Travel Tales: Namibia

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(HOST)This week VPR commentators are recalling trips to destinations near and far. Today, commentator Henry Homeyer describes his trip to Namibia in celebration of his 60th birthday, and considers what it means to be a life-long traveler.

(HOMEYER) I understood young that traveling was magic. Back when I was just a tyke, a pre-schooler in the late 40’s, my father’s idea of a Saturday morning outing was to take my older sister and me to the train station to watch steam trains come and go. He made me wooden models of airplanes, painted them with silver paint, and presented them to me.

I began traveling on my own about the time I’d reached third grade. My parents would put me on the train in New Haven, Connecticut bound for Worcester, Massachusetts in order to visit my grandfather. I was more than a little nervous at first, but I did it, and I wouldn’t let my mother pin a tag on my coat with my destination.

Later, when I was four years out of college, I quit my job with the idea of hitchhiking around the world. I traveled though Europe, worked the grape harvest in France, and took a boat from Palermo to Tunis. I hitched to Algiers and settled into a cheap hotel that felt like something out of a black and white movie, one with Humphrey Bogart, whom I half expected to see at the bar. I planned to cross the Sahara.

My Michelin map showed me that at one point there was a stretch of over a thousand kilometers without an oasis. No petrol point, no food for sale. No water. I stayed in Algiers for nearly a week, making excuses to myself about why I wasn’t ready to leave. Finally, I understood. I was scared silly. Once I understood that, I left. I took a bus to the edge of town, put out my thumb, and shortly had a ride to the first oasis.

I’m 60 now and spent three weeks in Namibia lasy winter. I’ll have to admit that I was a little scared before I left. I knew I’d be traveling to places where the poisonous snakes and malaria-carrying mosquitoes outnumbered the people, and where the restaurant meat may have been on the endangered species list the day before. But it all went fine.

Rather than feeling smug about staying young by challenging my fears and overcoming them, I realize that many people do the same thing in different ways. I do it through travel, but I know a woman who learned to ride a Harley in her mid-fifties. Who knows, maybe my middle-aged friends who have learned to kayak, or who volunteered to mentor an at-risk child are doing so, in part, because it keeps them young.

On my last afternoon in Namibia, my sister and I drove out across the veldt. The grasses, ripe after the rainy season, waved in reds and pinks and white. The blue sky was cloudless, the road ahead a deep dusty red. Bumping along I was reminded, inexplicably, of that old Beatle tune, “When I’m 64”. I wondered if I’d be lucky enough – and gutsy enough- to be traveling when I’m 74, and 84.
I hope so.

Henry Homeyer is a gardening writer and columnist.

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