Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Zambia - Black Market Laundry

Dedicated to Martin, the Catholic Cabbie, and Precious, of the Livingstone Museum.

Today was basically a laundry day, Zambian style.

I caught a taxi into Livingstone to deal with a ponderous load of washing, and also to visit the local museum. After swerving the usual potholes along the road from the camp site, Martin the driver parked outside an incongruously tall office building. (Livingstone is a fairly short town, with nothing higher than two stories).

He led me through the imposing security gate, past the main entrance and through a tiny passageway where military men in red berets smiled and chatted to other visitors from behind a desk. We walked up several flights of stairs, passing various businesses established in offices. They ranged from internet cafes, telephony centres, language schools, car hire, several things that looked distinctly military and a few "laundromats". All of these bore the same photograph of the Zambian president in a manner akin to al-Assad of Syria.

The first "laundromat" lay behind a door reading "debt collectors". Three women sitting silently behind desks looked suprised to see me there. A couple of suits hung in plastic bags in the corner, but there was no suggestion of what this business actually did. I noticed a framed "certificate of registration" hanging on the wall had yet to fill in the blanks of what it was registered to do, or by whom.

One lady discussed with me that they could do my laundry, but usually just did suits. She could not give me a price estimate, because the lady responsible for laundry wasn't there yet. She wanted to know how many days I would like to wait before picking it up. All this after carefully and silently emptying the bag of laundry items one by one, writing them individually on a receipt slip. After further resultless debate, it became clear they could not realistically expect to wash and dry the clothes within the day, so I left with Martin to find another.

The second place actually had a lot more clothes hanging about, but consisted of a tiny room with a bench. No sign of washing machines, detergents, or any of the paraphenalia you would associate with a laundromat in Australia. The bloke behind the desk was confident it could be done in three hours, and after weighing up the bag in his hands, reckoned it would cost 40,000 kwacha. This is about US$15. I said that sounded expensive (how was I to know what it should have really cost?) and asked for 30,000 (US$10 ish). He agreed to this sooner than I expected, so I think I may have been extorted somewhat. I left unsure if I would see my clothes again, fearing insider trading in secondhand western clothing.

A couple of hours were spent in the Museum, a proudly aspirational place with a lot more dedication and sense of purpose than funding. The four galleries - archaeology and hominid fossils, a mannequin-populated ethnographic village, a natural history area of obscure taxidermied specimens, and a text-heavy memorial to David Livingstone - combined academic journal passages with artworks prepared by primary school students, and statements of dubious origin. Lots of interesting things amongst them however, and the guide was lovely.

I returned to find the laundry had in fact been done, all items accounted for. It was still slightly damp and some items were not as clean as others, but a spell in the sun fixed those faults. I think I may now be the only person on the truck with a complete set of clean clothes.

Speaking of the truck, we've upgraded machines and joined a mob of nine new people who will travel with us to Nairobi. Haven't yet met all of them, but they seem like fun.

Tomorrow we'll be setting off for Victoria Falls. I can see the "smoke that thunders" from the camp site, and microflights fly overhead regularly offering tourists joyflights over them. I'm particularly looking forward to this, as one of my Honours Thesis travelling artists, Thomas Baines, was the first person to bring images of the Falls to European audiences.


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