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March 27th, 2004 -> into namibia

There are no buses from the Namibian side of the Botswana/Namibia border. If you don't have a car, you have to hitch. The first man I importuned, a gruff old Afrikaner with an empty Land Cruiser, turned us down with a sharp “Nei!” My optimism waned. The prospect of a long, hot day at the border, or even worse, a night camping in the parking lot held no appeal. Now it was Nori’s turn to try. Bingo! Two Afrikaans-speaking, white Botswanans agreed to let us ride in the back of their truck, but then changed their minds and moved all their luggage into the back so we could sit in the extra cab. We couldn’t believe our luck. The truck had arctic A/C, the woman drove at over 100 miles per hour, and she was going all the way to Windhoek, 300 kilometers away.

Namibia is vast, barren and unpopulated. It is about half the size of Alaska, yet has only 2 million people. The scarcity of arable land and fresh water is the prime limiter of population growth. In the west, the Namib Desert occupies a wide coastal strip. In the east lies the Kalahari Desert. Most of the population lives in either the capital, Windhoek (Afrikaans for 'Windy Corner,') or the port city of Swakopmund. Like much of Southern Africa, Namibia's economy is highly dependent on mineral resources - most notably diamonds. Until recently, a huge swath of southern Namibia - the imaginatively named Diamond Area #1 - was completely off-limits.

During the "Scramble for Africa" in the late 19th century, the Germans colonized what was then known as Deutsche Sudwestafrica. The period of German influence was short-lived, however. In 1915, South Africa occupied South-West Africa and began to administer it. Only in 1988 did Namibia gain independence from South Africa, after more than 20 years of political protest and guerilla war led by SWAPO - the Southwest Africa People's Organization. Though nearly all of the blacks (who make up about 90% of the population) speak a local language, the long period of South African administration made Afrikaans the lingua franca.

Namibia’s cleanliness and modernity shocked us. The first town we entered could have been in country Australia. It was bone-dry beyond the town’s marches, but the town itself seemed green and prosperous. There were wide, rubbish-free streets with trees planted in the median. The tallest building was the church steeple. Advertisements were painted in the same friendly font that you see in shop windows across small-town America. We stopped to pick up the woman’s daughter from a boarding school. She wasn’t there when we arrived, but pulled up moments later in a truck filled with smiling black and white girls.

Windhoek was almost too much for us to handle. As we descended out of the hills we passed a new residential area with multilevel, Santa Fe-style homes. We gaped at enormous malls, McDonald’s with Playlands and modern office buildings. There were ATMs everywhere. The arid hills surrounding Windhoek made me feel like I was in a southern Californian city; only the bizarre forked-flower aloes and German placenames belied the impression.

We found a pleasant B&B, unpacked, and relaxed – a TV and an ensuite shower, what luxury! That evening, Olly, a friend of a woman we had met in Victoria Falls, picked us up and took us to the famous Joe’s Beer House – a sprawling restaurant and bar filled with bric-a-brac, and known for its game meats. The meal was delicious (and Olly had hilarious tales of life in Namibia,) but I kept thinking how strange it felt to be in such a modern place. Ever since Malawi, each new country we entered (Zambia, Botswana, and Namibia) seemed dramatically more prosperous than the last. What would South Africa be like?