National Geographic : 2005 Sep
where a room costs three dollars a night and a "rub" with one of the local ladies-of-comfort costs one dollar and/or your life). Tugging free of my sleeping bag, I noticed that Jonathan was already up and enjoying a cigarette with the self-contained attitude of a habitual early riser. "Kwazizira-It'scold," I whispered to him. Jonathan patted the log next to him, so I stepped carefully over the three embalmed bodies of our companions and made my way to the fire. We sat together, hands stretched out toward the heat, his blanket thrown over both our shoulders, and waited for water to boil for tea. The smell between us was familiar: fresh tobacco, old sweat, smoke, yesterday's dust, the synthetic, cheap-shop smell of his blanket. Blindfolded, I would have known where I was. The Cost of Walking for Days Through the Middle of Nowhere The women at the Chifungwe scout camp, see ing me emerge from the bush, sent a child in search of a mirror. Like characters in an 18th century novel, they deemed it prudent to show me the full horror of myself. Then they fetched me a bucket of hot water, tea, and a comb. Rolf met me here, having driven down off the escarpment on axle-breaking roads. That night I fell asleep listening to the village breathing. In the morning there was the domestic chatter of women to wake me, as they walked down to the river to fetch water. There was such an explo sion of birds I couldn't untangle their song. It was the mopani-leaf turpentine that I smelled and wood smoke and game droppings and the pungent swirl of the river. And the world rocked with life. On this page I can't smell the burnt-honey scent of bee sting, or feel the smallness of who I really am under the ponderous annoyance of an elephant, or understand that animals share my fright-a leopard is chased by an angry baboon troop. But I have understood that I am only the sum of my biology. And what this grants me is the undeserved gift of connection, usually granted men and women of transcen dent and disciplined lives. Long Words on a Hot Afternoon I do penance by pretending to read the ex haustive A History of Wildlife Conservationand 110 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * SEPTEMBER 2005 Management in the Mid-Luangwa Valley, Zam bia, by W. L. Astle, published by the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Bristol, August 1999. From the preface: "It is an account of recorded events.., from the start of Euro pean penetration at the end of the 18th century to the early 1970s, the time of the start of a ferocious onslaught by commercial poachers." The Story That Got Away Not everything went exactly as written on our itinerary. For example, here we were, stranded on the banks of the Lukusashi River. The water was riotously deep, and the pontoon looked too rickety to support much more than an overladen bicycle. Walking down the beach while we got used to our only option, which was to turn back the way we had come, we found three Indians in torpid sleep across the seats of their car. They knew Rolf (of course) and tried to be helpful: "You'll never get over that river now. Camp with us a couple of days and then try your luck." The young one (a Rambo look-alike) said that game scouts killed a man-eating crocodile here a few days earlier. Its stomach revealed clothes and human remains. "It's too bad you weren't here then," said Ram bo's uncle. "It would have made a nice story for your magazine." The Life You Save Might Be Your Own It was nearly dark by the time we left the Indi ans and emerged, beaten by heat and dust, at the paved road. We begged a bed at St. Luke's Mis sion Hospital in nearby Mpanshya, and in the morning a beatific Polish missionary brought us boiled eggs and tea and toast on her way back from early morning Mass. She told us one of her patients had died in the night. While we ate breakfast, she listened to Rolf's lungs (in the metallic chill of the Southern Hemisphere's winter nights, he'd come down with pneumo nia) and told him to quit smoking. Then she showed us around her AIDS ward, humid with the sour-sweet smell that is the end of life. Eyes followed her every move as she touched blistered skin, stroked heads, held hands, moistened lips. I thought that if my body were eating itself alive, I'd want Margaret Strzelecka by my bed side. She's afraid of nothing, not even death, but would prefer that mating geckos didn't fall on her in the middle of the night.