Thursday, December 20, 2012

Namibian Road Trip!

I loved Namibian mornings.  Compared to most capital cities, mornings in Windhoek dawn quietly - there's not much traffic to crowd the streets, and the colors of the sunset slowly moved across the cityscape as if God were pulling back a blanket.  Our hotel was across the street from the Namibian Supreme Court, so it became the morning landmark I gazed at to watch the progress of the sun.  Well okay, "gazed" might be a little generous...mostly, I squinted sleepily out the window and then got tea as quickly as possible from the spot downstairs that quickly became my favorite coffeeshop/home decorating store on earth.
You think I'm kidding about the greatness of this place, but I'm not.  Even their milk pitcher promised great things!
Our next morning in Namibia didn't allow much time for watching sunrises or sipping cappuccinos, however - it was road trip time!  The trip from Windhoek (in the middle of Namibia) to Swakopmund (on the coast) was about five hours and I was determined not to sleep for a moment - this was the only real wildlife-watching opportunity we'd get!
One of the countless dirt roads stretching into the Namibian wilderness.
The thing no one tells you about Africa is that it's not easy to see the animals.  On PBS it seems they're everywhere - I've never even noticed African foliage because the only thing you see are the cats, elephants and giraffes.  In real life, you've moved past the animals before your brain even registers their presence.  I'm sure it's different in a safari jeep than it was in our van rushing along a highway but the principle seems similar: the trees, brush and colors designed to blend with the natural wildlife?  Yeah, it actually blends with the wildlife.  My contact lenses repeatedly dried into crunchy plastic on my eyes as I stared at the landscape so hard I forgot to blink.  Face pressed to the glass, camera ready, eyes alert...and thankfully, it was not wasted effort.  The camera part was wasted effort, though - all I got was this blurry photo of a warthog.
I finally gave up on photography and just enjoyed seeing the animals for myself.  Babboons, warthogs, lots of springbok and other antelope-like creatures...I got to send them my split-second greetings as we flew past.  My travel pals had a giraffe sighting but I missed it.  And really, wouldn't you?!
Eternal gratitude goes to Ardy, who managed to take this photo AND added the red arrow.  Without it I'd never even be able to pretend I could see the giraffe.
These coveted animal sightings were infrequent during the long drive, but watching Namibia sail by was very entertaining anyway.  The landscape looked so much like Arizona, it gave me an odd sensation that somehow I was traveling in time and had arrived at home.  Plus, there were lots of less popular wildlife sightings, like these interesting nest-like baskets that hung from many of the trees:
On the left of this photograph, hanging from a branch...many trees had so many of these that I lost count.

And then there was my personal favorite, the termite towers.  Absolutely phenomenal from a scientific and/or architectural perspective but the thought of it will make your skin crawl!

Like most other countries, Namibia's empty spaces were dotted with glimpses of civilization.  We stopped at a couple but mostly we just glimpsed these small communities through the window.  None of them reflected the African tribal culture I'd seen portrayed in documentaries about the nation; each of these roadside societies shared the heavily German vibe we'd seen in Windhoek.

I didn't know it then, but the transition from trees and bushes to this desolate desert meant the ocean was near.

Unfortunately, we hadn't left the townships behind in the big city - overcrowded, underprivileged areas surrounded Swakopmund, as well.  Colorful laundry hung from crumbling plywood shacks made semi-waterproof only by black plastic tarps.  Mothers walked with small children in dusty streets, and men lounged in doorways of makeshift businesses.  It was bitingly cold, with wind that embraced you with chilling discomfort as soon as you stepped outdoors.

After the reality of the township, the perfection of our hotel seemed inappropriate and even distasteful.  I was in no way ungrateful for the lovely accommodation and loved every moment we spent there, but was thankful the simple and comfortable rooms did not live up to the exterior's grandeur.
Swakopmund (pronounced Swa-KOPE-mund) was founded in 1892 and is home to approximately 42,000 people.  Those Germans didn't show a lot of creativity in their naming process - the name simply means "mouth of the Swakop," since the Swakop River runs into the sea there.  This Arizona girl has a hard time processing the fact, but it's true: this ocean town is in the Namib Desert.
We didn't get to see much of the town but from what we did see, it felt like a very small town.  If you like German food, it could be a great vacation spot: Beach? Check.  Sand Dunes? Check.  Well-kept, lovely community? Check.
We had only been in Swakopmund for less than an hour but we were already scheduled to leave for a discussion panel. We rebelled just a tiny bit, squeezing in a lunch break at this amazing restaurant on the Swakopmund Jetty before the 45-minute drive to our meeting. 
 Because nothing says "I'm in a beachfront vacation town" like a business suit and heels!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mission Accomplished!

Thank you to everyone who helped raise money for's new wells in Haiti!  They reached the $100,000 goal before their I hope you win some of the cool prizes. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Better Than A Letter from Santa

It's the end of a long day in an even longer week, but by force of habit I checked my mail before collapsing on the couch.  And wow, am I glad I did - look what was waiting for me!
It's the postcard that I sent myself from Havana more than four months ago!  I'd mailed it as an experiment since I knew mail service was unpredictable - it's only 90 miles between the U.S. and Cuba, but that distance is filled with decades of resentment and accusations.  Both countries have used mail service as a way to punish each other for political or security actions taken.  Seriously, the more I learn about the embargo the more I'm convinced it's exactly like two small children holding their breath until they get exactly what they want.
But in spite of all that, there it was - this amazing piece of paper waiting patiently in my mailbox.  I'd really love to know its story.  Did it just sit somewhere for all this time, or was it shipped around without logic?  There's no hint on the card itself - not even a postmark on the stamp, just a piece of heavy paper slightly worse for the wear with this message from July Beth to December Beth:
If you know me, you won't be surprised to learn that I hugged that postcard.  Thank you to the postal services, boats, planes and fickle political dynamics that allowed this to come find me again.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Another Day in Namibia: Kaffee, Red Paint and the University of Arizona

We all needed to mentally transition out of the hospital experience into the much-anticipated grip-and-grin opportunities that would fill the rest of our day, so we squezed in a quick trip for a cup of coffee and a conversation about Cuban cigars at the amazing store/coffee shop in the mall downstairs from our hotel.  It was then that I learned a very valuable lesson from Laura: even small acts of generosity help you feel less overwhelmed by the gross injustices of the world.  (Thanks for the tea, Laura!)
Coffees in hand, we waited for our van driver Ulf.  Another lesson learned that afternoon: in Namibia, there's "now" and "now NOW."  Once we called Ulf to tell him that "now" had quickly become "now NOW" (our next meeting was in 10 minutes), he quickly reappeared and we headed toward the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 
The Ministry has the status, if not the history, of the U.S.'s Department of State, and we were privileged to meet with the Deputy Minister for the Americas.  Niklaas Kandji was charming and eloquent, and became even more interesting when I learned he had just returned from serving as Namibia's ambassador to Cuba for three years.  Our meeting wasn't long enough but he walked us out to the van so I got to get his thoughts on Cuba's economic reforms.  He is more optimistic about the pace of change than I am, but still, it was amazing to find a kindred spirit in a foreign land.  (Not that this was unusual.  I saw more than one Cuba t-shirt on Namibians - evidence of the nations' shared history, and of their ability to travel to Cuba without government permission.)
Another van ride and whirlwind trip around Windhoek and we arrived at one of the loveliest restaurants I've ever seen...fittingly named "Nice."  Namibia's numerous minority political parties were happy to meet with listening ears, especially since we offered to buy them lunch.  I'll admit that I went into the meeting with a little skepticism about the diversity in political parties, and I felt even more that way afterwards.  The parties are based on personalities and the complicated, competitive nature of politics.  South Africa had clear policy differences between the ANC and the DA - differences that could be defined and marketed - but Namibia's parties are seemingly based on disappointments and relationships.  Parties were too often formed by leaders who did not achieve the high leadership positions they thought they deserved in SWAPO, so they were based on a history rather than a policy.  No one could ever articulate a real policy difference between their party and SWAPO...though to be fair, we didn't have much time to discuss it with them, and they really were nice people.  I was especially impressed with Libolly Haufiku, a former leader of the Rally for Democratic Progress Party and even more formerly a leader in SWAPO when Namibia was establishing its independence.  He has traveled and lived all over the world (including Cuba!), and is the kind of person who could provide interesting commentary for days.
Yes, I'm short.
You know those pictures people take at lunch meetings, where everyone is in various stages of akwardly eating or talking?  I got too many of those at lunch, so I'll share this one instead:
Yes, those are pots and pans they're holding above their heads.

The restaurant was full of these uniqe scenes, the result of a photo shoot in the Namibian desert with the chefs.  It was the most joyful, creative way I'd ever seen of portraying both national beauty and a restaurant's impressive combination of culinary skills.  I loved every one of them.

We moved from politics to scholastics after lunch with a visit to the Polytechnic of Namibia, a respected institution that focuses on the use of technology to manage knowledge and globalization.  It was a beautiful campus, with that optimistic vibe that always makes me want to get a new notebook and dream up big ideas or cram for a big test.  This trip did not provide the burden/opportunity of playing unnoticed student, however - we were whisked across campus and into the private office of the university's rector, Professor Tjama Tjivikua. The room was one of my favorite spaces I've ever seen, with the sloped ceilings that come with upper-story rooms tucked into corners.  Maybe I just like them because tall people have to bend over to walk near the walls - it's like short people's revenge for all the times we got stuck in the back of photo opps (see above) or have to stand on chairs to get things from shelves.

Professor Tjivikua made me feel like a celebrity when he walked in and immediately asked which of us was from Arizona.  He lived and worked in my home state for several years, in addition to time at many of America's prominent universities.  And no, I didn't tell him I went to ASU...especially after I saw this on his shelf of the most notable gifts he'd received in his career. Among them was a vase from Rwanda and a small photo of the U of A...that's a pretty impressively well-rounded collection.
The university's newspaper put an article about our visit on their front page - to read it, and other interesting Namibian news, check it out here.
The thrill of meeting with a prominent Namibian intellectual was balanced out when we got stood up by Namibia's ruling political party. Though I'd been looking forward to meeting members of SWAPO's Youth League and was saddened that our friends from the Embassy were disappointed by the cancellation, everyone in our group was somewhat grateful for the unexpected break.  I got a much-needed rare treat - a quick nap - and we got a moment to visit the street vendors across from our hotel before our evening event.  I couldn't work up the courage/rudeness to ask for a photograph of the traditionally-dressed woman I'd seen in the mall the day before, so I took this one from across the street.  I'm sure these striking women are used to photographs but after dodging their surprisingly pushy sales tactics and buying only one beaded bracelet, I was ready to quickly head across the street anyway.  The bracelet, which they eagerly tied onto my wrist without permission, left my arm covered in the red paint.  The red tone made their skin appear smooth and ageless but it was undeniably garish on my own.  I wiped it off before we headed back into the van.

I could relax during the night's event since Laura and Michael were our designated speakers on grassroots mobilization in American politics, so I designated myself as our photographer.  I began by admiring the photography of others - these black and white photographs captured beautiful moments in an average Namibian day.  Laundry, walks, hard work...and each was taken by one of Esme's girls in the King's Daughters program.  A volunteer who was in Namibia on either a Fulbright or with the Peace Corps, I can't remember, was a trained photographer and she gave the women disposable cameras and photography lessons then arranged for the display in the American Corner at the Institute's library.
You know those moments before a work event in America, when you've moved past small talk and still have some time until you need to focus?  We always, always turn to something of perceived importance on our phones.  Turns out, the same thing happens in Namibia! 
Imagine that you were giving a presentation at work and the President of Harvard and high-level State Department official just popped in to hear it.  That's basically what this was...these amazing men not only took time out of their day, but showed up to spend a Friday evening with us as well.
I was so proud to be included in the scheduled presentation, though I didn't expect many people to show up.  The last thing most college students in America would do is listen to people talk about politics for an hour on a Friday night, but in Windhoek that's exactly what they did.  They kept coming in until it was standing room only and the security guards were adding more chairs to the back rows.  They asked questions, some sincere and some critical but all legitimate.  None of us ever did find a way to answer one question we always got: "how can America spend so much on elections when the money could help fix real problems?"  It seems our democracy still has some things to learn too, Namibian friends.
The presentations were followed by a reception in the library.  I formed new friendships but mostly just wandered through the room to catch others' conversations.  I'd made it through a long, eventful day as Group Leader without any major missteps, but my brain was exhausted and my stomach was reminding me that crackers and cheese do not a dinner make.  As the students, professors and dignitaries who had joined us wandered off to start our weekend, my travel pals Niya and Laura joined me in a quest for another great Namibian meal.  We found the perfect place with a tree-covered patio to enjoy the perfect evening, but were met at the door by a frowning waiter who informed us they were closing.  Since the sign stated they were open for another three hours we thought we'd encountered our first anti-foreigner sentiment from Namibia's capital city.  We'll never be sure why they decided not to welcome us but since the men in our group got the same treatment half an hour later at least we could rule out sheer male chauvinism - something that we dealt with every day in countless ways on the trip through Africa. 
We found an even better haven in Gathemann, a quiet and dignified restaurant that was hidden upstairs at the end of a rather narrow and hidden stairway.  The lamp-lit walls and dainty decor made it feel as if we were eating in someone's grandmother's formal dining room - it was a welcome change of pace and we ate like queens for a sum so low I almost felt guilty.  This was one of the few times in my life that I have been too tired to even consider ice cream, but with an ostrich steak for dinner there was no need for another course before my overworked brain got a good night of rest in my temporary Windhoek home.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Win Stuff and Make A Difference: Passports with Purpose

There's another update on my Africa trip coming this weekend, but first I wanted to tell you about an amazing opportunity to win great prizes and change the lives of people in Haiti.  Passports with Purpose works with travel bloggers around the world each year to raise money for charity.  It's not one of those "donate to help everyone" things - though those programs do wonderful work, I like Passports with Purpose's choice to focus on a specific thing we can all feel good about when it's accomplished.  This year, they're raising $100,000 so can build two much-needed wells in Haiti.
We talk about water shortages in Arizona but the fact is we have no idea what true shortages are.  It's mind-boggling to consider the lengths many people in the world go to in order to have just enough to drink, much less for showers and lawns.
The goal is noble and the process is fun: you get to enter to win from a huge list of prizes, and each entry means a donation of $10 to the program.  Click here for the rather jaw-dropping list of prizes (a week in Provence, anyone?).   
There's an awesome globe photo on the left side of the blog that will take you to Passports with Purpose at any time.  I'd also urge you to "like" their Facebook page, and check back to watch this fundraising number grow as you join me in helping made a difference for Haitians.