Thoughts were flying through my mind as I boarded the Kenya Air flight not even a week ago:
“Is my layover in Nairobi safe given recent events? Will I have to work in the ‘office’ I swore to never step foot in again? Hope people are friendly; I really need some friends. First, I need a place to live. Is rent expensive? Because I am broke. Please let there be air conditioning. Has Wi-Fi hit Africa yet? Have computers? Shit, I hope there’s electricity. Will I get to meet Ako
Track was lost, but I’m pretty sure that the number of concerns in my head was inversely proportional to the number of whiskeys I had on the plane. I fully blame Sky Team for upgrading me to first class.
So here I am. Over the past week, the backspace key on my laptop has been used and abused, as I’m finding it a bit difficult to translate both an accurate description of the city and my first impressions to text.
We landed in what some would consider an open, semi-paved field, and departed the plane presidential style. So naturally, I struck the Nixon before walking down the fold-out stairs. On the way into the terminal, which was essentially 1 large room, I passed a worker with no shoes, my luggage, and a fleet of Zambian businessmen piling into a brand new Range Rover. Where am I again?
The Kenneth Kaunda International Airport here in Lusaka is something similar to that of Albany, Georgia with the added bonus of a customs booth. It sees in a year what Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson sees in about 7 1/2 days --- somewhere around 2 million passengers.
There was a single customs agent and one luggage carousel; the latter leaving me wondering why even invest in such a device. “Hey, I’m right here, let’s just cut out the middle man.”
I knew I was going to get picked up, but had no idea by whom or what this person even looked like. Turns out finding a Caucasian ex-pat in the airport is the exact opposite of finding Waldo. In a stroke of irony, I was the black sheep.
Now, after a couple of days here, I can say that the airport was a perfect sample size of the city thus far. Many people are shoe-less, and many others are cruising around in $300,000 cars. Turns out import taxes are a bitch.
With any new city, one of the best ways to figure out where you are is to strap on a pair of running shoes and hit the streets, so hit them I did.
But careful I was; most every major street is lined with cement drainage ditches nearly as deep as I am tall. Apparently, when it rains here, it fucking rains. And these aren’t covered in anyway --- if you step wrong, you fall; an American lawsuit waiting to happen.
So in a game of running hopscotch, I toured the city.
Traffic is surprisingly really heavy, very much stop-and-go during the morning and evenings. And like Asia, people will sell you just about anything to make a buck (or a kwacha). Red and green lights dictate opening and closing hours for these Zambian street vendors. One guy was selling orange road cones and fly swatters. Another had a live turkey under each arm. Across the intersection, one yearning entrepreneur was selling plungers and WWF posters. On the cross street, a teenager had a box of bunnies and a wall of sunglasses. And one man was walking around with a pair of used khaki pants; I’m assuming returns aren’t welcome here.
It’s essentially a one-stop-shop if your child needs a new pet, the store was out of poultry, your toilet is clogged, and you want to hang Stone Cold Steve Austin on your wall.
Confused, dehydrated, and choking on dust, I turn back and finish the run.
Finding a place to live has been…different. There’s no Craigslist, no rental websites; it’s all word of mouth, and arriving here with a rolodex of about 2 mouths, it’s been a fairly entertaining process. I spent the first few nights at an absolutely lovely backpackers/hostel where I was the only guest, so I moved across town to another to meet some people. After a few days, I’ve found a place to call home. In a city where $1,000/month rent is common, I consider myself lucky to have found this place for $500.
I’m living with a Zambian family who rents out spare rooms to ex-pats. The house is a kilometer from the President’s house and down the street from Embassy Triangle. Living together, it’s the family of 3 --- husband, wife, and child --- their live-in sister-in-law who doubles as the nanny, a maid who has a separate house on the grounds, a French guy, an Australian girl, a dog, and me.
And after just 2 days here, I could end up seriously spoiling myself. This fully furnished house comes complete with private rooms, a massive kitchen, a pool with a wet bar, a gazebo, and deck chairs. Hell, my laundry is washed and ironed for me once per week. A number of native-Australian trees freckle the plot, mixed in with cacti, shrubs, and flowers. And all of this green at the end of the dry season. But no air con. Not here, not anywhere. Life couldn't be that sweet, could it?
This entire compound is enclosed in a 10 foot tall, 1.5 foot thick cement wall topped with a 5-layer electric fence. The front gate has shards of glass stuck into the top, and barbed wire twisting in and out of the electric fence.
In fact, it’s pretty common --- a.k.a. every single house --- for plots to be surrounded by either barbed wire and/or electric fencing. Residents hire guards to man the property gate 24/7. Apparently this place can get dangerous? I haven’t seen it yet. I did, however, go grocery shopping yesterday and passed 2 uniformed officers carrying fully automatic weapons like it was just another day --- because for them, it was. I feared for my life as I asked them where I could get a taxi.
Speaking of, the shopping centres here are no Westfields or Lenoxes, but you can still get just about everything you need, as long as you’re willing to fork out the cash and pay for it. But with stores from grocery to sport to books, you’re covered. Similar to Oz, this place is not cheap. I’ve got to add checking that sort of stuff before I choose places to move to. I paid $30+ for a Richard Branson biography and Peter James novel, which wouldn’t have been that horrible if the much lower US and Euro price tags hadn’t been printed on the backs. Import taxes win again.
The non-official shopping centres are a bit different --- a collection of old, rickety buildings converted to mom-n-pop shops. Around the perimeter of the shopping square are actual shacks that I've decided are the brick and mortar shops of the street vendors. Heaps of one man stalls selling cigarettes, drinks, and cell service top-offs. The grounds outside are dirt, no pavement. Inside, concrete slabs. Prices, negotiable. Litter, rampant. Yet, surprisingly convenient: chemists, fresh produce, petrol, and karaoke all in one place. Who could ask for more?
But people make any city. You might as well throw your surroundings out; in the long run, they mean nothing. So far, the people have not failed. I've had to pick up my head from hanging it in shame when speaking with the Zambians I've met, each has reversed the naïve, preconceived notions that I unfortunately and embarrassingly had. My host family could not be nicer. I now have a go-to taxi driver who has been vouched for being up front and honest. For example, I was having trouble with the lock last night and he wouldn't leave until I got inside. In America, the car’s already in reverse before I’m out of it. The ex-pats understand the strife that comes with moving solo into a new world and have graciously invited me out for dinner and drinks, but getting fully plugged in will of course take its time. I was told to “prepare myself for the ex-pats” but wasn't sure what that meant. I now do. After a civil enough Ethiopian dinner, we ended up singing karaoke, wearing funny hats, and dancing into the wee hours of the morning. There are worse ways to get to know people, but not many better ways.
And so far, that’s been my Lusaka. Very much different than the other countries I've lived in; dialed back on technology, a bit slower, more laid back, ironically more expensive, and a hell of a lot hotter. Tomorrow marks my first day of work with the World Bicycle Relief, so I’m eager for it to come and see how it compares to other jobs I've had. It may be early, but I have high hopes for this new, at times chaotic, still completely unbeknownst to me, world.