February 15, 2008

Last Week: Leaving Lusaka

The past few days have felt like the anxious but exciting time leading up to a summer vacation or the end of exams. Change is coming. Gentle breezes and mid-twenties sunshine have put a finishing gloss on Lusaka that I didn't quite expect. Perhaps I was too quick to condemn the city as an over-grown post-colonial metropole. I dare say I'm going to miss it.

With the well-timed break in the rainy season, I've been doing as much as I can outside. Not just because I know a wintry hell awaits; strolling around under blue puffy-cloud skies with other smiling people (the assholes seem to be confined to SUVs) is one of the simple pleasures I bask in. And the taxis don't seem to honk nearly as much anymore. Once-heinous exhaust fumes are worryingly tolerable. More people say hello. Some ask if they can be my friend or how my family is doing. Others blurt a one-syllable “Howareyou?!” or challenge me to a foot race if I’m jogging by.

***

The initial ride from the airport into town, from what I remember, was a blur of novelty. Riff-raff were trying to hitch a ride into town; wiry-looking men strained as they hauled charcoal on the backs of bicycles. Aid project signs littered the roundabouts, proudly announcing which foreign government had financed that part of the road (thanks, Japan!). At midday, everything was bright and brown and crispy from the dry season. It took my eyes a while to adjust after spending three days in artificially lit planes and airports.

Arriving in Kabulonga, my eventual ‘hood, I was expected to get out of the car to exchange money. This seemed risky. Pre-departure conditioning and embassy country briefs had trained me not to trust anything. Scruffy-looking black men were particularly distressing. Half-expecting to be mugged in broad daylight – I know this sounds ridiculous – in the 50 feet between me and the exchange bureau, I nervously fast-walked across the parking lot.

With my newfound wad of Kwachas I bought a fresh loaf of bread and some fruit on the way to the lodge for the first night. Arriving there in the afternoon, I had no idea what to do with myself. I wanted to use the internet and phone to inform everyone I had arrived safely, but could do neither for it required a terrifying ride in the local-ridden mini-bus.

Not knowing what else to do, I ate the soft bread and fruit with my hands and passed out, thoroughly jetlagged. Oddly enough, I would only wake up once in the next 16 hours – to see my first Lusaka sunrise through the bedroom window.

***

Sitting out on my porch the other day, it hit me how comfortable life has become here. That afternoon, my flatmate and I had walked down to the butcher (who knows us not by name, but by steak thicknesses) to get a couple of custom-cut t-bones. We returned rancid old beer bottles, bought a baguette at the specialty bakery and hired Norman, the Nyanja-teaching cabbie, to drive us home. No need to haggle for the fare: we both know what the rate is back to my place.

So there we were, Patrick and I, havin' a few on the patio under the setting sun. Classic rock on the radio and steaks on the grill. It could have been mid-May cookout in Baltimore at my dad's. But it was Lusaka, Zambia - Africa - where life, at least for me, was better than I ever imagined it could be.

2 comments:

Bryn said...

it's crazy remembering what you thought and how you felt at the start of a trip compared to the end. all those initial qualms about exchanging money, taking cab/buses, visiting certain neighbourhoods...

since so much has changed since the start, it always feels like the first day was years ago rather than months.

Scott said...

Good use of the present-past-present structure. It is all of those little things that make a place feel like home - going to a favourite bakery, seeing your local butcher, hell, even taking back empties. Those daily events are the algebra of life.