southern africa. part 1.
April 28 - Istanbul Airport, en route to Cape Town
I’m heading to Africa for the first time. Jo and I will take a month to travel up from Cape Town to Zanzibar, passing through Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, and Tanzania on the way. I’ll head back to NY from Dar es Salaam in exactly 30 days. If all goes to plan, that is.
This is the story of one boy’s first trip to Africa.
Arrival in Cape Town. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but Cape Town immediately strikes me as more of a colonial outpost than the urban metropolis I'd imagined. On the drive from the airport, we pass through miles of slums, an eery downtown, and absolutely stunning mountain slopes. Okay, I'm here now. It's time to let go of the images I created in my mind and create fresh real experiences. Isn't that the excitement of traveling? Discovering the unknown. Living the unknown.
I check into the Moy Hotel, just off the waterfront. Jo comes to pick me up and we go for a walk along the shore to the Oranjezicht Farm Market. As we stroll, Jo fills me in on her last two months in South Africa.
She’s been volunteering here, offering yoga classes and counseling to kids in the townships. Don’t let the name fool you. ‘Township’ is the South African word for ‘slum’. She’s worked in three; the largest one, Oceanfront, has nearly a million inhabitants.
Jo has a number of friends from the townships, and tonight she invites me to hang out with some of them. I’m a bit nervous at first. Not sure how to act, whether we’d get along, whether I’d say the wrong things (plus I haven’t slept since taking off from JFK two days ago), but they turn out to be a pretty chill group.
Actually, they’re far cooler than me.
We get drinks and they introduce me to a bit of South African culture. Jo seems happy. But I worry about her.
She seems drawn to suffering. And suffering seems drawn to her.
Met Jo at her apartment and we walked, together with her boyfriend RayRay, to Bootleggers, a nearby cafe where Leo works.
Leo is a pink-haired, black-nailed, round-sunglassed kid from the townships. I asked him where his accent is from. He responds, “Oh you like it? I made it up.” He speaks in snippets of British slang. He’s absolutely hilarious.
Setu met us there as well, and after breakfast we all head to Table Mountain.
Although the sun beats down mercilessly, we still had a great time picking our way up through the canyon. RayRay is always making us laugh. And Setu keeps preaching political change. He’s part of the Male Parliament, a government body made up by men who are focused on countering gender-based violence.
Setu believes that change is coming. He believes that he can help create a new SA, maybe even a new Africa.
By the time we summit, we’re all pretty exhausted. Exhaustion, as it turns out, would be a recurring theme on this trip. We take our time savoring the views and enjoying each others company before taking the cable car back down into Cape Town.
That evening, we Ubered out to Sea Point, a posh district scattered across the coastline at the foot of Lion’s Head Mountain. We got dinner at Mojo Market, a sort of upscale indoor market. A couple of the girls joined a free salsa class that took up the center of the floor but the rest of us were pretty out of it. Since neither Jo or I wanted to keep buying drinks for the rest of the guys, we just left.
Honestly, at this point, I was kind of tired of always hanging out in these larger groups with all of the culture shock and imbalance. They were all very sweet, but also pretty tiring. Jo seems to love mothering them all - paying for their food, booking their Ubers, and keeping them entertained - but it’s not really my thing.
Jo and I get back to the Moy around 8 and catch up on life for a few hours before bed.
Wake up pretty late, grab breakfast, and head into the historic center for a walking tour.
It’s my third day here, but it’s my first time in the center.
The history of Cape Town goes something like this:
Coi San Tribes
Portuguese arrive and trade with locals.
Dutch arrive and colonize locals. They import slaves and establish a brutal, if limited, stronghold.
British arrive in force. One war with Dutch, second war with Dutch. Now they control everything. Somewhat more lenient than the Dutch, they abolish slavery and implement religious tolerance.
The queen offers the colonies independence in exchange for their help fighting in WW2.
Apartheid is established immediately upon independence and lasts until the 90s.
Apartheid government provides limited rights to mixed race and Indian citizens, pitting them against each other and the much larger black population.
Currently, a culture war is being waged between the old timers who favor Mandela’s tolerance (including tolerance of their former oppressors), and the youth who seek to erase any remnants of a racist past. For the moment, tolerance is winning out. The tour guide suggests a middle ground: educated memory. It’s important to remember history, especially the dark moments, but it must be contextualized and balanced to represent different experiences.
After the tour, we stopped by the absolutely chaotic Eastern Food Bazaar for lunch. It was equal parts crazy and delicious.
We split from Karlene and head over to Observatory, which kind of reminds me of Brooklyn. I stop into some thrift shops for some last minute safari clothes, and then find Jo and RayRay at a bar called Trenchtown. When I mention that I couldn’t find a safari vest, RayRay immediately takes his off and offers it to me. I protest. He insists. I accept gratefully.
My policy with gifts is the same as with apologies. When offered sincerely, it’s always best to accept them.
I’m too tired for dinner with the whole crew, so I head back to Moy to catch up on baseball and order a hamburger.
We head to Zambia in the morning. Gta get my rest.
May 2 - 3
I have a flight back to NY on May 28. The only problem? It’s from Dar es Salaam. Between now and then, we’ll need to cross four countries, and other than the flight from Cape Town to Livingstone, we plan to travel overground by bus, train, car, motorcycle, foot, and boat.
Livingstone is named after the British explorer who ‘discovered’ the falls. It’s a modest town hugging the pristine Zambezi river. It borders Zimbabwe to the south and Botswana to the west. It’s as good a place as any to begin our story.
Our first morning there, we explore the town, walking through the market, stopping at the stalls selling crafts from the surrounding villages. In the afternoon we go on a sunset cruise. Correction: we go on a sunset booze cruise. Believe me when I say this was one of the strangest experiences of my life. Recall, this is basically my first day in Africa (let’s be honest, Cape Town doesn’t really count) and I’m overwhelmed with the new sights, smells, tastes, and so on. I’m excited to experience wildlife on a scale I’ve only seen in movies. And how do we start things off? With a booze cruise on a third-rate yacht packed with aging europeans and Indian businessmen. It was T E R R I B L E. But also hilarious.
I’m proud to report that there were no other Americans on board.
As the other passengers quickly proceeded to get embarrassingly drunk, we drifted along one of the most stunning rivers on the planet, and I glimpsed my first hippos bathing in the evening sun, birds dancing in the trees, as the sun sat heavy against the horizon.
On the boat, raucous singing, shrill chatter, and obnoxious acrobats pump into the gentle air. I can’t tell if I’m on the set of a Bollywood remake of the Great Gatsby or Murder on the Nile. In either case, they both end in death. Oh well.
This is out first day in Zambia and we’re determined to enjoy it!
As the sun sets, the sky is dyed with the deepest pinks and purples, throwing glistening hues across the river, offset by the still frames of the African bush. Jo and I glance at each other, amazed to be here, amazed to be together.
When we returned to our bungalow, I felt terribly sick and went to bed immediately. Woke up just before midnight, Jo was gone, and I laid in bed feeling all sorts of lost, confused, disoriented. I felt far from home. But in that, I felt all the more closer to myself. I felt myself on a mission. Like the Hebrew of old, into the wilderness.
We visited the falls this morning! We spent about 3 hours hiking around, under, behind, and very nearly through the falls. There’s nothing like it. The locals call it Mosi-oa-Tunya, ‘the smoke that thunders’. The water pounds powerfully down, sending plumes of mist hundreds of feet into the air. I could even see it from the plane. It reminds me of the Empire State Building, rising up high above the city, acting as a natural compass. To pass around the falls is to pass through them; a bright sunny day turned instantly into torrential rains.
Yesterday, I met a local man named David who offered to show us around his village. So, after returning from the falls, we picked him up in a cab and drove out to Mukuni Village. Mukuni is composed of 7,000 inhabitants, nearly all of which live in round huts made of mud walls and straw roofs. David guided us through the market - where I bought some soap for Shlomo - the school, introduced us to his family (his grandma is 95 and just a bundle of joy!), and explained a bit of how the local economy and politics function.
The chief was away in Lusaka, so we couldn’t meet him, but here are some general observations from the visit:
95 year old grandma. Sitting and stirring her porridge. Can’t hear much, just a single remaining tooth, but always laughing.
Respected chief rules the village. Is friends with the Zambian president.
Villagers seem to subsist on some crops, selling crafts in town, and money sent back from their children in the city.
Charity: the school is funded by a British charity as well as donations from tourists. There is some degree of social welfare from the government.
Each family controls a portion of the village, where they can build huts, keep animals, work, and so on.
There are children everywhere.
Most people seem to be christian, of various denominations.
Very peaceful, quiet, and safe. There is a local policeman who takes care of any issues that arise.
Villagers live in mud huts. The few houses that exist are owned by government officials.
Time trudges by at a glacially pace.
Sometimes they play music or dance. David said that if we had told him earlier that we wanted to visit, he would have organized a dance for us. We are SO relieved he didn’t.
There are some young men doing work. David points out a guy who seems to be about 20, returning from the bush with a load of firewood. For the most part, while we were there, we see only the elderly, women, children, children, and children.
Embarked on an overnight safari in Chobe, Botswana, where we’re joined by a middle aged Polish couple.
There is too much to say and not enough words. But there was this one moment, when our guide, Mr Axe, drove us down to the flooded plain just in time for sunset, and he turned off the engine of our jeep, and we just sat there in silence, watching, listening to the evening, as the elephants and buffalos finished their daily grazing, and the birds swooped down extra low to catch their dinner, and the water glowed platinum gold, and I felt, perhaps more than ever before, fully human, fully part of this wondrous beautiful impossible planet that birthed us all into life.
In that moment, I felt a sudden urge to step down from the truck and touch the earth.
Over dinner, we sat around the campfire and the Polish husband, a doctor, turned to me:
“You know, I would trade everything I have just to be your age again.”
“Why,” I asked.
“The way you see things, the way you think, and act changes when you grow older.”
“Death,” he said. “Because of death.”
We camped in tents that night in the middle of the bush. Considering that we could hear the lions roaring in the background, I slept surprisingly well.
After our morning game drive, where we came with feet of a male lion, spotted the first leopard of the season, and were surrounded by bouncing baboons, we made our way back to Livingstone for a final night at Jollyboys.
On the drive back, we shared a taxi with 4 or 5 white guys. For “some reason” they made Jo, the driver, and myself very uncomfortable. So I put on my headphones and listened to The Nationals as the countryside flashed past. My eyes, tired from darting around for 48 hours, were soothed by the deep shades of green, orange, and red that streamed in through the window.
It wasn’t long before I felt bathed in all the love that made this trip possible. Love from Jo. From my family. And from all the people we met and have yet to meet.
I reflected on how lucky I am to have Jo in my life and on this journey. So very different than those rude, arrogant boys behind us.
I catch a glimpse of her profile, framed against the window, glowing in the pink light. I turned to her and whispered softly in her ear, “I’m just noticing how beautiful you are.” She pulled me in for a hug. And then we both went back to being with ourselves. Back to our music.
Thoughts from the bus ride from Livingstone to Lusaka.
Whenever I visit a region which is radically different than my own, there comes a moment, usually 3 or 4 days in, when I’m faced with a decision. For the first few days of the trip, I find that I subconsciously try my best to maintain my normal standards and preferences, whether in dress, cleanliness, cuisine, personality, social interactions, and so on. Simply put, I resist immersion. Without fail, this reveals itself as a hopeless fight. Within a handful of days, I find myself in a situation that forces me to face my new reality. I can no longer pretend that I am somewhere I am not. I have to decide whether to embrace the place I am or suffer the consequences of oppression. Stepping onto the bus from Livingstone to Lusaka was one of those moments. We had reserved two seats in the front of the bus, but when we arrived we quickly realized that our reservation meant absolutely nothing. Jo grabbed a seat up front, while I made my way further and further back into the rear of the jam packed bus that we’d spend the next 12 hours on. With each step, the air grew thicker, the heat stronger, and the smell overwhelming. It felt truly unbearable. As I sat down, I found that, in my attempt to ‘protect myself’, I was barely even breathing. I was starving myself of oxygen instead of breathing in the oppressive air. Luckily, I immediately recognized that I was resisting Africa. I was fighting the very thing I had come all the way across the world to discover. I took a deep breath. And let it all in. I smiled, glad that I had finally arrived.
The bus company was called Power Tools. No, that is not a typo. And this was the good company.
TV monitors spread around the bus played some kind of African gospel music videos for 12 hours. It began innocently enough. A score of swaying women and weeping men in a cathedral. The audience in the video was gradually whipped into a frenzy, the camera taking turns focusing on arms waving fervently, hands being held in exultation, tears streaming down their faces, and the people just generally basking in the (apparently) unbearable joy of Christ. But then the video shifts. It’s still the same music, only now the actors are taking part in a UN peacekeeping mission. A tank rolls across the screen. A general emerges from a jet. And the dancing women have swapped their church gowns for military fatigues. They run drills while lip synching and swaying to the music. After about another 30 minutes of this, the scene shifts to a construction site. (I swear.) The dancers now wear hard hats and yellow vests, while the singers review building plans. Still, gospel music pumps from the speakers. We then move to a tribal village. The chief leading his clan in a tribal dance with the help of his wooden staff.
I sit next to a teenage boy named Peter. We spend the first hour of the ride talking about our favorite rappers. I introduce him to Frank Ocean. He’s amazed that we like similar music. I guess this old white guy has some tricks up his sleeve.
On our first morning in Lusaka, we immediately arrange a bus to Mfuwe for the following day.
Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, is a walled city. No, there isn’t a wall around the city, but every house is surrounded by an 8 foot brick wall, often topped with barbed wire or shards of glass. We asked the taxi driver about crime in the city. He said that it’s safe; you just can’t leave your car on the street and you need to look out for pickpockets. I asked him about the walls and he replied, “yes, of course. Otherwise people will just break into your house and take everything.” He’s surprised to learn that we don’t have walls around our houses in NYC.
After buying the bus tickets (which took considerable time since none of the ATMs seemed to be functioning), we visited the National Museum to learn more about Zambian culture and history.
According to Google maps, the route to the museum passed through the center of the Zambian government complex. That can’t be right. But after pausing at the entrance, we slowly walked through, waiting for guards to come rushing over. We passed parking spots marked with the names of the various parliament members, and still no one stopped us.
There were even a few women selling fruit in the parking lot, so we bought some bananas and grapes to munch on under the shade of the New Government Building.
When we arrived at the museum, we were stopped by a middle aged woman who remembered us from one of the ATM machines we tried. (Overall, during our trip, we came across VERY few tourists, so it wasn’t uncommon for us to be recognized, or to recognize other tourists for that matter. We bumped into one group of European tourists in three different countries over the span of a couple weeks.) In any case, the woman recommended that we use the ATM inside the parliament building, since it’s rarely used and offers larger bills.
We expressed shock that we could just stroll into parliament to use their ATM, but she just laughed. Apparently, soon after Zambian independence was established, the governing party, UNIP, passed a constitutional amendment limiting the government to just a single party (spoiler: their own). They claimed that this was to avoid political instability and conflict, but of course this simply meant that the UNIP party was the sole political power (not dissimilar to the CCP in China). In the following elections, the head of the party ran unopposed, assuring that he’d receive 100% of ‘the vote’.
Anyone who protested this sham of a democracy — students, workers, rivals — were jailed and beaten.
It wasn’t until the failed economy exposed the corruption and poor governance of the ruling party that the people were able to topple the weakened government and restore democratic rule. The new government took over the UNIP headquarters and renamed it the New Government Building. And it is this building, we are told, that houses the very best ATM in Lusaka.
Arrived at the station at 3:30 am for another 12 hour bus ride, this time to Mfuwe. Mfuwe is way out in the northeast of the country and will serve as our halfway point between the capital and Malawi. We’re staying at Croc Valley, a peaceful and picturesque lodge nestled against the Luangwa River, on the cusp of the South Luangwa National Park.
The bus ride is a typical mess. The window in front of me doesn’t close, so I freeze to death in the pre-dawn chill. Jo lent me her safari vest to hang over my face to break the wind. I look like a complete idiot, but that’s ok. I’m used to it.
The bus is packed. The person sitting directly behind me is actually two people. One sitting in the other’s lap for 12 hours, and hitting me in the back of the head every now and then. There are suitcases and packages piled to the roof, since the passenger buses in Africa double as delivery vans. And after 10 hours of stuffy, noisy, banging along, the driver has the brilliant idea of blasting some terrible music over the speakers. Amazingly, no one else seems to have a problem with it. The best part is that the driver only lets each song play for 5 or 10 seconds before skipping to the next track.
From Mfuwe we share a taxi with a French girl named Claire, arriving at Croc Valley around 5:30 in the evening. We make it to bed by 8.
Up at 6:00. The lodge grounds are filled with baboons. Entire families of baboons. I’m talking children, adults, grandparents. All out enjoying the morning sun. The backs of hippos protrude from the Luangwa river, glistening in the morning light.
Jo will be asleep for a few more hours, so I take my time enjoying the sunrise, sipping a strong coffee, and scribbling in my journal.
Once she wakes up, we spend a lazy morning relaxing by the pool and planning our next stop in Lilongwe, Malawi.
That evening, I left Jo for the first time to go on one last safari, an evening drive in the park just across the river. While I’m on safari, Jo ventures into Mfuwe with a local guy she met at the lodge earlier.
The game drive was pretty different than the one in Botswana. For one, it was much more chill. The other two people on the drive — Stan and the French girl, Claire — have already been on loads of safaris, so there wasn’t any of that palpable excitement that we felt in Botswana. It was rather more like a serene drive through incredible terrain. Now and then we’d stop to watch birds feeding, a pack of wild dogs out hunting, and even a pair of lions chowing down on some dinner.
At the same time, it was also a more serious drive. Both Stan and Claire had powerful cameras and took their time setting up their shots. This wasn’t the fun naive group in Botswana. No, these were seasoned photographers.
Overall, it felt very professional. Which was relieving in some ways, but also boring. It was cool to be out on safari in the dark (and cold! I hadn’t thought to bring a jacket), with only a powerful spotlight to light up our surroundings. The stars twinkled overhead and the bush around grew restless as the nocturnal predators began to hunt.
When we arrived back at Croc Valley, Jo and I prepared some dinner in the ramshackle old hut that served as the kitchen. While we cooked, we shared our experiences that day. I felt very close to her in that moment. Very present.
After dinner, we sat for hours at the edge of the pool, out under the stars, all alone, everyone else had gone to bed. We spoke softly about everything and nothing.
We’re picked up by a taxi Jo arranged while in town yesterday. The guy she was with is joining us for the drive to the border, which is strange, but okay, In any case, everything starts off great. But then the driver unexpectedly stops to pick up another 5 passengers! All together, we’re now 8 people in the small car. A women is squeezed in the front between Jo and the driver. There are three of us in the back with one girl on someone’s lap. And a guy in the trunk.
We hit the open road, put on some music, and suddenly it’s a road trip through Zambia!
One by one, the other passengers get off, until it’s finally just the four of us on our way to the Malawi border. At one point, just as we’re passing through a military checkpoint, Jo pulls out her camera to film. The soldiers notice, pull us over for questioning, and then make the driver pay a fine (a bribe?).
When we make it to the border, where we’ll end up waiting for two hours for our visas to be approved, a bus going to Lilongwe pulls up as well. Jo rushes over, and after some negotiating, we’ve secured our spot on board.
We arrive in Lilongwe just as the sun is setting over this beautiful city nestled in the hills. The city is filled with green nature, and as we slowly approach the center, it takes the form of a medieval market. Dirt roads, thousands of open air shops, throngs of mild-mannered sellers, shoppers, workers. The smog lays heavy, twisting the evening light into divine shades of pinkish strawberry.
We’ll only be staying the night, but we can already tell that this is a city that we’ll be returning time and time and time again.