Issue 187, Winter 2008
No particular intention brings him to Zimbabwe, all those years ago. He simply decides one morning to leave and gets on a bus that same night. He has it in mind to travel around for two weeks and then go back.
What is he looking for. He himself doesn’t know. Looking back at him through time, he has become partly a stranger, feeling things utterly lost to me now. And yet I can explain him better than my present self, he is buried under my skin. His life is unfocused and directionless, he has not made a home for himself. All his few belongings are in storage and he has spent months wandering around from one spare room to another. It has begun to feel as if he’s never lived in any other way, nor will he ever settle down. He can’t seem to connect properly with the world. He feels this not as a failure of the world but as a massive failing in himself, he would like to change it but doesn’t know how. In his clearest moments he thinks that he has lost the ability to love, people or places or things, most of all the person and place and thing that he is. Without love nothing has value, nothing can be made to matter very much.
In this state travel isn’t celebration but a kind of mourning, a way of dissipating yourself. So I move around from one place to another, not driven by curiosity but by the bored anguish of staying still. He spends a few days in Harare, then goes down to Bulawayo. He does the obligatory things required of visitors, he goes to the Matopos and sees the grave of Cecil John Rhodes, but he can’t produce the necessary awe or ideological disdain, he would rather be somewhere else. If I was with somebody, he thinks, with somebody I loved, then I could love the place and even the grave too, I would be happy to be here.
He takes the overnight train to Victoria Falls. He lies in his bunk, hearing the breathing of strangers stacked above and below him, and through the window sees villages and sidings flow in out of the dark, the outlines of people and cattle and leaves stamped out in silhouette against the lonely light, then flowing backward again, out of sight into the past. Why is he happiest in moments like these, the watcher hiding in the dark. He doesn’t want the sun to rise or this particular journey to end.
In the morning they come to the end of the line. He gets out with his single bag and walks to the campsite. Even early in the day the air is heavy and humid, green leaves burn with a brilliant glow. There are other travelers all around, most are younger than himself. He pitches his tent in the middle of the camp and goes down to look at the falls.
It is incredible to see the volume and power of so much water endlessly dropping into the abyss, but part of him is elsewhere, somewhere higher up and to the right, looking down at an angle not only on the falls but on himself there, among the crowds. This part of him, the part that watches, has been here for a while now, and it never quite goes away, over the next few days it looks at him keeping busy, strolling through the streets from one curio shop to another, going for long walks in the surrounding bush, it observes with amazement when he goes white-water rafting on the river, it sees him lying in the open next to his tent to keep cool at night, staring up into the shattered windscreen of the sky. And though he seems content, though he talks to people and smiles, the part that watches isn’t fooled, it knows he wants to move on.
On the third or fourth day he goes for a swim at one of the hotel pools. Afterwards he sits near the bar to have a drink and his attention is slowly drawn to a group of young people nearby. They have their backpacks with them, they are about to depart. They’re a strange mixture, a bit uneasy with each other, a plump Englishman with his girlfriend, a blond Danish man, two younger dark girls who sit close together, not speaking. He recognizes a burly Irish woman who went rafting with him two days ago, and goes over to speak to her. Where are you off to.
Malawi. We’re going through Zambia. Maybe she sees something in my face, because after a moment she adds, do you want to come along.
I sit thinking for a few moments, then say, I’ll be right back.
He runs madly from the hotel to the campsite and takes down his tent. When he gets back he sits among his new companions, panting, feeling edgy with doubt. Why is he doing this. He has always been impulsive, the more irrational the urge the more compelling it is. An impulse has brought him to Zimbabwe in the first place, now a second impulse will take him further.
Soon afterward the man they’re waiting for, an Australian called Richard, arrives, and they stir themselves to leave. With the others he loads his bag onto the back of an open van and climbs up. They have paid somebody to drive them to the other side of the border, to the station. It’s getting dark when they arrive. They are late and the queue for tickets is long, they can only get third-class seats, sitting amongst a crowd in an open carriage in which all the lights are broken. Almost before they can find a place the train lurches and starts to move.
There is a moment when any real journey begins. Sometimes it happens as you leave your house, sometimes it’s a long way from home.
In the dark there is the sound of breaking glass and somebody cries out. They have been traveling for perhaps an hour, the darkness in the carriage is total, but now somebody lights a match. In the guttering glow he sees a hellish scene, on one of the seats further down a man clutches his bloodied face, a pool of blood on the floor around him, rocking from side to side with the violent motion of the train. Everybody shrinks away, the light goes out. What’s happening, the Irish girl says.
What’s happening is that somebody has thrown a rock through the window. Almost immediately it comes again, the smashing glass, the cry, but this time nobody is hurt, the cry is one of fear. They are all afraid, and with good reason, because every time the train passes some town or settlement there is the noise, the cry, or the deep thudding sound of the rock hitting the outside of the train. Everybody sits with their heads down and their arms over their heads.
Late in the night the ordeal winds down. Inside the train the mood becomes lighter, people who would otherwise never have spoken strike up conversations. Somebody takes out bandages for those who’ve been hurt. At the far end of the carriage are three women traveling with little babies, their window has been broken and the wind is howling through, do you mind, they ask, if we come and sit with you. Not at all. He is with the Irish woman on a seat, the rest of their group is elsewhere, they move up to make space. Now the dark smells warm and yeasty, there is a sucking and gurgling all around. The women are traveling to Lusaka for a church conference on female emancipation, they have left their husbands behind, but a couple of them are holding a child and the other woman has triplets. She is sitting opposite me, I can see her in the passing lights from outside. Now a weird scenario begins. The triplets are all identically dressed in white bunny suits, she starts to breast-feed them two at a time. The third one she hands to me, would you mind, no not at all, he holds the murmuring weight in his hands. Occasionally she changes them over, he hands on a little bunny-suited baby and receives an exact copy in exchange, this seems to go on for hours. Sometimes one of her nipples comes free, a baby cries, then she says, please could you, the Irish woman leans over to rearrange her breast, sucking starts again. The women talk softly to the white travelers and among themselves, and sometimes they sing hymns.
By the next morning his head is fractured with fatigue and swirling with bizarre images. Under the cold red sky of dawn Lusaka is another surreal sight, shantytowns sprouting between the buildings, tin and plastic and cardboard hemmed in by brick and glass. They climb out among crowds onto the platform. The three women say good-bye and go off with their freight of babies to discuss their liberation. While he waits for the group to gather he looks off to one side and sees, further down the train, at the second-class compartments, another little group of white travelers disembarking. Three of them, a woman and two men. He watches, but the crowds block them off.
They walk to the bus station through streets filled with early light and litter blowing aimlessly. Somebody has a map and knows which way to go. Even at this hour, five or six in the morning, the place is full of people, standing idly and staring. They are the focus of much ribald curiosity, he’s glad he’s not alone. On one corner an enormous bearded man steps forward and, with the perfunctory disinterest with which one might weigh fruit, squeezes the Irish woman’s left breast in his hand. She hits his fingers away. You not in America now, the man shouts after them, I fuck you all up.
The bus station is a mad chaos of engines and people under a metal roof, but they eventually find their bus. When they get on, the first people he sees are the three white travelers from the train, sitting in a row, very quietly looking ahead of them, and as he passes they don’t look up. The woman and the one man are young, in their early twenties, and the other man is older, perhaps his own age.
He takes a seat at the very back of the bus, at the window. The rest of his group is scattered around. He hasn’t interacted or spoken with them much, and at the moment he’s more interested in the other three travelers a few rows ahead, he can see the backs of their heads. Who are they, how do they fit together.
It takes eight hours to reach the border. They disembark into the main square of a little town, where taxi drivers clamor to take them to the actual border post. While they’re negotiating a price he sees from the corner of his eye the three travelers get into a separate car and leave. They’re not at the border post when he gets there, they must have gone through. There is a press of people, a long wait, by the time their passports have been stamped and the taxi has driven them on through the ten kilometers or so of no-man’s-land it is getting dark.
The Malawian border post is a white building under trees. When he goes in some kind of dispute is in progress. An official in a white uniform is shouting at the three travelers, who look confused, you must have a visa. The older man, the one his own age, is trying to explain. His English is good, but hesitant and heavily accented. The embassy told us, he says. The embassy told you the wrong thing, the uniformed official shouts, you must have a visa. What must we do. Go back to Lusaka. They look at him and then confer among themselves. The official has lost interest, he turns to the new arrivals, give me your passports. South Africans don’t need visas, he is stamped through. I pause for a second, then go up to the three. Where are you from.
I am French. It’s the older man speaking. They are from Switzerland. He points to the other two, whose faces are now as neutral as masks, not understanding or not wanting to talk.
Do you want me to speak to him for you.
No. It’s okay. Thank you. He has thick curly hair and round glasses and a serious expression which is impassive, or perhaps merely resigned. The younger man has from up close a beauty that is almost shocking, red lips and high cheek-bones and a long fringe of hair. His brown eyes won’t meet my gaze.
What will you do now.
I don’t know. He shrugs.