Nestled between the two neighbouring ‘Z’ countries in south-central Africa, Zambia miraculously manages to avoid the international pariah status of Zimbabwe and the basket case label routinely applied to the failed state north of it, formerly known as Zaïre (the Democratic Republic of Congo). Most people we have told about our plans to visit Zambia have responded with blank looks as they hurriedly search their mental world maps, desperately trying to locate the country. Now that we are here it is easy to see why.
Zambia does not feature among the top destinations for Europeans wishing to take a holiday. Were it not for the instability in Zimbabwe, with which Zambia shares a crucial border at Victoria Falls, it is questionable whether as many tourists would make it here at all. Prior to arriving, we had no inkling of what to expect: unlike Kenya with its wildlife; Tanzania with Ngorongoro, the Serengeti and Zanzibar; or Malawi with its lake and famously friendly people Zambia truly is terra incognita.
So far on our trip, we have found border crossings and dealings with Immigration officers to be a good barometer of the service level and warmth to be expected in a country. Zambia was no different. As we entered Immigration, we found ourselves in a cramped office shared by nine staff, busy sipping coca-cola from bottles as they devoured BBC World News from a flat-screen TV and gossiped among themselves. They carefully avoided all eye contact with the rapidly growing crowd of visa applicants – we were invisible and inaudible until they chose to recognise us.
Nevertheless, having heard complaints from another group of travellers who had been waiting for over 45 minutes, we decided to try to alert a pretty young officer to our presence (we were after all paying $50 each). She immediately waved us off with a flick of the hand as she set about trying to crack open a bottle of coke with her molars, kicked back in her chair and proceeded to devote her attention to watching the news. Just one of the nine officers on duty was actually processing visas. There was little we could do but wait.
Scanning the room we noticed a large, prominently placed box of lubricated condoms, which were presumably provided to reduce the likelihood that tourists left the country with more than they bargained for or that any STIs were left behind by visitors. Nearby a large poster proudly proclaimed “A real woman waits.” Several of us wondered whether this was supposed to be a not so subtle reminder that using the services of prostitutes is inadvisable (the proximity of the condom box seemed to be confusing the message, though); perhaps it was intended to inspire guilt in women who were considering pre-marital sexual liaisons? Whatever the intentions of the poster, several of us wondered why a real man could not also wait, especially given that one in every seven Zambians is HIV positive; 79,000 new infections were recorded in the country in 2009 (an average of 200 per day); the current life expectancy is around 39 years.
After watching the BBC report on the earthquakes in Spain and bombings in Pakistan, our visas were processed. We were finally free to roll over the border and into the dry grassy landscape of northern Zambia. Travelling along potholed roads we trundled towards Chipata to camp for the night.
On the map, the island nation of Sri Lanka appears to fall like a solitary tear, off the ‘chin’ of India. The country has had more than its fair share of tragedies including a protracted civil war and the devastating tsunami in 2004, however Sri Lankans are not downbeat. Traces of the tragic chapters of life on the island elude all but the most inquisitive observer (the scars of war are off the tourist trail); one could mistakenly infer that that life on the island has always been a succession of peaceful, lazy, sun drenched days, but perhaps it is the ability to move on that makes Sri Lanka what it is today.
Exasperated with big traffic choked cities in Asia, we headed straight from the airport to the central train station in Colombo (the capital) and on to Galle, a former Dutch fort on the south western coast, which was so well constructed that it was one of the only structures on the coast to have survived the tsunami intact.
The bus ride from the airport was, quite literally, an introduction to the rhythm of the island. As we boarded, the pubescent driver fired up the ancient former Japanese town bus, turned up the sound system and we were off. For the next 45 minutes we were treated to a steady stream of pan pipes (yes, pan pipes and we aren’t even in Peru yet!), reggae, brazilianesque samba, a hint of African pop-music, something resembling Caribbean soka, R&B and local ballads. Even when Sri Lankan rap was being played, the elderly passengers seemed content enough to nap through it. The volume impeded conversation, but bumping along sun baked roads fringed with palm trees, it was hard to resist rocking to the myriad beats belted out.
Occasionally the bus was so crowded that the conductor struggled to push through the bodies jammed in the aisle, but not one person seemed agitated or aggressive. People were well dressed and, for the most part, immaculately groomed. Sri Lankans actually used zebra crossings and drivers slowed down to allow pedestrians to cross the street. It had been a long time since we last witnessed such orderliness. There was something instantly likable about Sri Lanka, although we had just arrived, we were had a feeling that we were going love it.
At the bottom of the staircase leading up to the mega statue, which commemorates one of the defining battles that led to the independence of Vietnam in Dien Bien Phu, we met two Germans looking to change any Lao Kip we had for their Vietnamese Dong. However we had exchanged our money before crossing the border, but we did spend about half an hour exchanging travel tips as we were heading in opposite directions.
The German couple said that Vietnam had been interesting, but lamented the number of rip-offs and scams they had experienced; cautioning that prices in Vietnam are not set and overcharging is rife. They mentioned feeling like walking dollar signs, constantly being overcharged and having to haggle over items which one would normally expect to have a fixed price, or even despite a fixed price had been given, e.g. at the hairdresser.
To survive here, you really need to know how to haggle and barter. In the two biggest cities Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, comradeship seems a thing of the past. Now it is all about the money – every man for himself.
At hotels prices may decrease as much as 50% if you know how to haggle; everything from bus tickets, which ranged from 250,000 Dong (or 10 Euros), at one travel agency to 170,000 Dong (7 Euros) two doors down, is negotiable. The price depends on what you look like i.e. how you are dressed, and how well travelled you look (or gullible the salesperson thinks you might be).
One morning as we were checking out the statue of Lenin, which is down the road from Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Hanoi, a man cycled up with a stack of books. He offered to sell us the Lonely Planet Bangladesh and Sri Lanka guides (which we will need in a few weeks). His asking price? 500,000 Dong (20 Euro). Now that’s what we call a rip-off! In HCMC, we were quoted 60,000 for the Bangladesh guide. In Vietnam, we soon learned that you really have to shop around!
Finally we were on our way to Vietnam, some home comforts and a little warmth; however at 5 am we woke to find that the whole of Munag Khua was pitch black and a steady rain had begun to fall. Martin volunteered to go down the rickety staircase, made from scraps of wood, to find the man who was responsible for the ferry, which would take us 10 metres across the river to the bus.
A search with a head torch and a few calls in the dark woke the boatman, who had the monopoly on the pathetic ferry that, if the river were lower, and our baggage lighter, we would totally have crossed on foot. Once we made it to the dock with our baggage, we found that a few others were waiting for the rusty boat, which rocked alarmingly in the water as we boarded. Onboard we were hostage to the grossly inflated fare, which the boatman (who appeared to be a little hung over) demanded.
Once the motor was on, we travelled for approximately 30 seconds before being delivered to the opposite bank of the river, where the bus was due to leave at 5:30 am. We found a bus, but no driver and nobody on that side of the river seemed to be awake yet. We waited, as directed, outside the largest building there and sheltered from the rain, taking turns to go to the loo behind the parked bus.
Approximately half an hour later, the bus began to be loaded with all manner of mats, food, tools and building materials. This loading would continue all the way to the border with Vietnam; we stopped frequently to load yet more people, perishable, non-perishable and live goods throughout the morning. Surprisingly, some of the young people we picked up were wearing Diesel jeans and toting Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Coach handbags – of course none of them were real. The irony of the fact that these luxury brands had found their way here, to the north eastern corner of Laos, a place swimming in a sea of mud, where people live in depressingly basic conditions and signs such as the one below can be seen, was not lost on either of us.
The journey along the treacherous hairpin bends on the road to the border was much longer than we had anticipated. When we finally arrived, a large group of guards, who looked formidable in their smart uniforms, were waiting. As the only farangs (foreigners), we were singled out; a guard barked at us indicating that we had to sit down and submit to a temperature check with a digital thermometer. As I submitted to the gruff guard who inserted the dirty nozzle of the digital thermometer into my ear, I began to wonder if it was possible to catch something nasty from it.
After about 15 minutes, we were ushered into Vietnam. As we filed past the statue of Uncle Ho in the hallway, which was uncannily reminiscent of the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il we had to bow in front of last year in North Korea, we exchanged a knowing look. Finally we were in Vietnam!