Happens All the Time

by Sarah Doar (United States of America)

A leap into the unknown Zambia


He had his eye on me from the second our truck rolled through the gates. Perched regally on a rock at the entrance to Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, he waited patiently as my two travel companions disembarked. Then, with the speed and agility of a Papio ursinus half his size, the baboon bounded up to the truck and snatched my purse out of my hands. The thief returned to his rock, deftly opened the bag’s compartments and flicked away the items deemed unnecessary: passport, sunglasses, tampons. Then, inventory complete, he took my little red bag in his mouth and ran into the forest. I leaped out of the truck and made a beeline for the galloping primate, only to halt amid cries of, “No, madam, no!” Workers in the park explained how dangerous these animals are, and to please not worry, they would retrieve the bag themselves. Then, armed with nets and alarming confidence, they marched into the forest. I trailed after them, still reeling. After living in New York for years, I was only now experiencing my first mugging. The rush of the falls grew louder as we trekked deeper into the forest. A cool cloud of mist washed over us. Through the lush greenery, the mammoth falls roared into sight and stopped me in my tracks. Without any obvious beginning or end, the layers of water poured relentlessly, lifting up a delicate rainbow over the mist. Living up to its Lozi name, it truly was Mosi-oa-Tunya; “The Smoke that Thunders”. I felt a crunch beneath my sandal and looked down to see a corner of plastic peeking out from under the leaves. A middle-aged Indian man stared out from the photo of his national ID card; an apparent relic of an earlier victim. I pocketed him and caught up to the men with nets in time to see the baboon disappear down a cliff, red bag bobbing in the distance. As the startling reality of a trip without camera, money and credit cards suddenly hit, I burst into tears. The men began to pull the nets back and formed a circle around me. “I'm sorry madam, these monkeys, they are fast here. I saw which way he went, did you see? Maybe he will come back up later. Yes, we will try again later.” With that, I headed back to town. As Victoria Falls retreated into a cloud of reddish smoke, I couldn’t help but notice my sudden calm as I gazed out the window of the Jeep. Zambian scenery tends to switch immediately from town to bush, offering few clues for travelers as to what they'll see next. Already a stranger in an unfamiliar place, and now vulnerable without my bag, there was no choice but to accept my fate. I waited for the town of Livingstone to approach. The main drag of the city sweeps red dirt on the concrete of the roads and the sidewalks. It settles sleepily, a warm layer of dust mixing the smell of clay in the air. Sunburned backpackers wait in line at Barclays to exchange their cash for kwacha while in the same crowd, babies tied securely to their mothers’ backs snooze contently. What mere hours ago seemed so unfamiliar, were now the same sights cushioning my fall from that morning’s experience. Bewilderment as to what to do next was replaced by acceptance, then laughter. When the park's workers would arrive at the hostel gates hours later, and proudly present me with the tattered remains of my bag, they would laugh with me too. In between their beaming smiles and my eruption of fresh tears, one of them gently patted my shoulder. “Don’t worry, miss,” he said. “It happens all the time.”