“She is my sister, and as such, she is one half of me.”
“Look what we found,” Jesse yelled, and I knew it right away: Teal was here. Teal was late. Teal was also, it should be noted, not meant to be with Jesse.
For the moment it didn’t matter much. I jumped up from the stairs, knocking over my computer and ran to jump into her arms. I screeched. She screeched. We laughed and she cried. Teal always cries.
Here’s what Teal and I had planned to do in Namibia: We were going to rent a car and drive up to Swakopmund, where we’d spend a night. It’s the seaside resort of what was once German South-West Africa, and we were at the Deutches Haus Hotel. My friends Whitney and Evan were at, and I could not make this up, Hotel Zum Kaiser.
Then the next morning we were going to set off across the desert for somewhere between six and ten hours of driving. It’s a tortuous road – paved but empty, and it winds towards a particular desert plain: Sousovlei. There, a petrified forest sprouts from cracked earth, and the largest sand dune on earth rises behind it. We were going to spend two nights there, drinking tea, talking about things that mattered, and watching sunrises. Maybe doing yoga. It would be peaceful, quiet. Our hearts would slow, and minds calmed.
Here’s what Teal and I did in Namibia: we ate worms with a man we met in an alley; we slid down dunes on snowboards, getting bruises where we fell backwards; we tore out into the desert on quad bikes to where there was nothing but us, silence and sidewinder snakes; we learned South African drinking games in bars and took mini-road trips with near strangers. We tumbled out of a plane at 10,000 feet. It was far from peaceful. It was not quiet. And our hearts? Our hearts were far from slow.
It was perfect.
So what turns out to be true is this: neither Teal nor I can drive a manual shift transmission.
Look, I know. I know we’re adults, I know.
When I explained this to Catrina, of the ‘stitching her husband’s hand up with a vaginal needle rather than sacrifice the pizza in the oven by going to hospital’ fame, she first yelled “unacceptable” and then turned to Teal, whose hand she had shook less than 30 seconds earlier, and said “get it together.”
But Teal only got her license at 22, and then helped teach 20 year old me how to drive while winding through the Vermont mountains. In an automatic. Teal was afraid of the quad bike we rose in the desert. I can’t ride a bike.
We are not natural born gear heads, is what I’m saying.
And the road, this romantic road to Sousovlei? It gets a lot less romantic when you’ve taught yourself to drive stick in the parking lot of an airport. My friend John replaced two flat tires on the way back from Sousovlei alone. Another student hitched a ride with a car that broke down entirely – never mind burning a clutch out.
“Two American women, 33 and 30, headed out into the Namibian desert in a rental car they could barely operate” may be the opening line of a great memoir. But it’s also the leader of an article entitled “Brown sisters missing, presumed dead.”
So when she discovered after 28 hours of flying that the only car was manual, she walked, vanquished, back into the car rental center (which was a shipping container. As was the airport. And part of the hospital, some hotels, and what looked like an apartment building. Namibia appears to be built out of sand, salt and shipping containers.) Two Americans were standing at the Hertz desk, looking confused and a little irritated, because the Hertz rental man had just disappeared, leaving them stranded. They saw a bedraggled, exhausted American wander in, looking defeated, with the keys to a manual car.
“Are you Teal?” my friends asked Teal.
So we stayed in Swakopmund, because we are not insane.
But we wanted to do something special, something a little different. Something that we had never done before. Somehow, eating worms in an alley did not fulfill this wish.
So we jumped out of a plane.
The fall from a plane, I had been told, does not feel like falling. And that, it turns out, is true. It’s something like floating. A very, very loud floating, while a plane falls upwards and away from you like something sinking underwater.
Teal, who was, I want to reiterate, afraid of a quad bike whose top speed was about 20mph, was completely unfazed by the lead up to skydiving. I, on the other hand, stayed up a good third of the night before our jump. By morning, fear had tightened into a solid ball in my intestines. One of the students told me that the death rate for skydiving is only 1/150,000 which sounded plausible enough for me to latch onto it in blind faith. When we boarded the bus out to the jump site, the students asked me not to report them (skydiving isn’t, it turns out, against the rules, but we all, reasonably, assumed that it was) and I promised I wouldn’t as long as they told no one if I wet myself. I wasn’t sure I was kidding. I peed four times in the half hour before my jump.
On the plane ride up, six sardines in a rattling can, Teal kept her cool. She looked at the view. She smiled benignly. I continued to descend into a crippling fear. We reached 10,000 feet. Our tandem guys prepared for the jump: Matthais hitched himself to the back of me and I felt straps pull tight at both my shoulders and at my legs. Tied firmly to Matthais I began to calm – he’d done this before, and if one of us died, both would. He definitely didn’t want to die. I would be fine.
I looked to my sister, who had begun scooting towards the open plane door, to show her that I, too, could be zen about this. I could share her calm joy, and placidly contemplate the fall. She had now reached the door. Her face had changed completely. She was in a blind panic, barely able to breathe, eyes wide with terror, a scream caught in her throat. She put her legs out of the plane, there was a thiwp noise, and she was gone, falling fast, a speck beneath us.
I hope, I thought, I remembered to tell her I love her.
On our last day we took a road trip. Well, sort of.
Teal and I had become somewhat obsessed with the idea of going somewhere, anywhere. We had researched by the time tested method of asking everyone we met what we should go see.
The woman at the quad bike booking office looked at us incredulously when we asked what, within two hours, she would go see.
“There’s nothing,” she told us, “absolutely nothing.”
We decided to try again.
The next day we asked the driver who took us out to the jump site.
“There’s nothing!” he told us, “have you ever seen truly nothing? It’s incredible. I’ve never seen so much nothing – you have to see it.”
So we started the process of booking a car and driver to drive us through two hours of nothing to eventually get to a nearby mountain. But the night before we were leaving we went to The Lighhouse, a beach bar, for a drink.
It turns out that if you want to meet strangers, like a lot of strangers, while traveling there’s one simple rule you have to follow: be two young women. One will not be approached because you might scare her off, three constitute their own crowd. But two? Two are, it turns out, the correct number of women to buy drinks.
Teal and I were unable to avoid this. Everywhere we went, we met people. The first night it was Seko, Louis and Ella – who were in town from Windhoeke to pitch a new office of Saatchi and Saatchi. Seko won me over from “nice guy in a bar” to “person I must follow to the next bar and befriend” when he, a black African, said to me “may I play the ultimate devil’s advocate? I will argue to you tonight that Nelson Mandela was the worst thing to ever happen to southern Africa!”
This I had to hear.
But first he had to pee. Then we moved bars. Then we were introduced to friends and there was a long conversation about advertising and race in business in Namibia. When I returned to the key point an hour later, Seko had crossed over from tipsy into drunk.
“Seko,” I asked, “You still haven’t given me that argument about Nelson Mandela being the worst thing to happen to you.”
“Yes!” he said, “I think in the future that this Western obsession with technology and your restlessness will lead you to trying to condense all human knowledge onto a single chip and sending it out to start a new civilization in space.”
There was a pause.
“Seko,” I said, “I don’t think that really answers the question.”
“You’re right!” he said, clapping me on the back, “it doesn’t!”
“So…. Nelson Mandela?”
“I am naturally very shy. Right now though, I am feeling social. Would you like to come make new friends with me?” he said, looking longingly at the patio where a couple dozen people were milling around.
“So, no Mandela?”
I gave up.
Then there was Jacko, a South African fisherman with a sunburned nose in a rainbow hat, rainbow hoodie, and tie died rainbow fisherman’s pants, who thought everything was awesome and was really interested in Burning Man. Din, who argued for an hour that an atheist shouldn’t be allowed to teach religion classes. And countless others, leading, finally, to Elmi and Will, a couple from the North, who we met our last night in Swakopmund.
“Cancel your car!” Elmi told us, “we’re taking you everywhere!”
They picked us up the next morning at 9:30, an hour late because no streets in Swakopmund have signs and they, it turned out, did not, in fact, know where our hotel was. We were out of time for our two hour adventure to the mountains, so they drove us up the coast instead, sandwiched between desert and sea on a long, dark highway made of packed salt and tar. We stopped at a shipwreck and had lunch in an even tinier beach town than Swakop. On the way back, we stopped at broad, cracked plain dusted with rocks. In the very far distance, mirages shimmered in the heat, almost blocking out the mountains behind them. It was silent and hot. Elmi’s little dachshund sniffed a rock.
There was nothing, absolutely nothing. And it was beautiful.
Teal always cries.