In the afternoon of the same day we met the Himba, Weston, the owner of the campsite we were staying at in Opuwo, took us to see the Herero tribe. Though now they are easily distinguishable, the Herero and Himba are the same ethnicity, at least originally.
The Herero believe in one god, Mukuru, but also place a great importance on the ancestors. There is a sacred fire near the centre of each village where about once a week the fire keeper sets it alight and communicates with the ancestors and Mukuru. The Herero also believe in omiti or witchcraft and make use of witch doctors.
A Brief History
The Herero entered present day Namibia sometime around 1600 and later when the Nama people arrived, they began to war with them. Much later the Germans arrived, and in an attempt to put down an uprising by both the Herero and Nama, genocide was committed against the Herero people. About 65,000 of the 80,000 Herero perished after being pursued into the desert, away from the last watering holes.
At some point, some of the Herero fled to Angola where, without their livestock, they turned to begging various Angolan tribes for provisions to survive. In Angola, one tribe’s word for beggar was himba, and the name stuck. When large numbers of the new Himba returned to Namibia they found that the Herero who didn’t flee had abandoned many of their customs.
A New Culture
The women, of whom many worked as servants and housemaids to German families, adopted their own version of their madams’ dresses. They wear up to seven slips under a finely pleated dress and apron. Because the Herero did still tend cattle and count them as a measure of wealth, the women fashioned their hats to represent their pride and dependence on cows and shaped them into horns.
The Herero also adopted a square and rectangular housing design, but some retained the same method of construction featuring dung. Their villages still center around the sacred fire and while witchcraft and animism are still practiced, most Herero identify themselves as Christians.
So the Himba are the real Herero culturally, but the Herero managed to retain the name of their people despite embracing some western values and identity. Don’d be shy about referring to the Himba as such though, they are fiercely proud of that name and what it identifies with.
Today the Herero and Himba and basically all of Namibia’s many ethnicities get along well and there is no longer any serious conflict.
Weston, who owns the Orreness Campsite where we had spent the night, agreed to take us on a tour of a Himba village.
We had read about the Himba, a tradition people who walked around bare-chested and covered in red ochre, but had some deliberation about going to see their villages. I pictured a scene in my head of bus loads of white tourists shoving long telephoto lenses in the faces of traditional people. The term human zoo comes to mind.
I raised our concern with Weston, himself a Himba man, and he assured us that while there are some “hollywood” villages, he would take us about 30kms to some more traditional ones. The people in the villages we would go to are actually “honoured to have guests from all over the world come to visit their homes and villages” said Weston, adding “a village without visitors is not a village”. We were satisfied and set out.
Do as a Good Guest Does
Stop one was to a grocer to buy some gifts. Its customary and good manners to not show up empty handed. We buy two sacks of something akin to cornmeal, cooking oil, bread, tea, sugar and a small bag of sweets for the children. The provisions are to be divided equally among the whole village by one of the chief’s wives. We drive along a dusty road and stop in at several villages to see if there are any people there to visit. The first village is empty save for two old women who tell Weston that the next village has more people in it. The Himba are semi-nomadic and follow their cattle, sheep and goats to water and pastures. The next village was about half occupied.
Getting to Know Each Other
We arrived and Weston instructed us to wait in the Landy while he pays respect to the chief, in this case the chief’s first wife, and asked for permission for our visit. We were granted that. Asking is just out of respect, much as you’d say hello and ask to come in rather than barge in on a neighbour.
To begin, we visit the elderly first wife of the chief to show respect. She thanks us for visiting and asks some questions of us:
“Are we married? How many children do we have? How many wives do I have?” The Himba are polygamous. “How old we are? Where we are from? And what is Canada like?” She was genuinely curious about her visitors and most interested in how it is possible for Kat and I to live together and yet have no kids. I sheepishly informed her that “We are quite careful” and left it at that.
Weston took us next to meet two women who were happy to show off their cow skin skirts and leather aprons. We are shown their ankle bracelets which serve to indicate if a woman has had children and how many. They also wear a leather headdress which identifies a woman who has arrived at child bearing age. There is a lot of thought and work put into their clothing and seeing it up close was quite interesting.
The Himba Shower
Next we are invited into a home to watch as one of the younger Himba women is preparing to colour herself. The Himba are easily recognizable by their reddish skin colouring. The woman sits on a cow hide in her dark but refreshingly cool hut made of sticks, mud and cow dung and is grinding ochre with stones into a fine powder. She then mixes the red powder with butter fat and rubs it into her skin and hair. She instantly becomes shiny and bright reddish brown.
This covering serves to protect the skin in such a dry climate, keep them clean and defend against mosquitos. She then places some small pieces of a plant root found locally onto a tiny smouldering pile of coals from the night’s fire and the hut is filled with incense. She bathes and deodorizes in the smoke. The Himba think its ludicrous that we whites bathe with water so often, spray prefume and roll on deodorant. Now she is clean and put together for a day in the Himba village. Her one year old grabs hold of her breast and has a suckle. His face is covered in red when he’s finished.
Something that stands out to me in the Himba village and in many places in the developing world is how well behaved the children are. Its rare to hear a child cry and when they do its often due to a legitimate pain or as a very brief way to let mother know the child is hungry. Once a Himba child is old enough to walk, he is already immersed in the responsibilities of tending to livestock. Boys as young as five already take small herds of kids or lambs out of the village corral and to far away pastures. Boys around ten can be seen many miles away from their homes with larger herds of larger animals.
Only about 30% of Himba children go to school, but after seeing how their culture works and how they live within their means, I find myself questioning whether they could actually benefit from modern schooling. How many ten year olds in the west are as practical or responsible or even as happy as a Himba boy with his animals? Sure our children in Canada are tech savy enough to bypass the parental controls on the family computer so he can post to facebook, but can he plough a field, monitor 50 animals or fix the village water pump? The children of the Himba seemed satisfied in life.
We are From a Cold Country
When we leave the freshly coloured woman’s hut we are invited to sit with some of the other women under a shade. They shake hands and we all introduce ourselves. Right away they comment to each other and Weston translates, “Kat’s skin and your skin are so cold”. We laugh and tell them “We are from a cold country”. They laugh back and tell us we “must let ourselves be warmed by the African sun”.
Sitting with the women and a few children is a highlight for me. They seem quite casual and nonchalant. They ask genuine questions like “Did your parents use something to pinch our noses as children so that they would grow so narrow?” They are very interested in Kat’s piercings and ask if they hurt. The Himba don’t pierce.
We are asked again how many wives, children, age and I’m even asked if I would like to marry a Himba. The one next to me confesses a crush on me. We share many laughs through translation and hand signals.
MORENO:After visiting Twyfelfontein, we had allotted another day to visit some nearby sites, but bumping into Jan and Jessica, a German couple we met in Sossusvlei, we were convinced that by passing up on some of these sites we wouldn’t be missing much.
We still planned to drive to Namibia’s highest peak, Brandberg, to find camp, but after being asked about our plans by a game driver on the road, we were persuaded to call it a day and find somewhere to sleep nearby.
We followed him to Aabadi Camp where desert elephants had just been spotted. We drove the Landy right down into a sandy riverbed in the direction of the elephants’ last known whereabouts. The sand got deeper and softer and my tire pressure was too high for it while my confidence in sand still somewhat low. So I decided to turn back before getting stuck.
Back in Jo’burg, James had warned us about the power and danger that elephants can present. “The elephant is a sexual animal: if it decides it doesn’t like you, you’re f*#%ed.” He told us about elephants driving their tusks through the metal bodies of safari jeeps and even knocking over SUV’s and stomping on them. With those ideas in my head, I was happy to head back to the camp’s bar for a beer.
To Walk or Rove
The game driver was still there and asked if we saw the elephants, and I reported that we had not gone that far in the Land Rover for fear of getting stuck but might go on foot. He warned us definitely not to go on foot, but assured us that we had the right vehicle and to just drop the tire pressure to between 1-2 bar (an unfamiliar unit of measure for me) and “go for it.”
“If you find you’re getting stuck,” he added, “Drop it into low range and go for it. If you get into more trouble, lock the diff and go for it.” And then he added, “But, if you still get stuck, you’re f*#%ed. Wait for me in my Land Cruiser.”
Even as a new Land Rover owner, my ears burned at the thought of being rescued by a Toyota. I said that we would go back and give it a try. “You’re going on foot aren’t you?” he asked. It’s as if he could read the hesitation on my face. I denied the accusation and he smiled knowing that we were not going in the Landy.
So we grabbed a camera and lens and set out on foot over red boulders on the side of the river in search of the beasts, making sure to stay out of the dry riverbed. We were alone and at some point began to feel like there might be any number of predatory cats lurking behind a rock waiting to pounce on us delicious pieces of Canadian bacon. We ventured a bit further and then the fears disappeared when we I spotted a smallish, if you can ever say small when refering to an animal of its’ size, elephant.
We spied them, growing in numbers, from the safety of the rocks for about fifteen minutes before feeling brave and curious enough to climb down and track the herd as it moved along, feeding as it went.
Walking with Elephants
The walk was magical. We weren’t in our vehicle like in Pilanesburg where we first saw elephants. There was no noisy diesel motor or air conditioner blowing or windows in the way. It was just us and about twenty giants…and Jan and Jessica who we just sighted scrambling over the rocks coming to our position (we just keep finding eachother).
Together and in silence we moved along the bank of the riverbed in the direction of the herd, hiding behind trees, careful not to get too close, and keen to keep an eye on the one that would occasionally take notice of our presence and grunt.
Eventually we followed the elephants back to our camp, but now it was getting harder to keep track of not only all the elephants but also Kat’s whereabouts as all were spreading out.
KAT (interjection): At this point, we were very close to them, and the bank was pretty much level with the ground. I was no longer comfortable with following Moreno, but as the elephants were right there, a few meters in front of us, I didn’t want to speak above a whisper and catch their attention. Moreno did not hear or see me go around the bush on the safe side, slowly making my way to a bush further away where Jan and Jessica had joined the rest of the camp in taking photos of the passing elephants from a safe distance.
As I rounded the bush, I immediately noticed an elephant further off in the river bed but with a very direct view of me. The camp audience looked to me. So did the elephant. I felt so exposed, I didn’t want to move, and was sure that once trampled I’d be a statistic case of ‘tourist that was stupid enough to be in the open with an elephant.’ I proceeded to slowly make my way behind a flimsy tree surrounded by sparse bushes, about ten meters away from the bank. I could see the rest of the camp people another 15 meters off from me, but didn’t feel safe to walk there just yet.
MORENO: I had a good idea of where the mean one was. One elephant in particular was the only one to take notice of us and its demeanor was obviously not to be our friend. This elephant was always a ways off to the rear. I had moved closer to the edge of the riverbed and then right in front of me I noticed one behind a bush. Not more than five meters distance and some thin, leafy elephant food separated us.
My immediate reaction was shock that this five ton creature could be so close without making a sound. You would think something so large would move about with loud, thundering steps, like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, but they can be remarkably quiet. So I stood motionless, but the elephant moved around the bush to reach more clumps of leaves and then made eye contact with me.
I was told they have poor vision. Perhaps they do but with me standing there in my jet black shirt against a light background and only a car length away it was obvious that it would see me. Yet I remained still, praying I was wrong and simultaniously in awe of this up close experience with such a massive and intelligent mammal. Then in my stillness, with its eyes locked on mine, it scoffs, flaps its ears and takes a few aggressive steps in my direction.
KAT: I have no idea where Moreno is, but have everyone else in my view and all of a sudden, as one, they all give out a low panicked “Oooh.” And shuffle away another few meters. I know instinctively Moreno’s pissing off an elephant but can’t see anything just yet.
MORENO: My internal “Oh shit” meter is off the charts. I take three slow steps backwards, and then it charges at me. Just as I turn away to begin my sprint I hear the unmistakable sound of it trumpeting and its footsteps now pounding much louder than my heart.
KAT: And all I hear is a trumpet sound and then the very quick pitter patter of feet somewhere to my left. *facepalm*
MORENO: I run about 50 meters checking over my shoulder to see it still coming, but it does eventually stop after about 15 meters. It’s only when I stop (even further away) that I see that Kat is not where I thought she was, but instead hiding behind a shrub with the elephant standing quite close to her now.
KAT: It’s silent. I manage to peer through some of the shurbbery and sure enough see an elephant face, bright white tusks, facing up past me towards where the footsteps have gone. Luckily, I don’t actually realize how close it is to me. I know it can’t see me because I’m smartly wearing my blendy safari shirt but I’m terrified of it hearing me crouched there, angry that I’m hiding. I look behind me. The toilet is about twenty meters away, but the walls are made of wooden sticks that even if I would make a run for it, the elephant could trample.
We had just watched Jurassic Park and all I could think was, Oh I am not going down in a toilet stall. I considered making a break for the rest of the camp people, but I couldn’t see them anymore. I did manage to be consious of the fact that they could probably see me and that I probably looked ridiculous, so while stuck for what seemed like ever hiding behind this flimsy tree, terrified the elephant would come after me if I made a run for it, I also attempted to look completely in my element and nonchalant.
Unfortunately, looking for an escape route, I lost my view of the elephant, and when I turned back, couldn’t see it any longer. Panic set in. Could I just not see it any more or was it slowly making its way in my direction, ever so quietly like I knew it was capable without me knowing? Visions of elephant popping out from behind the tree flooded my brain and I decided to go around the other way to get a better view.
MORENO: I didn’t want to shout to Kat, but I could see that she didn’t have a clear site of where the elephant was and wouldn’t know how close danger was. After a few attempts of hissing and arm waving, further agrivating the beast which maintained its staredown with me, I got her attention when she finally turned around. I signalled her to stay low and move back to keep the shrub between her and the elephant.
KAT: I was relieved to see Moreno, and glad he could guide me somehow, but after telling me to stay down, he just stood there and smiled. I frantically threw my arms in the air, signalling “Now what??” But he just stood there. I looked back on the other side and saw moving elephants, so assumed the path was clear and made my way to Moreno.
MORENO: Our signals got crossed and she started towards me, but it was at the same moment that the elephant turned and made off in the opposite direction. It didn’t see her. All were safe, just left with an adrenaline overload and pounding chests.
Monte Pasubio, a rocky summit in Vicenza, was the site of some of the most important battles of the Italian Front in the First World War. Today it attracts hundreds of hikers each day who come to climb and even scramble up its steep trails and tunnels.
The two hour drive from the tiny town of Cornuda passes through vineyards, corn fields and other villages before arriving at Paso Xomo. Yes, unlike Italian, there are x’s in Venexian the language of my ancestors which is spoken in these parts. At Xomo, there is parking available for 5 Euros. The trail head begins with a large sign marking the entry to the Strade Delle 52 Gallerie as well as information plaques in Italian, German and English.
The 52 Gallery Hike
The hike takes you up a 6.5 km mule track that served as a supply road for the Italian military positions here in the First World War. 2,300 meters of the path are contained within 52 tunnels and the 2.5m wide path has an average incline of 12%, with 22% at its steepest.
Recognizing the importance of holding onto Mt. Pasubio and the whole alpine plateau, The Italian miners constructed this supply route in just 9 months. The road and tunnels are a fine example of Italian alpine engineering and hard work: Tunnel n.19 is the longest excavated passage at 320m and tunnel n.20 makes 4 helical turns as it rises steeply inside a rock spire which provides access to higher portions of the mountain. It is akin to walking inside a giant corkscrew.
Not far from the exit of tunnel n.52 is the Porte del Pasubio, the final halt of the Austro-Hungarian Strafexpedition (Punitive Expedition) offensive. One hundred meters from that is the Refugio Generale Achille Papa, a lodge where weary hikers can refuel with local meals like polenta e funghi or minestrone.
I made my descent from Porte del Pasubio at 1928m, via the Scarubi road, a much wider supply road that winds its way down the northeast face of Pasubio, to Paso Xomo at 1058m.
History of Monte Pasubio
Monte Pasubio was of great strategic importance to both the Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces and huge efforts were made to gain control of it. The Austrian offensive in the Trentino was comprised of 18 divisions, 400,000 men and more than 2,000 cannons. By 1916 at least 50,000 Italian soldiers were living, fighting and dying on Pasubio’s windswept slopes. The Italians constructed makeshift huts that were attached to the side of the mountain and safe from Austrian artillery.
In the winters most of the fighting subsided as both sides were busy just trying to survive the frigid temperatures and the terrifying threat of avalanches. During three winters of alpine combat at least 60,000 soldiers were killed by avalanches. To put that into perspective, on the entire Western Front a total of 25,000 troops died as a result of poison gas attacks.
With fighting on Pasubio resulting in stalemate, each side began mining under each others’ positions in an attempt to detonate explosives underneath sections of the opposing forces’ front line. On March 13, 1918 the Austrians ignited a 50,000kg explosive under an Italian position completely destroying it.
However, Monte Pasubio never fell and the forces of the Triple Alliance were eventually repelled as Italy marched to victory in 1918.
Our side trip to Berlin was only intended to be a quick visit with some friends and a stopover beween Vancouver and Poland. Once on the ground, I was sucked in by its history, and my interest in the Second World War meant my eyes and ears were open to taking in more than just bier and currywurst.
The Berlin Wall
Kat’s friend and travel companion from southeast Asia now lives in Berlin. She gave us our first taste of history by pointing out the paving bricks that wind their way through Berlin’s neighborhoods marking the location of the mostly torn down Berlin Wall. They are a stark reminder of how Cold War politics cut the world in two and literally divided a city.
Stolpersteine: Emotional Stumbling Blocks
On a walk along a quiet side street in Berlin’s Kreuzburg neighborhood our friend come tour guide directed our attention to a grouping of small brass plaques sunken into the sidewalk. The words are in German. There are dates and a name. None of it has meaning until the last word is read. Auschwitz.
Motivated by a conversation with a Cologne resident who denied that any Sinti or Roma (gypsies) had lived in her neighborhood before the war, artist Gunter Demnig began a quest to symbolically return the missing and murdered holocaust victims to their homes. Stolpersteine, meaning stumbling blocks, are 10x10cm concrete paving blocks with brass plaques offering some details of a former resident or worker.
The stolpersteine are placed at the foot of the door of the last known place of residence or work of a victim. These small and simple markers may not protrude from the ground for one to trip over, but do induce an emotional “stumble” as one walks the streets of Berlin and spots a shiny plaque on the ground in front of a doorway that reads, “Here lived Arthur Simon, born October 1872, deported March 2, 1943, murdered in Auschwitz.”
Topography of Terror: Where Horrible Decisions Were Made
Further into the centre of the city or mitte, meaning middle, we arrived at the site that once housed the SS and Gestapo headquarters. Now the Topography of Terror, an indoor/outdoor museum documenting the rise of Nazism, occupies the land, chronicling some of the cold decisions that were made inside the darkest offices of the Third Reich.
Here “the Jewish and Gypsy question” was answered with concise and deliberate plans of action. The idea of erasing whole populations and whole cultures was drawn up in this place. For instance, the plans to invade Poland, destroy Warsaw, and force labour upon, deport or murder its citizens were conjured up inside these neat offices by well educated men in pressed uniforms and peaked caps. The heartless logic the Nazis employed is sickening, and some of the featured quotes really drive home that effect.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews
In the heart of the capital is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a huge site of stelae in varying heights and set in undulating terrain. More than 2,700 concrete slabs occupy almost 5 acres right by the famous Brandenburg Gate: a site fitting to honor the Jewish victims, and a massive symbol of the responsibility the Germans feel as a people and a nation for the crimes of their grandfathers.
However, it feels somewhat insufficient as a memorial given the gravity of the occasion being memorialized. The signs referring to the Memorial are barely noticeable. Without prior knowledge it is difficult to tell exactly what the area is supposed to be and there are no markings of any kind on any of the blocks. Luckily, there is no graffiti thanks to a high tech anti-graffiti coating used on the blocks, but it isn’t without a perverse irony that the same company that made the coating also made Zyklon B, the poison used in the gas chambers where so many of the memorialized Jews here were put to death.
There is no mention of the reason these people were murdered, by what mechanism or by whose hands. There is no information available, not one sign asking for respectful behavior. This utter lack of guidance means what you are likely to see are children and parents playing hide and seek in the maze-like setting, teenagers jumping on the blocks, families sitting and eating on them, and countless people taking tasteless selfies with thumbs up, big smiles and even middle fingers in front of what is supposed to be a solemn place. It would appear that the only ones who come to reflect on the six million Jews who were put to death are the informed.
Berlin: An Important Stop
Being my first and long anticipated visit to Germany I am thrilled to have been pulled in by its history. Despite what I feel about the need for more information around the Memorial to the Murdered Jews, I am mostly satisfied and moved by Germany’s attempts to atone for the sins of the Nazis. I’m happy Berlin became a stop on our short European trip and can say that no trip here would be complete without a visit to some of these important sites.