A roundly muscular, black nurse named Max was the first Namibian driver to give me a ride. I told him "Max" was my grandfather's name, and we spoke easily together.
He said the African whites didn't treat the blacks very well, and I agreed. After that, we didn't agree on much.
Two days earlier, a South African biologist/tour-guide had carried me far into Namibia. We'd passed fields fluffy white, with bitter purple flowers flowing through, with dinosaur rocks swirling around each other to conceal camping spots. Occasionally, we saw trees like pitchforks. Klaus the Biologist told me their ends split every year (or two?), and you could tell their ages by the number of scissorhand splits. Called quiver trees, they were used by Bushmen in making quivers.
But, the terrain had become even more empty after that. Max and I would see little on this day except for dry grass upon flat sandy soil, and a brown-and-black jackal lurking in it.
So, we talked.
Namibians seemed to be in the habit of feeling sorry for themselves. I hated this attitude. The day before, I'd met a twenty-two-year-old who wished for money. He needed to go to Windhoek to study, but he lacked travel money. I told him to try hitchhiking the 300 km to get there. But, he preferred waiting for the money and doing nothing for five days.
Now, Max said that a lucky Westerner with some money in his savings account could come to Namibia and live very comfortably.
I said, most Americans were in debt.
He said, it was the same in Namibia. But, he then lamented that banks wouldn't loan money to some people because they're too poor.
I said, that was probably a good thing (for the sake of the poor).
I admitted, of course, that this made it tough for the poor to start businesses. But, I also knew - from personal experience, as a story salesman; and from fellow Africans' experiences, as street vendors - that small profits were possible for everyone. If he invested in himself, he could work towards larger profits.
Max spoke enviously of the Western lifestyle.
I said, "It's better not to want."
He said, Africa didn't have laboratories to combat disease with.
I said, it had existed thousands of years without them.
He said, no one - except the World Health Organization - helped Africa with its health problems.
I said, "It's better to do things for oneself." I added: What about all the ARV medicines which the West sent to help AIDS victims?
He said he believed the AIDS virus had been created by Western scientists. I said that could very well be true.
I said, there was, of course, one foolproof way to avoid getting AIDS ... celibacy.
Max, and his female co-worker Francis beside him, said, "Who doesn't love sex!?"
I said I was celibate.
"You're lucky," said Francis.
We pulled into a meat farm in the middle of the desert. Max and Francis, operating a "mobile clinic" for the government, quickly saw and gave medicine to the black employees of this white-owned farm. The workers had caved-in cheeks, lived in basic rooms and tin shacks, and looked uneducated. The sheep were currently in tight corrals under the heat, getting hit by employees.
"Do you think the farmer treats his workers well?" I later asked Max.
He explained that they were unskilled labor. Their minimum wage was 500 NAM dollars (US$70) monthly.
I said, "I don't think I'd like to be a worker on that farm."
We kept talking.
Max spoke enviously of my freedom to travel. I said, he could hitchhike, too. He said, he didn't have enough time to hitchhike because of work; he'd have to pay for quicker transportation. I said, he earned three times as much money as me! 5000 NAM$ a month. He said, but 2000 of that went straight to the bank!
I said, "That's your mistake." Francis laughed.
We finished up our talk on celibacy.
Max said, young people were urged to have sex by their peers, movies, music, and internet porn. By the time they realized the dangers of sex, it was too late. I said, they should then start educating the kids. He said, that was what they'd been trying to do! I said, the educators must be respectable. (They must also be believable.)
Our mobile clinic made its final stop of the day to treat the waitresses and cleaners of a desert lodge. Max, who had five children out of wedlock, called out to a young waitress on her way to the shower: "Can I come and wash your back for you?"
So much for celibacy ...
I forgot about African problems and went to enjoy the peace and cleanliness of the desert.
Orange sand grains. Red sand dunes. Black streaks of magnetite on the dunes.
Blacker, quarter-sized beetles ran quickly on sand that became 158 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, climbing some of the world's biggest dunes. An Italian tourist who wanted to study law at Yale was afraid of these beetles. Ha! How could she study law at Yale if she was afraid of a little beetle!
Moonlit-green grass. Yellow flowers. Purple ostrich cabbage. Naked, skeleton trees. Bushy, exploding-green trees. Dusty gray, peeling, dry bark.
Gray oryx antelopes with black narwhal spears for horns, and with black-and-white ying-yang signs coloring lazy faces, ate the grass.
Ostriches with Icarus wings and ballerina legs, their upper bodies gliding like romantic swan boats, ate the cabbage.
Orangish springbok deer, wearing black-and-white streaks, naive-eyed and baby-horned, shrieked like women like car alarms like panted breathing.
Yellow canyons provided sun-pinkened hitchhikers with dark caves to meditate in. The Sesriem River then occasionally flowed over a great plain between the Namib Desert's dunes. It used to flow to Dead Flats, a stunning expanse of calcium remains, flat as ice and white as washing powder, and I climbed one of the dead trees that reached like skinless claws toward the blue heaven.
The river now flowed to Sossusvlei Lake, cut off from the ocean by dunes, whose silvery water provided noisy birds with a home, in rainy years like this one.
A black truck-driver named Martin gave me a ride at one point, in the desert. His totally round head smiled broadly. He spoke energetically. I thought he was twenty, though he was older than me.
As we drove, we came to a solitary, orangish springbok. To my surprise, Martin stopped his big truck and honked his horn. I realized he was trying to get the springbok to run in front of him so he could hit it!
He even suggested we both get out of the truck and chase the animal from two directions. Was he serious!? He said, "Here is a good place. The fences are close to the road here.
"The animals are stuck. If there will be twenty of them, they can become confused, and then ..." SMACK! He pounded his fist into the palm of his other hand - indicating we could grab the springbok and have meat that night. His thick lips smiled.
I couldn't believe my ears. I'd met another crazy animal chaser like myself. I was so happy!
Of course, we didn't catch any springboks. We ate no meat that night, as we slept on a starry desert plateau.
My travels also took me to the desert outpost of Solitaire.
Few things were here. An old, pinkish VW beetle and several rusty, antique trucks lie abandoned in the sand. The moving desert was slowly burying them. Mossy, brown mountains - like shredded bran muffins - rose above the desolation. I should've gotten a picture of myself here, holding my bags and thrusting my hand into the air.
But, there was no one to take it.
Thanks to Klaus & Lazarus; Max & Francis; Philip & Martin; Filimon, Martin, & Solomon; David, Roberto, Francesca, Irina, & Bianca; Klaus & Lazarus, again, & the Belgians; and Martin for rides!
Much thanks to Klaus & Lazarus for the place to stay!