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My trip to Zimbabwe started ominously. Air Zimbabwe was grounded the day before my scheduled flight because of a pilots' strike. They promised to "try" to put passengers on another flight but South African Airways only had seven seats available on their Harare-bound plane. I had no choice but to buy one, with blind faith that Air Zimbabwe would refund me.
Harare is a desirable destination this week, the cab driver, Bernard, informed me. "Lots of people have come for the cricket. We hope we win." Fair enough. He drove though the city centre. Much like inner Johannesburg, it was a ghost town at night. He pointed out a few general shops. "You can get everything in there," he said. "Before, there was nothing, not even bread. If any shop had bread, people would queue for a long time and by the time you get to the front, the price has gone up."
That was an old joke, I'd heard it, but I could tell by the seriousness of his voice that he was not trying to be funny. "Our money [Zimbabwe dollars] was so worthless, if someone had a wheelbarrow filled with money, a thief would steal it, throw all the money out and keep the wheelbarrow." Surely that one was a joke. He waited for me to laugh, then he joined in.
So things had improved, according to Bernard. There was enough fuel, power-cuts were less frequent and although it was still expensive to get an internet connection (US$35 for 350MB), they are readily available while mobile phones services are cheap. I have yet to see if they are effective because when I tried to make my first call, to Zimbabwe Cricket's media manager, the hotel operator called me back after 10 minutes saying he was trying to get through. He still is.
The morning's light had really kissed the sky when we were out for a morning run. The quietest route is past the hotel, right onto the morning road and left into a long street that goes past Harare Sports Club on one side and president Robert Mugabe's house on the other. On the corner was a camo-clad army guard, an automatic rifle in his hand. I was told not to look at him and to make sure to run on the other side of the road. Glances at Mugabe's house are also not a good idea, although there is little to see besides a 200-metre long brick wall and an identical guard on the other corner.
The road is a typical country pass, which winds past the Royal Harare Golf Course, from where an antelope observed me and the Botanical Gardens. A few school children were the only other people on the road. It was bliss, a flat running route, golden sunshine gently warming the wintry air. On the way back, I noticed a yellow sign outside the Sports Club, advertising Thursday's match. "Return to Test cricket," it said, with ticket prices ranging from US$3 - 5.
"We expect a good crowd on the weekends," said a waitress at the Maiden pub, situated right behind the bowler's arm. The pub overlooks the field, which is pristine green despite the season. It is made of kikuyu grass, resilient enough for the Bangladesh team to play football on. What a beautiful place to play cricket. Come Thursday, it should also be a beautiful place to watch it.
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