The pleasantness is touching

FEBRUARY 17: It is a different Zimbabwe from what we read and hear. Our brief is not to go looking for poverty stricken masses or the long queue for petrol and bread. We see them back home too. But the pleasantness at every nook and corner is simply touching.

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

FEBRUARY 17: It is a different Zimbabwe from what we read and hear. Our brief is not to go looking for poverty stricken masses or the long queue for petrol and bread. We see them back home too. But the pleasantness at every nook and corner is simply touching. As if every citizen is out to prove that his country is the safest place on earth. People greet us with warmth, from the airport to the hotel to the ground. We need to be accredited and the formalities are completed in quick time with Ms. Lillian Chakabva, sitting on the 13th floor of NASA building, being a superb host. We are spared the fee of U.S. dollars 600 charged from journalists wanting to report from Zimbabwe. "Welcome to Zimbabwe and have a good World Cup. I hope your team does well," Lillian says with a big smile. The warmth is genuine and as we leave I learn she knows little of the game.

February 18: When I first visited the Harare Sports Club in 1992, it presented a pretty picture. An open ground with an old pavilion and dotted with trees in the background. The press box was a marquee. If you did not have tickets, you could just watch the game from behind the bushes that ran along the ground. Watching cricket was a pleasure. The venue had not changed much when I returned in 1998. A small stand had come up to accommodate more fans for the one-day game. The press box was still in a marquee. A substantial transformation was in the offing when we toured with the Indian team in 2001. The new pavilion had come up and the old one had been converted into a sort of corporate enclosure. The press box had shifted from the marquee to a temporary structure. This time the Harare Sports Club wore a completely new look. A modern structure had come up behind the far sightscreen. A new scoreboard and a few more stands. The beauty of the ground was lost in the concrete structures that symbolise all modern cricket venues. You could no more watch free cricket from behind those bushes, for a wall ran along the ground now.

February 19: A group of women sport the black band on the arms. A silent protest at the death of democracy in Zimbabwe. Andy Flower and Henry Olonga are the original architects of this protest. I don't know the politics of it but what a pity, such a lovely country has been rocked by unrest at every level. The city of Harare has changed so much. The taxi ranks have dwindled; so have the tourists. The private money exchange bureaus have been shut. The official exchange rate is 55 Zimbabwean dollars to one U.S. dollar. In 1992 it was two Zim dollars to one U.S. dollar. In 2001 we got 300 Zimbabwean dollars to one U.S. in the parallel market. Today it is 1400 Zim dollars. The market too responds by hiking the rates ten times. A cup of tea is 500 Zim dollars; a burger is 3000 Zim dollars; a short distance taxi ride costs 1500 Zim dollars. When six of us dine at a restaurant, we spend more time in counting the money than actually eating. When 12 of us go together, it is chaos. The bill is 1,00,000 Zim dollars and there are no volunteers for counting money. I don't think any tourist changes money at any of the banks. If you go by the official exchange rate, a cup of tea would mean 10 U.S. dollars. It is feared that at the end of the year the exchange rate in the parallel market would climb to 3500 Zim dollars for one U.S. You may plan a holiday then because Zimbabwe, regardless of what the west tells you, is a beautiful country.

February 20: We are late as we leave the hotel at 11.15 a.m. for a flight at 1.20 p.m. At 11.55 a.m. we are inside the terminal, all formalities over. Our flight from Harare to Johannesburg is delayed because of bad weather in the South African capital. On landing we just walk into a chaotic airport. The weather has played havoc with flight schedules. "Never seen anything like this,'' remarks an exasperated lady. We have to spend six hours for our flight to Durban. But the airport offers comfortable options for you to spend time. It does not hurt really, but a lady with two children catches our attention. She introduces herself — Fariyal Younis — and joins the conversation which drifts from one subject to another. She is well versed with cricket too and we soon learn she is Waqar Younis' wife. She has spent almost the entire day at the airport, waiting for a flight to Cape Town. She opts to spend the night in Johannesburg and leave the next day. She yearns for a resumption of India-Pakistan cricket ties. "I have heard so much about India. I want to experience it for myself,'' she says. Touring India as the wife of the cricket captain would indeed be memorable for her. But she will have to wait long for it to happen. Much, much longer than waiting for the flight to Cape Town.

February 21: "I envy you.'' The elderly person shakes my hand. "You live in the land of Mahatma Gandhi,'' he adds with lot of warmth. We are travelling on a train which has been put together to recreate the journey that Mahatma Gandhi undertook in 1893. That fateful night, when he was evicted from a first class compartment at Pietermaritzburg Station because he was a non-white, was a turning point in Gandhi's life. We visit the Pietermaritzburg Station with the Indian cricket team for a brief function. And then drive to the City Hall where the team assembles near a statue in Church Street. The statue had been unveiled in June 1993. The City Hall had an important association with Gandhi. It was here that he and Gopal Krishna Gokhale addressed a meeting in 1912. The train ride is one memorable experience since I get to meet the people who work on the train, keeping it in the same shape as in 1893. A tough job but hats off to these people who make no money from their labour of love. It is all voluntary. When I tell some of the cricketers, they too express a desire to meet them. Time is short but some of the men who work on the Umgeni Steam Railway manage to have a few words with a few cricketers.

February 22: Pietermaritzburg is also called the City of Choice. A huge expanse of greenery greets us as we drive from Durban. It is one stunning drive I can never forget. The town itself offers some lovely spots, and some somber ones too. We drive to this place where Nelson Mandela was arrested for making a speech. And then we are off to Hoick Falls, a wonderful resort for young couples. It is called the Lovers Falls. Well, ours is a quick visit which also takes us to what was once a huge brewery. It lies in ruins today after being destroyed in riots engineered by a government which enforced apartheid. Kids play football at the same spot now.

February 23: The Pietermaritzburg Oval is very noisy. The Indians are playing and the support to them is total. A large group of supporters have been flown in from India by one of the sponsors but sadly they show utter lack of decency. Their awful behaviour creates a bad impression. I think they ought to have been briefed on how to behave at cricket grounds before being put on the plane to Durban. The best thing is to ignore them and get on with the game where India dominates, much to the delight of the local population. I feel like being in India, what with a lunch of curry-rice being a welcome change from the cold and bland sandwich.

As I leave the ground, the litter thrown outside the bins by the supporters from India shows us all in poor light.