Adding some weight to our bags…

Leaving Zimbabwe we had two choices to get to Malawi: north through Zambia with bad roads and a $50 visa fee or east through Mozambique with slightly better roads, a shorter distance, and a $30 visa fee. We opted for the cheaper, faster, easier route and headed to Harare for one last hurrah in Zimbabwe.

Coming from a great couch-surf in Bulawayo we opted to try for a second with Harare. We had some time to spare before meeting our host nd enjoyed a quick taste of the posh life at the fancy hotel (the bus’ drop-off point) before hailing a cab to head into town. Our taxi-driver, Forbes, took us not only to our final destination, but also to a safe and working ATM, the first we’d seen in the country, where we could take out dollars. Knowing we’d be there for a few days he also gave us his cell phone number for later…the first taxi-driver on this entire trip to do that….smart man!

With our bus ticket to Malawi in hand we had only a couple of things we wanted to do in Harare: get a couple of visas…which we did for lots of money, buy more Zim dollars, and check out some more of the handicrafts. We went to a small craft market and within a few minutes of me asking for Zim dollars did a man come up to me with a fist full of $50 billion notes. We’d learned that a wad of ten of these had an unofficial street value of 50 cents and were used for change and for payment on the city’s minibuses, since smaller currency was hard to come by. We purchased 6 wads for $5. Then more and more appeared and soon I’d acquired quite a collection for an additional ten dollars, making sure to buy all of them up in front of me so as not to offend any salesmen.

Next came the sculpture. Zimbabweans are known for their carving abilities, both wood and stone, and we were in a stone market. We wanted to buy everything there as it was just insanely beautiful and cheap but the fact that it was solid stone made doing so very difficult. We’d already purchased a few smaller pieces on our trip to Great Zimbabwe but wanted bigger and pretty soon we’d purchased two large pieces, just short enough to fit in our backpacks, for $15 and $20 respectively. Combined they weighed about 20 lbs but we managed, feeling stupid only when we’d realized our fancy chicken lunch cost $15 as well. Normally we don’t write about our purchases but we feel safe in sharing with our readers the HUGE VALUE of stone art here in case anyone is interested in taking a trip sometime soon.

When we entered Zimbabwe we didn’t know what to expect. Leaving though, we know certainly that we will miss it. We had a great time here and very unique experiences. We did manage to get those souvenirs to help us remember it but it somehow doesn’t seem like enough. Our final night we accompanied our CS host to a music show to see, perhaps we’ll manage to catch them and say hello on their next tour into the USA.

Great Zimbabwe: House of Big Rocks…

One of the things we most wanted to do while in Zimbabwe was go to Great Zimbabwe National Monument. The site was home to a great medieval city serving as a link between the Swahili traders in East Africa to the Bantu speaking peoples of Southern Africa. This city is proof of civilization in Africa long before the colonists arrived.

Formerly known as Rhodesia, one might wonder where the name Zimbabwe came from (or the name Rhodesia for that matter!). Zimbabwe actually means house of the large stones. Scattered across Zimbabwe are the ruins from a great Shona kingdom that ruled the area in the middle ages, but most of these ruins are small scale. All of course, but one- the Great Zimbabwe.

Hundreds of years afters the last Shona King stood on his hilltop at Great Zimbabwe, we sprinted up the hillside after our guide, trying breathlessly to keep up. Announcing it was only her second day on the job, she launched into a well rehearsed speech about the site from the King’s former dwelling overlooking the valley. As we moved along the ridge we could see the stone ruins below, barely describable except for the great enclosure and its towers. Home to the King and his 200 wives, Great Zimbabwe was a ritual and royal center for the Shona kingdom. Huge mortarless walls surround the King’s complex and that of the great enclosure (where the first wife likely lived). Constructed in the twelfth century, they are the second oldest ruins in southern Africa and the first we’ve come across in a long while. Structurally not unlike the walls of the great Inca civilization in Peru, the walls are thicker on the bottom and gradually narrow at the top. Unlike the Incan ruins however, the stones used are of normal size and are not tightly interlocked.

Touring the site with a native Zimbabwean, a local expat and another tourist, we were delighted to discover Great Zimbabwe is the archaeological home of the Zimbabwe Fish Eagle- seen on the flag and [now worthless] money of Zimbabwe. The famous bird is actually one of seven found in a ritual space atop the King’s hill, all of which have been recovered and brought back to Zimbabwe. When the King moved the center of his Kingdom further north he abandoned the site, which was left in the care of the local tribal chief.

Interestingly enough the sites caretakers are of the Mugabe tribe, which when asked our guide admitted was not the tribe of the current national leader Robert Mugabe. When the independence movement looked toward the monument for the name of the new country, Mugabe’s political party also looked to the monument for a symbol for the party. They chose the phallic stone tower overshadowing the woman’s compound which was used historically to remind the king’s 200 wives who was in charge…seriously.

Perhaps Mugabe is borrowing the symbolism or perhaps compensating for something else, but whatever the case we all had a laugh. What struck me the most about this site was that I had never heard of it before landing in Africa. Never, ever in my entire life. Traveling Africa has torn open huge holes in my education, and only as we move from country to country on this continent do I realize how little African history and politics I know. Sure we touch on it in high school, but not in any in depth way, so it was really interesting to see these medieval ruins, built along the same time as some of the sites in Peru, and compare the civilizations. For sure the ruins in Peru are more famous, more visited and more photographed, but in Zimbabwe, like Peru, the ruins represent a strong link to their past.

Victoria Falls…sort of

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 souvenirsIMGP4095Becoming 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 IMGP4090the 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. IMGP4104Although 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.

On our way to Zimbabwe!

All I knew about Zimbabwe before we arrived in Africa was that it was the country of the evil Mugabe. Shortly after starting the trip we met two travelers who had actually been there who told us when they left the government was unveiling the $750,000 note. We’d eventually heard the country had dollarized and was “more or less” safe but that still didn’t stop the majority of people from asking “why would you go there, you’ll be killed for your shirt!”

The concept of hyperinflation is interesting enough. When our friends traveled through, it was phase one of the hyper-inflated currency…a few months later the government knocked 12 zeros off the money and then started all over again before topping out at $100 trillion notes less than a year later. It was only when a new note came out that people understood the value of money…for that new note was generally the value of a loaf of bread.

Throughout South Africa, Zimbabwe is generally considered to be a nuisance. The very first border we crossed on this trip, between San Diego, USA and Tijuana, Mexico, was and is the busiest in the world. The crossing from South Africa to Zim, number two, as jobs and supplies push Zimbabweans toward South Africa in much the same way. You can tell from this picture, which was taken inside the ladies room on the South African side of the border, what people think of Zimbabwe’s Dollars!

Those same travelers who first told us of the hyperinflation of Zimbabwe back when we were in Guatemala had their own wonderful story of the country as well.

Although most people warned us away from this country, those who had been all told us the same thing; that it is stable, interesting, and filled with wonderful people. It is rare to hear comments regarding a “people” so often and so given that the best information we had suggested that it was safe…we decided to enter. Besides, there was no way I was coming all this way and NOT going home with $100 trillion to my name!

Foodie Friday: sweets for money

A long time ago when we first heard about traveling in Zimbabwe we heard of travelers bringing staples like sugar and rice into the country with them, to be used for barter. With the country going through hyperinflation, unable to trade for much in the way of anything, this was more valuable at the time than money. Before going to Zimbabwe we asked around a bit and were assured that markets were generally stocked and that things had stabilized but that didn’t mean that the barter economy hasn’t evaporated entirely either.

IMGP3300Zimbabwe is now the third country we’ve visited using the US Dollar rather than its own currency. Unlike the other two, Panama and Ecuador, Zimbabwe is far away from a steady supply of USD. Panama and Ecuador didn’t go through the same kind of hyperinflation Zimbabwe did and so it was simple for them to continue minting coins, called Balbao and Sucres, that were equal in value and size to US dollars and cents and used interchangeably. As Zimbabwe stopped minting valueless coins in the early stages of hyperinflation, a few years ago, they aren’t prepared to mint again and aren’t able to get real US coinage leaving the country constantly struggling for change. South African Rand has largely filled this void with one rand, a coin, accepted as 8-10 US cents.

But this is a post about food and although the money is the interesting part its not the whole story. Bring on the barter you could say, even in the supermarket. When in Victoria Falls our bill came to $4.14 cents at the supermarket. The cash drawer was empty and I only had a $10. I found a couple of rand in my pocket to cover the $0.14 as they found change for the rest of my big bill, but as I’d more than covered the $0.14 a couple of lollipops were thrust into my hand as change for my change. Although we’ve seen this in other places it had never really reached such an institutionalized level.

It didn’t end there though. Every time we went to any type of market, be it searching for Zim dollars or trying to buy some curio handicraft, we were asked what we could trade. This was new to us. All through the America’s when we balked at prices, those prices came down. Occasionally we had something that we offered to lower a price but it wasn’t common. Here in Zimbabwe though, it was expected and we were ill-prepared. So, if you’re headed to Zimbabwe in the relatively recent future make sure you come prepared with “change”: used clothes or other food to barter.