An Eclipse Safari
Thursday, 21 June 2001
15°39'43"S - 29°27'23"E
Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia
South-Pole star trails over the Zambezi River, from our camp at Mvuu Lodge.
Well, against my wife's (and all my friends') better judgment, I actually went to Africa for this eclipse. There
were a lot of tours for this one, but they were incredibly expensive. In the true spirit of gouging tourists, every
company wanted to include these "luxury safaris" with the trip. Well, I wanted to go and see an eclipse,
and maybe a couple of hippos, and Victoria Falls, and that's it. So, I spent the better part of two weeks on the
computer in Fall 2000, trying to find a cheap way to get to Lusaka, Zambia (Zimbabwe was out, because of the deteriorating
political situation), and finally found a routing through Amsterdam that I could do for about $1,500 round trip.
I was elated, until I found out what kinds of challenges I'd be facing with my luggage. The itinerary I found was
on Kenya Airways, and, while they're a fine airline (i.e., I didn't die), they only give you a checked bag limit
of 20kg! Since I took more like 50kg to Turkey in 1999, I had to do some cutting back. Lots of people who went
with me carried stuff for me, and I'm grateful for that.
First, let me say that this was kind of a neat eclipse for me, in that it was most likely my last for five years, it's the only one I've seen in the Southern Hemisphere (so everything happened "backwards"), and it happened about as close to the summer (uh, I mean winter) solstice as you could get. In fact, the moon's umbra first touched the earth's surface less than three hours after the official start of summer (winter)! And, by the time it got to where I was at, sum - I mean, winter - was still less than 5-1/2 hours old. That's pretty cool. Since it was winter, and Lusaka is at about 3000', the weather was cool to match!
The logistics of this eclipse are kind of neat, too. I had such good luck with Umbraphile last eclipse, that in talking with its developer, Dr. Glenn Schneider of the U. of Arizona, he informed me that he was getting together a select group of eclipse nerds, I mean, professionals, and he asked me if I would like to join them. Of course, I jumped at that chance, because it meant this could finally be an eclipse that I go to with people who are like-minded in not being as touristy, and being dead-on serious about the spectacle they've come to see. So, about 10 of us stayed in this campsite on the Zambezi River (which forms the border with Zimbabwe) in east-central Zambia, called the Mvuu Lodge. I'm told "Mvuu" is the local word for "hippo", and that they have a kind of elevated deck you can sit on and watch the hippos and elephants just wander by. This turned out to be somewhat true, though the river was so down, we saw more critters by boat than by table.
To go on this trip, I had to visit the doctor to get lots of shots and advice on health matters. First, I had to get Yellow Fever, Hepatitis, and Tetanus shots. I will also be taking antibiotics and anti-malarial drugs, and treating all water I come in contact with. This doctor, who spent two years in Zambia, advised me that I should treat every animal like it has rabies, every person like they have AIDS, every cough as though it carries tuberculosis, and every health clinic as if they use dirty needles. Wonderful country. So, I took all the precautions, and I had a wonderful time nevertheless. (Even though I got very sick after a couple of weeks back!)
There are also difficulties involved when traveling to a country where the average per capita income is about
a third of the replacement value of all the luggage you're carrying. Really puts things in perspective. I tried
to be unobtrusive, and that wasn't hard to do, since we were in a camp out in the middle of nowhere for the duration
of the trip. Still, though, I had the first day of my trip by myself in Lusaka, and so I did a little rummaging
around by taxi. That was an adventure in itself!
I'm back from my trip now, and I've got the narrative of the trip mostly done. Here is a montage of exposures spaced a half-second apart at second contact, showing the moon goobling up the sun's photoshpere (the bright part) in real time! Thanks to Michael Gill for the use of his C90!
And here are three exposures showing the re-emergence of the sun at third contact.
Top one at 2nd contact; bottom two at 3rd contact. Same orientation for all pic-
Where to begin in describing this trip? If I said that this was the most trouble a person ever went through to see an eclipse, I'd be laughed out of any room full of die-hard eclipse chasers. But it sure didn't feel that easy at the time. From the moment I made my ultra-cheap plane reservations, to the time I actually saw my house and family again after ten long days in the nether reaches of creation, I was subjected to a non-stop barrage of pure foreignness and never-ending challenges, the likes of which I don't believe I could have imagined existed anywhere on the planet. Even with the amount of traveling I've done, and as "different" as I expected Africa to be (even knowing that my expectations were riddled with stereotype and misconception), actually being there and somehow living through the experience gave me a new perspective on travel, on other people, and on myself, that I don't think I was truly prepared for. As I write this, four days after my return, I can still feel very strongly the internal tug-of-war between the two very distinct factions that stubbornly materialized within my innards: The laid-back, overly-relaxed, "ahorita"-esque atmosphere that you feel when you've been numbed to the stresses of your own world by the insulating pillow of throngs of customer-oriented, cash-hungry foreigners "welcoming" you to their homeland, and the oh-my-god-I'm-going-to-die stress of panic that comes from the knowledge that, but for the American-sized credit limit on that piece of plastic you thankfully brought with you, you might never again see the world beyond your immediate surroundings.
The killer cold front that stranded every plane in the country on
I almost didn't even get to make the trip in the first place. For an entire week prior to my departure, the
weather in Indiana had been hot and steamy. The massive cold front that blasted its way across America's heartland
during the few hours before my plane was scheduled to leave caused just about every flight there was to be cancelled.
Sure, I could get to my gateway in Europe easy enough, but getting to any city in America that I could actually
depart for Europe from became more and more unlikely as the hours passed. The airline I was originally ticketed
on gave up on me almost immediately, canceling very nearly every flight out of my home city. Another airline which
took up the challenge of getting me anywhere other than where I was played the game with me three times of: Get
a flight, wait till almost time to board, cancel the flight, tell me there were no more seats on any other flight,
then "Oops! There's one right now on a different flight". By the time I finally sat down in the plane
that would get me to Detroit, I'd been at the airport for six hours already! (Had I known, I could have driven
to Detroit faster!) I'd had my spirits dashed to the point of accepting that I'd not be making this eclipse three
times, and I was still facing the prospect of 18 hours sitting on airplanes! (I'd called my wife by that time to
tell her not to be surprised if I ended up back home that night, and so she didn't even know I was absolutely confirmed
for the trip until I'd landed in Amsterdam!)
And this flight to Detroit (which would then connect me with the flight to Amsterdam) was no sure thing by any means. Because it was delayed 45 minutes, I and many of my fellow travelers were questioning (even up until five minutes before its departure) whether it would actually get to Detroit in time to make the Amsterdam connection. Thankfully, there was a team of 27 Italian soccer players also going to Amsterdam, and so the airline made the decision to hold the DTW-AMS flight to wait for them. ("All resources will be applied toward the task of having you and your baggage make that connection," we were promised.) That slipped the rest of us in on their coattails, and just about iced for life my new-found devotion to Italian Soccer (uh, I mean, "calccio")! Just to give credit where credit is due, the airline that bent over backwards for us, and ensured my successful trip, was Northwest. I ended up flying them and their partners on every single leg of this trip, and I have to say they made the whole experience as painless as so many hours on transcontinental aircraft can be.)
The flight itself was hard on the old bod. I don't even want to think about the almost twenty hours I sat on board airliners. Thank God for aisle sets that let you get up and wander around any time you want. And, I actually had a long enough layover in AMS that I could go to the Sheraton they have right there in the terminal, and take a shower in their health club. (I didn't have the luxury of time to do this on the return trip, so I actually took somewhat of a sponge bath, and even changed clothes, in the airplane lavatory. No small feat that.)
I did one thing different on this trip, though, and it worked. I've been on plenty of overseas trips, and I always (and I mean always) end up getting a sore throat a couple of days after I get to wherever it is I'm going. I always attributed this to the foreign critters I'd exposed myself to in the other land, but it turns out this was mistaken. It's the air on the plane for all those hours it takes you to get there! The dry air dries out your nose and throat so much, you become susceptible to whatever germs were already there, or any you meet along the way. The trick is to keep your mucous membranes moist, and this I did. No coke, no booze, lots of water and fruit juices. I took lemon drops (sugar free) to suck on, and one of those little white masks you see asbestos-fearing people wearing. Keeping this on while I was sleeping (or trying to sleep) kept my throat from drying out. I looked like a total goober, I'm sure, but oh well. I didn't get one iota of illness from any cause the entire time I was in Africa! (After I got back was a different story!)
The people I was lucky enough to spend time on this trip with (besides our hosts at Mvuu Lodge) were:
Glenn - Astronomer, Mac guy, creator of Umbraphile.
Michael - From England, world traveler, eclipse maniac and overall good guy. Loaned me his C90 so I could make my airline weight restrictions.
Craig - My roommate at the lodge, 22 eclipses and not about to miss this one just because of recent bypass surgery.
Laura - Scientist and teacher, fun lady to be stuck in Zimbabwe with.
Steve - Lawyer from California, down-to-earth, knows a good restaurant. His wife Lila was along as well; she showed us all how to enjoy an eclipse!
Charles - Yet another good guy, very knowledgeable about the weather.
John - John is John; what can I say?
Joel - He had joined us, but unfortunately had to leave suddenly just after arrival. I didn't get to know him well, but that time will surely come soon!
The gears of the third world truly are greased by money. Nothing seems to be possible with people who have limited commercial opportunity, until you offer to augment their economy in direct proportion to whatever inertia you feel has to be overcome. When money is prevalent, there is at least some token consideration given to hiding the desire people have for it. When availability of funds is limited, and you're one of the bearers, the entire scene changes into a rough and raw animation, where the law of the jungle as played out on the plains serves as a metaphor for the daily trials you'll face. They don't even try to hide it. Pay or get left behind. Run fast or be eaten. It's the same principle, only very subtlely cloaked in a transparently thin veneer of civility - albeit a civility with very sharp fangs lying perilously close to the surface.
Poverty is everywhere in Africa, but it didn't slam you hard in the face here like it did in India. There, you can't go ten feet without seeing tons of people, many of them very heart-rendingly ill. Here, there was lots of wide open space where what masquerades as civilization in Africa hadn't quite found a foothold yet. There were plenty of the what-if-you-lived-here thatched-roof villages, though, and enough of the African stereotypes Americans are awash in to let you know that you weren't in Kansas any more. But one thing my taxi driver said that let me know I was in another place altogether was when I asked him about illnesses. I thought all the people I saw looked pretty healthy, but he told me that was because it was the dry season, and not much disease would be going around this time of year. "If you want to get any kind of treatment at the clinics, they require you to pay cash." "Is there any kind of insurance?" "Only if you work at a huge company, and that's not even 1% of the population." "But these people don't have any money. What happens if you get sick?" "You just die."
You just die. No problem, no second thoughts, no people up in arms demanding that the government do something. No expectations of anything, even life, beyond today. No worries about whether or not they'll cancel your favorite sitcom this season. No worries about whether to trade the car in this year or next. Nope, no thoughts of anything beyond the rainy season, because lots of people will get sick, and if you're one of them, well, you just die. If you're hungry here, well, you just go to the store. If you get sick there, well, you just die. Simple as that.
Umbraphile and Eclipse-Chasers
This was also a trip designed to put me in my place in more ways than one. Because of my past success with Umbraphile, and the relationship I'd developed through e-mail with its creator, Dr. Glenn Schneider, I was lucky enough to have been invited to go along with a special group of people whose company I came to enjoy very much. I say "special", because this was no ordinary group of tourists out to see the world, and, oh, by the way, there's this eclipse thing in the middle that they told us something about. No, this was a group of people who'd seen quite a few eclipses, and whose main (only?) focus for the excursion was to make sure that we saw the eclipse. No expense was spared in getting up-to-the-second weather forecasts, and airplane contingencies (for cloud-related last-second evacuations) were being made from the moment we set foot in-country. I'm used to being the eclipse veteran in any group I find myself in, but compared to these folk, I was still quite the virgin! This was to be Glenn's 22nd total eclipse (!), and I was also treated to the company of Craig Small, who would also be celebrating his 22nd. Yikes. Michael Gill, whose company I came to truly enjoy, was to be seeing his 10th. My five paled in comparison, but these people didn't make me feel stupid in any way. In fact, the success I enjoyed with Umbraphile must have somehow elevated my otherwise very amateur accomplishments in their eyes to the level where I actually felt accepted by these true professionals. Possibly I earned this, possibly I didn't, but it felt good nevertheless. And, as if on cue, Umbraphile performed perfectly for me yet again, I might say! Hopefully, that's secured me more front-row sets with the big boys, because I'll take that kind of company anytime there's a shadow to be chased!
Also to be noted is that I got the chance to meet John Beattie. For anyone who knows John, you know how much of an honor and an experience this was. I got into some great "discussions" with him, all of which I invariably lost. But then, John is John, and I'm happy to have had the opportunity, as they say….
We stayed in a camp, boy-scout style. The camp, called Mvuu lodge in honor of the hippos that frequent it (they keep you up at night with their contrabass wailings, and the onomatopoeiac "mvuu" is apparently the local word for hippo), was very rustic, with no electricity unless they were running the generator, and not much in the way of creature comforts. (Well, they did have a satellite phone, which I highly recommend taking on any trip you go on that's not keeping you permanently entrenched in five-star hotels - and maybe even then.) But, the shower was hot, the toilets flushed, the clothes got cleaned, the people were friendly, the campfire was warm, the stars were beautiful, the food was great, the hippos kept their distance, and the beer was cold. What more could you want?
I'll tell you what you could want - you could want roads you can drive on. I have no idea how vehicles hold up in the conditions they're put through in the African bush. The lodge was less than 60 miles from Lusaka, and it took us five hours to get there. During the rainy season, I was told, it can be a two-day exercise in futility, because you usually can't go more than a few meters at a time without having to enlist the aid of some nearby tree to winch yourself out of the muck. But this was the dry season, and that meant dusty, dirty conditions where washboard ruts ate suspensions for lunch, and two-meter dropoffs created quite plausible (though admittedly ground-based) negative-g aerobatic simulation training routines. I thought Mexican roads were bad, but these were more along the lines of what future explorers of Mars might come across. ("Hope you weren't planning on getting there today, eh?")
In the days before the eclipse, we'd all set out in various groups to scout out possible eclipse viewing locations. The actual day before totality, I thought I'd just tag along on one of these excursions, just for nothing better to do. ("What the heck, maybe we'll see something cool.") Well, the trip into the Lower Zambezi National Park was anything but routine, as I found out. First of all, to even get into the park in the first place, you have to jump through a bunch of administrative hoops (mostly lined with cash). Our host took care of this for us. But then, you have to secure the services of an armed guard to go along with you. These guys carry large, very threatening-looking weapons, and keep them at the ready at all times in case of attack by animals. You might think that's funny, until you actually go to the park itself and see just how much of an outsider you are while you're in there. This is not TV; it's a true wilderness area where not many people get to go into, and you're definitely an intruder in the animals' domain at that point. Around every turn were herds of gazelle. Several times, we'd come upon just enough of a clearing to see that there was a huge elephant eating off the tree branches just a few meters away from us. Once, one of the vehicles from our lodge actually got into a standoff with one of these behemoths, and had to wait until the critter was good and ready to get off the road before they were able to continue on. (Did the salesman at the car lot forget to tell you that four-wheel drive was really no match for a charging elephant? So sorry….) But then, there was the time that actually got even the host and the guards excited, when we turned this corner to see six lions resting on a plain not 100 feet away from us. One of them was walking around, but the rest were just lying there, swishing their tails aimlessly and rolling around in the grass. Being lazy like lions are, I suppose. We stopped and spent the better part of an hour using up film and video and such. The problem was that the animals weren't really giving us much action, so after a while we got impatient. You really have to picture this, the five of us sitting there in the safety of our vehicle, in the middle of wildest Africa, with the windows rolled down (to let the Tsetse flies in), all jockeying for position to get good pictures while the guards are standing watch with their rifles. I'm not really sure who started it (it may have been me), but we were actually heard to be saying "Here, kitty, kitty, kitty…". I have it on video. The lions were not amused.
Some people would have come all the way to Africa just to see that sight, I know. For most people, in fact, I couldn't help but think that all those hours I spent on the plane would have been worth it if all I'd gotten to see were those lions in their natural habitat. It wasn't hippos mating, like Michael got to see, but it was cool nevertheless, and I felt very guilty that for us, it was just another thing to throw off because it wasn't the real show! Not that we were ho-hum about it or anything, but we knew that the real reason we'd come all this way wasn't going to manifest itself until the next day. No matter what happened today, it would have to take second place to tomorrow's show. (The next day, I did hear Glenn admit out loud that if a dinosaur would happen to crawl out of the bush during totality, he might be somewhat tempted to turn his cameras away from the corona in order to catch a picture. He won't ever admit to having said that, though, so you can pretty safely ignore it as an unsubstantiated rumor.)
Eclipse day was as bright, clear, and cloudless as the preceding few days had been. The forecast was for flawless weather, and Glenn was ecstatic about the fact that this would be one of his very few eclipses where he going to get to be completely unconcerned about weather.
The eclipse was beautiful - what can I say? Steve took off for an isolated spot, to see the eclipse with not a soul around him for 300 meters. Just exactly how he experienced it is between him and God - and that's pretty darned cool. We had a lot of people with us that were seeing their first eclipse, and the atmosphere was one of friendship and fun. Lila (Steve's wife) sat down in the grass about 50 meters in front of everyone, and did nothing for the eclipse but sit there and become one with the shadow - a very envious situation. Glenn was like a little kid with his heliostat and cameras, and Umbraphile worked perfectly for me. It was a great eclipse. We were alone, in the middle of the wilderness and the Baobab trees, and the shadow was beautiful as always.
Dodging Hippos Surfacing on the Zambezi
After the spectacle of the eclipse, we all thought it would be a rather nice change of pace to take the river back to camp. Because of the roads, it's oftentimes just as easy to take a boat, since you're right next to the river and all. The trip was something like 18 miles, and that turned out to be a good hour and a half regardless of which way you went. But, going on the river would be a good way to get the road dust out of your throat, and it would be the last time we would get to see the river, so what the heck.
The boat drivers succeeded in taking up about a half hour trying to figure out who would get in what boat, who would lead, and all kinds of totally unimportant stuff like that. I think it must be a cultural thing in third-world countries that no one is used to leading in any capacity, so that when decisions really need to be made in a hurry, no one steps up to take the lead and ensure that things happen in an orderly and smooth fashion. At least, that's what happened here.
The upshot was that we didn't even get pushed off the bank until there was only about a half hour to go before sunset. (The sun was going to set at 5:30 pm, and the eclipse hadn't even happened until 3:15.) What this meant was that we'd be on the river, full throttle, after dark, and I didn't have my jacket. It was a very cold ride, and one full of entertainment value, if you were watching the proceedings from anywhere other than on the actual boat with us.
We had to dodge never-ending sandbars and islands, at one point coming within rock-throwing distance of the Zimbabwe shore (which you didn't want to violate immigration law by breaching). At one point, we had to stop for a while because of the discovery of one of the lodge's boats partially submerged from a notably bad docking job earlier in the day, and at one point, we actually ran aground ourselves. But I think the most exciting part was the moment when the driver suddenly executed a hard-to-port that very nearly gave me a much earlier bath than I'd intended. I looked at him like he was nuts, but he only pointed to this submarine-like wake boiling in the water next to us, being created by an unseen form no more than six inches below the surface. "Hippo," was all he said. How he'd seen it in the dark, and avoided having the hippo surface directly beneath us, is something I still don't quite understand.
The day after the eclipse, we'd all booked this DC-3 (named "Delaney", after a baby that was born on board it during a flight in the 1970s) to take us to see Victoria Falls. We knew it'd be a quick trip out and back, with limited time to see stuff, but we had no idea the extent of the adventure we were in for! As we were coming in for our approach into Victoria Falls, the left engine on the plane decided it was going to start backfiring, loudly and often. We saw the captain shut the engine down as a precaution against blowing one of its cylinders (common on those big old radial engines), and I heard Glenn just about get Craig (of triple-bypass surgery fame) convinced that the pilot had done it as a fuel-saving measure due to the current shortage in the country, when the pilot came on the radio to advise that everyone prepare for a possible emergency landing. Not that he thought there'd be any problem, but just in case. The FA was sitting right behind me, and told us all to put our stuff down on the floor. That prevented me from getting a picture of the shadow of our plane on the ground as we came in to land, with one prop spinning merrily, and one dead, feathered, and useless.
The pilot did a smooth, flawless single-engine wheel landing. Later, he attributed his skill to his more than 14,000 hours. (I came to wonder, though, whether single-engine landings had simply become old hat to him, considering the condition of the plane based on our experiences!) I'd have just as soon he traded some of that skill for a working engine, because as we left the airport to get to the Falls, it was very much up in the air (pun intended) as to whether or not we'd be leaving for Kariba later on, to get to the houseboat we'd reserved for the night.
For the time being, though, we had to make the best of an unforeseen situation. The plan for the moment was to get to Victoria Falls, and see as much of it we could before having to get back to the airport for our hopeful departure.
It's really impossible to describe just how impressive Victoria Falls was. It's one of those things that you can see a picture of, or that you can read someone else's description of, and you just know you're not getting the whole picture. Like the Grand Canyon, or a total eclipse, you just have to see it. If you've seen Niagara Falls, then just picture it about three times taller, and a mile wide. That's close to what Victoria Falls is. You can view it from any number of places on the Zambian or Zimbabwean sides, from a helicopter hovering overhead, or even from a bridge that spans the huge pool of churning water it creates at its base. But no matter where you view it from, if you're within a half mile of it, you're going to get wet. And there are places where you'll get totally soaked, even though you're 400 feet up from the base! That's some powerful spray! And the rainbow you'll see is amazing. It's the most solid, colorful, thick-looking rainbow I've ever seen, and the secondary rainbow is as strong as most primaries I see here at home. If you're in one of the helicopters that cruise incessantly overhead, you'll see the entire 360º arc of rainbow. Almost everywhere we went, there was so much spray that everyone had his own little personal rainbow dangling there about six inches in front of his eyes. Pretty cool.
If you're a rafter, there are true Level 6 rapids at the base of the falls. I don't know if they let anyone shoot those, because just to look at them, you'd think a person would have to be suicidal to even make the attempt. They do offer bungee jumping, though, if you're into adventure. (When we went up in the balloon ride that takes you over the whole city, the guide told us he'd offer us some low-cost bungee jumping from the balloon right now if we wanted - no strings attached!)
The whole time we were getting rained on, though, we kept noting to ourselves that this was the same African fresh water that we'd been warned about coming in contact with. We consoled ourselves with the somewhat unscientific observation that, after a 90-meter free-fall and subsequent high-altitude (and high-velocity) atomization, any harmful bacteria couldn't possibly have enough strength left to infect us with! It must have been true, because I didn't get sick! (Well, not right away...) But one thing that was very interesting to note, was that all around the areas where we were, there was thick, lush, jungle-type growth of plants that belonged nowhere near this otherwise barren landscape. A ring of jungle around the perimeter of the falls, where constant mist and rain fell 24/7, itself encircled by a quite opposite biosphere stretching out to the horizon, was very strange to experience.
While on the way back to the airport, we found out that the plane would not be taking off that day. This left us with not too many good options. The crew of the plane had been completely unhelpful in securing lodging or alternate transport for us, but we somehow managed to end up at the same hotel they were staying at. Figuring that sticking close to them couldn't be a bad thing, and after several attempts at phone contact with anyone who could help us failed, we went ahead and checked in on our own nickel.
(Note to self: On future trips to lands where the telephone infrastructure is unreliable and unmoving [even after great-but-apparently-still-not-suitable applications of cash-based lubricant], especially those excursions on which several people have schlepped their bulky satellite phones along, be sure you think to actually _bring_ one with you, even [especially?] when you're only planning on being out for the day.)
That evening, we met the pilot for drinks and dinner. He was a very cool guy, and assured us that we'd be getting out of there in the morning, after the mechanics had had a chance to look at our ailing engine. I, of course, still had a very bad feeling about the whole situation, and it was a sign of group unity that the other members of our "Lost in Zimbabwe" gang took advantage of every opportunity to tease me about my worrisome nature. I was unmoving in my cynicism, though. ("Time to spare? Go by air!") The food at the hotel was incredible, though, and after my ostrich and crocodile-tail dinner, I got a really good night's sleep.
However, I had a real scare at the bar. I'd made the mistake of getting quite drunk, and was cavorting with one of my traveling companions. The conversation turned to some comment or other about the President, Robet Mugabe, and I made the mistake of saying at the top of my lungs, "No, you mean, 'His excellency, President Robert W. Mugabe - He is the president, after all, and we have to show him the proper respect!'. Of course, this was a very sarcastic remark, inspired by the ubiquitous portraits of the dictatorial leader that one would see everywhere within the country. As I was finishing this ill-conceived rant, I noticed the bartender giving me a very hateful eye, as though I should really ahve given more thought to what I let slip from my admittedly alcohol-greased lips. His look was pure hatred, like I've never seen on any human face aimed in my direction, and was enough to cause me to literally fear for my life. I paid for my drinks in cash, so as not to advise him of my room number, and actually changed rooms at the front desk before retiring for the evening with one eye open. That was how scared I was of the look he'd given me for having disrespected his beloved leader. In a third world country, the rules are definitely different....
A flyer for a drink that was being offered by the Vic Falls Hotel we were (stuck) in. For the record, it took three of them to eclipse me!
In the morning, I was still alive. We set out for some last-minute shopping, and a quick balloon ride over the city to see the falls from the air (and from a good distance). Getting to the airport on schedule at 11:00, we found that the plane wasn't there. Our pilot had taken it to Botswana for gas (as in, "I'll be back in a minute, honey. Just popping out to Botswana for a quick sec…."), and hadn't returned yet. He'd left the flight attendant, as some sort of emotionally-supportive collateral for us, I guess, but she knew about as much about the situation as we did. After several hours of no news, we decided that it had once again become time to take matters into our own hands, and we started asking about scheduled flights on which we could buy tickets to get ourselves the heck out of Dodge, in case this became our only way back to civilization.
At long last, our pilot landed. The FA came to inform us that he was still dissatisfied with the plane's behavior, and that it might be prudent for us to extract ourselves from the situation - ourselves. How the air charter company could have been any less helpful to us escapes me, in retrospect, but thanks to our resourcefulness (and Glenn's relationship with Citibank's plastics division), the extraction was performed.
Since we'd had no contact with our hosts at the lodge, we could only imagine the scene at the houseboat marina when they arrived at 11:00 to find that we'd never shown up. We could only hope that logic had prevailed, and they'd realized that the only place for us to possibly be was at the airport. I don't think I've ever been quite as happy as I was when we walked out of that terminal building to see Johan, Bruce, and the two vehicles that would get us home. I actually hugged Bruce, I think - they'd acted perfectly in line with the logic of the situation, and rescued us!
The rest is anticlimactic. I'd been worried about whether the bag I'd left behind at the lodge would make it with them, but there it was. Into the cars we went, and after a short stop at the Kariba Dam (and a long, bureaucracy-laden stop at the border crossing), we were on our way. A few hours later, after a nice conversation with Bruce (who is a SA native living in Zambia) about the African cultural and anthropological scene, the familiar sights of the hotel came into view. The only thing I could think of was how ironic it was at that moment for me to be thinking how few people in America would even have known where Lusaka was, and yet how insanely glad I was to see it! How difficult would it ever be for me to fully explain that thought to anyone else?
Would I do it again? Ask me in about a year, because I still haven't quite had enough of a buffer just yet to fully realize that I'm home. I still see the dog-eat-dog Africa in our society, and I see how we cloak it in charades of civility that I didn't notice before. But now, I see it much more clearly. So clearly, that it makes me wonder at what it is exactly that we're trying to accomplish with all this running around we do. How come other cultures are happy with nothing, and we're miserable with everything? Buddha had the answer to that one, I think.
I came back home to find that one of my oldest and best friends - the best man at my wedding - had died the night of my return, while I was sleeping off the effects of the plane. (I did wake up that night at about 2:00am; you have to wonder….) A trip to put lots of things in perspective for me had not yet completed its attempts to file me down and reshape little things here and there, which must have been someone's idea of things that desperately needed to be done to me. Consider them done at this point. Not that Africa won or anything, but it was definitely a trip that I needed to return to work to have a vacation from! Lots of good memories, great adventures, great people, and a great eclipse. What more could you ask for? Oh, wait, I know what you could ask…
When's the next one?
A political cartoon I saw in a Zimbabwean newspaper, with an unknown candidate eclipsing his excellency President Mugabe in the upcoming elections. Given the authoritarian nature of African politics in general, I'm amazed this kind of thing is even allowed to appear in print!
© 2001 Dan McGlaun