Friday, August 12, 2011

Mixed Feelings in Zimbabwe

If our three days in Cape Town were magical, Zimbabwe was a different story.

Zimbabwe is beautiful in its own way. It's scenery and wildlife are extraordinary. But our group was strangely uneasy the few days we were there. Something just didn't feel right, and I didn't understand the reason until well after we got home.

In Johannesburg airport, we reunited with Ollie. Together we boarded our international flight to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, on the next leg of our adventure:

The wait at customs was agonizingly slow. There were two desks, side-by-side, with two disdainful clerks stationed behind them--languidly perusing our passports, (pausing to chat casually with a colleague), collecting fees, (going to use the men's room), and (finally) issuing our 30-day visas.

Outside, we ran a gauntlet of oversolicitous porters. I must have spent $30 in tips just getting from the plane to our hotel room door.

Our travel agent in South Africa originally suggested hotels for us across the river in neighboring Zambia, which shares Victoria Falls. Since the rooms on that side of the falls were billed as luxurious, and we were on a charity trip, we opted for more modest lodgings in Zimbabwe.

We stayed at The Kingdom Hotel. The rooms were well-stocked with toiletries. The pool was clean, and the lawn neatly mowed. But the grounds were deserted.

And though the hotel staff were polite, no one smiled. A photo of stern-faced President Robert Mugabe looming over their front desk didn't put any of us at greater ease. I wasn't sure who felt more 'watched', the tourists or the workers themselves. The whole complex had the vague feel of Soviet Russia:

Though the hotel was clearly half-booked, the only rooms 'available' to us were way in the back. Strange.

Once unpacked we looked over the nearby excursions. That first night we took a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River. Which was absolutely delightful.

A troupe of dancers greeted us at the dock:

The 'smoke' of Victoria Falls just downriver:

The boat was a pontoon, with an aging look to it. A melancholy staff served free drinks and appetizers, and we sat back to hear the softly-played music fill the night. A timeless beauty slipped past us as we cruised the Zambezi River, just above the Falls:

Our guide taught us so much about the local wildlife. He pointed out the hippo watering holes, and knew the names of all the birds passing over and around us.

A young Shona singer entertained us as the sun set:

Shona musician

From Zambezi River cruise

That night we tried fast-food, Zimbabwe-style. The Chicken Inn looked like a typical food-court joint. The young staff wore fresh-pressed uniforms and greeted us with smiles. But my chicken 'wings' were skin and bone. I ordered a watered-down smoothie and hoped it would be enough to hold me 'til breakfast.

For change, I got a wrinkled $2 US bill and we all chuckled. I hadn't seen one in 25 years! Later we would see the worthless Zimbabwean paper dollars for sale as souvenirs on the street.

Internet access at the hotel was promised, but spotty. It was in-and-out the whole time we were there. And after pestering Mark to use his laptop to email home, only to have the hotel's system go offline for several hours, I decided I'd concede to our isolation from the world. I knew we'd be back in South Africa soon enough.

At breakfast we enjoyed fresh guava fruit at the hotel buffet:

That morning Greg, Leslie and I boarded a van to Chobe National Park, in neighboring Botswana (more about Chobe in my next post). After my first taste of safari at the Blessman ranch, I couldn't wait to get back into the bush to see more wildlife. I hoped it would be a highlight of our trip to Victoria Falls, and it turned out I was right!

Later that day, Greg went into town for an inexpensive pair of sandals for the Falls tour the next morning.

The street vendors fought over him aggressively with promises of the perfect shoe for a good price. But after several side-trips down narrow alleys, he was offered only shoes too big or over-priced--and almost gave up in despair. One audacious vendor even asked to buy the sneakers right off Greg's feet! It was a strange and silly goose chase.

Finally, someone conceded in price. And though more than they would be worth at home, he took them.

That night we ventured into town to try a local restaurant. The food was delicious, but the service was slow and the live musical performance too loud for table talk. We finally headed home on foot in the dark, mobbed by hawkers and starting to feel exhausted by the unwelcome surprises of this place.

Fortunately, the next day was a treat. We spent the morning gazing at Victoria Falls, as we walked along an outcropping just opposite it. It's the largest falling sheet of water in the world.

Victoria Falls National Park--the "Smoke that Thunders":

"Dr. Livingstone, I presume?". The immortal Victorian explorer was the first European to set eyes on the falls, in 1855. Our tour guide, Alexander, told us that the local people still respect Livingstone for his role in banishing slavery from this part of Africa:

Soaking wet at the top of the Falls:

As we walked back to the front gate, Alexander talked. He told us about his family-- how his grandfather was tortured and imprisoned after the country gained independence, for speaking out against Mugabe's regime. He told us about the famine in 2008 where many people starved, a result of unproductive farming methods following Mugabe's politically motivated land 'reforms',and the government's subsequent refusal to permit food aid distribution to political 'enemies.' Many thousands of people died in Zimbabwe's interior, unlucky to live so far from the border where they might otherwise have had some chance of sneaking across to buy food in neighboring Zambia or South Africa.

Of course I had read about Mugabe. I knew vaguely that his government was dysfunctional at best, and oppressive at worst. But here was a citizen of the country in the flesh quietly, not complaining but confiding in us, speaking of the sad truth of daily life in Zimbabwe.

These days the average Zimbabwean was waiting (but not hoping, he said, as that would be un-Christian), for Mugabe to die. I learned later from the US Department of State website that "Criticism of the President is a crime in Zimbabwe." Radio and TV programming were strictly censored. Modern healthcare was entirely lacking. The roads were unlit and unsafe.

This helped explain the weariness we felt from the people we met there.

What made this country change from one of the richest and most democratic countries in Africa, to one of its poorest and most oppressed? These books helped me make better sense of what I saw and heard on my trip:

When A Crocodile Eats the Sun, by Peter Godwin, 2008

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, by Alexandra Fuller, 2003

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