Breakfast in Lusaka — Zambia Notes #2

My first evening in Zambia was spent at a locally owned and operated hotel in the capital city of Lusaka. My son and I had deliberately avoided the western-style chains … we’d both seen enough of these in our travels to satisfy any irrational requirement we may have felt for comfort and convenience. We much preferred to pass the night at a place that reflected the character of the city and its people.

After 34 hours of numbing travel in cramped plane compartments and stale airports, I was far too tired and wired to even think about sleep. The hotel did feature a dim sanctuary that passed as a bar, so I ordered a local beer and sat. Within seconds I became vaguely aware that I was an object of curiosity … and within minutes I was engaged in a wide-ranging conversation with the barkeeper and two (the only two) other patrons. They were all kind, outgoing and friendly, validating my unscientific theory that African people are generally more gracious and welcoming than those from more “modern” countries and continents. I asked them if many tourists stopped here before launching for Zambia’s game reserves … South Luangwa, Kafue and the Lower Zambezi. With great pleasure, they advised me that I was the first white person they’d ever seen at this hotel. We spent the better part of an hour drinking, analyzing American and Zambian politics, and comparing the diversity of Zambian wildlife to East Africa’s. But the beer turned out to be the catalyst I needed to feel the debilitating effects of the long overdue travel exhaustion. As I staggered off to bed I made a mental note that if I had opted to stay at one of Lusaka’s chain hotels I’d never have been as warmly greeted or made to feel so welcome.

Awake early the following morning, my son and I patronized the hotel’s tiny restaurant. The place had four small round tables with whitish tablecloths, only slightly stained. The juice was cool and freshly squeezed, the food was simple but very good, and the staff was attentive and courteous. As we departed I left three American dollars beside my plate. After packing my gear for the field, I walked to the lobby to confirm the time. The young lady who had waited our table at breakfast saw me in passing and hurried over to talk. She asked if I realized that I’d left money on the table in the restaurant. I told her that I was indeed aware of it. She seemed relieved. One of her co-workers had insisted that the cash was left inadvertently … and another thought it was possible that the bills constituted a gratuity. So they’d had a meeting to discuss it. After working through the possibilities, they’d reached the consensus that they’d been left a tip, but wanted to be sure of it prior to my departure. She was pleased that I was able to confirm their decision and thanked me effusively. Then she left me, saying “I’ll share it with my colleagues.”

Although this memory has stayed with me over the past few months, there is no real point to the anecdote. But it does validate the thing I love most about the African people. Human interaction and connectivity seem to be much more meaningful to them … I think it’s because they’ve yet to be inundated and overwhelmed with the media distractions that so depressingly curse the westernized existence. They take the time to sit, talk and get to know a person … and visitors from faraway lands are still mysterious and interesting to them. My fourteen hours in Lusaka also illustrated the potential of the smallest act of kindness and the value of individual integrity. The hotel wait staff, which I suspect is minimally compensated, was more than willing to return my gratuity without hesitation … all the way up to the minute when I confirmed with finality that the money was theirs to keep. Three dollars may not be much in Williamsburg, Virginia … but it can reveal much about human character in Lusaka, Zambia.

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