Sunday, June 26, 2011

Zim and Zam

To describe Africa is to stereotype. Endless plains teeming with game, small villages of mud huts and barefoot children, strange tongues full of clicks and guttural sounds, thorny acacia trees stretching to the horizon, curio markets burgeoning with handicrafts and shifty-eyed salesmen, and brilliant sunsets washing the land in a golden beauty. I found all of this, of course, on my latest gallivant to southern Africa. I was merely a tourist, after all. But to see Africa through the distorted lens of a cliché, beginning and ending with game parks and white tourists over-dressed in khaki clothing, is to miss what Africa actually is to the majority of Africans. I should add a caveat here and mention that I don't actually know what Africa is, being that it is a continent of which I have only seen a small part, and most of that time I have been, necessarily, a tourist. But, me being me, I will still wax a bit verbosely on that which I have seen and likely overgeneralize.

Much to the relief of my parents, I undertook this last journey with a companion, Gunther, if you remember him from previous accounts of Revolutionary life. I decidedly, somewhat selfishly and not altogether wisely, that my graduation should be marked not by a commencement ceremony in a hall at AUC but somewhere in a country beginning with Z. As there are only two options of countries beginning with Z, Zambia and Zimbabwe, I was a bit constrained on location. Zimbabwe has, for several years, held a certain allure to me, or, at least, a curiosity. This is not (though Mother might think differently), because I choose places that make headlines (and not the good ones), but probably more because, behind every headline, there is a country, and people apart from sensationalized media. And, to be fair, I waited to visit Zimbabwe until after a bit of stability returned to the country.

When I was last at Victoria Falls (on the Zambian side) a year and a half ago, I looked across the Zambezi river into Zimbabwe and saw a country that looked much the same as the ground upon which I was planted. But I was still a bit timorous; the word Zimbabwe conjured up stories of farm takeovers, violence, and loaves of bread that cost trillions of dollars. A year and a half later, things looked a bit different. The national currency stabilized due to the introduction of the US dollar replacing the Zimbabwe one. Tour companies were no longer giving the country a wide berth. A unity government offered the slim promise of reform, or, at least, stabilized corruption. And, having survived a Revolution in Egypt, Zimbabwe seemed less daunting.

So, Gunther and I hopped on a plane bound for Lusaka, Zambia, as flights in Victoria Falls were exorbitantly expensive and flights into Harare, the capital of Zim, would have put us inconveniently far from the Falls. We arriv

ed in Lusaka in the early afternoon and approached the Barclays ATM to pull out wads of Kwacha; alas, it was a bit of a harrowing encounter, as the machine promptly ate Gunther's card and refused to return it. Not exactly the welcome I was hoping for, but we exchanged some dollars from our $2000 stash and hopped in taxi for the long, 30 dollars long, ride into the capital to find a bus to Livingstone, the city next to the Falls.

What should have been about a 6 hour drive turned into an 8 hour one, made less comfortable by the narrow seats that had me, and I don't consider myself terribly portly, squished somewhat hermetically between Gunther and another woman. Our saving grace was not the gospel songs and sermons that blared ceaselessly from the bus speakers but the weather, pleasantly cool and unsweaty given the winter season. Whenever I leave the Middle East, I am shocked and a bit discomfited by the fact that women in the rest of the world wear tank tops, skirts, and low-cut tops. I am so conditioned to the ubiquity

of headscarves, long-sleeved polyester shirts and dark-flowing robes that the lack of these is a jolt to my brain. Even more of a jolt is the fact that men don't harass women, don't catcall a women in spagetti straps and a knee-length skirt. Amzaing.

The luggage compartment was already crammed beyond capacity by the time we boarded the bus, so it was instead stowed haphazardly behind the driver's seat, accessible to anyone who boarded or exited the bus at various stops. I was indubitably grateful for this unlikely boon when, about halfway into our journey, a large clunk could be heard outside the window. I looked at the woman next to me, wondering if this was routine, as it sounded like we had just run over a motorcycle. “What was that?” she leaned over me to look out the window. Ok, so not normal. We heard another thump, and then another, and soon the passengers around us clamored at the driver to stop the bus. He drove for another five minutes before easing to a halt. Flashlights were procured and soon discovered that the door to the luggage compartment had fallen off, and, with it, luggage. Night had long since drawn its black cloak over the land, making the recovery of the luggage nigh to imposs

ible in the dense brush that crowded the road. The bus did turn around, attempt to find what had been lost, although I am not sure if everything was recovered.

Had we been traveling in South Africa, I would have been more concerned about wandering around Livingstone, looking for our hostel. Luckily, Zambia is relatively safe, even at midnight, and our hostel, aptly named Jollyboys, was a five minute trundle from the bus station.

We awoke to a green paradise and pork sausage for breakfast. Mmmm. Pork. It was Gunther's first time at Victoria Falls and I was eager to show him their beauty. I was unprepared for just how drenching that beauty would be. The Falls, after an unusually long rainy season, were still at almost full capacity. Despite the fa

ct that we had two layers of ponchos on, each, our clothes were still wet beneath them. The amount of water cascading over the edge of the Falls was difficult to comprehend, partly becau



e immensity of the Falls was largely obscured by heavy clouds of mist and rain created from the water hitting the river below. My camera got a nice shower too; I was torn between protecting it from water and wanting to take lots of pictures. It being me, the latter urge won out. The walk that followed the rim of the gorge directly opposite the Falls (which, in the dry season, affords a gorgeous view of them), was largely lacking in guardrails except at outcroppings (though this was still better than the Zim side, which seemed to think any guardrail was superfluous). We survived the rim walk, slipped and slid across the bridge (which did have very high guardrails) connecting the mainland from an island of rainforest and mist, and spent several hours hiking around the extensive trails in the park, one leading do

wn to the bottom of the gorge through a primordial forest of twittering birds, chittering monkeys, dripping palm fronds, and snaking vines.

Of course, no world heritage site would be complete without a curio market at the entrance. My main reason for going back to Vic Falls was actually because I had failed, upon my first visit, to purchase green malacite bangles that are made and mined right in Zambia. So, I picked those up while Gunther trailed patiently. Good boyfriend.

I'm an animal nut. Gunther has long since figured this out and is luckily tolerant towards my unfortunate propensity that necessitates frequent (as frequent as the budget allows) trips to Africa. As an anthropologist, he is satisfied with people-watching, a much cheaper endeavor. I, instead, dragged him across the border into B

otswana and Chobe National Park (NP) the following morning. 280 dollars later, we returned to Jollyboys, wishing we could have spent more time in Bots. You see, Chobe is teeming with game. Over-teeming with elephants, actually, so much so that they are crossing the border, the Zambezi/Chobe river, and invading Victoria Falls and killing people. But more on that later. We saw our only wild lion of the trip in Chobe, a lioness trotting off into the bush, heaps of elephants, buffalo, antelope, the over-present impala...The problem was that our game drive, for which we had paid considerable sums, didn't begin until 10:30 due to unnecessary delays. Game drives are best done at dawn and sunset. During the day, animals rest in the shade, away from inquisitive eyes like mine. About an hour into our game drive, we stopped seeing anything. Our afternoon river cruise, which was advertised as three hours, was cut short an hour because we needed to be back to Zambia by 4:30. Sigh. Such is the nature of game viewing. Never enough time.

I think Gunther and I are the only people in the world who wait until an hour before a tour departs to check out of a hostel in Zambia, find a taxi to the border with Zimbabwe, pass through customs on both sides, spend 15 minutes lugging bags through the no-man's-land, argue with taxi drivers on the Zim side, and breathlessly arrive, 20 minutes before the tour leaves, at the feet of Sam, our guide. Sam, as we learned, treats everything with a nonchalance that is refreshing. Nonchalant does not mean lazy-- quite the opposite with Sam, who always had breakfast cooking when we were still struggling out of our sleeping bags and tents set up in the evening when we returned from various tours. But he never stressed about late departures or unexpected mishaps.

As a matter of principle, I am against tours. I like the satisfaction of doing things on my own (if you couldn't tell by previous escapades). But I have come to accept the fact that, occasionally, travel is easier, safer, and more efficient when organized by someone else. Particularly when that travel is around Zimbabwe. Gunther and I had pre-booked our trip through Acacia Africa, an overland tour company that I had previously traveled with and was offering 25% off this tour. It was advertised as a small group tour, though those small groups could include a maximum of twelve people. Ours totaled three: Me, Gunther, and Matteo, an Italian man who never spoke more than five words in an evening.

My first impressions of Zim-- clean, orderly, laid back, mostly functional, uncannily European at times. There were glimpses of disfunctionality-- frequent power outages in most cities, inoperable ATMs (those though that did work dispensed US dollars, still a strange experience in an African country); the absence of coin change (which was given, instead, in South African Rand or candy), stories from locals about corrupt banking systems and mismanagement. I don't know why, but I expected worse. I expected bathrooms not to flush, supermarkets not to have food, everyone we met to demand a bribe. And, for some reason, I expected there to be no more white Zimbabweans; I sort of had thought they would have fled Mugabe's injustice when he took over all white-owned farms. It just shows, I guess, that I still have a lot to learn :)

Our tour spanned seven days of constant motion. We drove from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo, a five hour drive that ended in Zim's second largest city. Sam stopped at a local supermarket to stock up on supplies for the next few days. Supermarkets in Egypt, aside from Carrefour, are small, disorderly, and not really supermarkets at all. Those in the cities of Zim resembled American supermarkets, wide aisles and shelves of well-stocked provisions. The power was out when we arrived, although, by now, this is such a common occurrence almost everyone has backup generators and solar panels. We arrived in camp as dusk settled over the trees and fish ponds, bringing with it a sharp chill that I had not anticipated. “Ummm, we only have one sleeping bag,” I told Gunther as I layered scarves and a light jacket. The camp owner, miraculously, offered upgrades into rooms (the bathrooms were still across the lawn in a block) for only 5 dollars a night. “We'll take one,” I decided. That night we needed three blankets just to stay warm. Winter in Africa is still winter.

Our next day was a rhino trek. And by trek, I mean trek, not drive. Our guide, a fabulously knowledgeable white Zimbabwean, Andy, led us on foot through Matopos NP in search of rhinos. Sam, the previous night, had told us that all his clients had encountered rhinos in the park. Great! I thought, the chance to see rhinos on foot. In our case, we found rhino dung, rhino tracks, and rhino wallows on foot. No rhinos, though we wandered for hours through the bush with Andy in the lead, a rifle slung over his back. Andy was more disappointed than us, I think. We did find impala, giraffes, and Bushmen paintings at close range and learned more about the life of rhinos than we could ever have learned from a book, Andy's mind an endless fount of information about every beast, tree, and rock in the park.

Another drive the next morning, punctuated by annoying checkpoints all too reminiscent of Egypt. Even Sam grew frustrated after he was stopped the fifth time to have his credentials verified. Our final destination was Great Zimbabwe, the ruins site that gave the country its name in 1980. I've described enough ruins in this blog of mine to bore even the most avid ruins nut (like me), so I won't go into extraneous detail Suffice it to say the site was impressive, with a walled city built on a high escarpment overlooking a vast valley, home to the nobles, and several sites in the valley, including the Great Enclosure, a coliseum-like structure built for the king's wife. So, who built the ruins? That's the more interesting story. The government (i.e. Mugabe) seems to be claiming that ancestors of the current Shona speakers of Zimbabwe built it, a testament to their stake on the land. That is was built by “Africans” (i.e. black people) was contested until the 20th century, as Europeans could not fathom such a civilization borne from “savage” races. More likely, previous inhabitants, maybe speakers of Bantu or other Africans, constructed it and died out. Nonetheless, it has become an immense source of pride to Zimbabweans, who, as we were hiking down from the Hill Enclosure, told us this was their heritage, their personal monument.

Our campsite (not one of those luxury ones- a domed, two-person tent was our abode for the next four nights), located inside the park itself, was invaded by vervet monkeys, who, though cute, also enjoyed snatching apples and anything else they could get their grubby little paws on. Thankfully, the weather had warmed somewhat since the previous nights in Bulawayo and was further mitigated by our acquisition of a fuzzy, thick blanket.

More driving the next day, made enjoyable by a stop at a curio market where I found myself in possession of several beautiful hand-carved stone statues that cost between 5 and 10 dollars. Ridiculously cheap, given their exquisite detail. Never mind the fact that I needed to get them to America in about two weeks.

That afternoon's campsite was Antelope Park, a thoroughly commercial game experience that Gunther found slightly rankling, given that every activity we did cost extra (everything else on the tour had been covered by the tour fee). I sort of agreed, but they offered an opportunity to play with big kitties, i.e. lions, for the nominal fee of $75. I caved. After a horse ride which was purported as a game-viewing activity (but we saw only impala and zebra), I cavorted with two lionesses for an hour and a half, walking with them, scratching them, petting them, and generally drooling over them. The ethical problem with an activity of this nature is that the cats are “retired” from walking with guests after 18 months (the two I walked with were at the cusp of their retirement). The park is attempting to position themselves not as a commercial enterprise but as a conservation center that rehabilitates the lions back into the wild after being habituated to humans. So far, they have managed to introduce only one pride into a large enclosure (10 square kilometers) and teach them how to hunt. If they get funding, they plan to introduce more prides and also increase the size of the enclosures until the cubs of the current prides can be introduced into national parks around Africa. A grand endeavor, given that they only have one pride in the first of four stages of release. Though, it has given them another opportunity to make money, as they allow guests to accompany researchers on game drives to check-up on the pride. Gunther, Matteo and I did this the next morning at 6 am, forking over $65 a piece for the guarantee of seeing lions in the “wild”. It felt a little like cheating, as the lions were radio-collared. But, we found our lions.

Hwange NP was our next and penultimate destination. Our full day game drive, from 7 am to 6 pm, yielded not the awe-inspiring sights if roaming rhinos and lurking leopards that most safari-goers seek, but, instead, herds of the rare sable antelope, a family of giraffes drinking at a waterhole, and groups of elephant slurping at a waterhole. Game drives are not, to me, just about finding the Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, and rhino), though these are certainly thrilling animals, but about seeing wildlife wild. I was chatting with a friend about this the other night, and I told him about how easy it was, comparatively speaking, to find the Big Five in places like the Serengeti or Ngorongoro in Tanzania. But, he said, those animals are basically tame, with 10-20 game vehicles around any animal at a given time. In southern Africa, particularly in places like Zim or Zam or Bots, the animals don't have that familiarity with humans. So, I guess our one Chobe lion was good enough.

Less than a day later, our tour ended where it began, in Victoria Falls. No more nights around the campfire, watching the sparks complete with the brilliance of an African night, no more dismantling tents, washing dishes, chopping vegetables, sipping coffee before rumbling away in our unwieldly truck. No more visiting schools full of smiling children and buying them bags of mealie so they could begin their studies on a full belly. From a humble tent we moved into a two-bedroom chalet. Oddly enough, the place, Lokuthula Lodges, was one of the cheaper options in Victoria Falls, a city where a single room easily cost two hundred dollars a night (our entire chalet was less than that). These ostentatious lodges contrasted with the poverty of a country hijacked from prosperity by a dictator. Interestingly, most people readily confessed to dislike of Mugabe, telling us stories of the days when a loaf of bread cost trillions of Zim dollars and supermarkets bare of most goods.

I booked our chalet because a) I wanted four walls and a bed and a private bathroom after a week of camping and b) the property overlooked a waterhole frequented by game and c) the free shuttle into town, 4 km away. I say property because next door to us was the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, much more expensive but perched on a bluff above the waterhole. When we arrived, we dumped our bags into our chalet and headed to the bar/restaurant to see what we could find at the waterhole. What we found was about 30 elephants, buffalo, and impala, including one elephant that had killed a tour guide several days before.

Our lodge, until that incident, had run walking tours down to a hide next to the waterhole. One of the clients of that fateful tour had taken several pictures of the elephant before the guide told her to run for her life while he tried to get a shot off, saving her life and losing his. Using the client's pictures, the lodge staff identified the elephant and the NP sent a team in to shoot the elephant. As the sun set over the breathtakingly beautiful African wild, the water, shimmering with the colors of the sky, turned blood red, and three shots rang out. We learned later that they had not killed him, only injured him. In the week before we arrived in Vic Falls, elephants had killed two others, both locals.

Two days later, we did a game drive in the local NP, Zambezi NP, curious to see what could be seen before we reluctantly headed back to Egypt and reality. What we found were, as usual, lots of elephants, some lovely giraffe, interesting birds, and other creatures. It is unfortunate that Gunther is a birder; on previous safaris I glossed over the birds anyone pointed out in anticipation of finding bigger, more photographable game, but this trip I was forced to squint and peer through brush at tiny blobs and listen while driver and client debated on the type of shrike. I did learn something about birds, and I have marginally more appreciation for them. So, I guess it is not a relationship breaker...yet.

The elephants in the NP were aggressive; our guide likely drove too close to several of them, but we were mock-charged, trumpeted at, and chased by more elephants in half an hour than I have in my lifetime. One bull elephant in particular caused our driver to beat a hasty, full throttle reverse as he ran towards us, ears flapping, trunk up, clouds of dust beneath his thundering feet. Due to perhaps illegal poaching and increasing overpopulation, the elephants we met on the Vic Falls side were kind of mean. Though, their pertinacious and sometimes pugnacious behavior was representative of the Falls experience in general on the Zim side.

You see, Livingstone was an actual town; it was not built with tourism in mind but has swelled to accommodate it; Vic Falls was constructed with the intent of ripping tourists off and draining money as quickly as possible. The admission into the Falls was $30 US each, 10 more than the Zambia side. The amount of time we spent in the park: about half an hour, compared to hours on the other side. The trails afforded few views of the Falls, and those views obscured by mist. Our meals cost several times more than in Zim; this was partly because we ended up dining at the lodge restaurant twice (hard to pass up sharing your meal with elephants), sampling warthog, impala, and guinea fowl steaks, and consuming their sumptuous breakfast spread (for a mere $22 a person), but, even in town, we were hard pressed to find any restaurant for less than $15 dollars an entree.

And the souvenirs! Such high starting prices that I just laughed and walked away. Actually, before we were to head back towards Lusaka, Gunther and I traipsed back across the border into Zambia (another $50 a piece for some ink in a passport; damn visas) and passed several hours in the craft market at the Falls which is next to the border crossing. As we walked past the stalls with our luggage, voices rang out asking if we had anything to trade. Hmmmm. My camera, definitely not. The sleeping bag, though...why not? Throw in plenty of dollars, and we left with more crafty delights than was really necessary. We just missed the 2 pm bus leaving, actually watching it depart as we stood forlornly on the curb, so we bought tickets on the 7:30 bus and headed to Jollyboys for an afternoon relaxing in their restaurant/pool/lounge area. This bus, run by a dubiously Israeli company, actually was luxury, and Gunther and I stretched out and reclined happily in our coach seats, wishing that Zambians did not only listen to loud, sappy Gospel music, playing footsie in public just because we weren't in the Middle East.

And then, it was back to that Middle East. From winter into summer, rainforests to desert, we traversed a continent, ending one journey and on the threshold of another.