The Zambezi from the Zimbabwe/Zambia bridge

sat. 11 nov. 2000
visiting european car designers is not that exciting after all. travelling with bob henry, the perpetual wisecrack machine is. bob sells what i help build and between the two of us we do a dog and pony show. ten car companies in 5 days, we run a tight route. slowly i am being transformed into a salesman, an evangelist. you blow your trumpet, then listen with genuine or feigned intent, but you listen. then you flatter some. man, that feedback you gave us last time really made us wake up and smell the coffee. and it smelt good, you know german beans mein herren, they are the best. i sport a blazer alongside the suited bob and bernd. i wear shoes. i do demos. at the end of the day though its dinner time. the spaten brauhaus, the osteria italia in munich and la grotta in wolfsburg stand out. bernd likes italy, he likes italian food, he likes italian women. our waitress at la grotta, filomena shares her name with his grandmother. she wants to know whether he would like his carbonara with or without cream. bob tips her 30 marks, she is about ready to pack in for early retirement. bob hit a wall the night before. verus dropped out with the flu. some nights fatigue makes us snarf mediocre hotel fare. most of all though i like the german breakfast buffets. they keep one ticking till the overindulgence of the evening. then there is malteserkreuz. bernd says cummel schnapps is healthy. i think its like drano, opening up the passages blocked by a filet mignon in gorgonzola sauce. but we drink it religiously before packing it in, every night. come fri. and i take the train from wolfsburg to koln. spend a much needed relaxed evening with masi. am on a train to amsterdam. its sat. noon. just did a little coding. mira burned me a lenny kravitz CD. its a fantastic copy right down to the color printed inserts. i cant seem to take this song "i just cant get you off my mind" off the repeat button. i must pay my repects to lenny kravitz for this groove here now by buying some of his stuff in due course. looking forward for a fun day in amsterdam before its on to schizpol and then... kilimanjaro here i come. i believe its all part of a sojourn that began a few months back, one afternoon in bombay with the upturning of a single tarot card.

a relaxed flight out to nairobi. getting off the plane was exhillerating. the strong feeling of being in a new land, the smells and sounds of the tarmac, apshalt, burnt aviation fuel, the warm african air. i realize now that it is the skywalk that has taken the romance out of flying for me. i remember the first time i ever used that aerial walkway it was most exciting but it has really connected the aircraft to the airport. there is no real sense of departure or arrival. the airplane is just another transit lounge you get into and then magically out of it at another destination. have a white cap lager while i wait, talking to a young guy from some village outside of ahmedabad here to work for his uncle. the transit lounge is packed with semi-urban indian fortune hunters, feel like i am sitting at a bus station in meerut. harare is a three hour flight from nairobi and i begin to get a sense of the size of this continent. as i get off the plane in harare with no visa a new adventure begins. another 5 minutes though and i am met by jarar ali with a visa and i am in. its a 25 min. ride to borrowdale an upscale harare suburb and the home of nawabzada mehboob ali khan, the ambassador from pakistan. such are the vagaries of the india pakistan relationship that a pakistani uncle can have an indian nephew, generations lost in the aftermath of the partition. rarely have i felt such warmth meeting someone for the first time. the evening is spent bringing our families up to date from two generations back. for me its mostly a lesson in history, starting with deep friendships in lahore, my nani and his mother, our cross migrations to delhi and his from his little kingdom, the state of malerkotala. he talks about the other surrounding principalities of nabha, kapurtala, jeend and how malerkotala is mentioned in the granth as the one muslim state that opposed the murder of the sons of guru gobind singh. he remembers going swimming with my mother to the chelmsford club when they lived on curzon road. its really a tale of the uprooting of the soul of a people two generations ago, that lived the rest of their days wallowing in the past and of their children who grew up in post partition anarchy with tales of erstwhile grandeur. none of the hatred and anger associated with political divides but a sadness of families forcefully seperated. ...and then there is my generation for whom it is largely an education of ones roots and the interesting hypothesis that had history played out different i may have been sitting on a horse somewhere in fertile fields with a falcon on my arm gazing upon my fiefdom. we have a great biryani dinner at home and then coffee at this swinging place in avondale. i must feel at home enough to drift away shortly after, its been a long haul.

up by 7. breakfast in the garden... i can get used to this life. later in the day we go to a lion and cheetah park, to see, no kidding, lions and cheetahs. must have been shortly after lunch for the animals, they are lazy could not care to respond to the car two feet away. they are so peaceful i have an impulsive urge to pet one... lunch at the royal harare golf club. go see a travel agent about a ticket to victoria falls, shop for artifacts at the newlands market and have a mozambiquan seafood meal in newlands. mamoo mehboob is uncomfortable with letting me go traipsing vic falls by myself. its hillarious and endearing at the same time. i promise to be a good boy, stay clear of adventure of any sort. ...then i go and make hanif raza's "where moutains meet" my bedtime reading. ...the conquests of hermann buhl on the karakoram peaks of pakistan and the dr. livingstone syndrome starts to set in.

i am on an air zimbabwe flight to vic falls. its about 850 kms from harare in ndebele country. the driver ahmed is from malawi and has taught me a few shona words. ndebele is a whole different language, much more clicky. i read assassins by bernard lewis, after this fascinating dinner conversation about the origins of the ismailis. it traces the history of the word to the sect of hassan bin sabbah (the old man of the mountain) and his followers, masters of disguise, educated in various cultures and laguages, trained in perfidy, who killed without compunction for entry into paradise, his castle of alamut (aluh amut is 'eagles teaching' in daylami), up in the elburz mountains of syria. they were known as the "hasheesh nasheen" or hasheesh-takers, which the europeans pronounced as best they could... assassin! in an hour i am in vic falls, a cabbie eddy takes me into town, points out a mock tourist village along the way, tells me to avoid the moneychangers... its ok if he is around he says hoping i might have some money to change. i have him drop me off at the setabezi lodge, a cheap place that an advert for was lying on the floor at the travel agents office. its an italian style villa about 2 km from town. the rooms are clean and quiet. check in, have a cup of coffee and head to town. buy a few zambezi's from the supermarket. zimbabwean beer selection is zambezi, castle, lion, bollingers... all fairly light lagers. i sip on one as i walk around town. its hot and a little humid, the onset of rains is nigh. too many touts trying to to sell one too many activites from bungi to game safaris. i have a shearwater gift voucher for a helicopter ride over the zambezi from some diplomatic spouses association fund raiser. the guys at shearwater also run a river rafting operation on the zambezi and i manage to trade the chopper ride in for the crazy opportunity to spend the next day in a rubber dinghy hurtling down the zambezi. then i walk on towards the falls. another tout catches up with me. you want some activities, brother... same old spiel. i tell him i am already booked. he says where you from. i say india. he says many rich people in india. i say many rich indians in africa, most indians very poor. to most africans, indian is like american, rich tourist... anyway, so he says i am lucky to be a tourist so i can drink beer in the street, the police let foreigners go but its a 80 zim dollar fine if you are local. 1 US dollar is 55-70 zim dollars depending on where you change the money. i give him the rest of my beer as he continues to walk along. his name is mike, he talks politics, he uses big words, the eradication of poverty, the use of arable land left fallow by the landlords to be given to the starving. he shows me a red card from his wallet, just like in soccer he says. the card says "mugabe must go". it is time for the old to throw in the towel. all this while we have left the main road and are walking towards the big tree. "i am not making business so i take a walk, i take you to the big tree". i have my watchful eyes on but i follow. what is this big tree, i ask. "its big baobab tree, spiritual healing powers, its not far", "i come here from harare, brother, i was a substitute school teacher, no work. this tourist business here is good but these big companies already book the tourists in advance. only the south africans come here and negotiate but they pay no good money, racists." we have walked a couple of kms and the road is now a dirt trail through the bush. i see some monkeys, warthogs, armadillo like critters and big ass elephants in a clearing. then we actually get to a big tree. it is an isolated baobab, about 10 ft or more in diameter. i walk around it a couple of times, then watch elephants, hiding behind it. "come i take you back along the zambezi, then i go back to town, ok". i say ok and follow him even further into the bush, a narrow trail a few feet from the river bank. a bit of the way along the trail he stops suddenly, examines skid marks along the trail, then after a long pause "there has been a crocodile here". it seems a little dramatized. there is little i can do, so i follow him with even more watchful eyes. "you scared?" he asks. "not particularly, i follow you", i lie. further down there are some fishermen, that he stops to talk to in ndebele. "you want to swim in the river, sometimes we swim in the zambezi to wash off bad omens". he washes his face in the river, i do the same. then we come to a point where the river is dry enough to walk over rocks almost to the middle of the river. finally the trail dumps us back onto a paved road and in front of a gated entrance to the falls. i have some food which i share with him. what are you doing in the evening, boss?". i have no plans so i agree to see him at the hunter bar back in town around 7. as soon as he leaves a couple of locals ask me... "he's your friend boss?" "sure", i say. "where you meet him". "he found me, i was just walking to the falls". "you be careful boss. he is a dangerous guy. takes people to shady places. you might get robbed. dont trust anyone in the city". "ok", i say, "thanks". "you want something to drink boss, some mbange to smoke maybe". "no i am ok". then i go and pay 20 american bucks to get in and see the falls. zimbabwe tourism really knows how to make the most of its resources. its 2 bucks for locals, 20 for foreigners. the trails in and around the falls are well manicured. the falls are impressive. not nearly as impressive they say as in march when the zambezi is in swell after the rains. there are about 6 subfalls, three of which are dry but impressive nevertheless in their naked cliff faces, dropping several hundred meters. sit a while in the spray and then decide to walk across the border into zambia. its easy enough to get across the checkpost but a good km walk to the bridge separating the countries. the shearwater bungi crew is packing in the paraphenelia for their 111 meter drop off the center of the bridge. i chat up a border patrol guard. they are leaving too and i get a ride on top of an armoured police truck back into town. they are armed to the teeth. its illegal they say but you look like good man, not noisy tourist so we take you. they say its better i hop off at the edge of town and i do. three young teens are pounding away on the street on large loud marimbas. they are fantastic and continue to play for an audience of one as i sit mesmerized for about half an hour as the sun sets. i leave them with 100 zim dollars each and they are absolutely ecstatic. i figure "siebonaga" must be thanks in ndebele. around that time my self-appointed guide mike shows up with another guy called washington. ...and i was hoping to avoid him, skipping the hunter bar rendezvous. anyway, so they take me to this bar adjoining a campsite which is great... largely a local watering hole, the beer at 25 zim dollars is as cheap as it gets. the bar itself is simple, dark, a small dance floor with a few token colored lights. local music and reggae on the jukebox. washington is also from harare originally and for the price of a few beers he educates me on the people playing on the jukebox. thomas mapfumo, lion of zim, most famous protest singer from zimbabwe, oliver mutzu-something, simon chipo-something, leonard-someone... we are sitting outside in a courtyard. its about 8, pitch dark and there is a fire going with a use it yourself braai pit. mike talks to some other guy in shona, gesturing at me every now and then, even though they both speak english just fine. i have my antlers out but continue to partake of the general conversation about the rampant HIV and prostitution problem. an attractive black girl makes eyes at me from across the courtyard. washington says "dont give her any positive indication or she will come and stick to you". she calls out to him in shona. he says "she asks me if you are interested? i hope you are not". then he shouts back to her in shona. before long she is sitting at our table, crying and in a heated argument with washington, this time in english. "i can sit where i want, you only say these things to me because i am a woman". i intervene, i ask her name, give her mine, tell her where i am from, we talk for about 5 mins. and then i say that i enjoyed her company and would love to stay longer but must get back to my lodge. the guys follow me out... "dont you want to check out the explorer bar and the kingdom, where all the action is"... i do, so i say sure you guys can come if you want. we go to the explorer's, which is much more of a tourist hangout. i chat up a baywatch preppie from santa monica who is complaining about the riffraff he has to travel with on the overland tour bus. he can pay for a bed, he is sick of tenting and these gung-ho outdoorsy kiwis. i humour him, turn mike loose onto him and leave to head out to the kingdom... washington comes along, but by now i feel in control again. have a drink at the action bar at the kingdom, a hotel that is better placed in las vegas, complete with casino. ...the lions share of the gamblers are black locals, squandering their meagre zim dollars in hope of the big payback. i trade email addresses with washington here, thank them for a good evening and catch a cab back to the lodge. its about 10. the lodge manager alex had recommended this restaurant buamo at the safari lodge down the road from the setabezi. its a great big braai, an full impala and an ostrich on the spit, zulu dancing every 10 minutes and some grubs which was where my culinary adventures stopped short.

7 in the morning and the shearwater people show up and haul me in the back of a pickup truck to raft site. there are about 25 people split over 4 boats, two where you just hold on as weight in the raft and let the guide row and two where you have a paddle each and the guide barks out orders from the back. i pick the latter and am in a boat with 5 rowdy white south african college mates. the guys are well meaning but there is an instant friction between them and the black guide steve. the zambezi is a grade 5 river whatever that means... the rapids range from grade 2 to grade 6 and are typically at 4 or 5. they all have cool names like stairway to heaven, washing machine, overland track eater, commercial suicide and a killer succession of three waves called oblivion. the boys on the boat hope it gets to flip or that they get thrown over at least a few times. they get their wish and how. we negotiate 15 named rapids over the course of the day. i go overboard on at least 5, break a paddle, the boat flips over twice. in the calmer water you can see flatdog crocodiles sometimes if you are lucky, they tell us. we dont see any. we stop for a rather scrappy lunch around noon and are done by 3. then there is a vertical 700 ft. climb out of the gorge where beers and cute certificates await us. for 250 zim dollars more a guy drives me straight to the airport, just in time for my flight. back by 6:30, literally have half an hour to clean up for a state dinner at the palestinian embassy, held in honor of the brazillian ambassador. everybody is his excellency so and so ambassador of here and there... all excllencies. i am his just-about-average karan singh from california. for the first time in the presence of all these people with titles i am quite happy to be introduced as doctor. in the absence of a black tie i borrow a churidar and go ethnic. the dinner is quite spicy to make up for the rather bland political conversation. i am seated next to the french wife of some representative from the IMF and and we chat merrily about toulon and salvador dali.

wake up a little sore. the internet connections here are not too bad and i catch up on email. levinia the maid makes excellent omlettes for breakfast. we have thanksgiving lunch at an american's place, whose balcony overlooks the cricket ground and the royal harare where the zimbabwe open is in full swing. in the evening there is another official dinner this time at the pakistan house. i help playing host... begin to fit into the whole diplomatic mould quite well. i chat with the young argentenian ambassador, we talk ferraris and beef cattle, discuss belgian brews with the waloon wife of the french ambassador, the director of the UNsomething is a munich local... she laments her husbands difficulty adjusting to the role of a diplomatic spouse, says we should meet up at the augustiner brauhaus in munich sometime. it all wraps up by 10 and then we sit out till quite late chatting about ambassadorial days in romania and the easy availability of turn of the century impressionist art in bucharest.

is a golfing day. there are 19 golf courses in harare, more than the total number of times i have probably played golf in my life. still its a fun day out at sun river, nick price's golf resort. i shoot somewhere in the high nineties and lose about four balls in the process. mostly i am looking forward to the concert event of the past few years, or so the local paper said. thomas mapfumo, back from exile, with his honorary doctorate from ohio state, at chitungwiza aquatic complex. we are going to go at my urging with this couple from delhi sanjay and monisha babbar, i met at the thanksgiving lunch. as it turns out too many people point out too many dangers of foraying out to chitungwiza a high density area outside of town... i defer sadly to the judgement of my hosts. we dine at home and play cards instead till one, with sanjay and monisha and its a blast.

the plan was to go to nyanga a hilly area a 3 hour drive from harare but it comes down pouring quite suddenly, so we do what die hard golfers do in shitty weather. get out their umbrellas and go play golf. this time its a course called chapman. the first few holes are played in pouring rain... its quite ridiculous. safir sahib, sanjay, me and a spaniard called allejandro, plodding along drenched to the bone. by the 6th hole the rain stops. i play a better round overall. my favourite part of the golfing outing are the snacks at the clubhouse after 9 holes.

have a picnic mongolian barbebque lunch among zebras at some safari lodge at lake chivero outside of town, and then drive out deep into the country. just a long poorly paved road camoflagued in dirt with enough straggly vegetation for it to not be a desert. many, many hours on the road.

barely make it back in time to pack and make it drive out into the african country... the day to a long winded chain of marathon flights harare, nairobi, amsterdam, san francisco... on the way i learn some swahili... vyoo viko nyuma - toilets at rear, hakuna mtu - vacant, and choo cha maji - flushing toilets.

The big tree and me (mike and the big tree i seem to have misplaced)

...tom waits' nighthawks at the diner on the haul back inspires me to channelize transit lounge angst into something verse.

cattle class blues

cattle class blues,
more upgrade coupons you cannot use.
still... you try,
you were lucky once,
may be lucky again.
not this time,
the check in man is a professional,
unfazed by your on cue smile,
your practised guile,
your flash of a silver air miles card.?
he does his job well,
he reads the fine print...
code share, class Q,
sorry sir, no can do,
but aisle or window is yours to choose,
cattle class, cattle class blues.
transit queues,
you contemplate,
gate 8,
you look around,
anyone interesting,
anyone attractive,
used to be that most everyone that flew,
had a yarn or two,
now and then you bumped,
into people you knew,
planes are a form of transport,
not an event, or a sport,
security checks,
rubber necks,
browse over mindless, at yesterdays news,
cattle class, cattle class blues.
you think maybe someday,
when you paid your dues,
you'll rub shoulders and boots,
with business suits,
in transit lounges,
outside which the cattleman scrounges,
stale pretzels and overpriced coke,
no sink into sofas, no on the house booze,
cattle class blues.
the zones are called in ones and twos,
you wait your turn, you find your slot,
its empty but,
your overhead bin is not,
you find one that is,
you sit down,
look around,
check to see,
if the inflight magazine is there,
should you wish to decipher,
whats on where.
then the game begins,
you scrutinize each person,
like specimens under a microscope,
as they walk down the aisle.
is she the one,
with the backpacker pyjamas, rings on her toes.
is he the one,
with the whisky breath and snivelly nose.
or this guy in the suit with sneakers,
he must be american, from the bible belt,
he asks for two of everything,
like he was related to noah.
or this large woman with a noisy son,
are they the ones.
you hope you dont get saddled,
with a noisy kid,
like you once did,
or an old man with a steamroller snore,
and a weak bladder.
or the indian with the moustache twitch,
in his blue safari suit,
its a crap shoot,
who is going to take the seat beside you.
maybe it will remain free,
like the other two beside 'em,
and you can stretch out.
four seats in a row,
might be best to get some rest,
you think.
then as you rise to ask the
stewardess for a drink,
three eggs show up to fill
the crate.
one is hardboiled, another fried
and the third is over easy.
bummer, the flight is two and a half movies long.
you buckle up,
make sure your tray table is fastened,
your seat upright,
the things one does to amuse,
travelling cattle class blues.