Friday, 16 October 2015

Zany Zambian Caper

Before I started at the current job, one of the books published by the company caught my attention with its writing and font selection. To hear that it didn't fly off the shelves is sad, especially after I proofed it for e-book publication.

You'd think people would at least be piqued by a title like Peeing in the Bush.

In spite of the title (or perhaps because of it), this punny, punchy,
pungent and at times poignant travelogue didn't move at light speed.
Why, I wonder?

Far from a survival manual for travellers venturing into places with non-existent plumbing, PitB is a travelogue of author Adeline Loh's (mis)adventures in Zambia, which began as many of these adventures do:

"WHAT??!" [my boss] said, his eyes bulging out in disbelief. "Let me get this straight. You're quitting, for no reason whatsoever, but to go have fun?"

"Yeah," I replied nonchalantly.

He regarded me suspiciously. "And this isn’t because you've got another job offer?"


"So where are you going?"

"I dunno." I shrugged. "Africa, perhaps."

Of course, Loh had trouble convincing people that she wasn't nuts for picking the Dark Continent as a travel destination; it's amazing how many prejudices people have about Africa and its people and wildlife.

And finding a companion for the trip was hard. Eventually, Loh settled on "Chan", a "typical sheltered goody-goody" who's also Buddhist and vegetarian, whom she met and sparred with at a martial arts class.

She wasted little time pitching to Chan the adventure of a lifetime:

"Zambia is the ultimate undiscovered adventure travel country, Chan!" I started babbling, widening my eyes and waving my hands about passionately. "It's home to the world's widest waterfall Victoria Falls and the awesome Zambezi River! We’ll go on unforgettable safaris where you'll have real close encounters with unique mammals! It will be like we're in a perpetual Animal Planet documentary! And the wild scenery ... mmm, you’ll be picking your jaw off the floor! Can you believe all of this is found in one friendly country? Trust me, you won't regret it – it will be the trip of a lifetime!"

If you have a bridge (or two) in Penang you'd like to sell, Loh's your girl.

Zambia in a nutshell - or two
Visa problems upon touchdown in Zambia is a great way to start one's very first African sojourn, as Loh found out.

She and her sidekick Chan's itinerary included a safari in South Luangwa National Park, paddling a canoe along a stretch of the Zambezi River, a visit to the Livingstone Museum, getting hammered (Loh, not Chan) at a sunset booze cruise, and a private (and disastrous) five-day mobile safari in a beat-up van at Kafue National Park.

And what trip to Zambia would be complete without a fly-by of Victoria Falls (again, only Loh) in a microlight?

Of course, Loh was prepared for her African voyage, which includes getting acquainted with the local vernacular: "Encouraged, I bravely practised more words I had learnt from the guidebooks ... the most essential being Yadula! (It is too much!), Chonde, ndi paseni mowa (Please give me a beer), and Onani! Njoka! (Look! A snake!)"

Even so, they were not quite prepared for the squalor in some of the neighbourhoods they visited or passed. Urban perils include being propositioned by local men, smooth-talking vendors, dodgy safari guides (the dodgiest one was a one-eyed huckster that sounded like he was conscripted straight out of an Indiana Jones flick) and temperamental managers of various lodges, motels and hostels - on top of rickety vehicles, could-be-better public transport, problem plumbing and the barely-there roads.

Out in the bush, hippo-infested waters, crocodiles, baboons, lions, the matriarch of an elephant herd and biting, stinging insects made things exciting. There is in fact a bit about how to pee in the bush, but the fun, as Loh demonstrated, is how you get there.

She packed a lot of her observations, recollections and research into this book, which will serve lost travellers who find themselves without a corresponding Lonely Planet or Fodor's guide (do note that it's been years since this book was written).

Her breezy gonzo style: punny, gung-ho and a little heavy on the adjectives hint at a polished pen and years of writing. The text knows how to grab the eyeballs and hold the reader's attention.

Nevertheless, Loh adroitly skips the snark for some topics. A certain poignancy is evoked when she outlines the stark reality in Zambia and several neighbouring countries: poverty, corrupt and despotic leaders, lack of infrastructure and the ravages of AIDS and the courage and stoicism of the locals struggling to get by. Not to mention the problems national parks have with poachers and the bushmeat trade. Ultimately, we end up knowing more than we'd ever want to about this corner of the world.

Smart and witty
But it's the funny turns of phrase that really sell the book; if it weren't for the occasional reference to Malaysia, you wouldn't realise this was a local production. And how the phrases turn. Take this excerpt from a dinner at a restaurant:

When dinner was served, I nearly had a heart attack. Clearly they had mistaken a lone, 40-kilo, five-foot-one Chinese girl for a small African village. I sat down to the kingly feast: a washing basin of starter soup with three dinner rolls the size of bricks, a huge two-inch thick slab of medium-rare T-bone steak, a large avocado stuffed with mashed eggs, a whole baked potato the size of an infant's head and a wok-sized bowl of raw salad. I could not see the table anymore and wondered how many days it was going to take for me to finish everything.

Then there's an early encounter with a denizen of the Zambian wilds at a safari chalet, leading to this comedy routine of an exchange:

"...a palm-sized hairy spider clinging to the seasick-green wall like an unsightly mottled-grey mole. With its white-banded legs spread widely, it zipped around like a frenetic UFO before pausing to taunt us. Chan tried to shoo it away.

"Don't do that! Kill it, KILL IT!" I yelled like a lunatic.

"I can't!" she cried. "I'm Buddhist!"

That still cracks me up.

We also get some animal sex. Specifically, hippo sex. Loh sounded underwhelmed, though:

"...there wasn't much rumpy pumpy going on. The inactive male merely lay motionless atop her like a dead fish. Every now and then, she'd come up for air and continue making the breathy sex sounds. That's as exciting as it got. I hoped she's had better."


Though her artistry with words really shine in some of the passages, a few glowing examples can be found, like this one:

"...the large marabou stork captivated me the most. It’s the ugliest, most ghastly bird you will ever see in your life, with a clunky bill, grubby head and the back of its dirty pink neck riddled with short sparse hairs. Still, the moment I laid eyes on the scavenger dining on the rotting dead and pooping on its own legs to cool off, I knew I was in love with Zambia."

(You're right, Adeline. Maybe my backyard could use a bridge...)

And all the above was just from their romp around South Luangwa National Park – about one-thirds into the book.

But is it too "clever"?
I also noted her commment on the canoe trip along part of the Zambezi River: "Nothing could beat creeping up on drinking elephants, examining the dental work of yawning hippos and inviting crocodiles over for tea by dipping our fingers in the water. It was going to be the thrill of a lifetime ... as long as nobody dies."

Such cautious bravado drips from time to time, befitting the setting in which this escapade took place. But I wonder if anybody told her that bull sharks can also be found in parts of the Zambezi, hence one of its aliases, the Zambezi shark?

Some, however, might find the snark too thick, the tone too pandering to foreign audiences. Critics might think Loh's trying too hard to be clever; samplings of the above can feel gimmicky, and one can't be blamed for thinking she's showboating. And, as a former boss once said, "Gonzo is dead."

Is it really, though?

Because as attention spans shrink along with the length of what's written these days, I still believe it's this kind of work that readers are likely to pass the time with. The tone is light, with enough trivia, insight and gravitas that makes you feel a little more joyful and wiser after you're done.

That's true for me, at least. And I've read much worse.

Not quite "wretched", "godforsaken"
In spite of their travails, Loh and Chan came out unscathed (otherwise, no book). The former was even left with an "African hangover", the kind one experiences after listening to a certain song by Toto. In her words:

"I had anticipated a whole lot but I hadn't anticipated becoming so attached to a country my dad had described as a 'wretched, godforsaken place'. We had had the time of our lives, and surprisingly, ended up none the worse for wear. By sheer miracle we had given food poisoning, yellow fever, bilharzia, malaria, hypothermia, sleeping sickness, meningitis, fungal infections, intestinal tapeworms and drowning a miss. Best of all, we did not get eaten.

"Even so, I was going home with something else: memories of Zambia that would continue to haunt me for the rest of my life and make me wish I had never left ... the Southern Cross [constellation], lions brushing past our open vehicle, boisterous markets, walking safaris, fleeing from hippos on the Zambezi, Play-Doh nshima (an African staple), gliding over phenomenal Victoria Falls, bush loos, booze cruises, mud villages and spending the night in Beat-Up Van would reduce me to a space cadet for months on end.

"All the beautiful, warm people who shared their intriguing and scary stories with us. All the adorable animals that could not wait to devour us. And all the fabulous salmon-pink sunsets that never failed to leave me gasping for air like an asthmatic."

Zikomo kwambiri (thank you very much), Adeline Loh and Chan, for sharing.

While I do not review books published by the company, this one came out around 2009, about a year before I joined. Still, it feels like I'm skirting a VERY tight bend by classifying this as a bona fide book review.

Peeing in the Bush
Two Panicky Girls, Lots of Dangerous Wildlife, One Hell of a Trip

Adeline Loh
MPH Group Publishing (2009)
231 pages
ISBN: 978-983-36986-0-8


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