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Published: March 29th 2009
ZIMBABWE TRIP - October 17-26
The next Friday I boarded a big bus to head out on my big Zimbabwean adventure. I know most of you think it was positively insane to go to Zimbabwe at this time, but before departing I had spoken to plenty of Zimbabweans, including a colleague of mine at UNHCR, Ennie, who assured me that I would be perfectly fine. Zimbabwe was not dangerous, especially not for foreigners, although most people were living under very difficult conditions. Ennie even put me in touch with her family, who live in Harare, and let me borrow a Zimbabwean SIM card since I would never be able to get one upon arrival (there are months-long waiting lists for numbers).
Needless to say I was the only foreigner on the bus, which was occupied primarily by Malawians heading to South Africa. (The bus was actually bound for Johannesburg, but for half price (7,500 kwacha, around $50) they would let me out in Harare.) The man sitting next to me on the bus was incredibly sweet; he was so poor he was missing teeth, but he offered to share his breakfast with me. It looked pretty good, kind of
like a pink muffin—but upon biting into it I was greeted by that oh-so-familiar, oh-not-so-delicious taste of nsima
! Yes, it was plain old nsima
disguised by a little sugar and food coloring. Those Malawians really can’t go a single meal without eating the stuff! Although I’m not a huge fan, I was extremely touched by how generous people can be. He hardly spoke English and I had only bothered to learn a few Chichewa phrases so we couldn't get a lot across in words, but his genuine friendliness, like that of so many Malawians, came through bright and clear through his actions and huge smile.
The Munonurama bus departed Lilongwe at 6:30am sharp, scheduled to arrive in Harare around 8pm. All in all the trip was pretty comfortable, except for a few hours right in the middle of the day when we were going through Mozambique and it got quite hot. The Zimbabwe border was a nightmare—the queue snaked around the back of the immigration building and took at least two hours to get through. But around 8pm I finally made it to Harare and was greeted at the bus stop by Ennie’s sister, Tambu, and her family. They
WalMart Africa style
The cheapest prices to be had are an arm-stretch away from your bus window!
were so kind as to offer to put me up in their house, but having already paid for my hostel I thought it better not to impose on them and stayed at Small World Backpackers, which I think is the only hostel in town. It’s a lovely little house set around a courtyard, and I met a couple of amazing people there who were working in the country as consultants for international NGOs.
Harare, while a bustling, huge, modern city—and very cosmopolitan after living in Malawi for a while—was not the main object of my trip so I didn’t stay for very long. It made a huge difference to know locals; I think I would have been utterly lost without their guidance. Getting around, changing money—especially changing money—is not something that comes easily in Zimbabwe right now! The financial system is insane and makes no sense—I would love to explain it to you, but it went way above my head. What I can tell you is that there are at least 3 different exchange rates, one of which is the “official” rate which is so unbelievably low it would end up costing you hundreds of dollars for a bottle
of water. So everyone changes money on the street, but you have to know where to do it or you face a real risk of being jailed. At that rate, USD $1 bought you around 20,000 Zim dollars on my first day, and with inflation bought you 50,000 about six days later. Finally there is a third exchange rate, the best one, that is only accessible if you have a bank account with a debit card or checkbook (which are usually only available to the rich or well-connected). If you have a debit card, you can pay what amounts to under US $1 for something that would cost US $100 if paying at the street rate. It's a very complicated system that I don't understand, but its flaws are evident in the massive crowds you see outside of every bank in Harare continuously throughout business hours. Had I had a week in Harare to wait for a check from Tambu to clear in order to buy my souvenirs, she could have paid what amounted to around ten U.S. cents from her bank account at the "third" exchange rate for what I paid around USD $75 for at the street rate.
My first night in Zimbabwe, the only place I found open to eat was a Greek restaurant nearby the hostel. I ended up meeting a very interesting Columbia grad student working on a documentary in Zimbabwe, as well as an aid worker doing research on child malnutrition. The next morning Tambu and her younger sister Emily picked me up in their car, and we first went through the bizarre process that is getting petrol in Zimbabwe. You don’t pay with cash, but rather with coupons that are obtained only with foreign currency. You can only use coupons in certain types of gas stations, so it’s obviously a very inconvenient system, and the queues are quite long. Then we went to a grocery store. We all hear about the empty store shelves, and it’s largely true, except
that the shops now have forex sections which are chock full of stuff—as long as you have foreign currency to buy it. The Zim dollar section was utterly empty except for maybe one or two random products, like mayonaise. Then we went to Tambu's section of town, Ruwa, where we walked out to a small animal reserve next to their neighborhood. They also
took me to a local shopkeeper who exchanged cash for me; almost everyone changes money as a side business in urban Zimbabwe.
The next day I went to meet Emily at a salon downtown where she was getting a hair weave; I asked the women to please braid my hair like Tambu's daughter, but they insisted it couldn't be done on my slippery mzungu
hair. I felt rather left out! Then we went shopping downtown for souvenirs—Zimbabwe has amazing batik fabric as well as jewelry. I was pretty ready to get out of the city so I planned to ride down to Bulawayo, in southern Zim, with Emily, who attends university there. We both took a minibus the next morning; I thought the trip would last 4-5 hours, but in fact it took more like 8! I had hoped to catch that night’s train from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls, but the train was already full so I ended up stuck in the city for another night. Bulawayo is a pleasant enough town, but there really isn’t anything to do. I had dinner in a Chinese restaurant, and the next day I did a lot of walking around. I went
to Shoprite, a big grocery store chain found throughout Africa, hoping to find some goodies for the train, but in this store the shelves were literally
empty. There was one small refrigerator section with a few small 330ml bottles of water; I tried to buy some, but the exchange rate they were going by meant each bottle would cost me around US $30. Keep in mind, no one could or would shop there, because there was nothing to buy, yet there were at least seven cashiers and a manager working—and they wouldn't cut me a deal on the water! Someone will have to explain the economics of that to me one day. Anyway I found a movie theater and ended up seeing two movies in a row while waiting for the 9pm train. (No judging—we don’t have cinemas in Malawi!)
I paid around $5 (by that day’s street exchange rate) for my first class sleeper ticket on the overnight Bulawayo-Vic. Falls train. Everything went smoothly: about an hour before departure they post passengers’ names on a bulletin board that directs everyone to a designated sleeper and berth. My compartment was all female, and had 4 beds. Two of the
women traveling with me ended up being Congolese refugees, which was fun because I got to practice my Swahili. The train was comfortable; they brought clean sheets and pillows, but it was pretty hot. Nonetheless I would highly recommend this as a way to get around the country; it is probably safer than the roads (you may have heard that Tsvangirai's wife died in a road accident a few weeks ago), and definitely safer than "Sc-"Air Zimbabwe. Around 6am we were passing through Hwange National Park (I posted a video of a couple of kudu I spotted from the train), and maybe an hour later pulled into the Victoria Falls station.
I walked to Shoestring Backpackers, located about ten minutes from the train station through town, and spent a couple of hours cooling off in their pool before going into town to plan my activities. The falls themselves are the primary draw to this area, but there are tons of other activities that I hadn’t even known about. Aside from the adrenaline-type activities like bungee jumping and white water rafting, which don’t interest me much, there are also tons of wildlife-related things to do. I scheduled myself for a
sunset cruise down the Zambezi river ($30), which was supposed to provide great widlife views, and also an early morning horseback safari ($60). Then Elajah, a jewelry maker who has a shop at Shoestring offered to accompany me to the falls (which was great because he knew all the places to go); entrance fee to the park is $20. There isn’t much I can say about the falls other than that they are absolutely breathtaking—the photos speak for themselves. There is a lot of mist even in October so despite the heat you’re kept pretty cool.
Around 4pm I was picked up at my hostel for my boat cruise, along with a bunch of other tourists staying in various hotels. We were on an open-air, two-level boat, and drinks and hors-d’oeuvres were provided free. It was a very tranquil ride, and we got to see all kinds of animals and birds including hippos yawning in the water, crocodiles, and Egyptian ducks. I ordered a pizza at Shoestrings and tucked in early for my 6am wake-up call. At 6:30am I was picked up and taken to the stables, run by a very old frontier-type mzungu lady. They had already scouted
out where the animals were so they knew exactly where to take me. For about three and a half hours I had two guides all to myself! It was amazing, and I think you can't beat the value; it was far more affordable than a jeep safari. More importantly it is far less intrusive to the environment and the animals; if you are on a horse and you come within 20 feet of an elephant like I did, as terrifying as it is, the animals are also a lot more comfortable. The elephant looks over and thinks, "Oh, it's just a puny horse" and not "Oh, it's one of those loud, fast-moving boxes with irritating small things inside that scream and flash lights at me."
That night I caved and arranged to have dinner at The Boma, a very famous restaurant in one of the swanky resorts where tourists can try local food and also enjoy traditional Zimbabwean dancing and drumming. I feared it would be horribly cheesy—and maybe it was, but I loved it! It was a ton of fun. Before entering the restaurant every patron is draped in a chitenje
—women and men alike. The space is decorated
with Zimbabwean sculptures and carvings, and upon being seated you are served with house-made chibuku
—the fermented maize drink popular all over southern Africa. This was my first time trying it; I think they make a far more palatable version than you usually buy from the cartons, which has a really unpleasant aroma! It wasn’t good enough to finish though 😉.
The food at The Boma is supposed to be gourmet-native, so there is a lot of game meat and local vegetables used in Western ways, like pheasant paté and so on. You are served an amuse bouche, then the rest of the meal is all-you-can-eat buffet style. It was definitely delicious; I got to sample all kinds of game meats like impala and warthog (which is drop-dead-delicious, I have to say even though it makes me feel awful because they are pretty cute little animals). Finally, this restaurant is perhaps most famous for offering a certificate to anyone who manages to eat the local delicacy: the mopani worm. They fry them up and serve them to you on a plate, and a staff member watches you eat the whole thing! I went for it, I can’t say it tasted
all that great but it was palatable. I couldn't leave without getting that certificate!
I was sitting next to a Zimbabwean family that went all out and got their faces painted; I figured if they were doing it, I could do it too; apparently my face-paint design was in the style worn by princesses. The traditional dancing performance was absolutely amazing, the dancers were all really talented so it wasn’t just an after-thought kind of thing. (I am sorry but I can't find my videos from The Boma or I you could see for yourselves.) After the dancing, each person in the restaurant was handed a traditional drum, and within a few moments the instructor had us sounding pretty decent, drumming in unison. A group of elderly Japanese tourists really got into it and came up to the front with their drums! It was a really fun night, I highly recommend it even if it is a little contrived.
The next morning I put on my backpack and walked across the bridge from Zimbabwe to Zambia, which was a lot of fun because there is a bungee station right in the middle of it where you can watch
those crazy people jump off. I stood at the railing there for at least thirty minutes; I think I got a little vicarious thrill everytime someone took the plunge! My heart definitely skipped a beat every time I heard “Three! Two! One! Bungee!!!” The funniest was a Danish mother and son team; the mother was probably around fifty, son around 14 - she insisted on watching her son go first before she went herself.
On the Zambian side I caught a bus to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city, where I made friends with some girls also heading to Lilongwe like me. They knew a nice hostel for us to stay in downtown Lusaka, and the next morning we rode the day-long trip back to Lilongwe. It was an amazing trip; Victoria Falls is a real delight of a vacation spot, there is tons to do for every kind of traveler as well as the full range of accommodation from backpacker to five-star resorts. In my opinion not to be missed!
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