There are vacationers and there are travelers. There is a difference. Vacationers look to get away while travelers seek meaningful connections to the people and places they visit. Vacationers come back refreshed while travelers come back changed. Robin Zappacosta is most certainly a traveler. When we last left off, Robin’s tale of her first trip to Africa began, volunteering at a hospital in Zambia. But there was another side to her journey and Robin was about to get her “African wings”.
It was time to head out into “the bush”, the side of Africa we picture in our heads. It’s said to be magical, mystical and beyond imagination. The local legends seem too wild to be true for modern sensibilities, but those legends, well, they’re what African dreams are made of.
My doctor friend felt that I needed to get away from the hospital and see the other side of Africa. So, we journeyed to Lake Kariba on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe.
While exposed to modern religion, the culture is still dominated by local legends and gods. One of the most revered gods is the Nyami Nyami, the Zambezi River god who occupies Lake Kariba with his wife. In the 1940’s a dam under construction between the river and lake was damaged by massive flooding. Many of the foreign, white workers helping build the dam died and their bodies were missing. Legend has it, the Tonga people said the Nyami Nyami, was cut off from his wife, and he was angry so he took the bodies as “payment”. The families of the workers wanted answers…and their loved ones remains. So the Tonga elders decided a sacrifice to appease the Nyami Nyami was in order and a black calf was left at the river’s edge. The next morning, the calf was gone. The river IS crocodile infested but nonetheless, the calf was gone and magically the missing bodies its place.
Along the bush of Lake Kariba, I took my first game drive, pulling up to a large herd of Cape Buffalo. Camera in hand, I hopped out of the vehicle, snapping away mere feet from the massive beasts. My guide, in his fantastical white safari hunter’s hat yells, “Get back in this vehicle NOW! THIS is not a zoo and WILD animals charge!” Safari 101: Stay in the vehicle, Robin.
Next I ventured to the majestic Victoria Falls. I can’t imagine a safari that doesn’t include a visit. My accommodations were a luxurious tent fitted with electricity and a bathroom. You must find inner peace to sleep, knowing a herd of giant elephants roam free throughout your encampment and canvass walls won’t stop them if they get spooked and charge.
Call me a reluctant angel, but there in Victoria Falls, I got my “African wings”. A pilot, me and a flying lawnmower called a Microlite set off to fly over the falls. I had a headset so the pilot could hear my screams but his reassurance that while the seatbelt was flimsy, gravity would hold me in place didn’t make me feel any better. Fear melted away as we glided over the plains, seeing elephant below, and over the magnificent, gushing falls with their mist filling the sky. It’s called the ‘smoke that thunders,’ and that was truly a once in a lifetime event.
More adventures continued with white water rafting, more game drives, animal encounters and lots of local beer. On one of the final drives I remember passing antelope, elephants and eventually three rare, white rhino. There was a huge fallen tree and I got out of the vehicle once more (yes, I know. Safari 101). Sitting on the tree trunk, quietly observing the rhino, I realized that although this trip was ending, my lifelong love, and journeys in Africa were just beginning.
Every love affair has a beginning. Robin Zappacosta began her romance with Africa over 15 years ago and her stories are fantastically inspiring. Captivated by her tales, we share how Africa became one of the great loves of her life.
Robin travels the globe for her career in the medical field. The entire globe, many times over. She always seems to be someplace else and those who love her, scramble for one-on-one time when she rests her head at home in the Tampa, Florida area. For such a seasoned traveler, it’s rather remarkable to hear Robin speak of Africa and how of all the places she’s been, to Robin, Africa is “home”.
Robin dreamed of Africa for all the reasons many of us do…the adventure, the animals, and perhaps one too many viewings of Meryl Streep and Robert Redford’s perfectly painted portrayals of grandeur, romance and fantastic khaki outfits in the movie “Out of Africa”.
Around the time of the September 11, World Trade Center attack, Robin was working as an ICU nurse. Having run into a doctor acquaintance who was in the US from Zambia, she mentioned she had always wanted to do mission work in Africa. She could volunteer to work with him while making an adventure out of it.
With all the turmoil surrounding the 9/11 attack, Robin’s friends weren’t excited about her going. She thought, “I’ll be in the middle of some poverty-stricken country that many don’t even know or care about. I’m probably safer than you.” So, throwing caution to the wind and after a long flight, she landed on African soil.
Robin recalls the doctor telling her how bad the internet and communication in Zambia was, so she was a bit worried he wouldn’t get the message to pick her up. Walking off the modern 747 and directly onto the tarmac where that epiphany “I’m home” moment occurred, she was first struck by how hot it was, and by the police officers with their very large guns. Robin says, “If there is anything I've learned in all my travels to Africa, it’s to keep your expectations low and have an open mind. Almost nothing will be what you expect. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, but always unexpected.” Fortunately, the doctor was there to greet her at the airport, welcoming her with news that she would be giving an address to doctors at a surgical conference. Surprise!
Surgical conference speech completed, Robin spent time working in the local hospital, teaching nurses how to properly use some of their equipment. Having arrived with all her modern sensibilities, she recounts a story about a woman on a ventilator, the tube down her throat allowing her to breathe.
In Robin’s own words…
We were preparing to remove the tube and I asked for the patients weaning parameters. The staff asked, “What are weaning parameters?” I explained that they’re tests demonstrating the patient can breathe on their own. Blood gases that measure the concentration of oxygen and CO2. Lung capacity. Things like that. They looked at me as if I were crazy and the nurse said calmly, “she’s awake, her tongue is pink and she’s responsive.” So out the tube came.
Thinking I was helping, I put on a pair of gloves (the HIV rate in Zambia at the time was close to 30%), and I proceeded to throw the tube in the trash. Chaos ensued. They were yelling and clearly upset with me. I didn’t understand what I did wrong.
Later, a physician pulled me aside showing me a bucket of bleach, saying something I’ll never forget. “I know you don’t understand. You come from a country where you have everything you need. But that’s not the way life is here. We have no choice but to soak this in bleach and re-use for another patient. We know the risks but this is our reality. We cannot always get supplies so we have a choice. Decontaminate and use it on the next patient or throw it away, with the risk we’ll run out. If we run out, the next patient who needs one will die.”
I have never looked at medicine the same. Africa changed me. For the better. It gave me a new appreciation for almost everything and a new perspective. I was told by a friend, who had been to Africa many times, “when you get to Africa, you will be bitten by a bug and you will have no choice but to return.” He was right. My love affair with Africa had begun.
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