Archive for February, 2009

An odd lodge
February 28, 2009


LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — “As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned things, and some things are not as important as I once thought,” my breakfast companion said this morning, on what happened to be the last morning for both of us at the lodge we had been staying at for the last week.

“It really isn’t important that I like the decor,” she said, with a backhand wave at the bright brass plated tarantula-like chandelier overhead, the shiny blonde veneer of the particle board china cabinet display of silver-plated serving dishes. “A comfortable bed has its place, but it is not everything.”

I disagreed with her there, having just spent my last night on a bed that had become my first inanimate bitter enemy. I knew her bed hadn’t been comfortable either, because we had already discussed that, and I had wondered daily since meeting her a week earlier, why she had returned to this place, not once, but several times.

A work-skill trainer from Malaysia, hired by the European Union to do her part in the thing they call “capacity-building” she was on at least her third round of workshops for government staffers in the Lusaka area who had made it to the top of a six-month long waiting list for her wisdom.

When she told me about it originally I had rolled my eyes — possibly visibly, I hoped not. But without wanting to be judgmental I was annoyed, and feeling a mix of familiarity and wonder with how many ways people can think up to spend development money and still leave kids sleeping under bridges, men who have sex with men in danger of imprisonment, and women weakened by malaria dying in childbirth. These things bother me and so do the number of hours of my own one life that I have spent in workshops that seemed designed solely to give a consultant something to do.

But that had been a week earlier, over the first weekend before the workshops began. Then she came back each night and described the events of the day, almost reliving the classes in the detail of some recountings — the hands-on activities in negotiation and presentation — and I found the commitment and discipline, as well as the actual skills she imparted, made me wish I had been there at times.

So said other people who came and went around the breakfast and dinner table each day — businesspeople and government workers passing through.

I should interject here that the clientele was one of the many discordancies of this lodge.

As this is an anonymous blog, the hotel will be anonymous too, except for that all the signs to it and the black letters on the heavy gold plastic key fob referred to it as an “Executive Lodge.”

With the depressing flashiness of the dining room decor only exceeded in the bedrooms, and matched by elements of seediness — painted over wiring running over door-frames, chipped plaster and tile, stained ceilings — it would have made more sense to call a Motel Six an “executive lodge.”

And yet in addition to me with my new self-inflicted title of “journalism consultant,” and the business skills trainer from Malaysia, we had shared this plastic-coated table with: a foreign ministry officer on his way to a three-year stint in Sweden, a couple of South African farming equipment deal-makers, a government official from a norther district, and several doctors. The landlady herself, an imposing woman, who maintained a warm but distant air of someone around subordinates, had once been ambassador to two small neighboring countries. And, I had discovered that her sister was someone I had been trying to meet for information on health issues here.

That, and the redeeming fact that the cooking was actually quite good most of the time, as well as that I couldn’t bring myself to pack my eight pieces of luggage one more time, had been why I stayed without drowning in self pity after landing here after a previous and more conventional hotel had sold my reservation out from under me.

Still there was the bed, in addition to the surroundings, that made me feel like I was in jail — one of those white-collar federal penitentiaries perhaps.

Then, on the second to last night, just as the Internet went down, the place started smelling of smoke. I went down to check on the Internet status and too find out if I needed to get my passport and evacuate. I found everyone outside.

“You can sleep well tonight,” the landlady said, calling me by name, and seeming to laugh, “we’re having the place anointed.”

The smoke that had carried through the crack under my door wafted from a burning frying pan that a man was carrying around, tilting it to spill its contents over the ficus surrounding the house.

“He’s a pastor,” the landlady’s daughter told me, getting into her car.

Well good, I thought. I try, in matters of religion, to be a glass-half-full sort of imaginer, and it occurred to me that perhaps my bed really was possessed, and that I really would sleep better now that the situation was being addressed. Obviously a bit of sleep deprivation entered into this thinking.

In any case, rather than an air of purification, this was the night the landlady gave the waitresses an abusive and humiliating bollocking at the dinner table.

It started because one of them served a dish from the left, instead of the right.

“Serve from the left, (waitresses name)?” the landlady began musingly. “You just can’t learn can you?”

The waitress, who was very young, didn’t respond.

“Or do you just do whatever you feel like doing?” landlady continued, her voice gathering heat and volume.

It got worse from there. It was awful. I moved to leave and the landlady asked me to bring her my email address so she could send information on tourism trips my main squeeze and I might like. I did as she said. I knew how the waitresses felt, which, of course was even worse than watching what the waitresses felt.

The next day, when I made my way to a cafe with working internet I discovered that a missing digit in a bank number had prevented my employers from completing the transfer of downpayment for the new apartment I had found. Then I found out that the new landlord didn’t care. That I was to move in on schedule today to my own place.

I was glad, though I would have left the executive lodge anyway today, and not had to sleep under a bridge.

So this morning, the Malaysian trainer and I had our last breakfast before going upstairs to pack and she said some things were more important than a decor that suits one’s senses and a bed on which you could enjoy a full night’s sleep. I had to agree, having left both at home two weeks ago for the next year.

In her case, it turned out that on her first trip she fell ill, and the landlady kept on eye on her.

In mine it was that I met the Malaysian trainer, from whose workshops I learned something each night.


Mixed message
February 26, 2009


LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — Something about this USAID-sponsored sign carries more than a hint of condescension. If the United States could afford to put up this sign, why didn’t they go ahead and put it up in Washington?

Turn the other cheek
February 25, 2009

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA —  Even as I have wondered over the source of the abundant goodness I’ve seen here, I haven’t needed the warnings people have thought I did need, not to trust anyone.

I knew that someone would eventually try to rip me off. This was not cynicism as much as realism; I knew this just as  surely as I would know  sinister-seeming surroundings are not necessarily bereft of hope.

So today, when I got in a taxi and asked how much the ride to the hotel would cost, I was saddened but not surprised when the driver coughed into his hand and didn’t answer until we were both in with the doors shut.

Forty, he said, and held up four fingers. People who lie often do it twice — underlining words with some emphatic gesture, as if a lie x a lie = the truth.

That’s 40,000 kwacha, instead of the usual 30,000 that that ride and almost every other taxi ride I’ve taken has cost (with the outliers at 25,000 and 35,000). And that translates to about $2 which isn’t the most anyone’s ever stolen from me, but it’s the thought that counts.

It’s not usually that much, I told him, shocked, hoping he would redeem himself quickly.

But, forty, he said again, holding up the four fingers again.

All right, then, never mind, I said, and opened the door to get out.

Wait, how much do you usually pay?

Thirty to thirty-five, I said, because I never think quickly.

All right thirty-five, he said.

No, never mind, I said, I’ll get another.

Thirty, he said. So I stayed, to honor his attempt at redemption, though most people who know me might note that I never get over perceived wrongs, or even attempted wrongs in the blink of an eye.

I stayed, and during the 10 minute drive back noticed the New Testament, resting in a change compartment of his dashboard.

How could you? I wanted to say. And in front of the very book that might guide you to be better.

But I didn’t, because he wouldn’t be the first to cling to the book but ignore its contents, and because I, too, strive for grace.

And you reap what you sow
February 23, 2009

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — The place I’m trying rent is in the Villa Elizabetha neighborhood, a place of shady streets and high walls topped with broken glass and barbed wire. It is a good enough neighborhood, I’m told, to make electric wire on top of the fences strictly optional.

I asked the real estate agent if I could, as the map indicated, walk to work from there, and she nodded dubiously. Only during the day, she said. After 19oo hours, you really shouldn’t. Why? Because you have to cross a bridge over the train tracks, and street children live under the bridge.

That’s what we’ve done to ourselves. Children living under bridges and turning into our worst fears.

Cast your bread upon the waters
February 22, 2009

. . . and it comes back to me

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — I woke this morning to full-throated hymn-singing and the sounds of the walls shaking from churches a block away on either side of me that reminded me the missionaries who arrived here a century and a half ago may have left gruesome suffering in their wake, but didn’t come here for nothing.

Still, my guard was down when the very nice and exceptionally courteous girl who serves breakfast here asked me if I was going to church. I don’t know if I have ever been asked that. I once had a boss, two, in fact, who felt free to discuss what had happened at his church that weekend, which I thought to be as appropriate to the workplace as describing one’s sexual exploits, but at least he never asked me about my church. So I had no graceful evasive reply at hand ( still don’t — what do you say? No, I have a headache?) so I just said, “No.”

“No?” she said, disbelievingly, like I was pulling her leg, making a blasphemous joke, and when I didn’t burst into laughter or take it back, she added, “why not?”

Again, the problem of never having had this conversation left me at a loss (none of your business? Why should I?). So I said: “I don’t go to church.” Which, again, felt very personal to me.

Anyway, after a couple more rounds of “why not?” She got the last word, mercifully, with: “You should go to church.”

February 22, 2009

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — A bony barefoot boy of about 11  draped in a mud-encrusted jacket trudged along the median strip that divides traffic outside of the big shopping center yesterday.

The maroon canvas hooded jacket, several sizes too large for him, looked like it once came from an L.L. Bean catalogue, and now is his bed and blanket . His eyes had the deadened exhausted look of someone on a forced march.

In the years that the world waited for the AIDS epidemic to resolve itself, an estimated 750,000 orphans in this country of 12 million raised each other on the streets. Yesterday, as his jacket flapped back to show the torn and stained Disney World T-shirt beneath it, this boy told the saddest part of their story.

Another standard travel story
February 19, 2009

Note to readers: While staying at the Norman Bates Lodge here, Helen will not be downloading photos, as this would violate the otherwise generous terms of her Internet privileges. So, more photos, including of a blue and white minibus like the one she rode today as it jumped curbs, careened through dirt back roads and made other maneuvers to avoid police, will follow. (In the meantime, a photo of the back of one such bus is below, in Signs of Lusaka)

Lusaka, Zambia — I hope the concise version above doesn’t defeat the purpose of telling the unabridged version, because I have a need to relive the ride I had today.

Otherwise I wouldn’t do it at all. I recognize that the stock travel story about the crazy local public transportation has been told, enough times, and set in enough places, to have long lost any claim to being specific to one locale — no matter how long it took to get here.

But since this one turned out to be all about me, it seems special (to me).

Don’t take the minibuses, ever, the editor of the newspaper where I am stationed told me. He frowned with distaste, and as he had offered no other cautions, I took him seriously. “They are Hell’s Angels,” he added. I expected that I would take one and not mention it.

Then the woman I am buying a car from said this: “Yes the way they drive looks dangerous, but you think they know what they’re doing and it works out. But no, I’ve seen too many crushed on the side of the road. They don’t know what they’re doing and it doesn’t work out.”

I arranged to buy her car, and decided I really wouldn’t get on a bus ever. That was a few days ago, and she hasn’t turned over the car yet, and so today I got on the fourth minibus that honked its horn at me, swerved across a lane of traffic to stop for me, and from which a young man hung screaming at me to run faster to get on. I think I am very suggestible.

Since I already have violated my own rule about not telling the quaint public transportation travel story, I might as well add here how strange the whole cab bus thing here is for a native New Yorker. In New York, if you hear “Taxi!” it means someone is trying to hail a cab, while lines of them drive by already occupied, not interested in changing direction, or divining the fare not worth it switching on their off duty signs. If you hear more than one person yelling “Taxi” it means an argument likely will ensue if one cab ever pulls up. The way you get a bus is wait and wait and wait, until a line of them that have decided they have strength in numbers pull up. If you’re not at the stop when that happens, tough.

Here, where work and money are scarce, when you hear “Taxi” it is the driver trying to flag down a fare. And so many usually yell it at a time it is hard to pick one. If you want a bus, you walk down the street, and they pull over in front of you.

Today, traffic was thick on the two-and-a-half-lane street I was strutting and three had already passed me after honking their horns, finding they couldn’t wish other cars out of their way and wouldn’t risk being crushed by trucks behind them. Having three bus drivers decide against risking their lives and those of their passengers to force  a 50 cent ride on me raised the value of the fourth offer in my view.

I ran, to get on, because the guy was yelling at me to “Madam, Madam, hurry, hurry,” and I’m suggestible, and the bus swerved back onto the thoroughfare before my second leg was in the door. “Twenty-five” the guy said. I started fishing for the money (2,500 Kwacha) but found I couldn’t actually put my hand in my wallet because my wallet wasn’t in the same place long enough. Neither was anything else — loose seats slammed back and forth and passengers levitated and landed hard as the bus hurdled the curb, swung up the sidewalk scattering pedestrians and u-turned onto a deeply pitted dirt road. “Twenty-five,” the faretaker guy repeated. I said, “How about I give it to you if I get there alive.” He laughed, others laughed and the joyride continued, with the fare guy hanging his head out the side door and shouting instructions that I couldn’t understand but that included the word “Police” to the driver. “Do you know Bemba?” the man next to me asked, and when I shook my head explained the driver was fleeing from someone chasing him, possibly the police.

By now the back road detour appearred to have shaken the tail, so the driver pulled up behind the mall where several of us got off. I shook my head and rolled my eyes at two of the girls who got off with me, and they laughed — “You were the cause of the whole thing. It was because he cut someone off when he stopped to get you.”

Which made me feel very special.

The great divide
February 18, 2009

onsumbaplaza1Lusaka, Zambia — One hesitates to make generalizations about a place one doesn’t know very well, although that can be when the tempatation is the strongest.

For example, I am tempted to describe ‘the people here’ as exceptionally nice — based on the multitude I’ve seen who smile as they pass me on the dirt foot paths, say good morning, good afternoon, and if I ask directions do not rest until they have given the same guidance they would give their own grandmothers, repeating themselves at least twice with every descriptions of landmarks (it is a cream-colored building, with red tiles — pass that. There will be a left turn with a sign that says “worship center”. Don’t take it. Take the next one. Not the first one. . . .).

Still my experiences with several dozen people don’t justify categorizing a country, so I will hold off.

This, however, I feel comfortable in saying — the great divide between the privileged and the poor exists here as it does in Palm Beach County, in New York, in the Caribbean, in everywhere I’ve ever been, where usually I have had the chance to sample both sides of the divide, because there is very little middle.

The great divide was immediately obvious to me in the hotel situation, which seemed to present the choice of a “world class” accomodation with an obsequious staff (here more convincingly interested in my happiness and comfort than in other places, I must add), and internet and a place where some comfort as well as internet had to be surrendered. It took work reminiscent of  shoe leather reporting to find a place with Internet, and at the expense of having to draw pictures for cab drivers because it is in the middle of a dirt road with no name.

The more obvious manifestation of the great divide though lies in the eerily predictable gap between the city and the suburbs. In the suburbs, for example,  two shopping malls are equipped with everything, including pavement, on which — I didn’t realize how rare a sight they otherwise were until I noticed them in large numbers here == white people stroll around talking on their cell phones, sit in cafes with computers in front of them, drink in an Irish pub. The suburbs actually feel less far from Florida than they do from the city downtown a few miles away, where people step over children sleeping soundly  on pavement in the middle of the day, where women squat in front of baskets filled with beans, leafy vegetables, dried caterpillars, where the streets even in front of government buildings are unpaved.

Lusaka Skyline
February 15, 2009

Lusaka, Zambia — As unique, in its own way, as New York’s.


Signs of Lusaka
February 14, 2009

Lusaka, Zambia — My father could pick up enough of almost any language to get around (the single exception I know of was Hungarian) in two days, by walking the streets, which he liked to do wherever he went, and reading the signs.

I didn’t inherit his talent, and the most widespread language is English here. I read the signs for the same reason he did, though, for the stories they tell.

This is what I saw today: