Meat is Meat
Victoria Falls roared nearby while Scott watched a tourist leap
from the bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia and disappear
into the abyss over the Zambezi River. He couldn’t bring himself to actually lean over the railing because he has a fear of heights. Just standing on the bridge was enough to make his knees buckle. While he waited for the next bungee jumper to vanish from sight, he became an instant trillionaire when he bought a stack of Zimbabwean one hundred billion dollar notes from a man on the bridge. A trillion Zimbabwe dollars didn’t buy much. Inflation had topped 500 million percent and a single one-hundred-billion dollar note would buy little more than a loaf of bread or a few eggs. But the billion-dollar notes had become a commodity. While President Mugabe continued to ruin an entire country, he had inadvertently created a market for Zimbabwe
dollars on eBay. Unfortunately many months later, in Thailand, our backpack was relieved of eight hundred billion dollars along with our beloved Swiss Army Knife. The knife wasn’t your run-of-the-mill gadget with a blade and screwdriver. It was one I had purchased direct from the source in Switzerland. It was called The Superchamp and it had dozens of tools incased within its only-available-in-Switzerland black body. Not
only that, engraved on its side was a personalized mushy dedication to Scott. More than a portable toolbox, its knife and corkscrew alone represented romantic picnics in the Alps and glasses of Riesling along the Rhine. Somehow I think I would have mourned the loss a little less if the Superchamp were being put to use building a bridge in Africa instead of opening a can of beans in some communal kitchen of a backpacker hostel in Thailand.
Billion dollar notes aside, it was tragic what was going on in Zimbabwe. People desperately waited for something to change. There were fuel shortages, grocery store shelves were empty, and farms sat derelict. Those who were able would cross the border into Zambia each day to work—or to sell stacks of Zimbabwe dollars to travelers— before returning at night to a ruined Zimbabwe. Most Zimbabweans seemed to accept their lot with something closer to pragmatism than bitterness. We asked a taxi driver waiting for fares near the bridge how he felt about what was happening in his country and if he thought Mugabe should step down or be thrown out. He answered with a resigned shrug, “It’s better to have the devil we know than one we don’t.”
It wasn’t always like that in Zimbabwe. Until recently it was our favorite African nation. It is a physically beautiful country and we had always admired the resourcefulness of her people. As recently as 1999, Zimbabwe was still considered a breadbasket of Africa, the economy was relatively healthy, and inflation was not yet a major headline. On two previous visits we had been able to travel anywhere in the country in relative comfort and security.
During one such trip we noticed a billboard advertising “Business Days, Zimbabwe Trade Zone,” from our seats on a crowded long-distance bus. As we entered the colonial city of Bulawayo, we decided it might be interesting to see how a trade show in Zimbabwe might differ from one in Silicon Valley and we made a plan to attend. I am sure we were the only tourists there. When we arrived at the entrance they couldn’t decide under what category to admit us. Finally someone handed us badges that read, “Foreign Guest,” and we entered the trade show floor. Salesmen hawked furniture, crafts, and import-export opportunities from within hundreds of tents and booths. In lesser number were agents representing safari and game lodges. One lodge, located in Hwange National Park, offered trade show attendees a full board package including game drives at a place called Ganda Lodge for a price almost too good to believe. Scott gave me a look that said, “What have we got to lose?” We purchased two nights and received an official-looking voucher.
The next day we took another bus to Hwange National Park where we met Happiness, Cuthbert, Fortunate, and Boniface, all part of the Ganda Lodge staff. I wondered who they thought we were because we received the royal treatment. Soon we learned we were the first guests they had had in weeks and that we would have Ganda Lodge to ourselves. After a welcome drink of something orange and cool, we were shown a selection of two-story cottages to pick from. We quickly chose one fronting both the water hole and the swimming pool. This in turn overlooked a grassy savannah shaded by acacia and mahogany trees. In a branch of a thorn tree overhanging a second-story viewing platform, a lilac-breasted roller came to rest not two feet from where we sat. The spectacularly colored bird preened its feathers like an actress preparing for a close-up. It was
the dry season at Hwange and most of the water in the holes had evaporated. Fortunately there was still water in the pond near our cottage and that was what brought thirsty animals practically to our front door.
After we settled in, the head ranger David took us on a game drive. We stopped briefly to watch zebra and giraffe grazing near the lodge, and then headed out into the bush. One hour into the game drive we stopped near a herd of some two hundred elephants. One juvenile elephant immediately performed an impressive mock charge, running at our vehicle with his ears flared out and his little trunk flailing wildly. Then while I held my breath, another young female elephant walked directly over to where I sat in the backseat of our open-topped Land Cruiser and calmly draped her trunk over my shoulder. My heart was beating so hard I thought it would leap from my chest. I sat like a statue even though my insides tingled with excitement. There was nothing I could do to stop the happy tears that ran down my cheeks.
After a few minutes of close-encounter bliss, we continued through the game park stopping again to watch a group of slow-moving impala and giraffe. The air was so hot and parched that the grasses crackled under the hooves of the animals. I felt nearly on the verge of heatstroke.I’ve never been one to handle the heat well anyway, and the temperature out on the savannah was pushing me to my limit. Evidently it showed
because David glanced at my clammy, flushed face and asked, “Would you like to go back now?” As much as I wanted to have another close encounter with an elephant, I knew that driving around in one-hundred-
degree heat in an open-top vehicle might do me in. Reluctantly I nodded at David and said, “Yes, please.”
Back at the lodge we changed into swimsuits and chilled down in the icy cold pool. As we hung on to the pool’s edge feeling our body temperature return to normal, we watched zebra come to the water hole and drink. Boniface brought us cold beers. It was heaven. Though attending a trade show is not something most travelers usually do, it paid off big for us. The price for the all-inclusive stay at Ganda Lodge was only fourteen dollars per person, per night. Total. For everything. At lunch a tall and dapper African named Cuthbert whose every move conveyed style and grace served us a plentiful meal and more cold drinks on a covered terrace. Watching Cuthbert move around the terrace, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the elegant giraffe we had encountered during our game drive that morning. When we finished eating, he cleared the table so effortlessly that it was as if he had just waved his hand over it and made the dishes disappear. He smiled at us more like we were guests in his home than visitors to a game lodge. “Which meat would like to have for dinner?” he asked.
“You mean we get to pick?” I asked. “What are our choices?”
“Chicken, or beef, or pork,” replied Cuthbert.
“Well, chicken sounds good. We’ll have the chicken,” Scott answered for both of us. Cuthbert seemed a little disappointed at our choice.
After lunch David drove us back to a water hole located about forty minutes from the lodge. During our game drive we had noticed a ladder leading to an enclosed platform in a tall tree near the water and asked if we could spend the afternoon alone there. David parked the vehicle directly under the tree so that we could
safely and quickly climb to the platform. Before leaving, he handed us a small box of cold drinks and said, “Be careful, and try not to become overheated.” We climbed the ladder and spent the next three hours
well hidden in the leafy tree spying on elephant and antelope as they came to the water to drink.
Game viewing that afternoon was a vastly more rewarding experience because the animals were completely unaware of our presence. Perhaps they were under the influence of the heat as well, but I have never seen African animals so relaxed. Some even napped. Without half a dozen safari vehicles filled with excited tourists destroying the calmness of nature (“Marge! Did you see that? Look over there. No, over there! Oh, you missed it! He’s gone now.”), we were able to see antelope just being antelope. It was just Scott, the African bush, and me. Because it was so hot and dry at Hwange, animals naturally gravitated to the water hole so it bustled with activity. Some animals drank from the water’s edge then rested in shade nearby before returning for another drink. Adult elephants stood in the pool and cooled their bodies with showers of water from their trunks while baby elephants rolled in the mud or playfully charged one another. The one behavior all the animals had in common was that they seemed reluctant to leave.
So were we. When Happiness and Fortunate arrived to take us back to the lodge, it struck me that their names expressed our emotions of the day perfectly.
At 7:00 p.m, we were called to dinner . Again it was a buffet with copious amounts of food, way too much for just the two of us. And there was plenty of chicken. I said to Cuthbert, “There’s so much
food!” and he responded, “If you eat more, you worry less.” It didn’t take too long for us to realize that the staff of Ganda Lodge and their families would be eating what we couldn’t finish. We also understood
that when there are no guests at the lodge, there are no leftovers to eat. We took small but sufficient portions of food to our table and ate while the staff watched at a distance.
From the terrace we could see impala, warthog, and giraffe come to drink. Gesturing towards the animals at the water hole, I remarked to Cuthbert, “It’s so beautiful! It would be wonderful to have a meal closer to the water hole.”
From the comfort of our bed the next morning, we watched more than eight hundred buffalo cross the savannah before we headed to the terrace for breakfast. Cuthbert met us at the step and swept his arm
around until it pointed down to the water hole. There on the bank was a table for two beautifully set with white linen, china, and a small vase of wildflowers. “Today, you will eat breakfast at the water hole.”
I burst into tears. To this day it is the most spectacular place I have ever dined.
As we finished our eggs, Cuthbert came to our table and asked,
“Which meat would you like for lunch today?”
“Which meat do you recommend, Cuthbert?” Scott asked.
“Well,” he said slowly. “Meat is meat.” He shrugged as if it did not matter which meat was chosen. “But,” he added quickly, “I don’t think you care much for the chicken. I think you prefer the beef.”
Scott looked over at me and smiled. “I think we prefer the beef too,” he said to Cuthbert.
And that is what we all had for lunch that afternoon. There was enough beef on the luncheon buffet table to feed twenty.
would you like for dinner?”
We smiled at him and asked, “Do we still like the beef?”
Cuthbert smiled back. “Yes, I think you like the beef most of all.”
Two days later when we left Hwange, we stopped back in Bulawayo
and traded facemasks and snorkels (I honestly can’t remember why in
the world we had facemasks and snorkels with us) and a little money
for a graceful wooden giraffe. Almost six feet tall and hand carved by
the seller, I named him Cuthbert.