The Great East Road

Contrary to one’s first instinct, it was safer, easier, quicker, and quite frankly, it just sounded more adventurous than saying, “I took the bus home.” Standing on the outskirts of Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, I usually distanced myself from the nearby bus stop to avoid being confused with a bus patron. The bus conductors would still encourage me from afar that I should take the bus instead. There was always time, especially when the bus is mostly empty. It wouldn’t leave until it was completely full.
I could be standing on the side of the road for less than an hour or all morning. I would usually bring a book to read while flagging cars. Over weighted taxis and minibuses dominated the road. I wanted something with a little more leg room. It was always a risk. Land rovers belonging to local non-government organizations, colloquially known simply as NGO’s, or Zambian government workers were sporadic on the road, and it wasn’t always a guarantee that they would be curious enough to pull over. I hoped at some point an NGO land rover or a private vehicle for a Zambian government worker would be very confused by an American flagging down cars while wearing a skirt made from the brightly-colored traditional African chitenge material. Their confusion would lead them to stop to give me a ride.
There were so many advantages to hitchhiking over taking the bus in Zambia. Those land rovers could speed right around the roads winding through the boundary of the Muchinga Escarpment. Sometimes there was air conditioning, which was a plus once the road declined into the soupy, sticky air of the Luangwa Valley. For comforts like these, there was always a price for hikers, albeit one cheaper than the slow bus system. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I always paid in conversation. They wanted to know what I did, where I was from, and what America’s like. Some men jokingly talked about wanting to marry a musungu—a white person .As a woman, I would get a few marriage proposals that I could shrug off.
The biggest advantage was getting to know the people. They were fascinating. They liked to talk. They would often reply to my tales of America with stories of their own. They traveled throughout the country as teachers, government administrators, and business leaders. Two times, I was picked up by someone who previously lived in the U.S. One attended divinity school in my home state of Kentucky and moved back home to Lusaka after graduating. The other told me stories of struggling in D.C., working 2 full time retail jobs. He saved all his money and applied for a visa. American life was not was he expected it to be. He missed his family and the slower pace of Zambian life and evidently returned home.
Not always were the rides smooth sailing. There was the occasion when a MAC truck stalled and my travel companion, another volunteer, had to get out and help push to get it started. My favorite story was a ride with three young Zambian women who accidentally hit a goat in the middle of the road. Fearful the local villagers would make them pay for it, they sped along, only to run out of fuel 10 minutes down the road.
Sometimes, a ride never picked me up. Occasionally, there weren’t many cars on the road, or they were too harried to bother stopping. Standing there on the side of the Great East Road for four or more hours, I would sometimes just head back into Lusaka and try again the next day. The day before school was in session was a day I felt more rushed to get home. I was a teacher at Ndake Basic School. It was the end of August. I had been enjoying my month-long vacation during the school break. I was tired and ready to head back home in the village.
Slinking over to the bus stop, a couple of travelers offered me condolences.
“You’ll get the next bus, don’t worry. No problem. It will be no problem.”
“Not many drivers to Chipata today. Sorry sorry.”
I explained I only needed to get to Nyimba, which was about halfway between Lusaka and Chipata along the Great East Road. From Nyimba, I would ride my bike to Ndake village. I kept my bike safely at local shop in Nyimba. If I didn’t get back in time, he would be closed up for the night, and I wouldn’t be able to retrieve it.
I announced to the conductor that I was a teacher, and that school started the next day. He nodded as though he felt the gravity of the situation. There were other teachers at the bus stop. We were all trying to get back to our schools. While we waited, we chatted about the differences in Zambian and American education. Even though they introduced themselves as fellow teachers, they were instantly recognizable. They were reading books or magazines. Others writing in small ledger notebooks—lesson plans maybe. I imagined that they were also in a rush to get back after relaxing in the capital, or maybe finishing studies of their own at the university while the rest of the schools were closed.
I let out a small laugh and told them I missed home. Home was a two-room hut in Ndake village. Everyone laughed at the idea that I lived in a hut with a grass-thatched roof. The teachers balked at the idea. They told me I should demand a metal roof. I was a teacher, after all. Grinning naively, I said, “I love the smell of my grass roof and mud walls.” They just shook their heads and responded, “You Americans are very peculiar.”
Standing there outside of Lusaka, home was about 400 kilometers away, but it felt like the other side of the world.

How to Ride a Mini Bus

If you ever find yourself on public transport in Zambia, sit tight. You’ll be reassured that the bus is leaving soon-soon. No problem. Very soon. Don’t be fooled. In all actuality, the bus will leave when it is full of passengers, so be sure you have a book and find a snack. There will also be plenty of people to converse with as you all wait quietly for the bus to leave.
Don’t be the first one on the bus. You’ll be directed to the back, and the rows fill up from back to front. That means you’ll sit in the very back crammed with everyone’s luggage pressing on your back, and you’ll feel every pothole along the cracked tarmac road because the bus doesn’t have any shocks. Not to mention, every window will be open and blowing dust and fumes right into your face. No one else will get into the bus until they are sure enough passengers have been persuaded and the appropriate price bargained for.
As the bus stop gets busier, more local business proprietors will start hanging around in the hopes you’ll find their fritters or egg sandwiches calling your hunger pangs. Sitting in the shade of the bus with the other patient passengers, you can motion for any of them to hurry to you for a snack to tie you over.
It’s not just food vendors trying to get your attention. It’s the perfect time to browse for a new pair of sunglasses from the guy who just walked by. I always enjoyed collecting new bright chitenge material to have sewn into beautiful dresses later on. You could finish all your shopping while sitting on your luggage.
Sometime right before lunch time, it will be ready to pile into the bus. It’s probably best to hold on to your own bag. That single rope net that holds down 30 plus suitcases on the back of the bus may not hold for long. Put your bag between your knees because the mother sitting next to you might plop her youngest child in your lap while she wrangles with the others on her knees.
The ride is usually slow, heavy with luggage and people. The conductor still on the lookout for prospective passengers will be clinging to the doorway where the missing sliding door used to hang. You’ll stop multiple times along the road and for a longer period of time in small towns like Chongwe. Some passengers will depart, but even more will squeeze in. At some point, your driver will be at his home village, and you’ll depart to continue the journey on another bus.

Just Trying to Get Home

On that particular day, the minibus would break down somewhere along the Great East Road where it is the hottest—in the Luangwa Valley. I was getting so close. I was maybe 150 kilometers to Nyimba, then about 10 kilometers on my bicycle to my house. We all got out trying to push the bus. Everyone chortled at the American musungu attempting to help. I knew it wouldn’t work. We were stuck and the conductor assured us that another minibus would come.
I started flagging any passing vehicle. It was no use. There were dozens of us eager for a ride. A few other teachers were complaining about not being able to report to their schools on time. I joined in on the complaining with them. After all, school was supposed to start the next day.
After about an hour of waiting, others became restless, inquiring about the minibus that was summoned. When it started to become dim and the sun was fading, a pickup truck was heading our way in the distance. I stood up to wave my arm at it, along with most of the other passengers who were so hopeful about the bus coming.
The truck slowed down. “Madame Gregory?”
It was, Mr. Nyirenda, a former teacher from my school. He was heading back from his university studies. His wife was a teacher at Nyimba Secondary School. He smiled. I bolted to the passenger side door and crawled in. He motioned for several others to hop in the back after negotiated a price and collecting some fuel money.
“Madame, what are you doing out here?” he inquired, still smiling to see me.
“Just trying to get home. School starts tomorrow,” I replied. He giggled at that response.
Mr. Nyirenda got me home as quickly as he could. He even offered to pick up my bike and drive me directly to Ndake from Nyimba. He was a kind man. He safely dropped everyone along the way to Nyimba, taking care to help them with their bags. It was after dark when we arrived at my house. I was his last passenger. I thanked him and paid him. He refused, but I playfully tossed the money in the passenger seat.
The next morning I was dressing and heard the familiar traditional greetings outside my door, “Odi!” My neighbor, Alice, was there to greet me. She missed me, too. When I opened the door, we hugged. She called me by my local name, Tokozani—meaning giving thanks. Her eldest daughter shyly greeted me too. She was helping her mother carry water.
She wasn’t going to school today. I didn’t hear the usual bustle of children walking along the path to school behind my house. I realized, it was just the first day. In Zambia, does anything ever start on time? Like most cultures in Africa, villagers of Zambia are generally poly-chronic, and time does not flow linearly. Time is cyclical and events happen when the time is right.
I realized I wasn’t in a hurry to get to Ndake because school was beginning. I was in a hurry because I wanted to be home. After a month of meetings with other Peace Corps volunteers and a couple of weeks of vacation, I was ready to conclude my traveling. I aimed to get back to the place I called home for nearly two years. I was ready to commence teaching my pupils, playing football with them, and playing games with them in the library. I wanted to sit in my kitchen and chat with my neighbors and play with their children. My fellow travelers thought it odd I would call this place home. It was the place I felt most comfortable, safe, and loved.
I knew my time in Zambia would be brief. I realized that I would always be an outsider. I was always one step behind when someone else was speaking the local language of Chinsenga too fast for me to fully understand. Despite these things, I loved and was loved by my fellow villagers. I never understood until after leaving my home in Ndake the profound affect these people had on me. I may have been an obvious outsider, but I was brought with open arms, and a bit of curiosity, into their community. I never knew I would be more homesick for my hut than my old apartment in America. Even now, nearly three years after returning to America, I get homesick for Ndake village.

Surviving Snowpocalypse

Winter Wonderland pic taken by our good friend Kellie Nash
Winter Wonderland pic taken by our good friend Kellie Nash

I dislike being cold. A lot. I dislike the feeling of my freezing feet and fingers. I usually feel lethargic and stuck when it’s too cold outside. It’s usually too cold for me outside when it’s below 50F. Cam likes the snow. It’s pretty, I’ll give him that. I like looking at it when I’m drinking hot tea from afar.

What I mean by from afar is, say, Africa. Since returning from the other side of the great pond, I have been fairly lucky in experiencing fairly mild winters. I missed a few ice storms while living in Africa, while learning to cope with sandstorms instead. I am pretty well equipped at handling the sandstorm, flash flood, or the long suffocating hot season of the Sahel.

On top of that, mild winters are generally the norm in the southern state where we live. It snows just enough to cover the ground overnight, then melt by noon the next day. (Don’t worry, officials will still cancel school anyway with an inch of snow on the ground.) So, to wake up last Monday with 12 inches of snow on the ground, I was happy to join the rest of my state in skipping work. I stayed on the coziness of my couch, kept company by Captain Picard of Star Trek: Next Gen on Netflix.

Yes, a foot is absolutely nothing compared to the extreme weather my friends in the northeast experienced. Had I experienced anything remotely close to that, I wouldn’t have left the house for a month. I would have been completely caught up on every Star Trek series Netflix has to offer.

Not only do I dislike the cold, I dislike driving in it. Anyone from the north who has attempted driving in the couple of inches of snow on a southern road understands what I mean. Most of us cannot drive in it. I don’t know how well I can drive in it, because I DON’T drive in it. Cam acted as my chauffeur in his four-wheel drive SUV when he was able. He wasn’t able often, because unlike the rest of us too whiny to step foot outside, he worked a lot of overtime to compensate for those who lived in the more rural areas and couldn’t make the commute to work.

Not only is the driving of southerners (myself included) driving in the snow a source of humor, the en mass shopping for milk and bread is puzzling to me. It’s as if we believe we are going to be snowed in for a month. So, why do we purchase the most perishable items at our local grocery store? I guess everyone was one step ahead of Cam and I. We did not even prepare to that level. We usually dismiss how bad the storm will be. That logic usually doesn’t fail us. We’re generally amused at the overreaction to a couple of inches of snow. However, last Monday afternoon, we found ourselves scouring through the frozen pizzas at the nearest grocery store.

We have a saying here, “if you don’t like the weather here, wait fifteen minutes.” I didn’t say it was a unique saying. It isn’t a very accurate saying either. Every morning I woke up, I still found the snow and the ice outside.

It’s still there, in fact. In a compromise, I ventured out to have fun in the winter wonderland with Cam. He found his old snowsuits and coveralls and we played in the snow like 10 year old kids. I layered on every possible piece of clothing. I lasted about 20 minutes. Now, I am just patiently waiting for the slow advancement into spring. Perhaps the wait seems longer because as soon as spring comes, it’s full throttle ahead to finding a new home, planning a potential trip abroad, and perhaps a wedding ceremony in there somewhere. In the meantime, I’ll sit with my mug of hot tea and pretend it’s the Sahel’s latest sandstorm hitting my windows, and not the sleet, to take the chill out of my achy bones.

Eldritch Horror: Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagnl

So, I asked Cam to help me out with a post. Eldritch Horror is a complex, intense game. We play it often. He received the new Mountains of Madness expansion recently. He enthusiastically responded and whipped up the following post. I believe his love for all things Lovecraft is fairly evident:

photo 2

Eldritch Horror, and its subsequent expansions Forsaken Lore and Mountains of Madness, make for a one to eight player board game experience. I don’t use the term experience lightly. Based off of the literary works of H.P. Lovecraft, the game is heavy on theme and fraught with peril. The players, through the course of the game, are attempting to prevent the awakening of a dreaded Ancient One. These beings, more accurately described as cosmic deities, once having been summoned through cabal ritual will release untold horrors upon the Earth. Cthulhu is likely the most recognizable Ancient One, but the game includes many others, numbering to 7 with both expansions, from Azathoth the slumbering daemon sultan at the center of all things to the perhaps lesser known Ithaqua, the Wind-Walker of the north or Yig, the Serpent Lord. Eldritch Horror’s reach includes much of the mythos established by Lovecraft and expounded upon by August Derleth and future authors.

The game is presented in the style of pulp fiction crossed with noir. The players act as globe-hopping investigators, attempting to uncover mysteries surrounding the chosen Ancient One for their playthrough. Once a sufficient number of mysteries (3 for most Ancient Ones or 4 for the newly released Elder Things), the investigators have claimed victory, preventing the rise of dreaded evil. For this day, at least. Victory, whether or not achieved, is not without its price.

Eldritch Horror includes an entire deck devoted to maladies that could befall your group: physical or mental ailments, pacts with evil, debts, or even becoming lost between our world the beyond. The list of possible conditions has grown with each expansion adding new cards or variations on existing ones. That is the beauty of this particular element of the game – while there are several cards that might pertain to your investigator be stricken with ‘Paranoia’, each card back is different in its effects. You’ll know what afflicts you and how, but should you not rid yourself of it in time, it will affect your investigator in different ways that you can’t predict. Fortunately, most conditions can be cured, either through applying a particular skill roll or simply resting and hoping the dice are lenient.

The players interact with the board, itself a representational map of the world, via actions and dice rolling. A second game board of Antarctica is included in the Mountains of Madness expansion. Investigators get two non-repeating actions per turn to traverse, trade, acquire assets, or what-have-you. Most investigators also have an action they can take unique to themselves. And the two action limit can be modified by items or inherent character abilities. Beyond the action phase, players will have an encounter on their space, either drawing a card representing their location or if they’re less lucky (or just brazen) entering combat with some horrible monster. Either route involves dice rolling. Rolling enough ‘successes’ in combat spells defeat for the monster, although an insufficient number could leave you a bit less mentally or physically stable. The success mentioned above is having a die result of 5 or 6 on a six-sided die. The location based encounters are where the meat of the game lies.

Each continent has a unique deck, with each city of it being listed per card. As well as a deck for locations that are less civilized, a deck for expeditionary excursions, and a deck for traveling through a gateway to the dreamlands and beyond. As it comes around to each player, a card is read for them based on where they are, generally presenting a challenge to overcome or predicament they’ve become mired in. These encounters test the mettle of the investigators through their skills, each investigator having skills at unique levels (which are naturally improvable). The player rolls a number of dice equal to the skill being tested and hopes for a success. Based on the results, a pass or fail passage concludes their encounter. Sounds straight-forward? Following the action and encounter phase, the mythos phase ends the round. A phase devoted the temporarily dormant Ancient One can be as bad as it sounds.

photo 1

Eldritch Horror is tense. Several games we’ve played have come down to the wire, victory so close at hand only to be torn away. It is tense, but it’s fun, as you play on the edge of your seat, hoping for a good card or a lucky roll, hanging on with your investigator by the skin of your teeth for one more shot at closing a portal to the Plateau of Leng or one more blow to down a Mi-go and secure a clue. This game is almost a one-of-a-kind experience, but I would be remiss not to mention Arkham Horror.

Originally published in 1987 and revamped in 2005, Arkham Horror is forebear of the Lovecraftian adventure game. While the theme and gravitas of Arkham outmatches Eldritch, so too does its complexity. As you have likely picked up on in reading this, Eldritch Horror is no lightweight. Our playthroughs with various groups have clocked in at over 3 hours. Arkham Horror, depending on investigator count, is just as if not more lengthy, with even more delicate rules making up its own gameplay. I do hate to compare the two, however. Arkham narrows its scope, as investigators scramble across the city of Arkham to keep the Ancient One slumbering, while in Eldritch Horror, Arkham is just one stop on the map for the investigators on their quest to solve global mysteries. Without going into depth in comparison, I can say that Eldritch Horror hits the table much more frequently than Arkham. Eldritch Horror’s rulebook is much simpler to work through and explain to new players. I haven’t even brought Arkham Horror to my newer Monday board game group, although I expect I will at some point.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, this is a strong recommendation to give Eldritch Horror a play, should you have the opportunity. If you get the chance to play Arkham Horror with an experienced group, don’t pass that up either. I do speak with a bias – Lovecraft’s work is unmatched in my opinion, and Fantasy Flight Games has published something worthy of putting his name on the box. Some of the better gaming experiences I’ve had have been sitting around the table with friends, with this monster staring back at us. Daring us. Playing with others knowledgeable in Lovecraftian lore and players a little less so is also a treat. Explaining to them exactly why going toe-to-toe with a Hound of Tindalos isn’t a good idea and getting to see the look on their face is priceless: “No, dude, you don’t get it. This isn’t some demon hound – it’s barely a dog at all. The thing is like a skeletal bat-dragon from time immemorial. They travel through and are tied to the angles of reality – materializing as a mist out of any corner until it assumes its form. If you start something with it – if it even catches sight of you, it will follow you until you are nothing.”

Eldritch Horror (and of course Arkham Horror) are like no other. Go play them. Or at the very least read some Lovecraft.

-Cam

Life is Calling – Be Quiet, I’m Talking

Where’s the last place one should drag an introvert to? A party. Yes, I dragged Cam to a party last night. Well, it was a small gathering anyway, and really not a party, but more of an informal informational session with food. Still, Cam hadn’t met any of the invitees. I knew of two, some fellow returned Peace Corps volunteers, or RPCVs. The rest were potential future Peace Corps volunteers.

I served as a volunteer in Mauritania and Zambia. I worked in agriculture, health, and education. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. It’s been almost 3 years since I left. I realize I probably romanticize it now. We tend to forget the frustrations and bad days when we reminisce about the good ol’ days.

Home Sweet Home in Ndake Zambia (taken by me when I moved in)

I forget that most normal people, especially introverts like Cam, don’t just talk to strangers all the time. Peace Corps volunteers will talk to anyone. We make friends fast. We had to. We met a group of people we were to serve abroad with, got to know them in about a day, got on a plane with them, and realized these people would be our best friends for at least 2 years. When we got placed at our sites, we immediately had to seek out people to work with. We talk to everyone—it’s part of the job we loved so much.

Once we get back to the States, we love to talk about Peace Corps. We talk over each other. I feel like I always have to get my story out there. I want everyone to know how much my experience means to me. The experience never leaves. After service, an RPCV can continue service by carrying out the Third Goal: to promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. In other words, do what we like to do best, and talk about it at length.

I remembered when Cam and I started dating, I did nothing but talk about Peace Corps. Luckily, he’s a quiet introvert that didn’t mind listening. He got another dose of it last night, while listening to the RPCVs answer the questions of those interested in Peace Corps. Not fitting into either category, he listened to our unique stories in different countries. He also made some new friends with my friends Heath and Ashley, which makes me excited. Maybe he’ll join us at our monthly Peace Corps dinner.

So just remember, if our paths ever cross, and you feel I’m being too quiet, ask me about my Peace Corps experience, and I won’t shut up.  You can also learn more about the Peace Corps here if you prefer a quieter evening.