Among the regulars at Friendly Lounge, my local dive in Philadelphia, was Johny AC (for air conditioning, to differentiate him from Johny the Hat, a mechanic). A white man in his mid 40’s with a Japanese wife, Johny AC had been to Japan many times to visit his in-laws, but he had never entered New York City, just 95 miles from the Friendly’s corner door, with its black on white sign half bordered with a bent arrow.
Though NYC may be on many people’s bucket list, an iconic destination mythologized through countless movies, Johny AC was determined to avoid it until the end, since he had this weird streak going. Perhaps all those movies allowed Johnny AC to believe he had already experienced that famed city, like porn supplanting sex? How can the actual city be more provocative than King Kong or Taxi Driver? Washington Heights would surely be a let down.
There have been many people who died without having been kissed, seen an elephant or giraffe, tasted strawberry or, God forbid, durian, heard Django Reinhardt or Lester Young, read a single page of Borges, been charmed by a black swan, startled by a scared snake, loved by a trusting baby or admitted into the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova to stare, way too briefly, at its frescoes by Giotto.
Since everyone’s life is filled with unreachable goals and missed opportunities, nothing is essential, really, beyond air, water and grub, so the list above is beyond silly. Still, one is very unlucky if forever denied the ocean, that galaxy of so much life, death and history, so neatly entombing, so dirty yet so clean, so elegantly cloaked over, with a scent so fresh, despite its hints of decay.
With 44 out of 195 countries landlocked, a quarter of humanity is acutely handicapped, then you have vast nations like the US or Russia, where folks tucked in the middle must travel for several lifetimes, it seems, to admire the crashing waves. In McCook, Nebraska, 1,600 miles from the Pacific, I ran into Club Paradise, with an orange sun, yellow sand and green palm trees on its sign, so the sea was simply a boozy mirage. Even in a thin country that hugs the ocean like Vietnam, there are millions of people fifty miles inland or a thousand feet up who have never had their worries and sins buffeted and scoured by salt water.
Blessed, I’m at the sea again. Since it drizzled this morning, the sand is damp. I can feel it through my thin towel. Last night’s high tide has littered the beach with all sorts of seaweeds, broken shells and even an odd plastic bottle, though the workers here are very good at cleaning up garbage. Clean and orderly, Namibia is often said to be not quite Africa, with the assumption this continent must be chaotic and filthy to be authentic. Before the emergence of Singapore, though, the Chinese were perceived by all to be disgusting.
Hopping and pecking near me, a four-colored sparrow is having its breakfast. On the winding promenade at my back, there are almost no strollers or joggers on this overcast Sunday morning. Many must be sleeping or in church. The most impressive building in Swakopmund is the 1909 Lutheran Church on Daniel Tjongarero Avenue. Its three stained glass windows were donated by Bremen, a city no longer gorgeous. Ruled by Social Democrats for six decades, it’s now a dump, I’ve been told, one of the worst in Germany.
Across the Lutheran Church is Seoul Food Takeout. Three Chinese restaurants are within a five-minute walk, and fifteen minutes away is Garnish Indian Restaurant. All these ethnic places have immigrant cooks, so are authentic enough, with their clienteles mostly German or Afrikaans speaking whites. Also near this church, I’ve had two excellent burgers at Cartel food truck, and the Cameroonian oryx curry at La Cuisine isn’t bad, though a bit monotonous with its surfeit of meat.
A mile away, there’s Fork and Nice, with its famous fish and chips, calamari and Cuban sandwiches. Next to it is Let’s Taco About It. Cumin challenged, cilantro deprived and with shells that can’t decide whether they’re hard or soft, it doesn’t quite hit the spot, but hey, we ain’t in Chihuahua! There are also Italian and, of course, German options. I mention these to give you an idea of the sophistication of this town of 45,000.
It’s not what people would expect in Africa, and I didn’t know this either before I got here, but that’s why one travels. The nicest part of Swakopmund is near the ocean, of course, and it’s mostly a white enclave. As I stared at a white stuccoed, black thatch roofed building with an ample balcony, a black man pushing a wheelbarrow approached, so I asked him, “Sir, is that a hotel?”
“It’s a house.”
“A house! That's hard to believe. For one family?”
“Yes,” he grinned, then we both laughed.
There are sixteen times more Germans in Namibia, +40,000, than when it was Deutsch-Südwestafrika! Back then, it was hard to lure German women to such a distant colony, so many German men had kids with coloreds or blacks, with some consecrating their coupling with marriage, a dismaying situation to German administrators. To discourage this, native spouses, mixed race children and even the German men were stripped of various rights. When South Africa took over this territory after WWI, the racial discrimination and segregation got even worse.
It’s a no brainer why so many Germans, and other whites, are here. With plenty of sun, sand and palm trees, it’s paradisal enough, and cheap too, with a comfortable retirement home going for just $100,000. Even with a beach view, you can get one for around $300,000.
Black Namibians, though, are mostly confined to spartan, identical houses plopped onto barren lots on the outskirts of town, with some living in mere shacks with no running water. I got glimpses of these coming in on the van from Windhoek. There are also nice black neighborhoods, however, with houses many white Americans, or I, would love to live in.
Pointing out these obvious differences drawn from direct observations, I was met with this testy comment at my blog, “Oh My God, Linh are you getting into the reparations game? The 10% whites should hand over their houses to the 90% blacks, that will please you I suppose.”
Incredible, the presumptuousness. It’s remarkable how quickly many whites have become insistent victims who can be triggered by just about anything, without combatting their real problems. Unz Review has become a key breeding ground for such a hysteria, for it roils these pathetic whites into a blind rage that alienates even those who would otherwise be sympathetic to them.
Visiting a black township just outside Swakopmund in 2013 at age 72, Paul Theroux observes, “On bare ground were rows of square, flat-topped cinderblock huts, dusted brown from the blowing grit. Beyond these cement huts were clusters of cobbled-together shacks and shanties. After spick-and-span Swakopmund this large settlement of about thirty thousand people was a dose of reality, a place of obvious poverty.”
So there you have it, shanties without toilets not two miles from splendid villas where whites can laze and sip South African pinot noir from tulip shaped glass to contemplate another red sun sinking into the Atlantic Ocean, while half thinking, “Damn, the new black maid missed that speck of dust on the oak handrail!”
Though many streets have been renamed, several still honor German luminaries, so there are Goethe, Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm streets, etc. Near the town’s museum, there’s a war memorial in the shape of a tapering column. At its bottom are simply “1914-1918” and “1939-1945” on black granite, with a bronze sword embedded in a granite cross above it. On its low gates are two balkenkreuz encased in red octagons. Discreetly and without objections from black Namibians, Germans honor their dead from wars on another continent.
Just 13 years after it had humiliated France and become unified in 1871, Germany asserted itself further with large bites out of Africa, so what it built here was meant to last. By 1919, all its overseas possessions would be gone, however, with much worse to come in 1945, when Germany itself was not just shrunken, but chopped in two. Once gladly recruited across Europe for their skills and character, Germans were chased back to a humiliated homeland. In just over a century, Germany went from Blood and Iron Bismarck to Angela Merkel.
Though browbeaten and deformed as a nation, many Germans continue to do well individually, with some living large in Namibia. No colonialists but refugees fleeing all sorts of unpleasantness, they’re still well served in enclaves that, at least for now, are calmer, cleaner, more orderly and saner than Germany itself.
In Swakopmund, I have seen no broken window or graffitied wall, no incitement to kill cops or fascists, no “GOOD NIGHT WHITE PRIDE” stickers and no sagging pants. The schoolchildren here, always uniformed, are well-behaved and not agitated. In 3 ½ months in Namibia, I have not heard a profanity from anyone, whereas in the US or Vietnam, punchy coitus is a constant refrain.
History, though, can shift so abruptly. Again, I find myself in an unexpected oasis. With so many indigo clouds sinisterly swirling, each of us must savor each brightening.
Into the healing ocean, I now wade.