Skeleton Beach Backpackers
The sun bobs below the horizon like a sinking coin. The three of us, on the terrace, strangers forcing ourselves to find some common ground before we share a 4-bed-dorm together; before we spit airline issue toothpaste into the same sink and mark our territory with backpack crumpled clothes.
“Let’s play a game”
They wait for me to elaborate.
“Let’s play: How old am I?”
I ask, knowing the answers before they are spoken; yet in the reflection of my beer glass I see the echo of an elderly woman.
Kolmanskop, Namib Desert.
In 1908 a man found a diamond here.
And then there was a town.
But one day, there were no more diamonds.
So, eventually, there was no more town.
Diamonds, town and diamonds, dust.
That’s how it goes in this world.
Something, everything, nothing, bust.
There is not much left to see, unless you know where to look. To the untrained eye, this place is just an over-sized sandbox that belongs to a kid who left his toys out too long in bad weather. Hills of sand inching their way through door jams like impatient tenants, paint curling into fronds of surrender, the roof tiles have given up completely – falling to their death, awaiting burial.
I should have a permit to be here, but I like the feeling of minor league rebelling. Like the kid that sneaks into the back row of the movie theatre without a ticket. No one is getting hurt, it’s just the high jinx of “youth”.
Why should I need a permit anyway?
I have blood. Blood lines, not dotted lines.
My Grandpa, Grandpa Jacks, was a miner by trade. He dragged my grandma, Maribella, here all the way here from Bloemfontein, a city of roses in the heart of an adolescent South Africa. But they came to the party too late to walk away any richer than they arrived. Granny hated it. She grew up working a vineyard. In Kolmanskop there were no trees or shrubs, green was a forgotten color. And the only roses now were the ones on the rim of her chipped Royal Dolton tea set.
Jacks thought Maribella was in danger of becoming ill of mind without anything living around her, so he got her a dog, a Terrier Mix named Dolly, sadly the dog didn’t want to live there either and hitched a ride on the coal train back to Lüderitz a week later.
However it wasn’t until she told him about the fountain that he thought her really off her rocker.
Two kilometers north-west of Kolmanskop.
If you had asked Jacks back then, there was no blooming fountain.
What would a fountain be doing in the middle of a desert?
One of the oldest and driest deserts in the world no less.
Desert madness. It had to be what the miners sometimes talked about under hushed breaths and hunched shoulders. Maribella had taken to wandering and not short distances either. She said she was wandering to pass the time and the more time she had to pass, the further she walked. Until she found the fountain.
But Jacks remained disbelieving, her mind was a suitcase. She must have unpacked this relic from a memory to serve as comfort amongst foreign landscapes. “A fountain with no water supply is like trying to cook over a fire with no flame. Even thinking one out here mad –”
Maribella said the fountain didn’t need water, what flowed from its six heads were scarlet beetles. Ripe and rotund, waiting to be trod, like grapes into liquor.
She gestured to her stained feet one day.
“They are bathed in blood.”
“They are burnt from the sand Mari.”
Jacks ordered her to take him to this fountain hoping to expose her madness and shock her back to reality. Maribella took him. And as he suspected, he saw nothing.
But she did, and so did my mother and so do I.
The catch? If a man can’t see, no one will believe it.
She saw the way he frowned at her. Worry, guilt and self-pity in that crease above his eyes.
Worry, that the woman he loved might be gone.
Guilt, that the choices he made had chased her away.
Self-pity, that he may not be able to raise children with this woman now, not as she was.
She put a hand on his arm, realizing his limitations.
“You look at me that way now. But in the years to come you will see.”
“Me as I am now, always. Like a diamond Jack.”
And so, he couldn’t see the fountain but he did see her as she was, always. Many years after they returned to Bloemfontein and many years after that, as her face stayed the same though his sagged and wrinkled, and succumbed to the god of gravity.
He had to concede as he ran his fingers across her cheek. “My diamond.”
Though she was not to outlive him, despite her appearance. The generation of she and my mother you see, they only dipped their toes in another world, two feet to be exact. Its power was only surface deep, as mine has been so far…
Though standing in the fountain now, for the second time in my life, and treading the scarlet beetles to a paste, I wonder what will happen if I don’t merely bathe but drink this time?
Fountain image from: http://olddesignshop.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/OldDesignShop_Fountain.jpg
Diamond Mine image from: http://www.miningartifacts.org/Bulfontein_Diamond_Mine_-_South_Africa.jpg
Kolmanskopp image from: http://www.lovethesepics.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Kolmanskop.jpg
Terrier Mix image from: http://www.trahernbt.com/images/oldepictwo.jpg
"Hello! BEAUTIFUL" followed by an enthusiastic thumbs up from the speaker.
This is the phrase which sometimes greets me at my local Superette by one of the men that works there.
I know he's meaning it as a compliment and trying to be friendly towards the foreigner trying to be understood at the checkout, but I always feel uncomfortable when someone comments on the way I look. I feel even more uncomfortable being commented on in a country where they have 'whitener' in many of their moisturizing lotions and top the list for plastic surgery.
It's hard to explain how I feel, I think there are two things going on:
Up until my early 20's I had really terrible self-esteem and although that is definitely not the case nowadays the past still echoes through from time to time. So from time to time part of me doesn't believe compliments are genuine and I laugh them off - a facet of my personality which has annoyed a number of people.
On the flip side, the other part of me feels like I'm upholding some kind of aesthetic evil by being blonde hair and blue-eyed. But the thing is - there is no truth in beauty. There never has been. It's fluid and ever changing. Think about walking on ground which is shifting constantly like moving tectonic plates. That's how unstable it is. The misnomer perhaps in Korea is that beauty is like a mathematical equation: 2+2=4.
But they're not alone in that belief. To some extent on a superficial level (and I really don't like to admit it) I play into the same game that 2+2=4, even though it doesn't. I'm disillusioned by the same myth, even though I grew up all the way over in New Zealand. I get blonde highlights and the clothes I choose to wear, it's all a manipulation of appearance and how I want to appear (or not appear) to other people.
I always have the same hairstyle: long, with a few layers around my face. My clothes: neat but not immaculate. The idea was always to strike right in the middle of the continuum: too untidy - you're noticed, too stylish - you're noticed. Nothing flashy - no tattoos, only my ears pierced and only once. You have to strike that middle. The middle is where people don't comment because there is absolutely nothing of note to comment on and therefore you can grasp at some semblance of invisibility. Invisibility in a visually hungry world has always been my aim, mainly because I don't want my legacy to be - oh that blonde girl with the long hair.
But let's face it, humans take physical form and we have eyes. You are going to be looked at.
And my attempt at invisibility?
From time to time - like in the Superette - I still fail. Why? Because many of us still believe 2+2=4. But it doesn't. Not this time. It's just a lie we treat as truth so we can make it a concrete series of tasks to complete and achieve.
I was born about 300 years too late to be an explorer. To be the first person to walk on the shores of a new land or put a human footprint next to the root of an unknown plant.
The closest I can get is walking in fresh snow. I live in a city, but when it snows, as it often does at the moment, it coats the pavement and the road.
The pavement is an icon of human industry. It reminds us there are people that live in this area. This is where they walk, where millions of feet have passed before.
You are not special.
You are just one of many.
Going where everyone has gone before.
But when it snows, nature reclaims that space. It makes that reminder of human industry disappear. Wild reclaims industry.
So, although I am about 300 years too late to be an explorer, one of my favorite things to do is to get up early and be the first person to walk down the street in the snow, as if I were the first person to ever walk down it.
It's a funny time of year for TV. There's nothing current to really get lost in. It's a couple of painful months until the new seasons of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead kick in. So I've been watching past episodes of Investigation Discovery's reality hit 'Disappeared'.
It's not a work of art but it's competently done and endured for a number of seasons. I've jumped on the bandwagon.
Why? The concept of someone just disappearing without any strong leads seems so incredibly unlikely in today's world as to be completely fascinating. Think cellphones, credit card tracking, CCTV, social networks - our lives are the most visible they've ever been in history. I'll be the first to admit that this is a statement purely from a first world perspective but then ID's stories are Western/American stories, first world stories.
One of the things that strikes me about this TV series is how long it takes for someone to sound the alarm that something's not right. How it varies. So, it got me thinking: How long would it take for someone to figure out I had disappeared?
Let's look at the life I've cultivated at this particular point in time. I'm teaching overseas, I have my own apartment in which I live alone. I don't know my neighbors I've barely even seen them. Do they know I even live in the building? That aside though, during the academic year it would only take 24 hours or maybe 48 hours (if over the weekend) or basically as soon as I didn't clock in to work or show up for a dinner date for the alarm to be raised and questions asked.
But this all changes if it's the annual holiday period. That's a completely different story. I've been known to be recklessly independent, to travel alone frequently and drop out of contact for long periods of time. For me not to be in contact is not unusual, sometimes it can take me up to a month to reply to an e-mail. In which case, it could, in all honesty be 3 weeks until someone begins to get worried. 3 weeks!
I don't even know what to say about that except for the fact that I had better prepare a good 'I'm missing, have you seen me?' photo. A photo that might persuade people to look for me.
I have student loan debt though, so don't expect a reward.