Part 3: coming home

Tuesday, May 10 – Zach and I got up early in the morning to go and buy tickets for our train journey back home that night.  1st class was full (which is the only place where you can get only four beds in the cabin, with sheets included as well), but the train manager came over and decided to help us out.  He looked at the seating plan and decided that a few people could move around.  “Come back at 6pm and get tickets then.  We’ll have this cabin just for you.”  So that was a nice start to the morning!

Another early morning adventure: Zach had been wanting to buy a Zimbabwe flag, but one of the street vendors told him that it was actually illegal to sell full-size flags there!  Zach wanted one, however, so a couple guys told him they would try to find one and then meet him outside the hotel at 8 in the morning.  So sure enough, they did.  As Zach negotiated prices with them, I watched from the sidelines, amused simply watching what looked like people drug dealing.

flag-dealing

Once again, Renna and I snuck off to get ice cream and have a really good conversation.  I knew I was going to miss her a lot after this trip!

Renna and I with our floats

When we got back, we made plans to go see the Zimbabwe side of the Falls.  Tyler decided not to go, so he stayed with the group of six other Americans that were camping out at our hotel for the day.  Zach, Renna, and I really enjoyed the Falls once again.

entrance to the Zim side of the Falls

Zach was in LOVE with this side of the waterfall, but I personally liked the Zambia side better.  I came to the conclusion that the Zim side was more majestic because you could see the whole length of it, but the Zambia side was more fun because of that little bridge where you get soaked.  My favorite thing, though, was simply watching Zach have a BLAST.  He was literally running around shirtless like a little kid, getting soaked, yelling at us to come over and see whenever the mist would blow past and we could catch a good glimpse of the Falls.  It made my day.

the clearest view of the waterfall

Zach just beginning to get excited...

it was like being in the middle of a rainstorm, while waiting for the mist to blow away so we could see glimpses of the waterfall every so often

Renna and I also loved seeing rainbows everywhere we looked.

taste the rainbow

Also, earlier on in the week I had read out some random facts to the others about Victoria Falls and David Livingstone (the Scottish missionary who first discovered the Falls).  Renna decided that I had an obsession with Livingstone, so because of that, just for fun, I actually started to be “obsessed” and would always say random facts I learned about him.  Best thing ever when we found a huge statue of him for me to climb on and hug!

David Livingstone!

We stopped at Chicken Inn for a late lunch, and then Renna and I did a last walk around town so she could give away some clothes.  We picked up a packed dinner at Pizza Inn (Oh, and the ice cream place we always went to was Dairy Inn.  Something, I don’t know what, tells me that they’re owned by the same company) and then took all our stuff to the train.

in town, just a minute from our hotel camp

We saw the pushy street vendors for the last time (Zach and Tyler were always really friendly to everyone we met, always asking people’s names, so we knew several people personally by this time), and said goodbye to the warthogs that wandered around the station.

warthog passing through town

Then it was time to board the train, which was much nicer than our first train!  It was all the same size, but the walls were shinier and cockroach-free, the windows had screens, the door opened smoother, the bathroom door closed all the way, and everything was just 100% nicer.  And guess what?  We actually left on time!

the nicer train's shiny walls

Hilariously, we met ol’ Peter again, who sat down in our cabin with a beer bottle in hand and proceeded to tell us once again about the beauty of the Zambezi Express for 15 minutes.  It’s times like those that I hope I never forget.  We ended the night by playing a game we made up in order to learn childhood stories about each other: someone would give a subject like “superheroes,” “dessert,” “trees,” or “foods you don’t like,” and everyone had to tell a childhood story about that subject, seeing who had the best one.

Wednesday, May 11 – The night had been a lot better than our journey there (although I suppose that’s not saying too much).  The morning was slow – we had been stuck at one station for two hours before moving.  We passed around our Cheerios and donuts for breakfast, and realized that in our hurry to leave the camp the evening before, we had somehow left all our PB&J stuff, apples, and granola bars!  Sad day.  Around lunch time we arrived in Bulawayo, where Ben was once again there to pick us up (and had even taken the rest of the day off work to do so!).  We ate lunch, took showers, and watched Hancock at his house before picking up an early Chicken Inn for dinner, taking a group picture, and then saying goodbyes at the bus stop.

picture with Ben before leaving

At 4 pm, the Greyhound left.  The trip was mostly uneventful.  We watched a few movies – most were terrible like the earlier bus trip, but one was actually okay – until they turned it off before the climax!  I also discovered that, surprise surprise, I was useless at making bracelets (Renna: “Honestly, I’ve taught a lot of people and you’re the first one that hasn’t gotten it.” – That sounds harsh but honestly it was just funny).  If this whole semester has reinforced one thing in my mind, it’s that everything artsy is “not my calling.”  After going through the whole border-crossing-back-into-South-Africa ordeal, I actually managed to sleep a few hours through the night (I’m never able to sleep in moving vehicles) thanks to some sleeping pills that decided to work on me for once.

Thursday, May 12 – The bus actually arrived half an hour early, at 5am.  Candida and the kids came to pick us up, and we had a relaxing, unwinding day at their house.  We were able to shower, use the internet, unpack and repack (we had left most of our stuff at her house during the week), share photos, and nap.  During all that free time, I came up with some conclusions about the Vic Falls trip:

1. It felt like a completely separate thing from the rest of the semester.  It felt like months ago that I had been with the 55 taking classes in South Africa.  Whenever someone had mentioned someone’s name from our group, it always took me a while to even picture their face!
2.  That week was the longest week of my life.  It felt like at least two weeks.  Maybe because we were traveling so much, or maybe because we packed so much in each day.
3.  We did such cool things.  We went to Zimbabwe and Zambia.  We saw the largest waterfall in the world and got soaked by it.  We swung 233 feet down over the Zambezi River.  We rode elephants on a safari.  We rode a night train – twice – and had the worst night of our lives on it.  We planned the whole thing, from accommodations to transportation to activities.  We had an amazing time with unforgettable memories.  And most of the stories I tell people back home about Africa are just from this one week.
4.  I didn’t expect to have so much fun with the activities, but I also didn’t expect that there would be so many disagreements with only four people.  But for some reason, it didn’t take any fun from the trip at all.  It showed me that I really was putting to use what I learned during the semester – that it’s impossible to always be friends with everyone, so I need to put my effort into simply getting closer with those that I already get along well with.  It sort of sounds like a sad lesson, but I know that it’s what God has been trying to teach me for a long time and I’m only just getting it now.
5.   I wasn’t homesick anymore!  That was weird, because only 8 or 9 days before, I had been exploding with homesickness.  I think it was because I had what I was missing the whole semester – a small group of people who cared about me and actually wanted to include me.  The homesickness had just melted away right at the beginning of our extra week.

Before going to the airport, Candida dropped Renna and I off at a shopping center so we could stock up on Cadbury chocolate as souvenirs (and we did buy a lot of chocolate!).  Then we packed up all our stuff, said some sad goodbyes (we felt like we had known them for so long!), and were off for our 10:00pm flight.  In the car on the way to the airport, it finally hit us – we were leaving the place we had called home for the past four months.  It was a weird feeling.  It was finally over.

with the family before we drove off to the airport (minus Grant)

8 hour flight to our short stopover (where we couldn’t leave the plane) in Dakar, Senegal.  Renna and I once again had a good conversation, trying to figure out exactly what we each had learned on this semester-long trip…how they were hard lessons, but they each had a positive aspect to them (ie. “people will always let me down, but I can rely on God,” or “I can’t get everyone to like me, so I should appreciate those who do even more”).  It was good for both of us to be able to talk about it all out loud, because we knew that once we landed in LA, everyone would be asking us the same questions.  Then 8 1/2 more hours to our stopover in Washington D.C., and then 4 1/2 hours to LA.

Coming home was slightly disorienting, but not as much as they had prepped us for.  But yes, things were different.  There were a few words that I had learned to naturally say differently.  For example, in the D.C. airport someone had been eating French fries and I had called them “chips” out loud without even thinking about it.  I said “just now” about ten times in that first day back with my parents.  I had gotten so used to counting Rand cents that it was weird to see American cents.  I was scared of driving again because it was on the right side of the road, but when I did actually get to drive, there were only a couple of times where I was a little weirded out.  Although, I’ve noticed that I do walk on the left side of the sidewalk when other people are passing…

The whole drive back home from the airport, my family asked me lots of questions about my extra week, and I talked so much that I got a sour throat.  “I haven’t talked this much in a long time,” I told them.  I felt like a lot of my semester had been about listening (mostly because I didn’t know who to talk to), and it was strange to talk this much.  Things were just disorienting all over, but that may have also been because I only had seven hours of sleep in three days.  But overall, it definitely wasn’t nearly as weird as the reorientation class had prepped us for.  The weirdest thing of all was visiting APU and finding out that my group of friends had made some new friends, and I had to figure out my relationship with these “new” people!  But when I saw my other friends, like people from church, it was comforting to realize that it felt like no time at all had passed.  After all, what is four months in the scheme of life? : )

Well, that’s about it for reflecting…  In the plane, I made a list of things that I missed about America and things that I would miss about Africa.  It’s kinda fun, so I’ll post it later as my FINAL blog.

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Part 2: adventures in Vic Falls

Two things I forgot in Part 1:

1. To help you better visualize where we were, here’s a map!  We didn’t go on this exact red line route – I just got this picture from Google…  But it’s close!  We started out in Johannesburg, took the bus to Bulawayo, and then took the train to Victoria Falls.  In this next blog, you’ll read about how we went to Livingstone also.

map of southern Africa

2. When we were at the Trade Fair in Bulawayo, apparently the president, Mugabe, was also there on the same day!  But I heard that everyone hates him…and that he’s always surrounded by a million body guards…  Anyway, one of the girls from the other group that’s traveling with us saw him.

from Google

from Google: a kid with the money he would need just to buy a few groceries

The story of our week, continued….

At 1:00, the train finally arrived in Victoria Falls, and as soon as we all got out, baboons and monkeys invaded the train.  Simply walking to our hotel camp was definitely a cultural experience!  We asked a man where Rest Camp was, and he ended up walking us all the way there (10 minutes), but not only out of the kindness of his heart… He was one of the artists at the nearby market, and he wanted us to drop off our stuff at the camp and then come back with him to the market.  “You don’t have to buy stuff – just look!”  We told him that we just wanted to rest for a bit and that we would come later, but it took a lot of convincing for him to finally leave.  On the whole walk there, so many vendors bombarded us, trying to sell us old Zimbabwe money (trillion dollar bills) or offering us deals on the activities to do in the area, and there were even a few children asking us for money or clothes.  People literally walked up the whole street with us, not stopping no matter how many times we said no!

the biggest bill they printed before the currency was scrapped - now sold as souvenirs

I really liked the place we were staying.  It was set up like a campsite, and we were staying in a double chalet (a building with two little bedrooms in it) with a big community bathroom a 30-second walk away.  The campus was beautiful, and we were able to relax and take nice warm showers after we felt disgusting from the train.  At about 3:00, we left to explore Victoria Falls Town.  The feel of it was SO different than the rest of Africa that we had experienced.  The second we left the hotel grounds, three guys were waiting there to make us buy Zimbabwe money (I ended up buying the $50 trillion bill for $2 American, just for a cool souvenir).  Zach and Tyler went to different places that ran activities in the area (like elephant back safaris and gorge swings) to negotiate the lowest prices, while Renna and I explored the little tourist shops.  We then went to the bank to withdraw American money, but for some reason, we couldn’t get it to work.  A black Zimbabwean guy was waiting in line behind us and heard about our problems, so when he was able to successfully get money out, he made a joke about how he got money and we didn’t.  Tyler jokingly said, “Can we have some, then?”  The guy looked at his money, paused for a second, then handed Tyler a $20 and walked away.  That made Tyler’s day.

Next we went to the market – huge cultural experience.  Everyone was SO pushy!  Americans think car salesmen are pushy, but you have NO idea until you see Victoria Falls market people.  They would find ways to get you to stay, saying things like “Oh, I like your hair tie.  I want to give it to my sister.  I’ll give you something for it.”  Then they would take my hair tie off my wrist (this happened about four times) and then ask me what I wanted.  When I suggested a trade, they would say yes, but ask for money as well.  They asked to trade other things as well, telling us to come on our last day with our old clothes.  They found ways, like that, to trick us into buying things (or in my case, almost buying things – I walked out of there at the end of the day spending no money!).  I thought we had become good at bartering from all our practice in South Africa, but this was like advanced level bartering!  I can’t explain it – it was ridiculous.  I kept telling Renna, “It’s like drugs – just say no!” and I’d help pull her away from people trying to convince her that she needed a wooden bowl or that she needed to support them.

After Renna started practically hyperventilating from claustrophobia, and after I was tired of saying “no, sorry” about fifty times in a row, I pulled Renna out into the open area in the middle of the square market.  Vendors kept trying to talk to us, so I said loudly and determined “Let’s just get some fresh air!  We need fresh air!”  We stopped in the center, held hands, and breathed deeply in and out – while almost every vendor stared at us (probably because I was talking so loud).  Again, I was doing that thing where I see situations as funny when in reality they’re terrible.  I was finding the humor in the ridiculousness of it all, and was rather enjoying the whole experience because of that.  After a minute, we decided to walk back in on the other side.  The first vendor who spoke to us said, “They’re very pushy over there, over here is better.” …and then proceeded to do the exact same things that the other guys had done.  We found the booth of the guy who had walked us to our hotel earlier, Gorden.  Renna curiously asked him how much a little wooden giraffe spoon was in Rand, and he said 180 ($25).  Renna: “What?!  I got a spoon just like this in Pietermaritzburg for 12 Rand ($1.75)!”  The guy: “Oh, but this is special wood.  It’s made from the roots of the trees.”  -_-  Really…  She eventually got the price down to 15 Rand ($2).  Ridiculous.  Tree roots became a reoccurring joke between us during the rest of the trip.

the market

We ate dinner at the Rest Camp’s place (where I tried warthog meat – the “Pumba Burger”), and had a meeting about what we wanted to do the next few days.  One big question was about whether to go to Botswana or not, and after a frustrating meeting (it’s amazing how there can be such differing opinions with only four people), we decided not to go because of the extra cost and because we didn’t have a solid idea of what to do there.

Sunday, May 8 – I woke up after only 6 hours, but couldn’t go back to sleep so I decided to make myself useful.  I took a little walk to the local grocery store.  Well, the main grocery store hadn’t opened yet, so I just got bread and cereal from a convenience store (called Seven to Eleven) and walked back.  By then, Renna was up, so half an hour later we both walked to the actual grocery store to finish the shopping, now that it was open.  It was actually a fun experience getting to see the store and how different it was from what we were used to.  There were barely any choices, and all of them were different than what we were used to.  The main grocery store didn’t have any jelly/jam, so we went to the convenience store to get some.  Renna stood in line with a jar labeled “jelly” before I realized that it was jelly for meat!  We then found what I think was the single jar of actual jam in the whole country.  Milk was either “long life milk,” which was in cartons that were not in the fridge, or else it was in bags.  I saw some cartons in the fridge, but they were labeled “full cream” so I didn’t want to risk what could be inside and just decided to go for the long life stuff.

milk in bags

It was also a cultural experience when we saw shelves FULL of Green Bar soap – unwrapped bars that are each more than a foot long.  Stacks upon stacks.  And they smell, well, not so good.  Sadly, we soon realized that almost everyone in Victoria Falls Town smelled of Green Bar.  This also became the subject for a running joke between us.  A few days later, I remember some guy crashing into Renna on a crowded street – “That’s the closest contact I’ve ever made with Green Bar.”  Side note: We thought it was body soap the whole time, but when I got home and looked it up online, I realized it was laundry soap.  But regardless…same thoughts still apply.

the Green Bar shelf

Our big adventure that day was….Zambia!  Yes, we actually went to another country for the day.  It was about a 15-minute walk to the border post.

before leaving Zimbabwe for the day

After getting our passports stamped out of Zimbabwe, we entered the “no man’s land” bridge that goes over the Zambezi River.  We could feel a slight mist from Victoria Falls, which was cool because it was so far away.  The road had puddles all over it, but it was crazy to think about how that wasn’t from rain!

walking into "no man's land" - puddles made from the mist of the Falls! (you can see a tiny bit of the mist on the top left)

In the middle of the bridge (which people could bungee jump from) there was a line where Zimbabwe and Zambia met, so it was fun to take pictures being in two countries at once.  When we got past the Zambia border post and bought a day pass visa, I was suddenly the most unsure I’d been the whole trip.  I had done so much research and asked for so much help for all the details of the trip, but in Zambia I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do!  Luckily, though, Tyler and Zach were excited to figure things out.  The place seemed deserted, and there were just a few taxi vans and some people sitting in a dusty open area.  Two Zambian guys seemed to claim us all as their next customers, so they helped us find a taxi (“combie”) that wouldn’t rip us off, and then rode with us to the town of Livingstone.  I knew that the guys were going to want a tip after this, but at the same time, I knew that we would be lost without them.  The combie ride was also a unique experience – the seats seemed barely attached to the bottom of the van, and there were of course no seatbelts, but it got us there!  The Zambian guys came out with us, took us around the markets, bought us water bottles, gave us lots of interesting facts about Zambian history and culture, and helped us not get ripped off (that had been Ben’s only warning for us before we got on the train – “Whatever you do, don’t get ripped off.  Cut the price in half and then start bargaining.”).  They were interesting people, and it always surprised me what they had to say – one could even recite the names of the US presidents backwards!

Livingstone, Zambia

I asked if there were any foods that we needed to try, so the guys took us to a place where we had a filling lunch of nshima, the country’s staple of cornmeal that you eat by rolling around in your palm and then dipping in a sauce or with vegetables.

digging in to our traditional lunch

We told the guys that we wanted to go on a gorge swing sometime, so they took us to a place.  We weren’t too excited about the location, though (it was over random bush instead of over the river), so we decided it would be worth the extra money to go in a more fun location.  Next, our tour guides brought us to the entrance of Victoria Falls, where we said goodbye to them.

the baboon that they called Michael - I loved how casually he was just sitting on the curb like a human would do!

Michael turned a bit to look at the camera

I had been excited to see Victoria Falls, but I honestly wasn’t expecting to love it as much as I did.  I’ve never really been the kind of person to marvel at beautiful nature scenes, which was what I thought the Falls would be, but I never imagined it being so much fun!  First of all, the Falls were beautiful, huge (obviously  – largest in the world), and it was crazy how the mist coming from it would sometimes block our view of it.

our first beautiful view of the side of Vic Falls

However, the fun started as soon as we got into the “rain forest.”  While Tyler and Zach went shirtless, Renna and I got out the ponchos we had rented from the stand outside the park.  It was absolutely CRAZY!  Water was pouring down on us, even though the sky was blue!  We found out from several people that the river was the most full it had ever been, meaning that the Falls were HUGE!  And because it was so huge, the water would come from every direction and just pour on us, even though we were pretty far away from it.

the "rain" pouring down on us!

Renna and I with a barely visible view of the Falls

There was a little bridge that was part of the trail, and it was my favorite part.  The water POURED down on this bridge, probably harder than any actual rain I’ve ever felt in my life!  It was like being in a giant rain storm…even though the sky was blue.  I opened my mouth and was literally able to “taste the waters of Africa” (our program director’s catch phrase that was written on our semester shirts: “Once you have tasted the waters of Africa, you will always be thirsty until you drink them again.”).

rain/mist POURING over the little bridge, with a rainbow and blue sky up above

Then we hiked down a long trail to the “boiling point,” where we ate our packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, granola bars, and apples while looking at the beautiful view of the water swirling in whirlpools in the river below the Falls.  We then hiked back up the trail and headed back to Zimbabwe, and happened to see the group of six other Americans while on the bridge in no man’s land!

the reunion in no man's land

in two countries at once!

Back at the chalet, the power was out, but we managed to get out the cards and play Rummy (our nightly activity) again with our headlamps.  The power outage put some people in a bad mood, and along with problems from earlier in the day, tensions were high.  Plus, as Zach pointed out, the middle day on week-long trips is always the worst.  But through it all, some good conversations managed to happen.  Tyler and Renna took a walk outside and talked while Zach and I had a really good conversation (I love those), and then later we all helped a really-excited Zach come up with awesome ideas of things to do with his freshmen hall next year (he’s going to be an RA).

Monday, May 9 – Undeniably the best day of the trip.  And guess what?  It was also Renna’s 18th birthday!  We had booked our elephant back safari the day before, and sure enough, a van was at our hotel at 7am to pick us up.  After a short ride, we arrived at the place where we each got our own elephant to sit on (well, we each shared one with one of the workers).  The ride was 45-60 minutes, and it was pretty relaxing – more comfortable than a horse.  It was a cool experience because it was on my list of things to do before I die, and just because we were riding on elephants, but it was also weird because it honestly got a little boring up there after a while…haha.  But it was great. : )  We saw warthhogs, other elephants, and crocodiles (which we walked right next to through a little pond) on our safari, which was more than I was expecting to see (they had told us that the focus wasn’t really on seeing other animals, but on the whole elephant experience).  After the ride, we got to take pictures with and feed the elephants.  It was so funny to feed them by putting things in their trunk, and them bringing that to their mouths – I loved that.  But I didn’t really get to feel what their skin was like – it was caked with so much dirt that I couldn’t tell what was actually skin!  Oh, and something really neat – they usually have a guy who follows the customers around and videotapes everything, but we told him we were not planning on buying anything.  Instead, he asked if he could just use my video camera so that we could get a video for free.  Umm…yes!  He was great, running ahead of us and then crouching down to get cool videos of us riding around on the elephants.  After getting a free breakfast and giving them a tip for everything they did, they dropped us off back in town.

my elephant!

feeling the trunk

going through the pond with crocodiles

There we booked our next activity – a gorge swing for later that afternoon.  We then walked down the road to see the beautiful Victorian-style Victoria Falls Hotel (where Renna and I once again had a good conversation while looking at the beautiful view) and also the Kingdom casino next to it (where we were planning to take Renna later that night as a typical 18th birthday thing to do).

view behind the Victoria Falls Hotel - you can see the no man's land bridge and the mist from the Falls!

Zach and Tyler then went to the hotel camp to swim in the pool while Renna and I decided to look in all the shops that we hadn’t had a chance to check out.  It was only 9am, which was so weird because we had already ridden elephants and been on a safari and we still had the whole day ahead of us!  One of my very favorite times of the day was when Renna and I stopped to get ice cream after our window-shopping.  It was just so nice to simply sit down, eat ice cream, and talk.  Renna and I had been friends before the extra week, but we hadn’t really been that close.  This extra week, however, brought us SUPER close, and we found out that we had so much in common, including a lot of the things we had been feeling and learning during the semester.  “Why weren’t we friends before?!”  Seriously…she definitely became the person I got closest to out of all the 55, but it’s sad that that really only started during the extra last week.  We finished our talk as we went to the little grocery store again to stock up on our rations (definitely excluding Green Bar).  Renna and I then joined the guys back at camp for a little while before we were all picked up for our 2:00 gorge swing.

Right when we saw the location of the swing, right over the river, I got super excited…but more freaked out.  It was so high!  We all did it tandem because it was cheaper, but it also ended up being a lot more fun that way.  Tyler and Zach went first, free falling the 71 meters (233 feet) down and swinging across the river.  It looked crazy!  Just like at the elephant safari, the guy offered to use my video camera instead of making us pay for their’s!  While he video taped, Renna had Tyler’s nice camera to take pictures of the guys, but as soon as they jumped, she freaked out and completely froze.  I actually had to take the camera from her to make sure that the guys got pictures of them swinging!  Then it was our turn, and we were both freaking out.

freaking out on the edge of the jumping platform

Right when the guy started counting down for us to jump, I remember hearing Renna say “I can’t do this” at the same time as I said “Wait, how exactly do you jump off?” and then somehow we were both off the platform, falling 233 feet towards the river and screaming our heads off.

right after jumping off

angle from the video camera man

The free fall was only 3 seconds, but the swinging after it was fun.  Renna continued to scream the whole time, while for some reason I was just cracking up in laughter.  To get up, we were pulled from the top and we used our legs to sort of walk up the cliff.  At the top, we awkwardly got smashed against the rocks and both ended up with bruised knees, but it didn’t take anything from the experience.  Renna said it was the most fun thing she’d ever done in her life.  People have asked me how that compared with bungee jumping, but I honestly don’t know how to compare them.  They were just very different things, with bungee jumping being way higher (more than 3x) and the gorge swinging having much more of a flying sensation, rather than falling and bouncing.  Although, I have to say that I loved not hanging upside down by my ankles screaming to be pulled up…

Back at the hotel, the guys taught Renna and I how to play Blackjack (preparing us for the casino later), and then we finished off with our traditional game of Rummy.

stop looking at my cards!

At 5:00, Tyler said we would leave for the casino.  Zach and I knew the real plans – there was an amazing birthday dinner ready for Renna – but she had no idea.  She was like, “Okay…sure…” and as soon as the guys were out of the room, she looked at me and said “Why are we going to the casino at 5 o’clock?!”  When we walked outside and there was a taxi waiting for us, Renna finally realized that something was going on.  Tyler made her close her eyes as we drove to Safari Lodge, a beautiful hotel and restaurant up the hill that we had seen a glimpse of from our elephant back safari (and Zach and Tyler had booked it while I had been talking to Renna at Victoria Falls Hotel).  Renna was finally able to open her eyes when we were looking out on the balcony of the Lodge with the sun about to set.  The place was gorgeous – the multi-level huge thatch roof building overlooked a view of African bush, a waterhole, and animals like quail, warthog, and elephants.  As the sun set, we watched an elephant drink from the waterhole.

see the elephant?

By request of Renna’s mom (whose credit card I had been told to steal straight from Renna’s wallet), we had a wonderfully fancy dinner (the kind where you can’t pronounce most of the things on the menu), including an appetizer of crocodile meat and a meal of ostrich steak.  When the waiters delivered a chocolate cake with her name on it, she told us this had not only been the most amazing birthday of her life, but probably the best day of her life, period.

The last thing on the list of epic things to do on Renna’s birthday (so far: elephant back safari, ice cream and shopping, gorge swing, and fancy dinner) was the casino.  Definitely a weird experience.  The only reason we went was because it was one of those 18th birthday things to do, and I’m proud to say that I personally did not spend a penny…although I did press a button on a slot machine for someone else haha.  But after the whole experience, Renna and I decided that gambling was one of the most pointless things ever (Renna: “I can’t even describe how stupid I felt just pressing buttons on the slot machine.”), and I even thought about how we could have fed a poor child in a 3rd world country for more than three months with the amount of money that had just gone down the drain.  At one point while we were there, I decided I couldn’t take the stupidity of it all (along with the smell of alcohol and cigarettes) and I just took a refreshing walk outside, getting some nice God time and touring the fancy hotel next door.  When we got back to the hotel, Renna and I had our last adventure of the day – trying to rescue a giant beetle from drowning in the toilet.

To be continued…

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" : )

Ahhhh!

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)