Oh, the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone. They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on. – “Sisters of Mercy” by Leonard Cohen (1967)
Before the day got too hot, Ted and I hiked to the bridge that crossed over Victoria Falls into Rhodesia. Our tent was still pitched at the campsite because we wanted to check out the lay of the land first. From what I could tell, getting there looked as simple as walking across the span. Situated in the middle was a border entry station. After surveying the area, we returned to our base, packed up our things, and headed to the border.
The crossing needed to go well. We were staking everything on it. If we entered Rhodesia without any difficulty, we would be one step closer to getting into South Africa. I didn’t want to consider what would happen if we had to turn back.
Unlike the time we entered Uganda, I had a pretty good idea of what was taking place politically in Rhodesia. The renegade nation had broken away from British rule, and they established a government as oppressive to the black population as South Africa’s. Stories about the controversial leader, Ian Smith, were common, and he sounded equally as crazy as Idi Amin.
Ted and I walked halfway across the bridge and approached the guard station. Three uniformed soldiers came out to meet us. The intimidating trio wore uniforms that had an unmistakable resemblance to certain German villains that I’d seen in the movies.
The officers looked at our passports, asked us how much money we had, and wanted to know if we had return airplane tickets to America. When we told them that we had about three hundred dollars between us, and did not have plane tickets home, they flatly refused to let us enter.
Judging by the way they said it, it was clear that there was no room for discussion. They curtly handed us our passports and stiffly went back inside their shack, where a television set was loudly blasting a sporting event.
Surprised and shaken, we trudged back across the bridge into Zambia, and returned to our campsite. The full weight of what had happened began to sink in, and I couldn’t imagine what we were going to do.
Ted and I were in the middle of nowhere with little money left. To the west was Angola, another war zone. To the East was nothing but jungle. The only choice was to head back on the same route we had already taken, which had been the most grueling travel since I left home. The thought of retracing our steps north was practically unthinkable.
Lying on my sleeping bag in a total funk, I was depressed and exhausted. The heat, endless hitchhiking, hunger, and sickness had finally caught up to me. I had been constantly worried about the draft and not knowing what the future held. I sobbed like a baby; I just wanted it to be over.
As Ted and I discussed our situation, we acknowledged that our African adventure had reached the end of the road. We stayed in Livingstone another two days, too demoralized to even think about what to do next. The more we talked about it, the more sense it made to leave Africa altogether. Ted suggested that we go back to Europe and try to get to David’s house in Dublin.
The plan was to return to Nairobi, where we’d try to get a good price on plane tickets to London. From there, we would hitchhike to Dublin and ask David if we could crash on his floor for a while. Ted would eventually go back home; I would have to make a major decision about where to live.
So many possibilities were rattling around my head. Maybe I’d stay in Ireland because David had said that his parents could help me find work. Maybe I could go back to Amsterdam and try to make a go of it there. Maybe I’d return to the sunny Canary Islands. None of my ideas sounded realistic.
“Both of us were cranky and starting to get on each other’s nerves.”
As anticipated, we ran into the exact same problems on the way back to Lusaka. The heat was unbearable, no cars were driving by, and we were running dangerously low on food and water.
After one particularly frustrating, sweltering day of unsuccessful hitchhiking, Ted and I took a long rest on the side of the road. Quite unexpectedly, a man dressed in native clothing strolled out of the jungle and walked right up to us. Wearing nothing but a loin cloth, he stared at us with a combination of confusion and curiosity.
In Swahili, he said, “Jambo.”
“Jambo,” I replied.
I held up my canteen, pointed to it, and pretended to drink from it, as if to ask where I could get water. He smiled, nodded yes, and motioned for me to follow. Leaving Ted by the side of the road, we walked into the bush.
Several grass huts stood in a cluster in the middle of a clearing. A dozen similarly dressed natives gathered in the center. Despite the searing heat, they sat around a cauldron cooking over an open fire. Appearing happy to see me, they stood up, held out their hands to shake mine, and politely gestured for me to join them.
I watched as they passed around a long thin straw and took turns drinking from whatever was cooking in the giant pot. One of the men took a long sip and then gave it to me. I stuck the straw a couple of inches into the pot and sipped a mouthful of gritty sediment that tasted like warm mud. I instantly turned around, sprayed it onto the ground, and coughed loudly, much to the entertainment of the group.
When the laughing died down, the man who had brought me to the village took the straw and demonstrated how to drink through it properly. He dipped it nearly all the way to the bottom of the pot, took a big sip, and handed it back to me so I could try again.
Reluctantly, I put the straw in, much deeper this time, and took another draw. Surprisingly, the liquid tasted much better, kind of like hot soup. The group nodded and smiled in approval at my improved straw technique. After a few more sips, the man filled my canteen with fresh water and escorted me back to the road.
I thought to myself, “What an incredibly nice and weirdly spontaneous thing to have happened.”
Thanking him, I shook his hand and watched as he vanished into the jungle. I excitedly told Ted what happened, but he was in a terrible mood after sitting by the road waiting for me, and he didn’t want to hear about it. Both of us were cranky and starting to get on each other’s nerves.
As the sun began to set, I started to feel high from the concoction that I drank. My head was swimming as I prepared to cook two packages of dried soup which was the last of our food. While it was on the gas stove, I found some salt, pepper, and a can of condensed milk that I had forgotten was in my bag. Since we probably weren’t going to be eating for a while, I figured that I’d mix everything we had into the soup. Unfortunately, after one spoonful, I realized that I had accidentally added too much pepper, and the soup was not edible. I had ruined our last meal; Ted was really pissed off.
“Fuck!” He screamed and threw his bowl down on the ground. “You fucked it up!”
I felt awful. We didn’t speak for the rest of the night and went to bed hungry.
By the time we woke up the next morning, it was already a hundred degrees. Still not talking to each other, we packed up our stuff and shuffled down the road. Not one car passed us, and by noon we hadn’t made any progress.
“He turned off the highway onto a dirt road and headed straight into the jungle.”
Late in the afternoon, we saw the first potential ride come over the rise in the road. It was the only car we’d seen in nearly three days. Ted and I spotted it at the same time. At first, I thought I was seeing a mirage because it was shimmering in the intense heat rising off the asphalt.
As the car approached, we both stood with our arms out frantically waving. I was convinced that I was hallucinating because it looked like a convertible. As the vehicle came to a halt, I could see that it was a Buick. Never in my life was I so happy to see a big old hunk of Detroit steel.
Indeed, it was a Buick convertible, and a guy with long blonde hair sat at the wheel accompanied by two attractive young girls. They were all smiling cheerfully. With an unmistakable Irish accent, the driver called out, “Hey, you guys want to go to a party tonight?”
Ted and I looked at each other in disbelief before answering in unison, “You bet we do!”
The girl in the back seat jumped out and got in the front; we threw in our bags and hopped in the back. As we sped down the road, I wondered if maybe I had been out in the sun too long and was imagining the whole thing. At least I was hallucinating about a ride that we desperately needed.
“My name’s Shane,” the driver shouted over the noise of the road. “This is Betsy, and that’s Anna. Where are you guys from, and what the hell are you doing out here?”
“We’ve been hitchhiking around Africa for a few months now,” I explained.
“We’re headed for Nairobi,” Ted added.
The three explained that they were Catholic missionaries living in Zambia on two-year assignments at an educational center in a nearby village. Their aim was to teach the native children to read, write, and be good Catholics.
Shane turned off the highway onto a dirt road and headed straight into the jungle. Soon, we arrived at the compound where they lived and where the party would take place that evening. A collection of modern one-story, red brick buildings comprised the local school and living quarters. About twenty missionaries and teachers stayed on the grounds and worked on the compound.
“They were an isolated and lonely group, eager for contact with the outside world.”
The car skidded to a stop, and dozens of screaming children ran out of the buildings to greet us. It was a remarkable sight to see a throng of small black children in crisp white shirts. The boys were dressed in black slacks and the girls wore black skirts. Several African men and women accompanied them; everyone was excited to see the newcomers.
“Look what we found!” Shane announced. “We picked up these two on the highway.”
Shane was clearly the man in charge. A good-looking guy, he had long blonde hair that framed his face and fell slightly below his shoulders. His shirt was unbuttoned and revealed a muscular stomach which was tanned, hard and flat. With striking blue eyes and unparalleled confidence, he appeared to be a natural leader.
I asked Shane where he had gotten the Buick, and he told me that he got it from another teacher who had been there for years. He brought us to his apartment and invited Ted and I to sleep in the room that wasn’t being used.
“Stay as long as you like,” he offered with sincerity.
I was so stunned that I could hardly speak.
That night, at the party in the main school building, we met the people who lived and worked at the complex. The group was wonderfully welcoming, and the residents were intrigued to have two interesting adventurers like Ted and me as guests. Our stories about the places we had visited in Africa left them in awe.
Everyone brought something to the party, and there was more food than I had seen in weeks. On a long table was a huge pork roast, salad, fresh fruit, steamed vegetables, pies, cakes, and even wine and beer. Music blared from a tape deck, and the atmosphere was festive.
For a moment, I reflected on this crazy turn of events. Out in the middle of nowhere, these people found us stranded on the road, took us in, fed us, and said that we never had to leave. It had happened at precisely the moment when we needed them the most. Anna suggested that perhaps it was divine intervention.
“As much as I protested, they wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Ted had caught the attention of one gorgeous girl right away. Mary was tall, had auburn hair, sparkling brown eyes, and a gregarious personality. By the end of the evening, I could tell he had something good going with her.
Anna, who was more reserved, had her eye on me from the moment we met in the car. She was the sweetest thing I had ever seen, with a slender body, short cropped, honey-blonde hair, and gorgeous blue eyes. Nineteen years old and from Dublin, she’d been in Africa for six months. She confided that she wasn’t sure she would last the required two years of her assignment. I thought it seemed like a long time to spend in such a desolate place.
As the party continued, Anna nuzzled up to me and wanted to get friendlier. Unfortunately, I was too sick to consider anything other than some flirtatious conversation. She understood and seemed to like the idea of nursing me back to health. Before putting me to bed in Shane’s apartment, she gave me some medicine for the diarrhea and a handful of antibiotic tablets.
The first night, Ted and I stayed in Shane’s apartment, but the following night Anna insisted that I stay at her place. Everyone wanted to take a turn hosting us. They were an isolated and lonely group, eager for contact with the outside world, and we fit the bill perfectly. It was almost as if they were as surprised and delighted to have found us as we were to have found them.
Shane informed me that the mud soup I drank was beer, something the local natives were famous for. He told me that, from his experience, it was more potent than any beer I’d find elsewhere in Africa.
Although we could have stayed for weeks, after four days Ted and I decided that it was time to move on. The night before we left, our hosts threw a going away party. Again, there was a ton of great food and music.
A new Elton John tape played over and over. Your Song will forever be burned into my memory of that evening and will always remind me of Anna, who tried to bring me back to some semblance of health.
To my amazement, our hosts took up a collection for us as a parting gift. They had collected three hundred dollars to help us get back to Nairobi and Dublin. I felt uncomfortable accepting their generous gift, but they were determined to help us. As much as I protested, they wouldn’t take no for an answer.
The next morning, we got back in the Buick, and Shane drove us out to the highway. He bid us farewell; it was hard to say goodbye. Ted and I still couldn’t believe our good fortune. We felt recharged and ready to take on the road again. By mid-afternoon we’d hitched a ride, and we watched from the back of a Land Rover as the junction of the highway and the dirt road that led to our jungle oasis faded into the distance.