14 August 2009

Zambia roundup

We arrived in Malawi on Wednesday, our Zambian visa having run out. When we entered at Kazungula from Botswana we had planned Zambia to be a transit route to Malawi and Mozambique, so we only got a 10 day visa, which seemed ample time to see Victoria Falls, get our laundry done in Lusaka and drop in on South Luangwa National Park. It didn't turn out that way. 40 odd days into the trip we are finally slowing down enough to not need to 'complete' every country in the time allotted to it, so we are spending more time in less places. Roads are getting worse, too, so it's not feasible to plan a 600 km drive in a day anymore. And Zambia has been captivating in a whole new way. We are starting to leave the established tourist locations behind, specially those traditionally visited by South Africans, the major tourists in the region. Even Victoria Falls, which in any other place would have been inundated with tourist coaches all day long, was remarkably peaceful. The view from the road changed as soon as we left Botswana. The occasional small villages consisting of reed roofed huts and fenced open spaces became more numerous and interspersed with rows of small dilapidated shops with little porches busy with people. Apart from Livingstone and Lusaka, we came across nothing that we could call a town. Even the border town of Chipata is just a long row of shops along the road to the border, and dusty sidewalks filled with market stalls. Most shops, general traders, 'supermarkets', boutiques and bars, were painted faded greens and creams, but many had recently been repainted a loud fuschia, the livery of Zain, the local mobile network. We decided that Zain's marketing budget has been spent in its entirety on emulsion and subsidised house painters who offer cut price jobs in any colour as long as it's Zain pink! The abiding image of Zambia has been people on bicycles along the roadside, carrying all sorts of loads - sacks of charcoal, baskets of fruits and vegetables, bundles of fire wood, furniture and crates of bottles, or just other people - younger brother, wife and baby, friend, colleague. Also along the road we saw signs for local schools (motto: Knowledge for Life; Learning is Service) and religious centres, representing every flavour of Christianity from Jehovah's Witnesses to Evangelicals, Presbyterians to Catholics, Baptists to the Church of Enlightenment. I guess Livingstone started a trend, but the small schools next to the villages in the middle of nowhere were a good sign. For a country where 80% of the population lives on less than US$1 a day Zambia felt organised, clean and well-managed, with working communities full of people with a purpose. Zambia was the white foam of Victoria Falls, where water came at us from all sides and in all forms, creating magic light from the sun and the moon. It was the women along the road carrying every conceivable item on their heads, from carrots to oil drums, all the while lugging a small child in a sling across their backs. It's the boys on bicycles, some of whom could barely reach the pedals, and some dressed to the nines on their way to a night out. It was elephants munching their way through the camp site two, three times a day, vervet monkeys stealing pears, hippos grunting at night and the silence of crocs pretending to be logs. It was Lusaka's crazy traffic and friendly car park attendants, the laundry rip-off and Harry Potter 6, an escape to another, more standard lifestyle for a few hours. It was the chaos of border towns: Kazungula's ferry, Livingstone's bridge to Zimbabwe and Chipata's long rows of trucks waiting to cross, dodgy money changers and insistent souvenir sellers, and too many baboons living off human leftovers.

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