The Accidental Hitchhiker
I watched the sun rise and the baboons come out during the 3 hour wait at the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe, a notoriously slow crossing. I was tired when we rolled into Bulawayo but I needed groceries so I caught a minibus, like the South African kombi, to town. As I walked around I was greeted with a smile and a friendly “Hello, how are you?” by all of the locals. I didn’t see any other tourists but I felt like I belonged. For the second largest city in Zimbabwe with a population of 700,000 it felt like a small town where everyone knew everyone else.
After my tour of town I tried to find a minibus back to the hostel. Many drove past me, stuffed full with passengers, and as the sun started to set I wondered if I could even catch a taxi on that road. While I waited at the side of the road a car pulled over, asked where I was going, and said they could give me a ride. I remembered that hitchhiking is common in Zim and passengers are expected to pay the amount that a minibus costs, 5 South African rand or $0.50. I hopped in and chatted with the three guys who were curious about who I was and what I thought of Bulawayo. Rather than letting me off at the intersection they drove me all the way to my hostel but refused to let me pay, saying they were happy to do it.
The Smoke that Thunders
As I waited for the bus to Victoria Falls to fill up, men and women squeezed up and down the aisles selling apples, chips, mirrors, slingshots, perfumes, and rolls of tape. The radio played a talk show discussing who decides the number of children to have, the man or woman. Some callers said it was a decision they should make together, while others said just the wife or husband. Finally we sped off though we were regularly stopped at police blockades checking for driving infractions. As we drove past the villages I saw women and children carrying buckets of water, bags of oranges, even suitcases perfectly balanced on their heads. Two little feet stuck out on either side as women carried infants tied to her back with a piece of cloth over her shoulder and across her chest.
As soon as I arrived in the town of Vic Falls I realized I was in for a hassling experience. This is the biggest tourist hotspot in Zim and every hawker approached me like I was a walking wallet. I couldn’t resist becoming a millionaire overnight and buying a few of the old Zimbabwean bills, which used to be in denominations of billions and even trillions. Since 2009 after the period of uncontrollable inflation, however, the US dollar has been the de facto currency with the South African rand for change.
I forgot all of this as I walked through the falls, getting sprayed by the mist and dodging baboons for a better picture. There were rainbows, double rainbows, and even a few warthogs. I can’t quite describe how it was to see a huge curtain of water falling 108 meters (354 feet) or watching elephants walk across the top while fishermen stood dangerously close to the edge. The drone of helicopters flying overhead was the sound of tourists spending a crazy amount of money for an aerial glimpse of the falls, $140 for a mere 15 minutes.
Today there are many remains of British rule in Africa, the most obvious being that English is spoken nearly everywhere as the second or third language. Another vestige of that time is high tea, available at the ultra fancy Victoria Falls Hotel overlooking the Zambezi river. I could never afford to stay at the hotel but I could manage $30 for for two to share finger sandwiches, scones and cakes with my new friend Caroline from the hostel.
That night Caroline and I met a river guide and scored an excellent discount on white water rafting, still expensive but a 50% discount made it reasonable. I’m quite certain that the only reason we got the unheard of price was because we were young and female. Hard to bemoan the hassles of traveling as a woman when it occasionally works in my favor. I’ve been rafting twice before, once in Massachusetts and once in New York, and these were by far the best rapids. They had names like Terminator, Washing Machine, Judgment Day, and The Mother. It was a thrilling ride and I managed to stay in the raft, though I watched other rafts toss all of their rafters into the river. There were only a few small crocodiles on the banks so the biggest danger was being swept to the Zambian side of the river without your passport.
The current Ebola outbreak has been expanding at an alarming rate for the last six months. It started in Guinea but is now found in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal, and Nigeria, and there is a separate outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even if it were to come to a country that I visit it is highly unlikely that I would be in any danger. It is much more likely that one of the seats in the minibus would give out and I would find myself sitting on the floor instead. Nonetheless, it is a global crisis that everyone in and out of Africa should be concerned about.
Ebola is believed to come from eating bat meat, which for many families it is the only option for meat. The disease was discovered near the Ebola river in Congo in 1976 but this is by far the deadliest outbreak ever. It has a mortality rate of 50-90%, depending on many factors like how early it is treated. It can pass through skin contact and is highly contagious but it is not airborne. There is a growing movement by many international organizations to develop a vaccine and a cure. There isn’t one right now. Some people have been treated successfully but many have not.
One of the biggest struggles has been to get international aid for the crisis. This is a global world we live in, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. In the US many families and businesses donate to charities at the end of the year when the holiday bonuses come in and the tax books close. I encourage everyone to consider donating now stop an epidemic that won’t wait until the December holidays. I won’t dump a bucket of ice water on my head or make a video of me dancing to Gangnam Style (but if you want that, let me know). But I will donate. Ebola is real and it doesn’t care about Facebook Likes.
I recommend Doctors Without Borders, Médecins Sans Frontières. Think about it, read up on it, and help make a difference.