Zambia: Birthday Refresh
Birthday parties get better with age. Your mom doesn’t dictate the guest list, you don’t have to eat hot dogs (unless you want to) and there’s usually beer involved instead of apple juice. Sure, it means you’re a year older, and maybe you don’t get to play pin the tail on the donkey or open a bunch of presents, but most of us have too much stuff anyways. On Thursday riders sweated through their longest stretch of the tour: 197km of hot, rolling Zambian pavement. Cold beer and other boozy concoctions were the reward, thanks to Tony who supplied the makings of a proper birthday celebration to bring in his 50th with finesse. Juliana shared the April 8th birthday, and she and Rod treated us by whipping up a mammoth batch of Nanaimo Bars, our first official camp dessert of the tour. For those readers unfamiliar with this regional Canadian delicacy – in essence, you’ve got a dense layer of chocolatey coconut goodness, suffocated by a thick slab of artery-congealing custard, and then hermetically sealed with a blanket of pure milk chocolate nirvana. Legend has it they were created in the Vancouver Island city of Nanaimo, and that James’s grandma Marlene may or may not have invented them. Let’s assume that she did.
Getting back to the cold beer; I love a good mission (almost as much as a good caper…the mystery kind, not the pickled flower bud). That morning Sharita, James and I were on a mission to find ice for the party, but at 7am outside of Chipata, Zambia, we had our work cut out for us. After a few vain attempts we were pointed in the direction of the local abbatoir – Zambeef Industries (I wish they made t-shirts). Sharita muscled our behemoth beast of a support vehicle into the dirt parking lot and killed the ignition next to a queue of cattle who had chewed their last cud. I couldn’t resist the chance to catch a behind the scenes glimpse of Africa’s agriculture industry. Peering through a thin pane of broken glass, I watched men in dark blue Zambeef jumpsuits dispatching steers with deft dexterity. The ice, thankfully, was sourced from a separate faction of the facility, and brought out in giant transparent blocks that glistened like jewels in the sun. Four men with bulging forearms strengthened by years of slinging cattle hocks set to work hacking the blocks into mini-icebergs. Thoroughly pleased with ourselves and feeling sneaky, we chucked a chunk of celebratory birthday ice at Tony on his bike as we whizzed past him on the road to camp. It was already shaping up to be an interesting day.
A 197km day in the hot sun calls for what TdA calls a refresh stop. Typically this consists of a vehicle strategically parked to provide water and a snack for riders between lunch and camp on exceptionally long rides. But on this particular day we didn’t have a vehicle to spare. Sharita dropped me off on the side of the road at the 151km mark in the shadiest patch of bush she could find, just me and a plastic crate of PVM energy bars, a box of bananas, two jerry cans of water and a bag of drink crystals. Within minutes I was surrounded by two dozen curious children who sat in groups to stare at the spectacle before them, my every move eliciting waves of hysterical excited laughter. I’m guessing it’s not every day that a 6’2” white woman decides to sit in the bush with a shrine of calorically dense foodstuffs. The shyer children – most of them girls – sat quietly amongst the yellow grass and dead leaves, watching me as they chewed long sticks of sugar cane that left circles of pale yellow residue around their mouths. One young girl cradled a tiny infant wrapped in a colourful fabric sling, the baby fast asleep against the warmth of her sister’s skin. Meanwhile, some of the more brazen young boys were determined to impress me with their antics, smacking their mouths with their palms to make hollow popping sounds as they did their best “I’m an 8-year-old making funny faces while doing a funny walk,” grandstanding. One of the boys happily stuffed small brown grasshoppers into his mouth, flashing a wide smile that exposed bits of spiny leg and wing clinging to his white teeth. He transported his snack on a long blade of grass, skewering the still-wiggling insects like shish kabobs in a neatly stacked pile. Cows and pigs roamed through the rest stop as riders came and went, filling up and moving on as the afternoon sun heated the air like a blow dryer.
And now we’re in Lusaka, home base for our first rest day in Zambia. Zambia makes me feel like a bizzillionaire, thanks to an exchange rate somewhere around 4640 Kwatcha per US dollar (if you see me with a perplexed grimace on my face in Zambia, I’m probably trying to figure out how much I owe for a banana). Our camp has a pool and the city has a movie theatre. It’s time to soak up some pop culture, air the armpit stench out of our tents, and stock up on baby wipes.