Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Zimbabwe rocks

Zimbabwe has a tough reputation: a president who won’t leave office and is accused of assassinating political opponents, a collapsed economy that lead to massive inflation and now operates using the US dollar, and a semi-recent massive cholera outbreak. Despite all of that stuff, this country is fantastic. The people are mostly warm and welcoming and genuinely appreciate tourism and just meeting new people. They are curious about who were are and where we are from and are very open to communicating. It feels good to spend your money here because you know the people really need it. Other than the unbelievably persistent curio sellers in the Vic Falls area who literally appear from the trees, the people are very mellow and despite their hardships, do not beg or harass you.

After wringing the Vic Falls mist from our clothes, we took a dilapidated overnight train to the large, formerly hopping industrial town of Bulawayo. We boarded at 6:30 PM and were delighted to see that we were given a compartment with just two beds so we didn’t have to share with anyone else. Before the excitement from this unexpected surprise wore off, we were overwhelmed with the stench of urine emanating from a tiny non-functional sink in the corner of the room. I made Anne buy deodorizing spray for her boots a while ago, so we just kept spraying the sink with this and it helped. Once the train got moving it wasn’t too bad. There was a toilet at the end of the car but when you “flushed”, things simply dropped down directly on the tracks. The bunks were comfortable and our sleeping bags warm, and we arrived a mere 4 ½ hours late.

Bulawayo was an unexciting town but a convenient stopover. The mall had a movie theater and the streets were lined with 70s-style buildings and shops alternating with the same fast food court chains over and over. Most Zimbabweans we’ve encountered so far and have conversed with have been men and within one minute of talking many ask for our phone number so they can “be our friend.” Our first taxi driver seemed very genuine about wanting to be pen pals, and perhaps our second taxi driver as well, but all the others seem to want an American wife and a quick exit to a better life. It’s hard to blame them with high unemployment rates and progress coming at a snail’s pace.

We worked our way via bus, combi, and a hitch to the Great Zimbabwe Ruins. Unlike Vic Falls, the Lonely Planet grossly underrates this incredible World Heritage Site. The ruins as we see them today were largely built during the 13th century and many of the well-constructed walls still stand. All of the buildings were made from granite bricks that naturally broke from massive boulders in sheets then were stacked in sturdy, even lines without any mortar. The less perfect stones filled the interior of the meters-thick walls. Great Zimbabwe includes two major sections, the Great Enclosure and the Hill Complex.
Hill Complex

Great Enclosure and surrounding ruins

The Great Enclosure section was the home of the queen, the first and most important of the king’s 200 wives. It was also where young men and women went for premarital sexual training. Oral histories combined with phallic objects found by archaeologists suggest that the girls had to prove to the queen that they understood their lessons before they were allowed to wed. Within the granite walls is also a massive conical structure that represents the kingdom’s abundance, and its image was one of the icons on Zimbabwe’s now-worthless multi-trillion dollar notes.
Iconic tower

Inner and outer walls

Decoration on outer walls

Inside the complex

The Hill Complex towers above the Great Enclosure and the surrounding lands. The structure made excellent use of the giant granite boulders naturally found there to enhance the walls and to make narrow passages for safety against attacking enemies. The architects also include twisting passages that lead to nowhere to confuse any possible invaders and the inept tourists of the future. The king lived on the hill and seldom came down. His 200 wives took turns cooking for him as he sat in a cave watching over and ruling his kingdom. The Shona kingdom spread from the Indian Ocean into modern day Botswana and gained wealth through trading with the Portuguese. More than 5,000 people lived in Great Zimbabwe alone. The Hill Complex also included areas for spiritual rites, including fortune telling and worship, and a sacred tunnel for burying the kings. Our guide was excellent and despite the non-stop rain, this was by far one of the best tours we’ve been on this trip. While there we also found out that “Zimbabwe” actually means “great stone house” and to my knowledge this is the only country named after a historical site.
Security path up to Hill Complex

From the ruins we worked our way to the capital city of Harare via bus, minibus, and taxi, and arrived at the backpackers listed in the Lonely Planet only to find that it moved locations…about three years ago. Their advertisements had the same address on them, too. Our main reason for visiting Harare was because we heard it was a good place to get visas for other countries. We have heard from several other travelers that visas to Ethiopia are surprisingly hard to come by, and we confirmed on their embassy website that visas are no longer given at border crossings but may be given at the airport. So, we made a beeline to the Ethiopian Embassy but were denied because apparently now they only give them to residents of Zimbabwe. Next was the Tanzanian Embassy where we confirmed we could get a visa at this sketchy border crossing that Anne is very excited about (tune in five weeks from now to hear the details). The Mozambican Embassy kept our passports overnight but we picked them up the next morning with our fresh new visas. Finally, we hit up the Kenyan Embassy where the staff was unbelievably friendly and accommodating. It came up in conversation that Anne had lived in Tanzania for three years and the staff was bedazzled by this white woman who could speak Swahili. Word apparently spread throughout the building because more people came down to chat with her while we waited.

Thus far we can definitely say that all travelers are encouraged to head to this beautiful and friendly country. The Lonely Planet is mostly worthless when it comes to information, though, so just ask around for help. People will honestly and willingly give it. The only rule is that you can’t say anything bad about their dictator, err, president.

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