Days 72-73: Overnight train to Harare

Everyone told us not to take the train.

“It’s not safe,” they said.

“It goes so slow they said.

“It’s not a good kind of crowd,” they said.

But, “it’s so cheap,” we thought.

“It would save us the price of a hostel that night,” we thought.

“We just got off 54 hours of traveling by bus,” we thought.

So we did it anyway.

I boarded the train in the dark. We staked out my sleeper cabin, stored all our bags under my bed and ate cheese and apples and bread while watching out the window at the people walking by on the platform. By the time we got to the ticket station that morning (you can only buy tickets for the day you want to travel on the day you want to travel) there was only one ticket left in a sleeper car, so after dinner we split up, the other to her spot in the economy class.

Fifteen minutes before the train was scheduled to leave, I met my first cabin-mate. She introduced herself; I waved to her seven-month-old son. I met my second cabin-mate five minutes after the train was scheduled was leave. She didn’t talk much. To me, anyway.

The power wasn’t working on the train (which we had heard was usual), so I was rocked to sleep shortly after the train started moving by feeling of the cars swaying on the tracks. I woke up the next morning somewhere between Bulawayo (our starting destination) and Harare. My Zimbabwean geography wasn’t good enough for when my cabin-mated told me where we were that it meant anything to me. I checked on my friend. I looked out the window. I listened to part of an episode of Radiolab. It was just finishing as we pulled into the Harare station.

That was it. No late night visitors trying to get into my cabin. No strangers ducking into the cabin to steal my stuff when I went to the bathroom. No drunken passengers roaming the hallway outside the cabin. The ride was uneventful, but that’s why it worked. It got us from point A to point B and left behind only a minimal amount of fatigue.

Sometimes, it turns out, you can’t listen to what others say. 

Day 41: Giving a sheep a haircut

We had just finished watering the trees at the front of the farm when one of our neighbors in his white pickup truck (a “bakkie” here) pulled into the gravel drive.

Rob, the farmer in question, got out to talk to Riette, one of the owners of the farm who has put up with us for these past weeks. When they were finished, he mentioned that he had to get back to his farm because they were shearing the sheep that day, and when he had left, the ram was still waiting for his haircut.

And so, in a continuation of my suburban-girl-working-on-a-farm education, I ended up in the back of the bakkie, bouncing along to Rob’s farm where, after brief introductions and brief instructions, I was handed a pair of clippers and told that I could go for it. One of the farmhands asked me if I had ever sheared a sheep before.

I shook my head. “Never.”

So much of the past two and a half years of my life have consisted of me doing things that I never thought I would do in my life. But, after 24 and a half years, I’m starting to figure out that’s what life’s all about. Sometimes, the things that mean the most are the things that you never thought you would be doing. 

Day 21: I remember what I loved about Africa

We were sitting in the rental car in Opuwo waiting for Pascal to come back from looking for the Namibian Peace Corps volunteer we were supposed to be meeting. It was a dirt road, with massive piles of dirt in front of and behind us. So, of course, (as happens in most countries where toys and educational games and intellectual stimulation aren’t really an option for kids, they find something that amuses them and go with it) there was a group of ragtag Namibian kids spending their afternoon climbing all over these piles of dirt.

I paused only for a moment before jumping out of the car and chasing after them, the sound of their giggles and yells surrounding me. 

Day 28: Border crossing

There’s something about crossing the border between Namibia and South Africa at 4 a.m. when there are no other lights besides the one street lamp outside the office where we officially leave Namibia and the only other people are the people who are also on this Intercape bus and the lady who’s stamping my passport says nothing and looks like she also just woke up from what she intended to be her full night’s sleep and the headlights of the bus that reveal little about the landscape around us as we enter South Africa that makes the whole thing feel like we’re sneaking in the country. 

Day 40: Library

We’re sitting in the corner with our backs resting against the white-painted bookshelves. Eleven-year-old Bernice, who comes every Tuesday for an hour and a half with a group of school kids to the library on the farm where I’m currently working, and I have been reading a story about a bear named Rupert who finds a magical cave. We’ve taken a break for her to ask me all the questions she can think of about my life:

Where do you come from?

How old are you?

Where are you staying?

Why are you here?

Do you like games?

I reply that I don’t have a husband when she asks me his name.

“Ok, then. What’s your boyfriend’s name?” she asks.

I tell her I don’t have a boyfriend. I turn the question around on her. “Do you have a boyfriend? Is he your boyfriend?” I ask, pointing to one of the boys who is playing chess a few feet away from us.

She shakes her head emphatically. “No. Boys are ugly.” 

Day 17: Meat!

The past six years, I’ve casually called myself a vegetarian. (While always hoping to be able to sneak a piece of bacon off the plate. One of the worst days was the discovery of a bacon bar at my cousin’s wedding. And the first time I went home after I stopped eating meat and my mom already had the bratwursts thawed and ready for the grill. I was, perhaps, one of the worst vegetarians ever.)

I stopped eating meat because one day in college, I just didn’t have the desire to eat any more eat. I watched Food Inc., and I read Michael Pollan, and then, I really didn’t have the desire to eat any more meat.

I kept it up when I came to Benin. There, it was easy. There really was no meat to eat. (except for the occasional can of Skyline chili).

Then I came to Namibia. Where there is a lot of meat to eat: oryx and zebra and kudu and the ambiguous “game.” Three times a day and sometimes in between meals. We told a campsite owner once that we weren’t planning on building a brai that night. He was baffled.

But, like in South Africa, Namibian meals are more about the preparation than the actual eating. Hours spent building a fire and drinking wine and having conversations while the food cooks. What’s on the brai doesn’t matter as much as the people who are around it.

So, I’ve started eating meat again. Because it’s (usually) fresh and (usually) local. Because it’s part of the cultural experience. Because oryx steak is good.

I think I kept up my vegetarianism for so long because I had gotten used to it. And  maybe a little because I didn’t want to have to deal with the comments about me eating meat again. Then, one night, as I was being poured another glass of red wine and handed a plate of food that had just come off the fire, I decided that nothing other people would say would make this steak less delicious. 

Day 22: Morning in Opuwo

The first time it happened, we were at a supermarket. I was standing in the checkout line with the Swiss couple who, in one of those moments that comes from a hostel’s atmosphere of camaraderie and adventuring, had adopted us for the previous two weeks. Behind us was a girl of about ten who was holding a loaf of bread and ten one-Namibian-dollar coins. Exactly the amount that she needed. When the girl laid her money on the counter, Pascal, our dad, casually slipped the cashier a N$10 bill and slid the coins back into the girl’s hands.

The second time was outside this supermarket. As we were climbing into the rental car, a man in a dirty black windbreaker and old jeans that did not look like they were doing anything against the cold wind asked Pascal for money for “watching” the car while we had been inside. When we opened the trunk, he immediately focused on the empty five-liter plastic bottle we had in the back. He asked if he could have it, and Pascal handed it over.

A Namibian volunteer called it “compassion fatigue,” this feeling of after two years of people constantly (and I don’t say that as a cliché or a literal meaning, but in almost all my interactions with Beninese people this would happen) asking me for things or asking me how to get to America or taking things out of my house. I, looking at these same two Namibians in Epupa, was over it. I was over the begging and the swarming and the constant badgering.

I looked at Pascal and Tabitha the rest of day and tried to think what they were thinking. Tried to find the same source in myself where they found their generosity and their compassion. Tried to find the person in me again that would have also paid for that girl’s bread and happily handed over the water bottle to the man.

Day 9: Reintegration issues

You ask the man at the Air Emirates desk who is booking your hotel if you have a private bathroom.

Someone points out when you use curse words in public conversation.

You keep starting conversations with strangers and never ask their names, forgetting that introductions are usually appropriate at the beginning. Not after you’ve already asked them if they want to travel with you.

You switch to speaking in French so people don’t understand what you’re saying.

All your stories start with the phrase, “Well, in Benin…”

Days 1 & 2: Ghana kicks our (collective) ass

We entered Ghana naively thinking that our two years living and working in a west African country would have adequately prepared us for visiting another west African country. (In our defense, both of us had already visited Togo. And Togo really is just an extension of Benin. Despite the fact that everything is cheaper, everything runs the same way.) We were unprepared for Ghana.

We were unprepared for the utter lack of organization at the border. All traffic laws and common courtesies were forgotten. There were cars driving down the wrong side of the street, motos weaving in between the semis and taxis and men almost constantly sticking their heads in the window of our car asking us if we wanted to buy Ghanian sims or change money or have him carry our bags across the border. 

We were unprepared for Ghanaian English. After two years in a French-speaking country, I was looking forward to people being able to understand me. Turns out, my accent is just as troubling here as it was next door.

We were unprepared for our egos to be our downfall. The next morning, we wandered around the town of Hohoe looking for coffee. There were no cafeterias like the ones where we had spent the last two years drinking coffee to be found. We walked to the taxi station to try to find someone who would drive us to the mountain that we wanted to visit that day. We had been told to look for motos (what we had taken around Benin the last two years) to drive us there. There were none to be found.

What our problem was wasn’t that we were unprepared. It was that we had been prepared for Ghana to be just like Benin. And when it wasn’t, we were ill-equipped to handle it. We wanted (or needed) to believe that we could handle any situation after the past two years of our lives. And we were unprepared when things didn’t go exactly as we had planned.

That morning, we were eventually saved by a pair of German doctors who were in Ghana to volunteer at a clinic in the south after I swallowed my touristic pride and asked for help. Soon, I was being shown maps and being explained where I could find the path that would lead us to the top of the mountain and being offered accompaniment on our way there. They had known better. 

Called out

The Beninese culture is a loud culture. And I don’t just mean the motos that are constantly driving behind your house or the roosters that crow whenever they want or the lone man who gets a hold of a megaphone and feels the need to broadcast his thoughts to everyone in your neighborhood.

I mean that a conversation with a Beninese person can rocket from friendly chatter to screaming in a matter of seconds. I’m no longer phased when I hear my neighbor yelling because she yells almost everyday. At my girls club, it sometimes feels like I am a mediator instead of a facilitator as small disagreements can lead to a complete derailment of that afternoon’s meeting.

I hadn’t realized that I had gotten used this aspect of my life, or even that it was becoming ingrained in my personality until my trip to Burkina Faso over Christmas.

We were at the taxi station just over the border trying to find a driver who would take us to Ouagadougou. We started talking to the taxi driver like we would normally talk to a driver in Benin: we assumed he was trying to rip us off from the very beginning, so we were pissed off before we even started the negotiation.

The taxi driver stopped and looked us over.

“Did you just come from Benin?” he asked, although at 10km over the border, this was highly likely. “You people in Benin all just need to calm down. You get mad too easily.”