A new volunteer isn’t supposed to exit his community during Community Entry. Otherwise they’d probably change the name. So why was I speeding down to Luapula’s provincial capital in the back seat of an SUV on Thursday morning, 215 kilometers to the south?
I had Mini Provs, that’s why. Mini Provs are a PC Zambia-sanctioned orientation in Mansa for the newest volunteers in Luapula Province to learn provincial house rules and receive information about province- and country-wide Peace Corps news. The meeting was scheduled for the middle of Community Entry in order to provide a much-appreciated opportunity to get out of the village for a few days, as well as give us a chance to do things which are not possible to do within a 200-kilometer radius around my site, like collect mail, withdraw money from the bank, buy coffee, and pore over MLB statistics on ESPN.com.
On Wednesday evening Eddie biked down from his site 45 kilometers to the north and spent the night at my house. Sam’s mom and brother were visiting from the States and had rented an SUV, so when she said they’d be heading down to Mansa on Thursday morning and passing by my site, we jumped at the opportunity for a free ride. The next morning Sam’s family picked us up on the side of the road right in front of my hut, and after a pleasant drive we arrived at the provincial house at 10:30am. Easy. Too easy. Up to this point all of my travel in country had been via Land Cruiser, so transportation remained efficient and straightforward. This would soon change.
Being at the provincial house is an experiment in reverse culture shock. After a month and a half of living in the village, speaking mostly in a combination of Bemba and hand gestures and eating mostly rice and cabbage and soya cooked over my brazier, walking into the house feels like stepping through a portal into another world. I was hit with a deluge of sensory overload. New puppy! Volunteers in shorts! Laptops open to Facebook! The distinct tonal cadence of American English! Cokes in the fridge! Burgers grilling in the backyard! A guitar outside on the hammock! Vogue! Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence on the flat screen! Jars of nail polish on the coffee table! Someone in the bathroom! A bathroom!
Never mind that this new world bore a striking resemblance to the inside of a sorority house. It felt like home. Albeit how home feels after you’ve been gone for twenty years, where everything looks the same and no matter how long you’ve been gone it seems as if the time you’ve spent away didn’t really happen. As if life at site had only been a dream.
I caught up with the other volunteers from my intake, each of us marveling at how different our sites and communities are despite the fact that we’re all in the same province of the same country, with some of us even in the same district. Chris has a line of fish farmers outside his door every morning while I consider myself busy if I’ve got one new pond to visit per week. Michael lives on a family compound surrounded by farmland and can count on one hand the number of people who pass by his house on any given day. I live on my village’s version of Main Street and each weekday several hundred people walk along the path twenty feet in front of my front door. There are fewer Peace Corps cliches more accurate, or more often repeated, than the adage that no two volunteers’ services are alike.
With access to a computer for the first time since early May, I did productive things like completing my All Volunteer Survey and unproductive things like reading reports of backpacking trips in the High Sierra. I uploaded pictures from my camera at an average speed of ten minutes per photo, with the timer forced to reset when the power was out all Friday afternoon. We all live without electricity just fine in our villages, but it seems that no matter where you are in the world the basic recipe for unhappiness is the expectation and subsequent unfulfillment of something. Once the grumbling died down, twin braziers were fired up on the back porch and the evening’s chili resumed simmering.
On Saturday, Michael and Ryeon and I headed back up to our sites on the 13:00 Mansa-Kashikishi minibus. Transportation in Zambia is tricky under the best circumstances, and three fresh volunteers who have never taken a bus from Mansa struggling under the weight of a month and a half’s worth of groceries does not exactly represent the best circumstances. But it surprisingly went off without a hitch. We went to the right bus station, found the right ticket office, and purchased the right tickets. We called the right cab, which arrived at the right time and dropped us off at the right place, and there was the right number of available seats for the amount of people who boarded. The bus arrived looking shaky – it literally shuddered when it settled to a stop in front of our bags – but it had the right number of wheels and the driver seemed alert and not inebriated.
We didn’t leave until 14:04, which means the bus departed pretty much exactly when it was expected to leave; Zamtime runs at least an hour behind the official clock, and everything in Zambia runs on Zamtime. Although the golf-ball-sized rock embedded in the windowshield was cause for mild alarm, as was the piece of metal hanging off the side of my window and bouncing merrily along the side of the bus, it paled in comparison with the terrible lurch that threatened to capsize the vehicle every time we started to move after stopping. Between police roadblocks and the fact that the bus stopped for every single person who flagged us down and every single person who signalled for a stop, I counted no fewer than 471 lurches (the bus) and two instances of actual prayer (me) that the bus wouldn’t finish disintegrating into a heap of scrap metal before we got to Nshinda.
Ryeon got off near Mwense, Michael disembarked in Kazembe, halfway between Ryeon’s site and mine, and after we careened to a halt at Nshinda School I laid dusty, wobbling, relieved flip-flop to asphalt just before 19:00. Shouldering my ridiculously heavy backpack anchored by 10 kg’s of rice, I minced along the tarmac and then trudged up a bush path for a few hundred meters until I reached my hut and gratefully dropped my pack at my doorstep. Home, sweet home.
75% of PC Zambia volunteers’ stories revolve around transportation (the other 25% are about food), and not without good reason: yesterday’s ride was a best-case scenario, a textbook example of what you hope will happen when you climb onto a bus in Zambia. I’m not exactly breathless with anticipation about experiencing my first bus/hitch worthy of a “Remember that time when…?” story.