Sunday, September 25, 2011

erongo: omandumba, part 1

We left for our weekend road trip an hour late, which actually was exactly what I expected. We’d been out late the night before, drinking at Afrikaner bars in Klein Windhoek, which was a lot of Camelthorn beers and fun, but seemed less of a great idea the next morning when I woke up and remembered that there was no Tylenol in my apartment. As it stood, Eliza was the only person ready to go at the time we’d agreed on, but an hour later, we were out in our rented car and heading out to the wilderness of Erongo.

Eliza patiently waits on my porch for Dean to get his act together.

Even though he was nursing a big headache, Dean was driving because as the Brit he’s the only one used to driving on the left side of the road. As a driver harbouring a not-very-well-hidden festive side, he insisted on (his words) “really gay cheesy road trip music”, which seems to involve a lot of disco beats and saxophone solos and nothing I recognized, mainly because i am the opposite of a gay man. Eliza patiently put up with us all.

As we kept driving deeper into the desert, it just got hotter and hotter. In time we questioned our wisdom in going into the desert wilderness without packing water. We drove past a wild bush fire that was swallowing everything up and leaving a black wasteland behind. Nobody seemed to care. I think this happens pretty often here in Namibia. The big flames made me thirstier. And hungry. Speaking of hungry: I thought about how I hadn’t seen any animals so far – certainly none of the grumpy elephants on the road my guide books had warned me about. We passed termite mounds. Goatherds. Incredibly massive nests belonging to social weaver birds, so big that the trees sagged under the nests’ weights. Cows! I remembered I was still hungry.

I picked up a cheese and biltong on a Brötchen in Okhandja.

mmmm biltong

I fell asleep listening to Dean singing along to S Club 7 at the top of his lungs.

When I woke up again, there was a cop at the side of the road pulling us over for speeding. Eliza suggested we keep driving anyway. By the way, never take legal advice from Eliza. Dean manned up, got out of the car, and talked to the cop. I couldn’t see what they were saying. I tried to take a picture (because Asians love photos) of Dean and the cop standing in the tall grass of the desert plains under a hot sky in the middle of a vast nowhere, but the cop’s partner told me to put my camera away. I felt frustrated that the police partner did not appreciate the photographic beauty of the scene. We waited.

When Dean returned, it was incredibly unclear to all of us as to whether he had paid a fine or given the cop a bribe. Given that Dean handed over cash without a receipt for the cop to personally receive, I suspect the latter. Nevertheless, the lesson was learned: don’t speed in Namibia.

Dean's the man. mainly because the rest of us are females.

Eventually we arrived at our final destination: Omandumba, a farm deep in the middle of nowhere (“middle of nowhere” is also known as Erongo Park). You get there by driving forever on a sand road that is often crossed by dry river beds that flood during the rainy season. The land was dotted with barren hills and rocky terrains that strangely reminded me of my childhood stomping grounds in Highland, New York, possibly because of all the rocks and dirt, possibly because I really had no other comparator.

Our hosts anticipated our thirst from our long drive and served us this slightly sweet red-pink drink made from cactus plants, and Savannah cider, which I’ve concluded is the perfect alcohol to drink in the desert. Omandumba is a full farm – goats, cows, roosters, Daschund puppies, peacocks, dead skinned sheep hanging from a meat hook next to the kids’ trampoline – run by a German family that seems to have a wide array of German friends and visitors coming in and out of the house at any given time. Eliza, being German and fabulous, had some sort of personal connection to these folks and that was why we were there.

i do admit I found this sign to be needlessly unsettling.

The German family’s eight-year-old daughter, Anne, took an instant liking to me and the little girl showed me around her home. We got along incredibly well, not because I have a maternal instinct, but rather because I sometimes feel like an eight-year-old girl. She led me around the desert flowers, aloa vera plants, cacti, and kudu skulls in the family garden. She picked me some berries that we ate while sitting on the swing that she assured me was perfectly placed for watching the sun rise and set. She even showed me her baby pictures which seemed like perfectly normal photos of a cute baby, except this baby was playing with ostriches, chicks, and dead leopards. What a life it must be to grow up on a Namibian farm.

Anne took us to go see the San people, who lived a few kilometers around the farm. I have to admit that beforehand I felt conflicted about doing this. If you’ve seen the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, you’ll know that I’m referring to the Bushmen (whom I am calling the San people here, despite the debate about proper terminology, solely because the San person I met referred to himself as San). I’ve read extensively about the San people, a fascinating indigenous people of the Southern African deserts who were ingeniously resourceful in living off the land and were known for their peaceful social cohesion and communal property which sounds like something out of a utopian novel – until, of course, outsiders came in, took away the land they lived on and the animals they hunted and generally made it so the lifestyle they’d been living was basically no longer possible. To give you an example of some of the hardships they faced, sometimes a San male would wander on to a Boer farmer’s property, and kill livestock for food, because the San did not correspond to Western concepts of private property and were not aware that some folks out there viewed the cattle as belonging to someone. The farmer would grow angry, and have the San arrested, or sometimes (unforgiveably) would hunt down the San person himself and kill them brutally. It’s a familiar story that is certainly not unique to Namibia, but not any less tragic.

So after learning about their recent history, I know that what we think of San society is an idealized one that does not really exist now. Missionaries and colonialists tried to “civilize” the San. Many San people now wear Western clothes, use money, live in houses, work on farms, and struggle with social problems like alcoholism, poverty and domestic violence like others do. I felt a little awkward about being that white tourist that drives up to a grass shelter that nobody lives in and demands that the San people show me their “authentic” lifestyle, getting them to masquerade and perform for me a scene of a play that no longer exists.

So I was very aware that it was a show, and a historically incomplete show at that. On the other hand, being able to meet real San people was an opportunity that I knew would be rare. And even if it was a “show” of some sort, I still felt honoured to have a chance to have these folks show me how their ancestors had lived for so long. I reasoned that when we go to Upper Canada Village and learn about how people lived “in the olden days”, no tourist is fooled into believing this is how things still are, but accept it as a learning experience. So as the San people gathered around the grass hut to meet us, I found myself accepting it as just that – a learning experience, while remaining keenly aware of what must lies backstage of this show, and trying to be respectful at all times. They themselves were describing what they were doing as a “living museum”, which I thought was an appropriate name.

and what a learning experience. What I came to realize is that even if their lifestyles have been altered and the San are now fully aware of the “outside” world (unlike in The Gods Must Be Crazy), many of them have still retained memory of their traditions and skills. The women showed us how they carved ostrich egg shells into gorgeous necklaces (I must admit I went the tourist route and bought one). The men showed us how to make fire, spin rope, and set animal traps.

making fire, without a barbecue lighter

making ropes

making traps

They let me shoot an (unpoisoned) arrow, although I was disappointed to find out that I do not carry that Korean gene for excellent archery. On the bright side, I didn’t hurt anyone.

everybody, duck!

how to do it properly

What I loved most was the songs that they sang. I love music and discovering what local people like to sing, everywhere that I travel. The San people showed us their oryx song, the song that the women sing when their men hunt an oryx and bring it home.

As you might discern from the video quality, these songs had a certain ephemeral quality that needs to be experienced in person. Descriptions and recordings simply can’t capture the energy and spirit of this stuff, much like culture in general. I was really glad to have a chance to hear some of it, and I hope that it's not lost over the years.

this was the gift shop

When we got back, the owners served us a dinner featuring yummy oryx meat and baked squash. It was absolutely lekker. After dinner, we sat around a fire while I taught Anne how to play the ukulele. We’d made some good progress when all of a sudden a desert storm hit and the wind picked up in a way that was frightening, toppling the chairs over into the fire and fiercely blowing sparks from the fire all the way to the veranda. The German family went to bed and we decided to move inside and hang out with two young male German architecture students staying at the farm.

This proved to be a bit difficult, because they spoke very little English and we spoke no German, except of course for Elisa, who ended up acting as a rudimentary interpreter. But there are two universal things you can always do, even if you can barely communicate: drink and play poker. Axel poured us gin and tonics; Allison brought out the playing cards. Due to the gin and tonics, the game soon descended into what I call Communist poker (where the winner takes pity on the loser and gives him a bunch of chips so they can keep playing).

After Eliza went to bed and our interpreter was gone, the game fell apart and we ended up using Scrabble tiles communicate to each other, mostly four-letter words to teach swear words in each other’s languages. We learned that Sebastien intended to go hunting at 5AM the next morning. He finished off his drink and showed us his gun, putting his bullets on the table. “Okay,” Allison announced suddenly at the appearance of the gun, “this is my cue to go to bed.” The German put away his bullets and we went to sleep.

Part 2 comes tomorrow, featuring animal watching, hiking, an attempted exorcism and no more run-ins with the police.