Zimbabwe Part 1

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Rainbow Towers Hotel

Once you finish your Peace Corps service, the thing to do is to go on an epic COS (Close of Service) trip. A lot of my fellow cohort decided to go on trips to places like Thailand or Europe, but I figured while I was in Africa I should see Africa. The #1 thing I had wanted to see during my time in the Peace Corps was Great Zimbabwe, which is a stone city constructed in the heart of southern Africa, and is the namesake of the country of Zimbabwe. When I got to Zambia I was distressed to discover that the Peace Corps forbade me from visiting Zimbabwe, which goes to show how much research I did on southern Africa before signing up for the Peace Corps. But being just a regular Joe (a rare state for me over the past decade or so), I was finally able to go.

Frankly I wasn’t sure what to expect of Zimbabwe. I had been following them relatively closely in the news over the past two years and frankly the news coming out of the place isn’t great. Plus I mean it’s apparently bad enough that they’ll ban Peace Corps volunteers from going there, and other people I knew hesitated to go there because they were “dragging pink noses out of cars” (according to these people). So I landed in the Harare airport and it was… great! I remember the airport being super nice. Zambia is working on a new airport, and has been for years, and it looks like it’s going to be nice, but the current one isn’t great. So Zimbabwe was an upgrade. I got my visa and then went super smooth and I went outside and there was a whole fleet of very nice airport taxis with great customer service who I didn’t have to haggle with to get a fair price. The taxi took me to the hotel I had booked online, Rainbow Towers, and that was super nice! I mean, it was $80/night, and if I had paid 800 kwatcha in Zambia for a hotel I would expect it to be nice, but I never stayed in 800 kwatcha hotel rooms in Zambia and it was jarringly fancy for me. They have concierges and everything. The biggest thing that tripped me up was all the prices being in dollars. A guy took my bag up and I tipped him $2, which I thought of as nothing, and it kinda is, but 20 kwatcha in Zambia is real money you know?

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Almost as soon as I got settled I head out of the hotel to go to the National Museum of Zimbabwe. It’s literally right next to the Rainbow Towers Hotel (I could see it from my hotel room window) and since it was like all of two in the afternoon I went over to check it out, even splurging the extra $5 to be able to take pictures to bring you the beautiful photos here. It’s a pretty nice little museum with some well-done displays (at least one had “Zimbabwe” somewhat crudely taped over what I assume was “Rhodesia”). Lots of stuff on the local animals but I was more interested in the cultural displays on the Shona people, Great Zimbambwe, and these cool “pit” villages I hadn’t heard of before (the pit is for keeping goats and sheep, apparently). I wound up spending about an hour in there just marveling at being in Zimbabwe.

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This guy remembered to get lunch.

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Some sweet Shona artifacts.

After that I set off for some food because I had skipped lunch. I wound up in a Foodmart or something that was like, way way way more crowded and intense than ShopRite ever was on its worse day. But I didn’t mind because the cashiers seemed like they were really working hard to keep everything moving. I think I caught like, all of Harare on their lunch hour based on the rush there and in the takeout shops. I eventually got a meat pie and some chips and was very satisfied. I spent the rest of the afternoon at the hotel trying to figure out how to best get to Masvingo the next day. Every taxi driver I met along with the concierge in the lobby was trying to convince me to take a taxi all the way there. This would have been $300, and the offer was kind of attractive, but according to the internet the bus was $8 and a delta of $292 was not to be shaken off lightly. I eventually went to bed without the problem fully resolved but being pretty amazed at Zimbabwe. The exact line I put in my journal was: Harare has been really cool so far and a lot different than I expected (I guess I expected Lusaka, but less democratic?) so I am excited to see what it is like getting to Great Zimbabwe tomorrow. Hopefully it is smooth, ya know?

The next morning the goal was to make it to Masvingo, where I hoped I had a hotel reservation. I got ready and went down to the lobby at about 0630, and the concierge recognized me from the afternoon before when I was asking about getting to Masvingo. He got the hotel chauffeur to drive me to the Masvingo bus, and that lady was super awesome! She first took me into town to exchange some US dollars in Bond dollars. Zimbabwe, in an effort to curb inflation, switched their official currency to the US dollar. This precludes them from printing money, so to get around that they introduced the bond dollar, which I guess is supposed to be worth the same as the US dollar. So $1 USD should equal $1 bond. The actual exchange rate is more like $4 bond to $1 USD. After getting some cash the chauffeur drove me to the roundabout with the bus, talked to the conductor for me, and put me on the bus.

Everything went perfect! The bus was standing room only, and I was standing, but I didn’t care because I was on an adventure! But yeesh they pack those things to the gills in Zimbabwe. This was a big passenger bus, but it seems in Zimbabwe they treat these busses like they treat minibusses in Zambia; they pack them absolutely full, only leave when they are full, and although I didn’t see the top of our bus other busses on the highway also had huge stacks of luggage on top. The trip to Masvingo was only $20 bond though, and frankly that is helluva good price. Along the way the bus played music videos featuring girls in bikinis, a major change from Zambia’s gospel music featuring people gently swaying back and forth wearing too-short ties. They also played a really old nature documentary which I guess was educational, but I spent most of the time staring out the window at the changing landscape.

When we finally got to Masvingo I got off the bus and got a taxi driver. Before we could pile into the cab the bus driver called us over and gave my taxi driver a stern talking-to to treat me right. Talk about service! The taxi driver, for the record, did a great job and the ride was great and the hotel, the Great Zimbabwe Hotel, was fantastic! I can barely relay how excited I was that everything was going smoothly, everyone was friendly, and I had made it to Great Zimbabwe with absolutely no hiccups. As I was checking into the Great Zimbabwe Hotel, I looked at the photos in their lobby of pictures of visits to the hotel by Princess Diana, Queen Elizabeth, and Nelson Mandela, which is a pretty favorable array of clients. The lady that showed me to my room warned me to be careful, though, of opening the windows because monkeys will break in and eat everything.

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The absolutely great Great Zimbabwe Hotel

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