Into the Wild

My parents have been visiting from the States, and our discussions have made me realize that my accounts of my recent travels left several gaping holes (mainly due to internet access on the road).  One thing I neglected was any real mention at all of wildlife.  This included a self-guided safari in Kruger National Park in a rented Tata Vista with Sara, mountain-biking in Mlilwane NP in Swaziland (and suffering through the abduction of Alex’s frog, Hoppy); facing off with elephants and baboons in the mean streets of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe; and guided day trips in Botswana’s Chobe NP, Moremi Wildlife Park, and Okavango Delta.

Though photographs certainly provide the best description, I’ve included some safari shorthand below:

Baboons: See elephant (nuisance), only smaller and less unique.

Birds: a surprising addition to the list.  I have always imagined birds to be quite boring (though flying, ironically, ranks number one on the “Superhero Attributes I’d Most Like to Have.”). However, armed with a checklist, a bird chart, and a pair of binoculars and all of the sudden we have a changed reality.  Now every detail of each bird is studied and logged on a stimulating challenge to find and identify every bird in the park.  It’s a two-person gig: one with pen and paper, the other with the binoculars:

Me: “It has orange markings on its wings, blue chevrons on its chest and a tail about twice as long as its body.”

Sara: “It’s the Southern Ground Hornbill!”

(high-five and mutual recognition that we are complete dorks.)

Buffalo: Hmm…how did this guy get in the Big 5?

Cheetah and Leopard (the most pressing question of the bush after “Will this eat me?” is “Do I add an “s” for the plural?): elusive and mysterious.  Solitary hunters, they lurk amongst the trees and brush, resembling snipers.

Crocodiles: After the T-Rex and Nessie, still the most frightening animal in the wild.

Elephants: the rats of Africa.  They are a nuisance, eating crops and tearing down infrastructure.  Locals in Zimbabwe expressed to me that they wish they could shoot them, but of course are prohibited.  Twice, we got “mock-charged” by one, and let me tell you, these guys can move fast.  Turns out, if their ears are extended, it means they are angry.

Giraffe (and Elephants): the most unique of the large animals in the bush.  Where the heck did those things come from?

Hippos and Rhino (black and white): apparently dangerous, but boring.  Never saw one move.  Not once.

Impala: like squirrels, they are everywhere you look.  AKA, the McDonalds of the bush, they have a furry, white “M” imprinted on their butts and represent for most predators a fast meal.

Lions: known as the Kings of the Jungle, but apparently, the hyena is not afraid to steal its kill.  Seriously though, if I could be any bush animal, it would be this one: lie around and sleep in the shade all day, while the many women of my harem hunt for dinner.

Vervet Monkeys: same old story: cute and furry (see: http://www.fupenguin.com).  Fascinating, agile, little guys.  They win you to their side quickly.  Also, head over heels for sadza.

Zebra: basically just gangly horses with a snazzy coat.  Now if they raced these things, that would be interesting.

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Generosity

I took a return trip to the bungee center today to write in my journal, at the scene of the crime so to speak.  Nursing a Mosi beer, I met a guy who was very keen on talking.  He began to share his dreams, his fears, his struggles and took genuine interest in me as I laboured to catch up on writing.  I (apparently) succeeded in disguising my annoyance at his intrusion in my personal time, because eventually the conversation (with me only half-engaged) turned to wisdom.  I noted that one of his statements displayed great wisdom.  He paused, turned to me and said, “You, you too are wise.  I can tell because you stopped what you were doing to have a conversation with me.”  I was immediately convicted.  It is true, I had ceased my activities, but a best only reluctantly.  I tried to model myself on better people than me who take time for people and demonstrate care, regardless of what they’re doing.  Nevertheless, the fact that I cannot remember that man’s name displays my degree of success.  He helped me remember who and what I want to be.

One of those people who does a better job genuinely caring for others I met while in Cape Town.  When I left for my travels, she gave me the names of two people who work in Victoria Falls selling curio and renting raincoats.  “They’ll be the ones on the right when you enter through the middle.  Stall number three.

As I walked through, I asked the first salesman to approach me, “do you know Arthur and Jameson?”  The guy gestured toward a car sitting in the shadow of a nearby tree.  There sat Arthur who I greeted and brought a warm welcome from their friend “Magna.”  Jameson eventually appeared and we all had a long conversation before they invited us to stay at their homes and spend time with them.  Which is just what I have been doing for the past several days.

I spent last night with Jameson in his rural homestead of 49 families, about 20 km from Victoria Falls.  We sat around the fire for a few hours while the neighbors dropped by to greet us.

Jameson’s homestead consists of 2 huts, a fire circle made of clay bricks, a rabbit pen (although the rabbits stay in the hut with him, and “sometimes they make wee on the bed.”), a fenced garden, a ladder up to a low tree branch, a fenced area for toilet privacy, and a fence all the way around (to keep out the cattle–it is useless against elephants–the greatest nuisance and danger–helping to make the cultivation of crops useless, as well, and prompting handouts from the World Food Program).  He also has three chickens.  He told me that he has decided to name the male “Kelvin” (all Zimbabweans call me Kelvin, for some reason).  As we don’t practice infant baptism in my denomination (and thus no godparent status), this is indeed a high honor.

I bought a drum made out of elephant skin (called a ndandanda) from Ma Swazi in Jameson’s village.  They use it for traditional dances.  I couldn’t fit the ndandanda in my backpack, so I had it out at the shop during the day, where it brought some excitement.  Paul grabbed it and began to march around, announcing, “The Prince is getting married!” over and over in his best impersonation of a Nigerian movie.

Arthur and Jameson (and their children) each speak nearly 5 languages.  During breaks from renting rainjackets outside the Falls,  I’ve been learning fragments of Shona, Ndebele, and the closest Zambian dialect for greetings.  Among my other new skills are crushing mielie to make mielie pap and brick-making with the youngest brother, Matthew.  The bricks are made from river sand and cement, then watered for a week, dried for three days before being ready to use.  Matthew made all of the bricks for Arthur’s new house.

The last two nights, I stayed with Arthur in the “compound” of Mkhosana.  His new home is about half finished, but instead of waiting, they moved right into it.  It has sturdy walls made with the “river brick”, dirt floors, and a braai in the middle of the house that they use for cooking.  You can hear elephants during the night.  Arthur’s wife, Rosemary, gets up at 4:00 am to start a fire to heat water for baths in the morning.  Arthur just bought a car, which he uses to take his daughters to school and wife to work before arriving at the Falls around 7:30 each morning.  The kids love the car so much they want to sleep in it.  It’s a major status symbol.

I stayed much longer in Victoria Falls than I had intended, and by the end, I knew almost everyone in the town.  It was quite a thrill to walk down the street and be able to greet each person in their native tongue and discuss the local gossip.  Even the touts stopped trying to sell me old Zimbawe dollars and instead had conversations.  And the key was making time for people.  Victoria Falls is indeed one of the seven wonders of the natural world.  But the real attraction while traveling is not things, but people.  The relationships I’ve been blessed by over the last few weeks will remain long after my memory of bungee jumping evaporates.  Thanks be to God.

Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has been in the news over the last few years for the iron clad rule of its “president”, Robert Mugabe, and for hyper-inflation that reached 5 quintillion percent (prices doubling every 24 hours) at its peak.  Recently, they underwent “dollarization” to stabilize the economy.

The dollar bills here must have been saved at the last second from the fire at the U.S. Treasury.  Old and tattered, they are barely legible and barely in one piece.  And no coins.  So either everything is rounded up to a buck or coins from another neighboring country are used, whether they be South African Rand or Botswana Pula, or any other coin they can scrounge up.  Failing that, they give change in sweets or some other miniscule impulse buy item placed on the counter.  In some respects, every supermarket has become a giant dollar store.

Real time prices are ruled by an inscrutable, but absolute, logic.   At the baggage counter at the train station in Mutare, they charge 50 cents for one bag, but 2 bags are NOT 1 dollar.  When I questioned the woman working there, she just laughed and shrugged her shoulders because Zimbabweans are the sweetest people on God’s green earth, and well, it doesn’t make sense, but they’ve been living with things that don’t make sense for ages and the best you can do is laugh at it and move on….

There are no queues at ATMs or petrol stations anymore, as the international news reports showed from 2008.  Life has seemingly begun to normalize.  If you ask new friends from Harare Polytechnic, they will tell you that the dollar is just an umbrella temporarily deflecting all of the country’s problems.  Or, to use a different analogy, a band-aid hiding hemorrhaging societal wounds that will eventually burst forth.  Like the fact that Zim can only produce 60% of the electricity needed by the country, forcing frequent blackouts.  Our wonderful, generous host in Harare, Cecilia, estimated that her house loses electricity almost every other day for varying amounts of time.  We could hardly see her sister’s family as we were introduced at dusk, and had to cook porridge the next morning over an open fire in the backyard.

Signs in Zim produce humorous conversations.  If there is a “Visa accepted here” sign, odds are that it is not.  There is no coffee in the coffee shops in Bulewayo.  It turns out that the lack of lines at the ATM is due to the lack of money inside of them.

Our bus “hostess” begins the trip with a prayer over the intercom, and everyone dutifully bows their heads.  Cecilia’s office mate handed us Watchtower material.  Revivals are advertised on billboards throughout the Harare.  A fiery meeting was taking place in the Gardens as we passed through.  Random chaos has seemingly reigned in Zim for years and the people search for something dependable in their lives.

They are resilient.  They are steady.  They survive and they thrive.  And they have become some of my favorite people in the world.