Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Water, Water Everywhere

well, very sorry it's been so long since i've written, i don't have a very good excuse for my apathy other than that i feel like there's not too much going on that's worth writing about. i work in an office all day now in front of a computer, and most of the time feel very little like a zambian peace corps volunteer, seeing as the essence of that experience is getting dirty and smelly for weeks on end in the bush, emerging to eat enough dairy to get sick, and then heading back to the village. however, lusaka is proving to be a lot of fun of the more conventional variety; there is a large community of western aid workers, embassy staff, etc., who live here and manage to keep themselves entertained--braiis (cookouts), ultimate frisbee, the hash (a group of people who get together and run pre-laid out courses that are deliberately confusing so most people get lost--all for the sheer pleasure of it...weird, i know) and other activities along those lines. the beauty of it is that, specifically with americans, there is an instant bond and the feeling of kinship that comes with being countrymen in a different country--that feeling is so strong that many of them are even willing to cart peace corps volunteers around in their vehicles and overlook the fact that we're the american equivalent of poor relations with bad table manners.

my new job is in the public health sector, a field i knew next to nothing about before starting this job, so i've been learning a lot. the program has a heavy emphasis on anti-retroviral therapy and antenatal care; as i've spent most of my life being largely grossed out by the idea of childbirth, i've had to spend a lot of time with a dictionary figuring out what all the terms associated with antenatal care mean...however, discovering, for instance, what 'meconium' is has not helped me in the grow-up-about-childbirth category at all. since smartcare (the name of the project i'm with) concerns electronic medical records, many of the people i work with are software/computer guys--there's actually only one other person in the office without a computer background, so i spend a lot of time exchanging eye rolls from across the room with her. pretty much the only way to confuse me more than i am when dealing with antenatal terms is to use some software programming lingo around me. on the rare occasion when i haven't successfully avoided a software-related task, i find myself during the briefing meetings trying to take my cue from people who know what's going on: i'll watch them out of the corner of my eye, and if they nod in agreement to something that's been said i'll nod as well in what i hope is a sage manner, and throw in a concurring grunt if their nodding seems to be particularly committed. the irony is, of course, that i used similar methods in the village when i was confused, so it's a technique i've perfected.

over easter i went down with a group of pcvs to livingstone in southern province, to see victoria falls. this was my third time down there so i'd seen the falls before but had never done a proper tour of them, and decided to do it this time. the night before i went a girl who had gone earlier told me she spent the entire time they were at the face of the falls simply shouting "it's intoxicating!" well, that actually proved to be a pretty good description of the experience. in tonga, the language of the tribe in that area on the zambian side of the zambezi river, the falls are called mosi-oa-tunya, "the smoke that thunders." david livingstone reportedly said upon first seeing them "...scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight;" i wasn't able to muster anything quite that poetic, although i took a stab at it with "holy crap, they're massive." and i was right, they are massive, about a mile wide and 360 feet tall, the water plume it sends up can sometimes be seen 30 miles away, and during peak flow times about 105,000 cubic feet per second of water plummet over the falls. obviously, though, numbers don't begin to capture the size and power of victoria falls that you experience when you're close up against them.

the falls stretch in a gently curving fashion all the way across the zambezi river, the far side being lost in the mist. livingstone island, a small patch of tangled, heavy vegetation perched on top of craggy sheets of bare rock sits directly in front of the falls, only about 200 feet away, and offers an unparalleled view and the opportunity to get completely drenched. there is a small clearing where crowds of people congregate before heading down the trail that takes you over the bridge and onto the island; here, people who have just returned from walking the trails are wringing out their clothing and checking to see if their cameras survived the trip, while tourists preparing to head down the trails are donning rainjackets and wrapping their electronic gear in plastic. my group stopped here briefly so we could make similar preparations; i opted for a stylish red sox poncho (some of my more low-brow companions claimed to be embarrassed by it; normally that type of mis-guided remark would upset me, but this time i simply reponded with the observation that they're stupid).

as you start down the trail the rock path starts to become slick with moisture, and soon the overhanging branches are shedding heavy drops of water on you. there is a steady roar and you can glimpse through the trees a mountain of churning water, and then you step out from the relative protection of the woods and into one of the bare overlooks jutting out over the edge of the gorge. chunks of greenish-white water tumble slowly over the lip of the falls and disappear into the fog below, and a perpetual haze of mist comes streaming back up with force, as if fired from a water cannon. the slick black face of the cliff off to your right has swathes of soggy moss clinging to it, made into tenuous islands by the streams of water gushing down the surface of the rock. the trees toss and sway in the wind churned up by crashing water, the same wind that is sending sheets of fog swirling around you and driving heavy rain onto your head and shoulders, all in the midst of a bitingly sunny day. you turn and look at your friends; the closest ones have an exhilarated look on their faces that are flushed red from being pelted by water and wind, their eyes are squinting against the onslaught and their soaked hair is plastered down on their heads. farther away your friends are fuzzy smudges in the mist until they get closer and their bodies begin to take on definition, the same silly grin creasing their faces that you know is plastered on your own.

then you step onto the cable bridge that leads to livingstone island; it hangs there over a gorge, in front of the face of the falls, streams of water flowing down it ankle-deep in places; pot-bellied indian men with their shirts off are dancing and laughing in the driving fog, kicking and splashing in the pooled water like children after a rainstorm. you lean over the edge of the bridge with a hand raised to protect your eyes that are being pelted so insistently with water; a slightly dizzy feeling grips you as you confront a wall of angry water whose dimensions can't be discerned as they're cut off by the mist, a wall barreling its way down into the gorge. your disorientation is increased by the confusion of competing gusts of wind striking you from below, behind, above, and in front, and you're completely overwhelmed with the giddiness of being in the grip of an unimaginably powerful force. it is, in a word, intoxicating.

so, victoria falls is beautiful, though the experience is much more than simply viewing them, the sensations you experience in the mist and the rain and the wind are equally important. it's the only natural wonder of the world i've seen, and it was all i think a wonder of the world should be. as always, you'd be much better off seeing it for yourself rather than taking my word for it. i hope you are all well. best, josh