I was at the Johannesburg airport waiting for my flight to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, where I planned to go on a three- day rafting trip on the Zambezi river. Even though I was excited about the adventure, I was also nervous. The Zambezi hides many life-threatening dangers, including boulders hidden beneath ferocious waves. Rafting on the Zambezi is the mother of all rafting. More than 500 km long the river is also the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, roaring over the Victoria Falls and through the stunning Batoka Gorge. The gorge is home to hippos, crocodiles, elephants, hyenas, and other wildlife which can be observed from a boat gliding along the river. Originally, I had planned to go on this trip with my friend Jonas with whom I had hiked to Cathedral Peak. Unfortunately he had been robbed and was severely injured while hiking the St. James Coastal Walk in Cape Town. It happened during the day: a guy followed him and stabbed him in the neck with a screwdriver. After Jonas fell to the ground the robber grabbed his wallet, phone, and jacket and gingerly walked away. Jonas had to spend some time in a Cape Town hospital fighting for his life. He had to return to Switzerland where he is awaiting months of physical therapy. I didn’t want to postpone my trip, so I decided to travel to Zimbabwe alone.
The flight was delayed for at least two hours. I sat near the gate with some other fifteen people. I took out Jorge Luis Borges’ book The Aleph and Other Stories and started reading. Borges’ mystical world brings me to dreamland where there is no way out. Since my early years, few writers made me feel so much passion for life and Borges was one of them. His existential obsession with fantasy and mythology always pierced my brain and sent me to an alternative reality. Some people do drugs when they feel the urge of escaping reality, some meditate or go to church. I read Borges. His surreal labyrinths are the paths to undiscovered universes. I remember as if it was yesterday: I was a nineteen years old college student when I first read his story The Library of Babel. The story had such an impact on my life that for a few months I dreamed that I was trapped in a hexagonal room. Each wall of the room had a mirror door that led to another hexagonal room and so on and on to infinity. I was endlessly walking from room to room desperately trying to escape, without success. I used to wake up sweating, my heart racing, and my mouth dry.
After three hours of waiting at the airport it was finally announced that our flight was ready for boarding. I found my seat in the middle of the plane. Next to me sat a woman in her late twenties. She had pale skin, big dark brown eyes, and short curly hair. She wore a bohemian style long dress and chunky army boots. On her right middle finger she wore a silver ring with a big topaz. On her left arm she had various multicolored bracelets. She had a jacket on her knees and an iPad with headphones. I looked at her and smiled.
“She is cute,” I thought to myself.
“Would you like me to put your jacket into the overhead compartment?” I asked her.
“No, I’m fine, thank you!” she responded with a smile.
“Okay.” I took my aisle seat, “please don’t hesitate to ask if you need anything, even if I am sleeping.”
“Anything? That’s generous. Sure, I will,” she laughed.
“By the way, my name is Ilia.”
“Leonie,” she replied. “Interesting name… is that Slavic?”
“Probably,” I replied, “actually it’s the old Hebrew name Elijah and it means ‘My God is Yahweh’. According to the Book of Kings, Elijah was a prophet who lived in the northern kingdom of Israel. Later the name transformed into Byzantine Greek Elia and is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable.”
“Wow, amazing! You really know the history of your name!”
“Actually, I just read it in Wikipedia. It’s a trick: I, as a pretentious, show-offy prick am trying to use it to ram my authority down your ears,” I said and looked at her with a serious expression.
She looked back at me with a wide-eyed and startled laugh:
“You are funny!”
“Do you think so? Hm, I am just honest. Anyway… how do you know it’s a Slavic name?” I asked her.
Leonie looked me directly into the eyes trying to figure out whether I was joking.
“I have some connections to Eastern Europe,” she said.
“What kind of connections, are you a spy?”
“No, I’m not that interesting. I just studied Russian literature in college during my senior year.”
We were quiet for a minute.
“Are you staying in Victoria Falls town?” She asked me to break the silence.
“Are you on vacation?”
“Hm. So many questions… I’d like to call my lawyer.” I took out my phone.
“I’m being investigated. I think I have the right to a lawyer’s presence.”
She looked at me and cracked up.
I started laughing too.
“Yes, I’m on vacation,” I said with a laugh. “I always wanted to go rafting on the Zambezi. It’s a magical place: Class IV and V rapids. We’ll raft during the day, at night we camp out in the Batoka Gorge. Should be lots of fun. Unfortunately, I’ll be there only for a week.”
“That sounds fun.”
“You can do it if you have some free time. It’s a one-in-a-lifetime experience. Just keep in mind: It’s dangerous, a quick Google search can prove it.”
“Hm. Really? I’ll check it out. I don’t really have plans in Victoria Falls. Who else will be there besides you?”
“My friend was supposed to come with me, but he was severely injured in a robbery and I had to go alone. So, to answer your question: nobody. There will be some people on the boat, I’m pretty sure.”
“How long is the trip?”
“Three nights and four days.”
“Are you going to camp there?”
Leonie looked out of the airplane window and said:
“It’s probably beautiful out there.”
“Leonie, let me give you my WhatsApp number. Please think it over, weigh the risks, and if you decide to join me on this trip, give me a call.”
“Sounds good, thank you! When are you leaving?”
To be continued…