Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Zimbabwe: What I saw.


For all the god given shit the media has given it.

Things heard from some American and Canadian travelers:

“I heard the situation in Zimbabwe was bad, so we went to the Zambia side. I did the gorge swing and hit Zimbabwe for a few seconds before going back to Zambia.”

“I heard you could get cholera in Zimbabwe, so I’d avoid it. It’s a dangerous place”

“They are paying the white people to leave Zimbabwe so it must be very bad and nasty”

“Nobody should go to Zimbabwe right now, the situation is really awful and the country is falling apart.”

“We thought about going to Zimbabwe to go see Victoria Falls, but we heard the situation was bad and the we had to bring American dollars and that there wasn’t a good way to get money or supplies there so we went to Zambia instead”

Things from an intrepid Australian traveler:

“I really enjoyed Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. It is definitely worth seeing. I didn’t have any problems. The Zimbabwe side is far more magnificent than the Zambian side. You can only see a very small part of it on the Zambia side.”

I went per advice of the Australian.

Here is the truth about my experience in Zimbabwe.

I was lame and flew from Windhoek to Vic Falls, making a conscious choice to skip Botswana. As per word of mouth, Botswana has too many white people, its just another south Africa. And lots of mosquitoes this time of year. One person was bitten so badly in the Okavango delta that I thought he had a bad rash. No just that many mosquito bites. I shrudder at the thought.

Coming into Zimbabwe, the VISA for US Citizens is 210 Rands (the equivalent of 21 USD) for a single entry. I hopped over the border to Zambia for 1 day, 20 USD. Coming back in, they didn’t ask for any fee.

In contrast, going into Zambia, the VISA is 50 USD for US Citizens. To hop the border to Zimbabwe, it costs 50 USD for 1 day.

From the Zimbabwe side you can see the initial gorge at the start of the falls and walk along the entire span of the 3 sections of Vic Falls, or Mosi-o-Tunya ( aka Smoke that Thunders). In contrast, you can only see one section of the falls from the Zambia side. The border crossing to Zambia is a bridge from the other end of Vic falls and is truly an impressive sight. Vic Falls is nearly twice as long as Niagra falls. Unfortunately I have never been to Niagra, so I can’t compare…..

Number of Europeans, Asians, and Latin Americans I ran into in Zimbabwe: Plenty.
Number of Americans I ran into in Zimbabwe: ZERO

However, I am told an overland truck that had come in the month before, with some Americans.

There is a dearth of supplies in Zimbabwe.

Everywhere there is a shortage of supplies, even at the wimpy burger, they have only one kind of burger. I am hungry and I buy they have. I fork over a couple dozen Rand (South African currency). I get back change in mish mosh of US dollars and Rands. Such is the way currency is here. The shelves in the Airport are even bare.

Despite the problems, I hear locals talk about going by rail to Bulawayo. And that Cholera was surrounding Harare but other parts were fine. Hardly a case here in the 30km range near Vic falls. I want to stress the fact that rail here is running daily between Vic Falls and Bulawayo, not just carrying cargo but also trains carrying passengers. They don’t have this in Uganda, it fell apart years ago, the rail carting goods between Kampala and Mombasa. Talks are in effect to revive it but it sounds like years into the future before something will run.

One Hundred Million Zimbabwe dollars are sold as tourist items. It is laughable but these notes are also being resold on eBay for a good deal as a collectors item. They are probably worth less than 10 cents in USD by now, however. And yes, of course I bought one, generously for 4 USD. I felt bad. The guy had no money.

A year ago last February, I remember a guy raving about the lion walk he did on his safari in Africa. I had to try it because I remember. It is an experience to walk with lions. These are cubs still but not entirely babies… they are a few inches shorter than a fully grown great dane. I know this because Shoestrings has 2 great danes and they were taller but thinner in build than the lions I’d just walked with. Lions are really lazy after they eat the afternoon. But that is ok, I’d rather not be their meal!

As with anywhere in Africa, you have to watch your feet. Things are done at your own risk and you have to take safety measures into your own hands. If you aren’t fit, don’t try adrenaline activities because very surely you may get hurt. If you know your own body, you have an advantage. I decided to try my hand at white water rafting on the Zambezi. There are several of us, joining from a few overland tours and a guide. To get to the river gorge you have to nimbly crawl your way down a very steep, and rocky hill. One misstep and you’ll go sliding into rocks, dirt or worse yet twist or break something. I am terrified of going down hill, anywhere, anything. So slow was I going down. But give me a wave, and water, and I fear not.

At this time of the year (February), the gorge surrounding the rapids 11-23 in the Zambezi are extremely high towers of magnificently green and lush growth, nearly 1 kilometer high. You whirl around in a dingy like you’re in the middle of the waters in a JK Tolkien fable. I am told that within 2 weeks of rain, everything turns quickly from brown to green.

Everyone has a different fear. For some its heights, others, it’s water. The raft guides will warn you in advance about rough spots in the water but you have to swim hard to pull away from any strong eddies and whirlpools. Unfortunately, there was a guy in his 30s who wasn’t a strong swimmer and went overboard, crashing into the rocks. He couldn’t walk for a good while, smashing his knee and shin. From town, they managed to find 6 men to carry him back up the hill, and a damn steep hill it was. 750 meters from the bottom of the gorge to the very top. And you can’t stop when you climb back up, because if you do, the bees and wasps and whatever insects they may be will come bite or sting you. Painfully sweating, you just have to keep climbing straight up.

At Shoestrings lodge, the barman, Rodney, is a like a thin rendition of Bob Marley, with finely rolled but neatly kept dreads. Rodney and his pal pick up guitars and mess around with some chords. Some of the guitars are missing strings, but of course this is the way it is here. Supplies are tightly limited. His buddy saw my book on the table. He said, “Since you are reading ‘The Shadow of the Sun’, I think it should merit a song about Zimbabwe.” I feel somewhat honored to be entertained. There are so few people here and the locals are so bored. This is their watering hole and they find ways to amuse each other through banter, song and drink.

The two sing a sweet R&B song about “What did you see in Zimbabwe?”. Without any tourists in the sleepy late afternoon, just overland tour guides and a couple of locals. It makes for a good pause on big loafy coaches outside by the pool. In the back, two great danes poke around in the bush, chasing off baboons.

I am one of a handful of tourists staying at the Shoestrings lodge. Service is excellent and the company of locals that come every night is pleasant. Rodney makes a good DJ as well. There are plenty of young white Zimbabwe locals, and not all of them work in the tourism industry. I meet a graphic designer, a personal trainer and some cell phone company workers.

I do the tourist thing and go see the falls. There is a lot of water now and with the recent rainfall everything is a lush green. In the late summer months most vegetation turns brown or dies.

On the way to and from, the locals try to sell me goods on the street.

Its not reasonable to buy everything when approached. But how to deal with them is something I have yet to move past. So today, I speak to them in Swahili just for kicks. They are thoroughly confused. Look blankly at me. Some back off quickly. Others are more inquisitive. And I say, hey your cousins in the north, they speak this. This is akin to speaking to someone in Japanese when they only understand Korean. Haha! I explain it to a local. Do you speak Shonda and 100 other African languages, including Zulu? No, I did not think so. It would be wise to assume the same of me. And now they get it.

I hear from some locals that years ago, it was in reverse, Zambia wasn’t doing so well, and Zimbabwe was better, so the carting of goods happened in the opposite direction.

I meet two Americans in Pretoria who recently went to Vic Falls themselves. They tell me about some Canadians who were so terrified about walking around in Livingstone that they didn’t want to leave the hostel at all. Even walking in a group of six took some coercing. And yet, they were in Zambia. I hear similar stories from lodge managers who encounter female travelers that needed hair dryers and found out that there wasn’t anything of that sort available in budget lodges north of Zambia. Bottom line, if you feel that a hair dryer and normal toilets are a huge necessity, you’re not ready to come to East Africa. Please stay in Southern Africa. You’ll just be happier that way.

And yet, as a tourist destination, Vic Falls likely has its own economy, separate from the rest of the country in the upper corners, right next to the Zambia border. 30 km from the falls, you can look down the hill and just see green, green and more green. No high rises in sight. And if there are buildings, they are hidden in the vegetation until you get to a metropolis. And still the green dwarfs anything man made. The impression is that of an immense space of forest, bush that goes on as far as the eye can see. From the air it is nearly the same for hundreds of kilometers on end. Once in a while you see a flickr of something shiny, and that is a human settlement. Then it disappears again into green.

Some General Travel advice in Africa…..

Book things as you go. They are not only cheaper but I have found a wealth of better services and conveniences as you travel. Pre booking just doesn’t work very well here. You feel several things: Crunched for time. Screwed for additional money if you had to pay in advance. No flexibility in changing your itinerary. This goes for plane tickets, accommodation, tours. Traveling works best on weekends. Business is hard to do then because most places are closed then, and being on the road on a weekend is best because then you don’t miss out on anything and don’t have to worry until you get there.

For example, if you paid for a Mozambique visa in the USA it would cost 135 USD. Here in SA you can get one cheaply from a backpackers for just 85 Rand (8.50 USD).

Don’t worry about your plans tomorrow because that will only make you more worried. Time is not of essence here, only the experience is? Strange connotations are the only thing I can think of to describe it. When you get to where you are going, then figure out what you want to do next. Something that is really difficult for us westerners to do, but it works out better that way, counter-intuitively. Go with the flow, but also expect that not everyone is likely to know where you want to go, not even the cab driver or the local person on the street may know where you accommodation is, but that is ok because you’ll eventually find it, even if is several hours later. Raising your voice or cursing someone because you didn’t get what you wanted yesterday doesn’t work in your favor, if ever. And neither does locking yourself into an arrangement because then you can’t get out of it.

It took me about 2 months to really relax into thinking and traveling this way, and honestly if I had to leave to go home right now, I’d really be bummed. Go home? I can’t think of that now. No way. Bum.


At the backpackers, I learn from the receptionist Alfred, how few westerners really care to know about African culture.

Yes, South Africa in particular, may look like Europe, sound like Europe, taste like Europe, but its NOT. I mentioned to someone the other day how I keep getting odd flashes when I am walking around in South Africa that fool me into think that I am not on the Sub-saharan continent. It is deceptive, the roads, names, buildings, streets, shops, banks, people are so westernized here that I think for a moment I am somewhere in Europe, Australia or even the Americas.

Therein lies the problem. The danger lies in the illusion of safety.

At first glance, the inherent danger is not present, but only in the massive walls of barbed wire and high fences. The threat of being robbed is ever present. It is part of the culture; completely foreign to westerners, but the rational is clarified in one chapter written in 1967 from “The Shadow of the Sun”:

“I told him how I was continuously robbed. Suleiman considered this to be something completely normal. Theft is a method—admittedly unpleasant—of lessening inequality. It is good that they rob me, he declared. It can even be seen as a friendly gesture on the part of the perpetrators – their way of letting me know that I am useful, and, therefore, that they accept me. Basically, I can feel safe. Have I ever felt threatened here? No, I had to admit. Well, there you go! I will be safe here as long as I let myself be freely robbed. The moment I inform the police, and they start to pursue the thieves, is the moment I would be advised to move away.”

It takes a lot of digging to understand how different expectations are. I can’t claim to understand culture here, only a sliver of what people experience and what I read. But hopefully I will come away with a bit more than just getting the telescopic view through American media networks.

As one Afrikaaner put it “9/11 happens all the time in Africa. You just don’t read about it. It’s hidden away somewhere”

I read the same in “The Shadow of the Sun” - wars going on for generations, mass slaughter.

If there is only one book about African culture that I could recommend for the first time visitor to Africa, it would be “The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life” by Ryszard Kapusinsky. It is about more than the continent, it is about the underlying cultural forces that shape people's lives.  Written over several decades, short stories are based on personal encounters through the eyes of a polish reporter, beginning in the 1950s. In short, if you really want to understand Africa, you must read this book. Some defining quotations:

“Individualism is highly prized in Europe, and perhaps nowhere more so than America; in Africa, it is synonymous with unhappiness, with being accursed. African tradition is collectivist, for only in a harmonious group could one face the obstacles continually thrown up by nature. And on of the conditions of collective survival is the sharing of the smallest thing. One day a group of children surrounded me. I had a single piece of candy, which I placed in my open palm. The children stood motionless, staring. Finally, the oldest girl took the candy, bit it into pieces, and equitably distributed the bits.”

South Africa is probably one of the most racist places I’ve been, minus the deep south in the states. A Moroccan who has lived in a handful of different places across SA in the past 5 years speaks of the same. This is a place where a german-english boy can’t even date a Belgian girl without raising issues. The white people are exceptionally conservative and socially very segregated in parts. And despite this, there are still plenty of colored people. Especially in the North west, toward and into Namibia. The longer I am here, I hate to say this but African Americans really aren’t that black. They’re more like café lattes-- the Tyra Banks and Beyonces we see on tv. If you want to see really black black, come here, where they speak tribal languages and have their culture. But with the influx of goddamn American media, the culture I hear is rapidly disappearing, especially in the past 10 years, with MTV everywhere. I hear that employment in SA still has priority based on skin color, although now with black empowerment it is in the reverse of pre-apartheid… going from black first, then colored, then asian, then white. White people experience reverse discrimination, find it difficult to gain employment in certain sectors.

Travel can get monotonous especially on the road, if you’re not doing the driving.

Below I have compiled a Reading List that has kept me going during the long bus, plane, train rides:
  • The End of Poverty, by Jeffrey Sachs, economist, UN Millenium project in developing nations.
  • Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond, on how civilizations and cultures are shaped by geography
  • The Princess Sultan of Zanzibar, by Emily ___ last name I forgot? About the Arab life in 1800's
  • Aid and Other Dirty Business, by Giles Bolton a British UN Development worker
  • The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, A great work on african culture
  • The State of Africa: A history of fifty years of Independence, by Martin Meredith, politics in africa
  • Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: China in Africa – economics and politics

I read them, then gave the books away to locals. No room in my 65L pack. So sorry if I didn't get the book names entirely right.....

1 comment:

ahryz said...

For someone who says they can't write, you write pretty well. ;)

Thanks for sharing, I like getting little glimpses into what you've been experiencing.