Travels

A Place in Sossusvlei

I was alone and there was no sound at all. Towering rust-red dunes circled the flat I stood on—I could see wind flinging sand from the high crests, but I couldn’t hear it, only the rasp of the white saltpan under my feet. Around me, dead trees twisted out of the ground, shriveled and black like the hands of something mummified. The shadows of the dunes fell halfway across the bowl they ringed, and the shadow was stronger somehow than shadows elsewhere, denser, so that the salt on one side of the line dazzled me with reflected hot white noon, while on the other side it seemed hours later in the day, nearly the end of it.

Some places are so ancient, the gravity of the eons they’ve endured so strong, that you lose the sense of yourself as a thing with mass, with weight—you feel light, legless, minute, like a mote of dust, and you scrape your shoes against the salt earth just to reassure yourself with the sound you make. This was one of those places. The Dead Vlei.

 …

Five months prior I’d been in New York City. I was at work—or, work of a kind. I’d left the farm and my job in Virginia and moved to Manhattan, where I spent a few months in the city’s entry-level mosh pits, interviewing for unpaid internships at magazines, sighing at every stipulation for “2 + years experience in this or similar position.” Finally, through the generous recommendation of a friend, I somehow managed to get hired as an actual writer. Not for a magazine, or a publication of any kind, but in the business that really thrives in New York, the place where so many people with more artful aspirations turn: the service industry.

I’d landed at a luxury concierge company, which served a handful of exclusive residential addresses and a smaller handful of individual clients, people with precise tastes and specific requirements. The room where I worked was filled with young women dressed entirely in black; they communicated through headsets and Blackberries and spent their days and nights arranging Super Bowl skyboxes, doctors who only made house calls, instant reservations at Per Se, private jets, same-day delivery of flowers out of season, backstage access to Bon Jovi, and so on. Soon I was coming in early and staying late to write articles raving about the cult caviar out of St. Petersburg, the hot new chef in Copenhagen, the elite resort in the Seychelles that assured a personal butler, chef, and masseuse at each of its “rustic” thatch huts that hovered on stilts over the diamond water. I wracked myself on the Internet every day, trying to glean enough details, enough esoteric in-the-know, to sound like I’d been to the spa, eaten the caviar, had the butler fired for sleeping on the job. I told multi-millionaires how to live their lives to the fullest. I advised our clients as though they had inherited a vast fortune and a six-month prognosis on the same day. It was like being a plus-one at a fancy costume party. And pretty soon I couldn’t even feel the mask.

The company endowed me with a small budget to explore the chic new restaurants I was meant to be reviewing monthly in the members’ newsletter. The goal was not to be on-trend, but ahead of it, a tall order for a newcomer who still mispronounced “Duane Reade.” When I read a breaking item on a blog about the to-die-for uni panini at a new Meatpacking wine bar, I’d call my sister to beg her to meet me there that night. I’d Google “uni” and learn it meant “sea urchin,” those eggshell jewel boxes bristling with purple-black needles—a less edible looking item could hardly be imagined. That night, I tilted my chin up and tried to reflect the assurance of the gleaming, white-toothed crowd laughing around me. Finally, we won our own eight inches of bartop, and the plate was set in front of me, holding a shivering layer of bright orange pressed between layers of warm buttered baguette. I took a nibble of the Day-Glo roe, and felt with surprise the custardy stuff melt on my tongue. It tasted almost alien, of the sea but without any of its brine, more a scent than a flavor. I took a bigger bite and tried to think of a way to critique this marvel, to opine on the skill of its creator, or the weather-eye of the fisherman who’d hauled it into the boat, or the safe-cracker delicacy of the woman who extracted the tender flesh from the spine-studded encasement. But all I could think of was the immensity of my own fraudulence. I knew I had no business passing judgment on accomplishments far beyond my own. I was privileged merely to chew and swallow.

But it wasn’t enough, not nearly enough to merely enjoy a thing. You had to rank it against other enjoyable things, so a person whose time was money wouldn’t waste valuable minutes on an uni panini when she should be eating the truffled duck mousse over at Le Cirque.

Six weeks later there was a shake-up at the company and I was laid off. I retreated to my apartment, disillusioned and discouraged. I sat back and watched my friends get into grad school, or get married, or plan a year of world travel. I had my first ruinous fight with a friend I’d had since kindergarten, and felt a little of my bedrock, my faith in the people I loved, and in myself, crumble away. And the obvious question, the only question—what now? what should I do now?—went unanswered, forestalled with questions like: What should I have for lunch? Where should I meet Harvey and Brette? Which show should we go to tonight?

I’d flung myself at the city and skipped like a stone across its surface; now I sat at the window of my apartment, and watched as I sunk without a splash.

I needed to get to higher ground, look down on my life with some perspective. New coordinates, new ideas. So I emailed my cousins and accepted their invitation to visit them at their home in Namibia.

                                                                          …

After I got my bearings, I spent about ten days volunteering. I wanted to avoid the kind of gigs that usually resulted in pretty white women posting new profile pictures of themselves being hugged by grinning, nameless black kids. So I flew to the Northern region of Namibia—to Ongwediva—and spent days speaking in acronyms—TB, HIV/AIDS, OVC—with the staff of my host nonprofit. We visited families to interview them, making notes, taking pictures. After a couple of days squeezed into the backseat of an un-air-conditioned car with four other people, I first refused and then accepted the passenger seat, where the boiling African sun fell directly into my lap and superheated my ribcage like a crockpot.

I returned to my family in the capital, Windhoek, a city that retained at its center a Germanic adherence to bureaucracy and a tidiness that approached sterility. I put in a few hours tutoring at a school in Katatura, a name it had been christened with by the black population that had been forcibly resettled there; it meant “the place where we do not want to live.” The students shared pens and four different grades shared a single classroom and teacher. “That one,” the school matron, a stoic and authoritative woman, said. She nodded at a little girl in braids and a blue dress. “It is her first day back at school. She was out for a week. Her uncle has raped her. He thought the stories were true—the stories about it being a cure.”

The stinging comparison of myself to New Yorkers was replaced with the shameful measuring of myself against these Namibians. What business did I have being sad for myself in a world where… this… happened to little girls? And again, that question knocked: what should I do?

The next time I came, I brought pens.

Three weeks later, my departure drew near. I’d seen something of Africa by then—immaculate capital cities, and slums; lions, cheetahs, and giraffes; Herero women in billowing Technicolor costume and tribal tricorn headdresses; Afrikaans women with faces like patio couch cushions left outside all winter long. But I hadn’t yet seen the thing. The desert.

My cousins lent me their Japanese SUV and a map that had almost more creases than roadways. The next day I drove south out of Windhoek, scattering baboons across the highway as the asphalt ran out and the dirt and rock began. The trip itself was rockier than the roads I jolted along. Over the next nine hours my tire blew out; my auto was sabotaged by a tourist-loathing German local; an extremely polite service station owner smiled into my foolish girl face as he assured me that his tires were always priced at $599 per; another tire developed a slow leak, and was patched for five dollars after I spent thirty rigid minutes praying to it; and I finally did acquire a new spare from a man named Fortune (he should have been a woman; the honorific would have made a better story), for a hundred dollars, on a market that was, if not black, at least dark gray. (This came in addition to the official reprimand from the American Embassy I’d been awarded for trying to enter Namibia with a passport set to expire in ten days—a technical glitch that, to me, seemed like a trivial and boring matter of paperwork, but to them smacked of the asinine entitlement one would expect of an uni eater.) I was repeatedly asked where my husband was. All in all, I had enough reasons to turn around. I didn’t, though. For the first time in years I felt determined to get somewhere. And then, finally—miraculously—I did.

At six o’clock the next morning I stood shivering on a martian landscape of salt and clay and iron oxide, watching the knife-sharp shadows retract into the dunes as the sun floated away from the horizon. It was so quiet. But the quiet had a fullness to it—a silence you couldn’t stop listening too. The desert swelled from blue-gray to pink to red, and I was riveted. In the mid-day, light boomed down from the enormous blue sky, bleaching the yellow grass that riffled like corn silk in the wind and glittering off the quartz-like sand crystals. In the evening, the shadows began to creep back out, and first the distant mountains, then the dunes, then the plains were washed in purple before being hidden behind the black night. And then!

The stars, the stars, the stars.

I spent three days looking and looking. I don’t remember who I talked to or what I ate. I tried to write down what it was like, so I could tell everyone about it when I got back—but I couldn’t explain. I could only talk about the colors and the silent sound and fail entirely to describe the overwhelming scale of it, and the magnificent, alien beauty that made my eyes ache trying to take it in. There was nothing to compare it to. No way to rank it, as an experience. There wasn’t any “could” or “should” be—only what it was.

It felt like one of the most important things I had done in my life, driving to Sossusvlei. Just to see it—just to know how lucky I was to see it. That was my business, being there. My own insignificance was again reaffirmed, but in a new way. Held up against the fathomless night sky, the desert composed of infinite red grains, the rock hard evidence of a length of time that was indistinguishable from eternity—I felt my own insignificance a comfort. The fact that such a—magnificent, it’s the only word—that such a magnificent world had incidentally produced me too seemed only miraculous, and the fact that I had minutes—and more! years, decades!—to call my own… Right then, I wasn’t sure what was left to want.

Time mostly quit worrying at me after that. I figured, no matter how I spent it—advising millionaires on caviar, helping a little boy with his math homework, writing about the victims of TB in Africa, reading a book—the best and ultimate use of my time wasn’t to spend it at all, but to appreciate it. You don’t need a map for that, something to make sure you stick to the straight and narrow highway between birth and death.

The final stage in a sand dune’s lifecycle is petrifaction. It takes billions of years for a dune to weather into rock, a total transmutation—from a shifting, mobile, near-organism to a thing of permanence. A place. A destination in itself.

A.C. DeLashmutt is a Virginian living in New York. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's, The Washington Post, theNewerYork, Flash magazine, and elsewhere. She also writes plays. Follow her on Twitter @acdelashmutt.