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South Africa

Directive

Ngema was a grizzled-looking Zulu, wrinkling at the eyes, graying at his temples, one of the older and most experienced park rangers in Hluhlue-iMfolozi National Park (HiP), a Big 5 game park in the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa. The rangers aren’t tourist guides; they patrol the park with weapons to deter poachers, and apprehend them, even shoot them if necessary.

I came to HiP as a volunteer on a bi-yearly project to count herbivores within the park (Walking With African Wildlife, sponsored by Earthwatch International, next project in 2012). The information is used for a variety of park management purposes. Each volunteer walked a different transect each day through the park, typically between six and ten kilometers, and was paired with one armed ranger for their protection from the dangerous animals.

Ngema, and in fact all the Zulus, quizzed us regularly to correct our misperceptions: “Who is the king of the jungle? The lion?”

“No!” we soon learned to reply. “The elephant.”

One night after dinner at camp, Ngema came close to the enormous fire pit we were all gathered around. “Ngema wants to tell a story,” another ranger, Tembe, said to the volunteers. Ngema stood in the crackling light and looked directly at the volunteers. The spring solstice braided moonlight into our hair. Rainbirds had called out at sunset, and reports had come in that elephants were moving down the hills toward the river.

Tembe translated Zulu into English. The story was about a volunteer Ngema had accompanied several years ago. He acted out the scenes with great animation as he narrated the story, and it took a moment for Tembe to catch up with the translation. The audience was rapt with suspense, waiting to hear what Ngema was doing all crouched down with his hands holding his ankles.

He and the volunteer in his charge had been walking down a transect through the park when the volunteer said he needed to go to the bathroom. Not the peeing kind of bathroom. Ngema said, “OK, go over into those bushes.” But the volunteer was too scared to leave the ranger and go off by himself. So he simply pulled down his pants right there in the middle of the trail. As the volunteer was doing his business, a large bull elephant suddenly came around the corner, trotting directly at them.

Belago! Belago!” Ngema said to the volunteer. It was a Zulu word we’d all been trained to recognize. “Run!”

Ngema now stretched out his arms while still crouching near the fire and fell forward on the ground. We laughed at the physical comedy and waited anxiously for the translation.

The volunteer was so scared, he grabbed Ngema’s ankles and held on to them for dear life.

Belago! We must run!”

But the volunteer refused to move, gripped by pitiable fear, and so Ngema tried to run for them both; the volunteer with his pants down, frozen in a squatting position, hugged Ngema’s calves, expecting him to be able to move like the breath of God. Ngema reenacted for us his struggle to walk with a half naked man, mid-poop, gripping his ranger’s legs with every adrenaline-soaked molecule of his suburban American being.

Laughter rang through the clearing in the bush as we all secretly hoped we would be braver than that. Even Tembe giggled, his large white teeth like a half-moon in his face. But Ngema didn’t appear to find his own story terribly amusing. He suddenly straightened up and stood solemn for a moment. We blinked at the abruptness.

Outside the electrified strand of orange wire encircling our camp, another world breached our humans thoughts. Two hyenas whooped back and forth, trying to intimidate each other. It was late spring and water was scarce. Just outside the wire, nyala and zebra were gathering at the water hole, breaking small twigs beneath their keratin feet. Somewhere, secretive, the resident leopard watched in silence. A troupe of baboons conducted a silent raid, climbing the ladder to a leak in the camp’s water tower.

Tembe, mimicking Ngema’s mood, now spoke softly, almost reluctantly, his voice barely surmounting the popping, crackling noise of heat prying open wood, while a soft rustling of hoofs, paws, and simian hands filled the night air beyond. He told us that a week later, a field ranger was killed by that same elephant. Ngema then pointed a deliberate finger at each of us seated around the campfire, one by one.

“When I tell you to run,” he said, “you run.”

*

 

Trusting

“Please don’t worry,” BJ told me. “I am very well trained. I can protect you from the animals. I’ve been through a lot of training.”

“I trust you,” I said, though he hadn’t been through training on how to protect someone else, outside of a few words of guidance from the expedition leader who had organized the overseas volunteers. When the volunteers come every other year to conduct the census, it is the rangers with the most experience, we were told, who are chosen to accompany us with their rifles and knowledge and keen eye for wildlife. To some extent the volunteers’ eyes were superfluous. Eighty percent of the time, the ranger spotted game before the volunteer, exasperated or amused that we couldn’t immediately detect that the white lines in a thicket were not branches but the markings of a statue-still female kudu, or that the lumps on a hillside 500 meters away were grazing water buffalo, not rocks.

“Do you believe in God?” BJ asked me as we traveled our transect.

"Ummmmm ..." I didn't realize I'd be involved in a religious discussion. 

“Don’t you want to be saved?” 

Sigh. This isn't how I wanted to be spending my time, but I outlined my thoughts and he kept asking questions. Finally I told BJ to stop walking. It was difficult to understand his Zulu accent sometimes when he was walking in front of me (later, he would ask me how he could acquire an American accent), and in any case we were supposed to be walking quietly on our transects so as not to ruin our chances of seeing the animals. So we stood in the pink light of dawn amid a thicket of spring thorn bushes in the rolling African hills, wild animals all around us, BJ with his rifle slung over his shoulder and I with my daypack, range finder and GPS unit hanging from my neck, my clipboard, pencil and compass in hand, and had a discussion about religion. Eventually BJ realized that I was a lost cause and we walked on.

“There are no lions in this park,” he said shortly, a complete non sequitur.

“Yeah there are,” I said. “I’ve seen one. So have the other volunteers.”

“No, I don’t think so. Not in this part of the park”

“OK, BJ, if you say so.” I didn’t want to argue. I didn’t point out the lion tracks in the sand that we were at that very moment following. Maybe I was wrong and they instead belonged to a gigantic leopard. Honestly, I wouldn’t know the difference in details, but these were awfully large.

Roar! A deep bellow filled the bush behind us.

“BJ,” I said, “I’m pretty sure that was a lion roaring.”

“Hmmmm,” he said. His words about being well-trained to keep me safe rattled around my head. My blind faith in the Zulu rangers was beginning to haunt me.

“Yah?” I persisted.

“Perhaps,” he said reluctantly, his eyes scanning rapidly as we continued walking. Dense yellow brush, not yet touched by spring’s green kiss, surrounded us, we walked a narrow path that had been hacked through it to make the transect.  

A couple minutes later another unmistakable roar filled the air, this time closer and to the right of us.

“Dude, that was a lion.” I poked BJ in the back.

He removed his rifle from his shoulder, held it at his hip, and picked up his pace slightly. “Yah, maybe.”

We emerged from the dense thicket onto an open, rolling grassland. A black rhino crested a hill behind a herd of zebra and after a moment charged them, scattering them in all directions. It began crossing the now-zebra-free space directly toward us. As there were no trees for us to climb, BJ and I side-stepped ever so slowly through the grumpy rhino’s sights, continuing the line of our transect until we dipped down onto a rocky hillside.

While we scooted, BJ kept his rifle held at shoulder-level, positioning himself between me and the rhino, unfazed by the five white fingers gripping his arm, probably leaving little bruises underneath their fear. The rhino tossed his head around, snorting and huffing. Black rhinos, different from their more amicable relatives, the white rhinos, are notoriously ill-tempered. 

“What should we do?” I whispered.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I am very well trained.”

We kept our eyes on the unpredictable creature in front of us as we tried to pretend we were but bushes being blown across by a breeze until we were blown out of its sight, my heart pumping a river of adrenaline through my body. To our left, a small herd of blue wildebeest lounged beneath a large umbrella-shaped acacia; to our right, zebras had regrouped into two clumps, standing tense and still, their ears alert. Overhead, a large bird of prey spread its wings and banked sharply, returning like a boomerang, while behind us the not-lion lions prowled the sandy thickets, molding the earth in their path into paw-shaped spirit prints.  

*

 

Secret Language

Lions, I learned, behave differently depending on the time of day. They are one of the most bipolar animals on earth. When it’s light out, they generally prefer to be left alone. If you come across them as a pedestrian, as I had had the opportunity to do walking transects, they usually get up and leave, apathetic over your fleshy vulnerability. But at night they are utterly without fear. Cognizant of their acute night vision – greatly superior to their prey’s – and of their raw muscular power, they attack with the ruthlessness borne of supreme confidence.

Anyone familiar with the African bush magnifies their respect for the lion at night. The camp managers told us, “If you get up in the night and see eyes in the dark, don’t be curious; dive back into your tent.”

Fear of the nocturnal lion is so great, it can apparently move one to speak in tongues. One night a pride of lions infiltrated our camp. Wilson the Night Watchman, who spent each night seated comfortably next to a warm bonfire and who watched primarily the inside of his eyelids at night, who insisted to the managers in Zulu that he spoke no English at all, jumped up at the sight of them and ran through camp like delicious prey, yelling English in abject panic, “Lions are in camp! Lions are in camp!”

*

 

Inadvertent Lie

Transect 3 was one of the hardest – a fairly merciless continuum of steep uphill and steep downhill followed by immediate steep uphill and downhill, again and again. I lost track of exactly how many hills we climbed up and down.

I gained Dumisani’s approval right away when early on in the transect he pointed out to me a type of bird he called a chicken crossing the path. I amused him by saying, “Oh good! We can have eggs for breakfast. Let’s catch it!”

He was also pleased that I asked him about his cows. I had taken to asking the rangers how many cows they had, for one of the camp managers had told me that many people don’t store their money in a bank, but rather buy cows with it. In this unstable part of the world, where many countries change regimes overnight, where currency can be rendered practically useless with inflation, the historical value of cows remains intact.

As Dumisani and I began hiking the succession of hills, I began to wonder if he had not had any breakfast that morning. He carried only his canteen of water and his rifle slung over his shoulder, a floppy green hat perched haphazardly on his shaven head. He walked extremely slowly uphill ... not that I was at all prepared to sprint. We volunteers were told to be in adequate physical condition so we could run or climb a tree any time our ranger told us to. But these hills were steep and it was hot by 8:00 am; I just hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

We were equipped with GPS units to mark down the coordinates of all herbivore sightings. The units also counted down the mileage left to the end of the transect. As we started up yet another steep hill, hours into the transect, Dumisani said, “Ah, this is the last hill. After this we go home.”

“Really?” I questioned him. “The GPS says we still have over two kilometers to go.”

“Let me see.”

I showed him the GPS.

“No, it’s wrong. Just over this hill. I’ve walked this before. The GPS is wrong.”

I wasn’t going to question a man whose job it was to roam this land day in and day out. At least he hadn’t claimed there were no lions in the park. He radioed in to the pick-up vehicle that we were nearing the end and would need a ride shortly. Climbing up a rocky hill, spotting small red and common duikers in the bushes and disturbing a colony of banded mongoose who scurried frantically at our approach, Dumisani continued to comfort us both that we were near the end of our arduous journey, while I watched my GPS count down excruciatingly slowly toward 2 kilometers, not 0. But his panted assurances of “we’re almost there,” kept our spirits up as we trudged. As we crested the hilltop, we looked out to see only another hill looming before us across a narrow ravine.

“Shit!” Dumisani yelled into the hot, still air. “Shit!”

“Sorry,” I said. “I guess the GPS was right.”

“Shit!” The hill across the ravine was very steep, and had been included in a recent prescribed burn; there would be little wildlife in this charred desert. It was just past 9:00 am and the African sun shone bright and unhindered; we would have to scale the heights in full sun through black land, black shrub, with no cover.

“Shit!”

“Should we radio in and tell them we still have 2 kilometers to go?” I asked.

Dumisani didn’t take out his radio. With intense annoyance, he threw his rifle back so it hung down between his shoulder blades and started down the steep hill of loose rock and skree, muttering curses now instead of yelling them.

It was hard to maintain footing going downhill. A lone water buffalo stood in the ravine watching us. I tried to traverse my way down, keeping my feet at a 90-degree angle to the slope. Dumisani, though, was hell-bent on getting down as quickly as possible. Virtually flying, he aimed himself squarely downhill until finally he lost control of his footing and fell down on his back; the rifle slid off from around his neck to land several meters uphill from where he came to a stop, its barrel pointed directly at me.

“Good thing you have the safety on,” I said good-naturedly.

“Shit,” he said, climbing back up to the rifle and dusting it off as best he could.

By the time we finished the transect, worn-out and betrayed by the land and its ruthless topography, the pick-up vehicle had given up on us and had left to get other volunteers.

“Shit!”

There was precious little shade for us to wait under, but across the road, the land hadn’t been burned and there were two scraggly trees just sprouting leaves. It was over an hour before the truck came back to get us, during which time Dumisani had time to evolve his vocabulary and we talked of cows, wives and children, African music and cuisine. We waved at passing tourist game-drive trucks and laughed at the astonished expressions, confused at seeing two humans sitting in the bush like wild animals. At last, the canopied truck bed of our ride stopped beside us. I climbed in first and said to the driver, “Sorry it took us so long. There was a little discrepancy with the GPS.”

Dumisani clambered aboard after me. “Shit!” he said in equal part to me, the driver, and himself.

At last we had a refreshing breeze in our faces. As we cruised along the paved road, I looked over my shoulder at the layers of merciless hills – beyond, behind, and below which wandered the zebras and wildebeest, the water buck, kudu, buffalo and rhino, whose wild existence was imminently to be crammed into a binary cage on my computer spreadsheet.  I’d forfeited an ant-free existence while waiting to be picked up, as there were no other options for sitting in shade but among the suburbs of their colony. Now I brushed off the ants that still clung to my shirt and extracted a warm and crumbled cookie from a baggie in my pocket. Dumisani sat with his eyes closed, his head shaking back and forth. Our truck slowed down as we passed a lone male giraffe waiting to cross the road, his dark spots and well-developed second set of horns suggesting an advanced age. He watched our toy truck pass by in a languid blink of his long-lashed eye and placed an elegant hoof on the searing hot pavement.

*

 

Swaziland

Anachronism

After my volunteer experience was over, my husband flew in and met me, and we rented a truck to drive around South Africa, popping into a few of its neighbors as well. We spent only a couple days in Swaziland, a country that appeared on the surface far more egalitarian than South Africa. We had few conversations with locals and weren’t told very much of anything there, except consistently at every hostel, café and restaurant purporting such service: “Usually we have internet, but today it’s not working.”

We crossed the border back into South Africa at the tiny Bulembu post, high up in the heavily-forested hills of northern Swaziland. The old mining town just below the border was being renovated into a cheery tourist attraction, and all the old homes terraced into the hillside had been newly painted in bright primary colors. There was a wide, pristinely paved road down into Barberton, South Africa, hairpin-laden and utterly deserted by all but us and a couple of struggling logging trucks. We could see the green-carpeted mountains of Swaziland melting into the plains of South Africa like butter – softly, like a smudged painting, the ridgelines rounded like the curves of the road.

Inside the stifling hot building, brightly lit by large, clean windows, the immigration officer in Swaziland cleared our passports. Then she wrote a note on a piece of paper, folded it in half and asked if I would deliver it to the South African immigration officer 40 meters away on the other side of the gate.

It probably doesn’t speak well of my character, but I was too curious not to peek at it. Even if it was juicy gossip, who was I going to tell? In this seemingly modernizing country, gossip was exactly what I imaged the subject matter of the note, or else that the South African officer was a handsome man to whom the Swazi woman was sending a coy correspondence.

There wasn’t a cloud in the blue sky that afternoon. We were the only visitors at the neatly-kept post, with fresh white paint on the building and patches of tended spring flowers around it. Inside our truck, I unfolded the note.

If we had crossed this border the following day, the immigration officer might have mentioned, “Usually we have electricity, but today it’s not working.” For the note to South Africa said simply, “Tomorrow there will be no electricity between 10:00 and 16:00.” It might have been an anomaly, but since there was no explanation provided for the lack of service, I wondered if she wrote this note nearly every day.

*

 

Lesotho          

Misrepresentation

Lesotho is a small country wholly surrounded by South Africa, a sovereign island never overtaken by Europeans, known as the Mountain Kingdom for its high altitude and dramatic landscape of peaks and river-carved valleys. My husband and I entered the country in our 4x4 truck at a lonely hilltop post, one whose existence was not agreed upon by the several maps we had. We descended into Lesotho via an empty, extremely circuitous dirt road. It was lunch time and our stomachs were anxious for food.  When we reached a green valley where willow trees drooped their branches over a narrow creek, we came to a shack with a large blue board out front advertising in white paint, “scones, airtime, drink, fried Russian boiled eggs.” A sign above the door read, “Be Disarmed.” By that time, my mini-Swiss army knife, my sewing scissors, cuticle scissors, and even my camping fork had all been confiscated by various airport security, so this was not a problem.

As we pulled up next to the sign, contemplating whether to go inside, the proprietor came out to our vehicle. At the same time, a man and a boy approached our truck on their horses, snug in the crisp air wrapped up in their traditional heavy blankets. As we spent more time in Lesotho, we would realize the proprietor’s code of dress was in the minority with his Western-style shirt and hat, sans blanket, just as our motorized mode of transport was a rarity on the equine- and pedestrian-filled roads.

“Do you really have scones?” Erik asked, barely containing his drool.

“Yes, of course!” the man said. “Come!”

Erik disappeared into the dark cavern of corrugated-metal and emerged shortly with our lunch, triumphantly holding in one hand a six-pack of local Lesotho beer and in the other, held lower as a subconscious sign of defeat, the scones: a name-brand loaf of unsliced white bread.  

Clomp clomp clomp. The two horsemen trotted past us as we broke off pieces of bread and popped the tops of our beers right there beside the sign. A woman with a small child at each hand walked briskly in the other direction, a two-foot high cloth bundle expertly balanced atop her head. The rocky hillsides framing the valley sported a menagerie of sheep and cows. I asked Erik how his scone was.

“The beer’s delicious,” he replied.

As we chewed and slurped greedily, silver streaks of spring water glistened as they tumbled down the steep green hillsides.

*

 

Little Schemer

The roads in Lesotho were sporadically patrolled by gangs of kids dressed in school uniforms, walking the roadsides in white-collared shirts overlayed with long-sleeved blue sweaters. My husband and I stopped the car often to take photographs of the scenery, but we didn’t like to slow down around the children because as soon as the kids noticed it was two white people driving the rare car, we would be accosted with outstretched hands and shrill yelling of, “Sweets! Sweets!”

Once, I got out of the car in a wide valley to take a photograph of the hills rising sharply up from the other side. I failed to notice a lone child sitting on a boulder just a few feet away from me. He got up and walked to me. He asked for food.

“I’m hungry,” he said.

I said, “No food,” though privately I considered that if he didn’t continue to badger me, I'd give him a cookie after I got back to the car.

“Can you give me some money?” he said.

“No, I’m sorry. No money.”

“Please?”

“No, but I’ll take your picture if you want.”

“OK,” he perked up. When I showed him the result in the digital display he was quite pleased, though he had failed to smile.

“Now people in America will see you, OK? That’s better than money.” I said this on account of my Zulu ranger, BJ, being obsessed with me showing the photo I took of him to my American friends. The kid nodded with a far-off look in his eyes, but after a moment in which I snapped some more photos, he looked glumly at me again.

“My parents are dead,” he said. He waited for a response. I gave none.

“My parents are dead and I can’t afford to go to school. Can you give me some money so I can go to school?”

“Sorry, kid.” 

“But I want to go learn in school,” he said, somewhat aghast that I was so monstrous as to deny him an education. He looked sideways down the road, a dispirited cloud of failure shadowing his face while he tugged absently on his clothing, the starched collar of his white shirt contrasting sharply with his school uniform’s dark sweater, with his dark skin and the dark green hills behind him, apparently unaware that I could recognize the school uniform from having seen a hundred other kids on the roads wearing them.

Dingy white sheep meandered through the valley, mingling with thin, rusty cows. Though I was curious how much further he would carry his story, I put the cap back on my camera lens as a conductor might lower his baton on the final note of a symphony, signaling the end of our conversation. The bells around the livestock’s necks, varying in size, pitch and timbre, tinkled and tankled in complex rhythms, almost as if orchestrated, as if the animals were cognizant of their instruments, creating their own ode to the inviolable truths of geology that formed the majestic landscape. The boy looked after me as I walked away. When I got back into the truck, he sat back down on his boulder and stared across the lush river valley into the sun-soaked air, pitching paper dreams into that ancient trough that nourished a thousand lives.

*

 

Misunderstanding

We intended to spend our last night in Lesotho at the renowned Sani Pass on the border with South Africa. As we were driving, it began raining. Shortly thereafter, giant flakes of moisture-laden snow landed on our windshield and soon the land was covered in snow, quickly piling up. Suffering a fair degree of stress, owing to South African-issue tires on our truck (which were never intended to encounter snow), we climbed higher into the mountains, then descended a series of hairpins at about two miles per hour, and finally (mercifully) found ourselves driving across a plateau.

In the distance we could make out a frantic figure beside the road – a man wrapped in his traditional Basotho blanket, pressing his hands together in a pleading, prayerful gesture, holding them out in front of his chest, shaking them with obvious desperation. He had been caught out unexpectedly in the rapidly descending storm. We made space for him in the back seat.

“Underberg?” he asked.

“No. Sani Pass.”

“Underberg?”

“No, we’re only going as far as Sani Pass.” Underberg was a city over 40 kilometers away in South Africa via a road famously treacherous in bad weather. We could never make it back into Lesotho before the border closed. I put my hands together in the same prayerful gesture he had, but I put mine to the side of my head and flopped my head over upon them. “We’re sleeping at Sani Pass.”

“Oh.” He nodded his head. “OK.”

“It’s OK?” I asked.

“OK.”

To make room for him, I had pushed to the side a basket of food and a cooler of beer. Bananas, cookies, a loaf of bread (scones!) lay in the open basket. From my passenger seat, I couldn’t tell if he eyed them. But we offered them to him anyway. He wolfed down a banana and some bread, and drank the beer like water as we forged on through the storm.

“Good?” I asked. He smiled and slouched down in his seat.

When we stopped at Sani Pass where we had reservations to stay at the Sani Top Chalet, confusion swept over the man, who was now warm and full, and perhaps a bit buzzed. Obviously this was not OK.  

“Underberg!”

I shook my head. “No, Sani Pass.” We pointed toward the chalet.

He stared out the window for a minute, studying the round, stone buildings, icicles dangling from the rims of the thatched roofs. At last the situation dawned on him. Dejected, he slowly opened the car door and pulled his blanket tight around his neck. Snowflakes swirled into the car in a gust and accumulated rapidly on the man’s shoulders and bare head – each delicate flake different from the others, each falling from the sky toward its terrestrial destiny in brief possession of its very own crystalline shape before melting into the anonymity of a droplet of water. Suddenly, impulsively, my husband reached into the backseat, gathered up all the food we had and shoved it into the man’s arms. He bowed his head in a gesture of gratitude and stepped out into the blizzard, into a landscape rendered featureless, a white canvas at the edge of the Mountain Kingdom, his bare hands clutching the foreigner’s food against his chest.

*

 

Mozambique

Evaluation

Owing to an overcast and chilly day at Kosi Bay in South Africa, purportedly a snorkeler’s paradise, we aborted our snorkeling trip after only a brief time in the cold, murky water and decided to make an afternoon of visiting a town in Mozambique, whose border was just a stone’s throw away.

After checking into the first building that we saw at the border and surrendering our passports, they were scrutinized, stamped and handed back. We returned to our truck and drove slowly toward the chainlink fence denoting the border. Scores of 4x4 vehicles and trailers hauling 4-wheelers lined the open area on the South African side of the border. We inched our truck forward toward the fence and crossed the threshold, where there were no sentries to stop us or wave us on.

We had reached the border on a beautifully paved highway. Guidebooks can often overstate the dangers of a given area, and I don’t fault them for such. I had read that entry into Mozambique at this border required a 4x4 vehicle. Approaching on the South African highway, this seemed laughably unlikely. But once at the border, we recognized instantly that this was not remotely overstated. As soon as we left the paved pad supporting the border post, the road became nothing but tire tracks in the sand – often multiple tracks, which left us anxious over whether we’d chosen the right one. 

I now trusted the guide I had read, owing to its assessment of the roads. Here, it seemed, we had the incontrovertible word of nameless, mute, faceless ink. Typeset characters which had no motivation, no underestimation or misrepresentation – however innocent – no deceitful imagination. The print told us the border closed at 6 pm. 

That gave us several hours to find the town, have some lunch and get back. After we’d placed our order for lunch and the waiter delivered our beers, I had a conversation with another staff member which revealed that the border, in fact, closed at 5 pm. We canceled the lunch order, slammed our beers and jogged back to our truck. It was going to be a close call. The roads had proved far slower than we had expected.

Erik rally-car drove the sand tracks back to the border with an impressive 30 minutes to spare. And here it was pointed out to us that we had entered Mozambique illegally. It was a grave error that we hadn’t visited the second building on our way in – the second building we somehow had failed to notice. Suddenly we were acutely aware of our neophyte status as cross-border travelers. We’ve driven ourselves around many foreign countries, but until this trip had always kept within one country. We generally cross borders in airports, where it is impossible to enter incorrectly.

Standing outside in the brisk air beneath the Mozambique flag (which sports an image of an AK-47 with a bayonet attached to the barrel on this most emblematic representation of a nation’s identity), the immigration officers explained to my husband the various options before us, including a 6,000-Rand fine and a night in jail.

"Yes sir. No sir. Sorry sir.” My husband spent 30 minutes filling out forms and being interrogated about the nature of our stupidity.

In the end, we got off lightly and only paid double the standard entry fee (amounting to 700 Rand each). When we told the proprietor of our B&B at Kosi Bay about the incident, he grimaced.

“You’re lucky they didn’t pull a squadron of machine guns on you right there and drag you off to jail in handcuffs.”

“Really? They would actually do that?” I was slightly incredulous.

“You bet they would. That’s Mozambique.”

I glanced at my husband. Really? And I still wonder about this, for I have absolutely no bearings by which to judge the validity of that statement. Spanning regions of hot, arid semi-desert and high-altitude snowy peaks, butter mountains and bipolar predators, the people in Africa had told me so many things:

“This is the last hill.”

“My parents are dead.”

“There are no lions in the park.”

In the end, I learned I could trust the people, just not always what they said.

Except for Ngema. If he told me to run, I would run like hell.

*

 **

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Most Recent Additions

1. The Tiny Woman added to Travel Essays

2. Things People Told Me: Conversations in African Landscapes added to Travel Essays

3. Interview with Shara on Traveling in Uganda added to Interviews

4. Interview with Shara on Traveling in China added to Interviews

5. The Orange Road added to Travel Essays

6. What Travel Has Taught Me: Empathy & Global Citizenship added to Travel Essays

 

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