Monday, May 16, 2011

On Familiar Ground

"Hey, mzungu!"

I grinned at the man pointing me in the direction of the overnight bus to Namibia. It was nice to be back in this part of the world. The word "mzungu" is slightly rude, like if you said "Hey, foreign tourist," to random sightseers on the streets of Manhattan, but in the current context, it was just a reminder that I was back in a part of Africa that is familiar and comfortable for me.

And that's it for me and Zambia, I thought, as I found the Intercape stop in the center of Livingstone. It was where I'd caught the CR Holdings bus twice before during other journeys, on a corner by what looked like a little shack, but was actually a ticket booth.

The noon bus had started in Vic Falls, Zimbabwe. This route is relatively new—the bus used to transit Botswana before the new road and bridge were built on the Zambian side. I was delighted as it meant I didn't have to find my way to an Intercape stop in Namibia or Zimbabwe, but one older German traveler who'd boarded in Vic Falls was pissed.

"I had to buy a visa for these few hours we drive across Zambia! Fifty dollars!"

I'd have been pissed too. I was bad—thinking about how he probably should have researched that before he bought the ticket. I certainly wouldn't have made that mistake...but indeed I make lots of other expensive mistakes all the time.

I handed my backpack to an attendant, then had to sheepishly go retrieve it to get my sweater—buses get cold at night—and climbed aboard.

Ohhhh, nearly empty!

Intercape is a South African company with what is probably the best fleet on the continent. I've taken many Intercape buses over the years, but something odd happened this time when I'd booked my ticket online.

I got this disclaimer about Christian materials.

"What on earth," I thought. I was having a hard time imaging what sort of Christian materials could be so shocking that a warning was required. Particularly in this part of Africa which is predominately...Christian. I looked forward to figuring it out.

The Intercape bus on this route isn't one of big buses. Comfortable, yes, but not one of their mega-sleeper buses or posh coaches. We cruised along parallel to the river for a few hours, completely avoided going into Botswana, crossed at an amazing new bridge, and somewhere along the line, we were all stamped out of Zambia and into Namibia. In late afternoon, the bus made its first stop in Namibia.

And the bus filled up.

Damn. Too good to last.

I moved into the aisle seat next to a Dutch woman with bright red dyed hair so that some of the new passengers could sit together. The Dutch woman was a middle-aged development worker from West Africa who was here on her vacation. She'd never been to this part of Africa before.

She seemed nice enough until she decided to recline her seat completely well before dusk, and nearly landed in the lap of the Namibian woman behind her.

The woman yelped in surprise but then stifled it and giggled.

"Could you put your seat up a little," she asked the Dutch woman.

"Oh, everyone is going to do it," retorted the Dutch woman.

I looked back between the seats.

"The seat really is right on her knees," I explained quietly.

"Oh, so what, it's a bus, you're allowed to put your seat back. I know these African mamas, they always think they can have their way, demanding things. They're all the same."

Oh. Oh dear. 

The woman behind her switched seats with her young son, so she was behind me now. Which was fine—I wouldn't even consider slamming my seat back without looking or without it being time for sleeping. I could hear her muttering.

"This is Namibia. We have equal rights here."

Mortifying. Though I couldn't have said it better than the "African mama." I don't know what country the Dutch woman thought she was in, or where she'd been pushed around, but this wasn't that place.

I avoided the Dutch woman after that. As much as I could, anyway, given that I was sitting next to her on a bus.

I buried my nose in my Kindle until the sun set over the Caprivi Strip, the spit of land that juts east out of the top of Namibia. A movie started on the monitor—ah, finally, our Christian material. 

Which turned out to be a movie about a man who was suffering from low self-esteem because he'd had a bad childhood. There was an element—quite vaguely—about him trusting in God, but that was it. In the end—spoilers!—he made up with his dad. Thank goodness we were warned in advance.

I blew up my neck pillow that I'd been dragging around in case of overnight bus journey and fell asleep, only waking up when the bus stopped at the glaringly bright signs of closed roadside gas stations that operate as bus stations along the highway in Namibia.

We pulled into Windhoek in the morning. I thought about pulling in at dawn ten years ago, thanking the stars I was still alive, when Oliver the backpacker had taken over for the speed-demon pick-up-truck driver we'd hitched with at the Botswanan border, who had collapsed somewhere on the highway out west. " me," he'd said to Oliver. "You have to drive."

And Oliver had, driving us straight to Windhoek, where we left the driver in the truck—sleeping it off outside Cardboard Box—until the morning. He'd been groggy but barely remembered the hell-ride of the night before.

We'd arrived later this time. A lot later. Where had we gone off-schedule?

"Wait here," said the bus driver, who knew I was trying to transfer to the Swakopmund-bound bus. "It'll be along in half an hour."

I fled the Dutch woman and headed to the mall across the street to use the ATM and grab a breakfast sandwich and coffee, before coming back to the stop.

And waiting.

And waiting.

A sullen young man in a hood waited with me. He too had come in on my bus. A German-speaking grandma and her granddaughter also waited, and when the Cape Town bus came in, plenty of other passengers waited too.

After a half-hour or so, we were all shuttled to the Intercape depot on the Cape Town bus, where I learned that the time zone had changed and we had actually MISSED the Swakopmund bus.

Intercape filled up its own mini-bus and sent off one batch of passengers. Next, a white mini-bus showed up for the last three of us—me, the other guy from my last bus, and a hooded white teenager from Walvis Bay. I surreptitiously eyeballed the two young men before me. But for their skin color, they seemed identical. Same type of clothing. Same slump. Same hood. Same shrugging "whatever" demeanor. And they gravitated to each other on the mini-bus, which filled up at its own depot before taking us down the sunny highway to Swakopmund.

And when we arrived, I nodded to the hoodie-guys, shouldered my pack, and walked straight up the road to the main street. I'd lived in Swakopmund for a month in 2005. A horrible month. My personal worst month, when my own body betrayed me simultaneously with Herr Marlboro, the man we met at the end of MariesWorldTour 2001, a man whose Indiana Jones-exterior turned out to be a cover-up for stunted cowardice and limited imagination.

I'd worried that Swakopmund would hold ghosts for me, would remind me too much of that summer we'd lived together in Uganda before I'd fled here to lick my wounds. But Swakopmund wasn't culpable in my downward slide that had eventually evolved from what felt like a living-zombie existence into some tentative steps forward. I'm more of a living-human with despair issues now, and who's to say I wouldn't be that anyway with the cruel advent of middle age?

Swakopmund was lovely. Delightful. I didn't feel like crap. I just felt like I was home.

And that's not all. When I got to the lodge I'd booked, I turned on my laptop.

And downloaded 4.2 MB in less than two minutes.

I can finally download those guidebooks I bought for Lusaka and Victoria Falls, I thought.

Back in Swakop. Back to what I know after a long, tough journey south from Morocco.

Back on the grid.

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