Monday, December 10, 2012

An Eye-Opening Experience, An American Thanksgiving in Africa and a Goodbye to a New Friend

I’ve said it a million times already, but I’ll say it again: Life on the road means being in a state of constant change.  As I write this, Stefan and I have split ways after two months traveling together (I will be stopping by in Germany on the way home for a visit), I am just over a week into my single speed bike ride through Zambia (a country that even has hills!), am staying with a Peace Corps group who is putting on a girls camp and shortly will continue my ride north to Lake Tanganyika (the longest lake in the world) to buy a boat.  I think I alluded to this earlier, but my plan is to barter my bicycle for a traditional wooden canoe of some sort when I get to the lake, then solo it all the way from Zambia through Tanzania to Burundi… and it’s the rainy season. 

Like my single speed bike ride across Botswana, it’s just an idea I had and couldn't get out of my head, I saw a satellite photo of the lake and I was hooked.  Once again I don’t really know what I’m going to be getting myself into and during my (admittedly brief) research I certainly didn’t find anyone else who has done the lake either solo or in a wooden boat.  I have found people paddling the lake in groups using modern sea kayaks, but what fun would that be?  Anyways, that’s still a few weeks away so both you and I will just have to wait.  Until then, here’s another little glimpse of my life in Africa.

Wow, this was more than a month ago, time sure flies.  Monday was spent in the usual way; fixing a few little things, running errands around town and eating a traditional Zambian dinner together with the orphanage head.  In the evening, Lisa, Stefan and I played pickup-sticks, which brought me back to playing with my friends Nick, Ellen and Brendan back in Seattle and admittedly made me homesick, for a few minutes at least.  The day after was spent in much the same way, but with less productivity. Stefan and I watched some mediocre movie, then in the afternoon headed off to the market where he bought a small axe for under $3.  They are very neat little tools, about as simple and primitive as it gets but they are easy to make and cheap to buy, making them the perfect African tool.  That night was German pancakes again, always a popular dinner.

Lunch at the orphanage (and the re-election of Obama, I made sure to visit the internet café that day to read all about the results). 

After dinner most of us headed off to the Choma Sports Club, where a few of us played racket ball.  I wanted to join in, but I’d cut the bottom of my toes the other day and was unfortunately unable.  Either way, it is a cool place to be and a fun little activity to have in town. 

Thursday was a very bad day.  I’m still not sure how to write about it and explain it, partly because I don’t know all the facts, partly because it is a very sensitive issue, but I will do the best I can…  The government had threatened to take over the orphanage numerous times before and never followed through with their words.  This time they actually meant it. 

A letter was left on the door saying people from the government would be coming the next day to take control of the orphanage from Ms Fischer had been running and funding through German donors for the past eight or so years.  We all knew what this meant: that in short order the place will be run into the ground, the kids would become homeless and because 80% of them have HIV/AIDS and some are physically and/or mentally handicapped, they will likely no longer have access to necessary care and medication, meaning some of them will simply die.  I’m getting upset just writing about it. 

The short version of it is that the employees were demanding more pay.  This is where things get sensitive, but the truth is basically Zambians tend to believe white people are all swimming on cash and they can and should pay the workers far more than they do.  The orphanage is (Was? Maybe it has collapsed already) a foreign funded non-profit, and because they were not bringing in huge sums of money, were paying a bit below what are apparently very onerous wage requirements set by the government (I have a feeling many businesses don’t conform to these rules, but this organization was targeted because it was run by foreigners).  Because of this the employees, who were from what I understand still making more than enough to get by comfortably, were operating under a short-term contract that had lower wage requirements and was renewed every few weeks.  The employees decided they wanted to be paid more, and when Children’s Nest said it wasn’t possible, they went to the government, resulting in the takeover. 

Because all of the funding was coming from the German donors and volunteers, that will now dry up without the primary organizer and fundraiser.  No one wants to donate money to an organization that is almost guaranteed be corrupt and incompetent, not to mention the volunteers will stop coming without the German connection.  Where is the pay for the workers going to come from now?  Certainly not the government, they don’t have the funds to run these kinds of organizations, not to mention the corruption that takes place and tends to sink those that do manage to get funding.  I know it sounds cynical, but that’s how things go out here.  I’ve heard these kinds of stories in every African country I’ve visited thus far and while I didn’t want to believe it was as bad as I’d heard, it is and then some.  It seems the only thing that happens quickly in Africa is collapse.  Apparently the guy the government brought in to take over the orphanage has had two other organizations collapse under him previously.  So as a result of this takeover instigated by the employees, not only are they starting off the inevitable decay of the organization and putting the kids onto the street, killing some in the process, they are putting themselves out of a job! 

As soon as this all went down, the aunties (the local Zambians), started acting up.  They told the children they didn’t have to talk to the volunteers anymore, they were ignoring the volunteers or outright disrespecting them, at one point they pushed through Ms Fischer’s door to her house demanding more money (even after she was no longer the head) and refusing to let her say goodbye to the children because she might use witchcraft on them.  By Monday the kids were already going without meals.  I am going to leave it at that.  There is a lot more I could say about this topic, such as the anti-white/foreigner animosity that always seems to be below the surface, but I’m going to stop myself right here and now.  The next few days the girls tried to go on as normal, but continuing as it has been was now impossible. 

Despite all this, we still went around and did things with the kids, but there was a massive amount of tension all the time.  Each day we saw the kids we thought it may be the last, and we were essentially going around saying goodbyes. 

Enough of that.  Let’s have some fun.  We all desperately needed to unwind after an extremely stressful time for all of us, so we headed out to Gavin’s parents place for a few beers a lovely swim in the hot springs and dinner. 

The next morning we were back at Gavin’s, with the intention of doing a little game drive around his family’s property.  We all loaded up, African style in the back of the pickup truck and set off, airguns in hand for some target practice along the way.

Our first stop was to the dam for a swim but only Andrew and I actually went in, the others just watched and laughed at us getting tangled up in the water lilies (which I then put in my hair).  We managed to see a few zebra, some antelope and plenty of birds.  As we were driving slowly down one of the dirt roads, Andrew stopped and said there was an orchid in the top of one of the trees and that he wanted it for his mom.  How he managed to see the thing, I’m not sure, but naturally the job of retrieving it was mine.  In swim shorts and flip flops, I climbed up the tree, about 25 feet or so, and was able to reach the branch the orchid was on.  Luckily it was quite a rotten limb and I was able to break the whole thing off with one hand and toss the limb with attached flower to my audience below.

The sun setting behind the gum trees as we drove through the tobacco fields.  The girls all returned to town, but Stefan and I stayed behind with Matt, Steve, Andrew, Gavin and Johnner for a bit of a guy’s night. 

In the morning, we returned to town, spent some time in the market and had many more discussions about the uncertain times ahead.  The stress and uncertainty was wearing on us all and everyone was trying figure out their next moves.  Because Stefan and I had only gotten 30-day visas for Zambia, the next day we had to visit the immigration office for a (free) 30-day extension.  I was worried it would take ages, but 10 minutes in a cramped office filled with strange Zambian government posters and a few notes in a beat up book was all it took to get our extension stamp.  A pleasant surprise. 

On our way back to the house, we stopped by the post office to pick up packages the girls families had sent from Germany.  A great deal of it was food from home and gifts for the children, including a large number of Santa hats and I think it did a great deal to raise their spirits, especially the jars of Nutella. 

At this point there was a serious discussion as to whether it was even safe for the girls to stay in the house anymore.  There was a discussion of getting packed and everyone leaving the next morning.  We didn’t end up going with that option, but none of us felt very comfortable leaving our valuables behind even for a few hours with no one around, so when we went out to Sonny’s for dinner, we brought laptops, passports and other valuables with us…

We had tried to check out Andrew’s wood shop on a previous day but were foiled by a lack of keys.  On this day we were more successful and being a carpenter, Stefan was particularly interested in checking things out.

Andrew had some business he needed to take care of at the logging camp that supplies the wood for the shop and I decided to join him.  Here we see the local women rushing to sell vegetables to passers-by on the road. 

There were three of us on the trip, Andrew, his friend and business partner Chakwanda (spelling?) and myself.  It was rather crowded in the small cab of the pickup, especially as it is a manual transmission, but we are all friends so it wasn’t a problem. 

It was only about 7:30 when we arrived at the camp but by then it was pitch black out.  As we arrived, one of the two guys employed to work and stay at the camp came out in his underwear brandishing a stick in case we were thieves but quickly realized it was his bosses, haha. 

The worker/guard in question, eating some nshima and greens for dinner.  I forget this guy’s name, but he was hilarious.  He moved like a cartoon character and was always sitting or standing at some weird angle, arms or legs twisted in strange angles.  He was a real bush-cat.

Some of the material ready to be brought into town.  Unfortunately phones don’t work out here, and this had recently led to a major problem.  A truck showed up saying they were supposed to pick up a large load of lumber.  Unable to check with Andrew or Chakwanda, the workers let them take it, and it turned they were simply thieves taking advantage of the lack of communication… They talked business for a while, we ate last night’s stew for breakfast, brought the water drums to the well in order to fill them and set off towards home.

Swimming with local kids in one of the rivers we crossed along the way.

The start of rainy season is the start of mushroom season, and you see kids all over the road with handfuls of mushrooms for sale.  Some are the size as this photo, but they can be as large as a foot or two across!  We bought the handful and returned home to cook up a feast. 

Apparently Choma is a big enough town to get Zambian pop stars coming through on tour, and tonight’s entertainment would be Mampi.  Naturally I had no idea who this was, but apparently she was on African Idols or something.  We showed up to the club around 11pm and there was a huge crowd pushing to get in the front door.  We eventually got inside, but in the process someone tried to pick-pocket me.  Luckily I felt it and shouted something while knocking the hand away, but I couldn’t tell who it was. 

The show itself was terrible.  All it consisted of was extremely lazy lip-synching for about twenty minutes at a time, then twenty minutes breaks while she changed clothes and not even any discernible choreography from her or her backup dancers.  There were other ‘artists’ as well who ‘preformed’ but it was no better, as far as I could tell it was just drunk local guys climbing on stage to shout over a track playing over the sound system.  Oh well, it was kind of funny.

It was time for Stefan and I to say goodbye to the girls, to leave Choma and to move on.  We’d had a great time there and spent much longer than either of us ever expected to, but at that point there was no reason to stay.  After saying our goodbyes we packed up the bus and started driving.  We both felt good to be on the road again.  Tex and Matt, two Peace Corps guys we’d made friends with were going to Lake Kariba so we decided to join them. 

We drove down the main road for a while, but the last 40km or so down to the lakes edge was all dirt.  Along the way we passed by an area where people were making bricks.  The way this is done is by digging the clay out of the ground, forming it into bricks and then stacking it in these piles where fires are then set inside.  I thought they looked pretty cool and they reminded me of the Egyptian pyramids and of how far I had to go still, haha.

We showed up at Lakeview Lodge around 3pm and I was impressed how nice it was.  Everything was clean and well built, and the setting on the lake shore was beautiful.  The sign did not stop me from swimming.

Most people who stay at the lodge opt for the fancy chalets, but us and our poor Peace Corps friends are on the budget option and pitched tents in their camping area.  Unfortunately there was no power and the water didn’t even work, but we made due. 

As the sun begins to go down the lake fills with fishing boats and it reminded me of Lake Malawi, with one major exception.  While on Lake Malawi the locals are still fishing from dugout canoes and attracting fish with kerosene lanterns, on Kariba they use motorboats with large florescent lights and nets on booms.  The lights on the water were rather pretty, but the low rumble of countless diesel engines was a little annoying. 

Stefan fishing the next morning.

Lounging poolside with the Peace Corps posse.

And a beautiful sunset over the lake that evening.

The PCVs (that would be Peace Corps Volunteers for those of you who haven’t spent week upon week listening to Peace Corps people talking in acronyms) left very early in the morning as they had to return to work from their little break, but we took it easy in the morning before setting out. 

It was a bit of a drive, but about 6 hours later we arrived in the capital city of Lusaka.  It felt weird being in a “big” city again and the traffic and modern buildings were a bit of a shock to the system, but we had a reason for being here. 

That reason was Heather, a college friend of my sister Holly.  My sister had linked to my blog post about riding across Botswana on her facebook page and when Heather saw I was near by she offered to host if I was in the area.  Naturally I accepted.  Heather is a teacher at the American International School of Lusaka and after winding through the busy streets of Lusaka we found our way to her house.  Upon our arrival, one of the first things Heather did was break out some proper American micro brews!  The commissary for embassy employees has tons of American food and drinks, including American beer and having some real beer with strong flavors (including a Full Sale Pale Ale from Oregon) was a real treat after 11 months of bland, mass produced African beers.

Heather gave us no time to rest however, as Mondays is rugby night.  Now neither Stefan or I had ever played rugby before, but it was just a co-ed rec game and a time to have a little fun on the field.  I did my best, but to be honest I mostly felt like a chicken with its head cut off, running around in all the wrong places at all the wrong times.  I guess it would help if I actually understood the game or knew the rules….

When you stay in small towns or villages, coming to the big city tends to mean time to shop.  Not that I enjoy shopping as a recreation, I have a strong dislike of it actually and especially of shopping malls.  Unfortunately, in Africa malls are the only place to do any real shopping for decent products, so we ended up visiting them with shocking frequency while in Lusaka.  It still wasn’t even Thanksgiving, but the malls were going into full Christmas mode.  Oh well, might as well make the best of it. 

That night was volleyball night.  I’m no superstar at that either, but at least I understand the game and enjoy it.  Our shopping trip went late and we only caught the tail end of the game, but I thought I had a few decent plays, and in my enthusiasm dove and rubbed a fair amount of skin off my knees.  After volleyball we met up with some co-workers for drinks and had a nice chat in the back yard.

The next morning it was time for Stefan and I to put on a show.  Heather had asked us to give a presentation about our travels to her class, so we spent a while organizing photos and gave it a shot, talking about why we travel, what we are learning and some stories from life on the road.  Stefan only had photos from Namibia with him, so he showed those and then it was my turn.  Being that we are in Africa, I decided to show them photos from my 6-month Asia trip.  I did my best to be interesting, but it was a morning class before a holiday and these are high school kids, so their minds were probably elsewhere.  Oh well.  That said, one of her better students said something along the lines of “Maybe I won’t go on to college yet, now I want to travel.”  Maybe I succeeded in getting one, haha. 

That afternoon we had to run all over town with a big list of errands, the most important being purchasing a new tire for the bus.  We wound up in the ‘auto parts district’ of Lusaka, and while Stefan was in the store buying a tire, I had to answer questions to about 20 curious locals who were all quite fascinated by the bus, especially when I told them how far Stefan had driven it.  That night we went out to Indian food, then got suckered into going to the movie theater, to see the new Twilight movie…. Yah I know, at least it was less than $3!

Ah Thanksgiving, I’d just about forgotten about you!  If I weren’t staying with Heather, I probably would have as I’ve pretty much lost all sense of time over the past two years of travel.  We were headed out to play football with a bunch of other Americans, but dealing with the important things first, we finished the pies before heading out.

Football.  Another game I don’t really understand, despite the fact I am American.

Getting ready for a proper Thanksgiving feast. 

The living room was moved outside for the festivities.

In total there were somewhere between 40 and 50 people at dinner, and what must have been a million pounds of food.  I stuffed myself with delicious food and when I couldn’t eat any more, went back for a second and third plate.  This is Thanksgiving after all, that’s just how it’s done!  The whole night was a real blast, I’m very grateful to have been able to share it with so many people despite being so far from home. 

That weekend was the ‘Bongwe Bush Bash’, a three day party at the Gwabi River Lodge on the lower Zambezi.  I had no idea what it was going to be like, but I didn’t want to sit around the house in Lusaka all weekend doing nothing, so I joined Heather and six of her girlfriends to see what it was all about. 

The Lodge was pretty nice, situated above the river and had a nice pool and deck area, but there wasn’t anything particularly unique about it.  The group had rented a chalet, but an unfinished and unfurnished one, so all the girls put sleeping pads on the floor sleep-over style and I set my tent up on the porch outside.

The party that night was ok, but obviously quite a lot smaller than the organizers had hopped and planned for.  I wasn’t a fan of the music the DJ was playing but still had an enjoyable night.

Playing in the pool the next morning.  I actually met another set of triplets, which was amusing as that doesn’t happen very often.

After a lazy morning, we all piled onto a boat for a river tour on the Zambezi with hopes of seeing some nice wildlife.

We managed to see a few large groups of hippos and two crocs, but to be honest the whole boat trip was a huge disappointment.  You win some, you lose some I guess.

That night I wasn’t really in the mood to party, so after food and a few drinks, I headed to my tent to finish my book and take a nap.  I’d intended on returning to the festivities after a little rest, but simply didn’t wake up until morning.  Oh well, I suppose I just wasn’t in the mood that night.

Everyone packed up their things and we set off for Lusaka.  The drive was scenic (well, the first half) and uneventful.  When we returned home, thanks to Heathers commissary hook-up, I got another special treat, Annie’s organic Mac & Cheese!  It might seem silly to some of you back home, but when you are gone this long, having a little taste of home can really brighten your day.

Ugh, more shopping malls…. The last few days in Lusaka were also pretty uneventful.  We took care of some last minute shopping (I got myself a little Shox powered mini-speaker, my Christmas present to myself), saw the movie Argo which was actually quite good, had dinner with some friends, and so on.  Not much to say about it really.

Haha, a friend was coming over to Heathers for a board game night and drove into a ditch.  I still think he probably could have gotten out on his own if he’d tried a little harder, but I just had to include this photo of the VW pulling out a Land Cruiser!

On Saturday it was time for us to say goodbye to Heather, our wonderful host for the past ten days and hit the road again.  Thanks again for everything Heather, we had a great time and it was awesome to have a big American Thanksgiving way out here in Zambia! 

Shortly after leaving Lusaka we found ourselves back in rural Africa again.  Unlike America where you have wide swaths of suburbs on the edges of cities, transitions seem to happen pretty fast out here.  One minute you are in the city, then the sort of shanty town edges, then into farmland.  A great deal of the road from Lusaka to Kapiri Mposhi is lined with large scale commercial farms and both Stefan and I looked at this fact from the perspective that there were just about no good spots to duck into the bush and camp.

As we passed this, I just about did a double take.  It looks just like a generic American suburb!  According to the sign, they are going to be some sort of government housing, for the air force I think it was. 

Roadside charcoal sales.  These bags sell for about $2-$3 I believe and is the fuel rural Zambians use for cooking.  Unfortunately it is also a significant cause of deforestation in Africa, but I’m not sure the people really have any realistic alternative at the moment.

As I mentioned, this stretch of Zambia is made up primarily by large farms and it seemed every space in between was a small village.  Once again, no good places to sneak into the bush and camp.  I’d arranged to stay with a Peace Corps volunteer the following night, but first we had to find somewhere to spend this night.  After driving all the way to and then past the volunteers site we would be the next day, we finally found a small dirt road off the main track and found a spot to camp for the night.  It wasn’t far from the main road and we could see and hear every car at night, but it did the job.  I awoke to someone walking up and saying hello the next morning, it turned out we were on the edge of someone’s farm and he was a manager, but I gave him two pieces of bread and he went on his way without being bothered by our presence.

We killed time where we had spent the night until the afternoon when Emily (right), our Peace Corps host was available at her site that is between Kapiro Moshi and Mkushi.  After spending time with Botswana PCVs and seeing how good they have it, I have to admit I was a bit shocked to see how the Zambia PCVs live.  Most life as part of a family compound, everyone lives in mud brick huts with grass roofs (that frequently leak), has no running water and no electricity.  I guess they say Zambia is the last Peace Corps program where the volunteers live like this, and I actually think it’s very cool.  I think most of the volunteers are quite proud of this fact as well, and I’ve had quite a few people point out to me that Zambia Peace Corps has the highest rate of volunteers extending their service (an extra year) of all the countries Peace Corps operates.  A little while later, Patricia, another volunteer joined us to spend the night at Emily’s site. 

In the evening Patricia and Emily cooked up a great dinner over the charcoal cooker called a braizer, using mushrooms and other veggies to put over pasta, and we had a great night talking, drinking wine and watching Futurama on Stefan’s laptop. A rare treat volunteers since they don’t have electricity where they live.  Thanks for the hospitality Emily, it was great to meet you and Patricia and cool to finally see what Peace Corps is like in Zambia.

Patricia was headed the same way as us (up the Great North Road as it’s called) so she joined us in the bus as we set off.  The next stop was at another volunteer’s house, Sam.  Sam’s site is located a few km off the main road as part of a small family compound, and is focused in agriculture and forestry. 

At this point, it was finally time for Stefan and I to split.  We are both headed out of Zambia in the north towards Tanzania, but have different time frames and next steps.  He’s meeting his brother in Arusha, I’m heading to the lake to buy a boat and I have been itching to get on my bike again.  After two great months together and many adventures to reflect on, we looked at the calendar, figured out when will be the best time for me to swing by his place in Germany between Egypt and the United States at the very end of my trip and said our goodbyes.  Travel is a great way to meet new people and make new friends.  I never thought I’d spend two months with a German guy in a 74 VW between Botswana and Zambia, but that’s just the kind of things that happen out here and the way you end up making friends.  I look back to how I traveled with Chris in the Philippines and how that is what ended up bringing me to Africa in the first place. With that in mind, there is no telling what making friends with Stefan might end up leading to in the future! 

That’s about it for now.  As I said in the beginning of this post I’m now a little over a week into my bike ride through Zambia and things are going well.  It was never part of the plan to stay with PCVs the whole time, but that’s pretty much what has happened so far and I’m having a great time.  It’s fun to be in such rural villages and a great way to see the country.  My next post will be of the whole bike trip and efforts at getting a boat, so check back in two or three weeks, it ought to be a good one! 

Thanks for reading, and travel safe.