This morning involved more packing than I had envisioned and it was good that we had planned to go to the mall for one last wifi session, as that time gave us what we needed to finish packing. We were doing one last ‘tough’ trip, without some of our amenities that we have taken with us around south Africa while we had our vehicle.
Alisa’s new backpack nearly fit everything we were taking until we saw that none of our supplies nor toiletries would fit, and so we repacked with half in the new Adidas soccer bag that I bought for this trip, that I have begun to hate immensely because of the strap not sitting flat on my shoulder and a rip that has formed and is to lengthen along the zippers end. Carrying it while heavy thus becomes an arduous task with the strap burying into my shoulder despite me constantly stopping to adjust it. While Alisa caved and bought a proper backpacking pack, I will unfortunately have to finish with the adidas bag and save up to buy one like Alisa’s before my next venture to Africa.
Once we were packed, Garth gave us a lift to Park Station where traffic made it difficult to get around, but the daylight made the area safer for us to walk through and we got out and walked the block and a half left to the station, with the normal stares from locals who must have wondered where we were going with Alisa carrying two backpacks, one on the front and her new one on her back, and me with a backpack, my duffle, and a Woolworth’s insulated bag with our remaining food.
Once checked in and off to the bus, I could immediately see Alisa doubting her approval of me picking the cheaper Citiliner budget option, over the Greyhound ‘luxury’ option. There was no visa check, no weighing of bags, and the passenger manifest was being filled out as we bordered, all signs of the budget option. Once onboard, we saw it was the five seat across variety, meaning 3 on the right side of the bus and two on the left, the same configuration of our City to City bus to Malawi, that was a step above a chicken bus (though I think it did have poultry on board) and does not bring back pleasant memories for Alisa. Alisa also decides to avoid the back of the bus, which she doesn’t like because of the noise, but we are thus left with taking up two aisle seats, one behind the other.
The bus is packed and ironicaly, I’m seated next to a gregarious African women who tries to occupy every piece of my seat possible when I lean forward, or readjust. She also sprays her big fur coat across half my lap, which actually becomes welcome once the sun sets.
I borrow Alisa’s iPod just before Polokwane in order to tune into Radio 2000, an SABC, station, that has broadcasted all the matches. However, I turned off the radio during halftime and as we continued to climb the mountain passes of Limpopo, I am only able to pick up two locals stations broadcasting in seSotho and Afrikaans. The Afrikaans broadcaster is a tad more clearer, and I can also understand the numbers when he tells the score (0-0). When Puyol heads in, the Afrikaans announcer goes crazy, a sound of emotion that I bet many would have doubted would come from an Afrikaner about a football match just five years ago.
We spend 2.5 hours crossing the border. It is much more disorganized on the Zim side than in 2007 which seems paradoxical due to the improved conditions. The line of 50+ seemed unmoving, and no one could tell us where to get the blue forms for a visa (Alisa was passed around between immigration officials, before she walked out, but then I was able to walk in, approach someone and get the proper WHITE forms for US passport holders. Just another incident of Alisa not getting service, but also not pushing hard enough to get it).
I’m still skeptical of the white form being correct, as I recognize the blue form from when we crossed in 2007, and I send Alisa to ask a third person, specifically about visas for US passport holders. If there is one strategy I have employed with great affect in Africa, it’s to ask the same question to multiple persons, but then from their responses learn how to word the question differently for the next person either in order to get the right info, or in this case get the proper help in obtaining a visa. Someone new comes to a vacant counter and Alisa and I step out of line, and we get our visa sorted. Not wanting to spend our USD on visas we try to pay in Rands, and while that is grudgingly accepted, the price in Rands is 450, while the price in USD is 45 (an omen of things to come in Bulawayo). We apparently only give R800, but the official says that’s okay and that he’ll write on the reciept that we payed in USD. I’m not sure of the significance of this: was he giving us a ‘deal’? Being nice? Doing something under the table? In the end he was affable and gave us our visas, which was all I was worried about and knew better to question what just happened.
We return to the bus and pile aboard, but drive just 100 metres before we pull over and everyone empties, with my neighbors telling me that if we have something in the boot we must get out. I realize this is the customs check we avoided last time because our bus’s final destination was Malawi. Everyone grabs their bag and stands on the side of the road on the edge of crumbling tar while people walk behind us where there is a massive informal car park, with broken down trucks, but also car carriers. There is poverty here like we didn’t see in 2007. There were half a dozen or so people sleeping or sitting near the immigration building, wearing little more than ragged dirty clothing, and lying on mattresses that were in worse condition than their apparel. Beggars walked through the line, many disabled and being led by a child or peer. They followed us to where we had our bags open, but the threat of someone taking something never crept into my mind. Zimbabweans are famous for their friendliness, and even Lonely Planet notes that only in the past year or so have pickpockets and muggings been reported in the cities of Harare and Bulawayo, though only now after 20 years of dismal economic policies. It also explains why there has been no violent uprisings against Mugabe, and that the violence that has been perpetuated has been instigated and led by Mugabe’s inner circle and his North Korean-trained elite army unit. After our bags were glanced over (I was quite surpassed at the lack of through inspection as when we went through it in Malawi it was quite invasive, though we were lucky to be shepherded through quickly by a local mountain guide who befriended us on the journey). Once back aboard we were visited by another blind beggar, who walked up and down the aisle singing/yelling “Come, come to Jesus, come, come” all while shaking his metal cup with coins as an accompaniment. He would alternate into either Zulu or Sindebele as he went along and i was surprised that he collected so many coins during his 10 minute spell on the bus. I began to wonder if ‘non-luxury’ busses were targeted for this, or if it’s the bus managers just allow it. We had been pulled over by the South African Police at two or three checkpoints leaving Pretoria and Alisa and I began to wonder if this was what budget travel north to Zim involved, and how a 9 hour journey became 15.
We arrived in Bulawayo at 7am, and everyone calmly disembarked and I wondered about my bag, but as is custom with budget travel and thus no one checking bag tags, everyone waits around the bus near where their compartment that had their bag and the doors are opened once everyone is off the bus and ready. This prevents anyone from taking your bag and is a system that works well.
So here was the day I had worried about since we planned our travel. 12 hours in a new city with all of all belongings on our person and no idea if we would plop down at a park for all that time or if there was a cinema, Internet cafe, just someplace we could rest with our luggage.