10 hours packed like a sardine in a mini-van, along a boring sealed road, was what it took to undo a 12-day bicycle ride through brutal roads. When I have no other choice but to get on a public transport, I keep asking myself how I could've traveled for so many years by this means. It's amazing. The difference is abysmal because everything happens at a speed that neither the mind nor the body are fast enough to actually absorb what's happening around you. It is like returning to a world where one lives on a perpetual run (I still wonder to what end) and even in Namibia, people rush so badly along the few paved roads, that they run over the elephants. Every time this happens, the police confiscate the ivory tusks and the body is slaughtered on the route itself by the people of an entire village who will have it for dinner for several consecutive days. That was how I finally got back to Windhoek, feeling like cutting off my own legs in pain result of the atrophied muscles after spending so many hours squeezed into the fucking mini-van.
Against the forces of bureaucracy
Contrary to what may seem at first glance, a bicycle trip, especially in Africa, is not only about physical and mental challenges, there is also a third type of challenge and in my opinion the worst of them all: the bureaucratic challenge. Because it is one thing to try to overcome a mountain pass, a sandy trail, intense heat or cold, challenges that do not depend on the conscience of anyone but are put there for you by nature. Another very different thing is to fight against the bureaucracy, the ineptitude and the folly of corrupt and foolish governments. The Angolan government is one of them, and with its famous reluctance to grant visas, presents one of the biggest obstacles for those who travel across the western half of Africa.
I began to investigate the possible options to obtain the visa about 5 months before arriving in Namibia. I spent hours and days of boredom searching for information on internet forums, official pages, etc. I contacted Angolans and foreigners living in Angola through different social networks, asking for data and assistance in obtaining the visa. Some doors opened but nothing really came out of it.
Months later, it was my friend Pata who, when I had already left on my way to Namibia, came in as an angel to open the gates of heaven. Pata works in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Buenos Aires and moved all his internal contacts around so that the new Argentine Embassy in Luanda knew of my existence and my wishes to travel in that country. Soon after, the first consul contacted me to offer me the support of the embassy. Guillermo, with the approval of the ambassador, was the mastermind of the famous "carta de chamada" (Invitation letter), required by the embassies of Angola to grant the visa. Basically an official invitation from someone in Angola to visit the country.
In his letter of invitation, of strict diplomatic formality, Guillermo asks the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Angola to kindly grant me the visa. He presents me as a "high performance Argentine athlete" (although in reality he is nothing more than a pasta eater and high performance masochist ) that is on his tour around Africa and needs to pass through the country. Even in the high spheres of diplomacy Argentines live up to their nature of "chamuyar" and today I raise a glass to that. The letter was then presented to the relevant authorities in Luanda and returned a week later with the necessary stamps and signatures. Now I only had to go with a copy of it to the Angolan embassy in Windhoek, famous in all internet forums as the embassy that does not issue visas unless you send a car bomb.
Predictably, I was received by the lady in charge with sweet apathy. Not even my most seductive smile the one I have used repeatedly to conquer the hearts of the most hostile female teachers back in school, served to soften this woman. She listened to me reluctantly and demanded items in the list like an army officer: passport, complete application form, copy of immunization booklet with yellow fever vaccine up to date, invitation letter with the official seal certified by public notary, fee payment and receipt from the Bank. Check, check, check, I've got them all, baby! - I think to myself while extending all the documents like an exemplary student. She grunts: - "Come back in 7 days to see if Luanda approves your visa." I gave them 12, and the lions on the road helped me not to think about the outcome anymore. Finally, when I returned to Windhoek, after so many months of research and stress, my visa was glued in my passport. It's funny how overcoming a challenge, any challenge, tastes like a great victory. It does not matter if it is crossing a mountain, a desert, a jungle, suffering the cold, the heat, or breaking down the walls of the bureaucracy. In any case, it tastes beautiful and today happiness takes over me.
Angola here I come
After an extra week of rest in Windhoek among friends, braai on the cold nights and enjoying the last few comforts of southern Africa, I started the way back to Opuwo. But this time in the company of my friend Javier, a guy with a story to write 100 books, whom I had met in Windhoek a month ago. In his incredible 4x4 he took me back to Opuwo taking a nice dirt road. Still, and as much as I love to drive, with these monsters of vehicles prepared for everything I find it impossible to feel some sense of adventure traveling the world when it is an engine and four fat wheels that do all the hard work. As time goes by, I am even more impressed at how much cycling has changed my way of traveling, living and thinking. With Javi we took two days to get back to Opuwo, going through most of the places I had already passed through, but paradoxically, avoiding the most extreme with the 4x4!
Opuwo is a town buried in dust, it is the capital of Kaokoland, the land of the Himba, and the Herero. It consists of a commercial central street and the rest, expanding for several kilometers around, is a clump of villages scattered along the rocky desert of Kunene. Walking through this little town is a true cultural experience. Unlike remote places like Lake Turkana or the Omo Valley, here the Globalization has arrived by the hand of a South African supermarket chain, a mall, cell phone shops and so on.
Members of all the tribes of the region come to Opuwo from the most remote areas. Here, the barefoot and semi-naked Himba with their decorations and their ocher-covered bodies, make their purchases at the OK Supermarket like any woman from the West. The Herero with their exquisite multicolored dresses stroll the central street boasting their class and their vanity while chatting on a cell phone.
Tourism here abounds and it has also contributed, as usual, to distort the values of the local people. It is almost impossible to take a selfless photo anywhere in Opuwo and its surroundings. The Himba, as the beautiful and flirtatious women they are, are aware of their exotic appeal and their beauty and have learned to exploit it. Thanks to the usual bunch of irresponsible tourists frequently visiting the region in search of a human zoo experience, the Himba and Herero tribes, have since learned how to transform their beauty into a business. Many tourists flock here and approach them as if they were "martians". They throw a few pennies at them so they can take a photo together and be able to go back home to show how adventurous they were in their trip to Namibia. It makes me sick. Today, the villages frequented by tourists, it is virtually impossible to take a natural photo of a Himba, without being asked for money in return. It comes as no surprise either, to see them walk the streets trying to make eye contact with anyone that could potentially throw a bone at them and sell their presence for a photo. It is very sad but it is not the first time I have experienced this disappointment.*
I was once again delighted to have come to so many traditional villages by bicycle, away from all this commercialised Western paraphernalia, and have been able to genuinely relate to these people. With the Herero it was more difficult because they are very reserved and shy women, until I met Sara, a 22-year-old girl from a remote village near Purros. With her little boy, she had traveled to Opuwo to take a Kindergarden teacher's course to teach the children in her village.