the unforgettable last week in Africa, part 1

I’ve been back for almost a week now, but so much stuff has been going on (SEP training, church, applying for jobs, meeting up with friends) that I’ve only now found the time to blog about this.  It was an amazing week, and I hope I’m able to describe it CLOSE to how amazing it was.  Sadly, though, I think I’m going to post it in three or four parts, otherwise it will be ridiculously long.  And we don’t want that.  So here you go – The Unforgettable Last Week in Africa, Part 1!

Wednesday, May 4 – The whole group of 55 got on an airplane and flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg (2 hours).  The Joburg airport had a weird feeling for all of us – we all had to say goodbye to our new South African friends, some people were excited to be flying home, and some of us (me included) had weird feelings of being excited for our week of touring, saying sad goodbyes to the rest of our friends, and having mixed feelings about the fact that we weren’t going home for another week.  But soon the time came, and 40-something people headed over to their terminal while a small handful of us proceeded to the baggage claim.  It really was a weird feeling.  Suddenly we weren’t on the APU South Africa Semester anymore – the group of 55 was gone.  Our week of traveling through Africa was beginning.

We (Renna, Zach, Tyler, and I) were picked up at the airport by Candida, someone I had found out about through Katherine (a church/SEP friend) and gotten in contact with over email.  All we had needed was some place to stay the night while in Joburg, but we could have not imagined a better homestay situation!  Candida was amazing – nice, hospitable, conversational, and she hugged us right when she met us.  She took us to her house where we met her husband and three cute little kids.  The whole night was a lot of fun and we felt like we had known the Millars for years.  She made us a South African meal of corn pasta spaghetti with ostrich meat (“I wanted to give you something South African, but the corn pasta is pretty gross so just load it up with cheese”), and then after putting the crazy kids to bed, we stayed up to talk with Grant and Candida about all our lives and travels while eating delicious Cadbury chocolate.  A great start to our trip.

Thursday, May 5 –

Tyler, Renna, me, and Zach with the kids, bright and early in the morning

After breakfast the next morning, Grant took us to the Greyhound bus stop.  Of course, the bus was on “African time” and came more than an hour late (at 9 or 10am).  When we got on, we saw six of the other Americans from our group (Colton, Riley, Matt, Kim, Carmen, and Destiny).  They had also decided to stay back another week, but although we would be taking the same transportation, they would be doing different things than us and staying in a different place while in Victoria Falls.  The bus trip was long, but wasn’t that bad.  Renna and I sat next to each other and told lifestories and tried not to listen to the terrible movies that the bus driver was playing.  We arrived at the South Africa/Zimbabwe border around 5pm, and it took about an hour to get through the whole exiting-the-country/entering-another-country/buying-a-visa/figuring-out-which-were-the-right-lines-to-stand-in process.

the first line we stood in to exit the country...before they moved us inside to another line...and then moved us again

When we finally got our stamps and were in the country, it was already dark, so we didn’t have a chance to see Zimbabwe in the light that day.  Still, it was exciting just to be in another country. : ) We arrived in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe around 10:30pm.  Once again, we had a great living situation!  Nicky, a friend from New Zealand, had connected me with her friend Ben.  We hadn’t been able to get in contact about specifics, so I was pretty scared that we’d show up in Bulawayo and he wouldn’t be there, but sure enough, he was!  Once again, we all had a great time.  Although we didn’t know Ben, he was so nice – beds for the night in his parents’ beautiful house that he has all to himself, dinner on his hilarious college graduate budget (it was fun to see what combinations you could make with tuna, bread, and spaghetti), showers that felt amazing after the long bus ride, plans for what to do the next day, etc.  Another great night.

Friday, May 6 – Ben had to go to work, so his friend Christian was able to drive us around for the morning.  It was interesting just getting to talk with him in the car, hearing about life in Zimbabwe from a white perspective, including what happened with the money a few years ago.  I may not have all these facts exactly right, but this is a rough summary: What had happened was the government started kicking white people off farms and out of businesses (or taking 51% of their profits and pretty much kicking them off that way), giving those responsibilities more to black people.  That sounds good on one hand, but it was actually really bad for everyone because the people that were given farms and businesses had no idea how to run them.  The economy got really bad, and inflation was terrible.  When it got to the point where $3 trillion Zimbabwe was equal to $1 US, the government stopped using their money (in 2009) and changed to American money.  Ben and Christian said that families would go to the grocery store with plastic bags full of money just to do their normal food shopping.  So now, prices in stores are actually in American dollars, but it’s weird because they don’t use American cents – they use Rand (South African) cents!  When Christian took us to a cheap place to get lunch, we bought sandwich wraps for $1.60, which means that I was supposed to give them $1 US and about 4 Rand.  So weird!  Who knows why they don’t just write it like that on the price tags…  The whole week I was fascinated by the way they used their money.  Every check-out counter had a calculator so cashiers could figure out how much money something was in whatever currency the customer wanted to pay with (American, South African, Botswana, or British money), or how much change to give in Rand.  I didn’t know all this at the time I bought the wrap, so I just gave the cashier $2 American, and to my surprise, received 2 Rand back in cents!  One last thing about the money: The US dollars that they use look different than ones you find in America – they’re really old!  I’ve never seen such beat-up money.  It was dirty, so crumpled that it was soft, and could never be used in a vending machine, but that just gave it character.  I loved that I could look at the US money in my wallet and know which I had brought with me and which I had gotten there.

American vs. Zimbabwean U.S. dollar bills

After Christian took us to buy lunch and exchange money (we couldn’t find a bank that would do it, so he found a friend that would), he dropped us off at the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair – something that just happened to be going on that week.  I didn’t have very high hopes for it because it wasn’t a fun tourist thing (it was mainly for businesses to put their name out there), but I actually really enjoyed it.  It was something really educational for us to do on our first day because we went to informative booths about different things in the country; we learned about the mining business, irrigation, cows, the capitol city of Harare, the army, etc.  So it wasn’t the most fun thing we could have done, but I honestly really enjoyed it.

the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair

We stayed there for 3 1/2 hours, and then Ben picked us up on his lunch break.  I loved just talking to him and learning more about life in Zim.  Bulawayo is the second biggest city, but compared to what I’m used to, it wasn’t big at all.  We talked about how everyone walked across the street anywhere they wanted “as if they owned the road,” and because of that, people got hit often (which caused racism problems if the driver was white).  We talked about how half the street lights didn’t work at night because people threw rocks at them and no one fixed them.  But we also talked about how amazingly friendly everyone in the country was.  Even though we hadn’t done anything super crazy that day, I felt like I had learned more about Zimbabwe in one day than I had about South Africa in a week or two.  Ben had to go back to work, so the four of us just spent the afternoon relaxing at his house, playing with his cute puppy, watching a movie, and exploring the huge yard.

Ben's beautiful house and yard

When Ben came back at 4, we took a walk with the dogs to a little pond.

I told Ben, "This is what Americans usually picture Africa to be like." Him: "What, bush?!"

Then we went to a grocery store to pick up our PB&J rations for the week, as well as a KFC-type place (Chicken Inn) to pick up dinner.  We then said goodbye as Ben dropped us off at the train station, where we once again saw our six other American friends and waited for the train to leave at 7.  I had been really excited about the train because it would give us beds for the night and take us all the way to Victoria Falls, all for only $12.

The train started out fun.  It was supposed to leave at 7:30 but was delayed, so we took self-timer pictures on the railroad tracks (it was the end of the railway so we didn’t have to worry about other trains coming), ate dinner, and met an old tipsy white man named Peter who told us all about the “Zambezi Express” and how it was the best train on earth and the Bulawayo station was the longest train station in the world.

Renna, Zach, me, and Tyler

the "Zambezi Express" : )


The four of us settled into our cabin, a little room with four beds and barely enough room to move (but I loved it anyway).

our 1st class cabin

However, things soon weren’t so “positive” (as Renna would say).  There were mini cockroaches all over the walls of our room.  Our fingernails somehow kept getting dirt in them even if we didn’t touch anything.  The toilets didn’t have seats or paper or door locks, and whatever went into the toilet went straight out onto the tracks, which was awkward when the train was at a stop (and also really gross thinking about how we had been laying on the tracks to take pictures!).  But want to know the worst part?  Hours later, the train still hadn’t moved an INCH!  At 1:00 in the morning, we were still laying in our beds in the SAME STATION.  I couldn’t sleep because the train station was blasting music (which I had originally thought was fun African-sounding happy music, but I later began to detest it) and light was pouring in the windows from the station.

Saturday, May 7 – 1:00 am and the train STILL HADN’T MOVED.  All of us were pretty much hating life at that time.  Renna later said that it was the second worst night of her life, and I’d have to say it tied as the worst experience of my life along with it’s close rival of riding the slowest horse on the planet for four hours through pouring rain and hail in Lesotho.  But through it all, I realized that in every terrible experience (like Lesotho), I always see the humor in it all, realizing how it’ll tell a great story when it’s all in the past (again, like Lesotho, which is actually one of my favorite memories from the whole semester).  So although I had never been so angry (and I actually was – weird for me because I honestly don’t experience “anger” very much) at a mode of transportation, and I had never prayed so hard for something to simply just move, I enjoyed the whole experience in the back (way, way back) of my mind, realizing that one day I would look back on the worst night of our lives with fond memories.  And I suppose I do now.  So at 1:45 am, after sleeplessly laying in bed for hours and trying not to get near the cockroach-infested walls, our train finally moved.  6 hours late.  And I had never, ever experienced what the word relief meant until that moment.  I sat up and yelled “Praise Jesus!” (hearing Zach in the bed below me yell something similar) before laying back down and finally being able to unwind.  We all had a little freak-out when the train stopped about 20 minutes later, but when we realized it was just a regular train stop, we were finally able to relax and get rocked to sleep by the train.

I woke up from the light (and heat) streaming in the windows, and the four of us spent a slow morning staring out the window of the train and passing around a box of cereal, still in a miserable mood from the night before.

how we spent several long hours of the morning

We eventually got in a slightly better mood, and while the others played cards (Rummy became the game of the week), I stuck my head out the window, feeling the wind on my face and seeing monkeys, baboons, dairy farms, and miles and miles of African bush and wilderness.  I enjoyed the stops we made along the way, waving to kids at the little stops in the middle of nowhere.

waving to a group waiting for the train to stop

this guy brought two goats onto the train, hanging them upside down with their legs tied together!

At 1:00, the train finally arrived in Victoria Falls…
(to be continued)


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Renna
    May 21, 2011 @ 08:53:24

    Mel! Congratulations on an accurate and exciting, as well as entertaining portrayal of the first few nights of our adventure! I very much enjoyed reading it and reminiscing about our crazy week!


  2. Mom
    May 21, 2011 @ 09:15:57

    I’m ready for the next three parts!


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