amw (amw) wrote,

namibia, what a trip

My Namibia trip was pretty fucking great. It wasn't all laughs and fun, and i was definitely hamstrung by my lack of a car, but it was an eye-opener. I sort of knew what to expect from visiting the second least populated country in the world - wide open spaces, the most devastatingly harsh, empty and beautiful landscapes you can imagine... I did not really know what to expect from visiting the second most income unequal country in the world.

I was shocked and appalled by the 7 foot walls plus 3 more feet of electric fence around every "middle class" house. The slums i was prepared for, we've all seen that on TV. Actually staying overnight in a rural village where many houses had no electricity and at least half did not have running water i was not. Because i was her guest, an old woman carried a 20-liter bucket of water uphill to fill the toilet so i could flush. Seeing the kids charge cellphones with solar power so they could listen to hiphop and text their friends was both awesome and arresting. Seeing them use the same phones to get around after dark because there are only 4 dim street lights that randomly conk out due to the erratic power grid was sobering. Having very matter-of-fact conversations with people who made a practical decision to cook over a fire because electric is too expensive, or for whom bread is a luxury because it is more expensive than mixing cornmeal and water to make porridge, or who try to start a small business but struggle with stock because a car only goes into town once or twice a week... People who are educated and living in the same economy we do, with the same technology we do, but with so little money that they will offer to trade a wood carving for my six-year-old beat-up pair of sneakers... And then 50km up the road all-inclusive lodges where i can only imagine the opulence, given i stayed at the cheapest places available and still enjoyed a level of luxury that felt scandalous at under $50 a night. Of course, there are no truly "cheap" accommodations, no $10 flophouse or hostel. The foreign tourists want their pool and wifi and armed security guards. The poor can't afford to travel anyway, or if they do, they stay with friends and family. I took one of the share taxis in the city and used a restaurant as a landmark. The driver didn't know it. He knew the Islamic Center, but not the Pakistani restaurant directly across the road. Who has the disposable income to spend $10 on a meal at a restaurant? Not the taxi drivers who charge less than a dollar a ride. Many of the white people don't see the injustice, because there is a now a tiny percentage of rich and "middle class" blacks, post-apartheid. But all the poor are black. All of them.

I started waking up at sunrise and going to bed shortly after sunset. For the rich you do it because it's not safe to walk the streets after sunset. For the working poor it's not safe either, and besides, work starts at 7am when you are doing manual labor or service work. I drank a whole lot less. Partly because i had no work stress, but also because it felt frivolous (this, in spite of the alcohol problem in impoverished communities). I oscillated between smoking a lot to calm myself and barely smoking at all when i realized a single cigarette is a luxury many cannot afford. I betrayed my wealth simply by sitting down and reading a paperback book. It's a fucking sad thing to realize a book costs a week's wages for most people.

I like to think of myself as a bit of an anti-consumer. I live in a cheap studio apartment in a poorly-maintained building. Most evenings i spend by the light of a single desk lamp. I have the central heating trigger so low that i rarely need to put on another layer when i leave the building. I sleep on a cheap mattress on the floor, i have no couch, no television, no dryer, no toaster, no microwave, no jug, one pot, two bowls, two spoons, only enough clothes for a week, and God are they threadbare by now. But i have electricity and running water and a gas stove and when i want to blow $40 ordering in Chinese or when i had a shitty day i don't think twice about buying a couple bottles of sekt and when i am burned out i just go online and book a fucking vacation to the other side of the world because yeah. And even with the privilege of an extremely comfy safety net due to having a good job while consuming little more than the working poor of this country, i still consume far more than the working poor of Namibia.

If there was ever an argument for serious income redistribution, it's seeing a place where the "middle class" voluntarily jail themselves in walled compounds while the poor across town can't even get running water. And while the informal settlements i saw were arguably quite "nice" and well-maintained compared to the pictures we see of slums in more densely-populated parts of the developing world, knowing that this isn't an entire country suffering from poverty - indeed, the GDP per capita exceeds that of several European countries - is just exasperating.

Anyway, i didn't mean to ramble on about the politics as seen by an outsider. It was a really illuminating and inspiring experience to visit there, and outside of the social issues, the country is really beautiful. The arid landscape is stunning, the desert just... fucking incredible. Everyone i met (well, everyone who wasn't white that i met) was generally good-humored, and it was nice to be in a country again where people are more out-going and expressive. Coming back to Germany with all the serious faces and uptight attitudes and formal interactions was a real downer. Not to mention going from 35 degrees and epic sunsets and thunderstorms to 3 degrees and overcast and miserable. I might write more about this later, i have lots of notes in my notebook. Right now i am just really happy that i took this holiday, and i wish i could have stayed longer. And i really, really do not want to think about going back to work.
Tags: politics, simple living, travel

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