Jonathan van Bilsen's, PhotosNtravel

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Zimbabwe: how much is too much?

REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM FOCUS MAGAZINE – April, 2010
Listen to “Zimbabwe: how much is too much” on Spreaker.

Hippos play in the Zambezi river, constantly aware of human intervention

Hippos play in the Zambezi River, constantly aware of human intervention

One of Africa’s largest rivers, the Zambezi, separates the two countries of Zambia and Zimbabwe. I had the good fortune of cruising along this great waterway during a recent visit to central Africa. The sun was setting and the water was calm. Golden bronze rays danced and sparkled and hippos swam nearby, staring at the intruders. I had no idea how big these beasts were until I saw their heads, with open mouths rise from beneath the water.

The captain of the boat explained they were the meanest animals in Africa. Although vegetarian, they will try to capsize a boat and playfully toss the occupants back and forth in the water. The skipper expertly navigated around the massive beasts while his small son, fascinated by my camera, continued to stare at me.

A few minutes later, a herd of elephants made its way into the water and slowly disappeared to the bottom of the river. Upon a closer look, I realized their trunks pointed high above their heads and poked several centimetres beyond the ripples of the water. Half a dozen or so snouts moved slowly along, until they reached the opposite side where the large mammals crawled onto the shore. The smaller elephants tend to swim, but larger ones prefer to walk along the bottom.

I arrived in Zimbabwe and stayed at the colonial Victoria Falls Hotel. Upon check-in, I asked to convert US cash

The Captain's son was more intrigued by my camera than the beautiful Zambezi River around him

The Captain’s son was more intrigued by my camera than the beautiful Zambezi River around him

into local currency. A sign in the hotel showed a rate of one US dollar to 800 Zimbabwe dollars (Zim dollars), an amount, which certainly seemed good to me. The man behind the counter cautioned me not to exchange at this time and explained he would call me in my room in a few minutes.

Quite confused I had no sooner entered the hotel room when my phone rang. The clerk from the front desk explained the hotel rate was not accurate and that his brother, who was in the banking business, was able to offer a rate of 3,000 Zim dollars to one US$. I was amazed, but cautious and told him I wanted to wait.

I met with my local guide to go over my itinerary and casually asked her about currency exchange and what would be the best way to tackle the issue. She looked around and quietly told me to meet her at her office in half an hour.

I strolled along the street, where locals were desperate to trade wooden ornaments for my running shoes and was glad when I arrived at the tour office, located in a nearby hotel. I saw my friend and walked to her desk.

“Our exchange rate is currently at 3,500 Zim Dollars. How much did you want to exchange?” she asked.

I hesitated and attempted to mentally calculate how much I would need. “500 US dollars,” I replied hesitantly. She started to laugh and explained that, as I was only going to be there for a week, 100 dollars would be more than enough.

I handed her the US currency, which she quickly passed to a young boy who scurried off, surely never to be seen again. I watched as the events unfolded. The tour guide suggested I enjoy a nice lunch in the hotel restaurant next door and drop back in 30 minutes to collect my money.

Nervously I ordered a pizza, a beer and ice cream and constantly glanced at my watch. I felt as if I was in the middle of an international clandestine operation, which was about to erupt any minute. A thought occurred to me; What if I was the victim of a scam, how was I going to pay for my lunch?

Elephants make their way across the Zambezi River in organized fashion

Elephants make their way across the Zambezi River in organized fashion

Thirty minutes had passed and I decided to return to the tour desk. The woman smiled and handed me a plastic shopping bag. It suddenly occurred to me that I was holding $350,000 Zim dollars in $5,000 notes. In other words a whole lotta cash!

Not wanting to appear obvious, I took my paper bag behind a wall and pulled out a stack of currency. Glancing over my shoulder, I was careful to remain hidden and was in shock when I looked at the bills. They had the appearance of being recent photocopies and each one was labelled with an expiry date. I have travelled extensively, but have never encountered currency, which expires. I returned to the restaurant and nervously laid a small amount of the new cash on top of the bill.

The waiter smiled and promptly returned with change. I breathed a sigh of relief and happily made my way back to my hotel. I did the math and realized I had just had a wonderful lunch for less than three dollars.

En route back to my hotel I dealt with the townsfolk and purchased wooden carved animals, salad bowls and a magnificently carved walking stick all for less than five dollars. I tipped heavily as I felt obligated to share my newfound wealth. The cost of living in Zimbabwe was very low and toward the end of the week, I was still in possession of a fair amount of cash.

I tipped the waiters the equivalent of a month’s wages and gave my security guard a sizeable donation. You cannot convert Zim dollars back into US cash so my choice was to give it away or leave it behind.

What had first appeared as a swindle turned out to be one of the best investments I had ever made. I was able to help hundreds of needy people instead of feeding the Mugabe regime, and although I have no plans to return to Zimbabwe in the near future, I would recommend the Victoria Falls area to anyone with a taste for adventure on an extremely low budget.

© Jonathan van Bilsen, 2015

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