Monday, June 29, 2009

Okapuka and the Lions

So if you've ever asked yourself, 'can one ever see too many wild animals in Africa?', the answer is 'no', followed by, 'it is always awesome.'

This weekend Todd and I headed out to another game farm, located directly across the street from Dustenbrook called Okapuka Game Lodge. Okapuka is a a slightly more modern, less German game lodge with a beautiful restaurant and bar housed under a huge thatched roof overlooking a huge field of warthogs eating mud.

We decided to go to Okapuka for the lion feeding last Sunday afternoon. They have a full game drive with rhinos, giraffes, and other various game of the antelope type, but with a trip to Ethosha National Park next weekend (the mother of all game drive and animal viewing) we stuck to the feline feeding, for Namibian $75 (US$10.00).

We arrived early to the park and decided to hike around the lodge before the lion feeding. As we crossed over the rickety bridge that took us away from the lodge and into the 'bush' one does start to ponder questions like, 'when the signs say 'Crocodiles and Lions- ENTER AT OWN RISK”, do they really mean that they are just out and about and we could get eaten?'

Needless to say, though we paused to consider our odds, we decided they would be unlikely to let people walk on the hiking trails if there was a good chance you’d become dinner, so we glanced back once more at the “ENTER AT OWN RISK” sign and soldiered on.

One of the first things we came across was a huge wall constructed of dark bricks with benches in front and slats carved out for what we deduced was for peeping. When we saw the array of stripped bones and a contraption that appeared to safely move large animal carcasses into the pit we confirmed that this was definitely the lion pen and the location where the lion feeding would occur later. As we learned last week, it doesn’t take long for these animals to learn when free food arrives, so despite our efforts and our trekking along the outside of the pen where the electricity that ran through the fence was buzzing Jurassic Park style, we had no luck in seeing any lions...yet.

There is one thing that all excellent trackers know; it’s all in the poop. Take my word for it; there is no shortage of poop on the trails at Okapuka and despite my outrageous claims of being an excellent tracker, I actually have no idea what I’m looking at most of the time. Although I will admit that in spite of yourself when you start to see some big poop, I do get excited.

While navigating the hiking trails and looking for game we crossed a dry river bed where we frightened off some springbok and moved up into a huge plain, which is absolutely the picture of an African Safari setting from all the movies. The tall golden grass is speckled with single trees that are shaped so bizarrely they look like they belong in a Tim Burton movie. Another thing becomes immediately apparent when you are on the empty plain which is this: there is no where to hide and there is no way you are going to outrun anything out here. This message only became reinforced when Todd stumbled upon the remains of an antelope leg, mostly bone but some skin and the hoof still intact.

Despite our/my uneasiness about being easy targets for hungry game animals, we spotted a large group of oryx across the plain and decided to make our way over to them to see how close we could get before we spooked them. As we were weaving our way through the tall grass, Todd came to an abrupt halt, and I followed his eyes to the shadow of a tree where two sets of ears were perked up at our intrusion. Now, when ears appear out of the tall grass, obviously my immediate thought was, “Oh God, it’s a lion, we are going to get eaten”, but just as that thought passed, the owner of the ears shot his pom-pom of a tail up into the air and with his distinctive waddle, moved on from us, because warthogs have no interest in us as dinner, we are not mud.

The sun was moving down in the sky...well that-along with my constant refrain to Todd of, “have I mentioned that this doesn’t seem like a good idea,” urged us to move back out of the tall grass into the river bed and back to the lodge to await our lion feeding trip.

Having scoped out the lion viewing situation in advance, we were both a little disappointed that this lion feeding would not be a repeat of the Dustenbrok feedings where cheetahs perched their front paws on the car doors like house pets waiting for a treat, and nothing stopped a leopard from leaping into the seat next to you, expect for the bucket of meat in the front that he was momentarily more concerned with. Even so, we had strategized our viewing arrangements in advance and made our way out to the peeping wall with the rest of the group.

Once we were seated, the guide began to crank back the contraption that safely provided dinner to the lions. At the sound of the crank a massive, massive lion appeared out of the tall grass and began to claw his feet into the ground (a sign of dominance).

There is really no way to describe to you how large lions are, even the photos don’t do them justice. And while Todd claims he could take a cheetah in a fight (one on one), there was no doubt that a lion deserves his place as king of the jungle. As soon as the meat was cranked into the enclosure, the lion grasped it in his enormous jaws and dragged it back into the middle of the enclosure and went to work.

This guy is the only male, and is over 20 years old. The guide informed us that is was rare for lions to live that long in the wild with all the stress of hunting and finding food, but in parks like Okapuka they can live upwards of 30 years.

Once the lion had made some serious progress, and an appropriate amount of respectful time had elapsed a young female bounded down out of the brush, and practically tackled the lion for the meat. Apparently this kind of behavior is rare for a female, but the guide informed us that she must be in heat or pregnant, because that’s the only time the lion allows for her to interrupt his dinner before he’s ready. Men!.

The two continued to feast while a slew of photos and videos were being captured. The lion, similarly to the leopard last week, has this way of looking you right in the eye, and it gives you chills.

About twenty minutes later a second female appeared out of the brush, but she hung way back and watched the two feast. She is the oldest, and too weak to get into a scuffle over who gets to eat first, so she patiently waits in the wings until the second group of tourist show up, and a second piece of meat is placed in the enclosure.

It is difficult to describe the size and strength of the lions in their features and movement, but it was a sight to see, and was definitely worth the trip to Okapuka .

Later, when I arrived to work on Monday, the two local Namibians in my office told me that a few months ago, a guide had been eaten by lions while he was attempting to free a stuck piece of meat in the contraption, and apparently Japanese tourists caught the whole thing on tape.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Düsternbrook Guest Farm

Düsternbrook Farm is one of the most popular places to see wildlife close to Windhoek. On the farm you can choose between three kinds of game viewing; the game drive where you view animals from some kind of vehicle, a Leopard and Cheetah feeding where you watch cats get fed, or you can hike the property and see the animals on your own.

We booked for the classic game-drive as our first experience to get a broad perspective of Namibian bushveld animals and identify which game we had already eaten at local restaurants.

Düsternbrook is less than 30 miles north of our apartment in so we decided to drive out there on Sunday around noon to be there in time to a hike before a four o’clock game drive. We found highway B1 close to the northern industrial area of town, and merged onto it just as a truck pulled onto the shoulder to pick up a young, provocatively dressed woman. I am not sure who was giving whom a ride, but it let us know that the highway would be a fertile viewing ground.

A few miles outside of Windhoek both directions of the highway funneled into two lanes at a huge stop sign and collection of small huts. I slowed the Kia down, stopped at the sign, and waited for instructions. There were no cars on either side of the road, and the blue-clad policewoman approached the car. I started to roll the window down, but she waved us through without even checking my paperwork, which I actually have. Beyond the checkpoint the highway remained only to a two-lane road, perhaps all the way to Angola.

Clusters of tin shacks broke the monotony of the brown, grassy plains every few miles. The settlements had no official entrance or exit from the highway but were marked by sudden increases in non-vehicular traffic. Kids rode bikes one-handed beside us along the narrow shoulders while couples sat in the median enjoying the Sunday sunshine and 75 mph breeze. Silhouetted groups of villagers, cautiously looking both ways, wandered single-file across the tarmac ahead of us like animals crossing a road at a national park.

After twenty miles along the main north-south highway of Namibia, we turned left at sign directing us to route D1499. D1499 is considered a ‘district road’ and the classification had me worried about the 6-inch clearance of the Kia, the tires of the Kia, and the torque of the Kia. However, the red, gravel road was wide and firm. I took it slowly, but steadily, pampering the car on its first drive in the bush, about12 miles an hour.

We drove through a series of cattle grids, gates and shallow rivers before reaching the Düsternbrook farm property. Beyond the entrance to the farm the road deteriorated drastically. The road became uneven, the hills grew steeper, and the rivers ran deeper. We scraped the bottom of the car only once, forged the rivers successfully, and arrived the farm parking lot around 2 pm.

Our game drive wasn’t until 4 pm, prime time for seeing diurnal animals drinking at the watering holes, and nocturnal animals starting to come out. We planned to walk by ourselves for an hour before the game drive, but two things worried me:

1. How I would be safe from the big cats I knew they had, the rhinos I knew they had, and the terrifying baboons and monkeys I had already seen.
2. How would I drive the road in the dark without getting stuck somewhere in the bush with the aforementioned baboons ripping us to pieces.

So, we decided on the leopard and cheetah feeding tour that started at 2:30, and avoid all primate attacks.

The driver pulled the hunter green Land Rover safari vehicle, complete with three rows of stadium seating and a canvas roof, in front of the brown, sandstone farmhouse. He was a small, light-skinned black man with tight curls of hair tight to his scalp. From what I know of Namibian ethnicity, he looks like a member of the San tribe, but I can’t be sure yet.

The truck could hold ten passengers, but there were only eight of us. Meghan and I climbed in last, and we took the remaining seats in the first and second row. From my position in the first row I looked down over the driver’s cabin and saw a white plastic tub filled with red meat chunks and what looked like the spine of small mammal. There were also three plastic shopping bags filled with dead, white chickens.

We drove west away from the farmhouse along a tall, wall of wire fencing. Within minutes the driver stopped at gate before opening and closing it behind us. He eased the truck away from the fence into a field of tall, yellow grass along the parallel lines of sandy tire tracks. He pointed to his left, and everyone looked out into the tall grass. A shaped moved, and disappeared, and then reappeared briefly. It was a cat. “This is leopard,” he said in a heavily accented voice.

He pulled the car under a tree, and cautiously climbed out onto the hood, carrying the flesh-covered animal spine in his hand. He climbed onto a tree limb, and untwisted a metal wire that held another bone that had been licked clean, and attached the new bone. His hands worked blindly as he looked out towards the grass, trying to spot the cat. He climbed back into the car and wasted no time in backing it out from under the tree. The leopard’s face appeared directly ahead of where we were parked, and stared at us with pale yellow eyes.

The cat was three feet tall and at least five feet long, without the tail. He sniffed the base of the tree and then scaled ten feet to the branch with the meat easily. He walked the thin tree limb confidently as if he were walking on solid ground. He was power and grace combined. The fur that made him blend into the dry grass contrasted beautifully the blue background behind him as he lay along the branch and worked at the bone. He did not tear at it, but stripped it methodically and delicately, licking himself clean between every bite. He eyed us as we watched him eat.

When the bone was bright white he jumped down and immediately came towards us. He strode with his body slunk low to the ground, his chin plowing through the grass. His yellow, bulging eyes were focused on us. I could hear his every footfall, heavy but soft. His muscles were tense, and he was ready to strike. In that moment I forgot that I was in a vehicle, and I forgot that the driver was armed with a bucket of meat. I felt like there was only him and me, and I was his prey.

Just as he was about to leap onto the hood of the truck, the guide tossed big piece of pink meat over the leopard’s head. The cat’s eyes followed the piece of meat through the air as it reared up on its hind legs and changed its direction in one swift movement. He pounced on the meat as it hit the ground at the base of the tree, clutching it between his giant front paws.

In the minutes that followed the driver fed the cat every time it finished with a piece of meat and started to charge the vehicle. The sound of our cameras beeping and our gasps of amazement contrasted the silent stealth of the great cat as it ate its free meals.

When the driver threw a chicken to the leopard he took it in its mouth, walked away into the tall grass, and then stopped to take one last look back at us. He knew the routine as well as the driver. The chicken meant the end of the photo opportunity for the tourists, the end of the visit from the hand that feeds him, and the end of the free supper. The whole thing lasted about five minutes, but it was enough to witness the beauty and strength of the leopard. It was a complete set up for us, the tourists, but it was well worth seeing.

We left the enclosure through the same gate we came in, and headed further west along the dusty road. Again the driver stopped outside a metal gate, drove through and then closed the gate. He drove up a hill and then down a small gully where a small circle of ground was clear of grass and bushes. He parked along on the outside of the circle, and pointed to his right. “They come now.”

The cheetahs also knew what time it was, and there were four of them.

They trotted single file into the clearing, and moved directly to the driver’s side door. The first cat put his front paws up on the driver’s door and lifted his black nose and soft brown eyes close to the truck, it’s wet nostrils flaring as he smelled the meat. The cheetah then began to whimper, the sound like that of a dog waiting for a treat at the dinner table. The driver’s trepidation and caution with the leopard was replaced by an intimacy and playfulness with the cheetah.

The driver threw pieces of meat to each cheetah individually. They sprang into the air to catch the meat in their mouths, their front paws outstretched to balance themselves. The cheetahs were quick, and acrobatic. They each took up a space around the truck that became theirs. They stayed there and waited for meat to be tossed to them. Until, that is, the driver threw meat between them. At that point the whimpers became deep growls and fierce competition ensued; teeth were barred, claws came out, and the action was lost in a cloud of brown dust.

The Cheetah has a sprinter’s frame. Not steroid induced frame of the modern sprinter, like Ben Johnson, more like Carl Lewis. Their long, lean front legs end high above the neck for elongated strides, while the back legs are thick and full of muscle. Their bodies are lean and aerodynamic, with a torso that virtually disappears at the hip. Their resting pose is frequently as if they were at the starting gate of a 100 meter dash; head and forelegs low to the ground, back legs raised and ready to spring towards the glory.

The cheetah is the fastest land mammal, but the ones we saw did not have much stamina. After five minutes of whirling around and gorging themselves on red meat, they started to pant, and stop begging for food. In the lull, the driver gave another speech, “this one father, three are cubs,” and tossed out the first chicken. A noisy battle ensued between all four cats. In the end, the father emerged from the cloud of dust and feathers and trotted into the bush. He also knew the chicken was the end of the bounty, and he left with his spoils.

In his wake the others turned to the driver and waited for their turn. He tossed them one-at-a-time to increase the excitement. Before a chicken hit the ground it was caught, pulled apart and torn between multiple cats. Once a cheetah controlled a carcass cleanly, the game was over, and the losers waited patiently for the next toss. Some carried their prize off into the bush and disappeared, while others opened them up and crunched on the bones in front of us.

Today all four cheetahs got a chicken. Tomorrow they would play before another group of tourists snapping photos under brand new safari hats. And again would have full bellies, and lie down satiated. It’s an easy life in the bush when there’s a chicken in every mouth.

When we left the farm we drove along a broad, gravel floodplain. The sun was starting to cast a gold-red light over the trees, and the animals started to come out of the bush to drink at the river. Meghan spotted the first group of animals, but was unimpressed because they looked too much like deer to be considered game. I think they are called Cela.

Across the river, further upstream was a large dark mass moving slightly. I thought they could be wildebeest, but could not be sure. Meghan told me to stop the car and jumped out. She was clearly not worried about baboons or cats. She scrambled through the underbrush and popped out on the gravel riverbed snapping pictures with her camera.

“There’s lots of poop, but I tracked them and found wild boar too.” They were wildebeest. We continued driving and saw an oryx standing beside the road staring at us. We did not bother him, but it seemed he would move if we approached. Meghan started the video.

It is like she is doing an imitation of David Attenborough on the video, her voice hushed and reverend as she tells me where to drive for optimal oryx viewing. I realized I was hungry. I had an oryx loin before and it was tasty.

Meghan started to jump out of the car again, but the oryx was too far away. Further up we saw a group of five animals cross the road twenty yards ahead of us. By their gate, and their size we knew they were cheetah. Not cheetah penned up for the feeding show, but wild cheetah roaming the land outside the farm. When we came to where they crossed we stopped the car and saw that they were just in eyesight, watching us.

Meghan opened the door and got out to take more pictures. Clearly she was not worried about be attacked by the cheetah. She is now queen of the African wilds, and ready to track, spot, and chase any game.

A Walk On the Wildside of Windhoek

Almost every developing city has one, and it’s always beyond the grasp of law and order. It is defiant and proud of its incorrigible status, and taunts the city below from its lofty stature. Lovers climb its lower slopes to be steal time together, while further up addicts and thieves stagger up its twisting trails to be alone with their scores. Criminals of all sorts rule these hills, the world over. I know I should not climb these perilous peaks, but I always do. In fact, I always search them out, and look forward to facing them. The mixture of fear and excitement reminds me that I am alive, and not in control. This is how I feel as I prepare to ascent an infamous hill above Windhoek, the capital of Namibia.

Windhoek will be my home for the next six months, but so far it has not lived up to my expectations for living in a capital on the ‘dark continent’. During my first here, I have felt nothing but safe: too safe. I was welcomed, somewhat, in most shady gambling houses, and there was no sense of daring walking in the city center after dark. The city is nothing if not orderly, clean, and safe. I suspect the townships outside town are more unpredictable, but I will explore them later. For now, I will climb Hofmeyer Hill, and test my mettle against the unknown upon its slopes.

Hofmeyer Hill is not the towering mountain labyrinth of crumbling buildings I roamed in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro’s. It is a small, sandy hill, without settlements, that rises subtly from behind the Parliament building at the eastern edge of the city. It is, however, dangerous, and my guidebook warns that, “Hikers have recently been robbed along this route, so don’t go alone and avoid carrying valuables.” The local newspaper claims that a man was stabbed there two days ago merely for his cell phone. The U.S. Government’s Regional Security Officer, also, formally forbids all Foreign Service members working in or visiting Namibia from going up the hill. Good thing I don’t work for the U.S. government.

My duffel bag is still bulging and lying on the floor beside my hotel bed. I am in temporary housing, and have not unpacked my things yet. I run my hand through the canvas bag and extract my running clothes. In the cool morning air of a patio over looking a busy street and an ‘Engine’ petrol station, I pull on my shoes and tie my apartment key to the drawstring inside my shorts. I glance at the map of town and find a route to the start of the treacherous trail along the ridge of Hofmeyer Hill.

From the apartment security gate I turn left on Independence Avenue, and then a quick right on Doctor A.B. Mayo Road. At the top of Mayo I make a left on Robert Mugabe Avenue, and then a right on Sam Nujoma Avenue. The principal streets in the city honor the heroes of the recent independence movement, but as I climb Nujoma away from town I turn left at a street that still bears its original German name, Orban Street.

The sky grows wide and pale as Orban Street rises gradually out of the shadow of the hill. The tropical morning heat begins to gather, beneath a cloudless, blue sky as I jog. At over a mile in altitude I can’t be sure if it’s the altitude or my nerves that make me sweat profusely as I approach the ridgeline. Fear mixed with excitement consumes me, and my heart pounds in through my chest. The paved road, and civil law, end abruptly at an intersection.

A metallic blue map stands above me between a wide, dirt road on its left, and a narrow trail leading into the scrubland on its right. The trail is the beginning of the infamous Hofmeyer Walk, the dirt road lead to a telecom tower at the summit of the hill. The map shows two red lines representing trails to the right; an eastern trail leading down the backside of the hill towards the Klein Windhoek Valley, and another trail that follows the ridgeline north and ends abruptly at a somewhere on the rigid.

Klein Windhoek was once an area where blacks who worked in Windhoek were forced to live during South African rule, and apartheid. Now, however, whites have reclaimed most of the valley, and it has become the most expensive and desirable suburban neighborhood in Windhoek. I do not want to end up in Klein Windhoek because it is a short trail, and would not be as dangerous. So, I follow the path along the ridge, hoping that the route is neither a dead end for the trial, nor me.

There is no one around me as I step onto the brown, sandy trail. I have not seen a car or heard a noise other than my breathing since I turned onto Orban Street. I am completely alone with my overwhelming fear for what lies ahead. I wanted to come alone because it is more exciting to temp fate alone, but alone I know that I am an easy target. Now that I am here, I want to stay alone because I will assume that anyone up here will try to rob me, or worse.

I never thought I would move to in Africa. It is one place I never even expected to visit. I am not a big guy, so Asia is comfortable because I do not feel physically threatened. It is also comforting because people are generally non-violent, fearing the everlasting weight of Karma upon them. In Latin and Central America I believe I can diffuse most situations with my bastardized Spanish skills and sense of humor. But Africa, I always thought Africa would be too dangerous.

In Africa there is witchcraft, ritualistic killings, famine, and plague. In Africa, anything can and does happen, usually by groups of machete-wielding men. There are no rules, and there is no order. Despite all this I still chose to move to Africa, and have now chosen to put myself on this dangerous hill, all alone. While my mind wonders if pieces of my white flesh will soon end up in the hands of a witchdoctor eager to cure some tribal elder of gonorrhea, I set my first foot upon the sandy trail.

Used condoms in the sand at my feet tell me that people have been here before. After a few minutes of jogging the trail narrows and becomes overgrown. Tall, golden grasses tickle my knees, and thin, tree branches with long, woody thorns stab at my head. I startle, and am frightened by little birds, small rodents, and fleet-footed lizards at every turn. I realize that I never thought of the non-human threats of the African bush. I imagined guerrillas, or worse, gorillas, waiting to ambush me.

Ducking under one tree and turning along the path to my right, I see what I had feared most. It was a group of silhouetted men standing on both sides of the trail ahead of me. They are tall and broad-shouldered with dread locks piled on top of their heads. I slow my pace and hide behind an insufficient boulder. They have not moved, and I think I can still go back the way I came undetected. I squint to make out their forms more clearly through the bright sunshine.

The Hofmeyer Walk is also known as the Aloe Trail. It is called the Aloe Trail because of the Aloe Littoralis plants, which grow all over the hillside. This particular species of aloe plant, when fully grown, vaguely resembles a large man standing tall and broad-shouldered, and topped with a mass of dread locks. The resemblance is dramatically increased when seen at a distance by a frightened foreigner jogging with an overactive imagination on a dangerous hillside in a strange land.

When my brain recognizes that my eyes are indeed looking at tall plants, and not bandits, I laugh aloud at my own timidity and stupidity. As I get back up to speed, and pass the gang of aloe plants, I remember how the plant has cured my numerous sunburns over the years. I reach out and touch the trunk of one six-foot aloe, and label myself a certified pussy.

Beyond the gang of aloes, the trail breaks over the ridge near the summit and affords a view of the city of Windhoek. The city landmarks come into view below: the red, tile, roof of the administrative headquarters, the sandstone German-Lutheran Church steeples, and the spidery constructions cranes pulling up the new office buildings. To the north, the trail continues on towards a row of brown, concrete reservoir tanks and beyond them, hopefully, a trail off the hill.

I follow the trail northwards to a tall chain link fence that surrounds the first tank. I give the fence a wide berth since it’s protected at its base by coils of vicious razor wire. Suddenly I notice a dark, shining object swaying down the trial ahead of me. It is no aloe plant; it is a tall, black man walking ahead of me down my trail. I immediately stop and crouch down while my heart begins to race. ‘Who is he?’ ‘What is he doing up here?’ ‘What would he do if he knew I was here?’ I listen to my heart pound for a full minute before looking up again. He’s gone.

I do not want to jog anymore and risk catching up to him, so I descend the rocky trail slowly. As I skirt the fence I notice small trails cut through the tall grass and scrub brush leading down to the valley floor below. I decide to stay along the fence because it is the widest and most used trail. I am still scared to meet the person in front of me, or anyone else, but I do not know where the smaller trails lead, and imagine they lead to a cave that serves as a gang’s headquarters.

Beyond the reservoir tanks the trail becomes less worn and harder to follow. It moves under low-hanging trees, and begins to get overgrown. I start to think that it is a dead end when I suddenly hear a familiar and comforting sound from the hidden valley floor below. It is the sound of a car, and it sounds like it is braking around a bend, before accelerating again. I quicken my step, hoping to get off the mountain before I am scared by anymore plants or men, and encounter any more strangers.

Below a rocky bank, piles of human shit, shit-stained pieces of notebook paper, let me know that I am at the trailhead. Just beyond a green patch of prickly pear cactus my feet land on a paved road. I do not know where I am, and I do not know how to get home, but I am back in the safety of the city streets. The trail along Hofmeyer Hill was not a dead end, and I am not dead. I have survived and I will live to test myself against another forbidden hill in another city, another time.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Home Sweet Home- June 18, 2009

We have been in Windhoek, Namibia, for two weeks, and as of today we are officially in our apartment and settled into our new home. It was a frustrating two weeks, as I will detail below, but things are looking up now; we have an apartment, a car, a few potential friends, and a plan for getting out and seeing some wildlife this weekend.

The Living Situation
After a 28-hour, door-to-door journey, we were collected at the airport and informed that we would not be moving into our apartment as promised. We were being placed in a temporary apartment for ‘some time’ while another Expat was being put into our future apartment. Inconvenient, yes, but also frustrating because the woman occupying our apartment was going to have to move again also when, in ‘some time’, her house became available.

‘Some time’ is never something you want to hear in a foreign country because it could mean a few hours or an eternity. Anyway, we unpacked as little as we could, and settled into an efficiency apartment, called the Jan Jonker, and tried to make the best of it. The building was centrally located, and our unit was stocked with all the appliances and amenities we needed. Unfortunately it also had all the charisma of a midwestern motel room, with grey walls, dirty carpets, and a point-blank view of a neon, gas station sign that burned through our mesh curtains throughout the night. Our future, modern apartment was less than a mile away, but beyond our reach, at least for ‘some time’ yet.

What was worse was that because the US embassy only reserved the apartment for Meghan, the Jan Jonker staff tried to charge us an extra US$30 a day for an extra person, yours truly. For that kind of money in the third world I expect a lot in return, and the Jan Jonker did not deliver. Besides that, I am cheap. So, that afternoon I turned in my key and started my stint ‘on the lamb’ to avoid the charge. Every morning I would leave the apartment, before the staff arrived, and return in the evening, after they had gone home for the night. Once I returned around lunchtime, but I ran into a staff member who asked me for money, so then I just stayed away. Between the multiple coffees, meals, taxi rides, and beer tastings around town, I am not sure I saved much of the US$30 per day, but sometimes it’s the principle of the thing.

Windhoek is small for an African capital. In fact it’s small for any capital with just over 220,000 inhabitants. The city center consists of one main drag, Independence Avenue, a half mile long, lined with shops, restaurants, administrative buildings, and a few tall office complexes. The broad sidewalks are clean and dotted with white and black people heading to work, street peddlers in blue bibs selling newspapers, and tourists in khaki clothing head-to-toe drinking coffee in open-air cafés. There are very few beggars, few people in non-western clothing, and few vehicles. The air is clean, dry, and free of the piercing sirens of Washington, D.C.

When the tropical sun goes down, at 5:10 on the dot, almost everyone leaves the city center and the town becomes empty. Almost no one lives downtown, and with only a few bars and restaurants, and even fewer music venues, I can see why. Nightlife exists, as far as I can tell, inside a mall at the south end of town that houses the movie theatre, an African version of an American Steakhouse complete with cowhide seat covers, and a seafood restaurant that reminds me of Sizzler. In such a city it soon became obvious that Meg and I needed to buy a car to get us out of Windhoek and around Namibia early and often. We would not be able to just get by renting a car once a month as we had thought.

So, during the first week, while Meg attended the Global AIDS Implementers Conference in the swanky conference center, and lunched with the President of Namibia, I stalked every dusty and polluted industrial area of Windhoek and every used car salesman I could find there.

The Kia brand does not conjure images of safaris through the African ‘bush’, and for good reason. However, this is the dry season in South Western Africa, so I only need a two-wheel-drive car, and they say a Kia will do fine. The 2003 Rio has a puny 1.3 liter engine, and does 0-60 mph in somewhere around eleven seconds, and has only three inches of clearance over its 14” pizza bagel wheels. It is right hand drive, like all cars here, and when I test-drove it, the engine spun nicely, just like Charky’s old Singer sewing machine. The Rio also has a four-star crash rating from every angle, and dual front airbags in case we forget to drive on the wrong side of the road. It seemed like the perfect choice, and we could actually afford it, so we decided to buy it.

The Happening Kia

Paying for the car, however, proved to be just as frustrating as our living situation. The problem was that our slightly shady car dealer, Jaco, (pronounced in Yaco in Afrikaans), does not accept credit cards. Security protocol at our banks would not allow us to authorize a transfer into his account from abroad, credit limitations stopped us from pulling the money out of credits cards as a cash advance, and debit card limitations stopped us from pulling the total amount out of our checking accounts. So, despite having sufficient funds to pay for the car, we could not purchase it.

After many days of finding out the limitations of my provincial, North Carolina bank who shall remain nameless, the US embassy said they could cash one of Meghan’s personal checks for local currency. It would cost us no interest points, just a normal transaction as if it had taken place in the States. It was the perfect solution to a frustrating dilemma. Why Meghan has her checkbook with her in Africa I have no idea, but thank Jobu she does because the car was delivered yesterday, and I love that little, silver thing.

What is better is that the car was delivered to our real apartment. The woman living in our apartment agreed to switch with us last Sunday because it made no sense to her that she was living in our apartment while she waited for hers to be made available. Needless to say we jumped on the chance, and are now moved into the apartment.

Sunset in Windhoek

Our apartment is on the third, and top floor of a building that looks like an oversize garage. It is a modern and secure building with a remote controlled gate to the property and an alarm system inside the unit. Coming through the front door there is a guest bedroom on the right, east, side and a long eat-in-kitchen straight ahead. Beyond the kitchen there is a large TV room that finishes at a wall of windows and a set of French doors that lead to a balcony. To the right of the TV room is the master bedroom with its balcony, and the master bathroom. The master bathroom has a shower and separate tub, and enough closet space to make any girl swoon. The tin roof is over twenty feet above us, with tall skylights where it meets the walls. The place is very bright and airy, and the rooms are well appointed. It is perfect, and it is great to be finally settled.

The guest bedroom has twin beds, and its own bathroom, so we are hoping to take foreign visitors out on safari in the Kia in the near future.

Hope to see you in Africa.

Our Apt. from the front door

The Master Bedroom

The Guest Room (all are welcome!)