Wednesday, 4 January 2012

I don't like your shorts. I like your face.

On my fourth day in Zambia, I wake up in my mosquito net wrapped bed at 6:00am and catch a bus to Botswana a bordering African country.

We are stamped leaving Zambia and get our Botswana stamps before taking a speed boat across the lake to the main road where safari style trucks take us to a hostel from which we walk to the shore of the Zambezi River to catch our no-frills double decker boat.

We see lots of hippos but very few animals on the shore. We see a naked man doing his laundry in the river and are shocked - not because he's naked but because hippos are dangerous.

We finish the boat cruise in good spirits and settle in to a delicious lunch of chicken, fish, (Botswana) beef and an assortment of salads and sides followed by some cake and ice cream.

We jump back into the safari trucks and head to the land portion of our safari. Botswana has no rhinos and we did not see any cheetahs or leopardos, but we did see the other 3/5 of the Big Five (so-called because they are the five most dangerous African animals to hunt on foot). We see water buffalo, elephants and even lions. There are two particularly exciting moments, the first hilarious and the second suspenseful.

The first I call "The Girl is Mine". We see a male turtle (let's call him Paul McCartney) mount a female turtle. It seems consensual. Their turtle love proceeds slowly but confidently when all of the sudden another male turtle (let's call him Michael Jackson) interrupts their reptilian baby-making and begins smashing his shell against Paul McCartney's shell.

When Paul McCartney backs off a bit, Michael Jackson begins to mount the female. Again, she seems receptive but given the speed (they're turtles so relative speed) with which the switch happens, she may think it's still Paul McCartney her former beau.

Paul McCartney returns and after tucking in his head he smashes Michael Jackson with his shell. Michael Jackson begins to chase Paul McCartney and they smash shells dozens of times before hurrying back to where the female is ... or was. The girl is gone.

The second battle royale I call "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly". We see two kudus (deer-like animals) quietly grazing when up ahead we see two lions slowly creeping towards them. We think we are about to witness a massacre but the kudus suddenly turn and make eye contact with the lions. The lions stop.

Our guide tells us, "They will not attack now. Lions do not chase; they stalk."

All of the sudden an elephant appears from between two trees and stands in between the lions and the kudus. There is a very still, very quiet stare down. Then...nothing. The lions turn and walk away. The kudus begin prancing in the opposite direction and the elephant continues on her path.

After the safari, we take the boat back to the border and cross back into Zambia for a quiet evening at the hostel.

On the fifth day, I wake up at 7am to go on a microlight flight over the Falls. A microlight plane is essentially a motorcycle with wings. You are completely exposed and protected only by a lap belt and a helmet.

My pilot's name is Grant. He looks young. We take off and the feeling is exhilarating. We rise and rise until we reach our maximum altitude of 1300 feet.

We fly over the Zambezi River and then to Victoria Falls. I see hippos. I see Livingstone Island and the Devil's Pool. I see people walking there like I had done just two days before. I see dozens of rainbows arching across the downward rush of the water.

He asks me if I am brave enough to make sharp right turn spirals on our side. Naturally I say Yes. We move closer to the Falls and as promised he makes a continuously spiralling right hand turn so that I am looking straight into the Falls.

The 15 minute flight has a smooth landing and I head back to the Falls to meet Gloria and Allison. We are going to Zimbabwe, another neighbouring African country.

We begin the 2km border cross on foot by traversing the Victoria Falls bridge. We leave Zambia and wait 45 minutes in line at the Zimbabwe border. The visa fee is most expensive for Canadians (not sure why).

As we enter Zimbabwe, we are swarmed by dozens of merchants trying to sell us necklaces, statues, bowls, canes and other souvenirs. None interest us. Then I hear the magic words: "Sir, how about 100 Trillion Zimbabwe dollars?"

I had recently spent a weekend in Port Elizabeth where my friends and I purchased some old Zimbabwe currency of insane demoninations, a result of hyperinflation following Zimbabwe's independence in 1980. The currency was discontinued in 2009.

I play it cool: "Oh yeah? That's neat I guess. But I already have 20 Trillion and 50 Billion (this is true). I don't need 100 Trillion."

He sees through me: "Yes sir. But this is 100 Trillion, the highest denomination that was printed." I know that. 

I offer him $1.

"Please sir, but this cost me $2."

I know that's not true, but I play along. "Oh okay. In that case, I'll give you $3."

After a lengthy negotiation that lasted about 500m and involved several walk-away tactics from both sides we agree on a price. $4. I am very happy.

At the Falls entrance, we find our bearings and begin our 600m hike across the opposite side of the Falls. It's breathtaking. You quickly understand why they call it The Smoke that Thunders. The billows of mist and thundrous crash of the waters below leave us in awe.

We walk slowly taking hundreds of photographs. The best moment comes when we arrive opposite the Devil's Pool where we'd swam two days before. We watch other tourists swimming and further along see others traversing the Falls to arrive at Livingstone Island and the Devil's Pool. We agree that it is good we did the walk and swim before seeing it from this vantage point; otherwise we may have thought twice.

We leave the Falls and begin walking to the Victoria Falls Hotel. Allison has a date with High Tea and Gloria and I are happy to come along.

We take a quick tour of the magnificent grounds of the hotel before settling in for three cups of a local Zimbabwean tea and three tiers of nibbles: finger sandwiches, scones and jam, and small cakes.

We sit quite relaxed for three hours and upon seeing the sun beginning to set realize we should head back to Zambia. We purchase post cards and mail them to our families in Canada. Then we begin the long walk across the border. After negotiating a fair price with a taxi we arrive at the hostel and quickly head to bed.

On the sixth and final day, we wake up and head to the market at the Falls. I had made two promises and I hate breaking a promise.

The first was to a vendor named Patrick. The day before I'd agreed to buy one of his paintings. We settle on a fair price for a painting of three dancers (I only buy paintings of dancers).

The second promise was to David who had spotted me a few days before and said he wanted to exchange my swim shorts for some of his souvenirs.  I generally don't buy souvenirs but I had never swapped swim trunks for souvenirs and so I agreed to the novel exchange. The lengthy negotiation of 30 minutes included the following tactics:

Me: "I'm sorry David. I just don't really like anything in your shop more than I like my shorts and so how can I exchange my shorts for something I don't like as much."

Him: "Please Joseph. I don't want you to leave disappointed. We have made an agreement and I want you to be happy."

Me: "You realize I'm going to have to buy new shorts when I go back to Johannesburg? And I may not like them as much as these shorts. So I have to spend money for new shorts."

Him: "I did not ask you to trade your shorts for my wares because I liked your shorts. I asked you because I liked your face. You have a kind face. Please show me some kindness today. It is almost Christmas."

The guilt, flattery and sympathy hand. The favourite triple threat negotiation poker play of the locals.

We agree on two sets of salt and pepper shakers (one bone, one horn), two necklaces, a set of giraffe head salad tossers, and a bone beer bottle opener. I throw in my Nike ankle socks to close the deal (seriously). He thanks me. I thank him.  I head to the airport to catch my flight back to Johannesburg.

Zambia is a beautiful country with warm, kind and hospitable people. Seeing Victoria Falls was like a dream and I know this won't be the last time I visit.

"This side you are safe. This side you lose your life."

As I settle in to my emergency exit seat (with extra leg room), the pilot makes an announcement:

"Ladies and gentlemen, could you all please check the exit stamps on your passports. It seems that one of the visa agents set their stamp to November 16th 2011."

It's December 16th. Fair mistake. It's South Africa after all. About 12 people leave the plane to be re-issued new stamps. Thankfully I'm not one of them.

As per usual I introduce myself to the people sitting next to me. They're a young couple off for a romantic weekend in Zambia. I'm also on my way to Zambia but expect my 5 days there will be more adventure than romance. I am right.

The plane touches down in Livingstone, Zambia (named after Dr David Livingstone of "Dr Livingstone I presume" fame, an English pioneer, medical missionary and African explorer).

The airport has just one gate and is effectively just one room. I wait in line for one hour at immigration and after scanning my fingers and taking photographs of me, I am welcomed to Zambia.

Backpack in tow I exit to find a man standing with a sign "Welcome Joseph Chedrawe - Jolly Boys Backpackers".

"I thought you weren't going to make it!" says the large Zambian driver with the sign. I smile and introduce myself. He does the same. I expect his name to be something very African sounding as I have found is the case with most South African Blacks.

He says, "Hello. My name is Dennis." I subsequently learn that most Black Zambians have a Christian name and a "local" (or African) name. (My taxi driver to the airport went by Micah (from the Bible) but his local name was Thingunye which means "the founder".)

On the drive to the hostel I meet a group of five travelers from France and take the opportunity to practice my French. It turns out they are all working in Johannesburg. They're a great group and encourage me to sign up for a "Booze Cruise" and White Water Rafting with them. So I do.

Jolly Boys Backpackers Hostel is a very charming and colourful place to stay. It's the busiest accommodation in Livingstone with hundreds of backpackers passing through their doors each week.

I check into my room and head off to the Booze Cruise on the Zambezi River. It's 4:00pm. We board the boat along with around 50 other people and the booze starts flowing. It's the cheapest alcohol available and even still I'm quite certain it's watered down. But the vibe on the boat is good. We see dozens of hippos and crocodiles and even an elephant!

After the Booze Cruise we make our way to the Royal Livingstone Hotel, the most luxurious hotel in Livingstone for what is meant to be the best sunset in town. It's breath taking. After a quick game of checkers (It doesn't matter who won ... but it was me) we head back to Jolly Boys for bed.

I wake up early the next day for a 7:00am departure to the white water rafting starting point. After a quick safety de-brief, our instructor asks, "Easy Boat or Crazy Boat?"

Crazy Boat, please.

Life jackets and helmets in tow, we walk down the rocks to rapid 1 of 25. It's going to be a long day. I'm with a great group of seven and we give each other nicknames: lazy, pinky, frenchy, hotty, beardy, hairy and bossy. (Apparently I like to tell people what to do...)

Our guide is Malvin. After missing rapid 1 the first time, we sail through on our second attempt and easily navigate rapids 2 through 6.

Then comes rapid 7 the most difficult of the day. Malvin says, "the most important thing is that we avoid the gap." As we begin to make our way through the rapid, a large wave pushes the raft to a near-vertical position. Lazy (so-called because he often neglects to row) falls out and is dragged under the water.

When the raft settles we begin looking for him and finally see him 50m ahead with a panicked look. We row furiously to him and pull him into the boat. He is shaken but uninjured.

It then becomes clear that one of the other rafts is in distress. They did not avoid the gap and their entire boat flipped dumping the rafters into the rocky rapid. I set the pace: "Row! Row! Row!" We make it to the first person. It is a girl and she is sobbing uncontrollably. "The rocks! They crashed into the rocks!"

We begin to collect other drifting rafters. One has deep scratch marks on his right leg extending from his hip to his ankle. Another has a deep gash in his shin that is seeping blood and we wrap it with a t-shirt.

Two other boats manage to collect the remaining drifters and we proceed to the shore. All but one (she decides to walk back) return to their rafts and we continue on.

After a quick lunch on the shore, we manage to complete the remaining rapids. Many fall out (me included) but the dips are quick and easy. The day is beautiful. The perfect sun, the lush green mountains, the crystal blue water and the adventure make my second day in Zambia very special.

From rafting, we proceed to Cafe Zambezi, a traditional Zambian restaurant, where we order Mosi (a Zambian liquor), fried caterpillar and grilled crocodile, among other less daring foods. Gloria and Allison (two Canadian lawyers with the CBA/CIDA Young Lawyers International Program working in Namibia) arrive at the restaurant (not coincidence, this is planned) and we make our way to a night club down the road.

At the club, the DJ does play "One of these things is not like the other" but we are thinking it. It is clear we are different. We are the only non-Zambians there and we are dressed in flip flops, shorts and t-shirts. The local Zambians are decked out in tight-fitting cocktail dresses for the ladies and trousers and long sleeved dress shirts for the men.

We begin to dance under the red lazer lights and groove to the African house music and stares of the local club go-ers. Then back to the hostel for bed.

On the third day we decide to explore the Zambia side of Victoria Falls. We sign up for the 3pm Walk to Livingstone Island to take a dip in the Devil's Pool. We catch the free shuttle to the Falls and walk a couple of hiking paths.

We follow 600 steps down to the Boiling Point which offers an exciting view of the rapids and of Victoria Falls Bridge where we watch zip liners, bungee jumpers and gorge swingers.

On our walk back up, Allison is robbed. Her assailant is swift, relentless and covered in fur. Upon seeing around a dozen baboons blocking the path, we decide to wait for them to move away before crossing. In the meantime, we take lots of photos. When they finally clear, we start walking but one large male baboon has other plans. He runs up from behind a bush and grabs Allison's tote bag.

After a brief tug-of-war she gives up and he begins to loot through the bag - sweatshirt, Lonely Planet, dry sac and a chocolate bar. The baboon ably un-wraps the chocolate bar  and essentially swallows it whole licking his fingers and the wrapper. He begins to nibble at the other items but realizes they are not food. But instead of leaving he just sits with the strewn about items as if waiting for something. We take photos.

Finally two men come and shout something at the baboon and he flees. "You speak baboon?" I ask. They laugh. We'd been warned not to feed the baboons but nobody told us that they mug you.

After the robbery a not-so-very distraught Allison declares the need for something nice. So we dine at The Falls Hotel. My lunch: a Monkeygland Burger. Monkeygland is delicious.

We then head to the meeting point for the walk to Livingstone Island. We arrive at The Shop that Thunders (the local Zambian name of Victoria Falls translates as "The Smoke that Thunders").

"Please do not bring anything you don't want to get wet."

"That's weird," we think, since most of it is a walk. So we throw our valuables into Allison's dry sac and off we go. One guide. 15 walkers.

"Okay, everybody please hold hands and make sure you only walk on the rock ledge and not the river bed."

Pardon me?

It turns out that the walk to Livingstone Island takes place at the top of the Falls less than 5m from the edge. Sure. No biggie. That's cool. (Gulp.) The walk takes more than 2 hours. Many slip (me included) into the rushing water but the team hand-holding saves us from being dragged into the current and over the falls.

I offer to hold Allison's large bag for her and having a self-admitted aversion to danger she quickly accepts. I slip on a rock and drop the bag. It is carried away by the water, but I chase it down and catch it, mere metres from the edge of the falls.

We finally arrive at Livingstone Island just before we must swim to the Devil's Pool. After a brief history lesson about Dr Livingston, we get into our swimsuits and swim across the current (again, mere metres from the edge of the Falls) to the giant rock adjacent to the Devil's Pool.

The Devil's Pool is a 3m deep "pool" (basically, a dip in the river bed) just before the edge of Victoria Falls. Our guide demonstrates how to enter by jumping in and points to the pool's boundaries saying "This side you are safe. This side you lose your life."

Only half of the group of 15 dares to dip and most slide in. You can feel the current trying to pull you over the falls but you swim, sit, smile for the photos, and revel in the adrenaline rush. It is incredible. They throw us a rope to pull us back onto the rock. I don't want to leave. But I do. Reluctantly. I subsequently learn there have been 17 fatalities in 50 years.

After swimming against the current back to Livingstone Island we catch a speedboat to the shores of the Royal Livingstone Hotel and take taxis back to the hostel where we enjoy a meal of curried kudu and chocolate banana smoothies followed by a game of 30 Seconds (a very popular boardgame in South Africa).

My first three days in Zambia are nothing short of exciting and I can't imagine it will get much better, but days 4, 5 and 6 do not disappoint.  Stay tuned.