Tuesday, March 06, 2007

My Last Adventure

Facing the prospect of a boring week in Pretoria or Jo’burg pre-flying home I decided to head out on one last mini-adventure before returning to the UK…

I GASPED as I checked my bank account online for the first time in nearly a month. “That’s even less money than I thought I had!” I said out loud to no-one in particular. I realized that with no money and no mysterious benefactor (unlike Pip in Great Expectations) I would have to come home slightly earlier than I planned. I was soon on the phone to Qantas and then appearing in person at the British Airways Ticket Office at Jo’burg Airport. To cut the tedious story of a dull afternoon short, I arranged to fly home ten days early, on March 4th.

That left me a week or so left in South Africa. With no money to do a serious trip and not excited by staying in the Gauteng area (Pretoria and Jo’burg) the question remained; what to do? The answer came to me after a few other plans fell through. I couldn’t get hold of my friend Ebony who was getting a marriage blessing in Jo’burg the next weekend for which I had been provisionally invited. Don’t know what happened there. After that, a teacher from the school I spent my Gap year at said she would come down to get me and I could spend a week with her. But she never came down, I couldn’t contact her, and that never happened either.
Frustrated and exasperated (which may mean the same thing) with these failures I was feeling down on my luck when all of a sudden I was quite surprised to receive a message that President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (right) had requested my attendance at a State dinner in the capital Harare in a few days. Incredible. Maybe I could travel in a limo?

Actually I have a confession to make. The above paragraph is not really…ok, it’s a big fat lie. Could you tell? I’m not even sure that Bob Mugabe has even heard of me. But my friend Sarah, who is Zimbabwean and lived for a time in Plymouth last year, now lives back home in Harare and I decided to get in contact to see if I could go up and see her. Her cell phone really wasn’t working well when I tried it (which was A LOT), but I got through for long enough to ascertain that she was indeed at home. I tried many times to establish contact for longer but to no avail.

Still, I had my mission. I decided to head up to Zimbabwe!

Now, to fly or not to fly? That would surely be Shakespeare’s main question had he been a 21st Century budget traveller out of money and at the end of a long trip instead of a bloke from Stratford with a rhyming dictionary. In the end I boarded a lovely Greyhound bus for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 17 hour bus ride to Harare.
On the way I was reading a copy of South Africa's FHM (just for cultural research purposes, obviously). I was particularly interested in an article called '25 Reasons Why SA Rules!' Apart from things you might think of such as Nelson Madela, table moutain, Zulus, the world's greatest sausage, etc. they also included the ability to fight a lot, drink drive well and corrupt and easily bribed cops. Interesting.
There was difficulty at the border where the passport control man insisted (correctly) that a visa cost US$55. I had been under the impression that possibly it was free to enter. I said that the Zimbabwe Embassy in London told me it was free. I have, of course, never visited the Zim (as I will cabbreviate it) Embassy in London. We resolved that I would pay for the visa. Then he showed me that the visa sticker book that, like a book titled 'Great Songs by James Blunt', was empty. I said that if I was going to pay that much for a visa I wanted a big sticker. So I paid US$70 for a double entry visa, meaning I can go back anytime until August FOR FREE. Wow. I’ll start looking at brochures on Zim as soon as I get home. If there are any.

Anyway, I was into Zim. A whole new country. Arriving in Harare, I could see no sight of the hostel pick-up I was promised, but a kind Zim couple from the bus saw my concern and gave me a lift to the hostel themselves. They were lovely. In fact they even offered me a place to stay at their house but I decided in the end to stay at the hostel as we had arrived.

Small World Backpackers is located in the north-west of Harare near the Avondale Shopping Centre, if you know the area. The staff are quite friendly, especially a woman called Moreblessing, which I think is a brilliant name. I also met an Innocence. Fantastic. The hostel is nice, although the pool table has seen better days (left). Another interesting factoid of Small World is that in the lounge are every copy of National Geographic 1998-2002. I’m not sure what happened after 2002, but I’m sure it’s Mugabe’s fault.

I was having trouble getting hold of Sarah, trying her phone and questioning my friend Neil back home for details of her address. But I didn’t want to spend all my time trying to get hold of her. So I went for a walk to the shops, then I got a taxi downtown to have a walk around the city. On the way we passed by State House (where the President lives). I called for him but they said he was sulking and didn’t want to come out. I then went to the city centre, saw only a few whites and subsequently feel I may have looked out of place. I passed the Parliament where the ‘democratic process’ takes place. It’s not a very impressive building, just a converted two-story hotel.

Money, money, money, must be funny…

I decided to go to the cinema and at this point it’s best to mention the great currency issue of Zimbabwe. Officially US$1 gets you 250 Zimbabwe dollars. But if you go into a supermarket and look at the prices you'll see a carton of fuit juice costs ZIM$10,000. TEN THOUSAND. That’s US$40 for some juice, or 20 pounds sterling. For some juice!
By the official exchange rates, Zimbabwe is the most expensive country in the world. However, just about everyone changes money illegally on the black market (or through helpful hostels). On the black market you can get ZIM$5,000 or ZIM$6,000 for one US$1, thus making Zimbabwe one of the cheapest countries in the world. Economics is fascinating isn’t it? So I was able to get ZIM$560,000 for my US$200. Unfortunately a nice German staying at the hostel had changed US$250 at the airport at the OFFICIAL RATE. This makes him one of the poorest men in the whole of Africa. Things are cheap Zim. A cinema ticket or beer costs about ZIM$3,000, that’s 50c or 25p. Not bad.
After the cinema (I saw Lucky Number Slevin. I was impressed, it was entertaining, had an cool storyline and Ben Kingsley – sorry, SIR Ben Kinglsey – was really interesting weird, but isn’t he always?) I tried Sarah again. Still no luck, so I bought five different Zim beers and had a tasting competition joined by a nice Zambian guy called Marlon.

ZIMBABWEAN BEER TASTING



Name: ZAMBEZI
Tagline: 'Zimbabwe's own beer'
Alc: 4.7%
Context: Watching a Bob de Niro film. Not sure which one, though it looks to be near the end. Bob is distressed. He's saying things like, "I ws sure we could get the [important device type thing] to work." Can his career be saved? Only time will tell.
Notes: Medium bodied and well balanced. Pleasant enough without any distinctive flavours. Sits well in the stomach. A good beer for a long session, I think.
Verdict: A good start - 7/10

Name: BOHLINGER
Tagline: 'Cool, smooth and refreshing'
Alc: 4.2%
Context: Schlocky CSI episode. Location is seafront area, possibly Miami or Torquay. Sample dialogue; "You told the feds!" "I was having a drink with the feds, it slipped out." Rubbish.
Notes: The link to the champagne of similar name is unclear, but Bohlinger is clean, crisp and stylish like the French tipple. Difficul to object to, and a fun label too.
Verdict: Would go down well in England. Bolly is leading the field early on! - 8/10

Name: EAGLE
Tagline: 'Celebrate our taste'
Alc: 5%
Context: Reading National Geographic. Did you know that the British island Monserrat in the Carribean has a capital called Plymouth? It's true.
Notes: Ooh, a divisive one, this. Heavy, earthy flavours and a deep malty finish. Definately not for casual drinkers.
Verdict: An acquired taste for seasoned beer guzzlers, not suitable for first timers - 6/10

Name: GOLDEN PILSNER
Tagline: Unknown
Alc: Unknown
Context: Watching Zimbabwe public television channel ZBC. Some soap is on. It's awful.
Notes: I can't tell you too much about this one because I gave it too Marlon, but I had a sip and it tasted ok.
Verdict: 'Not bad, worth a try', which is a completely unimaginative review on a par with writing 'hope you have a good time' or 'don't get too drunk!' in someone's birthday card - 6/10
Name: LION
Tagline: 'Store in a cool, dry place'. Er, ok it doesn't have one.
Alc: 5%
Context: Marlon and I are watching Meet Joe Black. Marlon is very confused about what Brad Pitt is up to. Question - is that man too good-looking? Pitt, that is, not Marlon.
Notes: Quite earthy and dull. Very dissapointing. I had big expectations for this one and I feel let down. One to bring out at the end of the night when everyone is too drunk to care.
Verdict: An anti-climax. Also loses a point for not having a picture of a lion on the label. If I have a beer named after some great beast I want a picture of it to make me look more man-like as I drink it - 5/10

Conclusion

A worthwhile experiment. Suprisingly Bohlinger emerges as the best beer availablein the typical Zimbabwean supermarket, priced approximately ZIM$2,900, although due to inflation that will probably have changed by the time I publish this post.

Sarah. Finally.
I spent the next few days trying Sarah and reading National Geographic. It’s a really good magazine when it’s on form. Not all the issues are that interesting but some are full of phenomenal adventures – tracking cloud leopards in the Indian forests or meeting indigenous tribes in the Venezuelan jungle, anyone?

Two days before I went back to Jo’burg I got Sarah’s address and jumped in a taxi (it was actually more of a slouch, but I’m obviously trying to convey urgency). After a long drive around town (not stopping at some red lights – just like Jo’burg!) we found 27 Guys Cliff Road. Sarah (below) lives in a biiiiiiiiiiiig house with a swimming pool and built in bar in the house, etc. It’s her parent’s house, clearly. She’s only 20.

We had a cup of tea and a nice chat. She was unimpressed by my video of a large elephant herd. “But I see thet everydaay heeyah, Andeee, I’m from Africaar, hey” she said. She talks like that because she’s white. The whites here are called ‘Rhodies’, like ‘Rhodesia’ as Zim was formally known. So Sarah is a Rhody (not sure if that’s how you spell it) and has a funny accent. I can say that because she has only been on the internet about five times and will never read this.
I replied, “You see 100 elephants at a watering hole everyday in the suburbs of Harare?” To which she said, “Well, not everyday…but yaarrrh, you know, hey?” I didn’t know, but never mind.
She’s a lovely girl, but after a short while she had to go as she was going on holiday to Mozambique with her brother. A shame, but if I’d waited a few hours more I would have missed her altogether. Life’s funny, hey? Oh god now I’m doing it. She drove me back to the hostel, hence the picture of her at the wheel. I didn't force her to pose in her car for a picture. That would be weird.

The last night and following day in Harare I hung out with two Germans. One was called Valentine and is a funky hat-wearing musician from Berlin. Everyone to him is “beautiful”. It’s endearing. We walked around Harare and went to the Botanic Gardens. The Shona people of Zim seem very friendly. I wasn’t in Zim long enough to get out into the countryside and really see any of the country. But in my last week I just wanted to relax and hangout somewhere different. So in that I achieved my goal, and I’m a happy camper.
On the bus going back to Jo’burg, to Park Station in fact, we watched the South African film Tsotsi, where someone gets mugged and killed in…Park Station. Thanks Greyhound.

I’m now in Gemini Backpackers, the seventh or eigth hostel I’ve stayed at in Jo’burg. I'm awaiting my flight home. The hostel is ok. It has a full size snooker table, which is certainly not something you see in many other hostels.
None, in fact, now I think about it.

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