I was picked up in a car at my guesthouse at 9am (a half hour late) for my Etosha tour. There was a British woman driving, and another girl who’d been picked up before me. As per usual, I went into chit-chat mode, and within a couple minutes, I’d learned that she’d came to Namibia many years ago and ended up marrying her tour guide. I asked her if they were still together, and she told me he’d subsequently died in a car accident on a later tour. Awkward silence. The trip was off to a great start!
Me and the other girl were brought to the tour company’s office to gather the group. Folks started slowly trickling in, and I once again tried to get the conversations going, and with less awkward silences. Before long, we were 14 folks: 12 Europeans (A handful of Germans, an Austrian, Belgian, Pole, and a Dutch couple), a Thai man, and me representing the western hemisphere. A large overland truck arrived and our bags were loaded in followed by us, our guide, and a helper, both Ovambo. I ended up seated next to a German girl. We were told to buckle our seat belts, but mine was missing the buckle. “Hold on!” I was told. Adventure!
The ride was mostly uneventful, with a couple stops for fuel, an uninspired lunch, and a chance to shop for snacks, water, or alcohol. The girl next to me was a teacher in Munster, a town I knew of due to the cheese (which isn’t named for it) and its bloody history during Protestant Reformation (thanks, Hardcore History!). We had a great chat as our large overland truck cruised down the paved highway, baking sans-aircon in the desolate desert. By the time we arrived at the Etosha gate at 4, I’d firmly cemented my reputation with my travel mates as the ebullient American, just how I like it.
No sooner did we pass through the first little settlement inside the park when the animals Etosha is famous for started making their appearances. First, a massive bull elephant wandered out of a watering hole, gave itself a nice dirt bath, and wandered into misbehaving tourist traffic, releasing its bladder and bowels as it lumbered at foolish cars.
Etosha National Park is built around the Etosha Pan, a large flat salt lake bed that periodically fills with a thin layer of water, and subsequently (nearly completely) dries. Winter being the dry season, when it was in sight, it resembled the Black Rock Desert in summer, with the exception that the pan extends all the way to the horizon, seemingly endless. At 4,800 km2, the pan’s size is no mere optical illusion.
When water in the pan recedes, it leaves traces of water around the edge that animals use as watering holes even in the dry season. Not to rely too much on nature, interspersed in the human trafficked parts of the park are man-made watering holes with large water pumps standing a suitable distance away from camera lenses. Add in fencing around the entire park, as well as all the settlements that serve as overnight spots for people, and visiting Etosha feels like driving into the world’s largest African animal exhibit at a zoo for giants. We passed springbok, hyenas, warthogs, zebra, ostriches, and wildebeest (I never get tired of that word) within only a handful of kilometers of the gate; each appearance punctuated by the sharp staccato of camera shutters and vehicle traffic. It was super impressive.
Before sunset, we rolled into the settlement that would be our home for the evening. Our guides unloaded the bags and tossed heavy canvas 2-man tents down from the roof. Me and the old Thai man were the only solo males traveling, so we were paired up to share an old beat-up South African tent. Once we were set up, the guides set about braai-ing us dinner. In the meantime, at the edge of the settlement was an illuminated watering hole to watch wildlife, and our guide explained it was one of the best places in the park to catch animals. He wasn’t mistaken.
It was a hell of a night. Sitting with new friends, so much animal melodrama played out on the banks of the watering hole that there were time we couldn’t contain our laughter at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. As the sun was setting, giraffes’ long necks appeared on the horizon, silhouetted against the sky’s shifting red and blues. In the dark, elephants by the dozens came, drank, wrestled, and played out complicated social dances I couldn’t entirely follow, but sat rapt with fascination. White rhinos came and went; so, too, howling jackals. Bats and birds flew feasting on the flying insects drawn to the lights. A cornucopia of stars shined in the night sky. Photos were difficulty in the darkness.
Also, delicious dinner of stir fry was served. Beer was consumed and friends were made. We spoke of languages, culture, bad music, animals, religion and politics. I converted a few folks to Pastafarianism. This reverend has now done missionary work in Africa, how cliché. I enjoyed repeatedly mispronouncing “sternschnuppe” — German for shooting star — while witnessing said phenomenon over and over and over again. I tried halfheartedly to snap some photos of the sky, fully aware they’d never do it justice. Then I showered and slept like a baby. 6am was reveille, and tents and things needed to be packed before breakfast.
I woke up refreshed and broke down the tent myself in a few short minutes, gaining me a high-five from my tent mate who’d gone to brush his teeth. Breakfast wasn’t ready yet, but folks were already clamoring about a lion at the watering hole, so I set out once again to be amazed by the unending animal parade. In the calm morning light, a lone female lion stood alternating between gazing at the scenery and lapping at the shore of the water. Another jackal trotted by carefree. I took in the peaceful moment and headed back to camp. Breakfast was a nearly-full English breakfast, and afterwards the guides sent us to a nearby viewpoint tower while they put the finishing touches on the truck.
The group was in high spirits after the night of animals and banter. We’d connected. Even out guide got into the show, occasionally barking commands at or assigning blame to yours truly by name. We had a full day of so-called “game driving,” bouncing in our truck from watering hole to watering hole, taking in more animals: a pack of lions, hartebeest, eland, and impala.
I took several hundred photos. Our group joked and bounced and clamored over one another for the best views. We shared another middling lunch. Armies of zebra, roving bands of wildebeest, and playful gangs of elephants seemed around every corner and behind every thicket of trees. A lone black rhino chomped on shrubs in the distance. Eventually, we came to another settlement at the other end of the park, a former German military settlement complete with early-20th century fort, and it was time to once again pitch our tents for the evening.
I took in the sunset on the top of the fort per our guide’s recommendation. I befriended a cosmopolitan French family who passed along their contact info should I make it to Lyon. We were adjacent to another watering hole, but repeated visits granted a view of not much more than throngs of tourists and seething, boisterously loud flocks of birds. Instead I took my new German teacher friend aside to teach her how to take photos of the sky. I managed to get one half-decent shot.
Our final dinner was a hearty braai of sausage, mutton chops, garlic bread, baked potatoes, and salad. I ate myself stupid. I learned that my new Austrian friend (and future veterinarian) has access to baby capybaras I can feed, thereby adding Vienna to my list of destinations. Finishing the night was more beer, bonding, and bed.
Morning, breakdown, breakfast, and loading. I did my best to make myself useful. We swung by a final pair of watering holes on the way to the gate, but this side of the park was uncharacteristically quiet. Then we were rumbling down the road in relative quiet, the gang worn out from the excitement of the weekend.
We had a long drive back to Windhoek, and given my rapidly-approaching solitary status, I couldn’t abide the quiet. I kicked off a game of “two truths and a lie” and got most of the group in on it, each in turn revealing ridiculous stories about their past to talk about. We stopped in a small town along the way known for their wood carvings so folks with more space than me for such things could be aggressively harassed to buy things (aka shopping) by locals in small huts overflowing with nicknacks, then it was on to Windhoek for bittersweet goodbyes.
Before my accident, I had intentions of visiting Etosha National Park in northern Namibia. As I learned in Sossusvlei, motorcycles can’t enter National Parks in Namibia, so I either needed to join an organized group or rent a car and camp on my own. I figured it’d be nice to have the company (and guide) afforded by an organized tour, but in the din of San Francisco, I didn’t get around to organizing one before hitting the ground in Africa. Unfortunately, it was now the middle of the high tourist season, and things were remarkably booked up. Cars were readily available, but sadly, camping sites (what I wanted) were also fully booked up. I ended up booking a tour nearly two weeks out. Luckily, I’d made great friends with my guesthouse owner as I’d be here for awhile.
The time passed slowly, with ample relaxing, playing cards, making some easy adjustments and repairs to my bike (chain, mirrors, blinkers, etc.), hanging out with people and animals, and living the local Windhoek life. I learned a new card game. I taught the locals Euchre. We even played a couple games of Settlers of Catan. I made new friends, I talked about life, politics, race, and America. I learned some Afrikaans, and a lot about Namibian history and life.
I discovered that before my accident, a reporter I’d met at the Cardboard Box and corresponded with had written an article about my travels in the most popular newspaper in Namibia (The Namibian), and that it had been put in the newspaper! I managed to snag a couple copies from their office and send them back home. There was even a teaser about the article on the front page!
Before heading to Etosha, I also went to the Düsternbrook Guest Farm with my new guesthouse friends for a couple nights of camping and animal viewing. The place is a few hours from Windhoek, past a giant chicken farm, through a number of farm gates down a dirt road. They’ve got camping spots, chalets, tons of birds, kudu, springbok, hippos, and a few large enclosures with cheetahs and leopards. We camped by a dry riverbed, cooking and drinking the nights away, and drove/walked around looking at hippos and animals during the day. We also rode along for a cheetah and leopard feeding, which afforded close-ups with the impressive cats and tons of amazing photos.
After the camping trip, we headed back to Windhoek, and then it was time to head off on my tour to Etosha.
There are few enviable components of 37 hours of airports and air travel. Worse still is lugging two backpacks through the process with a sling and four broken bones. Addis Ababa airport is icing on the proverbial cake (if you’re curious why, ask me in person and watch the subsequent contortions of my face). Nonetheless, there were two high points to flying Windhoek->Addis Ababa->Dublin->Washington DC->San Francisco: I witnessed incredible (but sadly un-photographed) fires blazing in the dark deserts of Egypt from my window seat, and I met an awesome researcher from Berkeley working on a solar probe for NASA on the last leg.
San Francisco meant friends, family, recovery, and the pains of leaving once again. I turned 33. I had a party. I ate all the foods I’ve missed in Michigan and Africa. I drank beer that wasn’t middling pilsners and lagers. I witnessed a friend crush a reading comprehension test while getting a lap dance at a burlesque show. I danced on stage with Girl Talk. I sang along with the songwriters from The Animaniacs. My shoulder began to feel fine. My ribs improved remarkably. I got sunburned. I slept in, or didn’t. Mostly, I was reminded about the amazing community I have in what’s been my chosen home. To all those members of that community, you once again have my heartfelt love, appreciation, and respect.
Two months of love and amelioration and it was time once again to return to Southern Africa. The proverbial show must go on. My path was nearly the same as before, but became a nearly 40 hour affair due to an unscheduled stopover in Lusaka, Zambia, supposedly for refueling, followed by a dauntingly long immigration queue in Windhoek (thanks in no small part to a large group of Chinese passengers in front of me who took over every immigration agent while the one of them who spoke English translated for each and every individual member of the party). Finally, I was dumped into the morass of jet-lag and the friendly hands of Sam, the owner of the C’est la Vie guesthouse, who had agreed to pick me up at the airport and take me to my last African home. We stopped for a beer on the way back. Windhoek Lager never tasted so good. Cheers to more adventures with an extra helping of safety!
Having fallen into a somewhat reasonable schedule, I awoke with plenty of time to find a leisurely breakfast in Swakopmund and properly begin my day. Leisurely for me means avoiding packing the bike before heading out to food, as then I don’t have to keep an eagle-eye on my possessions while I eat. Extra points this morning went to a spot I’d found with proper coffee, a rare luxury.
After breakfast, I packed my things and checked out of my room. I was heading back from whence I’d came, to Windhoek, but along the alternate scenic route: a shorter dirt road through the mountains south of the main highway. Google estimated an easy 4.5 hours along C-28, with the first 45 minutes or so paved and hugging another of the ubiquitous pipelines. The road was flat and extremely straight, the road and adjacent pipeline making up nearly all the signs of human life. In all directions, barren desert greeted the eye. Eventually, the pavement ended at a turnoff for one of the many uranium mines in the area, and my nearly 300km dirt adventure began, arcing up into the foothills and mountains.
Rocks, scrub-grass, and scraggly bushes replaced the endless blowing sand. Larger and larger crags supplanted the great brown plane. About an hour in, a perfect pile of rocks rose up on the side of the road, and I pulled to the side of the road. I gathered up my various snacks and water and scrabbled up to the top of the hill to enjoy my lunch with a view. It was perfectly still and silent, with only the occasional large bird coasting on a thermal to differentiate the scene from a postcard. It seemed I had it all to myself. I devoured my food in a state of blissful content.
I repacked my things and continued down the road, winding through tighter turns and steeper grades. The road varied as usual between hardtack, loose sand, and loose strewn rocks. Cresting a mountain top, the road dipped into a decline and curved blindly right. I curved with it, but a little too fast, as the curve tightened as it went (a “decreasing radius turn” in the parlance of cyclists). Squeezing the brakes with time-worn skills, I attempted to slow, my rear wheel skidding through the thick loose earth. A few seconds into it, my conscious brain was fully aware of the rapidly-approaching reality: I wasn’t going to make it vertically through the turn.
My heart rate increased, my senses sharpened, but no panic came; I’d been through this before, and I wasn’t actually going all that fast (I’d estimate around 30mph). My mind quickly estimated some bruises and scrapes in my near future, but nothing more. I continued my skidding path towards the outside of the turn, eventually sliding onto the shoulder. Immediately, the tires sunk into the thick sand of the shoulder and the bike ceased all forward movement. The momentum translated into angular motion, with the bike swinging to the right. Hard.
The wind was knocked from my lungs. I was shocked by the feeling of pain coursing through my body. I began to sweat and curse. I turned the bike off, pulled myself out from under it, took my helmet, gloves, and jacket off, and sat on the edge of the road. Getting out of the jacket was particularly painful. I was breathing quickly, nearly hyperventilating. My side and shoulder hurt in a deep and sickening way. My mind immediately went to my clavicle, which I’d broken before. I ran my left hand across it and was happy to feel one continuous line. Then I raised my right arm and felt the bottom half of my clavicle separate. I sat down again and resumed cursing.
In that moment sitting on the side of the road, my head buzzed with thoughts and emotions. I felt like my trip was over. I felt like a failure. I felt sick with pain and buzzing with adrenaline. I felt alone and overcome.
But I had options. I could trigger the 911 setting of my SPOT communicator and be rescued, but my bike and the majority of my things would likely not come with me. I could wait and try to flag another vehicle down and ask for help. Or I could pick up the bike and ride the rest of the way to Windhoek and check myself into a hospital. Only the last option made sense. I would try my best.
To continue on, I had to right the bike. This was no easy task. I’d landed off the edge of the road, and in thick sandy dirt. It was hard to get a sure footing, and even harder to get under the bike (the usual protocol is to sit with your back to the bike as low as possible and more-or-less walk backwards while standing you and the bike up). I gave it a few tries as is and made no progress. I took off the backpack on the back seat to get a larger area to push. I sat on the ground and wrapped my arms under the handlebars and panniers. I began to push and lift. The pain in my chest was enormous. My field of vision narrowed. When the bike was halfway up, I nearly lost my strength, but adrenaline is a hell of a drug, and somehow I pushed through the pain with one last effort.
The bike nearly fell over the other way as I struggled in my daze to hold it steady while I got the kickstand down. I collapsed back on the side of the road, suddenly starving and dehydrated. I gulped down water in huge sips and devoured what was left of my biltong. Sweat beaded out all over my body as I looked over the bike from the shade-less roadside. My right mirror lens had been mildly shattered and its stalk loosened from its mooring, and my right highway peg was loose. I got up and gave it a once-over, but couldn’t see any other damage. I started it to make sure it still ran. It caught on the first turn. I turned it off and took out my phone.
I pulled up a map of Windhoek and looked up hospitals (thank goodness for Google Maps’ offline cache). There were a few options, the highest rated of which was the Rhino Park Private Hospital. Unfamiliar with Namibian health care, I was swayed by the word “private” and the high rating. I clicked navigate and steeled myself for what was to come.
I stared at the standing bike. Dual sport motorcycles like mine are high slung, and my first couple attempts at swinging my leg over the seat were met with sharp pain in my chest and guts. At one point, my foot caught on the far side of the seat, my other leg hopping for balance, and I nearly pulled the bike over sideways, the kickstand sinking deep into the loose earth, before extricating myself and stabilizing things again. I took a deep breath, stabilized my breathing, and tried to calm my nerves, old lessons from a round-footed Thai Chi instructor. I approached the bike, lowered my body slightly, and managed an incredibly awkward leaping high-kick that ended with my and the bike upright, my left hand clutching my side.
I restarted the bike, set my jaw, and set off. Controlling a motorcycle throttle involves twisting the right handlebar. This meant my right arm needed to stay more-or-less glued to the handlebar, forcing my clavicle to be in a constant state of painful stress. I continued slowly down the dirt road, every rock and bump a shooting pain starting deep in the pit of my stomach and rising through my arm. I navigated the winding road deliberately, extraordinarily aware that a miss-step now could have horrible consequences. Every turn flashed visions of tumbling down on my right side, and hideous images of the floating lower half of my clavicle punching through skin or lungs. Interspersed between these dark thoughts came the doubts about the rest of my travels, fear of the uncertainty of the state of Namibian health care, and the life-long impact of another broken clavicle (the left I broke in 2008 healed poorly and has effected my ability to lay on my left side ever since).
I continued steadily down the dirt road. The scenery was beautiful and desolate. Emotions welled in my head. After an hour, the sharp feeling of awareness and associated tolerance for pain associated with adrenaline began to ware off. The vibrations of the road took on new dimensions of pain. My breathing was shallow, as anything more triggered more unwelcome pain in my chest and side. An hour later, I had to switch the main fuel supply onto reserve. The beautiful desolation of the remote mountains continued.
Another hour passed. To the aches added soreness, but also relief as the dirt turned back to tarmac and the first signs of Windhoek loomed around the foothills of Windhoek. After a couple miles of smooth riding, the old familiar chugging of an empty fuel tank interrupted my internal homily. I pulled onto the shoulder and stood on the side of the road. I focused my willpower to jump off the bike and add my reserve fuel tank to the main one. While refueling, I realized my GoPro’s mount had broken and the camera had disappeared somewhere along the way (I know it was still present when I picked the bike up). I cursed to myself (I’d wanted the photos of the accident itself) but had other things to worry about. I repeated my graceless mounting and continued, tears welling in my eyes through the pain.
I pulled up to the Rhino Park Private Hospital, waves of relief and nausea pulsing in the back of my throat. I dismounted painfully and walked into the reception area. Through pitiful looks, the receptionist explained that this hospital had no ER, and kindly referred me to the Roman Catholic Hospital downtown, a few miles away. I held back my frustration, thanked her, and repeated the self-flagellation of mounting my motorcycle. I plotted a path to the Roman Catholic Hospital through increasing city traffic and arrived as the day was yielding to evening.
Park, dismount, snag my tank bag, and check-in. I was given a pile of paperwork to fill out and asked about my medical ID card. When I explained my situation, they asked for a credit card and placed a large deposit down for services. I thanked the universe for the miracles of credit cards and my high credit limits (yay privilege!) and was finally granted entry through the door to the ER. I begged the attending nurse to grab the large backpack on the back seat of my bike outside before it grew legs and was awash with thanks when he complied.
A hand-written ID bracelet was attached to my wrist. I was walked to a bed. Laying back in it brought forth a brutal reminder that any sort of abdominal effort had become excruciating. A nurse came forward to place an IV line into my arm. Never had I been so excited to see a needle destined for my flesh… which he proceeded to dig through for a solid 3 minutes as my teeth clenched searching for a vein. Eventually, another nurse overheard him repeatedly saying “don’t worry, we’ve got it,” came over, kicked him out, and started from scratch on my other arm. Next came my first taste of Namibian pain killers: basically liquid aspirin. Fuck it, it was better than nothing.
I managed to convince a kind staff member to type a stray conference room wifi network password into my phone so I could pass info about my whereabouts back home. One Dr. Karl Frielingsdorf came in and poked and prodded me painfully in the arms, shoulder, chest, and abdomen. Next I was thrown onto a wheelchair and I sent for a series of x-rays and my first CT scan to check for neck/spine damage. Again my credit card was ran (less than $50 for x-rays, obvious more for a CT scan), and had the pleasure of posing shirtless with my right arm raised painfully above my head. The CT scan was equally unpleasant, with an inexplicable watery feeling flushing through my chest as the contrast dye was pushed mechanically through my veins as expensive machinery hummer and spun around my head. Finally, I was wheeled into a private room with an en suite bathroom and TV. Unbelievably starving (it was well into the evening now), I flagged down the first nurse I could find and asked for food. I barely had time to look at what they brought me before it was gone. Sated, I finally had the opportunity to take a shower and change into clean clothes, amazed that my body appeared devoid of bruises.
I waited patiently for news. Eventually, the friendly doctor I’d met in the ER came in with a handful of x-rays. In an adorable accent and impressive bedside manner for someone who is clearly perpetually in a rush he broke the news (pun intended): I’d fractured my 2nd, 5th, and 6th ribs along with my clavicle. Because of my previous experience with a broken clavicle, I asked about having a plate put in to align my clavicle and ensure it healed where it belonged. The doctor said I didn’t need one, but that it was an option. In a rush to continue his rounds, he told me to get comfortable; I’d be there a few days recovering.
On another visit, we spoke more about the options. It turned out he was an orthopedic surgeon and would be the one to do the surgery if I went that way. Concerned in a distinctly American fashion about health care abroad, I pressed for details of the procedure to decide if my first real surgery (discounting wisdom teeth removal) would be in Namibia. He told me I’d be put under using the “Michael Jackson drug,” and be getting an “American made” titanium plate and screws from Acumed. I did my research. Dr. Frielingsdorf was a well respected surgeon, seemingly very well known in Windhoek, who graduated from Stellenbosch University, one of the top medical schools in Africa. Acumed is the first Google result for clavicle plates. Michael Jackson died of propofol, and he clearly had good taste in drugs. Namibian surgery it would be!
The next three nights dragged on in a manner familiar to anyone familiar with hospital convalescence. A string of disaffected nurses (sister in this Catholic hospital) paraded through my room at intervals, including in the middle of the night, taking vitals, swapping IV solution and shitty pain meds, and frowning. A friendly physiotherapist came by and subjected me to painful exercises including breathing in and out of a tube attached to a plastic box. Every morning, a bored and droning voice read scripture in an unemotional monotone over a pervasive intercom system. I watched TV. I read my books. I stared at the wall. I ate terrible food (though honestly far from the worst hospital food in the world). Every excursion in and out of bed was met with a horrible shooting pain from my broken ribs, always accompanied by a dull sickening feeling I associate with your body telling you you’ve hurt yourself in a significant way. One morning I discovered the unfortunate fact that hiccups with broken ribs is fucking excruciating, and simultaneously that significant pain is a pretty good cure for hiccups.
I began to consider my options for recovery. Broken ribs suck. A lot. There was no way I was going to suffer the inherent effort and pain of international motorcycle adventuring with the added pain of my ribs, not to mention the additional risk of injury before my bones were healed. I also wasn’t ready to give up and go home. There was only one path that seemed to make sense: find a place to keep the bike for awhile and go back home to San Francisco to recover, and return and continue my adventure when I was whole again. The show would go on, but there would be a 6 week or so intermission.
After two nights, the doctor came by to tell me I’d be discharged the following morning with a sling and a box of Tylenol with codeine, not to mention my trusty plastic box with a tube I got to painfully breathe into a few times a day. We made an appointment for me to come to his office for a final consult prior to the surgery, which he said could be done in two or three days time depending on his schedule. Unwilling to suffer the social requirements of a hostel, I booked a room at the C’est la Vie guesthouse, which had good reviews especially for the breakfasts, near his office in the Eros neighborhood of Windhoek for the following night.
I was woken the next morning at 6am by the nurses on their rounds. I couldn’t get back to sleep, and waited until 9 when I was handed my discharge paperwork. I hadn’t exhausted my initial deposit, and was told I’d be refunded the balance. I was relieved to see my motorcycle hadn’t moved from its location in the parking garage, and I cringed with effort as I packed my things for my travels. I took off my sling and put on my motorcycle jacket. I stared at the bike ruefully with the anticipation of the upcoming tribulations, took a deep breath, and winced as I got on.
It was still early in the morning, and my guesthouse didn’t have check-in until 2pm, but I headed there anyways in the hopes of parking the bike, unloading, and resting. I painfully rode through Windhoek’s streets and pulled up to the gate around 10am. There was no answer. I waited outside for awhile, feeling sore and exhausted. Eventually I went to the closest gas station to fill up since my bike was running on fumes. Dismount, wince, fill up, remount, wince, dismount, wince. This time a woman greeted me at the gate and let me in. Despite my motorcycle jacket and before I’d carried anything, she asked me if there was something wrong with my arm. My explanation was met with sympathy, and thankfully a place to unload while my room was cleaned for check-in.
I took in my surroundings as I waited. C’est la Vie was a gated plot of land with a large house in the front. In back was a large patio attached to the house, a yard with a pool (drained for the season, as well as the ongoing drought), and a building with three guest rooms. Wandering around were three dogs, three cats, and a tame rooster. As soon as I sat down, two of the cats approached and competed for my attention with an insatiable desire for affection. A tiny half-blind-and-epileptic dog named Sushi waddled up constantly licking its muzzle. Even the rooster came up, said hi, and let me pet it. It was just the animal therapy I needed.
When the room became available, I went in for a much-needed nap. The orange cat, appropriately named Garfield, followed me in. I got ready to collapse into a painful heap, the cat following me around my room like a pack animal. When I was ready for bed, I tried to herd the cat out so I could shut the door, but his resolve exceeded my own. I left the door open and climbed into bed, groaning as I lowered myself prostrate. The cat hopped onto the bed and climbed up onto my chest. I guided him into a position away from my broken pieces and passed out cradling him, contented far from the smells of sickness and bleach, interrupting nurses, and walls of medical equipment.
I woke up several hours later still pleasantly attached to fur and found a place for dinner. My body rejoiced the light exercise of the ten minute walk, and what appetite I could muster was well-rewarded by a steak dinner at a massive tourist-trap restaurant. Better still, a beer and a Coca Cola! Civilization, I’d missed thee!
The healing body has an incredible appetite for sleep, and who am I not to indulge it. The next morning, I walked out of my room and onto the patio for a huge and delicious breakfast spread prepared by Sam, the owner of the guesthouse and mother the trio of kids that lived here with the trios of dogs, cats, and other animal odds and ends (two rats, a parrot, and a wild bird with a broken leg she was nursing to health). Included in breakfast was a french press full of actual coffee, the first I’d had in ages in this land of the powdered shit so much of the world suffers. Ahhh, there’s my privilege again!
In the afternoon, I walked over to another hospital near my doctor’s office for more x-rays. I was reminded that a medical imaging waiting room is a sorry sight, but my wait was pleasantly short, and upon entering I was greeted by the same technician I’d seen on my first night of convalescence, who seemed genuinely excited to see me. More painful body contortions and I was off to the surgeon, large floppy x-ray film in hand. Amusingly, half the folks from the medical imaging waiting room awaited me in Dr. Frielingsdorf’s equivalent. Presently, I was ushered into his office, filled with diplomas and impressive-looking awards. I continued to be impressed by his charisma as he looked at my new x-rays and tried in vain to talk me out of the surgery. We then settled into specifics, which included my surgery date: the next evening. I was then handed off to an assistant who gave me paperwork on prices for the anesthesiologist, hospital, and Dr. Frielingsdorf himself, the last of which needed payment before the procedure in cash by the next morning! I’ll say, Namibian health care prices are pretty goddamn reasonable, but it still took 5 rounds through ATM’s at maximum withdrawal to assemble the required cash for the surgeon’s portion of the procedure, and between the hovering guards present at each ATM in Windhoek, and my previous experiences here, I was understandably nervous taking out and carrying that amount of cash…
I treated myself to a final nice meal before my requisite surgical fasting, and subsequent hospital fare, and then another good night’s rest at my guesthouse. In the morning, I was sad to leave without another of the fantastic breakfasts. Full of paranoia, I carried my backpack full of (the good kind of) blood money to the doctor’s office. The compassionate owner of the guesthouse agreed to let me leave my things, including my bike, as she’d drive me to the hospital! The joy of avoiding riding my motorcycle to the hospital, especially enduring the process of getting on and off, helped put off the small but undeniable existential fear of going under the knife for the first time.
At the hospital, a friendly and familiar face from the x-ray and surgeon’s waiting rooms greeted me and we chatted. He was a local who’d been assaulted with a board by muggers when taking out his trash before work. They’d shattered his elbow and he was scheduled to have it re-assembled after my own surgery. In a twisted way, seeing his injury made me feel better about my own simpler one.
I got checked in and brought to a room a few doors down from my previous one. I was handed a gown and some paper underwear and told to change. They were some sweet duds.
Restless with anticipation, I awaited my call to the theater. Eventually I was put on a gurney, wheeled to a preparation area, and left next to another surgery patient for my turn. The minutes dragged on, then were suddenly interrupted by a cacophony of activity as a be-gowned Dr. Frielingsdorf, two nurses, and an anesthesiologist burst into the area. My futile attempts at conversation, most of which were focused on repeatedly re-affirming they knew which side to cut, were quickly interrupted by an injection. Seconds later, my limbs grew heavy, my mind cloudy, and I was back in my room. Jesus, MJ! You were hardcore!
My mind struggled with the disjointed memories, and my hand went to my shoulder. Instead of flesh, I felt a bandage with my fingers, but my shoulder registered no touch. I poked and prodded the extent of the numbness. My mind went to warnings the doctor had given of nerve damage. My mind wandered to the implications of the potential loss of feeling. It also registered the relative lack of discomfort, and the ease at which my arm moved, and rejoiced. I ran my hand along the curve of my clavicle, marveling at the continuity and shuddering at the perceptible notches of the stitches below the bandage.
Sleep came easy with the exhaustion and post-surgical haze. The next morning I was sent a third time for x-rays to check on my results. They wheeld me back after with them in my lap, and I marveled at my own insides. Later, my surgeon came to check on me. I attempted a joke about how easy and routine my surgery must have been, but it stumbled as he replied with gravely that no surgery is routine. Then he smiled with pride at the x-rays, in which the fracture line is nearly imperceptible, then scurried off saying he’d see me later. What desire I’ve ever had to be a surgeon went with him — I have no desire for that degree of time management.
The day passed slowly, and I mentally cursed the nurse who’d connected my IV line, as there was no quick disconnect to provide me freedom from the wheeled IV holder. It meant I couldn’t even put a shirt on, or go for a walk without dragging the chrome IV tree with me like my best friend. In the afternoon, the surgeon came back and told me I’d be staying another night, leaving in the morning once again. I finally had a timeline, so I found the cheapest one-way flight back to SF from Windhoek and booked it, leaving four days later.
I hadn’t known how long I’d be hospitalized, so I hadn’t booked accommodations for after. I called the C’est la Vie guesthouse, but they were booked solid for the next night, but I went ahead and booked the last two nights before my flight there. In the meantime, I had one night in a cheap Chinese guesthouse down the street. Once accommodations were settled, I relaxed and waited for what I hope will be my last night in a hospital for a very very long time.
In the morning, I got a pile of medications (blood thinners, more pain killers, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatories), and an even bigger pile of paperwork to ultimately submit to my travel insurance. I snagged a cab to my Chinese guesthouse for the night, dropped off my bags, and accepted my continual new painful and sedentary existence. The time passed uneventfully, and the next morning, one of the guesthouse owners was kind enough to drive me over to C’est la Vie and reunite with my things, and the friendly folks and animals there.
In my last two days in Windhoek, I made dozens of calls trying to find safe storage for my motorcycle, was forced to go to the Ethiopian Airlines office to “verify” my credit card, and eventually had all my needs straightened out by Sam from my guesthouse: she’d allow me to store my motorcycle in her garage for a good price, and arranged a ride for me to the airport. On my last night in Africa, while whiling my time away alone in bed, there was a knock on my door. Sam’s oldest daughter and her boyfriend were outside, and invited me to come over to the patio and hang out. It was a wonderful sendoff for a hard few weeks, as they plied me with wine and we chatted long into the night.
The next morning, I headed to the airport for my 35 hours of painful air travel excited to have such a wonderful place to come back to when I returned. To be continued…
Sometimes you get lucky, and you book into a hostel that’s also the gay refuge of town. That’s what I discovered when I booked into the Cardboard Box hostel. During my stay, I met all sorts of interesting locals: contractors, reporters, engineers, and assorted freaks, riff raff, and queers (I mean all of that in the nicest possible way). I talked life, geopolitics, and even faced off in a heated debate with a fervent Namibian Trump supporter who called 2 more of his Trump supporting friends to join him as reinforcements since the rest of the place thought he was nuts.
I also heard an incredible and tragic story from one guy who’s parents were both killed by a very famous, and very drunk at the time, Namibian who was driving twice the speed limit on a road I was set to drive next. The incident is well documented. The guy managed to tow his car from the scene before the cops came, his blood samples disappeared, and ultimately he pinned the entire thing on one of his employees who spent 2 years in jail. My new friend explained the web of corruption leading all the way to the so-called “Father” of the Namibian nation. There were additional suicides and deaths involved. It was a hell of a tale, and one I honestly feel hesitant to elaborate on for concern for the guy’s safety.
I still had a Congolese visa and tires to acquire, but unfortunately, I also had a weekend to wait before I could get it. I lounged around Windhoek a bit. I went fruitlessly in search of good pizza. I witnessed strange dance performances in malls, and was mildly concerned when a clearly unsanctioned parade of fancy tricked-out jeeps drove down the main street honking their horns, the drivers drinking, people hanging off the sides, running stoplights and catcalling.
When Monday finally rolled around, I headed to the DRC’s embassy. I worried there may be a line, security checks, and a lot of bureaucracy. Instead, I walked right into a shabby one-room office with a desk, a couple chairs, and one woman with the perpetual appearance of mild discomfort. She seemed confused when I told her I wanted a visa. Her immediate reaction was to explain to me how arduous the process was. They need the form, the money, photos, a copy of your passport, proof of good standing, proof of funding, and then they ship the whole thing off to the DRC, where they don’t expect to hear back for a month or two. I asked pointed questions about whether she thought the whole thing was a bad idea, or if she thought I stood a chance of getting a visa. She gave me an exasperated look that communicated clearly that she does not do pointed questions.
The Congolese woman handed me a Windhoek phone book to use as a backing, and I filled out the form. I still needed a copy of a bank statement and some passport photos before I could proceed, and she helpfully pointed me to a photo shop on the next block that did passport photos (the area was full of embassies, so this wasn’t terribly surprising). This looked to be the easiest task yet, but looks are frequently deceiving in Africa. Within 10 minutes, I’d gotten a decent photo snapped (“I don’t think you should be smiling. Let’s take another.”), but no sooner did the memory card get inserted into their ancient Kodak photo kiosk than the thing crashed and refused to start up again. They offered to put the photo on my phone so I could print it elsewhere, but my Pixel uses a USB-C port, which they didn’t have. And of course, they couldn’t email it. I said I’d return with a way to get the photo from them. “TIA” bounced through my head.
Next stop: tires. I’d gotten a run-around from Suzuki, but the local Yamaha dealer had tires that fit in stock, so I headed there. Everything went easy except they insisted the tires didn’t need to be balanced, and clearly didn’t have the machinery to perform that task. This greatly reduces the usable life of the tires. *Sigh*.
I endured further frustrations getting my bank account statement printed at the local Kinko’s equivalent, but I’ll spare you the details. By the time I made it back to the photo shop, they’d also fixed the Kodak photo machine. Then, with photos, copies, printouts, forms, and N$1200 ($93 USD) in my pocket, I revisited the Congolese embassy.
The same lady presided over the same empty room. She looked at me blankly when I came back in, but when I jovially tried to hand her the pile of documents, she didn’t move to take it. She once again reminded me that the money is non-refundable, and the wait time is long, and that it’s entirely at the whim of the folks back in the DRC. We went back and forth for a few minutes as I tried to get her to give me any direct indication of my chances. It was fruitless. Eventually she took my money and application. Then she gave me her cell phone number and took mine, telling me I could get updates on my visa status by communicating with her via WhatsApp. WhatsApp! What a time to be alive…
Tuesday morning, I took off early in the morning headed towards Swakopmund (mouth of the Swakop river), a popular former-German settlement on the Atlantic coast, near the city of Walvis Bay, and nestled in prime sand dune country. Google is nice enough to propose two routes between Windhoek and Swakop, as it’s affectionately known: a shorter, more mountainous, dirt road, and a longer, less direct series of paved highways. I opted for the highways on my way in.
By this point, I feel compelled to say, I’d spent far more time in Windhoek than I needed or wanted to. I hadn’t, however, explored much outside the main areas. From a high vantage point, it’s easy to see how developments immediately cease at some point on one of the surrounding mountains where the grade simply became too much to cope with. Wikipedia claims they have plans to change that. As the proper settlements drop off, ad hoc ones take over.
My road went north, and what I saw was unfamiliar. Namibia was once governed by South Africa as South West Africa (they took it from the Germans, who can be blamed for the creative naming). As such, Namibia had Apartheid, and the baggage that comes with that. Townships dot the periphery of the major South African cities I’ve seen, and I’d seen some similar looking things in Namibia, but what I saw along the highway wasn’t the familiar rows of ramshackle tin and block shacks thrown together directly adjacent and mired in rubber, glass, and plastic trash. Instead, the landscape — small mountains sparsely covered with grass, cactus, and occasional trees — was spotted with the sort of temporary settlements ultralight backpackers would set up along a desolate trail, except these were made with plastic and cardboard, and everywhere you looked garbage wafted or settled. Looking in on townships, you see poverty, yes, but you also see community. It was easier to imagine every one of these individual semi-hovels occupied by a paranoid cowboy sleeping with his pistol under the cloak he used as a blanket. Consider all this commentary with a grain of salt, because while my eyes swept the landscape, and my mouth gaped with a lack of recognition, I didn’t stop and I know not of which I write.
The settlements continued for a few kilometers after Windhoek, then foothills, then my turnoff to head west towards the coast. The road was straight and smooth. Over the coming hours, scenery ever-so-gradually faded from green to brown. The trees shrank and disappeared. The shrubs and grass seemed to spread out, leaving sand and rocks in their wake. Eventually, the mountains began to be tufted and ringed with sand, like massive dusty glaciers sliding down the sides. The road eventually met up with an impossibly lush river valley, and I’d found the Swakop river. From the desolate desert blooms a comparatively lush landscape of palm trees and grass, and the rows of block housing that are common of the middle class and up in southern Africa.
I’d booked a guesthouse in a residential area on the edge of town and checked in. I set my sights on a German pub for dinner and cruised into the cute little oceanside tourist town as the sun was setting. Still illuminated were the massive mountains of sand that wrap the so-called Skeleton Coast (named for the treacherous waters for sailing, and the sealed fate of any unlucky shipwrecked sailor on the inhospitable desert that runs for hundreds of miles in every direction). Luckily, life in this part of the desert has been made much easier with the addition of fine German beer and schnitzel, so I took advantage of the situation. It was a very welcome diversion from the more common Namibian fare.
The next day, I set out to do my first exploring of the beaches and barren stretches of the Skeleton Coast. Just south of Swakopmund is the larger, less touristy town of Walvis Bay, and I set my sights on the coastal highway that connects them. On the road, Swakopmund dissolves rapidly as one heads south, with endless windswept sand taking over the view. To the right, a gentle slope down to the clashing ocean; to the left, huge swelling dunes, formed into ridges like the Santa Lucia mountains. Beyond the coastline, a smattering of oil platforms loom in the mist. Traffic is light, and signs of civilization are minimal. Eventually, a turnoff to parking by the dunes materializes, and I hop off the highway.
There’s a completely empty pile of sand that passes for a parking lot, and footprints leading up to the dunes. Atop the closest one, 5 bodies dot the ridge, alternating turns sandboarding down the slope. I follow the footprints and ascend the towering dunes. The wind is hot and dry, the sand is loose, but summiting the peak, I’m treated to sweeping views of pristine desert coastline to the west, and endless jagged sandy peaks like a tan Torres del Paine to the east. I spend several minutes slowly spinning around, taking it all in.
Eventually, as I’m wont to do, I struck up a conversation with the adventuresome folks nearby. It turns out it was a local with two kids, and a father and son economist pair from the states, the father of which worked for the federal government, and the son studying at Berkeley. After about 10 minutes of chatting and explaining our respective circumstance, the young American Bay Area transplant exclaimed “Duuuuude, you are so Bay Area!” I took it as a great compliment. Before we parted ways, they loaned me a freshly waxed square of cardboard I was able to body surf down the dune with. Good times.
I carried on down the busy road to Walvis Bay, a bustling town of box-like houses nestled along the sandy beach. I cruised the broad thoroughfares, wound through dusty roads in the poor ramshackle neighborhoods on the outskirts, and stopped by for a beer atop a roadside bar to escape the heat of the day. Over the beer, I explored my surroundings on Google Maps and spotted a lonely coastal road hanging off to the south, seemingly escaping civilization and carving alone through giant pools of water. Curious, I plotted a course and hopped back on the bike.
Hugging the coast and heading out of town, I followed a particularly wide paved road. The only other traffic as the last of the town went by the wayside was large open-topped trucks with heaping piles of white and brown salt overflowing their tops, periodically spilling the stuff onto the pavement following bumps. The pavement ended at a large gated complex with heavy equipment swarming giant piles of salt.
The curious part of the road I’d seen veered right at the complex towards the ocean so I continued on the salt-caked hardpan. The path turned to washboard and wound between broad salty evaporation ponds and bays. Traveling inches above the waterline, the path finally swerved onto a sandy and secluded patch of oceanfront beach, complete with a tiny windowed outhouse. I had the windswept beach to myself, and took a load off in the salty air.
After the beach, I headed back to town, and meandered back through town and down the road back to Swakopmund, as the waning day and endless wind were making for cold weather. I had another night of good food and German beer back in town, as I was spending another day traveling before trekking back to Windhoek.
The lone highway that heads north from Walvis Bay passes through Swakopmund and continues north, with only scattered patches of civilization identified by mile markers. The next morning, after breakfast and some beach cruising in town, I followed the path north. The two lanes of pavement cut across a long flat patch of sand, varying from nearly-oceanside to a few miles away on the left. To the right, a pipeline follows the route. Here and there, the sand is packed into a track carving seemingly randomly across the landscape. I followed one to a rocky beach dotted with pickup trucks (“bakkies”) with fisherman posted next to them. On the coast, the surf tumbled the rocks over each other in a sound any good California hiker will recognize. It almost felt like home.
Back on the road, I spotted a walled complex with odd towers and dishes sticking out off in the distance. Eventually, a dirt road added a bridge over the pipeline and seemed to head towards it, so I followed it. There was a distinct lack of signage as I approached. The closer I got, the weirder it all appeared, and eventually the barking of guard dogs and the flapping of a Chinese flag made the scene stranger still. The place was fully gated and surrounded by a high fence ringed with barbed wire. I rode around it, but didn’t approach too closely. Some internet research later identified the complex as the Swakopmund Tracking Station, one of China’s remote space communication facilities! Coolio!
Continuing down the random side-road, I also wandered into a desolate (but clearly still active) sand airstrip and skydiving center. You never know what random desert roads will lead you to!
I continued a few dozen more miles down the north/south highway before stopping for a beer in one of the remote tourist stops along the coast. It was oddly well-equipped and bustling, with random welded sculptures, a full bar, shady dining areas, and shipping-container chic. It seemed as good as any place to turn around and run my remaining errands for the day before preparing to head back to Windhoek the next day.