May 29th 2019, 5:30 AM
The crow of a rooster woke me from my dream. Where was I? Home? Is this another dream? Growing up, we had degenerate roosters on our farm, crowing at all hours of the early morning. I swatted at my phone for the time, 5:04 AM. At least these birds had an accurate internal clock. I rubbed my feet together, comfortable in my sleeping bag.
Opening one eye, I tried to figure out where I was. Very dark, but I made out the smooth white walls around in me in a perfectly square concrete room with a large window facing South. I was on a cot. Dreams from the night populated mind. They were a series of stress dreams of me trying to explain to different people why I chose to come here. In a psychology class in undergrad I remember learning that every face in your dream is derived from someone you had seen before, or a combination of people. Your brain simply cannot make up a face. I couldn’t remember who I was explaining myself to but I didn’t recognize the face in my dreams.
Every 30 seconds or so, the rooster would beckon the residents of the station again that it was morning and we should be rising.
A little over 24 hours earlier, I had been lying in a hotel bed wondering how many hours I had been awake and what day it was. Sleep didn’t come to me that night and I had assumed I’d be passed out my full first day here. But here we are, 5 AM on Day 1 at the project.
With flights, time changes, and layovers, it took nearly 3 calendar days to get here.
I woke up early Sunday morning in Chicago. Twisted up in my sleeping bag from a restless night, antsy to leave the city. As soon as I stirred form sleep, my heart started beating excitedly, unable to be convinced to calm down to sleep a little longer. My flight wasn’t until 4 PM but I planned to get there really early since it was an international flight and just to get the journey started. Chicago was stale.
I felt apprehensive walking to get a coffee that morning. I kept looking over my shoulder to see who was behind me. Why was I so paranoid? I was convinced something would happen that would keep me stuck here. Noises on the street seemed louder, and it felt like people passing by were giving me strange looks. Maybe it was because I was sweating, not because of the rising humidity but the fear of not getting out of here. I got a coffee and nearly ran back to the Airbnb. It had started sprinkling so I used that as my excuse when I came busting back through the door startling the hung-over tenant flopped onto the couch. I noticed his once full head of wavy grey hair was now shaved into a Mohawk. It must have been a wild night. He made grunting noises like a pig and breathed heavily as if just lying there was a struggle.
Locked in my room, I surveyed my bags one final time. I called a lyft, tiptoed behind the couch with Dennis lying there now snoring, and fled out the door.
It was an hour drive to the airport from Hyde Park. It was muggy and all I wanted was some fresh air. I put down the window, but the lyft driver put it back up and locked it. Chicago would try to suffocate me right up until the end.
The first flight to Amsterdam was around 8 hours long with a favorable tailwind. Usually I can sleep on planes but with so much built up energy and 2 screaming newborns, I resorted to watching newly released movies. After all, I wouldn’t have access to really anything new after I arrived in the desert. The Amsterdam airport was dead at 6 AM. Blurry eyed I navigated through the airport to find a place to relax for 3 hours. Dutch announcements played loudly over the speakers. The sun was rising but it was 11 PM Chicago time. I resorted to another coffee.
Amsterdam to Johannesburg is an 11 hour flight. I was lucky to have a window seat in the huge Boeing 747 plane. Over the next 11 hours I would see the rolling hills of the Netherlands, islands scattered throughout the Mediterranean Sea, the expanse of the Sahara desert, winding rivers and lush green jungle in the Congo, and all framed by huge cumulonimbus clouds rich with moisture forming surreal shapes. Needless to say I didn’t sleep on this flight either, how could I with a view of the world like this?
The project booked a hotel for me in Jo-burg that night for my 8 hour layover. But after landing, I realized I still needed to go through customs and grab my luggage, then recheck it for the domestic flight to Upington. It was already 10:30 PM when I filed in the long line for customs. Once my turn, I flipped to my Visa page in my passport. The man assigning us to gates for inspection waved his hand at my Visa and said “Passport!” I went to the officer, now flipped to my passport page, and barely looking at me, he stamped it. After all the shenanigans it took to get my Visa on time for this appointment, I couldn’t help but deliriously laugh that apparently I didn’t even need it.
I quickly found my bags – a bright yellow new duffel bag and a faded red climbing pack. I hauled them on and set out to find where to recheck them for the domestic flight only to find that all of the baggage check-ins were closed. So instead, I brought my bags up to the hotel with me. After a much-needed shower and change of clothes, I wondered if it would even be worth trying to sleep. My flight was at 6:30 AM and since I didn’t know when the baggage check in would be open I planned to just arrive at 4 AM. So I finally laid horizontal for the first time in nearly 36 hours. I dazed in and out of half dreaming while what sounded like a weed whacker whined outside my window. It was probably a motorbike but my tired brain rationalized it as someone doing yard work in the early morning hours.
I started pacing around my room at 2:30 AM. Not out of nerves but boredom and anticipation to keep moving. I drank all of the coffee and tea packets offered in the room, then made my way back down to the airport at 4 AM. Baggage and security was a breeze and I found myself 2 hours early to the first flight to Upington, playing the waiting game again.
We boarded a small 24 row, 3 seat /row plane. After seating myself in another window seat, a large, tan man shoehorned his way into the seat next to me. I learned he was South African and was visiting his hunting farm in Namibia. I wasn’t very enthusiastic to converse with him, tired and feeling a bit pestered, but it did make the flight go by fast.
My eyes drank in the red sand of the flat expanse. Dunes would rise from the flats and ripple across like waves, endlessly. The clouds formed a flat ceiling to the desert. Soon the plane began to slowly spiral down to the Earth as we made our descent. We made 3 complete circles, like a poplar tree helicopter seed falling from the sky. I wondered where the runway was, as all I saw below was sand and shrubs. But after dropping we straightened out and hit a small paved runway. Upington airport only has one runway with flights only to/from Jo-burg and Cape Town. We exited the plane on the runway, and I gathered my bags then waited for my ride. Two men from the project were supposed to pick me up (I’ll use initials for names) J, a British man mid twenties who was another manager, and P a South African in his late twenties. While waiting with my bags, I recognized a project leader who I had been corresponding with via email for letters of support to apply for my Visa. I went up to D and introduced myself. He said he assumed I was there for the meerkat project as he eyed my bags. I had recognized him from the copy of his South African passport he sent me for my application but was surprised to find his long hair blonde and skin tanned. I didn’t gather that from the black and white photo he sent. He clearly spent a lot of time in the desert. I waited with him until our pick up.
I scheduled my travel to be picked up on a “town trip.” These happened every 2-3 weeks for the project since it was a 3 + hour drive from the research station to Upington. Given the infrequent visits to town, I learned town trips are incredibly hectic and busy.
A Toyota SUV with a long cargo trailer covered in a brown tarp pulled up to pick us up. I loaded my bags in the trailer then crawled into the far back seat. A young woman, C, who had just finished her year volunteering for the project, was back there with me. She would be traveling through South Africa on holiday for the next couple of weeks before returning home to the UK. She planned to apply for another Visa and rejoin the project in a few months, this time for 2 years.
Grocery shopping, mechanic work on the car, and visits to the post office, hardware store, and bike shop were only a few of the places we stopped at the rest of the day. They would park the car and trailer in a central area, then disperse to get as many tasks done as they could. For most of these trips, I was left to “watch the car” as it was being filled with important things we would need at the project and left in public places. I didn’t know how else to help so I didn’t mind being guard.
On the trip to the mall, I got toiletries and an MTN-SIM card for my phone. They had suggested I “go crazy” in the supermarket with personal food but I kept to a minimum knowing there would be communal food at the station and feeling pretty lost in the store not knowing where or what things were or knowing what to get.
By 4:30 PM, we started the journey back to the station. They had a rule of only driving in the dark for 1 hour at night to avoid hitting animals. With winter coming and the days getting shorter, leaving around 4 PM was necessary. We had also picked up 2 other volunteers who had been on holiday as well as the boyfriend of the young woman, M, who I would be replacing. So we now had 8 people in the car and 8 person’s worth of luggage, food for the project, and all of the other large and small items we picked up crammed into the car and trailer. I was in the middle row in the middle seat between J and B, M’s boyfriend.
The first leg of the drive was in the evening light during a stunning bright pink and orange sunset. I found it strange and yet comforting how much the landscape looked like Utah. Paved road turned to washboard dirt just as the sun set. My eyelids felt thick and heavy. Delirium took hold and as I tried to stay awake my brain made bushes we passed look like huge animals and the voices in the car became muffled. Our bodies swayed and rocked while the car bounced over potholes and through dips of washes. We were listening to J’s music – Cerebral Hemisphere – a light techno album. The bobbing of our heads and shoulders matched the beat of the music.
Soon my head was dropping, I couldn’t fight the exhaustion any longer. B gave me his travel pillow that I awkwardly accepted wishing my weakness to sleep wasn’t as obvious. But as soon as I let my head fall against the pillow, the car started fish tailing and a loud WUMP WUMP WUMP smacked the side. We braked to a stop and smelled burning rubber. The tire had blown. We had been driving the dirt road for an hour and a half and were about halfway. J had just switched out driving for P when we hit something sharp enough to shred it. D, the project leader, abruptly awoke from his slumber and crawled under the car. For being in his 60s, D moved fast and powerfully and replaced the tire within 20 minutes. I lit up his work with my phone flashlight but was distracted taking in the environment. It looked like a Utah desert night but didn’t smell like one. A heavy scent filled the air with a new plant. And looking up at the sky, I saw new stars. The comfort feeling I had earlier turned into awe for a new place.
We piled back in the car and soon the swaying and bumping put me back to sleep. But not before D fell asleep and I heard him murmur “Zebra” in his dreams. Occasionally we would hit a large pothole and I’d snap awake. Amazed we could still be driving through multiple rounds of dozing off. Other members in the car were asleep as well as J tried to stay awake and dodge the antelope, fox, and squirrels in the road. I understood their rule for not driving at night now. A few more naps and I woke to the truck and trailer making a hard right turn. P jumped out and opened the gate. J radioed to the farmhouse that we were arriving. I rubbed my eyes awake, I was about to meet the other workers and volunteers of the project.
We pulled up in a cloud of dust, smoking out the silhouettes of people against the porch light. As we all rolled out of the car, everyone began approaching us. A little daunting in my half awake state of mind and in the darkness. I startled as M crashed into B. It was the first time they saw each other in a year. He had told me on the shopping trip that they had been dating for 5 years and it was difficult to be so disconnected for a year. I moved away to give them some space and had a grounding feeling suddenly of feeling very alone. Not lonely, but alone.
That feeling was quickly overwhelmed with new faces appearing in the dark introducing themselves to me. A line had formed to unload the trailer and car. The communal manager, S, found me and told me to hold tight until my bags were found and she could show me around. I offered to help unload with everyone but she assured me the 30 plus bodies had it covered. So I awkwardly stood by the porch as members of the project unloaded and greeted me with their names as they passed. I don’t actually remember anyone’s name… yet.
Soon my bags, now dust covered leaving the yellow one pleasantly looking not so new, were rediscovered in the pile and I was brought to my room. I would be in a separate building from the farmhouse in the block quarters. Basically a large building with 10 “blocks” or rooms for hired workers – as compared to shared bunkrooms among volunteers. After I dropped my bags, S hurried me into the kitchen to grab my dinner that had been plated for me. Every night a chef would cook us dinner and plate it. That night was curried vegetables, a battered bread roll, and salad. The kitchen was bustling with people unpacking groceries.
I sat outside to eat across from D on the long picnic table on the porch. I hadn’t realized how hungry as I was until I was scarfing down the food. A group of molerat workers were playing cards on the other side. A girl plopped down next to me, K, and told me she was on the molerat project as well and would help me learn everyone’s name and how things worked in the farmhouse. Soon another girl, F, joined her and they asked me a bunch of questions. After eating I washed my plate and, feeling overwhelmed and still exhausted, I picked my way through the house to find M so we could plan for the next day. I couldn’t believe how many people were in the house – working in the computer rooms, sorting food in the kitchen, gathered in the living room around the fireplace that now had a fire, and outside playing games.
I found M outside and she assured me tomorrow we would start late and just chat about the work here, no real training. I agreed with that plan and told her I’d head off to set up my room and sleep. I waved goodnight to everyone at the farmhouse. With curious eyes, they waved back. I was new in a community that lives and breathes the project for years. I am curious about the friendships I will form here. I’ve never been in such a close, isolated community.
The rooster crows continue. Before beginning to write, I walked out of my room to the porch and stared up at the night sky. The Milky Way blasted across it and new constellations shone down at me. The stars looked close enough to touch. The quiet and stillness of an early desert morning still brought me the comforts of Utah, but the new smells of plants and sounds of new birds and insects, brings excitement. I’m ready to immerse myself in this world.
Song of the day: Azawade – The Toure-Racichel Collective