Thursday, March 5, 2009

Posted from Lusaka, Zambia
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.

A sign indicated Fawlty Towers, a hostel that had been recommended to us, was just 80 meters to our right, so we inquired and those of us who still had money visited the neighboring Bureau de Change.

In any city in the United States a passerby viewing Karen, Quinn and I sitting on the sidewalk in our ragged, dirty clothes, bleary eyed from cycling 60 km and emitting a ripe odor from days of sun-baked sweat would make the reasonable assumption that we were begging. But not here. Livingstone is next to Victoria Falls and its proximity to one of CNN's Seven Natural Wonders of the World makes it a major tourist destination. As a rule, tourists here are white and wealthy. Poor white people don't exist here and so we were perceived as appropriate marks for the sale of 100 Trillion Zimbabwean Dollar bills and bracelets of copper or malachite, or for straight-up begging.

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.

"Wait. I've got to call my granny," said Gustave, after which he said we must follow him, no time to get money or food.

He immediately left the tarmac in his little sky blue Mazda bakkie (a small pickup truck with a topper on the bed) for a potholed dirt road that jiggled Quinn's panniers right off his rack as it led out of town. Gustave rattled up the road ahead of us as if daring us to keep up and we passed low-income housing, railroad yards and a church converted into a bar. The road was lined with fields. Corn seemed to be planted everywhere it would fit and I wondered after a kilometer or two where this stranger was taking us.

Gustave moved from London just a month ago to live with his grandparents, Granny and Papa, and restore the remnants of their crayfish farm. It's the only crayfish farm in Zambia, Papa proudly told us, but it's been sold down to 12 acres from over 150.

Gustave has big plans for those 12 acres. He will dig out more ponds, he said, as well as put up a fence, raise purebred pit bulls and maybe start a guest house.

He talks fast and loud, out of habit from talking to his deaf grandpa and uncle, Terrance, who also lives at the farm, and has a habit of leaving his sentences dangling for the listener to finish, as though he's testing to see if you're paying attention. He told us why he needs dogs. One night he woke to the barking of Spotty, Tiger and Snoopy - the current canine residents of Crayfish Farm. He looked outside to see "either an angel or a devil" flaming in the sky. A bird had short circuited their transformer and gone down in flames. The telephone pole was on fire and Gustave was able to put it out before it destroyed the transformer - a nearly irreplaceable piece of equipment in Zambia.

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.

Gustave wants to get rid of the dogs so Scarface, his pit bull puppy who arrived at the farm the day before we did, can roam without threat of canine territoriality. But nobody will take them. Scarface is timid and a papas boy for now, but one day he'll be both protector and breeder for Gustave.

However, Gustave doesn't rely entirely on the dogs for protection. The day we arrived he pulled out his 12 gauge pump action shotgun to show us.

"I hate guns. I hate killing. I'm a naturalist," he professed, gun in hand. "I'm telling you, man, don't fuck with nature. Trust me." Crayfish farm borders the Maramba river, and low swampland lies between the house and the river for a hundred meters. We were told not to go down there, for fear of poisonous snakes, hippos and - most dangerous of all - crocodiles.

As we're staying for more than a week, we were eager to help with any projects on the farm. There are still crayfish tanks, chickens, lemons, oranges, bananas, guava and mangoes. But Gustave wouldn't put us to work.

"Trust me. It's farm life. This is Africa. There's nothing to do," he said.

"This is Africa, man." It's Gustave's favorite saying. It's a prefix or a suffix to all his stories, like how he got Scarface from a cousin of a cousin: "It's Africa. Everything you know is through people."

On a typical afternoon in Livingstone it was hot and we were lying around the living room. Then Gustave couldn't stand it anymore and we got up and piled into the bakkie. Over the days we spent in Livingstone, Gustave took us out with him to run errands, have a drink or just experience the place. He'd fly up and down the potholed road with us in the bed of his bakkie on our way to whatever adventure we had planned (or not planned) next.

We pulled over at a market and Gustave hopped out to get something or another. On the street a white, older man snapped pictures with a huge, irrationally expensive digital SLR camera with a characteristic white Canon lens. I mean, this thing was enormous. I'm surprised he didn't need a trailer to cart this thing around. He staggered around with his eyes on everything but his path, obviously out of place. No wonder everyone thinks white people are rich when they see tourists wander around with such an outrageous display of wealth slung over their shoulder.

"Don't hop out of the car," he said as we pulled into the "gangster" part of town to score a bud. "My dealer's gone to church, can you believe that shit?" he said, as he returned empty handed.

"This is Africa, man, they all slow down," was his response to a near miss on a narrow road. "If you see someone driving straight in Zambia... they're drunk!"

Four of us sat in the back while Quinn and Gustave popped out in search of a chessboard. I saw them briefly speak to a man on the street, and Gustave returned to tell us it's 50000 Kwacha (about $10). I was unsure this was a good deal, so I said I'd get out and take a look.

"No, no, he has to steal it first," said Gustave. I couldn't tell if he was joking.

On one of these many excursions Gustave brought us to Victoria Falls. I'm usually skeptical about tourist destinations but Vic Falls lived up to and exceeded every expectation. It lives up to its reputation as a wonder of the world, for it is truly wondrous.

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."

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

At the Kazungula Ferry

Posted from Livingstone, Zambia

At a Kazungula restaurant Quinn gave Botswana one last goodbye while we waited for fatcakes. Meanwhile, I met Brian and Wisdom.

These two young men, dressed in imitation jerseys and knock-off sunglasses were waiting for Brian's brother to arrive in a truck. They were Zimbabweans on their way to Jo'burg to meet a 'client.' Wisdom asked for my phone number in the U.S. but as I no longer have a phone, I gave him my email instead. I figured he - like everyone else - wanted to come to America, but I was wrong, for next he asked under his breath if I knew anyone who was interested in the white. Ivory, he meant. I told him no, sorry, but asked him more about it.
"This is why we're outgoing with white people," Wisdom said. These two were hunters, he said - which I took to mean poachers, especially because they acknowledged it was a risky endeavor. They travel to South Africa to bring their clients up so that the clients must transport the ivory, not the poachers.

After this encounter we departed Botswana with little more than a "hello," a stamp and a "thank you" at the Kazungula Ferry Border Post.

The other side was a bit more hassle. The first encounter was a man trying to sell 3 trillion Zimbabwe dollar bills.

"Good souvenir," he said, immediately handing it to me and indicating its worthlessness. "Give me some South African change," he went on, but I told him I didn't have any.

"Pula then," he said, asking for Botswana currency. So I pulled out my wallet and showed him the cavernous emptiness.

"Trade for the wallet?" was his next question. I wondered shortly if these were counterfeit, before I came to the conclusion that it would be more expensive to counterfeit Zim dollars than they are worth.

My empty wallet nearly cost us a lot of time and money, for at immigration we were told visas cost $50. There was a money changer where we could get U.S. dollars, said the official, but had no local currency (of any type) with which to exchange, especially not so much. At stake was a trip back across to Botswana (and subsequent questions at immigration about why we were coming back when we had just left) and a 15 km bike ride to the nearest ATM, followed by two money changes: electronically from dollars to Pula, then back to dollars once we reached Zambia again. Fortunately we were able to scrape $250 together from money we had hidden on our bikes, and we rode into Zambia in heavy rain.

Partly it was the rain, but Zambia immediately felt like a different country. It's more humid, more topographical than Botswana. The typical greeting includes "how are you?" and they actually mean it. It's not complete until you assure them that you are well and ask them the same. Here we are in Livingstone, a touristy town next to Victoria Falls, and here we will remain for about another week while Orian flies to Boston to compete for a Hertz Fellowship.