The tall older man in glasses at the Lubumbashi airport motioned to his sedan, which was a right-hand drive car even though DRC is a right-side-drive country. It clicked then that the cars here came from South Africa.
“Of course,” I thought. “Because there's no road to get them here from Kinshasa.”
"Yes, I need a taxi."
"Er... La Procure."
"La Procure?" A procure is a church guesthouse. It's not entirely uncommon for foreigners to stay in them – and for budget travellers in Central Africa, it's often the best option – but Lubumbashi is a prosperous mining town on a panhandle that juts into Zambia’s Copperbelt region. Most foreigners who come here are on business trips, with backpackers being few and far between. Hotels aren't cheap in Lubumbashi. Even the church guesthouse was $40 a night.
I had a map on my laptop that my assistant in New York had scanned in and sent to me from my Bradt Congo guidebook, but I couldn’t make head or tails of it without finding some landmarks, so I have no idea if I was in the right church guesthouse or not. Is there more than one? I'll never know. But my taxi driver took me along pleasant, paved roads through a lovely tree-lined city to a huge cathedral, then turned into a dirt alley across the street from it.
I never would have found this on my own, I thought. La Procure was invisible from the street.
He parked in a courtyard and pointed me to Reception, where it was no problem to acquire a room and (included!) dinner ticket for the night. I arranged for the driver to return at 5am – arghh! – to take me back to the airport for the hour-long jump to Lusaka.
I made an effort to see Lubumbashi but couldn't even find the centre of town. I walked along the road past mobile phone credit stores, internet cafes and small department stores. But DRC still scared me – as soon as the sun started to go down, I scurried back to my simple room, where I packed all of my clothes into my plastic zippered bag and stuffed all of my souvenirs into my backpack, covering them with a few shirts.
Would I manage to smuggle out my Tintin souvenirs in the morning? What would I do if someone tried to extract a bribe for these supposed 'antiques' as they had at Kinshasa airport?
I had an idea – maybe I'd just pay it.
I tried the church dinner – chicken and rice. Nice. Simple. The other procure residents sat in silence, eating together but alone.
The procure's shower block of bucket showers and mosquitoes put me off a bit, but I’d get a real shower in Zambia tomorrow night.
I pulled down the mosquito net over my bed and thought about Zambia. Wonderful place. Green, easy, friendly.
Me? I was tired. I do this to myself on purpose, take local transport in some of the world's toughest countries for MariesWorldTour.com. I firmly believe it's the best way to instantly immerse oneself into an area, to deliberately put yourself into an exhausting, taxing environment with the local people. You learn. You sweat. You get dirty. You see what extremes people must go to for simple things, like selling their goats. But it doesn't take long before you start thinking about how much nicer your own bed can be than the back of a cramped mini-bus.
Zambia. I love Zambia. I want to marry Zambia.
Soon, I thought, as I drifted off to sleep in the church guesthouse.
The dark, wide streets of Lubumbashi are empty at five in the morning. My taxi driver and I headed to the airport in silence. He was probably groggy, though he was sharply dressed in a crisp white shirt and pressed trousers. I'd worried he wouldn't show up and I'd be stuck, alone in the procure courtyard but for the frogs and the burbling fountain. No taxi driver cruises the church for 5am fares in Lubumbashi.
I was alert and nervous. My contraband Tintin carvings were camouflaged in my backpack, hidden under layers of jacket and towel, while my clothing was folded into a zippered plastic carry-on bag. Would the Lubumbashi airport security guys be as corrupt as the Kinshasa ones?
If I could get my carvings to Zambia, I knew I was home free. I could post them home from Livingstone, where tourists sending home souvenirs is not just normal, but is greatly encouraged. Zambia loves tourism. When Zimbabwe's government ousted its white farmers, Zambia had welcomed them with open arms and its tourists with massive promotional campaigns.
Bonus: Since my first visit to Zambia in 2001, it had experienced a public anti-corruption campaign that focused on both prevention and punishment. No-one in Zambia was going to pretend a few Tintin souvenirs were priceless antiques in order to extract a buck from me.
The Lubumbashi airport was as dark as the city had been, and some guards stirred sleepily as I entered.
Maybe I didn't need to be here two hours before my flight, I thought, as one of the guards motioned to me to sit down on a bench.
The airport staff slowly got to work. Where had they all been sleeping? A sleepy woman in heels descended from the mezzanine. She motioned to me to bring her my luggage.
Here goes, I thought.
I unzipped the plastic bag of clothes first. She dug around halfheartedly and then pushed it aside.
Now she pointed to my backpack.
I fiddled with the combination lock. I moved slowly, ineptly. I wanted her to get bored.
I unzipped the bag, revealing an overstuffed mass of towel and jackets.
She went right for my bright yellow zippered underwear pouch. I probably looked horrified. All the guards were watching dully. I didn't know if I really wanted to give them a laugh this early in the morning.
But I needn't have worried. As soon as the woman spotted the first bra, she quickly zipped the yellow bag back up. She pawed a few other things, and then about 20 Japanese tourists burst in.
She pushed my luggage aside.
I was through.
An hour later, I was in Lusaka, buying a 1pm bus ticket for Livingstone.
"One? What about noon? I don't want to get to Livingstone after dark." Livingstone is reasonably safe but I have met people who were mugged there at night.
Another passenger, a young Zambian woman also buying a ticket, addressed me.
"We're all in the same boat. This is the earliest you will find. I want to go earlier too, but there aren't any seats. Just buy the ticket. See, I did." She flashed her ticket.
I reddened slightly and paid my fare. This was Zambia – it wasn't that someone was trying to get one over on me and of course I wasn’t any more privileged than any other passenger. The buses were all sold out for the morning.
Later, five Swedish nursing students – adorable, enthusiastic, and a little scared – approached me as the bus cruised into Livingstone. Did I know where Jolly Boys Backpackers was? Could I show them? Was it safe to walk?
Jolly Boys is right up the hill from the bus terminal, so I escorted the five young women to the corner and pointed them in the right direction before hurrying alone to my go-to backpackers, Fawlty Towers.
Which had – oh, wonderful! – been renovated since I was last here in 2005. I took a lovely single en suite room near the pool, ordered a meal from the restaurant at the back of the garden, and that night, went to sleep with a smile on my face. Because I was sleeping on a spring mattress, under a comforter and clean sheets.
And in the morning, after a delightfully hot shower, I caught the courtesy shuttle up to the Zambezi River and stood in the spray of the smoke that thunders.
After months of taking buses, old trucks, motorbikes, and overcrowded taxis for more than 4,000 kilometers from Morocco to Livingstone, I was in heaven.
And in the afternoon? A nice man in the Livingstone post office packed up my Tintin carvings and sent them off to New York.
"No problem." The man behind the package-sending desk didn’t bother with boxes. He wrapped each piece in bubble wrap and paper.
"That's okay?" I asked, astonished.
"Yes. I do it all the time."
He wrapped each piece in a paper cover, taped each one, and chucked them all into the mail bin.
Easy. And no bribes required.
Check out the current issue of Wanderlust magazine for more information on Victoria Falls: how, when and where to go.
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