Saying So-Long to a Sense of Self-Security

N.B.: This post is out-of-order, but I felt compelled to type it up while it was still fresh in my mind. Apologies for the disjoint timeline, and greetings from Windhoek!

I had the day to run errands in Windhoek, and things started off a bit hit-or-miss. Miss, I visited the Democratic Republic of Congo’s embassy here, but they were closed for a national Congolese holiday. Hit, I secured replacement tires for my motorcycle when I return from Sossusvlei. Miss, since I struck out at with the DRC embassy, I tried to proactively get a Zambian one since their embassy is nearby, but I got there at 1:30pm and they close at 12:45pm. Hit and miss, I got a Namibian SIM card since Google Fi doesn’t work here, but it requires special configuration to make the data work (trying settings from random internet sites didn’t seem to work). Miss, I tried (without data) to find the NWR (Namibian Wildlife Resorts, basically their National Parks Service) office to confirm a spot for myself in Sossusvlei, but ended up wandering around the area where Google claims they are unable to find them.

That last stop left me on the streets of downtown Windhoek, and I’d worked up a bit of an appetite. There was a British-style Fish and Chips restaurant on a corner just off the main drag, so I stopped inside to get some food. The place was setup like a fast food restaurant, with a big board with the menu, a cashier, and a separate counter to pick your up your food. Inside were 5 or so plastic tables with plastic chairs, but one wall of the restaurant was open to the sidewalk, and a handful of people sat on benches and milled around up front. I ordered my food and stood at the counter. The place was mildly busy.

As I waited, a woman in her mid-30’s walked up to the counter and stood very close to me, nearly grazing my arm, and said hello with a smile. She was dressed decently well and had white earbuds in both ears. My immediate thoughts were she was going to proposition me or ask for money, but instead she looked me in the eyes, still smiling, and told me “You must be careful when you leave.” I was still suspicious, and asked her plaintively: “Why must I be careful.” Her: “We can’t talk here. Just be very careful.” She then proceeded to casually walk around the restaurant, eventually finding her way back outside where she hung out with the 10 or so people out front, halfway inside the restaurant, none of whom were  eating.

I wasn’t sure what to think, but I was wearing my backpack with my passport in it (I’d been trying to visit the embassies, after all), and held it a little closer. Eventually my food came out, and I took a seat in the back, away from the open wall and sidewalk, and watched the scene while I ate. Casually, there was nothing suspicious going on, and  being in a busy area in the middle of the day, I wouldn’t normally be on edge, but the interaction was jarring, so I stayed cautiously hyper-aware.

I began to notice one of the folks on a bench looking my way repeatedly. I didn’t look like the rest of the patrons or staff, so again, it didn’t seem overly suspicious, but I kept his gaze in my peripheral vision, and he kept looking at me, at which point I’d make eye contact and he’d turn away. I ate my food, continually aware of his attention. Towards the end of my meal, I looked in his direction, and saw the woman who’d given me the warning standing behind the guy, who was looking another direction. Down by her waist, she casually pointed a finger towards him while looking at me. I nodded subtly and her pointing finger became a thumbs up, I gave her one back. What the fuck was going on!? I casually snapped a photo with my phone over my plate of food…

The man in the white t-shirt on the right was the one looking at me. The woman behind the window with the horizontal stripes was the one who warned me.

As I finished my meal, my mind played through all the scenarios: were they fucking with me, was he planning to mug me in the daylight in the middle of town, was he planning something more subtle like trying to steal things from my bag or pickpocket me? It was impossible to say with any authority, but I made a plan. My original path home would have taken me directly in front of the table the guy was sitting on, so that no longer seemed prudent. Instead I waited for him to become otherwise occupied, dropped off my tray of food, and went out the side and across the street in the opposite direction. I kept an eye on him, crossed to the opposite corner, went halfway down the block to where I was hidden by traffic, crossed again, and proceeded onto the main street continually aware of who was walking around me. I kept on edge my entire uneventful walk home.

I like to think of myself as having decent street smarts, and had the woman not come up to me, I’d have considered myself about as safe as anywhere I’ve been in my travels thus far. Her warning, whatever it meant, has unsettled my confidence in a way that’s hard to explain, and perhaps I don’t fully appreciate yet. Windhoek is a modern, diverse city, and while I stick out, I was far from uncomfortable with the amount of attention I was drawing. Worse for me, the feeling of a lack of safety that pervaded my thoughts on the way home was deeply unpleasant; it’s not enjoyable to be incredibly suspicious of your surroundings for reasons you don’t fully understand, and it’s mentally draining to maintain a heightened state of awareness.

In summary: I have no idea what happened, I’m not sure how long this crisis of confidence will last, but I’m certain there’s a lesson to be learned here somewhere.

The Trip Begins

Sanibonani from Cape Town! It’s been a busy week. Allow me to quickly summarize in list form:

  • Finalized flights
  • Moved my things out of my dad’s place and into The Jambulance
  • Drove with my father to pick up my crated motorcycle
  • Discovered the crate was too large for the trailer we’d hauled from Kalamazoo to Detroit
  • Rented a u-haul trailer
  • Picked up the trailer
  • Entered Canada
  • Dropped off the crate at a bustling freight warehouse near the airport
  • Checked into a Chinatown hostel in Toronto
  • Bid farewell to my mother
  • Caught an Uber to the Toronto airport with a South African driver who spent the entire ride cautioning me in no unclear language about how extremely dangerous South Africa is, including personal anecdotes wherein he overheard the staff at a hotel he stayed in in Cape Town colluding to rob him that evening in Sotho (a language they assumed he didn’t understand), ending in him getting in touch with the hotel owner and having them fired
  • Flew 10390 miles, 21 hours with the layover and delays, to Cape Town via Addis Ababa
  • Stopped by the Cape Town cargo terminal and learned my motorcycle is arriving Tuesday afternoon
  • Caught an Uber to the AirBNB I’d booked south of the airport
  • Drove through the middle of some extremely seedy townships, the driver repeatedly remarking that the neighborhood is “very dangerous” and proceeding to lock the doors, roll up the windows, and run a stop sign
  • Got dropped off at my AirBNB in an uncomfortable-feeling neighborhood of tiny houses
  • Called my host when there was no answer at the door only to be told he was out of town and had mistakenly accepted the request for a room
  • Drew a lot of looks lugging my stuffed backpacking backpack through the labyrinthine neighborhood to a major intersection
  • Caught another Uber to a nice hostel in a student area near town
  • Checked in and drank a much-deserved beer
My bike, all packed up and (nearly) ready to fly

First to the question you’re clearly already looking to ask me: I’m totally aware that Uber is a company that’s been acting like garbage pretty much since the beginning, but I’ve mostly had no choice! There’s no Lyft in Toronto or Cape Town! 😉

Hi Mom! The camera is over there, though…

Alright, we’ve gotten that out of the way. Let’s talk second impressions: I had the privilege of visiting South Africa seven years ago with friends, one of whom grew up here and still has family in the Eastern Cape. On that trip, we had a rental car and spent a large portion of our time on the tourist circuit or staying with my friend’s family. Traveling solo is always a different beast, with every interaction colored by others’ perception and your own lack of group influence. 24 hours in, I feel extremely welcomed here.

Aside from the occasional stare, folks have been helpful, kind, friendly, and open. On a personal level, walking down the streets (an activity you see very few white people doing outside of the downtown CBD) and feeling like the odd one out is, to me, a valuable lesson that anyone who’s lived most of their life with an appearance similar to the majority of the people around them should learn. The smiles and help I’ve gotten from pedestrians, bus drivers, and kids serves to me as a stark juxtaposition to the treatment minorities often get elsewhere. Considering how recently there were major shifts in race relations in South Africa, it’s hard for me not to feel heartened about our abilities to co-exist, forgive, and perceive people as individuals, not just members of a group.*

Looking for some side-eye with your beer? Look no further than Ethiopia!

For those curious about my plans, my next week will be dedicated to three things: preparing to attend AfrikaBurn next week (a gratuitous self-indulgence at the beginning of my trip), exploring Cape Town, and, most importantly, planning my next steps after. More to come!

Please be OK today!

*NB, as a white guy from the Midwest, my own knowledge and depth of experience on these subjects is limited at best and is in no way meant to be authoritative. I’ll also add that my last trip to South Africa, I heard some of the most blatant and offensive hate-speech I’ve encountered anywhere.

A Brief Introduction

My name is Levi Weintraub, and I like to travel.

In particular, I’ve enjoyed so-called-adventure motorcycling. There’s something unique about the medium. You hitch your life and experiences to a simple machine, taking only what you need to keep you and it running. You experience every mile of your journey in a carnal way; when it’s hot, you’re hot. When it’s cold, you’re cold. When it rains you get wet. You feel the humidity shift when you cross a bridge. You lean through turns. You try not to travel at night. You don’t listen to music or have conversations. You’re in the moment, often for hours at a time. You go and stop places you otherwise may not.

I’ve had the extraordinary privilege to motorcycle through 17 countries and 46 States in the last 10 years (you can read about the longest of these trips in my last travel blog). They were wild and wonderful times. I learned a lot about the human condition, and with sufficient reflection, I’ve learned about the constant “other”-ing that we’re subject to from our limited knowledge about the peoples of the world. I also had some very tough times, and looking back, I’ve come to recognize the tough times as some of the most formative and rewarding.

Given my experiences, Africa has been at the forefront of my mind to explore for a long time. It seems very difficult to travel through, and it feels very foreign. I’d love to dispel some of that feeling, and learn meaningfully from what’s left. With that in mind, I’m setting off to ride across a large part of it.

My trip begins in South Africa, and ostensibly ends in southern Spain/Gibraltar. I originally intended to do so with a partner, but my partner bailed far into the process. Stubbornness, hubris, and an unquenchable sense of adventure has caused me to stick, more or less, to my original plan: I’ll be in Africa on April 16th, 2017.

I mentioned previously my privilege, but it bears repeating: I’ve been extremely fortunate in my life. In brainstorming with my departed partner, he brilliantly suggested trying to give back in some way while we traveled. My goal is to honor his idea by following through insofar as I’m able, and to spend a reasonable amount of my time traveling trying to be a force for good, not just a tourist.