Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe: Falling For It

Border sign to Zimbabwe on the way to the magnificent Victoria Falls

  VICTORIA FALLS, ZIMBABWE : Day  7 – November 13, 2007 

An excerpt from my Journal, AFRICAN SAFARI 2007

The Victoria Falls Hotel is a grand old building, reminiscent of the days of true safaris and European colonization – it was the perfect backdrop to a scene from “Out of Africa”, I thought.

Before I left for Africa, I made a choice, which to me was important, as well as deliberately against the advice of the U.S. State Department and even fellow travelers – I chose to stay in Zimbabwe.  Not Zambia, as most visitors to the Victoria Falls are doing these days.  Everyone has heard of the perils of the Zimbabwean government, but I thought, should we really move our business and our dollars to a neighboring country when it is Zimbabwe that needs it more than ever right now?

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I met Aksun, my local guide and driver in the lobby at 8:00am.  He was a young Shona, 30 years old and married. He’s been my guide for the last two days, and we’ve had some great conversation – we talked a lot about Zimbabwe and the drop in tourism; the difference between the government and the people; the failing economy and the incredibly inflated Zimbabwean dollar.

He reinforced my decision to stay in Zimbabwe. True, the government is bad, but the sad result was the decline of tourism and the subsequent suffering of the people, for no good reason.

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Yesterday, he told me, “Zimbabwe is perfectly safe, it’s just the media hype and bad publicity that is keeping people away.”   I promised Aksun that I would tell everyone back home that things are different ‘on the ground’, so they too would come and stay in Zimbabwe.  My trusty Lonely Planet guidebook was right – they need us.

Aksun and I soon arrived at the entrance to the ‘Zim’ side of Victoria Falls.  After avoiding a number of touts attempting to sell their wares in the stalls outside, I walked a bit ahead of Aksun while he sorted out the entry fees.

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We first came across the statue of David Livingstone, Scottish missionary and explorer, and the first European to witness the falls. He renamed them from the poetic “Mosi-oa-Tunya”, meaning “the smoke that thunders”, to Victoria Falls, in honor of Queen Victoria.

We followed the path alongside the relatively calm Zambezi River before it plummeted downstream.  Soon, the mist began to grow thicker and suddenly, we were beholding the first of the falls, the impressive Devil’s Cataract.zimbabwe-victoriafalls-5

zimbabwe-victoriafalls-10We worked our way around the paths and viewpoints, where it was evident that we were visiting during the dry season, with large swaths of exposed gorge between the cascades. But still, the falls, where they existed, were awesome.

Another dry season perk:  I had the falls all to myself, as there wasn’t another tourist in sight.  Just as I stopped to soak in the scene, not taking for granted my luck at having a private viewing of this natural wonder, a rainbow emerged through the mist and hovered over the falls in front of me, as if to affirm my thoughts: yes, you are lucky.

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Aksun and I soon took the winding path back to the entrance.  A guy called at me to buy water.  I did need postcards, so I walked over to take a look at his small makeshift shop. Somehow, I ended up buying $15 U.S. dollars worth of postcards (I send a lot of postcards!) and a Fanta – but all I had was a $50 U.S. dollar bill.  The guy said “no problem”, he’d give me $30 U.S. dollars plus $5 U.S. in ‘Zim dollars’ back, which was fine by me.

He came back a few minutes later saying that he had no more U.S. dollars – and offered to give me the opposite – $5 U.S. dollars plus $30 U.S. in Zim dollars – which would be A LOT of notes.  With not much of a choice, I agreed, and figured I could buy some local crafts with the money at the nearby market, and then use the rest to tip Aksun with later.zimbabwe-victoriafalls-13

With the stack of bills in my hand totaling millions of dollars, I ran straight to Aksun waiting in the car, and said, “Hey, can you check for me that this is $30 U.S.?”  It was too much money; I got confused just looking at it.  He counted quickly… “Yes, thirty.”  Ok, good.

We continued on our way to the nearby ‘Big Tree’, one of the most famous trees in the world; a huge Baobab that is the largest, the tallest, and at possibly 2000 years old, is thought to be the oldest in the country.  As fascinating as that may sound, I, however, was still mesmerized by all the money I was holding – I needed a picture of it all fanned out – three MILLION ‘dollars’ of banknotes!  I felt rich!  So, as I was looking at it in my hands, I said:

“Wow… I can’t believe this is only thirty U.S. dollars!”

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“Thirty U.S. dollars?”, Aksun anxiously replies.  “THREE dollars – you said three dollars, right?”

“No… thir-TEE…  three-zero…  is this only three dollars?!”, I said completely dumbfounded.

Aksun instantly freaks out, and makes a sudden U-turn, just as we were arriving at our destination.  Through the car window, I quickly snap a picture of the ‘Big Tree’ as we head back to confront the scam of the ‘Big Three’.

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Aksun is so upset.  “This is very bad – very, very bad”, he kept saying, as he drove like the wind.

“I can’t believe the guy did that!”, I thought out loud – admittedly using much harsher language in place of the word ‘guy’.  ‘Thirty’ and ‘three’ can sound similar (“thuh-ree”), especially to someone who speaks English with an accent.  Obviously, Aksun heard “three” and counted the money as such.

We get back to the entrance to the falls, and Aksun stops the car right in front of stall #2.   He yells something to the ‘guy’ in Shona, one of the Bantu languages spoken throughout Zimbabwe, as he walks up to our car.  A bit shaken, and without contesting anything at all, he peers through the window and says to me, “Oh, you want it in U.S. dollars?”

The little b****.  He walks away quickly, and I turn to Aksun and ask him if he mentioned the police – he said, “Yes, how did you know?”  “By the way he reacted and ran off to get the money!”  I said.  So, out comes the guy with $30 bucks in his hand – thirty U.S. DOLLARS – when no more than fifteen minutes ago, he had zero U.S. money, remember?  I was pissed.  I could care less about the thirty dollars, but I am a man of principle, and I hate being scammed.

I took the money, and we were off.  Aksun was still visibly upset.  Here he was, trying to make an honest living in the midst of a difficult economy, with one of the few tourists he has had this year – and next thing you know, his client is getting scammed.  I could understand his agitation.  He had been so careful to make sure that I left Zimbabwe with a positive experience, so I could spread the word to others who would then come, spend, and eventually, help the tourism industry recover.  In his mind, this idealistic domino-effect had just been shattered.  I tried to reassure him that this could have happened anywhere, and it wouldn’t change how I felt about the country or my decision to come here.

With the ‘mix-up’ finally settled, Aksun and I headed to the local crafts market to blow off some steam with a little shopping.  Minutes earlier I had three million Zim dollars in my hands, and suddenly now, I have none.  Aksun takes a $20 U.S. dollar bill from me, reaches into a bag, and slaps several thick stacks of bills onto my lap.

I couldn’t help but think, if only we had done that before I bought my postcards, I would have known that $30 U.S. dollars, or thirty million Zim dollars, wouldn’t have come back to me in a small stack of bills… but more likely, in a briefcase.

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