Regressing for a Day: Desert and Beach Frolicking

It is the little things in life, my friend, that traveling reminds you to appreciate. Such as having a port of entry that is will readily accommodate the shape and bulk of a human. I left my cabin, suddenly grateful for a proper door for the first time since my summer spent in a tent years before, and started my day. 

I lunged Santiago who was more Sant than Iago today, lucky for me. It is so cool to see his progress on a day to day basis, and to know that I am part of it. When I put him back in his stall afterwards, he subtly turned around and leaned his head near to me as I pulled the wooden pole across the opening. He wasn’t looking to escape, he was presenting himself for a cuddle! I gladly accepted, and returned with a carrot for him later to encourage such behavior. 

Dodo was a big galoot to work with but at least he didn’t try any funny business. Er, if he did then I was not knowledgeable enough to notice. That’s a scary thought… Being outsmarted by a horse named Dodo… Nope, totally didn’t happen, he was just a galoot. Walking him back to his pasture, the B-A-D (big ass dog) that lives in the fence of the house (not Bimbo of Shackra) barked his head off at us, which startled me but not the goofball. I am not proud of the following story, but it’s true. (Let me remind you I am a phi beta kappa member and all around clever adult. You may proceed now.) Incredibly frustrated with the involuntary increase in my heart rate, I puffed out my chest and yelled “What! You want a piece of me?! Well, HAH! You’re stuck behind a fence! Can’t do nothin’ homie!” I figured we were never going to be friends anyway and I might as well taunt him… I felt marginally vindicated as I stalked off, not that he was cowed in the slightest by my immature tantrum. Dodo made no comment.  

The equine highlight of my day took the form of RIDING in the DESERT with Samantha. Well, the area is called the “river bed” but it has been a decade since the last time there was running water, thus DESERT. Samantha said we would take Constantine and Rakbah out together. I preferred a big ole horse to a scaredy-cat but as I didn’t say anything, Samantha said I would be riding Rakbah. Nuts! That horse is equally scared of the daily occurrences of a blowing tarp, camels, and a pig, and Sam wanted me to take him out into the big bad world? He’s not ready! Hell, nearly three months past my riding accident in Norway, I hardly felt ready. My theory on putting horse and rider in a new situation is that one of them should really know what they are doing. I pointed out to Samantha that Rakbah does not inspire much confidence from the ground much less the saddle, and she countered that he behaves well on an outride as long as he is with another horse. Trusting the riding instructor, we saddled up. After spending 10 minutes in the arena, I insisted we avoid the pesky pooch by taking a different exit. 

Out in the desert, I noticed that I was more nervous than the scaredy-cat who, as Samantha had predicted, was completely content to let Constantine do all the thinking. I took a deep breath and made an effort to chill out. I glanced at Samantha whose posture was utterly relaxed. Trying to find my usual confidence, I did what I do best in order to distract myself: I talked. I have no recollection of what we discussed, until Samantha muttered to herself, “I wonder if that’s the rock…?” I knew from our conversations while driving that she frequently gets lost, so I asked her to speak up. “Oh, Dirk and I come out here to jog but we come from the other direction, so I’m looking for the rock we turn off.” Seeing no rocks in sight, I retorted, “I think I have just failed an IQ test, I came out into the desert with someone entirely lacking a sense of direction!” Such sass earned me a dirty look. What can I say? I frequently joke if I’m uncomfortable, and the humor did it’s job. I was significantly more at ease for the rest of the ride. Though we never found the rock, we did find our way home. 

After tack cleaning and lunch we stopped at a cafe in town for snacks and wifi. Always willing to share my silly eacapades, I told my family briefly about the key breaking in the loc, as well as assured Michael that my hosts were not likely to murder me in my sleep. 

Anticipating a trip to the beach once the cafe closed, we had brought the dogs Sasha and Amy. I followed them to the beachfront: commence a three creature frolick. It is a tough question who had more fun, me or the canines. In between running/jumping/skipping/playing, I investigated what was washed up on the beach. I, with increasingly rhapsodic excitement, found a spiny lobster, a sea sponge, an urchin, a jelly fish (poked it with my foot – now I understand the name JELLY fish and squealed in delight), and a seal skeleton. Near the skeleton was a tooth which had become dislodged from the jaw. Embracing the childlike feeling of the day, I stuck it in my pocket and forgot about it. I believe at one point on the walk, possibly as I raced the dogs back to the car, I exclaimed, “Best beach day EVER!!”

The afternoon was not finished by a long shot. Following Dirk and Samantha’s lead, we went to a seaside bar/restaurant for a “sundowner.” Drinking ciders and watching the sunset, even as the terrier picked a fight with every other dog in the vicinity, created a great sense of comraderie. Laughing and swapping stories, especially those of the equestrian variety, is one of my favorite ways to spend time. After a trip to the loo, I informed my new friends that a woman cleaning the bathroom had first asked me for my shoes, to which I smiled and declined, then invited herself home to America with me. “What was that about?” I asked incredulously. Samantha, in her posh British accent, looked at my face and chastised smoothly, “One must never GRIN, McKenna.” 

 We didn’t exactly feel like going home with its distinct lack of entertainment once the sun was down, so Dirk took us to the classic German pub for a few drinks, including free shots of schnapps from the German bartender. Dirk insisted; I assented. Becoming slightly more liquid than solid (a side effect of the German pub) we went for dinner to a restaurant by the ocean. We discussed horses (of course), our mutual friend (my host), South Africa vs Namibia, and too many other topics to count. I nabbed the check as a sign of my gratitude, and just as I had begun to dry out they punished me for my generosity by whisking me off to another bar. 

Kooki’s was an Afrikaans establishment, which meant there were no obligatory shots of schnapps. There were, however, Afrikaans men. After I knocked over half my beer when gesticulating wildly, two men at the end of the bar sent over three jagermeisters. Samantha and Dirk simultaneously blamed me. I said, “You’re welcome” to them as I gave a small finger-wave and a smile-but-not-a-grin to the men. I bought the next round and practically skipped off to the toilets. It had been a great day, okay? Santiago asked for a snuggle, I rode Rakbah, played on a beach, spent time with friends, poked a jellyfish, saw a gorgeous sunset, and something else… Returning and reaching for my beer with one hand, I put my other hand in my shorts pocket. “Guys, I HAVE A SEAL TOOTH IN MY POCKET!” “Ok, we are cutting you off.” “No seriously I’m fine! I’m just so excited!” “But you just knocked over your beer like two seconds ago.” “Well yeah, but I would totally have been this happy to find a frickin’ seal tooth in my pocket no matter what!” It was a failed effort to convince them I had merely regressed to a (much) younger version of myself for the day, and we went home. Completely forgetting I had the tack room key on my keychain, I further damaged my campaign of sobriety by asking Dirk to help me unlock my cabin with the wrong key. They snickered as they said goodnight; I just smiled. Whatever my internal age or blood alcohol content (which I assure you was lower than it appeared here), it had been the best day of the new year.

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a day in the life of a horse trainer

Dirk and Samantha went on a field trip to do adjustments on some horses in another part of the country. I was left alone the whole day, and I worked six of their horses for them. Talk about making myself useful! I lunged Santiago first thing, then Constantine and Buschido. By the time I came back from lunging the latter, I found Santiago wandering around outside of his stall. Tsk tsk. I walked up to him and herded him back to where he was supposed to go, easy as pie. I think he was bored of his freedom anyway. With all sand and no grass, it kinda takes the fun out of escaping. I spoke with a groom about his pole being put properly across his gate, and we briefly made idle conversation. 

Next, I retrieved the Quarter Horse JB from his stall and took him for a walk. He must be lunged or ridden in a particular way to help his back heal, but he needed the exercise, so I took him for a 20 minute walk. It was remarkably similar to walking a dog. I walked him past several paddocks down to the river bed, then back up the road. He was excitedly smelling everything  and clearly didn’t get out much. I planned to walk him to the end of the road and back but he stopped and looked curiously at the turn that went to my house, so I acquiesced. I told him about the weaver birds who have a nest next to Sam and Dirk’s house, we had a good long gander at the boat which is a big as my house next to my cottage, and walked past the big house with the pool. He was a perfect gentleman out on our promenade. I already felt silly this week because I had spent much time walking horses from point A to point B, and that ain’t the cowgirl way. But this was not embarrassing, and I wish I could go walking with JB the Gentleman again. 

Speaking of, all of the horses ended up with nicknames from me. Buschido was Bushy, Constantine became Teeny (an ironic sort of nickname). I called Santiago either Sant (saint) or Iago (Shakespeare villain) depending on if he was doing well or behaving badly. Rakbah, as much of a scaredy cat as he is, just looked like a Rocky to me. And last but not least, Dodo. What do you do with a name like Dodo? I tended to say “Do-dee-doooo” in a sing-song and less than polite manner. There were others that they sometimes worked, including Certainty and Bonfire (the two new horses), a Friesian stallion named Tjerk (Tyerk became Jerk), an Arabian named Tareef called Kudu (like the animal), and the most sway backed creature I have ever seen called Buya. I didn’t work with them (except occasionally grabbing/brushing/treating with carrots one of the first two). I have never taken to renaming others’ animals the way I did in Namibia. Then again I have never taken to 6 animals the way I did there either. 

Remember how I said the dust kicks up in little tantrums here in the desert? There was one lunging arena which was terrible for throwing sand in the air. On this day I wore my long-sleeve shirt, cap, sunglasses, buff pulled over my nose (for the dust), gloves (for the lunge line), and riding trousers tucked into my boots. It occurred to me that I looked like a color-blind ninja who was prepared to sneak somewhere but was accidentally wearing bright clothes. Outside of my ridiculous wardrobe, the only problem that day came from Dodo. I began lunging him counterclockwise, a direction he took great exception to. He only behaved when I swapped sides and started going the other way first, a preference I did not notice before that day or after. I was halfway through working Rakbah, the last horse of the day, when I noticed the groom from earlier that day was watching me. I startled and said too loudly, “how long have you been there?!” I looked ridiculous with no skin exposed to the sun whatsoever, and I tend to have entire conversations with the horses while we work. Private conversations. An outsider might even say “Silly.” He replied, “not long,” and I spent another 8 minutes in a completely self-conscious state before retiring Rocky to his sandy paddock. 

After my own lunch, I fed carrots to all the guys, coupled with fly spray (to all except Dodo who lived up to his name and refused the helpful treatment). I washed saddle pads and girths, lounged by the pool, and generally worked up an appetite. Dad, you won’t believe that I spent 2.5 hours cooking (delicious) Mexican food for three, do you? I’m practically a grown up! Samantha and Dirk arrived too late to join me, but I lay my head down that night happy. I realized that I had spoken more words to horses than I had to people, and yet it was a great day. Namibia seems to be full of those. :)

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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.


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.)


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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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.


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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