- Sir Richard Francis Burton (on surviving an ambush in the Arabian desert)
What can be said of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe? How about, "Get the *&%$ back right now, you massed, marauding swarms of human stinging flies!" for starters? I previously indicated that due in part to the coming devaluation of the Zimbabwean dollar thick mobs of aspiring currency changers would follow anybody in Tevas or a floppy safari hat for five blocks or more. But the currency changing was just the very tip of the hustle. In addition to Zim dollars (which sounds very much like the monopoly money it was), for energetic sale were whitewater rafting trips, bungee jumps, curios of every description and the ever-popular psychotropic substances. And the insistent, button-pushing bastards who were hustling this wide world of crap didn't take "No" for an answer; they didn't take "We don't want and aren't buying anything" for an answer; ditto "Exchanging currency on the street is illegal and could easily land me in jail," "Please leave us alone," "You're wasting your time," "Do NOT touch me" nor the comment that opens this paragraph.
Ultimately, I began to think of Vic as "Fulcrum City" not only the middle point of our African Odyssey, but the place where all the powers of the local populace, government, industry, and infrastructure are fully deployed in a crusade to lever the visitor away the thick stacks of 500 Zim dollar notes she's forced to carry around just to buy soft drinks (or, much better, any hard currency she's silly enough to be keeping on her person). As Paul put it, when a place is going to hell, most of the folks still there are trying to make a fast buck. But more on that in a minute.
On the upside: Did we suggest that Cape Town was cheap? Bwahahahaha!!! Let's talk exchange rates. The first thing you learn is that only fools and those who need tax losses change money at the banks where the official rate is about 55 Zim dollars to the the US dollar. If you read the travel guides going in, you might expect on average to receive more like 400, or even 600, by going to the street currency exchanges. As we were hitting town, the rate had hit 900, then 1100, and finally peaked at 1300 (you could watch it spiral day by day). The currency is a wreck and everything desperately cheap even at the best of times but (again, as noted), the government is calling an end to the madness, shuttering the currency exchanges, and setting an official, and non-negotiable, rate of 50 to 1, starting in about a month. This makes everyone holding Zim dollars today your "very good friend," for the good reason that when the Zim dollar becomes that valuable, it will be effectively worthless a man in an outhouse with dysentary wouldn't take them off your hands, at that rate. (*)
Also on the Vic upside: the whole place is one big game preserve. For instance, we were admonished from the outset to take cabs home at night from the pubs lest we literally stumble into an elephant in the street. As it turned out, we weren't bothered by anything but a couple of warthogs and rather a lot of baboons. And you have to like a place where there are monkeys in street. For starters, we found a number slipping over the back wall of our lodge compound, gunning for trash (young and old alike). They're very smart little buggers, though and seem to know just when you've focused and are about to get a shot. So, Deb and I got smart and lured them down the wall pillars with apple slices. Mom and infant (our main prey) came out for the first couple, but were not lured further. Instead, this matriarch went back and ordered an (expendable) young male out for the dangerous duty. Nonetheless, we got some very decent shots. (We later found this guy sitting on the curb, seemingly waiting for a bus, when we crossed the border into Zambia.)
The other thing Victoria Falls has going for it is Victoria Falls. "Discovered" (on behalf of white people) by Dr. Livingstone himself, this natural wonder (the world's largest exposed sheet of falling water) is a mere ten-minute hike from town, and provides some really nice hiking once you get there (from one overlook to another). I was also knocked out to think that one of my all-time heroes Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton certainly stood here at some point. Anyway, here are some pictures of that:
But, other than battling off street hustlers and seeing the Falls, Mark and I mainly spent our three days here pulling the same routine we did in Swakopmund: while the others were off risking their necks, and wallets, on adventure sports (desert quad-biking, sand-surfing, and sky-diving in Swakop; whitewater rafting, bungee-jumping, small-plane flights in Vic), we were doing laundry, propping up the local netcafe industry and sitting happily in each other's company in various pubs, cafes, and restaurants. (Only one of which, Mama Africa, bears real remembering.) At the outset, though, we were a little worried about killing the time:
Mark: <sigh> Three days in Vic Falls. We're going to have to find a passtime.
Me: Well, you know what happens when people are in frontier towns with nothing to do.
Mark: They sit around and drink?
Mark: I've probably read 75 novels where guys sit around in frontier cafes, drinking. And planning dinner. (I've probably read 75 such novels set in Africa.)
Me: Yeah. I confess I would kind of like to drink tomorrow if we don't do it tonight.
Mark: We could just designate tomorrow as the night we see if we can drink away 20,000 Zim dollars. Just pile a stack up on the bar and try to get through it. 'Barkeep can we get something more expensive, for God's sake? I can't hold all this!'"
When we gOt back, Jamie has come back from curio shopping in the market. He scored a very nice abstract stone sculpture, a carved wooden elephant, and a mask. With a little haggling, he paid about 1500 Zim for each (about a dollar). "Really," he admitted, "you can pay whatever you want. But at a certain point you just start to feel bad." I made a date with Andrea for curio shopping the next day.
And good thing I did I would have been eaten alive, without her extremely formidable guidance, and protection. Ironically, she asked me out because she didn't feel safe going down there alone. But I was the one in danger! Suffice it to say, shopping is not my strong suit. It took us over an hour before I managed to buy anything. I didn't think my gambit of doing all my Christmas shopping in Africa was going to go at all. But finally, fumblingly, I picked up a nice, small stone sculpture. I overpaid for it (I realized later), but not by terribly much. My confidence grew. I grabbed some carved necklaces. Then a wooden piece. I learned (from Andrea) how to parry their offers, how to deflate their pressure. She was amazing: She'd come over to where I was considering something, and ask how much: "$12,000," the guy would say. "Noooo, no, no," she'd admonish in her authoritative, slightly severe, German doctor way. "That's too much. A thousand." With only a few minutes dickering, I'd walk away with it for $2000, or $2500.
Our rate of purchasing accelerated. I got giraffe salad sets; I got elephant serviette holders; I got carved rhinos and human heads. As the sun went down, the sellers grew more desperate. Business on the ground was incredibly thin there were about 200 of them (sellers) and about 4 of us (buyers). Also, as our purchases piled up, we genuinely got to the point of not wanting anymore. All of this made us the most powerful bargainers in the jungle. On the walk back, the onslaught continued, from curio hawkers on the hoof. One guy showed up with two genuinely gorgeous hand-carved stone pieces. I didn't need anymore, and wasn't sure I could carry them. But at a thousand Zim a piece, there was no way to turn them down. We re-entered our compound sagging from every bag and limb. And laughing drunkenly. It was a total ride. Thank you, Andrea. (And we sure miss you, already.)
As regards the desperation in the market, it's because most of the tourists have gotten out of (or, rather, stayed away from) Dodge. My sources opine that President Mugabe has such a grudge against the British, he is willing to let anyone with a white face get ripped off, or whacked; and unless he is assassinated or deposed, there is going to be a civil war. (My source further opines that the sooner they get it over with, the better people are starving in the meantime.) Thankfully, we didn't sense too much of this, other than a strong whiff of desperation and unease but we were happy to get out of Dodge ourselves.
First, we had to tearfully say goodbye in dribs and drabs, as folks left for the airport to our fellow nomadic tribe members of the past three weeks. It was a really lovely group, and we were lucky to have them as traveling companions and privileged to get to know them as people. E-mail addresses were universally exchanged (and some visiting/travel plans were already made). Also, we got to meet and size up their replacements: Two Londoners, two South Africans (transplanted to London), to Australians (also transplanted to London), one Swede, one American, and one other Londoner. The veterans staying on were me and Mark, Laura and Jamie, American expatriate in Amsterdam Susan, and two of the Spanish speakers (Christina and Maria Jose). And at the helm: Paul! Jo was ordered back to Cape Town, unfortunately, but our entirely intrepid leader would be onboard all the way to Nairobi (assisted by a Zimbabwean man named Dudu, whom we're also growing to like pretty quickly). Finally, a little personal transformation was in order. Firstly, Laura got some lovely hair extensions. Katy, this is for you (and probably you alone ;^):
And I miscalculated by trying to casually ask Paul if, you know, he might be bringing his hair buzzer along on the second half of the trip, because, you know, I was just sort of idly thinking about maybe clearing out this mop of mine, just, you know, for a change of pace, and ease of maintenance, just possibly considering the possiblity, and hey, hey! let go! son of a bitch! Help! Somebody help! He's crazy! (Don't worry, mom and pops it'll be half grown back by Christmas, and all by spring.)
All geared up and reconstituted, we passed the Zambian border outpost, and checked into a rather too-comfy campsite across the border. Still, Mark and I both found we were very happy to be back in the tent city life was making us soft! And, this place had a patio bar with a good view of the dusk. I've been playing around with my manual settings, including white balance (this is the same dusk), which Alex I'm sure predicted this would happen.
Next: The Second Half of the Trip Begins Including Zanzibar, Ngorogoro Crater, and Serengetti. First Up: The "Mighty" Zambezi