Last month, when I first met the Polish Mafia, we had a great idea. We decided to do a road trip to South Luangwa National Park in the Eastern Province. Naturally, I took charge of the plan, picked a weekend (just before the election day) organised days off, borrowed tents, haggled with the bus companies, going back and forth between each little stall at the bus station, getting lower and lower offers until they told me, quite curtly, that I could get lost. Hmph. But even still, the day before departure, Beata and I were sitting on my door step, drinking beer and getting excited about our trip. Oh, how I love that comfortable pre-travel talk, the way people get excited about trips they might never even go on. Well, we were going, we were determined. I had three crumpled tickets, a reservation at a backpacker-friendly campsite, and a rucksack full of pasta, tinned beans and canned cheap beer. It was going to be a great weekend.
(at the Intercity bus station, you get a fine for everything in the ladies'. even washing your face.)
We got to the bus early, around 5.30am for our 6am departure. Usually, the first bus in Zambia is a timed bus, which means it leaves on time, or at least around the right time. Other buses leave when they are full, or when the drunk driver finally sobers up enough to take the bus on the road. We waited. We waited until 8am. Until 8.30am. I was getting angry enough to smash the bus window. Beata threatened the driver with the police "Ha", he said "yes, little lady, you go get the police". They all burst out laughing. No one involves the police in anything in Zambia. Beata looked indignant. "I will", she retorted, and strutted off. The men laughed again, evil, evil laugh. Asia and I glared at them from the bus window.
And then a miracle happened. The police came, they were nice and polite and put us in a bus that left immediately, and forced the evil, evil driver of our bus to pay for it. After three hours of travelling but not-travelling, we were on our way.
The road to Chipata, the closest city, is paved and therefore comfortable. Beata and I ate two packets of biscuits and nine bananas and felt great. In Chipata, we realised we'd missed the last minibus to Mfuwe, the town at the entrance of South Luangwa. Hostel owners and taxi drivers cornered us, and we shook them off, trying to get our bearings and trying to decide on the next move. I wasn't going to pay for a taxi, and neither was I spending a night in this dusty city. So I dragged two very tired polish girls, a tent, a grocery bag and half the sand of Zambia in my shoes to the largest crossing in town. Beata put down her bag and sat down. "What's the plan then? Why are we sitting at the intersection?" She dusted off her trousers and looked at me pleadingly. "We're going to Mfuwe", I said, and started hailing down every passing vehicle, including a few bicycles.
Just before it got dark, we got lucky. We met a guy who was driving up to Mfuwe to take supplies to the local shops. I eyed him suspiciously. He seemed to only have a few crates of Castle lager waiting with him. I figured, OK, at least we'll have entertainment on board. We jumped at the back of the truck.
Unfortunately, we only went around the corner. The guy had neglected to tell me they had a whole lot of more stuff to take with them. We got off; they loaded on maize, bread, toilet roll, crisps. We got on; we drove around the block and the driver decided the stack of beers was too high to be safe, so we drove to his house, where he unloaded some of it for safekeeping (yeah, right). We jumped on; the driver decided that now that the beer was off, there was indeed a bit of room for something else, but what? We drove to his friend's house; we jumped off; we watched sacks of rice being loaded up. We got back on; we stopped, the cover wasn't strapped on properly and it needed to be tightened. We'd hailed the ride at 6.15pm; it was now 8.30, and I was showing so much patience I nearly burst. Just before nine o'clock the stuff was loaded, we were at the back, the driver was still sober and we left Chipata behind. Asia, Beata and I nearly cheered.
Twenty minutes outside the city, the truck broke down.
We got to the campsite around 2am, tired and with achy bums, and didn't bother with the cooking or showering. We were allocated a platform up on the tree, which cheered us up momentarily. I pitched up the tent on the platform, only to realise that it was, actually, way too small for three people. I looked at the two very tired girls, and took my sleeping bag outside and twisted and turned forever in my sleeping bag on the wooden floor, thinking, what the fuck, this is by far the worst 24-hours of my life. Then I heard a deep, grunting sound somewhere below. I peaked out carefully. I was the biggest hippo I'd ever seen, calmly munching away right underneath my sleeping bag. At that moment, the whole trip was suddenly worth something.
I spent two days going on game drives, drinking beer and cooking soggy pasta. The Poles only stayed two nights, but luckily I picked up a lovely Swede, Niku, who kept me company. I saw a heard of 16 lions, sleeping in a tight pile, oblivious to the three carloads of people staring at them. Elephants came right up to us, a family as big as thirty, walking past so close that if I'd held out my hand I could have touched them. There's something about seeing these animals; South Luangwa is the fourth such national park I've visited, and I never get tired of seeing these animals, the colourful birds and funny-looking giraffes in the wild. I even went on a walking safari, albeit with an armed guide, and came up close to warthogs, antilopes, hippoes and giraffes. I loved it. I could have easily stayed in South Luangwa for a week, sitting by the pool, reading and watching the day waste away in between game drives. But I had to come back. Luckily, I could bring Niku with me.
The road back was far less dramatic- we only ran out of petrol once, and only had one fight with a cheating bus conductor. Niku and I stuffed ourselves with unhealthy, deep-fried doughnuts and soft drinks, and slept most of the way to Lusaka. I couldn't bare to end a nice weekend just yet, so I arranged Niku to stay with my family in Chawama. They loved the idea; Handsen (the father of my family) took Niku around Lusaka, seeing all the sights (which doesn't take long, I tell you!), but most of the time we met up with my friends, went to see movies, ate pizza and did all sorts of silly western things, like shopping. It was fantastic having a friend stay, and I almost cried when we finally, over a week later, said good bye at the same bus station we'd arrived at.
(Jerryspringer-like afterthought) It is amazing how quickly friendships form whenever you are travelling. It always gets me; at home you spend months, years, getting to know someone, and here, in a place where you discuss your bowel movements before you find out each others' names, friendships are instant. Whole little dramas emerge and evolve almost without noticing.