The Desert Tavern in Swakopmund, Namibia.
It was situated not far from the center of town, but at its heart it couldn’t have been further from civilization. The regulars had a wildness in their eyes, that at any moment a riot or a sing-song could break out and there was no way of telling which was coming. The only evidence of their Germanic history, that Tino had come to Namibia to see, was a perfect circle chandelier glued together out of empty Kummerling bottles.
“Is the reason you’ve agreed to all of my plans for the last two weeks that you have been travelling for so long that you don’t want to make any more decisions, or is it just that you don’t care?”
“Little bit of both. Can I stop you there for a second?” I asked.
“HAI.” I screamed across the bar. “Are you Irish?” The slim blonde woman ordering straight Jameson whiskey shouted back, “Yes I am. Are you?”
“Oh good, I’ll be right over.”
She delivered her round of drinks to her group and joined us at the bar.
“I’m Hannah, so what are ye guys doing in Namibia?” She breezed into the conversation with a natural ease. I knew a few women like Hannah, the shining star of the party, intensely focused on your conversation until she flits on to the next group and eventually disappears; the room growing darker in her absence.
I started, “You can travel anywhere, to the ends of the world, and do you know who you’ll meet there? Irish and Germans.
“I am Tino.”
Hannah nodded at me, “You’re from Cork, but where in Ireland are you from Tino?”
“Ya know, usually that doesn’t bother me but that time it did. I am from Germany.” Tino said.
“You don’t sound German.” Hannah replied in shock.
“I spent a few years in Ireland and picked up some of the accent.”
“And a sense of humour.” I cut in.
Hannah opened up, “Ya know the other day I met some black people on the street and one of them she said, ‘Irish, I hate the Irish all they do is drink, drink, drink, fight, fight, fight.'”
“Surely she was joking.” I hoped.
“Nope, dead serious. It was the first time that had happened to me, I was shocked to be honest.”
I consoled her, “I know what you mean, that’s never happened to me and I’m traumatized just hearing about it. I love that everywhere I go, the Irish have gone before me and now the world welcomes me with open arms.”
“So what are ye doing here?” Hannah asked.
Tino started, “I flew in to Cape Town and I am riding over to Victoria Falls and down to Johannesburg on a rented motorcycle but Eoin here has ridden his motorcycle from Seattle to Ushuaia, Argentina and shipped it over here. And he will be riding up the east coast of Africa.” Tino enjoyed telling people about my trip, some people can’t understand why someone would want to do that trip but Tino had ridden up to Deadhorse, Alaska with me and stood at the Arctic Ocean. The German completionist in him was gutted that he couldn’t ride all the way down to Ushuaia. But now he was again part of the trip, for the most daunting leg – Africa.
“Oh cool, I’ve been travelling around southern Africa for the last 3 months. How have ye found it so far?” Hannah chirped.
I answered, “Well we were told that Namibia has the best gravel roads in the world but yesterday by Duwisip Castle we hit sand that was six inches deep.”
“That gets deeper every time you tell that story.”
“Pipe down Tino. It was seven inches deep. So Namibia’s been barren and tough. Cape Town is lovely but I have a question about South Africa. Is it a bit racist?”
“What are you talking about?” Hannah asked.
I continued, “In shops the black people are extremely polite and the white people are extremely friendly, I think there are some racist undertones lurking there. And the other night we were drinking with some white South African farmers. Apparently being a white farmer in South Africa is the most dangerous job in the world. They said they have an app that tracks the number of white farmers that die in the north of South Africa. And the more drinks we had, the higher the number was, by the end of the night they were claiming four farmers a minute!”
Tino jumped in, “You’re very good at getting that out of them. These are people you’ve just met and an hour later they’re whispering about farmers dying.”
“The alcohol helps but really I just nod and say ‘uh-nh’. I want to see how far they go with it. It’s like talking to a Trump supporter, if they do go full racist there’s nothing I can say that will change their mind so I might as well get their opinion on how things are in South Africa.”
“And what was their opinion?” Hannah asked.
“Well I told him I had just been to Robben Island and saw Nelson Mandela’s cell and how people were treated. I asked him how the country didn’t tear itself apart back then.”
“What did he say to that?” Hannah was fully invested.
“He said ‘It’s like Northern Ireland, the Catholics and the Protestants are still there but there’s no more fighting. Nobody wants that… But if they come for my farm, I have a gun and I will defend myself.'”
“The bar is now closing.” The barman declared.
“OK. We’ll leave so.” Tino responded in a resigned voice.
“No, now we play chess.”
We all wondered what the barman could have meant, until he pulled a chess set out from under the bar, complete with a timer.
Enjoying the bizarre situation, Tino volunteered to play the bartender at chess.
“How has the rest of your trip been?” I asked Hannah.
“Great, I just visited my sister by Kruger National Park in South Africa. I was following her into her house when I heard this big smacking noise. I turned around and there were two giraffes across the road smacking their necks off each other. I shouted, ‘Ah you’d want to come out here.’ And she shouted back, ‘Are the giraffes at it again? Don’t mind them.’ Madness.”
Tino was losing hard against the barman, every time he checkmated Tino, he would say ‘again’ until eventually he said, ‘Now you play as white.’ Tino reached for the board to spin it around. The bartender shouted, “Don’t you touch my board.” Tino looked confused at the barman, then shrugged and leapt over the bar. The barman walked around the counter. Tino helped himself to another pint and continued losing against the drunken grandmaster barman. One of the regulars consoled him, “I’ve been playing him for three years and I’ve never beaten him.” Bizarrely all of the regulars also had a crazy obsession with chess.
“So have you seen any racism in South Africa?” I asked Hannah.
“No, everyone has been lovely to me but there was one weird thing that happened. I went to the shops with my niece and I was giving her a piggy back around the aisles. I realized that we were the only white people in the shop and everyone was looking at us. A crowd gathered and followed us around the shop. I asked one of them what was wrong and she said, ‘We did not know that white women also carried their babies on their backs!'”
“I’m going home.” Hannah suddenly declared, and just like that she was gone. The room did seem darker but suddenly it was lit up flashing blue and red colours. Two police officers walked in. The bartender staggered over.
“Do you know what time it is?”
The bartender slurred, “Ahhh no.”
“It is 3AM, you were supposed to close at 12.”
Fearing spending the night in a Namibian jail, I interjected, “No, it’s ok, we’re leaving.”
Myself and Tino strolled out into the crisp Namibian night air.
Dropkick Murphy’s bar in Durban, South Africa
It was an authentic Irish bar in a gentrified neighbourhood of Durban. A blonde woman sat at the bar.
“So where are you from?” I asked.
“Glasgow in Scotland.” She replied.
“Livingstone, the guy that discovered Victoria Falls was from a slum in Glasgow. Are you from the same slum?”
“Ah he’s got jokes.” Her lilting accent retained a hint of her Scottish origins but was a far cry from the machine gun rattle of the usual Scottish accent.
“So what are you doing in South Africa?” I asked.
“I am a doctor for Doctors Without Borders.”
“Your brothers and sisters must hate you. No matter what they do, their sister is a doctor, in Africa, in Doctors Without Borders. There is nothing they can do to impress your parents. At least I had the decency to quit my job and travel around the world looking like a hobo.”
“So why South Africa?” I asked.
“Well the other day I had a guy come in to the clinic, he had been out spear fishing with his friend when his friend’s speargun accidentally went off and hit him in the chest. He was screaming that he was going to die and his friend was freaking out that he was going to go to jail for murder. I told them, ‘Look, you haven’t died yet so you’re probably not going to die.’ We did an x-ray of his chest and the hook was lodged an inch from his heart. We needed to send him for surgery, but he couldn’t fit in the ambulance with the remaining five feet of the spear sticking straight up in the air. I had the maintenance guy come in with an angle grinder and I held the spear in place while he cut the rest of it off. You just don’t get that in Europe.”
“Well maybe Glasgow.” I sniped in.
I asked, “So you’ve been here a while, is South Africa racist?”
“Oh my yes. The nurses at work took me aside after a few months and asked, ‘You are from South Africa but you are not racist?'” She rolled her r’s in a perfect South African accent, in the way that makes everything sound regal.
“They assumed because I was white that I was South African and therefore a racist. I said, ‘No, no, I’m Scottish.’ They all laughed and said, ‘Oh that makes sense then.’ So I’ve started wearing my Scottish jersey around the place so people don’t assume I’m a racist.”
“Good luck in the impending race war then.” I quipped.
The driveway of a house on the outskirts of Johannesburg.
The houses all had large metal gates, barbed wire and electric fences. They looked like compounds in a war zone.
“Your chain is so fucked that it’s mounting the sprocket. That shouldn’t even be possible.” Robert was a shy thirty year old who clearly was not good with people but his passion for motorcycles shone through. He had gone into business servicing motorcycles from his house with his father Gavin, a large overbearing man.
Gavin walked in and pointed at the web address on his sign.
“You know what .za stands for? Zulu Africa.” I nodded and he let out a big hearty laugh like what he had just said was the funniest thing in the world. “We will undertake to fix your bike and also to drop you back to your hotel.” I hopped into the car and we headed back towards the city. I asked about all the barbed wire. “You know what the first thing you get when you turn 18 in South Africa is? It’s not a car, it’s a gun.” Gavin answered.
We passed a large township on the left, the inequality is striking in Johannesburg. Big compound houses giving way to small metal shacks that housed entire families. A car was broken down on the side of the road.
“It’s always blacks fixing their cars on the side of the road. Never white people.” Gavin lectured. I thought about the historical socio-economic inequality that resulted in black people driving older cars and the population demographics that acted as a confirmation bias for his assertion. And then I thought about how I was never going to win that argument.
“I heard the president on television talking about land reform, what’s that about?” I prodded. Gavin launched into an answer, “We have a big problem in South Africa, the farmers are being killed. You have heard about this? Blacks are taking over the farms and need to make payments to the government to keep them. They have no interest in the farming so the first thing they do is sell off the equipment to make the payments. Then the farm is no good and goes to ruin. The president is making the noises he needs to make before the election next year, but he is a businessman, he knows he needs to keep the farms working.”
“So everything will calm down after the election?”
“With the president yes but South Africa’s real problem is the seven tribes here. They hate each other and will never work together, it will never be a real country. And they blame it all on apartheid, you’d want to have rocks in your head to believe the things they blame on apartheid. They’re not people really.” I had stopped nodding. An awkward silence descended on the car and hung heavy in the air. “So what currency do you use in Ireland?” Gavin changed the subject.
I was bothered by the conversation, but there are always people that have more experience than you and you need to learn to ask for advice. So later I explained to my travel mentor and asked, “These people aren’t going to learn anything and arguing with them gets me nowhere but should I do more than not engage in the conversation?”
“First of all, if you only ask the white people about racism in South Africa you’re only getting half the story. And secondly, you know there’s only one answer to that question – ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.'”