Zambike, n.

Nshinda, Luapula, January 2014

A typical bicycle in rural Zambia, carrying bananas from the farm back to the village

Zambike, zam-byk. n. 1. A Zambian bicycle manufacturer. 2. The informal regional name for all bicycles in Zambia capable of transporting huge baskets of produce, balancing precarious stacks of reed mats, and bending but not breaking under the weight of multiple 25-kilogram bags of charcoal. Used to ferry chickens, goats, and people — two on one bike is the default, three is not uncommon. Often missing (or featuring crude jury-rigged approximations of) pedals, seats, spokes, handlebars, tires, and/or hubs. These things defy the laws of gravity, decay, and a dude named Murphy, because if there were ever a case when something could go wrong, every Zambike would be a big rusty heap of things going wrong. And yet, incomprehensibly, they somehow always manage to still keep rolling.

Zambian Colloquial Dictionary (ZCD), 2014.

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This curious kitten split as soon as she realized that her playground was a moving hazard

The emperor’s new groove

I used to collect butterflies and moths as a kid. I’d spend hours running around our farm in California’s Central Valley, chasing after painted ladies and tiger swallowtails and cabbage butterflies. I’d spend even more (and decidedly less fruitful) hours watching grossly swollen tomato hornworms that I’d placed into mason jars, waiting for them to turn into sphinx moths. But what I liked most of all was poring over websites online where you could select exotic species from around the world and get them delivered, shriveled and dried, to your doorstep. For a price, you could acquire magnificent specimens from all corners of the globe: iridescent morpho butterflies from South America, gigantic golden birdwings from Southeast Asia, and regal emperor moths from Africa.

I though that these mail-order lepidopterans were the closest I would ever get to these far-away places. Then I moved to Zambia 15 years later and discovered that the larval stage of one of these species is a major source of protein for people in my host country during the rainy season. Meet Gonimbrasia belina, whose caterpillar is the tasty snack known locally as ifishimu. More commonly, this winged giant is known as the emperor moth.

Play that funky music, muzungu

Before coming to the Peace Corps, I was a pretty level-headed and balanced person. Mr. Level-headed and Balanced, that’s what they called me. (Had the girls falling all over themselves in high school, let me tell you.) I had a stable personality, and a calm temperament, and roughly the same amount of emotional variability as a tortoise.

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This is a baby tortoise. Aww, isn't he cute??

But that all changed once I moved to Zambia. Peace Corps loves to warn new volunteers about the emotional roller coaster, the cliched metaphor du jour used to describe the ups and downs you will experience during your service. But what they don’t talk about as much is that you’ve got a FastPass to this ride and it runs multiple times per day. I may start out a given morning feeling one way, but you can bet I won’t be feeling the same way by the time evening rolls around. My emotions bounce all over the place like a toddler in a grocery store. This is now normal for me here. This is my day-to-day life.

And as if the ride wasn’t already dramatic enough, I’ve been in a sort of funk for the past few weeks. If I’m being honest with myself, I’ve been in a sort of funk for the past few months. There are a few plausible explanations why:

For one, I’m at that point in my service when many volunteers hit a lull — about two-thirds of the way through my actual two-year contract and nearly three-quarters of the way through my 27 month-commitment in Zambia. It makes sense; things that used to be novel and exciting, if not necessarily pleasant and comfortable, are now no longer novel and exciting. Now they’re just unpleasant and uncomfortable. The drunk men harrassing you. The unwavering stares that bore deep into your soul. The sweaty half-hour you have to spend fetching water. Hot season. Last year, I was kind of excited for hot season, in that I-know-it’s-going-to-suck-but-I’m-kind-of-looking-forward-to-seeing-just-how-much-it’ll-suck sort of way that you can be excited. This year, it just sucks. I already know how much it sucks, I already know how long it’ll continue to suck, and I can’t even get a self-pitying blog post out of it as consolation prize because I already did that last year. Shit gets old.

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Sebastian's sons renovating a dried-up pond during the height of last year's hot season; and I thought I had it bad when my dad used to make me go check for frog eggs every day during the middle of the infamous Central Valley summers

Another possible explanation for my current rut is that life after Peace Corps keeps looming larger and larger the longer I’m here, and for a planner like me that means more distractions and less living in the moment as I scramble to get my rear in gear. I was never under any delusion that these two years wouldn’t go by swiftly, or that I didn’t have to think about what might come next, but there’s a difference between thinking about something and actively planning for it. Being in the Peace Corps is kind of like living in a bubble, and I’m not just talking about the 360-degree visibility which allows curious villagers to stare at me from all sides as if I were a caged lab rat. I’m currently being very comfortably provided for by the United States government, with killer health insurance and rent stabilization to make a New Yorker green with envy, so it’s a little unnerving to read about all of the problems with the American economy and to come to terms with returning to this reality in just a few months.

And as if these reasons weren’t already enough, my closest Peace Corps friend just finished her service and moved back to America to start grad school, so now I’m facing the next eight months without my favorite partner in crime living just an hour-and-a-half-long bike ride away. For the entire time that I’ve been at site, Emi had been a constant as one of the only other volunteers in my district. She pretended to like my cooking, left bobby pins all over my hut, and staunchly defended all things Seattle and Washington State (except for the Mariners, which was no big deal because they’ve only been my favorite baseball team since I was 8). We traveled together, hosted workshops together, and visited each other’s sites often enough that her village thought I was her brother and my village thought we were married. She also has really nice legs. Since Emi left our district, my street cred among the young men in my village has dropped significantly and I’ve been spotted talking to myself just a little bit a lot more.

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A white sandy beach is the first thing you think of when you picture a landlocked country in the middle of sub-Saharan Africa, right? Yeah, me too.

So that’s where I am right now. I’m in a funk, and my Earth, Wind, & Fire playlist goes on for hours. It’ll end eventually though, since this roller coaster ride always climbs back up every time it plummets down. For now, I’m just going to try to focus on being more candid in this blog and hope that self-deprecation is the key to enlightenment. Or getting a job.*

*If there are any employers among my dear readership who might have an opportunity for my wiseacre self, seriously, I’d love to hear from you. I have a B.A. and a B.S. from UC Berkeley, two years of experience in business administration, almost two years of experience arguing with little Zambian kids, and several pairs of Oxford cap-toes just itching to be laced up.

Zamtime, n.

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Charging my phone as I wait for a fish farmer

Zamtime, zam-tym. n. A national clock that is set to run no faster than one hour behind for any and all functions that involve a muzungu highly conditioned for punctuality impatiently tapping his foot and checking the time on his phone. If a meeting is scheduled for 2pm, it will start at 3pm. Or 4pm. Or not until the following day. If you arrange to meet someone at 8am, you do not begin to wonder where the person is unless he has still not arrived by 9:30am.

Time doesn’t run here, it saunters and stops to chat with everybody it meets along the way to the meeting 7 kilometers away for which it is already an hour and fifteen minutes late.

Zambian Colloquial Dictionary (ZCD), 2014

ZamTwitter, Month 16

Random news from my sixteenth month of Peace Corps service, in 140 characters or less.

August 11 – I’m in Lusaka as a volunteer trainer for the RAP ’14 In-Service Training. Hard to believe it’s already been a year since my own IST.

August 14 – The volunteers are at Immigration getting their work permits this morning. This means we trainers have four hours to shop for chitenges.

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August 15 – Our minibus stalls. When we start off again, the driver swerves back and forth to try to slosh what little gas remains into the fuel line.

August 17 – Embarking on my third 16-hour bus ride in the last two weeks. I’ll never complain about waiting half an hour at the DMV again.

August 18 – Six cats are currently squatting in my hut. This means half-eaten mice, constant meowing, and puddles of kitten pee everywhere.

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August 20 – Bought buns (for me) and dried fish (for Calvin and Hobbes) in the boma today. The women were all abuzz about my resealable Ziplock bags.

August 22 – Tagged along as Emi put on a moringa cooking demonstration for a nearby women’s group and ended up teaching them how to fry cassava fries.

August 26 – Watching accidental brush fires is great evening entertainment until the flames get a little too close to your dried grass-thatched roof.

August 29 – Helping Emi move out of her site after two years in Kafutuma. I didn’t think it was possible to accumulate so many things in a 3-room hut.

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September 2 – Flat tires and broken jacks don’t seem to mix well — what was a 3-hour ride turned into a 6-hour ordeal. Hitching: always an adventure.

September 6 – Just traded an old pair of sunglasses I salvaged from the trash for two ice-cold bottles of water. Gotta love Zambia’s street economy.

September 8 – Of all the fun goodies my parents brought with them from America, the clear early favorite is the compressible nylon hammock.

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Burn notice

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Right now Zambia is in the midst of the burn season. The air is crisp and dry, the grasses and brush are brittle and yellowed, and the winds blow relentlessly, so of course this is the best possible time to strike a match and send a wall of flame roaring toward your house. (A house which, I might add, is covered with more of that same dried grass. How convenient.)

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Although accidental brush fires do cause a lot of damage to fields and even communities when they spread out of control, most burning is planned. As any novice forester/agriculturalist can tell you, this annual purging is necessary for clearing out clutter and thereby preventing larger, more damaging fires from occurring later, as well as for adding nutrients back to the soil to increase fertility for the next cycle of crops.

And on a less technical note, burn season also means lots of small-hand-and-feet-warming stations throughout the village to prevent against the early morning chill, a surreal pink haze lazily blanketing the landscape and coating your lungs throughout the day, and spectacular light displays in the late evenings.

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