Go out in the noonday sun.
- Noel Coward
Astute readers will recall that the above quote has been previously used on Dispatch from the Razor's Edge. However, it turns out that it really, really bears repeating the moment one sets foot in the Namib Desert. But, actually, hold that thought: in point of fact, today's edition has an official opening line and that wasn't it. Here it is:
Wait for it.
Wait for it.
"Mark and I were short a tent, when the jackals came last night."
That was it. Specifically, we were performing our normal happy maneuver of being good camp/tour citizens by helping hump luggage off the top of the truck, unload communal gear, etc. Most nights, there seems a bit of a race to get personal bags gathered together, tents issued and tent spots staked out. I was personally getting slightly unkeen on playing that game, and so my exact, particular thought on this night was, "Jeesh, what's the big hurry? It's not like we're not going to get a tent." Well, precisely what happened was that . . . we didn't get a tent: Someone failed to bring one back the night before, it turned out; and the group was now officially one shy. Last to the party, Mark and I stood around holding our equipment.
We did have one other person (Deb) who bunked alone (an odd number, 23, on the tour). After a quick negotiation, Deb took me in while Mark volunteered to sleep on the roof of the truck. (Which was preferable to the open ground, in a camp reputedly home to both scorpions and jackals. Paul: "Keep your shoes in your tent if you want to still own them tomorrow.") And, oh did the jackals ever come, before we again saw the sun.
I awoke shortly after 2AM needful of the bathroom to the jangly tones of empty cans and other trash being dragged through the clearing a few short yards away from where I lay. Trembling slightly (fear? eager anticipation?) I gathered up my mini-maglite and weapons. By the time I'd exeunted, Doug had already cleared the field of opposition (basically by showing up, in truth). Where I was scared, he was merely pissed off at all the racket. Nonetheless, my personal SpookyMeter was pegged: 15 feet from my tent flap were big piles of liberated trash and the noise of them being liberated was still echoing in the air, no more than 20 seconds stale. The total absence of the perpetrators of this scene was creepy, Hitchcockian. I kept shining my light into the adjacent bushes and was, at one point, "rewarded" with a slanted, yellow pair of flashing eyes. Yowza! Doug and I put the trashcan inside the truck, and I hit the head.
At which point, I also was no longer tired and we were slated to get up at 4AM, to catch our sunrise from the dunes. (One nice thing Paul couldn't conceivably get us up earlier than that, on subsequent days. The depths had been plumbed.) So, I snuck in my morning calisthenics on the little patio of the pub. I also spent some quality time with the southern Hemisphere's own personl sky.
Have I mentioned the sky down here? First of all, it's brilliant needless to point out, diffusive urban light is pretty thin on the ground in Namibia. For that reason, the stellar dome extends all the way down to the horizon something you don't see much of back in the World. Secondly, we get the Southern Cross out of the deal; right now, it lays right on the tops of the dun hills. Most disconcertingly: freaking Orion is upside down. I'm still trying to get my head around this.
Okay, cut to 4-freaking-AM. Here's what we got for our sleepless dementia:
- M: "You notice how all the safety aspects of this tour are kind of self-guided? You'd think Paul might say something about 'Oh be careful climbing up the knife edge of the 360-foot sand dune.'
- Instead, he's just all, 'Go! go! go! or the other tour groups are going to beat you up there and take the good spots!'" M: "I guess that's Paul for you."
- We started in very low light
- Soon, the horizon cracked. (Note the ant people at the foot of our dune (which is Dune 45, for the record).
- Some of the dunes were pleasingly pyramidal, and the sunrise colors threw big knockout punches at us.
- We reached the summit, and sat on the perfect ridge . . .
- . . . feet dangling over a heck of a precipice.
- And then it happened.
- Two hot air balloons floated skyward in the very great distance.
- Following the swashbuckling leadership of Mark and Andrea, we (amazingly) decide to run and/or slide to the bottom of the (120 meter) dune.
- Most of our group take the plunge (Laura and I dead last); a few remain up top
- Laura shoots them.
- I zoom down on Mark and the early descenders
- Me: "Perhaps you and I will end up being friends; in which case we'll be looking at this many years hence." [And here, I am humbled and honored to present the abridged Story of Laura.]
- Farewell, lonely dune. (Hitchcockian? Bowles-esqe? Either way, we like it.)
Back on level ground, Paul and Jo have graciously (as ever) cooked up a good, Irish breakfast for us: ham, beans, bread and the largest vat of eggs anyone has ever seen. Laughing and chatting, we fill our bellies in this stellar scene. Then after pausing to slather sun goop all over our sandy, sweaty bodies we pile into the back of a rollicking pickup truck, which takes us to the beginning of a guided walking tour of the desert.
A few minutes into it, and a very pretty oryx wanders right into our path. We wonder how it survives in such a completely parched place. We're led down into a basin, a graveyard of dead acacia trees. (They normally survive in the desert by sending roots down as much as 40 or 50 meters, for access to groundwater during those ten-year rainless stretches; but even that didn't help them here.) The sun is completely pummelling us, and by the end we're turning into cranky campers:
Aaron: We paid good money for this?
Mark: This is why it's not called Nomad Pleasure Tours.
About .0005 seconds after checking into our new camp site, I take the Shower of a Lifetime. It's like I've been basted in my own juices for two days, then rolled in sand for a third. After that and a shave, I'm a whole new man and join the others beside the pool, for some happy and relaxed dispatching. After that, and another happy night around the campfire, there's only a short drive between us and (relative) civilization the seaside German town of Swakopmund where I sit now in an open air cafe with Mark, typing this up. Thusly have we survived the first week of our adventure. Here we recharge for a day and half, do some laundry and haunt the local cybercafe. And daydream back the images we took in through the truck windows, of the Namibian desert-scape rolling grandly by. Talk to you all again in 10 days in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
Me: What what was?
Mark: Someone getting in the truck in the middle of the night. You don't realize I wasn't in full possession of the details of everything going on down on the ground!
Me: Sorry 'bout that. (hide)
Meet Laura, and her mate Jamie. Mark and I did, at the pre-trip orientation meeting at Nomad. At the time, Mark was convinced they were brother and sister you'll admit they do look rather alike. They also have the same accent one, which to my ear, sounds extremely posh. (Though, of course, what I know about English accents, and class, wouldn't fill an already-sand-filled boot. I'd later learn that Jamie works 80 hours a week managing a coffee shop; and Laura will be returning home to work in a restaurant for a couple of months to pay for the rest of her "gap year.") The two are actually friends of many years (school mates), who've just finished their "A-levels" (college entrance exams) and are taking the semi-traditional year off before starting university. They are spending it here in Africa they are two of the only five current Nomads (including me and Mark) who are going the full 45-day distance to Nairobi as well as meeting up later in the Pacific Rim; and then back in Africa, for two months teaching English in Ghana. I can't help but wonder why it wouldn't have occurred to me in a million years to do such impressive things when I was at their tender age. In the group nickname sweepstakes, I've come to think of them as "The Kids."
It was on our second our third night together, that I noticed Laura taking a keen interest in the issues of phone cards, and navigating the Namibian phone networks. Standing around the edge of the group in the camp site clearing, I asked her whom she was trying to phone. "My mum and my partner," she answered, using the sweet, and economical, British term for which the clunky American equivalent is "significant other." Out of longstanding Northern California training and habit, I issued my followup question using the standard, careful, sexual-orientation-neutral formulation: "And what is that person's name?" "Well, it's a bit tricky, really," Laura replied, hemming a bit. (In retrospect, I realize she was probably unused to talking to careful Northern Californians, and possibly had her reply formulated before hearing that I wasn't making any assumptions about it.) "She's a woman. Her name's Katie." "Very nice," answered I, smiling. "Kate is my favorite female name. I'm a huge Kate Bush fan. Is she your age?"
Katie, it turns is actually 21 and is a soldier in the British Army, where she is training (very extensively) to be a Combat Medical Technician. She also has an almost unbearably cute (from the wallet photos, at any rate) daughter, who is called Tiegan. (Katie got pregnant when she was 16. When I asked why Katie joined the military, Laura answered, "To make a better life for her daughter, I think.") Katie is only the second woman Laura has dated the first didn't work out, but did introduce her to the Katie and Laura, it turns out, has been through some incredible trials getting to a place where she can pull off such a relationship. I was really honored and inspired to hear about them and, even more so, to see her achieving more feats of self-actualization before my very eyes. But, at any rate, when I didn't immediately try to burn her as a lesbian witch, she started talking with me about her experiences, and (happily, to me) kept at it for some time. She's had a really rough ride recently; and had some talking she needed to do, I reckon.
Specifically, she came out to her parents recently. While her mother was initially supportive, her father reacted badly. He indicated that this and she were a terrible disappointment to him; and he didn't speak to her for several months. At nearly the same time, her grandmother with whom she was extremely, extremly close ("like a second mother") died, from cancer. With all this going on, Laura had to somehow pull herself together to take her A-levels. She did so, earning two As and a B and getting accepted to Cambridge, in her chosen course of study: education, with a focus on geography.
But, she's always been a top student. She also played sax in her school jazz band, travelling with them to perform; and played goalie for her school field hockey team, one year reaching the national finals. But underneath all this success, for many of those years, she was struggling and tormented by the issue of her sexuality. She tried dating boys many times, with little success. She was also active in the Church of England where she was consistently told that people like her were going to Hell. With no one really to talk to about her feelings, she sunk into depression she has memories of going to babysitting jobs at age 14, breaking into the liquor cabinet, and downing spirits to anesthetize herself. She also had thoughts of suicide (as do so tragically many gay and lesbian teenagers).
Then came Katie. For the first time, Laura has been deeply happy, and has felt right about things that they're as they should be. (She's gone so far as to venture to use the magical "true love" phrase, in fact. Ah! to be young and in love!) For a long time the two got together in secret, from Laura's family. But she gets along swimmingly with Katie's family. Also, Laura has a brother, James, 15, with whom she is very close. She told him first and he was immediately fine with it. ("That's cool," I think he said.) And James and Katie now get along great. Now, after much turmoil and threats of seperation from her mother Laura's father is finally speaking to her again. In part, this trip is serving as a way for her to get out of the situation for awhile, and hopefully let the air clear.
However, that also left the trip and Laura was apprehensive about being accepted by the group. I guess this is very common, and not only for the newly out "You just have no way of knowing how people are going to react," as Laura put it. But things moved quickly and, ultimately, very happily after our initial conversation. The same night, Laura ended up drinking a fair bit as 18-year-olds away from home will, and possibly also out of her anxiety about the group acceptance thing. Sitting around the campfire, she was growing somewhat animated later, everyone would agree that she is an extremely charming drunk when Aaron asked her, "So how long have you and Jamie been dating, then?" "We're not dating at all. We're just friends." Aaron was surprised. "Really?" "Yes," stressed Laura, rolling her eyes and drawing breath before exclaiming, "I'm a fucking lesbian!" When she comes out to people, I couldn't help but think, she really goes head first!. She left the circle to stumble off to the bathroom for a bit, during which I had a couple of careful words with the other folks just to the effect that she's been through a lot lately, and was apprehensive about how we would all react to her sexual identity. Everyone seemed thoughtful, and I think Rachel spoke for everyone when she said, "Hey, she is what she is." When Laura came back, I couldn't resist squeezing her arm, and whispering, "Brave girl" in her ear. I was, frankly, and for whatever my feelings on it are worth in the matter, so proud of her.
Moreover, by two nights later, around another campfire, everyone was flocking to Laura's chair to ogle over photos of Katie ("Such beautiful eyes!"), as well as Tiegan, and also Laura's family. And Jamie at one point chided her across the clearing, in his school-chum way, as "Lesbo Laura" which was taken with good humor by everyone, including the target. So, she's come a heck of a long way in a few short days, and in the few short years before that. Of course, the future remains. She's still probably got to rebuild her relationship with her father. And she's worried for Katie who finishes her training in a few weeks, and could easily find herself on the front lines of an Iraq invasion. And, finally, more than anything, there's the very large empty place that her grandmother filled in her life. She never had a chance to tell her grandmother about this aspect of herself, but she's pretty sure she knew all the same. "I understand," were her last words to her. (hide)