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…
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.