Laying out-stretched on the overstuffed bed, I blankly stared up at the slow revolving ceiling fan which seemed to be mocking the minutes dragging by. I strained to hear for any sign of movement over the loud chirping of crickets outside our cushy energy-powered rondavel, a westernized version of the African-style hut, fittingly located just outside Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park in the heart of sub Saharan Africa. “They should all be asleep by now, don’t you think?” whispered my temporary roommate and partner in crime, Stephanie, a girl from the same high school back in the States. I gave a reassuring shrug as we peeled back the mosquito net encasing our bed and tip-toed our way out of the hut and up the gravel path towards the welcoming light of the resort’s bar.
It was 2006 and I was on my very first trip abroad as a non-religious 17-year-old high school student on a mission trip in Africa. And yes, I was sneaking out in the middle of the night to go to a bar… on a mission trip… in Africa.
Ok, so I know that sounds bad but before you go and start praying for my immoral soul, let me give you the background on how I ended up in Africa in the first place.
I have always had an innate desire to travel, one that must have evolved from some kind of natural mutation of the travel gene (they say that’s a real thing) inherited from distant ancestors rather than nurture because at that time a good portion of my family still fell into the statistic of the 54% of Americans who don’t own passports. And with my senior year of high school approaching, the pressure to make future plans was on full blast “what university do you want to go to?” “what major are you going to pick?” “what do you want to do with the rest of your life?” You know, the type of life altering decisions that no one with an age ending in teen is qualified to make. The only for sure concrete plan that I could muster up was a long list of countries I wanted to visit. So when a close acquaintance unexpectedly died in a car accident (my first brush with immortality) I decided it was best to not wait to start checking off my list. Upon hearing through friends that a local church group was going to Zambia in an effort to help with the AIDS epidemic, I figured Africa was as good a starting place as any.
It’s no secret that I’m not religious nor am I a particular fan of mission trips, (but this is a whole other topic better explained in one of my favorite articles of all time, The problem with Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism by Pippa Biddle). But after doing a little research and discovering that the church would be working with a group called STS, I didn’t hesitate to sign up. STS (Stop the Spread) is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping prevent the spread of AIDS throughout Zambia through education and counseling in various high schools and churches throughout the country. STS is also a faith-based organization and it is this very detail which makes them so effective.
Despite becoming an independent nation in 1964, Zambia, a former British Protectorate, still holds onto several traits adopted from their European friends (here I use the term friend loosely). For example, English is still the official language and 87% of the population still identifies as Christian. With that said, converting people wasn’t even on the mission trip’s agenda. The organization simply uses the bible to help curtail some of the dangerous cultural traditions contributing to the spread of AIDS, such as polygamy.
You would think in a country where 1 in 3 people are infected with HIV that abstinence before marriage would be a no brainer, right? Well try telling that to a group of men, whose patriarchal culture dates back centuries, that he should only sleep with one woman…ever. The result would almost always end up being a different version of the same answer, “stop trying to push your western ideals onto our traditions.” But if you point out that the bible says sex before marriage and adultery are sins, then it must be true! Get my point?
So after signing up to join the STS 2006 summer team, I quickly got an after school job answering phones at a real estate office to help fund my travels. With the “how to” part taken care of, there was just one obstacle standing in the way of me getting my first passport stamp, my parents. Since I was only 17 at the time and still considered a minor, I needed my parents written approval to go out of the country with the organization. My parents, who had never been out of the country themselves, weren’t keen on letting their little girl go to Africa, the dark continent of lions, deadly diseases and genocide. So after my begging and pleading proved unfruitful, I not being one to take no for an answer, gave them an ultimatium. “Either sign the papers or in a few months when I’m 18, I’ll go all by myself.” I was serious and they knew it. They signed the permission slip and I was on my way to Africa.
So now back to the part where I’m sneaking into a bar in the middle of the night…
The bar was cozy and inviting, serving as a respite from the cool African night. With its steppe grass thatched ceiling and stone and mortar walls adorned with decorative tribal masks, old fashioned Coca-Cola signs and old world maps, the scene looked like it jumped straight of the pages of Home & Garden, Safari edition. Which to be honest, was really comforting. The bar had enough African influences where you could romanticize about downing a fifth of whiskey with David Livingstone but just enough European touches to make you pretty confident you’d leave with a nice buzz rather than dysentery.
It seemed like a particularly slow night, Steph and I were the only patrons in the bar. The staff, consisting of a male bartender and a female server, both local Zambians, could be found at the end of the bar, both draped over the counter, faces resting on palms. A pose that reminded me of the tedious school days when boredom would creep in and you would have to literally hold your own head up. Almost simultaneously, both arched their eyebrows and stood up with giant grins planted on their faces as we claimed our seats at the bar. I’m pretty sure their excitement was purely out of having something to do to help pass the time rather than their eagerness to give great customer service but I didn’t care. This was the moment I had been waiting for.
For the past two weeks, myself and the rest of the 2006 STS team had been adhering to strict schedules of visiting various high schools and community churches, giving seminars on AIDS awareness and prevention. Even though it was an unforgettable life changing experience, there was still something missing. I wanted a deeper look into Zambian culture. I wanted to know more about their day-to-day lives, their views on things beyond Jesus and the AIDS epidemic. I wanted to make more personal connections, something I found difficult to achieve traveling in a pack of 20 something people all wearing matching t-shirts. So here on the final “vacation week” where we stayed in nice resorts and went on safaris, I made it my personal mission to make as many personal connections as possible, separate from the group. Hence, sneaking into a bar in the middle of the night. Let it be clear, the point was to meet locals and have conversations, it was never about getting drunk. After all, this was back in 2006 when I along with the rest of the up and coming graduating class of 07 seemed to that think keg stands counted as an extracurricular activity. Moral of the story, I didn’t need to travel half way around the world to get tipsy.
As cool and collected as possible, I ordered a Mosis, Zambia’s most famous lager, and attempted to give off the persona of “no big deal, I go to bars in exotic places all the time.” Meanwhile I was struggling to contain myself. All I wanted to do was fire off questions to the bar staff, interrogation-style, on everything from Zambian dating culture to their views on Americans. And just as I was easing into the conversation, in walks a few members from our missionary group, including 3 youth leaders and a pastor who obviously discovered we were no longer in our hut. They filed in one at a time, giving us an acknowledging nod indicating “you’re caught” and without saying a word, took their seats at one of the lower tables catty corner to the bar. They never yelled or told us to leave. They didn’t have to. They just sat there with their ominous presence as if attempting to warn us that we were making God sad. You know the guilt trip thing that Christians have mastered over the years.
Steph and I sheepishly paid our tab and said goodbye to our new friends and joined the rest of our group, like puppy dogs with our tails tucked between our legs. There we received a light hearted lecture about life decisions and then it was dropped, never to be brought up again.
So all in all, did I sneak out in the middle of the night to go to a bar on a mission trip in Africa and got caught? Yes. Did I deceive people by making them think my religious convictions were a little stronger (ok, a lot stronger) than they actually were in order to go on a trip? Yes. Did I pretty much blackmail my parents into letting me go? Yes. Do I regret any of it? Absolutely not.
This trip was an invaluable experience which helped to shape the entire course of my life. From the moment my feet touched African soil, I became hooked on travel and have made it my goal in life to travel as often as possible. This trip also proved that if there’s a will, there’s a way which has led me to 12 countries and 5 continents by my 27th birthday. This trip also allowed me to discover my “travel style” early on, something for which I will be forever grateful. I realized that organized group travel just isn’t for me and that I would much rather travel alone, where I could seamlessly blend into the background and observe a place for what it is. The kind of travel where I can come and go as I please. Travel where if stopping to have a beer with a local is my prerogative, I can do so guilt free.