, you can take taxi. 10 dollars for hour.” I turned to my 19 year old South African whose name I never could pronounce with a pleading look in my eyes. “Let’s go. How often are we in Ethiopia, anyways?” So, within 5 minutes, we piled into a taxi for the 40 minutes to Mercato, the largest market in Africa. Yes, that’s right, not Ethiopia, Africa. Along the way I peered, wide-eyed, at the rolling hills and colorful processions of humanity walking along the road, dressed in tank tops, skirts, and tight jeans. I knew Ethiopia was a Christian country, but somehow I still associated it with the Muslim warfare of Somalia and its own tumultuous history.
Addis was more village than city, rows of metal shacks shoved against one another to form houses and shops, occasional buildings lining the main squares, old cars sputtering down crowded avenues, misty rain dripping off dark skin and green leaves and blue doors. Mercato was chaotic, street after street plying jewelry and spices, cars and clothing, curios and electronics, food and drink. Our driver led us through blocks of indoor and outdoor markets until we finally wearied and returned to the yellow taxi, laden with handwoven scarves, banana-leaf prints and new shirts, bartered for at ridiculously cheap prices. People bothered us, but only mildly; although I kept an eye on my purse, I never felt unsafe or threatened- in fact, I felt much more comfortable in Mercato than I do in Egypt’s market, the Khan.
Checking Facebook that evening, I scrolled down my news page and saw my mother’s status update, telling the world that my grandfather had died. Bloody hell. I had to vacate the computer, as we were only allowed 10 minutes, and used my 3 international minutes to call home. I’ve never felt the distance between home and wherever in the world I find myself as I did that evening, standing at the desk of the hotel as people jostled around me, clutching the phone as I heard the line go dead, hearing my mom’s tearful voice fade oceans away…So, I went to the bar and got drunk, chatted with a prostitute, flirted with a German, and made the bartenders laugh when I began jabbering in Arabic. Guilt, sorrow, and a splitting hangover greeted me the next morning.
I made it to Jo’burg that afternoon. Perhaps my first day of mishaps should have been an indication this was to be no ordinary odyssey, no easily-completed quest. I was told to find someone wearing an orange vest with a ‘Backpacker Ritz’ logo splashed across it. As I entered the arrivals hall, I saw a flash of orange and looked hopefully in that direction- nope, just security. In fact, all security sported orange vests. Bloody hell. I wandered aimlessly around the hall for several minutes, becoming more nervous as the clock ticked past 2:30, the time of departure for the shuttle bus.
Someone tall, lugging two backpacks, crossed my field of vision, chatting with an orange-vested man. I squinted and just made out the Backpacker Ritz logo. “Hey! Wait!” and clumsily hurried after them as they headed into the parking lot. “Who are you?” the driver asked, not unkindly,” I thought I only has these two.” “I was supposed to come in yesterday, but I was delayed…” “Ahh, yes, you’re that one.”
I didn’t see too much of Jo’burg. We kept running red lights and barely pausing at stop signs. “Not safe,” the driver explained. Garrett and his mother, Dyanne, were both going on a 25 day safari starting the next day. “Not the Acacia one? Going to Cape Town?” And so I met the first members of my new family. I found the rest of them that evening. All told, we were one British, one American (me), two Canadians (G. and his mom), and 10 Aussies. Sprawled on the wide lawn of the Backpacker Ritz, safely sheltered behind a high electric metal fence (like every building in Jo’burg), I breathed in the first of many African nights, warm and fecund, balanced on the edge of a rainy season, moisture and mosquitoes filling the air.
Our guides didn’t seem much older than ourselves; Lindy, we found out, was 23, Mark a few years older. We fell madly in love with them, in love with Lindy’s lilting laugh and Mark’s dry humor, with their fireside chats in the evening and their morning sleepiness as we sipped coffee and cereal. When we left them in Zambia to change trucks, groups, and guides, Lindy was more like best friend than guide, she and I gossiping on New Year’s about boys and life and rumors over gins and dry lemon.
There was one thing I needed to do before I left all semblances of civilization- I logged onto the internet, wrote a short and woefully inadequate eulogy for my grandfather to be read at the funeral and crawled up the window ledge into my top bunk in the 20 person dorm room, imbued with restlessness, excitement, melancholy, exhaustion, and uncertainty.
By 6 am we departed Jo’burg, packed into our truck, Kavango, a somewhat cavernous beast that I liken to a turtle, if only because it bore our home everywhere we went- our house, our luggage, our food, our tents, our water, ourselves…We settled into the back of the truck, somewhat uneasily, shifting spaces and conversation to find a zone of comfort among a cotillion of new faces and personalities.
Our first camp site was in a private game park near Kruger National Park; Lindy popped into the back as we pulled into the parking lot, delivering the best Christmas news ever- we were upgraded, courtesy of Acacia, from camping to luxurious cabins for the next two nights. “Enjoy it,” she cautioned. “After this, it’ll be tents and camping!” A rousing dip in the camp pool, where we found a pleasant introduction to a few of the insects we’d encounter on our journey, and a game of rugby toss later, we hurried back to our cabins and changed into hiking gear for our first safari walk.
“Now, everyone be careful,” cautioned the Afrikaner guide as we set out, “we don’t have any lions in the park, but several leopards have moved in recently. A mother and her cubs live in the area around the camp. I’ve seen them several times.” And off we went, past an enclosed croc pond, deeper into the bush, over a sandy riverbank full of leopard, giraffe, zebra and oryx tracks, and, incongruously, to a table in a small clearing set with sundowners- Amarula, the sweetest, smoothest liquor you’ll ever drink- think chocolate and caramel milkshakes with a bit more potency.
“Now, on the way back, try to be quiet, this is the time game comes out.” Unfortunately, Amarula functions more as a voice amplifier; we giggled our way back to the fire, where the local African tribe greeted us in full regalia- animal skins for the men, bright skirts for the women. Pots of interesting cuisine sat around the fire- chicken feet, chicken heads, mashed plantain…I tried it all, swallowing every bit of that chicken head. Afterwards, I was married in a tribal ceremony, along with three of my female trip-mates, to the chieftain. We never had an opportunity to consummate the marriage, and I managed to escape the following morning.
Twas a merry Christmas, and an early one. We drove to Kruger for a just-after-sunrise game drive in smaller safari jeeps; Kruger is one of the world’s largest game parks, and the only one that allows you to self-drive through it. Someday, I’ll go back, rent a car, and chase my own lions. That morning, however, we were chased by an affronted elephant that seemed offended by our car driving within a few feet of his leaf munching. He was special, our first ele of the trip, a large male with smooth white tusks and an agile trunk that trumpeted repeatedly at us and stomped after our car. We screeched as the elephant stampeded towards us, ears flapping and trunk waving, but our driver adroitly maneuvered us forwards, only to back up and be chased again.
By mid-afternoon we returned to camp, not seeing too much else worthy of mention in the park, and prepared for the evening’s festivities- a gift-exchanging ceremony (the popular items included Playdoh and trashy magazines), a multi-course dinner of impala and other meats, and a dance party- well, I danced. Our music was abruptly silenced when the camp manager rushed in, turned off the stereo, and bade us to listen to the lions roaring in the park next door. Perhaps my most unusual Christmas. A cabin in the middle of the South African bush, lions roaring nearby, with only a torch to ward off darkness and leopards, my tummy full of ciders and game meat. Mmmmm….
My photo gallery may appear as a sequence of ceaseless action and adrenaline-fueled activities, but our trip was, out of necessity, one long road trip across southern Africa- i.e. long drives in the truck. We drove out of South Africa that day, into Botswana, passing banana plantations and cool mountains for the sweltering heat of the flat plains. It hit 46 C, well over 100 F. Without aircon in the truck.
Our next campsite sprawled along the Limpopo river in Botswana, the demarcation line for the border. Rather than put up tents straight away, we stumbled to the bar, ordered anything cool, and sat on the balcony under the shade of a banyan tree, watching the water drowsily flow onward. Even the insects buzzed half-heartedly, lethargic in the heat. A bit before sundown, Mark showed us how to erect the tents, an ostensibly two-person job of lining up poles and fastening hooks. Marina, an Aussie girl, was my tentmate, and we eventually succeeded in our first erection. We got quicker as the trip progressed.
I could occupy lengthy sections of this already lengthy travelogue about the undocumented hours of the evening, the hours spent setting up camp, having a beer or cider at sundown, chopping vegetables, stirring the dinner pot, enjoying another beer or cider whilst cooking, balancing the hot metal plates on bare legs, washing dishes, sweeping out the truck, and collapsing in the fold-up camp chairs, a beer or cider in hand, watching the heavens twinkle, the fireflies flutter, and the torches of fellow campers flicker in the darkness, chatting into the night. On a participation camping trip, we participate- we set up camp, we cook, we clean…the duties were mutually divided, and rotated, but we swiftly fell into a gentle rhythm of setting up by night and dismantling by morn. I first recognized a kindred spirit in Lindy when, as I was preparing dessert one night and snatching bits of chocolate for testing, Lindy laughed and said, “You cook the same way I do! One should also sample what they’re cooking for quality control.” And she grabbed a bit of chocolate for testing as well.
I upgraded the next night. So, I took a bit of acclimating to the camp experience- my tent was a bit like a contemptuous lover, satisfying one night and impossible the next. By the end, we settled into stable, every night sort of relationship, but, in the beginning, it was a bit fickle.
Our truck, Kavango, turned into the several kilometer drive for the new camp, stopped briefly to pull out a floundered truck, and eventually approached the lodge/campsite. Lindy hopped into the back, explaining what we could readily see a few meters away through the open windows. “There’s an elephant at the pool. Please don’t get out of the truck just yet…”
Elephant Sands was an enchanted sort of place, a place where elephants walked through camp to drink out of the pool, where night was hailed by elephants splashing in the water hole, where the separation of human and animal, civilization and wilderness blurred harmoniously- a elephant would thunder past the path between cabin and bar, and one would pause, wait for it to pass, and then continue the sandy walk. Our quaint little cabin seemed an extension of the bush itself, stucco-walled and thatch-roofed, a tree growing in the shower and supporting the wall.
We drove, that night, further into nowhere, bumped for two hours over dirt tracks and overflowing rivers, past elephants at waterholes and impala bounding away, past termite mounds and towering trees. We stopped, finally, at a small pond set on a grassy plain, the purity of wilderness extending beyond the reach of every horizon. I felt, as I often did in Africa, that the boundless sky and land would open and swallow me whole, that humanity itself seemed suddenly tenuous.
I don’t know if it is something internal, genetic, pre-programmed, a vestige from the days we crawled out of the jungles, onto two legs, and became human, or if it is just because of its untamed, terrible beauty, its magnificence, but Africa is more vivid, more integral, more permanently etched, than most places I’ve visited; it doesn’t fade easily from memory.
Our drive from Elephant Sands to Kasane was relatively short, only about 300-400 km, but frequently stalled due to elephant sightings along the road. Mark would screech the brakes, we would all blink out of sleepy reveries, out of the pages of a book, or up from a card game, and stand up to see several eles sauntering across the road to disappear into the brush on the other side. Several trees were toppled as the lumbering giants forged their own path through the bush.
Kasane had a tiny, occasionally functioning internet cafe, a grocery store, a liquor store, a clothing boutique, a curio stand, and a change bureau- really, what more could one ask? At Thebe Lodge and camp, we hastened to put up the tents before the darkening clouds and flashing storm arrived- we just managed to put up the rain-proof fly sheet and run under the wooden shelter before the sky crackled and a deluge rained down; I have never actually seen a bolt of lightning; of course, I’ve seen my share of storms in Minnesota and other places, but I had yet to see the white hot burn of a bolt singe the ground and tree and very air around it like I did that day. As the rain pattered against the roof above, we sat and watched, and listened, as the lightning struck trees in our campsite and a metal wire that sent static and white, searing brilliance running through the trees around camp. I had been saving a bottle of vodka for a special occasion- I decided it was high time for a glass (or two).
Cam came to me later that night. “Laura! There’s these three South Africans at the bar. They really want to meet an American, so I told them about you. They’ll buy you a drink.” At this point, I was next door, meeting the other overland Acacia truck that had just arrived. Nice people, but a bit couple-y. “Lead me away.” I found three white men, one of them rather cute, seated at the bar, awaiting Cam’s delivery. Plopped down amongst them, I heard them immediately order me a double brandy and Coke (“Make that a Coke light,” I instructed). Soon, I was learning ‘useful’ phrases in Afrikaans (Mark, my tour guide seated nearby, was frequently observed guffawing at me) and continuing my worldwide quest to spread American goodwill. Eventually, I ducked away to the loo and ran back to camp

, leaving my sunglasses at the bar counte like a fallen version of Cinderella. A warm, dark shower later, I went to sleep.
By 6 am, the tents were stowed, breakfast consumed, and we were chugging towards our next country. “So, I heard you learned some Afrikaans last night.” Lindy remarked with her cute smile, standing next to me on the rail of the ferry over the Chobe river, the Zambian border in sight on the opposite bank. “I don’t think I actually remember any of it,” I confessed. “Which is probably just as well,” she agreed as the mists drifted off the still river and into the thick forests on either bank.
Within two hours, we stepped off the truck and into sweltering Zambian heat. Welcome to Livingstone, home of Victoria Falls. The first part of our tour officially ended here; we were to leave Mark, Lindy, Kavango, and half of our group and join up with another truck and crew coming from Nairobi. However, we were to spend two nights at the Waterfront Lodge and campsite, indulging in the various activities on offer and fending off the resilient mossies that make Vic Falls the best place in Africa to contract malaria. We soon learned why Vic Falls supported such a thriving mosquito population- rain, rain, and more rain. It rained the morning we arrived, that night, the next morning, the following night…
The Waterfront was aptly named- it occupied a spot along the banks of the Upper Zambezi- that is, the Zambezi above the Falls. Monkeys invaded our campsite; Garrett claims he was attacked by one. Whether this is true or not, they competed with the giant, croaking frogs and cicadas for loudness and leapt above one’s head on the way to the bathroom in the morning. Dyanne, Garrett’s mum, and I lazed away the morning by the pool while most everyone else went swimming in pools above the Falls.
At noon, I flirted with the desk manager and received an escorted visit to my new tent, Nyala, snuggly nestled beneath a bower of trees and set off from the main path a bit. Yes, I upgraded. But, in my defense, so did 10 other people. Although the thought of pitching my tent in a small lake seemed slightly exotic, I opted for dryness- Nyala was a raised, permanent tent with two narrow beds (one for me, one for the ants; Marina roomed with Nikki for a spell), a power point, and a thoroughly waterproof exterior...and only 15 dollars a night (25, but I’d already paid 10 for camping).
Several hours later, I found myself astride a beautiful bay steed, trotting through herds of zebra and giraffe and splashing in the Zambezi. From my horse’s back, I saw the spray from Victoria Falls rise above the forest several kilometers away- Mosi-o-Tunyi, the Mist that Thunders. I hurried from the stables at the 400 dollar-a-night Royal Livingstone to my humbler 25 dollar-a-night Waterfront and raced to catch the booze cruise, errrr, sunset cruise. It was nearing New Year’s, and the white Zambians and Zimbabweans descend yearly upon Livingstone, giving the tourists a glimpse of the rampant racism still in existence in Africa. “You idiot, can’t you move faster!?” was one of the milder insults hurled by the individuals towards the black bar staff as they doled out drink after drink.
A few drinks in, my revulsion mellowed into curiosity at these people, and I, still reeking faintly of horse, chatted up one of the tall, tousled males who, I learned, was two years my junior and wanting to know the number of my tent. Oops. I fled back to the safety of our group.
Much of my safari is firmly affixed into the recesses of memory, much like a still photograph captured immutably. That night is a bit more like a grainy photo from the 1800’s, weaving in and out of recollection. I remember eating part of Garrett’s steak (it was very good, I complimented him on his choice), dancing in the disco for a bit, laughing as I paid two dollars for a drink that normally costs quadruple that (which might have been part of the problem), watching Zambian prostitutes hit on members of our party, seeing them reciprocate, meeting members of other Acacia trucks,watching the stars with Garrett, Marina, and Nikki, and, finally, wandering back to my tent, locking myself in, fishing out the correct chargers for my mobile, setting my alarm, and then going to sleep. I’m quite proud of that last part.
“You have toothpaste on your chin. Sorry, but the father in me had to tell you.” A man whose face swims in and out of recognition kindly flicks off the glob of toothpaste and smiles sympathetically. “I’m from the other Acacia truck. You might not remember.” It is 7 am, I have had an (unwillingly) cold shower and am making my way to breakfast before I throw myself into a raft and paddle down one of the most challenging whitewater rafting rivers in the world. “No, I remember. I just don’t remember names.” I do recall his face, barely. “Thanks for the toothpaste warning. I suppose I shouldn’t mind the rain, as I’m going rafting this morning.” “You’ll have a wonderful time!” he enthuses, “we did that yesterday. Best thing I’ve done so far.” “I didn’t honestly plan on doing it, but it looked like too much fun to pass up.” “Don’t worry, you’ll love it, and try to flip, it’s the best!”
He wandered back to his tent and I booked Nyala for another night and then loaded a plate full of eggs and bacon. “Good morning!” Garrett called, roseately cheerful, as usual. “How are you feeling?” “Not too bad, luckily, I think it’s the adrenaline. I’m excited!” Eventually, we all convened in the cavernous hut designed for pre-rafting briefings, some bright-eyed and eager, others bleary-eyed, in the same clothes as last night. Of course, it wasn’t merely Acacia that would be rafting; about 40 people straggled into the hut by 8:30 and plopped on the benches. A Kiwi strode to the center, grabbed a life vest, and rattled off a list of instructions on how to survive a flip, a fall-in, and other such essential information. Only a few hours later, I realized his orders were a bit challenging to apply whilst on the raging river.
We climbed down one of the most beautiful gorges I have ever seen; I felt as if I had stepped into Jurassic Park; black, volcanic walls soared hundreds of feet above, bright jewels of birds fluttered past, monkeys hooted and swung from trees, vines trailed over giant boulders, towering palms dripped morning dew on our heads. At any moment, I expected T-Rex to crash through the jungle and tear through the lianas and ferns blocking his path. No such attack occurred; we clambered into our raft barefoot, grabbed our paddles, and practiced as Marvin shouted, “Paddle, Paddle fast, hard right, hard left, GET DOWN!” The last enumerated order being, in my mind, the most essential.
We numbered 7 in our raft, all friends from Kavango. It is impossible to transcribe the experience of whitewater rafting in words; nothing prepared me for the absolute thrill of crashing into a several meter tall wave, crouching in the bottom of the raft, emerging drenched but upright, and paddling madly to avoid a sharp rock ahead. It seemed insane, at times, that we were conquering grade 5 rapids on the most difficult stretch of river in the world, and powering through them successfully. Well, Marvin did the hard work, we just paddled, grunted, and shrieked at various intervals.
Until Rapid 7, anyways. I would merely call us confident, although some might label it as supercilious. We approached Rapid 7, the longest and most difficult on the Zambezi . I tumbled out 5 seconds into the rapids. One was supposed to grab hold of the side and cling; I spun away from the raft got sucked under and bobbed up 10 seconds later, choking, gasping, and utterly disoriented. I had no concept of up or down, water or air; I seemed to inhale both arbitrarily; I was battered and tossed and submerged and thrown; I fought for a little while, paddling and trying to reach the surface. I finally gave up, and, miraculously, I popped into air. In reality, I suppose it was only a very short while that I fought the river, but time seemed to stretch into infinity. My raft shouted at me to put my feet up; I wanted to shout back, though I would have only coughed out water, that the bloody current wasn’t being very cooperative; I narrowly avoided crashing into a rock and finally flushed out of the rapids, quite traumatized. There is a priceless photo of me taken while amidst the waves and churning eddies, a look of pure terror on my face.
A kayak picked me up, or, more accurately, had me cling to the prow as we roiled through more rapids. At a calm spell, another raft threw me into their bow and had me get down as they paddled through 7 b. I watched from afar as my old raft flipped and threw everyone into the drink. After a bit of laughter, deep breathing and teasing (“You looked terrified!), Malvin righted the raft, we hoisted each other back in and completed the final two rapids in grand fashion (no one attempted Rapid 9; it’s Grade 6, otherwise known as Commercial Suicide).
After an arduous climb out of the gorge (not quite as picturesque when you’re going up), we had a drink (or three) on the ride home. Most people would consider that enough adrenaline for a day. Nope, I went absailing, zip lining, and gorge swinging that afternoon. Though we had booked our day of impetuosity separately, Garrett and I ended up doing the same activities, for which, I think, we were both indelibly grateful. No one wants to gorge swing alone.
Absailing was simple; attached to a harness from above, I hopped down the wall of the gorge. I volunteered to go first for the Flying Fox. It seemed straightforward- snap into a harness, run off a cliff, and zip line over the gorge. I galvanized every molecule of resilience within me to step back, run off the ramp, a videond launch myself, hundreds of feet above the green tree tops, into gravity-inducing flight. I did it, twice. The gorge swing was easy, in comparison. It went down, fast. I stepped off a cliff, plummeted down its length, and then swung like a pendulum across the length of the gorge, howling all the way. If we were not required to walk out of the gorge each time, I would have done the swing many more times.
Garrett and I were both utterly enervated, elated, and drained; but the night was not over. We had a pre-departure meeting for the rest of the tour that night, where we met our new guides, our new truck, and our new tour mates, all of whom had come from Nairobi. I slept tumultuously that night, my dreams echoing with the confluence of rapids and flight, drowning and flying.
By 6 am I relocated to our new truck, Songwe, commandeering a new locker and a new position in the social hierarchy. My tentmate, Marina, rejoined me in mutual uncertainty of the 10 newcomers onboard. Though I had been in Livingstone two days, I hadn’t actually glimpsed the marvel of Victoria Falls; this was immediately remedied that morning. I am not sure of my expectations; they were effaced by the unparalleled beauty of the Falls. Lacy ribbons of water cascaded down hundreds of meters to plummet into misty pools; but the Falls were not an isolated ribbon of water, they stretched for hundreds of meters, from Zambia to Zimbabwe, funneling into the roaring Zambezi. Suddenly, the spray I had seen from kilometers away made sense, the Mist that Thunders aptly named.
Leaving Zambia thereafter, we re- crossed the Chobe river, arriving again in Kasane at Thebe Lodge. I celebrated Christmas in Kruger; I welcomed the New Year in Botswana at Chobe. As New Year’s are wont to be, it was a mixture of old and new; Mark and Lindy were also there, with a new crop of travelers. Our new tourmates, whose names I was not yet adept at remembering, overflowed our photos and our tables. Part of the night was spent with Lindy over gin and dry lemon, speculating on whom I should make out with (sadly, no one that night) and excitement over the lunar eclipse; part was spent with old friends and new; and part was spent watching unsafe fireworks launched over the Chobe, ringing in 2010 with hugs and laughter and toasts.
“Beth, Beth, where are you!? I’m locked out of the tent!” My short slumber was jarringly interrupted by Siobian shouting at 3 am the next morning. I’ll confess, I held a grudge for a couple days after that premature awakening. Why? By 6 am, we were seated on a safari jeep, off for a New Year’s Day tour of Chobe National Park. I think the animals, too, took a holiday, as the drive yielded little of excitement, other than humorous photos of everyone else, passed out against the metal bars of the jeep.
As most slept off their hangovers, Dyanne, Marina and I ordered greasy plates of chips and cold pops in the bar restaurant, weary off the monontany of sandwiches. Cruising on the Chobe river at sunset proved more fruitful in terms of game viewing; heaps of hippos yawned from the reedy shallows and grazed on the grassy islands; elephant herds plashed in the cool river, rolled in the mud and drank from its banks; baboons climbed the high trees and plucked bugs from each other’s fur.
I felt like I was back in high school again, the new kid standing awkwardly to the side, unsure of where to sit or how to act. Throw 16 mostly 20-somethings together for three weeks, and this is what happens. Unlike the first leg of the trip, where everyone was without loyalties, two established groups combined, and social tensions clashed as territories crossed dominances were threatened. Sounds more like a nature show that a people safari, huh?
At first, I resented the new group, particularly the three cute females for attracting the attention of our males. No matter if I actually ‘liked’ any of them; they were ours. By the end of the tour, there was no us and them; we had happily melded into a cohesive comraderie. Not, I suppose, that I really had ‘loyalties’ to begin with…Acacia has had about 4 Americans (that might be slight hyperbole, but they don’t get a lot) on tour, ever, in the history of their company. But I like being unique 
Hmmmm…I’m writing this after just emerging from a steamy, sudsy whirlpool in Istanbul, so my thoughts are progressing quite languidly at the moment. Ah, yes, Maun. Gateway to the Okavango Delta, one of only two inland delta systems in the world. One long drive later, we found ourselves in the sleepy town of Maun, racing the proverbial rain following from the east. As an optional afternoon activity, we could board a six-seater aeroplane and buzz over the Delta marshland, gaining the scope of the land from the eye of a Zazu bird (a Zazu bird being, if you hadn’t guessed, the bird that looks like Zazu in the Lion King). 100 dollars for an hour? Bloody hell. If everyone else is doing it too…
“So, where’s the aircon?” we asked our cute Swedish pilot, Corey, as we wheeled down the runway. He gestured towards the closed window and shrugged winsomely. Well, I got to know Nick, my seat partner, a bit better, as I kept falling into him when the plane banked a sharp sideways. The flight was magnificent, however, despite the sauna-like conditions. Frik, our new guide, was right when he said that the only way to truly gain a perspective of the Delta was by air. It extended for hundreds of miles in every direction, a melding of land and marsh and river woven into an incredibly unique ecosystem. From my lofty perspective, I saw hippos resting on the bottoms of ponds, elephants rolling in the mud, gazelle leaping over grasslands, giraffes munching from tree tops.
That night, at our camp outside of Maun, we attempted to sleep without the suffocating restraint of the fly-sheet. Around 2 am, a peal of thunder awoke Marina and she leapt into action. I rolled over, blinked, and struggled to free myself from the zipper. “I’ll just do it!” she said, a bit exasperated. I rolled back over, yawned, and promptly began to snore (most probably, anyway).
Of all the campsites we ‘experienced’, I liked the one near Maun the least; it was large, for one thing, and the trek from campsite to bathroom took several minutes. I never felt unsafe in a campsite, but the night I trekked back from brushing my teeth in the bug-infested ablutions block (I shared my toilet stall with a truly giant, black winged that that stared beadily at me) to our distant tent, I walked alertly through the darker stretch of brush, swinging my fluorescent torch into the blackness of night. The fact that the owner of the campsite, a Kiwi, fended off intruders from his home with shotgun emissions was not exactly comforting, either.
After a cold, barely dawn shower, I helped dismantle the tent, threw it onto the giant, open-sided ATV which had just appeared and clambered in. The truck rumbled through the fringes of the Delta for over an hour; we finally disembarked next to a river lined with traditional dugout canoes, called mokoros, which we would take further into the Delta. Before sitting on a rocking boat for several hours, I and several other females visited the bush loo, revealed our white bottoms to a troop of passing village children, and swiftly boarded our canoes. Nothing like spreading American goodwill, eh?
I would describe (to the point of clichéd-ness) many things in Africa as magical- sunsets, seeing elephants drink from the pool, feeling the spray of Vic Falls on your eyelashes. I would qualify the mokoro ride as unique, though highly enjoyable. Supine on the floor of the mokoro, my back resting against my day pack, my butt upon a plastic mat, I was fairly comfortable. The mokoro driver stood behind me, a pole in hand to push the canoe along the reedy channel, rocking the canoe gently as he propelled us through the reeds. For about the first half an hour, the slap of damp reeds in the face felt soothing, a little exotic- then it just became slightly painful. Lulled into a light snooze by the mokoro’s gentle rhythm (despite reed scratches; I’m a heavy sleeper), I started awake as the canoe bumped into land. “Welcome to camp.”
Bush camping in the Okavango Delta- magical, until the rainstorms hit. However, in the glare of noonday sun, we giddily explored our small swath of the island, paddling in the hippo pools (devoid of hippos during the day, luckily), adorning ourselves with water lilies, balancing a Monopoly board on a tree stump, and watching the world drift past our small patch of watery paradise. For sundown, we took a short mokoro ride- 10 minutes on the water, and the vaults of heaven cascaded down in a soaking deluge. Laughing manically, the mokoro drivers raced through the narrow channels while we huddled in the hulls (I had the foresight to pack a ziplock baggie for my camera); we ran aground at a muddy flat. “In!” barked the polers, and we obligingly dove, fully clothed, into the Delta, joking about crocodiles and hippos to banish any real fears about lurking beasties. “We go back, now,” said our driver, and Marina and I heartily nodded. Though the boat was bailed, and a rainbow streamed faintly in the fading light, none of us wanted to be one the water when day dissipated and night lapped menacingly around the wobbly canoes.
As we zipped ourselves into the tents that night, Frik cautioned us once more,” Just remember, this is the true wilderness out here. There are no fences and anything can and will wander into camp. Elephants, warthogs, hippos, lions, it’s all out here. I’d try to wait and use the latrine until morning, but, if you must go, bring a buddy. And don’t go down to the hippo pool. You might find it occupied.” With that cheerful oration, Frik disappeared into his tent, I ducked off to the loo one final time, quaked as I squatted over the hole and flashed my torch beseechingly into the shadows, and dove into the tent. Another storm rattled through the Delta in the night, rustling the trees, battering the tent and thundering epically into our sleep.
As dawn crested the horizon, and silver light bathed the trees, I squeezed out of the tent and rushed to the loo, having regretted those final few ciders most of the night. Our scheduled morning game walk turned into a rain slide as, you guessed it, it rained. Soaked to the skin, without jacket or proper footwear, I ditched the sandals and danced happily over the muddy flats, leaping into puddles and slipping on wet clay. Two hours later, when we boarded the mokoros in the continuing downpour, I was less spirited, muddier after wrestling with a wet tent, and somewhat cold. When we reached the awaiting ATV vehicle to drive us to camp, I was cold. They offered us ciders- I took two and warmed up slightly. Of course, I could find no hot water in camp; Garrett was kind enough to allow me to use his shower in the luxury cabin to which he and his mum had upgraded.
Marina and I upgraded, though not to such grandeur; we had an elevated cabin with beds, a power point, and diaphanous clouds of mosquito netting. At one point that night I woke, up thrashing, with the sensation of being trapped in a net. I think mossie nets take a bit of getting used to…
Several of us taxied into town that afternoon; I needed to touch base with the family, extract more cash, and resupply my dwindling storehouse of ciders. Walking past a roasted chicken restaurant, Marina and I turned to each other. “We really deserve it,” she began. “We’ve been through a lot. And I’m really sick of sandwich meat…” I concluded. Best 5 dollars I spent that day.
As we departed Maun, I somehow managed to misplace the cabin key. Whether it was ever found or not, I couldn’t be sure. As Marina didn’t really talk to me for several hours, I am assuming not. If you ever end up sharing a room with me, do be aware that I have an unfortunate penchant for misplacing keys- I lost the room key in Beirut last spring, in Marsa Matrouh a few years back (which is ironic, since I was the keeper of the safe key with all of our passports and valuables for the first week. Hmmm)…
Never mind. The edges of the Kalahari drifted past Songwe’s open windows, a semi-arid land of scrubby trees, stunted plants and hard earth. At 3, we pulled into our latest camp outside of Ghanzi, Botswana, a deceptively charming site with a straw ablutions block (and no doors; one stretched a chain across the opening to signify occupancy; we became subsequently closer after that night; straw has gaps and poor noise control), a sandy stretch for tents, and several thatched, opened-walled huts that we staked our tents under. Why? As usual, we brought the rain.
Frik, impossibly knowledgeable about everything in Africa, gathered us around the truck, a scorpion dangling from his fingers. “Now, we’re into the real Kalahari here; it’s not a very nice place. Do you remember when I stopped the truck on the way in? A black mamba crossed the road. The most aggressive snake in the world, and one of the deadliest. These guys here aren’t quite as dangerous; they don’t usually attack unless provoked.” And then Frik demonstrated exactly how to provoke a scorpion while we (those of us stouter of heart, anyway) watched, fascinated. “So, just be careful when you’re walking around at night; I’d recommend close-toed shoes on the Bushmen walk later.”
I smiled wanly at Frik- deadly insect, and a see-through shower. Gonna be a fun night. Of course the Bushman walk was the most scintillating part of the entire trip; the San people, more conventionally known as Bushmen, inhabit the wilds of Kalahari from Northern Botswana into Namibia and South Africa. Indigenous to the land, they speak a language with clicks in it- indubitably fascinating to a budding linguist such as myself. Although, like all native populations, they have been pushed off tribal lands, prevented from hunting, and are rapidly losing their culture and traditions.
Our Bushmen guides, 3 men and 2 mothers with their infants, collected us, materializing out of the brush and beckoning us to follow. An interpreter, a coloured woman, also joined us. Their women don’t traditionally wear tops- one of the mothers had her animal skin open in the front to reveal an ample bosom, although she re-adjusted her covering after she noticed all of us staring at her nudity, fascinated. The men wore loincloths which accented remarkably taut posterior regions- even the old man had a nice butt.
Following them through the Kalahari, we paused when they did, watched as they dug out a tuber or root with a digging stick and listened, raptly, while they explained its many uses. Then the translator elucidated. I will not even attempt to produce an approximation of their language- see one of my videos if you wish to hear it. At the end of our walk, they sat in a semi-circle and made a fire with two sticks and a block of flint, squeezed a spongy plant to release a sour liquid, and chugged water from an ostrich egg. Needless to say, I was enraptured. It just felt genuine- their jesting, their laughter, their reticence, their ease with the natural world. It was their life, or, had been until recently.
Instead of cooking our own dinner, Sonja (Frik’s wife) had arranged for a delectable buffet at the camp bar/restaurant. As I wove my way back from bar to tent early (I was in the midst of a good novel), I blinked away fat raindrops and flicked the torch nervously. At least, in the Delta, the threat came from animals I could see- here, it was the invisible that threatened. Once again, I was too frightened to venture outside my tent in the night (Frik had mentioned something about scorpions liking the folded up flaps of the tent doors) and only crawled out (ungainly as usual- I always seemed to fall out of the tent more than step) as dawn trembled over the horizon. Marina had slept somewhere else that night (and for the rest of the trip), so I could at least beat the sides of the tent and dislodge potential scorpions without fear of waking her.
The sink basin harboured an interesting array of insects- flying ants, a beetle or two, a few unidentifiable species, though the shower itself was mercifully free of bugs (or so I hoped; since the electricity wasn’t yet on, I only had my torch to shine briefly into the corners). Turning the hot water tap on, cold water rained down; I grimaced, though I had become rather accustomed to cold showers by now; I always managed to shower before the rest of the camp awoke, and, usually, before the hot water was heated. “Morning!” Frik called. “Morning!” I responded, resolutely ignoring the fact that only a somewhat gap-py straw wall separated us. “There isn’t any hot water.” “Did you turn the other tap?” “Bloody hell.” By then, I was done and walked back to my tent, dismantling it with an unnecessary amount of verve, though that may have been merely to shake out the snakes and scorpions and deadly spiders before they attacked.
Another border crossing, another new country- Namibia. We spent the night in the capital, Windhoek, sleeping in a hostel, The Cardboard Box. Happily, it was a bit more comfortable than a cardboard box (bunk beds and no scorpions, for one), and I spent part of the afternoon in a craft market and the evening at Joe’s Bierhaus with the gang. In one meal, I consumed crocodile, ostrich, zebra, and springbok, a Jaegerbomb or two (in a former German colony, a necessity before dinner) and a dessert of Amarula.
Our morning drive deposited us in northern Namibia, in the midst of Etosha National Park at Ilkuliewane (or something like that) campsite. Etosha is a fairly dry landscape sustained by waterholes which attract vast herds of wildlife to drink from them…except in the rainy season. Then, the herds disperse, the big cats melt into the brush, and I spend nights sitting at the waterhole, sodden, without anything to show for my efforts other than an empty Amarula bottle. Despite this, Etosha was my favorite park and a close rival to Elephant Sands in terms of campsite. It was more like village, for one; I could visit the convenience store (very refreshing popsicles), the castle turret, the overpriced curio shop, one of several bars, a café, a restaurant, out-of-my price range cabins and two-story bungalows…and a waterhole, floodlit by night.
It stormed, as usual, our first night, and we scurried into the washhouse to complete the dinner dishes; then I ran down to the waterhole to capture the spectacular lightning display. The lions roared that night, whuffing and grunting from the shadows just beyond the waterhole, drawing nearer and nearer to camp, though never near enough to see.
After an 8 hour game drive the next day, where we saw little of mention (but cranked out Disney theme songs over the loud speakers by afternoon) I was resolute. Stake-out by the waterhole that night. We hadn’t seen a bloody lion yet. I began my all-nighter a little before sundown, when I ambled away from the dinner preparations. As I approached the waterhole, I saw a large grey mass moving in the distance, drawing nearer to the water….”Rhino!! RHINO BY THE WATERHOLE!” Our camp was a 10 second sprint away, and my alarm created a minor stampede as dinner was abandoned and 15 desperate souls clattered noisily to the waterhole viewing area. Mutters from those already seated complained strongly of certain people being too loud. I nestled my bottle of cider between my feet, took out my camera, and captured some amazing photos of a black rhino drinking at our pool.
I thought it was a good omen to the evening. I was quite wrong. The rain began around midnight, and I huddled in the small overhang shelter with Garrett, Percy, Matt, Mic, and my new Aussie friend, Xavier. It tapered off at about 1; Matt and Percy trundled off to bed. By 1:30, the rain intensified, the floodlights, alerting us as to what lay beyond the low, easily breachable fence cut off, and the camp plunged into darkness. “Let’s go, not safe.” A security guard who had been tracking the movements of lions in the brush near the waterhole hastily shepherded us out. “Lions close.”
I waited inside the gate of the camp area for the electricity to return or the dawn to come. I found three Americans, instead. I followed them silently as they flashed their torches back along the pathway to the waterhole and startled them as I appeared suddenly beside. “Hi!” We stood for half an hour in the dripping darkness, chattering and hoping for something of interest to appear. Nothing. I actually did go back to my tent for an hour or two; awoke, restless, before dawn, sat by the waterhole and shivered; a quick, lukewarm shower refreshed me and I saw dawn peak over the horizon, veiled in more rain clouds. Defeated, I returned to camp for coffee and tent dismantling.
“Is everyone ready for more bush camping?” Sonja asked, standing next to the tree that I had attempted to climb the previous day. “Food for the evening is spaghetti and then porridge tomorrow morning.” “Will there be any access to water?” I asked, knowing I was on dish duty the next day. “Then, will we have enough with us to do dishes? What if we break down and get stuck in the middle of nowhere?”
“You broke the truck, Laura.” Frik stood next to the still smouldering tire as we stood to the side of the dirt road in the middle of nowhere. “The stabilizer is terminally broken. I think we’re camping here.” In 20 years of guiding, this was the first time Frik had actually disabled a vehicle; luckily, Songwe contained everything we needed, including dinner and cold drinks from the Eskies, to thoroughly enjoy our stranded hours (photo of truck before completely breaking down; note Frik underneath in an attempt at repair).
By morning, Acacia rescued us, sending a minivan to unload our packs and ourselves and a tow truck for Frik and poor Songwe. En route to Swakopmund, our intended destination, we detoured to the Cape Colony of fur seals, a stretch of desolate Namib coast undulating with vast numbers of furry, pungent, barking seals.
Quaint. That is how I would describe Swakopmund. An German beachside town in Namibia, with all of the contradictions construed in that statement. Palm trees next to German beer houses, African markets set up on unpronounceable streets with German names. A bit like Vic Falls in terms of activities on offer, Swak promised quad biking, sandboarding, sky diving, dolphin cruising, ocean kayaking…By this time, all I could afford was quad biking, and I spent that afternoon zooming over the rolling dunes, bouncing from one towering peak to the next- the tallest dunes climbed hundreds of feet above the desert floor, and we carelessly roared up one, curved over its side, and sped down its length. I only wished my bike had a faster setting. Next time…
Ah, yes. Our accommodation for Swak was in a clean, tidy hostel a block from the ocean; I flooded the bathroom and entire dorm room the first afternoon (I did help the hotel manager sweep it out the door), merely adding to my burgeoning popularity as truck-breaker and bathroom-flooder….A Gemsbok steak that evening and a leisurely morning of perusing the craft stalls of the small town cured any latent disaffection. I had my favorite lunch of the trip, toes dug into the ocean sand, watching white-crested waves foam against the shore and seagulls swoop into the water, digging a sand castle between my legs and munching on chips, cheese and an apple, a crisp cider invading my castle moat.
At dinner our second night in Swakopmund, Frik stood up and thanked us for our patience with the truck issue, winking in my direction. I stuck my tongue out at him. “Now, does anyone protest spending an extra night in Swakopmund? Because a spare truck is being driven up from Cape Town, this is a brand new truck, so Laura, don’t screw it up, but we can’t leave until the morning after tomorrow.” Sleeping another night in comfortable beds and warm showers or delving back into tents and sleeping bags? “Swakopmund!
By the end of our third day in Swakopmund, I stood observing the detritus of my retail therapy, spread across several beds in the large dorm room. James walked in, carrying a small plastic bag that contained all of his purchases. “Good luck with that.” I glared at him. Somehow, I managed to stuff stone statues, earrings, necklaces, an antelope skin, bracelets, a kudu horn bottle opener, a wooden mask, several Ethiopian scarves…ok, so I bought too much. What’s new?...into my backpack and carry-on.
Namibia seemed flat, empty, wild, destitute of life, rent by gaping canyons and jagged peaks and sandy dunes. The rain chased us, of course, thrashing our new truck, Tana (the smallest of the three- it was sad, Kavango had the largest locker, Songwe had a decent one, and Tana was impossible), and chasing us under shelter when we reached the new campsite, Sossuvlei.
I appreciated the quiet moments Africa offered, moments to think, to remember, to de-clutter the jumble of thoughts from a frenetic semester. At our new campsite, I took a stroll in the harsh afternoon sunlight, sat upon a small hillock shaded by thorny acacias and stared out at the mountains of Namibia glowering in the distance. I could barely make out the white Acacia truck over the horizon and the indefatiguable form of Garrett tossing the rugby ball to Nick and Matt. James was seated at the truck tables, journaling; several girls were in the ablutions block, testing the showers. Dyanne sat with Frik, Sonja, Steph and Reid beneath the tree in camp, chatting about sheep ranching and giraffe eggs. Percy was back in Swak, recovering from malaria while Mic tended to him. Sue and Bart were flying back to Cape Town to end their African odyssey. Though I couldn’t see most of them. Somehow, during the course of our experiences together, we had coalesced into a community.
I slept in the truck that night; I became a bit weary of setting up the tent by myself- not that no one offered to help, of course, but I couldn’t be bothered. Too early, Garrett burst into the solitude of my slumber by slamming open the truck door. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. “Is it 5 already?” I peeled off the plastic sleeping mat and slumped into one of the chairs. Bloody hell, it was early. Just before sunrise, Frik skidded into the sandy parking lot below Dune 45 and we clawed up its sandy slope to watch the sunrise tinge the light violet and marigold and crimson. Then, it was time for a desert hike- a white man, named Bushman, guided us through the dunes of Sossusvlei, teaching us desert survival techniques. He caught a lizard by tossing his hat in the air, passing the shadow over the lizard and watching it burrow in mistaken fear of a bird. He taught us what a vlei is- a depression between dunes that collects water in the rainy season. He taught us what Sossus means- the place where people disappear, so named because Bushmen used to shoot arrows at anyone who trod near their land. Bushmen have good aim, and the people never returned home.
Like I often do when I visit the desert, I could feel sand in every orifice, so I showered off while everyone else packed away the tents and howled one last time as the killer ants attacked me on the walk back from the bathrooms. Though our next campsite, neatly tucked into a copse of trees and mountain, truly exemplified close encounters with the insect world. I slept in the truck again that night; there was no way I was fending off giant beetles, leaping cicadas, creeping spiders and Lord knows what else to wrestle with my tent flap and sprawl into a nest of scorpions.
While washing and drying dishes in the cozy kitchen, myself and the three boys often dove for cover as the local cicada and beetle population buzzed in to inspect our work; I think they found my hair a safe place to nestle. Dyanne shrieked; I finished drying while Nick and Matt reported seeing the largest beetle (think the size of a hand) in the female bathrooms. Joy.
Not that the campsite wasn’t lovely; it had a delightful pool, a charming bar, cheap cabins into which to upgrade, and the proprietors were simply endearing- a sweet old couple that baked us cake and put soap in their bathrooms (no other campsite felt this necessity). My requisite, early morning shower was refreshing in a cold, being-dive-bombed- by-cicadas sort of way, but at least there was no tent to disassemble.
We crossed back into South Africa that afternoon; in stood in the aircon of the police station with Nick while Frik ‘tried’ to have Nick arrested. That afternoon, I achieved a personal challenge by erecting my tent all by myself- no outside help needed. I thought it was worth celebrating. I threw on my swimsuit, hustled down to the river dock, was ‘helped’ in by Beth, and spent the afternoon splashing around the Orange River, the border between South Africa and Namibia. We did ascertain that there were no crocs or hippos before submersion.
That night was another of those fuzzy, grainy memory sort of nights; there was a drink called springbok at the bar, with peppermint schnapps and Amarula; it tasted just like peppermint ice cream and it only cost a dollar or two…I was up to leave the next morning, soaked in the shower and slept most of the way to our next campsite, Highlanders. Do you remember Mark, our first tour guide? His uncle ran this camp, nestled in wine country on a row of terraced slopes; in efforts to re-civilize ourselves, we signed up for wine tasting and sipped delicious vintages produced by the very vineyards surrounding our truck. If I had more room in my pack (those stone statues and animal skins were unfortunately bulky), I would have transported home divinely delicious 5 dollar bottles of South African wine. Alas, I suppose I will just have to go back…
And then, impossibly, it was the last day of the tour; I packed away tent #522 for the last time, with a bit of nostalgia; I took my last cold shower and stuffed my pack into my protesting locker with a sad resignation. We had a final drive to Cape Town, arriving by 11 o’clock for a township tour of the local black communities that were established during apartheid. I hope I am never selfish enough to complain about my living quarters again; whole families were crammed into a space intended for one.
But then we left the township for our comparably glitzy hostel in a posh neighborhood of Cape Town; the stark images of poverty and depravation faded as we finished unloading the truck, sorted through our accumulated loot, and prepared for our farewell dinner. That night is a blur, though not because of alcohol intake. Just the alacrity of it all- the hugs, the good-byes, the final toasts, the silly cab rides, the 5 am exit- if I did not have an elephant hair bracelet on my wrist and a thousand photos of my journey, I might have thought it a mere figment, an impossible fantasy. But it was real, beautifully, embarrassingly, laughably, impossibly, gravely real.