A Singing Landscape

Guest Writer Series: Volume 3

Jenna Washburn is currently a graduate student in the International Studies Program at the University of San Francisco.  That’s a fancy way of saying since she started school, she spends way too much time reading and writing about the world and less time experiencing it.  However, this summer, Jenna was able to go to Cape Town, South Africa to do research for her thesis and see what all those theories about globalization actually look like.  While there, she was also able to travel, experience, and interact with the globe (or at least a few countries in the southern part of the African Continent.)  Since then, she has returned to her desk to write her thesis . . . and misses the fresh air and travel adventures dearly. 

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Blog Post From Livingstone, Zambia

We hit a giant pothole and the jolt wakes me from my reveries.  The metal frame holding up the top of the the safari vehicle shakes and creaks noisily.  My dad is saying something to Edmund, our guide/driver for the day, but I can’t hear them over the noise of the wind, so I take to watching the Zambian terrain pass quickly beneath us instead.

Everywhere you look, the earth seems thirsty.  Tall, leafless trees are scattered about the flat landscape.  You can even see patches of red ground through the yellowing grass.  We pass a graveyard.  Small white headstones smudged with dust stick out of the ground and almost blend with their stark surroundings.  I would have completely missed the cemetery if there hadn’t been a giant funeral in progress.

The vibrant colors of all the mourners’ clothing stand out strongly, even in a distance, against the brown landscape.  “It’s our dry season,” Edmund, seems to read my thoughts. “During the spring, you wouldn’t even recognize this place.”  Yet then I look over and watch as my mom takes a photo of a flowering tree.  It seems out of place, as if it got its seasons mixed up.

We are driving through the town of Livingstone on our way back from Victoria Falls alias “Mosi-oa-Tunya”- its Zambian name meaning “the smoke that thunders.”  I must say, after seeing the magnificent falls, this version fits better than Dr. Livingstone’s description “honorable queen.”  The town of Livingstone is also known as “Maramba.”  Its colonial past still plays out in small, subtle ways.  Like everything’s double name.

Our resort is in a wildlife preservation so we have to cart around in this giant, lifted safari vehicle even to drive on regular roads (just in case we don’t stick out enough being a big group of white Americans with our baseball hats and sunglasses, snapping pictures at the moving terrain).  The absurdity of this situation does not escape me.

There are tons of people of all ages walking down the street or riding bikes or wheeling carts.  We pass by an assortment of buildings, all built in different styles, all kept in various conditions: shacks with rusty decaying roofs, beautiful white houses with pretty yards, half-way constructed brick buildings, banks, strip malls, bars, car washes.  An outdoor market displays people heckling over prices of fruit.  A woman crosses the street in front of us balancing a large bucket of overflowing carrots on her head.  I wonder how long it took her to learn such a remarkable technique; I couldn’t balance a bucket on my head standing still, let alone while walking nonchalantly across the street with my hands in my pockets.

I wikipediaed “Livingstone, Zambia” before arriving.  In the first paragraph, the description calls it “a pale, poor, and shabby shadow of its former past.”  I found that extremely crude at the time, knowing that the ‘former past’ it was venerating was in reference to the era of British colonial rule.  Now I look around and find the description just plain incorrect.  This town is charming and lively.  I watch a pair of baboons jump into the back of a parked pickup and laugh as the mischievous creatures start rummaging around in the truck-bed, throwing objects on the ground.  There’s a humor and a beauty to this place wikipedia doesn’t know about.

This is not the first time since I reached the Continent I’d read or heard or thought something beforehand that didn’t add up once I actually arrived at the place in question. For months before my solo journey here (my parents joined me much later), people had been making me nervous about my trip, especially because I was a lone female traveler going to “Africa.”  They would tell me horror stories that would get in my head.  Everything from violent muggings to malaria.

After traveling around the southern part of the African Continent for the last few months, I realize how ridiculous it all was.  How that “pale, poor, shabby shadow” is actually beautiful and full of color.  How that fear was unjustified.  And this drive through Livingstone seems to bring all this to light.  As so many other places have, Livingstone flips my negative perceptions on their head to look back at me.

Back at the wildlife preserve, we have to wait for a herd of elephants to get out of the road. The thing about elephants is, you can watch them for hours.  So everyone was happy, sitting back in the sunlight and enjoying the view.  Suddenly I heard something way in the distance, it sounded like women singing.  “Does anyone hear that music?”  I ask.

We listen, straining our ears over the crunch of the elephants’ chewing and their big, heavy footsteps.  “Jenna, I think the music’s in your head,” my dad says eventually and everyone laughs.  But I know what I heard so I come up with some conspiracy theory and then just blame it on older people’s hearing.  Eventually, the massive creatures move and we drive past them slowly, watching as they turn their giant heads to give us suspicious looks.

As I walk to my room, which is actually more like a glorified tent, I discover there’s even more wildlife milling about by the deck.  Zebras, giraffes and elephants are all congregated as if for a party.  There aren’t predators in this particular wildlife preserve so all the animals have a chill, relaxed air.  The sun starts to set, turning all that yellow grass to a deep orange.  I sit down at the end of the deck, dangling my legs over the ledge and putting my forehead against the banister.  As I watch the beauty of the animals and the setting sun, I can’t help but think: there is something about this place.  The landscape literally sings.


I’m eager to publish more guest writers on graywanderings.com.  Please contact me if you have a post or a piece you would like to share.  Thanks! -Matt

About mlgray

Heading out on adventures, building community, eating delicious cuisines, supporting the local food movement and enjoying walks in the wild . . . grateful to be wandering in the world with you.
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