A Travellerspoint blog

Where There's a Will, There's a Pub

Two weeks ago, Hanna and I got very very fed up with Lusaka. So fed up, in fact, that we had to get away. To anywhere. I was tired of getting home in the evenings after fighting my way through the pollution, the harassment and the insane traffic, and having the water run brown when I washed my hair, if, in deed, we were lucky enough to have water that night. So we had an emergency meeting on a Wednesday afternoon in our local soda bar (there’re no coffee shops or pubs in central Lusaka) and assessed the length of the weekend and our meagre funds, and decided to take a bus some hour outside of Lusaka to Kafue river, where a glossy brochure offered “river cruises with stunning views”. So, on Sunday, we set off early, reserving a good few hours for getting there, fully expecting to sit in a half-empty minibus on the side of the road for at least an hour while it filled up.

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(fisherman on Kafue river)

Instead, we sat on the boat for two hours, watching the fishermen sell their catch and waiting for departure time, feeling a bit idiotic. An insane Zimbabwean man on the boat bought the largest fish, only to decide that he didn’t want to eat it after all. He offered it to us (I think I’ve already mastered the please-give-me-something-for-free-I’m-just-a-poor-backpacker –look) and the staff kindly grilled it for us. About thirty seconds before the boat took off, a very large 4x4 pulled up and poured out a rowdy, smiling bunch of South Africans, with food and crates and crates of beer.

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I naturally gravitate towards large groups of people with beer. Not just because of the beer, but considering it was a fairly muggy day, and the boat was moored underneath a motorway bridge, they still looked incredibly exited and happy to be there- just like us. As soon as the bus had left the city limits, both Hanna and I felt instantly better, watching the big nothingness, dotted with occasional bush and vegetable vendor, whiz past. In no time, we were invited to join in, and most of us forgot the scenery- it was just so comforting to be on an empty, silent river on a Sunday afternoon, with a beer in hand and nothing much to do. The group consisted of about four older men, all hilarious, two younger guys, and a lovely girl, who seemed, by far, the boss of the group. As the boat pulled up, another invitation was made; would we perhaps like to come and spend a weekend at Mazabuka where they work and live? I thought this to be a joke, and so I said, Sure, why not next weekend, then? Brilliant, said Theo, one of the older blokes, We’ll pick you up from Lusaka then, on Saturday morning.
Hanna and I got a ride back to Kafue, and jumped on a bus back to Lusaka in the red afternoon glow, smiling.

I called Beata.
“I’ve found you a husband”, I said.
“Oh yeah? Cool. So when can I meet him?”
“Saturday. Meet me and Hanna at Manda Hill around noon, and bring an overnight bag.” She hesitated, and then laughed.
“OK. Great. So where are we going?”
I thought about this. “I’m not entirely sure. Somewhere in the bush. Towards Livingstone. The name of the place sounds a bit like my name”.
“Fine. And who are we meeting?”
“Look, I’m not entirely sure of that either. But they are South Africans, and they’re picking us up around noon”. Although on the phone, I could literally hear Beata shrug her shoulders.
“That’s good enough for me”.

So, the following Saturday we sat in Kilimanjaro, our favourite coffee shop where no one stares at us, drinking over-priced specialty coffees, wondering if it was all a joke, an elaborate hoax.
“What if they sell us to white slavery” I said, “you know, to a Saudi prince on a boat off the coast of Yemen or something, and we’re never heard from again”
Hanna and Beata stared at me, solemnly. “Maaret, have you looked at yourself?”
I looked at my tangled hair with blond roots, and chipped toenails and clothes that I never managed to get quite clean enough
“Do you really think they would pick us, if that’s what they had in mind?”
Point taken.

Needless to say (I think) that we did get picked up, and had a great weekend. They categorically refused anything we wanted to bring, food or drinks, and we had to struggle to smuggle in a bottle of vodka. We stayed at Theo’s house, and everyone came over, plus some people we hadn’t even met on the river cruise. The house stood on top of a slight sloping hill, with nothing but empty savannah stretching in front of us, completed with buzzing insects and a glorious sunset we watched whilst eating tons of barbeque, drinking ciders (me) and beers (everyone else). It was fantastic to meet new people, and to enjoy such luxuries as air conditioning, hot showers and salads. They’d mentioned a nightclub, and as you have it, the nightlife in Mazabuka, a tiny town, seems to be thriving, especially compared to Lusaka, which seems old, tired and not bothered in comparison. We spent the night dancing away until four am- something I don’t think I’ve done in years.

Shaun and Sisi insisted they’d drive us back on Sunday, and we, as poor guests, slept through most of the way. We had lunch together in Arcades and popped paracetamols with cups and cups of coffee until we felt human. We’ve invited them to come and experience the nightlife here in the capital -or rather, in my experience, the lack of it. For the first time, I felt like this was the Africa I’d come to see. People were friendly and yet respectful towards things that people in Lusaka are not- such as personal space, touching someone (which I hate) and probing questions. We’ll see. Maybe I will start enjoying this Africa experience, after all.

Posted by Ofelia 02:00 Archived in Zambia Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

(Funny?) Tales of the City

I spend half my life in Zambia waiting. I wait for buses, for people, for something to happen. It's hot, mid afternoon, and I'm trying to gather up my colleagues, trying to usher them together in the middle of the yard like a flock of birds; I always lose a few. The car is waiting; the driver's asleep, we're late and I cannot find anybody. So I sit down on the steps, with the two puppies of the school, Barack and Obama, falling asleep at my feet. I wait. Eventually I get up to use the bathroom, and when I come back, they're all sitting in the car, dozing. "Get in", shouts Andrew, "We've been waiting for you!" Grr.

We drop the others at various points around Cairo Road, the main thoroughfare, and head towards the posh area of Long Acres, and the Zambian Examinations Board. When we arrive, the office is closed. Andrew's not too bothered, despite the huge mounds of work piling up at the school, and so instead we walk to a near-by cafe and have a sugary soft drink after another, and wait.

When we get back, Andrew pays the fees at the gate, and we're ushered into the sprawling main building, where a bored-looking official glances at our papers and waves indifferently towards the endless corridors and hallways ahead. The building looks like it should immediately be torn down; in fact, it begs to be torn down. The concrete walls are cracked, the floor boards loose, the people and the cockroaches hide between boxes and boxes full of files, papers, complaints, requests, other people's lives from years back. We climb to the top floor past the stairways filled with sickly yellow light- few people stare at me, but politely look away when I notice. We find office b26-1 and boldly step in. The man greets us, elaborately, our papers get examined, we miss a stamp. Andrew hands me the papers and I move to go back to the reception, because, this is, in fact, my moment. This is the reason I've come along today. I can play the White Person card.

Usually, I pay White Person Extra. It's not very much; usually a few hundred kwatcha more than everyone else, in public transport, in the markets, but on a bad day, enough to really irritate me. But it does, actually, come with perks too. Because sometimes white people get preferential treatment, without asking. Often, I find myself being pushed to the front of the queue; I get to use the staff-only clean loos; I get given the best cuts of meat at dinner. And now I'm deliberately going for it, only to find an abandoned reception downstairs- the guy has simply decided to finish the day at 2pm. I go back up, past the tiny cubicles and chipped paint, and hand the form back to the guy, smiling away. He takes it, sighs, and looks at me. I smile. Andrew positively grins. He promises to take it without the stamp. We thank him and say goodbye in fancy words. As we step out into the baking sun, Andrew is purring. I have fulfilled my role.

Leaving the government offices, we drive past the Intercontinental hotel. I stare at it, longingly, because I have, I confess, a fantasy involving the hotel. See, I went there once, and was taken aback by the beautiful setting, the quietness and the cleanliness. I would love to go and spend a night or two there, have continental breakfast with a knife and a fork, whilst people call me "madam". No one would stare at me, and I could lounge around the tropical pool, in the air conditioned bar, drinking cocktails without judgment. This is a stupid, pointless fantasy, and as we speed past, in a car with air so hot I can't breathe, I watch a smartly-dressed young couple come out and step into a cab, laughing, and I feel slightly cheated out of a life I never even had.

Instead, the taxi drops me off at Chachacha Road, and I emerge into the relentless sun, exhaustion fumes and dirt that manages to move in the windless air. I am standing by a very tall building, a place which I saw on my first day in Lusaka, and which has continued to intrigue me ever since. Mainly because it is completely derelict, empty and simply standing in the middle of modern buildings with nothing but just a frame. At first, I thought it must have been gutted by a fire, but on a closer look, it seems fine. Finally, Hanna solved the problem. Apparently, the land where the building stands, was owned privately by an individual. Somehow, the government forgot this slight detail, and sold the building to a property developer, who rapidly erected a tower block on the premises. One day, the owner of the plot walked past, saw the building, and thought, what the hell, there's a huge apartment complex on my empty plot! A very slow and uninteresting lawsuit followed, but eventually one or both parties ran out of money and therefore, the building could neither be demolished nor completed, and there it still stands, half-finished. This happened sometime in the mid-eighties. You have to love a country like that.

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Some photos just outside our school, virtually taken from the front gate.

Posted by Ofelia 01:59 Archived in Zambia Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

A Hippo Under the Tent

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.

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Posted by Ofelia 01:55 Archived in Zambia Tagged animal Comments (0)

On the Verge of New Zambia?

The tension on the high street's growing by the hour. People are more animated and vocal, and the population of Lusaka has seemingly tripled. I am at an internet cafe on the 11th floor in a city-centre high riser, and I can hear hooting, cheering and general commotion from below. Tomorrow, the Zambians go to vote for a new leader in the presidential and parliamentary by-elections.

Naturally, tomorrow is a day off. I mean, who can expect a person to vote and work on the same day? Jeez. Way too much hassle. Well done on the government for choosing a day in the middle of the week as well. Saturday simply would have not given an excuse for a day off. Most people, as the tradition goes, are not in on Friday either. What's the point? The weekend's only a day away.

I've been watching the election hassle go on for the last month, with a mixture of amusement and shock horror. Where are those democracy defenders when we need them? Only the people who registered in the 2006 elections are eligible to vote. Therefore, anyone who has since turned 18 (the voting age) is not allowed to the polls. Even more ridiculously, people must vote from the polling stations they voted from 2 years ago, which might mean a trek to the other end of a large country with expensive and disorganised transport. In a country where an average person earns 1 USD a day, that's pretty unreasonable.

What does amuse me is the media, or more precise, the lack of it. We were watching one of the candidates, Hakainde Hichilema, being interviewed, and as soon as he'd said, "it's a pleasure to be here today", the power in Chawama, one of the biggest compounds in Lusaka, went off. It came back on as the credits were rolling. Shame, we never found out what he plans to do about the energy deficit.

Quite a few traditional media channels are totally obsolete in a poor country anyway. As a lot of people do not have a TV, or cannot afford a paper on daily basis, people use other medias; a popular way to show your support is to wear a chitenge, a wrap-around dress, with a picture of your favourite candidate, complete with the slogans. This morning, I saw a bicycle adorned with dozens of pictures of the opposition leader Michael Sata, and even more funny (and scary) a bus window so full of posters that the driver had to peer out to see ahead.

Zambian media, even normally, is quite a hoot. Completely void of any international news, (albeit the coverage of the school shooting in Finland which just earned me odd looks at work) it does stories such as "minor increase on boiler production in Ndola expected". I have the internet and BBC world news, thankfully. I think I'd go crazy otherwise. The US presidential elections have had hardly any airtime, apart from the two would-be skinhead assassins who apparently plotted to kill Barack Obama, and even that I'm sure was news worthy only because it seemed so dramatic (Zambians have a taste for drama and romance). I find this surprising; with the kwacha closely linked to the dollar, what happens in the world economy probably has more impact on Zambia than the choice of president, especially since each of them seem to love all sorts of political jargon even more than their European counterparts.

We are expecting a few clashes, especially if the ruling party stays in power. A few weeks ago, an extra box of ballot papers was discovered, and it is still argued whether or not these slips were pre-marked or not. People are restless, and will continue to be restless until all the ballot papers have been received back from the distant provinces, and a new leader can be announced. This should happen by Saturday or so. Until then, I'm laying low.

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Getting ready for the elections; a woman wearing a chitenge skirt of Rupiah Banda, current vice-president.

Posted by Ofelia 01:54 Archived in Zambia Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

Lusaka Mornings

It is hardly past seven a.m., but every living creature is already seeking shade and breeze. I pause quickly by the front gate, before venturing out into the world; I feel like a lion about to leave the zoo cage and parade in front of the popcorn-munching audience, awaiting for me to perform a foreign trick or two.

The dusty dirt road to Chawama centre is not too trying. People here know me already; in fact, they know everything about me. They know I'm a teacher; they know I don't go to church, but sit on the porch and drink beer; that the lights in my bedroom go off early, and that I do my laundry on Saturday mornings. They know, and yet I know nothing of most of them. A crackly old radio plays a current pop hit, and a little boy of about two plays in the dirty gutter, dancing, unashamed, to the tune. He sees me, and waves, tentatively. I smile and wave back; his face beams and he waves back, frantically.

I'm the third person on the bus, and patiently take my seat and wait for the bus to fill up. The commotion of the entire village seems to have centered around my bus. A woman chooses chickens from a tiny wired cage. She sucks her thumb and points at the three fattest ones. The vendor picks up each, non-plussed, breaking their wings and making their nervous cooing cease as they accept their destiny. I zone out during the ride in, and gaze out of the dirty, greasy window. Chawama Business Communications Centre, a sign declares, and underneath, almost as an afterthought, a small scribble: Also relish sold here. The bus pulls up to the hectic Soweto market, and I fiddle with my mp3 player, swapping the calm morning music to something angrier, louder. I pick Beck, I pick PJ Harvey, I pick Franz Ferdinand. I step out, over a pile of rubbish and accidentally kick a plastic bottle. It rolls underneath the next bus entering the station, and pops loudly. I negotiate my way to the main street; the place is buzzing. Anyone in not constant movement on the market road to Kanyama is annihilated. A huge human domino rolls on; a few cab drivers, same guys each morning, shout something at me, but the music drowns it out, and I disappear further into the swarming mass of noise, sweat and dust.

A man with a wheelbarrow filled with wilted green vegetable, rebs, is pushing past the pedestrians, cutting them like weeds; a woman with a basket on her head and a regal posture steps past me. Every last of my senses is assaulted, the screeching breaks, the smelly dried kapenta fish, the colourful market stands. I pause down for a second, letting a car pass, uncomfortably close, a woman steps in front of me, look my sister, what a beautiful chitenge, I make you a good price. I try to smile, but it comes out as a grimace. Another wheelbarrow, with planks of wood sticking to each direction; a second-hand underwear stall; a scrawny child staring at me, under his brow. I try to walk quicker, I can feel the sun on my neck. Another minibus, the driver literally hanging outside, chanting the destination's name. A man with gumboots for sale, so close to the roadside that cars nearly run over them; I step into the stalls, then almost to the middle of the road to let another wheelbarrow past, negotiating my way in this complicated dance only I know steps to.

And suddenly I'm there, I take a steep turn to the left, gather my skirts and hop over a gutter and I'm there, inside the relative early morning calmness of our centre. I open the door to my tiny little concrete office and switch off angry PJ, until I need her again that afternoon.

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Some photos of the road and the vendors along the way in Kanyama, and around City Market

Posted by Ofelia 01:53 Archived in Zambia Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

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