December and January flew by without much time for me to even think that I was spending my first holiday away from my family and away from the country that I have always celebrated the festive season in. The heat index staying at a steady 40 degrees Celsius contributed to the dissociation of living in Namibia during Christmas time when I am quite used to waking up to snow on Christmas morning. Okay, so maybe that is a stretch (fine, a far stretch.. North Carolina does not have many white Christmases), but I cannot remember a time in my life when I had to use a fan to keep myself from sweating during present opening. One of the few Christmas traditions that have remained in my family over its many incarnations through the years is also one of my absolute favorite. For as long as I can remember, my Mom has had a styrofoam cone that we decorated with Hershey Kisses to make a small, colorful Christmas tree that lived on our countertop throughout November (yes, November is when decorations went up in our house) and only died when my brother and I had eaten all of the chocolate goodness off of the tree. When my Mom asked me in early October if I was feeling sadness about not being home for Christmas, I told her that I would miss a lot of things about home.. The meals with all of my combined families, the lights that seemed to appear out of nowhere on many of the buildings in Charlotte, the singing bears at the mall in the center of the city that I went to see as a child, and her ability to turn a home into a classy and elegantly decorated house that I am only just beginning to appreciate. True to her wonderful memory and her incredibly loving heart, I received a surprise package from her in early November that included everything I would need to be able to set up my own styrofoam/Hershey Kiss Christmas tree. Not only was I able to have a small piece of home with me in my flat for the next month, but I got to show my site mate how to set it up and teach each other about our family traditions and the differences between a North Carolina and Texas holiday (turns out there are a lot, despite both being Southern states). You made my holiday, Mom.
So instead of focusing on how different things were for all of us this year and how we missed our families, we decided to use our time off to travel around Namibia and Zambia while cooking our way through all of the foods that we missed from the States. My trip began with a stop up north in a village called Mpungu, about an hour and a half away from Rundu where I spent a few days relaxing on a homestead with one of my favorite people. Experiencing the village life was incredibly refreshing and turned out to be just what I needed before our journey continued East across the northern province.
After being spoiled immensely with good cooking and the restfulness that only the village could offer, we headed to our next destination to celebrate Christmas with two of my closest friends in Peace Corps. Katima Mulilo is a gorgeous oasis that sticks out of the long finger of Namibia, close to the Zambian border and many wild animals. The cooking marathon continued as another volunteer made copious amounts of homemade rosemary bread, flavored cream cheese dip and roasting an entire pig piece marinated in oranges and soy sauce for our Christmas Eve feast. We balanced this food gorging session with practicing kick-ass yoga every day and holding horse pose for minutes at a time while yelling at the instructor on our video in between playing double solitaire and taking walks around the town.
As soon as we arrived over the border in Zambia, we decided that a trip to Victoria Falls was absolutely necessary on our first day in country. The only thing that came before this important excursion was food, but that probably goes without saying now. The pictures and the videos that I saw of one of the 7 natural wonders of the world simply did not do this magical place justice. Even though we have been in a drought for the last three years, and the water was not nearly as strong as it is during the raining season, the falls did not disappoint in any way and we had a fantastic time being tourists and taking thousands of photos.
Zambia was the next stop on our trip for a full day of rafting and having our bodies destroyed by the Zambezi river. I’ve white water rafted many times in my life, but this was undoubtedly the most difficult and strenuous of all of my experiences. We asked our guide to give us the hardest routes and he certainly did that for us – I think we spent half the time in the raft and half the time floating down the river after he tipped us over for the 5th time. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed myself so much in a new country as much as I did in Livingstone – so many restaurant based NGOs, homemade gelato blocks from our hostel and the greatest accommodations that a Peace Corps volunteer can afford. The best Christmas gift this year came from my Dad and DanaMom, who allowed me to take the rafting trip of a lifetime on lots of Class 5 rapids that left us beaten and sunburned like we have never been before. Our only logical question was when can we do it again?
With December and early January filling up my roster with travels to new places and experiences I will not forget, it only seemed right to finish off my holiday season with a three day hiking and camping trip to the highest point in Namibia. Brandberg Mountain (Fire Mountain in Dutch, Daureb in Damara) is almost 3,000 meters above sea level and at one point in its history, was an an active volcano. Many of the rock layers that can be seen on the mountain are present now because of the lava flow that trickled down slowly as the Earth cooled. The mountain is now just that – a gorgeous miasma of color, a variety of rocks types and a plentitude of trees, including the baobab.
The first day of our hike was absolutely one of the most difficult exertions of energy I have had in my life. 7 hours of climbing rocks with all four limbs, sweating in the heat of the Namibian summer and walking up 65 degree walls of shale with our 6 liters of water each in our hiking backpacks made for a challenge that we took on with all of our energy. We were so relieved and exhausted when we made it to the camp spot that we dropped our packs and took a nap in the shade before heading down to the water holes to fill up and filter our bottles – a time consuming task in itself. Although we were proud of ourselves and thrilled that we had experienced such incredible views on our way up, not much talking was done as we pitched our tents and fell asleep as the stars came out and the weather cooled down.
The second day of our hike was just as long as our first one, but on much easier terrain and with the knowledge that we had made it past the most difficult part of our path. We reached the summit of Könnigstein (King’s Stone) around 11 and ate our packed lunches of biltong (jerky of various animal origins), fruit and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I think we might have had a celebratory KIND bar to top off our success, as we took in the cool mountain breeze and signed the Guest Register kept in a stone enclave at the peak.
Cave paintings sprinkled themselves in throughout our journey back down to our campsite on our second full day, interspersed with a snack of fruit off of the traditional tree that our guide told us we should eat. It felt like a very traditional way to live, in some senses, with hiking and eating being our main component of the day with an inevitable nap once we got back to the camp site. Even though we only camped for a few days, it still established a rhythm for me where I listened to what my body needed more so than I normally would, taking breaks when it felt necessary and napping like I have never napped before. Take away the busy work days and responsibilities of societal necessity and find out what it is that you truly crave, instead of what you think you want. Even if it is only for a weekend.
The hike back down felt so minuscule in comparison to what we had encountered on our way up to the camp spot two days earlier. Although we were still sweating in the heat of the Namibian sun, we climbed down rock faces that previously forced us to question our motivations with ease and an ability to take in what incredible views we had. The 65 degree shale walls that we trudged up two days prior, having to stop every few moments to catch our breath and lean forward even more to counter the debilitating angle, were scaled down with greater ease and a focus of not wearing away all of our knee cartilage and slipping on a piece of loose rock.
Making it to the bottom of Brandberg Mountain has been one of my favorite moments since moving to Namibia 9 months ago. Actually, I take that back – hiking the whole thing would definitely take its place. I had some of the greatest hiking companions to give looks to when we were wondering how we were going to force our legs to keep moving, and to crack jokes at just the right time when we were starting to lose motivation. It was a perfect way to begin 2016 and keep a perspective in mind that we are here in Namibia to put forth all of our efforts and experience all that this country has to offer.
As the new school year quickly unfolds, I am realizing now that this is the only full year I will have here in Namibia. 2016 will be spent solely in Khorixas, aside from the many travels I have planned and my family coming to visit me so we can explore this country together. This is the year that I have to invest myself into my community, begin my Girl’s Club and TADAH Club (Teens Against Drugs Alcohol and HIV) and continue with my Cleaning Up Campaigns around town. This is the year that I will start teaching yoga on the weekends to help bring awareness to the mind-body connection and when I will start a Youth Garden at my ministry where lifeskills and nutrition will meet discipline and hard work to reach a unified goal. 2016 is the year that I will always remember as being 100% Namibian.