The cement is hot. Too hot. I am lying on my right side at the bottom of a long hill with a burning sensation running through my skin. I feel pain and dread and anger at myself for being so careless. Slowly, I rise to my feet.
My bike is a few meters behind me. One of the panniers has flown off the rack and landed next to my body. I look down. Its vinyl exterior is coated in a brown ooze that looks not too dissimilar from something that might leak out of a stomach. I lift my shirt to check the state of my organs. They feel intact. I realize that this murky goop is not coming from inside me, but inside my pannier. A kilogram of chunky peanut butter I'd been carrying has exploded, its contents leaking out onto the dusty concrete.
I assess the damage. Scrapes and cuts run the length of my right side. I am bleeding at my foot, my knee, my hip, my shoulder, my upper back, my bicep, and my elbow. My forearm and lower back have been raked by the friction of the earth beneath me. I'm missing patches of skin, and these wounds are covered in dirt.
Materially, my tanktop is in tatters. There is that enormous cracked jar of peanut butter, sliming onto everything. My handlebar basket is dented and my bike bell is totalled. Handlebar tape is torn, and the front rim won't turn without rubbing against the disc brake.
I groan. I'm annoyed that this has happened, though thankful that it wasn't worse. I was going fast, and I will probably have a few scars, but my bones and organs have survived. The front wheel will need to be realigned, but this is easy. The bicycle will ride again.
I lift it and reattach my oily pannier to the rack. Lauren is somewhere up ahead, probably over the next hill, and it'll be some time before she realizes something is wrong and thinks to head back. I begin walking the bike.
When I get to the top of the hill, Lauren is waiting. She recognizes I'm injured and rushes over to help with the bike. We find a sandy spot with a sliver of shade in the scorching sun and Lauren pitches the tent. I grab our first aid kit and lumber inside.
This is not a sterile scene whence to dress wounds. We are covered in days of grime, and I am further coated in soot and dust and grease. Sweat runs into the lesions; the salt stings. Clods of dirt are fused to my skin. We are low on water with which to wash. I pull out our bundle of bandages and realize that their size is better suited to paper cuts than large scrapes like these.
I do the best I can. I clean the nine injured areas of my body with moist wipes. I apply an ointment to the center of each. I bandage what I can bandage, which is little, both because the bandages are too small and because my body is dripping too much sweat for them to stick. I cover the rest with wrap tape and lie down. It'll do for now.
I'm injured enough to make cycling uncomfortable but not enough to make cycling impossible. I want to be clean, and I will not be able to get clean until we get out of these mountains. And besides, it's cooler on the bikes than seated inside a nylon tent baking in the sun. So after an hour's rest, we carry on.
My tanktop is too torn and filthy to wear again, and I don't want to bleed on the rest of my clothes. For the remainder of the day I ride shirtless. The wind feels wonderful against my burns. People stare, and I'm not sure if it's because I'm riding shirtless or oozing crimson through hot pink wrap tape on a considerable portion of my body. Anyway, people are always staring.
Here on the Great East Road, we are an oddity. We are wearing brightly-colored helmets (no one wears helmets here), and our skin is a tad fairer than what's normal, and we're traveling a very long distance. The children of the villages of eastern Zambia are riveted by our presence.
The customary Nyanja greeting in these parts is mulli bwanji. But the kids we meet much prefer HOWAREYOU!HOWAREYOU!HOWAREYOU!HOWAREYOU!HOWAREYOU! It's less a question than an emphatic chant, as answering it ("fine, and you?") earns nothing more than a second round of HOWAREYOU!HOWAREYOU!HOWAREYOU!HOWAREYOU!HOWAREYOU!
It works like this. Lauren and I cycle, slowly and quietly, along the shoulder of the Great East Road. We pass a seemingly empty field or village of dense patch of brush, doesn't matter. We see no one.
Then, a shout. A lone, perceptive child with remarkable eyesight sounds the alarm from hundreds of meters away. HOW ARE YOU! HOW ARE YOU!
Across the road, a second shout from deep within the bush. HOW ARE YOU! HOW ARE YOU!
We pedal, but it's almost always uphill and thus quite slow. And the chant of HOWAREYOU! grows. All the children of the village are now shouting it, running toward the road as fast as their little legs will carry them.
How are you!
HOW ARE YOU!
HOW ARE YOU!
At first, it's adorable. But keep in mind that each child will shout HOWAREYOU! maybe fifteen times. Each time we're sighted, perhaps eight children will join in the chorus. And this happens roughly every ten minutes during a seven-hour day of riding. By evening, we've probably heard the question five thousand times. Each and every day.
It takes many days to cross the Great East Road. I lose count. Maybe seven, maybe nine. We ride every day, before and after the fall. Between Lusaka and the Malawi border, there is little in the way of cities. Little in the way of big towns, of supermarkets, of air conditioning. There are many people in many small settlements, each with a few miniscule convenience stores. Here one could certainly buy the staples, maize flour and beans and basic produce, but not much else. We run through our snacks and the treats we'd picked up in Lusaka quickly, and then it's mostly tomato-and-onion sandwiches for every meal of the day.
It's miserable to drink hot water when you're hot. To drink water that is literally hotter than your insides. We drink a lot of it, but whenever we get the chance (generally at every village with electricity), we hunt down the one or two shops with cold drinks in town, compare the relative coldness of the chest freezers, and treat ourselves to five hundred milliliters each of Coca-Cola or Fanta, which are really the only options. I find Fanta wretched (Lauren actually prefers it), and so I probably drink more Coke in these maybe-seven-or-maybe-nine days than in the past three years.
The shop selection isn't much, and the children's cheers can grow grating, but the people of eastern Zambia really are wonderful. We're smiled at and waved at and, each night, we're given permission to camp on someone's land almost before we've asked the question. We spend lovely evenings in beautiful, simple villages with kind people who offer us nshima and ground nuts and water to bathe. We camp outside an auto shop and atop a charcoal field and on the floor of a former Peace Corps volunteer's spare room.
Most nights are lovely. Not all are pleasant. On our first night since leaving Lusaka, we ask a mechanic if we can pitch our tent behind his garage. He agrees, but there's a language barrier and he seems to suggest it's maybe not the very best place. But it looks fine and it's getting dark and he won't say no. So we thank him, set up our tent next to an old engine and some steel cylinders, make a bit of curry for dinner, and head to bed.
Some time later, a deafening noise kicks on five meters from our tent. It's coming from that old engine and it's very, very loud. We wonder what it's for and how long it'll be running. There are no power cords running from it, so it doesn't appear to be a generator that'll be keeping the lights on all night. We shrug, cover our ears, and head to bed on the vibrating earth. Maybe it'll turn off soon.
It runs until five in the morning. We find out later that those steel cylinders are for compressed air, and that nighttime is the best time to commence the slow, noisy task of jamming loose air into sealed containers. Fair enough. This man did, after all, do his best to warn us.
Another night, we reach that charcoal field. It's ashy and dry but we're tired and ready to stop. The man occupying this land makes charcoal, and he welcomes us to pitch our tent anywhere.
We wake up in the middle of the night with tight lungs. Our tent is without a rain fly (we never use it anymore) and all around us is a thick grey cloud of ash. We cough and cover our faces. In the morning we learn that there is another man, down in the valley, burning charcoal, and his cloud of smoke and sediment has wafted its way up the mountain and engulfed us. We hit the road with heavy chests.
We wild camp one night on the edge of Mozambique, in the smothering heat of a dry riverbed on the valley floor. This is the night of my fall.
The next night, we reach Nyimba. It's a place with a few petrol pumps and a few proper markets and a smattering of guesthouses. I'm in need of a shower and a bed (both of us are, probably), and we negotiate down to a still-high price for a pretty crummy room in a crumbling lodge. It isn't much, but it's a place to wash the dirt out of my cuts, examine the damage in a mirror, and sit in front of a fan blowing very hot air into our faces for some hours.
Seven hundred kilometers and change. It's our longest stretch to date without a break, this ride from Lusaka. We reach Chipata, a small city twenty kilometers from the Malawi border. The next day we enter Malawi. We don't stop for more than an afternoon. We cycle, camp in a village, and carry on the next day. Malawi's capital, Lilongwe, is close, and we speed toward it with all the determination we had in reaching Lusaka from Livingstone.
We haven't felt a raindrop in three months. Since landing in Cape Town, it's rained only twice, two consecutive nights during our first few days on the coast. We have carried a bundle of rain gear across four countries without using any of it. It has been remarkably dry.
Or maybe not. There's actually nothing remarkable about three completely dry months in the middle of southern Africa's dry season. This is what it's supposed to be like, and what we expected when coming here. We knew the rain gear was for later.
But slowly, the dry season is drawing to a close. The past few days have been delightfully overcast, and our first night in Malawi is celebrated with actual rain. Not much, but some.
Our entrance into Lilongwe is an altogether grander affair. The sky is dark and heavy. The wind has picked up and is whipping sticks and garbage clean across the road. Thunder cracks in the distance, and lightning bolts strike the earth at the horizon. The rains in Malawi aren't really supposed to start until November, but a storm is definitely coming. We rush for shelter.
Shelter, for us, is the home of Libby and Brian. They're friends of Sarah and Cassidy's, our amazing hosts in Lusaka, and they've kindly agreed to put us up for a few days after Cassidy put us in touch. They're both at work when we arrive, but Libby instructs us to head right in, shower, and make ourselves comfortable. (This isn't difficult. Libby works for the US government, and her foreign post comes with a terrific house, a sprawling yard, air-conditioning, and the best-pressurized shower we've had since the States.)
Later we meet Brian, then Libby. They're a lovely couple of expats that have made a fantastic home for themselves in Lilongwe. They very generously take us out for a delicious Indian dinner; the following morning, Brian drives us all around town to run some errands. A long weekend is approaching, and the pair are headed out of town the next morning for a few days, but without a second thought they offer us strangers the keys to the house and tell us to relax and enjoy ourselves while they're gone.
We take it easy. Really easy. We sit around and make popcorn and watch movies and do internet things. We cook pancakes and sleep in and shower again. Brian's taken up homebrewing, and he has two terrific beers on tap (good beer is very difficult to find in southern Africa). We drink, moderately, and resist the urge to kick his kegs. I catch up on the writing I've put off for weeks. We go for one walk to a local park, but otherwise don't see the sun a whole lot.
And for the moment, that's actually really nice.