We had no kitchen at our accommodation in Bulawayo, where we spent the first of our days in Zimbabwe, so we were often looking for places to eat. In areas of Africa less touched by tourism, sit-down restaurants are scarce, most eateries being of the take-out variety: bare concrete floor, stainless steel counter and rarely more than a Coca-Cola poster for decor. Many had good-sized menu boards on the wall with a wide variety of options, all for $1-$3 a serving: meat pies, beef stew, vegetable curry, samosas, and sadza (stiff porridgey maize meal, an African staple). But whenever we stepped up and tried to order off said menu, the woman behind the counter would look at us like we were out of our minds.
“We don't have it.”
“What do you have?” We'd ask.
She would then have a quick exchange with a man in the back room.
“Chicken and chips?” She'd say.
Chicken and chips, chicken and chips, chicken and chips. Regardless of what the menus show, apparently all Zimbabweans eat is chicken and chips, meaning a piece or two of anemic fried chicken and some soggy fries, freed at last from their heat lamp and stuffed into clear plastic bag. The one time we decided to eat at a sit-down place (you know, with tables, chairs, laminated menus, etc.) we told our waiter after he'd brought our drinks that we'd like to order food as well. He got a bit frantic and scared, ran to the kitchen, and came back saying, “here's what I can get you– I can get you chicken, some pieces of fried chicken... and some chips on the side. Yes?”
Disregarding the argument of whether these menus should stay posted, I assume they at one time more accurately reflected the repertoire of the establishments upon whose walls they were nailed. This is Zimbabwe, however, and while the situation has improved plenty, the menu boards above Bulawayo's take-out counters are evidence that, possibly in more stable times, the veggie curry was once available. In the same way, there is evidence of a once-healthy tourism economy in Zimbabwe: outside our hotel, a safari company's sandwich-board advert had been given a permanent home hidden behind the locked grate of a neighbouring doorway. On the highways we passed countless disused rest-stops, their picnic tables and garbage bins shrouded in overgrowth; in the tourist-info pamphlet rack there sits a fantastic brochure for Zimbabwean golf which likely hasn't been moved since 1973, and in the three nights we spent at our two-storey, fifty-room hotel right downtown, we were utterly alone.
In the courtyard at Berkely Place
People evidently just don't go to Zim without a reason. Prior to going ourselves, we'd met only three people who'd crossed its borders: a young woman who was born there and had gone with her boyfriend to visit relatives (fair enough), and one other Irish fellow who'd been on the road for over a year, traveling overland all the way from Europe (and who was contentedly riding minibusses with a backpack the size of a Frigidaire, therefore fitting into the 'crazies' category and needing no reason). President Mugabe's reckless tampering and the country's general economic and political woes have tagged the country as one best avoided. And as many a local will eagerly relay, this was true as recent as 2008, when inflation peaked at five billion percent (someone please explain to me how that is possible) and the supermarket shelves were barren. People are happy to complain about Mugabe, and use similar rhetoric to folks at home complaining about any disfavoured Western politician. “This is a peaceful country,” is what we heard time and time again, and while we're sure life in Zimbabwe is not all singing and dancing, as tourists we experienced a country as easy, friendly, and pleasant as one could hope for.
Upon arrival in Bulawayo, one of the first things that struck us was the money: since the Zim dollar is altogether worthless (more on that to come), the country now runs on US currency. We were armed with mint-fresh notes from home, but the first domestic bill we received (as change for a serving of chicken and chips, of course) was the soggiest, most worn out little one-dollar we've ever seen. The date said 2006 but it looked like it had spent the last four years taped to the forehead of a coal miner. While US money is dominant, no American coins are used – we received South African change, eight Rand going into one dollar. To help with the confusion, many stores accept Rand as well, the exchange rate varying from 7:1 to 10:1.
That extra year can make all the difference!
Bulawayo is striking in that the city has apparently undergone zero development since the 1950's. I'm no expert, but the entire downtown core hearkens to a single era of architecture, with little modification over the years. Boxy buildings, rarely extending higher than six or seven storeys, are graced with evocative art-deco lettering, and the double-wide boulevards are lined down the center with turquoise lampposts. In amongst the time-capsule edifices are a few Victorian buildings from the Southern Rhodesia gold-boom years (Zimbabwe has only been called so since 1980). At the edge of the city sits a mammoth relic of a power station that, while apparently plagued with mismanagement and inefficiencies, sure looks cool. The freshest and most contemporary additions to the city are the beer ads.
Whether or not said ads can be erected level is another story
We took a train from this station. More on that soon!
If the company we kept at our hotel was any indication, it's safe to assume we were the only travelers in the entire city. There is not a great deal to do in terms of traditional sights, but we did make it out to the Bulawayo Railway Museum, behind the train station. Neither Alanna nor I have ever been ones for steam engines, but it was good fun, and pleasing in how it differed from anything similar at home. One of the museum's most significant possessions is the luxury rail car used by our pal Cecil John Rhodes in his travels around the country. Given the man's stature no expense was spared, and the car remains outfitted with piles of original silverware and crystal. The car's value must be astronomical, and we would have been satisfied simply gazing into the windows, but the museum's 'acting curator,' a guy my age, produced a key, and led us through a casual tour of the car, encouraging us to touch or pick up anything we pleased. Any such exhibit at home would have been sequestered with velvet rope, but in Zimbabwe, Rhodes' most precious cutlery is fair game.
After the Rhodes car, the curator left us alone to snoop around the acre-plus yard of train cars and engines on our own. Some were locked, some weren't – we were permitted to wander as we pleased, force doors open, and climb over things. I wouldn't doubt that we browsed the best and biggest large-scale train collection on the continent, and in terms of bang-for-buck and pure explorability one would be hard-pressed to find an equal anywhere. Many a four year-old would have thought they'd died and gone to heaven, and there there's something alluring about big weighty machines that even a flimsy art student like me can't deny.
As far as food goes, we did manage to find some more diverse meals, including a very decent fast-food pizza chain that had – gasp – a vegetarian option (though the chicken and chips thing still plagues us, we're in Malawi now and thought we were ordering shawarmas for lunch today but received what was basically chicken and chips with fancier seasoning). Bulawayo was the first real instance of us being without certain amenities we'd become used to on our travels: namely any form of self-catering kitchen, or hot showers, or toilet paper in the bathrooms, or cheese in the supermarkets (we are going to miss you, cheese!). I felt we were on the brink between the “well-established backpacker circuit” form of traveling and something different – 'harder' may not be the right word, but at least more alone, more expected to step out of our comfort zone a smidgeon. But who am I kidding, there was fast-food pizza, so really, how hard can it be?