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