Thursday, October 20, 2011

Mental marathon: Liuwa to Lusaka

December 2, 2010
I swear, the days in Zambia seem to get crazier and crazier. You can’t reach a point in this country where you’d think, “hmmm, things couldn’t possibly get any more interesting. I’ve seen it all.” Working in Zambia is like facing a junkball pitcher with a 95 mile an hour fastball to boot. Curveballs, sliders, screwballs, change ups, knuckleballs, and an occasional fastball to keep things interesting, as if they weren’t interesting enough already. You could compose a highly descriptive novel about any forty eight hour span of events in Western Province if you so desired. Perhaps I will some day, when I have the time to think some thoughts and spin a few hundred pages of African tales…
The most recent forty eight hours in Zambia have been incredible and ridiculous. Exciting, exasperating, exhausting. Hilarious and slap happy, anxious and surreal. And occasionally sad. I’ll try to organize these past few days chronologically, beginning with some humbling anecdotes from Kalabo town, followed by an adorable wild dog and hyaena interaction in the eye of a fantastic lightning storm, a 14 hour drive in a derelict rental SUV and an interesting pair of black market petrol pushers, culminating at the fanciest hotel in Zambia and Monday Night Football. If you really are interested in reading this email, I’d allow at least twenty or thirty minutes for it. It’s a long one…
It started at the copy machine in the Kalabo African Parks office. Organizing a few hyena sighting and carcass identification forms to send through the copier, I overheard a young African Parks intern describing her recent conversation with an eleven year old girl she knows in town. An eleven year old girl, proudly married to a man in his thirties, with whom she shares her two children… Standing at the copier, I couldn’t have felt more like an out of place white boy sheltered from these sorts of realities, and that I truly am just a visitor among a community of unspeakably strong people. A few minutes later, one of the African Parks laborers, a local man born and raised in Kalabo, rushes in with a tired face and sad, red eyes. He asks me how I am doing and I tell him I am doing well. “How are you? I am not okay. My child. She is dead. She was very sick last night and died at 17 hours. She is dead.” Then he moved on to the park manager, asking for a vehicle arrangement for his relatives in a neighboring village to attend the funeral. And I continued to stand at the copy machine, realizing that making duplicates of hyena sighting forms felt a solid zero on the importance scale. This is the second malarial death I’ve heard about in six days in Kalabo. Both victims were adolescent girls between the ages of 10 and 12. And I only heard about them because they affected African Parks employees. Who knows how many others there have been in the past week, month, year. And for reasons unknown to me, I’m somehow the fortunate one carrying months’ worth of malaria pills… Humbling and confusing indeed.
Later that afternoon, I returned to our camp in the park in a borrowed African Parks Land Cruiser, complete with a closed cabin to shelter us from the driving rain that has hounded Zambia for the past week (the heavy rains have quite officially arrived). With a break in the rain and some rays of sunshine piercing their way through the thunderheads, we raced out to the floodplains to follow the wild dogs in hopes of documenting another successful hunt. We found the dogs in twenty minutes, which is fortuitous and extremely quick, and sat with them for half an hour. As we sat, reminiscing of stormy ferry trips through the Dixon Entrance at the southernmost reach of Southeast Alaska, the sun started its descent into Angola. In unison with the sunset, the dogs sprang up, greeted each other in their playful manner, and set off on a hunt underneath the thunderstorm’s huge sucker hole. The hunt lasted 1.7 kilometers (we document these things), ending with the death of another wildebeest calf. The alpha pair hoarded down a few pounds of raw flesh immediately, and then the carcass sat for fifteen minutes untouched. With wild dogs, the pups eat first, and with this hunt, the pups elected to remain behind, 1.7 kilometers away, unsupervised. The adults and yearlings crowded around the carcass, licking their lips and whining, wishing they could tear into the wildebeest but understanding they couldn’t until the pups arrived. Finally one of the yearlings took off in a sprint and retrieved the pups, who arrived like a troop of circus clowns spilling out of their clown car, one collective mass of bodies twisting, twittering, and wrestling like a bunch of agile drunks toward the carcass. With already gluttonously full stomachs, they attacked the dead carcass, feasted, and left the hide and bones for those who had actually made the kill. After a while, a clan of nine hyenas arrived, hooping and hollering, laughing the hyena laugh. Hyenas are nearly indestructible and can be twice the size of wild dogs. Yet with only three adults, five yearlings, and nine pups, the wild dogs sent the brute-sized hyenas running for their lives into the dusk. These dogs are hard not to love. Playfully goofy yet tough as nails. Pleasant badasses, you could say.
During this whole interaction, we were surrounded by black walls of rain and incessant lightning. 360 degrees of brutal rains and ground shaking thunder. I’m sure you could find comparable storms in west Texas or Nebraska during tornado season, and somehow we found ourselves sitting in the only dry spot. The eye, of sorts. (Maybe the dogs know a thing or two about weather?) As darkness finally set in, we followed two safari vehicles that had joined us at the wild dog scene back toward camp. Two open-topped Land Cruisers, completely exposed to the rains they were soon to be driving in. And as we finally reached the rains and were pounded and pounded by winds and violent precipitation, Matt and I laughed like a couple of idiots. We were dry as a bone sitting in our closed-cabin cruiser. We were the ones that usually got pummeled by the rain.
I returned to my tent in anticipation of reflecting on the day’s events. The conversation at the office in Kalabo, the humbling malarial realization, the adorable dogs, the storm. But I was too drained to reflect, and within minutes I was sleeping the sleep of the exhausted.
Waking up at three in the morning, I laid in my tent wondering how in the world we were going to drive from Kalabo to Mongu after such heavy rains. The road to Mongu crosses the Zambezi River floodplain, and is accessible only by boat from January to August. From September through November, the road is open for vehicles, and December lies in somewhat of a transition period. Sometimes the road is under water, other times it’s not. Most days it’s a little bit of both. For a Land Cruiser outfitted with appropriate suspension and a snorkel kit, the road is no big deal. But for us, with a rental SUV from Lusaka that came in with a biologist from Bozeman a week before, the road was a questionable proposition at best. But the car had to get back to Lusaka, so we woke up early and set off for Mongu. Kalabo is remote and Mongu is inaccessible for most of its residents. So whenever any vehicle is headed toward Mongu, most of the town knows about it, and soon you are hit with multiple requests for a ride. We accepted three strangers, all teachers who needed to get to Mongu to collect their paychecks (Kalabo has no bank, and for anyone with a government-paid position, the only way to collect a paycheck is to figure out how to get to Mongu and back). We figured we could use the additional hands in the event of burying the suspensionless SUV in the mud somewhere along the way. The ride started out with a few laughs, as the first fifteen minutes were fun as we rocked helter skelter down the quickly deteriorating mud road. We traveled through standing water, divots and holes, up and down angulated ravines. I felt like there should have been ESPN cameras, girls in bikinis, and sensationally-voiced commentators announcing our performance scores in the four-wheel drive championships. I’m not kidding. The road was in nearly undrivable condition, and to my knowledge, has all but officially closed until August of 2011. Over the next three and a half hours, the laughter faded, replaced by increasingly irritated one-liners. I’m interested to see how the expedition back to Kalabo will look in a few days. It will likely include a dug-out canoe, a tent, hopefully an operable rain fly, and a few days paddling upstream through a combination of intense heat and intense rain. And that’s if it all goes smoothly…
Finally back on the paved road in Mongu, we celebrated with a couple cold Cokes, whose bottle necks of course shattered when we opened them with a bottle opener. Then it was off for Lusaka in hopes of arriving before dark, considering the rental car had but one functioning bright headlight. Along the way, we passed over the Kafue River, where I spotted my first wild hippos surfacing somewhat like whales in the muddy river below the bridge. A few minutes later, we encountered my first wild elephant browsing the vegetation near the roadside (Liuwa has a very low density of elephants, and I haven’t seen any in the park as of yet). Making good time toward Lusaka, we were all laughs, yet there was the feeling that everything had gone too smoothly, and a curveball was just around the corner. Not surprisingly, that curveball arrived when we stopped for gas. As mentioned in previous emails, nothing here goes to plan, so I’m not sure why we assumed that the gas station would have actually been open in Myumba. Realizing it was closed, we drove around town, asking anybody if they knew where we could buy some petrol. Nobody knew, and we sat in the car temporarily defeated, until a local street entrepreneur appeared out of thin air, approached the car, and asked if we were looking for petrol, oblivious to the fact that we’d been searching for it for the last thirty minutes. We told him yes, and he got in our car and directed us to a sidestreet that was sufficiently grimy, but not really any grimier than any other roads in town, including the main one. When we arrived at our curious back alley location, he took off on a sprint into the darkness and left us waiting for about ten minutes. Everything is more curious when it’s dark, and the building facades on the street and the characters moving about in the shadows gave me the feeling that we were here to buy drugs or women. Or both. Finally, our man with the gas arrived with his friend from an entirely different direction than the one he disappeared into. After haggling over the price per liter, assuring us that it wasn’t diluted with water or kerosene, they gave us about four gallons, assuming that would bring us all the way to Lusaka with fuel to spare…
Forty km from Lusaka, the gas light illuminated. With no idea how much fuel the vehicle had once the gas light went on, the next half hour was spent wondering if we were going to spend the night sleeping in this derelict old vehicle on the side of the road. And with each passing mile without any sign of a gas station, we assumed we would be. Yet somehow we coasted into a gas station that amazingly was both open and had staff on hand available to make the monetary transaction for gas (gas pumps here are only open when staff is present; there are no credit card operated machines). As we grabbed a few more gallons, Matt received a phone call from a friend who happens to manage the nicest hotel in Lusaka, and despite the international banking conference being held there, he had an available room for us for free if we were interested. Letting out a few joyous screams and bursts of the car horn, we were on our way toward featherbeds, hot showers, ground coffee, pizza, beer, and complimentary breakfast. And Monday Night Football on the large, flat screen tv in our air conditioned room.
So here I sit, in Lusaka, finally with time to sit and think about all that has happened in the past few days. A cup of coffee to my left, a hot shower nearby, and a storm of approaching contemplations and reflections headed my way…  Nothing like a blatant juxtaposition to make you question this whole concept of equity and fairness.
Christmas is definitely in the air here, and I’ve seen plenty of decorated Christmas trees and Christmas lights in the neighborhood. I’m considering a movie at the cinema tonight, and perhaps a robust dinner at a place I never thought I’d be caught dead in: the local expatriate hangout. The Rhapsody CafĂ©. It feels good to be back in Lusaka, if only for a few days. I hope everyone is doing well, and thanks for all the emails! It’s great to hear from everyone so regularly; it makes Zambia feel rather close to everyone back home! In my sixth week here, I feel like I’m finally acclimating. Transitioning into an acceptance of the pace of life here and the constant onslaught of unforeseen delays. Curveballs, fastballs, and change ups. I’m realizing that although the next few months are going to be a challenge, a test of mental and physical endurance, my time here is indeed short and I’d better make the most of it. If only I knew how to put my thoughts together coherently, and if I had the time to try, my experiences here sure would make for an interesting book… I’ll end this email with a short list of “There’s nothing likes…”
There’s nothing like:
Getting blasted in the open eyeball by several flying dung beetles the size of fun-sized Snickers bars while driving in our open-aired four wheeler at forty miles an hour.
Sitting with a pack of endangered African wild dogs with no sounds other than croaking frogs, crickets, cranes, storks, Egyptian geese, songbirds, and approaching hyena laughter. And thunder.
Keeping your eyes peeled for roadside wildlife to avoid an accident, except the roadside wildlife aren’t deer, they’re elephants.
Walking to your tent at night on the vigilant lookout for lions, armies of red ants, and snakes. You want to walk as quickly as possible but you can’t, because you must first scan the ground at your feet, the ground in front of you, and the woodland surrounding you after every other step. (Don’t worry, the only thing to really worry about are the ants, but your mind can easily sensationalize your surroundings when it gets dark)…
Passing through a roadless, subsistence-dependent village in southwest Africa in which the residents have likely never seen a four wheel drive machine like ours, let alone a man with white skin driving one.
Leaving a malarial town without immediate access to the global economy, only to arrive in the capital city to spend a night in an excessively luxurious hotel, knowing that nearly everyone you left behind in Kalabo will likely never dream of such an opportunity for some reason or another, and all it is is pure luck of the draw and circumstance that allows you to be in that hotel and not at home in Kalabo.  Some things just don't make sense...
Enjoy the snow, the wind, your dogs (or cats, I suppose), friends, family, and the warm, cozy places you all call home this December, and be sure to appreciate the warmth that the wintry Christmas season often ushers in. I wish you all well and I can’t wait to see you all again!

Heavy rains approaching a lone wildebeest from the south. The dark area beneath the cloud is a sheer wall of rain...

Looking to the north, a hungry wild dog from the Sausage Tree pack looks longingly back toward the pups. A different storm cell approached us from this direction, funneling us into the eye of multiple descending storms.

The pups feeding on another wildebeest calf.

This muddy situation was from a different Kalabo-to-Mongu excursion, but it gives you an idea of the Mongu Road terrain. This truck was much more equipped with four wheel drive essentials, including a winch, good tires, shocks and suspension (which our rental didn't have), and a snorkel kit. Despite this, we managed to bury it in the mud. It might look absurd that we even tried to drive through this. But this is the road; you have no other options. Thankfully we winched ourselves out using a second Land Cruiser that caravanned with us.

It was always nice to pause for a moment or two and absorb the enormous African skies and the sun descending into Angola. The sunsets were regularly spectacular, but with them they brought darkness. And darkness in Liuwa is an exciting experience, to put it lightly...