African Vacation 2011, Part Four: Victoria Falls

15 February 2011 · 7 comments

Victoria Falls posterNote: If you read my personal finance blog, you will already have read bits and pieces of today’s recap.

After a day in Johannesburg and a couple of days at Chobe National Park (plus several days of travel), we packed up and moved east out of Botswana to Zimbabwe. Our next stop was Victoria Falls, a magnificent natural wonder along the Zambezi River, which separates Zimbabwe from Zambia.

Francis, our local guide, gave us more background information on our two-hour bus ride. (And Brian, the tour manager, added bits and pieces, too.) See the sidebar for some background on marriage customs in the area, for instance.

The Bride Price

On the bus ride from Botswana to Zimbabwe, Francis, our local guide, talked about marriage customs in his tribe. Just two generations ago, it was common for men to have several wives. This still happens, but less often, especially in the city. Still, some of the old ways continue. When a man is ready for marriage, for example, he pays a bride price to the father of the woman he intends to marry. This is paid in cattle. (Francis actually called this a dowry, but that’s technically not correct.)

When Francis was married, he paid nine cows plus $700 for his wife. Our bus driver Ernest paid seven cows for his wife.

If a young man can’t pay the bride price, he pays in installments. If the man is unable to pay the full bride price by the time his own daughters get married, he has to use half of their bride wealth to repay the outstanding debt. And if the debt doesn’t get repaid in his lifetime, the responsibility falls to the man’s oldest son. In this way, it’s possible for complex chains of bride debt to exist.

Francis feels lucky — he has three daughters, which means he will eventually be a wealthy man. (In theory.) One day, he’ll have a lot of cattle.

“What do you do with the cattle?” one member of our group asked. “Are they for meat? Do you use them for milk?”

“In our African culture,” Francis said, “your cows are your bank. You can’t eat your bank. You have to save them.”

“What about people who live in the city?” another member of our group asked. “Where do they keep their cattle?”

Brian, the tour manager, explained that in places where it’s impossible to keep actual cattle (such as Johannesburg), the bride price has become abstracted. Some pay it in gold coins called Kruggerands. Others buy “bonds” (Brian’s word, not mine) that represent the cows. Brian says he’s been in homes where the certificates representing the cows are framed and displayed on the wall, like a stock certificate.

We arrived at the gorgeous Victoria Falls Hotel just after noon and checked into our room. This is without a doubt the most beautiful hotel we’ve ever stayed in. The halls are wide, the ceilings tall, and everything is impeccable. The grounds are well-manicured, and the staff exceedingly helpful. Plus, the hotel has a “James Bond pool” (the sort of pool you might expect to see 007 swimming in). Kris and I were in awe. We also felt guilty.

The Victoria Falls Hotel

We spent three nights at the Victoria Falls Hotel, where the average room costs $618 per night. I’m not sure what our actual cost was — it was probably much less — because we booked the entire trip as a package through a tour company. If we’d paid full price, though, we might have expected to pay $1854 for our time in Victoria Falls.

According to our local guide, minimum wage in Victoria Falls is currently $250 a month. And right now, nobody can afford to pay that, so workers are only being given a living allowance — enough to buy bare necessities.

Morning at the Victoria Falls Hotel

So, three nights in this posh hotel cost the same as seven months of local wages. Worse, most Zimbabweans don’t even have a job. Unemployment in the country runs at nearly 80%. 80%!! One in five people has a regular job. Perhaps you can see why, despite our guides’ gratitude, I often felt ashamed to be there.

Victoria Falls

After a short respite, the group gathered to see the falls themselves. Victoria Falls was originally called Mosi-au-Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders”. They’re over a mile wide and 100 meters tall (to mix my measurement systems). By volume, Victoria falls is the largest waterfall in the world. And it is awesome.

Victoria Falls
Almost enough to make me a religious man. (Almost.)

It’s impossible to convey the experience in words and photos. We were there at the end of the rainy season, so the water was rushing at full force. As it falls, it creates a great mist (the “smoke”) which is very much like rainfall. On the Zimbabwe side, you have a grand view of the falls. You can walk along the Zambezi Gorge, taking in each cascade, listening to the sound — and getting drenched. (Fortunately, it was warm — probably 30 or 35 degrees centigrade — so the mist felt awesome.)

We were all like little kids, smiling and laughing at the overwhelming might and beauty of the falls.

Victoria Falls
It’s actually a bright, sunny day — this is just mist from the falls!

In the evening, we attended a cocktail party and then ate a light dinner before retiring early to watch Downton Abbey in bed.

Note: I confess that I took both my iPad and my laptop on this trip. We used both. Before we left, I added the latest episodes of Glee, 30 Rock, and The Biggest Loser to the iPad, and then downloaded the much-hyped Downton Abbey. I liked the latter quite a bit (and think Lisa and Craig might like it, too). Kris thought it was okay, but wasn’t as impressed as I was.

On Valentine’s Day, my favorite day of the trip, our group experienced three cultural outings. First, however, I swam and Kris wrote postcards. How romantic!

Valentine's Day in Vic Falls

The Open Market

In the late morning, we joined our group for a visit to the Victoria Falls open market, where local residents sell hand-made jewelry, rugs, statues, and knick-knacks. Before we entered the market, Brian gave us a piece of advice: “Think of this as a cultural experience, not a shopping opportunity,” he said. “And don’t just give these folks money. They don’t want your handouts. They want to earn a living.” He told us to use this as a chance to test our bargaining skills.

I heeded Brian’s advice, and did my best to learn more about the vendors I spoke with. When we got off the bus, we were greeted by Joseph, who took us to his stall. He asked if we liked anything we saw. Kris like a pair of earrings. Joseph said they cast $15. “But that’s just my starting price,” he said. “Now you make an offer. But Kris didn’t really want to haggle, so she gave him $13.

Negotiating for Earrings at the Victoria Falls Open Market
Joseph and Kris, haggling over earrings.

Meanwhile, I started talking with Joshua, who had some nice stuff, including a $35 hippo and a $45 cat carved from serpentine. I haggled with Joshua a bit, but my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t want to buy a bunch of Stuff. I told him I’d come back because Kris wanted to go visit Florence, the wife of the vendor she’d just dealt with.

Florence showed us several tablecloths, and Kris picked one that she liked. Florence wanted $40 for it, and Kris offered $20. In the end, they agreed to a price of $30.

On the walk back to Joshua, I was hijacked by Moreblessing, who asked me to visit his stall — “Just to look, not to buy.” He and I squatted together to look at his wares (which were much the same as Joshua’s). He had some nice leopardstone stuff, but it was all to expensive. Eventually, I talked him down to $12 on a hippo.

Here, I made Kris cranky. She thinks I was rude to do what I did next (and after talking with my friend Steve after returning home, maybe Kris is right — it wouldn’t be the first time). I left Moreblessing and went back to Joshua. I told Joshua that Moreblessing would sell me a hippo for $12 and asked him to do the same. He did so. Kris came up and asked me to buy a $7 frog, too.

Then I went back to negotiate with Moreblessing, but he was less friendly now, and less inclined to reduce his prices. He still wanted $35 for a leopard carved out of leopardstone, and he wouldn’t come down. In the end, I paid $27 for the cat, a small piece of carved wood shaped like Africa (sort of), and a worthless old Zimbabwean coin he had lying around.

Note: Zimbabwe suffered extreme inflation throughout the last 30 years, and lapsed into hyperinflation during the past decade. How hyper was the hyperinflation? During 2007, the inflation rate was 66,212%. During 2008, it was 231,150,888%. During our short time in Zambia, Kris paid $1 each to buy some old Zimbabwean notes. Their values? 50 trillion dollars and 30 billion dollars. (Or something like that.) Now they’re worth nothing. In April 2009, Zimbabwe abandoned its currency for the U.S. dollar.

Not everyone liked the market. Some folks were uncomfortable haggling. Sharon, for example, doesn’t like to barter, so she’d pick items and have her husband John do it for her. Others, however, loved it.

Alissa (the only other woman our age) and her 13-year-old daughter Ruby seemed born to haggle. When the bus returned to the hotel, Alissa stayed behind to do more negotiating. And Ruby didn’t spend a nickel. She traded away the clothes she was wearing, including her Lance Armstrong Livestrong bracelet. “It was yellow,” she said. “Everybody wanted it.”

On the way back to the hotel, one of our guides (Francis? Ernest, the bus driver?) made a poignant comment: “It’s nice when people from the U.S. come over and find out we’re not savages, not awful people. Some Americans are scared to come here, but they see we are all very nice people.”

He’s right. Kris and I loved Zimbabwe. The people were friendly and interesting, and we never felt unsafe.

Chinotimba Government School

The Government School

During the afternoon of our cultural day, we visited the Chinotimba Government School, where about 25 children sang and danced for us. When they finished, we had a chance to chat with them. (English is the primary language in the countries we visited, another remnant of the colonial past.) One boy was fascinated by my camera, so I let him borrow it; he ran around the room, snapping photos of all his friends.

Students at the Chinotimba Primary School
Photo taken by a boy at Chinotimba Primary School.

Before we left the school, we had a chance to donate school supplies. Kris had brought some pens, pencils, small notebooks, and inflatable globes. I was unprepared. I hadn’t expected to be so moved by the visit. I pulled aside Francis, our local guide (who had attended this school when he was a boy and now has a daughter who’s a student here), and showed him the books I was carrying in my bag. “Could the school use these at all?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” he said.

“Even these?” I asked, holding up four digest-sized comic books I’d brought to read on the plane.

Francis laughed. “Yes,” he said. “They’ll love them. The kids know who Superman is.” So, there’s a grade school in Zimbabwe that has some comic books from my collection now. The school principal, who collected the money and supplies our group donated, seemed touched and grateful.

Quiz at the Chinotimba Primary School

Back on the bus, many tour members talked about how sad it was that these kids had so little. Brian tried to squash this sentiment.

“Look at the children,” he said. “Are these kids unhappy? I’ll wager that you’ll see the children are happy. They’re happier than any of the children in South Africa. Why? Because everyone is equal. They all have the same Stuff. It’s not one kid has an iPod and another one doesn’t. They’ve got nothing, and we know that. But they’ve all got nothing. They’re all the same.”

Brian wasn’t arguing that it’s good for these people to live in poverty. He was trying to make it clear that it’s possible to be happy even without a lot of Stuff, and that if you give something to one person and not another, you sow the seeds of envy.

Note: Parents pay $25 per term to send a child to the Chinotimba Primary School. There are more expensive schools available, but only government officials can afford them. So, if you want your kids to be educated — and most Zimbabweans do — you spend $75 a year (or $100 — I’m not sure how many terms there are) to send each of them to school. Now, go back and re-read the calculus of our hotel again. For the cost of two nights in that place, I could probably fund a child’s entire grade-school education.

Victoria Falls food market
A food market in Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls children
“Take my snap! Take my snap!”

Dinner at Home

In the evening, we made a quick trip to a nearby food market, where we spent a few minutes wandering the stalls, looking at the items for sale. (I found two women who were selling used boxes! I asked to snap their photo so I could share it with the guys at Custom Box Service.

Women selling boxes in Victoria Falls

After this brief detour, we split into small groups. Each group went to the home of a local resident, where we were served a typical Zimbabwean meal. (Actually, it was a little atypical: We were given the equivalent of both lunch and dinner. Plus, our meal contained more meat than the families usually eat.)

Kris and I dined with Blessed and her family, which owns two homes on adjoining properties. “We are a family of sixteen,” Blessed told us, “and we are still expanding.” She says that “uncles, aunties, misses, cousins” live in these two houses.

Blessed served us hominy in peanut butter, pumpkin leaves in peanut sauce, and sadza with chicken stew. Sadza is a cornmeal pap; it’s Zimbabwe’s staple food. In fact, Blessed’s family eats so much sadza that they buy a 50kg (~110 pound) bag of cornmeal every month. (I think the “mielie pap” we saw in Botswana and South Africa is the same as sadza, but I can’t swear to it.) Fish is expensive, so it isn’t eaten often, and meat seems to be used as a flavoring agent, not a main ingredient.

Note: We also got to try Mopane worms. These worms — which look like large caterpillars — live in the mopane tree, and are very plentiful. Because of this, they’re a common source of protein in Botswana and Zimbabwe. I’m not sure how they’re usually prepared, but for us, they were fried crispy. Some of our group wouldn’t try them, but they were actually pretty good. You know that crisp charred layer that forms on the outside of a brisket when you grill it? The part you always eat before anyone else can? Well, that’s what the worms were like.

As we ate, we talked with Blessed and her two helpers, which included a friend and a cousin. Blessed told us that her family is actually fairly well off compared to many in the area. Doreen, who is eighteen, is nearly finished with high school. She just got her exam results. Because she did well, she’ll soon be going to university, and then (she hopes) to medical school. So, in contrast to a lot of what we’d seen on this cultural day, this family seemed to be on a path toward relative prosperity.

Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve
This board tracks the animals that have been spotted on the reserve.

The Interactive Safari

As if that weren’t enough, the next day, we headed out for more fun in Victoria Falls. We drove to the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve, where we spent about an hour tracking down a pair of black rhinos.

Because the Chinese still value rhino horns as an aphrodisiac, poaching is a problem. People are willing to risk their lives to kill a rhino for its horn because they can get so much money. In fact, the five rhinos that live on this reserve have recently been the target of poachers, who planned to kill them with an AK-47. The poachers were cornered by lions, though, and ran away — all except one, who got trapped in a tree. When he was caught, he confessed. Had the poachers actually succeeded, they could have (by law) been shot on sight.

Later, we spent about half an hour riding on the back of an elephant, and then maybe an hour petting young lions. We’d been a little worried that this optional excursion wouldn’t be worth it, but it was actually a lot of fun to have personal time with the animals.

Riding an Elephant
Carole and Francis (our local guide) on an elephant

Riding an Elephant at Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve
Basically, if you feed an elephant, it will do anything you want.

Petting the Lions at Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve
I want one.

In the early afternoon, I spent a couple of hours swimming and lounging by the pool — without sunscreen. As those who follow me on Facebook know, I got a bad sunburn, which made life miserable for the next few days. (My sunburn wasn’t as bad as Ruby’s though. Ruby, who is in seventh grade, got scorched. She had the biggest sunburn blisters I’ve ever seen. Poor kid.)

Swimming at the Victoria Falls Hotel
Swimming in the James Bond pool. A few more hours of this, and I was fried.

Note: One drawback to traveling in groups is that there never seems to be time to exercise. We’re always doing something. (I suppose I could get up earlier, but I need my sleep, too!) So, whenever we stayed at a place with a pool on this trip, I tried to swim. I’m not a great swimmer, but it doesn’t matter. Swimming is exercise, even if you look like a drowning walrus. (Plus, I figured out how to do some improvised “body presses” out of the deep end of the pool. Kris mocked me for them — “you look like you’re showing off” — but they paid off. When I returned from Africa, my upper body strength was close to what it had been when we’d left. Yay!)

In the evening, we did two activities I didn’t really enjoy.

  • First, we did the David Livingstone “booze cruise”, which was a leisurely boat trip on the Zambezi including a lecture about the explorer David Livingstone. The lecture was good, but I didn’t like anything else about the trip.
  • Next, we had a “bush dinner”. A local catering company prepared a buffet meal that we enjoyed under a big tent erected next to the Zambezi. Again, I didn’t care for this event.

Some folks loved the booze cruiser and the bush dinner, but hated the previous day’s cultural outings. I was just the opposite. One highlight of the evening, however, was some energetic dancing with Kris, who was invited to join in a traditional song and dance. You can find her smooth moves near the end of this ten-minute video of highlights from our Victoria Falls stay:

The Foofie Slide

On our final morning, before departing for Kruger National Park, Kris and I recruited Peter to join us on a zipline across the Zambezi Gorge. Originally, I was going to bungie jump from the bridge into Zambia. But I was too chicken. A zipline, I can handle. We got up early, ate breakfast, and then the three of us took the short ride to the zipline station.

Peter preparing for the zipline
Peter was a good sport and learned to fly.

I’m a little unclear as to what it was we actually did. From what I understand, an actual zipline is taut, and sends a person from one point to another. Ours didn’t do that. Ours sagged in the middle, and we never reached the other side. After our initial descent, we sort of swung to and fro (like a pendulum) until a staff member came to retrieve us.

Ziplining into the Zambezi Gorge
My eyes aren’t closed — I’m looking straight ahead but NOT down.

When he came for me, I asked if this were actually a zipline. “Not really,” he said. “It’s more like a foofie slide, but with a zipline setup.” That made things clear as mud. And searching the internet before writing about this, I learned that “foofie slide” is just a South African term for zipline.

Whatever the case, we did it, and it was fun. The first eight seconds scared the hell out of me, but after that, it was all good. Again, check the video above for footage of Peter and Kris plunging into the gorge.

And come back in a day or two for a photo safari through South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

1 Onie March 7, 2011 at 13:15

wow…..what an awesome trip! the zip line looks fun! :-)

2 retirebyforty March 7, 2011 at 14:15

What did you think of the elephant ride? We rode one in Thailand and was amaze at the steep hill it could climb. We love elephants. That picture with the lions look scary.

3 jdroth March 7, 2011 at 15:20

The lions were big babies. They were harmless. (Though they did have large claws, no doubt.)

The elephant ride was fun, but wasn’t very long or through interesting terrain. I’m not complaining; I’m just pointing out that it was about as vanilla as riding on a multi-ton pachyderm can get!

4 Elizabeth (@lizzydragon84 on Twitter) March 7, 2011 at 17:52

Thanks for sharing about your African vacation. I loved reading your observations about how tourism is helping the area and how people want to work and provide a service- not just take a handout.

It was also fun reading about your haggling experiences. I had a similar experience Much like your group, some folks really got into it and other didn’t care for the process. I had a lot of fun with it and picked up some nice items for the folks at home.

I can’t wait to read about the rest of your African adventure.

5 kristen March 7, 2011 at 17:56

You weren’t rude at all in the market. I am constantly amazed by how hesitant and silly Americans are about bargaining. You’ll never get a real bargain in a developing country — locals know how to read you, get plenty of money from you, and they have been negotiating since they were old enough to speak. No matter how much you negotiate, you paid plenty. And there’s nothing wrong with comparing prices between stalls and letting vendors know what you previously paid. That’s a common negotiating technique used in the US and overseas.

Given that you’re an animal lover, you might want to second-guess activities on future trips that involve using animals (other than watching them in an unobtrusive way in their natural habitats). For example, riding elephants is essentially supporting the torture of them. First, the animal is ripped from its mom as a baby. Then it’s kept captive instead of getting to be free. And then it is “broken” and “tamed” in a process that is very, very violent. Wild animals don’t just let humans ride on their backs. You can google images of this process if you’re interested, and I think that PETA also has video. It’s really terrible.

Regarding wild cats, I’ve ALWAYS wanted to pet lions and tigers. But, despite lots of travel to places where this is possible (African and Asian countries), I’ve never done it because it’s either blatantly unethical (to me) or questionable. Again, to be pet by tourists, the animals have been ripped from their parents and not allowed to live free and wild. Often, the animals are drugged to ensure that they don’t hurt tourists. They are often abused behind the scenes. When tourist money is at play, locals will do anything to the animals to keep tourists happy and the money rolling in. Again, you can read more about this online. Locals will tell you that these animal experiences somehow contribute to animal preservation, but it’s usually not true. I know that it’s nearly irresistible to pet giant, cute kitties, but as animals lovers, you might consider not doing things in the future that interfere with animals being wild and free.

6 MutantSuperModel March 8, 2011 at 09:55

I. Totally. Want. A. Lion. Or at least, lie down and take a nap in that heap. I knew a guy who raised lions, tigers, and other exotics. They were all rescues and amazing animals. Very sweet lovelies. Your picture reminded me of him and them.

Your trip looks amazing. I’d love to visit Africa. Like others, I’m intimidated by the haggling process and probably would’ve felt uncomfortable in the environment. It’s just not something I’m used to given my awesome uptight American upbringing LOL. The photos are great by the way. I mean you have some serious wall art candidates here.

7 Kevin M March 12, 2011 at 10:02

Do you ever smile in pictures?

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