Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Me and Bobby Mugabe

Note: I've tried to post this a few times this past week, only to be prevented by a series of blackouts. Here are my post-Spring Break reflections, with lots of pictures.

After a late Thursday night in Cape Town with my friend’s family, I left my dorm at the crack of dawn on Friday to catch an early morning flight to Johannesburg. There, we boarded our overland bus and began our trip to the Botswana border, which we reached just before border control was to close. We continued our drive the next morning and arrived in the town of Maun in the early afternoon. Don’t worry, the trip (and my subsequent blogging) was about to get much more exciting.

The next morning we boarded a truck that took us to an opening of the Okavango Delta. The ride took us through rural Botswana, where nearly all of residents eagerly waved to our passing vehicles. This was interesting as I initially wrote it off thinking that tourism was a significant part of their livelihood, but upon further consideration I wondered how much these rural farmers actually received from our presence.

Botswana is an interesting case study in modern African politics. Though its small, landlocked population is primarily rural and focused on mining, Botswana has one of the strongest economies on the continent—Botswana’s currency, the Pula, is worth about 1.3 times the amount of South Africa’s Rand. In speaking to various people, it seems that the country has also successfully managed post-colonial race relations. My guide in the Delta told me that Botswana’s national animal is the zebra because it is black and white together, and for the same reason, their national bird is the eagle (asked him if their national cookie was the Oreo, but I don’t think this joke transferred well). Due to these favorable factors, Botswana is receiving an influx of refugees from other countries seeking asylum, much to the disapproval of many of the natives. The downside is that unfortunately Botswana also suffers greatly from the HIV/AIDS pandemic that plagues much of Sub-Saharan Africa.

When we entered the Delta, we packed our luggage into the mokoros which would take to our campsite. A mokoro is a traditional wooden canoe which is the chief means of transport in the Delta. The driver has a long wooden stick which he uses to propel and steer the canoe. (My driver, Chris, let me to try to drive the mokoro, but I couldn’t figure out how he seemed to position the stick on the floor of the river, so I used the stick like a kayak paddle. Hilarity ensued.)

Orchids in the Delta

chillin' in the mokoro

Once we got to the campsite, an island in the middle of the Delta, we swam in the river before leaving for a nature walk in the afternoon. Though we didn’t see any animals then, our guide, Saulo, showed us the poop that denizens of the Delta had deposited as we watched a beautiful African sunset.

I don't know what happened with this picture, but I think it's pretty cool

sunset pictures never get old

Somehow one of the guides had convinced us to sleep outside that night (while they themselves had put up tents). It was pretty miserable with all of the mosquitoes– thank God for Malarone!—and all of the other Delta critters, but at least we were already awake for our early morning walk. It was soon obvious that Saulo was quite good at manuevering around the Delta and finding animals. We were able to spot tons of elephants, giraffes, and springbok, and beautiful fauna. It was also unbelievable that Saulo knew exactly where we were in the fields of the Delta, to which he likened to us being able to navigate ourselves in our hometowns. I have a feeling it’s slightly different.

AEPhi giraffes

We took another mokoro ride deeper into the Delta that evening. That night, we had a campfire with our guides who insisted on putting on a whole musical production and made us play some childish games. Needless to say, it was a great night, in no small part thanks to my return to tent-dwelling.

just incredible.

I told you-- sunset pictures never get old, especially in the Delta

In the morning we said goodbye to our guides and returned back to the campsite in Maun where we had stayed before our Delta excursion. We stayed there just long enough to take our first shower in three days and eat lunch before leaving for another day on the road. We arrived at our campsite after dark after a delay at a pointless Hoof-and-Mouth Prevention checkpoint.

We woke up early the next morning for the drive up north to Chobe National Park. The ride to Chobe was beautiful and along the rural roads we were able to see more elephants, giraffes, and springbok close to our bus. But that’s where the fun stopped, as somewhere along a rural highway, our engine blew and our bus broke down. Because there was no cell phone reception, one of our guides hitchhiked to call the other bus in our group. We ate lunch on the side of the road as we waited for the other bus to return. We were rescued a few hours later and were taken to Chobe where we took a pontoon boat ride down the river. On the boat we were able to spot a family of elephants—including my first baby elephant—and impala and had our first hippo encounter. Contrary to the movie Fantasia (a staple of my childhood which featured dancing hippopotami in tutus) hippos are actually very ferocious and aggressive, so we kept our distance, though I was thrilled to see so many of them.

elephant family!

no tutus, no dancing

On scores of souvenirs and other Southern African merchandise, one is likely to find “The Big Five,” a collection of the region’s most dangerous game animals: lions, leopards, water buffalo, rhinos, and elephants. So when I woke up for my game drive in Chobe the next morning, I was determined to cross some of the Big Five off my list. As we got in the vehicle, the guide reiterated that he could not promise that we were going to see any game. We started the drive on the banks of the Chobe River where we ran into another pack of hippos and throngs of impala.

hungry, hungry hippos

good morning, springbok

Coincidentally far from the water, we passed this herd of water buffalo.

A few moments later we ran into this gorgeous animal which I swear was either called a buku or a kubu, but now I can’t find any mention of it on the internet.

We saw some jackals, which are less frightening than I had imagined and more like puppies.

definitely cuter than my dog

After seeing these wild dogs, we needed to see some wild cats. Our driver received word on his walkie-talkie that there were some lions deeper into the park and we caught them just before we had to return to the campsite. I was so excited; I felt like the lion paparazzi. Here are some of the best of the bunch:

three Nalas, no Simbas

After our game drive, we packed into our replacement bus, which was unexpectedly smaller than our original vehicle. It wasn’t a long ride before we got off to hop on a ferry to cross the river into Zambia. We soon arrived at our campsite in Livingstone on the banks of the Zambezi River. In every American camping experience I have had, the biggest worry was keeping loose items away from raccoons. However, in Zambia, I took similar precautions to keep my things away from baboons and vervet monkeys, as even though they are adorable, they are conniving little creatures and the campsite was practically infested with them.

After lunch we headed to Victoria Falls. These pictures and my blog ramblings cannot convey the sheer magnitude of Vic Falls (half of my pictures didn't even come out because of all of the steam and water). You cannot even observe the Falls without getting soaking wet. I was stunned by the enormity of the gorges and the volume of the Falls. It was a truly awesome spectacle.

The next few days were left free to explore the area around Victoria Falls. Over the course of the trip we had befriended our cook, a Zimbabwean expatriate, who encouraged us to cross the border into his old country. I was unconvinced that I really needed to visit Zimbabwe having heard horror stories from my own family of Zimbabwean émigrés, especially the day before the “elections” I’m sure you’ve all heard about. Soon we were set up with the cook’s brother who ran a booth in the market a few feet from the border post. He reassured me that tourists are highly valued in Zimbabwe due to their severe economic problems and that I would be completely safe. I grabbed a few things to trade at the market and crossed the muddy no-man’s-land into Zimbabwe.

The atmosphere across the border was eerie. Though Victoria Falls is a tourist town, it seemed more like a ghost town. Since the beginning of the Mugabe regime, the life expectancy of the country has plummeted to around 35, and in retrospect, I cannot recall seeing anyone much older than that during my visit. Inflation is around 100,000% and currency is printed with expiration dates. The roads were unpaved and few buildings had electricity. I cannot believe that the international community would sit idly by as one dictator ran his country into absolute poverty. This is destitution and insolvency at its worst.

We began at the market where the vendors were more interested in goods than actual currency. I traded a few t-shirts, a few pairs of socks, some hair ties, and a Bic ballpoint pen for some artisan crafts, and I tried to include a few dollars or rand in each deal as a charitable contribution. I could tell they truly valued this bartering; nearly every one of the shopkeepers was wearing a shirt that they had obviously received in such transactions.

As we headed to the Victoria Falls Hotel for lunch, I have never seen such a stark difference between dearth and excess. The hotel is a bastion of a memorial to colonial rule; you can just picture old white men in their safari jackets sitting on the lawn. The walls are adorned with pictures of a 1946 visit by Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret to Rhodesia, portraits of King George V, and other memorabilia of English colonialism. A clear reminder of the economic crisis is a sign at the hotel’s restaurant: “All non-Zimbabwean citizens must settle their bills in a foreign currency.” While leaving the hotel, I paid a small boy a few rand cents for some of his expired Zimbabwean dollars and picked up the strangest piece of political memorabilia I may ever own: a promotion poster for ZANU-PF and Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe. Their slogan: Builiding Prosperity Through Economic Empowerment. (Clearly.) But my day in Zimbabwe wasn’t entirely depressing—I did see a warthog crossing the street.

After my exhausting experience the previous day, I elected to spend my last day of Spring Break as a true Spring Breaker—lying by the pool. The poolside bar had a TV set, but there was little news about the “elections” so the bartender flipped the channel to VH1, which was apparently devoting its entire broadcast to the music of George Michael (to which I hypothesized that in a desperate move for power, Robert Mugabe had killed the former member of Wham!). After another sunset cruise that evening, I said goodbye to Zim, Zam, and the Zambezi. It was an incredible Spring Break, one that I could never replicate and one I certainly will never forget.

A quick, semi-related note to conclude—since arriving in Africa, I have been on high alert for mistakenly pre-printed sports apparel (that is, shirts that hastily declared the Patriots World Champions before the Super Bowl was ever played) as it is a known fact that much of these items typically end up in Africa. While I have been less than successful in this particular pursuit, I’m pretty sure I saw a brand new Charlotte Hornets hat in Zimbabwe...

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