Wednesday, December 21, 2011

British high tea in a Zimbabwean dream

I have been reading a few interesting novels about Zimbabwe, including Robert Mugabe and the African and Douglas Rogers' The Last Resort , which was especially good at describing the situation that has been unfolding in Zimbabwe for the last few decades. For a complete history of Zimbabwe you should look elsewhere other than this blog (like maybe read those novels), but to over-over-oversimplify it, Zimbabwe gained its independence from British colonial rule in the early 1980s, and were pretty unhappy about what the British colonialists had done to them in the past and so implemented a policy of expropriating land from white farmers, some of whom had been living in Zimbabwe for many years. Much of this process was quite violent. SADC even released a judgment condemning these actions. Meanwhile, as time went by, the Zimbabwean economy plummeted and inflation reached ridiculous levels, to the point where people needed to carry around suitcases full of money just to pay for groceries.

I feel like I’m not doing enough to explain the situation in the country, but maybe you get the idea of why I was a bit nervous at first about visiting the country. The Last Resort was published in 2008, so it’s not like these events were ancient history. Street vendors still sell ten billion Zimbabwean dollar bills to tourists for the equivalent of three US dollars (Zimbabwe’s tourism industry basically runs in the US dollar). But the Zimbabwe border is just a stone’s throw away from my hostel, and so many tourists go there, and we’ve been told that Victoria Falls is most beautiful from the Zimbabwean side, so we decided to go check it out. Also, I once had a fever-driven dream where I met Robert Mugabe and asked him, “So if you hate white people, how do you feel about Korean-Canadians? Would you consider me to be white?” Given the fact that I’d had a dream about the death of Kim Jong Il the day before he died, I wondered if this dream had some meaning too.

On this trip so far, I’ve crossed the border from Namibia into Zambia by bus. I got from Zambia to Botswana by boat. Now, we were crossing the border to Zimbabwe on foot. We had a shuttle drop us off on the Zambia side of Victoria Falls, and we walked across the bridge into Zimbabwe.

The bridge at the border

The country has something against Canadians. Zimbabwean visas are pretty cheap for most people, except for British citizens, which, I guess is because Zimbabwe was a former British colony and they’re still not too pleased about that. But what surprises me, and this is where my knowledge of foreign affairs fails me, was the fact that Zimbabwean visas were most expensive for Canadian citizens. Why?

Once arriving on the Zimbabwe side, many Zimbabwean vendors tried to sell us wood carvings and bowls. I wanted to tell them that they should be selling After-Bite and mosquito spray, as that is what tourists truly need here. Joseph bought me ten billion Zimbabwean dollars for a few US dollars, for me to give to Rob. Which would make my fiancé a billionaire right?

Then we hiked along the main trail in the park that allowed us to view the majestic waterfalls of Victoria Falls from various picturesque vantage points.

We also got a good view of the Devil’s Pool, where we had swum only a few days before. Unbelievable.

It was hard to take good photos because there was a lot of mist – I could see why the place was also known as the Smoke That Thunders. I welcomed the mist – it was really hot and humid. I enjoyed walking through the forests though. There aren’t a lot of green forests in Namibia, just savannah and desert, and I’ve been missing Canadian forests a lot, so it was kind of nice to have all these tall trees surrounding me, even if they were full of monkeys.

This one didn’t rob anyone.

Gloria loves trees!

The fences along the cliffs were interesting – makeshift fences created by spreading thorny branches along the ground. It worked, I guess. The thorns were sharp.

The smoke that thunders

After we’d hiked the whole trail, we decided to relax by doing high tea at the fancy Victoria Falls Hotel.

I found the whole hotel setting to be an odd experience for me. It had such a distinct colonialist feel to it, as though it was stuck in time in an era from a century ago when the British still ruled and lived an easy aristocratic life. I guess it was a combination of the architectural feel (it was, after all, built during colonial times), the rich white guests, the black serving staff, and, undoubtedly, the very British tradition of high tea in a former British colony in Africa.

“Doesn’t it feel like we’re white?” I asked Joseph and Allison as we were seated at the hotel restaurant by the host. Allison pointed out that she actually was white.

It almost reminded me of this wedding I’d read about which had caused a worldwide scandal. A British couple had recently for some reason decided to host a colonial-themed wedding in South Africa. Perhaps they had some good intentions in wanting to present a nostalgic fond longing for the “good old days” in the past, but it was also one that was selective and clearly ignored the suffering caused by racial oppression. Maybe I felt like this hotel preserved some kind of similar “good old days” sentiment to it, which seemed so out of place given what has been happening in the rest of the country in terms of political unrest. Certainly in general I can’t help but uncomfortably notice how much privilege I carry whenever I go about in southern Africa. At any rate, it wasn’t a feeling I could shake off.

Nevertheless, it really was a beautiful old hotel, with mango trees and warthogs that would run across the manicured lawn, and the heads of many animals displayed on the walls. We enjoyed many teapots of the local Tanganda tea as well as scones and sweets. Our table on the patio also had a great view of the Victoria Falls bridge we had crossed to get here.

It was a curious experience. Zimbabwe is probably the second most politically/economically different country I’ve ever been to (the first being Cuba), and I’ve been reading about all sorts of things happening. But my entire (albeit short) experience ran like a pleasant dream. Although, unlike my dream, I never did get to meet Robert Mugabe to ask him what he thought about me.