Friday, September 30, 2005

Wildlife spotting II

I’ll stop with the cycling stories soon, I promise. Now that I have some way of getting out and about, I’ll find something more interesting to write about. Like the huge baboon I saw this morning on my cycle into work. It just lolloped off into the scrub as if it was perfectly normal for a baboon to be scratching itself by the side of the road. Which, I suppose, it is here. I keep snorting with laughter just thinking about what would happen if a baboon appeared to cyclists on their daily commute in London.

Anyway, I shall be seeing much more wildlife over the next week, I should think, as I’m off up to Oshakati, in the hot and dusty north, for another week’s training with VSO. Whenever I say I’m going up there, people puff their cheeks out and look troubled, or just laugh as if to say “Rather you than me, mate”. Apparently last week it hit 40 degrees up there. I was talking to someone last night who bought some sweets from a trader from Oshakati a few days ago. He said they were so full of sand, they made him ill. I seriously can't wait - I'm itching to get out and see some more of Namibia.

So, I have much to look forward to, apart from access to the interweb, so these pages shall be silent again, at least for a while.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

I'm free, to do what I want, any old time...

You’ll have to excuse my dishevelled appearance… The damp and matted hair; the red and sweat drenched face; the haggard countenance; the uncontrollable wheezing…

I have ice hot needles inside my lungs. I had no idea that cycling in this climate would have such an immediate and catastrophic effect on my pulmonary system – I feel like I got up this morning and smoked forty fags. According to the man in the bike shop around the corner from my house, where I went to buy my helmet, the air is so dry, and so full of dust, that this kind of reaction is normal. He didn’t even crack a cynical smile as I staggered to the counter, gasping and flopping in the manner of a beached pilchard.

It’s the hills, man. The hills are going to be the death of me. The journey itself is quite short – the whole thing, including a 15 minute detour to the bike shop, took 45 minutes, and I walked some of it. What I’m worried about is that one day I will simply slow to a crawl on my way up an incline, and keel over by the side of the road to wait with gratitude for death to take me. Ach (as they say in these parts), at least I will be fit.

My bike, by the way, is a gem. It practically rides itself. It’s by far the best bike I’ve ever owned. And I do love cycling. My favourite part of the journey today was coming over the brow of a hill, and seeing Windhoek laid out in the valley below me. The town is completely surrounded by mountains that are covered in brush and empty of habitation. I don’t know how anyone ever chose it as a site to build a town, but it’s certainly spectacular.

The traffic is not a problem either. For most of my journey it’s very light – traffic in Windhoek isn’t exactly choking up the thoroughfares at the best of times. There are only 250,000 people here, most of them don’t have cars, and the roads are smooth and wide.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter that I feel absolutely battered - I’m free!!!! Wheeeee!!!

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

I love to shop, a ha ha ha haaaa

Bike buying in Namibia seems to be quite a difficult task.

My flatmate took me to the Trade Centre on Friday in order to purchase my independence, and I came away with much less hair than I went in with, and a black cloud of doom floating over my head.

The Trade Centre is a bizarre place – it’s a vast warehouse, with bulk goods lining the aisles, most of which rise 20 feet up to the ceiling. They even have a giant polystyrene cow above the dairy section, which, if I was still a student, I would be determined to have in pride of place in my front room. If you ever want a lifetime’s supply of OMO washing powder, or a bag of biltong the size of a large pillow, the Trade Centre’s your best bet. They sell everything from cheese to pool tables, and it’s all very cheap.

The man at the bike department had originally told me that if I returned at the end of the week, I would be able to purchase one of the new deliveries of bike that have frames built for those of us who wear skirts. I arrived on Friday to be greeting with a blank countenance, and a distinct lack of available bikes. I kind of expected this however, and as he was quite friendly and sort of helpful, I decided to compromise, and buy a man’s bike.

The first one I tried had a severely wonky wheel. When I pointed it out, the salesman merely nodded, as if this was to be expected. I pointed to an almost identical bike, which happened to be $100 more expensive, and asked why there was a difference in the price.

Him: This one has the wrong price. It is $500, not $400.
Me: Why is it more expensive?
Him: I think it is better.
Me: Yes, but why? What has it got that this one hasn’t (apart from a straight front wheel?)
Him: Err, it is better, the quality, it is better.
Me: But they have the same number and quality of gears, they’re both steel frames, both exactly the same specifications, why is it more expensive?
Him: It is better. The quality is better. [pauses, and then points to the cheaper model] I think this one also is better. They are both better.

I have to confess to feeling sorry for the poor bastard. He obviously knew next to nothing about bikes, and wasn’t used to being asked questions, so I plumped for the more expensive one, and asked him to get me a new one. On closer inspection I noted that the tyres were completely flat. I decided to try out the pump to make sure it fit. It didn’t. He didn’t believe me, and spent 10 minutes unsuccessfully trying to force air into an entirely unresponsive inner tube.

Me: Well, could you have the tyres pumped up for me, at least?
Him: Ah, no. We cannot use the company’s pump. You must go to a service station.
Me: How am I supposed to get there on a bike with flat tyres?
Him: I don’t know.

And so I left, and went for a beer instead.

Today was a bit more successful. My new friend Marius and I were passed from pillar to post, eventually ending up in a warehouse where they fix bikes sent over from Europe, and sell them. My bike is great for three reasons. It’s purple, it’s cheap, and no-one will ever, ever steal it. It looks like a piece of crap. It’s a real, beat up, sit up and beg, pootle-round-Amsterdam-in-the-1960s bike. It’s even got an old dynamo. I love it. For some reason I can’t fathom, I got attached to it as soon as I saw it.

Now all I have to do is buy a helmet…

Friday, September 23, 2005

Wildlife spotting

I’m a bit disappointed that I’ve been in Namibia for two weeks, and until now the most exciting thing I’ve seen so far is a baby cockroach in the bathroom.

Apparently, according to our Program Manager, who has just come back from Opuwo, if I go there, I could be bathing with more exciting things. He just handed me a report, which I thought he wanted me to read, and I’d almost put my thumb on it before I realised that under the front cover was the corpse of a three inch long scorpion.

Hot in the City

Well, I made it. I haven’t had a chance to get to the internet before now, for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that people seem to be congenitally incapable of keeping appointments in this place. I’m not surprised; just boilingly frustrated. People have been promising to come at 8, at 12, at 2, before lunch, after lunch, before the end of the day, when hell freezes over and the camels come skating home…. On Wednesday someone did show up, but all he said was “Is it you I’m connecting to the network? Ah, right, good. That’s all I need to know. See you tomorrow.” He hasn’t been seen since. I’m using someone else’s PC.

The other reason I haven’t been able to get to the internet is because I can’t really get out of my house unless accompanied by someone with a car, because it’s so far to anywhere useful. Neither can I leave my office without being accompanied, or driven. Two of my colleagues were robbed at knife point in the last month walking across the scrubby stretch of bushland to and from Maerua Mall - the nearest shopping centre. As a consequence, one of them is utterly paranoid about going anywhere, and puts the wind up me every time I even talk about going out, although we did venture to another small supermarket today. I’m even having to rely on the generosity of a colleague to get to and from work, because taxis are impossible to come by and very expensive, at both ends.

If I was any kind of naïf, I’d think that the traditional Windhoekian greeting conversation goes something like this:

THEM: “Welcome to Namibia! Are you planning on buying a car while you’re here?”
ME: “No, I can’t afford one. I’d have to sell a limb.”
THEM: “[sucks teeth] Oooh, difficult. Difficult.”

Windhoek is a strange place, and, initially, a nerve-wracking one. VSO managed to find me a shared apartment in a part of town called Ludwigsdorf. Anyone in the know will tell you that Ludwigsdorf is the Mayfair of Windhoek. Rent is extortionate, swimming pools compulsory, and each and every gigantic house is surrounded by electric wire, razor fencing, multiple alarm systems, electric gates and armed response signs. Our house even has two dogs, but one of them is too daft to bark, and the other one is only concerned with licking my feet. It must just love the taste of stale sweat. Sometimes we pick up other dogs. Every time I open the gate, some local mutt or other bounds joyously through, and starts yapping hectically with the other two. Yesterday it was a dachshund puppy with unfeasibly long ears.

My flatmate and I are ensconced in a little granny flat that I believe housed the domestic staff during the days of Apartheid. It’s very comfortable, but miles and miles away from anywhere, and as yet lacks any real cooking facilities. We’re using the two ring camping gas thing that VSO use for camping trips, and which welds all food irretrievably to the bottom of any pan you happen to be using. VSO provided us with some furniture, but in order to sleep, I have to sacrifice my supply of books – my bed only has three legs, so they’re they only things keeping me upright.

I’m a bit cheesed off with VSO, who said originally that I would be able to rely on public transport for all my needs. Taxis form the bulk of public transport in this city, and they act a little like buses, having designated routes and pickup points. If you travel along a designated route, it will cost you $6 (about 50p), but if you go outside that, they charge you at least double. I have to walk two miles from home to even find a taxi, because no one in Ludwigsdorf ever needs one, and if I walk to Maerua Mall from work, which is the only place I’d find one, I’m likely to be set upon by armed youths.

My flatmate is taking me to the Trade Centre tonight to buy a bike. Hopefully that will give me some modicum of independence. I’m trying not to think about the cycle to work every day, which is extremely pretty, and winds through groves of pleasant houses surrounded by the newly purpling jacaranda trees. Swallowtail butterflies drift flappily over head, and songbirds warble amongst the cacti. It does, however, involve riding up and down a series of large hills in blistering heat. I will be very fit at the very least. Actually, I’ll probably be moving closer to the centre of town at the end of October, which will make life a great deal easier.

It’s hot here. The sun begins to bake the dry earth as soon as it peeps over the mountains that ring the city. By midday it’s sweltering, the heat beating up from the tarmac, and crisping the yellow grass into sharp and crackling spikes. By four, all you want to do is hide in the shade, and rest your cheek against cool tiles. By six, it’s starting to cool, and I’ve been spending my early evenings sitting drinking ice cold gin and tonic and watching the lavender sunsets. The evening star is so bright here that it comes out far, far earlier than any other. It looks somewhat ethereal, burning up there while the sky is still darkening from lilac to deep blue.

It’s hot, and it’s going to get hotter. Apparently it’s only spring now – by December it gets so stifling that the entire city decamps to the seaside for a month. It’s dry too. So dry that you don’t even know you’re sweating. It evaporates immediately, offering not a speck of cool relief. My skin has reacted bizarrely, and I can tell already that my main expense here will be moisturiser – for my lips, my face, my body and my hair. I feel desiccated.

The altitude is another factor here – we’re at 4,500 feet, or thereabouts, which is the height of Ben Nevis. In my first week I woke up every morning with blood crusted to my teeth and tongue, and I immediately, being an inveterate hypochondriac, assumed that I had some terrible terminal disease. It is just nose-bleeds though, and they’ve more or less stopped now. Also on the plus side, the dryness does make for agreeably satisfying crusty bogeys.

Windhoek is a very pleasant place, despite the distances and transport problems. The streets are wide and almost empty of traffic, and there are numerous palm trees and jacarandas. Bougainvillea grows over everything, draping glorious oranges, reds, hot pinks and daffodil yellows across the whitewashed buildings. Everyone I’ve met has been wonderfully friendly and welcoming.

There’s plenty to do here too. Since I arrived I’ve been to the theatre, the cinema, a braai, spent a lazy Sunday at Katatura swimming pool, and last night’s crowning glory, the Putt Putt at Maerua Mall. Not the most inspired crazy golf pitch I’ve ever played on, but still, a pleasant diversion for a balmy Thursday evening. The Namibians seem to love it. The course was covered in couples and groups, shrieking and running about like maniacs. My burning ambition now is to reach the par, which is 36. Last night I scored 73, which I think is perfectly reasonable, even though we only allowed ourselves six shots per hole.

Another advantage is that although work starts early, it also finishes early(ish). I’m usually home by 5.15. Last night I managed to make a curry, hand-wash two weeks worth of laundry and eat a leisurely meal before heading off to the crazy golf. I know, I know. I’m going to be living such an exciting life! I’ll also have arms like Fatima Whitbread after two years of bucket laundry. Au revoir, bingo wings.

Life here, for me, will be very easy, and I’m sure, pleasant. Incredibly though, in a city so rich, there are an enormous amount people who have nothing to eat on a daily basis. Unemployment is a huge problem, as is HIV and AIDS. It makes me feel extraordinarily guilty, not that I can help that I am so lucky, or would if I could. At least I’m in a position where I can use my skills to make a difference, even if it is tiny.

Anyway, I’m sure that’s quite enough for now. Ciao.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Pre-emptive Strike

Ok, I know that technically I'm not actually there yet, but I did receive confirmation from VSO that my tickets are in the post, and that I have a visa, so will be allowed into the country without the little piece of paper confirming that I am not a criminal, and have never in any way been involved with nefarious activities. That they know of.

I'm fully expecting to be on that plane tomorrow night, and I'm hoping that this will mean that we arrive safely in Windhoek at around lunchtime on Sunday. With these thoughts in mind, I have changed the blog to reflect my new status as 'International Woman of Mystery'. Although I haven't changed it much, that you'd notice.

This action will probably scupper everything. As my Namibia-bound friend Sue said the other day, we will probably all have to go to Torremolinos because we can't come back from the airport after so many months of saying goodbye to people, and then running into them in Sainsburys' and hearing the familiar cry of "Haven't you gone yet?".

Honestly, I feel as if I've been saying goodbye to people since January. Enough already, can we go now?

I haven't yet said goodbye to the Beastette, who has been sadly neglected of late. It will be left, leaning forlornly against the balcony wall, until my flatmate can take her home to my mum. I'm not sure which is better - at least here it's got a nice view of a churchyard. My mum's garage has the largest collection of deadly spiders outside Australia. We don't go in there any more. The cobwebs are too difficult to tackle without the help of a blowtorch.

I haven't packed yet either, although my clothes are now piled up in little stacks (skirts, shirts, trousers, etc. - I am nothing if not methodical). The BF is coming over this afternoon to help me pack, which means that he will sit around holidng up vital items, saying "Do you really need this?", and generally hindering my progress.

This will be my last post for a while, as I'm not sure whether I'll be able to get to a computer next week. Please come back next weekend for an update (I expect the weather in Spain will be lovely.)

Monday, September 05, 2005

Bee. Bzzz.

Oh my god. The last few days have been crazy. I had a party. Lots of people came. They all got drunk and watched me hurtle around in an insane parody of a social butterfly, except that I slopped more wine than an elegant society belle would do. And I may have had dirtier feet.

Then on Sunday we went punting. P1000776
This is why I love Cambridge. It's stunningly beautiful, compact and easy to manage, has great pubs, and the most civilised form of Sunday afternoon entertainment on the planet.

Anyway, now I'm getting a bit panicky. I've got loads of work still left to do this week, and not much time to do it. The BF keeps telling me not to panic, and I keep trying to persuade him that the prospect of disappearing off to Namibia with a negative bank balance is not my idea of a good time. However, this might actually end up being the case, the way things are going at the moment.

Also, I have not yet had my Criminal Records Bureau check through, without which it is somewhat doubtful that I will be allowed past customs at Windhoek airport. Neither have I had any flight tickets, and my placement adviser seems utterly clueless as to what to do, and just keeps telling me not to panic.

So, five days to go. No packing. No visa. No tickets. No money. No sanity.

Oh well. Back to work.
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