Dust in my hair. Satisfaction. That’s what I remember.
We had jumped in a pool early in the day, which gave my long blond locks extra capacity to hold lots of dust. Namibian dust.
When we stopped at the pool, Melinda and I, in true Melinda and Bailey character, immediately seized the opportunity and jumped in with our clothes on, white tourists in bathing suits watching us all the while. Melinda and I discussed how it’s impossible for us not to get into water when given the chance. Melinda said that was one quality her some-day husband needed to have—to be willing to always jump into a body of water—in order for her to understand him and for her relationship with him to work.
Melinda was more fondly known as “Oh Melinda,” because when we had a get-to-know-you party at the beginning of the semester, she drew her trademark sunshine symbol next to her name on her nametag, and Annelise pointed out that at first she thought it had said “O-Melinda.” The name stuck, and I’m grateful for it still to this day, because it’s so much fun to say.
We were driving through Etosha national park, a large stretch of land north of Windhoek in the Namib desert. We saw zebras, giraffes, impalas. There were huge masses of them at the watering holes, and I have a picture of a giraffe bending down to drink, legs akimbo in that cartoonish manner that Disney portrays them, but when you see it in real life you realize it’s actually accurate.
We saw female lions feasting on a giraffe carcass, which is what all of my friends want to hear about the most when I tell this story. But to me I remember the dust. It was impossible not to get dusty, really. We rode in 15-passenger vans, called “kombis,” which most of us pronounced as “comb-ee,” but my beloved friend Samantha always said “koombee,” insisting on her own beat, why I love her. In the kombis there was no air conditioning, so the windows were always open, and when you drive through a national desert park for four hours, everything is covered in dust.
Stephen wore goggles and used them to his advantage, sticking his head out the window. I was very grateful that I had taken a dip that day, because the moisture that remained on my clothes was like a cold compress in the unavoidable heat for a good hour or two. And when we reached our campsite that night it was so nice to rinse it all off again in the shower and be dust-free, even if only for 12 hours.
We were on our way to our rural homestays with families in the northern portion of the country, which was understandably the most nerve wracking of our three homestays, taking us the furthest from our element and privileged urban comfort zone. But I don’t remember being nervous at that point. The trip was a nice buffer between our time in the city and our upcoming 10-day homestay. I fell in love with my homestay family, and held back the tears when I left, feeling unexplainable emotion at the way I had forever bonded with this family in such a short time, but only spoken a few words due to our limited language crossover.
Pandu, my homestay brother who was about three years old at the time, brought candles to me my first afternoon at his home. His mother had given him two Styrofoam cups and poured sugar around the candles to help them stay upright. I’ll never forget his face, his stature, proudly bearing the torches, two cups that are small to you and me but that filled his entire child hands. He was shy but very curious about me, and you could see in his face and enthusiastic entrance that he was excited to have a chore that gave him an excuse to visit this curious person who looked so different from his mother, sister, all his family and friends. Shy, yet brave in his approach. I graciously accepted his offering.
For a while I thought he wouldn’t get past his timidity around me, but towards the end of my stay we had a tender moment together. I was sitting on the edge of my bed, and he was quietly observing me. Child observation occurred often, which makes some uncomfortable, but I welcomed it. If nothing else, it’s honestly nice to have a break from the exhausting energy of communicating with limited vocabulary. With kids you can just smile, flirt, hold them in your lap. After all, that’s about the extent of my relationship with children anyway. Smiling at the little boys draped over their parents’ shoulders in front of me at church, watching their eyes slowly smile, then fixed in a stare with me for a few more moments until they bury their heads in their mom or dad’s shirt, with a mixture of embarrassment yet satisfaction with having received my attention.
I remember Pandu was looking me over, particularly my face, when suddenly he grabbed it with both hands, and looked at me more closely. I seldom have moments of true communion with others such as this, and as he held my face I knew I was experiencing one of the most tremendous moments of my life. “Pandu” is a shortened version of the word “ndapandula,” which means “thank you.” Variations of the name are very common in Namibia. “Ndapewa” was the name of one of our program staff members, meaning the same thing, and a female Pandu was one of our professors. Pandu is on my list of potential names for my children, because I can think of nothing more appropriate than to thank God for the gift of a child in the most upfront way possible, the child’s name, repeated every day for the duration of their life, an audible prayer voiced 100 times a day, “Pandu.” “Thank you.”
I spent many moments staring at the ceiling in my bedroom that week. I missed my family tremendously then, and when I heard “Whenever you Call” by Mariah Carey, and “That’s the Way it Is” by Celine Dion on the radio that my host family played at night, the homesickness would for some reason become unbearable. Missing my family almost overtook my thoughts while I was there, but as soon as I left and went back to the city I suddenly missed my host family just as much, missing two families with my whole heart all at the same time, which is an unbearable, unexplainable hurt.
On the ride home my friends saved the front seat of the kombi for me, giving me sultry smirks, because they saved it so that I could sit with Passat, our beautiful driver. Passat was 41, but he didn’t look it at all, and I was 20. He had a girlfriend, and we were never actually after each other, but we did have a connection. A lot of students were initially intimidated by him, and I think over time just impatient, with his quietness. But ironically, being a little chatterbox myself, some of my good friends throughout the years have been quiet spirits. Passat and I would chat about the music that was playing, the animals outside (I loved it when he honked at the warthogs, then laughed as they scattered. They always looked like they were in trouble, they have such mischievous faces), the landscape, but mostly we just sat quietly, our bubbles overlapping, silently understanding each other.
When we got back to the city that week, we had a week off of classes, and I was very depressed and meditative. Sarah Ann had 200(!) kidney stones, so we visited her in the hospital while she passed them. I think I grew up more than I knew during that homestay, seeing another depth of human relationships and feeling their overwhelming effect on me. Pandu’s hands on my cheeks, singing hymns in Oshiwambo by candlelight, riding home from church in a truck bed with Dan, my friend from the States, and our adoptive brothers and sisters, sneaking glances at Passat on our four hour drive home to the city. I got a ridiculous sunburn that day, with one arm hanging out the window all day, and another layer of the infamous, intimate dust that I loved. My friend Olaf managed to forget about my burn each night and lost control laughing when he saw me at the breakfast table each morning. This was very entertaining for us all, as Olaf has a way of laughing and making no sound, but grabbing hold of you while he does so, sharing the gleeful vibration of his happiness with you.
Possessing very pale skin (my best friend Nick’s dad, beloved by me and vice versa, puts it, “There’s white, and then there’s Bailey”), the tan line stayed on my arm for months after I returned home to the States, a tattooed reminder of my family, far and wide in this world.