Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Little Engine That Couldn't: Two+ Days on The TAZARA

Following a rather unimpressive week in Zambia, mostly situated in the capital of Lusaka, Heidi & I began our journey to Tanzania, via the TAZARA train. The Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority operates two weekly trains in each direction. The journey from Kapiri Moshi, Zambia to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania is supposed to take just over 48 hours, with numerous stops of varying length along the way.

Tickets ran about $35/pp fir first-class accommodations, which consist of four-person sleeper cabins, with each compartment separated by gender. We were able to subvert that rule, however, instead sharing a compartment with another foreign couple that also didn't want to be separated during the arduous journey.

We arrived at the Kapiri station about three hours early and plopped down in some plastic waiting chairs, electing to forgo the first-class waiting area, which was merely another part of the cavernous waiting hall appointed with mismatched and well-worn couches. An hour before our scheduled departure we grabbed a bite from an establishment across the street. Meanwhile, the ticket counter remained closed and other backpackers began spreading rumors of a possible labor strike. (We purchased our tickets in advance but were, nonetheless, concerned about a potential work stoppage.)

The train rolled out of the station two hours late, but not before we were moved to a compartment other than that assigned to us: it was directly next to the toilet. From my experiences with train travel in Eastern Europe I knew that our proximity to the loo would lead to some olfactory discomfort as the trip progressed.

We quickly became acquainted with our compartment mates, a middle-aged, Russian speaking, Ukrainian couple on holiday from their jobs as doctors in a Zambian village which they have called home for the past six years. With typical Ukrainian hospitality, they shared their homemade lunch with us, while I struggled to recall the language which I hold so dear to my heart. Meanwhile, Heidi shot me looks of exasperation, as Tatyana and I both tried teaching her basic phrases.

Over hard-boiled eggs and rice-stuffed green peppers we discussed our travels, malaria (which both physicians have contracted on multiple occasions), the challenges faced working in Zambia (including nearly two years without pay) and the fact that nearly 15% of Ukraine's population works abroad, in search of a livable wage. Eventually, the conversation slowed, at last coming to a halt with the participants turning, instead, to books, magazine and silent reflection. Moments later the rhythmic rumble of the locomotive stopped, while employees feverishly navigated the darkness outside with incandescent flashlights.

After more than an hour of sitting we all started wondering what the delay was, and when it would be remedied, but couldn't get a straight answer from any TAZARA representative, most of whom disappeared during the delay. Around 8:30pm our compartment decided to try and get some sleep, despite the audible exuberance coming from the adjoining lounge car. Shortly thereafter the electricity, throughout the train, went out, throwing us into complete darkness, causing Heidi some anxiety and leading to random knocks on our door from intoxicated revelers passing by. Nearly 12 hours later, as we were all sleeping, the train lurched forward and we continued our journey, with a new locomotive, well behind schedule.

Throughout the next two days we bounced and jerked along the tracks, over rivers and ravines. Each time we stopped at a new village or town, we were met by, what seemed like, the entire population, with new passengers boarding, adults peddling snacks and belts, and children standing outside of first-class passenger cars begging for nearly anything. "Give me money. Give me your shirt. Give me bottle," they pleaded to the foreigners sitting in their, relatively, comfortable compartments. Doctor Tatyana even went as far as making some kids dance in exchange for an empty water bottle. While she thought it amusing, I perceived it to be more than a little humiliating and uncalled for.

On numerous occasions the smell of sewage seeped into our compartment from the toilet next door. At times the stench of stale urine, pooled on the stainless steel floor only feet away, became almost unbearable. Our only relief was opening the window and imploring Hilda, our attendant, to clean the filth up...or at least mask the stench with some disinfectant.

The bathroom compartment consisted of a little more than a stainless throne lacking a seat, with a hole large enough to see the tracks below. Having paid for the added luxury of first class, our compartment was issued one roll of toilet paper for the trip. Another room had two sinks, which often ran out of the (non-potable) water, while a third room housed a shower (which I elected to skip during the ride). As it's nearly impossible to go more than two days without a BM, try as I might, this ride was no exception. At the time my bowels felt as if they might involuntarily relieve themselves I went for it. I had to decide between trying to squat while bouncing down the tracks (risking falling onto the nasty floor), or going while stopped, so that the salespeople right outside could see my excrement fall onto the tracks. I chose the latter, expecting it would be the most pleasant option for me.

We crossed into Tanzania in the middle of the second night, well after we had retired for the evening. First we were greeted by customs agents with a quick stamp of our passports (as we already had visas) and then came the money changers. As passengers are required to pay for food (on the train) in the currency of the country of travel I was obligated to exchange for some Tanzanian the exchange rate these sharks demanded. Having neglected to check the fair market rate ahead of time, I exchanged most of my Zambian Kwacha for about an 80% return! It must be nice to be a money changer without competition! (That being said, every passenger was in the exact same boat as me.)

Finally, after about 64 hours we pulled into the bustling and chaotic Dar Es Salaam station and began our adventures in East Africa...

Sistah Sistah

From behind a filthy window at the airport lounge we peered down at the people in arrivals, trying to determine which of the white women was the one we sought: Heidi's sister Amy. After hedging our bets we made our way downstairs for the joyous reunion. Following an affectionate sisterly embrace Amy scrambled back to customs, with the (mandatory) information on our accommodation during her time in Zimbabwe.

The three of us stayed with the Giddens' for one night, before catching a coach the following morning to a stop near Hwange National Park, where we would embark on a safari. The bus ride took about seven hours and included two boxed meals from "Chicken Inn," consisting of one piece of fried fowl and a bunch of greasy & soggy fries.

After getting dropped off we were met our driver, who would take us the additional 90 kilometers to Miomba Lodge. On the way we made a quick detour, as we met up with a safari vehicle in hot pursuit of a lion. We spotted the animal, from a couple of hundred meters, near the Hwange airstrip where Amy snapped a couple of pictures from afar.

Upon arriving at the deserted lodge we realized we were the only guests, and it seemed as if very few visitors frequent the place. Later that night, however, we were joined by four other Americans (including three from Saint Louis Park) who camped on the grounds for the evening.

We were waited on by Gladys and Tokes, who were meek yet welcoming and hospitable. The two of them whipped up some lovely meals for the three of us, as we were far from any other dining options.

We stayed in the most basic accommodations offered, which consisted of three single beds with en suite bath. Comparatively, it was a fairly good bargain but also much less extravagant than the tree houses, which are elevated and look out into the bush, giving guests the opportunity to spy wildlife from the comfort of an armchair.

The next morning we were met by Steven, our safari guide. Our chariot for the day was an old 4WD pickup, with elevated benches across the bed (for better game viewing). We loaded in and rumbled down the road to the park entrance, where we each shelled out $20 before being allowed to enter.

The park was fairly devoid of tourists, but Steven explained things were beginning to pick up after the low point, about two years earlier, when international headlines about hyperinflation, food shortages and election violence all but killed the industry. In the early 90's the area was enjoying its peak of activity, with as many as 100 safari vehicles, fully loaded, in the park every day. Nowadays, Steven seemed content to get a small group, like us, once a week!

The safari started out rather slowly, with very little wildlife on the horizon. After an hour or so we stopped at a picnic site, to use the restrooms, where we were, at least, able to capture some photos of various skulls of animals native to the area. When we headed back out things started to pick up a bit...

After only spotting some impala here, and a partially submerged crocodile there, other fauna began to emerge from beyond the thick foliage which had previously camouflaged them. Through a dense grove of tress we were able to catch a glimpse of the light spots of a young giraffe, followed by another. As we moved on two bull elephants could be seen feeding off in the distance. The man-made watering holes were not teeming with fauna, as they are during the dry season when the life-giving resource is only available in a few spots throughout the park.

Eventually we came upon a group of pachyderms feeding alongside the dirt road Steven was driving us down. We stopped. Slowly, more and more of the multi-ton giants emerged from the thicket, uprooting and munching vegetation as they walked. More than a dozen of the beasts crossed our path, front and back, taking little notice of their admirers fervently snapping pictures. On the other side of the road they drank from large puddles and sprayed dirt on their thick skin, in an attempt to cool off from the midday heat. For minutes we watched in silent awe, snapping myriad photos, as newborns and adults alike went about their daily business. (At more than 40,000, Hwange boasts one of the largest elephant populations in the world.)

Before leaving the park we came across zebra, warthogs, baboons, ostrich, distant wildabeest, a crocodile, giraffe, elephants and unknown number and species of birds; enough, at least, to make any Audobon Society member green with envy. All in all, it was an excellent safari, especially given the time of year (wet season), although I left a bit disappointed, as we were unable to spot the illusive king of the jungle, who we had teased us with its presence only a day earlier.

The following day we were transported back to our City Link bus pickup point: the Halfway House Hotel (aptly named, as it is nearly equidistant between Victoria Falls and Bulawayo). When we arrived, around 3pm, were were promptly informed that the bus company had phoned to inform us that the coach would be about 4 hours late, arriving around 9pm. We grabbed some food and tried to pass the time with card games, conversation and reading. Nine o'clock came and went with no sign of the bus. "It will come," we were assured by numerous local men who had taken interest in our plight. At 10pm a hotel employee informed us that everything would soon be closing and we would have to decide whether or not to take a room (as the only thing at Halfway House is the hotel and adjoining bar & restaurant). We convinced the understanding staff to give us until 11pm to decide, as we feared the coach would arrive the instant we shelled out $80 for the room. Around 10:40pm, as the witching hour approached, the bus arrived and we frantically sought out the security guard to unlock the gates, lest we get left behind. We scrambled for seats among the other travel-weary passengers (some of whom left Harare 15 hours earlier) and were off.

We pulled into Victoria Falls around 1am, got a taxi (which an apologetic bus employee paid for out of her own pocket) and arrived at our hostel minutes later. There the guard roused the manager, who sleepily led us to our dorm. As we apologized for our tardiness she shrugged it off with an expression we have fully come to appreciate: "This is Africa!"

Victoria Falls is an adrenaline junkie's dream, with activities revolving around the magnificent natural wonder for which the Zimbabwean town is named. There you can have your choice of bungee jumping, whitewater rafting, lion walks, extreme zip lines, elephant-back safaris and helicopter rides...all for very steep prices. To offset those expenses many people seek out budget lodging, of which our hostel is one of the cheapest. As such, these very same adrenaline junkies are pounding drinks and listening to heart-stopping bass until midnight every night, making rest beforehand nearly impossible.

We spent a day or two just chilling before going to the main attraction, but those days weren't without their stresses. Almost as soon as we left the safety of our hostel we were consistently bombarded by street touts and hustlers, offering everything from carvings to late-night booze cruises to cocaine. Moreover, a simple "no thanks" will not suffice with these lads, as they follow you down the street inquiring, "But, do you know how much I am asking?" Otherwise, they offer to trade for your sunglasses, shoes, cap, or shirt right off your back. (One day I wore my now tatty knockoff Manchester United jersey to some curio shops and was asked by nearly every shopkeeper to trade it.) All the while these salesmen are making statements contradictory to their actions, such as, "No pressure," "free to look," or, my favorite, "Hakuna Matata" (which is Swahili, a language not native to the area). One kid actually accused me of not buying from him because he was black, to which I had to take issue. After all, would I really travel across Africa if I had a problem supporting black business?

Christmas Eve Day was spent at Victoria Falls, which was only a 20-minute walk from our lodging. All the way we could see the mist and hear the thundering roar produced by the falls. While plenty of street entrepreneurs hassled us along the way they quickly disappeared whenever a police officer came into view.

It's $30 to enter the falls, which is on par with Iguazu in Argentina, although this park is far less developed with fewer facilities and unprotected cliffs with drops in excess of 100 meters. We spied a couple of monkeys and a kudu, although the real draw is (obviously) the falls themselves. While Iguazu Falls is wider it is also broken up into a series of numerous different falls, so Victoria Falls holds the claim of the largest waterfall in the world, on account of the longest single curtain of water. The day we toured the falls was during the dry season, which meant a better visual experience, as greater quantities of water create a mist which so dense it nearly completely shrouds the beauty of the falls.

The entire walk, along the Zimbabwean side of the falls, took about two hours. It truly was some amazing scenery, with beautiful rainbows and heart-stopping drops. That being said, I think I was more impressed with its South American counterpart, if for no other reason than the greater number of catwalks affords the visitor many more vantage points, providing for a fuller day (and, in doing so, giving the budget-conscious traveler more bang for their buck).

Christmas was spent at Shoestrings Backpacker's Lodge with dancing and drumming, performed by a ragtag group of boys aptly named the Tin Can Kids. Their percussion instruments consisted of old cars springs, metal cans and plastic jugs. The kids, although not overly impressive, were very cute nonetheless, and performed for donations, proceeds of which would go towards education costs. We were also entertained with some traditional dance and even sang Christmas carols by candlelight...after which the program returned to the club standards of Rihanna and Young Jeezy.

The day after Christmas a City Link Coach brought us to Bulawayo, a rather unimpressive city with the second largest population in Zimbabwe. There we found a moderately well-appointed triple room and passed a few days by eating Chinese take-out, taking Amy souvenir shopping (at a cool co-op where all of the crafts are created by artists with disabilities) and arranging a day trip to Matopos National Park, known for its intriguing balancing rock formations, millennia-old Bushmen cave paintings and a rather impressive rhino population.

Driven to the brink of extinction, due to the ridiculous price a horn fetches in parts of the Middle East and Asia, the rhino has recently thrived in Matopos, thanks to new security measures, including de-horning and an armed ranger patrol. These men, equipped with well-worn Kalishnakov rifles, numer about 50 and are free to shoot suspected poachers on sight. While the Parks Service no longer reports rhino population estimates (so as not to entice more poachers) it publishes any case of a suspected poacher being shot. Signs warn visitors to remain in their vehicles, except at selected viewing platforms, in order to avoid being mistaken for an illegal hunter.

Becks, our guide, brought a couple of loaves of bread to the rangers at the gate, explaining that they are, essentially, stranded for weeks at a time and really appreciate such gestures.

In the game park we immediately came across a group of hippos frolicking in a large pond. As their skin is extremely sensitive to the sun's rays, they spend most of the daylight hours submerged in murky waters. As such, we would only catch a glimpse of the beasts when they came up for air; even then we were able to spot only the tops of their heads. Nonetheless, it was pretty cool to see them interact, all the while making funny, and seemingly jovial, noises.

Next we went in search of the rhinos, of which both white and black meander throughout the fenced in park. Along the trek we stopped to check out rock formations and also spotted baboon, antelope and giraffe. After a few hours our guide gave up, explaining that the dense vegetation hindered our luck. Upon leaving a ranger explained that the rhinos recently moved deeper into the park, as the result of some recent poaching incidents.

We rumbled over to the historic side of Matopos where diamond magnate and colonialist extraordinaire Cecil Rhodes is buried meters from ancient cave paintings. The San are a nomadic people (popularized in the 80's with the comedy The Gods Must be Crazy) who once roamed Zimbabwe and Matopos, now displaced to parts of Botswana and Namibia (and fighting for land rights there...especially since a large diamond reserve was discovered on some of their Botswana territory). Now the only evidence of their former presence here are the ancient cave paintings, carbon dated to be 3,000-6,000 years old and created by mixing blood with a particular tree bark.

The result of a lack of preservation, many of the paintings have worn away due to overzealous tourists seeking "great" pictures of themselves touching the sacred artwork. Our guide managed to show us two fairly well-preserved paintings, one of which was quite off the beaten tourist path. The paintings illustrated hunting parties and the prey which sustained their people, namely large cats and rhino. It was quite an experience to trace the footsteps of a people who had been in that same spot thousands of years before Christ walked the earth.

With a little more time in the day, and a desire to show some Americans how most Zimbabweans live, our guide took us through the oldest ghetto in Bulawayo. Within walking distance of the Central Business District, it was built decades earlier so that working-class blacks could more easily get to their jobs, no doubt serving privileged whites. The neighborhood is a ramshackle collection of concrete homes and tenement housing in very poor condition with yards of dirt strewn with litter. While there, we stopped at a store, had some soda, and snapped pictures of curious kids, delighting them with miniature likenesses thereof, on our LCD screens. While most people were friendly and amused by our presence, we certainly got some scowls as well. Upon leaving our guide explained that the neighborhood is plagued by alcoholism and drug abuse; two problems which seem all too prevalent in ghettos the world over.

The lack of energy in Zimbabwe was no more obvious than it was in Bulawayo, where many gas stations simply had no fuel, while those that did had lines, of more than a dozen cars, snaking around the corner and into traffic.

We spent our last two nights with Amy at Boulder's Creek Lodge, a once thriving hostel and campground on the outskirts of Harare. When overland tours regularly came through, prior to the turn of the century, the place hosted 50-60 guests nightly. Now they are lucky to receive a handful of guests every month. In 2001 the owners were forced to shut down for a spell, when any sort of food became extremely scarce. Since, they have reopened, but not without their share of difficulties. The government (of Zimbabwe) has, on two occasions, seized all of the assets of the company's foreign currency deposit accounts. And while some government small fish have made attempts to seize the property from its white landowners, those were short-lived after a call to one of the establishment's investors: a nephew of President Robert Mugabe.

Our stay was an enjoyable respite from the hustle and bustle of Central Harare, although some local people showed up on New Year's Eve and partied until the break of dawn, making Amy's last night in-country less than restful.

We said our goodbyes to sistah at the airport, where a Customs official completed her sendoff with a $100 fine for overstaying her visa. Some confusion, during her arrival to Zimbabwe, led to her only being granted a seven day visa, while most tourists receive 30.

The next day, after what seemed like and eternity, Heidi and I hopped a bus out of Zimbabwe and into Zambia. Along the way we hit numerous check points, where greedy traffic cops seek bribes as zealously as a babe searching for its mother's teet. Two women on our bus were each fined $20 for peeing in the bushes at one of the stops, and one of them got slapped with an additional $20 for protesting. (Apparently, being a traffic cop is a very enviable position in Zimbabwe because one can earn $200-300 daily in "fines" [e.g. off-the-record bribes].)

Life with the Giddens'

Just days after losing nearly everything at the hands of some rogues, including my faith in humanity, Heidi and I were hosted by Josh and Virginia Giddens, in their suburban Harare home, for five days. We were put in touch with the family by a friend of Heidi's, whose other friend met Josh and his parents in Tanzania. After sending the couple one text message we were invited into their home without hesitation. We caught a cab and were, forthwith, inside the walls of their Mount Pleasant compound.

To some the term "compound" may evoke visions of religious fanatic David Koresh's burning village in Waco...but, here, I use the term much more generically. The Giddens' have, what I call, a compound for two reasons: the property is surrounded by an 8 foot wall and consists of multiple structures.

I was immediately struck by the enormity of the place, complete with numerous gardens, a pool, multi-stall garage, guest house and a single-story family home with an impressive footprint.

We were greeted in the driveway by the matriarch of the family, a charismatic Westerner with short brown hair and a diminutive frame. She explained that Josh was at basketball practice and invited us in.

The couple teaches International Baccalaureate curriculum at the America International School of Harare, which caters to Westerners, expats and the children of embassy workers from around the globe. This is their third year at the school and they expect to be there for one more before heading off to another school, with new cultural surroundings and a different set of challenges. (They are considering a locale in Eastern Europe and currently have a handful of potential schools in mind.)

One night they explained their motivations for teaching abroad. First and foremost, it seemed to me, was the benefit of their children, Miriam (11) and Peter (3). The quality of education at an International School, coupled with the cultural diversity thereof, cannot be equaled in the United States for an insignificant sum of money (whereas the education is free in Zimbabwe, as they teach at the school.) Moreover, this educational experience is going to put the kids in a more enviable position, when it comes time for college admissions, than their American counterparts.

Beyond the educational benefits, the quality of life (in some respects) is much better than it would be for a couple 0f young teachers back home. First off, the school pays for their housing. Secondly, despite a rather modest income (by American standards) they are able to employ three local people, who also live on the grounds. Elizabeth and Patience work as general housekeepers, tidying the home, washing dishes and taking care of laundry, while a third employee spends his days tending to the garden and manicuring the grounds. (Patience is the mother of Elizabeth, who has two children of her own, a small girl who is strapped to mommy's back all day long and a 7-year-old boy, who is Peter's best bud.)

While I have heard some whites refer to the local workforce as little more than cheap labor the Giddens see them as an extension of their family. Taku, Peter's friend, often joins the family for dinner. Furthermore, when they first arrived in country, Zimbabwe was going through some extreme economic turmoil, and the people in Patience and Elizabeth's home village were starving. The Giddens, with the help of their church, delivered food packets and even hired some farmers to come in and teach the locals how to create sustainable agricultural projects. Now they only have to bring seeds to the village annually.

As if taking care of their own family and employing three Zimbabweans isn't enough, the couple has also taken in a young Kenyan woman, completing her final year of studies at the International School. Joy is 19 years-old and still returns to Kenya to celebrate holidays with her family (hence I presume they host her so that she can receive a better education than if she were just at a local school back home). She is wise beyond her years, incredibly bright and quite well-rounded, sharing a sibling camaraderie with both of the children. She hopes to study in the United States upon completion of her studies in Harare.

Originally, we planned on leaving the Giddens' the day that Heidi's sister, Amy, was to arrive in Harare (to spend her winter break with her kid sister). But the couple extended themselves even further, inviting us to stay a bit longer, offering another room for Amy. We accepted and Josh even hauled us to the airport to pick Amy up...twice! (Upon arriving, the first time, we learned that a connecting flight left without the US passengers and Amy would be spending the night in Ethiopia. Had we taken a taxi we would've spent about $50, there and back, all for not.)

While staying with them we shared family dinners, played board games and just generally felt welcome. Needless to say, we really enjoyed our stay, as well as their hospitality and graciousness. It was just what the doctor ordered, reinvigorating my spirits, and faith in people.