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Whether in Malawi, Zambia or Out West, Traveling Like a Nomad Is Unforgettable

When you’ve visited Buddha’s birthplace with strangers, they become friends for life. There is never a final goodbye, just a “see ya’ down the road”

A guide on one of my trips, looking out at some elephants at lunch, an awe inspiring moment.. Photo: Michael Lepetit

Travelers tend to gravitate to each other and for some portion of each trip I always ended up with someone. One man was a former criminal, trying to see the world in a new light, one free from violence. Another was a Vietnamese tour guide, finally seeing the world instead of showing it. It’s these people, the other travelers, as much as the locals and the sights that make a trip for me.

Recently, while shamefully picking out the books on my bookshelf that I haven’t read yet, I came across Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins.  I placed it at the top of my list.  I don’t really know much about the book, but I can tell you exactly where I was when it was recommended to me.  I was in Zambia in a small hotel bar not twenty yards from the Zambezi river.  It was here that I was going to meet my guide and a few other travelers the next morning for a three-day canoe adventure.

The trip to this remote bar had been a long one and I didn’t feel much like staying up late.  There was the long, cramped bus ride followed by the half hour or so taxi ride.  What I remember most distinctly about that taxi ride was that it was pitch black outside and the driver refused to turn on his headlights, or they didn’t work.  Either way, he struggled to see the people walking in the dirt road ahead of us.  I squinted to help spot people but somehow, he managed by himself.  Regardless, I had a quick dinner in the hotel bar — picture an outdoor patio with a concrete roof.  There was only one wall and if it was daytime, I imagine there would have been a very nice view but I couldn’t see past the lights that shone from the side of the building which lit a well-maintained grassy yard.

The scariest thing about hippos is how silent they are. There can be an entire family right next to you and the only way you would know is from their little eyes poking out, which makes it hard to stay out of their way. Photo: Michael Lepetit

Aside from me, there was one group of English speakers sitting in a circle and laughing.  By the orders she gave the others I came to understand that the only woman in the group was the owner of the hotel.  As I stood up to go back to my room for the night one of the men in the group invited me to sit down and have a beer.  Hesitantly I said, “sure”.

It had been a long day and I surely had a few long days ahead of me, but how often does one get to enjoy a beer with strangers on the banks of the Zambezi river?  The men had been locals.  White and speaking with sophisticated English accents, they were vestiges of a shrinking colonial class.  While South Africa retained a large white population, I learned that there had been populations of white settlers that remained in Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe (which these men sometimes referred to as Rhodesia).

The horrors of colonization aside, these men had all moved away and were educated in London or near there.  One man lived in the Ascension Islands (I’ll wait while you look it up on Google Maps) where he worked as a government official, something akin to a mayor, perhaps.  Certainly, I was impressed but as I write this, I understand that there was a “big fish, small pond” dynamic happening.  In any event, the men returned every year or so to catch up on old times and to fish for the intimidating tiger fish, a taxidermized specimen hung on the wall above the bar, grinning at it with its fang-filled mouth.

Each night I put up my tent on the banks of the Zambezi, some nights in Zimbabwe and others in Zambia. Photo: Michael Lepetit

My one beer turned into two, and maybe four, but as a few beers are known to make happen, we talked and laughed for hours.  Among the topics we discussed were books.  One of the men suggested that we should all recommend a book and that we should all promise to read it.  I think I recommended A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and I’m not sure whether I’m proud of this or not.  One guy had read it though, and shared my enthusiasm for it.  In any case, another man, the mayor, suggested I read — yep, you guessed it — Jitterbug Perfume.

Our conversation was briefly cut off when the owner’s dogs, a pair of small Jack Russell terriers, leapt from their wicker chairs and took off barking into the darkness.  We all turned to see what it was that disturbed them so.  That’s when I noticed the gigantic hippo that was grazing on the well-kept yard.  It stood just at the furthest reaches of the restaurant’s glow.  In fact, there were a few hippos, and while I was certainly terrified, the reaction of the other men told me that this happened a lot.

Eventually I went to bed — tiptoeing to my room to avoid rustling up any more hippos– and woke early after a brief night’s sleep.  I grabbed some breakfast in the restaurant where I again ran into the mayor.  I asked him if he had any anti-diarrheal medicine.  He laughed and said no and then wished me luck on the next few days.

When I returned home, I emailed him for his address.  I wanted to hold up my end of the bargain and send him the book I recommended.  He told me in his reply that all of the guys had a good laugh thinking of me on a canoe with diarrhea and while it’s an unfortunate thing to be remembered for, I was happy to know that a group of men had a good laugh in my memory.  They remembered who I was, I wasn’t just some illusion conjured up in a night of heavy drinking.  I was like the man other men talk about in the bait shop, the one who caught the big fish, or at least fell in the water and gave them a good laugh.

It’s hard to believe, but while it’s unlikely that I will ever see these men again, it never really felt like our goodbye was forever.  This idea, that while traveling we never really say goodbye forever came up in the movie Nomadland which was released earlier this month.  The movie follows a woman in her 60’s, Fern, (played by Frances McDormand) as she travels around a few states out West in her van.  At one point she sits next to a man named Bob, played by real life nomad Bob Wells, who explains that one of his favorite things about nomadic life is that there is no final goodbye. “We just say, ‘I’ll see you down the road’.”  It was a line that resonated with me.  I’ve traveled with a lot of people whom I had never previously known, and when it was time to say goodbye it felt less like a goodbye and more like a “see ya’ later.”

One thing that gave me the courage to keep traveling alone was the knowledge that I would not, in fact, be alone.  Travelers tend to gravitate to each other and for some portion of each trip I always ended up with someone.  One man was a former criminal, trying to see the world in a new light, one free from violence.  Another was a Vietnamese tour guide, finally seeing the world instead of showing it.  While on my canoe trip, immediately after leaving the aforementioned hotel, I spent my days paddling alongside an older couple from South Africa (he was from Scotland, she was from South Africa, they met at Cambridge, and had just recently moved back to her hometown).  I was amazed at how much we had in common, one of those things being books.

Lumbini, Nepal, birthplace of Gautama Buddha. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been lucky to keep up with some of them on social media, and others have fallen off, but I still remember them so well.  After all, some of the experiences I’ve shared with them have been life changing.  You don’t normally forget the person you were with when you walked around Buddha’s supposed birthplace in Nepal, for instance.

Every now and then I get an email from someone.  A couple my wife and I met in Thailand on our honeymoon were in New York.  Their Bluepoint, Long Island AirBnB was a little too far from the city for their taste and they asked if they could stay with us.  Another time an Australian I met in Austria (say it slowly) emailed me as he was boarding a plane to New York.  A few days later he was sleeping on my couch.

On that same trip to Zambia, I met a girl from Finland.  We enjoyed the beauty of Lake Malawi for a few days together.  A few years later I was in Ethiopia and, as it turned out, so was she, and we met up again for dinner. It’s these people, the other travelers, as much as the locals and the sights that make a trip for me.

I’m not sure if the guys at the hotel in Zambia still laugh about my stomach ailment, but I hope that when they look at their bookshelf and see Marquez’s work staring at them, they remember me.  I hope to make it back to that hotel one day, too, perhaps with my family, and if they’re there we’ll finally be able to talk about Jitterbug Perfume; if not, I’m sure there will be someone else to share books with.

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