South (VI)

1.18.2016

Blue Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus); Etosha National Park, Namibia; January 2016.


After a few days milling about the Etosha waterholes, we begin our journey back to Cape Town. We leave at sunrise—the big, beautiful, fiery-orb-climbing-up-the-savanna kind of sunrise we've come to love—and drive for hours on a nice sealed road, making it to Windhoek, Namibia's capital, a little after noon. It's not much, Windhoek, but it's still the largest grouping of people anywhere in the country—perhaps a few hundred thousand filling in the gaps between the wide asphalt streets and the tall dusty buildings, all of it devoid of any real charm. There are lots of cars and not much grass and it's difficult to find any sort of center to the city, but that's all okay: we don't plan to stay long.

What Windhoek lacks in splendor it makes up for in tire service stations. For the first time in weeks, we find a shop that carries our tire size, and we swap out the pitiful, dusty blowout we've been carrying along since Aus for a brand new Dunlop. While the crew gets to work—it's free parking, so I encourage them to take their time—we head down the street for lunch, the first fresh food we've had since arriving in Etosha a week prior. We order fruit juices and avocado toast and veggies, later look around the nearby craft stalls, and while Lauren picks up a few things, I wander off in search a place to print some passport photos.

The appointment at the embassy to replace my stolen passport is tomorrow morning—that's why we're in Windhoek, after all—and I need those little two-by-two photographs urgently. I've been unable to find a photo booth or accommodating post office in all of northern Namibia, but here in the capital I'm hopeful I'll have better luck. I ask a few folks on the street and they point me in the direction of a large shopping mall; I enter the mall, and I'm pointed to a tiny glass room with some DHL signage inside.

There's a Kodak machine, which is promising, and a woman behind the counter—doubly so—but also five or six or seven other customers cramming into the tight space, all clambering and clamoring over each other to have something sent, laminated, printed, faxed. I wait patiently and am gradually pushed forward by the small crowd, and eventually I ask if the woman if they print passport photographs and she says yes, and relief washes over.

It's quickly replaced by less pleasant emotions: impatience, mostly. The Kodak machine has, by now, been commandeered by a teenage girl with a large cell phone and a small, pouting face, and she's uploading about a hundred photos over Bluetooth, and this takes a while. As I watch them upload, I come to realize that these aren't just photos—they're those dreaded selfies everyone's been taking—and the next hour of my life washes away to the tick-tick-ticking of three-by-five self-portraits dropping from the Kodak printer into a collection tray, each photo immediately snatched up by its owner and examined closely and vainly.

An hour later, my time finally comes. The woman behind the counter pulls out a camera and snaps a few shots of me in front of a white wall, and I'm hardly smiling at this point, but I take one look and say they're good to print, twitching eye and all, and she prints them and she cuts them and she puts them in a little baggie and hands them to me, and I pay and rush out of the small glass room as quickly as possible. Embassy, I'm ready for you.

I pick up the car and pick up Lauren and we drive over to the closest thing to a campsite in Windhoek's noisy streets, the gated parking lot of a backpackers' hostel. We park, pop our tent, and play some cards, and when the winds pick up and the cards start flying, we walk up to another mall (all of Windhoek seems to be malls and the roads that lead to them), grab dinner, consider seeing a movie but don't find anything that interests us, and take a cab back to the hostel.

It's noisier than when we last left it. There's a pool around back—no more than ten meters from our cozy tent—and the pool is surrounded by raucous groups of travelers drinking and smoking and shouting at each other over the electropop blaring from the sound system. I don't blame them—after all, it's a hostel and it's only about 10PM and the dorm rooms, where everyone else will sleep, are certainly farther and soundproofier than our tent, But it is quite loud. My head hits the pillow and, though I feel like I'm sleeping in the middle of a nightclub, I have no trouble dozing off in just a few minutes. Lauren isn't so lucky, and tosses and turns and eventually gives up, and finally the music ceases a few hours later and we're left to sleep in peace—with the exception of a few boisterous, late-night drunkards returning to the hostel in the wee hours of the morning—in our cozy little tent.

We wake early and leave the hostel and drive across town to the American embassy. I slide my driver's license underneath the glass of the security booth as the only identification I have, and it's enough to get us in to the small, DMV-esque waiting room on the other side. I'm called to the front and chat with a friendly bureaucrat behind the counter, and she passes a few forms for me to fill out, and when I bring them back, asks for my photographs. I slide the baggie over.

She picks them up, examines them, frowns. "Uh oh," she says, "these aren't the right size!" I take a look and she's right—of course she's right—they're not even square, let alone large enough to meet the two-by-two specifications. I explain I had totally asked for passport photographs, and she sympathetically informs me that I had to specify United States passport photographs—most African countries use smaller, narrower dimensions. The hour spent in the little glass hell the day before was all for nothing. She accepts my forms and slips me a business card to a nearby photo shop where I can get some proper photographs taken. Lauren and I wander out of the embassy and find the hidden shop and fifteen minutes later we're back with a different baggie of different photographs, four glossy little mugshots sized to the perfect dimensions.

She takes them and the $130 in cash that a replacement passport will cost, and tells us that Wednesday is visa day, meaning that she won't get to the passport until the afternoon. Apparently granting visas to the States is a higher priority than getting stranded Americans back to the States, and it's a minor inconvenience because we were planning to flee Windhoek right after the appointment, but in the grand scheme of things it isn't any great tragedy. We agree to return to the embassy at four and head out into Windhoek's sweltering streets yet again.

***

There's a little boy in green pants and a red bowtie with a great nest of tousled golden hair inked into my left forearm, a simple illustration of Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry's 1943 The Little Prince. It's a children's-book-actually-for-adults that you've maybe read in high school, a beautiful story about a little prince that leaves his tiny asteroid home and travels the solar system only to find it's been overrun by grown-ups who have long since forgotten the secret and simplicity of youth. It's one of my favorite works—hence the tattoo, I suppose—and a few years back I'd heard rumors of a new film adaptation of the story. The rumors were true and the film was made but its American release has been stalled by distribution disagreements and other grown-up matters of consequence, but not so in Africa: indeed, it was screening at the theater we'd chance by the night before, but we'd missed the last showing for the day.

So with a morning and afternoon to spend in Windhoek, we take off for the cool shade of the dark cinema, buying our tickets and choosing seats in the otherwise empty theater. The film starts and the film plays and the film ends, and it's a lovely homage to the book—about as good as one can expect. "Growing old isn't the problem," the Aviator famously says toward the film's end, "it's forgetting," and I'm reminded of all the grey suits and the sullen faces back home, the businessmen and the vain men and the kings and the lamplighters, who have forgotten what it is to be young, to prize adventure over stability and money over memories, who aspire to be grown-ups, to be respected in polite society, to sell their soul to the highest-bidding employer and call it a good deal. I shudder at the thought.

I'd always hoped I wouldn't forget, but I went ahead and had the little prince permanently painted onto my skin just to be sure: ever looking up in curiosity, wonder, maybe a little judgment. And here we are, on the other side of the world on a Wednesday morning, and I don't think he'd be all too disappointed.

"Grown-ups are quite certainly extraordinary," the little prince says, and I can't help but agree as we walk back over to the embassy to pick up my replacement stickerbook. I'm handed the little booklet on which meaningless stickers will be stuck and stamps will be stamped, and in truth it looks like a terrible fabrication of the official document—misaligned pages, distorted photos, missing seals and fraying lamination and crooked headings—but is the real thing any less silly? Besides, it's not intended to be a proper replacement anyway. It only contains about four pages, just enough to get me home, so once returning to DC I'll need to apply for another passport and go through the whole charade one more time.

Whatever. For now, we're free to leave; it's late and we have just a few days to make it back to Cape Town, a journey that took us weeks on the way up. We stop at a petrol pump and I rush inside to buy some water and when I return to the vehicle a moment later, it's pouring without a dark cloud in the sky. You can't really call it a sunshower because it's nothing of the sort; it's a sunstorm, a veritable downpour soaking the unsuspecting passerby on the street. I hop into the car and we take off, and just as quickly as it started it stops again.

We're left with crisp air and blue skies and lush shrubs drinking in the raindrops as we exit Windhoek, and within a few kilometers the flat city gives way to heaving green mountains and cleaved chasms and road signs warning us to watch for warthogs, for kudu, for springbok. We drive for hours on straight, tarred lines, ever bearing down upon an ominous anvil of a raincloud in the distance. We hit winds and, not long after, quick spurts of that pouring rain from earlier, and there's lightning and a touch of thunder and the impending night of a sun's retreat, and after sixteen straight days of wonderful camping, Lauren and I reluctantly agree to seek a sturdier roof for the night.

It's slim pickings here in central Namibia, with just a few lovely—but fully occupied—bed-and-breakfasts in several hundred kilometers. Night falls, and it's lonely on the unlit B1. I flick off our headlights for the slightest of moments and we're enveloped in darkness so absolute that I can't see the steering wheel in front of me. I'm eager to be off the road. Nighttime in Namibia is when most traffic fatalities occur, what with the drunk drivers and the nocturnal wildlife and the long-haul truckers hurtling by on more than their fair share of the road. But it's not until we reach Keetmanshoop around 10PM that we finally find an available roof, and though it's not much (not even our first choice in town, with a mattress hardly wider than our tent's), we find sleep easily.

***

It's a sad morning when we wake: our very last in Namibia. After blissful weeks wandering about beautiful country, we're just hours from the southern border now, and we don't know how many years or decades it might be before we find ourselves back in this terrific corner of the world. It's an adventure we don't want to end, but Cape Town and the wider world beckon to us, and we're finally close enough to hear the calling.

We drive for hours: past Fish River Canyon, across the border, into South Africa and down past Spingbok and farther south still, and we make camp a little before sunset in a cozy—and otherwise empty—campsite managed by a friendly older couple from the other end of the cape. We say hello to the wife and are shown around the compound by the husband, and as we walk he talks about the campground and he talks about his family and he talks about his town and he talks about his life and he talks about a lot of things without ever asking us much of anything—and in the rare chance one of us does get a word in, he pauses, tilts his head to pardon the interruption, and continues on wherever he was headed.

The air grows cool and I make some excuse about having to go on and pitch our tent, which I guess isn't so much an excuse as the truth, and we bid our vain host goodnight, make our very last truck-side meal, and take our very last sleep in our truck-top tent under these big African skies.

Plains Zebra (Equus quagga); Etosha National Park, Namibia; January 2016.

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