Monday, March 5, 2012

Namibian beach dreams

easiest days of her life have been spent
wonders if she is loved, if she is missed
says a prayer as she's kissed by ocean mist
takes herself to the sand and dreams

-Red House Painters, "Summer Dress"

Every once in a while, I get this urge to escape the annoying problems and people in the city and run away to the ocean. Luckily, the coast is only a four hour drive from Windhoek so it’s entirely possible to do for the weekend, unlike Ottawa.

My pilot friend Daan couldn’t arrange flights for me this weekend, so I got to a ride to Swakopmund with Julia, who had business in Walvis Bay over the weekend. It was a gorgeous day for a road trip. Namibia’s countryside was looking green and alive, thanks to the rainy season, which was quite the change from the desert scenery that greeted me when I first arrived in the country.

On the road, I saw the most beautiful butterfly that was floating through the air. Then it ended up on our windshield.

We picked up hitch hikers just outside Okahandja, one woman traveling with two babies and one woman heading for Arandis carrying about thirty pounds of meat that she dumped in our trunk. They were quiet for the whole ride, as the ideal hitch hiker should be, and luckily didn’t seem to complain about the fact that Julia and I sang along to No Doubt’s entire Tragic Kingdom album for the whole trip.

Julia dropped me off in downtown Swakopmund. The two friends I had in town, Daan and Mark, were both still working, but I didn’t mind being left to myself. After all, I had come to the coast for one main activity: lying on the beach.

It was absolutely lovely. It seemed like everyone was out on the beach, swimming in the waves, surfing, kayaking, flying kites. Black men wore wool winter caps with their swimming trunks, a wardrobe combination I didn’t quite understand. Kids played in the sand having the time of their life. I fell asleep, soaking up the sun and feeling like nothing could ever annoy me again.

When I woke up, Daan had finished working at the airport and was grabbing a beer with two of his Namibian friends, Kali and Paulie, on the beach patio of the museum cafĂ©. Daan lives on the coast and gets around on his motorscooter. He is a pilot for a tourism company. Apparently the Swakopmund airport is temporarily closed for maintenance, so he has to do his flights on a sand strip just outside the city, where you can see springbok footprints all over the landing strip. Which must be a little frightening if you’re running a plane down it. Apparently some of the animals are not afraid of the airplanes and are instead attracted to them, such as ostriches. I can only imagine how disastrous that could be, both for the ostriches and the plane.

love this cafe patio on the beach

About halfway through our beer, Mark joined us. Mark splits his time between Windhoek and Swakopmund. He’s doing a PhD on the uranium mining industry, but not on the mines themselves. He studies people. Sometimes I think I would like to make a living studying people, but then I remember that I do things like run away to the ocean just to get away from people, so maybe not.

The boys and I took a walk down the scenic boardwalk lined with palm trees that traces the coastline. It’s quite beautiful, but smells kind of funny. This is because, as Mark and Daan tell me, they water the plants along the path with reused sewage water. This strikes me as not only gross but uncredibly unhygienic. I personally would like to be able to go for my jogs without risking health problems from airborne sewage stuff. Oh well. At least it looked pretty.

I'm pretty sure I saw someone playing my guitar, the one that had been stolen from my house.

We passed the million dollar beach houses, the jetty, the aquarium, and ended up at my favourite beach bar, Tiger Reef. We had come just in time to have a drink at sundown. I also ordered a basket of fish fillet, which was fried and fresh and delicious.

million dollar beach houses

the jetty

the beach bar

the dunes

enjoying the sunset

“This is what a proper beach bar is supposed to be like,” Mark said, who is from San Francisco. “A shack that looks like it was made from random wood and stuff collected from around here. And cheap food.”

I would like to know how I could arrange my life to live on an ocean beach.

After the sun went down, it got chilly so we decided to head to another bar that was indoors and warmer. We ended up at the Swakopmund Laundry, which seems to be a bar and a Laundromat. According to Julia, who had joined us by then, it was also where the sex workers in Swakopmund hang out. Julia is in town on an interesting work assignment: to count sex workers and men who sleep with men as part of a larger public health study on HIV/AIDS in Namibia. Basically, she goes to bars at nights and counts how many sex workers and gay men are around. Sometimes I think I would like to have a job like that. I mean, the last time I was in Walvis Bay, that’s what I did, and I wasn’t event getting paid for it.

While discussing this, a woman tapped me on the shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she said, “Two men were here asking about you, but I had told them you were gone because I thought you had left.”

My first thought was, of course, that someone was mistaking me for a sex worker once again. “Oh no, I’m not here for business…” I began.

“I think she’s talking about Paulie and Kali,” Mark pointed out.

“Oh.” They were trying to meet up with us again. Thank goodness. I didn’t want to be included in Julia’s count.

After our drinks, Mark and I left Julia and joined Paulie and Kali at the Desert Tavern, where Namibian musician Elemotho was playing a show. The bar was packed with a mixed crowd that included small children and an unusually high proportion of hippies and hipsters. I guess this is where they all hang out, on the coast. I mean, it makes sense: I was here.

Elemotho’s sound is a bit difficult to describe. You’d probably use words like “world music” which really says nothing about a sound at all while making it seem exotic. He plays a nice semi-acoustic guitar, and has an African sound fused with other genres like jazz and folk, a lot of percussion in form of rattles, and a flute player just to add that little Jethro Tull twist. It was a pretty fun show and the whole crowd was dancing. Especially when he played his reggae song “Where is the Ganja / From Okahandja” as an encore.

The next morning I woke up to the sound of gulls flying around the house, and the Russian rock that Daan was playing in the living room for some reason. I took a shower to wash the rest of the beach sand off my body, but felt my body covered in salt from the sea air immediately after stepping outside. I didn’t mind. There’s something great about smelling the sea from your front step. Daan told me every time he returns from a flight, his plane’s wings always taste like sea salt. I wanted to ask him if he really meant "taste", but then decided to let it be.

Daan lives in Tamariskia, which used to be the coloured township outside of Swakopmund. I walked back to town and stopped for breakfast at a bakery for some delicious fresh bread. As I smelled the ocean and watched people come in and out of the bakery, I reflected on how sometimes it’s easy to forget you’re in Africa and not just some beach town on the West Coast on a quiet Sunday morning. I don’t know what it is about the ocean that makes me feel so incredibly relaxed.

And then I went home in a rundown combie van packed full of Namibians like sardines in a tin can, blasting R&B the whole way home, and I remembered where I was. Another butterfly flew into the windshield and stayed pinned under the windshield wiper for the remainder of the trip. Time to go back to Windhoek.