I’m back! Oh blog, oh telephonic communication, oh world, how I have missed you. (In the interests of full disclosure: communication with the outside world wasn’t impossible from Zim, but it was challenging, owing to cell phone not working, landline not working for international calls and internet being very temperamental.)
I have so many stories, I’m not sure where to begin. But I was just watching The Sound of Music (Christmas present from Robbie) so will take Julie Andrews’ advice: let’s start at the very beginning.
The very beginning was meeting my friend Simon at Oxford and hearing about this strange place called ‘Zimbabwe’. (I promise you I hadn’t more than the vaguest notion that it was one of those African-y places.) Six years later, Si called me to suggest his friend Robbie Honey as a potential flatmate in London (I wasn’t very enthusiastic at the idea – just goes to show). After six years of living together, I suggested to Robbie that this year of adventure might be ‘the’ year for me finally to visit Zim.
All of this led to my crossing the Limpopo River on the 22nd December and getting my first glimpse of Zimbabwe from the window of the plane – and the shock of seeing lots of green below me. It hadn’t registered that I would be there in the rainy season (although we were lucky with the weather and it didn't rain that much) and hadn’t imagined fields and forests of green. The thatched huts with smoke blowing out of them were a clear sign that I was in a WHOLE different kind of Africa from Cape Town.
We touched down on time in Harare Airport – where, if you squint, you can see the tumbleweeds rolling through. There are weeds growing on the runway and apart from our plane and three or four Air Zimbabwe planes, it was deserted. I was tickled to see that the main control tower looks exactly like a giant Dalek. This may explain a few things about the country. (Incidentally, I have no photographs of the airport or any government buildings – I was advised not to take any.)
There was no one to show us where to go or what to do, but I followed the crowd and after a few false starts figured out the immigration procedure: fill in a form, stand in one queue to pay for a visa, stand in another queue to have your passport stamped. Don't stand at a polite distance from the person in front, or you will be overtaken. I made the mistake of putting my true profession on the form. Well, not the mistake, surely (when in doubt, tell the truth), but obviously ‘museum interpreter’ seemed like a made up job to the officials because I got quizzed about my true intentions: ‘are you planning to work in Zimbabwe?’ ‘No.’ ‘Are you planning to work while you’re here?’ ‘No.’ ‘Is this your first time here?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you here for work or holiday?’ Eventually, they either decided I really wasn’t a journalist, or they got bored, because they let me through and I emerged (with all my luggage) just as Robbie arrived to collect me.
Not knowing what to expect, I lurched from surprise to surprise: in places, surprised because things worked (escalators, luggage carousel), in others, surprised because things didn’t (streetlights, traffic lights, water mains). My impression of the streets we drove through in Harare’s suburbs was that they looked like the jungle was working busily to reclaim them: the potholes have potholes in them, the verges are mostly overgrown, streetnames are painted on people’s garden walls because the signs have been taken down, what signs there are old and rusty. Imagine if there’d been no maintenance of roads or utilities for 10 years in, oh, Ballsbridge or Wandsworth or some other nice suburb with nice houses. I began to understand why Zimbabwean friends talked about the Land That Time Forgot (more on this later: I got sucked into a time warp last week – I have pictures to prove it).
My home for two weeks was pink, 1950s style with lots of palm trees, guinea fowl running around the gardens and beautiful flowers and birds. More importantly, with lovely people. The Honeys welcomed this stray Irish traveller into their home for Christmas and treated me like part of the family.
During those two weeks I met some of the friendliest, most hospitable people I’ve ever encountered. I saw some of the most beautiful landscape I’ve ever seen. I saw people living in huts. I stayed in pure-1960s style accommodation. I stumbled across a diamond mine. I saw prehistoric rock art – and almost got struck by lightning in the process.
I coined the word ‘cramaziness’ to describe Zim to my family: it is the most surreal, beautiful, mixed-up, crazy and amazing place I have ever been.This, then, is the prologue for my posts over the next few weeks. Suspend your disbelief, abandon all prejudice, leave expectations aside. My trip to Zimbabwe was like reading a story and then discovering that the story is completely true – and I was in the middle of it.