The best day hitching is still worse than having your own car

05:00 – My alarm goes off. I’m sleeping on the couch in Chris’ hut, and although I’ve got a blanket covering most of me and insect repellent slathered over much of the rest, I’m still getting bit. Oh well. It’s not like the alternative is significantly more comfortable: Chris and Emily, all combined 12 feet and four inches of them, are sharing Chris’ tiny single bed. I holler over at them to wake up, breaking through their earplugs.

06:15 – We trundle out the door and head to the road, a bit behind schedule. No matter; we’ve got the entire day to get to Kasama for the first leg of our trip to Lake Tanganyika.

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06:25 – A sharply dressed man in a dark suit and tie picks us up in his clean, late-model compact car and ferries us the remaining kilometer to Musaila Junction. Because all traffic into and out of Luapula Province has to come through Musaila, the junction is synonymous with PCVs for traveling out of the province to other parts of the country.

06:28 – Just as we’re being dropped off, a nice-looking car speeds south. That could have been our lucky ticket. We hope it’s not going to turn out to be one of those hitching days.

07:30 – An hour has passed. Literally nothing has gone by that was traveling more than a few kilometers.

08:03 – Chris greets a few familiar faces as they pass through Musaila — fish farmers he works with. Only two kilometers away from his village, Musaila is his boma and all of the shopkeepers know him.

08:28 – Two hours have passed now. We’re starting to worry that we won’t get out of Musaila. The problem with living in the most rural part of Zambia is that there simply aren’t a lot of vehicles that come in and out of the entire province on any given day.

08:31 – A truck approaches: late-model Hilux (the Japanese version of the Tacoma). Em stands at the side of the road flagging it down. Inside are three Chinese guys. At first it doesn’t look like they’re going to stop, but we’re elated to see that they slow once they pass us. Asian expats are hit-or-miss for hitching because they don’t usually stop to pick up unkempt-looking white people. Then I realize, pleased, that they’ve stopped because they noticed me. One of the rare times in my life that my Asian appearance has been to my advantage (some others: making friends in science classes at UC Berkeley, convincing Zambian boys in the village that Jackie Chan is my uncle).

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08:35 – We’re safely but uncomfortably wedged into the covered bed of the truck. I lounge gingerly against a sack of pineapples. The driver apologizes a third time for the dirty condition of the truck bed, and we reassure him for a third time that we’re thrilled and grateful for the ride. He generously tells us to help ourselves to the mound of groundnuts covering most of the bed.

08:42 – We’re going fast.

08:55 – We’re going really fast. Chris checks the driver’s console through the back truck window and reports that the needle is exceeding 140km/hr.

10:30 – The Chinese drop us off at Tute Junction, pump our hands enthusiastically, and wave as they drive away. They drove the past 260 kilometers in a blisteringly fast two hours — it’s as if we’d gotten an immediate hitch out of Musaila at 6:30 traveling at a normal speed. Spirits boosted, we walk over to the north side of the junction and begin hailing approaching cars.

10:47 – The good news: there’s substantially more traffic on the Great North Road than there was on the road to Luapula. The bad news: everything that comes is either unsuitable for hitching (taxis, semis) or refuses to stop for the tall blonde at the side of the road.

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11:49 – Chris and Emily head over to a nearby shop to pick up some drinks. Murphy’s Law tells us that this is when our ride will come.

11:54 – Sure enough, a big bus barrels toward us, closely followed by two private vehicles. Undermanned, I run down the road flapping my arm frantically at each of them.

11:55 – The bus and one of the cars both stop, so I race back and forth collecting information. The bus is the Zambian government’s PostBus which delivers mail to the different provinces. I ask for the rate to Kasama, counter with an amount half the price quoted to me, then dart off to the next car. The man driving cheerfully tells me to jump in. Unfortunately he’s only going to Mkushi, just part of the way to Kasama.

11:57 – A handful of men who have been loitering nearby have taken up my cause and are arguing vociferously with the PostBus conductor. He calls me over and tells me that he’ll agree to my counteroffer. Chris and Emily, seeing the commotion, come running back. I quickly mouth the price and destination to them over the clamor of the men talking. They agree, and we gather up our bags and hurry onto the bus.

12:06 – The bus lurches off. We can’t find any open seats because there aren’t any. However, there are tons of kids. Children occupy the lowest rung of the ladder when it comes to bus seating, so a few of them are nudged over into seats already occupied by other kids and we slide wearily in. I put in my earbuds and the Zampop blaring over the speakers fades away.

14:15 – We arrive in Mpika, where the bus stops to unload mail and people at the post office. I move up one row and now have two seats to myself. And they recline. It’s the little things in life.

16:05 – The two small boys in the seat across from me keep stealing glances when they think I’m not looking. I wonder if I have something on my face.

17:02 – We arrive at a crowded market area. I scan the signs and see Kasama Milling. We’re here. I ask Chris where we’re supposed to get off and he says he doesn’t know. He asks Em and she shrugs. We decide to stay on the bus until everyone else gets off.

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17:25 – Kasama is a big town. We’re still moving.

17:30 – Ah, now we’ve stopped. We disembark, deftly sidestep the raucous welcome line of taxi drivers, and trudge off toward Shoprite.

18:18 – Our grocery shopping done (Kasama Coffee!), we look for a restaurant. The first place we come to has no shwarma as advertised. The second has only a few tired samosas in the warming display on the counter. The security guard at a bank points vaguely down the road. We trudge off and are relieved to find an open restaurant serving nshima.

19:05 – Stuffed to the gills, we spill out into the parking lot and hail a taxi to take us to the Kasama provincial house.

19:25 – We arrive at the house. We’ll crash here tonight, then tomorrow morning we head up to Mbala and then on to Mpulungu, Zambia’s only port on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. Right now though, Chris and I spot an autographed poster of Taylor Swift and make Emily take a picture of us with it. Already feels like home.

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Riding in buses with counterparts

On Thursday morning I left The Barn Motel in Lusaka after the RAP ’13 In-Service Training and PEPFAR training to begin the long journey home. The following is a scattered collection of notes from the following 24 hours:

07:45 – There is a “professional” photographer on site this morning, a guy with a Nikon and a portable photo printer. Jen, Paula’s counterpart, pulls me aside to ask me to take a picture with her and her daughter Melody. Americans pay large portions of their incomes for luxury cars, designer clothes, and lavish vacations. Zambians pay large portions of their incomes for photographs of family and friends. I think there are lessons I am still learning about what is actually important in life.

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Jen, with a straight face, informed the other counterparts that this was a “family portrait”

08:02 – We board the minibus taking us to the bus station. Most of us. Hilda, Holly’s counterpart, jumps off to take a picture. Sebastian follows. Everyone groans, and the driver eventually shifts into first gear and rumbles off, forcing Sebastian and Hilda to run to catch up with the bus.

09:10 – We arrive at the Lusaka Intercity Bus Terminal. This place is a zoo. Sebastian, Ba Daniel (Lucas’ counterpart), Ba Maxim (Chris’ counterpart), and I fight our way through hordes of ticket sellers and buy tickets on the 15:00 Juldan bus to Kashikishi.

09:34 – We have time to kill so I decide a field trip to America is in order. We walk two blocks to Levy Junction, a modern indoor shopping complex that looks exactly like every big mall in suburban America. There I play tour guide, explaining all of the different sights to the dutifully awed and impressed counterparts.

09:45 – This may be my favorite Second Goal moment in Zambia:

Minibus to the Lusaka Intercity Bus Terminal: Kr15

Luxury bus from Lusaka to Kashikishi: Kr190

Four ice cream cones at KFC in Levy Junction: Kr14

Watching three rural Zambian fish farmers grin uncontrollably as they ride an escalator for the first time: priceless

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10:24 – We go up and down the escalators twice and then try out the elevator, like visitors to a foreign planet. Then I sit Sebastian, Maxim, and Daniel down on a bench and introduce them to Americans’ favorite mallcrawling pastime: people-watching. We sit for half an hour gawking at all of the various sizes and shapes and colors of people passing by. Sebastian slips me hushed translations of their running commentary: “Maxim is now talking about the women’s hips.”

11:12 – The boys need to do some shopping at a place where a shirt doesn’t cost as much as four months’ worth of food for a family of eight in the village, so we trek over to Kamwala Market. There could not be two more opposite places within two blocks of each other. Levy Junction is polished, immaculate, and smells like money and air conditioning. Kamwala Market is dirty, sprawls between derelict buildings and defunct railroad tracks, and smells like what money purchased, consumed, and regurgitated onto the muddy road six days ago.

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12:23 – Still browsing the market. And I thought I was a big shopper. I poke my head in various shops looking for interesting football jerseys but don’t find any. Meanwhile, I follow three short Zambian men as they buy blankets, little girls’ dresses, electricity inverters, teenaged boys’ shoes, chitenges for first wives (second wife got the blanket), and those interesting electronic gadgets which never end up working but which also never fail to appeal to men everywhere.

13:46 – Back at the bus station. Eric, a RAP ’11er from Northern, and his younger sister visiting from the States arrive; they’re taking the 15:00 Juldan to Kasama en route to visit his site. Erica, CHIP ’12 and one of our trainers for the PEPFAR workshop, joins us a bit later and we chat until it’s time to board our separate buses.

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15:19 – Ba Sebastian and I have the entire back row of the bus to ourselves. If we’re not joined by anyone else, we’ll have a very comfortable ride.

17:39 – In Kabwe. No more private back row. Oh well.

19:01 – We’re stopped in Kapiri for a bathroom and snack break. Sebastian opens a soda and it explodes all over him. The 40-year-old man sitting across from me wearing pants that were only in style with teenaged girls in the 70’s clambers off to buy a loaf of bread for the woman in the seat next to him so that she can stay on the bus with her baby. When she tries to pay him back, he shrugs her off and tells her not to worry about it. I resolve (again) to try to be a better person.

20:33 – I switch the Kindle off (David Brooks’ The Social Animal, 72% completed) and push the earbuds in. Ready for some electropop from Lorde.

21:02 – Have listened to “Tennis Court” and “Royals” on loop for the past half hour. Now ready to start trying to sleep.

02:15 – In Samfya boma. I sneak off into some nearby bushes to empty my bladder for the first time in six hours. Daniel and Maxim prepare to disembark at the next stop. Only five more hours to go until I’m back home.

03:38 – We arrive in Mansa. Sebastian buys a loaf of bread from a street vendor who tosses it up through the open window of the bus. The five-kwacha bill Sebastian floats down to the bread seller is somehow lost. We spend the next ten minutes searching the ground with our cell phone lights as Sebastian and the bread vendor argue chippily back and forth. Sebastian finally withdraws his head from the window and slams it shut, announcing that it is the fault of the other man and not his own.

06:33 – We arrive in Mwense boma. Not far now. Sebastian tells me that he will get off the bus in Shanyemba, where his first wife lives, so that he is not seen arriving in Nshinda with me and perhaps prompting people to think that he has been given lots of money.

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08:29 – Always expect the unexpected when it comes to transportation in Zambia. Our bags are at the back of the hatch, so the conductors won’t let us access them until they reach Kashikishi at the end of the road. Passing Nshinda as I write this.

09:59 – Sitting outside a restaurant called Refreshment Centre in Kashikishi, waiting for another Lusaka-bound Juldan bus to take Sebastian and me back down to Nshinda. At least I got to do my grocery shopping. I strike up a conversation with an elderly Congolese gentleman passing through Kashikishi from one province in the DRC to another. He knows French, Swahili, and Bemba. I know English, some Spanish, and some Bemba. It’s a struggle, but we muddle through.

11:03 – Back at site, at last. I’m hot, sticky, haven’t bathed in two days, and have been stewing in my own sweat the entire time. The bus dropped me off in front of the school just as classes let out, so any pretense I might have entertained about arriving unnoticed was quickly vanquished. Still, I don’t think I’ve ever felt happier to hear the choruses of “Ba Matt, Ba Matt!” or to argue with my perpetually disgruntled kitten. It’s good to be home.

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