It has been almost exactly a month since I left Africa, flying first from Johannesburg back to Dar for one last round of goodbyes, and then onwards from there.
It already feels like a dream. The first time I saw a giraffe. The way Lake Malawi glimmers as the sun sets. Touring Kigali on the back of a motorbike. Watching the world spin below me from the top of Kilimanjaro. Shivering next to a pool of boiling lava in the Congo. Drinking red wine and eating pizza and talking books at Saverios Restaurant in Dar. An afternoon with a family of mountain gorillas in Rwanda. The dusty red roads of Kampala. Kissing a giraffe in Nairobi. The Tanzanian line dance on my 30th birthday. Christmas in Ethiopia. Swimming in a waterfall in Madagascar. Laughing until I cried in Maputo.
These things that I know to be true. The sunset is most spectacular in Zimbabwe, the sky most beautiful in Madagascar, the water most blue off the coast of Tanzania. Maputo has the best egg tarts, Dar the best Indian food, Ethiopia the best coffee. On a good day, it takes 24 hours to drive 400 kilometres in Madagascar, 15 hours to cover the same distance in Malawi, 12 hours in Tanzania, anybody’s guess in Mozambique.
There are good people everywhere, more parts happiness than sadness. One day, a child in Goma smiled at me and gave me a piece of lava, from the volcanic eruption that destroyed his family home. I carry it in my purse. Another day, a woman sitting beside me on a long bus ride bought me some bananas, a piece of manioc, and a bag of peanuts. She didn’t speak English but she smiled at me when I thanked her. I carry this with me too.
When the picture accompanying this post was taken, I was sitting on the beach with four people I had met a day earlier, eating crabs we had marinated in garlic and tomatoes, drinking a 2M beer, and talking about tides and wind patterns and 3 am departure times. A picnic spread out on the canvas sails we had removed from the boat to use as a tablecloth. Happiness in the form of a poem.
I carry all of it with me.
I counted the stars in Madagascar. I know I am very lucky, both for the adventures and the people I have met along the way.
These are the things I have learned.
I took several precautions when I visited Victoria Falls last month. I armed myself with a big stick, I hired a security guard, and I rented a heavy-duty raincoat.
At the hostel the night before there had been lots of stories about the perils that await travellers at the falls. The most terrifying of these stories relate to baboon attacks. Apparently, the park is infested with baboons who, after being taunted and fed mercilessly by tourists, have now banded together into gangs to hunt the human population.
A few months before my visit, one of my fellow interns was robbed by a baboon. A week before my visit, a guy staying at my hostel had tried to fight off an attack and had ended up in the Livingstone Emergency Room. And the day before my visit, the baboons surrounded a woman and stole her purse. Her purse contained $5,000 in cash, or so the story goes, all of which ended up in a pool at the bottom of the falls.
So I found a big stick on the ground and practiced swatting at the trees with it a few times and satisfied myself that I could maybe handle a violent baboon. If not, the security guard would be there for back up. He was actually a tour guide; I told him I didn’t care about the tour, but that he should intervene if a group of baboons were to surround us.
Shortly after I entered the park there were more warnings about heavy water spray in the areas near the falls. “You should rent a rain jacket”, the guide said. “So your camera and your clothes don’t get wet.” So I paid $1 to rent a full length rain jacket. It was sunny and hot and I felt more than a little ridiculous. But I rationalized that at least the jacket would help protect me from baboon bites. Or maybe even scare away the baboons altogether.
Ensconced in thick plastic rain gear and armed with my stick and my guide, I set off to enjoy the natural wonder that is Victoria Falls.
The falls were mesmerizing.
I am not easily impressed by waterfalls. I am even more skeptical of waterfalls that are billed as must see attractions. But Victoria Falls is amazing. The gorge seemed to extend forever, a curtain of rain. Water was everywhere. In my ears, my hair, puddled at my feet, falling from my eyelashes. I felt small and awed.
My rain jacket flapped in the wind and I was about to pull it tighter around myself when I noticed three Zambian women ahead of me. Dressed only in their kitinge, soaking wet, they were dancing in the Zambezi rain. “Lose the raincoat”, they yelled at me. “It’s more fun this way, like you are swimming in a cloud”.
So I took off the rain jacket and stood under the rain and lost myself in the Zambezi.
But I kept a firm grip on my stick.
“Motopos means ‘bald head’ in the Shona language”, my guide tells me. Motopos National Park is a landscape of precarious rock formations – rocks balanced upon each other that look like they could tumble down at any second.
As we pull up to the park gates, a ranger points to a cluster of rocks balanced somewhere above my head. “Watch out”, he says, and then laughs. “No, not to worry. These rocks have been balanced like this for thousands of years and they will never fall down”.
My guide tells the same joke over and over as we drive through the park, stopping to admire the impossible rock formations.
As we are leaving the park, there is a news bulletin on the local radio. “A rock has fallen at Motopos National Park”, the announcer says. The guide is incredulous. Fifteen minutes later we come across the rogue rock, which has crushed the pavement to fragments.
I think it is time to leave. Before they all start falling down.
Today I sold my watch for 15 billion dollars.
15 billion Zimbabwean dollars.
When the Zimbabwean economy collapsed in 2009, the highest note printed was for 1 trillion dollars. Shortly thereafter, the country switched to the American dollar. The trillion dollar notes are now sold to tourists for about $5 USD. The ten and five billion dollar notes go for a bit less.
One of the touts at Victoria Falls took a liking to my plastic watch and offered me 15 billion for it. How could I say no to an offer like that?
The Khame ruins are located about 30 kilometres from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. There is no public transport to the ruins, so to get there you have to hire a driver or sign up as part of an organized tour.
Captain, the driver that I hired, arranged to pick me up at my hotel at 8 am. It took us two more hours, though, to ready the vehicle to pass police inspections.
“There are three police road blocks between here and Khame,” Captain told me. “They will examine everything. They will check and double check my driver’s licence. They will check to see that the air pressure in the tires is sufficient. They will make sure I have a fire extinguisher and a safety vest. And if anything is missing they will ask for an enormous bribe.”
“The key is to always, always carry a fire extinguisher. They never expect drivers to have it. And it stuns them when I actually have one”.
Sure enough, at the first and second checkpoints the police officer made a show of examining the contents of the trunk (for what I don’t know), studying Captain’s driver’s licence, and asking to see the fire extinguisher.
“See”, Captain said. “It’s ridiculous”.
At the third checkpoint we ran into trouble. After Captain triumphantly produced the fire extinguisher, the officer asked whether he had a permit for transporting tourists to Khame. “There is no such thing” Captain told me, before getting out of the car to have a discussion with the officer.
Through the rear view mirror, I could see arms waving and fists pumping in the air. On two occasions, the police officer came to ask me about the terms of my agreement with Captain. Finally, a supervisor was called and we were permitted to leave.
“Did you have to pay a bribe?”, I asked Captain.
“No”. He smiled. “I had the fire extinguisher”.