Posted in October 2013

Short Stories… Still

October 20th, 2013


More stories! Woo!


Sadly, this will probably be my last post from Zambia. Things are wrapping up here, which means only a post or two more until the end of the project. I won’t get sentimental just yet.


– – –


Travel Makes Us Richer


One of my favorite quotes is “Travel Makes Us Richer.” I like to think it has to do with the idea that travel is mind-opening – live in one place for too long and you become accustomed to that location’s rules, regulations, and basically, that culture. It becomes easy to forget that there are other people out there living in entirely different situations from our own. I guess I like to think that one of the best ways to grow as people is to experience new things – and one of the best ways to do that is to travel, especially to somewhere we’ve never been before, amidst people we’ve never met before.


I have to admit that after 6 months between India and Guatemala I was feeling pretty good about myself. Indeed, coming to Zambia, I saw many new things, but a lot of what I saw I recognized. Except perhaps for the heat, there wasn’t nearly as much culture shock as there had been.


Which is why it was great to meet Lenka.


On my way out to the guest house one day, I stopped at the Zambikes office in town, and there was a lady from the Czech Republic buying a bamboo bike who wanted to see the production facility. I was headed that way anyways, so I offered to take her along, as the bus system can be hard to navigate the first few times.


I won’t re-iterate the entire conversation we had, but needless to say, it was completely different from what I expected. Here I was in Zambia talking to someone from the Czech Republic. I suddenly had to deal with a completely new perspective on the way the world works – and especially, the way the U.S. works. It’s easy to forget, as a traveler, that you might be the only person from your country that others interact with – the sole representation for the ideas and actions that your country embodies.


I like to think I do a pretty good job, but of course, that’s just my opinion.


Again, without getting into details, it was just really nice to be “shocked” again – here I was all comfortable with Zambian culture, and here comes someone from a country we as U.S. citizens rarely think of (I admit that, while I know the general locale, I would probably struggle to pinpoint the exact location of the Czech Republic on a map). Also, she was awesome, so that helps (hi Lenka).


To make things better, Lenka had met a backpacker from Belgium, so the next day we all went out for lunch. I would be remiss if I didn’t give one example of what happened that day, so I’ll just top off with this:


We spent a lot of time talking about cultural norms (to which I readily admitted the U.S.’s very prevalent and wasteful consumer culture and obsession with buying things to make us feel good about ourselves), and food. I mean, we were going out for lunch, so it was pretty inevitable. Then a question came up – one I probably should have expected, but I found humorous all the same:


“Kyle, Kyle. I have a question that’s really been bugging me. It’s something I really want to know. Do Americans… eat hamburgers?”




(gasp) “I knew it!’


– – –




In India I noticed not spelling errors, but things that were phrased in, shall we say, not exactly perfect English (“Shiniest and Best!”). In Zambia these seem to be few and far between, or at least a little less glaring, but they’ve exchange word forms for the spellings themselves.


Point and case: Down the road from where I live there is a tarven… it sells alcohol late at night.


There are a few more I’ve noticed, but for whatever reason I can’t recall them just now.


– – –


Welcome to Africa… Still


When you travel there are often “welcome to [here]” moments. In India the it’s when you get swarmed by taxi drivers outside the airport. In Guatemala it’s getting on the chicken bus and realizing it’s more a dance party than a bunch of people sitting and staring out the window. In Zambia it was dialing my aunt’s number and hearing that it had been disconnected (it had not).


Most of the time these moments happen over and over and even after you’ve been part of a culture for a month or more, you still discover new things are just, well, different.


I’m not a pilot so I can’t say if any of the things I’m about to describe actually happen in the US, but I like to hope not. As a pilot though, Joel has a few stories to tell about the quality of air traffic control in Africa.


(1) When you come in to land at an airport with a control tower, you have to radio over and ask for permission. Usually the air traffic controller will inform you of other traffic in the area, the speed and direction of the wind, and the runway he’d like you to land on. This is, of course, to prevent crashes, and all in all to have a more efficient airport. It makes sense for many of the larger (and even some of the “smaller”) airports we have in the States and that are dotted all over the states. Then there are the “really small” airports that consist of a dirt (or grass) landing strip, but no hanger, air tower, taxiway, etc… usually a private airport constructed by someone who would rather have a two hour flight into town than a fifteen hour drive.


These “airports” might not get used more than once or twice a year.


Joel was coming in to land at an airport that about fits this description, but for some reason, it had a control tower. So he radioed in to ask for permission – no response. And again – no response. After a few minutes a meek voice came on the air and said,


“I’m just the sweeper, but you can come!”


The guy in charge (probably the only one) had apparently gone to lunch, or otherwise out for a stroll, thinking no planes would come in. So the janitor gave Joel (very informally) permission to land.


(2) Similar airport, similar situation, but this time, the controller was where he was supposed to be! Woohoo!


This time, as luck would have it, there were three planes who had come into the airport at the same time. This isn’t as uncommon as you might think in a place like Zambia – Flying Mission sometimes does multiple flights a day, and there are other private charter companies around. I wouldn’t say it’s likely at a small, private airport, but it does happen.


In any case, Joel radioed in and got back, “Cleared for landing no traffic to affect you.”


Immediately after, someone else came on and said, “Hey Joel, I’m first in line, please circle and wait for me to land.”


This plane and another looking to land had apparently received the same response: “Cleared for landing no traffic to affect you.”


The air traffic controller had never had more than one plane in at at time. He had his line down pat… the pilots had to figure out landing orders between themselves.


Welcome to Africa.


– – –




My aunt Sue constantly reminds me that Africa is about relationships. In the United States, you can go into a store, buy something, leave, and that will be that. While it doesn’t hurt to form a relationship with the shop owner or the employee serving you, it’s not something that happens very often. Sure, you might ask the cashier at the coffee shop how they are, but that’s usually the end of it.


(1) In Zambia, on the other hand, everybody has relationships with everybody else. I notice this everywhere I go with Sue – she knows everybody she’s going to buy from. When we buy Talk Time on the way home from Lusaka, there’s a particular guy at a particular intersection she likes to buy from. He watches out for her, and she watches out for him. One time we drove up and he said, “Ah, Ms. Bolthouse, how are you?” They talked for a bit before he mentioned business was slow that day. As it ended up, I needed some Talk Time, so I bought some. “Thank you,” he said, “this is helping very much!”


(2) While waiting for the Zambikes’ guest house to clear up, I was working as a bike mechanic at MICS (Macha International Christian School). I had to go pick up some parts. Gil, one of the school administrators, went with me. We first went to his friendly neighborhood mechanic – the shop is out of his house – and sat and chatted for a bit. After maybe 30 minutes, we finally got around to asking about the parts. “No,” Harden said, “I don’t have that, I don’t think. But my brother does! Let me send you to my brother.” So he told us where his brother’s stall was in the market. We showed up, and his brother had all the parts ready. Of course, we stayed and chatted a bit before buying those parts, too.


(3) For commercial reasons, British Airways is canceling all service to and from Lusaka on October 25th, 2013. The last flight out is on the 26th. My flight was supposed to be on the 30th.


I remember when I changed my flight from Guatemala it was a bit of a pain. Actually, my mom changed my flight (thanks mom!), but it was still a pain. You know, you have to call the airline, get transferred, get put on hold, etc. etc.


Not here. Sue has a relationship with the BA ticket office in Lusaka. She just called up her friend Lufunda and explained the situation. “Okay,” he said, “I will fix this for you no problem.”


“And what happens to you?” Sue said, wondering, if the BA office in Lusaka closes, if Lufunda would get transferred or what. It had never occurred to me to ask that question. I’m just not practiced at having relationships with the people I buy things from. But everybody does it here.


Sue hung up, and ten minutes later I had an e-mail from BA confirming my flight out on the 26th.


– – –




I want to contrast the above post to something I’m going to call “etiquette.” When you learn another language there are a couple key phrases it’s usually important to know. These vary from language to language, but they are usually along the lines of “Hello,” “How are you?” “What’s up?” – generally, whatever introductions that culture uses frequently.


Which makes it interesting to note the English phrases people know… especially those who know little English.


I’m convinced the first phrase anybody learns here is “How are you?” As I walk down the street or around the airstrip little kids will shout at me, “How are you?” It’s adorable… until they shout it again, and again, and again… and you realize that’s the only phrase they know.


The next phrase people learn – let me take a note from The History of Love by Nicole Krauss – “finethankshowareyou.” I put it as one word because, well, sometimes that’s how it’s used. It’s not like people ever put in punctuation – “Fine. Thanks! How are you?” It’s one word said end over end, tumbling out of the mouth as if it’s a speed competition, like the faster you say it the better your English.


Even better, sometimes people will just interject with that phrase randomly. You don’t always have to ask people how they are to get “finethankshowareyou.”





(a nod of the head)



It is at some times, funny… and at others it’s a bit frustrating.


I don’t want to judge the style or level of education here – and certainly, there are some Zambians who are smarter than I am – but it reminds me a little bit of consumer culture in America – people just programmed to do one thing or another without really understanding why. I kind of wonder if, as the five-year-olds shout “How are you?” they really understand what it means; if the cashier at the grocery store really knows what they are saying when they say they are “fine.”


Certainly we have niceties in the U.S., but I like to think that if people stopped to think about it, they would know the meaning of the word “fine.” I worry that the regimen of rote memorization is becoming a cultural standard, as if the rest of the world now agrees with the U.S. that teaching students how to memorize is akin to teaching them anything beneficial.

2 thoughts on “Short Stories… Still

  1. Marilyn says:

    Great post. What’s Talk Time? Can’t wait to see you on the 27th! With bells on!

  2. Dad says:

    You have become quite a reflective and insightful writer, and I very much enjoy reading all your blogs. You’re as good at this writing as your Aunt Susan is at “having relationships.”

    Safe travels. If you keep writing, we’ll keep reading.

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Short Stories 2

Country/Day: Zambia/34

Bikes Fixed: 21

Bikes/Day Avg: 0.61

So, I’ve passed the halfway point for my stay here, and I have to admit, it sometimes feels I am well past the halfway point. I mean, 34/60…something is a whole five percent past fifty percent (excuse me while I go all math major), but I think what I’m really feeling is the “end of an era” feeling – the same feeling one might get upon entering senior year of college, or before starting a new job, or finishing a 4,032 mile bicycle tour.

Or, apparently, 9 months of self-arranged international travel and volunteer work.

I can’t, of course, write a wrap-up yet, as that would be unfair to my audience, and probably unfair to myself, as well. I just wanted to iterate the feeling of closure, because I’m having it. And now you have a disclaimer, too, that my posts might seem a little less open-ended.

– – –

The Well

I spent the week at my aunt’s house, coding and, well, coding. You might be asking, what does coding have to do with fixing bikes? And you know, that’s a great question.

My family is full of storytellers, and one time my dad told me a story about a Peace Corps worker he knew. There was no name in the story (or, I don’t remember it), for simplicity’s sake, let’s call this person John. John was a civil engineer, and his assignment was to go to Africa and build a well.

The problem is that when John arrived, he found that the people did not want a well. They wanted a bridge. John contacted the Peace Corps and told them, “They want a bridge.” The response, unfailingly:

“Build them a well.”

So John built a well. And the well went unused.

A few years later John came back, and the well was still there. But there was also a bridge. And as he stayed, he realized that the bridge brought people from across the river who played soccer. Soccer made the village happy; in turn, they were more productive and well connected. They did not need a well, because they had a bridge.

I prefaced the entire 90 Bikes, 90 Days project with a disclaimer along these lines: To teach, learn. Fixing 90 bikes in 90 days was an easy way to quantify the project. In reality, I knew – and I hope I communicated to my supporters — that it’s almost never that simple (if you want to learn more about this, take a peek at Poor Economics – quite a good read).

Zambikes has been around for a while. They seem to have things pretty much figured out. They can make steel bikes. They can make bamboo bikes. They aren’t perfect, but no company is. When I arrived, I wasn’t instructed to do one thing or another. My instructions were, “Make improvements.”

These guys are great bike mechanics. So my contributions came more from my experience as a manager and computer scientist. Among other things, I think that Zambikes could see a lot of improvement if they let computers do some of the work for them.

To be sure I wasn’t “building a well,” I ran this by the management team, and they loved it. So I got to work, writing scripts for Google spreadsheets, in an effort to make a spreadsheet that was, essentially, axiomatic. Because computers.

And internet is free at my aunt’s house… but it’s about $500/mo at the guest house (see a few posts ago). So to work on Google scripts, which is internet-based, I decided to spend the week at my aunt’s house.

To be fair, I don’t expect this project to magically make Zambikes a 300% more efficient team. I think those would be false expectations. I acknowledge that working with spreadsheets, and working with computers, except for e-mail, is largely new to these guys. So it’s entirely possible I will finish this project, leave, and the implementation will crumble to pieces. And if that happens, I don’t think it will be because I’m a terrible person, but just because, despite my enthusiasm, things might work better another way. And that’s okay. It’s all part of the experience.

(naturally, I want the system to get implemented, to increase productivity by 300%, for Zambikes to get filthy rich, and then to get a check in the mail. Let’s just be honest about this.)


– – –


It’s complete coincidence that I just told a story about soccer in Africa, and now I’m going to tell another story about soccer in Africa. Actually, this isn’t really a story as much of an interesting educated speculation, but who’s counting anyways.

One of the things I noticed about Zambia is that there are soccer fields everywhere. And in my travels, I’ve gotten used to soccer fields. Far greater than the love of soccer in the US is the love of soccer in India. I saw a surprising number of soccer fields in India… and as an aside, a lot of them were when I was in the mountains, and they were on the edges of cliffs. How else do you teach people not to miss? Chelsea stickered cabs would honk at Man-U stickered cabs, people would ask me who I followed, and what position I played. It was nothing, of course, compared to culture around cricket (“What’s that?” I can hear my U.S. readers wonder), but that’s another story.

Then I went to Guatemala, where soccer was even bigger (!). Instead of just soccer fields on the edges of cliffs in the mountains, there was one soccer field in every major city. It was played in the city centers on a regular basis. On my way home from work I would stop and cheer and wonder if there were any pickup games, and how they found so many referees.

And now I’m in Zambia. And in Zambia, there are soccer fields everywhere. Not just in major cities, but in minor cities, and in not-even cities. Flying Mission, the organization my uncle works for, has their own soccer field. Zambikes has their own soccer field (This is the part where I would calculate how many soccer fields there were per square mile, if the internet would be so obliging. Alas). All the vans have soccer stickers, not just the ones in the mountains. You can buy soccer jerseys in the street (to be fair, you can buy anything in the street – even puppies. But, shh). Soccer is everywhere.

The cool part is (okay, the extra-cool part, because everybody knows soccer is the best sport ever), it’s a positive part of culture. I think in the U.S. we think of sports in general as having a positive influence on our youth. And yea, there are some sports fanatics. But I have to be honest, compared to some other places, the US is pretty lousy when it comes to enthusiasm about sports (and especially the most popular sport in the world – soccer, duh!). Here, though, when Zambia scores a goal, all you can hear is cheering. And I don’t mean you have to be in a bar to hear the cheering. I mean that sitting in the living room in my aunt’s house, you can hear cheering. It comes from people living in grass huts with radios, from people who walked three miles to the tarven (not a spelling error – more on that later) for the TV, from people who hear the cheers of their neighbors and just know what happened. It’s electric.

Additionally, soccer, for lack of a better phrase, keeps kids off the streets. They are still on the streets, of course, but what I mean is that they get exercise, they make friends, and they have something to do every night at 6 PM besides get into trouble. This is, again, something that will make my US readers go, “Yea, we have that here,” be we have that in the US in the same way we have enthusiasm for sports. You only see it in movies. Here, you see it every day. You meet people who are best friends because they kicked a ball together. You meet people whose dads are drunkards, but they are alright, because they have a community to support them, a community born out of soccer.

This is why I find Flying Mission’s soccer field to be an especially potent investment. And it really makes the story about the bridge ring true – there are just forces at work that you can’t understand until you’ve lived them.

– – –

Side note:

I realize I’m addressing my U.S. readers a lot in this post and I apologize to those of you from other countries. It’s not that I don’t care about you, it’s just that I don’t think I can speak with authority about, for instance, the opinions of a french person towards soccer. FYI.

– – –


Pronounced “moo-zoo-n-goo,” “muzungu” is an African word for “white person.” You figure this out pretty quickly, usually because someone tells you, and then because people start addressing you by it. As you walk through the street, someone will shout, “Hey, muzungu, how are you?” or “Muzungu, come into my store.” Sometimes people just shout “Muzungu!” as you walk by, waving, and wanting you to wave back.

I experienced a little bit of this in India and Guatemala, but not to the same extent. As someone of a different culture, people of course have questions. But that they would want to address you in their language isn’t something I’ve experienced before (everybody in India seemed to want to use me to practice their English). I don’t think it’s something a U.S. citizen would ever understand, either, seeing as how we expect everyone to learn English. But it would be along the lines of shouting “Hey Asian person!” every time we passed an Asian on the sidewalk.

They also really like it when you give them a thumbs-up. It’s just the darnedest thing for them.


– – –




I don’t know why, but for some reason, putting “Zam-” in front of most words makes them sound ten times better. You’ll notice, for instance, I’m working for a company called “Zambikes.” After spending some time here, I really have to applaud Dustin and Vaughn for that choice, because it’s very Zambian of them – two very American guys, born, raised, and college-educated in California.


Up until recently I just thought it was a clever name, but once you get here, you see that it’s very much a part of the culture. There’s Zambeef, the leading beef company; Zamleather, a company with many subsidiaries making, among other things, shoes and soccer balls. In response to the international cell service provider Airtel, there’s Zamtel. And I’m sure there’s many I’ve missed.


Aside from just names, some companies have taken up slogans based on this trend. Zamtel’s service plans are, fittingly, “zamtelligent.” And sometimes they are “zambitious.” I’m not sure which one is pushing it more. But at least it’s memorable.


I find this actually to be really cool. I can’t speak for the company owners, of course, but it seems to me like these companies are taking pride in their product. The only U.S.-ish named company I can of is Amtrak, which doesn’t really make a fit about being American (interesting, because that’s kind of “in” right now). In an age where many countries are importing, Zambia is, for lack of a better phrase, making a name for itself (not all of it’s products are made local, of course). It’s pretty cool to be in a country that makes much of its products locally, but it’s extra cool that they make a culture out of it.


You might even say it’s… Zamawesome.


Okay, I tried.




– – –


Languages… Lots of Them.


The first thing that becomes readily apparent to most U.S. citizens when they go abroad, I imagine, has to be how many languages other people speak. The vast majority of U.S. citizens only speak English. About 20% speak one foreign language, but “speak” is usually in quotes, as if to say, “I took this in high school, but I’ve never been there before.” I’ll own up to this one and say yea, I “speak” French.


U.S. citizens, you see, enjoy the privileged position of speaking the second most popular language in the world, which is the international language. We don’t “have” to learn other languages. Let’s be honest, we’re ignorant jack… if we don’t, but it’s not like bad things will happen if we don’t. If you live in the U.S. and want to start a multinational corporation, you can do it in English.


Most other countries don’t enjoy this position. They enjoy, in my opinion, a better position (a less ignorant one, I would say, but that’s just me). They learn not only their local language, but they learn English. They can communicate with each other, and they rest of the world – whereas, for the most part, we can only truly communicate with ourselves. Perhaps this is me being idealistic, but I think it’s difficult to really get to know someone if you don’t speak their language.
But okay, I’ll get down off my high horse and get back to the facts.


During my visit to India, everybody spoke Hindi, and most spoke a state language (each state having their own). Anyone well educated spoke English. A few people had learned European languages as well, but this was rare. Bottom line, India is probably more multilingual than the US, but not by much.


Zambia has seventy-two languages.


Well, sort of. Let’s see if I can get this right, as there seems to be some debate (so if you read this and think I’m wrong, know that I’ve probably heard your side of the story, but I’m just typing the one I’ve heard the most of): There are seven major tribes in Zambia. Each of them has between five and ten dialects – a dialect being a bit more than what a “southern accent” is to English; more like what Mandarin Chinese is to Traditional Chinese. On top of those dialects, there’s the foreign languages – English, and a surprising amount of Hindi.


But basically, everybody here speaks at least three languages. Even the “uneducated” people I’ve met speak at least English, the dialect of the tribe where they are from, and two or three dialects surrounding the area where they are from.


It is so cool. And it makes me feel so… American.


– – –


Believe it or not, I actually have more stories I could put here, but uh… my fingers hurt. And also I’m tired. So, more later. Pretty good though, right? Given I haven’t been posting as often as I’d like, I think 4 pages and sore fingers is a good result.


Anyways, ’till next time.

One thought on “Short Stories 2

  1. Marilyn Cook says:

    One of your best blogs yet! Love the stories. You’re a great story teller. Zambulous!

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