Thursday, December 22, 2005

Last post of the year... possibly.

The last few days have been difficult. Occasionally I feel as if I’m achieving absolutely nothing here, and I keep having to tell myself that things don’t happen all at once, and that I have only been here for three months*. This week has been particularly frustrating, because I’m alone at the moment, as everyone else has gone on holiday.

Apart from that, I feel very far away from everyone I love, and I can’t help wishing that I could see my friends and family, just a little a bit, for Christmas. I don’t go in for moping. It’s a waste of time. But still, I miss them.

Also, I had a disturbing dream last night: giant maggots were attacking me because I was trying to steal their dinner (a dead horse; don’t question me about the workings of my subconscious – I am as confused as you are). The dream may have something to do with the maggot infestation I found merrily heaving about in my bin the other day.

It reminded me of the time our neighbours in Malaysia gave us a jackfruit as a welcome gift. We didn’t know what to do with it, so we left it next to the sink for a couple of weeks. It looked fine, but when we picked it up, inside was a maggot metropolis. There were so many of the damn things I swear they had probably constructed an elaborate network of offices and flats. It was like London Bridge on a sunny weekday morning. Swarming.

Anyway, I felt a bit shaken when I woke up this morning, and had to check that all my limbs were in tact.

Hopefully the New Year will blow in a whole new barrel of optimism, and un-maggotty dreams, and the cobwebs of uselessness will be caught up and cast into the huge, cloudless sky, never to be seen again.

Anyway, I’m not whinging, because as of tomorrow I’m on holiday again, with some friends from Katima and Ondangwa. We’re going to the coast.

I hope you all have a marvellous Christmas. And a very festive New Year. For the first time in a good few years, I hope to be seeing in 2006 with a stonking hangover.

See you all in the New Year.

*This is when the other little voice in my head chips in and starts saying things like “Three months? That’s practically a life time….”

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Me me me...

I am very, very bored. I have been reduced to playing desultorily with a bit of blu-tak that I found stuck to my desk yesterday.

Fortunately for the blu-tak, I found this at Birdy’s and I almost laughed with glee. It’s a meme! Hurrah. They’re always a good excuse for time wasting.

I forgot to put this bit in yesterday:

Welcome to the 2005 edition of getting to know your friends. What you are supposed to do is copy this entire blog entry (although perhaps not the bit about the blu-tak) and paste it onto a new blog entry that you'll post. Change all the answers so they apply to you, and then publish. Leave a comment if you do this.The theory is that you will learn a lot of little (random) things about your friends, if you did not know them already.

What time did you get up this morning?
6.30. Don’t ask me why I am suddenly able to do this. In the UK, getting out of bed before 8 used to elicit wails of despair. It could be because now my usual bed-time is 9pm. Unless I have a particularly exciting bit of jigsaw to finish off.

Diamonds or pearls?
Diamonds. Actually, I like pearls – they’re softer and prettier, but they can be a bit ‘old-lady’-ish, something I try increasingly hard to avoid, in case I wake up one morning with an uncontrollable urge to put on tweed and a pair of sensible shoes, and go out looking for the village murderer behind churchyard walls.

What was the last film you saw at the cinema?
Lord of War. It would have been more enjoyable if the projectionist had bothered to focus the film for the middle 45 minutes, but still.

What is your favourite TV show?
CSI. Love it. Especially Warrick. Mmmmm.

What do you usually have for breakfast?
Toast. I’m supposed to say something healthy like fruit. I did start off well – I ate loads of yoghurt and fruit for breakfast in my first month here. But now it’s toast and marmalade, and fresh coffee.

Favourite cuisine?
Thai. Bit of a bummer – you wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to get hold of fresh coriander here.

What food do you dislike?
Blancmange.

What is your favourite CD at the moment?
KT Tunstall – Eye to the Telescope. Or the Zutons.

Morning or night person?
Depends on whether or not I have a hangover.

Favourite sandwich?
Bacon. Or Fish-finger. Both with ketchup.

What characteristic do you despise?
I'm with Birdy on this one. Bigotry.

Favourite item of clothing?
A bright pink corduroy skirt with blue flowers printed up the side. I will cry when it finally wears out.

If you could go anywhere in the world on vacation, where would it be?
Japan. Which is nice because my friend has just been posted there for three years, so if I ever get enough money for the flight, I’m off.

What colour is your bathroom?
A kind of grim sandy colour, with tiles that show up every single bit of dirt. Also, the mirror, which is nice and large, is covered in toothpaste splatters. It must be someone else. I’m very neat with my spitting.

Favourite brand of clothing?
Brand?

Where would you retire to?
If I could retire right now? I don’t think I would.

What was your most memorable birthday?
Oh god. There have been so many.

Favourite sport to watch?
Gymnastics. It’s so graceful.

Who do you least expect to complete this?
Everyone.

What is your shoe size?
7. Having large, wide feet, I was cursed with ugly shoes for the duration of my school career. Once when I was six, I deliberately left a pair of really hideous shoes under the benches in the girls changing rooms at school. For weeks I denied that they were mine, and my mother finally reclaimed them one parents’ evening. And made me continue wearing them. Oh, I did have a pair of red pixie boots when I was 14. I loved those.

Pets?
Boris.

Any new and exciting news you'd like to share with us?
I have news, but I’m not sure I want to share it yet.

What did you want to be when you were little?
An astronaut. I can’t remember why he would have been able to do this, but when I was very young, my Dad sometimes used to bring me home amazing close up photographs of the surface of the moon. I wonder where they went. I turned out to be a bit of a dunce at maths though.
I also wanted to be a writer.

What is your favourite flower?
Sweet pea.

What date on the calendar are you looking forward to?
12 January 2005.

One word to describe the person who you snaffled this from?
Inspiring

If anyone is anywhere near as bored, and devoid of stuff to do as me, please feel free to nick this and do it. Now I have to go and try to extricate a small lump blu-tak from my hair. Excuse me.

phphphpht

Has anyone else noticed that Santa is an anagram of Satan? I'm sure that, every year, I think I'm the only person to notice this. It still amuses me though.

Also, last night I noticed that pigeons here may be prettier, less flea-ridden, and less likely to take your arm off for a piece of sandwich than in London, but they sound strange. I keep thinking it's the neighbours having sex, but it's just a combination of Boris snorting, and the pigeons honking in the tree outside.

This is Boris.

He's my dog. My inherited dog. I don't count him as my neighbour's dog, because all they do is feed him and ignore him. The poor love is starved of affection.

He gets very excited whenever I come home, and leaps out of the shadows, barking like the guard dog he definitely isn't. He shows his delight at my presence by pissing on my bicycle on a daily basis.

He also brought me a lovely flower the other day that he'd uprooted from the flower bed, and which he had clearly spent all afternoon flinging around in an attempt get the dirt off. Most of the petals had come off too, but it was a nice thought.

I quite like Boris, even though when he rolls over to be tickled, he always shows off his rather unsettling, mishapen pink penis, which means that most tickling lasts a limited amount of time, and is accompanied by the words "Put it away Boris." He also snorts in a way I've never heard any dog do before. Sometimes I wonder about his provenance.

Boris has been helping me do my jigsaw. He does this by sitting with his head on my foot, and slapping his tail against the patio doors every time I start singing along to music. I noticed this yesterday - it's quite flattering.

He also makes me feel safe at night. Although I know that he would never, in a million years, attack a burglar, I have begun to find his habit of running around the house and barking throughout the night quite comforting.

So, that's Boris. I thought I'd hate him, but I don't. He's quite sweet really.

Christmas musings

I’ve only ever spent two Christmases away from the bosom of my family.

The first one was the Christmas of 1998, the last before my father died. I spent it with my ex, in our bijoux flat in New Cross; we were joined by our friend Flip. We spent months filling up the hamper cardboard box under the coffee table with food and drink. It took us almost as many months to get through it all.

For the first time ever, I had my own stocking. In it was a yo-yo and an orange. We drank a lot of gin and tonic, even more champagne, and after making ourselves sick on a dinner of roast duck, followed by Stilton, we calmed our churning stomachs with port.

It was clear and crisp outside, and the trees – recently pruned mutilated by the council didn’t look as brutally stunted as they had during the autumn, when all the other trees still had branches. We danced on the sofa a lot. It was great.

The second one was in 2001. I was in Egypt, leading a group of Christmas-hating holidaymakers through the Western Desert. As they persisted in telling me, their getaway was precisely that - an attempt to flee the horror of the festive period. They’d paid for a week free of Santa, and that was that. It didn’t seem to make any difference to them that I hadn’t.

The Western Desert is beautiful, and was one of my favourite trips, but this time I was, rather unfortunately, lumbered with a driver who had clearly missed his career niche as a vodka-fuelled clown in the Russian circus, a bus with too few seats, and a woman called Penny who seemed incapable of listening to anything I said*.

Christmas Eve dawned bright and hot. Determined not to be deprived of all hope of seasonal enjoyment, I had sneakily purchased two bottles of Omar Khayyam red wine, at great expense, while in Luxor. We squeezed ourselves, with difficulty, into our mini-bus, and drove, squabbling over leg and elbow room, to the market. I should really have learned the words for ‘cinnamon’ and ‘cloves’ before getting to the shop, and after being offered with increasing bemusement a selection of goods including tinned salmon and washing power, I just started sniffing the spices myself. They must have thought I was completely mad.

So that night, in our cosy camp, we sat around and I made a triumphant mulled wine over the fire. It was marvellous. Salah, our driver, came along too. Although by this time I’d become completely sick of his constant lateness, bad driving** and regular disappearing acts, the group seemed to have taken him to heart. They seemed to find our conversations amusing. I don’t know why; they routinely went like this:

“Salah, we’ve been waiting here for almost forty-five minutes, the police have got bored and gone to look for you – where on earth have you been?”
“Ah, my watch/shoe/belt/wallet broke and I had to fix it. Then we had a coffee and a smoke. You have very beautiful eyes.”
“Thanks. Can we go now? And next time, please don’t disappear – we’re really late.”
“M’ish mishkela, m’ish mishkela***, you are very lovely”.
“Don’t mish mishkela me, there is a bloody mishkela. And you’re not going to get anywhere by complimenting me. And I’m not lovely - I’m fed up”.
He’d then look at me mournfully, sigh, get in the bus, and drive us to some shop or other owned by his uncle, where he’d stop, and refuse to drive any more until we had bought something.

The sight of him dancing maniacally around the campfire, fuelled by mulled wine, his beer belly drooping attractively over his a semi-transparent white sarong will stay with me forever.

Christmas Day was even better. There’s an extremely old Christian cemetery that looks over the encroaching sand dunes just outside Kharga. It dates from around the 3rd Century AD, when the Roman emperor Diocletian decided to expel all Christians from the empire. Many of them came to this empty, seemingly god-forsaken place to escape persecution, and for centuries they buried their dead in the necropolis. Because it never, ever rains there, it's fantastically well preserved. One guide I had used to insist on going down in to the crypts and bringing up ancient corpses until I asked him to stop.

Anyway, I made my group gather in the crumbling, mud-brick church, I forced them to sing Christmas carols for me until I was satisfied, and I let them go.

I wonder what this Christmas will bring?

*“Please make sure you go to the bank before we leave Luxor as we might not be able to go in Kharga” – witness spending four hours in various banks on 23 December, in Kharga Oasis – an ugly town of staggering parochialism - trying to cash a cheque, while Salah and Samir, our police escort, disappeared, never to be seen again, into a coffee shop and the rest of my group mooched around sulkily.
“Don’t stray too far from the camp, and try not to sleep in any vehicle tracks – ha ha!” – witness spending an hour next morning frantically searching the desert before finding her curled up in a landrover track some half mile distant.

** On our way back to Cairo, I awoke from a brief doze, to find an unearthly, terrified silence reigning over the bus. Looking around, I realised that we were hurtling along the highway at breakneck speed, driverless, and Salah was nowhere to be seen. I was convinced for a second that he had finally had enough, and hurled himself from the moving vehicle. Then I realised that he was driving with one arm, while conducting a long search under the passenger seat for a bag of pretzels.

***No problem

Friday, December 16, 2005

Thirsty?

We left Swakopmund early, to avoid the heat. The cool Atlantic breeze feathered in through the windows as we headed south along the coast to Walvis Bay, and the day spread out before us in all its glory. We were light-hearted. We sang.

Then we headed inland, into the Namib desert, and things warmed up a little.

By midday, all the bottled water in the car was almost at boiling point.

By one, we had a dilemma – to keep the windows open and hope the hot, dusty air would cool our sweat, or close the window to avoid the bulk of the dust and rely on the hot, dusty air filtering in through the ventilation holes*.

By two, we were no longer speaking. Sweating and grunting was all we were capable off, and not in a good way.

After what seemed like hours of being slowly broiled in a light coating of dust, during which I felt as if I was an unwilling participant in an Anthony Worrall-Thompson recipe, we passed this sign, standing alone on the empty, baking plain.



This is clearly someone’s idea of a sick joke.

*I can’t afford to hire a car with air-conditioning.

Small Print

I walked into the car hire office.

I was slightly apprehensive, as I’d heard all kinds of things about vehicle hire in Namibia. It’s supposed to be hideously expensive, the excesses on the insurance are astronomical, and if you don’t go with a reputable firm, you should probably expect your wheels to fall off, or the engine to catch fire on day three of your trip.

I could easily imagine this happening in Etosha National Park. We’re sitting there at a waterhole, surrounded by a well-camouflaged collection of large and toothy predators, vultures circling hungrily above, when bang! Our engine starts smoking ominously, and three of our four wheels gently plop sideways and lie uselessly in the dust. Would it be better to get out of the car and be savagely mauled, or to stay put and take loads of photos before being consumed in a Toyota-fireball? How to choose?

Fortunately, not fancying this situation, I’d found somewhere that I thought was probably reputable, despite the rates being inexpensive, and including all mileage. Seeing as the pair of us clocked up a whopping 2,853 km in our ten day trip, I’d say this was a bonus.

After a couple of false starts, which saw me enquiring about car hire in a law office, and a beauty salon, I found the tiny office hidden away behind some old wire fence. The albino guy who appeared to be running things smiled at me as I sat down, and folded his fat fingers under his chin. He was very friendly and nice. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to know a hell of a lot about the conditions of my hire. We had some minor altercations over various bits of insurance, and the fact that my quote seemed to differ from what he had in his system.

Then I asked how much they were in the process of wresting from the feeble grasp of my credit card.

“9,000 Namibian dollars”. (That’s about 900 quid)
“OK. What does that include?”
“The car hire, and the excess.”
“What’s the excess?”
“$1,500”

This is staggeringly low, and for about a millisecond I was tempted to shut up and leave it in case they had made a mistake.

“But the car hire is $2,900, and the excess is $1,500. That comes to $4,400. What about the other $4,600?”
He smiled, triumphantly. “Ah, but if you see, that is why I have only taken $6,000 from your card.” He waved the authorisation slip at me.

This unexpected tangent derailed me, but only momentarily.

“But that’s still too much, if it includes only the excess and the car hire. What about the other $1,600?”

He stared at me, looking slightly hostile. He looked at the computer screen and pressed some buttons, with no apparent result. He picked up my contract, looked at it with pursed lips and put it down again. He pressed some more buttons. Then he seemed to come to a conclusion. He looked at me, and put his hands palm down on the desk.

“Now you are asking me difficult questions.”

After this, I have to confess to becoming somewhat impatient. It is my the bank’s money after all.

All of this made me so much more embarrassed when we locked the keys in the car (still in the ignition) on the Monday evening of our return from our Grand Namibian Adventure. The car was almost unrecognisably filthy, both inside and out*, and the presence of empty drink cans and a pair of (dusty) socks on the back seat topped off the impression that we’d thrown a raucous party in it and failed to clean up the mess.

The same guy turned up with a screwdriver and a coat hanger, and spent an hour and a half of his evening in the car park at Wernhill Shopping centre, sticking them alternately into the (dusty) window casings, while his two year old daughter ran about in the traffic.

The holiday was great though. Our wheels didn’t fall off, and we saw some lions. These lions:



*Namibia is very dusty.

Monday, December 05, 2005

We're all going on a...

I'm off on holiday for a few days with a friend from the UK.

So I won't be here. Until a week on Friday.

Ta-ta.

Independent thinking

I live next door to an organisation that needs 24 hour security. I’ve become quite chatty with David, the security guard, who seems to spend all day in a fug of boredom, listening to his radio, and occasionally popping his head through the fence, and making me jump. The first time he did it, I nearly wet myself; the sound of a disembodied voice floating eerily through the bougainvillea was unexpected. My reaction resulted in his asking me whether there was a war on in my country.

We had a chat yesterday while I was waiting for some friends to pick me up and take me to the pool for a bit of sunbathing. We chatted about Namibia, and independence, and then he said:

“When did your country get independence?”

I was totally flummoxed. When did we get independence? Have we always had it? Did we have to wrest it from the Romans (vague images of woad-covered warriors and Bodicea and her lethal chariot popped into my head), or did they just get fed up with the rain and the perpetual cold, and leave voluntarily? Did they leave? I started to feel that my grasp of history is shakier than it should be.

I wondered whether Henry VIII’s departure from the Catholic church could be considered any kind of independence – again, I suppose, from Rome. What about William the Conqueror? Did the Normans ever leave? Or the Vikings? The Saxons? The Celts? My head was full of large, red-bearded men galloping around the countryside, waving swords and shouting a lot, or arriving on the shores of Eastern England in strange, large-prowed boats, waving swords and shouting a lot. I was getting confused.

What about Wales and Scotland? – they’re no longer independent. And as for Northern Ireland…

My mind boggled, and I just looked at him and decided on the simple answer. “Errrr… I think we’ve always had it,” I said, unsure of myself.

He clearly did not understand.

“You don’t know when you got independence?”

“Well, no. We’ve always had it.” I didn’t say that we seem to be the ones from whom people in recent times have forcibly reclaimed their right to self-governance.

“You mean there was no war in your country?”

“No. I mean, yes. I mean, there is a war, I mean, there was a war, but…” The arrival of my friends rescued me from unwisely departing on a hopeless tangent and trying to explain the hideous complexities of the Northern Ireland conflict to a man who clearly did not know anything about the country of my birth*. Thankfully.

But the question is still troubling me.

*And why should he? I didn’t know anything about Namibia until I came here. And people I told about coming here almost universally did not have a clue where it was.

I forgot to mention - Namibia itself gained independence from South Africa 15 years ago, except for Walvis Bay, a strategic port in the middle of the west coast, which became part of Namibia in 1994. I found it interesting that I have as little idea what it's like to come from a country so recently free, as he had what it's like to come from a country who's tabloid press still bangs on about the bloody empire every time our global significance is questioned. Another thing taken for granted.

Buglife

Now seems to be a time of bugs*.

I don’t know why, but over the last couple of weeks, my small flat has become the Place Where Bugs Come to Die.

I stepped on a largish, yellow-mottled specimen gone belly-up on the bathroom floor when I was getting out of the shower yesterday. On waking this morning I found that an attractive green, pea-sized beetle had peacefully departed to the big bug palace in the sky and left its mortal remains on my pillow, legs immodestly akimbo.

Whenever I sweep the floor (more often than you might think) I notice thin wisps of wings in drifts under the coffee table, or behind the phone. To start with, I thought they were leaves, but then I realised that there was no tree or plant in the vicinity that might carelessly shed leaves of that shape. When I picked one up, before it crumbled between my fingers, I saw the delicate cross-hatching of veins.

I don’t know where these elusive insects hide, because I never see them when they are alive. I don’t know where they leave their bodies either – they are nowhere to be found, and I’ve looked. They leave only their wings in the dust as evidence that they were here at all.

There are, of course, plenty of live specimens. A troupe of tiny ants spends all day patiently fetching and carrying specks of unidentifiable treasure in a long military column that stretches from my sliding doors, skirts my bike, and ends up in the corner by the security bars that protect my small patio from burglars. I woke up this morning to find that they have invaded my kettle.

A tiny, enchanting insect that looks like a baby praying mantis lives in the locking mechanism of my patio doors. A shiny millipede has ventured indoors, but spends most of its time immobile and curled tightly behind the leg of the coffee table.

The other night, a clumsy moth, confused by the sudden extinguishing of the light as I went to sleep, collided repeatedly with my left armpit until I switched the light back on and dispatched it to the bathroom. Clearly, in the absence of anything else, my pale skin renders me identifiable as a source of celestial light.

There are the strange wasp-arsed flies with the extraordinarily long waists, and the wild buzzing, cumbersome fat beetles that seem to career from pillar to post. You can almost see them gasping with relief that they’ve made it without crashing into something, or falling out of the sky.

Lightning-fast carpet spiders cling flatly to the walls, scuttling behind pictures and cupboards at any sign of life. They entwine the striped day-biting mosquitoes in light, invisible webs that leave their slowly twisting corpses hanging from the ceiling tiles.

As I hang out my laundry in the mid-morning sun, a pair of swallowtail butterflies flaps around my head, casting monstrous shadows. I stood outside the other day and watched flashing blue-winged swallows dive and catch foolish flies in the early evening calm.

I quite like sharing my home with these other creatures. They are interesting and unobtrusive (except for the ants in my coffee), and there aren’t very many of them.

I could really do without the mosquitoes though.

*City bugs, obviously. Not country bugs of the ilk that Claypot has to deal with – I’ve never yet had to brave a wall of termites to get to the loo. We live a tame life here in the bustling metropolis.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Innocent

‘Tis a Christmas miracle. I have my CRB clearance. I won’t go into all the nonsense I had to go through, desperately phoning random Lewisham estate agents, my old boss, the CRB and VSO, sending snarly emails about the exercise in stupidity that is the Data Protection Act, and generally feeling stressed and teary, before everything finally resolved itself, because its too ridiculous to even talk about in more detail than that.

As long as it doesn’t go astray (touch wood touch wood) between Cambridge and the VSO offices in London, and as long as they send it by courier to VSO in Namibia, and don’t lose it, torch it, lock it away for a thousand years, or tear it up and use it as the labels for the office secret santa presents, things will be fine, and I will be allowed to stay here.

Which would be nice.

It's Chriiiiiiiiistmas....soon

It’s December, in case you hadn’t noticed. Normally, when I am at home, this means that I am in a state of advanced Christmas-fatigue, which has been steadily worsening since the end of September. The sight of Christmas crackers on shelves in the height of an Indian summer has the same effect every year – nausea, followed by throbbing temples, and an urge to run screaming from the shop before they start playing Slade. I just thank God that he hasn’t seen fit to inflict Noddy Holder on an unsuspecting Namibian populace yet. As far as I can work out, Bing Crosby’s just about made it, so I reckon we’ve got another 20 good years.

About ten days ago the Namibian actually ran an article about the fact that Windhoek shopping malls are now displaying Christmas decorations, to remind people in the run up – a whole five weeks in advance! Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that it gets dark at the same time every night here, and so the town council can’t use darkening evenings as an excuse to combat a raging S.A.D. epidemic by putting up Christmas lights as soon as daylight saving ends.

Of course, waiting until it’s nearly Christmas before allowing money grabbing corporate opportunists to go insane and drive the collective population into a frenzy of acquisition means that everyone here goes Christmas shopping at the same time. And because everyone, but everyone, in Windhoek goes on holiday to Swakopmund for the month of December, they are all doing their Christmas shopping now. Shops are suddenly places of which to be wary.

Despite this sudden buzz of seasonal activity, I’m feeling very unChristmassy. I suppose the fact that it’s boiling hot here doesn’t help – tinsel just seems so very wrong in this climate. And at home, they’re all enduring blizzards and snow, and it’s set to be a white Christmas. It’s refreshing, in a way, to be away from it all, but also odd. Still, at least I know that on the day itself, I’ll be on the beach, chucking a steak on the braai and toasting everyone I know with a cold, delicious Windhoek lager.

Can’t complain.
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