It’s The Little Things

One day in August, while still in training, I was taken to Lusaka overnight for a quick trip to an orthopedic doctor (I had badly sprained my knee a few weeks prior, in keeping with Zambia’s determination to rain bodily harm upon my luckless head. Imagine, if you will, lying on a mattress on the floor of your hut at night, your knee the size of a basketball, with no ice, your leg propped up on your backpack in lieu of anything sturdier. Boohoohoo). Anywho, a friend with a banged-up elbow accompanied me, and we spent the next twenty-four hours in dizzying style in our nation’s capital–eating pizza, drinking wine, bathing via shower instead of bucket. After our morning at the doctor’s office was complete, and before we hastened back to training, we stopped by a local mall and picked up some lunch for the road. (If you find yourself in Lusaka, Zambia, visit Mint Cafe, and order a Southwestern Wrap!)

Thirty minutes after I was dropped off at my home, I was chasing away a herd of goats with a stick who wouldn’t stop knocking my host family’s dishes into the dirt from the wooden drying rack and licking them.

***

I was recently largely away from the village for weeks and weeks–disorienting weeks–from the beginning of November until the beginning of January. Peace Corps trainings in Lusaka, travel, schools closed for the month of December, and so, so much more combined to keep me out of a hut and under the bright city lights for a long time. I went out to dinner. I drank a cappuccino. A few rainy days didn’t mean that my phone would die because I was unable to recharge it with my solar charger; it was just rain. I had electrical outlets. Water came from the tap, quick as thought. There were toilets. Away from the village for a while, it can become a concept again; it’s so different from the life you lived before, perhaps, that it takes time for the hard facts of living here to become a part of you. In theory, I remembered how much of my mental space was devoted to water: how much water do I have? How much do I need today? Tomorrow? Do I have enough water in my filter to drink? Do I have enough water to do my dishes? Bathe? Cook with? Am I going to wash my clothes today? Because you need water to do all of those things, water you must draw and carry yourself, and so you must weigh every drop. (Especially when the path to your water source is flooded by the rains, rendering it an ankles-deep-in-mud disaster–less than advantageous when moving full 20-liter containers.) Now that I am back in the village, water has resumed its place as a central preoccupation.

Crystal Light drink packets REALLY help, though.

***

In theory, I also remembered waking up at 5 a.m., because even if I was asleep, Zambia was not; telling myself that I would go back to bed, but instead watching the line of light grow stronger beneath my front door, and then climbing out from beneath my mosquito net with the motivation of coffee, which can only be made and consumed after building a fire first. Even out of the village, there is (more or less) no early morning coffee shop by which to blithely drop before you start the day. A few weeks ago, two friends and I invented a game called “Starbucks” while waiting to hitchhike one morning.  We stood on the side of the road with our backpacks and, in between trying to flag down passing vehicles, we ordered lattes and breakfast sandwiches from each other. And those cake pop things. And I don’t even like cake pops. It is as though someone at Starbucks said: “Let us repurpose the melted remains of birthday candles and put them on a stick, and see if the American public will eat them.” “CHALLENGE ACCEPTED,” said the American public. And yet, when you are hitchhiking in Zambia in a coolish drizzle, you would eat a cake pop. You would eat that cake pop as though it were the bread of life, and wonder if there were more.

***

(A word on hitchhiking. It is an inherent part of the culture here, although I still never, ever believed that I myself I would do it. I started off with a few small jaunts, short distances, usually with other people. Then, in mid-December, I visited a friend in her village, far from where I live. She lives some distance off a main road (the “tarmac”, so called). I had to make a decision; I could travel to the nearest town with a bus station, buy a ticket, and proceed northwest, or I could hitchhike the whole way, hours across the country–most of the day–alone. And that is what I did. It was a long and exhausting day, occasionally unnerving, and weirdly exhilarating. I followed directions from a friend and texted her to check in from hitch to hitch, connecting the dots across the country. It felt like a game. I met all manner of Zambians–including a missionary couple driving my last hitch, who told me that they had stopped for me because the Lord had told them to, for which I was devoutly thankful. And I kept thinking: “Well, here you are, doing this. Wait, you’re doing this! Aaaaaiiiiiiii!”

My parents were less enthused.)

***

I have only been in Zambia for seven months, but I know that living here is an exercise in doing what you have to do. If I want water, I have to go and get it. If I want to drink it, I have to clean it first. If I want to cook my food, I have to build a fire. If I want clean clothes, I have to set aside hours for scrubbing and rinsing and hanging them on the line. It is mostly silly, for example, to complain about what I don’t have here to eat or drink, no matter how much I might miss certain things (you know, like $5 Burger Night at Dunlays with a La Fin du Monde beer, and a skillet cookie if it’s been a bad day, because I don’t torture myself thinking about that meal once a week! Ha ha ha! Aaaaaaa!) I have food to eat, and my friends and family send me care packages with all manner of treats and love. There are lessons to learn about instant gratification in this place, about embracing what I have, about making things work; I want to learn those lessons, hold onto them, remember them when I go back to my real life. I will never complain about doing my laundry again, as I order my Chinese takeout, and wait for the dryer to ding.

***

While I was visiting my friend, we walked through her village to the market. The day was very warm, and one of the shopkeepers had a cooler with glass bottles of cold soda.

It was delicious.

Soda Pop