The Corrupt Goat Killer

goatIt was a blur, a flash of beige and black darting out of the high grass, no time for me to react, except for the reflex expletive. Then, the inevitable sickening thud, thud as my heavy ute’s tyres crushed the life out of the poor creature.

I had killed a goat.

I shuddered to a crashing halt, still cursing my bad luck, and grabbing my wallet, jumped out of the car to be greeted by the sight of the wretched animal twitching its last vestiges of its short life away. There would be no miracle recovery. Nearby a young kid bleated mournfully, confused as to what had become of its mother. In a goat’s world, the scene could not have been more pathetic.

A crowd was gathering.

“Where’s the owner?” I demanded

A lady quietly replied, “Owner not here. You are free to go.”

I was prepared for this, I knew the rules and this is not how it is supposed to work. If you run over a goat in Zambia, you must pay recompense; the going rate is two hundred kwacha (about forty US dollars or twenty five pounds). Goats are valuable, they provide milk and meat. A car that mows down a bleating animal must pay the price of its destruction to the owner. My brain was telling me to do as custom demanded, not run away.

“Does anyone know where the owner is?” I asked again, this time a little louder.

By now the crowd had grown. A vehicle running over a goat is a welcome diversion to the daily life of a village, especially if the deceased goat is not a mile long grease spot. The goat’s fate they care nothing about, but an occasion is to be savoured. The crowd was jovial and inquisitive. Several of the men were inspecting the carcass, sizing it up for its potential value as an unexpected lunch. Meat is not always this easy to come by.

The ubiquitous, hopeful youth arrives, always on the make. There is one in every gathering wherever in the world you are. “Give me one fifty kwacha and I will give it to the owner,” he offers. Of course he would.

“Can you take me to the owner?” I ask, not with any real prospect of success.

“Give me one fifty and I will make sure he gets it.” Not a reply one felt one could trust.

The crowd was now festive, men greeting each other as if they had been long apart, women standing to the side, gossiping amongst themselves, and children running and laughing. It had become obvious that I had provided the sideshow, and now they were queuing up for the fun.

The poor goat, meanwhile, was now been taken to the side of the road and bleed dry in preparation for the coming feast.

And still no owner.

I knew I was never going to meet the owner, nor was I inclined to stay any longer; I was already on a very tight timeline to make it to a meeting in another town. The untrustworthy youth was still standing by, bouncy and fidgety, laughing at jokes in the local language made by other youths. My choices had run out so I gave him one hundred kwacha and told him to give it to the owner, and then I told the lady who earlier told me to go, that he had the money and was to give it to the owner. They both agreed it would happen. I knew it wouldn’t. The whole village would know, but they will spend it amongst themselves as they see fit, most likely discussing what to buy with their windfall as they picked the bones dry of the already skinned goat.

I climbed back in my car and drove off, a little shaken, but otherwise ok. I had a meeting to get to.

**********

I got to my meeting on time and, at its conclusion, pointed my car to Ndola. Less than an hour down the road I was pulled over by a police speed check. He claimed I was doing eighty three kilometers in a sixty kilometer zone. There are no signs indicting the legal speed, but even so as I was going over speed humps at the time, eighty three kilometers was more likely twenty three. Speed humps in Zambia are designed to rattle the teeth out of your head and leave the cars undercarriage all over the road. Going over them fast was a once in a lifetime event…for the car, at least.

He showed me the radar reading, but it was clear the radar was broken and the readout was frozen for eternity on eighty three. It was all too easy to see what was happening. I asked what the fine was.

“One hundred and eight kwacha” he smiled. He knew what was coming.

I knew if I asked him to fill out a ticket it would only make him mad. He would take me to the police station, spend four hours looking for the ticket book, whilst interviewing me about my visa status, stamps on my passport, how long I was entitled to be in the country…everything he could think of to make sure he conveyed that anytime I feel like a repeat of this, all I had to do was ask for a ticket.

“I only have one hundred,” I replied, and to make sure he understood, I handed over my license with the note underneath. With the well-practiced speed of a magician, the note was separated from the license and placed in his top pocket, no doubt only to be seen again when he needed to buy something.

Handing me back my license, he smiled and said, “This time I give you a discount.”

He knew it was nonsense, I knew it was nonsense, and he knew I knew it was nonsense. We had both just committed a crime, for which we will never be punished. It was all part of the game of life in Zambia. How depressing.

**********

So which act was worse; killing the goat or bribing the police officer? In truth, if you even have to stop for split second to think about it, then maybe you too are part of the problem.

The goat was going to die anyway. It was being bred so that a village would not starve. If that annoys you, then so be it. Personally, I can’t get upset over a goat that had no road sense. And the villagers not only got an unexpected lunch, they also got one hundred kwacha to spend wisely, or, if they so choose, on a good time. All but the goat were better off.

However, when I left that policeman I was very upset. And annoyed. And full of internal self-flagellation. A few hours earlier I was amongst poverty that my subsequent actions only entrenched. By paying the policeman his bribe so that I might save less than twenty dollars, I was actually taking money from the people of Zambia.

Off course the policeman was to blame, but not as much as I. After all, the policeman, even with his bribes, earns a pittance of what I earn. I could afford to do this correctly. I knew what I was doing was perpetuating the problem. I was just being a cheap, lazy jerk, with no consideration for the suffering of the others in this country.

So, go right ahead, call me a goat killer, I couldn’t care less. However, if you call me corrupt I will bow my head in shame, and hope that next time I will be a stronger human being. However, I doubt it. As I said, it is entrenched…in everyone here.

Advertisements
Posted in The Indulgent Bludger | 1 Comment

Solwezi

As you enter the town of Solwezi, you are greeted by a sign that proudly proclaims, “WELCOME TO SOLWEZI – WHERE IT IS ALL HAPPENING”. What this ALL is, and how it is HAPPENING can only be surmised, but certainly something is happening, and it happens quite a lot.

Solwezi used to be a small village. Then a global mining company turned up and dug a hole. Now it is a mass of slums and markets, not so much sprawling as rather piling on top of one another, as more and more people come daily seeking a job in the mine. It is replete with bad roads and sanitation and full of the type of opportunistic entrepreneurs one finds the world over and from whom you spend an inordinate amount of time trying to avoid. It can best be described as the Ankh Morpork of Zambia, minus the guiding hand of the Patrician.

Its population is barely 150,000 and yet it seems to move as one mass of never ending activity and commerce as local traders try to eke out a living in the harsh reality of third world existence. Hastily cobbled together establishments pop up all over the market area, selling everything from local village fruit to supposedly brand new high quality spare parts for motor vehicles, which are in reality stolen parts purloined from the many broken down cars and trucks that litter the road side between Chingola and Solwezi; one hundred and eight miles of continuous pothole with the occasional bit of bitumen to break the bouncing tedium. I can personally vouch for the fact that hitting a pothole at over seventy miles an hour is a sure way to cut open a head as your skull meets the roof of your wildly bucking vehicle.

However, this story is not about poor roads and their hazards. Zambia, as I have previously mentioned, is a very devout Christian country, and like most devout countries, the further you go into the slums, the more stronger the devotion becomes. Mainly this is because all of us seek a better life, and if you are wretchedly destitute with no apparent means of climbing out of poverty in this life, then I guess it makes sense to believe in better after life.

P1080886

This belief extends to many aspects of daily life, including businesses in Zambia having religious appellations, such as “God is Good Restaurant”, or “Jesus Never Fails Household Wares” – which begs the question, whom do you complain to if you get food poisoning, or the chair you just bought splays its legs in all directions when you sit upon it for the first time. I strongly doubt God is going to provide a refund, and I am sure Jesus doesn’t have a warranty program.

20140119_111907

However, my personal favourite and horror in equal measure is the hopefully named, “In God We Trust Barbershop” (which also does a sidelight of phone charging; what haircutting and charging phones have in common defies me, but one must admire the entrepreneurial style, nevertheless). Now, I am not sure about you, but as a man is brandishing scissors with gay abandon and flourish just millimeters above my scalp, it would seem to me that I would not want to be trusting god, as rather trusting the tonsorial artist with the sharp instruments that are laying waste to the little remaining hair upon my head. And having a shave can only bring forth visions of Sweeney Todd.

But I digress. Normally I would be aghast about mixing religion with money, as it seems to excuse all manner of poor practices and boorish behavior as long as one is seen as religiously pure. In the US for example, many religious based institutions believe it is there right, nee, duty, to enforce their beliefs on employees, and in some cases, even customers.

However, here in Zambia, this appears not to be the case. There is a faith bound innocence about this sort of activity that I find charming, almost disarming, even though I am an atheist, for I can see how such devotion does improve their otherwise unhappy lives, giving one structure and belief amidst the chaos of everyday life.

Or does it?

At times that structure and belief is bunkum, and there are any number of daily examples that make you realise that for all its supposed benefits, it is all too easy to abandon God when the chance to make a few more Kwacha comes along.

Only a few miles down the road from where the religious barber styles hair into godly prescribed shapes, there is a lake with a lodge that has plainly seen better days and appears to have little in the way of paying customers. When I arrived, I walked to the lake which looked serene, gentle ripples from a gentle breeze, wading birds hunting fish and crustaceans in the reeds, small birds chirping loudly in the trees and a general lack of anything approaching hurry or bother in life.

As I was taking a few photos, a young lass, no more than 20 was my guess, came to greet me and inform me that it was 25 Kwacha to hire the small motor dinghy for half an hour. As tempting as that offer was, I felt that unless I planning on fishing – the bream here are fabulous eating – I couldn’t see any other reason to jump into the boat, especially as I was on a tight schedule. Instead, as it was near lunch, I enquired as to whether or not any food was being served and how much it would cost.

“50 Kwacha to take pictures of me,” was her short and red faced reply.

Clearly something was lost in translation. I had no idea how we got from the subject of sating my appetite to taking a few photos of her, nor in fact what sort of snapshots she was implying I would be allowed to take. What I did notice, though, was the large, religious cross dangling from her necklace and resting atop her bosom.

And there you have it; in a world where stomachs are empty and the need to survive for just the day, let alone a lifetime, is still the most powerful need of all, religion, no matter how often you go to church, can be easily put aside for a few minutes a day. After all, who doesn’t want a better life now, no matter what the next life may promise.

Here endth the lesson.

Posted in The Indulgent Bludger | Leave a comment

The Ringo Champion of the World

imagesApropos to nothing, and possibly apocryphal to boot, John Lennon was once asked what he thought of the view that many people in the musical world didn’t think Ringo Starr was the best drummer in the world.

“Best drummer in the world”, scoffed Lennon, “he’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles.”

Or maybe this is apropos after all, for I was just informed that I am the best in the world at configuring a particular piece of software for various types of businesses. The fact that this statement was made by a person being interviewed for a role that would report directly to me, plus the undeniable truth that what I do involves a very small pond – a puddle in a heat wave, really – and only few tiny and anemic fish to fight off – the sort who if they were men would have sand kicked into their face at the beach – should be taken into account. Moreover, I do find flattery, sincere or otherwise, so unseemly when you are applying for a job, but feel free to offer to buy me a drink or go to bed with me. But I digress.

It was my reaction to her statement that interested me most, not her desperate attempt to butter me up. My response was to instantly and somewhat defensively tell her I wasn’t the best. The point is, and I say this without a shadow of conceit, she may have said something not too far from the truth, and, if it was the case that her statement was correct, was I in fact displaying false modesty? Would it have been wrong of me to say that she was probably correct? Should I not acknowledge to myself, if not the world, that I do have some modicum of talent? Why do we feel the need to underplay who we are?

When it comes to sportspeople, modesty, false or otherwise, never enters into their thinking. At his peak, Tiger Woods was untouchable; he knew this and, worse still, his opponents knew this; they were beaten before they started, everyone it seemed was playing for second. In the end, it was not another golfer swinging a club that bought him undone, but, unexpectedly, his irate wife who swung a nine iron with such perfect timing at the “over twenty and still counting” timing bastard that his invincibility shield was shattered into a million pieces just like the windscreen she planted the club into. However, until that moment of personal unraveling, no one, especially Woods, would say there was anyone better.

Michael Jordon knew that all he had to do was cross the white line and the best basket baller in the world had just entered the court. When Lionel Messi has the football is at his feet, he is certain no other footballer on the same field will do better than what he is about to do. Roger Federer, as unassuming a human being as possible, still believed that when he had a racquet in his hand, his best was the best there ever was. Many believe that at the moment, so good is Federer that Nadal may well be the second best of all time and Djokovic and Murray may well be the third and fourth best ever. As for Serena Williams, her simple creed is that if she wants to win, she will, and there is nothing any other female tennis player alive can do to stop her.

The point is, none of these people are shy about how good they are; their egos are writ large, and we applaud them for their seeming invincibility. Of course, they are not invincible, they do lose now and then, but even that loss makes them seem even more invincible because it is unexpected and we always blame them for losing, not praise the opponent for winning. Only old age stops them, as it must for all of us. But until that day looms, these people wake up every morning not only thinking they are the best, but behaving as if they are the best.

Artists aren’t exactly wall flowers, either, especially actors, and especially the actors who are not that good. They ooze a confidence that may seem misplaced to us – I just watched Red 2 on a flight and the only thing I can say about that abomination is that Bruce Willis just took two hours of my life away. Only a person who truly believes in their greatness can act as badly as Willis does and still think he is Laurence Olivier doing a Hamlet soliloquy. Why Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins would be seen even in the same studio as that movie beggars belief and depresses me no end, but I am digressing again and this is a discussion for another time.

Perhaps it is because in sport and art, we have way to measure greatness. When you win a tournament, championship, gold medal, whatever, you have proved you are the best, and only the meanest pedantic can argue otherwise. The same goes for the arts; these days you can’t open a paper without some award or prize ceremony handing out gongs to women in frocks that contain less material than some of my hankies and yet cost more than the gross national product of most African countries, or men in tuxedos that just make them look stilted. But, no matter how it is presented, someone is always being proclaimed as the best, and they have the crappy statuette to prove it.

But not me. Nor any of my colleagues as far as I know. Nor anyone in my industry. Truth be known, if I were to swan into a boardroom and announce to the assembled business leaders that your problems are over, I have all the answers, I would be swanned right out again. Forcefully. With due violence. And rightly so.

Doing my job properly involves a lot of long hours of worry, followed by presentations of indeterminable value, then the hours of trial and error as you try to implement, and the months afterwards as you try to fix the issues no one thought of in the first place. Success is judged by how small the issues register is, reward comes in the form of a warm inner glow, the oft metaphorical peeing in a wetsuit analogy. And the monthly pay cheque, for which you are usually grateful, but still feel is somewhat under value.

Perhaps I am the best in the world, but as Broderick Crawford fatally found out in that classic western, “The Fastest Gun Alive”, there is a Glenn Ford in everyone’s life to prove that there is always someone who is faster than you. And so it will always be.

Of course, Woods, Messi, Federer, Williams, et al will eventually find someone who is faster. And one day they will wake up and no longer be the best. It will be a day of hurt for some of them and a day of relief for others as they seek out new challenges to be best at. The best simply want to be the best at whatever they do, even if it is a just a game of tiddlywinks. It is what makes them.

Me, well, I simply can’t believe I am the best. My Glenn Ford is out there, whether it be a human or that one project I just couldn’t make work. Besides, like Ringo, why should I care that am the best or not? It is a great and fortunate life we both lead, be happy you have it. Yes, I am damn good at what I do, but am I the best there is…nuh!

Oh, and she didn’t get the job. I gave the position to another lady who seemed to have the right amount of cynicism to what we do. Starry eyed enthusiasm and opportunistic blandishments are for children on Christmas Eve hoping for the present of their dreams.

Posted in The Indulgent Bludger | Leave a comment

Of Velcro, Beer and the Binds of Life

As I struggled to find a way out of my tent, bleary eyed and severely hung over, I was inclined to agree with Howard Jacobson, who once opined that unlike tent flaps, life is not held together by Velcro, although he never got round to saying what was the force that actually performed the job of holding life intact. However, as I tried to untangle the Velcro flaps that now cocooned me in my tent, it was clear that Velcro was indeed a much stronger bind than anything that threads my life together. Eventually though, I won the struggle with the spiky fabric and emerged head and shoulders, baby like, from my nylon womb, minus the goo, and into the light of a new day, and a new year.

It was January 1, and I was in a non-descript camping ground somewhere in the Copper Belt Region of Zambia, near the border of the Congo.

The camping ground was not large, but well-scrubbed with scraggly trees and even more scraggly bushes, as well as the ubiquitous giant termite mounds, and there were only two tents in residence; my small, somewhat weather beaten model that I had borrowed from a friend who had had the good sense to fly back home to Sydney for Christmas, and a far newer and grander tent, that was I was pretty certain belonged to two middle aged English women who decided to spend their Christmas holiday touring the more obscure parts of Africa. At least, I was reasonably confident they were female and English, less confident they were from Birmingham, and had no confidence at all that I would remember their names. However, as the recollection of the night before battled its way past the foggy haze that enveloped my brain, I was depressingly convinced that I had spent the night before drinking and – as is so typical of me – arguing with the same ladies if the correct terminology was spilt milk or spilled milk. I had that all too common gut sinking feeling that I had made a complete arse of myself. Again.

I looked up into the bright morning sky, hurting my eyes and seeing a dozen or so vultures who must have heard about the vast quantity of alcohol – scotch mainly, but with liberal lashings of very ordinary local Shiraz and even more ordinary local beer. No doubt they thought it wouldn’t be long before I became a carcass to pick clean. As my eyes adjusted to the light, switching from bleary to bloodshot, I soon realized they were not vultures, but eagles catching the morning thermals and looking for any road kill, or, in my case, camp kill. However, I didn’t look up for long as it only increased the throbbing in my head and I now wondered if a millipede with a Gene Kelly fixation – one of the larger varieties that seem so abundant in this part of the world – had entered my ear during the night and was now doing a thousand foot tap dance upon my brain. Wearing clogs.

Forcing my body to stand erect – I needed to take control of my life because my bladder was screaming to find the nearest large tree – I took two tentative steps, only to fall flat on my face after tripping over a small beer bottle. I lay in the dust, cursing as to why some moron would leave a bottle lying around like that, only to realise that moron was me. My tent was ringed with stubbies and they represented my elephant / hippo proof fence.

mosi2 Before setting off on my camping trip, I was advised I should surround my tent with litter such as beer bottles because, apparently, elephants and hippos do not like to step over anything, and thus, will walk around my impenetrable fence of empties, leaving my tent, and my sleeping body, unharmed. The theory seemed plausible at the time, even though that particular time was at a BBQ where quite a lot of beer was consumed. However, in the cold hard light of a new day and new hangover, I thought if they won’t step over a small beer receptacle, why would they even think about stepping on my tent? I feared I had been made fun of. And so the wheel turns, c’est la vie….

Gathering myself with as much dignity as I could muster rising from the dirt, I walked twenty or so yards and found the perfect area into which I could relieve myself of last night’s drinks, walked back to my tent, only to hear the other tent’s Velcro being ripped asunder – with far more ease and style than I managed – and seeing one of the (perhaps) Birmingham ladies appear. Like me she was in sleeping attire, me in boxers, and her in pants and singlet – but we were both wearing shoes and socks; one does not walk barefoot in Africa – but unlike me she seemed remarkably fresh and alert. “Good morning, Paul” she trilled in her Brummie accent, to which all I could say in mumbled return was, “Erm, good morning”, because, as previously mentioned, I had completely forgotten her name. However, her face triggered more memories of the night before. Oh dear. Oh god.

New Year’s Eve, me, them, and, oh, far worse than spilled or spilt – take your pick – milk. I was trying to be suave, sophisticated, worldly, manly, knowledgeable, cool, and, above all, a gentleman. I was failed on all counts. The two ladies, whose faces were now vivid in my brain, did what women the world have always done at moments like that; behaved with delightful politeness, and when the clock ticked over midnight, they gave me a polite and proper peck on the cheek, wished me a Happy New Year, and disappeared into the darkness of their tent – rather too hastily, as I now recall.

(As aside, I noted the proximity of their tent; it appeared to be a little bit further from my tent this morning than it was the night before, as if they had decided a few extra yards distance might have been prudent. I also noted that despite my best pleading, there was no beer bottle fence around their nylon quarters. And no elephant footprints on their tent, either.)

The second lady emerged, dressed in similar attire. She was even chirpier than the first, she verily sang out her morning greeting. I just wanted to hide, but said good morning in return. The first lady disappeared into the bushes no doubt to relieve herself – let’s face it, in Africa, life is simpler and primativer – and when she returned, handed over her roll of toilet paper to the second lady who left to do the same. I thought about going back into my tent to avoid last night’s embarrassment, but, alas, the first lady asked if I would like to join them for breakfast; a fry up of eggs and bacon upon the smoking remains of last night’s fire. Bugger it, I was trapped by niceness.

I quickly collected some twigs and larger logs and got the fire ready again as they bought out the eggs and bacon, plus oil and frying pan. The smell of the bacon filled the air and my nostrils as the three of us sat around the camp fire in our underwear and small chattered about life. One of them had been to the creek to get water and the billy can was steaming away meaning coffee would soon drunk. Suddenly, and totally unexpectedly, I had a rush of happiness and well-being which completely dissolved the pains of the previous night away. Even the eagles had disappeared, no doubt sensing that I was not going to die today after all. From last night’s horror ending to 2013, I was having an idyllic way to start to 2014.

After breakfast we wandered back to the creek to do our ablutions. I made sure my eyes were averted at the appropriate times – I may fail, but I still try to be a gentleman –whilst watching out for any sign of danger – did I tell you we were in Africa – and then we went back to the site where we packed our tents, swapped email addresses – Sue and Maureen, at last, that was their bloody names – and said our goodbyes. They were heading across the Congo border to take the short cut to Victoria Falls; I was driving back to Ndola, with work beckoning.

They were far too polite to tell me what I had said, or even worse, tried to do the night before, but as the drive to Ndola wore on, the memories of my deeds slowly assembled into a jigsaw like picture, the likes of which should never be sold to anyone under 18. I felt ashamed. I had ended 2013 in a bad way and I wished I could have done it differently.

However, I was in a somewhat perky mood, because I had started 2014 in the best possible manner. Whatever it is that fastens life, it adheres even better if you get off to a good start. Now, all I have to do is use this moment of time as my momentum for the year.

Posted in The Indulgent Bludger | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A (Zambian) Christmas Carol

scrooge 2It is that time of year – and, goodness, how fast the year seems to have flown – when one must stop dreaming of holing that winning putt at The Masters, or lusting after a pint or several with that delightful Glaswegian, Lorraine Kelly, at the Scotia. Instead, we must turn our attention to Christmas; the season of holly and jolly and lots of other words that end in olly.

The turkey is basting, spuds a roasting and plum puds steam away on the stove. The mistletoe is strung high, and as always old uncle Eric stands leering sentinel, ready to snog any female foolish enough to wander within five yards, whilst poor old aunty Mabel for whom the refrain, “I know she is a cranky old cow, but be nice to her, it might be her last Christmas”, has been sung for the last fifteen years, snores quietly on the sofa to the accompaniment of really awful Christmas carols playing softly in the background. Ah, yes, Christmas.

It is also the time of year when we are told we put our differences to one side and show goodwill to all men, which, when you think about it, is rather absurd. If we can show goodwill at Christmas, why not all year? Or, alternatively, if we hate the buggers for three hundred and sixty four days of the year, why must we be at peace with them for one day? The same goes for thinking of less well off; why indeed, indeed, do we not think of the poor in May or September. It is as if we allow ourselves one day off from our standard attitude of truculent rancour. What tommy-rot.

And I also have one word to those who say Christmas is a time for children. Piffle! Christmas must always be the first terrible proof that is better to travel in anticipation than to arrive. The intolerable aching suspense followed by the monstrous disappointment. When I was seven I never asked the fat bloke for the “The Famous Five Bombs Berlin”, or whatever it was called; what I wanted was the death ray gun or the dragster bike, complete with centre console gear shift. So why am I made to feel filled with gratitude over a book about George, Kirrin, Julian, Anne and Dick, and some dog that proves to be smarter than all. Seriously, even at the age of seven it is not hard to tell that the idea of five snotty nosed, dirty kneed urchins and a flea bag mutt bringing The Third Reich to its knees was an insult to my intelligence. “Achtung, itz zo damn Englisher kidz again, we arz donz forz”. Bah, humbug.

However, I would hate you to consider me an old Scroogey-woogey, and the spirit Christmas, whilst stretching the bounds of credulity, nevertheless courses through my veins, softens my heart and hardens my arteries. Moreover, as I write to you, the spirit is coursing very fast indeed, both in ethereal and liquid form, because I am discussing Christmas with you whilst sitting on the veranda of an old style colonial home, gazing upon a sub-tropical lawn, ensconced as it were in Zambian town of Ndola. Above me bats the size of cats glide whilst below me skinks dart from bush to bush hoping the crows are still sleepy in the morning heat.

Yes, Zambia is exactly where I am. And it fills me with the spirit of joy to be here.

Unlike the worlds we live in, where Christmas is seen as an ever increasing excuse for maudlin excesses – and why not, maudlin excess is what has made us great – Zambians have far more traditional view to the supposed birthday of baby Jesus. A very conservative and Christian country, there are none of the commercial over-hypes, garish decorations or never ending drunken parties – “hesh the besht bossh I ha’ hever hworked for”- to celebrate the festive season. Santa Claus, or Father Christmas if you prefer, is as non-existent here as the unicorn. As are Christmas trees, except in McDonalds, which in itself tell us everything we need to know about that evil empire.

Zambians observe Christmas with simple good grace and sober attention to their religious beliefs. What decorations that are hung do more to remind one of the emphases placed upon observance as opposed to revelry. Indeed, our office Christmas party has been cancelled due to Zambia’s week of mourning in honour of Nelson Mandela. I can think of no politicians’ death that would stop a right ol’ Christmas knees up in any of our countries.

So why does a Christian country that provides a decided lack of opportunity for my annual alcohol infused atheistic orgy of goodwill, fill me with such abundant joy? The answer is simple; every time I am in a place like Ndola, I am reminded that my friends and family in places like Australia and New Zealand, England and Wales, Ireland and Canada, are very fortunate indeed, and we should all appreciate what we have been blessed with. Whilst it is hypocritical to set aside just one day to be nice, it is always good to have an occasional moment in life to reflect upon the good fortune and benevolence we enjoy living in the countries we do.

The people of Ndola live in a state of poverty impossible to imagine unless you have seen it, or, more to the point, lived it. The roads here are appalling; the drains overflow as soon as the sun goes behind a cloud. Beggars and street urchins abound. Shanty towns are never more than a five minute drive no matter where you are in the city. People live from hand to mouth; on pay day the queues at the banks stretch for hundreds of yards from open to close. And, having spent a few hours in the local hospital getting a physical for my visa, one almost yearns to be ill in a modern establishment of healing.

Yet, for all this, these same people, at least the ones I have met, are happy, proud and surprisingly upbeat about life. For them, it seems the mere act of existence is reason enough to enjoy life, and the mere act of having part of my existence spent in Ndola re-energises me as to how fortunate I am, and how wonderful my life is. More to the point, it makes me realise how wonderful our lives are. And is that not something to celebrate?

I will leave you with a Christmas tale. This is the tale of St Augustine attempting to persuade an English King to turn Christian during a festive feast wassail. The party was all a swinging, the room full of glee and revelry, wine, song and wenches aplenty. Suddenly, a bird flew in one window – these were, after all, the days before sliding doors and double glazing – and out another. The King, who may have been Cnut, or Aethelred, I do get them mixed up, thought himself a bit of a philosopher – don’t we all – and turning to Augustine, beseeched the saint to put down his goblet of wine and unhand that woman, and thus spoke, “Behold, my drunken and lecherous saint, is not that bird a metaphor for our own lives. From the dark we come, cast suddenly into colour and warmth and music and wenches, briefly to flutter, before departing back into the eternal cold and dark.”

Augustine did indeed put that woman down, but held tightly to his wine – taking no chances on what wine he already possessed being nicked, waiters being what they are at parties, it could be ages before his goblet was refreshed – and thusly replied to the king, “No, no, my sire, you are entirely wrong. Our lives are dark passages in the stream of life that is God’s love.” And thus, Canute, or was it Eadred, anyway, whoever, instead of telling Augustine what a silly old saint he was, let your halo down, get another goblet full of wine in your belly and re-gather that wench, fell hook, line and sinker for Augustine’s rhetoric and thus Christmas was born.

Well, sod that.

The king is correct, it is cold and dark, and quite friendless outside; this is as good as it gets luvvies. So let’s spill wine on the carpet, snog under the mistletoe, and stuff yourself with pork crackling until it comes out of your ears. Have a no holds barred orgy of merriment, and while you are at it, make sure everyone else is having merry orgy as well, family and friend alike. And don’t give your progeny bloody Famous Five novels.

As for the other three hundred and sixty four days of the year, be nice to everyone, feed the poor, heal the sick, and give thanks how lucky you are to be alive, especially in a country where your chances of dying of Yellow Fever are slim.

But never on Christmas day, for it is the one day of the year we must be really serious about the business of living.

For this is the true meaning of Christmas.

Merry Christmas

Posted in The Indulgent Bludger | Leave a comment

Flying to Ndola

Never fly Kulula Airlines. These are words I can say this with absolute clarity and certainty, even though I have never set foot inside one of Kulula’s self-advertised modern fleet of Boeing 737s. However, I feel one should never trust an airline that sees the need to paint on the side of their planes, “This Way Up”. One cannot but harbour a smidgeon of doubt against a company that deems it necessary to remind its pilots, so openly and brazenly, that a plane performs best when the undercarriage is pointing in the direction of down and the tail is pointing in the general direction of up. That seems to be a pretty obvious way of flying a plane, even to those of us who have never stepped inside a cockpit.

And, unfortunately, with Kulula it get’s worse. On some of the other planes in the Kulula fleet they inscribe in big letters on the fuselage where the front door is, where the pilot sits, which end is which, and, most worrying, where the wings are located. If you need to be told that a wing is a wing, you have the sort of problems that mere words of direction will never solve.

Granted, the livery of Kulula is in a calm and relaxing light lime green shade, and I have no doubt the intention of the company is to soothe the jangled nerves of harried customers by injecting some sort of light hearted whimsy in to their lives. However, I do not like my airlines to be whimsical, especially when they are charged with the duty of transporting my person to dizzying heights from which one could easily fall should you lose the ongoing knack of defying gravity. It seems to me that a pilot should have all senses relating to fun surgically removed so that he or she may concentrate solely on the keeping the airplane in the air part of their occupation. And, for this reason, I also recommend you do not fly Mango Airlines.

Not only is the bright orange livery of Mango aircraft disturbing – I have always been one who appreciates muted tones of the aircraft I board, it gives one a feeling of solidity, experience, and, above all, the sense that no one is going to have too much to distract them when you are 37,000 feet above sea level. No, as bad as orange is, it is the words, “Leave before the last shot” on the side of their planes that worries me. Is this a reminder to pilot and crew that they must stop drinking and make way to the airport? Or is there some sort of gun-fight procedure one needs to perform before checking in? If you survive the carnage, you get a boarding pass, perhaps?

Whatever, I simply refuse to get into a plane that does not take the business of flying me soberly.

And taking the business of flying soberly is what South African Airlink does. One cannot complain that from check in to arrival that there is too much sign of happiness. In fact, when it comes to describing the staff of SAA – their moniker is far too long – the word that keeps popping to the top of the list is “dour”. The police who patrol OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg look far happier than any employee of SAA, although that may have something to do with the fact that the police have large and very menacing looking guns, capable of mowing down anyone who dares to look shifty, whereas the employees of SAA do not.

However, I should not complain, as I asked for sobriety in my airline and SAA delivers that quality in Olympic pool size buckets. What they do not deliver, though, is a plane that can be in any way described as modern. To say the SAA fleet is old is an understatement. I am not saying that Livingstone discovered the source of the Nile in seat 5C, however, it is entirely possible that had Stanley only waited a few more years, he could well of arrived by the same aircraft the flew me from Johannesburg to Ndola.

One is always perturbed when you see your plane parked beside another, a pair of jumper leads enjoining them like an electronic umbilical cord, and a couple of mechanics looking under the bonnet, revealing far too much bottom in the process (which leads to the obvious question as to why builders, plumbers and mechanics feel the need to fill the optics of hapless people with their ample hairy bums. Is this part of the training process?).

But, I digress. The ageing, creaking bus that drove us from check in to our waiting ERJ 135-LR – no I have no idea who makes it either – looked more capable of delivering me safely to Zambia than the plane I was destined to fly in. Instead of a Kulula “This Way Up”, this SAA craft should have “Condemned” stamped along its fuselage.

However, it flew, and, surprisingly, flew well, although we had one brief scare as we approached Ndola; for reasons one probably doesn’t want to know, our pilot completely flew past Ndola, had to make a gravity defying sharp banking turn, and then managed to land the plane after missing the first third of the runway and thus having to break with G force inducing strength to make sure he didn’t run off the two thirds he had allotted to himself. We pulled up with inches to spare. All of this would have been understandable if Ndola International had been busy with constant coming and goings of aircraft, but that sad truth was that the only other plane parked at the airport was a small and forlorn looking yellow crop duster.

As we alighted from the plane, I felt I should kiss the tarmac, Pope like, or do something symbolic, just to give thanks that I was on solid ground again, but I probably would have been arrested. The police in Ndola may have looked a little smaller, and certainly scruffier than their counterparts in South Africa, but their appearance only accentuated that the guns they carry can kill. Their faces gave a look of boredom in that they have not had to shot anyone in the last five minutes and therefore planting several bullets into me would be a good way to spend some happy, quality time. Therefore, I walked briskly in to the customs hall where I was greeted by the universal scowl of the customs clerk, who duly stamped my passport with excessive force, and allowed me passage to the country of Zambia.

I had arrived in Zambia. And now the fun begins.

I have taken up a position in Zambia with a mining company, and I am certain there will be many adventures. I once vowed this blog would never be a travelogue, but after just a few hours in Zambia, I realize there is a wealth of writing material to be had, and write it I will. You will simply have to indulge me.

Posted in The Indulgent Bludger | Leave a comment

Narrow Boat Philosophy

P1070956

When it comes to my contribution to the noble science of philosophy, it is not so much a case of the blind leading the blind; rather, it is the blind blinding the perfectly sighted. What I know about the subject made famous by giants of intellect such of Plato, Wittgenstein and Russell, could be written in crayon on the back of a very small postage stamp. Further, what I could add to the same subject what might be considered as original material could be written on the same postage stamp using the same crayon in what little space is left. In short, I am to philosophy what a gorilla is to the lace work.

However, never mind, for we all have our personal philosophies, even if it is as simple as the driver of the car who just cut me off at the lights, thus forcing me to miss those lights, making me stuck longer in traffic, is always, without contradiction, a complete and utter bastard, and for whom my belief in a blanket ban on capital punishment, no matter how heinous the crime, has found a well-deserved exception to that rule. That is one of my philosophies. Narrow Boat Philosophy is another.

When I was living in the beautiful town of Chester – and who can say if the future does not bode a return – I would often go for long walks – and we are talking quite a few hours of strolling here – following the path of the Shropshire Union Canal. The walk was peaceful and provided great contrast; through the bustling edges of city centre, past abandoned factories, to the outer edges of the town and into the rural countryside that I so love in that north-west corner of England. My rambling would take me past neighbourhoods with back yards littered with junk and shopping centres, that seemed to consist of nothing but tattoo parlours and betting shops. Yet, barely ten minutes earlier I was walking past the typical English rural cricket ground, Worsley’s flannelled-fools aplenty, best traditions of an English summer on display. Twenty minutes forward of the cricket and ten minutes past the tattooed aplenty punters, and I would be woodlands, the likes of which one might expect to be accosted – were it not for the fact that Nottingham Forrest is some one hundred miles to the southeast – by Robin Hood leaping out from behind a tree and demanding my IPhone so that some poor waif may play Candy Crush. Whatever, you get the picture.

The Shropshire Union Canal is part of a vast network of canals built over some three centuries throughout England and parts of Wales. It is typical of the robust way Britain of that age solved a dilemma, for the roads of the period were only just emerging from the medieval mud and long trains of packhorses were the only means of “mass” transit of raw materials and finished products. The British canal system of water transport played a vital role in the United Kingdom’s Industrial Revolution and subsequent Victorian golden age, and that prosperity enabled democracy to flourish around the world. We have much to be grateful for the Shropshire Union Canal and its many brothers and sisters.

Of course, there is no point having canals if you can’t float stuff on them, and Narrow Boats, as the name suggests, are long and narrow barges designed for the specific purpose of transporting goods from one city to another along the canals. Originally the boats were propelled by horses and then, after James Watt had finally perfected a better use for the steam kettle, steam engines.

These days, what with the M1 and modern lorries, plus the gradual decline of industry in general in the UK, the only Narrow Boats to be seen on canals are piloted by tourist and retiree alike. Bedecked with lace curtains and satellite dishes, they are piloted by middle-aged couples who have decided a nice potter along the canals is just the way to spend a holiday; berthing every night at a mooring point near a friendly tavern where they dine with other middle aged couples and discuss the finer points of, erm, whatever it is Narrow Boat owners consider to be finer points.

I would happily watch these boats meander up and down the canal at a pace so leisurely that time itself seems to slow down. No one was in a hurry, not that they could be in a hurry anyway; Narrow Boat steam engines being barely big enough to give you a hot cup of tea, let alone push a thirty plus foot boat. However, speed was not the point. The point was – and here we begin to discuss my philosophy – that boats only went forward. They had no alternative.

Canals are, by definition, narrow, hence why Narrow Boats are, erm, narrow so that they can fit into the narrow canals. Now you know why they are called Narrow Boats. Over thirty feet long, they may be, but anything wider than ten foot is just extravagant. Most of a journey along a canal is only wide enough for two boats, one going to one direction of the compass and the other one hundred and eighty degrees the opposite way. Turning one around is like trying to manoeuvre a jumbo jet into a phone box, not that I did not once a have considerable mirth moment watching someone try to do just that (turn a narrow boat around, that is, not try to park a jumbo in a phone box, which I think would be altogether more amusing).

(As an aside, have you ever noticed that when someone tries to accomplish the impossible he or she is immediately surrounded by a large crowd of well-intentioned people giving him or her precise instructions on how to achieve the impossible. There are only two problems with this; a) everyone has a different plan on how it should be done, and b) well, it is impossible for a reason, and that reason is that there is no possible way what they are trying to do can be done. Never trust a person who tells you nothing is impossible, they are usually the ones trying to sell you a self-help book or found in a heap of bloody pulp as they attempted to sky dive using a hanky as a parachute. Many things are impossible, otherwise, why would we have a word for it. More homespun philosophy there.)

Back to floating blithely down canals. As canals are fabricated waterways, the people who built them had to contend with fluctuations of terrain, i.e. even though Britain is not a particular hilly country in the way, say Austria is, it still has a few bumps and hollows that need negotiating. Rivers got round this problem over time by simply either wearing the obstacle away or creating waterfalls to continue on their journey. Neither solution was practical, as the first required many millenniums to achieve whilst the second would have the narrow boat splintering like a barrel over Victoria Falls. The ingenious people of England therefore built Canal Locks.

I will not waste much time in going over in details the internal working of locks, other than to say they are ways of raising or lowering the water level in a canal by opening and shutting gates. You enter through one gate, shut it, open the other gate and the water level rises or drops depending if your canal is going uphill or down.

I loved watching the boats negotiate this process. A person, – which always seems to be the female of the partnership, because men presume themselves to be at their best in a crisis when they are steering and yelling but not actually doing the work. Discuss. – would disembark from the boat and open the first gate for the boat to enter, shut the gate once it had and then run to the gate ahead and open a sluice to let water in or out. The boat would rise or drop to the desired level, the sluice would be shut, the next gate opened, and the boat would continue on its inexorable journey forward, obstacle negotiated.

Thus, we have the perfect metaphor of life. As much as we look over our shoulders, we can’t go back. Moreover, once we have arrived at an obstacle, in this case a lock, we must either try to negotiate the obstacle or we stop, give up and, well, sink the boat as it were. You certainly can’t just sit there, because you would block the path of others behind you, and, you can’t turn around because there is no going back. Either you move forward, or you die.

I suppose sometimes when we fix past mistakes, limited though that option is, we may feel as if we are travelling back to right past wrongs. However, we are not travelling back in time; we are only dealing with the present because that mistake has travelled forward as well. Anytime we think we have undone the past we have, in reality, only repaired the present and made a possible future brighter. However much as I would love this to be so, there is no Tardis, Marty McFly is a fictional character, and Einstein’s theory of time travel is but a theory.

It is a simple philosophy, really. Obvious when you think about it, and, yes, I know, there are so many variants along this theme that I am not about to rush out, don a toga and have nubile lasses feed me grapes whilst eager students sit at my feet anxiously waiting for the scraps I deem fit to feed them as wisdom. Nevertheless, this philosophy, no matter how it’s presented, bears repeating now and then.

The next time you see a Narrow Boat putting along without a seeming care in the world down whatever canal it is floating, stop and ponder. We have much to learn from middle-aged couples serenely sailing along in the twilight of their youth.

Posted in The Indulgent Bludger | 6 Comments