The village is normal now.
Not the kind of normal in which everything is too familiar it seems like you’re doing them without thinking (believe me, I still have to think about what I have to do here); not the kind of normal where, when you close your eyes, you always picture yourself in that situation, that place (trust me, I’m still homesick); but the kind of normal in which you have totally and completely been able to live your life in your new home, without fears, worries or shame, among people and cultures that your mind has never known before, and you are comfortable and content with all the goings on in your current situation (and can still manage a chuckle after a really long siiiigh because you can’t get a damn fire started for breakfast).
That’s the kind of normal I’m talking about.
At least it’s the kind of normal that I feel these days.
I can wake up and count the spiders on my walls and the termite nests that have been constructed over night, and even though I have a solid frame of mud surrounding me, I can still feel the cold morning air filtering through the thatch that curls me up in bed for just a few more moments.
I like these new scenes that have become familiar to my routine.
I know that I have a set amount of things to do in order for me to consider my day “started”. I slowly (and I mean sllllooooowly) check off my mental checklist of things that I plan to get done that day; all the while, mingling and interacting, mixing and molding myself into a culture which shares no single parallel with the one that I used to know back “home” (America, of course).
I’ve begun to face “frightening” things with laughter (such as 12K bike rides in the dark, only to come up to your friend’s hut and have a welcoming party set up by a resident five-foot snake in the garden – I laughed), which I believe to be my favorite tool when coping with the differences I have to live with while here.
One difference, one non-parallel, however, is not only consistently new but always exciting and worth tagging as an adventure. Transport.
The main source of mobility here is the bicycle. Heavy, sluggish fixed-gear bikes, carrier rack jutting out from the back of the saddle (sometimes carrying, quite possibly, hundreds of pounds of….stuff), lumber along at a snail’s pace along the desperate, sandy, rocky and pit-fallen roads of the Zambian bush. My bike, a well-maintained Trek 3-Series; blue as the waters of Lake Malawi, sturdy as giant baobab tree, speedy and nimble like a cheetah chasing down a Chinese acrobat, speeds past the Zambian cyclists both uphill and down, and oftentimes my “vehicle” is referred to as the “Honda”. Whenever I park it, my Trek (which I’ve named “Blue Crush”) is immediately the center of attention. People poking around the gear shifters, admiring the handlebar extenders, squeezing the saddle to test for comfort, and what are those!? Shocks!?
I truly enjoy riding my bike around the village and my district; the sandy dirt roads are a fun change of pace from the American asphalt. The fun, on the other hand, starts when visiting friends in other places (considered AWOL so don’t tell on me ☺) in which making it to the tarmac road is just the first accomplishment, while sticking your hand out to manage a reliable hitch is the next.
Vehicles here come in a variety of assortments. There’s the taxi cab which is usually an old beat up coup which comfortably seats five (including the driver) but often times lugs around seven to nine people (not comfortably). All the while bumping along with an overfull trunk of luggage, and in my case, a bicycle. Those are always at a price, so wave those down unless desperate. The canter, preferred choice for shop owners and businessmen, is a large truck with an oversized cab. Sometimes packed to standing room only, speeding down the tarmac road, swerving around livestock crossings and chugging up hills. There’s the mini van, the cruisers (typically either a government vehicle – which never stop for you – or international tourists – which never stop for you), the pick-ups and motorbikes. These are your typical choices when trying to get from one place to another. And let me tell you, I’m not a gamblin’ man, but when eyeing those vehicles which I’m considering to take me from one place to the next, you can bet that I’m running odds through my head on which one will get me there the safest, but most importantly, the cheapest.
I’ve managed successful (and by that I mean free) rides from many drivers, who are just in need of some company during their several hour ride from one nowhere to the next someplace. Easy small talk and confused language barriers are all they’re asking for, and I can always manage a simple request such as that. Some drivers request for a few beers before take-off, or at least buy them some when we arrive; in which, the easiest response, is that “I’m a strict Christian and don’t support drinking, and that I’m also broke and have a very important meeting I need to get to and you need to get me there fast fast or else I can’t get my work done!” … of course I’ve never used this response, but believe me that it’s clever enough it just might work.
Normalcy, in its many colorful, disturbing and fascinating forms, has been entering my new and complex little world and doing it’s best to stick. It’s still hard for me to ascribe the word “normal” to the herd of baby pigs running and squealing through my yard during my quiet morning coffee break (I call this act “Pigadilly Circus”), or my adoring swarms of young “fans” that gather around my fence to watch me pick at my toes or let out a nice yawn as if I were some sort of display at a zoo or an imported circus freak. “Normal” might not be the word I would use when thinking about how I sometimes wake up with my mosquito net flat on my face because the mice in my roof like to chew the ties I have holding it up; don’t they have any amount of integrity for a double hitch knot?
But the fact is, this is the village, and this is Zambia. This is normal. This is what I signed up for; so as long as these crazy things keep happening, and as long as I still have a little wind left after my long siiiiiigh, I’m just going to chuckle. And carry on.