With time quickly flying by, fatigue setting in, and our computer failing us, we made the decision to change our intended direction and instead head directly south through Zimbabwe toward Johannesburg, South Africa. After hours of researching guidebooks and online forums we had made up our mind to take the train linking the town of Victoria Falls (on the Zimbabwe side of the falls) to the second biggest city in Zimbabwe, Bulawayo. We figured with this new itinerary we could take a couple days to see some of the cool sites nearby before making the jump to Johannesburg to take a small rest and get the computer checked out before we headed to South East Asia.
With high spirits we made the journey across the border without any problems. After passing the bridge linking the two countries (which we had visited before) we walked another half kilometer before the official entry into Zimbabwe. It was pretty apparent where people attempt to (and sometimes probably succeed) penetrate the gates to the Victoria Falls park on the Zimbabwe side. We were actually pretty shocked at how little security there was in this area, apparently because it technically lay between the two countries, not officially belonging to one or the other.
Once on the other side, we bypassed and kindly turned down the many offers for bracelets, currency exchange, and wooden carved creatures. This side of the bridge seemed to be warthog heaven as well. There were multiple herds roaming about and the baby ones entertained us for quite some time before we headed to the train station to buy our overnight train tickets. With our bags behind the ticket counter, we had about two hours to kill. We used the time to explore the town and stock up on food and drinks for the journey ahead. We even had time for a espresso from Lola’s Tapas before boarding our overnight train. The train looked like it was straight from the 1920’s. In fact, it most likely used to be a nice, high-end train from that era, and, like many buses, t-shirts, and other items, had been reborn and was living its second life in Africa. For a grand total of $12 we had a private sleeper car (again, this was a train from the 20’s so keep that in mind when I say sleeper car) which had a fair amount of space in it and even had lighting at night. Equipped with a bottle of wine, some water, sandwiches, and snacks (not from the train company, but things we brought); the journey was quite pleasant. The night passed calmly and the fold out bed was pretty comfortable considering the train was older than our grandparents. Traveling by train was a nice alternative to the many buses we had been taking the weeks prior.
We weren’t really sure what to expect when we got to Bulawayo, and it is probably best we had zero expectations. The town is hard to describe. In many ways it was just like Oakland, CA (the parts that aren’t cleaned up). In fact, if you could blindfold someone and just place them in Bulawayo for five minutes then follow that directly by placing them in Oakland, we are sure they would identify themselves as being in the same city. In addition to the visual resemblance, the US dollar is the currency used in Zimbabwe after their currency collapsed a few years ago, and nearly everyone speaks English. We found ourselves wondering at times if we were not in some sort of parallel universe.
Bulawayo would really start the beginning of a long downward spiral of luck for us. We soon realized that while things in this country were cheap (such as food and general cost of living items) that the infrastructure for tourism (i.e. guesthouses, hostels, local buses, etc.) was pretty much non-existent which made accommodation prices high and options for getting around extremely limited and costly.
After walking around the town for almost two hours we settled in at Berkeley Place hotel for $25. To be honest though, we have seen squats that were nicer than what we were paying to stay in. The walls of the room looked like they were going to cave in at any moment. There was no ensuite bathroom (which wasn’t a problem) but for some reason they had taken what looked like it used to be a closet space and made it into an open shower (right in front of the beds). This also was rusted, moldy, and the tiles were falling off. Mosquitos were everywhere, seriously everywhere. We were so worried about the mosquitos that we actually pushed our beds together and set our tent up on top of them so we could sleep mosquito free inside the tent. Amanda made it clear that no matter what happened they wouldn’t be staying in this town long. It was either into nature or on to Johannesburg because this was miserable.
To top off this beautiful stay in Bulawayo we awoke the next morning wondering why there was such a funny smell in the air of our tent. Amanda started sniffing around and finally concluded it was the pillow (from the hotel room) which we had pulled into the tent along with a blanket to use to sleep with. As she lifted the pillow to toss it out of the tent a recently deceased lizard lay upside down as a morning treat. Even with the weight of two people the tent probably rose all the way to the ceiling as Amanda screamed repeatedly and jumped up trying to get out as fast as she could. This was how our first morning in Bulawayo started.
With a dead computer, no real public transportation system, and a lousy yet expensive infrastructure for travelers, Amanda was ready to leave the town and call the entire time in Zimbabwe a wash. Ben set out to try to gather more information and see what options were available for our next steps. After talking with several people he started to realize that without a car, many of the natural attractions surrounding the city were inaccessible without paying an arm and a leg for a taxi driver to take you there and wait while you explored. We both took the information Ben had gathered in the morning and had a pow-wow on what would be the next best steps. It was a shame to pay $30 for a visa to enter Zimbabwe and not use it at all, but we both felt that cutting our losses and fast tracking to Johannesburg would be our best option at this point. We already felt like we were trying to paddle upstream and continuing to do so just to see a place would only leave us more exhausted and ultimately with less money in the end. With that our decision was made. Goodbye Zimbabwe.
It was short, a bit of sweet, and a bit of sour. We spent the afternoon buying a new phone charger (since that had stopped working for us as well), chowing down on the super tasty and cheap food from restaurants, chilling out at a coffee shop and bookstore, and playing cards (as a form of meditation to relax our minds). Just before we headed out to the bus station we got a special gift from some local evangelists. The group consisted of one elderly woman and three men aged 35 to 60. They approached us as we were relaxing on the steps in front of Berkeley Place Hotel. They asked politely how we were doing and if we had a minute to talk to them. We politely said that was fine we had a few minutes, then we were leaving to catch a bus. They proceeded to do their best in the five minute window we had given them (which they streched to eight) to lay the great hand of God upon us. First they asked us if we thought we were good people. We said yes, overall. They then asked us if we had ever lied, stolen, had impure thoughts, even as children maybe. Once we had admitted openly to having committed sin, they then began to ask if us if someone would go to jail for our sins for us, would we let them. We knew where this was going. Amanda tried to play devils advocate and said she wouldn’t let them because that was wrong. Ben quickly jumped in, wanting to speed this along, and said that if they were talking about Jesus (which they pretty obviously were) that yes, he did die for our sins and so on. Ben then hurried them along by agreeing with following statements and rhetorical questions they posed as to be done with this conversation. Amanda remained polite but wanted to tell them she was Buddist and didn’t believe Jesus was a savior. We could both go into huge rants here about religion, missionaries, and trying to covert people. Especially after seeing how religion is twisted and abused and misinterpreted in society and politics in many parts of Africa. For example: it’s forbidden by the government (molded by the hand of religion) to teach about condoms and safe sex in public schools in many countries in Africa, where millions of young people die of AIDS each year. While the intentions behind religion can be good the organizations overall left us disappointed.
Eventually we had reached the end of our conversation. Just as Ben was thanking them for their time and perspective they asked if they could pray for us. He said that would be fine. A blessing in any type of spiritual love is a good one. We then bowed our heads slightly but still watched above us as the other men bowed their heads, the woman closed her eyes, and began to chant what was a prayer. Between the frequent “Lord Jesus….” this and “Lord Jesus….” that, one of the men would yell out “AMEN” or “FATHER BLESS THESE SOULS.” It was a fairly quick prayer, different from any we had received before, but totally worth the experience.
Now fully blessed by the lord himself through these four kind individuals, we departed for the bus station. Ben had two tickets direct to Johannesburg on InterCape Bus leaving at 4:30pm. The bus was by far the nicest bus we’d seen in Africa thus far. It had huge, comfortable seats, a small meal served, and the seats practically reclined into miniature beds. Just as the bus began on it’s journey the televisions powered up and we got yet another prayer. This was a recorded prayer from the owner of the bus company (which we soon learned must have been a Christian bus company). The website quotes that “InterCape Mainliner now promotes the Christian Faith in an active way to its clients and to all nations it carries. As the world finds itself in more and more turmoil, InterCape and its owner believe that the world needs to focus on God to restore the land.” And so the prayer video replayed a few times before the bus steward finally turned off the DVD player, leaving us in peace.
Crossing the Border
When we reached the border crossing at 10pm we had no idea what we were in for. This was by far the most intensive set-up for a border crossing we had ever seen. Seriously, this border crossing was vast in comparison with the US crossing from San Diego to Mexico. First we had to go through the departure section for Zimbabwe. This was pretty easy even though the line was fairly long at this hour. The facility was huge and there were many service windows all handling different sorts of passports or border business matters. Once we were through with that we got back on the bus and drove what seemed to be a couple miles to the second station which was the entry to South Africa. Maybe it was because it was almost midnight at this point, but the appearance of this crossing looked similar to what you would go through before entering a high security prison. Getting our passports stamped for entry was a runaround. Finally, not knowing which group we were supposed to be with to get our passports stamped, some guard took us to portable stations around back through a maze of fences. Two seconds later and with no questions asked, our passports were stamped (it probably helped that we were the only harmless backpackers at the crossing). We headed back to the bus thinking now we could sleep and be done with the crossing. Nope. The bus driver was taking all the bags off the bus and told us we all had to wait now until they would tell our group to line up for a baggage check. So the passengers of the bus laid out on the pavement trying not to get hit by the other buses coming in. Thirty minutes later a rush of people moved to line up for baggage check which we guessed was the indicator for our bus to do so as well. We waited another twenty minutes in that line only to have the lady not even look into our bags and wave us on. This wasn’t the end of it either. The bus had pulled forward now but there were people wanting to re-check everyone’s bags again before they were loaded back on the bus. This took another twenty minutes. Again, they didn’t even bother with Amanda’s bag but they were curious about Ben’s bag wanting to go through the toiletries. They made a point of showing the other guards that Ben had a sliver of soap left for washing clothes. They all found this hysterical, probably because it was such a small amount of soap and he still kept it (and used it, we might add). We can’t be 100% sure why Ben’s soap or bag was the source of great laughter, but after almost two hours of this intense security border crossing we didn’t care. Finally we got the bags safely loaded back on the bus, ourselves settled into our big comfy seats, and the bus off down the smooth, newly paved highways of South Africa.
When Life Gives You Lemons
We would love to say our time in Johannesburg was eventful and full of education and some cultural experiences, but unfortunately that isn’t the case. Our time in Johannesburg was relatively uneventful. We had arrived there earlier than we had originally planned so that we could possibly get our computer fixed. We also happened to arrive the morning of Nelson Mandela’s funeral. We knew that there was lots going on in the country due to the recent death of Mandela. We didn’t realize that most of the country was on shutdown because of the funeral that day, until we had spent hours running around to various malls to try to get to the iStore (which are the authorized Apple resellers in South Africa). Two days and a lot of running around later, we finally landed at the iStore in the Sandton City Mall. We ended up spending a lot of time in this store as the problems were like dominos. As soon as one thing was fixed we would run into another issue and be back at the store desperate to get everything worked out before our flight. Ultimately we go the computer working again, but only for another couple weeks before some of the old symptoms began to present themselves again.
Technology woes were not the only obstacle we dealt with in Johannesburg. Our good friend Mary Malaria would also decide to pay us a visit. A couple days into being in Johannesburg Ben came down with the symptoms. They cascaded over his body fast, leaving him feeling constantly worn out, fevered, and nauseous. Both of us knew an onset of symptoms like these so fast were not a good sign. Amanda soon shared some amount of exhaustion as she took on the trips to the doctor to pick up the meds, back to the computer store to battle more problems, and any other errand that needed to be taken care of before we left Africa (which was now only a couple days away).
While finding out that Ben had malaria felt like the world was toppling down on top of us, we still had many things to be grateful for. Amanda tried to remember these things when she got the sensation the world was crumbling around them. We were very lucky to have been in a place with adequate medical care nearby, and on top of that to be couchsurfing with a very kind soul. As Ben lay in a sweaty stupor for almost three days downing five pills every eight hours, Amanda found ways to relax and escape the current problems facing us. This included even indulging in a burger (and one of the best burgers she has ever had) and going to see The Hobbit II one night with Hanneke (our CS host) and her friends. We also managed to share a good home cooked meal with Hannake and friends one evening. Ben even participated from the sofa in the evening dinner, although he wasn’t able to partake in too much of the wine. This meal would probably mark the highlight of our time in Johannesburg.
Divide in Johannesburg
Despite not having time to experience museums or other historical parts of Johannesburg we did still get a taste of what this part of the country and world was like. Our time spent with Hanneke, along with an evening spending time with the staff at our hostel when we first arrived, did give us some insight into South African politics, as well as local opinions on life and the direction of South Africa in general. There is no doubt that even being there a week, with the little going out that we did, that you could feel the pervasive tension that exists between races (as a generalized statement). This isn’t to say everyone has reservations, but overall the feeling of divide is very much still there.
Before Ben came down with malaria we spent an evening with some staff of our hostel who were on vacation but had decided to stay on the grounds of the hostel and drink and play music from their car stereos and hang out. We had the chance to talk with them a bit about life and overall they were friendly, wanting to share the evening and music with us, even if it was just for the moment. We also got a bit of an insight from the hostel manager, who gave us rides to the nearby shopping center a couple times. His main gripe for the moment was the lack of work ethic which he claimed is ever present, but seemed to be higher than normal at the moment due to the upcoming holidays. It was very fastenating to observe the perspectives of the many individuals we were surrounded by.
There were a couple times when we would ask for directions (in English) and people would respond in their native tribal tongue, to make a point that while they understand English, they didn’t want to conform to speaking English, which isn’t their language. Some would make a point to tell us this (in English) and explain why they would continue to speak to us in a language we didn’t understand, while others didn’t bother. We found this all very pointless, as language is really just a means to communicate with other humans. But we never argued, and as long as we could get the information we needed (in whatever form of language or communication) we went about what we needed to do.
Hanneke later was able to fill us in on all the politics of the recent years, which saddened us even more. Many may feel that the passing of Mandela will bring about a downturned change in the country, but from what we experienced and heard from many this change was very much happening long before Mandela’s death. Ultimately what it comes down to is that many people are still very angry. You can see and hear the anger, resentment, and possibly even fear all around. True forgiveness, acceptance, and desire to come together is really hard to find on a surface level. The universal truth of all humans being humans really seems to be sucked into a void in many parts of Johannesburg. An invisible divide is ultimately created, which saddened us in many situations, and made us feel uncomfortable in others.
Leaving the ‘Dark Continent’
After three months in Africa, we were off to Bangkok. We’d had an incredible time while in Eastern and Southern Africa, but it had definitely worn on us. We found ourselves at times being cynical, frustrated with how many obstacles there was in doing even small tasks, and lacked a sense of freedom that is associated with safety (such as the golden rule of not going out after dark). When you add in our computer problems and Ben getting malaria, our travel batteries and tolerance were wearing down. It was pretty close to an all-time low when on our last day in Johannesburg we tried to get to the airport, and the directions we got from our CS host were not applicable on weekends. Stuck in a downtown mess, miles away from the airport, we asked several people which minivan to take to the airport. No one seemed to have a clue. After two hours of taking wrong minivans and being given wrong direction after wrong direction, we gave in and got a taxi for 250 Rand ($25). Just when we felt we could relax having finally arrived at the airport, the woman at check-in told us we were not booked on the flight.
At this point we both felt like Africa was going to truly swallow us up. After being told sevel different things by the ticket agent (like that it was impossible to book this flight on the date we booked it one month before, which was complete bullshit because we had the printout showing the exact flight information and booking confirmation) we demanded to speak to the woman’s supervisor. Trying to keep calm the supervisor calmly explained to us what happened. The first leg of our flight was overbooked, so they had bumped us to a more direct course, which would leave eight hours later. Why the ticket agent couldn’t communicate this to us we don’t fully understand. Our only guess was that she didn’t fully understand it herself.
Given we now had to be at the airport for eight hours, Ben then asked if they could give us a perk (such as upgrade our seats or get into a lounge area). The supervisor kindly directed us to the guest lounge. This was the turning point in our luck, and our transition out of Africa. We made our way to the Shongololo lounge area. Free unlimited delicious food, free unlimited drinks (Ben had a great cappuccino and Amanda enjoyed the champagne), good wifi, and comfy seats, not to mention the nice bathrooms and showers. It was not until we were in Bangkok that we found out that this lounge had won the award for best airport lounge in Africa and the Middle East. Flying Etihad was great as well, with good food, free drinks, and individualized media consoles that put Virgin Airlines to shame.
All in all, we were very fortunate for our turn in luck at this point. Things were looking up!
Reflections on Obstacles
Our last little chapter in Africa was an unexpected and challenging one. Being so far from home with so many things to deal with at once reminded us of the saying “You can’t run away from your problems.” We could see this was true no matter where you were. Choosing to go home would have been an easy thing to do after hitting these major road blocks. And it wouldn’t necessarily have been the wrong thing to do, either. But with a little time, deep breaths, and some perspective we were able to take a step back and realize that eventually things would turn around, or at least move forward.
It is interesting to take this little personal lesson we were reflecting on and perhaps apply it to the situations and politics surrounding so many of the problems that exist in this part of the world (and the world at large) as well. What would happen if a majority of people choose to face the problems that existed with this outlook, of moving forward and dealing as best as they could, instead of getting angry or becoming resentful that the problem was there. Or worse, directing the anger which stemmed from these problems at others. Life is unfair, and often cruel. This is something we saw everyday while traveling in Africa. And it really drove home for us that we as humans have so much power with our personal, conscious choice. The choice on how to contribute as people in the world, the choice in how we will connect with others, choices on our outlook toward the problems we and those around us face, choices as to what we will put our attention and focus on. Either we can choose to put our focus on anger, or we can choose to put our focus on positive and constructive elements. Really with every action we take, thought we have, and problem we face – these are the two choices we have as humans. It’s a delicate balance, finding a place free of anger or animosity so we can move peacefully forward when faced with those that wrong us, systems that are unjust, and unfortunate life circumstances. But with practice the balance becomes easier. And with this balance, eventually things get better, life is easier, and outlooks are brighter.
More images from Zimbabwe and Johannesburg HERE.