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Updates from Africa 6

Updates from Africa 6

December 24, 2008 9:11 amComments are Disabled

Today I woke up at 7 to get on the internet and send yesterday’s post. The internet is very very slow and it took a couple attempts.  The Jollyboys is right in the center of town and its convenient to get anywhere.  I got back around 9 and we prepared for our excursion to Victoria Falls.The bus left at ten and dropped us off at the entrance to the Victoria Falls park on the Zambian side.  The park is on Livingstone island, which connects via the Victoria Falls bridge to Zimbabwe.  It is a lovely forested park with paths leading to various vantage points which overlook the falls.  The weather was overcast, and just as we entered for our hike down the first path it started to drizzle.  We walked towards the thundering sound of the falls (in the Kololo language the Falls are known as “the smoke that thunders”) and emerged onto a vantage point where we could see the towering 108m-tall white waterfall, which over their 1.7km length dumps 1 million liters per second into the mouth of the Zambezi river.  Although it is currently the “Dry” season, we were awestruck by the size, breadth and sound of the falls.  As we descended into a depression opposite the falls, the drizzle became a downpour, and we had to cover our cameras with our ponchos to take pictures.  The spray from the falls, too, which during the wet season is enough to soak you, contributed to the moisture in the air.  Luckily, it was cool so we didn’t mind being drenched.  We crossed a foot bridge over a crevice on the island, and could see the Victoria Falls bridge to our left.  The falls, on our right, were actually just a sliver compared to the total length of the falls. Even so, this portion we estimated was twice as tall as Niagra and twice as long.

When we had snapped as many pictures as we could from the Zambian side, we decided to head on over to Zimbabwe.  We got lost on the walk towards the bridge, and ended up finding a lesser-known photography trail where we got much better pictures.  We walked along the Zambian side of the barbed-wire fence separating us from no-man’s-land.  We could see people crossing on the other side, mostly coming from Zimbabwe with wares to sell in Zambia.  We doubled back and found the border crossing, running into a baboon on the way.  It turns out that baboons love border crossings.  There was a family of them climbing onto the immigration building, and another playing in the shade across the road.  People just passed by as if they weren’t there.  Baboons are the dogs of Africa.

Getting out of Zambia was no problem, and we walked the kilometer to the bridge.  The Victoria Falls bridge spans the two cliffs between Zim and Zam at a height of 110 meters.  Naturally, there is a bungi jump just on the Zambia side which you can do for $90.  Codrin, of course, had to do it.  So we waited for him to pay, sign the waiver, get set up, then plunge headfirst into the gully.  A crowd had gathered to watch him, one Indian family from Zimbabwe was trying to convince the father to jump.  Another man from Zambia had expressed his desire for more adrenaline action.  He told the manager “I would jump…”  He was interrupted:  “But what, my friend?  We have a good rope.”  He responded, “I know you have a good rope but that’s the problem.  I want to jump with no strings attached.”  They laughed; I love the sense of humor of Zambians and Zimbabweans.  In the meantime, we relaxed on the bridge, chatting with people from Zim who were trying to sell us some crafts.  There was a line on the bridge signifying the end of Zam and 4 feet away was the line for Zimbabwe—so there was a 4-foot no-man’s-land where a clever entrepreneur had set up shop.  I found the prospect of buying something from nowhere appealing, so I bargained down a rhino carved in softstone to about $2, paying in kwacha (Zambia’s currency).

I should mention that last night, a gentleman from Cape Town staying at the hostel (who also happens to be the head of educational programming for Ubuntu) saw Ioana writing in her journal and offered her some “inspiration.”  When we were on the bridge, she was seen smoking and someone offered her “something harder.”  If she had taken it I’m sure the bargaining would have been a lot more inventive.

Zambia, and Zimbabwe especially, are on the verge of barter economies, in that you can pay currency but a lot of people prefer to trade. Every single shopkeeper in Zambia wanted to trade for the elastic I wear around my wrist–without exception.  I heard “it’s for my sister” at least 12 times.  Even funnier, someone tried to trade Codrin for his socks.  When we were on the bridge, one of the traders offered me a price equivalent to $5 for something he was selling (I think it was a statue).  When I refused, he said “Fine, I trade for your shoes.”  I looked down at my brand new, leather shoes with custom soles and with a straight face looked back at him and said “What will I wear if I trade you my shoes?”  He took off his green, tarnished flip-flop and said “I’ll give you these.”  Then, for effect, he said “and I throw in the elephant.”

When Codrin was retrieved from his upside-down swing in the valley, we ventured off for Zimbabwe.  We were hungry (Codrin didn’t want to eat before he jumped) and were in the mood for some adventure.  Plus, the falls are much more extraordinary from the Zimbabwe side.  We had no problem crossing the border; I had to pay $30 for a visa.  There was a tourist outpost across from the Victoria Falls park on the Zimbabwe side, right on the other side of the border.  In the tourist outpost, we bought some Fantas for $2/piece and sat down to have a drink.  This part of Zimbabwe was a little better looking than its Zambian counterpart; there were Audis and Nissans in the parking lot and a couple tourist families, Asian and white, were loading into their cars as we drank.  There were some Zim traders holding some of the same crafts we had seen in Livingstone through the fence, but weren’t going out of their way to pester anybody.  I wanted to exchange for some Zim dollars, so I decided to get a good rate by going down the row of boutiques and asking for their respective exchange rates.  There was a great deal of excitement as I approached the stalls–the first stall offered 200 million Zim dollars for a US dollar, and I went from stall to stall until I had a rate of 800 million to the dollar.  The “Actual rate” is impossible to determine, because the official rate is about half as good as the black market rate.  Also, all Zim dollars become obsolete on January 1, so I actually paid $2 for nothing.  It was fun negotiating an exchange rate like I would a craft, but in this case I just wanted 50 million dollar bills as souvenirs.  The shelf life of a Zimbabwean bill is less than a year; that’s why you can buy “old” bills from 2007 on the streets in Livingstone for appalling exchange rates (i.e. 250 billion to the dollar).  When a currency is inflated that much, it ceases to be a currency, it’s just pieces of worthless paper.  And that showed especially when we found that all prices in Zimbabwe are in US dollars, and things are very closely priced around what they would be in the states.  In this respect it makes sense that Zimbabwe, with an employment rate of 90% and hyperinflation, doesn’t look too bad.  You can tell that business is slow, but business is still around, and infrastructure is built up very well, especially in the Victoria Falls area.  I’ll get to that.

We paid $20 to get into the Zimbabwe side of the park, and wandered picturesque paths to see the phenomenally better view of the falls. By this time the rain had stopped and there was a rainbow that appeared in the mist, arched perfectly about the middle of the falls. It was gorgeous.  We took many, many pictures and then left the park and caught a cab to downtown Victoria Falls (the town).  There, we sat down at a cafe and I had a panini (Codrin got fish and chips and Ioana a crepe).  There were thin pipes pumping mist around the border of the cafe, cooling off the patio, and Ioana remarked that these cooling pipes only appeared in Romania a year ago.  It was interesting to me how, despite what we read about Zimbabwe in the paper, how calm, clean, safe and pricey it was.  We were in the town that was built for tourists, true, but at the same time tourist traffic has declined steadily.  We saw some tourists when we were there but not many. There are still hotels in Vic Falls such as the Kingdom which cater to wealthy clientele at $300/night–everything is priced in dollars and these are real prices.  Our three-person meal cost $30.  We went to a craft store (a real artisan shop as opposed to the markets) and Ioana bought an ivory necklace, Codrin an ivory pendulum and myself a set of beautiful Zimbabwe-made masks which I’m going to have to figure out how to take back.  The prices were slightly negotiable, but not by much.  The woman at the store explained to us that no one in Zimbabwe knows what the Zim dollar is worth, and although government employees get paid in Zim dollars, they exchange them immediately for real currency as soon as they get them.  We joked about the concept of paying 500 billion dollars for a Coke.  We gave that store about $150 worth of business, more than we’ve given any place so far combined.

We had offered the cab a return fare to the border if he waited, so we added on $2 to get a quick driving tour of the town.  He drove us to the city center, the museum, to see the shopping street and finally to the really nice hotels.  We also drove down a dead end dirt road to the actual market, where we were the first potential customers of the day.  Everyone started trying to bargain with us while we were still in the car; we drove off.  We went back to the border, spending 20 minutes waiting for Ioana and Codrin to get their ivory export certificates stamped (there are tight restrictions on ivory exports) and we were back in no mans land.  We paid a taxi to take us back across the bridge, crossed into Zambia, and we were done with our Zimbabwe adventure.  When we entered Zambia, a border guard washed our hands with a petroleum-based liquid, presumably for cholera prevention, which stunk.

We grabbed a cab from the border to our last stop of the day–the Mukuni village.  All of the wares sold in Livingstone, which we had bought in great quantities the day before, are all made here. Isabella had recommended we go here originally.  It was a long drive down a dusty road to get there.  When we arrived at the village market, a thatched enclosure in the center of town, it was deserted. When we got out of the car, every shop keeper in town–about 50 of them–spotted us and ran for their stalls.  Tarps were whisked off the carvings, the statues, the bowls, paintings and jewelry.  We were in inundated with yelling from vendors.  This was not really a market for tourists–they sell to the shopkeepers in Livingstone–so the sight of three white people at 6 on a slow day was a prospect no one could turn up.  The whole village came out to sell us things, and buy we did–but not without some hard bargaining.  At one point, a nice kid who wore an Obama button asked 5000 kwacha ($1) for a Queen of Africa carving…it was his starting offer and I could have gotten it for 1000 but I told him because he liked Obama, I’ll buy it.  Big mistake. Within minutes, all I heard as I passed shops was “Obama, Obama, Brian!   Obama!”  They knew my name, and that I liked Obama.  I didn’t give in too easy, but at one point another shopkeeper tried to sell something to me, and pointed to what looked like the exact same Obama button on his shirt.  Apparently, he had gotten it from his friend so as to get me to pay for his wares, too.  I ended up paying $20 for a set of utensils, two African Queens, a soapdish/ashtray, a pair of statuettes and a double giraffe carving.  We had to get out of there. Apparently, someone offered to trade something for Ioana’s cell phone. She responded he better be willing to sell his whole store.  There was one woman vendor among all the men, and she convinced Ioana to buy from her some jewelry, it was very sweet.  When we left, I took a picture with my friend the Obama supporter, and Peter, who had sold me the giraffes.

We got a ride back to the hostel, and tomorrow we have to buy luggage to carry our stuff.  Bus to Windhoek leaves at noon.

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