Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tazara and Lusaka

This part of the story starts where the last left off, in Dar es Salaam.

My last two days of wandering the city were interesting but don’t bear a whole lot of description. Most people were in Dar to catch the ferry to Zanzibar, the predominantly Arab Muslim set of islands off the coast. So I wandered, which anyway is what I like to do best in a new city. I prowled the neighborhood; walked along the beach; decided that, sunburn notwithstanding, I was going to get completely toasted (the other kind) if I stayed out in the open for too long; happened upon the main fish market, which was bustling even late in the afternoon; ate some delicious fish, rice, & beans; met some interesting foreigners (a handful of Canadians, several groups of Scandinavians, and very few Americans; stumbled upon one of the five Chinese clinics in Dar; got lost in the auto parts/repair section of the city (this section exists) and couldn’t seem to get out; and bought provisions for the next leg of my trip – a loaf of bread, 4 liters of water, a half-kilo of peanut butter, a large package of raisins, and a few tomatoes and bananas.

Here I want to mention a happy discovery that I made while in Dar: I discovered that, after many years of refusing to eat bananas, my dislike for them has suddenly disappeared. I won’t eat them by the bunch, and I won’t rate them as delicious, but I would definitely call them an acceptable snack.

That Friday, I left my hotel for the 2-mile, hour-long trip (you read that right: traffic and terrible roads) to the Tazara Railway Station. (Tazara: TAnzania-ZAmbia Railway Authority.) I arrived at noon and had the good fortune to run into a few of those characters that one always seems to meet while traveling: a Ph.D candidate whose research topic was, in fact, the Tazara line; and a super friendly/easygoing couple (of travel partners?) from Sweden & Denmark. When it turned out that I had been booked into a compartment with three women and I was summarily kicked out, the Scandinavian couple took me in, which I’m pretty made sure the journey about three times as fun as it would have been otherwise.

The Tazara experience, was, in a word, fantastic. The company was fun. The food was good (and a lot less expensive than I had expected). The scenery was gorgeous: partly forested countryside, similar in some ways to more sparsely populated areas of New England but reaching a whole new level of greenery and vastness. Busy scenery-watching, which is made much more fun by leaning out windows or even doors, I ended up doing a lot less reading than I expected – and even by the third day, I still couldn’t get over the trees. I took a few hundred photos, but you’ll have to wait on those: the Internet here is, on average, even slower than it was in my Beijing apartment. On the first afternoon, we passed through the edge of a Tanzanian game reserve, where I saw my first (wild) giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, and impala. But I don’t have photos of any of these, because the encounters were too fleeting – and to my infinite regret, I was reading on my own and completely oblivious when we passed the elephants.

Tazara was made by the Chinese in the early 1970s – partly to rival the Soviets’ dam-building up north; partly in a spirit of brotherhood with the new socialist countries; and partly to win African backing in the UN for international recognition of the Communist Party as the legitimate government of mainland China. Traces of Chinese workmanship can be seen everywhere, if you’re looking: from the bilingual electronics controls to the plates in the dining car (they still have originals?!) to the classic Chinglish sign (also on most trains in China) informing people that they should not use the bathroom while the train is stopped: “No occupying while stabling.”

When we got to Mbeya, a few hours away from the Zambian border, the Scandinavian couple got off and I was kicked out of my compartment on grounds of taking up too much space. I ended up with a couple of Zambian businessmen who work importing luxury goods for customers in Lusaka. They struck me as a bit hypocritical (I can’t really explain this), but overall seemed to be good people, and also quite helpful. The train was delayed for seven hours the first night (something about pieces of another train on the tracks? encouraging.), so we ended up reaching our final stop, the Zambian town of Kapiri Mposhi, at around midnight of the third day.

It’s usually not very safe to go out at night in Africa. But when several of the other foreigners who had been on the train with me tried to bargain for a minibus to Lusaka (200km or so distant), the two Zambians I had been traveling with told me that it would be better to get a taxi to a bus stop and wait for the public buses passing by on their way from the Tanzanian border. I hesitated a bit but decided to throw my lot in with them. There were definitely a few hairy moments: the “bus stop” was really just a gas station where buses might or might not stop if someone flags them down, and I turned out to be justifiably nervous about the young guys hanging out by a charcoal fire outside when one of them started throwing cinder blocks at another’s head and then pulled a knife and chased him away. But the men I was with knew what they were doing – they just kind of shrugged and said, “probably a turf conflict” - and we eventually all bundled into a taxi and drove to Lusaka. At between 100-150 kph, we managed the distance in just a few wild hours, and even stopped for tomatoes at a fruit stand along the way. I slept a few hours at the house of the brother of one of the Zambians – who, as it turned out, is an insurance broker for a firm whose clients include the company I’m interning for, so it was easy to arrange for one of the company’s drivers to pick me up and take me to company HQ.

Which brings me to my life as an intern.

It’s a busy job, but not hard. This first week has been mostly about getting familiar with the company (job shadowing), translating some documents into English, and holding intermediate-advanced English classes. I’m also practicing a folk-”red song” for the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, a move that’s sure to kill my 2028 run for President 17 years before it starts.

Company HQ is split into two major locations, just down the road from each other: one for the company’s agricultural machinery and department store subsidiaries, and one for its construction/contracting subsidiary. I live in the latter, which is very new and thus nicer in some ways – I have my own room, and it’s more than twice as big as the Beijing apartment I rented last semester – but lacks the homey feeling of the older one. The machinery-and-department-store area is comprised of a set of small office buildings, a machinery exhibition room, two large warehouses, and a square courtyard in the back around which the Chinese employees live. The construction company’s base of operations is a single large courtyard abutting the road, with offices on one side, 3 floors of dorms on the other, and a brickyard and warehouse in the back. There’s also a construction site further down the road, where the company is building several warehouses, a workshop, more dorms, and a villa (for the bosses).

 We work from 8:00-5:00 Mon-Fri and 8:00-12:00 Sat, with an hour each day for lunch. I also give English lessons for an hour each evening, Mon-Fri. There are plenty of times when people aren’t busy – for example, there are no orders from the warehouse, or no machines need to be fixed – so the employees often have time to talk, which has been very conducive to getting to know people and coming to understand how the company works. In principle, main job over these 8 (now 7) weeks is to work on company publicity: the idea is that I take a lot of photos, capture people hard at work on video, interview happy workers and knowledgeable bosses, and eventually put together a brochure and add a lot of content to the web site, both about the company itself and the situation in Zambia. (Many potential employees back in China – and, as I have discovered, plenty of Americans as well – see all of Africa as one big, hunger-stricken war zone.) The company already has a translator, but he’s abrasive and busy and his English is far from perfect, so I’ve also been translating a few odds and ends into English when needed: a certificate of government approval for a new product being imported from China; a quality inspection report for a different product (insanely difficult), a list of job responsibilities and best practices, etc.

Socially, things are going really well. I’ve been welcomed with open arms by most of the folks here – partly because the Chinese are just friendly like that, partly because I speak enough Chinese to get along with most of them, and partly because a lot of people here have something of an “us and them” (Chinese and Africans) mentality and I seem to fit in better with the “us.” This area of Lusaka is not exactly the most thrilling of environments to be in – for safety reasons, we’re not allowed out past 9 at night, and most people just want to sit down and relax anyway – but I have my own things to do during the week (reading, watching movies, reviewing Chinese), and on Saturday nights we have Chinese-style parties, which I have to say are far superior to most similar Yale events. At our courtyard, Saturday night basically involves getting some friends together, cooking some food, cracking open a few beers, and when everyone’s had enough of talking and eating, heading upstairs to play ping-pong, Chinese chess, and mahjong. People slowly head off to bed, or movie-watching, or watermelon-eating, and we wake up on Sunday morning ready to take advantage of the only full day we have each week to go out into the town.

And that’s just about it, in a nutshell. I’ve got a lot more that I want to add, but this has already gotten quite long and I’m sure there will be time over the next few weeks to go into specifics.

Hoping that you, too, are enjoying your summer,

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