Saturday, August 18, 2012

Traveling


The bus came surprisingly early on Saturday. Emily, Jas, Zeger’s sister Flore and I, who had been making last minute purchases at the market, almost missed it. There was a great deal of arguing when it arrived over an issue with the seating of a friend of ours who was traveling with us, a teenage boy named Gift. Meg and David befriended him during his visit to his family in Kazembe and he also happened to be heading to Lusaka. Finally, everything was settled and Gift made it on to the bus.  

I settled in my seat by the window, in the same place I sat on the return bus last year. Meg sat next to me. Our friends came around to the other side of the bus and waved goodbye as it slowly pulled away, covering them in plumes of dust as it rolled out of Kazembe and headed South.

I watched villages and trees and streams and people fly past outside the window as the bus picked up speed. After three months on these streets, I barely noticed the bumpiness, partly because the roads had been fixed due to Mutomboko. It didn’t take long to fall asleep in the warm light of the afternoon sun.

I woke up when we reached Mansa a couple of hours later. Mansa is the closest city to Kazembe. It has the closest grocery store and bank. Tom and Amy travel there every other week for food and business transactions. Zeger, Emily and I hitchhiked our way to a gas station where we purchased meat pies, shwarmas, burgers, and fries and some sort of pastry for me before the bus left. I like the people in Mansa very much. The people who gave us a ride went out of their way to help us, and a man warned me that my money was about to fall out of my pocket. I’m not sure one can always find the same sort of kindness in cities in the States.

The rest of the bus ride was not quite as pleasant. As the sun descended and we were plunged into the kind of darkness one can find only in the bush, bathroom breaks became less frequent and exhaustion started to settle in. Of course, it is at the time when one would most like to sleep that the driver inevitably turns on movies. We started with Sarafina!. I didn’t see all of it, but what I did see made me want to watch the rest. Unfortunately, I did not feel the same about the movies that followed – a Rambo flick dubbed with Bemba and a strange Zambian made movie about two strange guys who appear to be domestic servants for a guy who likes to dress in orange jump suits and sit in rooms filled only with chairs. There was a great deal of yelling and music and laughing, and none of it was conducive to sleep. None of us really slept at all as the bus carried us farther and farther away from our home for the last three months.

I must have dozed at some point, because the next thing I knew, Meg was shaking me awake and telling me we were in Lusaka. It was 4 a.m. and freezing outside. We almost accidentally bought tickets to Livingstone, but somehow managed to blearily make our way to Lusaka Backpacker’s, the hostel where we stayed when we first arrived. However, our rooms would not be available till 11, so we all crashed on what was essentially a concrete bench with cold cushions by the pool and shivered for a few hours, sleeping a total of 45 minutes.

When at last the hostel began to stir, we ordered breakfast, which was absolutely delicious, made even better by the fact that we were ravenous. Other travelers emerged from their rooms to find five bedraggled muzungus rejoicing over eggs and toast.

Eager to take advantage of our short time in the city, we headed off to Arcades, a shopping center that includes a movie theater and a Spar (grocery store.) On Sundays vendors set up a massive tourist market and hawk overpriced wares that look very authentically African. We were consistently ripped off but ended up with various souvenirs and gifts to bring home.

Although we had fun in Lusaka, I am not a huge fan of the city. It doesn’t feel kind, with all its cars and smoke and yelling and high stone walls. For the first time, I was grateful for the mwata’s recent declaration prohibiting fences of any kind in Kazembe. Without fences, the community felt close knit, and everyone depended on each other. In Lusaka, one feels isolated and alone even in the midst of the largest crowds. No one greets you with a pleasant “Mulishani.” No one asks how anyone else is doing, and certainly no one knows your name. Even as we enjoyed fresh milk that wasn’t powdered, I found myself missing village life.

We spent the rest of the day relaxing and enjoying each other’s company for the last time. We took Gift to the movies in the evening and found a shop selling ice cream. It was the first ice cream any of us had had all summer, and it was absolutely amazing.

The next morning, we rose in the morning and spent our last hour eating Belgian chocolate and tangerines from a friend’s village back in Luapula, laughing and reminiscing and talking about the future. Finally, it was time to go. I was the first to leave. I dragged my bags out to the front and Emily and I checked out of our room. We took pictures and exchanged hugs and tried not to cry. It was strange to leave these people who I have been living with for months. I have known none of them for more than a year, and yet I feel as though we have known each other all our lives. I am really going to miss them, and I am so excited to see where each of them will go in the next few years, because they all have amazing plans and incredible potential to do great things in the future. 

I took a taxi to the airport with Zeger’s old friend James, who, in addition to driving a taxi, is the chairman of the Lusaka Funeral Association and offers free funerary services to families in poverty. We enjoyed a very interesting discussion on mortality as he wove his way through the streets crowded with pedestrians as a result of an agricultural and commerce show happening that day.

At the airport, things got even more interesting. When I checked in at South African Airways, the employee behind the counter (whose name was also James) informed me that my final destination was Washington, D.C.

I do not, in fact, live in D.C. Nor was I connecting through D.C. My stomach felt weak but I ignored it as I pulled out my itinerary and began to try to figure out the situation, refusing to remind myself that I was now alone, with no way to get in touch with my friends still in Lusaka, out of money, and in a foreign country. James, who was not interested in speaking much to me, proceeded to call someone on the overhead speakers. I am sure that the entire airport greatly enjoyed listening to my debacle as James’ voice boomed my name and flight information through the loudspeakers. The voice at the other end responded in garbled English and James asked him to repeat himself several times. Then James repeated everything he had said before again. The conversation ended when he said in a very condescending tone, “You are not right,” and turned off his radio. If not for the reasonable concern building in my stomach, the situation would have been quite funny. Finally, James told me to go to the South African Airways office and gestured vaguely back the way I had come.

“How do I get there?” I asked.

“Just go over there,” he ordered, not looking at me. “Someone will show you.”

The next person I asked told me to ask someone else, and this person just waved in the same direction as James. Beginning to feel exasperated, I finally found the office back in the lobby where I had entered. South African Airways must train their employees to ignore their customers, because after I explained my situation to the people in the office, they proceeded to mutter to each other and did not look at me again. Silently they handed me a new printed itinerary that said the same thing as my first itinerary. I found my way back to James, who accepted the paper without comment.

“Okay,” he said, “you are going to Houston. And you are going to Washington, D.C.”

I grimaced but tried to remain polite. “No, I’m not going to D.C.”

“Yes, you are,” he said.

“There must be some mistake,” I started. “The itinerary they just gave me doesn’t say anything about D.C.”

Suddenly, a very large and stern looking man appeared. “James,” he barked, “what are you doing? Ignore the computer and just enter the information. It doesn’t matter. You will just confuse yourself.”

“She says she does not want to go to D.C.,” James said plaintively.

“I definitely don’t want to go to D.C.,” I affirmed.

“She is not going to D.C., James,” the man snapped, gesturing the computer. “Where does it say that?”

James looked at the screen in surprise. “It just said D.C.,” he said incredulously. “I didn’t touch anything.”

“What are you doing? Give me that.” The supervisor snatched my passport out of James’ hands. “Let me give it to our resident expert.” He handed the paper to the woman at the desk next to James, who smiled pleasantly at me.

“What is the hiccup?” she asked. For the third time, I explained the problem. She also remained mute as she handed me my boarding pass. The supervisor, who appeared to be the only employee capable of interacting with customers, showed me the path my baggage would take and informed me that I was not, in fact, going to D.C. after all. I thanked him gratefully and headed to my gate.

A short flight brought me to Johannesburg, South Africa, where it is National Women’s Month, the time of year in which the nation celebrates the progress made by its female citizens and the role said citizens played in taking down Apartheid. Anyone who knows me will know how pleased I was to read about the role of South African women in culture, government, and business.

The rest of my travels passed fairly uneventfully. I would, however, recommend not reading a book about a plane crashing into the ocean while one is flying over the Atlantic. Nor would I recommend sitting behind the man who snores for hours on end and "accidentally" pulls out a Saudi Arabian cigarette in the middle of the flight, much to the chagrin of nearby flight attendants.

By the time I landed in Houston, I was exhausted and tired of traveling, so I feel that I was somewhat justified in the frustration I felt upon learning that my luggage hadn’t made it to the States with me. Fortunately, the good people at Lufthansa returned it to my doorstep in Spring within a few days.  

As much as I love traveling, I think I’ve had my fill of planes for a time.

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