Sunday, January 6, 2013

Cycling Zambia: Part II & an African Village Holiday Season

As I am writing this, I am sitting in a nice house in Lusaka (Heather's, where I spent Thanksgiving actually), I have a stack of pillows to my left side, a sleeping dog on my right side and a hell of an adventure ahead of me.  The boat trip is on. 

Lake Tanganyika, the world’s longest lake (670km from end to end), the second deepest (up to 1,470m), holding 18% of the fresh water on earth, with a 32,000 square km surface area and over 1,970km of coastline.  My goal is to paddle from Zambia in the south, through Tanzania on the eastern shore and finish in Burundi in the north, paddling the entire lake in a traditional wooden boat, in the rainy season, solo.  I am now convinced this is possible.  It will be a real challenge I am sure, but I think my biggest problem (besides the weather) will be my Tanzanian visa, which expires February 20th and doesn't leave me as much time as I’d have liked to have to get into Burundi.  The other big problem I foresee is the fact that in many places there is no shoreline to pull off at, because in many places and for long stretches, the cliffs go straight to the water.  If I’m at one of these stretches when a storm comes in, I’m not sure what my options will be…  From various sources I’ve been told that storm waves on the lake can be anywhere from 3-6 meters.  On a lake.  I’ve been doing what research I can about the lake, weather, routes, etc, and one other good news/bad news tidbit is that while I will probably have a headwind the whole time (great), it’s weaker in the rainy season than it is in the dry season (yay).  Riding a single speed bike across Botswana was fun, but to be honest it was pretty easy and very safe.  I don’t mean to be over dramatic and I don’t want to scare my family (especially you Auntie!), but I don’t think this boat trip will be either of those. 

My experience with other large African lakes (Lake Malawi and Lake Kariba) is that there tends to be lots of fisherman around, so I hopefully I won’t be completely alone should I need help.  I’ve looked at maps and satellite photos of the shoreline, and small towns and villages seem to run the full length of the lake, so while it is a fairly undeveloped part of the world, I won’t be the only one around.  I bought a whistle to signal for help, I’m working on finding a PFD (a ‘life jacket’) and if I can find a Tanzanian contact, am hoping to get someone to post ‘Scott’s all safe’ messages on my facebook, since I’m sure I’ll be able to find phone service in some towns but maybe no internet to do it myself.  Other realistic dangers include malaria, Schistosomiasis, hippos and crocodiles, including Gustave who literally weighs a ton is rumored to have eaten as many as 300 people!  I’m out here for adventure, and adventure I will certainly have.  I just wanted to make sure people know I’m going to do my best to be safe in the areas that I actually can control, not worrying too much about what I can’t control and that I’m not totally ignorant about what I am trying to do.  Anyways, I just wanted to get all that out because my next post will be from the lake somewhere, and it may be a while before I have an internet connection to actually share it.  Enough of that however, let’s finish off this bike ride!

Here is the entire route I took through Zambia.  I can’t help but wish I’d rode the whole country on my bike when I see ‘only’ half of Zambia covered, but after all, I was traveling with Stefan for the first half of the country in his ’74 VW, and that was an awesome trip in itself. (Sorry it's such a lousy map, Google Maps somehow couldn't do the route I asked for, so I had to draw it with my bad mouse and not enough time)

Day 15 (of the cycle trip through Zambia):

I woke early as I often do in my tent and felt unusually refreshed after the previous day’s 3-hour hot springs soak session.  What I wasn’t thrilled about however was that it was raining and I really wanted to dry my things.  Figuring I ought to get my money’s worth, I went to the lodge where I sat down in a comfortable chair to do some reading and writing until the rain stopped.  It eventually did, I was able to sun-dry my tent and clothes and getting a shockingly late start of just past noon, I set out on what I knew was going to be a difficult day. 

The sun was out, but I could see dark clouds and hear thunder in the distance, knowing it was only a matter of time before I was hit.  I tried to enjoy the scenery and I did stop to climb around some beautiful lichen covered stones for a few minutes, but my mind was elsewhere.  I had more than 40km of bumpy dirt road to ride before reaching pavement and I didn’t want to have to do any more of it in an African downpour than I had to.  So I pushed on.

I passed the new Shiwang’andu Mino Hydro Power Station (but didn’t have a chance to go down the road to see it in person) and saw many large columns of large black ants crossing the road before about 2pm when the rain started.  I was expecting the usual dump at any moment, riding and pushing as fast as I could, but while there was a steady drizzle the real rains never came.  Despite this, I still had plenty of water and mud to deal with but it wasn’t too much of a hindrance. 

My total distance from the springs until I reached the paved road again was 43.7km, and I have to say it was the most fun riding I’ve had on the entire trip.  I felt great, the weather was damp but comfortable, and trying to ride fast on a rock and pothole strewn dirt road to beat the rains was a fantastic challenge.  There wasn’t a second to relax and coast; it required constant attention and micro-route finding and I loved every minute of it.  I’m also glad I didn’t have any bike troubles, because I think I saw only two vehicles on that entire stretch of road.

I hit the (paved) Great North Road again and was amazed at my progress.  Not only had I done some of the highest average speeds of my trip thus far, I did them on dirt roads!  Unsure of how far I wanted to go that day as it was already getting late and I knew the rains would start soon, I pushed on simply because it felt too good not to ride.  By 5pm I’d ducked off the road, found some beautiful wild orchids and made camp for the night.  I’d wanted to go farther, but with the clouds the light was already fading and sometimes when you find a good spot you just have to take it, as you never know when the next opportunity will arise. 

Distance Covered: 70km

Day 16:

Remember how in my last post I awoke to ants eating holes in my rain fly?  Well on this damp morning, I woke to find termites eating my flip flops!  They don’t like being exposed, so they use dirt to encase their ‘targets’ before getting to work and that is what you can see here.  I’m not sure how long they’d been at it, but they managed to nibble a fair bit off before I put an end to their destruction and caused a little destruction of my own.  As I was packing up camp, I found not only had they begun eating my flip flops, but they had eaten about two dozen holes in my ground tarp and even a few in the floor of my tent!  Ugh!

It was only about half an hour into my ride when something caught my eye off to the left side of the road, rusted piles of train cars along the tracks.  I pushed my bike through someone’s cassava fields and took a closer look.  What I found was about 20 cars in various states of destruction and I couldn't help but wonder what the rail passengers felt as they witnessed the same scenes through the windows of the beat up old trains they would be riding on.  Maybe they are next?  It wasn't the first train crash I’d seen and it wasn't the last either.

Not too much farther down the road I came across the Chambesi rail station and decided to take a quick detour to take some photos.  The whole place was a nothing but cracked and faded paint, rusty metal, graffiti and a reminder of what used to be.  I knew the passenger train still ran along these rails once a week but figured this empty station would be abandoned.  I was wrong.  As I was walking around like the only living creature in a ghost-town, a man came out who, to my surprise, was the station agent.  His name was Joseph and we talked for a few minutes before I returned to my bike and he returned to his empty office. 

Crossing the Chambesi River.

I was feeling strong despite the previous day’s hard riding and the km’s flew by.  Much of the day was spent in towns and surrounded in huts and people, so it was hard to find any privacy.  I enjoy seeing, meeting and talking to the locals, but sometimes being a crowd-gathering attraction gets tiring.  I found what I presumed to be an empty church and sat down for lunch.  Clearly a corrugated metal roof was in the plans but hadn’t materialized.  Instead, a shade structure of sticks and grass was built within the church walls and I wondered how long it would stay that way.  I ate my usual lunch of apple, peanuts, raisins, and bread while a few kids tried to muster up the courage to look through the windows at me and eventually say hi. 

After lunch, I continued north towards Kasama, with plans to sleep in the bush just outside town so I could get in early the next day to use the internet and do some grocery shopping.  About 80km into the day another bicycle pulled up next to me with a local boy peddling and his brother riding on the back.  We talked for about 15 minutes while riding, he told me he wanted to be a doctor and see America.  The problem was that both his parents were dead (I didn’t ask how, AIDS?) and he was probably going to have to quit school so he could support his siblings.  I wished him the best of luck and we parted ways. 

In my whole time riding through Zambia I never did run into another bicycle traveler  the closest I got was locals hauling massive loads of charcoal.  They always got a kick out of me as I rode past.  

I was feeling strong and was reaching the point of having my longest day of riding yet when I saw I was only 10km from Kasama.  Towns usually sprawl for a long ways on either end of the road entering and exiting, so I knew I had to find a spot in the bush soon or I’d wind up in someone’s front yard.  I found a dirt road that took me a ways back, cut into the wet grass and shrubs and made camp.  That night the wind began blowing harder than I’d felt up to that point and I became worried about a real, sustained storm happening.  In preparation, I put extra guy-lines on my tent to help hold it against the wind, dug trenches around my tent to channel away water and waited for it to hit.  It turned out nothing unusual happened, so I cooked dinner and went to sleep after some time with my book.  A typical night really.

Distance Covered: 91km

Day 17:

When I wake and see the sun up, I always try to take advantage of it and dry my tent from the previous night’s rain so I did just that, hanging the tarp and fly on bushes, flipping the tent upside-down and laying out any other damp items in the already hot morning sun.  Once everything was dry and put away, I tied my bags on to the bike racks and set off towards the main road.

Kasama is the provincial capital, so it is a much bigger town than anything else in the area.  Right away I was seeing industry, new western-style(ish) home construction, the big (but equally empty and run down) train station and even multi-story buildings!  It’s amazing when a two or three story building is suddenly such a new and novel thing, haha. 

My plan in town was basically to spend a while on the internet, do some grocery shopping (I was desperately low on food, I don’t usually let my stores get as low as they did this time) and grab a beer with a PCV I’d met a few days back.  The shopping went fine, but the whole town seemed to be having network problems that lead to nearly useless internet.  I would open a page, read a few in my book, hit refresh a few times, and continue the cycle.  I did manage to send out a few emails and get the bulk of my previous blog post uploaded, but it was a serious exercise in patience.  So goes Africa. 

After my time on the internet, shopping, filling water and other little errands  it was 4pm before I began my ride out of Kasama.  As I was heading out of town, I rode through the lumber mills on the edge of town and the gum tree plantations.  I heard some chainsaws running and thought about stopping to watch for a minute, because I used to cut trees back in Seattle before I started traveling.  I’m sure there are some skilled cutters out here, but when I’ve asked people how they fall trees, the answer I usually get is that rather than make a face-cut and back cut like we would do, they just make what is essentially a snap-cut and hope the tree goes in some vaguely predictable direction, haha. 

It was on this day that I had the most trouble finding a spot to bush camp.  From Kasama on, it seemed like there was no break in the people living along the road.  It was starting to get dark and all I wanted was a nice spot in the trees to set my tent, make dinner and go to bed.  Sure, I could always stop at a random hut and try to ask if I could sleep there, but to be honest I’m not that interested in having crowds gather around me watching my every move.  I like my privacy.  I eventually found a spot to camp, ate a delicious dinner of pasta and ground beef and called it a night.

Distance Covered: 55km

Day 18:

When I woke at 6am it was raining again so I laid in my tent reading until it stopped.  By 9am the skies had dried, I’d eaten my usual cereal and powered milk breakfast and loaded up the bike to go. 

The riding was easy, uneventful and I felt pretty good.  Today I would be meeting up with another Peace Corps host, Allison in here village of Nondo.  I wasn’t sure exactly where I’d gotten to the night before so I was unsure how far I actually had to ride, but just before noon I arrived in Nondo, met Allison and rode the 2.5km dirt road that leads to her hut.

We ate lunch, I was introduced to Allison’s host family and we sat around chatting.  I was treated like an honored guest by Joshua, Allison’s host father.  Shortly after arriving, he brought over a big tub of hot water for me to bathe with and it was much appreciated.  It really did feel like a special connection, a special experience.  We talked about the village, about farming, about his family’s history, drank a little wine together and laughed a lot. 

About an hour after I arrived, the day’s rain hit and hit hard.  I am from Seattle and worked outdoors for years so I know a thing or two about rain, but the rain in the African rainy season is a totally different beast.  The skies fill with clouds and it comes on quickly, often starting with a minute or two of drizzle, then you hear it coming towards you like a freight train, a waterfall in the sky headed your direction.  People and animals run for cover, fat drops batter the grass-roof huts (many of which leak), plants and trees shake and droop and are pushed towards the ground by the water and what used to be a dirt path becomes a steadily flowing stream, what used to be a low spot in the dirt court yard becomes a pond.  It looks like it will never end.  Then about half an hour later it stops.  Then the sun comes out, the ground steams, the air becomes thick and humid.  Then about two hours later it’s nearly dry again, with little or no evidence of the flowing, falling or sitting water that had just recently inundated the area.  It’s like magic. 

Once the rain had stopped however, Allison took me on a little tour of her host families fields and I was immediately impressed.  I’m still no expert on Zambian farming, but it was clear that Joshua is smarter, harder working and more organized than most of his neighbours, and it clearly pays off.  We cooked dinner, talked late into the night and finally called it a night.

Distance Covered: 42km.

Day 19:

In the morning, the two of us made a huge breakfast of 6 eggs, potatoes, tomato, onion, cheese and more.  I was stuffed.  Shortly after we finished however, Joshua came over and wanted to feed us more.  Playing the good host and wanting to honor me, he brought over nshima and goat.  This was quite a gesture, because people out here eat almost no meat, it’s just too expensive.  He had one of his family walk 2.5km into town to buy it, walk back, got his wife to season and cook it, than brought it over to eat with me, at 9am!  I could hardly eat more, but I certainly understood and appreciated the gesture, so I wasn’t going to say no.  It was delicious. 

Allison eats with her family fairly often, but she said this was the first time she had seen any meat.  Her guess was that he did this because I am a man and I’m inclined to agree.  She is the first generation PCV in this area, meaning that this village has surely never had any white people/foreigners living there before and I am very likely the first white man to stay in the village.  This was a big status thing for Joshua.  Because that day the monthly traveling market was in town, people from all over the area were passing in front of the house.  Many would simply stop and state.  I’ll probably be the talk of the village for weeks to come, and I’m sure Joshua will proudly tell people we ate nshima and goat together, on the floor with our hands, like true Zambians. 

Because Manada, the traveling market, was in town on this day people were everywhere and excited.  I packed my bike and together the three of us walked into town.

Manada, also called the ‘Tanzanian Market” (not sure why) is a traveling market that moves around Zambia, stopping at different villages for one day.  It was crowded, it was noisy, it was muddy, it was rainy, and it was totally alive.  In a word, it was chaotic, in a word, it was African.  We walked past the massive pile of bicycles (how people find theirs again I can’t say), through the muddy lanes between seated venders covering their wares in tarps, past the ‘drinking area’ on the fringe of the market that had a bit of a sinister vibe and back out.  I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen this many people in one place.  Unsurprisingly, despite the size and reputation of the market there was nothing for sale you didn’t see at any typical, small local market or shop, nor are the prices any better.  Then again, I guess it is a social event as much as anything and one I was glad to get to see.

As I was preparing to say goodbye to Allison, the heavy rains came again and we sought refuge in a nearby church.  By now it was past noon and I really wanted to hit the road, I had another host, Andrea lined up for that night.  The drizzle didn’t die off after the big burst, so I just figured it would be a wet day, and set off. 

On the way to Masamba I had lot of big hills that were great fun, and the light rain was enough to keep me cool but not get me too wet.  Then something strange happened as I was riding through Sanga hill.  Now, I’m used to people shouting and waving when I ride through towns.  I’ll admit to being an uncommon sight.  But as I rode through this one town, something, I don’t know what, was different.  It looked and sounded like half the town’s men were shouting at me.  From both sides of the road, in front of me and behind me as I kept moving, people were yelling, pointing and moving closer.  To be fair I doubt anyone meant any harm, but for the first time in my ride, in both Botswana and Zambia, I felt very uncomfortable.  I put my head down, took a deep breath, turned on the power and rode out of town as fast as I could.

By about 3:30 I arrived, slightly wet, in Masamba and found Dre (Andrea) braiding the hair of some of the local girls.  I was immediately impressed by her demeanor  her language skills and her obvious comfort and integration within the community.  I remember thinking ‘This is exactly what Peace Corps is all about.” 

Dre has a larger house than most, 4 rooms.  We sat in the living room chatting, she shared her last Christmas cookie with me and after a bucket bath (my second in two days!) went to have nshima with her family in their smoke-filled home.  Dinner turned into a long and far reaching conversation, with Dre acting as a translator between myself and the other men.  Somehow the topic was eventually nudged into a discussion on both condoms and malaria, two of the big subjects PCVs are supposed to educating people on, and as we walked back to her hut Dre joked “I just clocked half an hour’s work there.” 

Like the night before with Allison, Dre and I were up until around midnight talking.  As an outsider with so much experience with Peace Corps as a result of my time around Africa and staying with so many PCVs in Botswana and Zambia, Dre was particularly interested in my thoughts on the program.  We discussed its mission, its methods, its limitations, its idealism and cynicism and much more at length. 

I’m not going to attempt to summarize it here, but I will cover a few bullet points.  I think the Peace Corps is a great program.  I thought about doing it once, and who knows, maybe will someday.  It is a program that focuses on education and knowledge exchange, not about handing out gifts.  The ‘gift’ model of international aid has, I believe been incredibly damaging to many of these nations, so to me Peace Corps is doing the right thing in that respect.  By living in a village for two whole years, volunteers and locals can and do form real and lasting bonds.  No other organization I know of does this.  The most important and beneficial thing Peace Corps does I think is what I’ll call ‘demystifying the other.’  The time shared, the experiences had and the relationships that are formed matter, because until that point villagers and volunteers have simply never had any meaningful contact.  As Americans, we tend to see African villagers as someone to be pitied, usually in the context of some religious aid organization trying to get a donation and take their (often substantial) cut.  As African villagers, they see Americans and whites usually in the context movie stars on TV who have everything they could ever want and live trouble-free lives.  Both of these notions are obviously incorrect, and the Peace Corps, by putting Americans into villages, breaks down those old barriers and shows everyone involved that we are all just people, not so different from each other.  The other important benefit, and this was one Dre pointed out, was that many people who do Peace Corps end up working in government and in politics.  The education these volunteers receive out here does return home to America and in the end can be used to make better policy decisions, in a nation with a disproportionate effect on world events. 

Distance Covered: 55km.

Day 20:

It wasn’t until past 11am, after I’d stuffed myself with pancakes and a seemingly endless amount of toppings (Nutela, honey, peanut butter, cinnamon, sugar, etc), that I managed to leave Dre and her lovely hospitality.  I wasn’t sure how far I’d make it with such a late start but I set off and decided to ride hard.  By 2pm I’d reached Mbala in the far north and realized just how close I was to the end of my single speed bicycle journey.  I wandered around Mbala (there isn’t far to go) for a while, using the ATM, grabbing a bite to eat and attempting the internet café, where the power went out 4 times in a 30 minute period and it took 15 minute to open my email inbox.  I decided to move on.  Just outside of town I leaned my bike against a fence to eat an apple and put some air in my tires.  After a few minutes, I was approached by an unmarked sedan which three people dressed in camouflage exited and came up to me.  I had no idea, but apparently I was leaning on the fence surrounding a Zambian Air Force base (Zambia has an air force!?) and this was not allowed.  They looked through my camera (which surprised me) and sent me on my way.  I think they just wanted something to do.

It was getting late and I still had something like 40km to ride in order to make it to Mpulungu, the lakeside town that would mark the end of my bike journey and the start of my boat journey.  Luckily the town is something like 1000m lower in elevation so the ride was mostly screaming downhills.  At one point I hit 46kph, which on this bike, on these roads, with my gear, was a bit sketchy. 

Shortly after 4pm I saw it for the first time, Lake Tanganyika.  My first thought honestly was ‘Holy shit, what am I getting myself into?”  It’s simply huge, and while I could see one at first, than both of the sides, looking north up the lake it could easily be mistaken for an ocean.  Am I sure I want to do this, in a wooden boat, in the rainy season, alone?  I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to having some second thoughts.  Either way, that was my finish line on the bike, so I pushed on, down, down, into what felt like another world.

Stunning scenery.  At this point I’ve gone through the entire nation of Zambia, half in a ’74 VW van, the other half on my bicycle and I think I can safely say this is the most different, and beautiful part of the country.

Naturally, I had a whole group of Peace Corps people to meet up with in Mpulungu, but as I was only a few minutes away from the lake the rains started and started hard.  I ducked into Corner Bar towards the end of the road to wait it out, and wound up buying myself a pre-finish line beer.  Strangely enough they had Budweiser, and while I never drink it at home, I decided it would be a nice change from the African Castle, Mosi and other beers I’d become used to out here.  As I drank my Bud and waited out the rain, I quietly hummed the Team America: World Police song to myself and reflected on my little bike adventure.

At just after 6pm, as the light was fading and the rain had slowed, I carried my bicycle down the stairs at Waterfront Bar.  I’d made it.  892.86km through Zambia, on my $124 single speed bicycle, without proper saddle bags, in flip flops, at the start of the rainy season.  As the cliché goes, it was a bittersweet moment.  I was thrilled to have reached my goal, the end of my bike journey, but at the same time I would be parting with the little machine that has been so good to me; taking me around Gaborone for a few weeks, riding something like 1,800km through and across the entire nation of Botswana, and now nearly 900km through Zambia.  Riding in intense sun, powerful headwinds, seemingly endless stretches of hot asphalt, sandy and muddy roads to and from villages and in drenching rain, this silly bicycle, never meant to tour Africa, handled it all and handled it well.  Never once did I regret my choice of bikes, instead I feel it added a huge amount to the journey.  The Bike Shop in Gaborone, Botswana (and later their branch in Maun), where I bought it was awesome in giving me support, advice and deals along the way, so I want to be sure and extend a special thanks their way.  I had a number of people tell me what I was doing couldn’t be done, that I was crazy, that I was making a huge mistake.  I knew it was possible; I saw and did so many amazing things on the way, met so many wonderful people (huge thanks to all my awesome Peace Corps hosts) and without a doubt this bike leg of my African Adventure has been one of the best journeys of my life.

I joined another group of Peace Corps folks for beers at the bar, and then we headed to Nkupi Lodge for a dinner of fresh fish and nshima. 

Distance Covered: 81km

Total distance through Zambia: 892.86km.

In the daylight I could finally see Nkupi Lodge, the place I’d be spending the next few nights.  It’s unfinished, but a nice place and the owners Denesh and Charity are great people.  There are chalets, flush toilets and hot showers, but no restaurant or bar so be prepared to take care of yourself in that respect.  I joined a few of the guys and walked into town for breakfast, on the way taking in my first daylight view of the stunning Lake Tanganyika. 

Buying vegetables in the town market. 

Wow.  Soon that’s going to be me.

We returned to Waterfront Bar to watch the sunset over the lake and eat dinner (by far the nicest place in town and I think the only place on the lake, complete with swimming pool), then moved on to Roadside, one of the local bar/dance clubs to finish up the night.

Nearly all the PCVs left early the next morning and as a result of friendly locals with a bottle of cane sprits at Roadside the previous night, I spent all morning in bed watching movies, haha. 

In the afternoon Kristin, one of the few non-Peace Corps Americans I’ve met in Zambia, joined me for a walk to the lakeside.  It was time to look at boats.  Just near the market I saw a group of boats that looked promising, at least from an intel prospective, and walked up for a chat.  The man I spoke with told me he was the boat builder in town, and that he could build me a small canoe, assuming he had all the materials, for 1.8 million, about $350.  I don’t have time to wait on something like that (because I know it will take far longer), nor am I hoping to spend that much, so I filed that info away and kept walking.  Where the fishermen were coming in with their catch, I met a fisherman who wanted to sell his boat.  He wanted 500,000, about $95 for it, but honestly it was junk.  I got a phone number and told them I’d be back in a week or so to talk more.  After a bit more looking and discussing, I had a pretty good idea of what kinds of boats are available here in Mpulungu and a very rough idea of what I should pay.  Of course I’m hoping to swap my bicycle for the boat, so that complicates matters a bit, but suddenly I was feeling very confident about my ability to get a boat here on the lake.

Oh, I almost forgot the sails!  These are great; in general the boats are a sort of two-man canoe.  Because the winds reliably blow north to south, the fisherman paddle out and then can ride the wind home at the end of the day.  The masts are made simply a tall stick tied onto a brace and the sails are made from sewed together nshima bags!  I’m positive there is no way to tack upwind with this kind of setup so it’s of no use to me, but at least these guys can run with the wind on the way in which is pretty cool. 

After checking out the boats, Kristin and I headed farther down the road to where it ends, past the line-up of semi-trucks and to the Mpulungu harbor.  This is where ship trade happens between Zambia, Tanzania and Burundi and also where the ferry MV Liemba, an ex-German warship built during the early 1900s, docks to take passengers up the lake.  I was here just to look, but also to find out more about how immigration between Zambia and Tanzania works. 

A few other people ended up showing up to Nkupi Lodge in the evening and using my little netbook, I hosted a movie night in my chalet, screening the 1989 version of Batman.

December 24th.  I’d hoped to be somewhere along the Tanzanian lakeside by this point, but on the road, you always move slower than expected (in a good way).  I ended up getting invited to the village of Zombe to spend Christmas with more Peace Corps folks and it sounded like a nice idea.  I hopped onto a minibus and headed back to Mbala.

In Mbala, I stopped at a local restaurant for some nshima and chicken, than met up with Dre (who I’d stayed with a few nights earlier) and Jodana.  We were waiting for a canter (Canter is a model of cab-over Mitsubishi truck used for either transporting goods or dozens of people are piled in the bed and they act as buses) so had some time to kill at the local library, a place Dre has been helping to organize.  The library is housed in a fantastic old building, and the books, while worn and ancient, have an interesting history of their own.  Flipping through a few, I saw many were from the defunct libraries of countries such as Rhodesia and other African colonial countries no longer in existence. 

Our ‘canter’ ride, proper African public transport.  We paid just under a dollar for the 40 minute ride, but I think it would be fair to say it was the most uncomfortable ride I’ve had in Africa.  This was largely my own fault though, as I failed to properly carve out a sitting space for myself.  Instead, I was squatting the whole time, trying to hold Jodana’s bicycle and keep it from being damaged as we hit massive potholes in the road.

Jessi Funk, Christmas host extraordinaire. 

As part of Christmas dinner, we all chipped in to buy a goat to slaughter.  After settling in, many of us went to the neighbour’s nsaka to watch.  I’ve seen animals being killed and butchered a few times, but I think this was the first time I’d watched a the whole process with a goat.  The animal was held over a bucket to catch the blood, and then its throat was slit to bleed out.  From there it was tied up, skinned, and then put back on the floor to remove the intestines.

Having never seen a goat slaughtered before, I was pretty surprised how little meat you actually end up with.  These animals are all stomach! 

With the goat done, it was time to return to Jessi’s place where we all helped cook dinner, a delicious Mexican style feast. 

Jessi’s home at night. Zombie, Zambia. 

Despite the fact a handful of us stayed up until nearly 4am talking, sewing extra Christmas stockings, eating Christmas candy and wrapping gifts, at 8am we all woke up and got back to work.  While we started cooking and other pre work, cows wandered the yard.

French toast with an audience.  Ah, I have to talk about Andrew (guy second from right).  I actually met Andrew at Kipisha Hot Springs a week or so back.  He is Canadian, worked in Europe in IT, then bought a Land Rover and drove through West Africa.  We spent a good hour or more talking at the hot springs, then when I arrived in Nkupi Lodge in Mpulungu a few days later, I heard a familiar voice in the dark and there he was again!  We all hung out at Nkupi and then like me, was invited to join up for Christmas.  Even on the road, you can find familiar faces and you can always make plenty of friends. 

After eating, we all sat down and opened Christmas stockings, ate cookies and candy and enjoyed what was becoming a proper Christmas celebration! 

A group shot of the Christmas crew.  I wonder if this village has ever had so many white people before, haha.

In the afternoon after a short walk through some of the village to see the well and a sacred stream, we all walked a short ways down the road to the headman’s place.  They had seats set up for us already, and a group of men and women who were going to perform some traditional dance.  We made introductions and shook hands, the headman gave a short speech and the music and dance began.  Interestingly, the bulk of the music was made by grinding a stool against an upside down pot, and the rest of the sounds being made by bells on ankles, a whistle and chanting.  It was very unique and very interesting, a lovely way to spend a Christmas! 

Northern Zambia truly is a beautiful place.

In the early evening, a large crowd gathered at one of the other homes in the village, reed mats were set down, hands were washed and we all dug into our Christmas dinner, Zambia style.  Nshima, rice, goat, greens, mushrooms, beans were all devoured in a hurry. 

As a special treat, someone brought some roman candles (you can buy them in Lusaka actually, even things like 200g cakes and mortars are for sale in certain shops) to celebrate.  Two of the guys were in charge of the task of lighting everything; I stood back with a tripod and played with long exposures. 

The kids loved the show and I had to wonder how many of them had ever even seen fireworks before.  One thing that was really funny was that the roman candles were 5-shots each, and after a few were lit, the kids began counting out every shot.  Instead of simply counting “1, 2, 3,” along with the Christmas colored flaming balls, they would shout in unison “One Onion! Two Onion! Three Onion! Four Onion! Five Onion!

Fireworks done, it was time to return home to open more presents!  A gift exchange was organized by Dre (Thanks!) and by the time the wrapping paper settled and all the trades and steals had been done, I wound up with a roll of green toilet paper.  Small, but I was actually just about out so it was just what I wanted!  (priorities on the road are different, haha)  Once again, it was time for Christmas goodies, and hot coco was made, mint brownies were passed around and we all sat around in our little food/candy comas until late into the night.

I never expected to have such an awesome Christmas here in Africa, really I didn’t know I’d have one at all.  What I got instead, was the most memorable Christmas of my life: a mud hut in a village in northern Zambia, with water leaking from the roof, goat blood on our hands and surrounded in new friends.  Thank you everyone, and thanks especially to Jessi for hosting!

Because I decided the boat trip was a go, I had prep work to do.  I wanted to do some repairs on my tent from where insects had eaten holes, I wanted to wash my sleeping bag, I needed to have a decent internet connection and I needed some more clothing if I was going to be out in the rainy season.  For all of these things, my best option was to go nearly all the way back down the country to Lusaka to Heather's place where I spent Thanksgiving.  Early on the 26th, left Jessi’s place in another canter, this time I had a bag of potatoes to sit on so it was a much nicer ride, and went to Mbala to get an overnight bus to Lusaka.  Someone happened to be having what I assume to be a wedding, and along with the many decorated, swerving, honking cars with people hanging out every window; a marching band was going down the street as well. 

In the early afternoon I climbed on an overnight bus for 140,000zk ($26), but just before mine I saw another bus with Kristin from Mpulungu.  We had discussed staying in Lusaka together but I hadn’t been able to get a hold of her.  We shouted our plans through the bus window and agreed to meet up at the station in Lusaka. 

The bus ride was a somewhat strange experience.  There is really only one road option for going to Lusaka and of course it is the road I cycled up earlier.  To drive through in a matter of hours what I’d taken 20 days to complete gave me a good laugh, and it was fun to look out the window and see venders, huts and towns I recognized. 

At about 4:30am, I arrived in Lusaka at the Inner-city Bus Station, met up with Kristin and we took a taxi to Heather's place. 

I arrived in Lusaka with dreams of big city luxuries like internet, washing machines and hot showers, but when we showed up it turned out the power was out!  I took a cold shower, spent the morning and afternoon washing my tent in the bathtub and then Kristin and I biked out to use an internet café and grab some food, then return home to walk Ruby, Heather's dog. 

It’s a good thing I had my camping gear with me!  Dinner of grilled cheese and tomato soup ended up being by headlamp and on my camp stove, in Lusaka!  (oh, and those empty beers were already there, not mine!)

The next two days were more work cleaning, sorting and repairing gear.  I needed to make sure everything was in good shape.  My sleeping bag was getting nasty, I’ve been using it out here for probably 6 months now, so it was due for a wash.  Problem is it’s a top of the line down bag from Feathered Friends in Seattle and you need proper down soap to wash it or you will damage the down.  Most of this day was spent riding minibuses and wandering malls trying to find down soap or some suitable alternative, but it was no use.  I wish I’d brought a small bottle from home, but of course I didn’t think about it at the time… There also seem to be no outdoor gear shops in Zambia either (Botswana has Cape Union Mart, a South African outdoor chain, but Bots is a richer and more developed country).  As a result, two of the main missions in Lusaka, washing my sleeping bag and getting more/better outdoor clothing to deal with the rainy season were complete failures.  I’ll just have to make due. 

Two big milestones passed here in Lusaka.  The first was that the 28th of December marked one full year since I left home to travel Africa.  I wrote a short reflection that I posted to Facebook at the time, so I’ll copy/paste that in here:

"It's hard to believe, but as of yesterday I've been in Africa for 1 full year. 
In that time I've seen and done more than I could ever have imagined. I've driven half way up the continent in a 4x4, waited out a hurricane in Mozambique, been scuba diving in Lake Malawi, climbed an active volcano and seen lions, elephants, leopards, giraffes, and more in Tanzania, gone to AfrikaBurn and worked in a farm in South Africa, been to a heavy metal show and rode a single speed bike 1,800km through and across Botswana, spent a month at an orphanage, rode my bike 900km through Zambia, celebrated Christmas in a mud hut and am preparing to paddle the longest lake in the world in a wooden boat. I could try and predict the next few months before I return to Seattle, but honestly anything could happen so why bother?

I've met more amazing people than I could count, I've benefited from the kindness and hospitality of strangers at every step of the way and done my best to return the favor. When I decided to sell off my things, move out of my house, quit my job and hit the road I was stepping into the void. It was a little scary, I'll admit it, but it has been the best and most rewarding thing I have ever done. I hardly know where I"ll be the next day, I certainly don't know where I'm headed in the long term. All I know is that it is a big and beautiful world full of fascinating sights and people, that I want to see as much of it as I can and that I've never been happier than I am now. 

There are times when I miss home, when I miss my friends, when I miss my family. I know everyone's lives are going on without me and I wish I could be in two places at once so I didn't have to choose. I don't want to play favorites, but I have to thank a few people. First is my always supportive parents Don Brooks and Chris Syrjala. Next is Sazzy Kohli for inviting me to India two and a half years ago, the event that set me on this path, my sister Robin Brooks for saying "well, why not?" when I told her I wanted to sell off my things and travel the world (so I did), and finally Chris Ras for inviting me to come travel Africa with him. There are plenty of friends and family who I don't have time to name, but I want to thank all of you for your support. I may be out here in Africa traveling alone, but I know I always have you supporting me, it makes a real difference. Thank you.

Finally, I want to say I am returning to Seattle in just under 6 months. I will be working my way all the way to Cairo, Egypt, flying to Germany to meet Stefan in late June and returning to Seattle before the 4th of July. I excited to return for the wedding of Nick Jones and Ellen Sherck up on Jonathan Hogues farm (this is actually the reason I am ending my trip) and I can't wait to see what happens in the future."

The second big milestone was that I bought a ticket home.  Sure, it’s a ticket for 6 months out, but I set out to Africa with no real plan, no real schedule, and now I have an official end date.  What I did was buy a flight from Cairo to Germany on June 20th, so I can visit Stefan for a few days, then a flight from Germany home to Seattle on July 3rd.  My time in Africa has been amazing and I know even six months now I won’t be totally ready to leave, but I have wonderful friends and family I need to attend to as well.  Two of my good friends, Nick and Ellen, are getting married on July 27th, and I decided that I needed to be home for that and for everyone else as well.  Were it not for the wedding, I’d probably stay in Africa for another 6-12 months honestly, but I am very excited about some of the opportunities I will have when I return home so I have no complaints.  Basically, my friends are starting an organic farm on a small island outside of Seattle, so right now my plan is when I return home to live on the island, build myself a small tree-house to live in and spend a year or a year and a half building the farm, then set out to travel again!  What can I say, life is good.

With everything taken care of in Lusaka I was able to do (not much…) I was headed north again to return to my calling, the lake.  Luckily I managed to get two different invites for New Years, one with Allison (one of my lovely hosts on the bike trip) at a waterfall near Kasama and with Mikaela (who I hung out with at Christmas) in her village of Mwengo.  Both sounded like great options, but I could only pick one and ended up going to Mwengo because it was farther north and thus closer to the lake.  After another mostly sleepless and uncomfortable night on an overnight bus, I was back in Mbala, in the north of Zambia.

I arrived in Mbala shortly after sunrise armed with a text from Mikaela how to get to her village.  I could have paid $6 for a taxi, but decided to just walk the 6km or so, I had the time and might as well enjoy the morning.  I wound up chatting to some local guys as I walked down the road and eventually wound up with a  local boy who knew where Mikaela’s house was.  He walked with me the whole way and brought me right to the front door.  Given that I was on such an early bus and walked straight to the house, I was the first one there by many hours. 

In the early afternoon other started to arrive and we had the makings of a small village party.  The headman and his family came over; we shared a few drinks and then cooked dinner for ourselves.  A short while later the headman (he’s the neighbour and Mika’s host family) came back with a live chicken he wanted to give us as a New Year’s gift.  We all got a good laugh out of it, told him we had nowhere to keep it and that it would be better if he gave it to us tomorrow. 

A few other local guys and joined us, and many drinks were had.  The headman (in the blue) got quite drunk and was a blast to have around (unlike the other guy at the party who had too much to drink…).  We were playing music through an iPod and some little battery powered speakers in a dish, and he picked it up, started dancing with it, and would pass it around making other people dance when they were holding it.  It was a good party.

New Year’s Day Hair Party!  A few weeks back Mikaela had a weave put in and now it was time to go.  This was seriously tedious work; we did it over the course of three different rounds.  Most everyone left on this day, but I decided to stick around for one more night.

Carrying water from the well to homes bright and early.  

We made crepes for breakfast and then took a taxi into Mbala to take care of a few things.  In the afternoon we were supposed to meet a friend of Mikaela’s at his bar on Lake Chila, which is just 2km past Mbala, but he wasn’t there so we put on a movie and waited.  He wound up being a few hours late, and after a few free beers and a dinner of nshima, we had had a full on action-movie marathon, watching four movies in a row.  Because of this, it was now far too late to return to Mpulungu and get back on Lake Tanganyika like I’d planned, but sometimes you just have to relax and roll with it right?  I returned with Heidi and Mikaela to her place for a second unplanned night in Mwengo.  No worries though, it’s a stunning place with good company, so not a problem. 

A year in Africa will put a smile on anyone’s face (ok, that’s probably not true, but it certainly has me smiling).  After breakfast, helping with a through clean-up of Mikaela’s place, lunch, and what looked like a break in the rain, I set off on foot for Mbala where I could catch a minibus back to Mpulungu finally. 

I returned to Mpulungu just as I’d arrived the first time, just as the sun was setting.  This time I knew right where I was headed, and returned to Nkupi Lodge where I’d stayed before and where I’d left my bicycle and a few other things.  There I was greeted by Ghram, another traveler friend I’d met last time through and began to get serious about preparation for the boat adventure ahead of me.

Obviously the plan now is to prep and head out for the boat trip.  I’ve got a few contacts here, a few people to get advice from, and plenty of my own recon to do.  It’s possible I’ll end up taking the ferry over the border into Tanzania and buy a boat there, as I’m told it may be able to get a better boat for cheaper, plus immigration will be far easier, but I still don’t know.  I need to leave as soon as possible though, because my Zambia visa expires on the 13th of January and my Tanzanian visa expires on the 20th meaning I need to be through Tanzania before then.  Already I feel like I’m running on a time crunch for this boat trip, but I’m going to do the best I can. 

Stick around; things are going to get interesting. 

Anyways, merry Christmas  happy new year’s, thanks for all the support over the last year I’ve been out here and to everyone back home in Seattle, I’ll see you in July!