Talk to any Peace Corps volunteer and ask them what some of their favorite experiences throughout their service were, and you will get a myriad of stories. Some might mention the impact that they felt they had on their learners, while others will cite the infrastructure that they helped to create in their villages or towns. The answers that you will receive will come out just as diverse as the types of people who sign up to volunteer in a foreign country, sometimes selflessly, other times selfishly. Ask any of these same volunteers, especially those who serve in rural areas of southern Africa, what their least favorite experiences were, and you are bound to hear one of those sentiments be described as “hiking”.
Hiking, much to the disappointment of Western-influenced hipsters, is not frolicking through the woods of the Appalachian trail, eating organic mixed nuts and talking about how you feel “in touch with the spirit” out in the wilderness. In the Namibian context, hiking is how volunteers, and many of the most part, many Namibian people, get around the country. A better term that we are more familiar with in the United States would be hitchhiking. This can include one of two possibilities during your travels throughout Namibia: 1) you hop into an empty seat of a “taxi” (aka an unmarked, unregistered car that the community somehow knows operates as a taxi) and pay your money upfront, with rates dependent upon your final destination; or 2) pray to the hiking Gods that someone will pass by your sorry, dirty, potentially smelly volunteer self on the side of the road and stop to pick you up out of the goodness of their heart. I almost always opt for the latter of these options, due to the lack of timeliness that “taxi drivers”often have as well as my lack of patience waiting for a car to fill up (meaning the car has at least 3 Memes [older, respected women], 4 snot covered children that will sit on your lap and one drunk man who will propose you incessantly) before leaving. Not only does it allow me more flexibility in my travels, but I come out meeting some people who I now call good friends and have stories that I will never forget. Enjoy my short tales of traveling in unexpected ways.
Lets start with the good: the people who make me feel like my service is worthwhile, who give me my first taste of Namibian foods and who make me feel safe and content in an air-conditioned car. Thank you, sometimes nameless people, who provide peace in an otherwise anxiety-inducing experience.
- An Afrikaaner man and his cousin, who was visiting from South Africa, saw me hiking one day and turned all the way around to come pick me up. When they found out I was going to Otjiwarongo, they changed the course of their travels completely so they could drop me off there instead of a closer town called Karibib that they were originally heading to. This added at least 45 minutes of travel time for them, but the driver wanted to make sure that I got home safely and was closer to my destination. His cousin also offered to meet us when a group of us head to Cape Town this December to show us around, after telling me that they appreciate what I am doing while serving in the Peace Corps. The kindness of the people in Namibia often leaves me speechless.
- Two middle aged men on their way to a golfing holiday with their friends picked me up heading to the southern part of the country, with their bakkie packed full of snacks, drinks and an assortment of meat. They entertained me with stories of working on farms their whole lives, of how things have changed since Apartheid and how the businesses they started from scratch are growing quickly. It honestly reminded me a lot of riding with friends back in North Carolina, with their desire to appear kind and thoughtful, but the slight racism inching its way to the surface. This was also one of the first times that I experienced the privilege of my skin color, as I was told to sit in the back seat, while the Baster man (lighter skinned, but still black Namibian) I was waiting with automatically got into the bed of the truck. I had an entire open seat next to me and offered it to him, to which he shook his head in confusion. There is an uncomfortable hierarchy of who sits where in an automobile, where gender and skin color play tricky, unequal parts that I am still learning about.
- Inspiration and appreciation for the diversity of the world and its inhabitants when I got a hike from a young Israeli couple traveling to Outjo one day. Each of their parents had immigrated to Israel, from Russia and from France respectively, when they were very young. Meeting these travelers reminded me that there are so many ways to live out your life, aside from getting a corporate job in a large banking city in the United States.
- My first time trying Oshikandela (a yogurt-esque drinking liquid with infinite additives) was with a farmer near Otjiwarongo who made sure that I was supplied with chocolate and water on my way back to Khorixas, while worrying about me hiking in Africa. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that we just don’t do that in the States.
- At least 10 different people have purchased me lunch, drinks or supplied me with food on my journeys to one town or another, ensuring that I have adequate caloric intake, despite my protests that I have water and snacks of my own.
- On a trip to Arandis, I met a man and his son who own a hunting farm about 40 kilometers from Khorixas. They had recently returned from a trip to the States for a competition, and we got to talking about the experience of traveling – how meaningful it is and how refreshing it can be on a tired and weary soul. They invited my current site mate and I out to their farm a few times, and have been one of my favorite Namibian experiences to date, as well as some of my favorite people I have met thus far.
- A recent collaboration with some pretty spectacular volunteers led us to finding the easiest ride to my boyfriend’s village that we have ever encountered. Normally, it would have taken at least 3, maybe 4 different cars to get where we needed to go, but after hitching a ride with a friend from the Ministry of Forestry to Otjiwarongo, an incredibly generous Afrikaaner stopped for us. He informed us that he was heading straight through Andy’s village after making a stop in a beautiful green town (where he proceeded to buy us lunch at one of the hotels) and fulfilled that promise. We were dropped off right at the front door and had an extremely comfortable ride with a man who has watched incredible changes happen to his country and appears to have gracefully morphed into them, even speaking a bit of Oshiwambo.
No story is complete without some humour and hilarity, and sometimes humour is all you can harness to keep you sane. These are the stories that have saved a bad mood, kept me smiling and reminded me how important shared experiences are during this lifetime.
- My site mate and I were traveling to our shopping town (which basically means that we can buy spinach and coconut cream there and gorge ourselves on pizza), Otjiwarongo in a pick-up truck, driven by a very kind, but slightly oblivious older man. We had both her dog and my cat in the truck, Clementine resting in her make-shift carrier (aka the cooler passed down to me from my previous site mate) and Luna making herself comfortable on Christina’s lap. As we are driving down the road, our driver starts to open his container of Oshikandela. I know, I know.. volunteers reading this are already shaking their heads and scoffing, because they probably know what is to come. For those who have not experienced Oshikandela, it is a drinkable “yogurt” that comes in one of those old-school milk boxes where you have to pull the pointed house-top apart to create a diamond shaped hole in order to drink out of it. The “yogurt” is rather thick, and ladden with added sugar and aspartame, and also quite potent in its smell (which ranges from pineapple to guava to banana to unshowered street child). Needless to say, the man is struggling to drive and open his container of Oshikandela, prompting him to give the container one last hard pull, resulting in the contents of the container to spew across the inside of the bakkie. Thankfully, my site mate acted as an excellent shield in this battle, yogurt covering her puppy, her arms and in her hair.
- My site mate and I once met a very kind Taiwanese man on a hike back from Opuwo, who repeated to us many times that he did not speak English, so we communicated through pointing to destinations on maps. He was a very distinctive driver, with his many Taiwanese snacks occupying the empty seats and his robes that covered him from head to foot. He sweetly offered us water and food items as he dropped us off during our parting of ways, and we spoke of him fondly for the rest of the day. A month or so later, on a shopping trip to Otjiwarongo, who should stop to pick us up in Outjo but the sweetest Taiwanese man we had ever met. He did not remember us, or so we could surmise form our limited interactions, but the same map communication ensued as well as the laughter of how small Namibia can feel.
- On a trip back from shopping in Otjiwarongo, it seemed like a car was never going to come from Outjo to Khorixas. Christina and I did not pack nearly enough water, nor did we fill up our bottles during out pizza-induced excitement, and we were nearing the hottest point of the day. Think 103 degrees, with no breeze and no shade or trees to be seen. As we began verbally contemplating our probably demise, we noticed an Afrikaaner man on a motorcycle pass by us on the main road for the third time. This only increased our thoughts of, now imminent, demise as we joked about how we wish Peace Corps would allow us to get hikes on motorcycles. After the fifth time of him driving past us, we decided that we didn’t have anything to lose (except our money and faith in humanity) by throwing this complete stranger a $20 to ask him to go purchase water for us from the nearest petrol station. He agreed to our request, and even wished us luck on our impending failure (in his mind) at traveling. Much to our surprise, he came back 10 minutes later wish two ice cold bottles of water and a look of confusion with how grateful we were to him. That’s something that can never be taken away from Namibian people – they will go out of their way for you in a heartbeat just to make sure that you are comfortable. We did finally make it back to Khorixas that day, and even got to wave goodbye to our friend as he drove by for the sixth time 20 minutes later.
And of course, although these next stories are certainly the minority, the rides that challenge your standards and morals do happen. To overcome the adversity and maybe even open your mind to another perspective is sometimes possible, but most of the time the ride serves to give appreciation for the rest of the positive experiences and serves as a learning moment for future hiking expeditions.
- The Southern part of Namibia is known for its higher population of white Namibians, and a lot of wide open spaces often occupied by their farms. When coming back home from a visit to this area, a nice older couple gave me a ride almost all the way home on their way to the north. The ride began seemingly polite enough, until a few hours of conversations led us to the auspicious topic of race relations throughout the world. This is a very tough conversation to have, no matter who you are speaking to in Namibia, and one that I approach with extreme caution when the people driving me to my next destination begin releasing less than kind opinions about people of color. For the next two hours that we spent confined in the same ever-shrinking car, I listened to this couple who felt indifferent to the Liberation movement and the freedom of all Namibian people. I listened as they spoke of the leaders in charge who hid important factual information, spread false rumors about the awful things that white people had done in Namibia and ended with their belief that the Holocaust did not happen the way that history tells us it did. I have never been so thrilled to leave an air-conditioned, leather-seated car behind, especially on the day that was designated to be celebrated as the Namibian Independence Day.
- Hiking in groups can oftentimes be problematic. Hiking with your boyfriend can also be equally problematic. On a trip to Swakopmund, one of my favorite relaxation destinations, Andy and I waited for almost 2 hours looking for a ride on the gravel road – this is usually my surest bet, as there are many tourists as well as locals traveling this road which shaves off two hours driving on the tar roads. At last, a bakkie fnally pulled up and we were on our way in the bed of the truck, funneling fresh air through the small windows into the closed entrapment with two other women. We had to have made 10 different stops along the way, dropping off food and packages to every settlement along the way, and waiting for 45 minutes in a town for more people to be loaded into the bakkie. By the time we reached 7 human bodies, 3 sacks of raw meat and 4 sacks of maize meal (which served as a fine dusting agent for my entire body that was leaned up against it, as well as my lungs) I had had enough. A trip that should have taken 4 hours ended up taking 7, we were dropped off in the wrong place and I was unable to contain my snarky remarks to our driver. Not my best moment, but also not his.
- The countless rides that I have shared with men either driving or sitting passengers who have felt it appropriate to make incessant proposals. This is easily my least favorite aspect of my service – the constant barrage of harassment that is only elevated by standing out so much. Often times it is a difficult choice that you have to make, whether you want to get to your destination and how much that would be impacted if you were to punch a man in the face. Just kidding, that would not be Peace Corps approved.
Even though I am not sure if any of them will read this, I want to take this opportunity to say thank you to the countless, truly countless, number of people who have made the experience of ‘hiking’ in this country one to remember. From the people who shared stories of their own lives to the people who helped me to experience new and beautiful things in Namibia to the people who taught me that there are plenty of reasons to still be fighting for equality across the globe, thank you. You have made an impact on my experience, for better or for worse. On that note, for the love of all things holy, I CANNOT WAIT to have my own car back next year.