Zimbabwe’s last resort- an interview with bestselling author Douglas Rogers

After a decade of political unrest, seizures of white-owned farms and record hyperinflation that forced the government to print 100 billion dollar banknotes, Zimbabwe is finally starting to inch back onto the tourism radar, thanks to a power sharing agreement and a move to use U.S. dollars as the de-facto currency of the country.

But Zimbabwe’s long-dormant tourism sector has also received a small boost from the popularity of The Last Resort, Zimbabwe native Douglas Rogers‘ bestselling account of life at Drifters, his parents’ backpacker lodge turned brothel near Mutare, in eastern Zimbabwe. The book won the British Travel Writers’ Guild Book of the year in 2010 and BBC recently bought the film rights. Gadling caught up with Rogers near his new home in Loudoun County, Virginia last week.

People loved this book so much that some decided to visit your parents’ lodge in Zimbabwe?

The book came out at the end of 2009 and within a few months, people started turning up. The first visitor was the Swedish Ambassador. He hugged my mother and said he felt like he knew her. Now they keep coming, at least a few hundred so far. They bring books and want the staff to sign them.

This is very personal memoir where you talk about how your parents’ lodge sort of morphed into a brothel and explain how your parents tried to grow marijuana in the yard as the tourists disappeared. Were you nervous about how your family or the staff at the lodge would perceive the book?

I was more nervous about the politics of it. That there would be negative repercussions for my family there, but so far there haven’t been.

Has Mugabe’s regime banned the book?

No, it’s available in Harare but there are so few bookshops left it’s hard to find. I wanted to change the names of people I wrote about in the book, but the staff at my parents’ lodge were dead set against that. The 2008 election violence was terrifying and, at that point, the book was about to come out. But they wanted their named in the book- they’re very proud and brave.

So many other white owned farms in Zimbabwe have been seized, and your parents had some close calls which you describe in the book, but how is it that they’ve been allowed to keep their property and the lodge?

Legally, they aren’t supposed to lose the place, because it isn’t an agricultural farm. But that doesn’t really matter anymore; people can lose their land for any reason. Officially though, the government owns their property and someone could show up and take it at any time.

When did the backpacking scene at Drifters hit its peak?

It was going strong in the 90’s and really peaked just months before the land invasions started in February 2000. We had lots of South Africans, overland travelers, Americans, backpackers and gap-year students from the U.K. and around Europe.

And then tourism dried up, but it started again after your book came out?

Yes, my parents were quite amazed when visitors started showing up again. During the land seizures, they rented the backpacker lodge out to guys who turned it into a brothel, so they haven’t been managing it on a day to day basis for awhile.

What does it cost to stay there?

It’s very cheap. I think it’s $10 per night. It’s not high-end accommodation, so a lot of people just come to see the place and don’t stay the night. They have a Last Resort guestbook which people like to sign, have a beer and a look around.

You led a small group of travelers on a trip to Zimbabwe last year?

I partnered with a safari company called Aardvaark, and we advertised the trip. we brought a small group of four American travelers to see the place last May. We had interest from a few dozen people but we ended up with just four Americans and we went in May 2011. They were really adventurous. Two friends, one from Kansas and another from San Francisco, who went to college together and a couple from Annapolis, Maryland.

Where did you take them?

It was a two week trip. They had one week in Harare and eastern Zimbabwe where the book is set. And then they did a safari and toured Victoria Falls. Drifters is somewhat run down, so they had an option to stay there or at another place a half hour away. There was no power or electricity when I showed them around, so they ended up at the other hotel. But that ended up being worse I think. Still, it was authentic!

Is Zimbabwe a good place to visit right now?

You can have a great safari in Zimbabwe. And in the Victoria Falls and Kariba areas there are some sophisticated, very nice places. In the last few years, the tourist trade has picked up- new places are being built. You have investors who are anticipating that when the politics in Zimbabwe changes, it’ll take off and they want to be on the ground floor.

2011 was a bad year for dictators, but Mugabe survived.

Right and a lot of them were old comrades of Mugabe. Gaddafi. The Dear Leader in Korea. When I was in high school, we used to get state visits from Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, Ceausescu, Kim Il Sung. Those were the kinds of people who visited Zimbabwe.

So once Mugabe (who is 87) departs the scene, tourism is likely to pick back up in Zimbabwe?

If there’s a stable transition and someone worse doesn’t take his place. Tourism has already picked up in the last year or two. If you watched news reports, you’d think Zimbabwe was Mogadishu or the Congo, but it’s not like that. It’s safe unless you’re involved in opposition politics or you’re a white farmer on a list. It’s completely safe in terms of day-to-day security. The economy has improved; you can buy what you need. The dollar is the currency used. Parts of Harare look like a first world city.

Your parents are part of a very small community of whites there that never left. Is there a movement of whites moving back to Zimbabwe?

I know people who have moved back. I have a cousin who lived in London and has now decided to move back because it’s an easier way of life than in Europe and much healthier for her young kids. Amazing, but true. The weather is good, the schools in Harare are great.

What other areas of the country do you recommend to travelers?

I’d love for people to see eastern Zimbabwe, but that might be more for people who have already spent time in the country before. Northern Zimbabwe where the Zambezi River splits Zimbabwe and Zambia, there’s an area called Mana Pools which is quite beautiful. A lot of safari operators in Zimbabwe are telling people to come now, because it’s cheaper and you can still see all the animals you’d see in other parts of Africa. Hwange reserve is the main game reserve. Kariba is another great place. It’s where Nick Price the golf pro would take Greg Norman on his houseboat. If you live in Zimbabwe, that’s where you go.

Are there still marijuana plants and prostitutes at Drifters these days?

My mother made my father dig up his weed. It’s against the law and she thought they’d be caught. It might have been profitable but she was paranoid, and didn’t want to draw any extra attention. When I returned home and saw that the place had turned into a brothel and my parents had all these refugees (who’d been kicked off their farms) living there, I knew I had to write a book about it.

Was it an actual brothel?

It was an informal knock shop. A place where men would bring prostitutes or a mistress or second or third wife. It’s pretty secluded so it’s perfect for that.

So who frequents the Drifters bar these days?

The occasional hooker, I suspect, but mostly passing salesman, adventurous backpackers, and the new class of foreigner who lives in Zimbabwe: missionaries, aid workers and diplomats.

Zimbabwe is still a really troubled country but it sounds like the people are resilient and ready to welcome visitors again?

You wouldn’t expect it but people are going on holiday to Zimbabwe now. You hear the stories of the people who run small hotels and lodges staying open all these years. Some of them without seeing a single guest for six months. They didn’t have electricity and had to use gas cookers and when the gas went out, they had to cook with wood fires to make meals for their guests. They’d make trips to Botswana and South Africa to find food to feed their guests and smuggle it back in so as not to lose it all at customs. Now, having come through that, these guys are starting to see some business again. They deserve it.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, M.K. Boersema via Flickr, and Douglas Rogers.

A real life ‘Hostel’ situation: Iraqi man found dead at Birmingham hostel identified

An Iraqi man who was found dead in his Birmingham hostel room earlier this week has been identified by police, BBC reports.

The man has been identified as Bakhitar Ahmad Kheder Mirawdali, 40. He was was found by a member of staff at the hostel in Soho Road, Handsworth on February 2 and is believed to have died of a wound to the neck.

BBC is reporting that Mirawdali had been granted political asylum and had been living in the UK for a number of years, but was planning to return to Iraq to get married.

West Midlands Police believe his body had lain undiscovered for two days before being found on Thursday.

A man has currently been arrested in relation to the case, but police are still urging anyone with information to come forward.

Let’s just say we won’t be visiting this hostel anytime soon.

Tips for choosing the right hostel

Hostels are well-known for being budget-friendly and filled with backpackers. However, not all hostels are created equal, and choosing the wrong one could put a damper on your trip. Before booking, read this list of tips to help you decide which hostel is your perfect fit.

Create an itinerary

In the city you’re visiting, what are the must-see attractions on your to-do list? Are there any sites or regions that you’ll be going to more than once? Once you have this narrowed down, pull out a map or do a Google search and see which neighborhood(s) you will be spending the most time in. If you want convenience, choose a hostel that will allow you to walk to the places you will be spending the most time in. Now if this area happens to be a major city, you will probably end up paying extra. If you’re more interested in saving money, choose a property in a smaller neighborhood and make sure that there is a metro or bus within walking distance of the hostel that will give you easy access to where you need to go.Know your personality

Like people, hostels also have personalities. Are you a party animal who likes to stay up all night? Look for a property with a bar or club on premises and no curfew. Do you like to meet new people or would you prefer a lot of alone time? Hostels with common areas like game rooms and kitchens tend to be more social in nature than those without. Are you a flashpacker who carries a lot of electronics? Making sure your hostel has security and lockers is a must. Before booking, just make sure to search through the amenities of a hostel to choose the one that offers the features that will make your trip better.

How much are you willing to spend?

Budget is a big factor in what accommodation you will choose. With hostels, there are a few ways to cut costs. As mentioned previously, if you’re willing to stay outside of the major cities and use public transportation regularly you can save quite a bit on your room. Choosing the dorm with the most beds is also cheaper than taking the room with more privacy. Moreover, certain amenities may be free at one hostel but cost money at another. For example, a hostel that includes breakfast can be worth looking into if you’re the type who likes to start their day off with a meal. Checking to see if things like linens, towels, lockers, airport/train pickup, tours, hot showers, and baggage storage are included can also be helpful if you plan on using these services. Bonus: If your hostel has a kitchen, you can save money by cooking meals instead of eating out.

Get a second opinion

Of course, if you’re reading the hostel’s website it is going to look like a luxury resort, with pristine rooms and a friendly staff. This is not always the truth, however, and before booking it is important to do your homework. There is a wealth of resources on the internet to help you get answers. You can try perusing the well-known hostel booking sites that have been around for awhile, like HostelBookers and Hostelworld, that will give you property descriptions and traveler reviews. Newer booking sites, like inBed.me and GoMio, incorporate a social aspect to the booking process by allowing you to connect and interact with other travelers who have been to certain places or will be there in the future. Websites like Ajungo, which is basically a social network for travelers, can allow you to ask other people similar to you what their experiences were at certain hostels and see photos. You can also check out the site’s “Places” feature that allows you to see hostel recommendations made by people in your network.

Safety first

Before booking a hostel, make sure that you are keeping your safety a priority. Get information on the crime in the neighborhood the property is in, check how close the nearest metro or bus stop is, and see what kinds of security measures the accommodation has in place. Do you need a key or code to get in the front door? Can anyone come into the hostel or only people with a room booked? Is there someone at the front desk 24 hours keeping guard? Are there lockers provided to store your valuables? Keep these questions in mind before booking.

Video: The worst youth hostel ad you will ever see

Youth hostels. You don’t expect too much from them except a bunk, a breakfast, and a budget-friendly rate. A hostel in Sydney, however, is betting it has every amenity that a backpacker could want and has mashed them together in this god-awful video.

From the 2001: A Space Odyssey intro to the autotune at the end, the video for 790 on George has managed to make what seems to be a perfectly nice hostel in downtown Sydney into a hellhole full of explosions and honking horns. Then there’s the Michael Cera look-alike giving the thumbs-up at every turn.

The whole production is a train wreck and is enough to scare away this traveler. But I’m sure there will be a small segment of backpackers that will want to stay at 790 on George for the ironic value. Let’s hope that an uptick in guests will enable the hostel to increase its advertising budget next time around.

In Transit TV on the hostel’s demographic

Every budget traveler has been there before, the tired, dusty hostel, the new group of road weary travelers and the parallels, the parallels the parallels. Suffering from the shockingly high hotel prices in Moscow years back, Gadling Labs ended up at a hostel that just wasn’t stirring our kettle. No surprise, a tenacious young Australian wooing Japanese girls with his guitar, a few drunken Western Europeans, a crowded computer terminal and two tired Americans dodging mosquitoes and shots of vodka.

Some good gentle teasing of the hostel clientele is summed up pretty well in In Transit TV‘s dispatch from last year. While it’s mostly in jest — which only makes it more endearing — it’s an interesting narrative on hostel culture and a clip well worth the click. Take a look below.