"We're swarmed by a mob worthy of Central America."
"A pile of bills best carried in a bag rather than a wallet."
"I can only imagine how horribly insensitive we seemed."
"Declaring homosexuals, or "dogs and animals," may not enter Zimbabwe."
"Despite the desperate situation, crimes against tourists remain the exception."
"It seriously drops off at a 90 degree angle straight to the bottom."
Falling Down August 27, 2003 Victoria Falls, Matabeleland North, Zimbabwe
Got Change for a 20? Victoria Falls, Matabeleland North, Zimbabwe
Thursday August 28, 2003
So it wasn't just me.
Ever since I arrived in Africa, it seemed these journal entries were neither as fun to write or read as they were in Central and South America. I was still enjoying traveling, but the travelogue stuff just seemed dry. I thought I was just losing interest or something.
"Interesting travel stories are back." Turns out South Africa and Namibia just don't lend themselves to good travel stories. I realize this now because we just arrived in Zimbabwe. Interesting travel stories are back.
It's simply a bizarre place. As soon as we hop off the bus, we're swarmed by a mob worthy of Central America. They want to walk us to a hostel, sell us junky souvenirs, book rafting trips. After sleeping barely an hour during the eighteen hour trip from Windhoek it's rather overwhelming.
"A political scene that's simply unbelievable." But despite several "decoys" holding signs with the name of our accommodation, we found the real guy and made a run for the van. The decoys shouted what seemed to be nasty things as him as we rolled away. We had arrived in a world of runaway inflation, fuel shortages, near-famine and a political scene that's simply unbelievable.
Even getting money is an interesting experience here. Unlike nearly every country I've been to so far, you can't use the ATM's here.
Matt Poses with Wads of Zimbabwe Cash
Not that they don't work, but you get royally screwed on the exchange rate. See, inflation is so wild here that the real exchange rate is nearly 3000 Zimbabwe dollars to one US dollar. You must come into the country with all the US dollars cash you're going to spend while you're here. While necessary I'm not that thrilled at carrying around so many Benjamins.
"The only way to get the real rate is on the black market." No huge deal except for two things. The government fixed the official exchange rate at something like 840 to the US dollar, so the only way to get the real rate is on the black market. Second, and this is the crazy one, the biggest Zimbabwe dollar note in circulation is the 500... and it's in short supply. This means changing as little as 20 US dollars results in a pile of bills best carried in a bag rather than a wallet.
In an rather unfortunate incident I decided we should take photos around the pool of us wallowing in all our money. Think rap video. This was going quite well till some of the locals who work at the hostel came by. No one said anything to the effect, but I can only imagine how horribly insensitive we seemed. I felt like an ass.
"Most survive on the barest essentials." Then there's the food issue. For various reasons you can read about elsewhere, Zimbabwe's vast farmlands are lying mostly unused. As such, the country that used to feed half of Africa is slipping toward famine.
A Gas Station with No Gas
Food in grocery stores, while absurdly cheap to us, is far out of reach of the average Zimbabwean. Most survive on the barest essentials. Many rely on food aid from governments and charities.
And then there's His Excellency President Robert Mugabe.
It's tough to know who might be looking over one's shoulder at any given moment, so I'll just give you a few of his greatest hits as best as I can recall. Also, we'll refer to him henceforth simply and inexplicably as "D.W."
Rigging elections and effectively declaring himself president for life.
Seizing farms for re-distribution to placate a disgruntled electorate, said to be the reason arable land sits dormant
Requiring food aid be channeled through his cronies, making the UN threaten to shut off relief efforts.
Declaring homosexuals, or "dogs and animals," may not enter Zimbabwe and should be removed from the streets.
Refusing to print more money to replace scarce bank notes.
Jailing and threatening to execute the political opposition leader.
Doing a 60 Minutes interview. I mean, when Mike Wallace comes calling anybody oughtta know you're not gonna come out of it well.
But despite the poverty, food shortage, inflation and international condemnation of D.W., Zimbabwe remains a friendly place. At least that's how it's seemed to our surprise so far. Matt and I walked, in the dark, from our hostel to town and back last night. We would never have done it unless we'd been told over and over it was safe. I still can't get my head around the idea that despite the desperate situation, crimes against tourists remain the exception.
"But what can you do?" The scene here is so compelling that it's almost easy to forget that we've been to one of the wonders of the natural world. Victoria Falls was very cool and very expensive. $20 to get in the door. But what can you do?
Looking Down the Canyon at Victoria Falls
The only reason Victoria Falls isn't as cool as Foz de Iguazu in Argentina is that it's harder to see. Iguazu's cascades can be easily viewed in near entirety from the top, sides and opposite riverbank. Postcard views surround you wherever you walk.
"There's no all-encompassing stunner of a view." Victoria Falls isn't quite like that. The river crashes into a curving canyon no more than 100 yards across. The only place to see it is from the opposite rim of the canyon, which means that generally you can only see the part of the falls directly in front of you. Unless you take a helicopter ride, there's no all-encompassing stunner of a view.
But that doesn't mean it's not an awe-inspiring sight. Most stomach-wrenching is the area around "Danger Point." From the path along the canyon rim, you walk out onto the flat, wet rocks to the edge. This is where no signs, guardrails or attendants of any kind keep children, the insane or the ill-attentive from plunging a thousand feet or so into the Zambezi. It seriously drops off at a 90 degree angle straight to the bottom.
"We happened to see him across the chasm and waved." Matt's off whitewater rafting today with a British geography teacher named Richard. We met him back in Upington, South Africa and saw him again on the bus coming here. He had to go into Zambia to get US dollars and was visiting that side of the falls as well. We happened to see him across the chasm and waved. I got a photo.
Anyhoo... I opted out of rafting and am enjoying a nice relaxing day in Victoria Falls. Tomorrow or the next day we'll probably head into Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city and supposedly its nicest. The plan is to go from there to Harare, then to the ruins at Great Zimbabwe and back through Victoria Falls into Zambia. That's assuming we don't decide to go into Mozambique.