26 June, 2009

Honesty / Dishonesty

Johannesburg airport has a reputation for rifling through baggage and removing any valuable items.  With this in mind we decided to take hand baggage only on our trip to Vic Falls.  We had a small case (just like the ones you see the crew wheeling about) and a small rucksack.  No problem…until we checked in to come home.  The clerk there decided he would not allow our small case as hand baggage.  We had a small padlock and reluctantly checked it in.  Sure enough, on collection at Maseru, the lock was missing and the contents turned upside-down.  A camera, watch and phone were missing.  Normally they would not have been in a checked-in case of course.

However, we had the last laugh.  The camera was an old spare one which got totally drenched at the falls and hasn’t worked since; the watch was a cheap one bought at a Lesotho market and had stopped keeping reliable time (hence not on my wrist);  the phone was my one from Britain (in case I needed to use it in Zimbabwe and my Lesotho one didn’t work),was switched off and was password protected.  Annoying to lose the phone but nothing of any use to the thief.

A nicer story:
On our way to the airport, we stopped at a bank in Maseru to change Rands into US dollars.  (In fact, we would have been OK with Rands).  It took a long time with photocopies of passports, much rubber stamping and signatures here there and everywhere.  A delightful clerk carefully sorted and counted the notes and we went away happy.  However, when we were checking our money in Vic Falls, we realised we had been given a $5 instead of a $50.  Decided to shrug our shoulders and get on with the holiday.

When we got home, we received a phone call from the bank saying that at the end of the day they were $45 surplus and thought it must be ours.  (They don’t get many transactions obviously).  Would we like to call in and collect it?  How kind.

24 June, 2009

Holiday

The Victoria Falls really are one of the natural wonders of the world.  We chose a fairly good time to go: earlier in the year there is so much water that the spray makes it difficult to see the Falls, and later in the year parts of it decline to a relative trickle.  But photographs are tricky as you’re shooting into the sun (to the north) as  well as the spray.

Us at the Falls

As well as walking by the Falls, and getting an even better view from aloft in a helicopter, we spent a couple of days in Hwange at a safari lodge.  Although the game reserve boasts all five of the Big Five, we had a fairly disappointing couple of game drives, with elephants being the only one of the big five that we saw.

Perhaps we would have been better spending our time at the lodge.  It overlooked a waterhole which, we were told, had been visited a few days earlier by lions.  We took this photo from our balcony: there’s a zebra on the right and elephants in the centre.

Waterhole

Even in Victoria Falls, you don’t have to leave your hotel to see wildlife.  Every time we walked out from our room to the pool at The Kingdom Hotel, we checked where this crocodile (well over a metre long) was sunning himself in the hotel grounds.

Crocodile at hotel

We also stayed a couple of nights at a hotel a little way out of town beside the Zambezi.  Here, part of the entertainment was watching hotel staff discouraging the local monkeys with the aid of a catapult.  From the hotel grounds, we could look across to see an elephant on the bank of an island in the river.

However there were no animals roaming around the colonial-style Victoria Falls Hotel, where we took high tea.  The scones with cream and jam took David back to Tuesday afternoons at the Park bridge club, although the tea would have been better with Kyra’s home-made jam.

High Tea

Visiting Zimbabwe

As far as tourists are concerned, Zimbabwe is a leper colony.  Is it dangerous?  Can you buy anything?  Will you get stranded?  If I visit the country, am I implicitly supporting the regime which I disapprove of or am I offering some assistance to its long-suffering citizens?  For me, the last dilemma is the hardest to solve and no-one has ever convinced me one way or the other.

I have wanted to visit Victoria Falls for many years and since we live comparatively near, now seemed as good a time as any.  It lies on the Zimbabwe Zambia border and research showed that Zimbabwe offered much better viewing opportunities.  So we decided to bite the bullet and stay in Zimbabwe.  Victoria Falls is a small town built purely for the tourist trade.  The railway opened it up to the rich and famous although that is more difficult now since Mugabe imposed huge taxes on intercontinental trains, so we arrived by air.

The place is like a ghost town – the hotels are nearly empty; in fact, everywhere was deserted.
But the local people must be the most resilient and optimistic people I have ever met.  They were unfailingly cheerful and helpful. They spoke of their troubles in such a matter of fact way it was hard to remember just what a terrible time they have been having.  They laughed about being trillionaires last year but unable to buy anything.  Now that US dollars and Rands are accepted everywhere, they are cheerful that at least food is available in the shops.  They have great hopes that America is going to help them.  Many have lost their jobs and all have had their pay reduced.  The security guard earns $100 per month and feels lucky.  He pays for his son to go to school but he is not being taught as the teachers have not been paid and are on strike.  The hotel workers kept everything immaculate laying every table beautifully for dinner and keeping the grounds ready for the influx of visitors which never comes.

I would love to visit the country again.  Perhaps things will improve and we can visit another part of the country and experience its wonderful hospitality again.

14 June, 2009

Winter weather

Winter is well and truly with us.  The nights are bitterly cold, and the buildings of course have no insulation or heating.  In the morning my colleague from Cameroon had to be convinced that the frost on the ground was not actually snow.

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We keep ourselves warm in the evenings by wrapping ourselves in our Basotho blankets and going to bed early.  My niece’s hand-knitted bedsocks are invaluable, as is the hot water bottle I remembered to bring with me from home.

Some days it warms up quite nicely and, by the middle of the day, can be quite hot.  Here you see us refreshing ourselves with our friends Karen (from California) and Harvey (from Wales).

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Other days, it is like Britain in November – stays overcast and damp (or sometimes wet) and school is cold and dark.  I stay well wrapped up (fingerless gloves allow me to continue holding the chalk)….

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…and so do the students

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13 June, 2009

David’s Birthday

Celebrations for my birthday last weekend seemed to go on for nearly a week.  They started on the Wednesday and finished on the Sunday when, on both occasions, we were invited for a meal at our Peace Corps neighbour, Karen.  In fact I did no cooking on any day in between – a nice treat.

Thursday was the only disappointing day.  I had planned (foolishly, perhaps) for it to be quite a busy one.  After popping into the South African High Commission to collect the visas that we had applied for a couple of weeks previously, I was to go to Roma where I had arranged to see three separate people.  Unfortunately, there were some hiccoughs in issuing the visa and I spent over six hours waiting at the High Commission and never got to Roma at all.

Friday was the day of my birthday and, after taking so much trouble to get the visas, we thought we should try them out by going up to Ficksburg, one of the border towns.  We thought we would sail through the border check with our new six month multi-entry visa but, in fact, it took just as long as if we had not got one – although just twenty minutes.  But at least there were only two small ink stamps in the passport, rather than the half page needed for a temporary visa plus an ink stamp.  Ficksburg is as exciting a place as Ladybrand although we did manage to find a pleasant place to eat and enjoyed some good steaks.

On Saturday, Elizabeth had arranged a surprise lunch at the best hotel in Lesotho, where we were joined by several friends we have met in Lesotho.  The conversation and company was really good, as was the six course buffet meal.

Usually, after a celebration, it’s a return to routine but school has now finished and so we plan to set off for a holiday in a few day’s time.

10 June, 2009

Elizabeth’s birthday packet

Since we have been here, our daughters have been kind enough to send us little parcels containing books, sweets and other gifts to help us while away the time.  Apart from having to pay a M4 (about 30p) handling charge (?!?) there have been no problems.  That was until Caroline sent me a few little gifts for my birthday and was too honest when completing the customs form.

When I went to collect it at TY (Teyateyaneng, near where we live) there was a ticket attached charging me M50 customs duty.  The lady behind the counter was horrified and told me I should not pay, and should go to Maseru (capital) post office to query it.  David was going to Maseru that week so I charged him with the task.  He got nowhere, the only justification being that they are entitled to charge 14% of the value.  When I got this message I pointed out that that worked out to M30 anyway!

I returned on the Saturday to TY resigned to paying M50.  A different lady was outraged, would not let me pay and told me to come back on Monday so that the boss could phone Maseru.  I returned on Monday and they phoned Maseru who said that if I took evidence that I was a volunteer to Maseru they would drop the charge.

This Tuesday I returned to Maseru (David by this time refusing to get involved) where I met a cold fish of a customs woman.  She asked if I was in Peace Corps (an American volunteer service) and said they did not recognise anyone else as volunteers despite my showing her the visas in our passports.  She then asked what was in the parcel;  I told her a book (fine) and a jigsaw puzzle.  This completely flumoxed her as she had no idea what it was and when I tried to explain she thought that must be the really valuable item!!! (Caroline tells me it came from a charity shop).  Eventually she relented and took our names for dispensation.  However, she told me that I must go to TY and tell them to return the parcel to Maseru so that she can revoke the charge.  Don’t forget I was willing to pay but the lovely ladies in TY who look after us so well wouldn’t let me!

Strongly suspecting that if I let that parcel be returned to Maseru I would never see it again, I decided that I would have to lie to my friends in TY post office.  I went today and told the teller I had to pay but wouldn’t in the future.  She was very cross that I had to pay but I now have my birthday jigsaw after six journeys.

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