Author flees – gets high

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My memoir hit the bookshops last week so I left the country before anyone could read it. My publisher accused me of aberrant behaviour. Apparently the normal thing would have been to stay around and help publicise it.

Right now I’m in a stone house at the foot of a koppie on the far edge of the Namib desert. There is no fence. The people who live here don’t even bother closing their front door at night, let alone lock it. The only chance of getting stabbed is if you startle an oryx or stand on a porcupine.

It was probably a mistake to flee to the very country in which my ex-wife lives. I saw her briefly and she badgered me into giving her a copy of my book so she could see what I had written about her. It felt as if I were handing over a warrant for my own execution. Early the next morning, I drove into the desert.

When the people I was staying with offered me a free flight in a hot air balloon, I immediately suspected the ex-wife had read the chapter on our marriage and had put out a hit. My suspicions were confirmed when I discovered there would be only two other people in the balloon with me. Both looked like potential assassins. Then again, in my eyes most people look like hired killers. It’s one of the reasons I don’t go out much.

Apparently the best time to go ballooning, or get murdered, is 4.30am. I hadn’t been up so early since the army. When you get out of bed at that time, the first thought that crosses your mind is, “I want to kill someone.” Good if you’re a soldier, not so good if you’re a writer. Although I suppose you could always kill off one of your characters. Too many early mornings and it’s going to be a very short book.

An hour before sunset found me bouncing through the desert on the back of a bakkie, an icy wind flagellating my face. Riding up front were a Dutchman and a Belgian, nationalities notorious for committing all manner of heinous deeds. Moments before my eyeballs froze over, an indistinct shape lit only by starlight loomed out of the gloom. Three shadowy figures worked silently on something alarmingly big. It turned out to be the instrument that would carry me to my death.

The Belgian and Dutchman – a real one, from Holland – began fiddling with equipment. I stood to one side, hands in pockets, watching warily. Suddenly there was a deafening roar and two jets of blue and orange flame shot into the night. I almost soiled my broeks. If this was the assassination attempt, they failed miserably.

“Nice try, guys,” I said. “Better luck next time.” They ignored me and continued assembling their infernal chariot of fire. With the balloon inflated, I was ordered into the basket. It was tiny. I have seen bigger baskets carried by fat people at picnics. I was about to jump out and run out away when I looked down. The car was the size of a matchbox.

“Two thousand metres and climbing,” said the Belgian. That’s the trouble with balloons. It’s deathly quiet and there’s very little sense of motion so you don’t know if you’re going up, down or sideways. Actually, it’s only quiet when the pilot isn’t spewing giant gobs of fire into the belly of the beast.

With us in the basket were three large gas cannisters. The kind you see on the back of trucks displaying the warning, “No naked flames”. Given what was happening in that balloon, those flames should have been arrested for public indecency.

“There’s a gas leak,” the Belgian shouted. My sphincter snapped shut. “What the hell was that,” said the Dutchman. “Sphincter,” I said, pointing at my bottom. “Gas leak’s not coming from me.” And wouldn’t be, for quite some time. Not without the help of a crowbar.

We stopped going up and started going down. “Maximum velocity,” said the Belgian. “What are you going to do?” I waited for him to say, “Jump.” Just before we hit the ground, the Dutchman let fly with a double-barrelled burst of fire and we hovered an inch above the sand. Before I could get out, we were off again. Were they planning on scaring me to death? It was working, but it would take a while. Eventually it dawned on me that this was a training flight. The Dutchman was being tested on emergency procedures. I felt better after that.

A day later I got coerced into helping film a music video for a German-Namibian kwaito artist called Ees. I held a reflector board and made suggestions that everyone ignored. It was viciously hot but they fed me free beer so I couldn’t complain.

Agoraphobia kicked in after a couple of days and I fled for Windhoek, the city in which I once spent ten years, spawning a daughter and almost losing my mind. It’s spread out since I was last there. The city has the luxury of being able to sprawl in any direction it chooses, like a drunk Russian oligarch.

Where there was once a parking lot, a Hilton Hotel now stands. It appears to have been designed by the same guy who did the Berlin Wall. It was built on unstable ground and is apparently slowly sinking. I suppose they’ll just keep adding floors. Eventually, guests on the fourth floor will have to take the elevator down to their room. I imagine the view wouldn’t be much to write home about.

Overlooking the city is a vulgar monolith decorated in a shocking shade of gold. It’s the independence memorial museum. It was completed three years ago and has yet to open. Korean efficiency and Namibian planning is not a good combination. The worker ants shipped in from Pyongyang must have put it up overnight because when someone from the council came around in the morning, they discovered there was no way to get an exhibit larger than an AK-47 into the building.

The statue of a Germany genocidal maniac on a horse is gone. In its place is a towering bronze of Swapo ringleader and Namibia’s first democratic president, Sam Nujoma. He stares out over the city, a copy of my book clutched in his right hand.

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I left before Windhoek could suck my soul dry. Hosea Kutako Airport falls somewhere between a hanger and an abattoir. People mill about like doomed livestock, fear and confusion etched on their faces as they realise there is only one departure lounge consisting of a duty free shop more expensive than Edgars and a couple of tourist shops selling wooden giraffes and stuffed animals that cost almost the same as the real ones.

There is one bar staffed by three slow, hostile women wearing hairnets. Namibia’s entire service industry is staffed by slow, hostile people. Not all of them wear hairnets.

Passengers are expected to remove their shoes and put them through the X-ray machine. Has nobody told them that Osama’s dead?

I almost missed my flight because the time on my laptop said it was 2.45. I thought I still had three hours to go. It turned out I was looking at the remaining battery life, not the clock.

The waitress brought a beer to my table, made deliberate eye-contact and said, “That’s your fourth.” I felt like I owed her some sort of explanation, or at the very least a reassurance that my pace generally slowed down after the first four. Or so.

Namibia has a population of two million people. Nine of them drink moderately. The rest hit it hard. I didn’t understand what her problem was. Maybe she didn’t have a problem. Maybe I did.

Anway. I discovered the worst place in the world – the smoking cubicle at Namibia’s airport. It’s a perspex box designed to accommodate no more than three people. I saw six men go in there. Only four came out.

 

* The Memoirs of Ben Trovato is published by Panmacmillan and is available online and at bookstores countrywide.

 

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