Lovesick Lovebird, Hippophagic Pig, Dumb Dogs

Do you know how great it is to wake up excited for the day? 

 I lunged Santiago again first thing and told him, “yesterday was my first time lunging. Now I’ve done it three times, and it’s a new day. You won’t be able to pull any crap today.” Either he understood me or my body language was more confident, because we had a great time of it. Even skinny as a rail, he looked beautiful. I passed Dirk when I was walking Santiago to his stall and he asked, “How did he do? Was he supple?” I replied, “I don’t really know what you mean. He did everything I asked, and he seemed less tight than yesterday,” (which means I knew the answer to his question without knowing I knew the answer). I lunged Dodo next and he was a dream. (I learned later that he was just on his best behavior.) 

 My routine of the week would be work horses and assist Sam and Dirk until 1 or 2, have lunch and a break, then clean tack. The late afternoons and evenings were all mine, which ain’t a bad life at all! The farm where we lived and worked was a bit of a menagerie: bunnies and guinea pigs, geese and ducks, a (terrifying to one squirly Arabian) pot-bellied pig that roamed around, parrot and love birds, and dogs that shared their dog pen with tortoises. The dogs have been known to “nibble” strangers and familiar grooms alike, and are let out during the lunch break and at night. 

 As the horses had the previous weekend off, they were only lunged the day before, but today Samantha and Dirk had to lunge and ride all the horses (except Santiago who became my project). I stayed busy fetching horses, tacking them up, walking them to the lunging arenas, etc. As previously mentioned, Zena’s Anglo-Arab Rakbah is scared of new things, including but not limited to the pot-bellied pig. Every morning camels are led through the river bed past his pasture. Dodo, his friend, looks up, thinks to himself, “There go those weird not-horses again,” and continues munching his hay. Rakbah stands and shakes as soon as he sees them and only stops when they are out of sight. I was leading Rakbah to the tack room for Samantha to work with him when he promptly stopped dead in his tracks and refused to move. Sam was watching and said, “It’s the pig!” She came over to help try to coax him into walking past it, but it was a failed effort. We aborted the mission and walked him the other way around, and I muttered to myself in disgust. (Note: the horse pictured is clearly not Rakbah.)



 The sun didn’t feel particularly hot but it is quite strong, requiring high SPF, a hat, and loads of water. It being a desert and all, there are minor dust storms that kick up and leave me coughing. I made a mental note to get my buff (a multi-purpose traveler bandana) out tomorrow to cover my nose. Sun glasses are a must once the morning fog has burned off. After the horses were all worked, I had lunch, goofed around (by which I mean lots of reading: the grand total was 4 books in 8 days) and cleaned bridles.

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he first day I took the bridles and saddle soap over to the aviary to hang out with the birds. There was much chirping about their peace and personal space being disturbed, but I did make one friend. There were at least a dozen love birds, a nest in one corner, a pair of sun conures and one ring-necked parrot, who came over to say hello each time I stopped by for the rest of the week. I can’t help but worry that the un-paired birdie may have been inappropriately attracted to me because of my bright turquoise shirt. He whispered sweet nothings to me through the bars of his cage. (I never have been good at noticing if someone is hitting on me.) 



This time I took two more bridles and sat on my porch blaring music while I cleaned the tack. My music was so loud and I was so absorbed in my task that I didn’t notice the groom walk past me until he was right next to me, and my hand flew to my heart as I yelped. The poor guy felt so bad for startling me! If I stayed around long enough, he would realize just how often an occurrence that is… 

 One of the owners of the stables and grounds has a lovely large house at one end at the edge of the river bed. (The “river bed” which Dirk has seen flowing twice in his 10 years living there.) Said owner, having lovely taste, has a beautiful desert-plant garden and pool in her back yard which I was allowed to make use of since she was out of town. I spent at least an hour frolicking in the lap pool then reading with my feet in the water, utterly content. Since there was no hot water at my cottage, I had keys to let myself in the house and use the shower too. I tend to view showering as a waste of my time, since there are so many other things I could be doing with my life! Surprisingly, this was one of the best showers I’ve ever had, doubtless due to the fancy bathroom, fantastically loud Taylor Swift music, and generally happy day. I had a visible pep in my step as I walked in my towel back to my cottage. Until the dogs showed up. 

 From their perspective, some interloper was walking from The Boss’s house after hours and needed to be shredded, pronto. From my perspective, that is the most calm I have ever been staring down two 100+ pound bounding balls of barking teeth.

Let me briefly digress and tell an amusing story of one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever done. 

I visited a dear friend in Amsterdam, Ben, for a long weekend during study abroad a few years back. We had a fantastic time catching up after our 3 years apart. One day we were casually holding hands and strolling down a residential street, as friends do. I looked up from the pavement and saw a large German shepherd loping towards us, and the small reptilian part of my brain took utter control of my body. I pulled Ben’s hand, shoving him in front of me and hiding behind his body from the terrifying creature, which continued on its path beside us without even a passing glance. THAT is how scared I am of strange running dogs. Luckily, Ben is still my friend, but unfortunately he doesn’t hold my hand anymore. :) 

 Back to the story. I am so content with life that I am practically skipping on the sand between the olive trees, when I am interrupted by loud hellions bent on a destructive path only 100 yards away. Without panicking a jot, I started yelling in as calming and high pitched a voice as I could manage, “It’s Bimbo and Shackra! Look at Bimbo and Shackraaaaaa! Bimbo and Shackra would never bite such a sweet girl because I gave belly rubs to Bimbo and Shackra just a few days ago!” I had absolutely no idea which one was which, but I figured the only thing that would keep me in one piece was convincing them that we knew each other. I could see the wheels turning in their heads. “Stranger! Dangerrrr! Must protect territory!! Stranger… Is not running? Stranger knows my name??” They slowed their speed down to a trot and gave another halfhearted (yet still terrifying) woof before walking close enough for me to pat them on the heads. I said to them, “Shackra and Bimbo, thanks for not eating me, boys!” They reveled in the attention, tongues lolling, and we parted ways as friends. No harm, no foul, right? I patted myself on the back for handling the situation so well, walked back to my cottage (walking through the door instead of the window), and promptly crapped my pants. It’s much safer to fall apart after the emergency, innit?



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Keys, Lunging, and Love

Once at the farm after the grocery store debacle, I followed Dirk as he checked on all of their horses, especially the 2 new ones. I very intentionally made friends with the giant/terrifying guard dogs Bimbo and Shackra. I am so willing to trade belly rubs now for hesitation before disembowelment later. I set up my stuff in my guest cottage and was warned there isn’t hot water for the shower, the bathroom sink leaks, there is a trick to shutting of the toilet, there isn’t a kettle or fridge, the bed squeaks, is it too hot even with the ceiling fan? Does the bed look good enough? Are you sure this is going to be ok? They progressively got more worried as they listed the caveats and tricks. It seemed helpful that they know just how low my standards are, so I mentioned I had spent 2 months living on a beach in a tent in Greece with no hot water or electricity, and I really would be fine.

During that time in Greece when I was offline for days at a time, Mamalady had a rule: I must message my mother at least every third day, and if they had no word from me for 5 days, they would put Michael on a plane to come find me. I made a point to tell my mom before I left this year that I know another Watson fellow who didn’t write to his parents for 3 months, but I don’t think she got the message. Keeping that “Taken”-like timeline in mind, I asked Samantha if I could message my folks that I arrived safely. The internet signal was so weak, I eventually had to send an email using her email address telling Michael I was alive and with good people, and there would be no need to call Samantha’s phone in the middle of the night. At the end I wrote, “P.S. This was not sent under duress.” Michael and I now have a better secret code to indicate if I am under duress. I love my quirky family.

Saying goodnight, I tried the key in the lock and it wouldn’t budge. I gave it a few tries and trudged to their place to ask if there was a trick to the door as well. Dirk helped me but the key bent as I was taking it out. 😁 Oh dear.

The next morning I was so excited to get to work and see what I could see! I made tea with no kettle, fixed cereal with UHT milk (meaning it doesn’t need to be kept cold), cleaned myself up without hot water, and made my way to the locked door. With the bent key it was difficult to get it to turn the first half way, and impossible the second half because the key broke off in the damn lock.

Now, this wasn’t a grocery store, so I didn’t panic. Being the resourceful young woman that I am, I tried to open it with tweezers, various parts of my pocket knife, the broken handle. Nada. I took another sip of my tea, definitely not thinking about how a claustrophobic chick with no internet connection or working cell phone was trapped in a cottage out of sight of her hosts. Nope, not this one. I’m far too clever for that. After another 15 minutes of trying the lock, I did the only sensible thing I could do: I climbed through the window. Easy.

The next part was a bit harder. “Umm, Samantha? I have a predicament,” I started, and showed her half of the key. “Oh my word!” was her response (and I would later learn this phrase covers everything from mild inconvenience to utter dismay). She said it again when she realized I was on the inside of the cottage and not the outside when it happened, and I definitely turned pink when I sheepishly answered how I’d gotten out. Since it was entirely my fault, I offered to pay for the key replacement. In an effort to be accommodating and low maintenance, I said, “If we can’t get it fixed today, I don’t mind using the window. It wasn’t so bad.” This only served to elevate me from “Girl Who Broke the Key an Climbed Through the Window” to “Strange Girl Who Doesn’t Mind Using a Window as Her Main Point of Entry.” Oh brother. Apparently it was a weird thing to say. Apparently. This in addition to “World Traveler Who Loses Her Cool in Grocery Stores.” I’ve got some ground to cover before I can rehabilitate my reputation.

I knew that we were going to get along just fine when I followed Samantha and Dirk to the tack room. Sam said, “You can hold Santiago while Dirk does an adjustment on his back.” Dirk is an osteopathologist and does work similar to chiropractics on horses. Dirk replied, “No. You can start by GETTING Santiago.” I’m a happy chappy when I get to actually be useful, so I practically skipped off with the bridle and returned with a skinny black horse. I held him and followed commands like walking him away, keeping him still, or backing him up.

Then we went to the arena to lunge him. Dirk handed me the whip and lunge line and asked if I’ve ever done any lunging before. Confessing my inexperience, I got a 5 minute lesson on lunging and was left to it. Next up were Buschido and Rakbah (one of zena’s horses who is in training to be sold). Buschido was well-behaved and Rakbah was fine except for a moment when he thought his pasture-mate and friend Dodo was walking past the arena. He wriggled on the end of the line like a fish on a hook and then went back to his circles like nothing had happened. With each horse I worked, I got more comfortable handling the whip and lunge line, and confident in knowing what to do. I went from having no hands-on experience to having lunged 3 horses! I was so chuffed, I thought the day couldn’t get any better. But it did. 😀

Throughout the day I busied myself fetching horses, helping grab tack, and the like. Then, I saddled up JB, the American Quarter Horse, with his western tack for Dirk. My god, that is the heaviest damn saddle in existence, I just know it. As we walked to the arena, Dirk said, “Do you want to ride him?” It was difficult to contain my glee. Do I want to ride a quarter horse in a western saddle for my first day in Namibia for a successful trainer? Better question: is there anything I want more? I had a 15 minute lesson-type instruction. I learned about what is wrong with JB’s back, a bit about arena rules, and some dressage riding. I definitely fell a little in love. (With JB, not Dirk.)

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After lunch we made a trip to town to have a new key made, a quick internet stop at a cafe, a jaunt along the beach, and then to get more groceries. When we walked in the grocery store I started getting vegetables then stopped, looking around a bit lost. Sam said, “are you overwhelmed?” This one knows too much… ☺️

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First day in Namibiaaaaaaaaaaa

Emphasis goes on the AAAAAAAA! At the Johannesburg airport I stopped to pick up lunch I planned to eat at my gate. Little did I know I had to go to the international departures gate which takes you through security again, where they deemed my coke to be a threat but at least left me the curry. (I garnered strange looks in the line from my fellow travelers.) The curry proved to be a problem at my gate, because the Indian food was spicy, my drink was confiscated, and I was short 3 rand for a soda (or “cool drink” as they refer to any drink preferably consumed cold). What’s a girl to do? I explained my predicament to the the smartly dressed woman next to me who spotted me 5 rand (essentially 50 cents). SCORE. Being shameless works out sometimes. :)

On my flight to Walvis Bay, Namibia (on the coast) I counted 15 passengers total and a single flight attendant. The man next to me was silent nearly the whole flight until he asked me if I speak French? Nope. Portuguese. Sorry man. Spanish? Ah, sí! I helped the Spaniard fill out his boarding card which was in English and then we chatted about our travels to Namibia. I stuttered and sipped and stumbled through my rusty vocabulary and sentence structure, but he complimented my Spanish anyway. I mispronounced “dollar” and said “pain” instead (“How much pain do you plan to spend in Namibia?”) but quickly realized my error. He giggled at my word choice for “car” and say I was so Latin American, which actually just made me proud. What I was most proud of, though, was telling this story in Spanish.

Last summer I was swimming in the sea in Menorca. A boy started pointing in the water and saying, “My glasses!” So I looked and asked, “Are they in the water?” He kept repeating “I don’t have my glasses!” and pointing excitedly. “Medusa! Medusa!” he would say. “What is medusa?” I finally asked. Looking under water, it clicked. “Sí, es medusa!” I yelled as I swam away. And that is how I learned the Spanish word for jellyfish. ;)

We exchanged many comments about the starkness of the desert once we could see it from the plane. I translated for him to the border guard an we both sailed through to the tiny airport. I learned the Spanish word for rolling suitcase, picked up my backpacks and mumble the overly formal “go with God” goodbye. I perched on a chair to wait for my hosts, pre-arranged by Zena. After 20 minutes passed, I asked for a pay phone and was loaned someone’s cell. Samantha and Dirk were waylaid by horse and traffic troubles and would be another hour at least. There was another traveler whose taxi had forgotten him. This is a 2 flight per day airport so I was eventually evicted from the building to wait outside. Reading in the shade, I didn’t even notice the car pull up until the airport employees for my attention, much to their amusement.

Samantha (English) and Dirk (German) and Amy (terrier) welcomed me to Namibia with a dusty drive to Swakopmund. I tried to be less “overwhelming” which was Zena’s advice and suss out what they think about horses. It was an easy subject to broach with two horse trainers.

They had been out of town all weekend and had driven 2 new horses up from the capital, Windhoek, that morning (hence the hour and a half delay). Since they were out of food, we stopped in Swakopmund to grab some.

Of all the countries I have been to, languages I’ve heard, monuments I’ve visited and cultures I’ve studied, do you want to know what ALWAYS overwhelms me? Grocery stores. For crying out loud, a grocery store in a me place makes my brain shut down. “What do you need to eat?” ceases to be a simple question when I have too many options, possibly written in foreign languages, and I’ve no idea where to look or what the protocol for bagging fruit is. I swear, I didn’t buy any food the whole week I was in Portugal because my IQ drops to zero every time I walk in a market. (Which was twice in Portugal. One time I literally walked out empty handed.)

I explained this, in less horrifying detail, to Samantha in the hopes that she wouldn’t draw too many conclusions about my personality and intellect based on the next 20 minutes. She chuckled and did her best to remind me of stuff I could borrow or obvious things I’d forgotten. Luckily for me, my Novel Grocery Store Stupidity evaporates once I leave said premises, and usually doesn’t stick around past the third visit to a shop. Let us just say I was happy to be done with that particular errand, and that I did manage to collect some foodstuffs that would last most of the week (though the latter is mostly due to Samantha’s patience at wandering back and forth through the aisles, endlessly.) I am a strange combination of clever and ditzy, my friends. :)

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Headed to Namibia (1/31/15)

It is frustrating the responses I get for being from Mississippi, all around the world. Here are some real responses I’ve gotten to the “Which state are you from?” question.

“Like… The, uh, river?” (Rarely said with certainty.)
“What’s that?” (Rarely said with tact.)
“I see you are wearing shoes!” (Yes, I am, in fact, not barefoot and pregnant. Gold star for your observation skills. Now go away.)
Oh, that’s where the slaves went.” (Compliments of a little Irish granny who has lost her filter.)
“I saw on Top Gear they really hate gay people there.” (I can see this is going to be a fun conversation…)
“Like the film Mississippi Burning! Is it really that bad…?” (Ditto above.)
“Wasn’t there a big storm there recently?” (They mean hurricane Katrina, and their sense of time is loose.)
“You can’t possibly be from Mississippi. Where’s your accent?” (At home, which is the same place you left your manners.)
“I’m sorry.” (I wanted to punch the Yankee that said that. Instead I opted to lecture her.)
“I LOVE jazz!” (This is by far the best option.)

However, Ish, (my boss Zena’s friend who keeps the books on the farm in South Africa) gave me a new one as we drove to Bloemfontein. “Isn’t the Ku Klux Klan from there?” I was surprised by this and embarrassed not to know the answer. (It’s Tennessee, I now know.) At the time I said, “either Mississippi or Arkansas…” I must apologize to my second home, Arkansas, for throwing you under the bus. Ish and her husband were driving to Bloem for their granddaughter’s birthday party and offered me a ride so I could catch a plane to Namibia the next day. We had an interesting conversation about race in the southern US with a few comparisons to South Africa. I was not as frank as I wanted to be, but Ish had the most fair opinion I had encountered since arriving to this country.

In the backseat with me was Malephoi, a 10-year-old friend of the birthday girl. We talked about fashion (hair styles, what colors I’ve dyed my hair, which ear piercing hurt the most, favorite colors in general), her Sesotho name and English name (Juliet) as well as how people mispronounce both, learning to swim, and how many countries we can name. She was bright and made for truly delightful conversation. When I clarified that I am from the U.S. and not England like she thought, Malephoi said, “Is Obama really your president? I thought that was a joke.” She told me a mixed race person is called “colored” here, which made me squirm even though it is the correct term.

That night I took a quiz and named 136 counties. I texted Ish to tell Malephoi, who (with much prompting and correcting) named 15 countries in the car. She was so much fun to talk to and learn from. AND she shared her candy. What a Class A Kid.

In Malephoi I had a clever kid to talk to, whose ignorance of Mississippi was an easier obstacle to overcome than a misinformed stereotype or inappropriate question could have been. Sometimes skipping “where are you from?” can pave the way for a proper conversation.

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AFRICA-CA-CA-CA-CA

Hello old friends!  Y’all may have noticed I haven’t blogged in, oh, two months or so.  Europe was not awash with daily new experiences the way Kyrgyzstan was, and I think I ran out of steam a bit.  I’ll try to backtrack and write some posts about what I was up to, but my primary concern is this: AFRICA.

 

Yep, pals, McKenna is in Africa.  I bought a plane ticket on a Sunday, I flew out on a Thursday, I arrived on a Friday.  At each of these stages I mused, “But surely I won’t actually make it.  Like, there’s no way I’m actually going to Africa.”  But I made it!  More specifically, I made it happen!  (Happy dance ensues.)  Let me catch you up to date on my time in the biggest city in South Africa.  Its population is around 3 million people, or as I have been thinking of it, the ENTIRE STATE OF MISSISSIPPI.  The horror!

 

I arrived to Johannesburg (which I call Joburg like everybody else, and some people call Jozie) and was wiped out from 24 hours of international travel.  It took no time at all to get from the plane through immigration.  Learning from my experience in Ireland (where I overshared and was barely let in the country) I answered the question, “What is the purpose of your visit?” with one word, “Tourism.”  A lie if I ever told one; I regret nothing.  Once I got where a driver was supposed to stand holding a sign with my name and saw none, I found an ATM and was unable to take money out of my debit card.  No matter, I have a second.  That failed also.  Well, never fear, for I have a secret weapon, my so-called “Emergency Credit Card” from Dear Old Dad.  Which, frustratingly, also was unable to work.  But I am an international traveler, and I always have a plan!  That’s not true.  I rarely have a long-term plan, but I do have mad problem-solving skills.  I took the last of my US Dollars to a counter and swapped them for just enough South African Rand to get me to the hotel.  That is, once I found my pre-arranged taxi driver.

 

I tromped over to the payphones where I would call my hotel and ask where he was.  If I could only get the damn payphone to work….!  I had to ask for help in interpreting which of the numbers were required when dialing a South African number from inside the country.  Payphone: 1.  McKenna: zip.  I got through to reception and they had my taxi driver call the phone I was standing at.  He said he was wearing a red shirt and jeans by the Christmas tree.  I found him and introduced myself.  Walter, as he’s called, has brilliant white teeth that stand out against his dark complexion, and eyes that dance.  We talked and laughed the whole thirty minutes it took to drive me to the hotel.  We discussed his taxi business and how he lived apart from his fiancé for a few months before insisting she move to Joburg with him.  He has two girls under the age of 10.  Considering that’s more personal information than I got out of most of my colleagues in Ireland, I began to suspect I would like it here.

 

Once at the hotel I met the receptionist, Angelique, and crashed in my room.  I finished a hat I’d been knitting (which is useless, as it’s 85° outside), watched too much news about the hostage crisis in Paris, and ventured out for food (once my parents fixed the problems with my cards – it’s so nice to have boots on the ground).  A gentle rain started out the window.  I did the only sensible thing and played this song for myself.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RdBcfRhzzAA

 

Walking past reception after eating my takeaway dinner Angelique called out to me and said, “Do you think money can buy you love?”  I said, cheekily, “It depends on your definition of love.”  She asked, “Do you think money can buy you happiness?”  Sensing this was a more serious conversation, I said it can certainly buy peace of mind, but happiness is another thing entirely.  Angelique continued to explain that people who dress well are treated with respect in shops, which she equates to love.  She also pointed out how insulting it is that people like Angelina Jole and Brad Pitt have adopted children from Africa instead of their own countries.  Angelique’s mother took in “stray kids” as she called them, and Angelique would complain that with too many kids over for dinner she didn’t get enough to eat.  Her mother would reply, “You are bigger than they are.  You can have more for breakfast,” and never turned away a child who showed up at supper time.  There I was, minding my own business, not even operating in Nosy Anthropologist mode, when this amazing woman starts a genuine philosophical conversation with me.  I went to bed very happy to be in such a friendly place.

 

After completely sleeping through my alarm for the first time in my life, I visited a friend with the same scholarship who is working at a lab in Pretoria.  My taxi driver on the way to the train station and I discussed the typical tourist paranoia and fear of walking places even around the hotel which is very safe (hence why I picked it).  My comment was, “I am a woman, and I am traveling alone.  I have to go out by myself, it’s just a fact.  But I don’t have to go out by myself at night.”  Her response was, “Oh definitely don’t do that!  You aren’t stupid!”  It’s so nice to have my common sense validated, and by a local too.  The train to Pretoria, which is the administrative capital of South Africa, was uneventful.  Lunch with Alison, however, was not.  We sat outdoors at a Greek restaurant with a bottle of wine to share and ordered our food.  After it arrived, half a dozen bees descended upon us.  Alison was the president of the bee-keeping club at Hendrix; I am deathly allergic to bees.  At first they were just buzzing around us and I was aware but not panicking.  Then they were on my food and I left them alone.  It was when two landed on my hand that I squeaked, “Alison, help…!”  She carefully scraped them off me and onto her, all the while analyzing what would be drawing them to our table.  What a scientist, what a friend, what a gal.  We were left in peace once we finished our food.  I am not ashamed to say there was definitely an extra glass of wine I hadn’t planned on drinking in order to cope with the situation.

 

That afternoon we walked around Pretoria and discussed what our different travel styles and experiences had been like.  There isn’t much to look at except statues, old colonial buildings, and a market we stumbled upon.  Since Alison has been in Pretoria nearly three months I used her as a resource of the two main white groups here and asked, “Do we read as English or Afrikaans?”  Her reply was perfect, “No, McKenna.  We read as tourists.”  Sensible shoes, quick-drying clothes and small backpacks…  Touché.  I really enjoyed catching up with someone else who has been in travel mode for six months like I have, even if she has been looking at mushrooms instead of horses.

 

Having had a history class on South Africa, I thought it would be beneficial to see the Apartheid Museum the next day to jog my memory.  Down at reception I asked Angelique to call me a cab to take me there.  When I first walked up she said, “Yes ma’am,” and ducked her head respectfully which completely threw me off.  I jumped and said “I call YOU ma’am, you don’t call ME ma’am!  You’re older than me!  That isn’t how we do it at home!”  She rolled her eyes and I realized I may have accidentally entered myself into a complex racial scenario without a road map.  The moment passed but I still felt awkward.  Angelique suggested I take a tour of Soweto (which stands for South-West-Township, one of the poorer areas).  I had already decided that I was not interested in poverty tourism as I saw it, and tried to politely point this out.  I would not want tourists of Mississippi to flock to the Delta and ride in air conditioned cars, looking at the impoverished conditions safely outside their window before being driven back to a cushy hotel.  Apparently I have it all wrong.  She passionately told me that Nelson Mandela lived in that area, the Soweto uprising took place there, and it is so full of history that, “Nobody comes to South Africa without going to Soweto.”  I was convinced, and she arranged for a tour guide to take me for a good price.

 

Alfred picked me up at the hotel.  We chatted on the drive to the Apartheid Museum where I had about an hour and a half to wander around.  There wasn’t particularly anything that was new to me considering the semester I spent studying, but it was definitely a good idea to visit.  I think more than sadness, my primary emotion was anger.  In one room there were screens with different apartheid-era politicians (white, of course) who were justifying the system of racial segregation and oppression.  I would spend a minute or two in front of each one and then walk away in disgust.  I have heard all of their arguments before (I can’t even write them here, they make me so irate), and it sparked an interesting comparison of segregation in Mississippi to apartheid in South Africa with Alfred when I returned to the car.  His advice was, “It is in the past.  We must not forget it, but it is in the past.”

 

In Soweto I saw Mandela’s house, closed mines, a tall building used for bungee jumping, the largest hospital in South Africa, where Winnie Mandela currently lives, one of the soccer stadiums built for the World Cup, and Hector Peterson square.  Hector Peterson was a 13 year old boy who was killed during a student protest against learning Afrikaans, which was seen as the language of oppression.  The iconic photograph of an older boy carrying his body gained international attention.  Alfred also, spur-of-the-moment, drove me to his own house because we were nearby.  We turned off a partially paved road onto splitting and cracked dirt road which was full of potholes.  As with all of the other houses I’d seen in the area, there was a large fence around his property.  Nobody was home so we just drove past.

 

Hector Peterson

 

On the ride back to the hotel, our discussion ranged from children’s obsession with McDonald’s (including anecdotes from him about how his grandkids love it, and various nicknames for the chain around the world), to which culture group “owns” English (I’ll give you a hint: my answer was not Queen’s English), and the tragedy of Africans who were shipped as slaves to the Americas.  The last conversation made him even angrier than our talk about apartheid.  There was a brief burst of passion as he said one day he was thinking about it and wanted to go find some white people to hurt, but he didn’t.  That wasn’t awkward for me at all…  Alfred quickly switched back to his subdued yet chipper self as if nothing had happened and I humbly agreed that it was a terrible fate.  Before I let a kind and understanding black South African get away from me without me doing some anthropological digging, I asked him if I had offended Angelique by protesting when she called me ma’am.  He said that, since she works in the service industry, that is probably how she addresses everyone.  She was likely surprised by my protest, but she would get over it.  Score, I didn’t put my foot in my mouth too badly!  I enjoyed spending a few hours with a resident of Soweto (he was surprised and impressed that I knew what it stood for) and I’m glad Angelique insisted that I go.

 

Before I leave you, friends, let me get you up to date on the number of marriage proposals I have had in my life/this year: three.  Bek told me he wanted to marry me, conveniently leaving out what that would do to poor Chris my “fiancé” *cough cough.*  I had to block him so that he cannot call me anymore and regretfully inform him that we are just friends and I wouldn’t be talking to him for a while.  A European man in a hostel in Portugal who has spent too much time in India asked “Are you married?” when he’d known me for mere hours.  I later told him that my mom has said I should find a cat-man who can cook for me – but I said this as he was cooking for me.  He slyly looked at me and said, “I think you should know…  I like cats.”  How do you shut that down?  He was already cooking me Indian food!

 

And last but certainly not least, my South African proposal.  I was eating dinner alone at the restaurant next to my hotel, as one does.  (I told Michael one time “It isn’t eating alone if you have a book with you.”  She laughed at me.  Apparently that doesn’t count.)  A clearly drunk man wandered over to my table holding two beers and set one down.  Within two minutes of chatting, he said, “You look like my next wife.”  I was dumbstruck.  How forward can you get!  He asked for my phone number, which, luckily, I didn’t have one yet.  My phone was in my lap so he thought I was lying to him.  Failing that, he asked me to, “Come to my office tomorrow, where we can talk about EVERYTHING.”  I politely declined, saying I was getting on a plane to Bloemfontein the next day.  (No matter who I tell, this triggers the reaction of, “Bloemfontein?  Why?  What the hell is in Bloemfontein?”  It is a rather rural place…)  A few minutes later he begged me to visit him at his office, clearly having forgotten my VERY GOOD and VERY TRUE excuse that I would be leaving Joburg.  We went through this cycle a few more times over the next 20 minutes.  I pointed out that “My fiancé *cough cough* is in Arkansas.  He is very tall.  And strong.  And, need I mention, would not approve.”  (Thanks Chris!)  This did not deter the very drunk man.  Instead he said, “You are beautiful, and very smart.  In my culture, you would be worth many cows.”

 

Not bad for my third day in the country, eh?  I might have peaked too early.  Whatever happens next, it was definitely worth coming to Africa in order to get a compliment like that.  Over and out.

 

McKenna, She Who is Worth Many Cows

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Moving to Iceland and a Horse Roundup

Chris and I had some more low key hanging out in Reykjavik until we both had early buses to different places.  It was a perfect few days so the goodbye actually wasn’t all that awful!  I napped on the bus up to northwest Iceland, the village of Varmahlið, which has 140 people.  My host Pétur picked me up at the bus stop/gas station/grocery store/buffet.  We met his fiancé Heiðrún at the house and I shared stories about Kyrgyzstan before she went to work at the hotel.  I followed Pétur around as he trained a few horses and I was in awe at the process.  I only have a theoretical working knowledge of how one trains a horse and it was amazing to see it in person.  My mind was a bit blown, which is an excellent and familiar feeling these past few months.

 

Once again, I was well and truly happy to move in to a room of my own.  At this point in my journey it is September 19, or 10 weeks in to my trip In France I moved every 1-4 days over the whole month, and I was totally over the unpack/pack/repeat.  Similarly, I was ecstatic to have a household with a friendly cat.  Snotra (pronounced Sno-tra, not Snot-ra) and I became great pals right off the bat.

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That night, Pétur offered to share the steak he was cooking.  When I mentioned I am a vegetarian, I’m pretty sure he was so shocked that his eyebrows disappeared in his hairline.  (Later they asked me why I’m a vegetarian and he tried to persuade me by saying, “Well, Jesus ate meat.”  Little does he know just how unconvincing an argument that is for me.)

 

It was Petur’s birthday on my first day, and there was a live music show in town.  Their name is Ljótu Hálfvitarnir, which translates to “The Ugly Halfwits.”  They had ridiculous outfits and played fun folk Icelandic music, but in between songs they made jokes which were presumably hilarious (I’ll never know because it was all in Icelandic).  At times, I was the only person in the place not singing along to the particularly well-known ones.  They almost started singing an English song (500 Miles by the Proclaimers) but they stopped halfway through as a joke.  One of them was a wind instrument player and he had the tenor sax out for one song which made me happy.  It was a great first night.  The remainder of the weekend passed in a lull as I tried to get used to the rhythm of the house.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExRLymfk_5U

 

If you, dear reader, think I am a crazy person for going to Iceland in September and October, then let me explain first that you are not wrong, but also that I had my reasons.  In the north of Iceland where I’d decided to stay, many farmers put their horses in the same valley for the summer and collect them four months later in preparation for winter.  This roundup is called réttir, and I wanted to be in Iceland for such an event.  The local roundup took place one week after I arrived to the farm.  I had one or two days of getting used to the daily routine of breakfast, muck stalls, lunch, follow Pétur around lending a hand, coffee break, muck stalls, dinner.  After that, there was a Norwegian journalist, Mette, who was staying with us and attending the réttir in the weekend.  She is highly interested in the topic of horse meat and I learned a lot about it because of her probing questions.  It is a part of my research project that I have been tentative in exploring because of how difficult it is for me to process.  I’m not going to go into much detail for the sake of my American audience (I don’t want to shock my mother or Amy Russell).  However, the breeding industry of Icelandic horses requires for the least promising individuals to go to the slaughterhouse, otherwise farmers do not make much profit by keeping all of the duds.  It is efficient, but still breaks my heart a little bit inside.  That is exactly what I came to Iceland to learn about.

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Over the next few days Mette and I went to different pastures to photograph herds of horses (stallions one day, mares and foals the next), walked to a nearby waterfall, stopped in the next city for me to get some warmer clothes, and team-interviewing the legend of Icelandic horses Tölty, the man in the trailer below.  He is Heiðrún’s brother and international Icelandic horse competition winner.  Watch the trailer, but have tissues close by.

 

 

The Friday before the Saturday réttir, I drove all of us to a small horse competition that was just for fun.  There was an obstacle course that two different men rode a horse bareback through.  It involved picking up a pillow from the ground (which the horse was not on board with) and then picking up a beer, riding around for a bit, chugging it, and setting it back on the chair that they found it.  Then there was a rodeo clown type skit with two young men dressed as women and riding horses very badly, falling off, and being unable to get back on (which is ridiculous because these are pony-sized horses, but don’t you dare call them a pony!) and a girl rode over and stole their horses.  There was some singing, since this region is known for horse breeding and group singing, and then was a pace competition.  When people brag about the Icelandic horse, they talk about the five gaits: walk, trot, tölt, pace, and gallop.  Well this was a competition (which included Tölty and Pétur) for the fastest pace over a set distance and it was quite fun to see.  In tölt the rider hardly moves in the saddle, but pace is a bit bumpier.  Mette and I waited for our Icelandic hosts to finish up talking to all of the other spectators, and an incredibly drunk man came over to me and spoke Icelandic.  I said, “Nope!  English!”  He continued to be unintelligible, and I felt incredibly awkward and uncomfortable.  The only thing I could understand him say was, “Why not?” so I decided to literally run away.  Feet, don’t, fail me now!  My feet don’t fail me now!  At one point later I hid behind a pillar and then Mette as he wandered over to my hiding place.  Mette was already my friend at this point after three straight days of hanging out, but she really endeared herself to me when I loudly whispered, “Don’t move!” and half-crouched behind her.

 

The next day was the RÉTTIR!!!  We woke up early and drove to the valley where the horses stay.  Since Mette was there on journalistic business, we drove to where the herd was waiting and met some of the people who had organized the event.  The anticipation was thick in the air, and once it started I was able to help produce this video by filming the water scenes:

 

 

That really does explain what the rest of my day was like.  Mette found some Norwegians she knew so I was an honorary Norwegian for a day, which I really enjoyed.  They were all so friendly and said I had to come to Norway to see their horses!  One day I’ll make it over there (spoiler alert: I make it over there!).  I bought an Icelandic sweater because I was chilled (which contributed to being mistaken as an Icelander many times in the rest of my trip).  I’d stepped into a large hidden puddle of water when Mette and I were running around filming horses, and I was unaware that I had been a slight bit grumpy due to the cold; the sweater solved that.

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I so enjoyed watching the roundup.  There was this interesting dichotomy of wild vs domesticated/tame, because the horses that were allowed to run free all summer are suddenly put in a corral and sorted out by the farmers.  It also was a traditional event which has been molded to fit the tourists.  Thirty years ago the locals would go get the horses and then stick around to drink and sing, but now some of them get the horses from the valley and put them closer for the tourists to help round up.  There were only 420 horses this year which means there were more riders than horses that they were gathering!  It was a lovely day.  I can’t believe that in the past year I googled “Icelandic horses,” learned about the réttir, was awarded the Watson, found a farm in the right region, and actually attended it.  There have been ups and downs, but it really is a charmed life I’m leading right now.

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Happily moved in to a CLOSET, with HANGERS, and my Icelandic sweater.  It’s the little things in life.  Over and out.

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An Accident Waiting to Happen

I remember many things about my trail ride on 11/11/14.  The one thing I don’t remember is hitting my head.

I had a beautiful ride that afternoon.  I had stumbled upon a Norwegian woman with Quarter Horses, and in a fit of trust she suggested I borrow her horse to go riding alone in the woods without a helmet.  This situation sounds like a recipe for disaster…  And yet it wasn’t.  We ambled along, the horse and I, while I composed a song whose lyrics went like this: “How the hell did I find myself here? / What the fuck is happening? / Is this real life? / Pinch me, I’m dreaming.”  It was exciting to find myself in such a bizarre set of circumstances, enjoying the Norwegian woods from the back of an American horse whose temperament was just as I remembered from my own horses: comfortable and lazy.  It was bliss.

Back at the home of my host, Mette (who I’d met in Iceland), asked if I wanted to ride her horse alone?  I had ridden her new eventing (a sport which includes dressage, jumping, and cross-country racing) horse, Cayenne, yesterday with Mette riding a different one.  That was another fantastic ride even through the drizzling rain.  Having felt so immediately at ease with Cayenne the day before, I gladly agreed.  This way, Mette could get some work done, and I would be happily entertained by one of my favorite pastimes.  Win/win/win.  We went to the stable and saddled up, making sure to put reflective gear on both me and the horse since it was an hour before dark.  Donning Mette’s helmet, I set off for the same trail we had taken the day before.

Cayenne was noticeably less relaxed than the day before, but not worryingly so.  We rode up the road to the entrance to the park, and if she was less willing to go around the traffic barrier and terrifying boulder than the day before, then I didn’t blame her.  We rode through the woods and encountered two pedestrians and their dogs, which Cayenne (having been scared by a charging dog before) stopped and watched rather than any other bad behavior.  We turned around after having ridden for 20 minutes, so that we could conserve the light for our ride home.  I admit now that I am a poor judge of how much light is left in autumn in Scandinavia.  In Denmark, I had to walk in the dark for a half hour back to my car after walking in the woods.

When we were nearly out of the park, we crossed a bridge and turned a corner to see a strange sight.  There was a man with a flashlight and a dog with a blinking red light on his forehead.  Knowing Cayenne’s nerves, and since it was twilight to boot, I stopped her so she could get a good look at what was approaching her.  She backed up a few steps in fear and the dog barked and began to chase her.  We bolted back over the bridge, me unstable in the small English riding saddle, but yelling for her to stop and using all of my horse expertise to convince her that sprinting up the trail was not in her best interest.  I managed to stop her and turn her around to see that the dog was no longer in pursuit.  The man had his dog on a leash and had moved into the woods to get out of our way.  Unfortunately to the horse brain, now the dreaded Predator was lurking in the woods.  I managed to communicate through my anger that I only speak English, was his dog safely on a leash, and maybe he shouldn’t do that ever again.  At this point I noticed beyond the bridge was another man with two dogs.  I asked him to put his dogs on a leash if they weren’t already and he continued on his way.  Cayenne was understandably spooked, and I was proud of her for listening to me in the first place.  We walked past the scary dog in the woods with minimal snorting.

I never saw the horse coming.

Behind us we both heard the sound of a running horse.  It did not register anything special to me, but to Cayenne, they weren’t just running, they were running from something.  She already had first-hand confirmation that there was at least one Horse Monster in the woods, and she did not need any more convincing.  She sprinted with less warning and faster than I have ever experienced.  The second man with two dogs was further up the path and I yelled at him to get out of the way (though I did not remember this until two hours later).  I knew with a certainty that I was on a runaway horse who was not amenable to any of my demands, and this was the most dangerous experience I’ve ever been a part of.  After passing the man but not running over him or his dogs, I remembered the traffic barrier and “terrifying” rock at the park entrance.  I tried even harder to get her to stop but to no avail.  There was nothing for me to hold on to in the saddle, and I lost my balance when she slowed down upon noticing the barrier.  Within a few steps I had almost gotten myself seated back in the saddle.  Too frightened to actually stop, she gathered her strength and jumped the meter-high obstacle.  When we landed, I was hanging on her neck with the reigns still in my hands.  For a few paces I attempted to simultaneously stop the horse using the reigns and get back in the saddle, all the while thinking of where we would go if I actually managed to stay on her.  Which, I did not.

What I remember from the fall is this: Impact on my left hip, thinking “I’m going to have to get back on the horse” which did not last long as I felt the blinding pain in my back and hip, and then remembering that I should not stand up.  I had entirely forgotten the hiker with his two dogs as well as the rider of the horse and became immediately terrified that nobody would find me, and I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone to go look for Cayenne.  I did however remember the first dog but had forgotten it was leashed, and, though I was screaming for help, became almost as frightened that the dog would find me and bite me while I was unable to run away.

It felt like an eternity, but the two men with dogs found me (without their dogs, though I did not notice or wonder about that until much later).  They bombarded me with questions in Norwegian until they understood I was American.  I think for every question they asked, “Are you ok?  Did you hit your head?  Do you need an ambulance?”  I responded with one of my own, “Can you find my horse?  She’s my friend’s horse, can you go look for her?”  Eventually a girl walked over leading a horse and I asked, “Are you what scared the shit out of my horse?”  I never did get an answer to that…  I asked her to search for Cayenne and she agreed.  Some time later she returned with another horse (I wondered at how strange a view it is to see a horse from the position of lying on the ground) and said her friend had seen Cayenne running.  Did I want them to follow her?  Uh, what a dumb question, the answer is yes.  Please find the horse.

The first man called the emergency number while the second called Mette.  I was asked what hurt, how I fell, did I hit my head?  Eventually they asked me to stand up and I became nauseous.  This development provoked even more questions about my head and I vehemently responded, “NO.  I did not hit my head.”  They asked my birth date and social security number.  I rattled off the first easily but paused to recall my 9-digit identification.  It was decided for me that the second man, whose car was in the parking lot I had fallen in, would drive me to the hospital.  With one man on each arm, they helped me walk to the front seat, and off we went.

My rescuer was named Paul.  We drove to Mette’s house and met her outside on the road.  I cried and apologized for losing Cayenne, and she told me not to worry.  She stayed behind to look for her and Paul agreed to drive me the rest of the way to the hospital.  He was a fantastic conversationalist, and I wished I’d met him in better circumstances.  We talked about his grandchildren, being left-handed, practicing English, my scholarship, and how pretty the Norwegian woods are.  He told me Cayenne would be fine and had probably walked home already.

At the hospital, I laid down on a couch and dictated my personal information to Paul for the paperwork.  I was given acetaminophen in the triage room, sat back down in the waiting room, and then put in an emergency room to wait for the doctor.  At this point, we had gotten a call from Mette that Cayenne had indeed walked home and been caught, and a wave of emotion washed over me.  In past situations, I have had a calm head in stressful times, but that persona had vanished.  Feeling slightly better than the first shock of terror and pain, I began to hide my discomfort in humor.  I think every sentence from my mouth was an attempt to make Paul smile.  Mette came to the hospital just as the doctor showed up and I said goodbye to Paul, who had patiently waited with a stranger he’d met in the woods an hour before.  Since my hands were scraped up we exchanged an odd left-handed handshake.

The doctor was a bit full of himself and swept in the room saying, “Hello, my name is such and such, and I am the doctor.”  I replied just as darkly, “Hello, my name is McKenna, and I am the patient.”  He did not smile at my hilarious effort, bastard, but instead said that a smiling patient is his favorite kind.  Clearly he was unaware as to my coping mechanism.  He asked me loads of questions, starting with “Did you hit your head?”  I said no, once again vehement.  By examining me and moving my legs painfully all around, he concluded I had not fractured my hip in the fall but did have massive bruising.  After checking my wrist he said it was unlikely to be fractured.  But since I was nauseous, I probably had a concussion.  I was so surprised but who am I to critique the doctor?  He then handed me acetaminophen and hydrocodone for pain, and I snapped at him that if he’d read my chart he would know that I was allergic to codine.  He looked slightly ashamed and said, “Thank you for telling me.”  Thank god it wasn’t a bigger concussion or I might have added “stopped breathing” to my list of aches and pains.

Mette paid for my hospital bill (I didn’t have a wallet on me) which was surprisingly cheap.  We drove home and that is the point at which I remembered running past Paul (for the second man with dogs was Paul) in the woods.  Nausea plus forgetting a part of the accident made the doctor’s diagnosis of concussion seem more likely to me….  And then I saw the helmet.  “I didn’t hit my head” my ass.  These are not the scrapes of a life-saving helmet, but there are still obvious scratches all around the front and side of the helmet.  I did not remember rolling at all but the helmet and unexpected bruising this morning confirm that.

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I took unnecessary risks by going out on a quarter horse with no helmet in unfamiliar woods carrying no cellphone.  I did not think it unduly risky to ride a horse for the second time, wearing a helmet, in the same woods as the day before.  As a competent rider, I was able to quiet a horse after we were chased by a dog, and it was the unfortunate circumstances of the failing light and being surprised by other horses around a corner that set off Cayenne in the end.  I suppose I can end with the platitude that I will be more careful in the future, but I am generally a very careful rider.  I visited Cayenne today and was not unduly upset.  I think I will be more nervous of dogs in the future, but so will she.  It is amazing that she and I are both, on the whole, unhurt by the terrible experience.  I thank my body for all it has put up with and am grateful that it was not worse.  I am a bit impressed that I was able to stay on a leaping horse, but not so much that I’ll try to incorporate jumping into my riding routine any time soon.

I think what I will end with is this: do not trust someone, especially me, when they say, “No I definitely did not hit my head.”

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