Eva, my Russian cabby, drove a beat-up, mid-80’s Peugeot with the fiery abandon of a lunatic high on pixie dust. A side mirror was held together with bits of electric tape, the undercarriage rattled with a disturbing, pulsating frequency, and the whole rig listed considerably to port, giving me the sensation of traveling down the Russian freeway in a hell-bent Titanic.
Eva was not wholly familiar with the city, despite having initially boasted in snippets of broken English to have never left. Moments of relative calm were interrupted by violent and unnanounced swerves into inadequate breakdown lanes. There, she would attempt to orient herself by staring daggers into an antique-looking flip phone for a beat before careening back into traffic, Tonka horn bleating at no one in particular. I considered it a proper Russian indoctrination.
After an indeterminate period of time and a number of hair-raising turns, Eva apparently decided that my ride was up and that I was close enough to where I needed to be. I paid her a considerable and seemingly arbitrary fortune and then was rather unceremoniously discarded into a urban area outside the city center.
From there I wandered past neon clubs and closed warehouses and gents who looked as though they might have just as soon disembowled me with a tire iron until I fortuitously stumbled upon a concrete slab with an address that matched the one on my bit of paper.
After a brief and ceremonial chat with Lars, my host, I faceplanted until the following morning. Then I set out again to find the Trans-Siberian.
I finally arrived at the Namibian border at around 4pm and presented my passport to a dilapidated gent in a likewise dilapidated but apparently government-issued trailer. He asked me what business I had in Namibia and I immediately realized that I should have considered the question beforehand. Truly, what was I doing in Namibia? I said something to the effect that I was “killing time” but this fellow didn’t seem to appreciate that answer and he motioned for me to proceed to a drab, stone building resembling a medieval torture chamber a few hundred yards up the road.
After a lengthy interrogation carried out by another humorless dude in a Homer Simpson t-shirt, and observed by his dour, fully-camouflaged compatriot, I was set free with the understanding that I was not to incite violence within the country nor stay longer than a period of one week.
Free at last but horribly behind schedule, I pushed pedal to the cheap metal of my Chevy Aveo and hightailed it through the blood-red Namib toward Keetmanshoop.
2011 - 2012
After a year and change of attempting to teach young children the fundamentals of the English language while simultaneously doubling as a sort of sideshow clown attraction, I began to feel exhausted. I’m not a strict practitioner of traditional English by nature and I don't particularly care for school as an institution, and so teaching eventually became a chore.
I resorted to trying to curry my pupils’ favor and hold their attention with an assortment of cheap tricks, “educational games” and bite-sized Snickers bars. When this didn’t work I would try the bad cop routine, often with mixed results.
One hot summer afternoon I was sitting at my desk in the teacher’s office, pulling my hair out and trying to concoct fresh lesson plans, when I suddenly felt a tiny pair of hands grasp my taught shoulders. I turned around to find Victoria, my tiniest, quietest and most stone-faced student. Without a word or a hint of an expression, she turned me back around and began stoically administering a punishing massage.
To put it gently, I felt unprepared for the situation. I mumbled some protestations and gave pleading looks toward my chuckling colleagues. But danged if this little shin-biter didn’t know what she was doing! After a few minutes, the bell rang and she scurried off to class as silently as she had arrived.
Victoria continued showing up to my desk unannounced for the next few days between classes to diligently and silently work out the knots. I learned to check my embarrassment and enjoy the free massages.
On the last day of our unspoken arrangement, after a particularly lengthy session, Victoria held out her hands with a look that would melt a cantankerous sourpuss and said simply, “Teacher. Candy.” I gave her three bite-sized Snickers bars, which apparently satisfied her to such an extent that, to my chagrin, she never showed up at my desk again.
Joseph, the brothers Thomas and I are sharing a cabin the size of a cramped outhouse. The Danish girls and other members of the squad are scattered around. We’ll be here for another couple nights, then the brothers will head south while Joseph and I will head toward Wanaka. Joseph may hike to a glacier tomorrow, I’ll probably think about joining.
Tonight I attempted a shave in the kitchen/bathroom sink while Joseph talked about some silly nonsense and the brothers used rolled up t-shirts to attack the numerous bugs that have infiltrated the abode. I hadn't shaved since last month in Auckland and overall I was pleased with my disheveled appearance but was beginning to get the sense that some of the Danish lasses weren't so enthusiastic.
After the shave and the bug war, the brothers smoked on the steps and Joseph found a pay phone to ring up his family in Quebec. I read a month-old Sports Illustrated on my top bunk and thought about what to do in Australia.
One time an old-timer with an eye patch assaulted me at a bazaar in Turpan.
I had arrived by train from Xi'an and was ambling about in my gently befuddled sort of manner when I stumbled across a wild street scene. Children rode three deep on the backs of single-seat scooters through throngs of overflowing fruit carts, pushed haphazardly by old women unencumbered by the inherent danger surrounding them. Stray dogs chased one another through hagglers legs and babies cried and music blared from some unseen sources. It was fascinating madness and I parked myself on an overturned milk crate to soak it all in.
As far as I could tell, I was the only westerner not only at the bazaar, but in the entire region. My Australian fedora was tugged as low as she’d go and with the moon shades and beard, I hoped I might almost look inconspicuous. At least I figured I could get away with snapping a couple shots unnoticed.
As soon as I steadied the Canon, though, this aforementioned geezer emerged from some angle, swiped my camera while flashing a yellowy smile, and began gesticulating wildly as if he was well-overdue for an emptying of the tanks.
I was altogether flabbergasted but I also didn’t want to cause a scene where one might not be needed. The one-eyed local backtracked while still grinning broadly. As I stood, he steadied his hand on a cart and I realized that he intended to take my picture. He gesticulated some more, I removed the fedora and he pushed some buttons- none of which, I'd learn later, released the shutter. Then he returned my camera, still smiling like a madman, and disappeared back into the chaos.
I sauntered into Stovepipe Wells like a windswept vagabond, ordered a local beer at the only pub in town and mustered the pills to ask the crusty bartend if he knew of a place nearby where a feller might take a shower. He looked at me with an expression of bemused disregard and I settled for the beer and a forthcoming cheeseburger.
Driving days by one’s lonesome can do things to even the strictest of misanthropes and, after a couple more brews, I began kicking the can with a similarly noxious young couple at the bar. They were from New Hampshire but I let it pass, and we got to talking about adventures and my deficiencies in the whole “planning” department. They thought I was daft not to camp at the designated campground and, as I'd later learn, they probably had a point.
Anyway, before I knew it I was rather shbonked and still without a plan. Barb and Devon (I forget their names..) offered me a corner of their van but vestiges of social etiquette and the sobering realization that, despite a good couple hours of conversation, I still didn’t know much about these folks lead me to insist that I would wander into the dunes outside town and set up camp there, and screw the man. I guess they realized that I wasn’t kidding because they in turn insisted that, at the very least, I let them drive me out there.
I was dropped outside town and wandered alone into the inky desert, my gear dragging patterns in the warm sand behind. It was beautiful out- mild with a slight breeze and clear skies filled with stars. I set up my tent roughly a hundred feet from the road, behind a particularly tall series of dunes that I figured would shield me from whatever authorities might patrol at night.