Victoria Falls Zimbabwe: from one of the few places on the Zimbabwe side where one can actually see the falling water at this time of year. It is Winter down here and water flow is at its highest. That accounts for all the mist-spray that obscures most of the falls. (My little Pencam has very low resolution, but the photos are better than nothing, I guess.)
What? You think I should be more impressed?
Greetings from Victoria Falls
O.K. I made it over to the Zimbabwe side of the falls and it is still difficult to see the plunging waters. I paid my $20 equivalent in Zims (Zimbabwe dollars) and walked the edge of the gorge facing the cascading waters. Most of the actual falls are almost totally obscured by the boiling mist. Water spray shoots up out of the gorge and immediately falls as an artificial rain on anyone foolhardy enough to walk along the paved pathway to the half dozen viewpoints. Here and there the falls can be seen and they are spectacular, but a screen of fog obscures most of the spectacle at this time of year. Everyone here says the view will be much clearer in a few months when the volume of water shooting over the cliffs tapers down a bit... as it always does.
My marvelous walk through the rain forest itself along the gorge however, brought me a sense of being close to the primal earth... peaceful, natural, wet. Wild animals are everywhere here: in the trees, on the roofs of the stores, in park areas, the hotel grounds... wart hogs, baboons, monkeys this morning. The monkeys walk on all fours and look like large cats on the prowl. I've seen films of angry baboons and wart hogs and know what they can do when they get pissed. People tell me the animals around here are usually harmless... unless a stupid tourist provokes them in some silly way... which does occasionally happen I am told.
The area is well developed and none of the ubiquitous shacks I've seen elsewhere in Africa are apparent anywhere near the main tourist activities. Some of the ultra-deluxe hotels (and ultra expensive) are the best I've seen anywhere in the world.
Just a few kilometers from the tourist area however, is the township of Chinotimba (This 2009 7.5 minute video shows little has changed in the residential areas of the township, though the business district is all new.) where most of the people employed by the hotels and safari companies live. Living conditions are different there. While safe piped water and electricity are available to all the homes, the general impression is one of a well-established ghetto of the 1960's in America. Stucco houses of about 7 by 14 meters with their corrugated asbestos roofs (Zimbabwe is the third largest producer of white asbestos in the world!) looked well kept for the most part. But, here and there were pockets of tar paper shacks where people obviously were making do. From the looks of things, many residents take pride in their homes. I saw vegetable gardens in the front yards of perhaps a third of the houses. Some also had chicken coops as well. The streets are paved here and most people are dressed like middle class people anywhere. Any beggars who live here were at "work" over in the tourist section during my hour-long walk through the area.
Once again in an all black neighborhood, People spent a lot of time looking at this white anomaly, especially the kids. Most were polite, probably from their training at the hotels where most have jobs, I would guess. I imagine they were wondering what a rich foreigner like me was doing down here among the ordinary folks. I'd taken this route to look for the bus station because it appeared more interesting than the main highway, and I'm glad I did. People were gathered together talking and drinking in the front yards of many houses. The entire neighborhood reminded me of one giant block party. I recall the large township of Soweto near Johannesburg in South Africa. The similarity with Chinotimba and Victoria Falls is striking.
The everyday "swap-meet" people's market area didn't seem to be doing much business. Kids laughed and goofed off as they made their ways home from school, which must have ended about 16:00 this weekday. Near the bus station I could hear the sounds of large groups of people (men) celebrating - partying.
As I got closer I spotted a block square walled-in area with a sign designating it as "The Tavern." Investigating, I discovered inside the walls a building that looked like a Santa Barbara beach refreshment stand dispensing gallon size white plastic buckets of beer to a constant stream of happy men. Some sat at the dozen tables on the covered patio, but most took their suds out to benches positioned around the periphery of the dirt courtyard. Many of the guys had several empty buckets at their feet. The toilet building also welcomed a steady stream of celebrants while I watched.
I saw no women at the conclave, and my appearance among this all black gathering created an audible stir. Once again I provided the entertainment with guys motioning me over to join in the fun while their beer befuddled buddies teased them and gawked at me. I stayed only a few minutes as it had become difficult to gage the temperament of the crowd where some of the merry-makers had turned to scowl in my direction.
The main town area where all the tourists hang out, while small reminds me of the tourist oriented shopping areas in Palm Springs or Big Bear Lake; very up-scale except in price. Low prices are a result mostly of the black market. The official exchange rate for U.S. dollars is 55 to 1. Guys on the street and even in some of the private currency exchange offices offer as much as 130 Zims per dollar. The paper this morning discussed a currency crisis and noted that some traders were paying as much as 160 Zims per dollar!
The largest denomination of the Zimbabwe currency is 100 (Zim dollars), which means a whole pocketful of bills after you change a hundred dollar traveler's check. Everyone, including the tourist looks like a drug dealer or moneychanger with his huge wad of money. A hundred dollars worth of Zims is a half-inch thick.
The published tourist literature warns visitors against using the unofficial street traders, but they operate with impunity in plain sight of the police. So, I guess it is safe, as long as you don't get taken in by one of the prevalent con men that also operate here. I got briefly sucked into a "bate and switch" scam until I saw the razzle-dazzle beginning.
There are more touts, street moneychangers, hustlers, and beggars per square meter here than in any other place I've visited in Africa so far. The police and private security guys gently discourage them, but mostly they press their activities on the irritated visitors relentlessly. And no wonder. Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe is a Mecca for well-heeled tourists, mostly Brits and Dutch as far as I can tell.
More than once it has occurred to me that Africa would be the perfect place for anyone feeling ignored at home. Here, there is no way anyone with white skin can feel invisible. Then I recalled all the fuss over racial profiling that has been in the news in recent years in California. Here, racial profiling is the norm. Only whites are singled out for any kind of attention by anyone in commerce.
The African crafts, wood and stone carvings, baskets produced here vary in quality from rough to inspired art. The prices are uniformly low. One American trader I saw loading his recent wholesale purchases told me he sells 6 foot high carved wooden giraffes for $140 in Texas and pays less than $10 for them here (retailers get as much as $500! for them in Texas and New York). Hawkers on the street offer beautiful football size carved elephants for $5 or less. Carved canes go for as little as a dollar. I watched some of the craftsmen working and saw how they get the shiny black finishes on stone and "Ebony" wood pieces: they use ordinary wax shoe polish! Why not? Makes sense, though I'm not sure how well it will wear.
There are a number of shopping centers devoted to native crafts. Many have marimba bands, some with dancers to entertain the visitors for tips. The groups all play in the same key and tempo so that walking from one shopping area to another provides a seamless stream of background music... reminds me of Main Street Disneyland.
Several restaurants offer dishes containing wild game and one invited me to try his dish of dried grubs. "They're good. I eat them." he assured me. I took a pea sized nibble out of the one he gave me: odd taste, not bad not wonderful. Shriveled up black bugs are not high on my list of gourmet foods. I paused for an hour on the bridge to watch daredevils exercising the popular bungi jumping concession. One lady in a tourist agency office told me she had jumped so many times she had lost track of the number.
Unbeknownst to this wide eyed visitor the people of Zimbabwe experienced some of the most tumultuous times in their history during my week long examination of the region around the magnificent falls. This Wikipedia entry chronicles much of the contentious turmoil which occurred during the period. I remained totally oblivious to all the protests and violence which must have been terribly disturbing to the country's citizens, both black and white.
There are at least three Internet Cafes in the town of Victoria Falls charging anywhere from 270 Zim to 500 Zim per hour (at black market exchange rates that comes out to about $2-$4 per hour or $4-$8 at official rates). The equipment is old however, and I've found no one with a machine capable of processing my Camera input. Without a USB port I could loose what pictures I've taken here as the camera is now giving me the signal that batteries must be changed in the next two days or so. This particular cyber cafe has a dial-up connection that frequently disconnects or resets itself in the middle of critical operations. Annoying. At the last minute I found the Bad Dog tourist agency and the proprietor agreed to let me transfer the pictures from my dying camera to a floppy which I will further process at the next opportunity.
I had planned to head over to Windhoek in Namibia next, but then got to reading about nearby Bulawayo and the remarkable, fascinating history in which it plays a central role. Also, the Great Zimbabwe ruins are located nearby. As early as the fifteenth century a great civilization existed in this part of Africa and the ruins offer evidence of their magnificence. I'm anxious to see them while I'm here. Archaeologists have found signs of human activity going back a hundred millennium, a hundred thousand years!
Open-minded as I have tried to be, I must now confess that on average, Africans seem slower than their European counterparts. Part of this is cultural, but in numerous encounters with people who speak English, simple questions about something related to their work too often produced a blank stair while they process my inquiry. Questions like: "What time does the Bulawayo train leave tonight?" to the man behind the ticketing window at the train station, or "What is check-out time in this hotel?" to the receptionist, produced disorientation, confusion. Even allowing for misunderstanding of what has been asked, response time is noticeably slower than I have encountered above the equator. Many of the Africans with whom I have talked, see taking your time as a virtue, something with which I cannot disagree. African time is slow time. "Americans are too impatient..." I heard more than once.
I have decided to leave on the 18:30 train for Bulawayo tomorrow (3 July) and figure out how to get over to Namibia later.
Until next time,
3 July 2001
Greetings from Bulawayo Zimbabwe
My last postcard came from Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Since then I have moved on down to Bulawayo for a few days and now have crossed the border into Botswana. The overnight sleeper train left Vic Falls at dusk and arrived in Bulawayo at dawn the next day. Too bad as the tracks pass through one of the game parks and nothing could be seen in the dark.
Bulawayo reminds me of a mid-western farm town, a bit like Lompoc California; wide streets run through the town with parking down the middle of the streets. It is modern in many respects with many hotels from budget to luxury. But, none of the cyber cafes were modern enough to let me process my PenCam pictures. That had to wait a week until I once again got into a big city (Gaborone Botswana in this case).
The farther south I go the colder it gets. No surprise. After all, it is winter here in the southern hemisphere. I will soon need another warm (heavy) coat. I had anticipated that when planning this north-south transcontinental journey. So far I have been able to get by on additional layers of packed undershirts and the thin nylon windbreaker I brought along.
The highlight of this segment is the daylong drive through the Matobo National Park and adjacent Whori Game Park. Most of my pictures were taken in Matobo, as we seldom got close enough to animals for a decent picture with my simple camera. We were able to see most animal species living in the area including both white and black rhinos.
The word "browser" will never again mean merely a piece of software to me. I learned that while the White Rhino is a grazer (eats grass), the Black Rhino is a browser (nibbles leaves from trees and bushes) like other browsers such as elephants and giraffes.
For a good overview of the country, including great pictures check out this website. For a local look at the political turmoil being reported by the papers here I checked a recent issue of Focuss 22, a publication of a Southern African civil rights watchdog group and the one from the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe... both of which have disappeared in the intervening years.
The day before, my guides took me through the nearby Khami Ruins; a smaller and more recent version of the Great Zimbabwe (means venerated stone houses in the Shona language) ruins some distance from Bulawayo. I had planned to visit that monument, but after seeing the better-preserved and restored Khami site changed my mind. The ruins definitely show a high degree of social/political organization and the use of thermal stone forming technologies, but nothing approaching that suggested by the Greek-Roman ruins. And being dated in the fifteenth century makes them much more recent than their European counterparts.
Museums and TV have been providing me with a welcome immersion in African history and culture. Those early people were much more practical than the Western stereotypes suggests. Primitive and savage now seem inappropriate descriptors for what I've come to know about the early African people. Still, there are some pretty savage practices even today. A news broadcast yesterday told of one South African tribe's initiation rites for boys which resulted in the death of two (out of 160) young initiates from infections connected with circumcisions botched by the older boys who carry out the procedures. Many older boys were arrested for sadistic brutality. The whole thing sounds like an exaggerated version of the most extreme college fraternity initiation rites in 1950's America.
As usual in Africa so far, getting on the right bus in the chaotic and crowded bus terminal in Bulawayo proved to be a challenge. Minutes before we were to leave everybody got off our bus and boarded the one next to us, as it had just been announced in some non-English language that it would leave immediately and ours would be delayed for another half hour. Although uncertain about what to do, I joined the crowd and left with the new bus not knowing for sure where we were going until we were well underway. (cont.)
Bulawayo Zimbabwe: One of the many stacks of huge boulders left standing around the Matobo National Park in Zimbabwe.