I pulled into town in the afternoon, a long bus trip gratefully concluded. I had crossed much of Zimbabwe that day, but the bus’s slow pace and uncomfortable seats made me feel as though I had crossed much of Africa instead. As our bus rattled to a stop, my gaze was caught by my seatmate, a round-faced church going woman wearing a prim dress and oversized glasses. She looked me firmly in the eyes, hers becoming pinpricks behind their thick lenses. “You must be careful of thieves,” she warned me in a hushed voice. “They will steal from you, and they will do it with magic, so you won’t even realize.” Then her face softened again, and with a smile she wished me a pleasant welcome to Bulawayo.
I, however, was less concerned with thieves at that moment. Over the course of the six-hour bus trip, a minor headache had blossomed into a shattering, thudding pain that was even beginning to make me feel nauseous. Whether it had been the effects of the heat of the clear winter sun trapped inside the bus, or that my only sustenance for the day had been a loaf of white bread purchased through the window from the hands of an eager vendor at a brief stop, I was feeling decidedly ill. So ill, that after making my way across town to my guesthouse, I barely gave a thought to protest when informed that the rate per night for a dorm bed was $15, more than four times the price listed in my guidebook.
The next morning, feeling a little better, I decided to take up the issue with the manager of the hostel.
“I am very sorry,” he said with a resigned tone. “It is the law now—we cannot charge you any less.” He was a tall, handsome man whose mannerisms verged on being camp. There was nothing in his face or in his voice that seemed dishonest. Still, I felt it better to ask around and verify the information.
And in fact, he was being honest. Not one guesthouse, hotel, or backpackers’ (not that there were many still in operation, to begin with) could offer a bed for less than $15. Apparently, there were so few travelers coming through Bulawayo lately, that the local government felt they needed to make as much off the few who did come as possible.
Over the course of my stay in the town, I came to find that it wasn’t only for accommodation that these laws applied. On my second full day in the city, I walked through a stately quarter of town to the Natural History Museum—which, my guidebook assured me, was fantastically out of date and old fashioned, and a bargain for only 40 cents US. As I walked into the foyer and peeked past the guard at the taxidermy animals and mid-century displays, I could tell I was not going to be disappointed. I was, in fact.
“20 dollars,” the stone faced guard mumbled when I told him I wanted to see the museum. His eyes seemed trained at a stop somewhere over my head that he had been studying before I entered; my presence had not been interesting enough to incite his glance.
“20 dollars?” I asked, a little confused. I had never heard anything quoted in Zim dollars for less than a million.
“You can go in if you’d like, but you have to pay 20 dollars US,” he replied, still looking beyond me, with a hint in his voice acknowledging that very few people actually paid that amount.
It seemed an odd scheme, likely to squash the desires of any tourists interested in visiting the town. During my stay I met exactly one other traveller, a man from Spain who was assigned to share my room with me. He had planned to stay in Bulawayo for over a week; he left after two days, complaining of the prices and the attitude of the town.
Signs suggested that the town had once been a profitable vacation getaway. A dusty sign decorated with leopard print decals marked the ‘Safari Bar’ on one street corner. A large billboard advertised flights to London, surely long discontinued. And though sun damage had nearly erased the image entirely, you could still make out the phrase “Zimbabwe: Paradise of Africa” on travel posters that hung around the town. There was a strange air of abandonment to the town, compounded by the fact that I rarely passed anyone on the street. Yet everything was well maintained and clean, giving it the Twilight Zone feel of a city suddenly and unexplainably evacuated of all life.
It felt a cold, lonely place to me. I did manage to find one comfortable spot in town, though: a friendly café serving good coffee, Greek food, and tasty desserts. And amazingly for the town, it always seemed busy. The matron of the restaurant, a large blonde woman who stood behind the counter, was always engaged greeting customers, preparing to-go parcels, and overseeing the flow of the dining room. It was in some way odd for me to see her, to see that white people remained living in Zimbabwe, were continuing their lives with some element of determination.
I found it on my first afternoon in town, and visited on my second and my third as well. I was able to get decent lattes (not Nescafe!), which I paired with a slice of whatever cake they were offering—obviously seeking some insulation from the town’s aura of depression. There was a young waitress who always seemed excited to see a new phase, and between serving customers would stop by my table to ask about my travels.
A less charming incident occurred on my last visit, however. The matron of the restaurant had taken a seat with a visiting friend, and the two were waiting for their lunch. One of the waitresses emerged from the kitchen, and politely set down their plates. The ceramic had just touched the table when the matron picked up the plate, turned it upside down, and flopped its contents onto the floor.
“No, no, no,” she stated with a firm razor-edged voice. “That is not right. That looks terrible. Go back and make it again.”
As the waitress retreated into the kitchen, she addressed her dining companion in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. “You must tell them like that. Otherwise, they simply never learn…”
I returned to my hotel, where the manager greeted me and covertly pulled me aside.
“I had your money exchanged,” he informed me in a clipped tone, handing it to me in a paper bag.
I went to my room to inspect it, and found that my two twenty dollar bills had been transformed through the magic of the black market into rolls and rolls of pastel coloured paper money. I gathered it up, stuffed it into my backpack.
I woke early the next morning, before breakfast plates were set at the guesthouse, and with the streets still asleep, caught the first bus out of town.