Originally Published May 20, 2015
I ended up traveling for a few days with a group of cool backpackers I met in Swakopmund and while my time in Namibia ended on a low note, sleeping under the stars in the middle of nowhere was breathtaking.
As the plane touched down onto the tarmac in Lusaka, Zambia, I breathed a sigh of relief.
My friend Julia picked me up at the airport—not only was it nice to see a familiar face, but it was refreshing and fascinating to talk to her about Africa, being that she had been living/working in Lusaka for the past seven months.
We pulled into the first gas station just outside the terminal only to be told that it was out of gas. Fortunately, Julia works for a flight charter company so we puttered over the smaller hanger to fill up and hangout with some of the engineers. Everyone was so friendly, but one particular man named John spent nearly an hour conversing with us and telling us hilarious stories (most of which seemed to end up with him at a disco). I also learned that you can fill an old sedan with jet fuel.
As we drove down Kalingalinga, the main street in this part of town, I was transported back to Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. We passed ‘compounds’ of dilapidated buildings and plenty of street vendors selling everything from bed frames to cell phone airtime to live chickens.
That night we grabbed pizza with Jacques, a cool, kind South African pilot before hopping on a bus (which broke down twice) to Livingstone to meet up with Justin (who also went to UW, though we never knew one another during school). It’s funny to think how far we’ve come from those days sitting in lectures on campus. Here we were, three kids from Seattle on the border of Zambia, walking back from dinner, when we happened upon Limpo’s Pub & Restaurant. The colorful lights and thumping music seemed inviting so we decided to check it out.
We were the only foreigners there, and were thus personally welcomed by probably a third of the bar. People would come up, shake our hands, smile, and ask us how we liked Zambia. People here are so friendly.
Before heading out to Victoria Falls we met Mike from Philadelphia, who works for Grass Roots Soccer (an organization I was hoping to connect with, but logistically it never panned out). Once we reached the falls a winding path guided us through the trees and while the skies were clear and blue, the mist from the falls began to fall like thick rain.
Soaking wet, we sloshed our way down some stone steps to the “boiling pot,” a cauldron-like outcrop in the river that seems to be ever stewing, just below the picturesque Victoria Falls Bridge. We basked in the sun for a bit and then strode back up the steps through a troop of baboons. The animals move like humans, sitting upright on benches, yet they are able to leap up into the treetops with ease. We were told not to have any grocery store bags visible, as the baboons have learned that they possess food, however, they didn’t seem to pay any attention to particular blue plastic bag, emblazoned with a black silhouette of Rambo holding a rocket launcher and the words: “No man, No law, No war, Can stop him.” How or why this particular Hollywood war hero ended up on plastic bags in Zambia is beyond me.
Some find Lusaka to be rather boring or uneventful, however, I disagree. It did help that I got plugged into an awesome community of both locals, who had been rooted here forever, and expats, who seem to come and go as often as the aforementioned John goes to the disco.
I went on a test flight with Brad, who comically flipped the instruction manual open in the cockpit as he started up the small, six-seat Cessna aircraft. This is the same man who saw Black Hawk Down when he was 12 and decided that he was going to fly helicopters for a living, and also the same man who organized a minibus to take 15+ Mzungu’s (“white people”) on a pub-crawl around Lusaka.
I wanted to head down to Lower Zambezi or down to Lake Kariba, but transportation proved difficult and accommodation expensive, so instead I opted to duck into Botswana for a few days to go camping in Chobe National Park.
I met plenty of interesting people. I saw a herd of roughly 1,000 buffalo, along with hundreds of elephants. I even saw a small group cross the river, the strong adults ushering the baby elephants through the swift water onto a lush island to eat sweet grass. I saw crocodiles slither along marshy reeds and hippos bob up and down, their eyes acting as periscopes above the murky depths. However, the most memorable part of Botswana was camping in the bush.
Around 5am, I awoke to darkness and a powerful roar, ripping through the otherwise cool, silent morning air. Repeatedly, these long blasts echoed across the bush. Lions? I thought to myself, as I laid awake in my tent, my eyes wide open, and my ears sharp and alert. Elephants? My heart rate accelerated as my imagination danced around.
After a few minutes the bush slumped back into a peaceful trance, as I turned over and fell back asleep.
Lions, as it turned out, had been roaring a few hundred yards from our camp early that morning. We hustled through a quick bite to eat and down a dirt road, where we found fresh footprints. Minutes later we found what had woken us up—one male lion and two lionesses sat majestically in the early morning sun. The male and one of the females stood up, and strode powerfully behind a bush where they laid back down to take a nap.
The fact that these mighty creatures had been so close to our camp was alluring, yet slightly frightening.
I had to pass through Livingstone again on the way back to Lusaka so I decided to make a pit stop at the Zimbabwe side of Victoria Falls. Something about the colossal sheet of water falling perilously over the edge is mesmerizing.
The night before I was to head back to Lusaka I noticed on the bottom of a TV that Chipolopolo (the nickname of the Zambian national team) was to play Malawi on Sunday, which also happened to be my final day in the country. How fitting would it be if I ended my time in Zambia in the same fashion I concluded Argentina? I thought to myself.
Usually national team matches are played in Ndola, yet a quick search indicated that the game was to be played in Lusaka in a small stadium hardly ever used for international competition (which might have to do with the fact that the match was to be played on a date that was unapproved by FIFA).
My buddy Chase, who has been living and working in Lusaka for nearly eight months now, and I split a cab there with a few other backpackers. As we neared the stadium, the crowds thickened and the road worsened. We jumped out and meandered toward what we thought was the entrance. A stadium official escorted us around the backside of the stadium to another entrance (which was equally overcrowded as the first) and to the front of the line. I didn’t feel right about cutting the line, as it was pretty evident that we were receiving special treatment because of the color of our skin. Some of the other fans in line were not pleased with what was happening, while others were amused.
Once we squeezed inside we moved to the far side of a warm concrete grandstand and found some empty space, which didn’t stay empty for long. Stadium capacity is said to be 5,000 but I bet there were well more than 6,000 fans in attendance, many of which stood atop the bleachers. Just as the game kicked off the group in front of us asked a photographer to take a photo of them with Chase and me (two tall, white, bearded Americans). We politely entertained the absurdity of the situation, shifted around to fit everyone in the frame and smiled.
After the third or fourth time this happened I started joking with the photographers that we wanted commission for our role in the operation, but I was ignored.
Zambia was much faster, bigger, and more talented than Malawi, thus the game was pretty one-sided, but entertaining nonetheless. All of the merchandise vendors sold some Zambian gear, but mostly scarves and knick-knacks emblazoned with logos from European clubs (Chelsea, Manchester United, Barcelona, Arsenal, etc.).
Soccer is huge here. On the day that Chelsea won the Premier League, half of Lusaka strutted around in their blue jerseys. On any given day, every other person walking down the street is wearing a jersey from the UK or Spain. Passing through a small town in the middle of nowhere on the way to Livingstone, I saw a small chalkboard outside a humble wooden shack, with a thatched roof that advertised it was playing the UEFA Champions League game on TV.
While the quality of play wasn’t exceptionally high, nothing like what the groups crowded around the small TVs see in English Premier League games, the ‘friendly’ was competitive. Zambia won 2-0, as the first goal came from a haphazard rebound, but the second from a brilliant cross and header.
While I was disappointed that there were no coordinated chants or enthusiastic songs, the crowd was pretty lively. One particularly animated fan in front of us seemed to be pulling bottles of Smirnoff Ice out of nowhere, though he clearly had never been taught how to properly consumer said Ice on one knee. After he nearly came to blows with a photographer and another fan, we decided it was best not to educate him and let him go about his business.
As the stands emptied out, Chase and I received high five after high five—I must have given hundreds of fist bumps that afternoon, but my favorite moment came when one guy wearing an Arsenal jersey pretended to interview Chase about the game with an invisible microphone.
We eventually found our cab, though getting through traffic to the main road was another story. There are no orange cones, no detours and no traffic officers, unless you count the dozens of drunk fans directing traffic.
All I can say is that if you want to experience Zambia, go to a soccer game.
I loved Zambia. It is certainly an interesting place, even comical at times, but I can honestly say that the people are among the friendliest I have ever met. In fact, it was just declared the most peaceful country in Africa in the Global Peace Index Report.
I don’t know how to approach the following situation appropriately, but I think it is something that needs to be addressed in order to fully understand my experience in Zambia. Yes, for perhaps my entire life, I was the only white person everywhere I went. But in no way is this the same as people who often find themselves as the only person of color in a room back home.
As I wandered through Kamwala Market in downtown Lusaka, no one tried to solicit us goods, no one asked for anything (except for the occasional high-five); I wasn’t treated like a tourist, or a white American male, or anything else. I wasn’t treated differently, I was treated just like a normal human being.
In the year 2015, it feels odd that I would even need to bring up race, but I think it is important to talk about, rather than ignore. No way can I compare my experience to that of anyone else in any other country, for I have never been mistreated or discriminated against because of what I look like. I can’t empathize, nor can many people reading this blog, but whether you accept it or not, there are plenty of glaring issues back home in the states and many of them, unfortunately, have to do with race. Humans consciously mistreating other humans out of fear of differences—even in the country that declared that all human beings have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” xenophobia exists.
But where desperation, despair, and discrimination dwell, so do hope, dreams, and reconciliation. I have hope that one day our great nation will truly come together as one. Until then, I urge you to appreciate “different,” smile at strangers, and take a genuine interest in the lives around you.
I think you will be both happy and hopeful in what you discover.
[Note: Thank you to everyone that made my experience in Zambia as awesome as it was—Julia, Justin, Brad, Jacques, Anna, Ben, Geoff, Chase, Mike from Philadelphia, John, and the two dudes that drove the minibus. I will be back someday.]
And for those of you not on Facebook:
Just over 8 months ago I woke up in Granada, Nicaragua, nervous for what lay ahead. Today I am proud to say that, while certainly very difficult at times, this has been the most amazing 8 months of my entire life.
I cannot thank the University of Washington, the selection committee, Brook Kelly, and Mr. Bonderman for this opportunity.
At this moment in time, my Bonderman Fellowship has officially come to an end, however, I fortunately get to travel with for a bit before returning home.
There have been plenty of ups and downs (some much worse and some much better than others), but I wouldn’t change a thing, for I have learned that every little decision we make affects our life path and those paths of others around us. This is not to say that we must worry about every tiny, trivial decision, but rather we should rejoice in life’s amazing moments, as well as the journey it took to reach each one.
Just because this journey is technically over, I know now that it will never really end. On that note, I am going to keep writing, so if you’re interested, please keep reading!
Thank you to all those who have given me support along the way, encouraged me to take a leap of faith and listen to the stories I tell even when I’m on the other side of the planet.
We did it.