The Writing Traveler: Not as sorry as I am, Sister, by L.M. Burklin
May 8, 2021
My knees were jammed painfully into the seat in front of me. The speakers in the bus cranked out rock music so loudly that my whole head pounded.
I had a great plan. There was nothing at all wrong with the plan. After a week’s visit with my Sri Lankan friend Anita at Mukinge (in Zambia’s Northwest Province), my missionary pilot friend Don would fly me to Chingola (on Zambia’s copper belt) after church on Sunday. I would spend the night there with my mother’s friend Ellen (a retired missionary), who would drive me to Lusaka on Monday morning. Tuesday I would fly out of Lusaka on my way home to Texas. That was the plan.
On Saturday evening I had been invited to supper at the home of my friends Milt and Mary. As we enjoyed the excellent food and friendly fellowship around the table, the phone rang. My pilot friend Don wanted to talk to me. He had been out flying all day and I had heard him return shortly before sunset.
“Um,” Don began, “I have some bad news. On the way back from Livingstone the plane developed an oil leak.”
I wondered just how bad this was. Don explained it was bad enough to possibly result in a forced landing in the enormous swamp we would be flying over, leaving us stranded and most likely surrounded by hungry crocodiles, with next to zero hope of rescue.
“How long will it take to fix?” I asked, trying not to sound the least bit panicky.
“Longer than you’ve got,” Don admitted.
Oh. The rest of my visit with Milt and Mary was less enjoyable than it should have been due to the fact that I now had a problem to worry about. But when I returned to Anita’s house and explained my dilemma, her husband Emmanuel jumped up enthusiastically and assured me, “No problem! I can take you in my truck!”
“I thought the truck wasn’t working,” I said. In fact, I remembered quite distinctly being told that the truck hadn’t worked for the last six months.
“Don’t worry!” Emmanuel said. “I promise I will get you to Chingola. Felix and I can fix the truck in time.”
Within minutes, Felix (the high school principal and also a personal friend) had arrived, and they soon rigged up a light and started work. It was about a six-hour drive to Chingola, so if they got the truck fixed in time and if we left right after lunch on Sunday, we would get there early in the evening and I could still go to Lusaka with Ellen the next day. I called Ellen and explained my predicament. “Don’t worry,” she assured me. “As long as you’re here by lunchtime on Monday we’ll be fine. We can still make it to Lusaka.”
elix and Emmanuel were still working on the truck when I went to bed late Saturday night. Sunday morning Emmanuel, enthusiastic as ever, explained that he and Felix would finish fixing the truck while Anita and I went to church.
Since neither Anita nor I could do anything to help with the truck, we went to church. After church, I got into conversation with some friends and they walked me slowly back to Anita’s since this was our only chance to talk before I left. As we approached, I saw that the hood of the truck was still open and Felix and Emmanuel were still bent over the engine.
Emmanuel’s optimism was undimmed, however. “Don’t worry!” he ordered me. “We’ve almost got it! Then we just have to find a policeman and get the papers. We’ll leave at 3:00 tomorrow morning and be in Chingola by 9:00. You’ll see!”
By 4:30 that afternoon, Emmanuel and Felix decided that the truck was as good as it was going to get, so they set off in search of a policeman at Kasempa (the nearest government outpost). They rousted him out at home and got him to issue the necessary papers. At every possible interval, I was told not to worry.
Anita woke me up at 2:30 Monday morning, and in a few minutes, I was ready to go. We loaded my luggage in the back of the truck and I said goodbye to Anita in the chilly night air. Her three sleepy sons were already waiting in the back seat of the truck cab, so I climbed in next to Emmanuel, and we drove off into the inky blackness of an African night. Five miles or so down the road, as we hit Kasempa, the headlights suddenly went out.
“Don’t worry!” Emmanuel said. “They’ll come back on in a minute.” But they didn’t. For the next four hours, Emmanuel drove by Braille. Every once in a long while, the headlights flashed on for a fraction of a second, then were gone again. There was no moon, and the African starlight, spectacular as it is, hardly provided adequate light for driving.
Emmanuel distracted me from my thoughts of imminent destruction by playing a sermon on his tape player. When the sermon ended, the boys insisted that we play some music. So there we were, driving down the road in the dark with no headlights, playing Indian music with the volume cranked up and Emmanuel and his sons joining in lustily in Tamil. My sincere hope was that anyone in range would hear us coming and just get right out of our way! But fortunately, we didn’t meet a single other vehicle all the way in to Solwezi.
We arrived in Solwezi (the first town that could be considered part of the copper belt) at about 6:00 in the morning, while it was still dark and everything was closed. Emmanuel pulled into a parking lot so I could stretch my legs and he could look at the headlights. We both looked, but they were still off. The boys, meanwhile, were playing in the truck and the turn signals came on. Emmanuel was thrilled! “Look! The turn signals are working!” he exclaimed. I must have looked puzzled, for he added, “They never worked before!”
We climbed back into the truck and continued down the road. It was much, much more dangerous now. People were walking in to Solwezi from all the surrounding villages to go to work, and they were walking down the very road on which we were driving with no headlights. I admit there were quite a few white-knuckle moments for me at this time. Then, as the eastern sky turned pink with the sunrise, the headlights came on and stayed on—just like a kid who offers to help with the dishes as you are drying the very last one.
As Emmanuel had promised, we reached Ellen’s house by 9:00 a.m. and she cooked us a hearty breakfast. I soon found out that this was her way of softening the blow, as it were. She had decided not to drive to Lusaka after all. She had to stay home and kill chickens. She had started up a little home business raising chickens and selling them, and for some reason, today and no other day was to be butchering day. She was not in the least concerned about what this meant for my plans. “Oh, Emmanuel can take you on to Kitwe,” she said, “and you can get the bus to Lusaka from there. They have lovely buses nowadays that are just as nice as airplanes! They have air conditioning and bathrooms and everything!”
What could I do? I called ahead to Lusaka and arranged to be met at the bus station by Brian, who ran the guest house there.
Ellen sent her personal assistant to buy me a meat pie to take on my trip, and then I climbed back into Emmanuel’s truck (which had left an ominous black puddle in Ellen’s driveway) and we set off on the hour-long drive to Kitwe. I was getting all nostalgic as we approached Kitwe because I had lived in that area for four years as a teenager. Then I began to realize that Emmanuel was very nervous.
“You’ve got to make it look like you’ve got your seatbelt on,” he told me. The seatbelt did not extend fully so it couldn’t be fastened, but I pulled it convincingly across my chest and held it down with my hand. At about this time Emmanuel admitted he didn’t actually have all the papers he needed in order to be legally on the road. If we got pulled over, he was toast.
“You’re a very brave lady,” he kept telling me. What I was, was a lady with very few options! We drove right into downtown Kitwe without incident and made straight for the bus station. It was by now 11:00 a.m. The fancy big luxury bus was waiting there just like Ellen said. Finally some luck! But then I noticed a couple of guys working on the engine.
“When does this bus leave?” I asked.
“1400 hours,” they told me.
“Will it be fixed by then?”
“Oh, yes, Madam.”
“Can I buy a ticket now?”
“Oh no, Madam, you can only buy a ticket when you are boarding.”
“So when can I board?”
“At 1300 hours, Madam.”
I wasn’t as lucky as I thought. We got back into the truck and soon pulled up in front of an Indian store owned by one of Emmanuel’s friends. Before I knew what was happening, I was whisked into the store along with my luggage, and Emmanuel had disappeared. The store owner conducted me up to his office (where I could see the whole store through large glass windows) and offered me a soft drink. It seems Emmanuel had gone to try and do something about his illegal truck. After half an hour of sitting alone in the office and trying to call a friend who wasn’t home, I got bored. I walked down the stairs and began browsing around the store, only to be shooed anxiously back up to the office by the owner, who no doubt had promised to look after me.
Shortly before 1:00 (1300 hours) Emmanuel reappeared, only to tell me he couldn’t take me back to the station because he was afraid of getting arrested. “But don’t worry!” he insisted. “My friend’s driver will take you!”
I reluctantly saw my luggage lifted into a tiny white pickup and I got into it with a total stranger who had zero enthusiasm for his assignment to take the white lady to the bus station. We arrived right at 1300 hours, but to my surprise, the bus had vanished.
I walked up to the ticket window and asked. “Oh, madam, that bus has already gone,” I was told.
“But they said it left at 1400 hours,” I argued.
“It left as soon as it was full,” the man explained. “Nearly an hour ago. But don’t worry—you can take that bus!” He pointed across the street to a dilapidated contraption that was anything but “luxury.”
“It’s just as good!” insisted the ticket agent. “And it’s leaving at 1600 hours!”
I wasn’t happy. But I also couldn’t afford to be choosy. I had to make it to Lusaka that day. And my reluctant chauffeur couldn’t wait to be rid of me.
“Listen,” I told him, “you must tell Emmanuel to call Mr. Bentley and tell him I’m coming on this bus and not the other bus.”
“No problem,” he assured me.
The bus driver eyed me warily as I walked up with my luggage. “Madam,” he said, “I am worried about your luggage.” (I was extremely worried about the safety of my luggage too, and trying not to show it.)
“If you wish me to guarantee the safety of your luggage, I can do this for an extra ten dollars,” he said.
I was happy to let him have the money, even though it doubled the price of my ticket. He immediately took charge and had my luggage stowed under his watchful eye. He then assigned someone to guard it. So far, so good.
Having learned my lesson about departure times, I climbed into the bus and prepared for a three-hour wait. I was very hungry and sorry I had only requested one meat pie instead of two. Over the next hour, the bus gradually filled up. It wasn’t too hot because I sat next to the open window and a lovely breeze blew in from time to time. By 1430 hours the bus had filled up and we pulled out of the station an hour and a half early.
This bus was most definitely not air-conditioned. A very large and sweaty businessman sat next to me, crowding me against the window. My knees were jammed painfully into the seat in front of me. The speakers in the bus cranked out rock music so loudly that my whole head pounded. I had been up since 2:30 a.m. and struggled to keep my eyes open. As we drove out of Kitwe, I thought I would lean my head on the seat in front where the air could blow on my face, and maybe I’d be able to get some sleep. Then the man beside me leaned over and very firmly pulled the window closed. (All the other windows in the bus were closed and the atmosphere was stifling.)
During the next two hours, a grim and silent little drama played out. I would open the window, and within moments my seatmate would reach across me and close it. Each time I opened it, I opened it a little less widely, in hopes that at some point we would reach a compromise. And you know what? We did. He finally gave up on closing the window when I kept it open a bare two inches. Exhausted by our little battle of wills, I finally leaned my head forward against the back of the seat in front of me. In this position, I could receive maximum exposure to the two-inch stream of fresh air.
Moments later, something wet splashed over my face. It took a fraction of a second for me to go through the following sequence of thoughts: My face is wet. It’s dry season. Therefore, whatever is on my face is not rain. By then I could smell it. It seems the elderly lady in front of me was not feeling well. So she had hung her head out the window and, um, tossed her cookies, as you might say. And thanks to the wind and my two inches of open window, I had vomit all over my face. “YUCK!” I blurted out.
“Oh, sorry, sister!” said the horrified lady in front of me when she realized what had happened. “I’m so sorry!” It occurred to me that she couldn’t possibly be as sorry as I was.
This was one of many moments in my adult life when I have been profoundly grateful that I always travel with individually wrapped wipes. I opened wipe after wipe and dabbed at my face, hair, and dress. To my everlasting relief, we pulled into the town of Kabwe shortly after this for a rest stop. I cleaned up as best I could in the bathroom there and got back on the bus for the final leg of my endless trip.
This time my seat partner was a young and much less bulky man. To my surprise, he also objected strongly to having the window open. This time I was firm. If the window was closed, then I would have to smell myself (not to mention everybody else on the bus) and I just could not face it. My seat partner appeared to be terrified. He pulled out his handkerchief and held it firmly over his nose and mouth while leaning as far away from the window as possible. I thought he was strange, but as long as he let me keep the window open, I didn’t care. We stopped one more time and my seatmate immediately leapt out of his seat and found another one where he would not be subjected to some crazy white lady and her fresh air fetish.
My final seatmate was a meek young woman who never had the nerve to say anything about the window, so I don’t know if she objected or not. We arrived on the outskirts of Lusaka just as the sun was setting, and by the time we got into town, it was completely dark. I began to think longingly of the hot bath and the soft bed waiting for me at the guest house.
As we pulled into the bus station, I realized something was wrong. I couldn’t see any lights anywhere. The electricity was out in this whole section of town. Soon the bus was lit by the headlights of the waiting taxis, so we could see to get out. I looked anxiously for Brian but saw no sign of him. I was the only foreigner among the hundreds swarming around the station. The bus driver had immediately placed a guard on my luggage again, but he was clearly rattled. After half an hour of listening to the lively goings on at the bar next door, I began to get a little rattled myself.
“Please take a taxi, Madam,” implored the bus driver.
“I’m sure my friend will be here,” I told him. “Remember, we left early.”
But I felt far from confident. What if Brian had never received my message? What exactly were my options as the only non-African in a bus station in the dark with luggage that was very attractive to just about everyone? The bus driver began to panic. He had contracted to safeguard my luggage, and obviously he felt this might no longer be possible.
“Madam,” he begged me, “let me put you on a taxi. I promise I will find you a trustworthy man.”
What choice did I have? My taxi driver had a tiny little car whose trunk could not close down over my suitcase, so we had to secure it with rope. Then we got in (I had to sit in front as the rest of my luggage was in the back seat) and he asked for some money up front as he was out of petrol. I silently handed him the requested amount and we drove to a petrol station where he put fuel in the tank.
“Do you know this address?” I asked him when he got back in the car. “On Kwacha Road?”
“Oh yes, Madam,” he assured me.
But guess what? He had no idea where Kwacha Road was. His regular fares were not the type who would go to that more upscale part of town, and he was unfamiliar with it. We drove aimlessly around for some time until I saw a street name I recognized. Eventually, we found Kwacha Road and the wall with the green gate that I was so anxious to see. The gate was opened; we drove through; and people came streaming toward us from every direction. First was Brian’s wife Anne.
“Where on earth have you been?” she asked, her worry showing in her face. “Brian’s been to every bus station in town looking for you!”
Moments later Brian himself drove up. He had just come from the “right” bus station, where he had talked to a bus driver who told him that a white lady was there but he had forced her to take a taxi! Brian rightly assumed it must have been me.
After a delicious supper, I sank into a deep old-fashioned bathtub full of glorious hot water and completely immersed myself. At the supper table, Brian and Anne had listened to my tale and had cleared up a mystery for me. When I described the obvious fear of fresh air I had witnessed, they explained that tribal tradition taught that fresh air was dangerous, especially at night. So apparently the handkerchief guy truly believed he might catch a deadly illness from the outside air, when in fact it was much more likely he’d catch something from his fellow passengers in the close atmosphere of the bus.
As I tried to soak and scrub away the trials of my day, I felt so grateful for the network of friends I still had in this country. I thought of Felix and Emmanuel working hour after frustrating hour to get that truck on the road. Emmanuel risking arrest to get me to town. And Brian driving from station to station in an effort to find me. (He had never received the message about my change of plans.) How blessed I was. Tomorrow, I would be on a plane home to Texas.
Linda Burklin is the author of This Rich and Wonderous Earth. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.