Thursday, February 26, 2009


      Most people have never even heard of Namibia, and if you were to ask someone about it, they’d sooner think it was a disease than a country…but This Is Africa. The only thing that has really put Namibia on the world map is the adoption of a Namibian child by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Other than that, it doesn’t command much attention. Thus, I’d like to educate you about Namibia before detailing my travels there.

       Namibia is located in southern Africa on the Atlantic coast just north of South Africa. It is estimated to have a population of about 1.8 million people. With a landmass of about 319,000 sq mi, Namibia is the second least-densely populated country in the world after Mongolia, containing just 6.5 inhabitants/sq mi. Though the Europeans didn’t explore Namibia extensively until the 19th century, it became a German colony and was known as German South-West Africa, except for Walvis Bay (a major port city), which was under British control. Namibia was later occupied by South Africa’s apartheid government. In 1966, the South-West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) military wing, a guerilla group, launched a war of independence, but it wasn’t until 1988 that South Africa agreed to end its administration of Namibia. Independence came in 1990, and Walvis Bay was ceded to Namibia in 1994 upon the end of apartheid in South Africa. Namibia is one of Africa’s most developed and stable countries. SWAPO is the majority party in a stable multiparty parliamentary democracy, as it has been since it led Namibia to independence in the early 1990’s. However, Namibia has elections this upcoming November or December, and for the first time, SWAPO could be legitimately challenged. A group of SWAPO members have seceded from the party and have created a strong opposition that could win a majority. Even if they don’t, though, it is likely that support for them will bolster and they will become the main opposition party. The AIDS epidemic is a very large problem in Namibia, as the country’s infection rate of 20% is one of the highest on the continent, and Namibia shares a border with Botswana, which has the second highest rate of over 24%. The effects of HIV/AIDS have lowered the average age in the country to 16, and many children are orphaned because their parents either die from HIV/AIDS or are no longer able to care for them.

       Because Namibia is such a small and sparsely populated country, our arrival seemed like white-people imperialism all over again. We were a force to be reckoned with and we basically took over the country. Statistically, we boost the country’s GDP by 15%, and in the 3 days we were there, the 800 of us accounted for 10% of all the American tourists who will visit Namibia this year. Crazy, huh?

       When we docked in port, we had our first diplomatic briefing, which is where diplomats from the US Embassy in that country come and speak to us before we get off the boat. They tell us more about the country, its history and politics, current events, and also safety precautions. After this briefing, we were greeted by a girl’s choir that came all the way from Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, to sing for us. Not only did they sing, but they danced, played drums, and really gave us our first taste of African culture. They were all pretty young, some as young as 5 or 6 but none older than 13 or 14. Afterwards, they came onto the ship, which I know was a huge privilege and joy for them. I can’t verify this, but I heard that this was the first time they had seen the ocean. My friend, Maria, who is the coolest girl ever, saw them on the ship and gave them a tour. She bought them all ice cream and showed them her room. When they saw that she had collected instruments from different countries, the girls wanted to have a jam session. One girl in particular, Romencia, really touched her. Romencia comes from a disadvantaged background and her family doesn’t have the money to send her to college, but she’s really motivated, enjoys learning, and is driven to succeed. Maria was so inspired by her that she’s going to take out an extra loan for school and pay for Romencia’s education. I was so moved by Romencia’s passion and Maria’s generosity that I told Maria I’d either split the education cost with her or match what she pays. It may seem like a lot, but in the big scheme of things, it’s not. And, we have the money to do it, so why the hell not?

      In Namibia, I did a 3-day safari through a company called Wild Dog Safaris. In total, about 120 students from the ship were on the trip. We piled 14 people in a safari car and after a short drive around Walvis Bay, we headed up north to the Etosha conservancy on what we thought would be a 3-4 hour drive. Ha. It turned out to 8-9 hours. On our way, all 9 vans had to stop because one of the vans broke down. It was quite the site to see –100 white kids standing in the middle of the road, scattering when a car came, and then all doing the “blow the horn”sign every time a truck drove by. One car was nice enough to pull over and try to help us, but they weren’t able to. After what was probably an hour, we said, “screw it”and just took the people from the broken down bus and distributed them to the rest of the buses and continued on our jolly way. Now, I must say, we had A LOT of fun on our 9-hour bus ride. I mean, what else are you supposed to do to entertain yourself for that long? We played a lot of games, blasted music (especially the Lion King soundtrack over and over again), sang old school tunes, and danced in the aisle. If you see the pictures, our bus looks more like a dance club than a bus. Not only did we do some quality bonding, but it definitely helped pass the time. It was funny at one point because we were driving down the highway and this animal came darting across the road right in front of our van. Our driver had to slam on the breaks and everyone went flying forward and fell down. Don’t worry; no one got hurt. But it was pretty crazy seeing animals just fly across the road like that.

       Namibia wasn’t quite what I expected. It was sort of like Morocco where I expected one thing, but then there was just so much more than that. I expected desert and sand everywhere. When we left Walvis Bay, this was certainly the case, with a few mountains dispersed here and there. But when we got to Etosha, there was lush greenery and vegetation everywhere. We arrived in Etosha around 9pm, and by this time, it was pitch dark. It was raining too; not absolutely dumping, but raining hard enough. Trying to set up tents was a disaster. I had the hardest time setting mine up and I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. At this point, everyone else had their tents up. It turned out that my tent only had 12 poles to make the frame instead of 16. Go figure. You can do it with one missing but not four. I ended up just bunking in someone else’s tent. I managed to stay somewhat dry so that was good. That night, our drivers, Elias and Matthew (who were awesome), made us dinner. We ate spaghetti and meat sauce the first night and lamb the second night. It was delicious.

       The next morning, we had an early wake-up. After a quick breakfast, we hit the road on our safari. This was my first safari ever, so needless to say, I was really excited. For those of you who may be confused, you don’t get out of the car during a safari to chill with the animals. You only do that on a hunting safari to kill them. One girl in our car didn’t know that so she kept asking to get out of the vehicle to take pictures with the animals. She got a resounding “no”from our drivers every time despite her efforts to bribe them. The dumb comment added to her list of “Karenisms”. After our start, we were lucky because we had quite a few sightings early on. The first thing we saw was a springbok. Of course, because it was the first thing we saw, everyone flocked to the right side of the vehicle and snapped a bagillion pictures. Little did we realize that springbok are EVERYWHERE. For this very reason, it became our drink of choice in South Africa. Later, we saw herds and herds of springbok. Someone remarked that if they saw another springbok, they were gonna kill it. Shortly after the first springbok, we saw a giraffe in the distance. Giraffes are beautiful animals. Not only are their colors and patterns beautiful, but they’re also very graceful. May sound weird, but probably one of those things you have to see to believe. Throughout the day, we saw herds of springbok, a family of giraffes, a family of zebras (they circled our car when we stopped on one of the roads), a few impalas, a warthog (Hakuna Matata), a few ostriches, and two lions (but they were really far from the car lounging under a tree). We saw two impalas get into a fight, which was really cool. They just kept locking their horns and pushing at each other. We almost saw a lion go on the chase for prey. He put his head up and he stared for a good 2 minutes at a springbok that was about 100 yards away. We tried to egg him on, but when he put his head down, there was a collective, disappointed “awww”. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any elephants. February is their summer, which is also their rainy season, and that’s when the elephants migrate farther north to warmer, dryer weather. I don’t really know what else to say about the safari. We saw lots of animals. On our drive back to the camp, the scenery was so incredibly cool. There were fluffy, white, popcorn-shaped clouds in the sky. Couple that with the green vegetation on the ground and you have the background for Windows ’
       That night at our campsite, we ate dinner and spent some time at the pool. It was really cool; I randomly met an American couple that works for the American Embassy in Namibia. I talked to the husband mostly and he’s been in the Foreign Service for 17 years now, 12 of which have been in Africa. He’s been in Cairo, Zimbabwe, Namibia and I forgot where else. We talked about the Foreign Service exam and what the experience is like. It’s definitely something I want to look into for the future. I thought you had to have a lot of experience and probably a graduate degree, but apparently they take people right out of undergrad if they’ve passed the exam. So who knows what’ll happen. That night, I also talked to our guide, Elias, about Namibia. They’re not supposed to talk about politics and whatnot, but I squeezed it out of him. I explained how our government works. He always hears about the Senate, but he never knew what it was or what it did. He also said that people are hopeful for Obama, but they fear the challenges he’s up against may be too great for him to solve, so they’re going to wait and see what he does. Namibia is also the best country in the world to stargaze. That night, we saw the Milky Way, Orion’s Belt, and the Southern Cross (but that was only after I “got outta town on a boat to the Southern Islands”…Crosby, Stills, and Nash anyone?).

       The last morning, we woke up early once again. After packing up our gear, a few of us skipped breakfast to climb the steps of a castle tower on the campground in order to see the sunrise at 6:45am. We were up there for a good 20 minutes, but we had to leave just before the sun peaked. I was so livid. I think that was the first time it really sunk in that I was in Africa. I mean, the giraffes and zebras started that process, but an African sunrise is distinct from all the rest. The sky was lit up orange and red from east to west. It was bliss.

       Our ride back was like the ride there but with a little more sleep, a little less debauchery, and just as much fun. We definitely got hooked on the ‘t go to the dunes in Namibia, which has the largest dune in the world called “Big Daddy”and stands at about 1,000 feet, but our stop made up for it, I guess. I also wish I could’ve gone ATVing (4x4) and spent time in Swakupmund, but those things will just have to wait until next time.

       Sorry this took so long but we were in Namibia, we had one day at sea, then we were in South Africa for 5 days, and we’re also in the middle of exams. But more is to come soon. If you haven’t checked out my pictures, I uploaded some on Facebook from the Bahamas, Spain, and Morocco. Enjoy!

Can’t forget a quick shout out to BUS #2! BUS #2!

“There is no passion to be found in playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living”–Nelson Mandela


1 comment:

  1. Matt,
    this blog is fantastic! Keep on keeping on guy.