March 2nd, 2016


what happens when i spend two weeks sober?

My time in Namibia was split into three main segments - a stereotypical group safari tour, a guided cultural tour and my more usual solo roaming around trying to figure stuff out for myself. The cultural tour was the most illuminating, as it allowed me access to places that roaming solo without a car it would have been very difficult to find. Still, roaming solo showed me a lot of the "middle class" and everyday urban lifestyle in the country. The group tour was something new for me, something i have only ever done once before in my life, when i took J on a day cruise in the Whitsundays together with a bunch of other tourists. It's something i never really saw myself doing again, because it feels like such a strange and artificial way to visit a country. But it was interesting for its own sake, to observe tourists in their native habitat.

Our safari was half people my age and half oldies. All of the people my age had literally flown in just for the tour, and would fly out immediately after its completion. Three of them were ex-pats working in South Africa and this was a long weekend getaway for them. One was a guy who was "doing" Namibia. He'd also "done" South Africa, and "done" Kenya, and "done" Uganda, and "done Zim-Zam", and i kind of wanted to punch him in the face. That's the first time i've met one of the backpackers i dread - the ones who reel off countries like they're a shopping list and spend all their time talking about what the cheapest hostel is and what the most beautiful park is and act worldly as hell but they don't even know the name of the president of the country they are visiting. Oh wait, sorry, the country they are "doing". The oldies were more chill, most of them having completed a self-drive tour around Southern Africa; this was just another experience on their retirement bucket list. In general it was a good bunch from all over the world, and we got on fairly well considering our diverse backgrounds.

I bumped into several other travelers. Hot and flustered European kids optimistically volunteering at some place or other, heads stuck near-permanently in their iPhones. Oldies spending the last days of their self-drive camping safari at a guest house. Old-hand volunteers who were eager to talk politics and share their concerns about the questionable benefit of foreign aid in Africa.

All these interactions with travelers made me think about what i look for when i travel. I wanted to see the natural beauty. That would have been near-impossible without going on a group tour, given i had no car of my own. There is no reason for working Namibians to take a share taxi anywhere that is not an urban center. One taxi driver thought it was crazy when i asked if he took his girlfriend out to the country to watch the sunset. Presumably that would be an awful waste of gas money. Or maybe in the townships there are more entertaining things going on. I wouldn't know, because i never really cracked the nut of segregation while i was there. Black people and white people do interact, post-apartheid, and the young, progressive "middle class" even hang out together at cafés, but as a white outsider i was warned against visiting the townships by both black and white, and when asking what people get up to outside of work, i was always steered toward white-owned and primarily tourist-frequented establishments. That was my one big disappointment of the trip. Although i talked to the taxi driver, the travel agent, the cellphone clerk, the homeless woman, the street vendor, the drug dealer, i never really got a deep insight into their lives outside of my guided cultural tour. And that's the other thing i look for when i travel - dialog, culture and people-watching.

And yet, i felt i had dived deeper in some ways than i had on my trip last year to Andalucía. Why? The language. There is a cornucopia of native languages in Namibia, but the common languages are English and Afrikaans. English is my native language, and Afrikaans is close enough to Dutch i could understand the gist of most things. I bought the local newspaper every day, and it is a very, very good newspaper. The stories about poverty and corruption and education and agriculture gave a remarkable insight into the country. When the people in the share taxi talked drought news in Afrikaans, i could follow the conversation, and i didn't need to bury my head in an iPhone. In Almería i spent most of my time sitting around with locals, drinking coffee, eating tapas, writing notes, watching life happen around me. Doing this in Namibia felt uncomfortable, either safely holed up in a "middle class" bar, or sitting under a tree with impoverished locals side-eyeing my N$315 paperback book about their own country's history. But, despite the relentless efforts to push me into Board-approved tourist zones, occasionally i caught the choke of sadness as the driver noted his clan had no land and the land we had been driving through for the previous ten minutes was all owned by a single South African farmer. I saw the worry as a young travel agent realized she had forgotten to include the consultant fee, which probably made up a good chunk of her income. The optimism of the lady who praised Angela Merkel and hoped the next president of Namibia would also be a woman. I could catch it because i could understand it.

Before i booked the trip to Namibia i had been considering visiting China. I would love to visit a whole bunch of places in east and south-east Asia. The cuisine is something i have loved and respected all my life. I am very interested in both the landscape and the history of the region. But i always think to myself what i would really see as a foreigner with no command of the language at all. The backpacker set laugh it off and talk about their travels through Thailand and Cambodia and Laos and Vietnam like it ain't no thing. All the tourist places speak English. Even if you go off the beaten track you can get by with pointing and gesticulating and wow what a great experience it is to "do" somewhere so exotic. Sure, perhaps. But even with a basic understanding of Spanish, my trips to México and Spain - while wonderful in some ways - were also frustrating to me because i simply wanted to talk, to learn. No doubt if someone dropped me in Colombia for a few months i would survive and maybe my Spanish would even get to a point where i could do more than order food, ask directions and explain where i am from and what i do. If someone dropped me in Algeria my French would probably develop the same way. Hell, perhaps if i spent a month in Chongqing i could do more than recognize 辣子鸡 on a menu. But would i be able to talk about politics or economics or agriculture? I don't know. Does talking about that stuff even matter? As an outsider, how could i hope to understand the local issues anyway? Well, without being able to converse or eavesdrop it isn't even a concern in the first place, i guess. And so you leave a country saying it's wonderful and beautiful and the people are great and where should i go next?

Perhaps all of this is a symptom of me having traveled very little in my life. People think i'm bullshitting when i say that, because i lived in more countries during my school years than many do in their whole lives, but that's exactly the point. I've lived in 10 different countries, but i've only visited a handful more than that. I haven't really learned how to travel as a tourist, or even as a "traveler". When i visit a place i want to understand it. The migrant experience is still removed from the experience of a native, but it's something i am familiar with and enjoy developing. I do love to pass through places as a cashed-up vagabond, but what i'm seeking is the same transient yet meaningful connection that i look for when i wander into strange bars in my current home town, and not a superficial tour of the sights or a gap year among the tribe of hostel-hoppers.

So one thing this holiday reawoke in me is itchy feet. Berlin is probably the best city in the world for my lifestyle - you don't need a car, it's very liberal, the music scene is unparalleled, there are lots of jobs in my industry - but now i want to be somewhere new again. Understand a new place. Maybe a place where i can speak English again, because as good as my German is, i will never be able to express myself as freely as i can in my mother tongue. Of course, i felt similarly after visiting Andalucía, yet here i am, still tied to my job. God, i don't even want to think about going back to work. Some of the last people i talked to in Namibia were an old German couple who had been traveling around camping for a month. They said just do it. "You can have three careers in your life, you're still young." They said the money i have left as disposable income at the end of the month could fund an entire school in the developing world. And what do i do with it? Nothing. I don't consume like other people in my income bracket. I could do anything, if i wanted. Do i want to start over again?
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