About Me

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Author of Safari Jema, A Journey of Love and Adventure from Casablanca to Cape Town http://tinyurl.com/owdwvrp I write about travel and adventure from my home in California and from Africa. I've sailed a catamaran from California to Hawaii, trekked in the Himalayas, worked as a construction manager on a bridge project in Zambia, hiked 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago, (http://bootsbedouinsandabridge.blogspot.com/) and traveled in over 100 countries and all seven continents. Indie Book Award Winner for Best Memoir of 2012, New York Book Festival Honorable Mention for Non-Fiction, San Francisco Book Festival Honorable Mention for Non-Fiction, Travelers Tales Solas Award for Best Travel Writing Honorable Mention for My Gambian Husband. Indie Book Award Finalist - Best Travel Book 2013. BOTYA Honorable Mention 2013 - Travel Essay. Member of The Explorers Club since 2013 You can follow my current 2013-2014 expedition across Africa, this time in a 1973 Land Rover Series III 109 on http://teresaokane.blogspot.com/ and on facebook https://www.facebook.com/safarijema

Monday, August 16, 2010

Avoiding Arrest on the Zambia Border- We’re not a Gang…. We’re a Club!




Don’t tangle with the Zambian police. They will search your bags, intimidate you, open a docket (which will become your Zambian permanent record), threaten to take you to jail, and will ultimately, as humiliating as this is to admit, make you cry.


We disembarked from the MV Liemba in Mpungalungu and passed through Zambian immigration with ease. They even accepted a photocopy we had printed out from the Zambian Consulate web site stating that as Irish citizens (yes, we're duel citizens), we would be exempt from paying $100 for a visa. They couldn’t have been more welcoming. They brought us into an office and gave us seats in front of a computer and stamped our passports. A half finished solitaire game glowed on the screen prompting me to wonder if the entire world plays solitaire. Everyone was so friendly! They all but offered us a Guinness. But when all the immigration formalities were completed and we were almost at the port gates we were abruptly stopped by the Zambian equivalent of Homeland Security. “Security Check!” a burly Zambian shouted and pointed us towards an open door where a well dressed young woman and three policemen were examining a deck of nudie playing cards that they had just confiscated from another passenger off the ferry. “Put your bags on the table! Where are your medicines? What’s in here?” demanded a policeman while prodding the compartments on our day pack. “Where do you keep your medicines?” He asked again.

I handed him the zip lock bag that holds our malaria tablets, antibiotics, allergy medicine, Pepto Bismol, and aspirin.

One of the policemen zeroed in on my allergy medicine. “This is Benadryl,a controlled substance in Zambia! Who do these belong to? Where is your prescription?” he asked sternly.

“They are mine,” I answered keeping my eye on two others who continued to paw through our bags. “I don’t need a prescription. I bought it over the counter in California. They are for my allergies.”

“Well, now you are in Zambia and here you need a prescription. This is a serious matter,” he said in a tone a TV cop would use when he was about to arrest a drug dealing gang member.

I wanted to say, "Well, that's just silly!" but I took my time before responding. You never know which way things will go with a cranky border official and I really just wanted to get out of there. I looked from him to the eight allergy pills in his hand. I could argue the issue, demand to see his superior and possibly walk away with my allergy medicine, but that would take far too long and we had a bus to catch. “Well, I’ve been carrying those eight pills for four months and haven’t had to take one yet,” I said with a smile trying to come up with just the right thing to say so he would let us go on our way. “I guess one option is that I hand them over to you. Or, I guess we could destroy them. That would be another option.”

“No”, he said even more brusquely. “The only “option” is that I open a docket and arrest you for drug trafficking”, he finished while reaching for a sheet of paper.

What? Was this some kind of joke? Some weird Larium dream? I looked over at Scott in disbelief. His eyes said, “be careful what you say.”

You could have heard a pen drop as the policeman recorded all my passport details and confiscated my passports. “I am sending for the chief of drug enforcement”, he said. “Come with me.”

We waited in stunned silence in the small office of the Zambian DEA chief. Did he want us to offer him a bribe? Should we? Or would that just get me in more trouble? I was becoming more anxious by the minute. I felt the situation could go south if I said or did the wrong thing.

Fifteen agonizing minutes went by before the chief entered the office. He sat down behind his desk and said that I was in “a serious bind.” He fingered the eight Benadryl and studied my travel documents. He asked how long we were going to be in Zambia and where we were going to stay. He made some notes and looked through every page of my U.S. and Irish passports. He put the Benadryl packet aside, put his hands together and repeated what the policeman had said, “This is a serious offense,” and since I was evidently being arrested in slow motion, he inserted a hugely pregnant pause before leaning forward and adding, “but,” he paused again, “when someone is trafficking in drugs, they usually have more than eight pills in their possession.” He said nothing else for a full minute. Maybe that was when we were supposed to offer the bribe, I don’t know. I do know that I was holding my breath. I was beginning to feel a little dizzy when he finally he concluded, “I think perhaps your intent was not to sell these.”

I took a breath. “That’s right. My intent was to take them for my allergies. See?” I said pointing to the label. “It says, ‘Benadryl Allergy’.” I thought of our African Trails pals Alice and Tom and how they had nearly been arrested a month earlier in a bar at 3am in Ethiopia and thought it might have been better if I were intoxicated like they were when they were taken in for questioning. Tom's defense was, “We are but humble travelers” though “humble” came out “hummel” I'm sure. In any event, they were released without charges. One of the policemen even paid the damages for the mirror they (allegedly) broke in the disco.

Zambian policemen are apparently not so flexible. The drug enforcement chief picked up the sheet of paper with my Zambian Permanent Record to date, pushed back from his desk and relaxed comfortably in his chair. “We will take possession of these illegal drugs and keep a record that you brought them into the country without the necessary paperwork - in case there is any more trouble,” he finished ominously.

I felt a rush of relief. A few minutes later, I was in tears. Not because he had suddenly changed his mind and decided to arrest me – he didn’t. But after he dropped the charges, he started to act like all was forgiven, like he wanted us to friend him on facebook. He continued to keep us in his office and ask questions. He asked what the weather was like were we live, had we been to Zambia before, were we planning on doing any safaris while there We had already been detained over an hour and I wanted to get out of there before he decided something else in our bags, like my bikini top, or Scott’s Leatherman tool, was somehow contraband material. It was probably due to the small amount of sleep I had over the two previous nights on the Lake Tanganyika ferry not to mention the considerable stress of nearly being thrown into a Zambian jail, but tears suddenly began to roll down my checks uncontrollably.

Looking at me in complete bewilderment the chief asked, “Why are you becoming so emotional?”

I stood up and blubbered, “I’m very tired. We were on a ferry for three days and now we have an uncomfortable 15-hour bus ride to Lusaka to look forward to, which we have probably already missed. And gee, I guess being threatened with arrest makes me cry.” I wanted to say more but didn’t want to press my luck. I gave one last look at the allergy medicine on his desk, shot him a look of disgust, picked up my backpack and stormed out the door. He didn’t try to stop me.

I walked through the port gates and started up the road to the bus station muttering, “…corrupt official…. asshole…. I wonder how much he will sell my Benadryl for …” Scott caught up and gave me a hug. “That was pretty scary!” I said, blowing my nose and hugging him back.

After we had been walking about five minutes we saw a man standing on the side of the road next to a white sedan with an open trunk. It was the DEA chief. “Your bags look too heavy. Please allow me to give you a lift to the bus station.”

“No thank you!” I said without breaking my stride. I could tell he felt horrible but I thought maybe, just maybe, he’d be a little more understanding or at least not so excruciatingly unhurried, when arresting (or not arresting!) the next unsuspecting Benadryl carrying traveler. Though to be safe, if you are ever detained at a border or crack a mirror in a disco overseas, try the “We are but humble travelers” defense. It just might work.

We did manage to catch the last bus to Lusaka that day (one that took 18, not 15 hours though), and arrived at Lusaka at 7am the next day in time to have breakfast with Candice, the woman in charge of our bridge project.

A week later in Petauke, we had the opportunity to buy beers for a couple of Peace Corps volunteers, a tradition for us whenever we encounter them overseas. (We are celebrating our tenth year!) When I told them that my Benadryl had been confiscated at the border and that I had been threatened with arrest they said, “Oh yeah, we’ve heard of that happening. The Peace Corps gives us a document to show border or police check officials stating that we have permission to carry Benadryl. It has come in handy because there are lots of random police checks in Zambia.”
Scott looked over at me and said, “Wow, these guys really have a thing for Benadryl! Remind me to deep six that Benadryl mosquito after-bite pen we have.”


Kamunjoma, Zambia
Next: The Dancing Bridge

Time Travel on the Lake Tanganyika Ferry



It seemed like a good plan. Take a 12-hour bus ride from Nairobi in Kenya to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and then ride a train for three days to Kigoma on the shore of Lake Tanganyika where we would catch the twice-monthly ferry to Zambia.
The first part of the plan worked like a charm. The bus ride was long (15 hours instead of 12), bumpy, and dusty but we arrived in Dar in one piece - always something to celebrate when traveling by public transport in the developing world. The next morning found us at the train station to book a sleeper only to find that the train would not be running any time soon due to a very specific reason, “many problems.” We had to be in Kigoma by the 27th to catch the ferry so we were suddenly scrambling to find another way to get there on time. Days and days on buses on horrible roads driven by sleep deprived men intent on passing on blind curves at unsafe speeds would be our least favorite option. Luckily, Air Tanzania, the only airline flying to Kigoma, had two seats left on the only flight with availability that week. We had a few days to kill in Dar but that was fine by us because Dar es Salaam is one of our favorite African cities. Even though it’s big, it manages to retain a friendly vibe. We even felt comfortable walking around at night.


The best part about Dar (besides Sunday Brunch at the Movenpick Hotel) was that we ran into Jo and Will whom we last saw two years ago in Cape Town. Scott was on his way to the Angola embassy to inquire about visas in case we had time to travel there before our trip ended. For whatever reason he decided to stop in at the City Supermarket shopping center on the way.

Walking through the arcade he heard, “Scott!” It was Jo, the awesome, bubbly, enthusiastic photographer who ran the photo safari we did two years ago and Will the driver was with her. “What a small world!” we said later to Will after hugs all around. (Weeks later in the garden of a small hotel in Petauke, Zambia we would meet and share a few beers with a Peace Corps volunteer who had taught my nephew Colin at Mitty High School in San Jose. “What a small world!” we all said. I love it when we connect with friends –Anne Marie, Alex, Maria, Conner…– at the oddest times in the oddest places- and it happens more often than I ever thought it would.)


The flight to Kigoma was wonderful. We had seats 1 and 2 on a 20-seat propeller plane - and a small plane is the only way to fly in Africa. You can make out people in the bomas below and sometimes, even spot animals. And, just like in the good old days, some kids on board got to meet the captain and co pilot in the cockpit during flight. We landed on a gravel runway and waited for our luggage in a baggage claim area that consisted of one bench and a plywood shelf. One by one, baggage was placed on the shelf while an airline worker called out the person’s name on the baggage claim.

After collecting our backpacks we walked outside to find a taxi so we could get to the ferry office in time to pay for our cabin and find a place to stay for the night. But, for the first time ever in all our travels, there were no taxis and no touts clamoring for our business. We contemplated walking to town when a well-dressed man, the manager of the Lake Tanganyika Lodge, walked up to us and asked if we needed help. Sam was picking up an American couple on tour and, after we explained that we needed to get to the ferry office as soon as possible, made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. “Allow me to drive you to my hotel via the ferry office. If you like my hotel, please stay. If not, you will have a free ride into town.” He nodded towards the couple waiting in the hotel van. “On the way, we will stop at the place where Stanley met Livingston on the shore of Lake Tanganyika.” That was fine by us!


The spot where Stanley first encountered Livingston is marked with a plaque under a mango tree, though the lake has receded considerably from the spot where first they made contact. Global warming, I presume? There is also a small museum with photos and drawings depicting Livingston’s life in Africa. We sat in the shade under the mango tree while a young man told us the story of Livingston; how he came to Africa to explore, fight slavery, bring Christianity, how he died in Africa and how it took his two faithful servants over a year to carry his body back to England.


It was an interesting lecture but it was being told almost in real time, and we were very anxious to get to town to secure our cabin on the ferry. Since the ferry operates only twice a month we either had to secure passage on the ferry leaving the next day or we would be forced to face four grueling days on trucks and bush taxis to get where we needed to be in Zambia.
Scott stood up and with a big smile said, “Livingston, what a guy!” putting a period on the lecture and heading to the mini van.


When we arrived at the ferry office, we were told that they had given away our cabin. After much discussion, they decided to put us in the family cabin, which is the only cabin on board with it’s own toilet, so that was fine by us! Then Sam said that if we stayed at his hotel he would not only grant us a late check out, he would transport us back to the ferry the next afternoon in time for the scheduled 3pm departure. He drove us to his hotel, which was just a short distance from where the MV Liemba was docked and the Lake Tanganyika Lodge hotel was beautiful so that was fine by us. We changed into swimsuits, ordered beers, and dove into the sparkling clean pool fronting the lake. The American couple, it turned out, was on their first trip to Africa and on their honeymoon. We toasted both their decisions and watched the sun go down over the lake together.


The MV Liemba is the world’s oldest continuously operating passenger ferry ship in the world and, Lake Tanganyika, bordered by Tanzania, The Congo, Burundi, and Zambia, is the longest lake in the world. Those two facts alone were enough to make us want to make the 3-day, 2-night trip south to the shores of Zambia. But the Liemba has an interesting and complicated history making it all the more enticing. It was built in Germany in 1912 and, in parts, was brought to Africa to be used as a cargo ship. During WWII it was enlisted into service as a German military expedition ship against the Belgians in the Congo, and the British in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). The Belgians sunk it. Later the Germans raised it, took it to Kigoma and, after greasing the engine, deliberately sunk it again. (The story of the MV Liemba was the inspiration for the movie The African Queen where Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn sink the German cargo ship.) After the war, the British raised it and began using it as a cargo and passenger ferry, and that is still what it is being used for today. The captain, crew, and many of the passengers appreciate the age of the ship and treat her with the respect she deserves.


But, really, a hundred-year-old ship? It couldn’t have been that great. It was! In 1970, the Danes provided a grant to refurbish it, the engine was changed from coal to diesel and the rotted out berths and benches were replaced. But the best part of being on the Lake Tanganyika ferry was the feeling of traveling back in time.


All along the shores of Lake Tanganyika are villages so remote there isn’t a single road leading to them. Just as it was hundreds of years ago, the lake is their lifeline to the outside world. We discovered this firsthand at 10 pm the first night when incredible shouting coupled with a slowing of the engine woke us. Outside our cabin we looked into the darkness to see ten leaky wooden boats powered by Yamaha outboards and a few dug out canoes (powered by oar) jam-packed with humanity and cargo all clamoring to get on board at once. At the same time from third class two decks below, an equivalent number of people and cargo were trying to get off the ferry and onto the little boats. Bananas, pineapples, sacks of cotton and rice, and mattresses, a lot of mattresses, were being thrown either up onto the ferry cargo deck or down into the wooden boats. Those who carried only a suitcase or sack frantically climbed up the sides of the ferry to our deck and made their way quickly downstairs before the crew could catch them. That sight and the fact that there was so much screaming had me worried at first that we were being hijacked (boat jacked?). You know how much I like pirates but this was a little unsettling. “Holy Crap!” I said to Scott as we watched organized chaos in action. It was like that for about half an hour. Then the wooden boats and dug out canoes laden with new passengers and cargo headed for shore and all was instantly quiet on the ship. Mothers on the cargo deck went back to breast-feeding their babies, passengers who had cabins retired to their bunks and everyone else (most of the 500 on board) found a little space between pineapples and bananas and 5-gallon jerry cans of palm oil on deck to sleep.




This same scenario was repeated every two or four hours over the three-day passage whenever we neared a village. If we were asleep, we got up to watch the spectacle. If it was during the day we walked around the top deck taking photos. It gave new meaning to the term ‘on board entertainment’. Most of the shouting came from the wooden transport boats as they approached the ferry at ramming speed. They get paid not only per passenger but also per piece of cargo so they raced to get alongside the ferry to be first because he who gets there first and shouts the loudest gets the most. We watched quite a tug of war between two boatmen over 3 plastic chairs. Unbelievably, bobbing amongst the transport boats were women in smaller boats calmly selling fish and fried bread to passengers on the ferry, even in the middle of the night. We didn’t get much sleep those two nights on the Liemba due to all the commotion but it was a window into the past. The people who live along Lake Tanganyika rely on the twice monthly visits of the cargo ferry ship for food and for transport just the way they have for a hundred years.






There were a handful of other western travelers on board most, as we were, in first class cabins. The beer was cold and the food in the dining lounge was good. Yes, there were cockroaches and probably a rat or two but there was plenty of interesting conversation. If you are meeting a westerner for the first time on the Lake Tanganyika ferry chances are they are well traveled and have a story to tell and our fellow passengers did not disappoint. A Dutch doctor had just finished his internship at a clinic in a small village in Tanzania. He was visibly shaken by what he had seen in the village, especially the deaths and suffering and amputations that could have avoided with proper medical care. He said the most upsetting thing was that people waited too long to see a doctor, choosing first to use the witch doctor or use herbs that often made things worse. What most upset him was watching the labor of girls too physically young to even be having children suffer horribly because of herbs they had taken to make the baby come faster. He could barely talk about his experience. He even had to leave the village a little earlier than planned, “I just had to get out of there”, he said emphatically.

Then there was the uber enthusiastic German geography teacher who had to pay a $50 fine for taking photos of the harbor in Kigoma and told us the story of the time he was nearly arrested for the photos he took in Cuba. But his students are sure learning a lot! An English couple in Africa for a year, and a well-traveled French-Chinese couple rounded out the table nicely. They all got off in Tanzania, one stop before we did to see the second highest waterfall in Africa, a four-hour hike in and out. We wished we could have fit it in to our itinerary. “Next time”, Scott said. We watched them disembark and leave the dock on the only transport around. In the back of a huge lumbering lorry they were packed like sardines with, again, pineapples, bananas, and mattresses but also bicycles and sacks and sacks of something. Suddenly we were the only two mzungus (white foreigners) left on the ferry, which is why my next update is titled, Avoiding Arrest on Drug Trafficking Charges at the Zambian Border.


Petauke, Zambia