If you want to get Internet access in Zambia, here’s what you have to do:

- Call ZamTel, the national phone monopoly. Wait about five minutes for someone to answer the phone (with a simple “hello” and no indication you’re calling a business). Say you want to buy an Internet account. The woman will make you repeat the word “Internet” four or five times, then seem to understand and say “Go to the main post office.”

- Think about that, realize that post offices often play multiple roles in Third World countries, and head down to the corner of Church and Cairo roads, where the main post office is. Ask the man at the counter where to get Internet access, and he’ll tell you the second floor.

- Walk up one flight of stairs to the second floor. Ask someone there if this is where you get Internet access. No, he’ll say — that’s on the second floor.

- Remember that in Europe and her former colonies, the bottom floor of a building is often called the ground floor, and what we Yanks call the second floor is what they’d call the first floor. Go up one more flight of stairs, relieved at having decoded this small mystery.

- Find that the second/third floor is apparently used only for storage.

- Go back to the ground floor and ask Mr. Post Office again. Discover he is using second and third floor as interchangeable terms, perhaps aware of the transatlantic terminology gap. Notice that this time he tells you to go up a different stairway to, well, one of the floors above this one.

- Mentally count how many armed guards you’ve passed so far (five) and how many appeared to be sleeping (one).

- Curse yourself for wearing hiking boots with thick rubber soles today, as you listen to the symphony of squeaks they make on the tiled hallway floors.

- Ask on both the first/second and second/third floors. Finally reach someone who knows what the Internet is. Listen carefully as she tells you you’re in the wrong building altogether, and watch as she points the correct building out from her second/third floor window.

- Try to walk to the new building. Find it is surrounded by an eight-foot concrete wall. Circumnavigate the building one and a half times looking for a public entrance, then decide to try your luck with the armed guard at the entrance marked “Staff Only! No Public Allowed Here!”

- Find the armed guard friendly, and go in. Climb stairs, go down halls, go down stairs, climb stairs. Wish Zambia had a stronger tradition of signage.

- Finally find a door marked “Internet Sales.” Walk in and find five employees not doing much. (Zambia, as a formerly quasi-socialist state, is big into giving one person’s job to five people.) Ask to get an Internet account.

- Fill out three forms, the third requiring the signatures of four witnesses and a process similar to notarization. Watch a woman pull out a huge ledger entry book — perhaps two feet long and a foot tall closed — and enter your name, email address, and password. Realize that every email address is Zambia is handwritten in this book. Wonder what would happen if that book got lost. Realize that no computers have been used in this process of getting Internet access.

- Go down three hallways and down two flights of stairs to a small room where you present your 214,000 kwacha (about US$45) for two months’ Internet access.

- Go back to the office and ask what access numbers one dials to use this new Internet access. Watch the look of wonder come over the woman’s face. Explain to her what an access number is; listen to her confusingly say “You’ll have to talk to the technical staff for that information.” Learn the technical staff is in another building, of course, and that you’ll know which office is theirs because it has a “wooden wall.”

- Walk to this other building; discover the whole building has “wooden walls.” Ask around; find the techs; get the access numbers; go home.

I’m coming up to the end of week one in Zambia, and it’s been a good start. I wish I’d been a bit more productive, but I’ve done about a dozen interviews and have a pretty solid understanding of what I need to do from here on out. I’ve narrowed myself to 10 stories — three specifically about the impact of HIV/AIDS on Zambia’s education system (which would likely run as a series), two others about AIDS in general, two about game preserves, one about agriculture, one about Polish refugees in the 1940s, and one about bungee jumping. (Whether my employer is interested in publishing them all is a separate matter. They might want to avoid Zambia overdose. Then again, by the end of this, I’ll probably want to avoid Zambia overdose myself.)

I’m currently rereading one of my favorite books, The Granta Book of Travel. (Introduction here.) It’s a compilation of pieces from Granta, the terrific British literary magazine. They’re less about travel than about foreign correspondence — writers trying to figure out the Sendero Luminoso in Peru (Nicholas Shakespeare), Idi Amin in Uganda (Patrick Marnham), or a coup in Benin (Bruce Chatwin). It’s all first-person, and all about the journey a journalist takes when trying to figure out a place or a situation. (It’s no coincidence that many of the pieces’ titles start with phrases like “In Search of…” or “In Pursuit of…”)

It’s the sort of writing that got me interested in overseas works. It’s a uniquely glamorous form of journalism: Writer puts himself in Dangerous Situation to find the Ultimate Truth. Each piece hangs on the obligatory moment where our fearless author discovers himself in deep trouble — rebels about to pounce, the government about to detain him — only to emerge unscathed through wit, good sense, and luck.

(It’s also the sort of writing that can only be produced in quantity by writers from a former empire — the Brits, in this case. There’s a certain romanticized, colonial-office smell about them.)

They’re terrific tales, great reading — and tremendously sexy for newspaper folks who spend their days writing about curriculum reforms and the latest putsch at the Texas Education Agency. It’s sort of a more vigorous, (dare I say manly, despite the presence of Isabel Hilton and Martha Gellhorn) version of the classic New Yorker long-form story.

Of course, they’re also all about ego and self-aggrandizement. The reporter’s always the star, not the story. In some ways, it’s more honest — putting the writer front and center puts authorial subjectivity on display. And by exposing the reporting process, it makes clear that we often don’t know what the hell we’re doing. (If a story is titled “In Search Of…” something, it almost invariably means the writer didn’t find it.) And they usually don’t tell the reader anything they couldn’t figure out from reading a few New York Times articles. But damn, they sure are fun to read.

I’m not sure if I have a point here, except to recommend the book and the genre for distant travels. I wish I were able to pull something along those lines out of Zambia, but it’s not looking good.

Finally: White folks who arrive in an African capital carrying only a backpack and an African drum — and then proceed to play said drum drunk until 1 a.m. to show how truly real their African experience is — should be shot on sight. In a nice way, of course.

19 October 2003


19 October | 20:08  |  Meadow

I stumbled onto the crabwalk from my search for crab shack imagery (see my URL) today. Getting in on your Zambia blog is an added bonus! With interest...

20 October | 21:44  |  M


23 October | 0:21  |  Clive

I love that Granta anthology too! Some of the smartest travel writing ever. Actually, that's partly because it's not really "travel" writing. The authors didn't travel somewhere specifically to write about local flavor. Rather, they went somewhere to report a specific story, but in the process of reporting, did a brilliant job of describing the culture and locale of where they visited.

07 November | 22:08  |  james

I'm very interested in the Polish story you're doing. When we were in Poland this summer, we met a woman who, with her family, were first sent to Siberia, and then to, of all places, Uganda! Brooke is working on a story about her, but I'm curious as to what all these Polish people were doing in Africa in the 1940s!!

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