Scaring myself


‘Do one thing every day that scares you’ (thank you, Eleanor Roosevelt) has always seemed to me one of the more witless bits of life guidance in a self-help lexicon that does not want for witlessness.

After all, I’ve done loads of things that scare me – attempting to learn to ski, teaching my children to drive, and flying Kenya Airways to name but three – that patently haven’t killed me, but haven’t made me obviously stronger either. (There we go again.)

But not long ago I made a trip to Livingstone to see the mighty Victoria Falls. Pre-visit research yielded up an array of life-threatening activities all listed as ‘must dos’ in the ‘adrenalin capital of Africa’. Not wishing to reveal myself as the enfeebled wimp I truly am, and faced with a choice that included a zip wire 300ft above raging rapids (what?) bungee jumping (why?), and a tandem gorge swing (wtf?), I found myself opting for a flight over the Falls in a microlight. This choice, I hoped, said, ‘This woman is courageous and fun and is not afraid to try something new’, while still allowing me to duck out of activities that actually made me tearful to think about.

Of course I instantly regretted it. Even as I handed over the (large) sum of money it necessitated, I knew I’d made a horrible mistake. The sky around the Falls buzzed with the rotor blades of countless helicopters, agile yet reassuring in their sturdiness. But from time to time, a softer and higher-pitched engine sound could be heard, and if you scanned the dazzling sky you could trace it to a tiny, orange-winged moped, dangling improbably above the boiling plunge of the Falls. This was the craft to which I had entrusted my life.

The night before our flight I couldn’t sleep. I was going to die. It would be a terrifying, painful and very public death, and one that had cost me a lot of money. And then there was the worry about which picture of me the media would use when they covered the story. Tragic British Mum in Microlight Death Plunge. I wondered how many times the YouTube footage would be watched, and how many Likes it would get.

So it was in a not altogether positive frame of mind that I climbed next morning – dry mouthed and with as much dignity as my bulky blue flying suit permitted – into the tiny craft. My pilot – a good humoured young white Zambian – told me nearly everyone is scared, and that once he’d had a woman so hysterical that she tried to undo her seatbelt and jump mid-flight. He told me he had built up strong counselling skills as well as thousands of flying hours, and that there was nothing to worry about. Of course I didn’t believe him.

But then something extraordinary happened. After a short and bouncy ride down the grass strip, we were suddenly airborne with nothing but an increasing span of warm, clear air between our feet and Africa below. And I wasn’t scared. Not even a bit. It was all so magical and exhilarating and improbable that I wanted to laugh. And of course there were the Falls, unimaginably powerful and beautiful, freckling my visor with spray thrown hundreds of feet into the air. What must it have been for David Livingstone to come upon such a sight after years of arduous walking, enduring heat, disease and inhospitable tribes and terrain? And actually I think they have never been better described than by his words:  ‘scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight’.

IMG_5959We crossed to the Zimbabwean side of the river and back, circling over wallowing hippos, basking crocodiles – their menace concealed by their repose – and a group of elephants walking their babies to the mighty Zambezi to drink. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

Too soon it was over, and I took off my helmet to reveal an idiotic grin. For the rest of the day I walked on air and had to be forcibly restrained from seizing the shoulders of total strangers and telling them that they must, absolutely must, fly above the Falls in a microlight.

I’m going to do it again, of course. Why wouldn’t I? It was one of the best experiences of my life. It almost made me think Eleanor Roosevelt might have been on to something.


Admission of guilt

About two weeks after we moved to Zambia, my youngest daughter and I drove to the airport to meet middle daughter. We had pitched the trip to her as an opportunity to spend ten days working on her final university assignments, far from the social distractions of London and with someone else to take care of her laundry and catering requirements. She, I suspect, was more drawn by the prospect of going back with a suntan but, whatever the divergence of our motives, as I barrelled along Lusaka’s Great East Road towards the airport I was in that heightened state of anticipation so familiar to expatriate mothers about to be reunited with far-flung children. So when a policeman stepped into the road ahead and signalled for me to stop, it was a deeply unwelcome interruption to our journey.

I was speeding, he said. Youngest slid down in her seat. After the customary Are-you-sures and Yes-madams I was invited to drag my guilty butt in the direction of an unmarked police car parked a short distance away. In the rear seat was a female officer of formidable proportions, wearing dark knee socks and a heavy woollen sweater in the lunchtime heat.

She greeted me cheerfully and agreed with my feeble protestations that the speed limit signs on that stretch of road were both confusing and hard to see, but regretted that nonetheless it was her sad duty to fine me.

At this point I should probably say that I have spent some 15 years of my adult life in Kenya, a country of exquisite and varied beauty and of kind and resilient people, but one not known for the integrity of its police force. Stopped once for using my mobile phone while stationary in one of Nairobi’s legendary traffic jams I was asked first directly for a bribe to have the offence overlooked and, when I demurred, was instead invited to give the policeman’s son a job. Another time I was a passenger in a car, again in diesel-choked gridlock, when one of Nairobi’s Finest thumped on the windscreen and informed us that by failing to use our left indicator while sitting in a left-hand-turn-only filter lane, we were committing an offence. We must allow him into our vehicle and drive to the local police station where we would be charged. Or – and here he paused – there might be another way to deal with the matter…

Being stopped by the Kenyan police could have its lighter side too. Several years ago, husband at the wheel, we were driving towards Nairobi on the Mombasa highway when a policeman signalled for us to stop. We had, he said, waving his mobile speed-gun in the air triumphantly, been travelling at 130km per hour. This was absolutely untrue. Even had our ancient jalopy been capable of it, we would never have driven at such speed on Kenya’s lethal and potholed roads and with two tiny children in the back. Husband asked if we could see a printout of some sort to prove this allegation. Aah, responded the police officer, unfortunately there was no printout or, indeed, any record of the speed recorded. Husband then suggested – probably unwisely and perhaps a little rudely – that the policeman was not being entirely truthful. At this he tilted his chin, squared his shoulders and uttered the immortal line, ‘A police officer takes an oath not to lie on the road’.

So back at the roadside on the outskirts of Lusaka my heart was heavy and my expectations low. I had, quite deliberately, left my handbag in my car to avoid any suggestion of willingness to ‘sort this out another way’ but in fact I needn’t have worried. The policewoman reached with some difficulty over her substantial bosom into the depths of the vehicle to withdraw an A4 pad of unmistakably official appearance, crowned by the Zambian crest and embellished with an elaborate, curlicued watermark in green.

At the top was the heading ADMISSION OF GUILT.

At her polite request I handed over my driving licence and she set about completing the form, eventually asking for my signature, and concluding the transaction with the official stamp of the Zambia Police Service, Lusaka Province HQ, Traffic Section Administration. That would be 180 Kwacha (about £18), please, an amount accurately recorded on the Admission of Guilt form, which served as my receipt.

She tore the top copy of the form from her pad, handed it to me with a smile and wished me a pleasant afternoon.

When I had wiped from my jaw the African dust it had picked up as it dropped, I thanked her, returned to my car and proceeded with assiduous attention to the speed limit to the airport, where the happy reunion with daughter duly took place.

Back at home that afternoon, and recalling with amazement the integrity of my first encounter with Zambia’s police, I decided to join the girls and go and lie for a while by the pool. Because of course I, too, would never lie on the road.

An introduction

This blog has been born out of finding myself in southern Africa with an unexpectedly large amount of time on my hands. The most recent of many international moves, and the first to take me thousands of expensive miles from fledging children, it meant leaving a reliable if not always very exciting work stream in Switzerland, and starting all over again professionally and personally.

There have been compensations. Zambia is a lovely country, the sun shines a lot, and people have been hugely welcoming. I decided to step back from the work I’d been doing previously and start to think and to write about things that interest or amuse or enrage me. I haven’t approached this in a very systematic or disciplined way. I don’t write every day, or sometimes even every week, and I don’t have a particular theme or direction in mind. But I’d like to start a conversation with people living lives similar or wildly different from my own, who share some of my enthusiasms, and who might agree or violently disagree with my perspective.

If any of what you find here from time to time interests or amuses or enrages you, I’d love to know, so please leave comments, or point me to other sites or blogs or anything else you think might be interesting, and let’s see where this conversation leads us.

Look forward to getting acquainted.