Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Zam vs. Zim

Day 65: Livingstone / Victoria Falls, Zambia
This morning, I went to the post office in Victoria Falls to get all the souvenirs I have bought in Africa packed and shipped to the States. My first challenge was to find someone to wrap all the loose items up into a few manageable packages. No problem – as soon as I emerged from the taxi with bags of souvenirs, I was approached by multiple guys offering me a good price for packaging. I chose to deal with the guy who had a nice curio shop next door to the post office, but this caused an argument between the shop owner and another would-be packager. This second man would not give up on trying to get business from me even though I had already taken my items to the shop. He offered to get me some bubble wrap, as the shop owner did not have any. I conceded, as this would hopefully get the guy to leave me alone. A few minutes later, the man returned with two meters of bubble wrap and demanded $10. I laughed at the ridiculous price, and the man produced a receipt from the shop he had just been to. The total price was $5, and I asked the man if he really expected to make a $5 profit from walking across the street. He replied that it was two meters of bubble wrap, and that price was for one meter. Well, the receipt plainly stated that $5 was the total price, but the guy was just not going to give up. I told him I'd pay him $6, but no more. He kept arguing that he paid $10, so I told him that he was not going to get my business. He actually started crying and told me I was a horrible, terrible person (as I get told countless times every day by street hawkers for not letting them rip me off). When I still refused, the guy threatened me with "African tricks," whatever that meant. The shop owner, who was busy wrapping my souvenirs, heard the commotion and threatened to call the police on the belligerent man. This threat sobered the guy up, and he happily accepted $6 for the bubble wrap.

I proceeded inside the shop, where I watched the shop owner and his assistants wrap all the items in separate sheets of cardboard loosely formed into packages by random lengths of twine. As skeptical as I was that my souvenirs would remain in tact traveling halfway across the world in that kind of packaging, I knew that it was the best packing service I could manage in Zimbabwe. After a couple of hours, I was finally ready to tackle whatever obstacles might crop up at the post office itself. These obstacles turned out, unsurprisingly, to consume another two hours between the ridiculously dodgy customs forms and inefficient postal clerk. After such an epic saga, I was just glad to be rid of the items.

I had planned to cross the border to Zambia today, and the ordeal at the post office ate up a massive amount of time, so I skipped lunch and headed towards the bridge that crosses the Zambezi River. I exited Zimbabwe, walked the long distance across the bridge to the Zambian border post, and received my visa for Zambia. The main town of Livingstone is quite a long way from the border post, and I was short on time, so I decided to take a taxi. There was an American guy in line at the border post – one of the first Americans I've seen in Africa – and he offered to share a taxi with me to town. We haggled for a good price and hopped in the cab.

I was shocked at the contrast between the Zambian town of Livingstone and the Zimbabwean town of Victoria Falls. Although most of the tourism at Victoria Falls is now centered in Zambia due to the political situation in Zimbabwe, Livingstone is not an attractive city. The town on the Zimbabwe side was built decades ago specifically with tourism in mind, so it is a walkable city very close to the falls, and it features nice hotels and casinos. Livingstone is a rather unremarkable African city. One of the few attractions I noticed was the Livingstone Museum, so I decided to check it out. It is an average museum that showcases the history of Zambia from prehistory to modern day. There are a few amusing exhibits, however, like the comparison between traditional village life and Western life in the cities. The exhibit titles of "Our Village" and "Their Town" carry a hint of resentment toward colonial rule.

Next I took a taxi to view the falls from the Zambian side. The viewpoints are very close to the falls – the ground is soaked due to the intense spray, and the vegetation is a thin strip of lush rain forest. I was impressed at the sheer thunderous power of the falls, which far exceeds Niagara. After my short visit to Zambia, I had to get back to Zimbabwe so I could view the falls from that side.

View of Victoria Falls, Zambia © Matt Prater
Victoria Falls, viewed here from Zambia, is known as "the Smoke that Thunders" in the local language.

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