Tag Archives: Travel

Come on a safari with me!

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The last two days of my week in Kenya were spent at the fantastic Maasai Mara Game Reserve.  I was accompanied by  my new friend Salaton and I felt extremely privileged to have the tribal chief as my personal safari guide!  We were driven in a 4-wheel drive van with a pop-up top, so I could stand up and take pictures.

This was my first real safari and I didn’t quite know what to expect.  I was expecting to see animals, of course, but nothing really prepared me for the enormous space of the Mara, or of how up close and personal we were able to get to the animals.  Since they have learned that these funny-looking two-legged creatures in the noisy contraptions are neither prey nor predator, they mostly ignore us completely…going about their business and allowing us to gawk.

I was able to see more than 30 different animals; most closely enough to get a good look and a good picture.  ALL the pictures here were taken with my little point-and-shoot camera.

We saw giraffes before we even got into the boundaries of the reserve…and later saw more, even closer.

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As I had hoped, we saw many elephants.  There were even a couple of babies…but the mother carefully herded them away as we approached.

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We saw several kinds of vultures…some in trees and a bunch feeding on the carcass of a dead elephant.

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I got a good shot of a malibu stork, which is the bird I saw flying from a distance on my bird watch last month.

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There were other birds, too….a secretary bird and a pair of Egyptian ducks with their little babies, no bigger than feather-balls.

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We saw a lot of zebras and wildebeests.  This was the end of their big migration (they tend to migrate together) and at one point, we saw a HUGE herd of them walking slowing across the plain.  There were also gazelles, impala, antelope and eland.

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We came upon a couple of water buffalo, which apparently is one of the more dangerous animals, as they have been known to charge a vehicle!  And we also saw some warthogs…and some adorable babies, trotting along after their parents.  (“The Kenyan express,” Salaton said.)  I was unable to get a picture of the babies, but did get a snapshot of one hog hiding under a bush.

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Of course, everyone wants to see the majestic lion.  We came upon four different male lions.  May I present: The King Of Beasts!

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Meanwhile, the female lion had made a kill and was guarding it carefully.  There was a flock of vultures nearby, waiting for her to be finished.

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We were lucky enough to see a cheetah – although not close enough for a good picture, I was able to view it through my binoculars.  It was sitting under a tree, looking like a huge housecat as it licked its paws and yawned.

Later on, we came upon a pair of lions.  Salaton said it looked as though they might be getting ready to mate, and indeed, the male put on a great show to the female – approaching her several times with his hips swaying and making huffing sounds.  He even went so far as to urinate most spectacularly right in front of her nose (and I got a picture of him doing it!) However, she was unimpressed and merely moved away from him.  He sat down again to wait for another opportunity.

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Just before lunch, we found a watering hole with at least a dozen hippos!  They did not come out of the water (which was probably a good thing) but we could see their heads and ears and hear their snuffling sounds…almost like whales…as they surfaced to breathe.

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More animals included a bushback (very rare to see; as they are quite shy…) a jackal, an ostrich (which is HUGE and looks like a mistake in design!), some mongoose and a couple of crocodiles, swimming near the hippos.

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We encountered some Maasai boys just as we were having our lunch and gave them all our bread-and-butter sandwiches.  I remembered to touch their heads and say “supa” to them – who knows what they thought of me, a mzungu woman with white hair, a big floppy hat and green sunglasses!  But they smiled and said “supa” back to me.

It was a fantastic way to end my week in Kenya.

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Widows, water and a walk across the plains!

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In Maasai culture, women are traditionally not permitted to remarry.  Once they are married, they become part of their husbands family and their cattle and possessions belong to him.  Because many times young women (and girls) are married to much older men, it is common for a women to become a widow at a young age, often with several children and her options are few.

Salaton was encouraged by his mother (a  “medicine woman”) to do something about this – to help the widows and to discourage child marriage and female circumcision (or FGM – for female genital mutilation.) His mother, he told me, was a very strong woman, a very wise woman and he knew he had to do as she asked.  He has donated land for a “Widow’s Village” where widows can live together as a family, own their own livestock, build their own houses and make and sell jewellery.

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We were greeted at the entrance to the village by some of the widows, who sang a welcoming song, and then brought us into the middle of the group of houses; into an enclosure where they keep the cows at night.  This is the most important place of all, because the cows are so important.  There, they sang another song and had me and the other girl in our group join in the singing and the dancing.

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We were invited to see the inside of one of the homes – this is a very traditional Maasai house, with a low door and no windows.  Inside was a cook fire and two beds, one for the mother and young children and one for older children and any guests.  In addition, there was a space for the goats and young sheep.

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The women had spread all their wares out on individual shukas and we were invited to look and buy.  Everything was beautifully made.

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There is also a refuge center at the Widow’s Village.  This is for girls who are being forced into marriage or circumcision.  The girls can stay here safely and go to school.  After they have passed their secondary school exams, they are old enough choose their own husband and path in life and they can be reconciled with their families.

“I am not changing our culture,” Salaton told me.  “I am stopping harmful practice.  Many young girls are injured through FGM and some die when giving birth; and the babies die, too.  Far better for young girls to get an education that lasts forever than to be married off in exchange for a few cows that could die in a year.”

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Another project in the works is a conservation plot.  Many trees have been cut down and burned to make charcoal, which is a cheap source of fuel.  However, for the Maasai, many plants and trees have holy or medicinal purposes…not to mention that they hold moisture and keep the soil from eroding.  Salaton has started a small plot with seedlings and Coila is their custodian.  Although he cannot read or write and speaks only Maa, (and some Swahili) he is an expert at caring for the plants.  We helped with the daily watering.

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The next day, we packed for our walk.  Thankfully, we had several strong warriors to carry all the tents, sleeping bags, cookware and food!  It was hot and dry, but walking really gives you a great sense of the land and the surroundings.  We encountered other Maasai walking to get water, or caring for herds of goats or cows.   And we saw many small groups of mud houses…blending in with the land.

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After about 6 hours of walking, Salaton declared that we had reached our campsite.  We collapsed, exhausted, while our warriors pitched the tents, made the fire and prepared afternoon tea.  (Seriously, we had tea and biscuits!)  We saw evidence of elephant, warthog, lion and other animals and heard the sounds of the bush around us.  It was a beautiful evening…and we even got some rain to cool things off later that night.

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In the morning, we heard the distinct sound of a motorcycle…it was someone from the camp, with extra water for cooking and drinking.  I have no idea how he found us!  After breakfast, the warriors packed up and brought all the heavy equipment and supplies back to camp, while we walked on a bit further to a second camp, where we could have a proper shower and enjoy a night right on the plains.  This is a newer camp that also includes a widow’s village, again with land given by Salaton.  We had a delicious dinner and shared a bottle of wine, brought out by Hellen, an extraordinary woman with a hearty laugh who runs the camp, and also the school (which will be described in another post!)  I loved this camp – my little mud house looked right out onto the plains.  It was so peaceful and stunningly beautiful.

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The next morning, I was picked up bright and early to drive into Masa Mara Game Reserve for my SAFARI!

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A week with the Maasai!

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Map of Maasai camp

 

Maji Moto Maasai Cultural Camp

The Maasai are an ancient people with ancient traditions.  I read an article in the New York Times travel section about the “Maji Moto Maasai Cultural Camp” and I decided to spend my October break doing something…well, a bit different!

Through the Eyes of the Maasai 

I got into Nairobi on Friday evening and was taken to a small hotel near the airport.  Nairobi is the capital of Kenya and a fairly developed city, with a number of sky-scrapers, a bustling downtown and huge traffic jams.  Tiampati, my Maasai driver, picked me up promptly at 9:00am for the 3 and a half hour drive to the camp, which is outside of Narok and just on the border of the Masa Mara game reserve.  We stopped at a viewpoint along the way at the Great Rift Valley, which extends almost 10,000 kilometers from the Red Sea all the way to Mozambique.

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There were many sight-seers at the rest stop…you could purchase crafts and souvenirs, tea or coffee and take pictures.  Some locals saw their opportunity and approached anyone who looked like a tourist (ie: any white person) to try to sell their wares.  One man kept appearing behind me and saying “Hakuna matata!” while pointing to the shop behind him.  Another man was selling roast corn on a stick (a very common road-side snack)  He would hold it up and shout “Yum yum!  Yum yum!” and was very persistent, even following me as I got into the car.  I politely declined, buying only a cup of tea.

We continued onward through the valley and past tiny towns and wide open spaces.  Cows, goats and sheep were everywhere.  Finally, we reached the town of Narok; a fairly large town by Kenyan standards and the main town for many Maasai.  From here we turned onto a dirt road, which became incredibly bumpy and dusty…we were heading into the Mara.  After about 45 minutes, we turned at a small sign that said “Maji Moto Maasai Camp” and the road became even narrower.  Small groups of mud huts could be seen here and there and there were many flocks of goats and sheep, usually tended by a small boy.  Finally we arrived at the camp and were greeted by a group of Maasai warriors.  They sang and danced for me and I was given a shuka (traditional Maasai shawl)

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The camp consisted of several buildings, all constructed in the traditional manner of mud, ashes, cow dung and timber.  These had been “westernized” in that they had windows, stone floors and a door you could walk through (rather than crawl.)  They were quite cool inside and very comfortable.

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There was a wash-station and a toilet and outdoor shower, which was filled from the hot springs of Maji Moto (which means, literally, “Water Fire”)  Everything was very clean and neat and it really felt like you belonged to the earth.

There were many plants and trees and animals around the camp and you could see the Loita Hills rising above you.  All the food was cooked in the outdoor kitchen on a wood fire and was simple and delicious.
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I walked down to the hot springs with Rose, one of the volunteers at the camp.  There is a large windmill that pumps the water for two communal showers there (one for men, one for women.)  The women come to fill their water barrels – huge plastic containers that they carry with a strap around the forehead back to their village (sometimes several miles away.)  Some people have a donkey or two to carry more water. Clothes-washing is done here as well, and there is a watering hole for the animals a bit downstream where the water is cooler.

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That night, the warriors demonstrated how they traditionally started a fire, using a stick and a piece of tinder.  They twirled the stick in their hands, rubbing it against a flat piece of wood with the tinder underneath and their machete under that.  When the tiny tinder was lit, they would carefully transfer it to a larger clump of dry cedar shavings and then gradually add wood until the fire was blazing.

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That first night, I sat around the fire with four Maasai warriors.  The stars came out one by one and the warriors sang traditional songs.  Most of the songs were a kind of chanting call-and-response and most were about cattle and women.

In the Maasai traditional religion, their god Enkai stretched a long piece of bark from heaven and all the cattle were able to walk down to earth on it.  Enkari gave all the cattle to the Maasai.  A jealous  god broke the bark and so young Maasai warriors often jump as high as they can to try to reach the cattle still up in heaven.  Apparently, high jumpers also attract young women.

The next day, Salaton, the tribal chief who runs the camp and another warrior named Coila, took me on a hike up Loita Hill.  On the way, the two warriors demonstrated spear-throwing.  A Maasai warrior almost always carries a spear.  The narrow end is for practice and the wide end for protection.  After they had thrown their spears at a tree and missed several times in a row, Salaton turned to me and said gravely, “You are not safe!”   He and Coila thought this was very funny.
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Loita Hills once were part of a vast volcanic range and the rock formations are strange and beautiful.

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There were many colorful trees and flowers…even in the hot, dry climate.

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There are over 40 varieties of acacia tree…this one is called a “whistling acacia.”  The hard, black bulb-like things on the tree are made by ants as a nest.  When the ants leave the nest, they make holes in the surface.  And then, when the wind blows, it whistles through the holes.

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On the way back, we came across a young boy looking after the goats.  In Maasai culture, when you meet a child, you touch their head and say “Supa.”  This is a sign of respect.  Most young children will come up to you and lower their head to be touched.

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When we got back down to the camp, I was hot and tired…I looked up to where we had climbed and felt like I had touched the sky.

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Next: Visiting the Widows Village, the Conservation Project, Warrior Training and a two-day trek across the Loita Plains.

A short trip up to Ndola and the Copperbelt

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Last weekend, I took a trip up to the city of Ndola, which is the third largest city in Zambia and right in the middle of the Copperbelt.  When I told people where I was going, the common reaction was “Why?”

Truth to be told, there is not a lot to do or see in Ndola (or Kitwe, the second largest city, which I also visited!)  But…it was someplace different and it gave me an opportunity to see a bit more of Zambia.

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The flight from Lusaka took about 35 minutes on ProFlight Zambia, a fairly new company that is making a great effort to become Zambia’s premiere airline.  The flight was comfortable, friendly and included snacks and drinks!  I had arranged a ride with the guest house and was picked up in a van by a smiling driver, who took me right to the “Indigo Lodge” in the center of Ndola.

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The next day, I took a walk around the city.  We were in the middle of a heat wave (even for Zambia) and there was little breeze.  I was quickly wilted.  Being Saturday, the city was crowded and noisy with street vendors, traffic, taxi drivers trying to get fares, beggars, and people out shopping, getting money from the ATMs and walking on the sidewalks and in the street.

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One thing about going to a town like Ndola is that, as a white person, there is no way to simply “blend in!”  I was obviously out of place and though nobody was rude, I certainly got some curious looks.  Ndola is not exactly a tourist destination.

I remarked to one of the other guests at the Lodge that Ndola reminded me very much of uptown Harlem…and then I saw this!

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I had it in mind to visit the Copperbelt Museum and so I circled around to the main street and found it.  Although it was not air-conditioned inside, it was much cooler!  I paid my fare (later I realised I had been over-charged; as a resident I should have only had to pay 5 kwacha, not 25!) and went in.

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There were exhibits about the area and examples of tools and instruments made by the indigenous peoples before the mining industry took over.

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I was particularly taken by the exhibit of toys made by local children.  Not having access to modern and fancy toys that children in more developed countries have, the children create their own toys out of wire, fabric, metal and other items.  Some were quite elaborate and detailed.

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Late Saturday afternoon, when things had cooled down a bit, I took a walk in the other direction.
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I was lucky enough to come upon two church choirs, practicing for Sunday service.  One group was standing and practicing a capella, outside in the yard and the second, a Baptist church, was inside with electric organ and drums.  One of the women in the choir saw me standing at the door and went out of her way to welcome me and invite me into the church.  I loved hearing the music and watching the choir directors try to get the best sound from their group.

Catholic Church Choir outside

Baptist Church Choir

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The guest house had its own chef who would cook you anything you liked and the food was excellent.  Saturday evening, I ate a fabulous dinner of marinated strip steak with a creamy pepper sauce, roast potatoes and salad.  There were two other guests there, both engineers who worked for the Zambian government and were surveying the roads.  We had a great conversation and by the time we had had a few drinks, we had solved most of the world’s problems!

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The nest day, I had the idea of taking the bus to Kitwe, about 65 kms up the road. I wanted to go to the huge local market there and see a bit more of the countryside.

Kitwe was hot and dirty and the Sunday market was full of people.  It is a true local market and again, I got some very curious looks.

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After about an hour, I had seen enough, I was hot and tired and hungry!  I bought a couple of bananas and had an ice cream before going to board the bus back to Ndola…only to find that there were no more coaches going back to Ndola that day!

So, I got to take the local bus.

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I made it back in one piece and the guest house manager was preparing a braai with chicken and beef and invited me to join her family.   So, I had a refreshing dip in the pool, a couple of beers and some excellent food before heading to the airport!

Ndola and Kitwe may not be tourist destinations, but they are up-and-coming cities, as is Lusaka.  Zambia is moving forward…2014 will be its 50th anniversary as an independent nation and there are signs everywhere of development, education, health care and improvements.  As the Zambian engineers told me “This is an exciting time for Zambia!”

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Victoria Falls…and a cruise on the Zambezi

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The Victoria Falls are considered one the natural wonders of the world.  And even though I went during “dry season” they were still spectacular.   The pictures I took definitely do not do justice to the magnificence of the falls, the cliffs, the deep gorges cut by the river or the scenery.

When I entered the park, I was asked by a very nice young park ranger if this was my first time at the falls. When I said that it was, he offered to take me around and show me everything.  There was no charge (although I gave him a sizeable tip, because he made my experience so much more informative and fun.)  His name was Francis.

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“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

There was a large statue of David Livingstone near the park entrance.  He was the first European to see the falls and he named them after his queen.

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My first glimpse of the falls took my breath away.  The sight of the silver water, cascading down the mile-high cliff was just…well, “beautiful” seems inadequate.  During the rainy season, all the bare rock you see in these pictures is covered with water, and the falls are one huge wall of water, thundering down and creating a smoke-like mist that can make it difficult to see the falls themselves.  In fact, the local (and official) name for Victoria Falls is “Mosi-oa-Tunya” which means “Thundering Smoke.”

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We could see the bridge that separates Zambia from Zimbabwe.  You can walk across this bridge (you have to go through customs to do so!) and also bungee jump off it!  There were some people bungee-ing when we were there…you could hear them screaming with delight (or fear?) as they bounced down and back.

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After we had taken in the view from several vantage points, Francis asked me if I would like to walk down to the “Boiling Pot.”  This is a place where the water comes rushing in from several directions, creating a churning pool, as if the water were boiling.  He told me that the path down took about 15 minutes, but going back up would take about 25  and that I would be “very tired.”

Of course I said, “Yes!”

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It was a lovely place; shady and cool.  I took off my shoes and socks and soaked my feet in the water.  I would have loved to sit there for the afternoon!

On the way back up (which was tiring, but not a bad climb!) we stopped to rest where a large family of baboons was hanging out under a big tree, playing and chattering in a very human fashion.  There was a mother nursing her baby and after the baby was done, it peeked out over its mothers arms to look at us.

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Back at the top, I realized that I was starving.  I thanked my guide and took off for the refreshment stand.  The only food that they had besides snack-type things like chips or candy were meat pies.  So that’s what I had for lunch…and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a proper British-style pasty, with a wonderfully flaky crust and deliciously spiced beef and potatoes inside.  I devoured it, along with a bottle of fruit punch.

When I got back to my B & B, I took a hot shower and sat in the cool of the gazebo for a while, with a cup of tea.  Then it was time to go on the cruise.  The proprietor had recommended the “cheaper” cruise; he said they served free drinks and you could see much more from the smaller boat!  Four other people from the B & B were also going, so we had a nice group.

It was a wonderful evening.  We were served a huge plate of appetizers, there was an open bar and then we had a braai (charcoal bar-b-que) with chicken and sausage, plus salad, cole slaw and rolls.  We watched the “rich people” boat gliding near us and decided that we definitely got the better deal.  (Apparently that cruise cost almost three times as much and there was no food or drinks included!)

We saw elephant, hippo and some beautiful birds…also more baboons and a warthog who came snuffling down to the edge of the river.  Unfortunately, he was camera shy.

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And as the boat turned around to head back to the dock, we were treated to a Zambian sunset.

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I plan to return to the falls in March, to see it during the rainy season…in all its thundering, smoky glory.

(Oh, and I took a different bus line back!  Much more comfortable and no blaring music – although they did start with a prayer for safe travels.  And given the state of Zambian roads and the way people drive, was not a bad thing!)

Journey to Victoria Falls

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I decided to take a weekend jaunt to Livingstone, to see the famous Victoria Falls. Because we have a half-day on Friday, I could grab an early-afternoon bus from the inter-city bus station in Lusaka and hopefully be in Livingstone by 9:00pm…or 2100, as they say here.

The most reputable bus company is called Mazhandu, but they did not have a bus leaving in the afternoon, so I opted for Shalom bus lines instead. You cannot buy your ticket on-line, as you can in the states; instead, they recommend that you go into the city the day before to purchase. I was unable to do that (I got my car back finally, but that’s another story) but I was able to reserve a seat on the 1400 bus with the promise to pay on the day.

One of the drivers from school took me into the city and boy was I glad he did. The inter-city bus station is an absolute madhouse. As you drive in, representatives from various bus companies try to convince you that you have booked your trip with them and try to direct you to various bus kiosks. Buses are coming and going and backing up into spaces you would never believe a bus could fit. People are milling around with huge baskets of produce on their heads – oranges, pineapples, bananas – trying to sell them to the other people, who are lining up at the various kiosks to buy tickets.

I was the only white person there and I got some curious looks.

I finally got my ticket and found my seat on the bus, which left a little bit after 1400. Except that this was actually the 1300 bus. At any rate, the bus was a modern coach, the seats reclined, there was decent leg room, curtains on the windows to block out the sun and air conditioning. Again, I got some curious (but not unfriendly) looks and one young man called out something about a “mzungu” on the bus and grinned at me as he asked if the air-con was adjusted correctly. I grinned back and told him that I was a very happy mzungu. He laughed.

There was music playing on the bus. Loud music, all throughout the bus speakers. Loud, repetitive contemporary Christian praise music…some in English, some in African dialect. And this was interspersed with preaching. Loud, repetitive preaching.

For the entire trip, which ended up taking 8 hours.

I did see some interesting sites before the sun set. A big, open trailer full of piglets, being towed by a blue mini-van. Several cows and a calf on a similar trailer, looking as mournful as only cows can. Women and children carrying impossibly large loads of firewood on their heads. Thatched, round huts and little paths leading off the road to distant cottages and huts. The ubiquitous AirTel top-up shacks. People sitting right at the edge of the road, selling bags of tomatoes and onions.

And trash. Mountains of trash…plastic bags, plastic bottles, styrofoam containers, bags from chips and candy wrappers. All strewn along the side of the road and in the abutting fields.

I finally arrived in Livingstone, grabbed a cab to my guest house and fell into a very comfortable bed. Today, I visit the falls!

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Getting there…

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The long journey started at 2:30am, when Adam drove me to Boston’s Logan airport. Although my flight was booked through Emirates, the first leg of the trip was with Delta. I was checking four big and heavy bags, and after a bit of confusion, was directed to a different check-in desk…with an onimous (and false) warning that there could be an embargo on bringing extra bags. The man at the desk seemed confused as to how to charge me, finally settling on some ridiculous price per bag. The good news was that my bags would be checke through all the way to Lusaka.
Short hop to JFK and then a longish wait. After discovering that my assigned and un-changeable seat was to be Row 82, in the middle, I fortified myself with a full Irish breakfast and two large bloody Mary’s. It almost worked. I managed to sleep or at least attain a state of somnolence for a good part of the flight, despite being a bit squished.

When we landed in Dubai exactly 12 hours later, I had just enough time to do a quick wash-up and change my shirt before boarding the plane to Lusaka. This flight was just as full, but fortunately I was on the aisle this time with a tiny bit more room to stretch my legs. Another 6 hours in the air and we landed in Lusaka. The customs line took more than an hour nd when I was finally through, tourist visa duly stamped into my passport, I was relieved to see all four of my bags waiting for me and even more relieved to see a smiling Zambian holding a sign with my name printed on it.

I was given my welcome present – a colorful cloth bag which contained a very informative guide to Zambia and a working cell phone!

Now it begins…