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 monkey half his size, the Cape 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 he deemed unnecessary: passport, sunglasses, tampons. 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 an alarming degree of 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 a delicate rainbow out of 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 up 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 the 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, or credit cards suddenly hit me, I burst into tears. The men 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 I gazed out the window of the jeep and Victoria Falls retreated into a cloud of reddish smoke, I felt a surprising calm. 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 emerge.
On the city’s main street, traffic stirred up red dirt that settled sleepily onto the concrete roads and sidewalks, a warm layer of dust filling the air with the scent of clay. Sunburned backpackers waited in line at Barclays to exchange their cash for kwacha, while in the same crowd, babies tied securely to their mothers’ backs snoozed contently.
These sights that mere hours ago had seemed so unfamiliar were now cushioning the blow from my morning’s experience. Bewilderment as to what to do next had been replaced by acceptance, then laughter.
When the park's workers arrived at the hostel gates hours later, and proudly presented me with the tattered remains of my bag, they laughed 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.”
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