Zimbabwe - Round The World Tour 2003 Day 54

Victoria Falls

Monday 5th May

After a few days here in Vic Falls, I’m starting to get the sense that I understand the Zimbabwe people. My initial impressions of this place and have slowly changed over the course of today. Whilst we were out with Mags and Bertie last night, we met one of the local taxi drivers, Andy, that they had previously gotten to know on a couple of previous visits to Victoria Falls. He came to the restaurant where we were eating and sat with us for a short while. He seemed a nice enough guy but was otherwise just another taxi driver that might have been vying for our attention as we walked down the street along with all the other taxi drivers, moneychangers and curio merchants. On the surface, he was the kind of guy we might not give a second glance to or, more perhaps more likely, trying to avoid altogether. Bertie and Mags spoke very highly of him, however, and because of this, we decided to make use of his services today with some driving around that we required.

We got up late this morning and didn’t leave the lodge until ten o’clock in the morning. We took full advantage of the fact that we were sleeping in a permanent physical structure and on an actual real bed with real linen and pillows. It was sheer bliss and we even had a bathroom with its own shower that we didn’t have to share with forty other people.

We left most of our backpacks at the reception desk and waited for the shuttle bus to whisk us into town where we were to meet with Andy to negotiate a price for running us around. We had several chores that needed doing today and I doubt that we would’ve gotten them all done without the use of a car.

Andy was a little late but this gave us the opportunity to spend some time with one of the activities specialists at Shearwaters to get some information regarding some accommodation and transportation options. Vusa was his name (or Very USA as he put it) and he was a very friendly and helpful guy that we’d spoken with previously. He had given me a full set of Zimbabwe coins the other day and I returned the favour by giving him one of my crisp, new one US dollar bills from my secret stash for emergencies. Technically, he got the better end of the deal by almost a thousand fold but I still think that it was well worth it since the coins are almost impossible to find – they are completely worthless as actual currency here.

Vusa did a lot of phoning around on our behalf and we left the building with a lot of options to explore. When Andy arrived, we haggled a little and negotiated a price of $15 for his services for the rest of the morning and afternoon. It turned out to be the best $15 I’ve spent since we’ve been in Africa.

We were only really expecting to be driven to a few places such as the bank, post office and curio stalls and to then be dropped off again in town. In actuality, we drove quite a distance and pretty much saw all corners of Victoria Falls and then some. Our first order of business was to check out some accommodation lodges that Vusa had lined up for us. After about an hour of driving around and checking out a few places, we ended up deciding on the very same camp-site that we’d camped in with Wildlife upon arrival. Of course, we opted for the chalet this time instead of a tent.

With our accommodation now sorted, our next stop was the train station to inquire about onward travel through Zambia and up into Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania (the stress is pronounced on the second letter a here). The stationmaster really looked the part and was extremely helpful. This cheerfulness and helpfulness is something that is a common theme with all Zimbabwe citizens that we’ve me so far.

We left the train station and went across the road to the post office to inquire about sending some curios back home. There is a DHL here in town but they are ludicrously expensive, as were Air Zimbabwe Freight.

Andy suggested we go to visit the ‘Big Tree’, which is a large Baobab tree here in Victoria Falls. We did so and snapped a few photos accordingly. By now, Andy was starting to behave like a tour guide and duly gave a running commentary on the local environment, flora and fauna. It seemed that he was no longer just a taxi driver but more of a personal guide at this point. He pointed out that many of the roads that we travelled today ran right through the wilderness where pretty much every dangerous animal in Africa might be wandering around freely. In fact, we passed a couple of Elephants just a few feet from the road just around the corner from the Baobab tree. I know Elephants are dangerous as I was charged by one just the other day and was lucky to escape with my life. Apparently, there is an aging Leopard roaming around these parts also. Not being able to hunt as well as it used to, this is actually a pretty dangerous animal, as it would go after humans for food. Theron had also told us about a run in that he had had with three Lions near the side of the road when he was walking between a camp-site and the town centre on a previous trip. Since we had seen Spotted Hyenas just last night at the floodlit watering hole at the lodge, we knew first hand that this was a dangerous place to be and I once again got the feeling that we were actually out in the bush.

Our next stop was the Wimpy burger joint on the corner of the main street where all the activity was. There were probably fifteen or more of the usual touts hanging around outside the place and I remember bracing myself for the anticipated onslaught upon exiting the car. Since we were with Andy, however, we were not bothered. Andy grew up here and knows everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY. A glance of a quite word or two in the local language was all that was necessary to convey to anyone and everyone in the vicinity that we were with him and not to be bothered. We went inside the shop and ordered a quick lunch whilst Andy was good enough to go up the road to buy some bottled water for us. There was never any mention of us needing to pay for it, he just decided that it was necessary for us to have water and went and bought it for us. Not only was he turning out to be a pretty good personal guide but also a pretty decent person to boot. When he returned, we asked him inside and told him to order something for himself, which we picked up the tab for. It seemed like the right thing to do and I was glad to do it.

Yesterday, there was a brief mention of perhaps seeing the township where he lives and this was our next destination. We not only went into his township, but he took us inside his house and we met his wife and four-year-old daughter, whose name I will simply never be able to pronounce. It brought back the fond memories of our visit to the Knysna Township in South Africa and the atmosphere here was no less warm and friendly.

We stayed just long enough for him to explain a little about how they live and we were off again to conquer the next major task of the day, which was to procure some carved wooden curios. Andy was going to take us to a place where we would be much less hassled and it turned out to be a row of curio stalls along the side of a road just outside of town. Instead of buying from the market traders in town, we were actually buying from the original craftsmen and women that actually make the things themselves. It’s particularly pleasing to know that all the money we paid went directly to the artists, to support them and their families, as opposed to some middleman. Andy informed us that the curio tradesmen in the markets in town buy their stocks from these locals anyway and so the choice of crafts on offer was just as wide.

We spent the better part of a couple of hours wandering up and down the fifty-meter row of makeshift stalls, haggling with the artists. We bartered not only for money but also for various things that we’d brought along to trade with. Things that we parted with included books, a T-shirt, a pair of Sandy’s shorts, some shaving Razors and various other odds and ends that we were planning on ditching or sending home anyway. Some of the prices we were paying were borderline ridiculous. The highest amount that we parted with for a single curio was probably $15 or the equivalent in Zimbabwe currency. If we were to buy these things in Europe or America, we would probably have to pay several hundred dollars or perhaps even a lot more. We also had a couple of R10 notes from South Africa and we used these also to make purchases with. The haggling was honest and business-like. There were some things that we were unable to agree on a price for but on the whole we got everything that we wanted and the artists made more money on their sales than they would have done buy selling to the market traders in town.

One curio item in particular that I was very pleased to finally procure was the Nyaminyami stick. It is the Zambezi River snake god whose existence is a part of the Zimbabwe culture and folklore. It is not found anywhere else and is also known as the ‘walking, talking, stick’. It’s kind of a cross between a walking stick and totem pole. It has the snake god at the top and the rest of it is comprised of various carved artwork such as the Mopane tree, some local villagers, a smoking pipe, some leaves and so on. Starting from the top and working down, each item in the stick is integral to the story that is told as the bits and pieces in the stick are described. Each piece represents another part of the story. There were several different Nyaminyami sticks for sale at several different stalls and we picked one that we liked best and haggled for it accordingly. We actually walked up and down the row of stalls several times trying not to look too interested in any given item. This is all part of the haggling game and we are getting quite good at it.

We left the row or market stalls with a trunk full of beautiful wooden curios. We probably spent less than $60 altogether for a range of artwork that would cost us literally thousands of dollars back home. Everything that we bought is just simply stunning but I think I got the most satisfaction from one of the smallest items of all. It is a four-inch tall carving of a Giraffe eating leaves from the top of a tree but is carved in actual Giraffe bone and is quite beautiful.

As if Andy had not already done enough for us, we were next in for a real treat. We went to visit is small village (literally just a few buildings within the confined of a small paddock) where one family lived and worked. Andy and the guys that were there explained all about how the buildings were made from mud, how they were painted using various types of different coloured dirt, how the roofs were made from thatch that the women cut and collected and so on. We saw their Maize food store and even went into their kitchen/living room hut and one of their bedroom huts. This little dwelling was very typical of how the people that make the curios actually live and work. We saw various curios in all the stages of manufacture and they even showed us how they cut the wood, chipped the pieces of wood into rough shape and then sanded and polished them to a finish ready to be sold. Ordinarily, when you get your hands on a piece of manufactured product, it has gone through several and even dozens of hands before reaching you and you are quite removed from the source of the manufacturing process. In this case, we were not only buying these things from the source but we actually got to see them being made and the experience a little bit of the lives of the people who actually made them. One of the huts we went into had a few dozen finished curios sitting waiting to be sold. I bought a couple of pieces right there from the father of one of the boys that made some of them. I only paid $10 for the two pieces but this was probably a lot of money comparatively for the sale of them by this household so everybody was happy all around. We also got to see the tools that they used to fabricate from scratch these pieces of artwork and I was very surprised to learn that there were almost no purpose built tools, such that you might find in a woodworking shop, at all. All the tools they used were broken bits and pieces of car axels and suspension springs and so on. The resourcefulness and ingenuity of these people is truly staggering.

Our visit to this little household community developed into one of the highlights of our entire African trip so far. I got the real sense that we were extremely privileged to get this experience and I’m sure that it is a side of Victoria Falls that very few people will ever get to see.

Even with a truck full of beautiful curios, there was still one more item that I was very keen on getting if we could. The other day whilst we were meandering around the local market stalls in town, I saw a two-foot tall Impala horn into which the Big-5 (Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo, Lion & Leopard) were beautifully carved. If it were not for the colour and spiral shape, it might otherwise be confused for an ivory Elephant tusk. The horn is apparently hollow and so has a semi-translucent look to it. It looked absolutely gorgeous and I wanted it badly – although it would have been stupid to allow anyone to know this, of course. Andy and I chatted a bit about this and we agree that we would try to negotiate a maximum price of $20 for it (it’s probably worth several thousand US dollars anywhere else). We went into town and drove right into the market place and were immediately surrounded by large numbers of hopeful traders. Since we were with Andy, however, we were not hassled at all (well, not nearly as much as when we were there the other day on our own at least). Andy went to work in his own language talking to the various traders trying to track down the stall where the carved Impala horn might be located. After a few minutes, a trader came sprinting over from the other side of the market with two of them in his hand, the one being just a few inches taller than the other. Andy informed the trader that I might be interested and told him that he would be negotiating directly with me. It was a hard sell (I say that almost laughingly – remember, I’m getting very good at haggling now) and I had to pull out all the stops. Clearly, he could tell that I was interested as this was our only reason for being here to begin with. Accordingly, his initial asking price was much that it was the other day and it took quite a bit of work on my part to bring the price down. I had to dip into my backpack to pull out a couple of additional things to bring to the table in addition to the US dollars that I told him I was prepared to pay. In the end, he reluctantly agreed on a price of $25, my Platypus water drinking bag, Sandy’s bandana and a couple of books. “For this price”, I complained, “I want the tallest one!” Suffice it to say that we walked off with the trophy in hand and I was practically peeing myself with glee at the marvellous purchase I’d just made. Luckily, I had some tissue in my backpack to wipe away the drool that was by now foaming at the corners of my mouth. This carved Impala horn is undoubtedly the very best piece that we purchased today.

The afternoon was now dragging on but we had just a couple more tasks that remained on the list. We had by now almost completely exhausted our supply of local currency and Andy helped us change another $45 on the black market. He got us a slightly better rate of exchange than we had gotten with Shearwaters when we arrived. He had asked me what the rate was that I had gotten with Shearwaters and I told him. In retrospect, I suspect that he may have even gotten a better rate than he had told us and had pocketed a little for himself. If this is the case, I do not begrudge him it at all and was more than happy to receive the huge was of notes that he had procured for us. Changing money on the black market is an extremely risky business for tourists and will almost certainly result in you either being ripped off or worse still, arrested and heavily fined.

All that now remained was to wrap and pack our purchases so that they could be sent at the post office tomorrow (it was by now almost closing time at the post office). We headed back into the market where there were some guys offering their services as wrappers and packers and we negotiated a price of $10 to pack and wrap everything into a single package. The looks of disappointment of lost sales on the faces of some of the market traders when we opened up the trunk of the car to reveal the volume of curios that we’d purchased – from elsewhere – was something that I wished could have been caught on camera. The price of the packing went up by a couple of dollars when I asked for the entire box to be packed and wrapped again to make doubly sure that the package would not disintegrate en route. They even put a nice little handle on the box for us to make it easy to carry. We parted with $12 plus a few five hundred Zimbabwe dollar notes as a little extra. They did a sterling job of fabricating the package and worked quite hard and skilfully for about forty-five minutes altogether, building the package from scratch around the curios using nothing more than some shredded paper, some old, tattered, cardboard boxes and a roll of tape. It will be interesting to see if the package actually manages to make it all the way back to England. I will be stunningly upset if it doesn’t but at least I will only be out a hundred and fifty dollars of so (after postage) if it doesn’t. We are going to try to get Shearwaters to put together a bill of sale receipt for us just in case there are any problems with customs at the receiving end in England. I will send this ahead of time just in case it’s needed.

Our experience today with Andy was a truly unexpected treat that I can barely find enough superlatives for to explain. The Zimbabwe people that we have met here have been the warmest and friendliest of people that you could wish to meet. After having stayed here for a few days, we’ve been able to look past the constant harassment of the touts and have been able to peer into the psyche of the Zimbabwe populous. There is so very little money here (it’s very ‘dry’ as Andy put it) at the moment and this is why the touts and traders are so much ‘in your face’, desperately trying to make a sale in whatever way they can to bring in a pittance for themselves and their families. Once you understand this and are able to put it to one side, you get to see the true Zimbabwe, which so many tourists, unfortunately, do not get a chance to experience. Some of the members of our tour group left this place as soon as they possibly could and will have taken with them a feeling of loathing as a result of their immediate experiences here. I, on the other hand, am starting to fall in love with the place and am also starting to get the feeling that I am somehow reaching these people. I feel a great deal of pain for what is happening to the Zimbabwe people under the current economic and political climate. The horrendously long queue of parked and unattended cars leading to the dry petrol station is just one of the many indicators of just how far the problems have progressed here.

There is potentially good news on the horizon, however, in that President Mugabe (the ‘alleged’ root cause of this country's problems) is rumoured to be stepping down. I spoke with the guy at one of the Internet Cafés here in town about this briefly this evening but he was very reluctant to discuss it in any detail – as I have found to be the case with pretty much every Zimbabwe citizen. He was unable to hold in his Cheshire grin, however, as he slyly conveyed to me his optimism for a better future just around the corner. I gathered from his reaction that the original rumours that I had heard were now closer to becoming a reality.

Perhaps we will actually get to see the falls tomorrow, finally. At $20 per person (which must be paid in hard currency), it is a monumental rip-off but what can you do? You can’t really come all this way and not see the falls – which is precisely the same sentiment that keep most people flocking to pay their $20, I’m sure.