Counting the Cost in Camels

Iranian / Afghani border @ Maschhad / Herat – November 1973

Having failed to reach the border in time (it closed at 6 pm) we found ourselves spending the night in a huge warehouse on the outskirts of Maschhad, Iran. I was amused to see an Australian couple roll out their rather large and lovely Persian carpet to sleep on. Goodness knows whether they ever managed to get it back to Oz.

Early in the morning we caught a bus to the border where we had to walk through no man’s land to the other side where we could catch an Afghan bus to Herat. It took hours to get through the border. The bored Afghani border guards were very keen to have some fun by offering to buy some of the females amongst us with anything from cash to camels!

Although in my head I knew (well hoped) that these border officials would not do anything illegal, I have to confess to being slightly worried at their comments. When half a dozen men with thick beards and black piercing eyes surround you, you begin to feel uncomfortable. When these same men are holding Kalashnikovs and sabres in sheaths at their sides you start to feel even more vulnerable and when one of them grins at you and strokes your hair with the end of his machine gun, you become decidedly jumpy. If he really fancied you for a ‘wife’ what could any of the dozen or so westerners actually do to prevent him?

Smiling inanely at the guards (I did not wish to offend) I handed over my precious blue British passport to be stamped. The man behind the desk looked at me for what seemed like hours studying my face and then the photograph. I tried not to feel embarrassed, but could feel the heat rising from my cheeks. He spoke aside to his colleagues who also looked at me and grinned fiercely. I have no idea what they were saying, but I knew I was blushing. Suddenly the main guy pointed at me and said,

Thirty five camels

his face breaking into a huge grin showing black and broken teeth amongst the mass of facial hair. Was he really suggesting that my travelling friend sold me in exchange for nasty, smelly, spitting camels?

My friend coughed nervously. He shook his head before glancing at me to gauge my reaction. I frowned – was I being undersold? Was he even serious?

Fifty camels then, a very good deal

I raised my eyebrows. How far was he prepared to go? The guard closest to me stroked my hair once again, grinning mindlessly and I was beginning to wish I had covered it as it seemed to be attracting too much attention. I was definitely not keen on this machine gun at my temple.

Eventually sensing my discomfort the main man stamped and handed me my passport back. Still grinning he asked my companion if he would accept the fifty camels. Uncertain of giving the right answer and not wanting to cause offence to me or the guards, he kept his gaze on the floor and muttered that he really didn’t need any camels. I held my tongue even though I was starting to feel quite annoyed. Eventually, roaring with laughter at our embarrassment, the guard shook his head and beckoned us to leave the room which we did in haste.

To this day I still wonder whether fifty camels was an insult or an honour.

‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’

It was the culmination of a three-week overland trip through five countries in southern Africa. The one place I had yearned to visit during the 12 years I lived in neighbouring South Africa and the place that had Dr David Livingstone saying in 1855,

No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight

Of course we now know that the falls were known to the Kololo people living in the area in the 1800’s who described it as ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’ meaning ‘the Smoke that Thunders

I arrive at the Zimbabwean side of the falls, which appears to have been untouched for the last 25 years. There is no commercialism here. Apart from a distant hum and some fine wisps of mist drifting upwards you would never know that you were so close to one of the Wonders of the World. There is a wooden kiosk where I buy my entrance ticket and nothing else, no map, no information guide and no refreshments other than a local hawker selling the usual selection of cans of cold drinks opposite the park’s entrance. A relentless sun burns down.

Victoria Falls
Victoria Falls

As I battle my way through the untamed foliage the noise is both exhilarating and deafening; any conversation is impossible. Suddenly the falls come into view. Such a spectacular sight it literally takes my breath away. I get wet, I get dry and I get wet again. I stand as close to the edge as I dare, overlooking the mighty curtain of water from the Zambezi River cascading over the basalt rock cliffs, the columns of ‘smoke’ rising, and a myriad of rainbows forming. Such power. Nature at her most magnificent.

My heart lifts. I have a broad grin on my face. This is why I travel. ‘Hakuna Matata’ my friends. All is well.

Room 202

If you have read my experience “Windhoek Warning” you will know what this is about. If you haven’t, perhaps you should read that post first so this makes some sort of sense.

Monday dawned and we reluctantly returned to the police station in Windhoek to obtain the necessary copies of the crime report in order to put in insurance claims on our return to the UK. This was unable to be done on Sunday because the Duty Officer did not have a key for the room in which the only photocopier was situated. Neither of us looked forward to going back into the city, but needs must. We finally managed to persuade the manager of the villa where we were staying to add the cost of a taxi to the police station on to our bill so we could be dropped off right outside the door. Then the fun began.

After queuing at the complaints desk for 40 minutes in a hot, malodorous and jam-packed room we finally reached the counter only to be told,

“Oh no madam, this is not where you need to be, you need to go upstairs to the black door marked Enquiries”.

So, elbowing our way back through the crowd, we went upstairs and through a black door marked Enquiries only to be informed,

“Oh no, madam you need to go upstairs to Room 202, the crime enquires”.

We were now beginning to wonder how many floors there were in this building, and how many rooms marked ‘Enquiries’. There were an awful lot of black doors along each of these corridors. Anyway, we climbed up another flight of stairs in search of Room 202 – the doors had no logical numbering to follow so we wandered up and down the narrow corridors. No-one challenged us.

Eventually at the end of one corridor we found Room 202 where three constables were sitting behind desks piled high with beige files of varying thickness– no signs of computerisation in here. Looking at the reams of paperwork, and the height of the files, my heart sank; it was obvious that these guys had a lot of crime reports to deal with – and equally obvious they weren’t going to recover any of our items. But I needed that crime report for my insurance claim; I realised this could take a while.

One of the older constables eventually raised his head,

“Hello madam, what can we do you for?”

I passed over the slip of paper that I had been given when I reported the crime. He took it gingerly, glanced at the crime number, flicked through the top of his pile of reports and said,

“No, that’s not here, I put it somewhere, now let me think, where did I put it? No I cannot remember, maybe you can come back later?”

and put his head back down to his paperwork. I explained that we couldn’t as we were flying out in the morning and it was important that I had copies of the report today for insurance purposes, but I wasn’t sure anyone was listening. A young lady then entered the office and our constable became engaged in conversation with her, rubber stamping and filing more complaint sheets. She left and once more his head went down. I sighed; it was going to be a long morning.

Eventually he paused in his stamping and looked up to find that we were still patiently waiting in his office. He then jumped up, grabbed an enormous bunch of keys from a drawer and beckoned us to follow him down the corridor. He unlocked one room, peered inside it, shook his head, locked the door and continued to the next room into which he disappeared. We waited outside for several minutes not sure whether he wanted us to follow him inside and just as we were thinking of doing that out he came and beckoned us to follow him back into Room 202. What was all that about?

As we re-entered the room one of the younger constables stood up at his desk and handed over a green folder – yes – our report! But this wasn’t over yet. Now for the issue of the photocopier. Today, being Monday, thankfully the room was not locked, but to get the three copies we required would cost us NAD$30. I calmly explained that we did not have any cash – it had all been stolen during the mugging, but we did, fortunately, have one credit card, so would they accept that? No; they didn’t have a card machine.

After much discussion and shaking of heads one of the constables gave us directions to the nearest ATM and my poor husband was duly dismissed to draw out some cash feeling very uneasy about going out on his own worried that he would be mugged yet again. I dare not leave the office in case our report vanished under one of those piles, which were growing by the minute. The constable scrawled something onto the record sheet which accompanied my report – no doubt writing something to the effect “don’t bother any further with this one as the victims are leaving the country tomorrow” and I have a feeling that once we had left our report would vanish for good. Meanwhile I eyed that green folder like a hawk.

My husband eventually returned, puffing and sweating, but at least in one piece – those stairs, that heat and the stress of carrying cash were not having a good affect on him. I was concerned that he might not survive until the flight!

The money was handed over and we were led to yet another Enquiry office – Room 211 – where we waited for a different young constable to go and make the three copies I’d requested. We then returned to Room 202 – it was beginning to feel like home there – where the older constable took his rubber stamp and joyfully stamped each copy, signing them with a flourish and handing them over to us with a wide grin. I thanked him and we left, grateful that it had only taken us three and a half hours!

Windhoek Warning: A hard lesson to learn

We were forced into a stopover in the Namibian capital of Windhoek due to a change in our flights back to the UK and we had hoped it would be a nice experience to add to our two weeks in South Africa. It was indeed a memorable visit – but for all the wrong reasons.

Our stay started badly as the pre-booked and pre-paid transfer shuttle from the airport to our accommodation did not arrive and the man at the airport information desk would not phone the company for us unless we paid him R10. Eventually after several phone calls back and forth, a driver from a tour company gave us a lift to our accommodation, Villa Verdi Guesthouse. Our second disaster was that instead of the luxury double room I had booked we were given a large apartment right on the road and next to two villas where very noisy parties were taking place (this being Saturday night). The apartment was dingy, cold, dark with little furniture and very unwelcoming, plus it had hard single beds with worn sheets, no bedside tables, no luxury shower, and no fluffy towels. The whole place needed a good clean too. It was also isolated from the rest of the complex and felt very insecure as a result. I was not happy and after eating second-rate food at a first-rate price on a cold open-air patio I was already regretting not extending our holiday in Cape Town.

The next day I insisted that we changed rooms, and got the “luxury double” that we’d paid for. A comfortable double bed, side tables with lamps, a spa bath and a walk in shower – much more like it, but still the thin worn towels! After this we walked into town, only about 10 minutes away, though it felt very unnerving as cars passed hooting at us and the locals gave us very odd looks. We walked to the Tourist Information Centre, only to find it closed, so headed uphill to have a look at the Christuskirche and the Parliament buildings. There were a few other tourists around, though mostly in groups and on tour buses. But it was broad daylight, sunny and a Sunday and although we didn’t see many other white people, we didn’t feel particularly vulnerable. We really should have known better.

After wandering over to the Bahnhof we decided to walk up Anderson Street to the water tower, where, according to the “Windhoek on Foot” guide, you get a fantastic view over the whole of the city. Unfortunately we got rather more than that. As we approached the scone shaped water tower, which is only minutes away from a residential district with people mowing their lawns, two black men strolled out of the bush in front of us. My stomach did flips as I acknowledged that we were on an isolated stretch of the road and I glanced backwards at my husband who was photographing the city sights. The tallest, biggest man approached me and muttered something under his breath, as I looked at him and asked “what?” he grabbed my wrist and muttered the word I had been dreading, “money”; without waiting for a reply he grabbed the straps of my rucksack and began to drag it off my shoulder. The other, smaller man went for my husband and began punching him and trying to pull off his camera and money bag.

Without going into too much detail, we were well and truly “mugged” and the worst of it was that for the first time during the holiday we hadn’t taken our usual precautions when venturing out. Every day in South Africa we had carefully allocated around R100 each, carried only one credit card between us, and carried very little in the way of valuables. Of course in South Africa we’d also had a hire car so didn’t need to walk anywhere except where it was reasonably safe. Fortunately we had left one credit card, our passports and a camera back at the villa. Unfortunately we were carrying both mobile phones, a camera, camcorder and all the rest of our cash as we’d not unpacked properly after the flight from Cape Town.

Immediately we retraced our steps to the police station which was no more than five minutes away. The police woman taking my statement seemed rather bored and inconvenienced. She was not concerned about any injuries we might have had, she didn’t offer to help us back to the villa and she didn’t offer us the details of the British Consulate. Although the incident had only just occurred it was obvious that she wasn’t going to send out a patrol car to see if there was any sign of the thieves. On top of that she couldn’t even provide me with a copy of my report, necessary for insurance purposes, as the room with the photocopier in was locked on a weekend! My husband and I were both bruised and badly shaken, but had to walk back to the villa as we had no means of getting back any other way. Contacting the British High Commission in the evening I spoke with a very kind lady who was the only person to express concern about the event. She was shocked that this had happened in broad daylight, though said it was a notorious trouble spot in the evening – a pity the guide-book didn’t mention this fact. Her theory was that Namibia was being overrun by refugees from Zimbabwe and as a consequence the petty crime rate was escalating.

Although this incident happened in 2008 I feel it might serve as a useful reminder to those travellers who may be heading to Southern Africa. Do not walk anywhere, even in broad daylight, without making sure the area you are walking in is completely safe. Even in affluent residential areas it is easy to find yourself isolated within minutes, as we were. My best advice is to check with staff at your hotel or villa, or call the consulate and find out if there are any no-go areas and always take taxis even if the route looks safe and the distance is short.

I love Africa, I have lived in South Africa and I have travelled throughout Namibia in a group – but this incident shocked me as I had thought we’d taken sufficient care. I can only say that being at the end of the holiday perhaps we let our guard down – an unfortunate way to end what had up to then been a fantastic experience. And a hard lesson to learn.