Thursday, January 1, 2009



A Journey of Giraffes: A Lament For Zimbabwe

Outside the windows is the sound of falling water. The temperature hovers around 30 degrees but it will begin to cool once the sun sinks below the horizon.

In a room decorated with chintz sofas, curtains that puddle on the floor, and mahogany furniture, the late sun turns everything golden. I sip a gin and tonic. Around me, a few friends are sunk in the overstuffed chairs. The conversation is mostly about where we should have dinner tonight. I’ve been told that the suite we are staying in is the one occupied by Elizabeth, the Queen Mother when she visited more than half a century ago, and I imagine her enjoying several g & t’s, a royal weakness, while she was here.

Music floats in through the windows from the dining terrace below.

This should be a perfect moment, one of those special interludes that you remember at a later time and long to relive. But there's politics in the air,and there are are too many unanswered questions floating around to get too comfortable.

For these rooms are in the venerable Victoria Falls Hotel, that distant rumble comes from the legendary falls, and around us is the now sad country of Zimbabwe. When I arrive, the elections are just days away.

The dilemma I am facing, and that I suspect many travellers struggle with today, is this: While I enjoy the luxurious stay at an historic hotel that recalls the glory days of Empire, outside these walls the country is in turmoil.

I know that my stay here helps to provide jobs and income for some Zimbabweans. I leave generous tips. I place some extra t-shirts and a couple of pairs of shorts on the bed, along with a note saying that they have been left deliberately for the maid, so she won’t be suspected of stealing.

But here's a question. Do we tacitly agree with thuggism when we pay our $60 US visa fee to enter the country? While our tourist dollars provide jobs and income for a small few, perhaps our visit helps to prop up a corrupt regime.

At the airport when we first arrive, the custom’s officer sits with a drawer open beside him, full of American dollars. There are ninety people on our flight, mostly Canadians because there is a large travel group from Ontario on board, and each of us hands over our cash - only American dollars or South African rands are accepted - a take of almost $6,000 on this flight alone. Will that money go to help feed the people? Call me a cynic, but I somehow doubt it.

On the other hand, tourism is one of the main pillars of Zimbabwe’s economy and the locals who work in the hotels, restaurants and game reserves are immeasurably better off than the 85 percent who are unemployed. Charity, who is a server at the Victoria Falls Hotel, doesn’t earn much – about enough to pay for cooking oil and some food for her family, but it’s better than her neighbours. The problem, she explains, is that she is paid in Zim dollars, and she must spend them immediately because if she waits for a day or two, the dollars will be worth even less. “Our money buys nothing, and there is nothing to buy.”

But Edwin, resplendent in his red uniform, is beaming. The elections are days away, and he is confident that the old regime will be defeated and a new day will dawn for his country. “This time, it is inevitable!” he claims.

I hear the same thing from every Zimbabwean I talk to. Benedict works at the safari lodge near Victoria Falls where we stay for four days. He is forty years old, married and has three boys.

How do you get food for your family if the shelves are empty, I ask him? He explains that he goes to nearby Botswana to buy basic supplies. With the wrong-footedness of someone from a prosperous country, I ask him if he or his wife keep a garden.

“I do not have a house,” he answers softly, “so I cannot grow a garden. I have been allocated a lot in Victoria and I am gathering up the materials to build a house. I am buying windows and bricks. Cement is hard to find. I think, in perhaps a year, I will have all the things that I need and can start to build. And this election will change everything. We will have good schools for our children again.”

Two of his sons are in school, but the local school is a poor excuse for education, he says. “Teachers leave or they go on strike. They have not been paid, or their pay is so low that the work is not worth it. Often the boys just play games or do nothing. I am lucky that I can pay for a tutor for my son so he can get a proper education.”

I speak with a teacher from England who has taught in an international school in Harare for six years. He is able to order goods and food online, and has it delivered to a drop off place where he collects it. But now he is leaving, and he’s the only one I talk to who does not have great expectations for the outcome of the elections. “I have loved it here, but it’s not a good place to be any more.”

Our safari guide, William, takes us out each morning while the trees are still wreathed in mist. He is an avid conservationist, and tells us with great pride about how they have successfully moved the rhinos to another area because they could not protect them from poachers here. He is careful not to be noisy, not to get too close to animals, not to invade their natural space. He names every bird and even gives a lesson in the cyclical nature of life in the wild by dissecting a heap of elephant dung.

When we come upon a dead elephant, he is visibly upset. Only the discovery that her tusks are still there, and that she probably died of old age, comes as comfort to him. She has not been a victim of poachers.

Suddenly we come over a rise to find about fifteen giraffes, necks swaying, nibbling the leaves of the acacia trees.

“This is a jenny of giraffes,” he tells me.

“A Jenny?”

“Yes, like a long trip – a jenny.”

“Aaah. A journey of giraffes!”

“Yes. A jenny.”

A group of hippos is a bloat, he tells me. And later we see a dazzle of zebra.

I feel immensely privileged to watch these creatures in the wild, to take a boat ride on the great Zambezi River, to experience elephants up close. On one evening, the elephant pack moves into our camp, and we need to be escorted to our rooms by an armed attendant. The bushes, as we walk by, are shaking. We can smell the elephants and hear them snort. The night air is busy with their bellowing. It’s completely thrilling.

This is a country I have dreamed of visiting since I was very young. My grandfather was an engineer who participated in the Boer War, and my father used to sing me a song that he had learned when he was in Africa, and that I sang to my children. I have been imagining a visit to Africa for years and it has proved to be as mysterious and awesome as I had dreamed it would be.

In point of fact, the places I stay show few signs of the country’s strife. Only on the drive from Victoria Falls to the water lodge, and on the way to the airport, can you see the poverty. If you close your eyes, you could be completely oblivious to anything amiss.

On the morning we are to leave, it is election day. As we wait for the car to pick us up, I meet the chef who oversaw our dinner the night before. He had told me how difficult it was to plan meals when supplies were uncertain, and how he had to learn to be creative. This morning he proudly shows me his baby finger, stained red. He was one of the first to vote and he displays the evidence with pride. “The change will happen now,” he states with certainty.

Repeatedly I am told the same thing by the local people – that the tide will turn now, prosperity will return, Zimbabwe will once again be the breadbasket of Africa. The dark times are over.

But what if the Old Man wins again?

“Then Zimbabwe will die.”

“But that will not happen.”

The aftermath of that election makes me despair for their naive optimism, and fear for the safety of those who so publicly supported change. Since then, most countries have advised against travel to Zimbabwe, so the already ailing tourism industry will probably implode. Shortly after my return from Zimbabwe, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada issued an advisory against non-essential travel to Zimbabwe, stating, “ Following presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections that took place on March 29, 2008, the situation remains volatile and unpredictable in the country.” Many of the people I met may now be part of the 85% unemployed.

While the point is moot now, since Zimbabwewon't likely be on the map for travellers from North America for a while, Iwonder if tourism is a help or a hindrance, part of the problem or part of thesolution, for countries in conflict.

Yet my visit to Zimbabwe has made me more aware of the political situation, more concerned and certainly more sympathetic for the plight of those who are the victims of government sponsored tyranny. I read every news report. I now know firsthand that Zimbabwe is a country of great natural beauty and kind and generous people. Its troubles are a shame and I feel that more deeply because I have been there.

A dilemma is by definition an impasse – a condition where the decisive choice is not clear. The traveller’s dilemma puts each of us in a strange place – we want to explore the world, spend our few vacation days learning about the wonderful places on the planet, but it isn’t always that easy. Every action has a consequence. Should we forgo the pleasure of experiencing a journey of giraffes in order to send a message to an aging dictator, and by doing so strip more jobs from an ailing economy?

Travel isn’t always just a vacation.