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.

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