The Beitbridge border between South Africa and Zimbabwe is one of the busiest in the world. Due to the huge influx of refugees from Zimbabwe, the South African government has set up, with the help of several multi-national aid organizations, a refugee camp near the border. Waiting for the rest of our bus to be processed by South African immigration, I headed to the ladies room. Opening the stall door I couldn’t believe my eyes at seeing this sign. Disbelieve turned into horror when I contemplated how dire the economic situation must have been for people to use zimbabwean currency as toilet paper.
It was hot and humid as we stepped off the bus in Victoria Falls, but that didn’t stop the hawkers from approaching us. Waving thousands, millions, billions and trillions of dollars in our faces, these guys would stop at nothing to make us rich. Finally we relented and for 4 USD we became trillionaires…in a currency that isn’t legal anymore.
While the effects of hyper inflation will be felt in Zimbabwe for years to come, entrepreneurs around the country are cashing in on their worthless paper currency. Printed by the reserve bank in denominations up to 100 trillion Zimbabwe dollars, we as well as many other tourists, were happy to snap up a few bills as souvenirsBecoming a trillionaire was easier than playing the lotto, and every time we stepped out of our hostel we were besought by hawkers trying to make us rich. We were followed, tracked and stalked through town by men trying to make an actual USD or two.. Asking about coins, Danny arranged to meet a young man the next morning at 6am. Sure enough the teen “organized” some old Zimbabwe coins for Danny and stood outside waiting for us at 6 a.m.
Having secured our fortune, we made our way to the falls, which unfortunately were completely covered in their own mist. From what we could see they were beautiful, but unable to whitewater kayak the Zambezi we saw the falls and decided to move on. Waiting at the combi rank for the mini-bus to fill up for the return trip to Bulawayo, the driver yelled at us to get in quickly. As he sped away into the woods, away from the main road, alarms went off in my head. We’re getting away from the police he said, which didn’t exactly quell my fears. Crashing through the bush along what can only be described as a dirt bicycle path the combi popped out into a clearing in front of some small huts. “The police are bad, they just want money,” the driver said. “They want my license, my registration, my passenger list, my defense card,” he continued listing four or five other government forms before turning onto a real street. Breathing a sigh of relief, we made our way back to the combi rank and quickly filled with passengers. Everyone it seemed was interested in the foreigners on the combi, especially when they found out we were American. “Obama!” people said to us, a phrase which we hear almost every time we tell people where we are from. “American, you buy me an 18 wheel truck,” one overweight guy wearing a Durban Sharks jersey told us. “I will pay for two weeks in Victoria Falls if you give me a truck,” he offered with a hopeful smile and a belly full of laughter. “Sure,” we said. “When we win the lottery.” He laughed shook our hand and walked towards a crowd of women yelling “Bulwayo, Wange, Bulwayo.”
It’s always good rtravel karma to share food with people on the bus or combi, especially with the driver or his helper. Passing around a loaf of cinnamon bread, we chatted with the driver about his family, the hyper inflation and “life on the road.” Swearing under his breath, the driver pulled the combi over just as we sputtered to a stop. Watching the driver and the helper tinker with the engine, it was clear neither had much car repair experience. Although I didn’t understand what they said in their native language, the body language said it all. “Hmm…yea looks like the engine is stopped,” said one. “Yup, yup, definitely stopped,” said the other. “Maybe if I pull out this wire….” well you see how it went. From the back of the combi climbed a man in dress pants and a button down shirt who claimed to have mechanical experience. Offering up our swiss army knife, which is used more to open bottles than to repair anything, Danny supervised the car repairs from the drivers seat and before we knew it we were back on our way. At least for the moment.
A few kilometers outside Bulwayo we were stopped for probably our 5th or 6th police checkpoint. Immediately we knew we were in for problems. “No front plate,” he said. “Show me your wipers, show me your lights, show me your blinkers,” he barked at the driver. “How many passengers?” his interrogation continued. “No front plate. No front plate.” A lady in the back of the combi leaned out and yelled at him. What she said I don’t know, but she had that angry “you are messing with the wrong woman” sassiness about her. Head moving side to side and finger pointing, she continued to argue with the officer. “What did you say? You are obstructing police work. Out of the vehicle,” the cop said. Climbing out of the car in an angry rage, the woman continued to argue with the officer. “What is she saying?” I asked the person behind me. “She’s accusing him of looking for a bribe,” said someone from the back. Across Africa we’ve been warned of police officers looking for bribes at these “checkpoints”, so his answer didn’t surprise me in the least. Settling in to wait for the confrontation to be resolved I cracked open a peanut and passed the bag to Danny. Offering peanuts to the rest of the combi, Danny turned around with the bag. “I never say no to US-Aid,” shouted one guy, laughing as he reached for the nuts. The entire combi broke out in laughter, everyone chuckling as they cracked open their nuts. US-AID handed out, and justice handed down to the woman (in an unfortunate sentence of 20USD and 3 hours in a holding cell) we continued on to Bulawayo.
In the span of 24 hours we became trillionaires, viewed Victoria Falls, evaded the police, got some decent use out of our swiss army knife, and handed out U.S. Food aid. Thats what I call a successful 24 hours on the road.