Zimbabwe Part 3

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Vendor by Prudence Chimutuwah

Reading this week:

  • Sons of Sinbad by Alan Villiers (Villiers is always phenomenal)

The morning after my visit to Great Zimbabwe I was headed back to Harare. I asked the hotel to arrange a taxi for me and the taxi arrived right at 0400. I was going for an early start because I was trying to catch a 0500 bus back to Harare. This was a bit weird for me because there isn’t a “0500” bus. It seems like the big busses in Zimbabwe operate like minibusses in Zambia, and instead of leaving on a schedule just leave when they are full. The taxi driver helped me get a bus. The first one we tried was almost full (and therefore nominally ready to leave) but the taxi driver talked to the bus driver and the bus driver apparently wanted to sleep for a few more hours before heading out. Like what? But eventually I got on a bus farther into town. This one was nearly empty when I arrived, but that meant I got a good seat and we left at about 0630. We made it to Harare in good time and I got a taxi the rest of the way to the hotel which cost me more than the bus ride.

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Downtown Harare from the National Gallery.

At the hotel I checked in and sat down for a minute and then got lunch. After lunch I immediately set out for the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. I was a bit nervous walking there but by the time I got there I was more comfortable. The gallery is a pretty nice place but not all that big. I saw some art I really liked. My favorite was this portrait of a roadside fruit vendor. She was painted with a graduation cap and cool sunglasses, and the artwork was done mostly out of old Zimbabwean notes. It represents the graduate who can’t find a job and so is selling fruit, but stands tall anyways.

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Flying boat formation.

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The famous balancing rocks of Zimbabwe.

After that I walked back to the hotel so I could arrange to go to the balancing rocks. The art gallery trip cost me $5 and the balancing rocks cost me $60. I got one of the taxi driver concierge guys from the hotel and he took me out there. He went on the whole tour with me which was kinda nice I guess? The place isn’t too big and we felt crunched for time because he had to go pick someone up from the airport, but then again we saw everything. The rocks are indeed pretty wild. My favorite was called the “Flying Boat Formation.” I found the rocks on the Zimbabwean dollars and had my picture taken there. So that’s pretty neat. It cost $40 for the taxi, $10 for my admission, $5 for the driver’s admission, and I tipped him $5.

All the previous meals I had in Harare were at the lobby bar at the hotel, but this night I decided I wanted to actually eat dinner at the hotel restaurant. I went down too early it turns out and the restaurant wasn’t open yet, so I had two beers at the bar. Then I went to the restaurant and it turns out it is a buffet that costs $30. I felt dumb going back to the bar so I decided to go for it. I had a lot of food and it was really good. The tough part was figuring some of the food out. The biggest hurdle was that there are different Shona words for things, so like nshima down there is sadza. A lady asked me if I knew what one dish was, and I said no (it looked kinda like cikonda before it is quite cooked all the way), and she told me it was like sadza but different, which really wasn’t illuminating. But in buffet style I piled my plate high with all sorts of stuff and I even got dessert and went back for seconds and after that I cleared out because the room was getting crowded and came back to the room where I passed out from a full belly.

Zimbabwe Part 2: Great Zimbabwe

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Great Enclosure from the Hilltop Complex

Reading this week:

  • The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Having arrived at the Great Zimbabwe Hotel, and having learned my lesson from the previous day, I started of by getting a very delicious hamburger at the hotel. It was only about 1300 at this point so I then decided to walk to the ruins. I took the long way ’round accidentally, but made it. I was a little bummed about paying the $15 entry fee two days in a row, but eh, worth it. I also bought a rather battered guide book to Masvingo and the ruins (last copy! they said) and it was been pretty helpful. After the entry fee I went to the museum on site which is pretty awesome and well done, and features the famous soapstone birds of Zimbabwe. They have all seven there. For about a century they had been in rather far-flung museums, because back when colonialists first showed up they ganked the birds right off the ruins and sent them off to their friends. Zimbabwe, however, has managed to recover them and has them on display.

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Some of the soapstone birds.

After the museum I went up to the hill site. First off, Great Zimbabwe is way more complex than I thought. I was familiar with the Great Enclosure, which is that thing you see when you Google “Great Zimbabwe,” but it is a much more extensive site. This first day I only managed to poke around the hilltop complex. Building the hilltop complex must have been crazy. It’s perched right on top of a tall, steep hill, and hauling all those quarried rocks to the top would have been a massive labor. All those walls perched on top of the cliff face. The complexity! The views! And between the guidebook and the museum I thought I had a pretty good grasp on the site and was excited to spend the whole next day at the site. According to the guidebook, the hilltop complex was not a fort, but it is an easy misinterpretation to think that because of the narrow passageways leading to the top (easily defensible) and the commanding views of the surrounding areas. You could not sneak up on Great Zimbabwe, that is for sure. In the distance is a pretty dramatic looking valley and you have a pretty awesome view of Lake Mutirikwe. The whole place is stunning and amazing and stuff and like wow. After the hilltop complex I decided to call it a day and took the short way back to the lodge.

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Me and the wall of the Great Enclosure.

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This structure is thought to represent a grain silo and has been restored after years of treasure-hunters tried to find a non-existent hollow void in the middle.

The next day at Great Zimbabwe was fantastic. I managed to spend most of the day at Great Zimbabwe, justifying staying there for two whole nights instead of just one. I woke up kinda early and had a delicious breakfast at the hotel and got ready to head down to Great Zimbabwe. Luckily the guys at the gate remembered me and let me into the monument without paying again which was really nice of them. The first thing I went to go check out was the Great Enclosure. That thing is pretty huge. I barely know what to say about it. It is really hard to capture the size of the thing in pictures but I tried. It is a lot more massive than it even seemed from afar yesterday. I used the timer on my camera a lot today to put myself in pictures and to try to capture the scale of the place but lemme tell ya it is big. After the Great Enclosure I wandered over to the Eastern Ruins and checked out the Shona village briefly. You can stay the night there for the authentic African experience. Gee I wonder what it is like to sleep in a mud hut?

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My next stop was back to the Hilltop Complex. I wanted to take another look at it since the previous evening I actually had a chance to read the guide book and had a better sense of what things were. The unfortunate part of the hilltop complex today is that I was there at the same time as a big tour group of what sounded like Australians, so I was dodging those people. Though that got me thinking. It was nice to have the whole monument to myself, or to feel like I had it to myself, but then on the other hand it is hard to get the sense of what the place would be like as a city. I mean somewhere between 2500 and 10,000 people lived there (depending on what sign you read) and that is hard to grasp with just a few stone walls. The whole place would have been littered with mud huts. I have some sense of what it would be like because I have been in densely populated mud hut towns but still to see it in situ would really be something else. I was thinking what would it take to get like, 10,000 people on the site all at the same time just to calibrate the right sense of scale. That would be amazing.

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The “stage” in the hilltop enclosure. The kinda bird-looking rock in the upper left of the picture is thought to have maybe inspired the soapstone birds, which kinda don’t actually look like birds but do look like that rock.

My other thought about the Hilltop Complex is that the Eastern Enclosure would be a sweet place to put on a play. It’s already got seating and this several tiered stage (they conjecture it was used for religious ceremonies), and also importantly it has this “backstage” area; the point was apparently that you could pop out on stage from these secluded rock areas. I bet if you wrote a grant for the project and had local thespians put on a play about traditional Shona something something people would eat that up, yo. The other cool part though about looking back in the “backstage” area is that there is a path back there that leads to the “Summit” (there was a sign) that gives absolutely magnificent views of the whole Lake Mutirikwe valley area and like wow man. Like totally wow. These Great Zimbabweans really picked the spot to stay at. After looking at all this (and going down a side path to see the “Water Gate” to view the only example of herringbone wall decoration at Great Zimbabwe, which at this late date has been reduced to four rocks placed diagonally on each other) it was time for lunch. I was gonna eat lunch on-site, but the cafe is lacking, so I went to the hotel for lunch and then ventured back down to the monument. I took another look at the Great Enclosure and the Valley Enclosures, and then a little past 1400 called it a day. The rest of the day was spent in the lodge room relaxing which has been very relaxing, as you would expect relaxing to be.

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View of Lake Mutirikwe from the summit.

In summary for Great Zimbabwe, the site is stunning and should get more tourist attention. I was only really aware of the Great Enclosure before I actually visited the site, and while that is impressive (largest native stone structure in Africa south of the Sahara) I wasn’t aware of the whole city and civilization surrounding the site. The place would have been absolutely magnificent to see at its peak and I only wish there was a way I could really get a glimpse of that.

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