Wednesday, January 28, 2009

No More Simba Chips

Eating healthy while on an overland safari is tough. It has nothing to do with the meals that are provided. Breakfast is usually coffee, cereal, and bread with a choice of margarine, jam, or peanut butter. Lunch on the road is usually sandwiches, and dinner is always a hot meal. The only problem is the time in between meals. Breakfast may be at 7 a.m., lunch at 1 p.m. and dinner at 7 p.m. I, personally, cannot go six hours between meals so I, like most others, snack, and there lies the problem. In Europe and in the States, many healthy snacks are available, but in Africa many of the choices at the rest stops are chips and chocolate. Don’t get me wrong. I love these delicacies as much as the average person, but I have no self control. I cannot simply have one or two Simba chips. Over a long overland drive, I will eat the whole bag. Ice cream is also readily available, and I’m not talking low-fat Skinny Cows, but lots of flavors of Haagen daz. Yes, I do eat the fruit provided on tour and also buy biltong (their version of beef jerky), but overall, I succumb to temptation every chance I get. Next trip, I plan to bring my own snacks—my favorite protein bars—Chocolate Peanut Butter Pure Protein bars. Africa is no different than being at home. You have to keep healthy choices within reach.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Love in the Time of Cholera

Almost every day the travesties that the people of Zimbabwe face make headlines. At least one in seven has AIDS and 80 percent of the population is unemployed. The land invasions and elections have caused horrendous human rights violations, not to mention a lack of fuel, food and hyperinflation. And now there’s a cholera outbreak. According to a BBC report, 1,174 have died and over 29,000 are infected. Many are fleeing across the border into South Africa where 1279 cases have been reported. In the coming weeks, the UN fears 60,000 Zimbabweans may become infected.

With horrors like these, Zimbabwe certainly doesn’t seem to be the ideal travel destination, but I remember another place. Over the past ten years, I have visited the country five times and have some extraordinary memories.

My first game drive was in Hwange National Park, where I sat at a water hole at sunset watching elephants drink alongside zebra and various antelope. I climbed the hills interspersed with boulders at Matobo National Park. One of the few times I experienced rain in Africa was at the Great Zimbabwe Ruins where I marveled at the complex the indigenous people created between 1250 and 1450 AD.

I had my hair braided by a local girl at Victoria Falls and then immersed myself in the water every way I could---white water rafting, jet boating, and a more tranquil sunset cruise amongst the crocs and hippos. Some other close encounters with wildlife I enjoyed included horseback riding through the bush, an elephant back ride at sunrise and a morning walk with lions.

To regroup, I enjoyed some more tranquil activities such as a stroll around the falls, letting the spray cool me as I dodged the baboons and warthogs on the trail. When I was ready for another adrenaline rush, I took a micro light flight over this Natural Wonder of the World.

In order to experience some of the grandeur of colonial life, I had a drink at Victoria Falls hotel with a spectacular view of the bridge. Then, as a contrast, I enjoyed dinner and a tribal dancing show at the modern Kingdom Hotel and Casino.

Despite all these amazing activities, on my last visit two years ago, I observed some of the problems Zimbabweans face firsthand. Victoria Falls, normally a booming tourist town, was experiencing a dramatic economic decline. As we strolled through town, local touts aggressively followed us, desperate to sell us shoddy carvings for money or clothing. (One such sculpture now adorns my bathroom.) My friend and I had a drink at the Elephant Hills Resort, overlooking the Zambezi River, and we had the bar to ourselves. Later that evening, my friend won a few million at The Kingdom casino, enough to buy me a wooden necklace fastened with string and a piece of metal in the hotel gift shop.

We also meet some white farmers while jet boating who said that they were barely making enough to survive. Since the shelves were bare in Victoria Falls when we made our way into Zambia, we stopped to buy some goods in a supermarket. A white Zimbabwean woman approached me as I was browsing. She was desperate to talk to someone with an empathetic white face. “You can’t imagine how bad it is. I have to leave my country to shop,” she said. Actually, I was aware of her plight. I have a friend who runs the Turgwe Hippo Reserve in Chiredzi, and I do not know how she has the courage to stay in the country. One of her e-mails contained a story about one of her neighbors. A group of squatters surrounded her and thrust weapons toward her as they chanted.

I was actually booked to go to Zimbabwe last summer, but changed my mind. During the time, there was a mass exodus of refugees who were settling in South Africa and facing xenophobia there. My friend and I were also planning on bringing our professional video and camera equipment for our safari, but the U.S. Department of State issued a warning: Those carrying professional equipment could be mistaken for being journalists and be deported or worse yet, imprisoned. (Ironically, I went to Egypt instead and left just before gunmen abducted eleven tourists in August.)

Because of the violence and political turmoil, tourists like me are opting to go to other areas of Africa. Even those wanting to view Victoria Falls are doing so from Livingstone on the Zambian side instead. They are visiting Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique and South Africa, but how long will that last with the cholera epidemic advancing across the borders?

It is not the tourists though who have my empathy, but the thirteen million suffering in Zimbabwe. According to the United Nations World Health Organization, the life expectancy for men is 37 years and 34 years for a woman, one of the lowest in the world. Zimbabwe is a remarkable place, even in the time of cholera. I just wish enough international agencies would intervene while there is still time to save it.

Published in Gloucester County Times January 11, 2009

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

West Africa's Safest Tourist Destination

According to the Lonely Planet guide, Sierra Leone is now one of West Africa’s safest tourist destinations. Although I have ventured into Rwanda, I’m still a bit hesitant to visit this West African country. Maybe it’s because of the tens of thousands of people who were killed during the 1991-2002 civil war or the two million who were displaced. Maybe it’s because of the child soldiers brandishing AK-47s. Or maybe the violence and corruption depicted in the 2006 film Blood Diamonds is too fresh in my mind. I’m not thinking tropical drinks on the beach in Freetown. I’m thinking warlords, rebel forces, and military coups. It’s also not comforting thinking that the country’s neighbors—Liberia and Guinea—also aren’t known for their stable governments. If a problem arose, I’d be looking out at the Atlantic Ocean, thinking that New Jersey is a long way away.