Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Posted from New York, New York
There it is - the Mediterranean. Its blue wonder is blocked by points of land and a metal fence.
MinWah and I arrive at Port Said suddenly; the last 30 km blow past and I expect the sea to be anticlimactic, but there's a rock in my stomach when I look at it.
We make our way down to the beach to dip our tires and I'm overcome with reverence.
We don't stay long. The beach extends the length of Port Said and we ride along the pedestrian path until we can go no further, then pull our bikes through a construction site and find ourselves on the other side of a major police checkpoint.
From Port Said to Damiette is a narrow strip of land dominated mostly by the highway. We don't bother to find out whether we can ride on it, but rather get out of there as fast as we can.
Some kilometers on the sun is going down and we wonder where we'll sleep. The narrow spit of land is hardly more than a causeway. Then we come upon an old caravan parked on the beach and think maybe it - or the small structure behind it - would hide us from the road. Upon closer inspection, I am surprised to find the caravan occupied.
Ahmed and Achmed are smoking from a hookah and watching the sun set. Achmed offers the hose to me. I've been curious about smoking from a "water pipe," so I accept.
Then Achmed, uses his vocal cords to produce a series of compressions of air and his lips and tongue to shape them into a word.
"Hasheesh," he says, and the race is on.
The vibrations expelled from Achmed's mouth create more vibrations in turn, which pass the information on to my ears as I bring the hose to my lips. Behind the eardrum, hammer meets anvil and little hairs in my cochlea lie down. They trigger tiny electrical impulses which run down neurons and jump synapses until they reach my auditory cortex. The auditory region of my brain turns these bits of electricity into vital information and pass it on to the frontal lobe, which takes enough time to say "oh, shit" before it sends the relevant command to my motor control center.
It's too late. The motor control center has already instructed my diaphragm to inflate my lungs and draw in a mixture of air and smoke.
I release the breath gingerly, as though if I'm gentle enough the chemicals in the smoke won't bind to my blood and I can expel the offending toxins without harm.
Meanwhile, I try to look unperturbed, and fail. Instead, I stare at Achmed with the expression of someone who just unsuspectingly bit into a habanero. He laughs at his joke and shows me a tin of tobacco.
There's a big ditch between the road and the sea, to protect the pavement from any waves that get out of control. Ahmed and Achmed stay in this old caravan and look after the pump that spits water from the gully back into the sea.
MinWah asks Achmed how many years he's been there.
"Katheer," he says. Many.
They allow us to camp and I go out past the ditch to take in the scene. To my right I can still see the lights of Port Said glittering across the water. To my left, equidistant and equally beautiful I can see another town, smaller but just as bright. Ahead, the lights of many ships speckle the sea. Above, the moon is nearly full. Behind me, Ahmed, wearing a gray robe and a white turban balances on the gunwale of a beached boat and prays to the East.
I throw my arms out, clench my fists and choke back a yell. Port Said was nice but for me, to camp here, to hear the thrumming pump, feel the spray of the sea, smell the salt water; this is the climax. From here we will work our way back to Cairo where a plane ticket to New York City awaits me. America, after so long, will be an adventure in itself.
Besides, I've never been to New York.
Monday, August 3, 2009
We pedal a long Thursday into Addis Ababa. The Egyptian Embassy is only open until noon on Friday and we don't want to wait out the weekend to submit our visa application, so we try get close enough to Addis but stop far enough out that we can still find a place to camp.
We fail. The capital of Ethiopia and the fourth largest city in Africa, Addis is sprawled to the extent that we're within it before we know it. Between all the industry and the masses of people, we see nowhere to camp. A petrol station refuses our request. There's little green space and where there is it's urban, inappropriate and probably unsafe.
The sun goes down. We've come 100 km uphill and we're so tired that our decision-making is suffering. We stop to put our feet down and wonder about what to do.
"Can I help you?" a passerby says.
We tell him we need a place to stay. He indicates that he knows a place, but he's acting strangely and we realize early enough that it's probably not a good idea to follow him.
A couple of ladies walking by might be more help. We ask, but they only tell us there's a hotel up ahead somewhere, out of sight.
We go another hundred meters or so and see an industrial compound of some sort. It's dark so it's hard to tell what exactly it is. There's an old fire truck, presumably undergoing some sort of maintenance. There's a low building with a satellite dish on top. Most importantly, there's a fence around the place and a group of uniformed guards, one of whom is holding an automatic rifle.
Ethiopia is the only country in the world whose national language is Amharic. Amharic is difficult to begin with. It's got it's own script and it's full of sounds not found in English, like the "exploded" t and k. The syntax and grammar is different, and words addressed to women often have different suffixes than those addressed to men. Furthermore, we've been in Ethiopia for only a little more than a week. Suffice to say, we butcher our attempt to ask for a place to sleep.
Like the women we met before, the guards suggest a hotel down the road. We try to explain that we wish to sleep in a tent, that all we need is a small square of ground to put it on.
We fail. The Amharic word for tent is "dnkwan." We learn later that a dnkwan is actually a large canvas tent used in funeral celebrations, which can last up to three days. It doesn't really matter because we can't pronounce "dnkwan" anyway.
We're debating whether to keep trying here or move on and hope for better luck elsewhere when one of the guards steps forward.
"Do you speak English?" he says.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Legend has it that Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, used to use the Great East-African Highway to visit Halie Selassie I, the emperor of Ethiopia. The two agreed, each would pave the portion of the highway that lay within his border. Selassie (also known as Ras
Tafari) followed through; Kenyatta did not. The unpaved Kenyan portion of the highway would come to be known as "the worst road in Africa," which, to borrow a phrase from the Coen Brothers, puts it high in the running for worst road world-wide.
The infamy of the "highway" is not limited to the quality of the road itself; tribal warfare, highway banditry and miles of inhospitable and tedious surroundings contribute to a whole package of desolation. From Isiolo, Kenya to Moyale, on the Kenya/Ethiopia border is 500
kilometers of wilderness that MinWah and I alone decided to traverse.
In Isiolo our group split permanently. Karen had already flown home from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Orian caught a truck up to Moyale - he's trying to reach Cairo in time to fly home for their anniversary; Quinn caught a lift back to Nairobi, and has since flown to Europe where
he'll spend the summer touring.
It's garbage burning day in Isiolo when we leave. (For all I know, that's every day in Isiolo). The foul gray smoke bites our nostrils as we pull into a petrol station to top off our stove. We've heard two stories regarding northern Kenya's bandits. In one version, the bandits are well organized and only go after convoys that they know are carrying something valuable.
In the other, they are involved in tribal warfare (mostly killing and stealing each others cattle) and leave foreigners mostly alone. These two are encouraging to us, but the gas-station attendant offers another perspective.
"There's no police, very long ways," he says fearfully.
"There are men who are not right," he continues, pointing to his head. Then
he pretends to hold a gun.
"They will...." he trails off as he pulls the imaginary trigger.
It's not the first time we've heard terrible stories about the place we're about to go, so we cruise downhill from Isiolo. It's tarmac at first, followed by flat graded gravel, preparation for future paving. It's fast going, but we know it can't last.
"The Chinese are building a road," the locals say. The sign says "Government of Kenya, Ministry of Roads and Public Works, Financed by the Governement of Kenya and the African Development Fund. Main Contracter: China Wu Yi Company."
Either way, the road shortly spits us out onto rough gravel.
We bump our way down into a dry river valley where about eight kids are letting their goats drink. As we pass, they ignore their herd and turn their attention to us. They run along side, shouting and waving their herding sticks, joking and having fun. At least that's how it seems until one of them hits me with their stick. I slam on the brakes and turn around. The kids scatter, dropping water bottles and sticks. The one who hit me drops his close enough for me to pick up,
so I do. I wave it at them and ask who it belongs to. They don't speak English (except for "give me"), but eventually they understand, and the biggest one acknowledges it is his.
I toss it in his direction, thinking this sign of goodwill will pacify them. Not so. As I pedal off up the other side of the valley, rocks throw up clouds of dirt near me. The little punks are throwing rocks at me; big enough to hurt, if I should be hit, but not big enough to do any real damage.
When the second volley flies, I stop and pick up one of my own; small enough to throw hard but big enough to do some serious damage. I toss it to myself and try to look menacing.
The kids keep their distance, but they're not leaving us yet. I consider throwing the baseball-sized rock in their direction, but I've reached the crest of the hill and the downhill ahead allows me to outdistance them.
I hope a lion ate one of their goats while they were chasing us.
Thoughts come in sound-bites when the road is rough. You barely have a chance to complete one before a wayward rock pulls your attention back to the road.
Even so, cycling in the desert gives you lots of time to think. It also gives you lots of time to lose motivation. Some people set goals for themselves. In South Africa Quinn referred to his left as his pizza pedal and his right as his beer pedal. Here in the desert, I've purged myself of external goals. I don't pedal because I'm trying to reach somewhere by a certain time. I push down with my left simply because it comes after my right.
You pedal because that's what you do. You go north because the road only goes two ways and you've come from the south. The scenery doesn't change much. Flat, with some thorn bushes on both sides. Sometimes the gravel is reddish, sometimes it's white.
A gray-bearded man in a southbound Land Rover stops to tell us the upcoming town of Merille - which doesn't appear on our map - had a cholera outbreak. It's true, acknowledged Yusuf, a youth we talk to when we reach the town. It happened a week ago, but only small children were affected. No food is available, but we can still get cool drinks.
MinWah says she's got repeating thought syndrome, common of desert-touring cyclists.
"I think to myself, 'God forsook this road'," she says. "Then I think, 'is forsook a word?' Then I decide I'd better just say 'this is a Godforsaken road.' Then it repeats."
I've been fortunate enough to evade such torture. Though, come to think of it, I know all the words to "House of the Rising Sun," yet just one verse keeps playing in my head.
Before nightfall we ride up to St. George Catholic Church to look for non-choleric water and a place to camp. Some kids help us look for the priest, but stop dead at the courtyard. They fear him like they would a ghost. Eventually, their curiosity overcomes their fear and they enter the compound and ask me questions and touch my hair. Then something spooks them and they dash for the gate. Before long they're playing tricks on each other, holding the gate shut to trap each other inside where, presumably, they'll get in trouble. Or eaten.
We camp at the church and when I lie down I can still feel my body rising and falling over the bumps - phantom bumps, like when you've spent the day at the wave pool. In the morning we get up and pedal back into the desert. I never did meet the priest. I was scared of him anyway.
The wind screams through the thorn trees (all the trees are thorn trees) like a faraway concert hall when Van Halen comes onstage. It's a constant. Not a constant direction, not a constant velocity, just a constant there. Other than the crunching of our tires, it's the only sound.
The white Land Rover passes again, going north this time, and the driver stops to invite us for tea at the Marsabit Anglican Church.
"We might be there by tomorrow," we tell him.
"As my mother would say, 'courage'," he says as he drives off, drawing out the oo and softening the gee: "coo-rage."
The short plants are are gray-brown here. The trees have no leaves, but the stems and branches themselves are green. These are covered with silver thorns that make the low forest look like it just received a heavy frost. Throw in some ostriches and camels and you could be
reading Dr. Seuss.
Most nights we camp in the bush. No tent, for it's far too stuffy and it's far too dry for mosquitoes. Our companions are birds, insects and a few small mammals that scuttle about. The breeze helps cool us and there's little risk of getting wet, tonight or any night. Kenya
has missed her rainy season this year; it's supposed to be March through May, but the months passed and the rain never materialized.
It is dry. It's so parched that when I take a leak on the ground it dries before I'm done shaking.
The next day we climb the hills to Marsabit, the half-way point. As we go, we encounter a family (or is it a whole village?) leading hundreds of goats and dozens of cows south. Some donkeys carry a little water, and dogs tag along.
I ask a man where they are going. He doesn't speak English, but his answer is clear all the same: "maji" means water.
From this one word I can imagine an unspoken epic of a village forced to migrate because the rainy season never came. Who knows how far they've come, leaving behind everything but their livestock. Where will they go? Hundreds of kilometers to Mount Kenya? The land there
is farmed; no space for herdsmen. Maybe the rains will come first, dampening the soil, offering rivers to drink of and green vegetation to eat.
Or could it be the cholera? Were they forced from a once-clean borehole by the disease that destroys the lining of the intestine, causes diarrhea and kills by dehydration?
When we get to Marsabit we go to the first church we see and try to ascertain whether it is the Anglican church. I ask a girl if it is Catholic.
Thanks very much for the help.
We find it anyway, and meet the friendly man in the Land Rover who is none other than the Anglican Bishop. Over tea Bishop Rob confirms the state of Kenya's drought.
"The rains have failed again. We may not get them now until October, November. I don't know how people will survive," he says.
We stop for fuel again on our way out of Marsabit. The attendant filled our bottle, about 750 mL and tried to charge us 200 shillings.
"How much is one liter?" MinWah asked, and I repeated in Swahili.
"moja liter shilingi ngapi?"
Eventually it comes out: one liter costs 91 shillings. So he tries to charge us 150 for filling a bottle that physically cannot hold more than 1L. We gave him 100 shillings and left.
"They don't even treat you as if you're a human being," MinWah said.
It's true; we're nothing but a pocketbook. He's the third person (that I know of) in Marsabit who has tried to cheat us. It's hard to have respect for a person who obviously has no respect for you.
Back in the desert, my bike is all but uncontrollable. The loose,
rocky sand gives no purchase for my tires. The wind picks up from the side and makes me wobble and with each wobble I over correct until I'm pulling my feet out of the pedals and slamming them down to keep from falling, wrestling with the bike to keep from dropping it and squishing the bread and bananas.
Tired of riding on rocks, we pull our bikes over some rocks, hide behind some other rocks and sleep on some more rocks.
Crows are the only birds we've seen in days. They haunt our campsites like they're waiting for us to expire. Today we travel into the worst of the desert, what Bishop Rob called a "lunar landscape." As we go, off to the right I hear a songbird. I don't know what he survives on,
but for me his song - nearly swept away by the wind - reminds me that it's not so far to Moyale, not so far to Cairo, not so far to home.
Just past Bubisa (another town not on the map) we pass a caravan of camels. Four women each lead five camels. When we stop for lunch, they catch up to us. I wonder how far they're going. I felt like we were making good progress, but they're putting us to shame, walking.
There's a little sandy berm where we can get out of the wind and out of sight from the road and sleep on sand rather than rocks. It's near a little village - just a few huts and a few more camels. I wonder how they survive. Do they eat rocks?
We're cooking dinner (rice, tomatoes carrots, onions, garlic, cabbage and salt, cayenne, turmeric and mustard seed; everything we have, all in one pot as usual) when a man walks up from the village. He's Gabra, just like the people in Bubisa. He's got a little white stubble and a shirt that says "Decastle Baseball 2004," and when he shakes my hand I notice a curled up little finger. He looks me in the eye when he talks and I'm startled to see his big black pupils are framed by bright blue.
We try to communicate but his Swahili isn't much better than ours. He squats and points at my bicycle and we try to explain what we're doing. He doesn't know Egypt, but he knows Moyale.
Again the caravan catches up to us and the man explains that the women had gone to Bubisa to get water, some 20 km away.
Before our rice is cooked our grizzled observer gets up. He points over the hill and shows me he's going off to bring in some camels for the night. He walks off with his stick over his shoulders, white turban and green and white sarong blowing in the wind. His sandals made from old tire leave indistinct footprints in the sand. I still wonder what he eats.
We're on the worst part of the road now. Rarely do I ride more than 100 meters without one or both of my wheels slipping out on the loose rock. I look ahead and there's only rock, no track that looks passable. The wind is still my enemy, broadsiding me, pushing me out of whatever path I find and into the rocks which jump out of the way and deny me foundation. Again and again I jump off and try to catch the bike before it further demolishes the bread.
It's a challenge - the road, the heavy bike, the wind, the sun, the nothingness. Physically, mentally, emotionally a challenge. But the real challenge is to let go of the anger, the frustration and enjoy where you are and what you are doing. If you can manage to put yourself in the moment, in perspective, it even becomes enjoyable. The wind, the rock, the solitude; you appreciate them for what they are. Ethiopia will come before we know it. Perhaps we'll miss the
quiet straight road and the difficult but uncomplicated task of following it.
We take a long break, eat a little, read a little. It's a reminder not to go to fast. There's no shade though. A falcon calls from the only tree.
When we go again the wind has stopped and for a little while it's easier to ride. But with no wind it's hard to stay cool and the sweat that dripped down my face before now cascades. Nothing is purely good or bad.
The next night another Gabra chats with us while we cook. He speaks good English, so I finally figure out what they eat. They eat meat. Goat meat, cow meat, camel meat (it tastes like beef, he says). They drink milk and blood. That answers one question, but raises another. What do the cows, goats and camels eat? Rocks?
In the morning we start to get out of the desert. The road is starting to improve and there are plants again. Some of them are even green. Ahead of us the Ethiopian highlands beckon blue in the distance.
By our last night in Kenya the desert has become bush. As the vegetation increased so did the people. With scarcely a moment unobserved, we dash off into the trees to find a place to sleep.
Even a relatively secluded spot is crisscrossed by livestock trails. We hear camel trains in the woods as we cook and by the time we bed down they're very close. We can hear the whistles and coos of the herders, the dull jangle of camel bells and the low, groaning bellow of the camels themselves. They make an unearthly-sounding procession and it even smells like a zoo.
Occasionally there's a loud hollow "thwack" as the herders swat their livestock with their sticks. In this way one group strolls past so close I can hear their footsteps and see the necks of the camels above the bushes. We must be found out, I thought.
Sure enough, a small animal comes rustling through the bushes towards us. It must be one of their dogs. What will it do? Bark and give us away? Snap at us? For a second it looks like it might head back to the group, though surely it sees us for it is but 10 feet away.
Then it freezes and as my eyes adjust I begin to see that it is not a dog. Still as it sits, it looks just like a prickly bush, and I realize what it is.
I sit up to see if my motion will scare the porcupine away, but it must feel safe with its protective covering. Before long it waddles off away from the camel train.
The herders never find us, though they pass just meters from our bikes.
We're finished with Kenya. I think back to that solitary bird and his song in the wilderness. His reminder that the end, though still far away, is approaching makes my bruised palms and the welt on my thigh (from a particularly nasty fall) seem nostalgic. The road was rough
and long but I wouldn't have missed it for anything.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Posted from Arusha, Tanzania
We had reached a flat, higher part of the valley east and north of the Ngorongoro Crater when the clouds broke up enough to reveal Ol Doinyo Lengai. There's grass there instead of just shrubs and it supports herds of zebra, gazelles and wildebeest, as well as cows, donkeys, sheep and the Maasai who herd them. The loose gravel grabbed our tires and misdirected them. To pedal was exhausting. To walk through the gray stone, flecked with sparkling volcanic residue, too slow. We stopped for lunch, peanut butter and jelly under a small thorn tree, the only shade around. Crimas towered over us and Ol Doinyo Lengai brooded in the distance, calling us closer with its outstretched arms.
A young Maasai walked up and shared our little shade, just staring at us. The wind persisted and so did she; the mountain and the Maasai watched over us until we had rested and gone.
Ol Doinyo Lengai loomed closer and closer as we continued to follow directions given by Mohammed, a friendly bicyclist we met in Mtowambu (Swahili for "mosquito river"). From the turn to Gilai, Crimas is on the left and Ol Doinyo forward and to the left. Between them is a crater that we took to be "hole of the God," as Mohammed drew in my notebook. Straight ahead, at the top of the hill, a single baobab was silhouetted. We rode up ahead just to be sure of the turn and at the crest of the hill is another crater. This too could aptly be named "hole of the God." Only a couple hundred meters off the road, I ran up and took a look
It is an almost perfect circle, hundreds of feet deep. Would it be irreverant to climb down, I wondered? I didn't have the time anyway. MinWah was waiting with the bikes, and we had to find our turnoff and a place to camp.
Our group had split further. Quinn was on a safari with his visiting parents, so MinWah and I took a week to make a loop near Tanzania's most popular safari areas.
Back we went, past the baobab and down the hill. A left on a sandy dirt track took us down to the valley floor. The Maasai disappeared and our only companions were herds of zebra, wildebeest, gazelle and a few ostriches.
Nobody brought us to that spot. We just looked at a map, got on our cycles and went. Nobody told us we could or could not camp there. Nobody even said we should or shouldn't. We're not on anybody's safari but our own and the rays reaching up over Ol Doinyo Lengai are so much sweeter for us having found it. How many before us have been so lucky to set up their tent in the shadow of the volcano to the tune of grunting wildebeest?
As it got darker still, two thunderheads, lit up from inside by lightning, marched around Ol Doinyo, but they never reached us. Maasai torches flickered on the distant hills like fireflies throughout the night.
The fear grabs you and it won't let you go, no matter which way you turn. No matter how many times you roll from your side to your back to your side again you still lie awake listening for sounds of your impending demise.
Then the inevitable: footsteps outside the tent. I lift my head and look, not willing to turn a blind eye to my doom. Whatever it is is startled and gallops quickly away; a goat or a small gazelle.
Occasionally there are voices on the road. Usually we're concerned about getting caught or molested, but now the voices have a soothing effect; others are out in the night as well.
A jeep goes by on the road. The headlights are on the tent and it slows. Maybe they'll stop and tell us we can't camp here, we must follow them into town. But it's just a trick of the road. The lights curve away and it speeds up. My secret wish for a savior fades with the engine noise.
It started with two Maasai warriors. They spotted us from the road as we finished dinner and hailed us.
"Tuna weza kuwa hapa?" MinWah asked. "Can we camp here?"
I didn't understand a lot of the following conversation (MinWah's Swahili is much better than mine). I was able to discern at one point that they wanted us to go with them rather than camp there. And I did understand the word "simba."
This was the African bush. Literally, it was almost all thorn bushes.
"Lions like where there's more grass," MinWah said. I wasn't so sure.
The Maasai herd cattle, sheep and goats. We've seen them - even at night - with their animals. They couldn't do that if there were lions, MinWah suggested.
"Yes, but what do you think those spears are for?" I thought to myself. "Those aren't just for show."
Many of the Maasai carry long spears. A foot-long spike adorns one end and a flat, feathered blade maybe twice as long tops the other. I was told a Maasai can kill a lion singlehandedly with one of these.
With the dawn, the fears fade. The rationalizations that were so ineffective in the night seem more likely. Lions don't hunt humans, and even if one came by, what would she think of our tent? The spears are probably more for rustlers or the Maasai-Chagga war than for wild animals. And our two acquaintences, who were friendly and jovial characters, who laughed and smiled in our presence, well, they could have been putting us on.
Better to wonder than to see a silent feline shadow pass between the door of the tent and the stars and know for sure.
Friday, April 10, 2009
Posted from Moshi, Tanzania
It was one of those mistakes anyone could make. For the lucky, it's a near miss. For the hapless, it's disaster.
I thought I'd be clever. I'd pull Minwah's stick-stand off her rack while we were riding and hang onto it until she wondered where it was. The theft was perpetrated unnoticed, but I paid too little attention to where I was going. When I looked up I was facing the only rock in sight big enough to be a problem.
"Thou shall not pass," the rock said to my front wheel, and in an argument between a wheel and a rock the wheel is rarely the victor.
The rock, however, issued no such mandate to my person and therefore my body paid no attention to the abrupt halt enacted on my bicycle and continued its forward progress without the benefit of any supporting apparatus save the breeze.
Air molecules provide but brief support for airborne cyclists, so my continued easterly progress was short lived and I quickly got acquainted with the boulder's many smaller cousins that inhabited the gravel shoulder of the road.
The cousins, however, were much friendlier than their larger relative and welcomed me as though they were so many feathers convened specifically to gently receive any airborne cyclists who may be searching for an innocuous location to finally succumb to gravity and reacquaint themselves with terra firma.
As I sprang limberly to my feet, I gazed back at my bicycle. Parts and gear were strewn everywhere as though someone had set up a roadside stand selling cycle-touring equipment. But the tragedy lay with the fork.
It had snapped clear in twain within the head-tube, and now the fork and handlebars, like partially severed limbs, dangled by the brake cables.
Along with my miraculous escape from injury, my front wheel showed more resilience than I thought possible. When Ian from the Recyclery built my wheels, I could tell they were good. But I never expected a head-on collision with a rock would fail to dent the wheel or even knock it out of true.
Quinn, Minwah and I had split from Orian and Karen upon leaving Lusaka, Zambia, to ride at different paces. We stood and stared at the wreckage.
There was no way to continue. The fork must be replaced. We were in the country about 60 km east of Lusaka. We could find a farm, we decided, and I would leave my bike and bus back in to Lusaka to find a replacement while Minwah and Quinn continued on. A lone cyclist can travel much faster than a pair, and I would hopefully be able to catch them before the border to Malawi.
Then, as if fate or God provided, a lone cyclist rode up on one of the black "World Bicycle Relief" bikes that are so common. He noticed immediately that we were in trouble and introduced himself.
Absalom's farm was located just under a kilometer from there, he said, and we would be more than welcome to rest there while we sorted things out. Absalom's father, Michael, is the patriarch of the family, with eight children and many grandchildren who fill the farm with life and laughter.
I met Jessica first. She was walking home from school and stopped in Absalom's wake to help me roll my fractured bicycle. Soon she was joined by brothers, sisters and cousins and an entourage of kids wheeling or carrying pieces of my bicycle escorted me to Mr. Nkoloma's Farm. Quinn, who had ridden ahead with Absalom, returned to see our troupe.
"It's hard not to believe in fate when Absalom came along first, and then the kids were all with you when I came to get you," Quinn said to me. I don't believe in fate or karma, but it's hard not to see this as a strong argument in favor. The welcome I received from the gravel brethren was only exceeded by that which I received from Michael's family.
No less than 11 members of this family sat with us as we cooked, then around a candle and a corn roaster into the night. Michael's oldest daughter, Ruth, adopted Quinn because he's the same age as her eldest son, though she thought his habit of cooking made him very unmanly: "You cook like you are not a man."
From age 4 to age 70 they welcomed us in.
"I'm so happy to have met such strangers," said Michael. "I will do a dance for you." He got up and did a little three-step shuffle, swinging his arms back and forth, and it was hard to believe he was a 70-year-old man.
Later, one of Michael's sons arrived home from the bar. I could smell the shake-shake on him (see previous post), and he was in full-on broken-record mode.
He gave a benign and welcoming talk, though his proposals to Minwah became more and more frequent. The family was visibly uncomfortable with the repeating drunk in our presence. He asked Quinn if Quinn took alcohol. Quinn tried to respond "sometimes," but nobody seemed to understand what he meant. In the rural parts of Africa we've seen, you're either an alcoholic ("booze-bag," Quinn would say) or you don't touch the stuff. This lack of middle-ground, of responsible use of alcohol was further evidenced by the repeater's next question for Quinn: "what did you drink today?"
The next day I set off for Lusaka on my own, my frame and broken fork in tow. The Zambian countryside disappeared behind the minibus I rode in, the miles I'd just covered eaten up in rewind. The door of the blue Toyota squeaked open and closed, the hatchback rattled and someone smelled. I hoped it wasn't me.
In the space of an afternoon I found a fork and fit it to my frame. By nightfall I was back at Michael's farm working on my bike. His grandson Patrick sat with me while I worked late. Patrick didn't speak enough English for me to really explain what I was doing, but he gamely held my torch, eyes fascinated at my task.
Michael called me in to sup with him while his two youngest granddaughters watched and giggled. I thought I heard the word "uncle," but I wasn't sure; it may have been a word in the local language that just sounded similar. But Michael translated for me: "Uncle, will you come and visit us again?"
Michael's family sent me off in the morning with breakfast, a bath and bags of boiled peanuts and maize. But the most powerful memory of their kindness was from the night before.
As I carried my bike in the twilight from the bus stop to Michael's farm, his grandson Chris rode past in the other direction. He stopped his bike to say hi and welcome back, then continued on his way. Before he rode 10 meters, he stopped.
"Here," he said, and handed me a half-eaten cob of boiled maize he'd been chewing on.
He couldn't have known that in my haste to repair my bicycle I had barely eaten that day. I nearly broke down, right there in the road with gladness to be going back to Michael's farm in beautiful Zambia, and to experience such unknowing, uncompromised kindness when I needed it so badly.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
As is often our habit, the five of us cycled into town - Livingstone, Zambia, in this case - unsure where we would stay. Orian's trip to Boston necessitated a stopover of nine days and we unanimously sought a place where we could settle down and not worry about packing up every morning.
Gustave was hanging around the Bureau de Change soaking up the aircon when Orian and MinWah entered. Don't change your money here, Gustave asserted to what must have been the consternation of the owner of the Bureau. You'll get a better rate at the post office instead, he suggested. Orian asked if Gustave knew a place we could stay for nine days.
The dogs also warn of and chase off intruders - human and hippo - and Spotty is an expert mamba and cobra killer. But Tiger and Spotty are vicious and uncontrollable. Each night Gustave lets them out of their pens but he immediately retreats into the house and doesn't venture out again without a large stick.
The Zambian observation point is a line of paved trail that extends about 3/4 of the length of the falls. We walked past and ignored a stand renting raincoats, prepared to get wet but perhaps not realizing how wet. We walked and walked and walked and still the falls didn't end, for the Zambezi river is nearly a kilometer across at the falls.
The spray came down in sheets of rain like a movie set and Gustave stripped off his shirt saying "you're better off without it." He ran ahead with his customary boundless energy, laughing his machine gun rat-a-tat of a laugh like the crazy man he is.
We followed, overwhelmed, drenched and completely in awe, so much that Orian was motivated to call Niagara Falls a "total joke." The spray shades the sun and the bottom of the falls, all of 107 meters down, is completely obscured. And this isn't even the rainy season. Behind the falls must be where King Solomon's treasure is hidden, says Gustave, because no one will ever find it.
From the front of the falls we followed a group of tourists sporting white Par Excellence Safari ponchos that made them look like ghosts. Their pasty white legs led us up around to the top, where the water flows off into seeming oblivion leaving a cloud of steam that rises like smoke and lends it the name "the boiling point." Then we zoomed off again in Gustave's bakkie to our next adventure.
"How you like Africa? Awoooo!," I could hear him howl from the front.
I don't know where he gets his energy. He smokes cigarettes like it's his job, drinks brandy and Coke from a two-liter bottle and barely sleeps or eats ("I'm the only person in the world who hates food"). Yet he has an unflagging enthusiasm for whatever he's decided to do at any particular moment.
One morning, no sooner had I opened my eyes than Gustave said "want to go for a ride?" We went in search of minutes for his phone and by way of several unsuccessful attempts ended up at the Engen.
"Coke or sprite?" he asked as he took a returnable bottle inside. He returned instead with two beers. Apparently 6:30 a.m. isn't too early to start drinking in Livingstone. From there he took me down to the Royal Livingstone and the Zambezi Sun, posh hotel lodges that look over the top of the falls. After Guzy befriended the guards and got us in, we wandered around the grounds, beer in hand. "This is Africa. You do what the fuck you want," he explained.
Granny called to see where we were, and Gustave, as is his habit, lied, "we're at the market Granny."
The two hotels, Gustave said, are owned by South Africans, just like the grocery stores (SPAR and Shop Rite) and half of the rest of the town. This helps explain why Zambia is so expensive while its residents are so poor: so much of the money that comes in goes right back out to owners from other countries.
"This is the reason Africa will never improve," said Gustave as he showed us a glass mug. "Read it." The mug said "Zambia in the Sun."
"Now read this," he said, and pointed to the bottom: "Made in Taiwan."
Gustave is right. This is Africa, and you do do what you want, if you're privileged. This means you have the opportunity to exploit, exploit, exploit. So much money is sent out of the country. People are poor and can't do anything about it. There's no industry. Behind Crayfish Farm is a hot pepper farm - Elephant Chillies - and they are hot ("hot, potato, hot hot potato tato" Gustave would say.) These peppers are shipped to South Africa where they are turned into Zambezi Red Hot Pepper Sauce (and it's mighty good sauce) and shipped back to be sold here. There's no way to add value to products here. If Zambia wishes to drag itself out of the economic gutter, it needs not money or foreign aid but investments, businesses started. Even if they are foreign owned, Zambia must be able to create products.
"You can't help everyone," Gustave said, on another occasion. "You help one, two at a time." He asserted that, rather than giving money or aid, to help people you must help them prosper economically of their own accord. Help them start a business.
"You can't work for someone else. It's not profitable," he reminded us, because labor is so cheap. It's cheaper for his grandparents to employ a young man, Joseph, to weed-whack the yard with a slasher than it is to get a lawnmower.
On a Thursday morning, Gustave woke with a hangover. "I'm never drinking again," was the first thing he said. Granny took the car into town, so Gustave was restless.
"Let's go for a run," he said, about midday. I was non-decisive and Quinn was unenthusiastic. I nearly talked myself into going, but by then Gustave's attention was elsewhere.
"What d'you think would happen if I shot that bees nest?" he asked, and ran into his room. Before we realized what was happening, three loud shots rang out. Then he was laughing, "come and look at this!"
I peered out the window just in time to see a girl of about 10 go by the window, oblivious to the raging insects. This was Anastasia, Terrence's wife's adopted daughter, and she wasn't oblivious for long. Shortly after she passed out of sight she began to scream and didn't stop until she was in her house. Terrance, was asleep with the windows open and responded to the intrusion of the stinging insects somewhat less than gracefully. He ran from the house, pausing long enough to tell Anastasia not to follow. He plunged through farm fields to the road without his glasses, shoes or shirt. Rosie, the maid, pulled Anastasia into Granny's house.
"If she hadn't got her, that little girl probably would have died," said Gustave.
"That wasn't part of the plan," said Gustave, after the house was closed up. He had no idea Anastasia was coming home. "I'm not good with hangovers."
The bees were flying everywhere, in a total craze, stinging everything in sight. Later we learned that farmers on the next property over, maybe a kilometer away had to leave their work because they were getting stung. The three dogs outside were either confined or tied up. We could hear their yelping, but were helpless to do anything for fear of our own hides.
Then we received some really bad news. Anastasia had fainted. Gustave, covered in a white sheet, rushed across to Granny's house while Quinn - who had training as a wilderness EMT - donned pants, a coat and gloves before following with a first aid kit.
Confined to Gustave's house with Karen and MinWah, I had no idea how bad the situation was. I dressed in long clothes in case I had to do something. Then I took off the long sleeve. What do we do? I wondered. Granny was away with the truck. Our bicycles were the only transportation.
Papa is 84 and largely immobile. I don't know how long it's been since he left the house, but he would have been victimized if the bees had been able to get in. Instead, he spent the day spraying them on the screens with Raid.
"There were hundreds of them on the gauze and I could smell the poison," he said. "I killed them with poison and oh, you should have seen them, down they went."
Quinn administered what first aid he could to Anastasia, when he wasn't hindered by helpers. Fortunately, she wasn't unconscious. But she wouldn't move, and nobody told Quinn that she didn't speak English.
"Where does it hurt?" he asked. No answer.
"Where did you get stung?" Nothing.
The other adults, including Brenda (Terrence's wife) put her in a cold bath to calm her down, at Quinn's suggestion, but he couldn't keep them from splashing her in the face.
"Then Brenda poured her a glass of milk and it was rancid and she projectile vomited all over the place, and then Brenda fed her more milk," said Quinn.
Eventually the bees calmed down enough for Granny to bring the truck up to the house, and everybody involved piled in to take Terrance and Anastasia to the hospital. A visit to the doctor, including a hydrocortisone injection and electrolyte powder cost about 6000 Kwacha - just over a dollar.
By mid afternoon the dogs had stopped howling, though the bees were still flying around outside the house like little rockets. It didn't spell relief for the dogs, but something more sinister. Quinn went out again, and he could see Spotty lying still on the floor of her cage. Tiger was nowhere to be seen - there was blood on the top of his door from where he squeezed over (though nobody is sure how), but as he still hasn't returned, he's presumed dead. They were vicious dogs, and uncontrollable. Gustave was going to put them down. But nothing deserves to die that way. Snoopy was the only survivor. This reserved, sub-dominant dog broke his chain and escaped into the fields. He spent the next few days huddled and shivering in his garage.
There is little closure to such an incident. It fades with the sun, the bees return to their tree and the disruptions they caused disappear one at a time. Anastasia recovered fully, and opened up to we Americans. Though the dogs no longer protect the house at night, Gustave claims the beehive is now his protection against intruders - he'll just shoot it.
"They're better than dogs, Granny!" he said, and again I couldn't tell if he was serious.
We stayed with Gustave for his birthday, a relatively laid-back affair compared to his average day, it seemed. Fish and chips at the Boat Club, followed by a trip to the church-turned-bar for the local brew. Shake-shake is the proprietary eponym, so named because you have to shake it before drinking (or perhaps because that's what you tend to do after you've consumed a liter or two). Typically, it's served in one-liter cartons with a vent on top to release pressure as the active yeast contained within grows. The ingredients listed on the carton include maize meal, sorghum malt, food grade enzymes, lactic acid and treated water. The alcohol content is listed at 6 percent, but allows for the ever increasing fermentation with a plus/minus symbol.
Back in Botswana we were warned - often - not to drink shake-shake. It contains no alcohol, one police officer told us, but it gets you drunk and gives you energy. The first part confuses me still, but the second is attributed to its maize content, which includes enough mealy-meal that you wonder whether you should chew it instead of drinking.
At this bar the local equivalent of shake-shake was served not in cartons, but bottles cut in half. A woman in a little hut in the courtyard dipped a scoop into a plastic 50 gallon barrel and filled the bottle. The "beer" comes in two flavors - white and brown - and both bubble away in their respective barrels so that the substance seems alive. Which, come to think of it, it is. Brown is more pleasurable to me, for it contains less bitter sorghum and more gritty maize meal, and reminds me of drinking a smoothie with too much wheat germ.
Several days prior, Gustave shaved his head and goatee, leaving him to look eerily like Vin Diesel. But his personality remained vibrant, and his Gustave-isms remained constant. He'd call us "gov'nor" or "love" and still left his phrases dangling for us to finish.
"Oh, Malawi's lovely," he said of our next destination. "People are laid... drink man! Laid... drink! Laid... back."