My sister and I are driving through the Namib Desert in a pickup truck equipped with two gas tanks, two spare tires and 60 liters of water. We have so much food that we offer bowls of curried chicken to the men who work at the game parks and bags of apples to the children who untie gates so we can drive on their communal land.
We are traveling here because Rebecca lives in Namibia now. She works for the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia, also known as the DRFN. Her field station is called Gobabeb, which means “place of the fig tree.” Gobabeb is three hours on gravel roads from the closest town. When I e-mailed Rebecca and told her that I was coming to Namibia, coming to see where she lived, she planned this trip for us. She picked me up in Windhoek, the capital city. We rented a pickup truck (hired a 4×4 Bucky, as they say here) and packed it with camping gear. We are headed for Gobabeb. We are giving ourselves two weeks to get there. It seems that Rebecca needed to get away.
I arrived in Windhoek after 16 hours of flying: 14 hours from New York to Johannesburg and two hours from Johannesburg to Windhoek. Without delays, on the most efficient flight schedule possible, it took me 24 hours to reach my sister.
Rebecca and her friend Sarah came for me at the airport. On the way to Sarah s house in Klein Windhoek we saw a shooting star from the car—a car that was barreling thin and wild through a darkness I did not know. Cars came toward us on what was, to me, the wrong side of the road, but Rebecca saved us again and again. When we reached the house, Rebecca headed to the kitchen, where she heated goat stew on a hot plate and poured bitter lemon into tall glasses. I sat, tired and hungry, watching her move through a kitchen that smelled like one I knew in Jerusalem, like steel drums of water and cold concrete.
After dinner I sat on Rebecca’s bed and showed her the things I brought. First, her requested items: Chapstick and tampons. Then the gifts: CDs from our mother, books from our father. From me, a set of Ralph Lauren underwear with tiny American flags sewn into the elastic. I was only half joking.
The truck we drive holds everything: clothing, two boxes of food, the cooler, the tent, two sleeping bags and the treasures we have picked up along the way. These include a poster tube of prints, a hand-carved wooden bowl and a mask. We try to keep things organized and neatly stowed in the covered truck bed, in case we see someone who needs a ride. Some days we pass at least a hundred people waiting to be picked up. For the most part, they travel in packs, groups of women with bags and baskets, animals and children that would not fit into our truck. When we see a group that we cannot hold, my sister slows and I gesture in the manner she has taught me: I clap twice, then open my hands wide. This means sorry, no space. When people see me do this, they smile and wave as though I have given them good news. All told, we have taken four people into the truck, or five if you count the little boy who wore a polished stone on a cord around his neck and could not stop looking at me. I offered him a cracker, and he just stared, his mouth slightly open, squeezed into the back seat between our food box and the man I assumed to be his father. “That is probably the closest he has ever been to a white person,” my sister said as we drove away from them slowly, careful not to leave them in a cloud of dust.
In Namibia, in the dry season, everything is covered in dust. Outside of main cities and towns, there are only four paved roads in the entire country, one heading in each direction. We drive on gravel roads hardly distinguishable from the desert from which they were carved. We must drive with the windows rolled down to keep the air circulating, so by the end of the day, I can feel dust on my teeth, and my hair is so tangled I cannot even force my fingers through it. When I complain, Rebecca shows me how to cover my head with a lamba, a thin piece of dyed cloth. With a few swift wraps, my hair disappears and I am immediately consoled. I take off the lamba only when we approach a town or when I need to use it as a towel or a skirt. During those times I am overcome with the urge to cut my hair, to offer the knotted clumps to the kingfishers that nest above our campsite.
These campsites are lovely, not like campsites in the United States, where the bathrooms are dirty and whirring generators drown out the nightsong of birds and the crack of fire. Each campsite here has a braai (a barbeque) and a stone table for gas-stove cooking. Rebecca is an ambitious camp cook, and each night we eat something delicious— chicken with green curry, noodles with peanut sauce, steak and steamed potatoes. When we begin to run out of food, she only gets more creative. “Cooked cucumbers are delicious,” she insists, chopping them and tossing them into her stew. And they are, although I would not try the recipe at home.
When we run out of chocolate bars, we eat apples for dessert. Rebecca cuts them while I dry the dishes. She holds the apple in one hand and the knife in the other. She drags the knife through the apple toward her fingers. She stops the knife blade with her thumb and lets the cut apple cheek fall into her hand. This is how I know that she is a grown woman now. She is not afraid to draw a knife toward her own body.
Many people have car tents, tents that they pitch on the top of their Land Rovers. These tents are a good investment if you are worried about snakes or jackals or baboons. We have a ground tent, but it is spacious and sturdy, and I feel safe inside it, perhaps foolishly so, especially on those nights when I wake to the brush of fur against canvas, followed by the rhythmic gnawing sounds of an animal who has found her prey.
Early on we discovered that our Bucky did not take leaded gas. The Afrikaner man who rented us the truck assured us that it did, but the blazing yellow warning sticker on the inside of the gas-tank door told us otherwise. This simple fact makes travel in Namibia difficult. Official petrol stations are more than a full gas tank apart, so travelers depend on being able to buy gas from farmers and lodge owners. But these men do not sell unleaded gas. We found ourselves retracing thick lines on a map toward towns with British Petroleums: Otjiwarongo, Khorixas, Outjo. They were not all places I wanted to see again. Especially Khorixas, where a man tried to sell us marula nuts carved with giraffes, acacia trees and, miraculously, both of our names. “I wondered why he kept asking me what we called ourselves,” Rebecca said, safely back in the truck with the windows rolled up. “They carve fast.”
The German owner of Twefelfontein Country Lodge offered to sell us unleaded gas for five Namibian dollars a liter. We were distant and desperate; my sister wanted to drive through the Springbok gate to the Skeleton Coast, and we could not go without two full tanks of petrol. So we drove past the thatched-roof lodge to the machine shed, where a smiling man explained to us that the unleaded gas was in a drum and he just needed a few minutes to get the siphon going. I clucked and muttered about the money, and wished I could remember how many liters were in a gallon, how many of his dollars in one of mine. The man put one end of a short hose into the drum and took the other end into his mouth. I looked away. He was trying to get things going. Again and again he sucked on the hose, trying to bring the gas out of the drum. Finally my sister went to him.
“We’ll take what you already have in the can—no more,” she said. She paid him so much money that we did not have enough for petrol in the next town, and so we drove to the coast on the main road and decided to name the truck Deborah, after the biblical judge, because she seemed to be deciding our traveling fate. I congratulated myself on the cleverness of this, while I tried to make myself believe that a bit of money (that never looked real to me) would make up for what a man had done to his body because I asked him to. Later, when I have returned home, I will learn that this is not an uncommon way to siphon gas. A friend claims that she has seen her father do it. She tells me that it is nothing to feel bad about. But you were not there, I insist. There with him in the garage with the gas spilling on the concrete and the generator sparking. You did not see his crooked glasses, the way the smudged lenses magnified his eyes.
In addition to gas and food, water and equipment, the Bucky holds Rebecca and me. At Etosha, the northern game reserve, we drive for hours on chalky gravel roads in search of animals. Etosha means “large place” in Oshwambo, and at 22,000 square kilometers, it is a national park the size of a small nation. We are in Etosha at the beginning of winter, a few months after the end of the rainy season, when animals are beginning to move south again in search of water. This is a good time for us, even though it might be the beginning of hard times for many of the animals. We drive and we wait. When we arrive at a watering hole, Rebecca tries to park so that we both get shade, but that isn’t always possible, so one of us has to wear a hat and a thin, long-sleeved shirt over sun-screened arms.
On our first day, we sit at a watering hole, passing binoculars back and forth. There are wildebeests at this one, and a few springbok. We are waiting for them to finish up and leave. We are waiting for elephants. While we wait, Rebecca explains something to me, something she has been thinking about lately. The ways in which she has, as she becomes an adult, “gone against” our family. Those are her words. Gone against. I ask her to give me an example.
“Well,” she says, leaning farther out the window to get a better view of the drinking wildebeests, “I don’t save new clothes for special occasions, and I use Dove.” She sinks back into her seat and hands me the binoculars. “What about you?”
Ah, she means things I do that our parents would never do. I take the binoculars and lean out my window. “I hired someone to clean my house.”
She seems pleased. “That’s a good one.”
There are, of course, more serious transgressions. Somehow, though, they are less interesting to her than the small ones. The defining movements and rebellions seem inevitable, obvious. She is interested in the one-degree shifts, the pixels that make up the picture of our new, untethered lives.
We wait and wait, and the animals always come. We watch them for hours. They are entrancing, each in its own way. Giraffes, lions, elephants, rhinos, wildebeests, ibex, kudus, zebras. Most amazing are the sounds they make, not mating calls or cries, but the sounds of their bodies. Footfalls, grinding teeth, slurps, the sound of water falling from their bodies onto the dry ground. Those sounds seemed to prove their existence even more than the sight of them; after all, how many times have I seen wild animals on television or in photographs? But I have never heard them, or rather, I have never heard their movement on the same patch of earth where I stand.
During these long days in the car, we tell each other the truth about our lives. Etosha makes us bold; what, we agree silently, can there be to lose when only a bit of metal separates us from wrestling lion cubs? We seem to have had the wrong idea about each other. Rebecca thought me content and precocious and responsible. I thought her young and fearless and indulged. She tells stories of loneliness and worry; I catalog mistakes and missteps from which I am still recovering. We take shape in the cab of that truck; we complicate and divide.
We spend three nights in Etosha, one at each of the three camps. In Namutoni and Halali, my sister has reserved a tiny hut for us to sleep in. The huts are cool and tidy; the one in Namutoni even has a kitchen. We cook outside on the braai anyway, though. By now it seems awkward to spend too much time inside. After dinner we lie by the fire on our camping mattresses, watching the sky in silence. The moon is new and barely waxing, so the stars shine without competition. There are so many they seem to crowd each other. I can see constellations I have been pretending to be able to find for years. When we do go inside, we climb into beds made with old Southwest African Army sheets and fall into heavy sleep.
When we are in Etosha, the only black people we see are the people who work in the camps. The women who clean the huts wear maid uniforms and carry stacks of folded sheets on their heads. Every morning on our way out of the camp, we see the employees’ children lined up at the main gate, waiting for the bus that will take them to school.
Namibians cannot believe that Rebecca and I are sisters. “From the same mother?” people ask us, bewildered. They also cannot believe I am older. They think she is older because she talks first and is tall and walks faster than I do. I think she is older because when the truck sinks into a sandy riverbed, she jumps out, turns the hubcap dial to four-wheel drive, and rescues us. She is leap-frogging. I feel her hands on my back; my knees brace for her weight. I see her in front of me, and I do not mind.
I must admit that I almost bought a diamond. A pendant. I saw it in Swakopmund, a town by the sea that seems hell-bent on forgetting that it is in Africa, forgetting that it has the oldest desert in the world to thank for its unobstructed view of the sunrise. In Swakopmund, we eat buttery pastries for breakfast and browse in antique stores and go to movies with German subtitles. On our second afternoon, we pass a diamond shop. Rebecca and I have spoken of diamonds, of how easy they are to buy here, how cheap. We have also spoken of the powerful cartels and the possibility that any diamond anywhere could be a “conflict stone”: a diamond mined by guerrilla forces and traded for money to fuel the war in Angola, a country that we could reach by car in just two days but could not expect to escape from with all our appendages intact. I want so much to not want a diamond.
“Let’s go in,” I say.
The saleswoman asks me in English if I would like to see something. I ask her where her diamonds come from.
“Namibia,” she says proudly. “They are mined here and cut in South Africa.”
My sister rolls her eyes. This is one of her issues: the youth of this country, its dearth of skilled labor. It is embarrassing and does not bode well.
I ignore her. I am encouraged by what the woman has said: They are Namibian diamonds. “Where are the mines?” I ask.
“In the sea.”
“In the ocean, men dive for the diamonds in the South, near Luderitz.”
They dive. Men living in the southern desert dive for diamonds. All I can think of is bad scuba gear and the bends. I thank the woman and we leave.
How I wish that were the end of the story. But it is not. I return to the store the next day. The saleswoman from yesterday is not there. Another woman, much older, asks if she can be of any help.
I nod. “I would like to see the diamond in the window, the pendant.”
“Are you sure?”
I look at Rebecca.
“That diamond is very expensive.”
“Three-thousand, seven hundred dollars, Namibian?” I ask. This is the price the woman gave me yesterday.
She shakes her head. “No,” she says, “thirty-seven thousand.”
Four thousand U.S. dollars. And with that, the diamond is taken from me. Finally. I am ready to leave town and return to the desert, to busy myself boiling rice and sweeping ants out of our tent.
The road to Gobabeb grants me my wish. The station is three hours and a world away from Swakopmund and her diamond merchants. We are in the heart of Namib-Naukluft Park, driving south toward Sossusvlei, the most photographed sand dunes in the world. We are not going there, though. “Too many people,” Rebecca says. I look around and think she has lost all understanding of crowds.
The Namib-Naukluft is etched with narrow, unmarked 4×4 roads. Rebecca turns left, then right, then left again, over a sand hill, down into a dry ravine—all with as little effort as I put into driving down the highway. When the sun shifts to Rebecca’s side of the car, she unbuttons her overshirt and pulls her skirt up onto her thighs. She has the carved legs of a tall woman. They are, I realize, sexy in their strength. I look away, embarrassed, proud, envious.
The station at Gobabeb was built in the 1960s, and its original buildings retain their painted cinder-block charm. We arrive in the middle of the afternoon, so Rebecca wants to avoid the station proper. Introductions will have to wait until later. We drive down to what is referred to as the “slums,” the employee living quarters. Each employee is assigned a caravan, which sounds far more romantic than it is. A caravan is simply an old camper, a small one that can be towed behind a car. There are 10 in all. They dot the desert and are connected with electrical wires that run through the sand like still, black snakes all the way to the station’s generator. The caravans are up on cinder blocks, and most of their tires are flat. I want to see the inside of Rebecca’s caravan, but she tells me we don’t have time. She wants to hike the dunes so we can see the sun go down from the very top.
We stop by the shared kitchen on our way up. It is a mess; there has been a party in Rebecca’s absence. There is a goat leg in her freezer, a freezer that goes off every night with the generator. Rivulets of dried blood stain the back of the refrigerator compartment. We decide to steal a few beers from the people who stole hers before we hike to the top of the dunes.
We walk across the dry riverbed. It is filled with debris—seed pods, logs, tree branches and trunks. It is the bed of the Kuiseb, an ephemeral river that runs for a few days every few years. Rebecca saw the river run this year. She heard the water come in the middle of the night and told me that she watched the sun rise and set from the river that day, that she floated downstream and then swam against the current until she nearly collapsed with exhaustion and that, for the 14 days that the river ran, she hated to be more than a few feet from its banks. But there is no water now. We easily cross the dusty bed and walk toward the dunes.
Rebecca picks up a beetle as though it is a toy stuck in the sand. She shows me its decorated plate, like a button, an engraved tile. She tosses him into the wind and wipes her hand. He rights himself in the sand and continues moving, his jointed legs keeping him above the earth’s surface like a dune buggy.
We walk, and as the sun moves, the dunes seem to shift in the refracting light. Steep faces turn to shadow; cirques fill and empty again. We are climbing to the top, to the point of avalanche, the angle of repose. We will know we have reached the top when the blowing sand can no longer support itself and so falls, forming both the crest and the slip face of the dune. Near the top, the angle is steep, 34 degrees to be exact, the same angle of every slipface of every dune. We climb on hands and knees. My instinct is to be afraid of falling, but I know that a fall, even one in which I am airborne, will be broken by sand. At the summit it is possible to see that we are not, as it seemed when we were walking, actually on top of the highest dune—there are other, higher dunes around us. But we are high enough.
Dusk comes, and with it a strong wind. Flakes of dried vegetation begin to blow over the dunes and collect below the crest. “Watch right there,” my sister instructs, pointing to a spot on the sand. Within seconds, dozens of small flying-saucer-like beetles emerge from the sand. “Kahani,” Rebecca says. “They come out every night for dinner.” Soon there are a hundred of them, scurrying across the sand, collecting the wispy bits of dried plants that, until Rebecca pointed them out, I had not seen.
We return to the station in the dark. Rebecca wants to clean the kitchen and make dinner. I wash dishes while Rebecca cleans the counters and the floor. We work efficiently, and I am taken by how much satisfaction I get from the sight of the pots drying in the drainer. By the time we are finished making dinner, Adam, Leni and Tema, the station’s three permanent employees, are home for the night. There is enough food for everyone; there seemed to be no question that there would be. People serve themselves from a pot on the stove and sit down together at a table outside. When Rebecca and I come to the table, they politely switch from Oshwambo to English. I can tell that Adam, the head research assistant, is glad that Rebecca is back. “The east wind is here, and everything is crazy,” he tells her. “There’s a puff adder in the riverbed.”
“I know,” she says. “I saw the tracks.”
I look at her. She saw puff-adder tracks and did not tell me. She saw the tracks and told me to leave my shoes by a tree, to walk the dunes in bare feet. Suddenly she discerns and withholds what she thinks I do not need to know. Once she wanted us to be equals; now she sees how dull that life would be.
We finish the chicken curry. I bring out a few chocolate bars. I unwrap them and put them on the table. Adam has found a game he would like to learn how to play. Scrabble. So we push the dishes aside, and he pulls out the game, and I teach them how to count tiles and arrange them into words. We divide into two teams: Rebecca, Tema and Adam on one, Leni and I on the other. My sister and Leni cannot stand each other. My sister has been complaining about Leni’s meanness for months. Rebecca does not understand—she tries to be kind and accommodating, works hard, is eager to please. What Rebecca does not notice is that Adam, Leni’s boyfriend, is in love with her.
I want to stay at Gobabeb, but Rebecca cannot. The others are asking questions she does not want to be asked: Can you look at the server? Do you know where the vehicle-maintenance records are? Being here is undoing the work of these last weeks on the road, and she is growing tense. Besides, the east wind is here. The slip faces are shifting; the animals are rotating habitats. It is time to be on the move.
So we leave. My sister wants to show me her favorite place, the place she escapes to. It is called Mirabeb, which means “place of the hyena.” There are no hyenas there now; the nearby watering hole has been dry for years. Still, Rebecca loves Mirabeb and wants me to see it. We drive farther into the park. It has been days since we passed another car on the road. I have stopped expecting that we will.
Mirabeb is the farthest away that I have ever been. It is actually an enormous rock in the middle of the desert, a child-sized mountain complete with caves and ledges and long, sliding faces. On the north side, we find an overhang that will shelter our tent and our fire from the wind. A few miles away, near the dry watering hole, is an archeological dig site. We don’t have time to walk there before the sun goes down, but we decide to walk toward it and turn back when we must. I feel sluggish in the heat and frustrated by the flies buzzing around my face. Their wings hum against my lips.
“Are there snakes?” I ask, trying to ignore the flies.
Rebecca has made the mistake of showing me how to read snake tracks. Now I see them everywhere. When we pitched the tent in sandy gravel, I could not tell if the lines I saw were from snakes or from our dragging tent poles through the sand. I am frightened because I do not know the way back to Gobabeb on these unmarked roads. What if something happened to Rebecca?
“Explain to me how to get back to Gobabeb, so I know.”
“I know, but just in case.”
“In case what?”
“You get bit by a snake and I need to drive you back.”
“Take the road all the way around the rock to the first marker. Then go right onto the main road. You’ll see a sign to go left to Gobabeb.”
I memorize these directions and feel a little better. Still, I hope that if one of us has to get bitten, it will be me. Things would be much easier that way.
We decide to climb to the top of the rock. Dusk is approaching, but by now my skin is accustomed to the fine grains of blowing sand that accompany the end of day here. My head is wrapped tight; my feet are snug in hiking boots. We want to be on the top of the rock for the sunset, but we are goofing our way up there. We take flying leaps between ledges and stop too often to take photos. I lie on my belly to focus the camera and set the automatic timer—again and again I am not fast enough, and the picture is wrong: only Rebecca, beckoning me to her; both of us arranging ourselves on the rock; Rebecca forgetting to hold her hair out of her face. We are jumping from cliff to cliff; the sun is moving toward the earth; the clouds are making their way across the sky. Their journeys are visible to us alone. We sit and drink the wine Rebecca has brought, and we stay as long as we can, watching the sun go down. We try to judge the time so that we are not walking back to our tent in the dark, but we stay too long and get a bit lost on the way back. We overshoot our campsite and must cross the savanna in the growing dark, must feel the grass on our legs as we walk.
When I am home and I show a friend a picture of Mirabeb at sunset, she asks me if I got in the water. “It’s not the ocean,” I tell her. “It’s the desert.”
Mirabeb is our last night of camping. Tomorrow we will drive all the way back to Windhoek, and in two days, I will fly back to the States. We are too tired to cook, so we build a fire and eat apples and drink tea and then throw the apple cores and teabags into the flames. Tonight there is a full moon, and it is so bright that we will not be able to go to sleep until it passes over the rock behind us. I want to keep the fire going for a long time, because I know that it will keep the night animals away. Rebecca has come to Mirabeb without a tent many times, and she tells me that on those nights she builds two fires, one on either side of her sleeping bag.
What was I doing, I wonder, during those hours of this year when Rebecca was here, sleeping amidst fire? What was I thinking about when she was teaching herself how to change a flat tire on a 4×4 alone on a desert road? Where was I when she was weeping in some doctor’s office in the Caprivi, pushing away the syringe he wanted to press into her skin, hot with malarial fever?
I flew for 16 hours to reach my sister, to reach this edge she lives on. She has shown me all her dwelling places and the roads between them. We have stayed long enough in these places for me to see them in shadow and in sunlight; I have lost my breath at the sight of them, because they are beautiful, and because they could take Rebecca from me. I have felt myself suspended, barely held, between my love for my sister and the possibility of losing her.
I realize that Rebecca might stay and that she might come home only to leave again. Until then she will be here, and when she is in danger, I will have no idea, and when she saves herself, I will not know. I will sleep through her suffering and joy and revelation. And she will sleep through mine.
It is close to 11 o’clock, but the moon still will not abide by my desire for sleep. I do not know how to time its trajectory across the sky; I do not know if we will have darkness in 20 minutes or in two hours. The desert has become a mirror, a glowing moonscape gently curving earthward at its edges. We sit in silence and take turns needlessly fussing with the fire. When I get cold, I lean into Rebecca. She is warm and smells of burning wood. I reach out to move her hand away from the fire when the sparks fly too close to my face.
Sitting next to Rebecca, I long for her. I want to see her waving from behind a glass wall at the Windhoek airport. I want to follow her across the riverbed in Gobabeb, down the grocery-store aisle in Walvis Bay. I want the Rebecca of a trip that is not almost over. Later, I lie awake in our tent, lonely for the swollen moon that kept me up, lonely for sparks and the smell of wood smoke on our skin.