Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Hiking Chronicles

As I struggle with putting into words how unbelievable it is that my last day of work is next Friday, and as I have not yet written about my final holiday here, I'll post something that I wrote a while back after my COS conference!

This is going to be a CRAZY long post, apologies in advance! The following is a summary of my two years in African transport…

As I celebrate the fact that as of my return two days ago to Luderitz, I will officially never have to hitch-hike again, I thought it would be an appropriate time to post about PC Nam’s methods in transportation. When people want to go somewhere in Namibia, there are three options that you have – first, find someone you know who is going there and will give you a ride in their private car [this almost never happens]. Second, take a combi – which is a minibus. Odds are if you go this route you will leave 2 hours later than the driver says, you will be squished, hot, and not entirely comfortable with the smells of 13 + other people you are riding with, and if you are me, 1 out of 3 times you ride in one at least one thing in the combi will break down, further delaying the trip. The third option is hitch-hiking, or as we call it, hiking. To the majority of readers of this blog, that probably sounds like the craziest option, but here it is actually the most preferable. I will never forget the first night in Namibia when the Volunteer Leaders were talking to us about hiking, and my group was terrified of having to travel this way, while we listened to these three experienced people talk about their craziest hiking experiences [one was in a funeral hearse, as in sitting next to a coffin with a body in it, nothing will beat that].

Anyway, it turns out Peace Corps Namibia has one of the highest rates of hitch-hiking in terms of the rest of the Peace Corps community, and when the African Regional Security Director came to visit, it was something he wanted to directly address. He was not a fan of the fact that this is how we travel. Peace Corps Namibia of course recognized that we traveled this way, but they did not condone it. After the visit from the regional security director a few changes came into place that I think were for the best. From now on, if we are hiking, we are supposed to sms the Duty Officer where we are going, who we are with, and the license plate/description of the car we are in – with the promise that we would not get in trouble. We are also very strictly prohibited from taking rides in the backs of open bakkies [pick-up trucks]. At the beginning of my service, this type of ride was even desirable because it’d be a little cooler/a lot breezier/generally more spacious. However, this past December holiday when I was traveling to my friend’s out-of-the-way village, sitting in an open bakkie with two other friends, we stopped for our driver to help out at a pretty horrific accident involving an overturned open bakkie and a man with a metal pole sticking out of his eye [also there were two police cars with officers literally just standing around staring instead of taking the seriously injured people to the hospital, which was only 15k away, what in the world!!!!]. After this experience, I came to several conclusions, one of which was deciding never to travel in an open bakkie again.
That time in December 2011, when 11 people tried to hike to Luderitz... and failed. #heatstrokeistheworst 

Anyway, I think the changes in Peace Corps policy in this regard are really for the better, in that they are acknowledging the way we travel and hopefully finding alternatives in the long run. For me at least, I don’t particularly enjoy standing on the side of the road waving my hand for people to take pity on me. But it is a much cheaper, more comfortable, and better - at least in my experience - way to travel. I also do not hike from Luderitz to Keetmanshoop [the next biggest town] and vice versa. That first or last stretch of my travels is different for a couple of reasons. First off, Luderitz isn’t on the way to anywhere except the ocean – you generally have to pay to get in or out, even if it is a hike. Secondly, I don’t like hiking that stretch because there is literally NOTHING on that road for hundreds of kilometers except the desert, and for 100 kilometers or so there is no cell service, so if something bad happened with the person driving me I really would be in very serious trouble.

Getting to the fun stuff, once you get past the strangeness of hiking, it’s actually overall a great experience in the kindness of strangers. The fact is, most times when people pull over to help us out with a lift, they are doing so because they feel sorry for us. Generally they are really nice people, and often it isn’t just the ride that they give us. Without rambling on anymore, I’m going to list the top experiences:

Best Hikes
-From Windhoek to Swakopmund for the 2012 marathon. We got a ride with this really nice guy who worked with mining in some way. He bought the three of us cooldrinks and could not stop talking about his new wife, who he was obsessed with [it was adorable]. Also at the end of the hike he gave us each a gemstone, and his number in case we wanted to meet up or stay at his house later on in Swakop! So awesome!
-From Windhoek to Rundu [this is 700 kilometers!!!! Incredibly lucky!] Nice German guy who stopped in Otjiwarango to buy us lunch, then got us cooldrink in the next town. Played the same loop of weird Afrikaans music the whole ride, but his car was so nice and air-conditioned, and he was the sweetest old man!
-From Otjiwarango to Windhoek when we were in this amazing car with a Namibian guy and his mom!! Seriously the gages were in miles per hour, there were movie screens in the back of the seats, and it was an automatic – he said it was 1.2 million Nam dollars! He picked up two of the four of us waiting for a hike, then after driving maybe 100 meters he felt bad about the other two so we turned around and got them as well. He took us directly to the hike point south from Windhoek, and even tried to give us money when we got out!
-Most rides that gave us food/drink could make it in here. From Swakopmund to Windhoek we were once given 70 dollars worth of biltong – we finished that off pretty fast. From Okahandja to Windhoek once our ride gave us some of his homemade droerwors, it was also really good. Now that I think about it, there have been a bunch of times we’ve been given biltong, it’s the travel food of this country! Who doesn’t love game jerky?! Chili bites, yum.

Weirdest Hikes
-From Tsumeb to Omuthiya, three of us were crammed into the back of a closed bakkie with four other Namibians and what seemed like ALL their belongings. One of the ladies was speaking in a nonstop stream to us, but it was impossible to understand because half of what she was saying was in Oshiwambo, which none of us spoke. She became obsessed with Mo, to the point that Mo pretended to be asleep all while she started shouting MAUREEN, MAUREEN, I will come visit you in your village!!!! When the bakkie pulled over to stop for a few minutes we made a run for it to find another hike while the crazy lady went to the bathroom
-From Luderitz to Keetmans with two other people, in the back of a police/prison car, pretty sure it was in the space for prisoners [the hike point in Luderitz is right next to the prison]. It was actually pretty nice, we had a table in between the benches we were sitting on.

Worst Hikes:
-From Otjiwarango to Windhoek, a bunch of us were in a really big van with this Afrikaner lady who would not stop with her racist rants. The words that came out of her mouth describing the people in this country were heinous. So glad I wasn’t in the front seat having to respond to her.
-From Otjiwarango to Windhoek [different time], this time I was in the front seat with a racist Afrikaner ranting and asking me how could I possibly teach those little black children. These were not the only times I had rides with racist ranters either, but those were always the most unpleasant rides.
-From Rehoboth to Keetmanshoop, in the back of a mail carrier truck. This probably fits into the top 5 scariest experiences I’ve had here, I don’t think we realized what we were doing until it was too late, but we were getting desperate for a lift. We hopped into the back of this truck without realizing that it was pitch black, there were four other Namibians crammed into this small space, and I thought I was going to suffocate. The driver pulled off the rubber sealer on the door so that we would get an air-flow. It was stifling hot and not nice.
-Any hikes with the following: a lorrie [truck], both times I’ve done this the drivers have been creepy and they also go really really slow; with people drinking and driving, again did this two times, didn’t realize they were drinking until we were already on the way, luckily there aren’t many cars on the road in the south to hit…

In Sum,
if you are still reading this somehow [you must be really bored at work today!]:

 Get to talk to some really friendly and interesting people. Sometimes great conversations, solid human interaction, point of peace corps
 If people don’t want to talk, generally you get to listen to some quality namjams
 Often in much more comfortable private vehicles.
 Generally don’t have to pay, or pay much less than the public transportation rate
 You never know what kind of person is picking you up. They could be unsafe. Driver could be drinking and driving. Occasionally you have to listen to racist Afrikaners.
 Not as reliable – you could end up not getting a ride/stuck somewhere

 You will get to where you need to go… eventually
 Your personal space is more than likely to be invaded
 Odds are high the combi will break down at some point
 You are guaranteed to be late to your destination
 It will be hot
 Safety standards are almost always lower than required [what are safety belts?!?!]
 Way more expensive than they should be, given the quality of the transportation
Your ears will hurt a lot from the music being blasted at inhuman levels

I can’t wait to not deal with this madness ever again!!!!

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