An interruption from Future Beth
My plan when I left Seattle was to write blog posts quickly and get to the heart of the trip in real time, but it turns out we were busy and my idea of myself is very different than the reality of who I am. I got a bad a cold. Some nights there was no power. Other nights we were drinking and playing Bananagrams with Hudge and Providence and I just couldn’t be bothered. And then suddenly we were on a plane leaving Zimbabwe for an Irish wedding, and those ten days were a delightful Irishy blur, and the next thing I know, we were back home attending another sort of wedding with our friends Tonks and Lupin.
And then I got pneumonia. Or maybe I had pneumonia and had been walking around with it in Zimbabwe and Ireland and sprinkling it on two sets of newlyweds. Who knows. No medical professional initially knew if it was pneumonia so there were tests for malaria and other tropical diseases and a sort of haphazard, “It’s probably pneumonia. Here are some pills.”
The next day, I was upset because I’d found out a literary idol of mine who I’d workshopped under a few times has been accused of being a Very Bad Man to women and minors. This was shocking to me because he was only ever pleasant to me, supportive of my writing, and seemed to lack some of the ego that you can see on those other predator types. I teach his work a lot, I teach his methods a lot, and over 20 years of teaching, I’ve sung his praises to a lot of students.
The thing about people who do bad things to other people is they often don’t look the way we think they will. I’ve spent my entire life on lookout for a man in a trench coat driving a big car with bags of candy on offer. But it turns out they wear the disguises of friendly priests, concerned doctors, and enthusiastic and compassionate teachers.
All the better to eat you with, my dear.
So I was in a funk. It wasn’t about me, of course, but I couldn’t get out of my head: how could he? how am I going to teach my next fiction class without citing him? who am I going to replace his stories with? Not to mention, those poor women, that poor girl. I decided I needed to get out of my own head, and since it was just a light case of pneumonia for which I hadn’t had severe symptoms, I did what you do when there is a pop-up petting zoo a block from your apartment and I walked down the street to bury my sorrows in the fur of a couple of dwarf rabbits and a wallaby.
Only on the walk down to the petting zoo I realized it was a really bad idea because I couldn’t breathe very well at all. I kept walking, but shouldn’t have, and on the walk back it was worse. The next day, another doctor—who looked a lot like a farmer friend I’ve known since I was 13, which was it’s own kind of weirdness—was worried that instead of pneumonia I had a pulmonary embolism. (Sidenote: I told this doctor why I’d felt it necessary to walk to the pop-up petting zoo, and he asked who the author was I was talking about and then said he had been a creative writing major as an undergrad. I’ve never had a doctor who had been a creative writing major, so add that to a list of things you can’t predict by how people look.)
Z and I spent a scary and tedious evening in the ER while various medical professionals speculated about all the horrible things it might be (your heart! tuberculosis!) and after a variety of tests for which we will be paying for awhile, it was determined that I have….PNEUMONIA. Which is what I had when I walked to the petting zoo and what I had when I went to the ER. I just needed stronger antibiotics.
Now I am convalescing in the style of a Victorian woman, lounging around, being served by Z, and holding my hand to my forehead when I feel frustrated that I’ve been housebound for a week and a bit (give or take an ER visit and a pop-up petting zoo). When I had to get a second round of antibiotics, I told the pharmacist on the phone that I’d “send my husband up to collect it” and Z is still teasing me about this. Apparently, I have assumed a certain Lady of the Manor quality during my recovery.
So, that’s my excuse for missing my August deadline and my failing to stick to my original plans for regular updates on the study-abroad and the trip to Ireland. Forgive me.
Future Beth signing off. Sojourner Beth now at bat.
- 5 students arrived safe & sound
- 1 private school visited
- 1 Fitbit found (by Z under the sofa)
- 1 Headspace app re-re-set
- 2 bags of Thingz eaten, countless Cadbury biscuit bars
- 1 cold (lingering)
- 3 mosquito bites (blistered, hideous, itchy, but holding at 3!)
You’ll be happy to hear that my sense of justice and inner calm has been restored because “Tyler” at Headspace re-re-set my meditation app, giving me credit for my 60 odd days of meditation. What a relief. I felt oppressed by the gods of technology every time I’d meditate and see that 2 or 3 day streak flash on my screen, mocking and enraging me.
Possibly, I’m not doing this meditation thing right.
Other things I’m not doing right. Or not doing full stop. This list of things to accomplish while I am “in country”:
- regular blogging
- regular journaling
- regular illustrated journaling
- copying down family stories and genealogy stuff from Z-ma
- taking photos of family photos
- bonding daily with Skampy
- sauntering around Z-ma’s garden, talking to the tortoises, admiring the fruit, smelling the flowers
- writing lengthy emails to my mom and Jane
- being helpful around the house and supportive of Z’s teaching endeavors
Why do I do that to myself? That’s a full-time job of stuff up there. I thought I was being really self-protective by not bringing my watercolors, but then I made Z buy me a set of 99 cent colored pencils at Pick n Pay so I could art up my journal and the whole prospect of which has overwhelmed me so much that I’ve hardly written in it at all, even though it is a special one, picked out carefully in the hours before we left Seattle. The pencils, as yet, are unused.
And let’s be honest, if I did all of the things on that list—because I am a slow, turtle-speeded person—I’d have no time for actually being in Zimbabwe.
So this is me being. Which might mean this post will meander without purpose.
I know I keep harping about it, but I really do think that meditation app is helping me. I like to have traveled, but as a traveler, I am normally the sort who is looking at my calendar and thinking about how soon life will return to normal so I can revel in the memories instead of, you know, actually making memories. I’m barely looking at the thing in front of me (Lindow man at the British Museum say, because I’m already anticipating the next room at the museum and what might be there, or the next hour after the museum when I’ll be in Bloomsbury supposedly soaking in Woolf vibes, but instead of thinking about Viriginia Woolf and Dora Carrington and Vanessa Bell while I’m in Bloomsbury I’ll be thinking about dinner). In short, it’s a stupid way to live your travels or your life because you aren’t really ever in the place where your body is. So for years I’ve written in the front of every journal “Be here now” as a reminder.
And then I ignore it.
Except this time—with ten minutes a day of Andy Puddicombe’s Headspacey voice gently guiding me to just be, I was there more than I have been on my two previous trips to Zimbabwe. I know 60 odd days of a teensy amount of meditation hasn’t made me Zen, but I feel less culture shock-y. Less inclined to count down the days until I can shower with my mouth open. I’ve observed more and felt less. Except glad. I have felt really glad to be here.
That said, there are things that always surprise me in Zimbabwe:
- The trash. Everywhere.
- The number of people walking with—it seems—little regard for their own mortality. Traffic is insane.
- The way it is difficult for me to tell a “good” neighborhood from a sketchy one because the houses are behind high walls and razor-wire. Fence Africa advertisements abound to remind people that they might need additional fencing.
- The pang I feel when I try to imagine how Z’s aunt’s house and Z-ma’s house must have felt when everyone was alive and young and the economy was good and a be-dimpled Z was a boy, entertaining everyone.
- The way—even in winter—the Zimbabwean sun is too bright for me and makes me want to skitter indoors like a nocturnal creature.
- The way Skampy’s entire body moves when he wags his tail.
- The way I want to connect with the two people who keep Z-ma’s house running, but then feel shy, inept, and inarticulate—so there are big silences that I hope will convey “I care about you” more than they convey “I am a big American weirdo who can’t string together a sentence.”
- The way people know each other or of each other and make you feel like it is a small place, this country.
For instance, Z arranged for a taxi driver he’d never met to pick up the various students as they arrived so they wouldn’t have to navigate finding transportation to our compound. Ananias not only texted Z as each student arrived, but a week later, he texted him to say he’d seen the students at the airport—taking a different mode of transportation not his—when they had returned from their weekend adventure at Victoria Falls. The students hadn’t yet bothered to let us know they were safe and sound, and yet Ananias who knew Z all of about 5 minutes was aware that this was information Z would want. The Zimbabwean grape vine is thick and ropey and hangs heavy with fruit.
It is not unlike Ireland in this sense I have of it being magical in ways America is not. I need something, and instantly someone is in my path telling me of the very thing I need and where I can get it. You meet someone who knows someone you know and that instantly expands your circle of people who are looking out for you, sharing wisdom, telling you which gas stations currently have petrol. If it happens in America, I don’t notice it. In Zimbabwe (or Ireland), it gives me a real sense of how interconnected we are.
Our part of Zim is not risky for malaria, but I take anti-malarial drugs because the travel doc said I should due to my wonky immune system and the fact that if a person were going to be bitten by a rogue mozzie spreading malaria, I would be the one.
I am a Krispy Kreme donut to the mosquito world.
There’s no problem with the drugs other than the bizarreness and intensity of the dreams they inflict. I’d forgotten about this aspect until the fourth day of taking them when I dreamed that Z was misbehaving in such Technicolor real-world detail, inviting lots and lots of extra people into our marriage, that even after I woke up and saw him snoozing guiltlessly beside me, I was eying him with suspicion.
A few nights later, I dreamed that it was 2020 and Donald Trump managed to “win” another election, and it was again in such vivid and specific detail—sitting for hours watching the returns come in, the disbelief, my unapologetic liberal tears.
While neither of these were official nightmares, they were close enough to make the prospect of taking my pills and going to sleep under my mozzie net every night less than inviting. Particularly the night an actual mosquito was inside the net, thus rendering it useless until Z saved the day with his lightening quick reflexes and bug squishing abilities.
Can malaria really be worse than dream infidelity and dream Donald Trump?
At home—especially in Indiana—October is my favorite month, and I can’t get away from the feeling that winter in Zimbabwe is essentially a Hoosier October. During the day, everything is brown and there is a bite in the air that may or may not have you reaching for a sweatshirt. At night, you put on the extra thick socks, pull the hoody up (and then down so it almost covers your nose), and wonder if it’s really too early to turn the heat on. Only here there is no heat and the houses aren’t insulated, so instead, you drink tea, climb under an extra blanket, and complain if you are Zimbabwean and smile contentedly if you are me. It was a bizarre sensation to be in Zimbabwe in July and have this strong desire to buy decorative gourds and drink hot apple cider.
For the first week, there was a pretty significant cold snap that is unusual, so everyone was talking about the temperature. I went on a shower hiatus because I didn’t want wet hair to make my cold worse, but Z must have gotten sick of the stench of me because he finally said, “My mom has a hair dryer, you know. We aren’t uncivilized here.” Even in the second week of our trip, it was still chilly. Hudge loaned her sweatshirt to one of the students who had ignored Z’s instructions to bring warm clothes, and then Hudge spent two or three days walking around town wrapped in a crocheted blanket that Z’s granny had made.
We had a few leisurely days at Z-ma’s, getting over our jet-lag and re-adjusting our clocks to African time. Z-ma and I spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the recent Royal Wedding in the UK, which Z thought was hilarious—that a Zimbabwean woman and an American woman had so many opinions and affections for a Royal Family both of their countries had cast off years and years before. Z-ma also delighted me with a story about a visit Princess Margaret made to then Rhodesia, and Z-pa—who was a young, unmarried soldier at the time on a special detail offering extra protection to her Royal Highness at a ball—determined that he was going to ask the princess to dance. His friends egged him on and he got quite close to her before being diverted by her real protection detail. Z-ma told me this story with glee, and I could picture it in my mind. (I also felt momentarily grateful that his mission was thwarted because I suspect Princess Margaret might have fallen for Z-pa’s charms—he looks like an Italian Cary Grant in every picture I’ve ever seen of him. I’m not sure she could have resisted, and then there’d have been no Z for me.)
Hudge and Providence arrived a couple of days after we did, so we picked them up at the airport and I felt all sorts of local as we drove to get them and passed someone we knew as we drove into the airport, talked to him about his family, and then marched into the airport, holding up a sign greeting Hudge and Providence like we were chauffeurs. I also felt a heady delight that for once I was more seasoned than someone else in this country, and for once I was the one who got to say, “Welcome to Zimbabwe!”
That good and confident feeling ended quickly when Z chose to ignore his brother’s advice to skip the traffic snarls at Mbare, a high-density suburb of Harare. I wish I had photos because my descriptions will not do it justice, but we were stuck in an apocalyptic grid-locked traffic jam the likes of which I’ve only ever seen in The Walking Dead in the Atlanta interstate episodes when Carol’s idiot daughter goes missing. Though the robots [traffic lights] were working and two police officers were there (mostly filing their nails), nothing was moving the Jenga cube made of autos. People were hooting their horns, a couple of kombi [mini-van taxi] drivers were out of their vehicles shouting and directing traffic and slapping the trunks of cars they felt were causing the problem. Tempers were high.
I was thinking about escape routes because my overactive amygdala was envisioning scenarios wherein we would die there, sitting for days with no food or water. The only escape I could imagine was us having to abandon the truck and walk the 40ks to Z-mas house and spend the rest of our days in Zimbabwe taking G-Taxis everywhere [Zimbabwe’s answer to Uber]. I even considered scenarios wherein I would just get out of the truck and leave the three of them behind to fend for themselves. The panic was rising and I couldn’t reach my Xanax. So I did some deep breaths, imagined what Andy Puddicombe would tell me, and calmed myself. Finally, Z made an aggressive and illegal turn that landed us in the industrial area of Harare where I’d never been and Z hadn’t been in an age, but we didn’t care. We were just glad to have escaped that Spider’s web of traffic.
After a couple more days at Z-ma’s now happily fuller house, the four of us headed to Harare to meet the students for the two-week study abroad. We went to the gated apartment complex where we’d be staying with the students (though they were on the other side of the compound from us), and as luck and a little planning on Z’s part would have it, this put us within walking distance of his brother & family, the shopping center, and Vali’s, the purveyor of possibly the best meat pies in all of Zimbabwe.
But when you are picturing us walking to the meat pie purveyor, please don’t imagine tidy, smooth sidewalks and streetlights. Instead, imagine busy city roads with unpredictable drivers, no sidewalks, and random stones that make walking difficult in day light and ten times more difficult once the sun goes down. (Providence had a nasty spill on the first night trying to collect an errant student.)
While you’re at it, also picture a guy on the corner outside our building selling mirrors. Because apparently people sometimes stop at the intersection and realize what is missing from their lives is a full-length mirror. (He had some special deal with our security guard, so his mirrors were stored inside the gates of our complex at night.) On the opposite corners, men with signs for political candidates to be voted for in the impending election, one of whom we stopped to talk to and discovered he’d gone to university in America.
Also, you should probably picture this. The day guard, who opened the gate for us whenever we needed to leave or come home, was named Jealous. He was friendly and looked like a young Tracy Morgan. And I never said, “Thank you, Jealous” or “Good morning, Jealous” without then immediately having the Black Crowes “Jealous Again” stuck in my head for 30 minutes. Every. Day.
Names I ran across while here that I’ve delighted in besides Jealous:
The first night at the complex, Z, Hudge, Providence and I went to dinner at Vali’s and then stopped at the Spar shop to stock up on groceries. The night was clear, a string of colored lights hung above us jazzing up the place, and there was that autumn nip in the air that felt like homecoming weekend in college. We were all kind of giddy with being together on this experiment, filling our trolley [cart] with all sorts of fizzy drinks [soda], biscuits [cookies], and chocolates [candy bars], and acting 30 years younger than we are. We bought real food too, but I was much less excited about it and was reminded of college treks to Dunkin’ Donuts and the nearby drugstore for emergency fried dough and nail polish needs.
Our first morning of “class” started at 6:30 a.m. the next day, when the school from which Z-ma recently retired after 25 years, sent their bus to collect us, drive us 45 minutes outside of the city, and introduce our students to a private, primary boarding school in Zimbabwe.
We headed out into the country and the light was bewitching that early on the dry winter fields. The further we got from the city, the more of a spectacle we were—a bus full of Americans, the majority of whom were white—rattling across the rutted country roads. We passed children heading off to their own schools, who stopped and stared at us, and then threw up their hands in greeting, big smiles spreading across their faces, like we were somebody who required an enthusiastic greeting.
We also passed soldiers who were jogging on the country roads, and Z quickly told the students not to take any photographs. It was a sharp reminder that we were in a country currently full of question marks: would the impending election be free and fair? Were the soldiers just training or were they out as a sort of show of force to remind the people outside of the city who it was they were meant to be voting for in two week’s time? The bus inched past them. Unlike the children, they didn’t acknowledge our presence and we didn’t lift our hands in greeting. They were young, sweaty from the workout they were putting in under that big Zimbabwean sun, and I knew they were just people, but even so, I wasn’t sorry to have them in the rearview mirror.
I’d been to Z-ma’s former school before, but never when the children were in attendance, which changed the feel of the place. Before, I’d been amazed that Z-ma lived during the week in an actual cottage with a thatched roof, and I had some vague sense that the education there was somehow “African” (though I wasn’t sure what I meant by that). On this trip seeing the students moving from assembly to classroom in their uniforms, etc., it dawned on me that (duh!) it looked vaguely familiar because of books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen that are set in England.
I don’t know how they are when they’re at home—they might be little smart-mouthed banshees—but those children were polite. Not one of them passed us without saying, “Good morning, Sir” or “Good morning, Miss!” and offering a smile. Their uniforms made them look tidy and timeless. When they marched into the assembly they were orderly (and adorable), and Z leaned over and said, “I loved marching when I was in primary school,” and I could just see him, little chest puffed out, dimples showing, arms swinging, and I felt a little verklempt at the very idea of a Tiny Z at school.
As a middle-class American inclined to homesickness, I’ve kind of thought of non-Hogwarts boarding school as barbaric. I’m always peppering Z with questions about his time in secondary school when he was a boarder, expecting him to tell me how horrible it was as per every movie I’ve ever seen set in a boarding school where there are the bullies and the bullied. But those aren’t the stories he has from his experience, and as I watch these little creatures acting like tiny (if not somewhat wiggly) grown-ups, I wonder if they aren’t learning some lessons about self-reliance that we don’t get in the U.S. until we are much older.
That said, all we had to do was walk into the dormitories and I’m back to thinking how impossible it would be for me to send a six-year-old off to the equivalent of my horrible Girl Scout Camp experience. They aren’t living in tents, but in Zimbabwe, the boundaries between outdoors and indoors are not as defined as they are in America, and I flash back to every morning of that long, long week the summer I was ten when I’d crawl out of a dew-damp sleeping bag and wish I were in my own house with my own mother and television instead of in a mildewed tent with a latrine on the other side of the campsite. The single “cuddly toy” on each bed makes me ache for homesickness that they may not be feeling.
But what really fascinated me at this school were the dogs. Oh, Reader, there were dogs all over the campus. Little terriers, a mutt, a barking pug in a plaid jacket, and a gorgeous ridgeback called Binga who followed the headmaster as he led us on a campus tour. The headmaster, robes flapping behind him as he marched us around the classrooms, dormitories and the sports fields, was clearly in his element, and Binga loping behind him seemed to be too. Maybe I could have handled boarding school if there’d been dogs.
Binga sat with us at a faculty tea, nudged students sitting in assembly as they sang and honked clarinets, followed us around the grounds as we inspected the cricket pitch. I delight in seeing Ridgebacks when I’m in Zimbabwe because the first dog of my life was my maternal grandparents’ Rhodesian Ridgeback, Rinkles. He was a lovely dog. I hated the way my hands smelled after I petted him, and he had a tail that gave a thrashing if you were unlucky enough to be wearing shorts and standing near his backend when he was happy, but he was family, and he fascinated me, especially after Mom had explained to me that he was from Africa and he was a lion-hunting dog. (I’ve often wondered if Grandma and Grandpa had a Norwegian Elkhound if I’d have ended up with a spouse from Scandinavia. I’ll see symbolism in almost anything.)
At the assembly, the headmaster caught the students up on the previous week’s events, as well as activities planned for the week ahead. Points were awarded to the four different “houses,” just like at Hogwarts, and I spent the rest of the day wondering if there was a Slytherin equivalent at this school or if you only got such a house if a Sorting Hat was putting like-minded baddies all into a single house. The choir sang beautifully, the orchestra played well, particularly when I discovered most of the students had only been playing since earlier in the year. A hymn was sung, the students (and dogs) marched out, and we explored more of the campus before spending time in the teacher’s lounge chatting with faculty and trying to keep Binga from eating the biscuits off our plates.
We discovered the little farmlet where we met some fancy chickens, geese, goats, and an introverted pig. We saw the memorial pavilion built for the founder and patriarch of the school where celebrations are held. We investigated the IT classroom, and paused near the gates that are locked at night keeping all inside safe and sound. We peeped into the building where Z-ma had taught her lessons and discovered that it will be replaced soon and renamed after her. Throughout the day different faculty and staff members asked after her to Z, mentioned how much they missed her, and gave the general sense that life there without her is a bit diminished.
Then we had a delicious lunch, the students had a chance to talk to some faculty members and “junior masters and mistresses” (students who have finished with high school and who are hired to help out) before climbing back on the bus and heading back to Harare.
Our study abroad students were high and in love with Zimbabwe. Z—who studies these things—told me later that culture shock has peaks and valleys, and it isn’t uncommon to peak when you first arrive and everything seems fresh and new. This hadn’t been my experience on my first trip eight years ago—everything looked foreign to my eye and smelled foreign to my nose and that first day ended with me crying over a jar of broken mustard, a Christmas gift meant for Z’s uncle. It seemed to me that this group of students was more worldly and sophisticated than I was/am, and I was envious of their naked enthusiasm, the way they waved at the children we were once again passing on the road, as if the whole country had shone up—like they did/were forced to all those years ago when Princess Margaret visited—to welcome them.
“They’re so much more worldly than I was at that age,” I said to Z.
He raised an eyebrow with his we’ll see look.