going backwards

January 2, 2018

“To go forward sometimes you must go backwards.” So says the fortune in our bag of chicken flavored plantain chips as we sit down at the close of a long New Year’s Day.
And yes, we ate plantain chips for dinner—along with maize from a roadside market stand and boiled eggs, to make it a square meal. Or round, if you must quibble about actual shapes.
Indeed, we did feel a bit as if we had gone backwards today. We traveled a bumpy 8-hour road trip to get here last night. Not knowing when the bus would start yesterday, we had gone into town, packed for the road, with our friends who were headed to church. Once we had purchased tickets and been assured that the bus would leave at 13:00 and that we were to be there at 12:00, we opted to follow our friends to church rather than wait there at the station. It was a lovely service, with songs from both the youth group and the children. Had I been my normal self, I’d have been dancing along with them. As it were, however, nervous about the unknown journey ahead, I could not be on a pew in a crowded room. I got up to stand in the back, seeing many others waiting outside. I smiled at the performances, and recognized the beauty of it all . . . but I was removed, unable to shake the distraction of road-weary and road-worried angst. We jetted out as the service was ending, were dropped back at the station at a punctual 12:01, and then waited in a bar that doubled as a ticket station until the bus rolled in at 13:08.
Soon into the journey, I worried that we would not make it at all. The bus had pulled over to the side of the road for what we assumed to be a passenger drop. When I opened my window, though, and peered down, what I saw was a pair of boots sticking out from underneath the bus and a set of tools on the ground beside him. After 20 minutes of baking in the bus, Peter asked if I was going to go outside and join the children. “Join them as they poop?” I teased, having watched several mothers assist youngsters with their bush business. I did decide to get up, however, and joined the bystanders on the road. As I got out, the man handing tools to said boot-bearing repairman dashed past me, following the trail that led to a nearby cluster of grass-roofed huts. Two minutes later he re-emerged, still sprinting, and handed an unknown object to the man under the bus. The bus horn sounded, people followed the cue to file back into their seats and, soon, we were back on the road. “I guess that nice massage effect we felt earlier wasn’t a good thing,” Peter remarked. “Man!” I quipped, “And I had paid good money for these VIP seats!”
Considering the warnings we had received about the hazards of the roads, it ended up being a surprisingly smooth journey. One bathroom stop led to the discovery of Zambian-made kombucha at one of the snack stands. This combined with window purchases of bananas and cat naps kept me calm. Slanted cell-phone recordings of recent movies with subtitles that appeared to be in a font that translated to jibberish kept me somewhat entertained. And then, well before I expected it, we were rolling into the village of which my first memories are hazy but my last run strong.
We had anticipated being able to spend two days there; thinking through our early morning flight out of Lusaka, we figured that if we took the early morning bus, we should arrive by evening, and then head to the airport for a rather marathon-like traveling run. But asking around about the bus, we learned that we might not be able to find an alternative transport of there was any problem with the journey; it would be best to give ourselves an extra day for the trip.
So we had one day. When I admitted to Peter that I felt like this had been the mission of the trip, he was surprised. Frankly, so was I. I had done an excellent job convincing myself that it was no big deal—that I didn’t expect to find the grave. The odds were stacked against us. We had no communication unless I could connect my phone to wifi (which, generally, was not available). I had no idea who had led me through the woods to find it 6 years ago. I remembered no one there, so far as I knew. It was a shot in the dark.
We headed out, following the visual trail of four photographs, counting power poles and comparing tree branch silhouettes. We found what appeared to be the closest pole to the position in the woods, and we waded through the brush and cobwebs, comparing stones to photos and mental images.
But we did not find it. I felt a sort of numb hopelessness, wondering what we were doing. Why had we spent thousands of dollars to come all this way? Did I really think it would work? Should I have tried harder to make it work? Did I really WANT it to work?
I don’t know. I don’t know why there was not a miraculous discovery, as I do believe miraculous things happen. More specifically, I feel them happening in my own life. This miracle did not.
After boarding the bus for the return trip, I looked at Peter and said “Let’s do this again next year.” He didn’t react for a moment, trying to determine my level of sanity. “I’m serious,” I said. “We know what we should do differently.” He agreed with that bit of brilliance, and we spoke briefly of the possibility. With a couple days of travel left to go, I could not allow myself to get into any true planning mode, so far as that goes—a great deal of energy goes into mentally and physically gearing myself up for the journey at hand . . . but this time next year, who’s to say . . . come what may?

2 Responses to “going backwards”

  1. Dan Elyea said

    I’d forgotten the timing of your Zambia trip, Anna, so it took me a little bit of reading to get oriented to what was happening. :-) So disappointed with you that you couldn’t find the special resting place. Blessings and hugs, Dan

  2. […] had an impact beyond my own agenda. I will close this post with a bit of an epilogue to what I wrote last Christmas. After Peter and I left Zambia, unsuccessful in our effort to find my father’s […]

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