Thursday, December 16, 2010

From Rags, to Robbed.

After a very uneventful, and rather boring, four-day stay in Bulawayo (Zimbabwe's second-largest city), we were ready for a change. We decided to hop the overnight train to the capital city of Harare, opting for the (presumed) comfort of a sleeper car over the cramped seats of a combi or touring bus. Besides, at $10/person for first-class it was a bargain, compared to the rates at some of the dumpy lodges and hotels we've experience in the country.

The train was to depart at 8pm and arrive in Harare around 9am the next day. (Certainly a much longer ride than the five hours in a bus, but it was much less expensive, we could stretch out, sleep, and save on one night's accommodation.) As soon as we boarded we began to understand the drastic differences in price.

The floor boards in the hallway of our car were rotting out, to the point that someone is gonna fall right through to the tracks in one of the trips very soon. The entire train car reeked of body odor but, sadly, this is fairly common in buses...and just strolling down the streets of Zim. And, the door to the compartment adjacent ours was in such need of some WD40 that it let out a terribly high-pitched screech whenever the door was opened or closed, and that was quite often. The toilet was disgusting, covered in a black film which I would prefer to never know the source of. But, at least we had a private compartment...

Our first-class compartment was filthy. I mean straight up nasty. It appeared as if maintenance and cleanliness were two things that had not yet been imported to the country. Heidi had decided she would sleep sitting up, not wanting to get her clothes, sleep sheet or body infected by whatever lurk on the pleather bench seats/beds. (Luckily, we were offered bedding, which appeared clean, and were able to put a barrier between ourselves and the remnants of previous passengers.) And as for security, our door was initially built with a sturdy lock (which was now broken) and a little slide chain, similar to those found in hotels and apartment buildings. The little knob for the slide was so worn that it didn't stay in place and was replaced with a large screw fastened into the chain. Nice!

After some time the two of us managed to get some sleep, although it was much less comfortable than the trains I have slept in before (in Eastern Europe). When I awoke the next morning I was sick. My head felt stuffy, pounded terribly and I had convinced myself that it was the result of the nasty odors and invisible creepy crawlies throughout the train. Moreover, I really had to make a #2, but would've rather stuck my ass out the window than use that bad excuse for a toilet. Since we had only about 90 minutes to go, I decided to hold it.

Nine o'clock came and went. Our sheets were collected and another railroad employee popped his head in to tell us we were almost there. Looking out the window I saw no evidence of a city of more than 2 million, but rather that of agrarian society. Finally around 11am, after I had concluded I would die, and gave Heidi my final wishes, we started to see piles of garbage, cramped together buildings and masses of people. Thirty minutes later we were disembarking, giving everyone else in the station something to look (or stare) at. (Apparently, the whites of this country don't take the trains or combis as we get stared at like nobody's business every time we do.)

We ran into some kind of rally about human rights at Unity Square, and the place was packed. People were whipped up into a fervor, but broke up fairly quickly when the keynote speaker was whisked away by a small motorcade. After that we grabbed some pizza and hailed a taxi to Greystone, the neighborhood where we would be staying for 2 nights with Idir, our Couchsurfing host.

When we pulled up to the address given us, after the cabbie asked three groups of men where it was, we were sure a cruel joke was being played at our expense. The home was in a small cul-de-sac with only 4 others, each of which were behind large stone fences with very well manicured shrubbery. The taxi driver pressed the button.

I explained to the disembodied voice on the other end that we were looking for Idir. The man stated that he wasn't there, but let us in anyways. Turns out the guy was the property owner and Idir was renting his guest cottage. The gentleman welcomed us and gave me Idir's cell number, which I promptly called while the man stood watch over us. Over the phone, Idir explained that we should make ourselves comfortable and he would be in a little later, as he was at work. The landlord let us in the cottage and we plopped down on the couch and watched the Food Network until our friend returned home.

Idir was extremely charismatic and friendly from the get-go. He showed us around the house and offered to let us use the showers, which we were both in need of after the arduous train journey. While Heidi was washing up we chatted and I learned that he is an Algerian national working, on contract, here for a company called Telecell, helping to update their network. He explained that he had had similar jobs all over the world, particularly throughout Africa. He was fairly young and was ready to get out later that night and show us a night on the town, and we didn't want to be rude...

As he was leaving for an hour or so, we inquired about nearby dining options. There were none. He then offered to drop us off somewhere or let us dig through his cupboards. (His contract was ending, and although he planned to return in about a month, much of the food would go bad, so he offered it to us, if we could prepare it.) We decided to stay there, whipping up a simple salad and some pan-fried potatoes while he darted out to visit a friend.

When he returned it was time to go. He brought us to a place called Lime, which was similar to nightclubs back home. He continued his generosity by paying our cover before I knew what was going on. And, he even got the first (and later, second) round of drinks. He then took off for a company Christmas party, leaving Heidi and I at the club for about 90 minutes, where we just chatted and people-watched as the DJ played hits from the 90s and machine-generated fog filled the room. Upon his return we took off for a disco down the road.

As we waited in line to pay the $10 cover Idir received a call from a friend. There was a happening private party right next to the Chinese Embassy, and we should go there. Thank God! The last thing I wanted to do was pay $20 to get on a dance floor with a bunch of 19-year-olds. That being said, the people watching outside was a trip and a stark contract to the street scenes of central Bulawayo or Harare. Here kids, black and white alike, were decked out in the latest designer fashions, pulling up in imported European rides that were thumping like my Cadillac back at Henry High. Good times...

Some guards outside the party directed us where to park our car on the lawn, blocking in a dozen others in the process. The party was complete with a DJ and throngs of beautiful people from all over Europe, Africa and India. This was certainly a party for children of diplomats and other movers-and-shakers here in Zim. It was a wild sight, but it wasn't our scene. While Heidi and I stayed close, refusing to mingle with the strange crowd, Idir did the same with his Egyptian buddy. After an hour or so he was ready to go, and so were we. He offered to take us back to the disco we left, but we were spent and all of us headed home for the night.

The next day Idir invited us to lunch with some of his friends. A fellow Algerian was preparing couscous hand-rolled by Idir's mother in Algeria. How could we refuse? We offered to get a bottle of wine for the hosts but Idir refused, as he had a box of soda, beer, wine and liquor which he was already bringing. (Basically, he was cleaning out all drinks from his house, as he was returning to Algeria the following day.)

For lunch we were also joined by a couple of French girls (working at their embassy), a young German woman (in country with an NGO), the Egyptian buddy from the night before, the host, and Momma Rose and her family. Momma Rose is an old Irish lass who spent 30 years in Zimbabwe, before leaving for Italy with her husband when the political situation started to get hot. She was accompanied by her daughter (who recently moved back to Zim, from NYC, to get cheap labor to help raise her son) and her grandson. They were all a trip and seemed to have the mentality that the locals are a bit sub-human to themselves. Rose stated that she never exploited any blacks during her time in-country, but the way they both referred to their helpers was just a little jarring for me.

Together, we shared a wonderful meal of couscous, which was covered in a meaty broth to add some flavor. The conversation was wide-ranging and, at times, interesting but I couldn't help but feel out of place. The French gals seemed a bit self-righteous and Momma Rose's crew a little bigoted. Thankfully, the three North African men were all very engaging, friendly and intelligent. I must say it was a very strange mix of people, but they were all there for a good reason: to bid Idir adieu.

The next morning Idir was leaving very early, allowing us to sleep in and leave at our leisure. As we retired that night we said our farewells, and he even gave us 6,800 Kenyan Shillings (about $80), stating he wouldn't be using it and we should. We explained that we wanted to do more to show our gratitude, but he declined anything else, stating that is not the purpose of Couchsurfing, and suggesting he might hit us up for a place to crash in America someday.

Around 11am (the next day) we ambled out of the gates of our temporary home, with Idir's dog chasing us down the long drive. (She had become quite attached to Heidi, and the opposite was true as well.) We had about an hour walk to the nearest bus stand, where we would take a combi into central Harare and find a budget place to crash. As Heidi's back was hurting, I carried both bags for half the distance. As we were getting fairly close to the main road a little VW Golf pulled up and the driver asked if we wanted a lift.

Exhausted and sweaty I quickly accepted. Being a fairly small ride, the driver stated that we could put the bags in the trunk. After loading them in we hopped in the car.

As we headed down the road the driver engaged us with conversation about Wikileaks, what we thought of Zimbabwe and other rather inconsequential topics. I explained that we really liked the people and felt very safe here. After a short ride he pulled off the road and stated we could catch a bus at the corner. We thanked him for his kindness and I tried to give him some money for gas, but he repeatedly refused. We hopped out and as I opened the trunk the car sped away...with our bags still inside!

I yelled at the top of my lungs, hoping he had made a mistake and simply forgot, but this was clearly a deliberate act. A nearby security guard ran out to check out the commotion, as another man ran towards us and a group of ladies looked on. Everything was gone. We had our cash, credit cards and passports, but everything else was in the trunk of that God-forsaken Volkswagen.

(Usually we keep the hard drive, camera and mp3 player in a separate bag, which never leaves our side. But that day I told Heidi we should put everything in our backpacks, as the combis are very cramped and more bags just mean more hassle. It was the perfect storm of crapiness for us, and made the criminals' haul slightly more valuable than worthless. Beyond the bags and aforementioned electronics there was little more than stinky clothes, toiletries and anti-malaria medicine.)

On the verge of tears, and pissed at myself for being too trusting (i.e. gullible) we moaped over to a nearby military base, explaining what happened to the two camouflaged kids toting AK-47s. They were of little help, but a guy driving into the base said he would take us to the police station after he got some things from inside.

The police station was little more than a counter with two female constables and a two-way radio. There we filed the report, after which we took a cab to the Central Police Station for an official stamp from the officer-in-charge. From there we went to he US Embassy, knowing full-well that they would likely be of little assistance on a Sunday.

After explaining our predicament to the Zimbabwean guards I was allowed into their little outpost, while Heidi sat under the midday sun. Inside I spoke with an American woman, over the phone, who extended her (rather insincere sounding) sympathies and told us to come back the next day.

The following day a consulate officer gave us some info on getting money wired (from family) and where to get more anti-malaria pills before sending us on our way.

At our budget lodge, on a rundown little street close to central Harare, I told our tale of woe to a group of Zimbabwean men who asked how we were finding the country. Once we got into our room I was scolded by Heidi for doing so. She told me that I need to stop telling everyone our business, instead keeping things simple and polite. Although I am rather trusting of people, in general, perhaps she was right...

A day or two later, when we returned from buying some new (rather expensive, but cheaply made) clothes the manager came to our room and said a man wanted to speak with me about what happened to us a couple of days prior.

The man was a middle-aged black dude with a shaved head and salt-and-pepper beard. He asked me to sit before stating that he was sorry to hear what happened to us, but could help us get our things back. What the hell? Immediately I thought this man was working in cahoots with the thieves who had, somehow, found us and came to extort us for our luggage. My head began to pound as a rush of emotions, from relief to anger to violence, filled my being. The I began the interrogation...

The stranger calmly stated he didn't know these men, but could get the things back via African juju: black magic. He offered to perform a spell on my leg, making it swell to twice its normal size, in order to prove his abilities but I declined, instead continuing with questions in order to determine if this man knew our assailants. During our conversation he made two phone calls to someone (that sounded like a woman), speaking in an unfamiliar tongue which was interjected with English words from our conversation.

The man stated that the criminals would be compelled to bring our things to us, due to the juju, if I performed a spell which he would give to me for $30. After our things came back to us he would require an additional $150. Well, even if he was in cahoots with the bastards I would shell out $180 to get all of our things back. So, I inquired more: how would the criminals know where to bring our things? He explained that, since they dropped us off at the lodge, they would know where to go and the juju would force them to do it. But, they hadn't dropped us here and had no idea where we were staying, I explained. Stunned, the man stopped and thought. He explained that the juju would not work, and apologized before walking away. A woman also staying at the guesthouse, who knew this guy, was listening in and explained that another, more powerful, man would visit her he following day and could, possibly, help us. I shrugged and returned to my room.

I am fairly certain that none of those people were affiliated with the thieves, instead either genuine believers in the powers of juju, or simply con artists looking to make a buck on our misery. Regardless, the whole situation made me (and later Heidi, when I explained everything to her) even more uncomfortable, so we decided to check out the next morning and find another place to stay.

Now we are staying with a wonderful couple, who we got hooked up with via Heidi's friend Lorie (and her friend Michelle). With only a text they invited us into their home, which is already plenty full with two kids of their own, another girl they are caring for, two dogs and a cat. They are teaching at the International School out here and have a lovely home, with a beautifully manicured garden. We are sleeping in the rather basic, but nonetheless fabulous, guesthouse. They have been nothing but very kind, even having us join them for a family dinner last night. Their kindness and generosity, along with that of many other people we have encountered, fills my heart with joy...especially after the dastardly act of a couple of dudes whose actions made me want to hop on a jet plane and go home only a few days earlier. (Had it not been for my wonderful Heidi boo, I probably would've done just that.)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dollar Dollar Bills Y' Zimbabwe!

Zimbabwe is a country of very recent political and economic turmoil. President Robert Mugabe rules with an iron fist, and has "won" some elections via very questionable methods, including bribery, intimidation, torture and murder. Only recently has he agreed to share power with the Prime Minister, who represents the opposition party. Sadly, that agreement was only symbolic (to pacify the people) and the power still remains firmly in the hands of Mugabe's Zanu PF party.

In the last decade Zimbabwe experienced unheard of hyperinflation. According to Forbe's Magazine, by December 2008 annual inflation was estimated at 6.5 quindecillion novemdecillion percent (6.5 x 10108%, the equivalent of 6 quinquatrigintillion 500 quattuortrigintillion percent, or 65 followed by 107 zeros – 65 million googol percent). Needless to say, life savings were wiped out and even bread became something most could not afford. As a result, the government abandoned the Zimbabwean Dollar last year and adopted the US Dollar as its currency (despite the fact that it was previously illegal to use USDs in Zimbabwe!)

So, who wouldn't want to come visit, right?

Unfortunately, I have no pictures to post for this blog, as taking photos on the street is currently illegal in is being a homosexual (but only if you are male)...oh, and so is writing anything disparaging about President Mugabe (so if I get locked up please delete this blog). The day we arrived in Bulawayo a protest by gays and other sexual minorities was quickly quashed by police.

We left Botswana for Zimbabwe in short order, as we were desperately hoping to find some reasonable accommodations at a fair price. Our tour book, published just last year, stated a backpacker's joint in Bulawayo would cost $5/pp for a dorm and $20/night for a private double. But, when we got there we discovered prices had dramatically increased, with the doubles going for $60/night. We haggled for $50 and stayed for two nights, before moving on to the ratty, but functional, YWCA where a double is $20/night.

While prices for some restaurants are equivalent to those back home, other places are really cheap. We have had sadza and beef twice, for about $1/plate. (This is a traditional meal which is eaten by hands. The sadza, made from corn meal, is balled up and used as the utensil and flavor sponge.)

Power also seems to be unreliable here in Zimbabwe. One night we splurged and had a nice meal at a local sports club. When power went out there they had a backup generator: a sure sign that the occurrence is not a rarity here. When we got back to the hostel they had candles all over and flashlights for us to use. We also met a white Zimbabwean who started leasing out his gas station because of the unreliability of fuel in the country. We have seen numerous gas stations with signs stating that there is no gas or diesel available. Those that do have it are charging just over $5/gallon!

Speaking of the white guy we met on the street, he was quite the storyteller. Upon seeing us he practically ran over to greet us. When he realized we were foreigners he opened up. The older gentlemen, who smelled of beer and had quite the neck beard going on, stated that he once owned an 18,000 square kilometer game farm just outside of the city. He used to take "people like (me)" there in order to hunt the wildlife that roam there. About four years back the government seized his farm and tossed him in jail. (This was part of a widespread government initiative seeking to right the wrongs of colonialism, thereby seizing land owned by whites and giving it to black Zimbabweans.) The nine Land Rovers he purchased, for game drives, sit next to his fuel station, rusting out.

The man was clearly bitter, pointing to some blacks on the street and stating that they are the ones who are driving the latest model cars and wearing the newest fashions. He recalled how government officials have intimidated him, even stating that it is possible that he could disappear, and would never be found by anyone. He also mentioned a (presumably white) friend who was extorted at one of the many police roadblocks around the country...simply because his truck was too dirty! (In reality, he said, it was just one of many ways that the police use their power to get bribes, or make life hell for those who object.) Although the man was clearly racist, he had a lot of interesting things to say, and I appreciated listening to him. And, although colonialism was the cause of many injustices, worldwide, I question whether the current land seizure program (which continues rolling along) is really the best way to right the ship...

One final note: Although the currency is the US Dollar, all change is given in South African Rand, as nickels and dimes are nowhere to be found here in Zimbabwe. Additionally, South African Rand and Botswana Pula are widely accepted, albeit for a sometimes unfair rate. And, the money here s straight nasty. Since banks here don't have the ability to exchange spoiled bills with the Federal Reserve they remain in circulation, often looking more like dookie brown than dollar green. And there are more two dollar bills here than at Monticello (the home of T Jefferson, not the town in MN).

Needless to say, Zimbabwe is a trip! Soon, we'll be off to the more touristy areas of Harare, Victoria Falls and Hwange National Park, as Heidi's sister is coming over to join us for Christmas.

Pole, Pole, Pole Our Boat...

After staying in the rather unimpressive capital of Gaborone, Botswana for a couple of days (with a very gracious Peace Corps Volunteer) Heidi and I hopped on a cramped minibus, bags in tow, for the bus terminal. The terminal is a chaotic mix of hawkers, minibuses, full-size buses and travelers where the western tourist can become easily intimidated.

Heidi and I had planned to head for the town of Maun, along the eastern edge of the Okavanga Delta, where we would chill for a few days and take a trip up the river in a traditional boat, known as a mokoro. As our book stated there were no direct buses we planned to travel to Francistown, overnight there, and continue on the next morning to our ultimate destination. Luckily, Heidi spied a full-size bus bound for Maun, so we inquired with the driver: it would arrive around 9pm and he would help prearrange lodging for us, so two clueless honkeys weren't roaming the streets after dark. Good enough. We hopped on and waited for all the seats to fill up, at which point we'd depart.

The ride was about 10 hours and nothing too interesting. Most stops were only long enough for passengers to get off, while others scrambled on to fill the vacant seats...and sometimes stand in the aisle. Additionally, men and women alike would hop on to sell cold drinks, (cold) fried chicken & chips, magazines, belts, and pretty much anything else one might need. We had some fried chicken around lunch time, having missed an opportunity to eat on a previous bus trip. It was greasy and cold, but it was sustenance.

As we arrived on the outskirts of Maun the driver stopped and called a lodge from right outside of its walls, inquiring if rooms were available for us. It was full. We continued on to the BP station in town, where all of the remaining passengers exited the bus and were whisked away by waiting taxis, friends and family. Meanwhile, we stood there...clueless. The driver explained the person he had charged with finding us a room wasn't answering, but he did finally reach him and the young man arrived in a rickety taxi a few minutes later. He drove us to a budget hostel in town. It, too, was full. I asked if we could use his phone and call a place in our book, but his phone's battery was dying and couldn't make calls. So, we hopped back in his car and he drove us to another place. It was also fully booked!

Just down the road was another spot, for around $100/night. It was way out of our budget but it was also late and we didn't have the luxury to be picky. Regardless, they had no rooms for us either. At the next lodge the manager explained they had one vacant room, but it was reserved and if we took it we would be subject to eviction, should the party who held it arrive. No dice! The manager was nice enough to call a place in our guidebook and inquire for us. Rooms were available. Score. He reserved a spot, under our name, and we were good to go...or so I thought.

Turns out that neither the manager or our driver knew of this other place...or how to get there. He asked for directions on the phone, but they both still seemed bewildered. So, we jumped in the car en route to the area where we thought the place was. On the way we came to the lodge I initially wanted to call, and our driver asked if we wanted to check there. Why the hell not. After driving off the highway we drove along a muddy road, surrounded by water on both sides, until finally pulling up to a gate. Our driver yelled for the watchman. Luckily for us there was a room...or rather a tent. It wasn't just any tent, but a nice canvas job on a concrete slab, covered by a corrugated steel roof. Inside were two comfy beds, and a small table with a lamp. Quite a nice little spot. We snapped it up, and thanked the driver for his troubles, both in words and Pula (the currency in Botswana).

Our digs ended up being a fabulous little spot, for a reasonable price. Both the toilets and showers were outside, with no roofs, surrounded by reed and bamboo for privacy. Rather than having doors a simple rope drawn across the entrance indicated whether or not the facilities were occupied. We were right on the river and the bar was also outdoors, complete with a pool table, thatched roof and a great vibe.

The next day we registered, got some groceries in town, and booked a mokoro trip up the Okavanga Delta. A mokoro is a traditional Botswana boat, and is made by carving out a single log. The task is arduous and can take up to three months, completed solely by the individual who will act as the poler, or operator, of said vessel.

After a one hour ride up the Delta in a speedboat we were dropped off on the bank of the river, near the village of Boro. There we met Timon, our poler for the day, and hopped into his boat. Our camp supplied little plastic chairs, for back support, and we were off. Between Heidi, myself and Timon, the boat was absolutely full. While we sat, he stood in the back and pushed us along with a pole, much like an Italian gondola.

The edges of the boat sat just inches above the surface of the crocodile-infested water, and we had a very slow leak too. About once an hour Timon would take a break from poling to sponge out some of the water that had accumulated on the bottom of the boat. "No worries," he assured us as he squeezed the excess back into the river. What we did have to worry about, he observed, was angry hippos or elephants. Although such incidents were rare, they could certainly cause us plenty of problems. He also stated that the crocs were not aggressive and we should remain calm if we saw any, as anxious passengers could cause him to lose his balance, and overturn the mokoro.

As he pushed us through reeds and along water lilies he explained something about the indigenous uses of the mokoro, which ranged from transport, to fishing, to going into the delta to harvest reeds for home building. Beyond that (and the occasional speedboat or tour plane flying overhead) it was absolutely silent and serene.

Timon also explained that he was part of a polers cooperative in Boro. The prices for mokoro rides are fixed and all of the community shares in the profits brought in from the venture. Every morning a number of polers show up in the center of the village and learn whether or not they will have to work that day. He had been working in that capacity for 15 years and said he enjoyed it.

After nearly two hours in the mokoro we pulled up to an island and disembarked for a bush walk. Timon prepared us for disappointment, explaining that, in all likelihood, we would see nothing more than scat and tracks, as most animals were inactive during the heat of the day (and it was HOT). But, as soon as we emerged from some flora there was a lone bull elephant gnawing on some grass. He was a good 200 meters away, but Timon told us to proceed with caution, and we took refuge behind a termite mound. If the beast smelled or saw us there could be trouble. As the pachyderm rumbled closer to our position our guide moved us further into the bush. Then the giant turned and headed the other way, so we continued on our walk, transfixed on the elephant for some time.

Along the way we also saw antelope, a warthog, a water buffalo carcass and myriad species of bird. All in all it was a very nice nature walk, but we were both exhausted by the time we arrived back at the shore for lunch, before heading back to Boro and our awaiting speedboat.