This is the blog post I’ve been avoiding for about a month now. Or, rather, it’s been avoiding me. Even now, it still is. I wanted to write something reflective, perhaps draw some conclusions, but it seems it’s still too soon for me to do that. Perhaps for now I’ll simply start with leaving Zambia.
The last time I wrote I was staying in Livingstone, alone for a few days in a backpackers’. Being alone had its limits: you can’t walk anywhere alone after dark, meaning I took one taxi journey that was quite literally three minutes long. Taxi fares are all set rate, no meters – I wonder if taxi drivers are behind this whole not walking alone after dark thing? I paid 10,000 kwacha for the 3-minute ride, and would have paid exactly the same for a 10-minute ride. But I’m being unfair – back in Lusaka one taxi driver insisted on waiting for me while I ran around the office looking for change of a 10,000K note so that I didn’t have to overpay him by 5,000K – about 66p. However, I didn’t personally experience any crime, other than the kind of anxieties I had in some of the rougher parts of town, and I would have had in any city anywhere in the world. The most unpleasant experience I had crime-wise was in Livingstone, when I witnessed an enormous white South African beat seven shades of s**t out of a black Zambian he thought was trying to steal from his car. It lasted less than a minute, and people watched unsurely as the Zambian managed to stagger away.
But being alone also had good points: it was the first time I’d had in a month and a half to look around somewhere completely of my own accord, with no timetable or schedule. After wandering off the beaten track a bit, away from the main tourist drag, I found a recommended restaraunt with good food, locally made jewellery for sale and football on the telly – bliss. But then of course came the ridiculously short taxi ride back to the backpackers’.
Then back to Lusaka on Wednesday. I’d already bought my ticket for the ’13 hours’ (1pm – everybody uses 24-hour clock) Livingstone-Lusaka coach with Livingstone’s main (only?) bus company, which is luxury compared to previous journeys I’d experienced. We left bang on time, the driver drove scarily fast and we were all given a small cake and a plastic bottle of very cheap pop to keep us going on the 6-hour journey. Marijke and Cosmas had very kindly offered to meet me off the bus, and, with my previous experience of the Intercity bus station still vivid, I had very gratefully accepted. As the coach entered the station there were already young men knocking on the windows and running alongside, all insisting they would be taking me home. The insistence continued, inches from my face now, when we were off the bus, waiting in a jostling, pressing crowd for the luggage to be unpacked. I tried to stand my ground, watch out for my luggage and avoid eye contact while also desperatley looking around for Cosmas to come and rescue me. When he found me, he looked to me like an angel floating towards me through the madness. I also felt less guilty, sort of justified and a bit smug having told about twenty different taxi drivers, dozens of times, that no thank you I was waiting for someone to pick me up thank you very much so no thank you, no, really – NO THANK YOU!
The next day I went to Immigration for the fifth time, and was finally able to pick up my permit extension. As the third person I dealt with muttered that they were nearly out of permits I very nearly said why don’t you save one as I’m leaving the country in 36 hours anyway but I was too scared to risk doing anything, I mean anything, to cause any more delays to the bureaucratic hell that is Zambian immigation.
Then Friday, my very last day in Zambia. I intended to spend at least half the day in Lusaka National Museum, but to be honest I did both floors in about an hour. I’m not entirely sure it was even open. So, my last hours in Zambia were free. It was the most time I’d spent on foot during my whole stay, and a genuinely liberating time. I found myself on a couple of familiar streets but mostly wandered around new, unfamiliar parts of Lusaka. Lusaka is a bustling, busy, friendly, sometimes scary and incredibly badly designed city.
I went to meet Edwin and some other colleagues at 6pm in Arcades, a mid-size shopping/eating area. I’d had a feeling this was going to be a bit of a farewell get-together drink. Actually, there were some unexpected faces and we all went for a meal together complete with speeches, photos and gifts – all really touching, highly embarrassing but luckily too much fun for me to get too sad. For all the challenges, stress and bouts of homesickness, I think I laughed with my colleagues and friends in Zambia more than anywhere in my life before.
The tears came the next morning. Up at 5am, goodbye to Cosmas and the baby. She’d already grown and changed so much just during the 7 weeks I’d known her, and she seemed to find me a perfectly usual part of her little life. Marijke drove me to the airport and it felt like going full circle: from that day when we flew in at 6am and I had such a heavy heart, now we arrived at the airport again at 6am, and my heart was just as heavy but for such different reasons. I got straight through check-in with no problems whatsoever – probably the smoothest process of my time in Zambia ironically – and onto the plane fairly quickly. Climbing up the steps, I stopped to take a last look at Zambia: flat, hot, shimmering in the early morning heat, all green and gold. Frantic, rude, friendly, beautiful, dirty, poor, generous, utterly and overwhelmingly welcoming.