Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"...and may God bless EVERYONE."

Fair warning: this starts with a funny story and quickly dives into political opinion. If you dislike politics, or are a big fan of FOX News, then this probably isn't the entry to read. Here is a better website to check out instead.


There's a part in the book The Motorycle Diaries, where Che and Ernesto go on a crazy truck ride alongside a dangerous mountainside with a driver with one blind eye (sadly, this was cut from the movie and added to the DVD as a deleted scene. Oh, and by the way, this is my favorite movie of all time and it may or may not have single-handedly ignited my love for travel and social work, so if you haven't seen it, contact me. I'll send you the money to buy it, because you have to see it).

I can now cross that off my bucket list. Except, unlike Che, my driver only had one eye.

After a few days in Victoria Falls, I headed back to Bulawayo for a quick spell. I had no specific place I needed to head to next (I don't use guide books, which is both exciting and very dumb all at once), so, as I walked down the street with all my bags, heading to the train station to see where I could go, I passed by a van going to a small little town called Masvingo. And, because I'm insane, I thought, "Why not?"

I jumped on board for 9 USD (Zimbabwe uses American dollars since their economy crashed - back in the late 90s, a taxi ride would cost you a few million/billion of their currency...). I know some people reading this are probably thinking, "that's not too smart." But I'm here to tell you that it's very smart. Everyone has their own way of travel and I truly believe that the best way to travel is to follow the road that hasn't been traveled. Trust people. It's never as scary as the media or the Wikipedias or the Lonely Planets say.

We took off and only went 50 kilometers in two hours, because we stopped for each and every single person looking for a ride on the side of the road. I love this about Zimbabwe and other "poor" countries. If you need a ride, you can get one from just about anyone, and from anywhere, at any time. Back in Cambodia, it was shocking, but now it seems normal and smart and has a wonderful communal sense to it. I wish it was like this everywhere.

About halfway to Masvingo, we stopped for a break. I got out and was told by the driver that they were switching me to another vehicle for the rest of the way (I have no idea why). This new vehicle was a small 8-person, Mom mini-van. And, believe me, you get to know everyone in that van closely - an intimate, sweaty level, really. They fit us in like it was a clown car, 15 total people. I was in the back seat with four others, and they took out our seat backs and fit two people in the "trunk" area so that I was back to back them. It was scorching hot and I was carrying on my lap a box full of live chickens, because, well, I actually don't know why, but that's what it was.

Oh, and the driver had only one eye. Why this important, I don't know, but it seems like it must be mentioned. Or something.

After sitting for about ten minutes waiting for more passengers (yes, more), we started to take off. We only got a few meters before people started yelling at the driver. He stopped the car and looked very much afraid. He lept from the car and started running, full speed, down the street, until he was far off in the distance to disappear in the countryside.

There was no reaction from any of the people in the van, as though this kind of thing happened all the time.


The man next to me, dressed in a very dapper suit that must have been killer in the 32 C heat, shook his head and chuckled.

"Uh, what was that all about?" I asked him. I was surprised how calm I was. I had never seen anything like that before, but then again, after this journey, I'm prepared for anything at any moment.

The man shifted in his seat and shook my hand (in Africa, the handshakes aren't like the usual, shake-and-you're-done-shakes, but a three-move secret handshake that make you feel part of a cool tree house club). "He's running from the cops."


Another driver, with two eyes, took his space and we were off. I got into conversation with the nice man next to me, who talked to me about how corrupt the police were. People felt safer when they weren't around (sound familiar?).

We stopped by at least four police check points and the driver talked/paid through each one. It's illegal to have as many people as we had in the van, but as the man talked to me, that's how it was (I've since been in a ton of these vans during my stay in Zimbabwe and South Africa and I have grown to really like them). The police were corrupt and you could pay your way through anything, or use your connections to schmooze your way through.

We got to Masvingo and I was dropped off in a random street. I walked for about 15 minutes through town until I found the only place to stay in town, a backpackers for 10 USD a night. I stayed there for three nights and not once did I see or meet another foreign traveler (there or in town). Instead, I roomed with all locals from all over Zimbabwe. The first night, for example, I stayed with: 

-a traveling lunchbox salesman, 
-a traveling worm farm salesman,
-and a mechanic who demanded we get a picture together because he had "never taken a picture with a white person" before. 

They were lovely people and very curious about my culture, and views, and life. Side note: every single one of them asked, usually right after where I was from, why I was not married. They marry young here and are shocked to hear that a 29-year-old is still single. Confidence booster, uh, right?

I've been asked this many times, from new friends I've met at ruins, and falls, and hostels, and bars, and in vans, to everywhere in-between. They always say the same thing. 

"Tell people about us." 

It's such a simple request. They love their country, but the media portrays it as dangerous and scary (I was going to link to an article from a well known media outlet, but I decided I don't want to give them any more hits than they deserve). Tourism is a big part of any country's economy, and their tourism industry is simply not there because people are scared or worried since long before the economic crash (most blame the dictatorial president).

I promised I would tell people about this country. I would tell people about how beautiful the people are here - how amazing and gorgeous their souls are. How I love them and their country like a second family.

Quite simply, I promised I would tell people that Zimbabwe is not forgotten. The media is right about their President and government, I'll give them that, but that overshadows the people, who deserve so much more than they get.

And here's the serious part of the blog. And, I'm sorry if this offends some Americans, but it is what it is. I'm going to get political. Life is political, and sooner or later you have to take a stand against injustice and unfairness.

I hate comparing countries, because that's cheap and easy. But I'm going to do it, because it needs to be said. Traveling like I am, seeing the parts most tourists don't see, changes a person. You experience life at a more fundamental level and you most certainly start to appreciate different views of life.

I love Zimbabwe. And that's an understatement - I adore it. It's one of the most gorgeous countries I've ever seen, and the people are only second to Burma for being the nicest, most generous people I have ever met (I have noticed, on a whole, that the poorer the country, the more generous and loving the people are. Funny how that works, right?).

They are proud to be from Zimbabwe. They aren't fans of their government (a common theme I've seen everywhere), but they love their culture and land and people with a passion that is burning oh so bright. Their first question, "How do you like our country?", is always followed by "thank you, thank you, thank you, for visiting".

It makes me sad to come from America in times like this. If there is one thing that everyone on my travels say they dislike most about Americans is their fervent nationalism. And I can see why. While it's mostly the far right that are like this (sorry for generalizing), but we in America have this pride of being America that is beyond healthy. Our immigration laws are insane and we are not welcoming to foreigners coming to the US to start a new life.

It's an us and them mentality. "May God Bless America" is a sad sentence and one that has always made me cringe. It makes it seem like God only blesses us Americans. Yes, our country was fought for with the blood of my grandfathers, who fought for a free democratic society for its citizens. But I truly believe what they fought for was a land they were proud of and would stand for a place where families come come to work for a fair living. America is, generally speaking, a land of immigrants with few that can claim otherwise.

Instead, ICE, our government, and a large part of our citizens, believe differently - we fought for this pie, now it's ours, and ours only. We split up families and hunt them down and deport them like that's the right thing to do (I love Obama, but granted, his history of deportations is downright sad and disheartening - watch an eye-opening documentary called Lost in Detention free on this PBS link). We are a country who spends tax dollars and time arguing about stupid things like "does our President have a a valid birth certificate?" or" my God, why wasn't he wearing an American flag pin during that speech?"

This is dangerous thinking. It's great to be proud of your country, but we need to be willing to let others in. If anything has been learned by large corporations and the evils of capitalism it should be that extreme wealth that isn't shared is both selfish and damaging to everyone. In most of the countries I've visited, and especially in Zimbabwe, they want you to be part of their world. They want you move there and live there and be part of their lives. They love it so much and are so proud of it that they want to SHARE it with others. We can certainly take a page from their book here.

And maybe it is a page off socialism/capitalism, but so what (Watch the movie Good Night, and Good Luck, if you get a chance)? We are all humans and we are all people. Love and support and COMMUNITY should be universal.

What's my point of this rant? I don't know really.

Just to tell you that this country is amazing. Its people are welcoming, and SHARING is their number one priority (well, close enough to it). Coming from a first world nation where we hardly know our neighbors, this is sad to me and something that desperately needs to change. The USA has such strict visa requirements, that even if these people did get enough money to travel to the states (the average wage is $253 USD a month, yet the cost of living is almost equal to living in NYC!), they wouldn't get in. No matter if they're hard working or not. You can disagree if you want, but we make it hard to be an American if you weren't born here.

So, again, the point of this entry? Well, maybe there is one after all.

And it's so very simple.

Share. We're all in this together. And, yeah, I'm going to let Jack explain it even more simple that that.

Added note: Oh, and I get told I over-romanticize things too much. I somewhat agree, so, I'll add this: there is A LOT of problems with this country, like any country, but as a principle, I do my best to focus on the positive first and foremost, as I think change - real, blood-pumping, raise-your-fist-in-the-air change - builds off strengthening up the hope and good things first in order to tackle the "bad" (we social workers called this the strengths perspective, and I am in love with this). And this entry wasn't made to slam America. I'm blessed to be born there, don't get me wrong, and there are fantastic things about the country. But nothing is perfect and constructive criticism is the key to growth (I had a teacher in college once who gave me A after A after A for all my papers and never criticized me. Easy class, right? Well, she was, in fact, the worst teacher I've ever had. Why? Because I never grew. I never learned. I never was challenged to see things differently. And that is a dangerous path to complacency and stunted growth).

So, point #1: We could learn from people in Zimbabwe when it comes to accepting others. And, our immigration law MUST change. Please watch that documentary mentioned above if you haven't seen it.

And point #2: don't forget Zimbabwe. I promised these people I would spread the joy I have been given and shown from this country's people. Instead of the Bahamas, go here if you get a chance. Meet the people, buy from the street vendors, and support the people. They'd support you back in a heartbeat if they could.

Mutual support and love and acceptance and equal rights and sharing isn't communism, it's being human.

So, "God bless everyone."


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Locked in a toilet, and other stories.

What's traveling like? Specifically, what's traveling like solo, without a guide book and an inherent knack for getting into strange/memorable situations? Well, let me give you a sample of the last few days and you can see for yourself.

I left Cape Town with a heavy heart, and I certainly did not want to leave (for too many reasons to list here). But I can only control so much, and sometimes the almighty dollar and this journey push me reluctantly forward (I had about half a week's worth of bookings in Zimbabwe and Johannesburg to get to). So I take a bus line called Intercape, and while they are nothing like some of the nightmare buses I've taken in the past, they have a policy where they won't let a driver push past four hours of straight cruising without stopping and resting. So, awesome and safe on paper, right? What does it mean in real life though? This means that for an 18-hour bus trip, we stop EVERY two hours.

I'm a tall dude and it's already a mess trying to get good sleep on a bus. Add in a stop every two hours where the interior lights burst on and ruin any shred of hope of rest, and you have a living nightmare.

I am pissed. Patrick, the guy next to me sneaking gulps of Jack Daniels, is totally cool with it all.

I get back to Joberg around 7am (unlike the buses in Southeast Asia, they always arrive early here). My plan? Go to a theme park and get some rest. Of course, plans are a funny thing to have because they rarely work out. Intercape informs me that I must get a visa prior to boarding the bus to Zimbabwe the next day. I have no internet, as the city is in the middle of another load shedding, so I have no way to double check. I spend 50 USD (yeah, that's how much a round-trip taxi ride costs in this gigantic city) to get to the Zimbabwe Embassy. 

I wait for two hours in a line. 
The lady at the desk has no idea what I'm talking about. She sends me into a tiny white house and I wait for the "head" guy. He laughs and curses Intercape for telling people what they told me. He writes me what is basically a hall pass onto the bus.

So, no theme park and no sleep and the afternoon has faded away. I get some dinner and go to a documentary at a fancy movie house (it's called Shield and Spear and it is an excellent accounting of the current political woes in South Africa and how independent artists are fighting back. Well worth your time if you love documentaries about social change [especially through the arts]).

I get back to the hostel and am ready to crash. The guy working the door was asleep but wakes up when I knock on the outside office window. The hostel is surprisingly empty, as the last two times to this city, the hostel had been party central (and, yes, extremely fun). I'm the only one in the dorm I'm assigned to this evening. I take a shower and the inside toilet isn't working.

I go outside to a line of three makeshift ones. Which, to their credit, are super nice and fancy. The doors on them look like wooden outhouse doors (very trendy looking, actually) placed in the middle of the entrances, with about a foot's length between the bottom of the door and the floor and the top of the door and the ceiling. I go inside and hear a click on a strange automatic metal thing underneath the padlock.

I'm exhausted and think nothing of it. I go to the bathroom.

I then try to leave, but the strange automatic lock is snug and tight.

I stand there and start laughing like a maniac. I do my best McGuiver on the door. Really, all I need is a pen and I could have gotten out, but I have nothing but toilet paper.

I sit on the toilet and I'm still laughing.

Of course this would happen.

I fall asleep on the toilet and wake up about an hour (maybe two, it was hard to tell) later. Still locked and still no one around. I go to the door and squeak out a little, "Uh, is anyone out there?"

Silence and the city night answer.

Louder now. Still nothing.

I look down at the crack between the door and the floor.

Uhhhh. Screw it. 

I lay on my back and inch my way through like a mechanic going underneath a low-rider. Halfway through, and, yep, you guessed it, give that man a prize!, all of a sudden I can't move and the wood is pushed into my abdomen like a knife. You know those movies where people get stuck in train tracks and you scream at the TV screen, "Just pull your foot out!" Well, now I know it's never that simple.

Stuck is stuck.

Here I am in South Africa, half-stuck underneath a bathroom door, with only a t shirt and red boxers (don't ask) on.

This, friends, is my life.

A man from the other dorm room finally walks by, and, while I think I'm good at words, nothing can describe how hard this man laughed as he helped unlock the door to pull me through.

I can now officially scratch that one off my bucket list.

I finally get to sleep after three or four hours stuck in a toilet.

The next morning I wake early and grab another bus heading to Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe. I eat at the bus station and meet a new friend, a Pastor, named Godpray who invites me to visit "the real South Africa". I promise to meet up with him again when I return to Joberg to fly to Morocco.

I board the bus, Intercape again. We stop just as much. At the Zimbabwe/South Africa border, I go through customs and declaration. They have no scanners, so we line all our backpacks and luggage in one large line outside the bus in order to have each one inspected. 

It's 4am.

We get in another line for another check and everyone is complaining. Next thing I know, o
ne man has a guitar and begins singing. Soon, the entire 50 person line is in a beautiful chorus, the moon is hanging bright overhead, and donkeys are moving through us. It's a gorgeous moment and I have goosebumps. It's a moment I will never forget and I think I had tears in my eyes (read: I most certainly did). This is the first experience in Zimbabwe when I realize that the people here are simply wonderful, even if the system here may not be.

We get to the city and it's seven hours until my connecting bus to Victoria Falls. I expect to wait in the lobby of Intercape watching Flight of the Concords and reading Lord of the Rings. Instead, a friendly taxi driver, Simba, starts talking to me. He helps me find a supermarket, takes me to his apartment for conversation and a soda, takes me to art museum (where I befriended two amazing artists who I'll return to and chat more next week), and lets me store all my stuff at his place until my next bus arrives.

People are wonderful.

I miss my bus and am standing in Intercape thinking, "Of course. Now what do I do?"

A friendly girl named Paula offers her place for the night. Her mom says no. But her husband takes me on a walking tour of the town the whole rest of the next day, at no cost and simply because they wanted to show me their city.

I find a $50 USD a night hotel next door and have no choice but to pay up (ugh). But I'm broke and scour the city (with all my bags on) for an ATM. An hour later and I still haven't found a working one. I try to drop by bars for directions but only get young, drunk kids flipping me off. Sweet.

I spend the night in the fanciest place I've been in for six months and sleep for 12 hours until the maid kicks me out at 10am so she can clean my room.

I find an internet cafe and this brings me to the current moment. Now I'm off to visit my new friends here!

This is what traveling life is.
Unexpected. Full of the most excellent of people. And never, ever boring.