While in Africa I wrote several stories with the intention of creating a book of short stories about my trip.
Rather than leave it as an unfinished book, here is part nine which is the last part in a blogging mini series…. “Shane’s shorts.” My blog from Mozambique onwards covers the rest of the journey well enough.
Sitting across the table from Stephanie in the Bon Journeé cafe in Bulawayo I wondered if I’d done the right thing to meet up with her, the mail contact had been great and we’d clicked well, but now face to face she just didn’t shut up. We have two ears and one mouth, so I’m of the opinion that we should listen twice as much as we talk.
Bon Journeé does a poor job of trying to look like a French cafe. Take away the paintings of the Eiffel tower and Parisian canals and it would be more at home in New York than Paris, that said the food was wonderful, though I couldn’t help thinking people were constantly watching us and talking about us.
Stephanie had contacted me a few weeks previously and offered to take me to dinner if I made it as far as Bulawayo. Her posh English/ South Africa accent a sign of her private school education and she now worked at an expensive private school in the area as a teacher. I’d found her emails refreshingly direct and we had a similar sense of humour. As I walked to the toilet once again most heads in the room followed me. I assumed it was a smallville reaction and people where curious as to who I was, at this point the penny also dropped that Stephanie was probably just nervous, which she later confirmed and then calmed down.
Once calmed down the magic, humour, sarcasm and flirting that had been present in our email and chat contact once again came to life and in the coming week evolved into a relationship. A relationship that would have an expiry date because I’d promised myself never again to give up a trip for love. Stephanie understood this, and was open minded enough to enjoy the magic we had for what it was for the week or so we would be together.
It was a great pleasure to live the domestic life again after six months on the road, even if only for a little while. Sharing chores, the luxury of waking up every day in the same bed, and of course having someone around to care for and that cared for me. Each Sunday morning we would decide it best if I was to leave the following Thursday or Friday before either of us got too attached. Each Thursday would come and it seemed more appealing to spend Friday afternoon sharing a box of imported wine with a pizza or Chinese rather than head into the bush and the cold winter nights, eating Sadza in villages instead of the luxury of big city food.
In the time we spent together it was not only a pleasure to talk to and have an intellectual equal, friend and lover but the close contact also opened doors into stories about Zimbabwe that other tourists just don’t get to hear, this for me was a great added bonus to an already wonderful situation.
I found it strange that Stephanie didn’t have a car or driving licence. She was intelligent, had a good income and was paying a fortune for taxis into town, it just didn’t make sense. When I asked her why she didn’t have a licence she said she refused to pay for the eggs.
Money for da eggs
It turns out that the corruption in Zimbabwe is not just reserved for the government and police but in fact all walks of life and an attitude of “if you can’t beat them join them” is prevalent. Whilst taking her driving test she was asked to provide money for da eggs.
“What???” She asked.
“My wife has asked me to pick up eggs on the way home, leave some money in the glove box.”
At which point she said f… off. The second test started with a similar attitude and her refusal to pay ended up in repeated hill starts until she finally stalled the car and therefore failed the test. Had she been prepared to pay the first low level bribe of $10-20 that would not be the end, the actual application process also involves a hidden $100 bill if you want it to go through. Few industries, construction sites or project in Zimbabwe are not ruled by back handers, corruption and the insistence that a “friend” or “cousin’s company” will be best to do the work.
I was now six months and about 7000km into my trip across Africa and ready for a longer break. I used these weeks in Bulawayo to rest, catch up on some reading, writing and even started jogging while she was at work. Stephanie was lazy like me when it came to cooking, this and the regular power cuts which are part of daily life in Zimbabwe meant we often ate in town, usually with the same stares we’d had the first evening. Working at a school in town I assumed everyone in this small town knew her and was just curious about the new boyfriend they didn’t recognise.
One evening whilst drinking with some good friends and after a few shots I threw the democracy question on the table in the hope of hearing what people really think, the answer from one of Stephanie’s friends was a well known joke.
Uncle Bob (Mugabe), his wife and three kids are sitting around the dinner table debating whether to have chicken or beef for dinner the following evening, the general consensus being chicken which uncle Bob doesn’t agree with. Unable to decide they have a secret ballet, the result being beef – 5, chicken – 4. His wife says “Damn you Bob why do you bring your work home?”
In the dark days of the country’s descent, where food became more scarce and the Zimbabwe dollar devaluated by the day. Pay day meant spend all your money today because the next day it would be worth a lot less. Bartering, food co-operatives and black market where rife during this time. The Zimbabwe dollar was printed in steadily higher denominations and cheques where written with a couple of zeros to the power of…..The largest denomination note was the 100 trillion dollar note. That’s a 1 with 14 zero’s behind it. Eventually enough was enough and the country changed to the US Dollar which at the time would get you 3 trillion Zimbabwe dollars per $1 US.
I asked again, why they have tolerated this and how Bob managed to get through the “democratic elections.” It would appear that thanks to spies, a “big brother is watching” feeling, fear squads smashing things and people up, and rumours of past atrocities kept most folks in check. Failing that a little election rigging also goes a long way. One of her friends said she had trembling knees and tears in her eyes from fear as she voted for the opposition, but she was of the opinion that enough was enough and damn the consequences……Brave folks. But despite all this Bob is still pulling the strings and eating beef for dinner.
After three weeks in Bulawayo I needed to go through the tedious process of extending my tourist visa. With four whole new weeks in my passport I found myself wondering if I might just sit the winter out in Bulawayo, maybe extending my visa once more then heading North as the warm air of spring came. A week later during our usual Sunday morning ritual our conversation took a new direction, it was obvious that despite our agreement we’d both fallen in love.
With this revelation Stephanie became resolute that I should leave that Tuesday to bring everything to a quick end and prevent the extra pain of falling further in love with the inevitable even tougher goodbye. Naturally this hit me like a ton of bricks, it was a brave and strong decision on her part and a decision I had to respect as I didn’t see my self settling in Zimbabwe.
On our last evening together before I cycled off into the sunset, I was just finishing dessert in our favourite “French” restaurant. I once again noticed that people where staring at us, so asked Stephanie if she had also noticed this, to which she replied “Yes.” I asked why they were staring.
“This is Zimbabwe and in case you hadn’t noticed darling, I’m black and you’re white……………..”