Although Livingstone is a tourist city juxtaposing Victoria Falls, there are no hotels to speak of—smaller inns and guests houses are the only options with the exception of the very pricey Livingstone Inn just outside the Victoria Falls gates.
Heidi is quite budget conscious, so we chose a “guest house” that looked comfortable enough called Zinga Backpackers for $23/night. I’ll give credit to Air BnB for helping us locate the property, but we booked it on a hostel website for about 20% less for the same room.
As you know, we got stuck in Johannesburg one extra day, but the owner was quick to respond to e-mail and kind enough to move our reservation back one day. We stayed only for one night.
Car service from the airport to the guesthouse is included in the price, but no one was waiting for us upon arrival at LVI. I suppose I was not clear that we had been rebooked on the identical flight one day later, so I do not fault Gift (the name of the owner) for not being there. One of the drivers hanging out with a sign in the arrivals hall must have seen the puzzled look on our faces and knew Gift, offering to call him for us.
Gift sent over a friend to pick us up, a Zambian migrant worker in Norway who was back for a short vacation in his hometown and picking up some extra work during the break. He was chatty on the way to the guesthouse, pointing out all the sites in Livingstone (there weren’t many, though…it is a small town).
Not far out of town is the guesthouse, sitting on a dusty side street nearby a small local marketplace. An imposing wall and metal gate secured the premises and a honk of the horn brought out a young girl who opened the gate for us.
She was expecting us and though she spoke very little English, she had an endearing smile and welcomed us, escorting us to our room for the evening, a circular hut out back bearing the name…Obama.
It was over 90ºF outside and even warmer in the hut, with no fans or a/c. The small circular hut featured a double bed in the middle covered in a net to keep insects, pests, and who knows what else away. An opening was cut into one side of the hut with no wall that led out to a concrete slab and an outdoor shower.
Outhouse bathrooms were a few huts down and there was also one bathroom inside the house.
Past the bathrooms was a bar, where we soon met the owner who had returned from his meeting. Gift was quite friendly, welcoming us and offering a complimentary arrival drink. He pulled out two locals beers from his cooler but we asked for water instead – it was now pushing 95º and Heidi and I both were feeling dehydrated.
He said something in Bemba to his helper girl, who scampered inside and returned with two Pepsi bottles filled with water. He began to pour them for us, then stopped and said, “You better not drink this water. Your stomachs are not used to it.” He ordered his helper to buy water down the street at the market and she obediently obliged, running out and returning just a few minutes later panting and out of breath.
With bottled water in hand, Gift played a promotional video from his laptop highlighting all the tour packages available for the area (for e.g., paragliding, Devil’s Pool, hot air balloon, sarfari, game tours). I suspect that a substantial portion of his income comes from commissions from these booked tours and he gleefully presented us a price listing and asked us what we wanted to do.
We told him we’d think about it…certainly there were activities that sounded fun, but prices were very high and my wife and I were content just to check out the Falls by foot – we had just been on a safari in Kruger National Park as well.
Free or Not Free?
He talked up all the freebies—free breakfast, free internet, free lift to the Falls, but when it came to time to deliver, we only received free internet. Look – I recommend staying with Gift because he is a warm and kind-hearted man, like most of the Zambians we met, and because you get at least a small glimpse of life in Zambia behind the veil.
There was no breakfast in the morning (Gift was at a meeting) and this meeting went late into the morning because we had to hail a cab to Victoria Falls ourselves. He also short-changed me on money – I had US dollars or South African Rand to pay for the room and the change was given in Zambian Kwatchas with a downright criminal exchange rate.
I called him on it and if I give him the benefit of the doubt, we’ll just say it was due to a faulty mental computation. But he did not have enough change and said he would get it to me later. It never came, so my room rate essentially doubled: I waited around as long as I could the following morning, but when he did not show from his meeting, I just decided to leave him with the gift – I support his entrepreneurial spirit and hope that he can make a success out of his guest house.
Apparently, internet is very expensive in the Livingstone area and it is almost impossible to get an unlimited monthly plan, but Gift had one. That made his bar a popular hangout for locals coming into to use internet, including a German ExPat who spent several hours there as I sat working.
Livingstone is a paradoxical place. Of course it is partially geared toward tourism, but the grocery stores where locals shop were double and in some cases triple the price of South Africa. Fuel was expensive and restaurants were not cheap. We went into a pharmacy to look for sunscreen and the imported German sunscreen was over $40USD for a bottle (a 6EUR bottle in Germnay). Who can afford that? It is no wonder there is such poverty in a country in which industry has dried up, agriculture is limited, and most essentials must be imported. Imagine paying three times what you pay in South Africa for apples and poultry and double for milk and eggs.
Zambia, more than any other country we visited on the trip, exposed a deep poverty that is unlike the very severe poverty I have witnessed in Asia, rural South America, and SE Asia. There is no escaping it here – no way to save when most of your income goes toward buying groceries each month and internet is beyond the reach of many due to its high cost.
With that in mind, my wife and I checked out a Pentecostal church. While not trying to generalize, many Pentecostal ministries (and religious institutions in general) are run by wolves in sheep’s clothing looking to enrich themselves at the expense of their poor parishioners (can you say Creflo Dollar?). What would a Pentecostal church in Zambia be like?
My wife and I were warmly welcomed and even offered the VIP first class seats in the front row, which we declined. There was chanting and speaking in tongues that made me feel quite uncomfortable, but then the pastor delivered a message on the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. His point, not unexpectedly, was that faith moves mountains and that a financial, physical, and familial miracle can be worked in your life if you only believe.
And yet he went a step further. He rebuked his church for having so much and wasting it. He condemned waste and asserted that much had already been given to them and been squandered. Admittedly, it seemed a strange message coming from such a place of poverty, but looking around this filled sanctuary, congregants echoed amens throughout the pastor’s message. For me — as an outsider looking in — the paradox was that these folks considered themselves not only spiritually rich, but physically rich. And I sensed contentment and joy. Going to church in a foreign land is a fascinating cultural experience and highly recommended.
My wife and I tried to cook as much as possible on this trip and though the cooking area was modest, we did buy groceries and cook a light dinner of salad, steamed vegetables, and eggs. I think the kitchen, more than anything else at the property, made us stop to count our blessings. There were cockroaches and the faucet just trickled so none of the dishes, pots, or pans were clean. We filled up a large kettle with water and boiled our mismatched plates and eating utensils – a small portable stove was set up that was so grimy it was just nasty, but dinner was ready and as we sat down outside in the steamy African evening, we contemplated the day we had just experienced.
So what can you make out of my stay in Livingstone, Zambia? Poverty to be sure, an incipient and in many ways hopeless flavor of poverty, but life goes on and at least at the Pentecostal church, while their pastor may explicate a faith-based pathway to material blessing, blessings seem to come in other, non-material forms.
Read More of My Month in Africa Trip Report
Introduction: A Month in Africa
Review: Houston to Lagos in United Airlines 787 Business
Transit in Lagos: Bribing My Way Out
Review: Oasis Lounge Lagos (LOS)
Review: Gabfol Lounge Lagos (LOS)
Lagos to Johannesburg in South African Airways Economy Class
Setting Up Shop in Pretoria
How to Obtain a South African Police Report
A Safari in Kruger National Park
Review: Nkambeni Safari Camp
Driving Through Swaziland
Review: Mountain Inn Mbabane, Swaziland
Review: Johannesburg to Livingstone, Zambia in British Airways Comair Economy Class