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Harare: a Capital City that feels like a Village

Map of Harare
Welcome to Harare, Zimbabwe, where the sun shines each day and the people are warm and friendly. As I walk through the streets, I see a city that's full of energy, with an amazing variety of people and style. At first, I feel as though I'm in any other city except everyone drives on the left side of the road, as Monica pointed out in South Africa. I find it hard to cross the road, never sure of which way I need to look for oncoming traffic, and I end up looking in both directions about ten times before making it to the other side. Harare's appearance is like that of any other modern city. There are high-rise buildings such as the National Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, the nation's main banking institution. This 26-story structure of steel and glass reflects sunlight as well as the city's potential for further modernization. But it is also possible to walk just a few blocks and come upon buildings like Harare's train station, beautifully maintained in its colonial style of architecture.

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When was the last time we showed you a building like this? It's not a grand hotel, but the Harare train station.

Wandering into the Harare Gardens, a large urban park, gives me the chance to escape the pollution and an opportunity to observe the black and white Zimbabwean crows for the first time. They look too exotic to just be crows; they're all black with a white stripe around their necks. There are also countless vendors, selling their own handmade crafts of stone and wood to visitors passing through the park. I meet an artist named Tawona who, although he's younger than I am, has been carving stone animals by hand for over eleven years to sell in the park.

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Meet Tawona, who's been selling his beautiful carvings for over 11 years!
People of all sectors of society can be seen moving about in Harare: dressed in business suits, work clothes, school uniforms, or jeans and T-shirts. They speak either Shona or Ndebele, although many speak English as well (English is the official language, used for business purposes or as a bridge between native tongues). Where are all of these people going? Maybe they're on their way to a meeting, or to a business lunch in the fancy new urban shopping mall with its modern design, stylish stores, and large food court.

Harare was not always this busy, though. Just a little more than one hundred years ago, Cecil John Rhodes and the British South Africa Company established Fort Salisbury on September 12, 1890, where the city now stands. After WWI the town saw the arrival of 40,000 immigrants and refugees, mostly from Europe, and then 60,000 more following WWII. Due to this influx of white settlers, most of the black indigenous population of the region was forcibly relocated to surrounding rural areas. However, the rapid expansion of the city also initiated an era of industry, generating employment and bringing thousands of people back to the city over the next few decades. Harare's most recent influx of people was due to a devastating drought that affected most of rural Zimbabwe between 1994 and 1996. Today, Harare's population stands at about 2 million inhabitants.

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I think this deer wants to kiss me!
Despite its importance as a capital, the city often has a feeling of tranquility. By 8pm, the streets are nearly empty and traffic is at a minimum. Most stores in town close by 5pm, and restaurants rarely serve after 10pm. Strolling around on a Sunday afternoon is like walking through a sparsely populated village: virtually no businesses are open, and the only place to find people is in the craft market or at the popular flea market. In general, people do not rush around from place to place, but instead walk calmly, make eye contact with each other, and smile at you as you pass by. There are moments when you can almost forget that you're in a major city.

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Tamar and I got the ride of our lives!
Like most of the locals, I have been staying outside of the center of town in Hillside. Only five minutes from the city center, there is a noticeable change as the streets are lined with a wide variety of trees, bushes, and flowers, and the natural beauty of Harare's suburbs is evident. The lodge I'm in is really a hostel in an old house. They've planted a tall palm tree in the yard just next to the pool. It's very quiet, but they say mugging on the street is a big problem. An Israeli couple parked their car inside the hostel perimeter and forgot to put on the club. The car and everything they had - backpacks, wallets, etc. - was stolen right off the property. Other than that, it's really quite pleasant here.

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Did somebody say this fence was sturdy?
Thousands of folks travel in and out of town using communal vans similar to those we rode in Peru. Each van's destination is posted on a sign showing through the front windshield, along with a second sign that indicates a 10-passenger maximum. I usually count about 20 people squashed into the van around me whenever I ride. An alternative form of transport is hitchhiking, which is popular during the day but not recommended at night.

Despite living near the city, I need no reminder that I'm still in a new and interesting country. Just a short drive away from town is Mwanga Lodge, located in the Mwanga Park, a nature preserve where animals roam (more or less) freely. My girlfriend, Tamar, came all the way from Israel to see me, and we visited this 40-acre park for my birthday this week. The park is like an animal orphanage, and is home to many "problematic" or dangerous animals that have either attacked humans or livestock in the past. In addition to the dangerous buffalo, crocodiles, elephants, cheetahs, and lions, the park also holds less dangerous animals that have been found abandoned and are being cared for there. Some are rare, near extinction, or imported from other parts of Africa. Rumor has it that a crocodile ate a couple of kids playing in the lake, and then ate another kid during the drought when he was forced to crawl onto land and look for food. Seems as though crocodiles like to go after kids: perhaps because they're smaller, easier to hunt, find and eat? (Don't know for sure, didn't stop to ask!)

Tamar and I got to ride on an elephant, which is certainly the largest thing I've ever ridden. Guess what? It was really a lot of fun! But then again, that's to be expected. Traveling through South America, Zimbabwe, and the rest of Africa on the World Trek is itself, the ride of a lifetime!


Abeja - Immersion in Zulu Culture
Abeja - Abeja Meets the Great King Shaka Zulu
Abeja - Get Off My Turf
Monica - A Typical Day in the Life of a Trekker
Kevin Somebody Stole my House!
Kavitha - Soweto: Young Lives Lost in Battle

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