Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Choma Chillin’

Greetings everyone and welcome back to Zambia.  It’s been almost three weeks since Stefan and I arrived here to visit his friend Charlie and while neither of us actually sleep in the house (Stefan is in his VW and of course I’m in my tent) we certainly have come to think of this little piece of property as our home.  Well, at least as much of a home as a wandering traveler in Africa can have… For me it is fairly typical to be doing this, as I’ve spent weeks at a time in many places in Africa: Cape Town, East London, Port St Johns, and Gaborone.  For Stefan, it’s the first time since leaving Germany 6 or so months ago that he has had the same place to sleep for more than a few days.  I did basically the same thing when I traveled Asia, sure there were a few places where I spent a week or more, but in general I was on the move nearly all the time.  Every method of travel has its pluses and minuses and of course it is up to an individual to find what works best for them.  What I’ve found works best for me is exactly what I am doing: free to roam where ever and whenever, but happy to put down a few roots and spent a month or so at a time in one place.  Not only does life on the road become substantially less expensive, but you have the time (and probably more importantly) and energy to get to know a place and its people.  That is exactly what I have been doing here in Choma, Zambia so let me share what has been going on.

50 Zambia Kwacha.  This works out to $.00958, or in simple terms less than 1 cent.  Not very useful, even here in Africa.  The largest bill currently in Zambia, K50,000, is worth about $9.60 and I am happy to report that unlike some African countries, is fairly easy to use  as people seem better at having small bills to give change.  These issues might seem small to the uninitiated, but when you are in a country where the ATM gives all ‘big bills’ but shops and street venders refuse to take them because they don’t have proper change, it quickly becomes a problem.  I am also happy to report that the cashiers in the grocery stores are the best I’ve seen in Africa so far, fast, professional and accurate.  I don’t think I could count the number of times I had people ring things up incorrectly, be completely unable to do the most simple math problems or act rude or uninterested.  So cheers to Zambia for that. 

I’m not sure when it will happen, but the other day I saw a poster showing the new Zambian Kwacha.  What they are going to do is chop off the ‘000’s so instead of a K1,000 or K5,000, it will become simply a K1 or K5 note, and they will be adding a K100 (100,000 in the current system) as well as coins broken up into ‘Ngwee’, or cents.  I guess they are trying to avoid going so far down the road that like Zimbabwe, one day they would end up having to print billion and trillion notes (though that was the result of a very different situation).

Despite the fact that neither Stefan nor I are official volunteers, we help out where we can (and where we want to!) and Friday was no exception.  I woke early and went on a (very) short run with a few others, then after breakfast it was time to do a little bit of work.  Our most important task was to go to the Choma Milling Company to pick up bags of food, both for the children and for the pigs out on the farm. 

After paying at the building at the front of the large complex and getting our receipt, we drove the truck to the loading docks by the warehouse.  As we waited for our 30x50kg bags of pig food, and numerous other smaller orders I walked past the ‘no customers allowed’ sign to take a look inside.  No one seemed to mind. 

With about 1,800kg of feed loaded in the back of the truck, Lesle, Charlie and I climbed on to the pile (Stefan drove) and we set off for the farm. 

I didn’t know what to expect from this farm but right away I was impressed with how clean and organized it is.  Pigs are the focus and they are housed in a parallel series of mud-brick buildings with corrugated iron roofs and contained one of the fattest pigs I’ve ever seen. 

Some of the kids started building a play house the next morning.

Stefan is so well prepared that he even has a pair of blue coveralls for when he works on the car!  After a few tough weeks on the car it was time to look over a few things, we checked the oil, cleaned the air filters (which had a ton of solidified dust in them), lubricated the axel and did a few other things.  As I’ve mentioned before, I have a 1970 VW at home but at this point am still pretty clueless when it comes to working on it.  It’s cool to travel with Stefan because he knows a lot about cars and VWs specifically, so I’m learning a lot in the process. 

I’m not much of a kid person, but I do play with the kids a bit most days.  I helped them work on their play house for a bit, and then read a story to them.

At one time there must have been a lot of trains in the area, but it’s not the case anymore.  So far pretty much all I’ve seen is the passenger train that goes between Livingstone and Lusaka.  Anyways, in the evening we set off to the market.

As we were arriving at one of the streets that makes up the edge of the market, we heard an car with megaphones shouting and the revving engines of motorcycles.  Right away Stefan and I recognized the bikes and riders from Livingstone, we had seen these guys doing tricks through the streets there as well!  Excited onlookers (myself included among them) watched as the riders preformed somewhat dangerous tricks, on broken and tired looking bikes, through pot-holed streets and tight crowds.  I meant to ask someone what they were actually promoting, but I was simply having too much fun watching to remember to do it. 

Walking through the heart of the market.  The small fish you see in the front of the photo are carpenta, a small fish that is dried and eaten whole.  Personally I’m not a fan; it’s basically just a sea-salty tough piece of skin with an unpleasant (to me) texture. 

After cooking dinner back at the house, we all piled into the truck and headed into town for what could be called the Choma nightlife.  The first stop was the Pub & Grill but we quickly moved on to the Draft Center, more commonly known as simply ‘DC.’  For a small town with one main road, DC is quite a large nightclub and with that comes some interesting characters to say the least.  Within an hour or so, I’d already been offered a free prostitute and a cameo in someone’s music video.  I passed on both, though I know at least the music video thing was just talk… The crazies kept coming that night and while I was talking to two local guys, another (very drunk) guy came up to me and was trying to tell me the others were police and were trying to rob me.  He was never quite able to explain just how they were going to do this, but to be fair I didn’t trust any of them.  I actually ran into the two guys at the grocery store a few days later, and they told me the other guy was trying to rob me.  *sigh*  Anyways, I spent the bulk of the night trying to deal with all this madness and to make things worse, the strap on my flip flop broke, so I was walking through the club, muddy floors and broken glass, with one bare foot.  In the end it was a bit of a stressful and somewhat annoying evening, but I got some free beers out of it and a funny story to tell, so whatever, haha.

Being the weekend it was time to relax, so Sunday was spent doing just that.  In the evening we cooked some chicken on the fire while Charlie played a little guitar.

I awoke to a light rain in the morning, so naturally I stayed in my tent a little longer waiting for it to stop.  Later on in the day (after the sun had come out) I was inside when Stefan said to come out and look at this big leaf bug on the tree outside the house.  It was nearly five inches long and very cool looking, but it had a broken leg so its days were probably numbered.

I was sitting outside reading a book reading a book about the old British army when I saw something moving on the ground.  Like any 12-year old boy, I like catching animals so I ran up and scooped up this chameleon .  It wasn’t especially pleased with its capture (even though I was gentle) and tried to bite me, but after a few photos I set it free and it happily climbed away up a near by tree.

That evening we went into town to do some grocery shopping and I have to say, just sitting in the back of the truck people-watching is quality entertainment.  There is rarely ever a specific event, but just watching people go by on bikes, watching various trucks filling up at the station, people carrying chickens and vegetables, and just interacting as they do every day is interesting to watch.  Anyways, we got our things from the shop, went to Inge’s place (the director of the orphanage) and had a candle light dinner due to another power outage.

It had been a long time since I’d ridden my bicycle, so although town was only a few minutes walk, I decided to ride.  The new tires from Fred at The Bike Shop in Maun feel great and while I still don’t have much riding planned for the near future, I’m looking forward to riding again.  In town I stopped by the internet café (about $3 for two hours, decent speed actually) then returned home.

Back at the house, Stefan and I had two of the orphanages bikes to fix up so they could be used again.  Luckily all they needed was some tube-attention and a few bolts tightened, so we quickly got those sorted out.

That night we all piled in Stefans van to meet some of the local guys and have a braai (bbq).  It is only a slight exaggeration to say white Southern Africans live almost entirely on meat.  While this may not be the best thing for one’s health, it sure is delicious so we dug in and filled our plates to the point of overflowing.  The (private) camp site where we happened to be is also an area that attracts a lot of bird researchers, so there were a number of grad students including one from Vancouver, BC. 

Later that evening, we decided to go for a little drive with a few people riding on the roof rack of the bus.  This was all good and fun, and after returning to the camp site and sitting down around the fire about 45 minutes later we received a rude surprise.  A car sped up, an angry woman (who will remain unnamed but has been known to be a problem in the past…) climbed out with a hunting rifle across her chest, shouting and furiously unplugging the lights and music.  She was saying that we had hit one of her cows (we certainly didn’t hit a cow), getting in peoples face with the rifle and saying she was going to shoot out the tires if she saw us again.  Nice.  The situation was eventually defused, but a fun evening had been turned into a bummer pretty quickly.  Stefan and the girls returned home that night (using the back way out) and I spent the night with the rest of the guys.

In the morning we finished cleaning up the camp site and I decided to join Andrew at his place for the day.  Andrews family originally lived in Zimbabwe, but as a result of Mugabe, the collapsing economy, the ‘farm redistributions’ and lets be totally frank, the murder of white farmers by mobs, they came to Zambia.  They have lived on this property for 4 years now and their farm includes cattle, tobacco, barley and more.  As soon as we came up on the house I was impressed.  Andrews mom puts a lot of care into the property and it has been a long time since I’ve seen a nice, green, manicured garden.  Not only that but the whole veranda area was very nice, with much of the wood work and art done by Andrew himself. 

The obvious thing to do was have another braai, so we grabbed some meat, fired up the grill and sat down at the bar.  I think we sat at the bar outside talking with Stewart, Andrews dad, for about six hours that day (and later his mom and sister).  We talked about everything, from fishing (Stews trophy 12.4kg tiger fish is mounted on the wall) to farming to racial politics in Africa to art.  You can read all the books you like, but this is the best way to get an education on the road, I’m telling you. 

That evening Andrew took me on a little tour of some of the farm on our way back into town.  For a quick refresher, we stopped in their small dam for a swim.

Sonny, one of the other young farmers in the area was having a little dinner at his place in town, and while we had eaten a lot of good food in the last 24 hours, this meal was the best of them all.  Finally, falling into a food-induced sleep, it was time to go home.

Another day, another run into the market.  These green contraptions are of course plows and I spoke with the people selling them (K650,000, $125US) to find out just how they are used.  What happens is that one person, often the small boy of the family, will lead the two oxen down the row who do the pulling, the husband controls the plow walking behind it, and the wife is behind him planting the seeds.  It’s still a long ways from mechanized farming, but it works and it’s a long ways beyond what I’ve seen in other parts of Africa, where everything is done by hand. 

The feed run out to the farm is a weekly task, so once again we headed out to both pick up and drop off supplies.  We brought the grain and returned with a slaughtered pig, bags of manure for the house gardens and bundles of grass for Stefan and I to rebuild a fence with. 

Friday evening was a night of entertainment for the kids.  Two local performers came in with a guitar to sing songs for the kids and due to another power cut, the brief show was held in candle light.

Children’s Nest being a Christian organization, many of the songs had religious themes, but the kids were smiling and laughing the whole time enjoying every minute of it, especially the song from the Lion King. 

After the music, we all returned to our place, then set out to the Sports Club.  The Sports Club is an interesting place.  It is one of those colonial relics from the days before independence and racial integration, a place behind fences where the wealthy whites could gather to play squash, tennis, golf and a drink.  These days it’s mostly cracked concrete and faded paint, but reminders of its ‘glory days’ hang on the walls.  Personally I liked the place and we will be returning to play some squash at a later date, but everyone else wanted to move on to DC.  We did, and while it wasn’t as bad as the last time, it’s still not a place I really enjoy.

In the afternoon the next day we set out to meet up with the guys.  As you leave the main road and the built-up part of Choma, you enter the edges which consist of a mix of concrete and mud brick homes with their own small gardens, and then beyond that is where the large farm plots begin.

We met the guys on the road, Gavin (at the wheel), Johnner, Garth, Andrew and Mash, following their Land Cruiser the rest of the way. 

After a quick stop to shuffle vehicles at Gavin’s parent’s farm, a property that was a lodge 100 years ago and has a hot springs, we set out with two shotguns trying to make use of the fading light.

I forget who took the shots, but we walked away with two guinea fowl, to be eaten later.  We did a bit more shooting at one of the dams, hoping for a duck or two but they never came within range. 

Later in the evening everyone reconvened at the house of Megan, an American in Choma with World Vision.  As usual, there was excellent food including some handmade pizzas.  That night I finally met a few of the Peace Corps folks here in Zambia and did a little networking for later on in the north, haha.

He’s a bit embarrassed about it, but oh well; I have to tell the story.  At one point in the evening, Andrew was cutting a rose to give to a girl, and the blade slipped and went straight into his arm.  Initially we all thought it was just a small cut, but as the blood began running down his shirt and pants and pooling on the ground it was clear we had to get to a doctor. 

Gavin, Andrew and I climbed in the truck and headed off to Dr Jains Surgery, a small private office that luckily was about a 3 minute drive away.  Despite the blood, it took some degree of convincing to actually get the doorman to open the gate, but once we were in the night attendant quickly began taking care of the cut.  Andrew was starting to feel very faint, Gavin and I were helping as much as we could and let’s just say few things were up to western medical standards.  Just watching the attendant trying to get the IV in was painful.  As she was digging around looking for a vein, se caused a flow of blood on the other arm that looked almost as bad as the cut itself.  It was too much for Gavin, and he went outside to throw up.  After about 20 minutes (keep in mind this is 1:30am at this point) Dr Jain arrived and got to work.  We moved into what I presume would be the operating room, I helped with the IV and with removing Andrews bloody clothes, then Dr opened the wound with clamps to check it out.  It turned out that Andrew had severed his brachial artery, and as Dr Jain opened the wound I watched it squirt blood nearly a foot onto his arm.  At this point Gavin and I were asked to wait in the other room and luckily Dr Jain was able to stitch up the artery right then and there.  Had the cut been any worse, we would have been headed all the way to Lusaka to a specialist. 

By 3:30am the wound was all stitched up and properly dressed, Andrew had an IV for some pain killers and fluids, and we had moved into another room to get some sleep while keeping an eye on the wound.  Dr Jain left and would come back around 9am, and while there was an attendant still around, I decided to stay the night in the clinic with Andrew to keep him company and to help with anything that might come up during the night. 

6:30am came quickly and both Andrew and I were awake again dealing with the cut.  His job was mostly to keep still, so my job was to help him drink water, keep him comfortable and wheel the IV drip around when he needed to go to the bathroom.  As the hours went on, Andrew managed to get one of the attendants to sing him a song (haha…), Dr Jain came back to replace the dressing and check things out again, a few friends came by to say hello and Gavin and Johnner came by with some much appreciated food and I spoke with Andrews dad on the phone.  At 10am Andrew was still feeling too weak to go home but I was starting to crash myself.  There wasn’t much for me to do anyways, so I walked home and took a much needed nap, while Andrew’s parents came to pick him up later in the afternoon.  What a night.

I awoke on the couch in the main house, still exhausted from a long night but it wasn’t time to rest, we were headed back to Livingstone to visit Victoria Falls.  I packed up my tent, threw it in the VW and Stefan, Charlie, Leslie, Tina and I set off south.  It was dark by the time we got to Livingstone, so we checked into Jollyboys (again) and went to bed.

The Jollyboys tent area in the morning sun.

As much as the trip to Livingstone was intended as a journey to see Victoria Falls, it was also intended as a break away from the orphanage for Tina, Leslie and Charlie.  All of us spent Monday pretty much just lounging around the pool and the cushions in the reading area.

Naturally I did my share of relaxing as well (and I think I deserved it after the night in the hospital) but I also had some business to take care of, voting!  I knew my time in Africa would overlap with the US elections and when I left I had no idea how I was going to be able to actually vote.  I didn’t know this when I left for Africa, but King County, WA has an online voting system for registered voters who are living overseas.  Because of this I was able to cast my vote for the national, state and local elections all the way from Livingstone, Zambia which I think is pretty dang cool. 

None of us wanted to spend all day lounging around, so in the afternoon we piled into the VW and headed out towards the falls.  We were not going to visit the falls themselves today, but instead we were going to see some of the activities around the falls.  First on our list was to check out the Lookout Tree, a tall platform at a baobab tree that has a nice view of the spray from the falls (50c if Zambian, $2 if not). 

Next was the ‘Mukuni Cultural Center Market’, which is really just a tourist trap.  You drive down a dirt road to a small village full of idle people, then as soon as they see a car of tourists they jump into action pointing the way to the ‘market’ as hawkers hustle to get to their stands.  To be honest if you are looking for tourist souvenirs you can get some serious deals, as they were more than willing to trade small carvings for a few pens, but after the third person tried to trade me a carving I didn’t want for the shirt of my back I got frustrated and got the hell out of there. 

Sunset cruises are popular activities around the falls, but they cost $50+ and you still just see the spray of the falls, nothing more.  Instead of shell out that kind of money, we did the smart budget alternative; waltz into a wildly expensive place we didn’t really belong and enjoy their view of the falls instead.  That place is The Royal Livingstone hotel, which I’m told costs $400 a night, per person! 

Sure, drinks cost double what you’d pay at any other tourist establishment, but you probably get as good a view or better as you would from a boat, and when you skip that $50+ fee, you can afford a few overpriced drinks.  The place was quite nice; they even had someone playing the flute in the dining area (though to be frank he was about as good as a middle-school band member).  As the sun goes down, the crowd grows bigger and the servers put out some trays of nuts and other snacks.  I’m sure this happens every night, but as if on cue, a gang of monkeys rushed the deck area grabbing at every piece of food they could find.  It was pretty funny. 

Earlier that morning, Stefan and I ran into Elise and Ashley, two American girls we’d ran into in both Maun and Kasane, Botswana weeks back.  They informed us that the party being advertised around Jollyboys would be a good one so off we went, finding a party full of white water kayak and raft guys (who tend to be a wild bunch). 

The big selling point of the event was Evicted, a rock band from Zimbabwe.  The music was mostly covers of classic and modern rock songs (Floyd, Deep Purple, Chilli Peppers, Blink 182, etc) with a few originals thrown in, but they put on a high energy show, the crowd (myself included) was loving it and the bass player was particularly good.  It was mostly just dancing and jumping around and singing, and then they finished their set with Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit.  Naturally the result of this was a nice mosh-pit that left one person bleeding from a busted lip (in a good way).  Naturally being from Seattle like Nirvana I particularly enjoyed the last song, so I went up and had a nice little chat with the band after the show. 

Victoria Falls, the reason most tourists come to Zambia in the first place and now it was our turn.  Doesn’t look quite like the other photos you have seen, does it?  That’s because it’s the low season for water flow on the Zambezi River, and instead of a massive wall of falling water, visitors are left with this little trickle… Obviously we knew this ahead of time, but I wasn’t going to skip it just because it would be better in four months.  We paid our K100,000 (about $19) to enter the park and went to check it out.

Even with the very low water it’s still an impressive sight.  During low-water times such as these, the best view of the falls that are running is from the Zimbabwe side (left side of the photo) but we didn’t bother.  To do that would have meant spending another $30 to get a multiple-entry Zambia at the border instead of the $50 single-entry, plus another $20 or something in Zimbabwe park fees.  To be honest, it is a bit disappointing to only get to see the falls like this, but this is when I’m here in southern Zambia so this is how it is.  I can add it to my list of ‘African Misses’ including missing the whale sharks in Mozambique, the sardine run in South Africa and the great migration in Tanzania.  Then again while those are some big ‘misses’ my list of ‘hits’ goes on for days, so it more than balances out. 

While there, Leslie did a bungee jump from the bridge over the river and there is also a zip-line and canyon swing plus all the white water trips, but these too I skipped.  I’ve done all those things before and while they are certainly enjoyable, to me none of them are worth how much they cost. 

The day was extremely hot, so as soon as we returned to the backpackers all five of us headed straight for the pool, then spend the rest of the day lounging around. 

On Wednesdays Jollyboys offers a short tour of town for free, so Stefan, Charlie and I decided to take advantage of it and learn a few things.  Livingstone is a pretty small place so we didn’t have to walk far, but we were told about the towns segregated history, a few of the key figures and a number of the government buildings as well as the old North Western Hotel, built in 1900.  That afternoon, we said goodbye to Livingstone and headed back to Choma

Shopping for fruit the next day on the main road.

Dinner back at the house with everyone.

At about midnight it began to rain, and it began to rain hard.  My tent (an REI Sub-Alpine) is a pretty good one so I wasn’t worried about getting wet but I ended up staying awake during the hour long storm listening to the rain on my tent, the thunder and watching the countless flashes of lightening.

Just to prove we are doing a little bit of work around here as well, here is Stefan and I rebuilding a fence, haha.  It’s pretty cool actually, because the whole thing is made with natural and local materials.  The poles are of course just sticks from the area, the grass we picked up from the farm earlier and the whole thing is tied together with strips of bark.  It’s the first time I’ve built a fence with entirely natural materials and it gives me some interesting ideas for what I can do out on the farm back home.

After a quick run to the market and dinner, Jay, Gavin and Andrew came over to play some card games.  Here Lisa is gloating about the fact she just won.

In keeping with the ‘braai all the time’ theme, Lisa, Stefan and I headed off to Gavin’s parents place again for dinner.  Here you can see the pool built around the hot springs I mentioned earlier.

Once everyone was finished eating, we hooked up a spotlight (that round thing on the roof of the truck) to the battery and set out through the farm on a sort of night-time game drive.  Animal wise it was fairly uneventful as all we really saw were various small impala, but we did get to watch an amazing orange moon-rise and at one point I ended up climbing a tree.

Because Lisa had Sunday off (and Stefan and I were also free of course) we decided to spend the night at Andrews’s house.  Both Andrew and his parents are lovely hosts and after spending a peaceful night on the outdoor bed we had a great breakfast.  Oh, and those metal elephants in the background are some of Andrew’s art, nice eh?

We took a quick tour of the family farm, checking out the wood shop, tobacco drying rooms and the large dam, and then headed out to the quarry on the other side of town for a swim.  This quarry was dug very recently, and the gravel that came from it was used in the road construction that was just completed two years ago. 

The water felt great during yet another hot day, although it’s too shallow to use the rocks for jumping.  The other minor problem is that when this stone breaks, it becomes extremely sharp and I managed to cut the underside of two of my toes while in the water, but it’s not too bad.  The scene of four white people swimming, and especially the fact one was a tall blond in a bikini, attracted a crowd and within a few minutes we had five or ten spectators.  As we got out of the water to dry off, Andrew gave two of the men beers, put on some reggae music and a small dance party was born!  I’m sure this was the most exciting thing to happen in this section of bush in years, haha.

Driving back to Andrews’s house through the tobacco fields.

Once we returned, it was time to eat again and there were two legs of lamb waiting in the oven.  We quickly grabbed some fresh carrots from the garden to cook along with the rest of the meal and yet again had a delicious feast.  Bellies full, it was time to say goodbye to Andrew and return to town. 

As you can probably see, Choma has been good to us.  Staying with the girls is a lot of fun; it’s nice to be able to help out at the orphanage a bit and meeting Andrew, Gavin, Jay and the rest of those guys has resulted in tons of interesting and fun activities.  Hanging out with them I’ve learned a little bit about farming and a lot about life in Africa.  I’m still not sure how much longer we are planning to stay, but so far it has been a great situation and neither Stefan nor I are in a hurry to leave.  That said, three weeks in Zambia have flown by in a hurry and there is a lot more than Choma to see in the country.  I imagine my next post will be from the capital of Lusaka, so stick around and see what happens.