Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Two Sides of the Same Bridge

A highlight for travelers visiting Africa is white-water rafting the Nile just north of its principle source, the great Lake Victoria, near the town of Jinja, Uganda. There are five Grade 5 rapids, several points of Grades 3 and 4, and inevitably the inflatable rubber raft you ride capsizes, the violent current swallows you whole and tumbles you like a filthy sock, but because of your life jacket you are spit back up towards the surface. There are crocodiles lurking in the area, but the agency that sponsors these excursions has the rafts escorted by members of the Uganda Olympic squad, who kayak ahead chasing off carnivorous predators with good solid paddle whacks. As a preliminary, release forms are signed beforehand and when you are being helplessly tossed about the foamy currents, the thought crosses your mind that a crocodile bite would hurt, perhaps gravely. Much of the thirty kilometer journey, however, is a torpid, tranquil drift downriver, eating watermelon down to the rinds, gabbing about 'where you from?' and gazing with lazy, sunburnt eyes at the jungle-- a lush and flourishing wilderness crowding the river's edges. The boat courses through a quiet, undeveloped Africa, not quite tame yet not very mysterious either. Something, some unquantifiable emotion seems to be missing, or perhaps it has just been lost.

At the end of the journey, the rafts capsize for the last time. The tourists are thrust into the rapids where two strong currents collide to form a whirlpool nicknamed 'The Bad Place.' Afterwards, soaked adrenaline junkies tramp up the hillside (there are porters to take care of the rafts) where a large banquet has been prearranged in a large, grassy picnic area overlooking the river. Stacked on huge plates are piles of grilled pork, fried chicken, and salads. The coolers containing ice-cold Nile Specials, the local Ugandan beer, are completely raided within thirty minutes. Later that night at Bujagali campsite, amid conventional rock and roll anthems and the cash bar making a handsome take,  the rafters are called together to enjoy a DVD production edited to bam-bam go-go music from The White Stripes and Nelly. The video stars we rafters, being smashed and throttled and occasionally surmounting the brutish currents heroically. Much whooping and whistling punctuate the larger wipeouts.

Of course the DVD is available for purchase, $45, which sounded to me a bit of a kick in the stomach after the $95 price tag charged for the trip itself. Cash preferred but credit cards are accepted with a five percent surcharge added. "Sweet!" was the buyer's exclamation handing over his greenbacks. A prefabbed memory, now post-packaged.

This is the other side of Africa. Not all the continent is defined by civil wars, diamond mines, child soldiers and the smuggling of antiquities. A busy industry for outdoorsmen in particular thrives on the border of darkness from which Kurtz never returned. Enjoying Africa at its most picturesque or romantic is not for cheapskates. It takes a solid credit rating to go on safari ($65 to $200 a day), to climb Kilamanjaro (at least $800 to do it appropriately) or even visit an economically disadvantaged South African township ($50).

Many of the continent's prime visiting centers run a very sophisticated tourist infrastructure. These businesses are run with foreign capital catering to a clientele almost uniformly Euro-American (there were no African tourists getting dunked in the Nile when I was there). Perhaps that would be inevitable in a pattern that many Africans perceive as an outgrowth of neo-colonization. According to international trade laws operating ostensibly in the interests of debt-ridden Third World countries (encouraging foreign investors to do business in Africa requires a hefty lure), transnational companies build branch offices, use trademarks and most importantly, repatriate their earnings. Thus, lucrative profits cannot be taxed by the host country, denying revenue for improving basic infrastructure. There are many ugly words for this sort of parasitism, but the designation ballyhooed by boosters is the much more marketable term, 'globalization.'  

Perhaps nothing emblemizes this trend better than enormous 4WD utility vehicles preferred by young backpackers on overland journeys. Customized itineraries between Masai Mara and Cape Town provide the tourist with a desired experience without having to get one's hands dirty. These monster cars are designed with optimal window space: mobile isolation chambers perfect for gawking at perceived dangers, whether they be maneating lions or savvy street hustlers in Nairobi.

photo by ARIKO
About a thousand miles south of Jinja, on the southern tip of Zambia lies a town called Livingstone.  The square concrete one- and two-story units and bubble-gum advertising remind me of an ordinary town in the California suburbs. It is a rather unremarkable place, colorless for an African city. However, the ubiquity of billboard signs, upmarket hotels, and big family restaurants suggest prosperity. There is money to be made in Livingstone, a boom town in the vicinity of Victoria Falls, arguably the greatest waterfall in the world.

Victoria Falls (another colonial sticker) is known among locals as Mosi-oa-Tunya in the indigenous Kololo language: 'The Smoke that Thunders' (a much more appropriate appellation). At 1708 meters wide and falling between 90 and 108 meters it is the largest waterfall on earth, so large in fact, that it straddles two nations, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In 1855 its Anglican name was christened in honor of the Queen of England by the Scottish explorer and missionary, Dr. David Livingstone, who was exploring the interior of Africa by means of the Zambezi River. Today, most backpackers have given it the shorthand epithet 'Vic Falls.'

Because of its runaway inflation and resulting crime waves, I had no intention of visiting Zimbabwe, content to view the cataract on the Zambian side. The lip of the falls is accessed along a pedestrian walkway. The morning I was there was bright and beautiful, the park crowded, mostly with African tourists. Engaged couples come here for wedding photographs, as cascades (think Niagara Falls) for some reason have always figured prominently in the romantic psyche. An ebullient atmosphere pervades the occasion and the rising mist from the surging torrents feels cool on this warm, winter day.

The falls of Mosi-oa-Tunya are a phenomenon to itself, but for some it's just another waterfall. For those with greater expectations, numerous activities abound. Livinstone and its sister city on the Zimbabwe side, Vic Falls, are competitively self-aggrandizing, both boasting credentials to be Africa's adrenaline capital.  From either side of the falls extreme sports enthusiasts can arrange skydiving, bungee jumping, microlighting, abesailing, white-water rafting and canoeing on the Zambezi, gorge-swinging, river-boarding, horseback riding, elephant-back safaris, tandem kayaking, jetboating, and sunset booze cruises. 

It's all there. All you need is the cash.

I didn't have the cash or at least I didn't have money allocated for bungee jumping but I did want to check it out before I left. The jumping point was not at the falls themselves but a fifteen minute walk outside the national park to a bridge that represents in both physical and psychological terms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. To access the bridge immigration officials issue you a sightseeing pass allowing entrance into this 'no-man's land.'

The jump is into a huge ravine carved by the Zambezi and extraordinary geological forces. It is the second-highest jump in the world and when I arrived at the site it was a hullabaloo. I did not see any alcohol but a fiesta temperament prevailed. I could not believe the Top 40 teenybopper punk shrieking from tinny speakers (wouldn't you think the thunder emanating from the world's greatest waterfall had already enhanced the drama of the moment?). Those yet to take the fall paced the railing in the anticipatory adrenaline rush while the just-initiated, flushed and effusive, were frothing with excited, hurried talk. Jumpers on the platform sported huge 'can't-blame-me-for-trying' grins. You could see their chests rising with great gulps of air, the survival instinct manifesting itself-- a contact high that makes your own heart begin to rush when the countdown is cried by the gleeful participants.

"Five. Four. Three. Two. One!"

The jumpers plummeted into the gorge, popping back up with the 'hang loose' sign, A-oking their dopamine high before bouncing away again like ham dangling loosely from a tethered meat hook.

What is particularly surreal about the experience and sums up the two conditions of this continent with alarming eloquence is the stream of Africans on the other side of the bridge shuffling along. They look exhausted, weak, and some of them from the condition of their clothes, nearly indigent. Why were they crossing this bridge? For family? work? a new beginning? And what did they think of the sport of wealthy white men hurling themselves into oblivion for a hundred dollars a pop when there was a famine of maize crop in Zimbabwe and 50% unemployment in Zambia? They passed on the other side of the bridge inconspicuous to the jumpers because they did not get in the way and hardly made a sound.

I watched three guys find their rush, a future cocktail boast, and returned to the falls. On my way at the Zambian checkpoint a large clunker of a bus coughed to a halt in front of the fenced gates. The roof of the bus was loaded with suitcases, garbage bags, even furniture, perhaps the total belongings of some of the passengers. One of the park's many baboons, a curious and mischievous rabblerouser leaped onto the roof and moseyed through the chattel, scavenging for edibles. An apoplectic driver hopped out of the bus and shook his fist at the primate, who reacted to the man's curses indifferently. Travelers, slouched and exhausted, filed past the driver expressionlessly to present their passports and paperwork to immigration officials so that they could cross the bridge, where they would rejoin the bus and continue onwards towards wherever they were headed, to Zimbabwe, or beyond.
Edited from an earlier draft dated 2005

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