Monday, October 31, 2005

Over and Overland

The mission:
To transport myself from Cape Town to Nairobi in the shortest, cheapest, most convenient fashion.

The obvious answer:

Get on an airplane, stupid. But I’m a sucker for butt ache, for lousy public transport, and for nasty fried food scarfed down at gas stations.

The long way:

Last time it took me from August 7 to September 29, 2001.

The hang-ups:
I’d like an occasional shower—preferably but not necessarily warm—and I’d like to stop somewhere for at least a day.

How easy it would be, I mused as I rearranged—again and again—the pieces of my public transportation puzzle, to sit in Cape Town for a week and then fly. The price is the same. The pain sure is less.

I must be a masochist. But what the hell, like I have anything better to do. (Aside from color comics, write a book, edit pony stories, and write a sidebar on public transportation for author Tim Leffel’s upcoming travel book.)

The Intercape Mainliner bus leaves at 5:30 p.m. on Monday night. I have my fifteen percent discount card. Unfortunately, the connecting bus to Gaborone—that’s in Botswana for those of you who have not read the lady detective books—arrives in Gaborone exactly when the sleeper train I want to be on departs.

I’d forgotten what a drag it was trying to plan around things that aren’t designed to work together.

But hey, I’m the transportation editor. The Marie in The years haven’t made me soft, have they?

Maybe. If my cell phone rang right now, and it was Shawn calling to tell me that the owners of the wine and olive estate he’s working at have invited me to stay, I’d go in a flash and catch the plane next week.

But that’s not gonna happen. Because Shawn—like every man I’ve had even the teensiest few seconds of flirtation with for the last four years—has vanished. They all seem to do this eventually. Even the guy tiling my shower didn’t call today to see when I'd be out of my room.

Right, well, enough waiting for a Prince Charming to come to my rescue. I’ve got a bus to Lesotho to catch.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

How to Not Be A Coward

“I have decided that I will cease being a coward.”

A writer pal, Edward Readicker-Henderson, once told me that. Having witnessed my share of cowardly acts and not wanting to subject others to my cowardice, I resolved to be a better person and follow his example.

Being an un-coward is clearly a noble goal. Less clear is how to achieve this. Any behavior can be rationalized and while many people do not question their rationalizations, it is also possible to over-do it, to question what is a good decision that is based on instinct. It’s also possible to assume that an act is cowardly, when in fact, it is just sensible.

An example from ten minutes ago: A man I don’t know well called me to ask if I’d like to accompany him to a Sunday market near the Waterfront. He seemed like a decent man, about my age, nice to look at, with nothing creepy about him. We’d had a few short but convivial chats.

My response was an instant no. Why?

Because I’m on the rebound from my-ideal-situation. I’m emotionally useless at the moment—particularly to anyone in the male half of the species—and the smallest thing sends me off the edge. If he offered to pay for coffee, I’d probably break down in tears. In fact, I did after I hung up, but first I swore aloud several times (before realizing my door was open and sounds carries in old Victorians). Plus, I’m leaving town tomorrow.

Instead of enjoying today’s sunshine, I’m sitting alone in my room with my laptop. I have a microwavable dinner that I’ll eat later while I pack.

To turn him down: cowardly or sensible?

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary says this:
“coward: one who shows disgraceful fear or timidity.”

“You have such cajones,” I’ve been told. “You are so brave. I would never have the guts to…” [pick one: go alone through Sudan, rent a flat in Uganda, move to Australia to be with a man I barely knew, quit my job, hang out in emergency rooms in Namibia and Uganda, renovate a condo on the Lower East Side etc etc etc.]

There is nothing brave about getting on buses and airplanes. I’m not trying to belittle the sorts of things I do. I obviously like to think of myself as brave, strong, independent; whatever sounds impressive. I sure don’t feel disgracefully afraid or timid. But what if I’m hiding behind Lara Croft-esque bravado—because god forbid I should try something I suck at, like writing a book or having a meal with someone without looking at my watch..?

I know how to not be a coward... but I don't know how to identify cowardice. I think I better get back on the road so I don't have to think about this anymore.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

What About..?

Shannon Wheeler offered me a really good title.

Travels With Myself.

What do you think? (Bear in mind that my understanding is that publishers usually change titles anyway.)

I e-mailed Shannon that that title did not say "Africa."

"It isn't about Africa. It's about you."

He's right. I'll still need a subtitle that says something about Africa, and I don't know if anyone else will like the title, but I sure do.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Blown Away

Whoever gave Chicago the slogan "the windy city” had obviously never been to Cape Town.

Maybe it’s because I’m living halfway up Table Mountain, but it does seem like the wind never stops.

It blew the bucket and mop off my balcony. But given the state of filth in the flat, these obviously weren’t used anyway.

A few days before my week’s rent was up, I e-mailed Alex that I would not be staying. I heard nothing back, so the day before sent an SMS text. That produced no results so I called the office and spoke to the receptionist.

“Oh yes, we read your e-mail this morning,” she said. Efficiency at its finest.

I still had to suffer through several attempted guilt-inducements when Alex finally returned my call at 8:30 p.m. the night before I was to move out.

“The only reason you got such a good rate was because I thought you were staying two weeks.”

Yeah, well, no one mentioned the cockroaches, the broken sink, or the filth when they were giving me my “fantastic” rate—which by an amazing coincidence, matched exactly what I’d said I could pay.

I worried that she’d think of a reason to keep my security. Thankfully, she kept only 80 rand for cleaning; never mind that I’d left the place far cleaner than I’d found it. Never mind that she neglected to reimburse me the overdue electricity bill I’d paid. Never mind that she treated me like an idiot when I pointed out the leak under the sink.

“Oh, it’s just this loose pipe,” she said as she tightened a PVC joint.

“If it’s just a loose pipe, why did someone attempt to repair it with plastic, put a pie pan underneath to catch the water, and smear the basin seams with white caulk?”

She waved dismissively. I took the anemic refund and fled to my beloved Cape Town Backpackers, promising myself to renounce cowardism in the future (more on that in a few days).

Leah was at the front desk at Cape Town Backpacker’s.

“Marie, any apartment that rents by the week…” she started gently. She wrinkled her nose.

She was right. I’d learned a lesson but fortunately, my old room was available. They’d even left the desk in it that they had dragged in for my iBook. The builders—who know me by name now—were re-tiling the shower floor again. I’d have to shower in the dorm, but I got my discounted old rate too. And I’d been involved with the tiling from the beginning so I didn’t mind. The toilet was still leaking from the putty repair—maybe I’d just let that go rather than risk another long conversation with the toilet repair guy that liked to talk about Wolverine.

I opened up my balcony door and breathed in the fresh air—more an attempt to avoid the construction fumes than a comment on the air being better outside the backpacker’s than outside the flat.

I’d produced three satisfying book chapters, the intro, and two “real-iffy” chapters while I was in exile at Filth-Flat, so I allowed myself the day off (plus I needed to get out of the builder’s way). I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I hopped in a mini-bus and went downtown to wander around Golden Acre, the people’s mall (as opposed to the V&A Waterfront, the tourist’s mall).

I walked aimlessly through a surge of well-dressed Africans. People were shopping, going to the train station, or in search of lunch. I browsed the stalls at the flea market, upstairs from the train terminal—every stall seemed to sell products relating to cell phones. Air time vouchers, SIM cards, and phone covers were everywhere. Much has been made of Africa being one of the hugest growth areas for cell phones. But given that just about everyone in the US and Europe seems to own two or three old phones by now, I don’t know why that should surprise people. Other markets are saturated, so growth has slowed. Africa got a late start, and landlines (outside of South Africa and Namibia) are either unreliable, non-existent, or—in some cases—stolen. Cell phones make perfect sense here. (And airtime costs a fortune, thus the proliferation of SMS texting in Africa.)

I walked back to Cape Town Backpackers. The builders were gone, but at least there were people around to talk to. I could pretend they were my friends and feel a little less isolated in the world. Soon, I promised myself, I would start heading north. My flight is out of Uganda on November 18. Time’s a’wasting as I spend my days in windy, seductive Cape Town.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Car Guards and Parking Marshals

One African job that seems odd to the New Yorker in me is that of "parking marshal."

A parking marshal is a human parking meter. They have them in Kampala and they have them in Swakopmund. They also have them in Cape Town, and probably in hundreds of other cities across the continent. The parking marshal wears a brightly colored uniform—usually an orange or yellow vest—that has the words "Parking Marshal" stenciled across the back. There’s one on every business district block.

We have machines that do the job of collecting parking fees in the States. Machines get frustrating when they are broken. Machines are not flexible. People, however, can be reasoned with. They can also provide change.

When Shawn was parking his car in Cape Town and going to the closing for his condo, he was getting frustrated that all the signs in the center of town read “60 minutes.” He might be done in that time, but had no way of knowing for sure. Plus he only had enough change for 30 minutes. I encouraged him to pay for a garage spot as the parking police will clamp your wheel in a flash here. That’s The Boot to us Yanks.

Nobody wants The Boot.

But Shawn—being African and a lot more aware of the flexible nature of things here—pulled into an empty spot on the street and had a discussion with the block’s parking marshal.

She agreed to let him pay for a half-hour and pay for the rest when he got back. And she didn’t mind it he stayed longer than 60 minutes. It wasn’t a heavy traffic day. He could take his time.

He was back in 15 minutes and got a partial refund.

The other job that people do here is less official, and can be kind of annoying. “Car guards” keep an eye on your parked vehicle while you are away from it. Some of them are organized volunteers doing their civic duty. Others can best be compared to New York’s “squeegee men.” Anyone who was in New York in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s will remember the huddled masses wielding their dirty squeegees.

You’d stop at a light (in a car or taxi), and suddenly someone would be smearing filthy, greasy water all over your windshield. And they’d want some money in exchange for this “service.” You’d almost want to pay them NOT to wash your windshield.

The only way to stop them was to always have your windshield wipers running while you were at a light. You could squirt a little washer fluid for emphasis if the squeegee men wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Once I stopped at a red light on Houston Street. There must have been six of these guys sprinting towards my old Volvo. And they were not rich fellows, so they were dressed in rags. I felt like I was suddenly in a George Romero film and in danger of someone eating my brain. And I seem to remember having broken wipers for a while—which complicated matters—but the sorry states of my old cars is a topic for another day.

Some Africans like car guards and think they are useful. Others argue that car guards don’t do anything and cars don’t really need watching. It seemed like a sham in Uganda, where I once witnessed an expat woman wail at the top of her lungs because someone had stolen her laptop out of her 4WD—right under the guard’s nose while she was in a restaurant. The guard sat there, looking puzzled and ineffectual with his rather large gun, while the wait staff consoled her.

Is a car guard useful? I suppose that like anything, it depends on the circumstance.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Laughing at Myself

Okay, I re-read the introduction. I still like it a lot.

But it does beg the question:

Does someone who has really learned to let others into her life deliberately set up shop in a city/country/continent where she knows no one? Where she works alone on a laptop all day and thus has no opportunity for meeting a single soul? Where opportunities for human interaction are limited to the cash register at the supermarket and asking for the check at the wi-fi coffee shop?

Just wondering.

Maybe I’ve got a ways to go on the lesson-learning front.

Book Intro

I’ve written an introduction to my book. It’s a first draft. That means it will probably change a lot. It will get shorter and less all-over-the-place. But here it is, open to comments. Does this ring true, or does it sound like Guinea-Fowl-for-the-Traveler’s-Soul? I mean it. I just don’t want it to sound like it’s written for the back of a greeting card.

(I’ve also written several chapters of the book, but they are still far, far too messy for public consumption. I’m starting to run them past the people who appear in them to check my memory for details—which could be a mistake.)


In January of 2001, I believed that intimacy and co-dependence were the devil. They’d sneak up, perhaps through a few clever jokes. The jokes would turn into dates, and dates into weekends, time spent getting to know the other’s family and friends. I’d seen it happen to many of my friends, one by one. They’d think someone was cute and next thing you know, they’d be moving to the suburbs with a spouse, two children, a dog, and an SUV. They’d once had other plans, but couldn’t recall them anymore. They hated their jobs—who didn’t—but they’d be chained to the career-ladder for life, for the kids, for the mortgage, for lack of options.

I’d been on a lot of first-dates over the last several years, but not on a lot of second-dates. I was adamantly independent, had other things on my mind, and to me dates were just the tempting bait in life’s cleverest trap. I had a little travel problem, almost an addiction, that didn’t leave room for close relationships. It wasn’t about the destinations—it was about my reaction to new situations. Traveling made me improvise, think on my feet, and kept my mind wide open. Thanks to a tolerant boss and a freelance contract, I was able to work extra hard for ten months a year, getting ahead on my contract and taking two months off to visit exotic locales.

Problem was, I was slaving away miserably—mindlessly coloring comic books as I had for over a decade—for those ten months in order to enjoy the two month’s abroad. Something was obviously wrong with this.

I’d started to e-mail travel diaries in ’96 when I’d been in Central America, and expanded to an ambitious website in ’98 with an 8-week trip across the Asian Subcontinent and Middle East. This was pre-blogging software, before the term even existed. I’d code the HTML in Notepad or SimpleText, upload it however I could, and add a few jpegs from photos hastily scanned in an Internet café. Digital cameras were not yet common.

Keeping an online diary meant I didn’t have to bore friends who were not interested with the stories of my travels. Only those who genuinely wanted to see my holiday photos would look. Many people only listen and look to be polite, as they are more interested in their own lives than in mine (funny how that works). But there are others—total strangers—who relish tales of faraway lands. People I knew started forwarding my e-mails to people I didn’t know. I started getting responses from strangers. The readers who enjoyed the stories the most were ones with no hope of ever leaving home, ones without passports or money, or people who used to travel but were now disabled.

I’d just returned home from Southeast Asia in March of 2000. I sat with my mother, uncle, and aunt at a picnic table outside a restaurant. We talked of the trip I’d just had, my dissatisfaction with my current lifestyle, and of my future plans. What, we wondered, could I do on a grander scale, to get me out of the repetitive job I was in once and for all?

Perhaps, I mused, I could go as far away on earth as I could. The opposite side from New York City, which was Australia. Then I’d have to get home by any means possible but would be forbidden to get on an airplane. That could be a good story to have up on the website. Surely that would be good enough for some articles and maybe a book as well.

I started to research ships, to see if it was possible to get out of Australia or if my plan would be a bust from the beginning.

What this research told me was that it was tough to leave Australia heading west, but easy to get there from the east. So easy, in fact, that half the world could be covered in one Amtrak journey from New York to Los Angeles, followed by a ship voyage from Long Beach to Melbourne. Why do half the world when I could go around the whole thing simply by adding an extra month of easy travel?

And so was born. I’d go around the world in a calendar year, live on the Internet. I’d go without airplanes, but wouldn’t stubbornly stick to that in emergencies. I’d send souvenirs to readers from their virtual tour, and readers could vote on my route and activities.

Richard Starkings of Comicraft liked the idea and offered to host my site. His designer, John “JG” Roshell of Active Images, was game. Friends contributed artwork and some travel outfitters offered discounts (and a few freebies). I sold my East Village condo, bought when the neighborhood was considered dicey and sold at what seemed then to be its trendy height. I’d have to live out of a backpack—and by my wits—for a year, across Australia, Asia, Russia, Europe, Africa, and North America.

The plan was to get across Australia, Europe, and North America as quickly as possible. Good travel stories are not the stuff of things running smoothly and easily. No one wants to read about taking a walking tour of Rome’s Coliseum or viewing the Rockies from a train window. No, the good stories happen when things go wrong. The more horribly wrong, the better the story.

I sleepwalked through most of Asia, having been there just one year before. Russia went smoothly, but Central Asia was a challenge. Uzbekistan was particularly difficult. But Africa—I loved Africa. So much that I went back to live there for half of 2005. Parts of Africa look like what they call “aid porn,” those starving-children-in-huts images we’ve seen on TV that tug at our heartstrings. But what these commercials don’t show you is the dignity of the people living in the huts, how they live their lives with the same hopes and dreams for their families as those in the “developed” countries of the North. The images don’t show the vibrant cities of Cape Town, Kampala, or Nairobi. They don’t imply that much of Africa also features flushing toilets, shopping malls, and gas stations just like in Ohio, or that genuine human concern for life is found in villages made of mud and sticks, the kind of concern that is lacking in the hyper-societies I’d lived in.

Parts of Africa are a hassle to navigate on public transport. Touts can be relentless in tourist areas, and tribalism often ruins otherwise healthy political systems. Crime rates are infamous in South Africa, people are starving from politically induced famine in Zimbabwe, and populations across the continent have been devastated by HIV. But life can also be a grand adventure in Africa, and while challenging, it can also be a rewarding place to live or travel in.

Crossing Africa taught me a lot about myself, and somewhere between Cape Town and Cairo—when I’d eaten my 250th meal of the year alone—I started to grasp something. I had met some fantastic people over the year. Some of them had enhanced my adventures and broken through my invisible solitude barrier. Maybe—just maybe—it was possible to let my guard down. Maybe dates didn’t have to turn into the ball-and-chain of traditional life. Maybe I’d had it all wrong, and opening up to other people didn’t automatically equal a miserable life of routine and a desk job.

But it would take me several more years of alienation and hard lessons—followed by months of living in Uganda, Namibia, and South Africa—before I fully understood this.

-Marie Oct. 2005

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Not the Same Under the Hood

My honeymoon with my new flat didn't last long.

The first night, I saw a cockroach on the kitchen counter. And grease on the walls behind the burner. And a lot of dust here and there.

Hm, a cockroach. Well, there are probably a million of them. Fact of urban living in New York too, but seems to have been revolutionized there by Combat traps and aggressive extermination. Been a long time since I've seen an infestation at home.

I placed all my stuff far from the kitchen and bathroom and zipped up everything. Put all my food in Zip-Loc bags or in the ‘fridge. Not the first time I’d seen a cockroach.

Then in the morning, I looked under the bathroom sink to find cleaning supplies to get rid of the grease on the wall.

There was a pie pan under the drain. Water was dripping into it from the pipes. Someone had attempted to repair them with a plastic bag and some plumber’s putty. (What's with the "smear it with putty" repair anyway? Tried it myself once before the pipes under my own kitchen sink collapsed while I was doing dishes. Hint for DIYers in Cape Town: IT DOESN'T WORK. Neither does silicone. Buy new parts instead.)

Okay, so the rules in my new flat are: Don't use the bathroom sink. Keep all food sealed and only use your own utensils and mug since it's kind of filthy here.

But look, over there! What a great view of Table Mountain. "Marie," I said to myself. “Shut up and don’t complain. You are fighting cockroaches in Cape Town instead of being chained to a desk in New York.”

I went about my business on Friday. Spent the day doing laundry and doing freelance preliminary editing on a book about girls and ponies. Agonized some more over my own book. Does everyone like the title suggested by Don Hudson: Before and Africa? Should I include stories from this year in the second half of the book? Nice divider page in the middle?

I switched the iBook off by nine, killed another cockroach, and lay in bed with my book about Angolan giant antelope. The overhead light was on as the bedside lamp was lacking a bulb.

Travel writer Edward Readicker-Henderson and his wife (and DHL employee) Lynn had kindly expressed-shipped me books when I was in Namibia and facing only German-language books and bad romance novels. The antelope book was one of them, although the best of the bunch was an excellent Congo book by Jeffrey Taylor.

I'd tried to give my antelope book to Shawn--because he has a degree in conservation and is a resident of the next country over from Angola--but he’d turned it down flat. So I would give it to the club that sells used paperbacks in front of ShopRite on Saturday mornings. But first I had to finish it.

Finishing it would have to wait, however, because at 9:30 p.m., the electricity blinked off.

“Ah, Africa,” I laughed to myself. Then, waitaminute… I was in Cape Town. There were not power cuts here. What was going on?

It would have to wait until morning. I wasn’t going climbing around on the furniture in the dark with my mini Mag-Lite. So I went to sleep.

By four in the morning, I was wide-awake, having gone to bed much too early. I’d just climb up on the chair and take a tiny peek at the circuit breakers…

They were fine.

A mystery, then. Perhaps outside the flat? Maybe someone would fix it in the morning?

Doubtful. In the bright light of six a.m., I climbed back up on the chair, put my feet on the counter and looked at the electrical meter.

There was a mysterious plastic box and a corresponding card. And a lot of receipts that were similar to airtime vouchers for prepaid cell phones.

Ah, a lightbulb went on. Just metaphorically, of course, as there was no current. So electricity could be prepaid too. Well, I’d just give Ms. Alex a call as soon as it was a reasonable hour and she’d sort out the electricity. Surely it wasn’t up to me, the tenant, to provide electricity?


I couldn’t make coffee or have a hot shower in the morning, so I just unfastened the chain on the front door, unlocked the two locks, turned the key in the metal fire trap gate to slide it open, and traipsed down to the coffee shop with my laptop and wi-fi until nine. That seemed like a reasonable time to send an SMS-text to Alex. Her response was that I must go buy more electricity at the supermarket. That it was my problem, not the landlord’s.

“I’ve never heard of anything like this,” was my response.

“Well, that’s how it is done here.”

Cape Town: Looks like home. Feels like home. But it’s Africa.

I walked to the ShopRite and inquired. A woman swiped the card I gave her and told me I owed 54 rand. I paid it and went back to the flat. I punched the code into the keypad. Nothing happened. I called Alex.

“Are you typing in the code?”

“Yes,” I said with exasperation. I’m sure she deals with technophobes all the time. I am not a technophobe, nor am I afraid of home appliances or machines.

“Can you see the electrical box? Are all the levers up?”

“Yes, of course. I checked the circuit breakers first thing.”

She started walking me through punching in numbers again. I said “I’llgetbacktoyou” and hung up quickly, not wanting to waste airtime on her treating me like a child.

I walked back down the hill to ShopRite. Two cashiers conferred and swiped my card. Ah, the 54 rand I’d paid had been the amount the account was OVERDUE. I’d paid someone else’s bill and now had to cough up more money if I wanted electricity.

Aggravated, I paid 20 rand. I’d keep an eye on my usage and get it exactly right and not overpay. Alex said she’d reimburse me the 54 rand.

Back up the hill in the flat, I punched in the code. The refrigerator came on, 13 hours after it had clicked off. I climbed down off the counter and threw away the food I’d stored inside of it. I’d learned a lesson today. Not that the landlord was obviously cheap or that Alex assumed I was 8 years old… no, the lesson is: Things are different here. This is not Jersey City or Avenue B, or even Barcelona. This is Africa.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Movin' On Up

I've moved up in the world.
In Kampala, I washed my laundry in hot water in the bathtub. At Murchison Falls, the tools were cold mineral-rich water, a scrubbing brush, and a small plastic bin. If I did it at 3 p.m., I’d get water that was heated by the afternoon sun.

On arrival in Namibia, the first thing I did was rush to the laundromat. Wow, a machine that does all the work!

Now, I’ve rented a studio apartment in Cape Town, where I have a washer and dryer IN my apartment. Life is good.

I’d run a Google search for self-catering rentals in Cape Town, which turned up a company called Accomodation Finder and a lovely woman named Alex. She kindly did not laugh at me when I told her my budget (about US$200 a week, not much for Cape Town short-term rentals). She offered me an amazing studio on the sea in the rich-people suburb of Clifton. The original renter had unexpectedly pulled out, making it available at a bargain.

I waffled. Was there public transport where there were only rich people? Was it a 20-minute hike to the nearest supermarket? I called Shawn for advice. He told me living in Clifton was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I should snap up, even if I had to traipse to the next town for a loaf of bread.

I called. Someone else had taken the flat.

Alex showed me a few places off of Kloof Nek Rd., right down the street from Cape Town Backpackers. I knew the area. The first flat was dark and gloomy, but the second was just fine. I have a view of Table Mountain from my bed, as well as from my balcony. Alex moved my bag over in her BMW.

Then it was off to find the American Airlines ticketing office to get my paper ticket reissued. I’d changed my return flight to leave from Uganda instead of Namibia. The plan is to head to Kenya for a story on Maasai Mara adventure safaris, and then to pop over to Jinja to raft the Nile before taking the long flights that will dump me out at Newark Airport on November 19.

(The details of what to do between today and mid-November are still being ironed out. Or ignored, rather. By me. And since I have tenants in my Jersey City place until November 30, my homecoming could involve me getting in my car—hope it still works after being ignored for months—and driving to my mother’s in Virginia for Thanksgiving.)

The AA agent on the Skype phone told me there were no ticketing offices in Africa and that I’d have to courier my ticket home for changes. The AA website told me otherwise.

Maybe the agent was looking under A for Africa instead of under individual country names.

I asked the woman at the Internet café how to catch a mini-bus to the Waterfront bus. She advised me to catch a Rikki’s Taxi. Everyone here advises tourists to take a Rikki’s taxi. It’s private and takes you from A to B. But I’m sick of the tourist life—it’s too expensive. How do the locals do it?

Same as in the rest of Africa. Walk to the street. A mini-bus will stop, cram you in, charge you pennies, and get you to your destination.

One stopped within seconds of my standing solicitously at the corner. It was identical to a Ugandan mini-bus, but did not stop for gas and was much better maintained. I climbed aboard, folded down an empty jump-seat, and we zoomed downtown, stopping whenever someone wanted to get on or off. I transferred to the Waterfront bus to get to the AA office, which I managed to find in spite of the bridges moving constantly (lots of vanishing bridges across canals down at the Waterfront. They come back, but not in a timely manner).

My trip from Kloof Street to the Waterfront took only minutes and cost less than fifty U.S. cents. There is a local economy here. Not everyone is dropping 70 rand just to eat dinner in a restaurant. But I can’t seem to access it. It’s like in New York. Tourists complain about how expensive New York is, but if you live there, you know where to go for fantastic Cuban food for $4.95, or for delicious Indian food with personality for a dollar less.

But for now, the locals are keeping their secrets. And I am eating dinner from the takeaway section in the supermarket.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Comfort in Cape Town

I never really moved into my apartment in Namibia. I didn’t even unpack. I was not at my best in the month of September, 2005.

In contrast, I’ve already made myself at home in the Cape Town Backpackers lodge. I’m the first person to live in my room, and I’ve already given the builders an earful about the job they did on tiling the shower, and pointed out to them the crack in the plumber’s putty at the “out” pipe in the base of the toilet. One of the builders, in return, gave me a long lecture about the solo Wolverine series. He was particularly keen on the Hama/Kubert issues. I tolerated this well--after all, he’d had to listen to me be an expert on his job too.

I’ve spent most days in my room, with the door to the balcony wide open. I’m getting this month’s Donald Duck coloring out of the way so that I’m not desperate to find high-speed Internet for uploading once I leave Cape Town. If I leave Cape Town. It’s seductive here. Fresh meals in little plastic packets tantalize me from all the supermarkets. Pop ‘em in the guest microwave and—zap—hot dinner for one for $3. I get 10 minutes free WiFi a day at the coffee shop down the hill. Not so much, but you can do a lot with strategic logging on and off while utilizing Mac Mail. Especially since the Internet is FAST here. Or at least normal speed, unlike in Uganda or Namibia.

But I crave the adventure that comes with minibus madness. I miss the thrill of improvisation and unexpected interactions. There is no doubt that life in South Africa is far easier than life in Uganda. It is also much more expensive and less interesting. Give me “still-working-on-it” over industrialized any day.

The question is: Do I crave “still-working-on-it” enough to go for 6-8 days by bus from here to Nairobi in a few weeks? It isn’t a financial savings as bus tickets, visas, food, and some hotels cost as much as an airplane ticket. It isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime experience as I’ve done it before. The answer is: I don’t know yet.

In other news, there’s one of those geographic marker signs down by the V&A Waterfront. You know, the kind that has arrows pointing in all directions, and the arrows have signs that say things like “London 10,000 km.” Well, it seems that Cape Town is equi-distant from both the US and Australia. I assumed that we were much closer to Sydney than to New York, but I guess north-to-south is as far as east-to-west. It just goes to show you… that the world is round.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Like a Zealous Missionary

My new love is not an Indiana Jones-type, nor a tanned Denys Finch-Hatton safari man who roams and shows up when he feels like it, nor a man who can build mansions from Play-Doh while simultaneously nursing a dozen orphaned kangaroos, as are my usual leanings.

No, my new love is Skype.

Unfortunately, Skype is just a piece of software and will not go out to dinner with me. Skype won’t rub my feet, or surprise me with a fresh cup of coffee in the early morning light. But Skype won’t let me down either.

Because Skype is awesome.

My pal Bobbie uses Skype to chat with our mutual friend Kevin Tang, who teaches English in Japan. Her nanny uses it to call home to South America. I nodded when she told me about it. I meant to get around to trying out Skype, but phone cards are so cheap in the US that I didn’t bother. And in Uganda, the Internet connections are sketchy. You need broadband if you want Skype to be faithful.

Signs all over Cape Town backpacker’s lodges and Internet cafes extol the virtues of Skype. I had to change my airline tickets (now flying out of East Africa in time for Thanksgiving, last year’s having been spent at the Barcelona Ikea) and my long-suffering mother has done me enough favors already. So, this morning—the Internet café is empty in the morning and I hate other people listening to my conversations plus I figure that the guys at the airlines have nothing else to do at 4 a.m. U.S. time—I paid for a regular dose of Internet and dialed via Skype. I picked up the USB phone that sits in each cubicle.

Incredible. It worked. I could hear them and they could hear me. And since I was dialing toll-free numbers in the US, I didn’t have to pay anything to Skype.

I sat for 45 minutes going over various itineraries—Gatwick or Heathrow, Nairobi or Entebbe, via Madrid or Brussels--with both American and Continental. The total cost for my Internet time? $1.70. Total cost for Skype? Free. What does this have to do with me being in Africa? Not much. But it’s still cool. And I have a South African cell phone now if anyone wants to try it out. And don’t worry if you don’t get around to it this time—there’s a good chance I’ll be working on comics in Kuwait this winter, so put a USB handset on your Christmas lists.

I’ll need a new title, won’t I? “No Hurry in Kuwait” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Monday, October 17, 2005

No Luck in Livingstone

Shawn and I had a lot of catching up to do.

But we had only seven hours to catch up on four years and two months. He had errands to run in Cape Town as well as other people to visit before he drove back to Swellendam. I had Donald Duck to color and a book to write.

We chatted in that haphazard way that people do when they haven’t seen each other for years (and didn't know each other that well in the first place). We jumped from topic to topic, forgetting to finish stories and then occasionally sitting in silence.

My favorite Shawn story from the last few years was about his second trip to Zambia. On his first trip--as told to me in 2001--he’d been mugged in Livingstone while riding a bicycle.

This time he had not fared any better. Worse, actually. He’d been thrown in a Livingstone jail within days of entering the country.

Shawn has made his own business of being relief manager to upscale lodges throughout southern Africa. He’s replaced vacationing managers in Mozambique, South Africa, and Botswana in addition to Zambia.

He’d entered Zambia on a tourist visa, which is a common enough practice for people not planning on full-time or permanent employment. Perhaps he’d been planning to get his work permit later or maybe he was not. Sometimes it’s better not to ask.

A few day-workers had come over from Zimbabwe, also on tourist visas. It was a Friday afternoon when the police showed up to check their permits. Perhaps a disgruntled employee had notified the authorities.

The police warden told Shawn and the Zimbabweans to get their passports and mobile phones. They were working illegally, and they were going to jail. The lodge owner would have to pay a fine to get them out, but this was not possible over the weekend as all the officials would be out of the office. No doubt this Friday afternoon raid was scheduled for maximum inconvenience.

The cell was a temporary holding cell in the police station, but there was nothing temporary about the crowd that had obviously been inside of it for a long time.

“What about the toilet?” I asked. “Was it public like in the movies?”

“It was a hole in the ground but it was so dark that you could not see the hole. I decided immediately that I would eat or drink nothing. And the hole was so full that there was…” he paused and grimaced, “…thick sludge all over the floor.”

“My first thought was that I was going to stand for the entire weekend. But within a few hours, I was sitting in the sludge with everyone else. The Zimbabweans were too. They were even more scared than I was.”

Shawn had been in jail before, when he’d refused to join the South African army to fight Angolans. That jail had been relatively nice. He’d gardened and cut hair in the South African jail.

There was no fun happening in Zambia, until Monday when the lodge owner paid the fines and got the proper documentation. After that, the warden greeted Shawn warmly whenever he saw him in town.

“Shawn, my friend the Namibian! How are you?” And the warden had such a huge smile, said Shawn, that he couldn’t even stay mad at him.

Shawn must be a very kind-hearted man. I could never be nice to a person who made me sit in sludge and shit for an entire weekend.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

On the Bus

You can’t have nightmares if you don’t sleep.

And no sleep was happening on the Cape-Town-bound Intercape Mainliner on the 12th of October.

It was a double-decker luxury (meaning the attendant brings you coffee every few hours) bus that pulled a luggage trailer. We left the Windhoek depot—the massive parking lot behind the tourist information shed—at six in the evening and wouldn’t arrive in Cape Town until 1:30 the next day. I’d left Swakopmund on the 1:15 p.m. bus, meaning I’d be on buses for 24 hours.

I’d left Swakopmund as anonymously as I’d arrived. No one waved good-bye, and no one helped me carry my bags to the bus stop. I’d run into the next-door neighbor, the Internet café owner, the horseback-riding guy, and the laser-hair-removal woman in the morning. They’d said hello but I couldn’t call them friends, except for the neighbor, who seemed to want to be a special friend (the kind that shares).

An attractive, fashionably dressed young Namibian woman had sat down next to me at Windhoek. She’d boarded with a stylish young man sporting tiny dreadlocks, but there had not been two seats left together. She immediately announced that she’d brought nothing to read. She was definitely not interested in my book about antelope in Angola.

For the first hour, the young woman ("Tia") asked me questions about my travels. I told her how the campgrounds in East African game parks are not fenced in, as they are in Namibia’s Etosha. How I had been on buses through Zambia, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. How I’d been chased by a hippo in Uganda.

She laughed a lot and finally said that it all sounded like lies. 20-year-old Tia knew about haircutting and fashion magazines but thought that all of Africa was like the places she’d been—Namibia and South Africa.

I was wondering if she’d ever leave me alone to stare out the window when she giggled and whispered in my ear.

“Marie, did you see the man I got on the bus with?”


“I dumped him last night.” She laughed conspiratorially. I stared at her, refusing to laugh along with this apparently hilarious news.

“But we’d already booked this trip to Cape Town. We weren’t going to cancel. Can you imagine?”

I couldn’t imagine going on vacation with a man I’d dumped the night before, but I waited for her to finish.

“Do you know what he did to me, Marie?” Her eyes flashed with anger. “He never told me I was beautiful. He never told me I looked sexy or that I was hot. Can you imagine?” She was righteously indignant. “I’d go out and buy new clothes and dress really well to meet him and he never even noticed.”

Poor man, I thought silently while I tried not to roll my eyes at her.

She paused. I took a breath and said:

“I have some bad news for you. That will happen a lot in the future.”

She found my “joke” hilarious and proceeded to tell me more about his supposed crimes, which included telling a female friend that she looked nice, while Tia was present.

Pluto Nash came on the video screen and rescued me from Ms. Superficiality. After the movie ended, I pretended to sleep.

Sleeping on buses is tough but usually I am good at it. Not tonight. I just sat there with my eyes closed. Every few hours, an announcement was made that the next rest stop was 15 minutes long. Finally, in the morning, I quit pretending to sleep and dug into my antelope book, refusing to meet Tia’s eyes in hopes that she would be discouraged.

On arrival in Cape Town, I got a taxi to Ashanti Lodge. Shawn met me there ten minutes later. He was working at a lodge a few hours away in Swellendam and would return there the next night.

Shawn had a piece of traveler’s gold—his own car. We drove over Table Mountain to Hout Bay, then returned along the coast via Bantry Bay, Sea Point, Green Point, and the City Bowl. Last time I’d been in Cape Town, everyone had constantly reminded me that the city was beautiful. This time, I was watching the coast and winding roads. These were beautiful, not the buildings incongruously plopped at the base of Table Mountain.

We ate pasta by the water and enjoyed coffee in the lodge. I chewed his ear off about my recent dramas. He was sympathetic in spite of our semi-history. He’s 41 years old, and you don’t get to 41 without recognizing damaged goods when you see them.

“Let me ask you something,” said Shawn. “After all that you went through, would you go back?”

I hesitated because I was embarrassed by my answer. It’s the wrong answer and I would have preferred to lie and not admit to my human weakness. But a lie could lead to potential misunderstanding and further drama.

“Yes, of course.” I am sometimes too accepting of fault in others while being too hard on myself.

I’d failed his litmus test for damaged goods. The pressure was off. We had a great time anyway.

I’d booked a dorm bed because Cape Town accommodation is so expensive. Sleeping in dorms is not for me, and in the morning, Shawn and I drove around to view single rooms in backpacker’s lodges.

We found a place up the hill from Kloof Street. Cape Town Backpackers was too new to be in the guidebooks, and was in the process of opening their adjacent guesthouse. Today. The curtains were still being delivered but would I like the single en suite with balcony in the guesthouse at a special price, same as a single in the backpackers?

Yes, please.

Shawn went to a lawyer’s office to sign documents for selling his condo in Hout Bay, while I prowled around the waterfront mall. We met up and went into the Apple Store where I was like a missionary in my zeal to convert him. We had falafel and hung out on my guesthouse balcony while the curtains went up.

I was deliriously happy. I had been numb for a month, and now I was just hanging around, acting normal and enjoying myself.

Shawn left for Swellendam in the afternoon, and I got back to work. But the work ended by half past eight. Sleeping in dorms doesn’t cause nightmares any more than sleeping in buses does, because there’s not a lot of sleep that actually happens in dorms. I’d woken up constantly the night before.

I slept long and comfortably in the converted old mansion.

There were no nightmares.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Don't Jump!

The idea was to enjoy Swakopmund, not to use it as a recovery point for a month. When I found myself numb to all but recurring nightmares, I thought that perhaps the way out of it was to jump out of an airplane.

Wearing a parachute, of course.

It’s like that scene in “High Fidelity,” where the girlfriend can feel nothing so she asks the protagonist… well, no, it isn’t really like in “High Fidelity,” but it’s along those lines. I thought that if I could feel fear and exhilaration, that would beat feeling numb.

That was before I looked into the cost.

A tandem skydive in Swakopmund is over US$200. That’s enough to change my ticket from London to Newark (with the additional hundred being needed to change the Entebbe to London leg). I can fly across the Atlantic for 6-7 hours for $200, or I can fly for 15 minutes over Swakopmund. It isn’t even a round-trip!

Still, I made a lot of excuses to myself about why I should do it, the primary one being that I believe in facing my fears and pride myself on doing so.

I was petrified of doing it. Nikki said it was great. Shawn said it was great. The Irish-Australian nurse said I should not miss it.

But the truth is, when I awoke on my last day in Swakopmund and noticed the wind blowing fiercely through the trees, I was relieved. My wallet was too. Skydiving will have to wait. I’d feel exhilarated for a few hours, and then I’d just be kicking myself for having blown so much money on a temporary cure for the blues.

I am catching a bus to Cape Town on Wednesday, Oct. 12, leaving Swakopmund behind for the moment. I had been thinking that I would return after meeting up with Shawn in Cape Town, that Swakopmund deserved more than I had given it, and I had a good flat for a reasonable price. But that was before I met my neighbor.

Mel was a friendly old fellow. He invited me in for coffee and chatted my ear off. He was from LA. He was highly entertaining in spite of repeating himself three times. When I rose to leave, he also stood up, blocking my way to the door. He insisted on hugging me. But he didn’t stop after a brief hug—no, he kept hugging me. Then he started massaging my shoulders. I’m not quite sure how I got out of there without slugging him, but I made it out and scampered back into the safety of my own flat (locking the door behind me).

Was he a dirty old man? Or a nice guy who needed a hug? Or was he a dirty old man who needed a hug? I should give him the benefit of the doubt, but I’m not going to hang around to find out. Where will I go instead? I don’t know. I'm usually the queen of planning, but all I have planned is the next 48 hours, and a Nile whitewater rafting trip some time in November. I have almost no money, a book to write, Donald Duck and Marvel monster comics to color, a discount bus card, and I’m in Africa. We’ll see how it goes.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Not Just for Boys

Quad-biking over the sand dunes sounded to me like something a bunch of dopey guys would do when they wanted to impress each other.

But everyone who had done it kept telling me how great it was. My friend Nikki--who as a driver for Dragoman overland trucks had done just about everything in southern and eastern Africa—told me not to miss it. Jenny—an Irish-Australian nurse I’d had dinner with a few nights ago--told me quad-biking was awesome. Finally, with just a few days left in Namibia before heading south to Cape Town, I gave it a try.

It was fantastic.

I went with three independent travelers and a guide. We were all given helmets and automatic quad-bikes (ATVs), as we were all beginners (riding a motorcycle six times in L.A. in ’95 did not qualify me as “advanced”). Willy the guide gave us instructions including such gems as “accelerate when going up dunes” and “use your brakes to stop.” Off we went, following him in a tentative, jerky line. I noticed that Willy rode a manual quad-bike, and that he wore gloves.

“I thought we were going on dunes,” muttered one of the group.

“We will,” I replied. “The dunes are over the river.” The Swakop River separates the town from the massive orange dunes.

Willy led us over the river and into the desert. At first, we went in a straight line. Then he started added curves to the mix. A few of us went off the track a bit initially. Driving on sand takes some getting used to.

A minute later, he sped up a dune, curved at the top and careened down. “Okay,” I thought. “A hundred tourists do this every day. I won’t wipe out.”

And I didn’t. Neither did anyone else. In no time, we were zipping up and down dunes with glee, racing along in the desert sun and enjoying acting like a bunch of dopey guys trying to impress each other.

Sometimes Willy led us over what appeared to be sheer drops, but actually had steep slopes, hidden by the edge. I was too chicken to speed down and would just let gravity do the work. Other times Willy did wheelies, which no one tried to mimic. He jumped a few times and some of us succeeded in copying him. I did not.

The ride along the dunes lasted two hours, which was exactly enough time for my gloveless hands to get cold. We passed the sand-boarding dunes, where my lack-of-navigational-skills made Shawn wipe out on the tandem in 2001. We passed near the Atlantic Ocean. Most importantly, no one (including me) froze up on the steep dunes and no one fell off.

I’m sure there’s lots of eco-reasons not to ride quad-bikes. They probably damage the desert or something. But they sure are a lot of fun.

I walked home from the booking office afterwards, noting that a Dragoman truck had pulled in at the lodge across the street. Was it a truck I’d been on, perhaps Oscar who took me through Pakistan and Iran in ’98, Nikki behind the wheel? Or PAZ, Marky’s truck that got me into Ethiopia in 2001 before I’d gone my own way in the Isuzu truck that fell over? No, its name (as painted on the side) was Claudia.

Disappointed, I continued walking. There was an African man walking towards me with a familiar gait.

I stopped.

“Oh my god. Sam.”

Sam, the Kenyan cook from Marky’s truck, looked at me with a glint of recognition, but mostly he appeared confused. He shook my hand, probably hoping I’d give him a clue as to why I knew him.

“2001. Ethiopia. Marky Mark’s truck. You know, I was always leaving the truck and going off by myself. Nikki’s friend, Marie. I shared with Monica.”

I said the right words with Ethiopia and Marky Mark. Now he was starting to figure it out. He had that slow dawning look on his face as he realized he knew me, and he started to laugh. He laughed harder when I told him I was living in Swakopmund and writing a book about the trip that had included him as a character. He knew Nikki from when they were bogged in mud together for six days in Malawi, so I caught him up on Nikki’s life. But he couldn’t—in his British accent learned from too many years in the company of Drago-drivers--catch me up on Marky’s with any more that I’d learned in Uganda—Mark had gone home to the UK. No one expected him to stay there.

It was great to see someone I knew, and I happily skipped home to get the sand out of my shoes.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Africa for Beginners

“Namibia is Africa for beginners,” declared a European I’d met on my horseback ride. He’d flown in on a cheap LTU flight from Frankfurt. Air Namibia also flies direct—Windhoek to Munich, twice a week.

I knew exactly what he meant. Swakopmund didn’t even feel like Africa. It felt like Germany.

I hunted for some breakfast this morning. First I stopped by the butcher—the Fleischerei-- which has a small restaurant attached.

Gulasch mit Nudeln und Salat

Inside, the Fruhstuck included Weissbier and Wiesswurst. Were I Bavarian, I might have some desire for beer and wurst in the morning. Being an American, I beat a hasty retreat, mumbling danke and tschuss to the surprised waitress.

I continued on, passing the Swakopmund Oktoberfest gearing up for an afternoon of beer and music, then walked by a woman selling frische Spargel.
The supermarket had spargel as well. Perhaps a ship had come into nearby Walvis Bay, straight from Germany. Or could someone possibly grow asparagus in Namibia?

I got scrambled eggs and bacon at the atmospheric coffee shop and then paid four dollars to join the twice-monthly uranium mine tour.

Ten other tourists and I were loaded onto a minibus—instructed to wear our seatbelts, which might be part of the demonstration that safety is a mine priority—and driven 65 kilometers out into the desert to view a massive hole in the ground.

It was far more engaging than it sounds, although the sights at the mine were limited to giant conveyor belts, massive trucks, the outsides of buildings, industrial landscapes, and of course, the largest uranium pit mine in the world.

I was admiring the giant granite pit, when another tourist approached me.

“Do you have an interest in mining?” He asked me.

I confessed that I did not, but that I wanted to get out of the house and everything else in Swakopmund cost at least fifty U.S. dollars. My new pal was a friendly older man from Northern Wales who had a science background and knew about energy production. We had a nice chat about an energy center near his home; his departure left me painfully aware that my laptop was not giving me the social interaction I required and that I needed to speak with other human beings.

Unfortunately, as people throughout history have done, I was reduced to paying for human contact.

No, not that way. I decided to cough up the dough for desert quad-biking. I went over to the Adventure Centre and booked a trip for tomorrow morning.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

A Nightmare of a Book

I woke up in a panic from a nightmare. Check, I was in my apartment in Swakopmund, Namibia, not in Kampala as in my dream. Check, I was in my comfy bed, not driving--and losing--a white Toyota in front of the big boss. I’d been riding a horse the day before but hadn’t driven a car in over a month. Not the worst dream, I decided, and much better than the terrifying nightmares from the previous two nights.

I’d learned that I couldn’t get back to sleep after these nightmares, so I got up and worked on my book.

Yes, the book. Remember the book? I’m in Africa to write the book about the Cape Town-to-Cairo part of I wasted most of my time here chasing deadlines for comic books (my other job), but I have now gotten into the nitty-gritty of book-writing.

It’s tough, as anticipated.

I heated up some water for decaf coffee and did a word count on what I had so far.

93,156 words.

That’s 53,156 words too many. And I haven’t even tried to figure out how to include material from 2005 yet.

I groaned and got my laundry together. Sometimes the laundromat is a good place to think, as there are no other distractions. And yesterday’s clothing—including my only pair of jeans—smelled distinctly horsey.

The horse ride had been a bust. My hope was to get out of the house and into the desert, to a remote place to take some photos. What I got—not surprising in retrospect—was a bouncy hour-and-a-half look at some scrubby bush and sand. This trip was about being on a horse, not a means to an end for me to see dramatic scenery. I sadly reflected upon the hard-earned dollars I would never get back and the dire state of my bank account in New York. A grand total of US $600 was nothing to be proud of. So I made a bad choice when I booked the horse trip. We all make bad choices sometimes and then sometimes we have bad choice marathons. I just added it to my recently growing list.

What I need now, I thought as my jeans orbited around and around in the dryer, is a title.

My book title was formerly Slow Boat to Everywhere. But then, the book had been about me going around the world for a year. Now it is about me going from Cape Town to Cairo the hard way. It has to be catchy, clever, and simple. I pitched Hakuna Matatu and was shot down by just about everybody. Others liked Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik. The editor did not. I’d been reading and re-reading the journal titles from MariesWorldTour.

Suddenly Sudan.

Denial Ain’t Just A River in Egypt… It’s In Ethiopia Too.

Crazy Like A Kudu.

I clearly need help. Any suggestions? Dark Star Safari and Swahili for the Broken-Hearted are already taken.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Seal Kissing

My life in Swakopmund had become dull, although productive on the work front.

Some highlights of my days included:

-Using the ATM to get money directly from my checking account. The queue in Swakopmund is orderly and goes rapidly. Amazing!

-Taking a daily hot shower.

-Buying a sandwich for a dollar from the supermarket every day at lunchtime and never getting sick from the lettuce and tomato.

-Visiting the post office, which is different from home only in that the employees are pleasant. Okay, one other difference. I sent in a small parcel to audition for a job as Amtrak writer in the U.S. (taking trains and writing about it on their website). My parcel looked like something the Unabomber would have sent as it was covered in 18 buffalo stamps and 1 leopard stamp, all hand cancelled. And I only had duct tape for sealing it. At least it will stand out on the submission pile.

-I buy a daily newspaper from boys on the street. One tried to sell me a German paper. I said (in my clearly Yank accent): “That one isn’t going to help me.” The other boys laughed at him and said: “This is Namibia. We speak English.” Perhaps this offered a little insight into the native take on the local Germans.

My boredom drove me first to the cinema for a mediocre take on the Fantastic Four (I was the only person in Swakopmund laughing when Stan Lee showed up as Willie Lumpkin). Then it drove me to a travel agent.

“I am here for a month. I want to do something that doesn’t cost much but gets me out of the house. I want it to be with other people, but I don’t want to be with 23 overland truck passengers who have all been together for three months and can finish each other’s sentences.”

The travel agent, a young Namibian man, opened his eyes wide and said:

“Have you ever ridden a…” (pause for dramatic effect) “camel?”


There was a silence as he considered my response.

“How about this? You can only do it a few places in the world. You could go sand-boarding. It’s like sledding on sand dunes.”

“Yes, I’ve done that. What else do you have?”

The poor man was getting irritated now. I wasn’t playing along with his script.

“But I bet you’ve never…” (another pause, with big open puppy-dog eyes) “kissed a seal.”

He had me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to kiss a seal given the revolting smell up at the nearby Cape Cross seal colony. But he was right. I’d never kissed a seal. Frogs, weasels, and worms, sure, what woman hasn’t? But no seals.

A few days later, I woke up early and headed out into the Atlantic on a small boat for my seal-kissing activity.

Technically, the excursion was a 4-hour dolphin-viewing tour. The seals were just an additional attraction, a back-up activity in case the main event chose to hide. The boat was a small ski-boat from Ocean Adventures. The passengers included me, a Swiss couple, four older Dutch women, and a German couple. The leader and driver, Hakkie, was a white Namibian. He spoke German without a distinguishable accent, which meant that I could understand him perfectly as he addressed the group.

We slowly cruised to Walvis Bay, stopping to view a bird-guano-gathering platform and the exclusive resort of Long Beach on the way. Hakkie baited pelicans along the way, getting them close to the boat by offering them frozen fish. Then, Hakkie told us all to stand up. He quickly removed the blankets we had been sitting on, leaving exposed the vinyl of the seat cushions on the center island.

“A visitor is coming.”

A second later, a massive 6-year-old seal hauled himself onto the boat and lurched forward down the island, stopping only when it reached Hakkie.

“Hungrig, Cassie?” asked Hakkie. The seals had names. And apparently they too understood German.

Cassie was indeed hungry, and he hung around until Hakkie fed him a small, frozen fish. He scratched and kissed Cassie’s neck while Cassie appreciatively waited for more food.

Cassie left our boat right when I was about to feed him but lucky for me, Bushman was nearby. He hauled himself in over the side, scaring two Dutch women.

When Bushman was full of fish, he leapt over the side I was on and Fluffy came to visit. We motored on, and Fluffy hung around hoping for more fish. All of the passengers stared at him.
How do you get rid of a seal who has overstayed his welcome? The answer: You invite a bigger seal over for dinner.

The bigger seal joined us for a snack. Fluffy sat behind him. Every time Fluffy tried to get a fish, the big seal would bark loudly and show his teeth. The two took it to the floor at one point, and I had a wet seal sitting on my foot for a while. Finally, Fluffy left, followed by the larger seal. We towel-dried the bench and put the blankets back down. The only evidence that of the seal’s visit was a squashed flat fish head near my foot.

We continued on to the inappropriately named seal colony at Pelican Point before eating snacks and heading back to Swakopmund. It had been a great morning out, even though I had forgotten to kiss a seal.

Oh yeah, and we saw dolphins.