Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Chinatown in Windhoek

Wi11bed0ne called me at 7:30 on Saturday morning, informing me that she was going to be at my house in a few minutes to take me to Chinatown. Because the shops in Windhoek are generally only open when I'm at work, and close at noon on Saturdays, and aren't open at all on Sundays, this means that I generally have to get up early on Saturday mornings to do my shopping, rather than sleeping in.

Chinatown is located in Windhoek's Northern Industrial Area, not too far from Katutura, across the street from the Solid Waste Management Division for some reason. You have to walk through giant steel gates, like everything else in Windhoek, and for a moment you might wonder if you're going into some sort of industrial factory or something. Windhoek's Chinatown is a bit different from the Chinatowns I've been used to in other countries. It's not, for the most part, actually an area of the city where all the Chinese live and do their business with each other, giving me the chance to blend in for once in Africa. It's basically a giant warehouse of small shops where the Chinese store owners sell everything (seriously, everything) to a largely black African and tourist clientele. Picture a small version of Toronto's Pacific Mall, only in a concrete industrial warehouse instead of a glass mall, and without the Asian customers.

traditional Asian pose

Even though I still stuck out as the only Asian customer around, it was pretty fun weaving in and out of all the shops, checking out the amazing bargains. A lot of the stores sold the same stuff, but once in a while you'd find something different and unique, so it felt like a treasure hunt. The main thing that struck me, not so surprisingly, was how cheap everything was. If I could manage to get up early enough every Saturday morning, I should just buy everything here, because you can pretty much buy everything here for such a ridiculously low bargain, I didn't feel a need to haggle. I bought a backpack to replace the one that got stolen for five dollars. I plan to come back to buy a camping tent that I saw for less then $20. I did stop myself before buying a no-name digital camera for $40 though.

my new backpack

As per Chinese tradition, there were, of course, tons of designer name knock-offs and fake products, including an "iPade" and a "Funstation" video game console.

A lot of people, including the Chinese shopowners, still didn't know what to make of me, a Westernized tourist of Asian descent. Besides having the usual Namibians gawking at me, some of the storeowners seem confused when I spoke to them in English - I keep forgetting to speak slower. Many of them concluded that I must be Japanese, which, incidentally, is the same assumption that Korean shopowners made when I was in Korea.

in reality, I'm just special

My happiest discovery was the Hong Kong restaurant. Not only was it a new Chinese restaurant to try out, but it also had the largest Asian grocery store I've found so far in Windhoek. Not that there are a lot. Not that it was very big. But this matters to me because it is the one place where they sell my favourite 농심 brand of spicy Korean ramen noodles, 신라면. YAAAAAAAAAAAAY!

this really, really, really helps me deal with the fact that I have not had proper Korean food since last year and will not taste my family's cooking until late March. Life is freaking fantastic now.

a game of Starbucks

It's 30 degrees out, I'm at work feeling sleepy, and I'm craving a Starbucks ice coffee. There's actually free coffee in our office kitchen, which is more generous than my last job when I worked for the Canadian government (we don't want to be wasting your Canadian tax dollars on that), but what I'm craving is a Starbucks ice coffee.

This may surprise you, but there are no Starbucks in Windhoek. Or Namibia. or southern Africa. In fact, they don't really do coffee to go here, which I theoretically applaud (down with disposable fast food culture!) and realistically deplore ("i need coffee NOW! to go!"). I've managed to survive three months without McDonalds, four months without Korean ramen noodles, five months without chajangmyun, but it looks like I'm going to have to go the full seven months stretch without a Frappucino. Unless...

Starbucks' store locator says, "There's probably a Starbucks coffeehouse near you."

I asked, "Where is the closest Starbucks to me?"

Starbucks' store locator didn't know. Wikipedia says there are Starbucks in Morocco, but Starbucks' store locator didn't agree. South Africa only carries some brands in their hotels, and Google Maps does not want to show me how to get from Cairo to Namibia.

So we have Dubai.

1. 21,000 kilometres, 19 countries, 359 Google direction steps

2. Through Italy.

I guess I'll go and put some ice cubes in my office instant coffee now.

i don't know why, but i actually seem to blog about starbucks a lot.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sarah's Last Night In Town

“everyone knows now
that every night out now
is steven’s last night in town”

-Ben Folds

Hartley’s farewell festivities have been a weeklong affair, and it’s been hard for me to keep up. Every day she tells me the plans for the night – a sundowner at the Hilton, shebeen hopping on Evelyn Street, a braai at her apartment – and every day I tell her I’ll come out because I want to see her before she leaves, only to flake out because I’m feeling tired and I have to work the next day.

Saturday night she threw a party. We showed up in the afternoon, ate boerewores and braaivleis and nachos made with cheese Doritos, and we drank and partied for over twelve hours. People passed out on the floor. We went out to a club and danced. I fell asleep around 7AM to strange dreams.

But tonight is finally her last night in Namibia and there’s just three of us, Hartley, me, Max. For her last night, Hartley wanted to go to Maerua Mall and have cocktails at Que Tapas, but it’s closed because it’s Sunday. So we end up at the only place that’s open at the mall, which is the pizza place that looks like a Pizza Hut ripoff, and we order vodka sodas.

Maerua Mall is the biggest mall in the country, but it’s not actually that big. Well, I guess it’s pretty big, and I know Namibian kids love to come here. It’s no West Edmonton Mall, but it does feature the city’s only movie theatre, a Woolworth’s, my very expensive gym Virgin Active, two sushi restaurants, and about a half a dozen MTC store locations within the one complex.

Hanging out at the mall at this time of the night makes me feel like I’m a high school kid again. As if she’s reading my thoughts, Hartley discovers next to the bouncy castle one of those toy vending machines selling press-on temporary tattoos for five rand.

“We have to get tattoos,” she says.

We fish around for some five rand coin. With my first try I accidentally get a sticker. This is not a tattoo. I put in another coin. My second try is another sticker, one of an eagle.

“This is you,” I say to Hartley, because she’s American. But this is still not a tattoo.

On my last try I finally get a proper temporary tattoo rather than a sticker (I’m not sure the words “proper temporary tattoo” even makes sense). It’s a tattoo of a pink fairy surrounded by pink flowers.

“This is pretty gay,” I say, meaning it in the truest non-pejorative sense of the word.

“It’s pretty,” says Hartley, who despite being a lesbian is far more femme than I. “My tattoo doesn’t make sense.” Hers is flames with water coming out.

I explain to her that in Canada, at Parliament Hill there is a large water fountain with a fire in the middle. It’s called the Eternal Flame. I’ve always wondered if I could cook a sausage on it.

“Do you want to trade then, since you’re Canadian?”

“Nah, I’ll be the fairy,” I say.

Hartley decides she wants hers to be a tramp stamp, so she has Max lift her shirt and apply the tattoo on her lower back. We ask the waitress (waitron?) for a glass of water and a stack of napkins. We’re doing this in the restaurant booth, and people are looking at us.

“You’re pouring water down my butt,” Hartley complains.

“Sit still,” Max orders.

I put mine on my arms, hoping it’ll draw attention to the biceps I’ve been working on. Max watches us girls put our tattoos on, and he decides that he wants to get one too. He wanders off the vending machine and comes back with a spider tattoo, which he also puts on his arms. I rather think that the tattoos have been mixed up; I the Canadian should have gotten the Eternal Flame, Max the Gay Namibian should have gotten the pink fairy, and Hartley should have gotten the spider, because she’s got long thin arms and long thin legs that are made to look even longer with her four inch stiletto heels.

By then I’ve finished slurping my vodka soda and we’ve paid the bill. Hartley wants to hit up the gay bar in Katutura one last time, but I’m feeling the effects of having watched the sun rise yesterday so I ask them to walk me to the cab stands. This is the last time Hartley’s going to be in the mall. This is the last time I’m going to see Hartley. I don’t do good-byes very well, so I pretend this is not the last time. I pretend that we are just a couple of teenagers hanging out at the mall in the suburbs, killing time the night before school starts tomorrow. We are not in Africa. We are not grown adults. I was never robbed. Hartley is not being sent away to America on a sixteen hour fight. We’re just hanging out, us and our cool new tattoos.

don't like to talk about leaving so i'll show you my tattoo

"By the time the buzz was wearing off
we were standing out on the sidewalk
with our tattoos that looked like rings
in the hot Nevada sun
and they won't fade

I've got you to thank..."

-Ben Folds

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

taking the long way to the mountain in Okahandja

(continued from the previous entry, in which I agree to go on a spontaneous road trip to Okahandja, before passing out after a night of partying)


Felix is in rougher shape than us when he picks us up in his car on Saturday morning. He’d gone drinking until 6AM. Me, I still have kizomba music ringing in my ears and I’m trying to figure out if an Oshikandela is good or gross for a hangover (I’ll drink it either way), but other than that I’m feeling pretty excited for my weekend trip to the trophy lodge. Whatever that is.

Felix’s parents run a taxidermist workshop in Okahandja, a town about 70 kilometres north of Windhoek. They seem like lovely eccentric folks, judging from their enormous property in the wilderness. The lodge had been robbed a few weeks ago, but it was still full of interesting stuff. Felix’s mother paints ostrich eggs, so they were all over a desk. Besides the taxidermy workshop full of animal skulls and kudu horns soaking in various odd-smelling liquids, they have all sorts of butterflies and tarantulas pinned in frames hung on the bedroom walls, not to mention a real live poisonous puff adder snake in a cage in the living room. Puff adders are one of the deadliest snakes in Africa and of course as a result I am fascinated by them, although I don’t know why anyone would keep on in their living room. There apparently used to be two puff adders, but one killed the other during feeding time, when he accidentally bit his friend. I don’t know how snakes could ever French kiss each other.

I tried to talk to the puff adder, even hissing HARRY POTTER in Parseltongue, but he wouldn’t have any of it. Deadly snake, my butt. This one lives a cushy life, not moving ever.

They also had a pen outside holding about a half a dozen pet meerkats. I’ve decided that meerkats (also known as suricate) are the cutest animals that exist, not that I needed much convincing after the Lion King. Felix’s meerkats all move in unison, following you around, always curious to be a part of whatever action is happening.

right here, I am the action that is happening.

Besides the random live and dead animals around the house, the lodge also had a beautiful braai area outside with a mosquito-net covered swing and a swimming pool by a row of palm trees. I spent most of my time going back and forth between swimming in the pool and dozing off under the mosquito net on the swing, while Willbedone played ZZ Top from inside the house. We were introduced to Mathias, a friend staying at the house, who spoke only German, but that was okay since I was busy swimming and sleeping anyway. It’s a pretty great way to beat stress, and I was glad that Willbedone had convinced me to come up here to take my mind off last week’s robbery. I had a similar offer from Ellie to get away for the weekend and hang out in Johannesburg, but I felt like hanging out in one of the most crime-ridden cities would not actually help take my mind off the robbery. No, this little bizarre animal haven in the wilderness was just what I needed.

In the evening, Felix cooked us up some juicy oryx meat on the braai while Wi11bed0ne whipped up some wild rice and a salad with homemade dressing. We ate outside while we listened to the various noises that night animals make. Afterwards, Felix fell asleep on the swing with his dog Chica, and we had a few beers while chatting with Mathias, who, as it turned out, did understand English.

The next morning, somebody in the house was blasting John Lee Hooker and I was wondering if I had been drunk when I packed the day before. I had forgotten a toothbrush but had brought at least two different tubes of lipstick. Why? What was the logic in this?

I had spent the previous day lounging while enjoying the view of the mountains around us. On Sunday, we decided that we were going to climb up to the peak of the highest mountain in sight.

this is what we were going to climb

I always joke about how as a lawyer I like clear unambiguous direction so I prefer clearly marked hiking trails, but everyone knows that sometimes the best trails are the ones you make on your own. Trailblazing can be fun, especially if you're with someone like Mathias, who had this super belt that carried several litres of water, a knife, and a number of other nifty hiking tools. He spends a lot of time in the bush.

So we cut through the bush, making our own trail. This wasn't actually because we went out and said, "let's make our own trail." It was more because the boys couldn't remember where the actual trail was. Once in a while we would come across an old animal trap made of wires. Felix and Mathias would cut them down and bury them under a rock so no one could get hurt. We were too late for some of them - we found a few kudu skulls along the ground.

On our journey, we came across a couple of fences as well. Obviously I have no qualms about jumping them, since I consider a good fence hop a part of a good hike. After I jumped the last fence, however, I found myself face to face with two angry (and unleashed) dogs.

this was a bit of a frightening moment. Mathias stood in front of us, staring the dogs down, while Wi11bed0ne backed away (she had been bitten by a dog once as a child) and Felix scooped up his little dog Chica, who was freaking out.

I'm sure I'm talked before about the mean guard dogs of Namibia who act as supplementary alarm systems against trespessers on private property. People don't really keep friendly pet dogs here, ones that are well-mannered and respectful; instead, a lot of the dogs here are loud and mean, mean, mean.

A lot of times when you're confronted with these mean-mean-mean dogs, the trick is to stand steadfast and stare at them straight, acting with authority and confidence, like an owner would. Unfortunately this involves having to hide the fear in your eyes, and that's hard to do when you're doing a mental calculation of how much faster you can run than your friends.

Luckily, just as both the dogs and I were tiring of this staring contest, I heard a human voice calling from the distance, and the property's caretaker came running down the path with a stick. I've never been so glad to see a stick in my life. The caretaker shooed the dogs away and told us we were welcome to walk through the property to get to the mountain, because that was the quickest route. We looked at the sight of the two big dogs and envisioned them following us the whole time and thought, let's take the long way to the mountain.

eventually we found the proper mountain trail and our climb up the mountain became a lot easier. Once we reached the summit after scrambling up a set of boulders, we were rewarded with a beautiful view of the whole Okahandja area.

the wooden cross at the summit

I was surprised to see how green everything was.

From the mountain peak, we got a lovely view of Felix's house where we were staying...and we could also hear the house alarm going off. Uh oh.

the lodge below us

It was a bit of an odd moment. If the house was being robbed again, there was nothing we could do about it - it would take us almost two hours to get back down to the house. So we just found a spot to sit on the boulders and ate the cheese and liver sandwiches Felix had packed us while we listened to the house alarm and waited for the security company to show up.

It was an amazing sight. There was literally nothing as high as us for miles around except the buzzards circling the sky. Felix had laughed at me for lugging heavy Savanna cider bottles up the mountain with me, but as Wi11bed0ne and I cracked them open - they were still cold - I knew it was totally worth it. It's the Hasher in me that craves cold brews at high heights.

I asked the boys if the mountain had a name, but they didn't know. We decided to call it Mount Chica, after Felix's dog who had led us all the way up to the top, checking back occasionally make sure we were all right. This made me glad Chica wasn't eaten by the other mean-mean-mean dogs.

The descent from the mountain was fairly quick, which was good because the sun had come out from behind the clouds and was blazing hot. We walked into the town to buy some cold Wuma, a "health" drink owned by famous Namibian kwaito artist EES. The streets of Okahandja were quiet and abandoned - everyone was out at church or drinking on their lawn. Despite this, we still managed to find a taxicab willing to drive Willbedone and me back to Windhoek. I felt ready to return home. It had been a therapeutic weekend of relaxing and indulging in beautiful nature, which was just what I needed.

The weekend wasn't completely over though. that evening, Wi11bed0ne and I hiked Avis Dam with the Hashers, our second hike of the day.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

stress relief with the Angolans

“Girl, you need to get out of town to relax and get your mind off things,” Wi11bed0ne tells me. “Felix’s parents have a trophy lodge outside of Okahandja. Why don’t you come spend the weekend with us up there?”

She’s right. I’ve been through a stressful week, having my house broken into and being robbed of almost everything valuable that I had brought to Africa. When I called home to Canada to tell my parents, the news, I found out that they had been in a ten car accident on the highway because of the snow and the ice. They were very shaken up. On the same day, the car my sister had been driving broke down and refused to be fixed one last time.

I maintained that I was feeling perfectly fine despite being robbed, but then I always have a tendency to repress my feelings. But it occurred to me that I might be stressed out too when I found myself wolfing down a sugary calorie-filled apple tart while standing in front of the gym I had been planning to work out at, feeling uncharacteristically sluggish.

I declined politely though, not wanting to impose on a possibly awkward situation. Felix is Wi11be’s ex, whom she still lives with because she’s still looking for another place to stay. I told her that I had plans for an intense three hour workout at the gym: that should shake my blues.

“Okay,” she said, determined to take care of me, bless her soul. “But we should go out tonight.”

And that’s how I ended up at an Angolan house party in Windhoek West. It was quite the party. Apparently the kids had shown up for lunch, and by the time we arrived at two in the morning, the party was still going on strong, with Angolan music videos playing on the flat screen TV while the kids danced and the host tried to shush everyone so the neighbours wouldn’t complain.

I had, for some reason, assumed that most of the Angolans in the Namibia would be refugees fleeing from the civil war. According to my friends, Windhoek is has a lot of wealthy Angolan kids sent to Namibia to study, whose parents send them money every month so they can party all weekend long. It sounds fantastic. I’m not sure I have the stamina for that. I’m not sure I had the stamina for that in university.

When we arrived at the party, we were presented with loud cheers and Angolan-style greetings (two kisses on the cheek, they insisted. One bow, I replied) and boxed wine and smoked ham. The host was a young guy of few words named Eddie who had an odd affinity for women’s shoes. He immediately took my shoes, a pair of high heels that Micheal had convinced me to wear for the night, and starting prancing around in them with far more grace than I could. Well, fair is only fair so I grabbed his flipflops (Micheal says you can always tell someone is Angolan by the “pluckies” they are wearing that are several sizes too small) which fit me far more comfortably than my stilettos. That was how I found myself dancing with a guy who was wearing my own heels.

The Angolans were trying to teach me to dance. There was a lot of booty popping. Everyone in the music videos was booty popping, all the girls, even the drag queen (especially the drag queen). Everyone dancing on the floor was booty popping. Booty popping is not a really standard Canadian dance move when you're singing along to, say, Stan Rogers or Great Big Sea, and I feel like booty popping is not a standard dance move in traditional Korean dance repertoire either (from what I gather, Korean dance involves a lot of careful stepping and smiling sadly but bravely with your eyes lowered to the ground).

Nevertheless, I was doing my best, but the Angolan style of music, kizomba, is difficult not because it’s complicated, but because the beat is much slower than hiphop. Just imagine that you’re at your high school dance, and the slow dance is on, but instead of just awkwardly standing with your partner a foot apart with your hand reluctantly on his sweaty shoulders while the chaperone carefully supervises, you are expected to dance closely following your partner’s skillful steps with a million intricate and subtle movements using muscles that you didn’t realized moved. The kids alternated between being horrified that I danced “like a white person” (their words, not mine) and laughing at my attempts. Like I said, I tried. What was a bit distracting was the fact that I swear the music kept repeating “Pikachu, Pikachu, Pikachu” which I am pretty sure is a Japanese anime, and not a Portguese musician. Meanwhile, Wi11bed0ne was out on the dancefloor shaking what she’s got and putting this Canadian girl to shame.

The kids nicknamed me Japonês, not because they thought I was Japanese, but because it was a far catchier name than Coreano. I suggested that they could just call me Gloria or even Guns, but Japonês just rolls off the tongue a lot easier.

The party was shut down, as all good parties are, when the police arrived at four in the morning. I was amazed at how quickly the music was turned down and the lights flicked off at the sight of a cop car. A police officer came out to tell Eddie that neighbours were complaining about some party noise.

“Yeah, it must those neighbours we have in the back,” Eddie replied, shaking his head. “They’ve been making loud noises all night. It’s just terrible. You must do something about it.”

While I was admiring Eddie’s suberb acting, another neighbor came out of her house and joined us. “What’s going on?” she asked.

“Some neighbours complained about the party noise,” I told her.

“You know,” the girl said, suddenly turning indignant. “I bet you it was those white neighbours of ours who complained. I am not racist, but I just hate white people sometimes. They move into our black neighbourhoods, and they know there are black people there, and then they complain about our noises and our parties. I mean, where do they think they are? And they can just be so racist.”

I’m trying to think of something to say when Wi11bed0ne finally finds us a cab so we can sneak away from the police. “Gosh, that’s just awful,” I say to Wi11bed0ne in the car.

“You know, I’m pretty sure that she’s the one who called the cops,” she tells me.

i really like this song

I’m feeling pretty good right now, and start wondering if I really want to go to the gym for three hours tomorrow. I’ve already been dancing all night, and the sun is going to come up in an hour or two. I turn to Wi11bed0ne. “Let’s go to Okahandja tomorrow,” I say. “Road trip!”

“I’ve already told Felix,” she says, beaming.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

on being asian in namibia

새해 복 많이 받으세요! Happy Lunar New Year!

When I moved to Africa, I brought with me one pack of 맛있는 ramen (literally, delicious brand) and one pack of Chappaghetti, an instant noodle version of my favourite Korean dish 자장면. I figured that Korean comfort food might not be readily available in Namibia, so my plan was to eat the Chappaghetti as a treat on Christmas and the ramen on my birthday. As it turned out, I was in Cape Town over the holidays so I got to eat real Korean food – kimchi chigae – so I decided to save my Korean instant noodles until I had a bad day, like if I got robbed or something

(and so now the Chappaghetti has been consumed...)

“Per capita, South Koreans consume the greatest amount of instant noodles.”

Being Korean in Namibia is a very unique experience, although not a lot of people realize that my experiences are sometimes different from theirs. I don’t, for example, share my foreigner friends’ concerns about being mistaken for an Afrikaner or a German Namibian. When I walk the streets alone, I get a very different form of street harassment than my girl friends do, although nobody ever knows about it because it only happens when I’m alone. When I first arrived in Namibia, I wrote a little about my impressions of being Asian in Namibia. Now that I’ve been here for a bit longer, I can expand on this a bit further. It seems particularly suitable to do it now that today is the Lunar New Year, one of the biggest holidays to celebrate in many Asian countries.

are you the only Korean in Namibia?
Sometimes I feel like I am. I am being told, however, that I am not. I have been told that there are some North Korean workers here, and one woman named Jin-Seng who sells kimchi. I have been given her number, but I am too shy to call her up, even at the worst of my kimchi cravings.

then how do you get your kimch fix?
There is a small shop in the Hidas centre run by a young Taiwanese couple. The kimchi is at best okay. It’s not made with the proper nappa cabbage and it’s nothing close to what my grandmother makes. But it’s better than nothing...sometimes. Sometimes nothing is actually better.

Who are the other Asians in Namibia?
I read this great book over the holidays called “A Matter of Honour: Being Chinese in South Africa” written by Yoon Jung Park (who is Korean). It follows the history of Chinese people in South Africa, from the indentured workers and shopowners who arrived centuries ago, to the Chinese communities dealing with apartheid laws only two decades ago. There actually is a significant Chinese population in South Africa that has been here for several generations, and many of these people consider themselves to be Chinese-South African, or sometimes more South African than Chinese.

Namibia does not seem to have a similar Chinese community that has been here for many generations. However, China in general has a large business presence in Africa, so there are actually a lot more Chinese labourers and businessmen in Namibia than you’d expect. Most of them are straight from China, and they seem to generally stick to themselves. This is probably why Namibians assume I am Chinese, and why they are so surprised that I speak English.

My understanding is that there used to be quite a few Malaysian factory workers here, although I don't know if they're still around.

I met two friendly young Asian-Americans working for the American embassy here, named Anna and Steve. They are the only second generation Asians I have met here. They were the ones who told me about the existence of the kimchi-seller in Namibia.

how do Namibian men behave towards young Asian women?
I think straight Namibian men have a secret game that they play that is similar to our game Punchbuggy. In Punchbuggy, every time you see a yellow VW car, you have to punch your friend while yelling “Punchbuggy!” In this game that Namibian men play, every time you see a young Asian woman, you have to yell “CHINA!” at them, possibly punctuated by offensive ape-like sounds that you think imitates the Chinese language.

It’s either a game where you score points, or it’s a bizarre medical condition similar to Tourette’s Syndrome where the sight of a young Asian woman shuts off an otherwise perfectly normal Namibian man’s brain, and produces ticks that involuntarily force to exclaim “China!” and a series of socially inappropriate words.

Sometimes it does seem like an involuntary tick. Once when a security guard did it to me, I turned around and demanded to him, “What did you just call me?” and he had the most surprised look on his face, as though he too was surprised at the words that came out of his mouth. Although he might have just been surprised that I spoke English.

What complicates things is that Afrikaners will sometimes use the word “My China” to mean “my friend”.

This has resulted in me having no motivation to ever do my hair, wear makeup, or wear properly fitting gender-appropriate clothes. If I can have Namibian men yell at me that they want to marry me because I am beautiful, when I am slumping around town in a men’s baseball cap, yesterday’s ponytail, thick glasses and my dad’s swimming drunks, I have no reason to ever try to look decent.

How do the other Namibians behave?
Creepy male strangers on the street aside, I have found most of the Namibians I’ve met and hung out with to be enlightened, polite, and respectful to me. When they ask where I am from, I say “Canada”, and they accept that as an answer, rather than pester me to reveal where I’m really, really from like the way some white Canadians do to me back at home. They don’t generally address my race unless I bring it up first, which is how I like it. This may be because the Namibians that I meet are the ones who are used to making friends with tourists and foreigners. It may also be because I have awesome Namibian friends.

Some Namibian women have asked me to give them my hair when I leave Namibia, because they really like my hair and would like to turn them into extensions. I find this to be quite flattering.

where can you buy asian groceries?
I mainly get my Asian ingredients from the Taiwanese store. There is a “Chinatown” in the Northern Industrial District, but it’s rather far and out of the way, and I haven’t had a chance to go yet.

I have also found out how to buy tofu in Namibia. Basically I go through the Taiwanese couple, placing an order beforehand. The tofu orders come once a week, on Mondays, and I have to rush there after work in order to get my pre-ordered week's supply of tofu before the store closes. It's kind of hardcore. I've started ordering tofu for my friends too, because it's such a pain-in-the-butt process, and have become somewhat of a tofu dealer in Windhoek.

where can you eat asian food?
There are two Chinese restaurants that I know of in Windhoek. One is the Yang Tze Village in Klein Windhoek. My Namibian friends tell me that the Chinese gang members meet in the private rooms here on Sunday evenings. My white friends don’t like the food here, but this may be because they are ordering from the menu, which I never do. I find that if you have a simple craving for Chinese take-out, this place can hit the spot. One of the owners is a Chinese-Canadian from Vancouver, and I have somehow gotten on a first name basis with their daughter, who likes to talk about how much she wants to go back to Vancouver, and how she can’t believe that I’d voluntarily move to Namibia out of my own free will. She lets me order off the menu.

The other Chinese restaurant is a fancier looking one called Chez Wou at the country club. I know. When you think “Chinese restaurant”, you don’t usually think “country club” or anything starting with “Chez”. But it makes sense here. With all the Chinese businessmen investing in building projects around the country, I guess they want a nice place to have meetings and entertain their guests, and what better place than a Chinese restaurant at a country club? This may also explain why there is a casino here as well. I like this place a lot too, and would probably eat here more often if it wasn't so far away at the country club and so dangerously close to a casino.

There are rumours of an Indian restaurant somewhere in Windhoek. Nobody knows where it is. I suspect it has been shut down.

do you feel more Asian in Namibia?
Yes. Partly because of how strangers perceive me, but also the acute lack of my parents’ Korean food every night. Also, although many Namibians seem to view me as being white, I often experience feeling like I have a different identity from my white friends in terms of certain attitudes (and, dare I joke, dance moves?). This is somewhat unusual because in Ottawa, I don’t have a terribly strong sense of being Korean. Moving here, however, has amplified it quite a bit. Post-apartheid Namibia is one big identity crisis for all of us.

I did, however, have one interesting race-related experience with a taxi driver.

cab driver: "I want to meet a nice coloured girl. What tribe are you from?"

me: "er...tribe of Canada?"

cab driver, miraculously still not clueing in that I'm not part black: "Oh, I see. I've been looking to marry a coloured girl, you see. Are you married?"

me: "Yes, I am married." (Awkward pause) "Why do you want to marry a coloured girl? Do you find them to be pretty?"

cab driver: "Well, you see, I drive this taxi all day so I have back problems. So I'm can't really please a woman."

me: "I understand." (I didn't actually understand) "Well, I think this is my stop, I'm going to go now." Gloria steps into traffic.

This was the first time, but oddly enough not the only time, that I was mistaken for a coloured girl (part black, part white) in Namibia. It felt almost refreshing to be noticed for once as a coloured girl, rather than as a China.

Got more questions on the topic? Ask me! Maybe I'll answer. Or maybe I won't. Chances are I might not, since my laptop was stolen. But ask away anyway!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

reflections on being robbed

“Painted over the walls
the saddest colour of blue
posters covered in glass
favorite curbside grab
red Valentine's card
stuck on the mirror to keep
record player made of tubes
spinning Tommy by The Who

There's no time to waste
There's no time to wait…

-Kathleen Edwards, “Pink Emerson Radio”

Willbedone was texting and calling me frantically all day, trying to get in touch with me. I was out of phone credit so I couldn’t answer, but I was wondering what was up. She told me that she just had a bad feeling about me and was worried that something was happening.

As it turns out, her instincts were right. When I got home from work with an armful of groceries, I saw that my flat had been ransacked. My closet doors were flung open with my clothes and papers dumped out all over the floor. The sheets had been ripped off my mattress, and even my fridge had been open, with a bowl of rice pulled out and left on the counter. There was also a bag of biltong on the ground. I turned around, feeling my heart sink, and saw that someone had forced my balcony door wide open.

Immediately I dropped to my knees and frantically sifting through the pile of clothes, knowing deep down inside that I wasn’t going to find my laptop anywhere. My beautiful blue guitar was gone too. Dammit, dammit, dammit. I heard the roar of my landlord’s car outside my place and without thinking I found myself trying to flag him down, running down my street in my socks.

Robbery is fairly common in Windhoek, which is the reason why so many of the houses here are fiercely guarded by mean dogs, high concrete fences topped with electric barbed wires, and security guards pacing back and forth outside. People can get robbed everywhere; in Klein Windhoek, in Katutura, in their homes, on the streets, in taxicabs. Seems like all parts of the population get targeted too, blacks, coloureds, whites, women, men, tourists, foreigners, even Mr. Gay Namibia. To a certain extent, I can understand why robbery would be so common here. Namibia has the highest Gini coefficient in the world, which means Namibia has the biggest gap between the rich and the poor. I can only imagine how some folks must feel, leaving their impoverished shacks early every morning to pass these ridiculously huge and luxurious houses, hiding behind menacing-looking fences, feeling the hunger in their bellies as these rich people throw out their leftovers that could feed a whole family...

Still, my empathy for wealth inequality issues did not extend far enough to feel good about being burglarized. I texted Allison: “I’ve been robbed.”

She replied: “Seriously robbed, or like robbed by a baboon?”

Man, if only it had been baboons that had come through my balcony. They would have eaten the biltong and left the laptop. Bummer. I reached into my grocery bag and cracked open a Windhoek Lager. I had bought the beer for my friends, since my wedding diet prohibits beer, but with my head spinning the way it was, I felt like I could probably stand to cheat a little.

My next task was to get out of my office pants, because I hate pants, and because if I was going to be angry and robbed, I might was well be angry and robbed in comfortable clothing. Then I called the police, who came over quite quickly, and I gave them my statement as I sipped my beer.

(By that point I had the sense to put on some shorts so at least I wasn’t completely pantsless.)

I found the two police officers to be very friendly, although the “giving my statement” process was pretty interesting. It consisted of one police officer dictating my statement to the other police officer, who was professional in demeanor but somewhat illiterate.

“I arrived home around 6:00 when I realized that my house had been robbed,” Cop 1 would dictate.
“How do you spell ‘realized’?” Cop 2 interrupts.
“No, you spelled ‘released.’” Cop 1 points out.
Then Cop 1 would continue. “My acoustic guitar was missing.”
“How do you spell acoustic guitar? G-I-T-E-R?”
“Shouldn’t I be making the statement?” I ask. I also wonder if I shouldn’t be the one writing it too, at the pace that this spelling lesson was going.
“It’s okay,” they tell me.

I drank the rest of my beer.

I’m trying to make a mental list of what the burglars took, but it’s kind of hard to notice what you don’t have. These things weren’t totally logical, either. It made sense that they had taken the computer and the camera. And my entire series of the West Wing. And maybe it made sense to take my suitcases too, to hold the goods in. But why the robbers decided to steal my towels, I wasn’t sure. Nor why they helped themselves to my rice, or put the biltong on the floor...

“What else was taken?”
“My backpack.”
“What type?”
“Mountain Equipment Coop.”
“Never mind. It was blue. Also, they stole my ukulele.”
“Here, why don’t you let me write that one,” I offered.
Cop 2 obliged.

“Where do you work?” Cop 1 asked me
“I work at the Legal Assistance Centre,” I replied.
“Oh, you guys are the one that are always attacking us,” Cop 1 said. I felt awkward. Dean then proceeded to engage in a debate with the cops about police brutality and rule of law. I felt my head spinning again, so I cracked open another beer.

I was also getting hungry by then, but couldn’t bring myself to eat the biltong the robbers had left on the floor.

Cop 2 had me read over my statement before I signed it. I silently hoped that this statement would never, ever find its way to a potential employer evaluating my legal writing skills.

”Keys on the hook by the door
for the truck sold years ago
standing guitars in the case
filling up closet space
vintage 40's wardrobe
pink Emerson radio
old lace dress I bought in the store
motorcycle boots on the floor

There's no time to waste
There's no time to wait…

Allison convinced me that calories don’t count when you’ve been robbed. We ordered some pizza, she bought me some ice cream, and we sat on her bed watching episodes of Parks and Recreation. It was kind of nice to take my mind off things for a while.

The next day was spent trying to pick up the pieces. Not really literally: I went back to my apartment with the intention of cleaning up the mess, but found a trail of ants marching around my cooler and my fridge, and gave up on folding my clothes. I’d deal with that later.

Instead, I decided to be proactive in a different way. I printed off pictures of my guitar and then proceeded to visit every single pawn shop in Windhoek – which was three. I explained my story and give them the picture, in case anyone tries to sell my stuff to them.

Unfortunately this was the only photo I had of me with my guitar. why don't you cut your hair, gloria?

I also hit up the music stores. I was touched by how kind and sympathetic everyone was when they heard my story. Lots of people get robbed here, but people still get angry when they hear about it. One young male store clerk vividly described in gory detail the vigilante justice he would unleash on the robber, if the robber ever came into his store. It was mildly alarming, but still touching at the same time.

It’s been quite the stressful ordeal for me, and I think once the shock wears off it’ll take me a long time to feel comfortable again. But like I said, this one criminal act has brought out the kindness in everyone else in Namibia, it seems. Friends have sent me sweet messages offering their sympathy, support, and even temporary use of their laptops. My boss said that she hopes this experience hasn’t ruined my whole time in Namibia for me, and it may still be early, but I don’t think it has. These things happen sometimes. I was lucky that I wasn’t hurt, and that they didn’t take more stuff. And it was nice to see how great everyone else could be in supporting me. After all, the rest of my time in Namibia has been pretty fantastic.

Now, time to buy some towels.

“Sirens up on the street
smoke is burning my eyes
and the neighbours are screaming at me
I can only carry one thing
I can only carry one thing

There's no time to waste
There's no time to wait…”

-Kathleen Edwards, “Pink Emerson Radio”

getting robbed by a baboon

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

workday wednesday update

"Gloria," you say. "what is it you do all day? you're not actually paid by our Canadian tax dollars to just climb mountains in bikinis...are you?"

No, no, I do actually work regular 8-5 hours during the week, although you probably can't always tell with this blog. Because it's hump day wednesday, here's an update on some of the stuff i've been working on.

My organization has been tasked with helping the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration re-write the Births, Marriages and Deaths Registration Act. Currently the Act in power was put in place in 1963 and is left over from the South African apartheid days and is, to say the least, a little bit archaic. Before we put a new law in place, however, there are all sorts of issues to explore and who is better than the visiting young Canadian lawyers to get to research these issues?

The topic I'm looking at concerns the use of birth certificates as proof of citizenship. Here, not everyone travels outside of the country, so not everyone has a passport, and so sometimes it's hard to prove you are a Namibian citizen. So the Namibian government likes to use birth certificates as proof of Namibian citizenship. This can create practical problem for some people though. For example, foreign parents may be reluctant to register the birth of their children, even though it's important to register all births in order to ensure that children have access to social services and even the right to vote. All of this stems from the fact that Namibian citizenship criteria is a bit complicated and involves the concept of "ordinarily resident", which is a legal concept that is applied differently in every case. My task it to conduct a international comparative analysis of what other countries do to prove citizenship, especially with regards to birth registration.

I'm also helping to design a comic book! We publish many comic books every year, explaining to the public their legal rights and obligations in a manner that is fun and easy to understand. You can read one of the comics here. As an avid comic lover, this assignment pleases me immensely.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

we did not die in the desert

“after two days in the desert sun
my skin began to turn red.
after three days, in the desert fun,
i was looking at a river bed
and the story it told, of a river that flowed,
made me sad to think it was dead…”

-“Horse With No Name” by America

“So do you want to do the four hour hike or the eight hour hike?” Julia asked as we prepared to set off on our girls’ camping trip in the hot Namib Desert. We had planned a fun weekend of girly bonding, climbing the Naukluft Mountains, and burning things.

I was tempted to go for the eight hour hike, because like Julia, I love hiking and could do it all day. The ultimate hike in the Naukluft Mountains, of course, was the 120 km eight-day-long Naukluft Trail, famous for being one of the toughest hiking trails in Africa. Maybe we’d save that for another trip.

We packed the car full of more food and snacks than I eat in a week – this is what happens when you travel with girls – and hit the road. We left the city, passing the enormous Heroes Acres monument outside Windhoek, which one of the girls joked would be the only phallic symbol we’d see all weekend. The rest of the car ride was full of girly conversation about Lisa Loeb, yoga and the like.

when girls pack for a camping trip

The Naukluft Mountains are a mountain range located in the Namib Desert, not too far from Sossusvlei and Sesriem, a couple of hours southwest of Windhoek. We passed the mountains on our way to Sossusvlei last year and I remember being completely awestruck at how beautiful they were, like nothing I had ever seen before. The feeling returned as we pulled into the Namib-Naukluft National Park.

Other than the two friendly park staff at the camp office and one quiet French family at the next campsite, we seemed to be the only people in the entire area. The park gets a lot busier around March and towards Namibia’s wintertime. Apparently not everyone wants to go hiking in the desert at the height of hot summer, like us.

We unpacked some of the massive storage of food we had brought along and made ourselves a nice little picnic lunch in the braai area of our campsite.

By the time we finished eating, the sun had climbed to the highest part of the sky and it was the hottest part of the day. We saw on our rudimentary map that there were some swimming holes along the Waterkloof trail, the eight hour 17 km trail that Julia had referred, so we set off on the trail in search for water.

Along the way we came across a gopher-like animal that looked awfully cute at first, but got angrier and angrier as we kept taking pictures.

angry gopher thing

Eventually we came across a nice little natural pool at the foot of a small waterfall that was perfect for swimming. Feeling unbearably sweaty, we immediately jumped in, trying not to feel too grossed out by the soft mushy moss-like surface beneath our toes. Besides the spongey things, the cool water was wonderfully refreshing.

When we continued along the trail, we found an even nice swimming hole that was deeper and gross-mushy-stuff-free.

imitating a Sports Illustrated cover photoshoot

After our swim, we headed back to camp to build a fire and cook our dinner. Allison and Julia are both vegetarians to some degree, so I cooked my own separate dinner of delicious boerewors sausages.

Yes, my sausages are dripping grease into the girls’ healthy vegetarian meal.

We had a lovely evening of watching the fire, drinking vodka, burning things after dousing them with vodka, and gossiping about celebrities and chick flicks. As the night set in, the stars came out shining more brilliantly than you could ever see in the city. We lay down on the ground by the fire and watched the night sky until clouds came in at midnight and I hit the sack.


burning things

things in the night watch our campsite

The next morning, I left my tent to find broken egg shells all around the campsite and the largest baboon I had ever seen strolling right past me. The baboons had eaten our feta cheese and eggs overnight.

After a quick breakfast of peanut butter banana sandwiches and fruit, Julia and I got ready to try the the Olive Trail, while Allison lounged around the campsite - she was not feeling up for the 10 kilometre hike. It was 38 degrees, and our four hour hike through the desert would take us through high noon, the hottest part of the day. Because neither Julia or I are early risers, we keep doing this, hiking through the heat. It’s like we are gluttons for punishment.

“on the first part of the journey
i was looking at all the life
there were plants and birds, and rocks and things
there was sand and hills and rings
the first thing i met was a fly with a buzz
and the sky, with no clouds.
the heat was hot, and the ground was dry,
but the air was full of sound...”

The Olive Trail

“Where do you think the nearest person is?” Julia asked me after some time hiking. We had not seen a single soul for a while, not even an animal. The silent isolation of the Naukluft Mountains was something that we could never get used to. To step back and look all around you and see that you are surrounded by nothing but wilderness – it was an incredible feeling.

The Olive Trail was a curious route and despite being the shortest trail, was by no means an easy hike. Unlike most mountain hikes, this trail got progressively more and more difficult as we went on. The first hour involves a steep but fairly safe climb to the summit of one of the mountains (another hour on nature’s Stairmaster), and then the next three hours is spent descending carefully into a deep and long canyon with often treacherous footing. I felt like it should have been called the Ankle Breaker trail, because it was so easy to trip on a boulder and sprain your leg – and then what? Inevitably someone would have to go on without you to get help from the park staff, if they were even around, but medical rescue in the canyon seemed difficult, if possible at all. But it added to the excitement of the hike.

standing at the summit


gloria on the rocks

The trail was marked by the occasional posting of a white footprint. I kind of wish they had chosen a more obvious colour, because a lot of the rocks had white markings on it that was confusing. Furthermore, as the trail become more difficult, the footprint, or Mr. Foot as we called it, became less frequent and much more hidden. It soon became some sort of twisted game like Where’s Waldo, except this one was called Try To Find Mr. Foot Or Else You Will Get Lost and Die In The Desert. I have no idea why anyone would plan a trail this way.

Mr Foot

yeah that's quite the canyon.

At one point, we were climbing down a giant boulder with about a ten foot drop when Julia stopped.

“Gloria, there’s a dead body at the bottom.”


She meant a dead animal’s body. It was half-eaten, so we couldn’t quite tell what kind of animal it had been originally, something similar to a small deer. What was much more of a concern was that the thing had the insensitivity to die in the best spot to jump down from the boulder. How were we going to get down?

time to heat up the braai?

“Maybe the carcass will provide some soft cushioning for our fall?” I suggested.

Julia the vegetarian did not agree.

Eventually we found our way down the boulder around the carcass. But then we came across another obstacle.

It was kind of amusing to follow our gradual realization of what we had to do to move on.

“Ew, that is a disgusting pool of water….wait, how are we supposed to get past it?...Oh, there’s a chain.”

Let me explain. At one point of the trail, the canyon narrows to about ten metres wide, with the canyon walls still deep and totally vertical. Ahead of us is a steep drop from the boulder we stood on and at the bottom was, not a dead carcass this time, but a deeper gross-green pool of swampy still water. Of course Mr. Foot had disappeared at this point, leaving us to figure out how to get across. When I spotted the chain fastened to the side of the canyon wall, I realized that what we were meant to do was scale across the canyon wall using nothing but the chain. Essentially we were rock climbing without any safety harness gear.

oh that's right, i'm also afraid of heights.

I went across first, pretending to be totally okay with it. Thank God I’ve been going to the gym lately and have awesome upper body strength. At a few points there simply were no footholds so it was all about using my sweet biceps to carry me across, dragging myself along the chain, trying not to think about the fact that if I fell, I would

1) possibly hit my head on the boulders
2) touch the gross green water

At one point I slipped off the rock and found myself dangling with my hands, my feet kicking in the air. I tried not to picture that scene from Cliffhanger. This is nothing, I told myself, just pretend you’re doing pull-ups on Joseph’s chin up bar. I imagined that I was just doing one of the aerial courses at Camp Fortune, found a foothold, and made it across. As soon as my foot hit solid ground, my lawyer’s mind released its fury. This is such a tort liability. Tort! Tort! Tort!

“Yeah, that was a piece of cake,” I told Julia, who was making her way across now.


Luckily that was the toughest part of the trail and there was no more insane bouldering. Mr. Foot reappeared finally and led us to the end of the trail. We picked up Allison from the campsite and headed home, stopping off at the bottle store in the little town Rietoog to buy some ice cold mango pine juice. We played Alanis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill album on the way home, singing along to every line – because that’s what you do when you travel with girls.

“you see i've been through the desert on a horse with no name,
it felt good to be out of the rain.
in the desert you can remember your name,
'cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain”

-“Horse With No Name” by America

Thursday, January 12, 2012

gloria at the top of nothing: my last day in Cape Town

“and the mountains said i could find you here
they whisper the snow and the leaves in my ear
i traced my finger along your trails
your body was the map
i was lost in there..."

-"Your Rocky Spine" by Great Lake Swimmers

We awoke on Monday morning to find that the city of Cape Town had exploded into a giant parade. That’s right: January 2 is another designated day for celebrating carnival style. Because it’s been too long since the last party two days ago on New Years Eve.

Folks and their families were filling the streets wearing sparkly face paint and brightly coloured costumes. A different brass band marched down the street every minute, with children dressed as ringleaders leading the bands to a ferociously strong beat of African drums. Sometimes the band would play Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence, which was a bit ironic, given how noisy it was. It was impossible not to be dancing in the streets, and everyone was doing it like a Motown song. The good mood made everyone mind a little less the fact that all the major roads were blocked and it was impossible to drive anywhere.

"And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence..."

ok, it was not really that silent.

Despite all the festive fanfare, I was feeling disappointed that it was cloudy and chilly outside. I had my heart set on going to the beach for one last tan and indulgence in Cape Town’s beautiful bodies. But you can never depend on Cape Town weather – they say you can experience all four seasons in one day. So I consoled myself with some boutique shopping on Long Street.

Several credit card purchases later, Joseph and I decided to conquer one more mountain on our last day in Cape Town: The Lion’s Head. We built up our energy and protein grabbing a couple of multicultural shawarmas at Mixie’s, a local favourite recommended to us by one of the designers at the boutiques I had shopped at. Then we set off to climb the mountain.

We had been told that the climb to the Lion’s Head summit was much easier than Table Mountain – only 600 metres, rather than the 1000 metres – so we weren’t expecting a big challenge. But it turned out to be far more thrilling than Table Mountain, even if the climb was shorter. The summit was far steeper and narrower. At one point, the entire path was only about 2 metres wide, with sharp drastic drops on either side. There were many boulders to scramble over, and this time there was no protection in form of a barbed wire or even makers. Close to the peak, there was the option of going the exciting route or the recommended route. Hearing the voice of my parents begging me to go the safe route, I chose the exciting path.

As we climbed up the boulder face and peered over at the long way down, I felt the same feeling that came over me when I watched the waters rush down Victoria Falls as I swam in it. Fear, followed by an urge to face that fear. I could do it. Besides, someone’s middle-aged mom had just gone up ahead of me.

There was a thick fog that hugged the mountain face like a blanket, only lifting once in a while to reveal just how high in the sky we’d gone. The other times we were hidden in the clouds, where we couldn’t see anything behind, ahead around or above us, just the rock that we clung to. It gave off the air of a creepy scene in a Harry Potter film where Voldemort is going to suddenly show up. Quite the contrast from our climb up Table Mountain, where the hot oppressive sun beat down on us without mercy.

so it goes like this. gloria says, "Where's the freaking top of this mountain?"

Joseph says, "Nah, it's still cool, we could still climb it."

so we climb, wearing mountain climbing appropriate clothing.

Joseph says, "man, you're right, you really can't see the top of this mountain."

aw, road buddies.

The summit was small and narrow, less than half the size of a soccer field, but I was feeling fantastic. I was so cold inside and out from the wind and foggy dew, but climbing a mountain always gives me a sense of accomplishment.

Gloria at the top of nothing

After we climbed back down, I had to say good-bye to Joseph, my wonderful traveling companion / partner in crime / Road Oppa, as he returned to Johannesburg that night. I checked into a cheap backpacking hostel on Long Street for the night, and rode in a cab with a taxi driver who was blasting songs about lady body parts. He told me that he’d fought in Namibia for four years in the eighties against the insurgents. Back then, he said, all the white boys were conscripted to fight the freedom fighters. All of this was punctuated by the music shouting about lady body parts. It was very odd.

I decided to have my last Cape Town dinner alone at a Thai place. I love Windhoek and I looked forward to returning home, but I was really going to miss Cape Town, the magical land of mountains, hipsters, gay men, Asian food, and oceans on all sides.

view from my bus back to Windhoek

"your soft fingers between my claws
like purity against resolve
i could tell then there that we were formed from the clay
and came from the rocks for earth to display

they told me to be careful up there
where the wind rages through your hair...”

-Great Lake Swimmers