Every light at Namibia’s Hosea Kutako International airport clicked off simultaneously at 9:00p.m, leaving us waiting for our rental car in a pitch black, blinding rainstorm. We had no luggage, our bags lost somewhere in Johannesburg. After flight delays turned a five-hour trip into ten, only forty-five kilometers separated us from our motel room in Namibia’s capital city of Windhoek.
“Drive slowly,” said the rental agent as we piled in to a compact, well used Nissan. “Too much rain has made the potholes very bad.” But we never saw a pothole–only huge, invisible-until-the-last-moment sinkholes that we dodged like landmines. Dark, smudged shapes on the roadside turned out to be people, trudging along like zombies from “Night Of The Living Dead”. Finally, we reached our port in the storm–a twelve by twelve motel room with one double bed and a twin mattress on the floor for the kids. Our view was of a red cinderblock wall but we were so tired, a jail cell would have been fine.
Only two million people live in Namibia, which means you can travel hundreds of kilometers without seeing anyone. What we expected to be a four-hour drive to Sossusvlei, gateway to the famed Namib Desert, began on a paved road that turned to dirt a few kilometers outside Windhoek. The rain had gutted the road and we crawled along, praying we wouldn’t break an axle, or floored it through dozens of small rivers, praying we wouldn’t get stuck. For more than six hours, platinum-tipped grassland, white-faced Oryx with sword like horns, wart hogs, springbok and an occasional tortoise were our only company. We had no food and passed no gas station, mini-mart, restaurant, outpost, or outhouse.
Namibia’s desolate, dangerous beauty made me yearn to take illegal drugs and floor the accelerator like a girly Hunter S. Thompson, consequences be damned. But two green eyed boys needed mom and dad to get them to Sossusvlei safely, so I settled with opening up to the melancholy landscape–black hills jutting like the backs of sleeping dragons and crooked, useless telephone poles that had long since lost their wires. I was feeling about that disconnected. After almost eight weeks of hard travel, dragging two kids, three backpacks, four suitcases, and one camera bag through a procession of trains, planes, buses, taxis, rented rooms and rental cars, the strain was starting to show.
“Four people do not usually spend months on end together in four-hundred square feet,” Ethan said when I mentioned my melancholy. “That’s how they go crazy.” Yes, it was our choice to leave behind structure, normalcy, organization, and healthy separation from one another, but now we worried the combination might be the fast track to the asylum.
One of the most difficult consequences of the choice we’ve made is the estrangement from friends and family–those helpful mirrors we all use to judge what is normal. Without the council of loved ones, my creeping suspicion that Ado might have a learning disability took on a decidedly panicky feel. When we bumped past a white sign marking The Tropic Of Capricorn (one of the five major circles of latitude, also called the Southern Tropic), I was homeschooling the boys in the backseat. Griffin was reading and Adrian practicing his ABCs.
“What’s this?” I quizzed Ado, pointing to an “S”.
“A!” he said. I pointed to the letter “G”.
“Ummmm,” he said, stalling, “it’s a P!” I tell him it’s a “G” but ten seconds later, he guesses wrong again. His diabolically cute smile made me think he was just messing with me—so I asked him to count to ten.
“One, two, three, seven, eight, eleven, fourteen, forty one, forty two!” Shit! My baby has ADHD! Autism! Asperger’s! ABCDS (ABC Deficiency Syndrome)! I tried to calm down by remembering that this is a child who knows a springbok from an impala, says thank you in five languages, and will chow his way through most exotic foods.
“I want to twy the ostwich, zebwa, and owyx,” he declared at a buffet. He also insisted on trying a rubbery-looking dish called “creamy snails” and a Namibian oyster, pronouncing both “dee-licious!” Ado constructs sentences like “Please speak to me in a polite voice!” and “Mommy, when you die I will hold your hand.” He’s bright, endlessly energetic and heartbreakingly joyful—but I can’t help but wonder whether he’d be able to count to ten if only I’d kept him in preschool.
Thankfully, alcohol helps temper the stress inherent in adventure travel, family style. I stipulate it’s a slippery slope, but a drink can be a lifesaver. When we finally checked into our room on the edge of the Namib (a safari tent attached to a coral colored bunker surrounded by “James And The Giant Peach” sized bugs) I was so wound up by the day’s worry, whining, fighting, negotiating, homeschooling, and white knuckled driving I thought I might strip naked and run into the desert in a hysterical dash for alone time, mosquitos and giant armored corn crickets be damned. The first ice-cold Windhoek Lager dampened the instinct to scurry away. The second cast a romantic glow on our long expedition. A third would have meant a big, fat headache the next day so I stopped–but I didn’t want to.
That night in bed, kids in exhausted sleep and Ethan reading “The Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell in total stress-free oblivion, I lit a candle I’ve had since we started this journey. The wick is worn and the wax bears teeth marks from a baboon that grabbed it off an outdoor table and tried to eat it. But the familiar little flame soothed me, transforming the khaki tent into an “Out Of Africa” set. The air outside the mesh windows smelled earthy, spicy and sweet—a scent that belongs to Africa. I slowly read through email I had pulled down before leaving Windhoek—finding in the ones from friends a badly needed virtual connection.
“With all the moves, the financial uncertainty, and two teenagers, I’m going down the path of too much wine every night to find solace,” wrote my friend Deanna, who just sold her high-end home to get out of debt and is now struggling to down-size her family’s life. “We all agree that we would never want to do our teenage years over again, and yet I realized that as parents, we DO.”
Yes! That’s it! Sometimes I do feel sixteen again: the angst about the future, the hormonal temper tantrums, the bizarre biological changes of my body. The only difference now is that my adult responsibilities keep me from locking myself in my room to listen to “I’m Sailing Away” for hours on end in moody yearning for something I can’t identify. If Deanna, one of the most together, intuitive women I know, was also confused by the challenges marked by middle age, then maybe I’m not such a freak after all.
The sand dunes of the Namib have names like Dune 45 and Big Mama. They roll on in unique, ever changing formations a hundred kilometers to the sea. On a hot, blindingly blue morning, we hiked up the ridgeline of one saffron colored dune to look down into a dried up lake called Deadvlei. Deadvlei shimmered chalky white below, a mirage of beauty, its lifeless, twisted trees baked hard by the unrelenting sun. The kids and I joined hands on the razors edge of the dune and jumped off, running
down into Deadvlei, the boys tumbling and rolling in the steep, soft, forgiving sand. My spirits lifted—I was, after all, in Africa, with two children who at the moment seemed well adjusted and a handsome, only slightly grumpy husband. But we had just started the long hike out when the kids began begging to be carried. An uphill slog through fine sand with a forty pounder on your shoulders can drag you back down to earth fast, and for a moment I desperately missed the boring structure and temperature controlled climate of my old job.
And it seemed we were always slogging around in Namibia. Driving another three hundred kilometers through some of the bleakest territory I’ve ever covered (quite awesome actually in its bare, dirt-brown awfulness) we arrived in the beach town of Swakopmund. Swakopmund feels a little like Oxnard, California, with its housing tracts, mish-mash of architectural styles, and newish, boomtown feel. It was raining again, so we hit the Pick-N-Pay for tomato soup, yogurt, cucumbers and tomatoes and retired to our room for movie night. With the kids engrossed in “Alpha And Omega” Ethan and I began discussing where we should settle when this mad slog around the world ends.
“Where ever we settle down this fall, I’m looking forward to being settled,” Ethan said as we watched grey waves break on the grainy, grey beach outside our window.
“Well, it is unsettling not to know where we are going to settle, but settling to know that we’ll eventually settle somewhere,” I babbled, as I tend to do when faced with something I’d rather ignore. Ethan misses his hometown of Los Angeles but I get nervous just thinking about going back. I tried to explain that going back now would be kind of like running into my fool of an ex-husband in a bar–even though I wanted nothing to do with him anymore, it would be wildly uncomfortable. And what would I say if I ran into my ex-TV-husband Kent?
“I’m in the middle of an emotional divorce from a long term career I used to really love,” I babbled further, obviously not yet totally at peace with the split. “And right now, I think I need to stay away.” I also mentioned that living in a big, expensive house in Toluca Lake when both of us are unemployed might not be the smartest move.
“I understand,” he responded, but his eyes showed he was not convinced.
“All this emotional stuff makes me queasy anyway,” I said, trying to change the subject.
“Yeah, it’s much better just to watch TV and drink beer,” Ethan agreed. “But since the TV is broken and we’re out of beer, we’re forced to talk to each other.”
“Well, thank God it doesn’t happen very often,” I said, laughing and grateful for the reprieve. We held hands without speaking for a while, both of us trying hard to come to a calm acceptance of where we are.
All this unsettling and psychological slogging was not Namibia’s fault—this magnificent country did her best. She showed us four cheetahs on the hunt, sleek, magnificent sisters chasing an impala dinner at full tilt across
the veld. The world’s fastest land animal is the only big cat that doesn’t have retractable claws and sadly they are dangerously close to extinction. She offered up ferocious crocodiles, eyes the color of yellow topaz and teeth frightening, effective works of art. Ado would have been a welcome Scooby Snack and I hoped that the thin, electrified wires separating us from these fat reptiles worked. And on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, named for its many shipwrecks, we built a sandcastle in the shadow of a fishing trawler splayed on a sandbar, slowly rotting in the endless pounding waves.
But my stars were decidedly crossed. At the Cape Cross Seal Colony, a rocky, windy outcropping that a quarter of a million seals call home, I dropped my sunglasses off a raised wooden walkway into the sand. There lay my Oliver Peoples–my Christmas present and only eye protection–six inches from Sammy The Seal’s snout.
“You do know a seal bite will cost you a lot more than a new pair of sunglasses,” Ethan said, trying not to laugh as he watched me formulate a rescue plan. With vivid memories of the hippo charge in mind, I swung over the railing and lowered myself toward the sand. The seal looked up at me and bared sharp pointed teeth. But the glasses were only an arm’s length away, so I bared mine right back and barked like a Rottweiler. The seal’s marble-like brown eyes looked confused, and then it backed away on rubbery flippers and fumbled toward the beach. Two seconds later, I had my glasses back, but it took a long, hot shower to wash away the smell of seal shit that clung to our hair, clothes and skin like Pig Pen’s pencil-sketched cloud.
With 1800 kilometers under our belts, we made it back to Windhoek the same way we left, bumping down a raggedy dirt road with gullies so deep they knocked our front license plate off. Giraffes nibbled in the treetops, a warthog family trotted across the road, and the ever-present baboons watched our progress from the top of termite mounds, lazily popping grubs into their mouths. All of a sudden, Ethan put on the brakes.
“Should we give that woman a ride?” he asked. I lifted my head from Griffin’s homeschooling lesson to see a young woman walking toward the car. We had not seen another car on this road, much less a person, and she seemed exhausted as she climbed into the passenger seat. Her name was Yolandi Claudine. At twenty-three, she was beautiful in a sad kind of way, with only a fleeting smile and wary eyes. She was headed for Okahandja, about seventy kilometers away.
“Have you been waiting long for a ride?” I asked her.
“Since 8a.m.,” she said. It was almost 11:30. “I’ve been out at a farm for two days, waiting to get work.”
“Did you get it?” asked Ethan.
“No,” she answered.
Yolandi lives with her aunt and 16 month-old son Rodney. Her baby’s father was killed one night hitchhiking to Swakopmond to work in a uranium mine, left to die by a hit and run driver. Yolandi was carrying a liter-sized Coke bottle filled with water and a plastic jug full of milk, given to her by the farm workers. When I offered her Cheddar Bites and yogurt, I thought she might cry.
“You must miss your son,” I said from the back seat, flanked by my own lucky little boys.
“Yes, ma’am, I do,” she said, “Too much.”
We dropped Yolandi off at her aunt’s house, a small, neat green box on the side of a dirt road. A hand-lettered cardboard sign stuck to the chain link fence said “Te Koop” (“for sale” in Afrikaans), and listed prices for spices, pork, and fudge. Ethan gave Yolandi the Namibian dollars we had left and Yolandi gave me her P.O. box number—though I’m not sure why I asked for it. And then we slowly drove off toward Windhoek and our flight out of Namibia. When I turned to watch Yolandi disappear, she was holding her son and helping him wave goodbye with one brown, perfect little hand. After ten days of both emotional and physical slogging, it made us happy to help someone, instead of just worrying about ourselves.