Sunday, September 28, 2008
Earlier this month I ventured out of Lusaka to the Western Province. The Western Province is made up of mostly flood plain. During the rainy season there are several parts of the Western Province that are only accessible by boat. I went out with three other embassy officers on a good will tour to check on U.S. funded projects and visit villages to promote the U.S. Mission. It was an awesome feeling traveling around the Western Province as the face of the United States. The Western Province is home to the Lozi people and the Barotse King known as the (Litunga). Because we were the U.S. delegation we were formally invited to have a meeting with the King at his palace. It was like a scene out of Coming to America. People bowing down, receiving lines, and every phrase begins with "yes your Royal Highness" or "no your Royal Highness." The King was a very nice man who enjoys a very cordial relationship with the United States. He thanked us for our country's support of his people and personally invited us back to his Kingdom any time we were in the Western Province. Let me just say this, "it's good to be the King."
The remainder of my trip was spent driving or boating through small villages and meeting with Chiefs, Headmen and children. Most of the schools we visited were very poor yet the children were always happy and filled with curiosity. The schools put on several drama's for us and sang wonderful songs in our honor. I was amazed at how articulate the children were and extremely impressed at the obstacles they had overcome just to be going to school. Many schools were held under a tree with a blackboard leaning against the tree. Others were in grass huts with dirt floors and no electricity. Cafeterias were basically campfires next to the school. Yet these kids were learning about the world and proudly displayed their knowledge to us in song and dance. It was hard not to cry seeing the joy in their eyes when we handed out red white and blue soccer balls courtesy of the USA. You would have thought we had given each one of them a million dollars. Of course each red white and blue ball had imprinted on it "Made in China."
My digital camera was a big hit as many of the people had never had their picture taken or seen themselves in pictures. I would take a picture of a kid and show him or her the picture on the monitor. Before I knew it the whole village was clamoring to see the monitor and then requesting that I take each ones picture. Most of them asked how long it would take to get to the United States. I found that question very hard to answer because their only mode of transportation was by boat or by foot so "17 hour flight" didn't mean a whole lot to them. I was amazed at how any kids could learn anything while attending school under a tree without running water or electricity. Yet I met some truly bright young people full of promise and hope. It really gave me a new perspective on that 84 million dollar bond we passed a few years back.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Well we finally made it to Livingstone and Victoria Falls and all it took was a whim and a prayer. The trip to Livingstone from Lusaka is 472 Kilometers (that is about 293 miles for you non-metric folk). About 250 miles of the trip is uneventful paved road and takes about 4 hours to travel. However, the last 43 miles is driving hell. It took us 2 and one half hours to travel those 43 miles. There are more potholes than road and they are the size of small cars that are strategically placed so there is no way of avoiding them. The local kids provide relief by standing on the side of the road and filling the most egregious potholes with dirt to ease the jolt given from the axles hitting the frame (and your head hitting the headliner). We didn't realize until we spoke to a few folks in Livingstone that the kids fill the potholes to earn money. So on the way home we loaded up on 500 kwacha notes and handed them out to our cheerful pothole filler uppers. The real story, however, occurred during that stretch of bad road on the way down.
We hit the bad road about two hours before sundown. Conventional wisdom tells you that is plenty of time to travel 43 miles right? Wrong! The potholes were so severe that about 30 miles in I started feeling a vibration and hearing a loud noise. I got out and had Beth drive ahead as I walked behind (always mindful that the bush was on both sides of the road). As I trailed our $4000 Safari car, I noticed one of the rear wheels was about to fall off. I stopped her immediately and began to assess how bad this was really going to be. First, we had no idea how much further we had to go before we got to Livingstone. Second, given the state of the wheel it appeared as though some studs may have broken off. This would mean the vehicle would be inoperable and we would have to figure out a plan of action including at least one of us or possibly all of us leaving the vehicle and walking to Livingstone. Oh and did I mention the sun was beginning to set and one universal rule of thumb is that you don't ever travel at night in Africa? As I assessed the damage, I realized that the lugs holding the wheel to the axle were tight but that the wheel contained a 1" spacer between the wheel and the axle. A spacer is used to push the wheel further out from the wheel well to provide more space between the tire and the wheel well. So since the wheel was tight, that meant the lug nuts holding the spacer to the axel had backed off (unthreaded) and became loose or the studs had broke off. Either way I was screwed because I knew I did not have a lug wrench that fit the lug nuts holding the spacer on so I could not loosen or tighten them. As I began jacking the car up, I kept thinking to myself, this could be really bad because if I can't tighten up the wheel to the axle we would be stranded and would have to make a less of evils choice on staying with the car and be subject to whomever may come along, or walk along the road to Livingstone in the dark with everything else that is in the dark. I tried not to let on to Beth and the kids how bad it could be. (Not true!! He let me know that it was a bad situation and I was really frightened-b). Once I got the tire off the spacer I realized that the all the lug nuts had become loose and that no studs had broken. Remarkably, I was able to take all the lugs off with my fingers and to my amazement none of the studs had been stripped. A rush of relief came over me as I took off the spacer and put the tire on the still threaded studs. With Beth holding the flashlight, I tightened up the wheel to the axle and lowered the jack. We loaded back into the car and began to drive away. I remained somewhat quiet the rest of the way as I was thinking to myself how close to disaster we were.
Fortunately, from that point on the trip got better and better. We stayed at the Zambezi Sun. It was a very nice hotel and sits right next to Victoria Falls. In the mornings we had a marvelous buffet and were accompanied by the local monkeys who were not afraid to jump on your table and steal your waffles right off your fork.
The Falls were stunning. We learned that the water levels are low from September until November and that it was a good time to come because you could actually walk across the top and go to Devils Pool. Foregoing those activities, we instead embarked on a journey to the Flying Fox and Gorge Swing. The Flying Fox is a zip line that spans a huge gorge close to the Falls. They put you in a harness and then you run off the cliff and travel down the line. The gorge is about 200 yards straight down about 500 yards wide. We all did the Flying Fox and it was quite a rush. When we finished we were asked if we wanted to do the Gorge Swing. The Gorge Swing is a 200 ft bungee cord attached to the middle of a cable that spans the gorge. You harness up and then jump off the cliff. You free fall for 3 seconds and then the bungee kicks in and you begin swinging back and forth above the gorge. When its over they lower you down to the bottom and you have to walk back up. The Gorge Swing held no entertainment value for me or Rianne. However, Trevor was all over it and Deryn was somewhat interested. Beth stated that she liked to swing so she said since Trevor wanted to do it she would go with him as a tandem. After signing all the liability waivers, Beth and Trevor were briefed and taken to the edge of the gorge and began backing toward the edge. (Yes that's right you go off backwards by just leaning backwards until you fall. As Beth got within 6 inches of the edge and looked down she declared with no uncertainty that she was not going to do it. As she began unharnessing, you could see the look of disappointment in Trevor's eyes. Deryn then turned to me and said "I'll go with Trevor." I told her you better be sure because you don't want to chicken out like your Mom did. :)
Beth was so relieved to get the harness off, that her motherly instincts did not kick in. Before we knew it, Trevor and Deryn were harnessed in and were backing toward the edge. Beth looked at me and said I don't think "we" should let them do it. She grabbed my arm as they began leaning back and left imprints as they plunged to the depths of the gorge. Cheers rang out from the 15 or so other thrill seekers who witnessed the jump and slowly the feeling in my arm returned. It wasn't until Deryn and Trevor gave us the thumbs up as they swung precariously high above the gorge bottom, that I was able to appreciate the feat those two little people just accomplished. Needless to say, there would be no "Parents of the Year" awards being handed out that day. However, we are now the proud parents of the world record holders for the youngest tandem to ever go off the Gorge Swing. So we got that going for us (which is nice). Check it out www.thezambeziswing.com
The rest of the trip was comparatively anti-climatic. We returned to the Falls and basked in its mist. The Falls were absolutely beautiful. As the sun set over the Falls, I thought to myself, "We can chalk this up as just another notch on our African adventure belt."