Saturday, May 21, 2011

Visiting an Old Friend

Swakopmund is familiar to me, a place that I can stop to catch my breath, and one of several places I've called home for short periods of time over the years. It's also a key place in Marie-mythology, having been the location for an early chapter of my book, Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik, and the site of a life-changing moment for me in 2005, at the beginning of my then-No Hurry In Africa blogging. Three or four of you have been along for the virtual ride since then, and I thank you for that.

I hadn't stayed at many hotels or eaten at many restaurants in Swakopmund before, because when I was here in 2005, I stayed in a rental apartment and enjoyed cooking for myself. I'd chosen Dunedin Star (named after a shipwreck) based on its price. But I was surprised when, late in the week, I learned it wasn't pronounced Dunedin like the New Zealand city.

Dunedin is pronounced "Done-eatin'." No wonder people had been looking at me funny when they asked me where I was staying.

I liked Dunedin Star's comfy rooms, security, and free cooked bacon-and-egg breakfast, but I was starting to feel guilty and worried about the fat I had gained between Morocco and here. So why did it take me until the fourth day to switch to granola and yogurt? I was still eating every meal like I had no idea how long it would be until I found another. But I was done with West Africa. I was in the land of coffee shops, schnitzel, Konditoreis, Immenhof Farm Kitchen, the place I'd tried kudu at with Shawn all those years ago, KFC, the South African pizza chain Debonair's, and a nice new restaurant called Driftwood that served a great lunch special.

I went to the tailor to drop off my daypack with a slice taken out of it from the Ninja Express in Congo. I  went to the hairdresser in the central town mall, but was disappointed to learn the owner had sold it and left for Germany. The color didn't come out quite right this time. I stopped by the post office but learned that packages weren't allowed to go from Namibia to the US at the moment (??). I went to the Swakopmund I-Cafe every evening, and once the owner was there. He'd expanded since 2005—though I'm pretty sure Stars on 45 were playing on repeat then too—and added a coffee shop. He looked at me, clearly trying to place me. I'd come in every day for a month the last time I'd been in town, and as I'd been uploading Fantastic Four pages and asking him to scan hippo photos during that time, so I might have stood out. But five years is a long time to be away.

Which is why it took me a few days to get my bearings. I walked the main street with its odd Bavarian-meets-Africa flavor, paced the beach, and passed my old apartment building on Libertina Amathila. I'd once told someone where I lived, and they'd looked at me blankly and then said "Oh, Bruecken Strasse!" Everything has two names here, the old and the new.

Swakopmund is home to permanent residents, some Namibian, some German, and some German-Namibian, retirees, and temporary homes to huge numbers of visiting tourists. It's become an adrenalin capital of sorts due to the giant sand dunes on the edge of town, just past the A-frame chalets of the Municipal Rest Camp that were used in The Prisoner. In 2001, I'd gone sandboarding here. In 2005, I'd gone quad-biking, horseback riding, seal-kissing (dolphin-cruising), and even toured a uranium mine. I'd never made it skydiving and wasn't likely to now.

I'd mostly run out of activities and that was fine by me. I wanted to catch up on work, rest, enjoy nice food, and sit in the coffee shop and read. I even read the sugar packets that came with my cappuccino, because they featured quotations encouraging me to lead a more creative life.

The first day I noticed the inspirational sugar packets, one featured a quote from Gandhi. The other was from Walt Disney. The Gandhi one sounded like Yoda, but the Disney one was insipid. Both were about following our dreams. I suppose I'm doing that, but it often feels like drudgery when I'm lugging my bag to the bus station or sitting for hours squished into a minibus. Over the years, I've learned to accept the drudgery and not be surprised by it, but what had happened before I'd reached Congo was that dull repetition had built into a kind of tired, spaced-out state in my brain. I'd enjoyed the inconvenience of Congo because it had broken up the haze of endless bus journeys. This is the adventure we seek on our trips, not the endless-but-essential sitting on buses.

I'd initially planned to skip Swakopmund, not sure I could handle its ghosts. I'd had a hell-month here in 2005, the kind of personal experience that leaves emotional scars, permanent cynicism, and provides a crash-course in wisdom. I'd woken sweating, my heart racing, from 30 nightmares during the month I'd lived in my Bruecken Strasse flat.

But then I'd headed here anyway, seeking familiarity and comfort from this charming, atmospheric seaside town. There were no ghosts here. Swakopmund is as lively, atmospheric, and comfortable as it was the first day I saw it ten years back.

Number of nightmares I've had in Swakopmund in 2011: Zero.

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