I’m staying with a girl called Lyn. Couchsurfer. I’m sitting on her couch, relaxing with a cup of tea.
Getting here though, was bit of an adventure.
It was middle of the afternoon when I landed in Harare. Small flight. Lyn had already given me all the instructions the day before.
“To get to my house you can take a combi from the airport, it’s 50 cents. Then when you get to town, take another combi to Westgate Red Roofs, it’s also 50 cents. Get off at Mopani road, the next street is mine! Or you can just take a taxi, it’ll be $30.”
$30. Who am I, Bill Gates?
I get to baggage collection. There’s a friendly airport guy standing around, not doing much. Looks like a security guard.
“Excuse me, do you know where I can catch a combi?”
He looks at me.
“Where are you going?”
“To Westgate Red Roofs.”
“Ahh. Okay. You need to go to town first. Come, come.”
He walks me out of the building.
“Just walk out of the airport, to the big billboard there.”
I follow his hand, pointing into the distance.
“You can catch it right outside the gate. You need to change to another combi in town – just ask somebody where to go. Everybody is friendly!”
His English is crisp, with the classic African accent.
“Can I take this big bag on with me?” I ask, pointing to my backpack.
“Of course! It’s no problem. Come I will walk you a little.”
He walks me across the carpark, halfway to the airport gates.
“So you see the big billboard over there. Just wait there. The combi will come.”
I say thanks and keep walking. I realise I’ve never actually walked out of an airport before.
I get to the main road. It’s quiet here, like empty suburban streets. The sidewalks are wide and dusty, the air is warm. I look at the different street corners, wondering where I’m supposed to wait. A man walks past.
“Excuse me sir, is this where I wait for a combi?”
“Yes you can wait just here. It will come. Where are you going?”
“I’m going to town.”
“Okay no problem, they will all go to town.”
“And…uh…what exactly does a combi look like?”
He scrunches his face up.
“It’s…like a bus!”
“A small bus or a big bus?”
“Just like, a small bus. When you see it, you will know!” he laughs, waving his finger. That’s a very African thing, I’ve learned – waving the finger when they say something funny.
“So where are you coming from now?”
“Ahh New Zealand! And how is New Zealand right now?”
“It’s cold now. Not like Zimbabwe.”
I’m actually sweating already. The sun is beating.
“Yes, Zimbabwe is always okay!” he laughs, and I laugh with him.
“Ok my friend, goodbye.” He shakes my hand and walks off.
About ten minutes later the combi tumbles down the street. It’s a van, maybe a 20 seater, well loved and rusted, painted all sorts of colours. I see the doorman’s head hanging out the window. He sees me and bounces his eyebrows, as if to say, “you getting on?”
I flick my eyebrows back at him, and the combi slows down and skids to a stop. He slides the door open. It’s packed full.
I pat my backpack a couple of times and look at him. He grabs it without even thinking and magically finds space for it somewhere, then waves for me to get in the back. It’s times like these I’m grateful God made me a small guy. If I was one of those 6’4 Dutch guys, squeezing into a vehicle like this, it would be the most ridiculous, embarrassing moment of my life.
I sit huddled in the back seat and watch Harare go by. CNN would make you believe this city is half burned to the ground with bodies lying the street, but it looks not too different to most other African cities I’ve been to. Gas stations, restaurants, people walking around, talking on cellphones, kids riding bikes, ladies at vegetable stands. You know, life.
I feel a nudge in my side. The kid next to me is nudging me. Why is he nudging me? I look at him and he points to the front. The guy at the front is asking for money. I pass him the US dollar bill scrunched up in my hand.
About twenty minutes pass. We come to a stop and everyone starts to get off. I guess we’re in town. I do a thirty second “perimeter check”. It’s not as busy as I thought it would be. There’s traffic, but not a crazy amount. There’s people, but not a crazy amount. The roads are well worn and patchy. I’m at a big intersection. Weathered single storey buildings line every block, plastered with shop signs and advertisements. Street sellers crowd the footpaths, their little mats and stalls laid out with their trinkets. They’re offering everything from tupperware to cellphone cases to sneakers. Some African cities rumble with noise, but not this one. This one has more of a mild hum. Welcome to Harare.
Before the combi takes off again I ask the doorman how to get to Westgate Red Roofs.
He thinks for a second, then points somewhere in the distance.
I look over to where he’s pointing and point with him.
He jumps back on the combi and takes off.
I cross the road and head towards the Copacabana bus, I think.
I feel eyes on me as I walk the streets. Asian guy in a snapback wheeling a backpack in the middle of Harare. I guess they don’t see that often around here. I look around. No white people. No Asian people. Just Africans.
I see a guy manning a little street stand who looks cool, and ask him for directions.
He looks up.
I smile. “How are you?”
This is something I’ve learned in this part of the world. You always greet people before you ask them for something. Even if it’s just a question.
“I’m fine my brother how are you.”
“I’m cool. Can you show me where to get the combi for Copacabana?”
“You’re going to Copacabana?”
“You don’t need a combi my friend, you are already here!”
I look at him, puzzled.
He jumps up and points down the street.
“You see the big red sign there?”
I see it and nod.
“Just walk there, and turn left on that street, you will be in Copacabana!”
I get it now. Copacabana is the place of the bus stop. Not the name of the bus route.
I say thanks and keep walking. He grins and goes back to his phone.
The streets are a bit more crowded down this side of town. Some stare as I walk past. Some smile. Most just look for one or two seconds, then carry on with their day. As expected, things are slow here. People walk slowly. Talk slowly. Laugh slowly. I like it this way.
I get to the red sign and turn left. A big crowd of combis is at the next block. I head over and ask one of the drivers.
“Westgate Red Roofs?”
He grabs my arm and shuffles a little so we can see around the corner.
“There. Copacabana,” he points.
I squint into the distance and see another crowd of people. I say thanks, he nods expressionlessly, not even a hint of a smile, and goes back to his day. He’s too busy to be dealing with silly tourists like me.
I get to the corner, there’s another big crowd of combis here. I ask one of the guys, “Westgate Red Roofs?”
He smiles a huge smile.
“Copacabana! There!” He points even more blocks down.
I smile and say thanks. He smiles back. Then he suddenly takes a karate stance and starts doing karate chops.
“Can you teach me?” he says, giggling. Karate chop. Another karate chop.
“Next time,” I smile. We shake hands and I take off.
I follow his directions, and pass through a little market, packed with people. Mats are laid out in grids, like mini streets, each one piled up with pyramids of clothes or shoes or toiletries. There’s lots of shouting and laughing. A few people smile at me, and I smile back.
As I come out the other end, I see combis, and a guy shouting for customers. He’s built like a weightlifter, huge arms, in a green polo shirt and green shoes. He’s eating a popsicle, that’s green too. A+ for style. I ask him if he’s going to Westgate Red Roofs.
“Westgate! Wait here,” he points beside him. “Just here. The bus is coming.”
I sigh with relief. It’s been over an hour since I left the airport. I lean on my backpack, squashed in a crowd of combis. It’s chaos in here, there must be at least thirty of these vans all crammed in this little street, all fighting for customers, honking, shouting, laughing, sweating. I stand there like a village idiot, in the middle, boxed between them all.
A guy walks past and shouts “Konnichiwa ni hao!” I turn and give him a smile. My face is getting sore from smiling and thanking.
The guy standing beside me laughs, and asks where I’m going. I tell him I’m going to Westgate.
“Oh you going to that side, okay. You came from the airport?”
“Yeah I saw you, I was on that same combi!”
We stand there and chat for a while.
I feel a nudge on my thigh. I turn and see a combi ready to run me over. I guess they don’t beep horns here if they want you to move. They just hit you with their bonnet.
I move away quickly.
Finally the combi rolls up for Westgate. Green muscle man slides the door open and I jump in. The metal inside is worn and rusted, the seats all covered in colourful fabrics, also worn and holey. I sit there and wait for twenty minutes as it fills up. One by one all kinds of people get on. Students, ladies from the market, businessmen. When it’s finally full, we go.
We roll out of town and into the suburbs. Everything looks…normal. Big houses with brick fences, traffic lights, bus stops, parks. Every now and then we stop and someone gets off, or someone gets on, or both.
One thing I always examine is people’s clothes. The ladies all wear colourful dresses, hair freshly braided. The boys usually dress a little more western – Nikes and hoodies. The men – shirts and pants, always.
After a half hour we get to Westgate Red Roofs, so I know my stop is close. I tell the doorman I want Mopani Road. He nods at me, in that carefree African way.
Then just a few stops later, he clicks his fingers at me.
I jump out. The doorman plonks my backpack on the ground and points me to the street I’m looking for. Before I can even double check which one, the combi is gone. I get lost pretty quickly. It’s quiet. I look around, getting my bearings. There’s a few people wandering around, a little vege stand on the corner, kids playing. The roads are wide, paved and dusty. It looks like any regular neighbourhood. No street signs. I look around clueless for a few seconds, trying to make my best guess.
Just a little lost. Relax. Done this a million times before.
I ask a guy walking in front of me, in a fedora hat. We walk together for a few metres while he points me in the right direction. He’s friendly and has a really white smile. He sends me down a different road and continues walking on.
I walk, walk some more, keep walking. My backpack wheels make a relentless duk-a-duk-a-duk on the pavement, drawing more attention than I want. It’s like the gringo signal, that sound. Whenever people hear it, they know some clueless foreigner is in their midst.
I come across two kids, maybe ten years old, just loitering.
“Mopani Road?” I ask him.
“Mopani?!” he shouts back.
Then he points at the road behind me.
I turn and give it a quick look, then turn back and give him a thumbs up. He bounces his eyebrows at me and walks away.
I’m sweating hard now. Zimbabwe sun is hot and merciless.
Finally, right down the end of the street I find her house number. I fiddle with the gate, looking for a bell, a latch, anything. But Lyn’s mother sees me and comes running out.
“Hello!” she smiles. As soon as the gate opens I extend a hand but she reaches her arms out for a hug. We go inside. Then we sit down for tea.
Lyn pulls into the driveway an hour later. We meet and shake hands and hug for the first time. And then we sit and talk over tea as well. Over the next few hours I tell her a few travel stories, she tells me some funny Couchsurfer stories. It’s a lazy afternoon – my energy is low after my overnight flight and combi adventure. As the sun comes down, we start talking about dinner.
I learn that Lyn’s mother loves KFC. Say no more! We jump in the car and head to the mall.
Zimbabwe KFC is different. They have stuff I’ve never seen before, like sadza nuggets, and lime and chili zinger wings. I get them both. “Dinner’s on me!” I insist.
Lyn’s mama is so joyous she takes a bunch of selfies of us all eating chicken.
After we’re full and smiling, we go across the road to the supermarket. I buy some yogurt and water, and then we wander through the whole supermarket, looking for KFC ingredients (we were watching Youtube videos about how to make it ourselves). It’s like a little welcome tour for me. Zimbabwean Supermarkets 101. But really, they’re no different to the supermarkets anywhere else in the world.
After that, it’s back to the house for bed. I knock out as soon as my head hits the pillow.
The next morning, Lyn takes me out to see the Harare Botanical Gardens. It’s $2 to get in. Nobody is there. It’s enormous, and semi-well maintained, large open fields with big trees scattered throughout. And silent. We wander around and chat. Then we sit under a tree and chat. We talk about our families. What we’re doing with our lives. Where we’re going. She tells me a lot about Harare, the Mugabe regime, the Zimbabwean people. It is always revealing to hear about this life from someone who actually lives and breathes it, rather than from some American lady in a newsroom. Those two stories, I’ve learned, are always very different.
Lunch next. We’re both so hungry – we stop at the first Chicken Inn we see and get busy on some fried chicken and pizza. Lyn pays for it by text message, I don’t even get how it works. After that feast, I decide to wash it down with a bottle of Zimbabwe’s traditional maheu. It’s a fermented drink, from maize – I’ve been seeing it everywhere. I rip open the bottle and sip it once. Sip it twice. Sip it three times. No thank you.
Earlier in the morning, Lyn asked if I could teach her how to swim. Sure, I said. So after lunch, we head to her local swimming pool. The sun is out, but I just know the water will be freezing, because the night was cold. I tell her, but she doesn’t believe me. We ask the guy at the desk if we can just go in and dip our hands in quickly. Lyn touches it once and walks right out.
“I told you!”
“Let’s just go get some snacks and chill.”
We drive through the suburbs, talking and listening to some beats on my phone. She manoeuvres around potholes every now and then, like it’s second nature. Luckily the traffic is light out here.
Suddenly she pulls over by the side of the road.
“What we doing?” I ask, looking around.
I jump out of the car and follow her to the corner. There’s an ice box and a bag of snacks just sitting on the roadside.
“What do you want?”
Across the road there’s a crowd of women sitting under a tree, chatting. One of them gets up and leisurely walks over to greet us.
Lyn grabs a bag of peanuts and Zimbabwean popcorn.
“Here, try this,” she says, handing it to me. I look at the packet. Peanuts and maputi.
“You should try a Freeze-it too.”
She opens the ice box. It’s full of little popsicles. They’re more like frozen bags of juice.
“What flavour do you want?”
Yellow of course! I reach in and grab one.
“How much is it?” she asks the lady.
“10 and 10.”
I hand her 20 cents and we walk off. I almost feel bad for paying so little.
Lyn and I cruise around for the next hour, checking out street stalls for snacks while I suck on my Freeze-it. It reminds me of the ice blocks I used to eat at school. As I slouch in the passenger seat, people from the roadside get a glimpse of me and often stop and stare. Lyn and I already know what they’re thinking.
Hey look, sister found herself a Chinese boyfriend.
It was the same thing in the supermarket the night before. We laugh about it.
We get home in the late afternoon. I’m flying tonight.
Lyn’s mama is cooking dinner. We’re eating sadza (like cornmeal/mashed potatoes), beef stew, some greens, and bugs. Yeah, bugs. They’re called mopani worms, I think. High in protein. It’s the wholesome home cooked meal I need to prep me for my flight.
A few hours later, Lyn drives me to the airport. It’s a long drive, and we sit mostly in silence, listening to the radio. It’s two politicians arguing about Zimbabwe’s problems. Lyn keeps giggling during their talk.
“This guy is seriously talking so much crap.”
Lyn’s mama nods. I laugh with them. Politicians in New Zealand, politicans in America, politicians in Zimbabwe; all good at the same thing.
We finally get to the airport. It’s dark outside, almost midnight. I haul my backpack out of the trunk and let out a smiling sigh. Farewell time.
I give them both a long hug and thank them for everything.
“Keep in touch!”
I wave at them as I walk in to the terminal.
It used to be sad, doing this. Another hello. Another goodbye. But eventually you learn to see a little beauty in it.
Just part of the Harare chapter in that backpacker life.