Friday, November 29, 2013

The Rainy Season Red Lagoon Roads of Zambia

The day started out badly with the discovery of a broken spring leaf. Then Scott sneezed and farted at the same time – never a good idea when your drinking water comes from Lake Tanganyika.
We had a long drive ahead of us from Ndole Bay to Kasama on one of the worst roads in Zambia. After two hours of organ rearranging dips and drops at an average speed of 19 kilometers an hour we hadn’t gotten very far. Suddenly we began hearing a swarming mass of cicadas all around us. Only it wasn’t cicadas, it was our vehicle. In the past when the Landy makes “funny” sounds like whirring or grinding or ticking we look at each other and say, “Let’s give it a moment and see if it stops.” Usually the sound disappears without us ever knowing what caused it. But this time the hissing was accompanied by extreme heat coming from below the gear stick – so extreme that when we stopped the Landy at the top of a rise I grabbed the fire extinguisher from the back. We were between sparsely populated villages and nothing was on the road but lagoon size potholes so we began to explore the source of the noise and heat. I started looking through the three Land Rover manuals we have on board while Scott looked under the car. The closest thing to the cicada noise I could find in the manual was “loud whirring”. “It might be the gear box,” I said, “maybe we’re low on fluid.”
“Oh no.” Scott said from beneath the car. “We lost the plug, the bolt that holds the fluid in. It must have been ejected on that really bad pothole back there.”
“Which pothole? The first one, or one of the 193 after?”
We searched through our collection of jiggled off nuts, bolts and screws in the toolbox trying to find a close match. No luck. So we began looking for a bolt we could steal from somewhere else on the vehicle. The ones connecting the bumper were too small. The high lift jack bolt was almost the right size but when Scott tried it, it wouldn’t catch the threads. A while later, two men came along. Once we explained/pantomimed the problem, they wanted to help. At first they just got under the car with Scott and watched what he did. Then they joined me topside in looking for a bolt to poach from somewhere else on the car. They didn’t speak English but hearing Scott ask me for various tools and watching him they quickly saw the advantages of our equipment and they began requesting “vice grip”, “spanner”, and “wrench” as if they were medics on the TV series M.A.S.H. demanding sutures or a scalpel STAT!

Dennis unscrewed the bolt holding the bumper. “See? Too small,” Scott repeated showing them the size we needed. 
Meanwhile three more men toting hoes and machetes came along the road. When Dennis saw them he quickly covered the tools and toolbox with our small tarp and communicated with “no no” hands and a low voice that it wouldn’t be a good idea for these men to see our valuables. But the men stopped and soon Dennis’ desire to find a bolt that would match won out over his concern so the tools came out and the bolt from the high lift jack came off again. I remarked to one of the recent arrivals that I liked his unbelievably shiny lilac colored shoes with a silver orb and cross buckle. Immediately they looked at my shoes, an old pair of Keens. I could tell they were discussing the merits of owning such a pair of shoes. Often Africans we meet ask us to give them our shoes. They all stared at my feet and I knew they would have asked for them if they knew the words. I could tell that one of them said, “Eee! But her feet are too big anyway!” because they all laughed and went back to watching Scott or unscrewing bolts on the car. Scott found a likely replacement in at the bottom of his toolbox but it was too thick and far too long so he got out the saw and began cutting through the metal by hand. Only a man would think of this. He put one foot on top of the bumper, placed the too long bolt under his left foot and sawed. Sweat dripped from his face and his blue t-shirt, covered with red earth from lying under the car became damp. Dennis took over sawing and after ten more minutes we had a shorter length of threads. “Everybody, pray!” I said. But it was too big so out came the saw again to slice a channel at the top. “Maybe I can squeeze it in,” Scott hoped. 
But it was still too big. In the end, he used the bolt off the high lift jack, which was too small, but he fashioned a sleeve from a piece of spare gas hose that gave the bolt enough bite to hold. Meanwhile I had been looking through the manuals for the location of where to add gearbox fluid (miraculously, we had an almost full, never used, jug of gearbox fluid with us). “OK, ‘the filter plug is located at the rear of the transfer box’,” I said reading from the manual, item 37-2.
I dug out the little funnel we use to fill our water bottles and Dennis and the four other men made one end of the gas hose fit into the funnel neck by slicing away the plastic sheath using Scott’s Leatherman knife. There was discussion about the odd looking tool, the knife and it’s sharpness. They poured the really stinky fluid in to the funnel while Scott, under the car again, held the low end of the gas hose to the fill plug opening. 
It took ages for two liters to find it’s way to the gearbox and when the funnel was empty for the last time, Dennis even put his lips on the hose and blew the last dregs of oil down the tube. “Uh, that stuff is toxic,” I said while bent over and fake puking. “It’ll make you sick.” Dennis wiped his lips and another of the men brought me the dust filled top end of a small water bottle, cap in place and asked for a little oil. “Bicycle,” he said. He used his shirt to wipe out the dust but you couldn’t tell afterwards because his shirt, like the shirts of all the men, had long ago took on the rusty red color of the roads of Zambia’s rainy season. Two and a half hours had passed.

“Zicomo! Thank you!" we said. A little money and a box of Eet Sum More biscuits was appreciated, but they squealed with enthusiasm when I said I would take their photo in front of the Landy. 

Off we went, stopping every 5 then 10 then 40 kilometers to make sure the McGiver-ed bolt was holding. “I’ve been waiting for the third bad thing to happen today and now it has,” said Scott.
“Three? I can only think of two, the broken spring and now the gearbox. What’s the third thing?”I asked.
“When I sneeze-farted,” he said.
“Oh, you’re right. That’s the turd thing.”
The road only became worse. Our final destination kept changing, as the day grew longer.
We hoped to make it to the town of Mporokosa, a large, dusty, out in the middle of nowhere town, before dark, and we did. We stopped at the only accommodation listed in our GPS, The Holiday Rest House. It was Friday night and eight men sat on the porch of the hotel drinking beer. The place had a weird vibe but beggars can’t be choosy so Scott went inside to inquire if we could camp there. Meanwhile, I watched the men on the porch and the few women lingering around the men. I began to sense that the Holiday Rest House wasn’t what it seemed. Yep, we had pulled in to the “No-tell Motel.” We had camped on the grounds of a brothel in Addis Ababa Ethiopia once and I wasn’t excited about a repeat. As Scott walked back over to the car, a heavily intoxicated man, with the most blood shot eyes I’ve ever seen, met him at my window and, with all the concentration he could muster said, “I would advise you not to stay here tonight.”
“Oh. Really? Why?”  
“I am a teacher by profession and I have to advise you that it would be better if you do not stay here tonight. It's” he said coming up with the best word he could think of to convince us to leave and making him our second Good Samaritan of the day. We drove away knowing that now we would have to bush camp. 
At 5:30 we began looking for a good bush camp – secluded, off the road, not close to a village. But we discovered that while there was plenty of seclusion – the bush was like a jungle – the earth was so sticky from the rains that we were sure to get bogged once we pulled off the road. Driving after dark in Africa is never the best idea but we hadn’t seen any wildlife and the route was not heavily populated by people so we were unlikely to hit anything, and in 10 hours we had seen only 5 other vehicle so risk of a head on was minimal, so we kept driving. The road continued to be a backbreaking chain of rusty red lagoon sized potholes inexplicably interspersed with short sections of brand new tarmac. Every time we found ourselves on tarmac our sails filled with wind again and we’d say, “If it’s like this, we might as well drive all the way to Kasama!” Then we would suddenly be on a road so deeply potholed that we felt like a ship being tossed side to side by stormy seas.
  At 10PM, after 15 hours on the road, the thing we have most worried about the entire trip happened. The road suddenly became a ravine that was narrowing to a chasm. The driver side wheels dropped into the abyss and N’doto heaved heavily to the right. “Nooooo! Hang on, we’re going over!” Scott said struggling with the steering wheel and willing N’doto to take flight. I held tight to the window frame and braced my feet against the floor. Just as we could feel the momentum of no return, THUD!, the front right wheel sank deeply into a hole and we came to an abrupt, 30-degree angle, stop. We sat in silence. Scott was trapped, his door up against the ravine wall.  It was decide that I would climb out to see the damage. The tire was stuck in deep. There was no way we were driving forward. “Maybe we can back up.” But the car wouldn’t start. Then, a miracle. After only ten minutes we could see headlights coming towards us. I’m ashamed to say that my first thought was “Will they help us, or hurt us.” Soon a van stopped above us. Four well-dressed Good Samaritan Zambians came over. “We’re stuck,” I said. Scott called, “Hello!” from inside the car and crawled out the passenger side door. One of the men suggested we push the car backwards. I got behind the steering wheel but the the car wouldn’t budge. We were bogged in tight and the angle wasn’t helping any either. “How about a jack?” another man asked. One bolt shy from our earlier repair, it was easy to detach the high lift jack from the rear of the car. Three women appeared from the van and began collecting stones to place under the front wheel. The jack was released and after 10 minutes the car finally started. I put it in reverse and drove backwards along the narrow valley trying to keep the wheels from sliding back down while the driver of the van directed, “Now turn your wheels like this,” he said using his hands. “Now go straight back!” When it felt like N’doto was going over again I whimpered and Mulunga pointed at Scott and said, “Now I think he should drive.” Once Scott was behind the wheel it was decided that climbing the bank and going forward might be better than reversing. I held my breath as Scott revved the engine and the Landy labored up the bank. While Scott drove onto flat road I thanked Mulunga for stopping. “I’m a nurse”, he said, “I had to stop. Your vehicle was at such an angle I thought someone might be hurt.” (We’re completely fine, only had to change our undies.)

Two hours later, around midnight, after 16 hours on the road, exhaust pipe growling, cracked spring leaf shuddering, gearbox kaput, we bush camped just outside the one traffic light size town of Kasama. “Without days like this, it wouldn’t be a true Africa overland adventure,” said Scott with a smile as we climbed into our rooftop tent.
As uncomfortable and sometimes scary the day had been we felt strangely satisfied with the way things had worked out. We had kept our cool, problem solved nicely (I just kept asking myself, What would Martha O’Kane do?), and met a lot of nice people who didn’t ask us for anything. A lot more good than bad had come from the experience. It still is a Safari Jema. And the next morning serendipity – always a theme in our travels – struck big. The one auto shop in town is owned and run by Michael a Zambian who drove, built, owned, and maintained several old Landys just like ours over the years. “I can rebuild a gearbox blindfolded!” he said. He’s a great guy and the parts and labor are more than reasonable so we took a room at the Kasama Lodge (where all the other guests are Zambian Government officials) and we’re getting a laundry list of repairs and delayed maintenance done on the car over the next few days before heading into Tanzania and Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. South Sudan, the newest country in the world, is on the list of “want to go” but we’ll decide that after we get information on the condition of the one road in the entire country. It wouldn’t be hard to get lost but we’re not excited about subjecting the Landy to any more part breaking roads than we have to.


Scott and Tris
Kasama, Zambia

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Bread, Ice Cream and Gin

(Read, Trip Interruptus, N'doto Seized first)

Our time in California was both tough and nurturing. My niece Teresa let us stay in her backyard cottage amongst apple trees and pear trees and hummingbirds. Every morning we walked a few feet through her garden to a cradle of comfort food, her kitchen. During our stay she baked apple pie and 10 (TEN) loaves of homemade bread. Not bread machine bread. Real, fed from starter for several days, hand kneaded every 30 minutes for 4 hours, delicious, made with love, topped with Irish Butter, good for coping, Italian bread. She brought home chutney made by her colleague at Yahoo! “The French lady” and was inspired to create her own chutneys. We sat around Teresa’s coffee table tasting 3 variations with Brie or Gorgonzola or triple cream Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk. Some twilights we had a Gin and Tonic and every night we ate ice cream -- pumpkin, chocolate or mint flavored.
We also received incredible support and much appreciated distraction from my family. They understood why we were home and made no demands on us. My brother Sean made everything easier when he lent us his truck for the duration of our stay. My comedienne niece Clare drove all the way up from LA just to see us. (Not really, but I like to think that she would even if she didn’t have a gig in San Jose. I love her to pieces.) I had BLT’s with my brother Joe who lent an ear and made me laugh. My nephew Kevin and his bride Stacie offered love, food and wine, and I was able to visit with my sister-in-law Ann and see that in 7 months my nephew Colin has become even more handsome and kind-hearted. We had “Pizzeria Night” at Teresa’s with my gorgeous and fun-loving niece Briget and her sweet Otis with his charming children all. Dear neighbors opened their hearts and homes to us and listened to stories of Africa and of loss until it was time for us to go. It felt very strange to be home, yet not really back.

Most every day Scott made the drive from San Jose to Fremont to sit by his mother’s bedside asking her if there was anything she needed, or he’d read to her – letters she had written while living in Mexico for 10 years, or passages from a favorite book ­­­until one of his incredibly tireless and doting siblings replaced him. Then, as is no doubt true for every mother the world over, Jane, all her children about her, sort of perked up. She began to eat a little and smiled when told she was loved. As the days and weeks went on Jane’s condition became so unchanged that one-day, after almost 4 weeks of vigil, John returned home to Texas and Scott came home and booked return flights to Africa. “Jane is a very strong woman,” said the nurse. Lindy and Brian, who live near Jane, would continue attending to their mom as they have been for the last year.

We made our way back to Lusaka on four flights. We missed our last connection, the one that was supposed to get us to the Zambian Customs office at noon. Instead we arrived at the Lusaka airport 3 hours late, sure that everyone would have left work, or “knocked off” as they say here, by the time we would get to Customs. It was Friday afternoon and rush hour had begun. Scott was having kittens. We finally found a taxi driver and as much as we wanted to get to the office as fast as possible, the last thing you want to tell your driver in Africa is, “make haste!” so we just said, “We must get to the Customs Office before it closes.” Scott sat beside Abel staring at the road, with each slow kilometer becoming more anxious. I sat in the back looking out the window and commented how beautifully green Zambia had become since we left. “Yes, the rains have begun,” said Abel.  “Don’t worry,” he added. “Office workers wouldn’t knock off until 5PM, even on a Friday.” and we drove into the Customs Office parking lot with only minutes to spare. We looked anxiously into the lot behind, “the warehouse” where all the seized vehicles were parked. I swear, the sun came out from behind the clouds. The Range Rover was still there watching over N’doto! I cannot describe the relief we felt. Abel parked under a tree and helped me carry bags to our Landy while Scott, stamped copy of our letter of understanding tightly clasped in his hand, went inside. I peeked in the windows and saw that everything was exactly as we had left it. Even the GPS charger still lay on the front seat. I had a set of keys so I opened the rear door and explored. The stuff in the secret place was there. Even the stuff in the super secret place was there. I took out one of our camp chairs and sat in the shade of a seized semi truck and waited. Twenty minutes later Scott still had not appeared. I walked around the lot, exploring how we would drive out. In front of N’doto was a moat. No kidding. A moat. And behind N’doto was a Toyota Corolla parked almost directly across her stern. I looked for something to span the moat, something strong enough to drive a Landy across. There were some huge pieces of concrete lying about but there was no way I could have lifted them. So I found the Windex and started cleaning the windows. I had just moved on to buffing the headlights when Scott came across the lawn with a stack of stamp-laden paperwork and the keys. Success!
“Hooray!” I said. “You were gone so long I was starting to get worried.”
“I had to go to several offices. Each time I was directed to another office they’d say, ‘but they might have knocked off by now’. Fortunately everyone was still there. And they all remembered us. They said,  ‘Oh yes. The medical emergency Landy.”
“There’s one little problem,” and I pointed to the Corolla blocking our escape.
“Arrgh!” Scott clutched his head in both hands. As I had done, he briefly looked for something to span the moat. “I’ll ask them to move the Toyota,” he said hesitantly. Going back in felt risky. We had the keys. We had the stamps. We were in the clear! If Scott went back inside, someone might think of a reason the Landy had to remain seized or say, “Come back Monday.”

Scott soon reappeared followed by Alfred, a customs official who had come to examine the problem. “The man with the keys has knocked off,” said Scott.
Another man came out to see the trapped Landy. The three men studied the gap between the Corolla and the back end of the dark blue semi truck in silence as if working a puzzle. “It is not possible to move this blue truck. Keys do not exist for this truck,” Alfred said. He moved to the Corolla and spread his arms to measure the gap. He stood back and pondered.
 After a time Scott said, “You know, if we had enough guys, we might be able to ‘bounce’ the Corolla over a few feet. We used to do that all the time at my fraternity where I lived at University,” he added. 
“If you do that, I’ll video it.” I said and for some reason this made solving the dilemma more interesting to Alfred.
There followed a lot of discussion, and pointing, and measuring, and arm waving, and casual weight testing of the Toyota.
Then Scott, beaming with the satisfaction of a man who has come up with a brilliant idea, began wind-milling his arms like a preacher inciting fervor from his flock, said again with more gusto, “If we can get MORE GUYS, I think we can bounce this car over!” Alfred left to get more men.

Soon there were 5 more men (pedestrians on their way to the long distance bus station next door) gathered around the Corolla. All were keen. The first attempt fell flat due to the fact that the Corolla had one. A flat. “Okay, so we must pick (peek) it up and move it.” Alfred was in charge now. “One, two, THREE!” (thrrree) and they all heaved at once. “Again!” commanded Alfred. The female security guard left her post and came to help. “Again! Once more!” Then the tape measure came out and all could see that there was just enough space now for the Landy to back out. All it took was 6 heaves.

I got behind the wheel while the men, hands spinning chest level as if they were at the helm, directed, “Madam, now turn (tun) your wheel all the way. Turn it. Turn it. Now, straight, straight. Strrraight!”
“Zicomo! Thank you!” I exclaimed when I was finally through the narrows nearly shy one side mirror. Scott wanted to show his gratitude. “Thank you so much! I’d like to buy you all a beer, or a Coke.” But when he held out a large bill, the only denomination we had, no one rushed to take it. It amounted to around $3 for each man. Were they hesitant because they would have trouble breaking the bill and dividing it fairly? Did they think they would be in trouble with Alfred for accepting the money?  Alfred took a few steps back and threw his hands in the air; he didn’t want part of anything that looked like a bribe. Finally one man reached out with a smile and accepted the cash. They moved away as one body, strangers joined together by a Toyota Corolla and twenty dollars.

Around midnight on November 17, two weeks after we arrived back in Zambia, Jane, hopefully comforted and gratified that all her children had come to say goodbye, passed peacefully away.

It’s strange to be back, but not really home. 

Ndole Bay Lodge, Lake Tanganyika, Zambia

Trip Interruptus, N'doto Seized

Trip Interruptus, N’doto Seized

It’s happened before and will no doubt happen again. Someone we love becomes seriously ill and we have to end our trip early or return home for a few weeks. That’s what happened last month when we received word that Scott’s mom, unwell for some time, was entering hospice back home in California.

We drove south along the Great North Road, back the way we had come. We talked about which airport we would use and where we would store our vehicle. When we arrived at Pioneer Camp outside of Lusaka owner Paul Barnes was more than happy watch over our Landy during our absence. It seemed our exit from Africa would be fairly straightforward. Except for one thing. Each time we cross a border we apply for a Temporary Import Permit (T.I.P.) for our 40-year-old Land Rover and our T.I.P. was 3 days from expiring. We looked up the penalties for overstaying a T.I.P. in Zambia ($150 per day - not a figure that made us comfortable asking for forgiveness rather than permission) and we searched the location of Zambian Customs in Lusaka where we would appeal for an extension. After an hour in the tedious slow ooze that is Lusaka traffic flow, we were on the second floor, room 5 of the Zambia Port Customs Office seated across from Mr. Dennis Mwikisi.

Dennis was tired. Or he seemed tired. Or sick. He slumped, half draped over his desk. He could barely keep his eyes open as we told our story. His mumbled words came from beneath his right hand, which he periodically ran over his face and head as if he were trying to wipe us, and our tale of woe, from his memory. His other arm looked tired too as it was working to hold up his head.
“Not possible,” Dennis burbled into his hand after we requested an extension. We politely implored. After some discussion and, “Sorry, but would you please repeat that please?” Dennis, eager to be rid of us so he could rest, granted a 30-day extension with the proviso that our vehicle be stored in the Customs Vehicle Seizure lot, not at Pioneer camp. 
“Isn’t there any way we can get a longer extension? And can’t we leave our vehicle at Pioneer?”  Scott pushed.
“No,” gasped Dennis. I began to worry that Dennis would expire before our T.I.P. would. His head was almost flat on his desk. Then, from the depths of his responsibilities as a bureaucrat, he suddenly gathered enough strength to say, “Go to the head office on Cairo Road and ask for Mr. Christopher Mwango. Perhaps he can help you.”

So off we went, to the heartbeat of Lusaka that is Cairo Road.

Mr. Mwango was not anywhere near as lethargic as Dennis. Christopher was happily busy at his desk, sitting upright and beaming as broadly as the man in the photo above him – Mr. Michael Sata, the President of Zambia. Nothing held his head up but his neck.
“Fine, fine. Yes, how can I help you?” he said brightly after we introduced ourselves and asked after his health. We explained our situation.
“Oh no, I’m very sorry to hear your news, but extensions past 30 days are impossible.” He paused. “You might see Mr. Dennis Mwikisi at the Port office and inquire with him.”
“We have been to see Mr. Mwikisi and he suggested we see you. The thing is, my mother’s condition is…indefinite. It would be helpful if we had more than 30 days.” And Scott lobbed and Christopher returned until Mr. Mwango finally agreed to extra days. “But you must return to Mr. Mwikisi who will arrange the necessary paperwork. I will phone him now and tell him you are coming. You’ll be charged a storage fee of 18 Kwatcha ($3.00) per day until you return to Zambia.” He rose and extended his hand indicating the match was over. “In any event,” he said merrily, “technically speaking, three days from now, when your T.I.P. expires, we will seize your vehicle.”
We thanked Mr. Mwango for his time and alertness. As I walked out of the office I stopped in the doorway and as an afterthought said, “By the way, what happens if we aren’t back in the time allotted?”
“Then,” he said gravely, “you must buy your vehicle back at public auction.”

“Hurry,” I said to Scott as he drove back towards Mr. Mwikisi’s office. “By the time we get there, Dennis could be on life support!”
We stopped at an Internet CafĂ© and quickly composed a “letter of understanding” detailing our discussions with Mr. Mwikisi and Mr. Mwango. “It’s probably only worth the paper it’s written on but it can’t hurt and it might help,” Scott said as a second copy printed.

Back at Dennis’ office we were cheered to see that he was awake, if not more erect. Scott presented the extension agreement we had prepared.  Dennis, elbows splayed out on the desk and holding the document in both hands, not only read the agreement word by word he corrected the spelling of his last name! Then he did something you long to see a government official do when you are requesting the impossible. He stamped it! He stamped the copy too and handed it back to Scott.
“All right,” (all rrrrright) he said, eyes once again at half-mast. “Bring your vehicle tomorrow and I will show you where you can park (pock) it.”

Subdued, we drove back to Pioneer Camp. As we neared the gate Scott turned to me. “What’s the worst that can happen?” Then we talked about all the bad things that could happen. The car could be striped. It could be stolen. If we overstayed our extension we would have to buy her back at auction. What would that cost? We surrendered to the unknown. “It is what it is,” said Scott. “We really have no choice.”

The next morning as Scott drove away I said farewell to our Landy and everything inside her, all we owned in Africa: tools, bedding, a library of books, pots and pans, shoes, clothes, and a pantry full of food. Scott told me later that he parked her next to a seized Range Rover, which for some reason, made me feel better. As if her younger yet more successful brother would watch over her while we were away. The next day we flew back to California not knowing how long we would be gone and wondering if we would ever see N’doto again.

Next: Bread, Ice-Cream and Gin

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

My Videos of Africa are now on YouTube Channel

Videos of the journey "Around Africa in a 40-year-old Land Rover named N'doto" can now be seen at Teresa's YouTube Channel. Videos include the Landy crossing the Luangwa River by hand-pulled Pontoon Ferry, Prides of lions, The Dancing bridge of Kamanjoma, Elephant charges, Hyenas feasting and much more.

More videos in production (with my new camera so you won't have to listen to the sand grinding in the mechanism whenever I zoom...): Climbing Kilimanjaro,  Flying a light sport aircraft while viewing animals below, The island of Lamu, the countries of Uganda, Rwanda, and South Sudan and more.