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The Smoke That Thunders

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Mosi-oa-Tunya
The Smoke that Thunders

As I drove up over a tiny hill, I noticed a huge cloud of misty white smoke rising up from the horizon. Unlike typical smoke which appears to rise up through the air and thin into the sky, this smoke seemed to ride on the air, then eventually settle back towards the earth.

I traveled about ten miles closer when the smoke began to sparkle like a rainbow. Spectrums of color gradually appeared and faded while bright pinpoints of light pulsed like a thousand beacons. The sight of this shimmering cloud was so captivating that I did not realize a 10,000 lb. elephant was crossing the road directly in front of me.

I slammed on the breaks, screeching the truck to a halt. The startled elephant spun his body around to face me. He spread his ears out to the sides of his head displaying his enormous size. Then he loudly trumpeted as he swung his trunk back and forth in rage. Threatened by my sudden appearance, he assumed this defensive posture to frighten me away.

I held my ground by remaining where I had stopped. After several quick flaps of his ears, the elephant stepped towards the truck and held his head high above his ten-foot tall shoulders. Then he stared down at me over his gigantic six-foot long tusks; each tusk must have weighed over 150lbs.

I noticed the elephant was "right-handed", because his right tusk was more worn down than his left one, which meant he used that one more often. Unfortunately, that was the one almost knocking on my windshield.

The elephant then raised his trunk into the air, and began sniffing my vehicle. An elephant's trunk contains nearly 150,000 muscles and nerves, providing it with extreme flexibility and sensitivity. Lacking any bones, the trunk is equipped with two finger-like points on the end.

An African elephant can pick up fruit the size of a marble as well as break a 12-inch thick branch off of a tree. This elongated proboscis provides a means for smelling, breathing, touching, drinking, and eating. During the dry season, when water is low, an elephant will dig holes and use its trunk to tap underground springs. The trunk also acts as a hose, whether for a drink or a dust bath. A coating of dust or mud on the skin repels sun and insects.

In the past, many people would unearth an elephant's skull and think it was the skull of a Cyclops; the hole to facilitate the elephant's trunk was mistaken for an eye socket.

When the elephant's trunk began to gently investigate my vehicle as if it had a mind of its own, I began to slowly creep my truck forward to show a mild aggression. This is something that needs to be done to an overzealous animal that has the ability to tip your truck over. As I slowly inched forward, the elephant spread his ears out and took a charging posture. This massive wall of muscle standing six-feet taller than the hood of our truck was the ultimate form of intimidation. From ear to ear he was wider than the truck.

As he stared down at me, his tusks were inches from my windshield, and the heavy breathing from his trunk fogged our glass. As the largest land animal on earth, one would believe its enormous size carries an equal sense of confidence, but it does not. When most elephants threaten a human with a charge, they are bluffing, especially the males. When encountering male elephants while on foot in the bush, one can usually ward off a charge with a fair amount of yelling and waving of the arms. Believe it or not, sometimes simply throwing a small stick at an aggressive elephant will send them running in the opposite direction. Not that throwing a stick could ever hurt an elephant, it is much like throwing a pencil at a human. But the mere action of a measly human throwing something at them is enough to confuse them and discourage further aggression.

But, the case can be much different when encountering a female elephant, especially with young. Do not try the stick throwing approach with a mother elephant. She might chase you down with the stick you have just thrown, and.jam it where the sun doesn't shine.. As with most animals, including humans, mothers protecting their young can become very unpredictable and aggressive. But, when you think about it, they are the most predictable: you know they will kill you. How can you tell the difference between a male and female elephant? Let's just say that when you see a male elephant, "it" is quite obvious.

While I continued inching towards the elephant he began to back away. Then with an amazing amount of grace and speed, he lumbered off the side of the road and into the bush. I lingered in the area for a few minutes, watching him pull off trunk full of dried thorny leaves and stuff them into his mouth. Occasionally he would turn his head in my direction and give an aggressive earflap and headshake, just to let me know he did not forget I was there. Then after he slowly disappeared into the thick brush, I continued on my way towards the shimmering cloud.

About one-half mile past the elephant, I pulled the truck off to the side of the road and walked down a thin path on foot. As my feet touched the African soil, a dust cloud lifted into the hot dry air. The sun baked ground emitted heat like a stove, causing hundreds of tiny lizards to dart around the ground, panting like dogs while searching for the tiniest shadows of shade. The surrounding land was parched, the sparse clumps of bristly dry grass crackled beneath my feet, and the larger surrounding vegetation seemed to pout from thirst.

I followed this thin sandy path as it meandered through the barren grass. It led towards a patch of dense jungle which seemed to carry the shimmering cloud. I started to hear a faint rumbling sound in the distance and it became louder and louder as I approached the jungle.

Soon all I heard was a constant thundering roar. Then within a matter of a single footstep, I entered a lush jungle. The change in my surroundings was so extreme, that at one moment as I stood on the path, my left foot touched bone dry sand and scrub brush, while my right foot was stepping within a lush rainforest. It was as if I were standing on a page in a photo album and walked from one photograph to another.

Green broad leaf vegetation grew towards the sky, so tightly interwoven with each other, that it seemed as if a giant could run by and pick up the entire rainforest like a basket.

A cool mist continuously fell from the sky and the fallen water would collect in the forks of trees like tiny ponds. Around these miniature watering holes, small multi-colored birds gathered to drink, bathe, and preen their feathers.

The birds sparkled within this micro-jungle, as the sun reflected off the mist that collected on their feathers. Suddenly a three-foot tall monkey jumped out of a tree and landed directly in front of me. He sat on his hindquarters and stared at me with deep curiosity, almost as if he was trying to communicate with his mind. He then turned around and began to walk down the path. As if acting as a tour guide, he walked in front of me and occasionally would turn around to see if I were following.

Soon the monkey, and I, became soaking wet from the mist and the rumbling noise became so overwhelmingly loud like a freight train. As I made my way through the showering mist the monkey lazily hopped up to a branch and I walked up next to him. The roaring sound rattled my ribs and through the thick cloud of churning mist, roared one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Victoria Falls,

The largest curtain of water on the earth, the Kolovos tribe living in Zimbabwe during the 1800.s named Victoria Falls, Mosi-oa-Tunya - The Smoke that Thunders. At a mile wide, the Zambezi River fuels Victoria Falls.

Suddenly, this calm, glass-like river violently transforms as sixteen hundred million cubic feet of water per second (yes, per second), plunges 300-feet creating continuous explosions of water in the pool below. It vibrates your skin, shaking your soul.

In every direction, rainbows faded in and out. Blowing mist filled my eyes with water and soaked my clothes, while a hurricane of rising spray exploded hundreds of feet into the air, capturing the attention of anyone within a 25-mile radius.

At one thousand, six hundred and fifty miles long, the Zambezi is the fourth longest river in Africa. It flows through eastern Angola, western Zambia, forms the border of northeastern Botswana, and separates Zambia and Zimbabwe. It then crosses central Mozambique where it branches out into the Mozambique Channel.

I had a great dilemma in writing about Victoria Falls. The human mind is too limited to accurately translate such drama and beauty. A language that could fully describe what your eyes see, does not exist. Words cheapen the vision.

Gazing at Victoria Falls is hypnotic. Her explosive roar deafens all conversations forcing one to silently stare at her, inhale her mist, and absorb her beauty. She demands all of your attention, and you are more than willing to give it to her.

Within seconds, Victoria Fall's image, power, and beauty, creates a passion within one's soul that would take years to develop between two people. When you leave "Victoria", you feel as if you are forever walking away from a soul mate. You leave wanting to take her home with you. It is a desire you will always feel, but never fulfill. There are no words to describe this "Queen" that would do her justice, and I will not try.

I stared for as long as I could. I began to lose track of time, so I reluctantly Pried myself away from "Victoria", and walked along her edge toward the Zambian border.

As I passed my monkey friend I said to him, "Come on, let's go to Zambia". The monkey looked at me with a slightly tilted head, his hair clumped together from the falling mist, making him look like a punk rocker. Then he slicked back his hair with both hands, which made him look like a 1950.s greaser.

As he continued to slick back his "do", I walked along a cliff hanging path on the edge of the falls, but the monkey never followed. I am sure he believes there is no better place for him to be, than where he is. He is right.

After a short walk, I passed through a small border post of custom agents ready to inspect my immigration documents. After they stamped my passport, I walked into Zambia.

From this location, one must enter Zambia via an old iron railroad bridge. The Victoria Falls railroad bridge was completed in 1905, and it quickly became a vital trade route between the two countries as well as hosting many clandestine operations during times of political turmoil.

The bridge helped kick start Victoria Fall's tourist trade which has grown year after year. Not only was it a vital trade route, it is currently a tourist attraction. The bridge is home to the highest commercial bungee jump in the world. For roughly 100 U.S. dollars, one can bungee jump 350-feet off the bridge, over the Zambezi River. I never had the desire to pay money in order to jump off a perfectly sturdy bridge, so I continued on into Zambia.

While looking deep into the gorge of the Zambezi, I realized that if the bungee cord ever broke, the hippos and crocodiles would have a field day. I am sure that from years of watching people "fall" off the bridge, then miraculously spring back into the air just before hitting that water, has the hippos and crocs gathering below the bridge in hopes of a "technical failure". After leaping, the bungee jumpers are lowered into a small boat and brought to shore. Then, they must scale a craggy cliff to get back onto flat land, making recovery seem more treacherous than the leap.

I walked along the railroad bridge into Zambia where we met four young native boys caring five-gallon spackle buckets full of flavored ice.

"Hey boss, would you like some ice?" one on the Zambians asked.

"Lets see what you have" I replied.

Immediately each of the boys sat on the railroad track and pried the tops off their buckets while holding them between their knees. After a fair amount of effort, they popped their lids and displayed their inventory. Each of their buckets were meagerly filled with half-frozen bricks of juice, all floating in a smorgasbord of previously melted flavors. The spackle that the bucket originally held would have been more appetizing, but I both a block of ice to acknowledge their proprietary efforts.

As I departed company with the boys, one of them said, "Thank you sir, my name is Osborne, if you ever need ice in the future, please look for me."

"I will Osborne, and you guys keep up the good work." I replied while we began to walk down the railroad tracks in opposite directions.

After taking a rather uneventful stroll along the Zambian border, I walked back to my truck in Zimbabwe. I then decided to drive into the city of Victoria Falls. Victoria Falls has turned into a tourist town. Twenty five years ago Victoria Falls had just less than 100 permanent European residents. Now the streets are filled with Europeans, as well as souvenir shops, tour guides, and street merchants.

As I drove into town, I almost forgot I was in Africa. The city seemed no different than any American vacation town. Being one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world provides many opportunities for the few people within the tourist industry. But it does not provide solutions for much of Zimbabwe's social problems.

In Victoria Falls, as well as all of Zimbabwe, poverty is an extreme problem. Minutes after I parked my truck along the roadside, groups of sickly people swarmed around me begging for food or money.

This is always a difficult situation to face, especially when the children are begging. I had enough money in my pocket for them to retire on. But if you are seen freely handing out money to strangers, you can get into serious trouble, particularly when you run out of money to give. In situations like this, I keep an eye on the individuals in need while we are in their vicinity, then when I am ready to leave, I discreetly pass them what money and food I can spare, then quickly move on.

In addition to a lifetime of poverty, Zimbabwe's involvement with the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, drained hundreds of millions of dollars from the economy. The average income in Zimbabwe is under $1,000 dollars a year. But that "average". is not average. There are few middle-class citizens in Zimbabwe. It seems that the citizens of Zimbabwe either have it all, or have nothing.

Unfortunately, AIDS is steadily weakening Zimbabwe's already crippled economy. Having the highest rate of AIDS infection in the world, one out of every four adults in Zimbabwe is afflicted with the virus that causes AIDS. Two thousand five hundred Zimbabweans a week die from the disease and that figure is expected to rise rapidly in the coming decade. AIDS is not Zimbabwe's only major problem; they have a severe orphan epidemic. Currently one out of every five Zimbabwe children has lost at least one of their parents to AIDS.

As the people gathered around me, I firmly made it clear to the adult beggars that they were not getting anything. It is healthy to sometimes put up a "tough" front to the overzealous adult beggars; otherwise they can become very pushy and demanding.

When I started speaking with the children, the adults wandered off to look for other income opportunities. The specific attitude of adult beggars can shed light on why they are begging. The gentle polite beggar generally has suffered much hardship and is making the best of their depressing situation. The beggars that act pushy and demanding are more often people too lazy to get a job and would much rather beg than work. But these rules do not hold true for the children, pushy or not, they are alone, scared, and fighting for their lives everyday.

I started talking to a girl and her two younger sisters. All three of them looked like little neglected rag dolls; their tattered oversized clothing barely hanging on to them. I asked their names and the oldest girl replied,

"My name is Kambo. These are my sisters Mudiwa and Chipo."

"Why do you need money, does your mom and dad Work?" I politely asked

"No sir, they can't work, my mommy and daddy died."

"I am sorry to hear that. When did they die?"

Her little face grew sadly depressed as she replied, "My daddy died two years ago, and my mommy died last year."

"How old are you?"

"I think I am nine", and after a long pause she added,

"Mudiwa is seven, no six, and Chipo is five, I think."

"When are your birthdays?"

"I don't know."

"None of you know you birthdays?"

"No"

"Once I remember my mommy saying that Chipo was born in the summertime but I am not sure when."

"Who takes care of you and your sisters?" I asked.

"I do." She proudly replied with a smile.

"Where do you live?"

"Anyplace we can sleep, where no one will bother us."

"Do people bother you a lot?" I asked with great concern.

"Yes, all the time. But it is always bad people that bother us; nice people never pay attention to us."

"Why do the bad people bother you?"

"They try to take our food, blankets, and sometimes try to hurt us. Sometimes if I scream, they will run away."

It is sad to think that their only perception of "nice people" are the people that ignore them.

"You and your two sisters have been living on the streets all alone for the past year?"

"Yes, sometimes when it gets so cold at night, we hug each other to keep warm."

"Do you have any family, grandparents, uncles, aunts?"

"No, they all have died."

I wanted to ask how their entire family died. I assume most of them died from AIDS, and the grandparents from old age. The average life expectancy in Zimbabwe is only 37 years old. But I noticed by the looks on their faces, that talking about their parents was too painful for them, so I never asked.

"Our family is the three of us." Mudiwa said.

"You are the three musketeers." I replied with a smile. And they all politely replied "Yes", not quite sure what I was talking about.

I then told them I was going to take a look around town, but I would like to see them before I leave..

"We will be around", she promised with a bright smile. I think she was surprised that I was giving them so much attention. "Then I shall see you soon," I stated and lightly patted the three of them on the tops of their frizzy heads. As I walked away, they crossed the street and then tightly tucked into a dark alleyway to keep out of the sun.

Needless to say my stroll through the city of Victoria Falls was rather depressing. It is a vacationer's paradise, but it can be a resident's hell. Hidden within Victoria Fall's overwhelming beauty, the harsh realities of life continue to exist. Every night these lonely discarded children tuck themselves into the dark and dingy alleyways of this beautiful city, only to wake up the following morning, alone

and hungry, like the unnoticed pebbles lodged in the grooves of a Ferrari's gas pedal.

While exploring ultra-modern storefronts and tourists arriving in their luxury cars, I thought about the girls' situation. I have to admit our first thought was

to scoop them up and take them home with me. But when reality set in I decided to give them money, just to make their coming days a bit easier to handle.

I devised a plan to safely get the money to them. When giving children in this position money, it is not safe to hand it to them in view of adults in their same position. Unfortunately, there are some people in this world that are just "evil", if they see a child with money, they will steal it, and perhaps do far worse to the child. Predators live among the civilized as well as in the wild.

My plan would keep them safe from that possibility; at least until they got the money, then it would be up to them to hide it. I had to convince myself that my new little friends gained enough "street smarts" during the year they have been homeless and alone.

In Victoria Falls there is an old locomotive "parked" as a monument in what seems to be the "village square". I placed a generous amount of money in a brown paper bag, crumpled it up to look like it was thrown away garbage, then hid it beneath the locomotive. I then walked to the truck, and I called the three girls over. Just as I suspected, when they began to walk out of the alley, an adult beggar perked up like a hungry lion, and began to follow the girls as they walked towards us. As the girls approached I yelled at the man behind them.

"I didn't call you!."

"But?"

As he began to give a phony excuse for following, I cut off his words.

"But nothing, go away, and mind your own business."

As he turned and walked away mumbling, the girls shook

their heads and laughed.

"Is he a "bad person"? I asked.

"Yes!" They all replied, as they all rolled there eyes is disgust.

"I thought so".

While I knelt down to say my goodbyes, I could see several of the adult beggars staring at us to see if I gave them money. I then told the girls "Did you know that I asked around town and found out that your birthdays' are today..

"What?" they giggled, then sheepishly covered their smiles with their hands to hide their imperfect teeth.

"Yes, all three of you were born on the same day, just different years".

They continued to laugh as I said,.So I have a birthday gift for you all, but we don't want anybody to see me give it to you, so I hid it".

When I said "I did not want anybody to see us give it to you", they rolled their eyes again, knowing that if the gift was seen by the others, it would be stolen seconds after I leave. As I said "I will tell you were I hid the gift", they all moved in closer to hear me whisper. I softly said so the others could not hear..

"Do you know where the big locomotive Is?"

"Yes", they all replied.

"I put your birthday gift hn a brown paper bag and hid it underneath the locomotive."

"Now listen carefully, this is what I want you to do."

"After we say goodbye, go back to the alley where you were sitting before, if anybody asks you what we were talking about, say I was asking for directions. Then after a few minutes, walk over to the locomotive and get the gift. Remember that it is in a brown paper bag, it looks like garbage but it

is not. I will sit in the truck and wait until you return safely with it. But when you return, remember not to wave to me, or talk to me, so the others do not realize that I gave you something..

"Got that?" I said with a hint of seriousness for their safety.

"Yes, we will sit down for a few minutes, then sneak over and find the gift, then come back. Ohh, and don't talk to you when we get back."

"Perfect!"

"But we can quickly say goodbye now." I said. And three warm little hugs later, we parted ways. I sat in the truck pretending to read a map as the older beggars approached the girls to figure out why we were all talking so long. I heard her say, that I was lost and was looking for directions. And when the older beggars saw me with a map, they believed her.

The girls carried out my orders as if trained soldiers. They sat for a few minutes, before "aimlessly" wandering towards the locomotive, then they disappeared behind it. A few of the adult beggars seemed curious of where they were going, but quickly lost interest when they found a new group of travelers to harass.

About two minutes later I saw three huge smiles coming from around the locomotive. Looking like the cats that ate the canaries, they grinned ear to ear, while uncontrollably giggling like young girls should. With a look of overwhelming excitement on their faces, their eyes seemed to be uncontrollably drawn to me as they fought to pretend not to see me. It was almost as if they needed to look at me. While they carried out my "orders" almost perfectly, there was one order they did not follow. When they saw that the adult beggars were preoccupied with the tourists, they all hopped up on my truck's step panel, stuck their heads in our window, and whispered,

"Thank you, nice man Rusty."

"You are welcome sweethearts, but you better go in case they see you.. I said trying to smile through tears, while these little ones just had smiles. They know no other way of life.

They all quickly patted me on the on the hand while saying thank you again and again, then they continued down the busy sidewalk with an extra "life in the steps until they became a part of the bustling crowd.

It is baffling how our planet possesses so many natural riches, and yet we still create a world that determines one's level of happiness, safety, and quality of life to the amount of thin sheets of colored paper (money) they have. Money dictates our lives. Although these girls live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, they are forced to believe that there is nothing more valuable than that colored paper. It will be the only way they can survive in their world.

But money does hold a mystical power for its owner. I witnessed this when they came to the truck and whispered "thank you". They seemed like "newer" children. Their smiles were brighter, their posture was straighter, and their eyes sparkled like Mosi-oa-Tunya - the Smoke that Thunders.

Several years have past since that day, and I still wonder what has become of the girls. I am sure it is a question that will never be answered, so I seek comfort in believing that my gift made a part of their lives easier.

Whenever I think of Victoria Falls, the girls.' smiles shine brightly in my mind. Since my daughter Ayla was born, I think of them more than ever. On many nights, as I tuck Ayla into her warm bed, I wonder how Kambo, Mudiwa, and Chipo are doing. Are they safe, are they hungry, are they warm,....are they alive?