Friday, May 23, 2014

Take the Goat…Leave the Cannoli

          Today marks the twelfth month of our journey through Africa. We’ve driven over 30,000 kilometers in ten countries. It has truly been the journey of a lifetime and I find myself thinking about all the things I will miss when we have to leave. Like afternoon clouds that puff up like a slowly baked marshmallow, sunsets that take my breath away, and lyrical chatter. All over Africa, wherever two or more are gathered there is constant conversation punctuated by laughter. I’ll miss the big five, the little five, the ugly five, the beautiful five, the green five, the slimy five, and the high five (giraffe and their kin). I’ll miss thatch roofs – before spiders, lizards, and snakes have moved in. I’ll even miss showering with a frog. But what I will miss most is people. The children especially, but I’ll also miss people like Li, a meat loving anti-poaching patrol policeman.

           We met Li on a hot afternoon when he turned down a lift from the control gate to the Mana Pools Headquarters in Zimbabwe. “I’ll wait for another vehicle,” he said after peering inside and confirming that our 41 year-old Landy lacked air conditioning. Four days later we encountered Li again near our camp along the river. “Are you heading out of the park now?” he asked. “Can you wait five minutes? I want to get my things.” His things turned out to be a small sack of dried meat. Many Africans don’t get a chance to eat meat very often. When he told us what was in the sack he said dried meat in the same way someone I would say dark chocolate, or someone from Europe would say a thousand Euros.

          It was a bit squished for four hours with three adults and an AK47 in the front seat but for the first time in 12 months we were waved through every police check along the way. Police never stopped my grandfather when he delivered beer to San Francisco speakeasies during prohibition either. Why? Nuns. “Would you be needing a ride now, Sister?” he would ask in his thick Irish brogue and off they would go, waved through all police checks along the way.
          “I wish you could come with us all the way to South Africa,” I said to Li enjoying the benefits of driving with an AK47-toting policeman for the first time in my life.

          When we stopped in a biggish town to gas up, I bought a bunch of bananas with the help of Li who told me the local price was just pennies apiece. I offered him a banana. “No. I’m okay,” he said after a slight pause.
          “Would you rather have some juice?” I asked.
          “No. I’m okay,” he repeated. Then quietly so that the banana lady couldn’t hear, “Police are not allowed to eat in public.”
          “Oh! Really? Sorry, I didn’t know!” I said feeling like an entrapper.
          When we were a kilometer from town Li said, “I will have that banana now.” As he ate I noticed how thin he was and offered him another.
          I asked Li about his life and work, eventually working my way to burning questions about stepping on someone’s egg, which means to hit someone’s cow or goat or to be the cause of losing something of great importance. Driving through Africa can be stressful not only for the chassis-busting potholes and time-consuming police checks but also for the number of humans and animals on the road. I fret about hitting a cow or child every time we get behind the wheel.
          “Li, if we were to hit a dog or a goat what should we do? I mean, should we drive to the nearest police station and report it?”
          “No, you don’t have to do anything,” Li answered quickly. “The owner is supposed to keep the animal on a lead at all times. If you report it, he will run away believe me. It is he who will be in trouble.”
          I needed clarification. This was serious. “So, we just leave the dead dog or goat there and carry on? We don’t report to the police station?”
          Li was quiet for a moment. Then, in the exact way the character in The Godfather delivered his line “Leave the gun. Take the Cannoli” Li said, “Yes, come to the police station. But leave the dog. Bring the goat.”

                                                               Camp in Mana Pools

                                                             Tris, Li, and an AK47

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