February 17, 2006

So many ways to throw yourself off a cliff

Crazy Mzungus (white people)! Who else would want to jump into a gorge for fun?

I had the same thought as I stood with my back to the edge of the gorge, attached by a harness and rope, with my feet bound. The Gorge Swing is a contraption where you jump off of the edge and freefall until the length of rope goes taut, and you swing the rest of the way across the gorge. It was terrifying as I went down backwards, which they assured me was less frightening than going forwards. Even though I wanted to, I couldn’t keep my eyes open, so I had no idea where I was, how far I was from the bottom. I would keep expecting the rope to catch and start the swing, but it kept on not being there, until I really began to fear that it would never catch. Then bam! and my head would whip back and I was safe on the upswing.

For my second jump I had an audience of Zambian tax inspectors, who watched me be put in a harness. I let out what Jonathan described as “a blood curdling scream” as soon as my feet left the ledge, evidently scaring the daylights out of the Zambians. Crazy Mzungu!

At this point, I was really ready to be done. It wasn’t any less terrifying the second time around. Plus, at the end of each swing, we had to climb 300 ft back out of the gorge, in 90 degree direct sun. I was tired, and I didn’t need to do it again.

But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do a tandem jump with Jonathan, harnessed together at the hip and holding each other around our waists. While it was more comforting to be holding him as we stepped off the ledge, we also went much, much faster with our combined weights, and swung much higher. It felt as if we were plummeting towards the earth, and despite doing my best not to scream, it ripped out of me probably just a second after we left the platform. Check out the video clip, or the photos.

I don’t ever want to hear from him that there is anywhere I wouldn’t follow him. :)

In addition, I tried Rappeling and Rap jumping, where you run going face first down a cliff. My favorite was the Flying Fox, where I was attached to a line that ran straight across the gorge, and you run at full speed and spread out your arms. It really felt as if I were flying. The view was spectacular, and I could see my shadow all the way down on the gorge floor.

I had no idea that there was so many ways to jump off a cliff. Ropes and harnesses are amazing things…

Getting there is half the fun…

A 4X4 vehicle is an impressive machine. High off the road, with boxy windows and growling engines, these cars seem to be able to drive through anything.

And in large part, they do. The dirt roads going to Jungle junction were bumpy, but certainly driveable.

But after a good long rain, they turn to trenches of mud.

Piled into the back of the pickup truck with our luggage and Evelyn, a botanist from the Camp, we sat while the truck first got stuck in mud that was 2 feet deep – we had to be pulled out by another Range Rover. Mysteriously, children and men showed up within minutes of the car getting stuck, and all seemed happy to pitch in to help get the car out. Little boys especially seem to find it entertaining and try to push.

A few minutes down the road we were stuck a second time, out of the range of help. After some futile attempts at driving out of the mud patch, we all got out of the car, while our driver, covered in mud, patiently jacked up the front right wheel, then the left, and hacked off tree branches to put underneath the wheels. After diligently working for 40 minutes under the hot sun, he gunned the engine, and we crossed our fingers and hoped that he wouldn’t be the first person this season to be stranded in the mud.

I have never been happier to reach a paved road.

Jungle Junction and Lizazi

To get away from the touristy main strip of Livingstone, we headed to Bovu, a small island in the middle of the Zambezi River, to a rustic camp called Jungle Junction.

nullWe arrived by mokoro, a dugout canoe carved from the trunk of a single baobab tree. It was surprisingly stable, powered by a boatman in the back with a long stick/paddle. It felt very serene and calm. The sun was low in the sky, and the only sounds were the chirping of insects and the gentle lapping of the water against the canoe.

Jungle Junction is a camp, with reed huts and campsites, set up by 2 Scottish expat hippies. All of the buildings are made from native materials. No electricity, kerosene lamps, outdoor showers. It had all the hallmarks of a great place to do nothing – a library hut, a bar hut, a dining hut, and several places to lie down. Even when it rained the entire day, it was a relaxing and tranquil place to unwind.

There were also a few excursions from the camp, including a tour of the local village. We were taken by George to his village of Lizazi, which had 128 people in 10 families. Completely dependent on subsistance farming, we saw rows of corn, sorgum, a few goats, and a few chickens. Round thatched huts served as sleeping quarters, while the “kitchen” was a open walled thatched hut. Meals were cooked on charcoal or wood fires.

The visit was refreshingly low key – there was nothing to buy, nobody to pay. We were given advice to visit them “just as you would visit a friend”, and not hand out toys or food to children. Kids didn’t expect anything either, which was also a welcome relief after being trailed with “Hello, money!” and “Jambo! Chocolate?” in Tanzania .

Most of the village was empty when we visited at 9 in the morning, with the kids in school, and the adults working in the field. It made me feel quite the slacker to be going on my fourth month of vacation…:)

February 16, 2006

Chinese New Year and the Search for a Phone

Phone booth photo Copyright Todd Lappin
Although Livingstone, Zambia may be the adventure capital of Africa, it is damn hard to find a phone.

Since arriving in Africa on Dec 23, I had only managed to talk on the phone with my mom for a total of 8 minutes. I told her I arrived safely, that I was off Kilimanjaro safely, and the third call that I would call back when I got better phone accesss.

It had been almost 3 weeks since I called, and it was Chinese New Year. Every Chinese New Year growing up, I remember my mother hovering around the phone starting at 5am, waiting for calls from Hong Kong and China. Often, it would be the one time a year we would speak to family and friends there.

I was betting she had never been wished a happy new year from Zambia.

Unfortunately, Jonathan’s cell phone had no coverage throughout Zambia. Neither the hostels or the internet centers had phones capable of international calls. To make matters worse it was a Sunday, and many shops were closed.

There are, however, the Zambian version of public phones. Unlike the booth I’m used to, these were rickety wooden shacks with tin roofs, each with a person standing guard over one phone. Making calls from Zambia is expensive -$10/minute.

I got in all of 45 seconds of time, enough hear her surprise to hear from me, and to wish her a happy new year, and then the phone cut off. Evidently I had used up all their pre-paid credit, and they couldn’t give me anymore…

We celebrated by going to the very posh Royal Livingstone 5 star hotel, and had drinks at sunset on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River, just before the water crashed down at Victoria falls. We could see the smoky water vapor from the crashing falls.

I was sorely homesick, but as we watched the sun set, we realized we hit a unique milestone…on our 15 weeks on the road, we celebrated not one, not two but three new years (Jewish, Western, Chinese). I’ll drink to that. Does this mean we’ve been traveling for 3 years? :)

Barely contained chaos

The Intercity Bus terminal in Lusaka, Zambia is one of the craziest places I’ve ever experienced in my life.

I had no idea how many small things I take for granted. Small, silly things like:

    1. Clocks/ and or the concept of “time”.

    2. Buses with destination signs, instead of having to swarm them each time a new one pulls up.

    3. Defined areas where buses parked, where private cars parked, where passengers waited and where taxis dropped off. Cars, buses, minis parked at random places. One fully loaded bus took 20 minutes to get enough buses and people out of the way to get out the gate.

    4. Stacks of personal cargo placed whereever they were dropped off. From fluorescent lamp bulbs and loads of rice sacs to home electornics and straw baskets of fresh fish. The bus parking lot looked like an obstacle course.

    5. A fly-free enviornment. Flies everywhere, landing on arms, legs, eyelids, and toes.

We were anxious to avoid minibuses like the one after our train ride at all costs. We had been advised to take CR carriers, one of the “nicer” buses. While it looked like one of the nice travel buses from South America, the seats inside more resembled an airplane, with 2 seats on one side, and 3 on the other. This resulted in incredibly narrow seats – I couldn’t even sit in one without my shoulders spilling over the next seat. The pitch was even tighter than airline seats.

We involuntarily listened to a sermon given by a guy who jumped on the bus as it was pulling out of the terminal, while his assistant tried to sell Bibles. Arriving at Livingstone, super aggressive throngs of cab drivers thrust their keys through the bus windows to try to get our attention.

To top it off, someone had set a wicker basket of fresh fish on top of one of our duffel bags, wet withstinking, fishy water.

Ah…the memories this will make.

February 10, 2006

One loooong train ride with the world’s most patient people

Instead of taking 48 hours to travel from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia, it took 88 hours. This means that we got on the train on Friday and didn’t get off of it until Tuesday.

Just to repeat – that means we spent FIVE DAYS on the train. So how do Zambian passengers react when they are made to wait endlessly with no information?

There were no screams at the counter people, no demands for hotel rooms, refunds, or bus transfers. Everyone was calm, quietly milling about the platform to stretch their legs, or talking in small groups. There seemed only a sense of inevitablilty about them. There was nothing to be done, so why fight?

During the second delay (lasted 27 hours in Mpika), over 450 people placidly stood inside the train station to watch a soccer match on a single 27 inch TV.

Each delay came as a surprise. We would pull into a station, and then, because we didn’t know the schedule or how long they were supposed to be at the station, the train would simply not move. There were no announcements, no one coming by to let passengers know that there was a delay. No one, absolutely no one, had any idea what was going on. And they seemed completely unworried about it. The radio was down, and cell phone calls were left unanswered. There was nothing to do, so why be unhappy about it now?

None of the staff would commit to knowing how long the train was delayed. The most we could get out of them was “I don’t know”, and “hopefully soon”, as nervous as if we would go and beat them with sticks if they were wrong.

So how did Jonathan and I react, usually typically American in our responses to travel delays?

We had a great time. :)

A short list why:

    1. We had nowhere to be, no one to meet, and no set time to get there. A surreal experience all in itself.

    2. We had a first class sleeper compartment. Although hardly the luxury experience found in Europe, compared with third class (which even the Zambia tourism website advises that no one take, consisting of a seat on a hard bench), it was paradise.

    3. I watched Jonathan as he took amazing portraits of the Zambian kids, which meet the train and play by the railway tracks.

    4. We met some interesting people. Met a Zambian, Tommy Silweya, whom when I told that I come from a large family with 5 brothers, replied “Five? You call that large?” He, of course, has TWENTY siblings, all from the same mother and father. We challenged him to name all his siblings, of which he got 10, and then started to falter. We met two American girls (Kim and Kristen) traveling down from Cairo, who first had their luggage stolen out of their hostel room while they were asleep in Dar, and then the next day, after replacing their passports, were mugged by their taxi driver! We also met 6 South Africans, recently graduated from college, and heard their grumblings about white flight and affirmative action (called something else in SA).

    5. Bought fresh mangos through the train window from a boy carrying a basket on his head for $0.15. Completed the meal with fried dough and some boiled eggs.

    6. Got to sit and do nothing but watch the beautiful countryside whiz by and finish 2 novels.

    7. Was specifically given a 2006 Tazara (Tanzania Zambia Railways) calendar, which featured the picutres of the past and current presidents of Tanzania, with, of course, Mao Tse Tung!?. I had no idea, but evidently in the 60’s, China helped Tanzania develop a rail system and to learn to plant rice. As a result, the trains have Chinese signs, and we whized by countryside with locals working in rice paddies.

After 5 days though, we were ready to get off. However, our final destination was the Zambian capital of Lusaka, 2 hours away by bus. My patience had begun to really had it. Met at the train station by a fleet of hawkers and minibuses, we were crammed into a minibus with 15 people and all their luggage, only to sit for two hours in the 90 degree direct sun waiting to get 5 more passengers for a full bus.

It was so full that when Jonathan needed to get out of the bus to check on our luggage in the back, it was easier for him to climb out the window and jump down than to try to clear the aisle and climb over people to get to the door.

Four hours passed with me crammed against the window with my backpack on my lap and trying not to be touched by the old man next to me, who was reciting the names of drinks (“Johnny Walker Red, Johnny Walker Blue label, on the rocks!”).

We arrived in Lusaka in pretty rough shape. We couldn’t stomach shelling out $250/night at the Intercontinental, so we checked into a backpacker hostel…shared bathrooms, single beds, undergoing construction…ugh. But too tired and beaten to find somewhere else.

We quickly got ourselves showered and to a mall. There is nothing like an air conditioned internet cafe, a movie and popcorn to perk one up. :)