Tag Archives: travel

Out and About

I break apart a banana chip. “Good girl! Good boy!” One crumb goes to Dedalus, and the second to Icarus.
“Wooooo,” I say to Dedalus.
In answer, she makes the burbling trill that is the parrots’ approximation of the English “Hello.” So does Icarus, always hopeful for a treat.
“Silly girl! WOOOOOOOOO.”
This time she makes the correct noise, and delicately accepts her banana chip due. Next to her, Icarus starts doing flips, clambering around and around the axis of my finger. Humans like that trick.
“Beggar,” comments cmoore, the owner of the caique parrots.
I take pity on Icarus. “Can you FLIP?”
He does, but pauses hopefully upside down before completing the turn.
“C’mon, you can do better than that. FLIP!”
This time he makes it in one smooth motion, and I give him another piece of banana chip. The piece is a bit bigger (they’re hard to break when the slices are thick), and while he takes it with his beak, he immediately transfers it to his left foot and nibbles it, perfectly balanced on the other foot.
When he’s done, I ask both parrots, “Can you FLAP?”
They don’t always distinguish between flip and flap, but this time both sets of wings flutter for a moment. I treat them both before moving my hand up to transfer them to my shoulder. Dedalus flies off at that point, but Icarus starts “surfing,” rubbing his head and beak against my shoulder and the fabric of my collar. It tickles.

Over the past half-week, I’ve played with parrots, eaten half a mango, examined lemons growing on a tree, went to my first-ever Zumba class, and harvested organic baby spinach (while wishing I’d brought a t-shirt). You would never guess that I’m in Massachusetts — at least not until I look out the window and describe the lingering foot and a half of snow from last week’s snowstorm, or mention that the spinach was grown in a hoophouse. I also hauled my suitcase for more than a block over uneven ice, helped shovel cmoore’s driveway from the snow the night before last, tried and liked tempeh (tempeh is a fermented soy product in the same general family as tofu. I’d had it before, but only in college dining halls, and feel that no food should be judged by how it’s prepared in a dining hall), and went snowshoeing for the first time. (Snowshoeing is awesome. It’s rather unfortunate that Philadelphia mostly doesn’t get enough snow to ever do it.)

I am on vacation. It’s been five days since someone last said to me, “Don’t get smart with me!” (Not that I’m counting.)

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy my job — in fact, two of the main reasons I enjoy it are exactly the same reasons I’m enjoying this vacation: the people I get to hang out with, and the things I get to do. Working where I do, with the students I teach, is an education. (I usually try not to let the students see just how much of an education it can be some days. Doubtless there are people who can pull off naivete without loss of street cred, but I don’t think that I’m one of them.) And not just the students; many of the opportunities we arrange for our students are things I’d never done before, either.

I hadn’t even heard of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology or Esperanza College before getting this job, and now I’ve visited both of them. Last month we went to a trauma center with some of the Healthcare students, and got a really good presentation on gun violence, and the realities of gun violence. (It was a bit gory, but only in the form of a powerpoint presentation, and there was a nice mixture of personal-to-the-audience and this-is-how-it-is and young-man-can-you-please-lie-down-on-this-gurney-and-we’ll-explain-to-the-class-what-we-would-do-if-you-came-in-with-multiple-gunshot-wounds. I found the whole thing fascinating, even the gory parts. Hey, what can I say? I’m a writer. I trade in words, and I trade in information. Knowledge is valuable currency; you never know when it could come in handy.)

A few weeks ago we visited a law firm, and while that presentation was less interesting, the snacks were excellent, and the trip was worth it just for the view of snow-covered center city Philadelphia from an 18th-story window. In March I’ll be one of the lucky staff members who chaperones a group of students to Puerto Rico for a week over Spring Break. (And while I don’t really feel comfortable asking the community for money again when everyone was so generous about Zambia, I do need to raise $400 towards the cost of the trip, and I would be grateful for any of that that doesn’t come out of my stipend. It’s a wonderful opportunity for our students, for whom the trip is almost free. If you would be willing to contribute, the link is here, or I won’t turn down personal checks.)

Which is not to say that I’m not wholeheartedly enjoying this chance to hang out, laze about, and not have to interact with my students for a week.


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The Lilies of the Field

I’m not in Zambia anymore. Now I can talk about the things that I didn’t talk about while I was there, the things that I didn’t want to people at home to worry about. The things that I didn’t want me to worry about.

The prospect of drought was the scariest thing in Zambia.

Don’t get me wrong; there were lots of scary things in Zambia. Snakes were scary. (And I like snakes.) There was a snake killed in what was essentially my back yard whose poison is so lethal that you die within five days, and there is no antidote. Because it is non-agressive, this snake is not particularly high on the list of snakes people worry about.

AIDS was scary. (AIDS is still scary, in a more immediate way than snakes, whose ability to terrify has faded with distance. But then, AIDS is here, too.) I think that few service workers would argue with the assertion that AIDS is the biggest social problem facing Zambia today, and it really deserves to be the topic of its own post (come to think of it, snakes may, as well). Twenty-five percent of the Zambia population is HIV positive. One in four. A full-but-not-completely-overloaded minibus holds 18 or 20 people; I remember a piece of art at the National Museum, part of an AIDS awareness campaign, highlighting the fact that four or five people on the average minibus are HIV positive. It was Alison, commuting about two hours a day on minibuses, who came up with the idea that if that minibus got into an accident, even someone who walked away relatively unscathed would probably be exposed to the virus. And getting into a motorized vehicle in Zambia was terrifying enough even without that. Traffic in third-world countries is probably the greatest serious threat to physical well-being faced by most SALTers. One of the Zambia MCC workers was involved in a bad road accident while I was there, and considering what happened to her vehicle, it is miraculous that scrapes and cuts and broken bones are all that anyone received.

Drought was scarier. This isn’t to say that I spent more time thinking about drought than I did about any of these things, because I didn’t. Drought is only a seasonal threat, and normal weather in Zambia would look an awful lot like drought to most Americans. And I can’t say that drought was terrifying in quite the same personally-relevant way as snakes or AIDS (oddly enough, aside from AIDS statistics, it was much easier to not think about traffic. Quite possibly I couldn’t think about the risk and still be able to function, so I didn’t think about it. We don’t think about the risks of getting in a car here, either). But the worst thing that a snake or traffic accident could do would be to kill me or someone I cared about. And AIDS is a sweeping societal problem, but it’s a sweeping societal problem that people live and cope with, and will continue to do so as long as rich countries are willing to continue subsidizing anti-retroviral treatment.

Drought is bigger than that. Southern Province, of which Macha is a part, is the breadbasket (nshima pot?) of Zambia. And if the rains don’t come, or they come too late, or they come and then they stop for a bit, there is a bad harvest. (One of the fellows who worked in food security told me that maize is a terrible staple crop for Zambia, because it’s not sufficiently drought-resistant. Millet would be better, or I think sorghum (which is eaten some in the northern part of Zambia), because they do not require the same steady water input, but most Zambians want maize, and so maize is the crop upon which farming in Zambia rests, much like the US and corn.) And then people die. Lots of people. (More than usual.) Many of them children. And that’s just the way it would be.

This isn’t just a thought experiment. While Zambia has had some exceptionally good harvests in recent years, there have also been years when the rains have not come just so, and the crop has failed. One of MCC’s responsibilities in Zambia is that if there is a drought, they are responsible for the distribution of the government’s maize reserve in Southern Province. (The government of Zambia, to its credit, is working really hard to buy surplus grain to put aside. But even in an optimal scenario, Zambia is just so sprawling, and so very, very rural over large portions of it, that I simply cannot imagine how food would be distributed to everyone who needed it. During dry season, it takes an hour and a half to drive from Macha to Chikanta, forty kilometers away. In rainy season longer. And Chikanta is close and the roads are pretty good. Transport becomes more and more difficult the further you get from numbered routes and paved roads.) I don’t know if I would have been pulled into that responsibility or not. And I was not concerned that drought would mean that I was without food, though it would doubtless make stretching my food budget a more interesting proposition. But somehow it is scarier than death or injury or illness to think that neighbors would be starving while I had plenty — but not enough to be able to share with everyone. (And yet this happens every day in America, too. We’re just very good at not looking.)

And current predictions for global climate change indicate that Zambia — that much of sub-Saharan Africa — will become unfarmably arid within my lifetime.

Recently I’ve been thinking about drought, and about rain and harvests, because I just got back from Iowa, where we stayed with farmers, friends of my maternal grandmother. In case you pay even less attention to the news than I do, the midwestern United States is currently experiencing a drought, and the harvest is suffering. One of the farmers involved in Constance’s CSA* told her that Virginia is the only state in the US not suffering from drought. I don’t know if that’s true. When I visited the farm Emily works on in Massachusetts, they did not seem particularly troubled by drought.

Onions at Simple Gifts Farm, Amherst, Massachusetts

Onions at Simple Gifts Farm, Amherst, Massachusetts

In fact, a number of the tomatoes were suffering from blight, a problem that I had always understood to be related to wet years. But perhaps it is just the nature of things for tomato plants in Massachusetts to be sorry-looking by the end of September. What I do know is that when I came back to Pennsylvania after eleven months in Zambia, even as I was struck by how wonderfully GREEN everything looked (recall that dry season started at the beginning of April, and will not end until November or perhaps December), I was also struck by how brown the grass was, and the funny dried-out way the corn looked, and how many fields were not nearly as tall as they ought to be.

Soybeans in Illinois

Soybeans in Illinois

And when I took the train south to Virginia, the land around me got greener, in a shift as obvious as the transition from Zambia in dry season to Zambia in rainy season.

Iowa is pretty brown right now. Hay is still green, if it hasn’t been cut recently, but soybeans are gray-brown and corn is yellow-brown, or the crop has already been harvested, leaving a wilderness of husks and broken stalks. I’m not really sure what Iowa is supposed to look like right now. Corn does die and get yellow in the fall. But the plants seem thinner and more bleached-looking, and everything is completely bone dry in a way that I do not remember from autumn in Pennsylvania.

Harvested cornfield near Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, Illinois

Harvested cornfield near Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, Illinois

Our hostess told us that corn should be less than 16 percent moisture, but that they want it to be at least 14 percent. Right now it’s at ten, and not only do they have a smaller-than-usual crop, they’re losing out again because the corn is so dry that it’s not as heavy (and it’s sold by weight). She said that their farm’s usual yield is upwards of 140 bushels an acre, but that this year they’re expecting closer to 50 bushels an acre. I didn’t get the sense that farmers are skirting starvation, as would be true in Zambia, but that doesn’t mean things are easy, either.

Maize storage in an elevated "silo" in Mboole, Southern Province, Zambia

Maize storage in an elevated “silo” in Mboole, Southern Province, Zambia

*Community Supported Agriculture, a system in which members of the community buy shares of the year’s harvest, and receive a portion of whatever bounty the farm produces that year

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Trousers, work permits, and petrol

I’m wearing trousers right now. No skirt, no chitenge (okay, yes chitenge, but I’m wearing it as a shawl because there’s a lot of air-conditioning and I’m cold. Use #24 again), just a pair of jeans.

I don’t know how many of you are aware of this, but it’s been over a year since I last went outside my house without a skirt.* In rural Zambia, women and trousers is . . . an interesting question. Women do wear them, especially young women, but I never saw an older woman in trousers, and even for young women it was usually pretty rare. No one would have said anything if I’d worn them, but it was optimally culturally correct to wear skirts, so I did.

When I got back from Zambia, I’d already gone almost 11 skirted months, and a year seemed a nice round number, and not that far away, so I went for it, just to be able to say I did. And now I have.

It was a bit odd, this morning, pulling my legs into a garment with legs, and then not putting anything over it (there were a few weeks where it was cold enough that I did wear trousers under a skirt, just for the warmth). Trousers fit and hug your legs in a way that skirts don’t, at least not the sort of skirts I wear. But perhaps what I found most surprising is how natural it feels to be back in trousers. I expected going out without a skirt to be like the end of the Spoon Assassins game I played in college, where it took an effort of will to walk outside my room without my spoon, because I felt naked without it. I guess absence of trousers is something I notice less than presence of spoon, and that even a year wearing skirts does not erase social norms formed over a lifetime, particularly since I wear a lot of skirts anyway.

But let me tell you, the pockets are really nice.


I had a request to tell about being threatened with arrest.

I’m fairly sure I mentioned our persistent work permit difficulties. The first instance of threatened-with-arrest is really Matt’s story, because he’s the one who rushed to the immigration office when we realized there was a problem, and took the heat and the arrest threats, so that when Chris and I came in a day or two later, no-one even batted an eye at our two-months-overdue visas. Matt said they threatened to arrest Chris and I, but since neither of us were there at the time, I don’t feel that that one really counts.

Fast-forward eight months, to the end of June. I had shown up at the immigration office in Choma every sixty days or so, to get my 90-day visa renewed for another 60 days, since my work permit was technically approved, I just didn’t have it. I was going down to Livingstone to see Mosi-oa-Tunya one last time, and also meet Chris’s family. My visa — I still did not have my work permit — needed to be renewed again.

What with one thing and another, I wound up waiting at the Choma bus station for several hours, because Matt hadn’t bought tickets beforehand, and I completely mis-read Chris’s next message, and . . . So I did a couple of errands for Matt in town. I did think about walking down to immigration (a bit of a hike) to get my visa renewed, but it was Friday, and the visa didn’t come due until Wednesday of the next week, and you’re not supposed to go too early, and I wasn’t sure when Matt was showing up, and my the time I realized that it would’ve been a good time to go, it was too late to. And after all, I would be coming back the other way on Monday and could do it then.

Only . . . Monday was Heroes’ Day. Tuesday was Unity Day. Neither of these were days upon which immigration was open. And this did not occur to me until later that weekend, partly because I’d been talking to someone who thought Thursday and Friday were the holidays in the upcoming week, not Monday and Tuesday (and by that point I wasn’t teaching anymore, so I was keeping a much less firm grasp upon schedules and holidays and things, since tutoring required less preparation and did not start as early in the morning).

On Tuesday, the other family got back from their own trip to Livingstone, also having failed to renew their visas (which all came due at the same time, since we’d all gone together the previous time, so I could show them the location of the Immigration Office). And they would be leaving for a workshop on the other side of Choma on Thursday, and did not feel that they needed to drive from Livingstone on Tuesday, go back to Choma on Wednesday, leave again on Thursday, and get back on Friday. Especially since there was a petrol shortage. Especially-especially since, as a result of the petrol shortage, they had not managed to get fuel on Tuesday, and, in fact, would need to dip into their reserve petrol in order to get to Choma at all.

So we were discussing this Tuesday afternoon. I’d been planning to take the minibus to town on Wednesday, which was an unfortunate waste of a day just to get a stamp on my passport, but seemed especially useless when there would definitely need to be an MCC vehicle traveling to Choma on Wednesday, somehow or other. Only the MCCers affiliated with said vehicle did not wish to go. Only the MCCers affiliated with said vehicle needed to go. It was a conundrum.

And THAT’s when I had my brilliant moment of inspiration. I turned to Natasha. “You have Mr. Robert Phiri’s telephone number.”


“The Immigration official. You have his telephone number.”

I knew she had his telephone number, because the last time I’d been there, I’d poked my head back in the office, just as we were leaving, and asked what his name was, since it did not seem fitting that he’d been unfailingly nice to me for most of a year (visas are only supposed to be extended 30 days, but I’d never gotten fewer than 60), and I did not even know his name.

He told me, and asked for my telephone number, which I did not give him (“I’m afraid I don’t know what it is”), because there was no reason he needed my telephone number, and I don’t give my number out to people who have no reason to need it, especially not in Zambia. (The man is old enough to be my father, and I don’t think that was an Advance, just . . . the weird-usual friendliness when interacting with white people. But he didn’t need my phone number.) So he wrote down his, on a little slip of paper, along with his name, and gave it to me.

I gave it to Natasha, because I was almost done in Zambia, and she would still be there most of a year.

“You wrote it down in your notebook with the other Immigration information.”


Sure enough, there it was.

They made me call, because they were convinced that I have the Choma Immigration officials, like the Choma police, wrapped around my little finger, something that I am still dubious of (especially the police).

We were having cell network problems at the time, so it took about 20 tries before I got through, but eventually I did.

I’m not at all sure that he knew who I was (there are a lot of people in the Choma area who go to Immigration, you know?), but he was friendly and willing to be persuaded. When I suggested that we could perhaps not come in until the day after our visas came due, he threatened me (all three of us, actually) with arrest, but then asked if Thursday was when I could get transport, and I said yes, and he made me promise promise PROMISE to definitely come in on Thursday, and said it would be okay. (I am still not at all sure if he’s a nice guy and being extra-nice because I asked, or if they really just don’t care at all.)

So I felt pretty proud of myself, first for remembering that we had the number, and second for pulling it off, and Ingo and Natasha are even more convinced that I can bend all government officials in Choma to my will with a single word. (Are you folks still reading this? I bet they’re nice to you now that I’m gone, too.)

We arrived in town . . . not without adventures. With no more adventures than usual.

The usual culprits.  That funnel is made from the top of a Zamanita Oil bottle, part of a bicycle inner tube, and some string.

The usual culprits. That funnel is made from the top of a Zamanita Oil bottle, part of a bicycle inner tube, and some string.

Everything went just fine in the Immigration office. No one even commented on the day-late thing. We got to see a work permit, unfortunately not mine. (They look like little passports. I still WANT one, drat it!) I brought them biscuits as a thank-you/goodbye. (It was not a bribe. I gave it to them after, and I wasn’t going to interact with them probably ever, anyway.) I even found two new foods I hadn’t eaten on the way out.

Tuyumu (top) and freshis (bottom).  Tuyumu are a sectioned . . . fruit/nut/thing, where you throw out the seeds and chew the woody divider inside the pod.  It tastes very much like dates, and foams up into a sticky goo that makes them very difficult to spit out later.  Tasty, but lots of work.  Freshi are soft and squishy, with a small seed like a cherry pit inside (for scale, tuyumu are a little bigger than cherries. Maybe the size of limes).  They taste like dried apricots.  Wet and juicy dried apricots.

Tuyumu (top) and freshis (bottom). Tuyumu are a sectioned . . . fruit/nut/thing, where you throw out the seeds and chew the woody divider inside the pod. It tastes very much like dates, and foams up into a sticky goo that makes them very difficult to spit out later. Tasty, but lots of work. Freshi are soft and squishy, with a small seed like a cherry pit inside (for scale, tuyumu are a little bigger than cherries. Maybe the size of limes). They taste like dried apricots. Wet and juicy dried apricots.

And, when we stopped to get petrol, we learned that a truck had just come through the night before to fill up several of the petrol stations, and that it was a good thing we hadn’t come the day before, because we didn’t have enough petrol to get the vehicle home again, and we wouldn’t have been able to get any in town. The lines at the petrol stations were only about six cars long, which was quite reasonable, considering.

Petrol shortage.

Petrol shortage.

I took the minibus home, my last ride (to date) on a Zambian minibus.

This post brought to you by Mr. Robert Phiri, Lemon Creme biscuits, and the Puma station in Choma, on the Lusaka-Livingstone road.


*I have worn a bathing suit on perhaps three occasions. But mostly only while in the pool.

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Not, in fact, melting my camera

This post was written some weeks ago, but for several reasons, I didn’t post it at the time.

Due to a fortuitous combination of a much-delayed graduation gift (thanks, Dee!) and opportunity knocking, I have a new camera. And not just any new camera, but a really, REALLY nice camera, the sort of camera that I used to sigh over in the back room of the computer labs and promise myself, Someday, I will get a camera like that.

One of the very nice things about really good cameras is that they take much better pictures than reasonably nice cameras.

We’re starting to get into the season for grassfires. Not the big, uncontrolled, terrifying grassfires (mostly not. There was one a few weeks ago that was a bit scary when the wind was blowing our direction; luckily it shifted), not yet, not until things dry out more, and people start burning the land to encourage new growth to feed the cows. But things are dry enough to burn, and there are fires, either accidental, or intentional — just a few days ago I looked out of my window and saw a wall of fire in the direction of the Wooden House.

Of course, I rushed outside to make sure that the Wooden House was not actually on fire, and discovered that they were burning the grass around it, so that they would have a firebreak, “for when the big fire comes.”

One of the things that fascinates me about these fires is that they usually don’t burn the whole way up the grass stems, but just clear out the undergrowth, leaving the stems standing, slightly scorched at the bottom, but mostly untouched at the top. These fires burn HOT, though. It’s a good thing the camera has a good zoom lens, because I often did not want to get any closer.

There was another fire about a month ago, too.

If some of these pictures lead you to doubt my sense, I assure you that no Miriams were harmed in the making of this post. The only lasting effect was a sooty smear of burnt grass on my skirt, which is easily remedied in my next load of laundry.


I fly out of Lusaka International Airport this afternoon, and arrive in Philadelphia tomorrow via Johannesburg and Heathrow. We’ll have a few days of Re-entry Retreat with all of the SALTers from various countries, and then disperse to our homes.

The physical travel is almost finished, but I intend to continue posting on things that catch my eye as I reintegrate into American culture. I’ve also promised several posts over the course of this year that I never got around to writing, and there are a number of other things that I could write about, like food and living in an officially Christian country and the Peace Clubs Fair I went to last weekend, not to mention posting more of the zillions of pictures I’ve taken. So my question to you is: are there things you would like to read? Either about Zambia or about returning to the US?


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Return to the Rainbow Forest

Last weekend I went to Livingstone with the other SALTers. I did not bring my camera, preferring to not ruin another one, but the occasion seems appropriate to post the pictures I took one the previous trip, with the other three Zambia SALTers and two South Africa SALTers, who got special permission to come north and meet up with us.

In November, we walked across those rocks. The ones with the water rushing over them.

In November, we walked across those rocks. The ones with the water rushing over them.

Much of the time, there was mist obscuring the falls, but occasionally the wind blew the mist away enough that we could see them.

Much of the time, there was mist obscuring the falls, but occasionally the wind blew the mist away enough that we could see them.

View from the Knife Edge Bridge, with the falls behind me.  See the double rainbow?

View from the Knife Edge Bridge, with the falls behind me. See the double rainbow?

The entire area around the falls was a bright, verdant green that is not really captured by my semi-misted camera.  Most of Zambia is very green in rainy season, but the foliage here, under a constant gentle sprinkle, made the rest of Zambia look dry by comparison.

And again.The entire area around the falls was a bright, verdant green that is not really captured by my semi-misted camera. Most of Zambia is very green in rainy season, but the foliage here, under a constant gentle sprinkle, made the rest of Zambia look dry by comparison.

Much of the area was under constant downpour.  Many of the paths and railings were covered in some slimy algae-thing.  This one had a small waterfall running down it.

Much of the area was under constant downpour. Many of the paths and railings were covered in some slimy algae-thing. This one had a small waterfall running down it.

Most lookout points were in fact stand-and-get-drenched-while-staring-at-mist points.  I brought my poncho, which kept my shirt mostly dry, and a few portions of my skirt.

Most lookout points were in fact stand-and-get-drenched-while-staring-at-mist points. I brought my poncho, which kept my shirt mostly dry, and a few portions of my skirt.

After soaking ourselves in the spray, we walked down the path (better known as ‘really long staircase’) to the Boiling Pot, which we’d missed the first time. We had adventures with baboons, which is a story better told in person, and more-or-less dried in the sun.

Note: The next three pictures aren’t mine, they’re Shawnti’s; my camera was unhappy by this point, although it had not quite gotten to the stage of total nonresponsiveness.

Tithonia and bridge to Zimbabwe.  There was Tithonia all over the place during rainy season; I enjoyed it very much.

Tithonia and bridge to Zimbabwe. There was Tithonia all over the place during rainy season; I enjoyed it very much.

Path to the Boiling Pot.

Path to the Boiling Pot.

Curtains of mist would waft across the Boiling Pot, possibly damping tourists sitting on the rocks before dissippating.  I found them gorgeous.

Curtains of mist would waft across the Boiling Pot, possibly damping tourists sitting on the rocks before dissipating. I found them gorgeous.

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On the Road, as it were

Part two of the Women’s Conference Adventure.

Somewhere about the time that E—- and the other woman left, the bus did in fact arrive. This may have been about 11:30; I’m not sure. Recall that this was supposed to be the 10 hours bus. There were a number of people and a significant amount of luggage already on the bus, and even more people huddled around the door of the bus having Tonga discussions with various organizer-ladies, but no one seemed in any hurry to actually get on the bus, so Natasha and I didn’t either, and just hung out next to the church and watched. I made vague attempts to keep track of my phone, which Grama was now carrying around.

(I have become incredibly blasé about my belongings here. I’ll give my backpack to someone and not even pay attention to be sure that it gets put under the bus or in the boot of the vehicle or on top of the minibus. Part of this is that I don’t put anything of real value in that backpack, but most of it is just the fact that my belongings always manage to travel with me. (Well, aside from the six tomatoes I accidentally left on the minibus yesterday, but that was a different matter.) It eventually occurred to me that quite aside from the shame one would face for losing a mukuwa‘s belongings, no one will use your minibus if you have a reputation for losing things. This matter of reputation extends so far that people will give the minibus driver or conductor money on their way out of Macha in the morning, and the minibus will deliver goods purchased in town on the return trip in the afternoon.)

Lisa figured out that what was going on was a debate about whether there was room on the bus for the people who had not purchased their seats in advance, and for how many of them, and which ones. We stood about for a while longer. I knit. Presently we were told to get on the minibus, which we did, so as to sit and wait more conveniently. I think we were waiting for latecomers, though I am not entirely sure.

(It’s frequently unclear what one is waiting for here. Alison shared a story with me: one time her host family was sitting around and waiting after church, and she asked them what they were waiting for, and none of them knew. In fact, it became clear that they were not actually waiting for anything at all — but this did not stop them from spending several hours doing so.)

While we were waiting, we realized that no one had paid for our (Lisa’s and Natasha’s and mine) food at this conference, so we did that. I knit some more and wondered what budget category food for a conference belongs in. Grama’s bag (with my phone resting on top) made it inside the vehicle, so I figured that that was all right.

Grama and the woman with the clipboard (whose name I never did catch) began discussing the 13 hours bus, which at this point appeared to have only four people on it. It was agreed that running an entire bus for only four people was an unnecessary expense. I began to wonder if we were going to wait another two or three hours for the 13 hours people, and to dubiously consider my supply of snacks, which was not in the least adequate for being lunch. After some texting and more phone calls, Grama returned my phone (I checked my balance, which was only lower by 1,000 kwacha, the cost of an egg, despite that flurry of phone activity), and presently the bus departed.

Only to stop again 300 meters away to pick up the pastor’s wife, wiping damp hands on her chitenge. She had gone home to finish up some housework. We moved again, only to stop while one woman ran over to her house to get a pillow and a scarf. While we were waiting, Grama and the woman sitting next to/underneath a rather large suitcase investigated options for keeping the suitcase from crashing into the unfortunate woman. I offered my ever-present hank of rope (“You’ll want it, if you haven’t got it!”), but there wasn’t really anything to tie the rope to.

We stopped again at the market and tied the suitcase to the doorframe. Possibly there was some other purpose to that stop, but I didn’t figure out or don’t remember what it was. We may have acquired another passenger.

We bounced our way out of what I consider “Macha proper,” stopping for a long while by the shops by the radio station to pick up another woman. I knit some more. The woman next to me purchased a handful of “ma bubble,” bubblegum, and gave me a piece. I’m still completely unable to blow gum bubbles, just like the last time I tried.

As we pulled away from the radio station, I checked my phone: it was just after 13 hours. We stopped again at the T with the dust road and acquired another woman and a young man.

At Miyobe, the turnoff to the tarmac road, we picked up another woman and some parcels, rendering the minibus overloaded, even for Zambia. About 500 meters later we stopped, dropped off that woman, the parcels, the young man, and the woman we’d picked up at the radio station, along with strict instructions in Tonga, something about 18 hours. I never did figure out what the deal was with that last woman.

Did I mention the singing? It’s not at all unusual, here in Zambia, to be passed by a vehicle, usually a canter truck, with the back crammed full of people, all singing at the top of their lungs. It’s a unique auditory experience that I have often enjoyed from the sidewalk, but this was the first time I’ve been inside the vehicle. Someone, probably Grama, started the singing shortly after the radio station, and most of us sang the whole way to Choma. I even led a song: Ambani Jesu (Talk about Jesus), only that backfired a little because, it turned out, most of the bus didn’t know it, so I really did have to lead it, and I’m not actually quick enough on my feet in Tonga to sing leader role for stanza after stanza after stanza. It’s a song that could hypothetically be led in English just as well, only the bit of music for that part of the song lends itself much better to Tonga.

It’s a good thing we were singing, because bubble gum is not food, and by the time we reached Mbabala, I was beginning to think longingly of lunch, even with the distraction of music. Only we didn’t stop at Mbabala, just slowed down a little and cruised right on through. I resigned myself to no lunch until goodness-knows-when, and settled in to enjoy the singing. (I wrote down the Tonga words for “We Are Marching in the Light of God,” which I’ll share with you after I double-check spellings and meanings.)

It was 2:15 by the time we rolled to a stop in the middle of Choma. We were stopping for half an hour so people could shop. Of course, I thought, a trip to town is a luxury. They want to make the most of it. And Thank goodness; I can get some lunch.

I led Lisa into the maze of stalls that is Choma market, in pursuit of bush bananas and raw groundnuts. That accomplished with time to spare, we went to Spar, and I dealt with my grocery store shopping list. While there, Kathy called to say that her bus was leaving Monze, an hour and a half away, and could we pick up some food at Spar? We did, and returned to the bus at 2:44. As I expected, it was mostly empty and not remotely ready to leave, so I acquired tomatoes and green onions from one of the ladies on the street, the better to flesh out our food supplies. After that, I could settle down to a belated semi-lunch of bananas and groundnuts, and then to the business of shelling groundnuts for later roasting.

Fourty-five minutes or an hour later, when the bus actually left, my 1l jar was 1/4 full of groundnuts. We reached the school without incident, and Grama told us to stay on the bus, and that we’d be dropped off at the guesthouse on the driver’s way back into town. We tried to call the woman in charge of the guesthouse, but she wasn’t answering her phone.

When we reached the guesthouse sometime after four, Kathy was there ahead of us, sitting on the porch waiting for the keys, which arrived not too long after. But that was, without a doubt, the longest trip from Macha to Choma that I have ever taken.


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A fraction of my recent adventures

I wrote this last week and thought I posted it (the power went out right after), but upon checking realized that it hadn’t.

I’ve been busy lately and haven’t had much time for my usual lengthy blog posts. At this point I’m so far behind on things I intended to say that if I’m going to get around to posting any of them, I need to just start typing somewhere. So:

A few weekends ago I went to a church National Women’s Conference. Conveniently enough, it was held in Choma. Something like 1,300 women attended. The conference was over a term break, so many of the women stayed in the dorm of a school. I, along with three other MCC women, stayed at a nearby guesthouse (which was very convenient, because we wound up cooking a large portion of our own food).

The conference started on Thursday, and those of us coming from Macha were taking local transport, catching a ride on the (large) minibus that the other Macha women were taking. There was a 10 hours bus and a 13 hours bus — we opted for the 10 hrs bus.

I did not expect the bus to leave on time. However, I’d never taken churchwomen transport before, and on the bare possibility that it *might* leave on time, I felt that I ought to be timely. We showed up to the meeting place, the church, at about 9:59, and no one was there.

Okay, I thought, usual Zambian transport.

Before Natasha could get worried, a Zambian woman in the church chitenge showed up and introduced herself as E—-. We introduced ourselves, and before we finished the greeting process, another woman showed up, carrying E—-‘s suitcase on her head. We greeted with her, too, and before we finished that round of greeting, Lisa appeared from around the building; she’d been taking pictures. Cue more greeting.

One of the next women to arrive was Grama, who I’d met before, when I went to the women’s Saturday afternoon bible study, and whose name, I have since discovered, is, in fact, Glamour.

Over the next hour or so, people arrived in a slow but steady trickle, bringing with them an ever-widening round of greetings — in Zambian society, you don’t greet the group as a whole, you greet each member of the group individually. While westerners may find it a bit odd to go “How are you — I’m fine” along a whole line of people (especially when you arrive in a group, so there are two lines moving in opposite directions, like optimal heat exchange between parallel pipes), Zambians consider it not only normal, but eminently proper.

There was still no sign of the bus.

One, or perhaps some, of the women had arrived with popwe, boiled maize, which was broken into chunks and shared out among the group. I attacked mine with the incisor-bite I’ve worked out for things like boiled maize that are harder than my front teeth are up to handling, and managed to decimate my four centimeters of cob with a minimum of mess.

On my way back from the trash pit to dispose of my empty cob, I realized that there was some great commotion going on back at the group of women, and arrived to find E—- wailing. While bits of her lament were in English, most of it was trial by fire for my fledgeling Tonga. I followed enough to figure out that her father had just died, and after a bit someone gave us a proper summary of the situation, in English.

Lisa knew E—- a little bit from work, but I had only met her that day, and stood around feeling an awkward intruder, but at the same time fascinated by the chance to observe cultural differences in the expression of grief. I have no word but ‘wail’ to describe E—-‘s outpouring of sound, heartfelt anguish vocalized in words.

Picture us there, a cluster of women in front of the church, E—- wandering and wailing, Lisa and some of the others drifting close in an attempt to offer sympathy or condolences, Natasha and I farther, but still trying to stand in solidarity. They were trying to get in touch with E—-‘s mother, but in typical Zambian fashion, no one had any talk time, and while Lisa wanted to lend her phone, the screen had broken a few days before, leaving it in that annoying place just this side of unusable, which is worse than true uselessness. Since I never use my talk time anyway, I persuaded them that Grama should use my phone, rather than fighting with Lisa’s, so she was bustling about, texting and calling and giving the phone back to me and then someone would call it and I’d hand it back to her and another three people arrived so we did subdued greetings around the edges of the wailing . . .

Presently a car showed up and discharged another wailing woman, who came and curled up in the dirt by where E—- had been persuaded to sit on the church steps. They made, sang — I can only describe it as the grief song. A particular sort of keening melody, high and sad and minorly off-key. It’s eerie and discommoding. And the new woman, who may or may not have been the mother, smeared dirt on her chitenge. Grief is much rawer here, and it made me realize that we’re terribly repressed, we Americans. All we know how to do is cry.

About this time the minibus arrived, and E—- and the other woman were helped back into the car to be driven home. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to bury a man, too.

To be continued. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

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