Thursday, July 19, 2012

Goodbye USA, Hello Africa

We've been on the plane for a little over 13 hours now, and as my last blog entry was written 2 hours before leaving our hotel in Philly and embarking onto this journey into the great unknown, I find it only appropriate to write again just two hours before touching down in Africa for the first time. While my nerves haven't kicked in yet, my anxiousness is continually growing. Ive spent my awake hours of this flight staring out the window of the plane, searching for any sign of familiarity in the land below that I will soon lose. Instead I've been staring down into utter blackness, signs that we are now over "The Dark Continent," but I'm able to glance up at stars littering the sky in a way that I don't recognize. I've watched what I believe to be either Venus or Mars, as it's made its way from resting on the horizon to moving high up in the sky, almost above the planes view. I've anticipated seeing the sun rise, and after hours of checking my watch in expectation, I've finally remembered that now I am in the Southern Hemisphere, and it being winter here, the nights are longer. But alas! Right as the smells of sweet breakfast pancakes and coffee being made begin filling the cabin of the plane, a slight hint of oranges, yellows, greens, and blues begin spilling over the dark edge of our Earth, separating the still sleeping land from the dark starry sky. Now, a beautiful rainbow of colors, an explosion of fiery red at the base as it escorts a large glowing orange orb, the first tally of many amazing sunrises that my eyes will be able to feast upon over these next few years. I wish that I was able to paint a picture with my words that would do justice to the beauty witnessed before me. Now, as the sweet aromas gently awake the sleeping passengers, the sky turns to a tangerine orange, and begins to light the desolate land below us. According to the flight map, we are over Namibia, where every so often a cluster of lights shine from the ground, giving an idea as to how far spread towns containing electricity are from each other, and how small they appear to be, scattered on the vast red sand. As the sun rises higher and we travel further onward, lakes and rivers begin to glisten below, shattering my obviously uneducated expectations of Africa being only a dry desert.

It's still unreal to me that the African country of Zambia will be my home for the next two years. This is the longest commitment I've ever made to anything before- aside from college, but I could return home whenever I wanted to during that time. 6+ months in Ireland was tough for me, and they spoke English there!It feels as if this flight is for a vacation right now, not a flight taking me to my new home. 6 months from now I will be able to travel, have visitors, and start my work projects. A completely different schedule than my first 6 months in Ireland, and with less freedoms.

As we step out of the airplane and down onto the tarmack, I'm surprised to not be smacked in the face by heat and humidity, but rather by gusts of wind and a brisk 60 degrees. Welcome signs line the outer building of the airport, " Welcome to Zambia, the best African country!" "Be Zambitious!". Childrens laughter fills the air as I notice a group of young kids playing in the grass next to a neighboring plane, a freedom to wander that would never be allowed in the States. After grabbing our bags - with only 1 person out of 67 of us not receiving theirs- we head to the outside, where the warmest and most enthusiastic welcome awaited us. 68 people with about 4 pieces of luggage each; every one of us stepping into this unknown land with different fears, expectations, and aspirations running through our heads, and we load up into Zambian trucks that will take us to our motel stay for the first few days. What a site all of us "muzungos" must have been! I hop in the front of a truck alongside the driver (who, by the way, is on the opposite side of the car, and the car on the opposite side of the road), and I begin taking in the sites. There's an odd sense of familiarity here that I didn't expect to find. The terrain, the people, the roads, it all reminds me very much of Brasil, and I instantly feel right at home.

The difference between myself and a lot of my friends is that, while I’m happy to live out of suitcases and yearn to seek the unknown, they like to build nests and often have trouble straying from their comforts. I’m able to leave behind everything I love, know, and have come to understand, for the sake of exploration in an unknown wilderness. Though, it is in no way a means to hurt the ones I love by leaving them behind so often, but rather a way to find the human connection and that same love for others in the deepest, sometimes darkest corners of the world, where not many others wish to or get to venture. Africa, or “The Dark Continent” seems to be shrouded with mystery, but it’s really just a make up of important stories, yet to be discovered and waiting to be told. Had I remained immersed in the modernized, tranquil, civilized, tamed, and well beaten paths of America, I’d never be able to experience all of the wonderous gifts and challenges that Zambia and Africa will surely present to me over the next 2+ years. The thing about serving with the Peace Corps is that I don’t receive just a mere glimpse of a new tapestry of yet another country traveled to on the list, but I get to live, on the ground, in the heart of the communities and peoples, and learn how that very tapestry is woven. Arriving in Zambia I am but a malleable clay, and as time goes on I am excited to see the shape that takes form when guided by the strong hands of Africa.

The horizons here appear to stretch endlessly under the vivid, blue, seemingly painted sky. Zambia seems to be like the wild west, and there are areas here of which that is how they are referred. There are off-white colonnades, dirty and chipped pillars, holding up thatched roofs over a dirt sidewalk. Though the roads in Lusaka are pitted with tarmac, they are also full of potholes, so one can never expect a smooth ride. In fact, out of Lusaka it is rare to find tarmac roads at all, maybe you will have this for a few km until you venture out of the city, and the road suddenly turns to red dirt and rocks as you make your way into the bush. There are two main roads in Zambia- Great Northern and Great Eastern, which, you guessed it, run from East to West and North to South. To get to any province, like to go to Northern from Eastern, you can’t just simply drive north. You have to travel hours back into Lusaka, get onto Great Northern road, and the head up country.
Purple jacarandas, yellow acacias, and trees laden in scarlet blossoms line the two lane road here in Lusaka. There are markets, selling everything from fake ivory bangles (a symbol of your tribe), to heaps beans and dried sardines (kapenta), to colorful chitenges. I heard that it was once counted that there are 128 different ways to use a chitenge, but the most popular- and the reason/ways that we wear them- are as skirts over trousers (or over other skirts). They are also used to help balance buckets on the heads, or as a shower towel. The designs on these brightly colored, distinctive cotton cloths are almos of an Africanized paisley. This fashion was quickly adopted by the girls of our group, as we learned that showing anything above your knees here is the equivalent to showing your boobs in America, and the thighs are considered where the woman’s private part begins. It is seen as an indicator that you are easy, as is the taboo about condoms in which we will be educating on- if a woman asks her partner to use a condom or presents one to her, it will be thought that she is a prostitute. Anyways, taboos and myths at a later time. In some places, just wearing trousers (pants=underwear, trouses=jeans), could also indicate that you are a “working woman” i.e. up for hire. So, we are all getting used to wearing the chitenge skirt, as well as biking in them! Ah- another very popular use is to use a chitenge to tie your baby onto your back- and it looks very comfortable as well! The women here are amazing, and put American women to shame. As they bare their commendably quiet babies spread-eagled on their backs in these chitenge slings, they also sport chitenge turbans on their heads, which serve a prosaic purpose as a platform for burdens. Their exquisite balance is remarkable; how they are able to bear loads capable of defeating a pack mule upon their heads is beyond me. And something I will never attempt to do with my history of a broken neck. They stroll the paths with these burdens on their heads, a baby on their back, often a water jug or another child in their hands, and an expression of stoic serenity spread across their face. 

My words to describe this place and the beauty that astounds never seem quite noiry enough, as there is an ever flowing poetic rhythm to all that goes on in this country.I wish I could say that the way I wake and start each morning is with the same poetic beauty, but my in-and-out sleep stops and starts abruptly at all hours of the night and early morning, as the roosters seem to have a conversation all across the plains. And It starts with the faintest noise- though for me it’s usually the 1 year old in the room next to me waking from night terrors and letting out a whimper- which then causes a chain reaction of the rooster outside my window to make a call. Not your typical “cock-a-doodle-do”, however, my rooster sounds more like somewhat of a hybrid of a dying cow-dog. It’s cock-a-doodler surely must be broken. As his song comes to a screech, I hear the other roosters throughout the village call their response and I lay there, counting the few seconds of silence before mine squawks again. This goes on for about an hour and each time I get those few seconds of silence, I pray that my rooster has finally given up and chosen not to respond… and then… surely enough… right on cue it starts up again. Then, maybe another 45 minutes of silence until, again, something inspires my future dinner to yapp away. At times I seriously think of getting out of my warm, cozy, mosquito net covered tavern and venturing out into the brisk nightly air to throw a stone (or maybe even a huge brick) at the lousy excuse for a bird, but then I remember how warm and cozy I am. So I cover my head with my pillow and try to lull myself back to sleep. I know that in time I will become immune to these sounds and that they will (hopefully) become the equivalent to the crickets soft song. That, or I will make that rooster my dinner; I’m sure I wouldn’t be the only one who would enjoy that feast.

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