Thursday, June 18, 2009

Life as a road

As a curtain rises in a theater life’s overture was a thunderclap

My head is jostled up and down in between laboured attempts at sleeping as our motor coach barrels down the Zambian highway. To declare that the road between Lusaka and Chipata is a problematic trail bred after the union of poor craftsmanship and short-sightedness is only an approximation of the road’s quality, or lack thereof - a sarcastic jab at the reality of the matter – the cracks propagate in between pot holes and as the bus accelerates the existence of such dysfunctional aspects of the road become more and more apparent. Nauseous feelings overwhelm me - is this motion sickness or the malaria that manifested its self as vomit last night over the bowl of bone-white toilet in the wee hours of the morning? The shivers overwhelm and the aches incapacitate- "ah salvation! I'll take coartem..." if only I had water and food to take it with. In my stubbornness, or perhaps delirium, I refuse water from a friend and drift in and out of sleep. Regardless I am on the road to Chipata, on the road to Malawi, on the road to the JF retreat.

A shot screams out; an immense thunder that overwhelms even the grinding noises of our high velocity motor coach. Alertness returns to me, my heart is racing and I can feel it. Intense thumping within my body as consciousness quickly returns. My body shrieks at me to find out what is going on - self preservation systems at work? I look out the window and see our bus swerving out of control into the opposite lane - directly in front of an incoming motor coach; a motor coach which is running as if it was chased by the end of the world. What will happen when two ferries of the Zambian plain collide at critical velocity? What life survives? What limbs are severed? I am in the back of the bus, I must brace myself, must be careful to keep my tongue in my mouth lest I bite it off on impact. What of my thumbs? They must be safe too, for being flung forward might snap them off on head rest, draped of course in white plastic, which is in front of me. Mortality is but a simple gift that can be taken away; this mortal reclamation seems to be more and more easily given the advancement of technology and the human capacity to put ourselves in situations that are not safe. Such unsafe technologies include: shotguns, flame throwers, and anything with an internal combustion engine traveling on a Zambian highway.

For a mere instant in time I feel scared for my life, yet I do not panic – there is no time to panic. Perhaps these are the last thoughts of some small animal or maybe a majestic elk as it looks upon ever approaching headlights with lethal fascination. Time felt as if it was dawdling for a few seconds - heart still pounding - each second was cumbersome and lingered with me. I return to reality and hear screeching sounds as the bus driver regains control and we return to our lane. I have survived! Our driver is either lucky or gifted with reflexes beyond my clumsy comprehension: for if the buses collided his existence would be void, and the lease on life of every bus rider would be up for review.

After the ten second eternity had passed the bus began to slow down and came to a halt half on the road and half of the shoulder. All the bus riders slowly file off the bus; phrases in different languages… Bemba, Nyanja, Tonga?... were uttered by the odd passerby.

What time is it? Is there such a thing as time when lying ‘neath the scorching Zambian sun on the swerving tarmac that slices through the plains, hills, and forests of Zambia? In a world of cautious stillness the relevance of seconds and minutes becomes distant; arbitrary and synthetic divisions of the human experience. Left of the bus (perhaps North...?) lies, in anguish, a path – anguished by the shrubs and tall grass making claim to it, subtly making the lines therein less defined. Just past the path can be seen some straw huts – their outlines visible through gaps in the defoliated trees and their colors blending into the dry wheaty color that has overtaken Eastern Province in the dry season.

The bus lies in fallow on the highway– no progress – the wrench lies amongst a few lugnuts on the shaded roadway. Words slowly propagate throughout the growing crowd of wanderers and travelers – strangers to this landscape – of how the jack and spare tire are both absent. Work removing the devastated tire grinds to a state of being similar to the bus its self.

We aimed for Chipata but instead found Purgatory amidst the highways and bush

The Mzungu contingent of the bus is gathered together sitting on the side of the road opposite the steel behemoth. Despite the sun reaching its peak the heat is tolerable, even as we sit on the cooking black-grey highway away from the shade. Motionless. Stillness. Uncertainty. Tranquility? Agony? Somewhere in between?

Our coach sat with two demolished tires – driver side front and passenger side interior on the back ( the bus has six wheels). No jack. No spare. No movement, no progress. We lie in wait. Perhaps a bus would drive by and render us assistance – a tire and a jack and water to quench our growing thirst – vehicles come and go. First they are heard, then they are seen, then they are gone leaving us the sound of drifting wheels, firing engines, and displaced air in their wake.

We lie in wait.

The huts in the distance are an alluring spectacle – my eyes are coaxed by their siren song - and an accomplice and I slowly tread down the trail, pushing aside the tall grass as we go. The scene we beheld is reminiscent of some kind of horror movie – stillness. There is evidence of humanity nearby – foot prints. I feel a certain tension in the air. Small birds and chickens slowly strut around the clearing. There is one large hut and a few smaller ones. In the distance I see a man sitting, silent, inside a straw enclosure. As we wander further into the clearing I am surprised by the presence of another silent man in another straw enclosure.

Ignorant interlopers. We know not what it is we tread upon or where we are.

Encroaching into the lives and land of strangers was not our intention on this trek so we return to the bus – our landmark... our point of reference.

Off in the distance down the road I can see something... Some sort of settlement?

What lies over past yonder?

On the right side of the bus (south?) is another path cut through an even denser Zambian brush – trees, shrubs, and grass almost a meter high (or so it seems) lies amidst the path and amidst the road devouring any notion of emptiness. No huts in sight. Explore again? Progress on our situation is uncertain – another adventure can’t be of any harm, can it?

With the same accomplice I set out on a second voyage into the unknown of the Zambian country side. Mysterious trails cut their way through the bush – “there must be a village over past yonder” I continually think to myself – we continue on. We scramble down a small hill and into even taller grass and a forking path, “This trail looks like it was cleared by an elephant” remarks Tony.

The sounds of crickets can be heard lightly singing amidst the rustle of grass during a mid day breeze. What kind of anachronism are these sounds? It’s day time... They shouldn’t be out; it’s not concert time.

Over ahead I see what I believe is the source – an abyss of light under the canopy of a short yet majestic tree. No light exists under the branches and leaves which resemble the mouth of some cave. The path forks – one leads to the absolute darkness under the unknown tree while the other leads to more tall grass and a thicket up ahead. We embark upon the latter. A similar dark tree path awaits us – the first we saw is dwarfed in size by the immensity of this canopy. The sound of some unknown creature can be heard amidst rustling bushes. It is dark underneath – dark as if the sun has set early – and a small creek runs through the middle. Just as I cross the creak on a small branch bridge I am told that we are out of cell phone coverage... We decide to return lest the bus leave us to this clearing and whatever village lies beyond. In the distance we can see a town – perhaps this is what I saw from the roadside?

The road comes into sight and with it the faces of friends and strangers as well as new comers to our road side prison: bicycle merchants. AH-hah perhaps these merchants put nail belts on the road so that now they can come and peddle fritters, coke, fanta, popcorn, and biscuits to the disabled wanderers?

Likely not. But they are here and they are selling. They come and go with bike loads of food items. We gorge. Eventually the post bus arrives – salvation! A tire and jack are shared with us and work starts up again. The critical tire, the driver front, is swapped and we slowly file back onto the bus. The sounds the bus makes driving with one flat are frightening – it sounds as if the bus will be caught up in some dark conflagration at any given moment. Crawling as some lame creature anguishing in the pain of dismemberment our bus howls. Eventually the distant town is reached and our bus repaired; fitted with a new tire. Wandering around this town reminds me of many of the other road stop towns – towns that remind me of the old west. Or rather the old west as portrayed in films...

The horse we rode on

One main road. Watering holes / bars, small shops and vendors dotting the road through town. Homes lost in the distance. Water and icecream for sale with rice samosas? Refreshing. Time for coartem. Saddle up! Our horse aint lame no more. Wrangle up a posse; we be heading over past yonder to chipata. Yee haw. Giddy up.

Sleep is found as we are Chipata bound

As we continue to Chipata I begin to once again pass in and out of sleep amidst the typical gospel music and the words of James Joyce, which slowly seep into the sponge behind my eyes. Soon the sounds of countless Taxi drivers singing in disharmony to pick up the Azunga –“taxi, machinji!?” as they exit the bus in Chipata will abound around me. Soon the dilapidated road to the Machinji border station will throw me around the cab of a taxi. Then it’s Lilongwe!... And Senga Bay. And the retreat – a reunion of EWBers on the shores of Lake Malawi. Consciousness fades ... “Rhythm begins, you see. I hear. Actalectic tetrameter of iambs marching. No, agallop: decline the mare.” (Ulysses, page 31) and then I sleep.

On the road even the most irrelevant stories aren’t without meaning.

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