Sunday, January 3, 2010

Happy New Years

New Years Eve was upon me. And I woke up early. Very very early, for I was one of the nine people who had decided to go on the optional early morning game drive. For only thirty dollar, how could I resist (my money has been whiling away from all these optional things – but hey, when's the next time I'll be back?)

We took a nine person vehicle out to Chobe National park (the same park we cruised through yesterday) and looked out for all the various animals. Mia (Mya) was a bird watcher, and while I didn't care about birds before, her excitement was hard to resist. Her knowledge and passion led to our whole truck caring about the lavender bellied whatever, and the red beaked whosit.

In the park we watched impala, the new springbok, and saw all number of hippos. They're even lazier than lions. The one we saw yawning at the hippo pool was apparently quite a treat.

As we moved through the park our driver heard a noise off in the bush, and we took off after it. Eventually eight other vehicle converged on our location. What was it? What could have brought everything together like this?

Wild dogs. There was a pack of them hunting Impala. The kill took place in the depth of the the trees, but we could hear the noises, and watched as they proudly came back across the road, past our truck, afterwards.

Apparently these were very rare animals to see, and even Raymond was impressed when we told him that we saw them. I'm glad I was told this, otherwise I'd still be wondering what the big deal was with seeing what appeared to be no more than a pack of German Shepards.

As we were making our final run, we came across the animal that I can confidently say now filled up my sighting of the Big 5. The Buffalo. Once more, I saw them. No longer were they little black dots from a plane, but rather animals that could fill my camera frame, only a dozen meters from me. This was the picture I needed to complete the set. The game drive had totally and completely paid off.

As we were leaving a herd of elephants crossed the road and drank from the lake in front of us. Yes, yes, no more elephants... but they were so close. The six month old baby couldn't use its tusk to drink. It drank with its mouth. That was a sight to behold.

Elephants – maybe they're still alright?

Back at camp our tents had been packed up, and we set out for the Botswana / Zambia boarder. This was said to be the worst boarder we'd have to cross. We were warned it could take anywhere from 2 hours to 6 hours to cross. Everything was taken over the river on a ferry, and problems were well known to occur here at this check point.

Chef said that she had crossed once in an hour – but she had been chased. It had not been good. No more was spoken about this story. We never learned the details. Chef was a good talker, and it was quite mysterious that she let this one peter out.

We crossed in under an hour. Once more our luck was upon us. Again Raymond commented on how lucky our tour had proved to be.

We gave one last “BOTSWANA!” before having to change over to “Zam-BE-Ahhhh!”

And then it dawned on us all that this would be our final trip in the truck, the “blue devil”, the “humdinger”, the “yellow submarine”, to “bus” - whatever you wanted to call it. Just don't let Raymond hear you call it a bus.

We just made one stop – a break in Livingstone to buy groceries and change money. This was not an easy task. It was a sketchy city, and all the money changers said they had no local currency and could not help me. Outside men working the black market exchange were more than willing to exchange my cash for a better rate. Which would have been all fine and well, had it not been illegal – and ending up in African Jail is not on my to do list.

I later found out that the way to exchange was to hold up rand, or some other currency first, and then toss down the American when they'd already agreed to exchange. Sketchy.

What I don't understand is why black market traders are willing to trade for higher than official places? How do they then get rid of it for an even greater profit? Best not to concern myself with these things. Now, I discovered, I was in “real Africa” (should one say such a thing.)

Soon enough we ended up at the Zambezi Waterfront Campground, and set up our tent. This was the last time Hamish and I would set up tent together. Things were coming to an end, and everyone could feel it. After a quick internetting, we headed up to the activity centre to watch a video of all the different things that we could do from this base.

Chef and Courtney both noticed a change in me. I was quieter. Removed. Chef asked if I was alright. I said I was, but clearly I was feeling the divide as everyone raced to sign up for things that would happen once I had already left the tour. Rafting, Helicopter rides, and Elephant rides were all on the docket. I would never hear how some of these went, for I would no longer be part of the group by this point.

But I shook it off. It was New Years Eve. there would be time to be mopey later. Now, it was time to party.

Half the group went off for 250USD helicopter tours of Vic Falls. I stayed behind. My finances were not doing as well as some of the others.

Just before they left, Eric and Mia had the great idea of collecting orders for a beer run. This seemed a good idea, but having a list of orders from twenty four people (all except for Dieter, whom we couldn't find) proved to be quite the cluster [expletive]. Still, with orders placed, we rang for a taxi.

This was another African Experience. As I hopped in the taxi, I wondered just how safe we were. The front windshield was shattered and spider-webbed. The door could only be opened by reaching through the window, and opening it from the outside. And as we left in our unmarked car, a car clearly marked a taxi was entering. Were we all about to be sold into slavery, or worse?

But all was well. We ended up at the Spar, and the driver said he'd wait for us. When booking a taxi, you tell them a return time, and they'll kick around. You are not charged for the wait. It's an interesting system, and one that works quite well.

In the store we hurried to the back. We cleared out all of their cider, and a good chunk of their beer. Again, we were buying for twenty five people. But I like that the employees just thought that we were a bunch of crazy alcoholics. Over 800 000 was spent (never mind that the exchange rate is 4600:1) it still sounds impressive. I thought we should have pushed for one million.

We saw Dieter walking barefoot home from the store. That's why we couldn't find him earlier. The man is a machine.

Then it was back to camp. Now the fun part began. The part that I undertook, and spent an hour and a half completing – breaking up the bill into individual prices, collecting, money – in all different types of currency, working the exchange rates, and then trying to break bills so that people could receive proper work.

I felt like Raymond – I have no problem wandering in the wild, but give me money to figure out, and I'll sweat.

It was accomplished though, and it all worked out. No missing cash. Everyone had their New Years Eve booze, and we could settle in for a good night.

This was also Chef's last dinner that she'd be cooking for us. It was steak, and Broy Burgers (those grilled cheese things I mentioned days past which she always hated when I mispronounced) salads (there were fresh salads for every meal, and I'll miss that most) and all number of other treats. It was like four meals in one. And dessert was four tubs of ice cream. Delicious.

A bitter sweet moment where we realized that we'd never experience her dinners again.

As the night grew on we played King's Cup. A drinking game. I tried to explain that as a Canadian I needed no games to drink, but who was I to refuse on this night of nights.

Basically it broke down like this, a cup in the middle – surrounded by cards. You pick up a card. If you break the ring of cards you need to drink. When you flip the card, depending on what it is, things happen:

2 – two for you (pick someone to drink two fingers)
3 – three for me (you drink three fingers
4 – four for whores (all girls drink)
5 – five alive (you play a game where two people show zero, five, or ten on their fingers and guess the combined amount. loser drinks.)
6 – six for dicks (guys drink)
7 – counting (you can't say seven, or a multiple of seven when you count in a circle. When that number should come up, say anything, next person continues on normally. i.e 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 23, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 16, 15, 16, 4, 19, 20, 21 oh no! 21 is a multiple! drink!)
8 – eight, pick a mate (whenever you have to drink, so do they.)
9 – nine, bust a rhyme (go around the circle rhyming the word said)
10 – toe master / thumb master (whenever the thing is placed on the drinking surface everyone follows. Last person drinks)
J – add a rule (good rules are, no first names, no 3Ds drink drunk drank, and no curse words)
Q – question master (anyone who answers the question masters questions must drink.)
K – add some of your drink to the cup – last king pulled drinks the cup, game ends
A – waterfall. You can't stop drinking until the person to the right of you stops.

And that was that.

Some strangers from out of our area came to join our game, but ended up talking a lot of crap saying our rules were stupid, and that we should go to the party instead. Eventually they were kicked out and shunned. Jerks.

After three games of Kings Cup (aka ring of fire) we stopped. Some people left for the New Years Eve party. It wasn't the ten dollar cover that kept me away – though without it I probably would have gone – but rather the fact that I didn't want to be there. Not on this final night.

I left the two groups and made my way to a spot on the projector room where I sat, by myself, and could hear the party in one direction, and the mumbled talking of the group in the other. This was where I needed to be. By myself, everything seemed to click and all was right in the world once more. I was no longer worried about leaving the tour, though I knew I'd still be sad to go. But here, sitting as midnight crept closer, I realized that I was best on my own, and at peace with that.

There was an ever present sense of calm that came over me. I headed back to grab my book and embark in some creative writing, which I'd been keeping up along the road, but as I neared the site, I ran into Mia (Chef).

For a few moments we talked about how everything was coming to an end. Though the rest of the group was continuing on to Nairobi, they would be doing so with another guide. Mia and Raymond were taking the tour south back to Capetown.

Over the weeks she too had become attached to us. We were her first tour, in this role, and she hadn't learned how to think of us not as people, but as clients. We talked for a few moments, sharing well wishes, and observations. As a teacher I spent a long time shifting my view of students from “people” to “students.” You can't be responsible for all their problems, or allow yourself to hurt when they do. It's a hard line to walk, and a scary one – because they are people, and you lose a little something when you're not allowed to accept that. Still – you have your job, and your role to play. And they have theirs. You walk amongst them, but you are never one of them. No matter how much you may think you are, or want to be. The divide will always exist.

Our chat ended when the jerks from earlier were talking about breaking into a tent and stealing from it. Mia yelled at them in Afrikaans and they bolted, leaving the tent unmolested. Jerks.

My peace was ended, but I was whole once more, and so I went back to the GAP group, where those from the party had returned for the final countdown.

10... 9... 8... 7... 6... wait, what time do you have? Mine says this – no mine says that... the party cheered. We waited. Screw it – 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3... 2... 1.. HAPPY NEW YEARS! And there was screaming, and hugging, and well wishes more and more. And we came together. Though the tour wouldn't be over for one more day, we all knew that this was the end. This was us making peace. This was us coming together as family. And everything from here – well that was just a little bit extra, wasn't it?

After the countdown people returned to the party, Christoph continued to build his beer bottle tower, over six feet high – with a burning ember on the top (what could possibly go wrong?) and I sat and chatted.

I bartered some beer for the use of a cell phone to call Katherine, but for half an hour, I couldn't get through. For half an hour the network was jammed. There would be no call this night. But I tried. And tried. And tried. I was later told the networks didn't clear until nearly two in the morning.

By this time I was fast asleep, and the zipper on our tent was broken. Hurray.

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