One day your mother calls you to say that she’s been accepted into the Peace Corps. And she’s being placed in Namibia. As soon as she tells you, she correctly guesses that you’re already planning your visit.
You share the news with your friends. Many of them are puzzled. “Um, where’s Namibia?” they ask. You get used to explaining that it’s north of South Africa on the western side and in fact, it used to be ruled by South Africa.
Five months later, you send your mom off at the airport and in this strange role reversal, things get real. The change that has been slowly creeping towards you is now here.
After she arrives in Namibia, you hear weekly updates about training process, new people she’s met, and the country. Namibia sounds even stranger than you imagined. You can’t wait to see it for yourself.
Then three months later, you’re off to Namibia via London and Johannesburg. Somehow in the winter holiday crowds at Heathrow, you quickly find your sister who has arrived before you from LA. You’ve gotten used to spending hours alone at Heathrow, jetlagged and bored and it’s nice to have company this time.
You eat Japanese food, partly because you know it’s a decent restaurant as far as airport food goes, and partly because you want to have something you’ll be unlikely to find for the next two weeks or so.
You wander aimlessly around the airport with your sister and laugh at the silly London-themed souvenirs in the gift shops. You stand and skim through magazines and browse through pretty much every store. Then you wait. And wait some more.
Finally the heavenly Heathrow moment comes when the screen tells you what gate you’ll be at. You take the tram to the gate and board your flight to Johannesburg. You’re giddy. This is one of those parts of the world you’ve dreamed about visiting, but didn’t fully expect to ever get there. And you’re getting there.
You look out the window, down at Gaborone, Botswana, a patch of buildings in the middle of nothingness. You think of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series that your mom got you into. “Next time,” you say to yourself. And then you finally you land in the urban sprawl of Johannesburg.
At the airport you encounter a kind of lackadaisical security that is long gone from many other airports around the world. It’s so quick to go through it that you’re expecting more at the other end because you’ve gotten so used to the strip down, liquids in bag routine.
You have another layover, but you don’t have time to explore the city, so you explore the airport. A giant beaded statue of Nelson Mandela invites you to shake his hand. Food stores sell jerky made with animals you’ve never heard of such as “oryx”. Little do you know that you’re about to see all of those animals en masse. Gift shops carry limitless supplies of beaded jewelery, animal print everything, and carvings everywhere. Everything fits the bill of “exotic” items you’re supposed to bring home from Africa. You probably shouldn’t love these stores, but you do. The kitsch draws you in while your sister pulls you away because it’s almost time to board.
It’s a quick flight to Namibia from there and you’re struck by how empty it looks down below. Roads that seem to lead to nowhere cut through the emptiness. You’ve never seen so much open space. As you descend, even the capital city looks quiet.
Windhoek. You still can’t seem to say it correctly, but you’re there.
You’re surprised that when you go through immigration, people who you thought were foreigners are going through the citizens line. You’ve always known that as much people try to lump Africa together, it is full of distinct countries, cultures, and histories. But still, the widely accepted notions about the sameness of the African continent have made their way into your mind. That’s about to unravel. You’re not prepared for it.
When you’re done with the arrival formalities, you and your sister have a joyful reunion with your mother. You step out into the heat and she leads you to a large truck that will be your mobile fortress for the next two and a half weeks of your do-it-yourself tour of Namibia. This just might be the adventure that all your adventures thus far have led up to. It’s funny, exciting, a little daunting.
You load up the vehicle and then you’re off — three women in a 4×4 truck exploring the great wide open spaces of Namibia.