The shower was near scalding
a heat that leaves your skin itching for more harsh comfort
but it was the hottest I’ve had in weeks
and it stayed that way
I steamed out the biters encircling my naked frame
my arms radiated like dry ice
It’s the signal of a shift, a baptism and wash
and it’s a time I allow tears to fall
It’s the right time, as right as any
It could also be a sleepless wee hour
a loaded walk towards the sunrise
sometimes a dusty, corrugated road away from waves
These moments don’t have to be cliche
but they sure like to be
Emerging from the bathroom a new woman
leaving piles of bubbles and clothes for the next passer-by
a pair of crying eyes waiting at a train car window
fearing the chugs that will tear the space wide.
I have two or three pages in my notebook labeled “Problems,” which outline the state I was in in Lusaka, Zambia on my last week in Africa. They were evacuation plans from my very vulnerable state and from the continent. The first worrisome truth: my ATM card wouldn’t work in the country, a country more expensive than home in most arenas, and no USD in my holdings. Without cash, I couldn’t pay for the hostel accommodations, taxis around the sprawling and scalding city, or the ever-climbing price of my Indian visa “possibility.” Able to afford one night at Chachacha Backpackers, I squeezed dry the resources at my disposal: boiled water in the kitchen for hydration, washed clothes in the outdoor basins, tapped the hostel staff for detailed instructions to internet and grocery locations to avoid taxis. With my phone out of service in the country, I had to charge my card for the internet time to contact local friends that could help me. Luckily, ShopRite let me swipe for my few eggs and rice for sustenance.
The second worrisome truth: the visa to India was virtually guaranteed to take longer than my coming flights would allow. Words directed to the wise advise obtaining visas before that first wondrous jet out of the home land. Penny-pincher that I sometimes can be, I refused to get an Indian visa at home because it would have meant purchasing one year, instead of the minimum six months, to keep my travel dates valid on such a visa. And so I tried across the globe to wrangle this coveted visa as a nomadic, budget-minded foreigner. Italy? Neh, not in my city and not in my time frame. Uganda? My three days in Kampala, basing the daily errands from a modest and ill-connected village, were centered around absorbing shock above logistical necessities. With a week between trucking Africa and my hypnotizing admiration of Qatar Airways flight attendants, Lusaka was the only option at the end of this dusty road.
It’s safe to say, at this point, I had done my research on Indian visas, and Lusaka’s High Commission knew I was on my way…or so one would believe. Any other establishment would have seen my preparation and advance notice as thorough and helpful, except maybe the DMV. So, one can imagine my stupefied state when the indifferent receptionist reported the duration of the process to last up to three weeks. I laughed. The same vacuous paper-pusher told me three days over the phone when I called. When the High Commissioner addressed me personally, albeit in a robotic tone, that I was up poop creek, I made my first frantic reach for the mother land in five months. I stomped quickly in full tears to the US Embassy.
There are few things more annoying than a company, operation, establishment, branch, etc. whose employees abandon their human instinct to help others and refuse to do or say anything that isn’t in their well-articulated job description. These are the same people who expect everyone to know the details of their operations, while also making sure to inform you of the painfully obvious truths they assume you’ve forgotten or aren’t smart enough to know prior. Once again, I’m talking about immigration…and the DMV. Now, I’m aware that Indian, and India alone, issues tourist visas for…well, India. Thank you, ambassadors of America. I’ve never had a true need for the Embassies abroad, and I assumed this fragile situation of one expiring visa, another visa’s complications, and the always entertaining money troubles would merit a sympathetic and “Get-r-Dun” attitude. Though my tears and hyperventilation were real, I allowed them to get a bit pathetic and theatrical in order to get me the thing I needed…the backing of the American government. As Frida Kahlo once said, “Never trust a limping dog or the tears of a woman.” I got help. But it cost me. Fees out the wazoo. And I found myself leaving the Indian High Commission with the equivalent of about $80 less than what I needed to survive at the bare minimum for the next five days.
And that’s when I got the help I couldn’t do without. I used the last of my funds to get a cab from the edge of town I crawled to to get to the bar where I met two Peace Corps volunteers, mutual friends of a sorority sister, and agents of my temporary salvation. I took the weekend off from harassing embassies for what I wanted and enjoyed the hospitality of two fellow countrymen. And I finally found a good ATM…hence my relief…
Written over a beer after the first successful ATM transaction:
“Relief, and that’s all that spills out as my hand shakes and body tingles; such a small scale scrimp session, but wasn’t it worth being worried? I had no way of putting cash in my hands and saw a future filled with problems. Leaning on the hospitality (or charity) of others was my only way out of a week in a bus station…and walking 20 kilometers with a 20 kilo pack…on a road not made for pedestrians. The luxury of a cold beer was hard earned and all the more appreciated, beyond its already praised existence. I suppose I didn’t fret, and I, as they say, made end meet. So what experience do I have in living on the edge of survival with the possibility of no bed or warm food to stop the heavy salivation provoked by pizza billboards. I didn’t even want pizza. It may be just the exercise I need before jumping continents to the most impoverished of lands. I can’t say, “I know how you feel,” but it’s easier to read the glistening eyes that follow your foreign swagger or approach your street side dining table. I think it’s imperative that I find out what life for the line’s underside truly does to the human soul. I knew it was conditional. I knew there was a way out. But just as Jimmy Billy-Bob learns his lesson in bullying and Lucy “Hairy Knuckles” Jean one on popularity, so I caught onto something so haunting and rough that eludes me normally…and few people near me can understand. Thank you, Stanbic Bank, for your loyalty to MasterCard and for not giving up on me.”
That week would have been much less glamorous, hopeful, and fruitful had I not met them. To give you an idea, I was contemplating sleeping in the bus station. To be honest, I did it the first night, curled up next to about 100 mothers and children, holding my bag straps around my legs and resting it on my feet like a penguin’s egg. I awoke with the imprint of Under Armour on my cheek, but it wasn’t half bad for a few hour’s sleep.
Monday, t minus one day before my flight, I arrived at the High Commission office in time for the afternoon pick-up of my visa. Now, the receptionist was beautiful and incredibly sophisticated, but for the sake of my story and memories, I like to refer to the woman who made me cry three times as a vacuous troll. So, this VT made a miscalculation on my visa fees, forgetting roughly $30, and couldn’t process my request. My flight was 24 hours away. Her cryptic explanations didn’t satisfy me, and when I deduced that it was solely her mistake that I was still in limbo, I lost it…a sobbing that ignored the discomfort of the four other people in the room and the signs that forbade erratic or unhelpful behavior. My jaw was dropped in awe of her incompetence. Once again, the High Commissioner came out to silence my hysterics and try to assure me that coming first thing tomorrow with more money would possibly get me results. James, my new friend and chauffeur, let me vent my troubles and offered advice while he drove me back to the hostel. He provided grandfather-like sympathy and even took additional money off the already agreed upon, reasonable taxi fare. He agreed to take me in the morning for the last attempt before I had to launch into Plan B, a complete change in flight plan to Nepal.
That last night, I reflected in a crowded bar. Coldplay was playing…again. I was sure the woman next to me was a hooker. And I wrote:
“I’ve been late before for events, in dangerous places I shouldn’t have been, but I’ve never felt the imminent stress of my physical existence and its acceptance in its space more than I do right now. Paying crap loads to enter, I can only hope I gave myself adequate time to linger and wait for a ticket to the next puzzle. Today, I broke the emotional seal, observed by many who have never seen a woman cry, and tried to seize the opportunity for my heavy mind to be easy, primitive, and relieve the pain I don’t know I have. I repeated, ‘I’m lonely,’ without real belief in the exclamation. I lack a direct line between my needs and consciousness, expecting to cover a loneliness that is supposed to pulse. And this feeling of vulnerable hopelessness that is weighing down on my last hours in Africa is most certainly exacerbated by the gate, the sitting area, and the individuals behind the counter at the Indian High Commission…”
The morning came. I was equipped with more money and my evacuation plans. James and I took off in the morning. Osmosis took my own anticipation to the front seat and transferred the jitters to my hopeful driver. He forfeited the profits of the morning to wait for my verdict in the parking lot. Inside, the lovely VT took my money, gave me a receipt, then announced today was not my lucky day. At this point, the two people behind the plastic partition waited and winced for the sobs they knew were surely on their way.
And then a breakthrough. The head honcho asked, “You are from Indiana. Is that near Chicago or Houston?” It was roughly 2am when he dialed the authorities in the Windy City, leading me to believe he finally flexed his own administrative muscles in order to sidestep the agony of watching me cry one more time. He went in the back, and I began to scribble:
“Depending on what this man can do, I will either crawl out of this door 508,000 kwatcha poorer and bawling for my impending doom and disappointment, or I could leave crying in utter thanks and, again, relief for the salvation of my journey.”
My hand was mid-sentence when he reemerged from the back with a smile, holding my thick, blue passport. I wrote in big bold letters, immediately:
T minus 7 hours to take-off, and I got clearance. The guard at the gate, by now knowing who I was and the details of my trials, gave me heartfelt congratulations. James saw my cheerful stride and started the engine, his massive jowls frozen in a smile. I went back to the hostel, announced my success to those who knew of the bureaucratic struggle, and gave out lollipops like it was my victory parade. I drank three beers, threw on my bag, and went to my flight, but not before falling asleep at the airline gate with my bag perched on my feet, sweating out the Mosi lagers that rewarded my exhaustion and my triumph.
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