Monday, October 17, 2011

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Since I am behind in my blogging, I am going to try to catch everyone up on the past week of travel. We left Chobe National Park and Botswana the morning after our wonderful day watching the wildlife The next morning, we got up to ride to Zimbabwe, which was only about ten miles away. We packed our gear, had breakfast, and said goodbye to Christel and some of our other fellow campers. The border crossing was no problem; the Botswana side, very professional and easy, and the Zimbabwe side, a little less so. The officers at Immigration in Zimbabwe were quite sure that I was a spy and asked me repeatedly if I was certain that I wasn't there to uncover their national secrets and share them with the US government. They also thought Colin might be a criminal, and laughed when he said he was an attorney, saying they are the worst criminals of all. They had a good time, as did we, and we got our visas (hand written- no automated scanner/printer setup like we've seen elsewhere). When I got back to the bikes to wait for Colin to finish with Customs, a fuel tanker driver asked if I might like to sell him my bike once I tired of riding it. Maybe, if he is in the US in about a year, we might make a deal, I told him. Once we finished at the border, we rode into Zimbabwe on our way to Victoria Falls. 

Since it's one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and since we were so very close, it seemed a tragedy to miss it. The ride to Vic Falls was flat and dry woodlands and not very scenic but for the baboons. There were LOTS of baboons. At one point, they spilled out of a tree, like the did from my barrel of red, plastic monkeys I had as a child. There must have been at least fifty of them, falling, cartwheeling, and leaping out of a single tree and running across the road in front of us. It was a sight!

Tire change at Shoestring Backpackers
We got to the town of Victoria Falls and set up camp on the shady lawn at Shoestring Backpackers. After walking into town to grab some lunch supplies, we pulled the bikes onto the hard driveway to change the rear tires. While we worked on the second tire installation, one of the gardeners (?) came over to (I thought) see what we were doing and learn (?) about changing tires. As I tried to explain what we were doing, he wanted to help by holding wrenches and the wheel in place. After the wheel was back in place, he asked for a tip for providing his assistance. A little befuddled, I gave him a dollar. Zimbabwe is an incredibly poor nation. Several years ago, you may recall that they had rampant, uncontrolled inflation, to the point of issuing fifty trillion dollar notes. The government changed their currency to the US dollar four years ago, and things have stabilized a bit. Food is now more available but very expensive and with little variety, and fuel can be found at about every third gas station. The unemployment rate is somewhere around seventy percent, and people struggle. I don't mind tipping a dollar in this sort of environment, even though we would have been done faster without his help. When we were finished and repacking the tools, an Australian woman came over to check our our rides. 
Here is where we met Sue, a Darwinian who had been working in Kenya for an aid organization and was on her way home via Johannesburg with a stop in Vic Falls for a few days. She is very well-traveled, has worked in Africa and the Pacific, and rides a bike at home that she calls her “nifty fifty,” even though it has a 100cc motor. We spent the evening chatting over (not very good) pizza and (very cold) beer, and she has kindly offered to pick us up at the Darwin airport in about ten months if and when we arrive and to put us up in her home. 
The next morning, we had a leisurely breakfast of coffee and bread with peanut butter, walked into town to the grocery store for some picnic supplies, and then continued on to see the waterfalls we could hear from a mile away. This grocery run was Colin's introduction to the contrast between Zimbabwe's food situation and every other country we've visited in Africa. He was really taken aback by the lack of variety and the expense of things. We got some cheese, crackers, and fruit for lunch and walked through town to the falls. Along the way, we encountered people begging and others selling souvenirs rather half-heartedly. I'm used to the hard sell tactics of southeast Asia, but here, they just take no for an answer immediately and go away. It's actually pretty sad that people accept no that quickly. 
We got to Victoria Falls, paid our entrance fee (30 dollars each! I really hope this is worth it!), and followed the path to the falls. And it was worth the money. The scenery is so unlike everything around the area- it's lush, and verdant, with huge ferns growing everywhere. The spray from the waterfalls is so heavy that it falls from the trees like it's raining. And this is during the dry season! The water level right now is only a tiny fraction of its maximum, and that was a good thing, because if it was higher, you wouldn't be able to see the falls through the mist. The sound is also unbelievable- an incredible, thundering noise. It was really an awe inspiring sight. Colin and I both wondered at what it must have been like to come across the falls for the first time, as David Livingstone did. 
After we walked along the falls twice, we headed back into town to get stuff for dinner. Unfortunately, the grocery store closes at 1:00 on Sundays. We did find a “7 until 11” shop around the corner, and from their selection, bought ground beef, some ramen noodles, and a half of a basketball-sized head of cabbage. From this, I made meatball, cabbage, and noodle soup in the communal kitchen at Shoestring. At the same time, one of the male employees was also cooking dinner for some of the staff. He seemed as curious about what I was making as I was about his sausage curry concoction. Since there was no way on earth that we could eat all the cabbage, I asked if he'd like the quarter of a cabbage that I wasn't using. He gratefully accepted it. We ate what we could of the pot of soup (it was better than it sounds, but not my finest culinary experiment) and I offered the same man the rest of the soup. He was again very thankful, and he put it in a container for later. The next morning, I asked if he could use the remainder of our jar of peanut butter, and he actually said, “God bless you, and thank you.” Life is hard for many people here.

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