Sunday, June 29, 2008

Zimbabwe

I know people thought we were crazy, but did you honestly believe that we would NOT go to somewhere like Zimbabwe, even though it is having so many problems these days? Dad already mentioned Victoria Falls, and that of course was the draw. We could've gone to see the falls from Zambia but it just wouldn't do for us, Zimbabwe has the best views. It also has the cheapest visas. Zambia is now charging Americans and Brits $135 and $140 respectively for single entry visas. Zimbabwe is much more reasonable at $30 (although it is $65 for Canadians, the highest of all nationalities again, so I switched passports haha), obtainable at the border. I was a little worried with all the political problems of late because they might've been tempted to just refuse us entry. They have been kicking out foreign journalists recently. In the end, the falls were beautiful and very impressive though there is so much spray coming off them right now (the water level is so high at present, maybe 70% or so) that you can't actually see the entire falls with a clear view. I liked it anyway. We stayed just 2 days, long enough to see the falls and then run away the way we'd come.
As for the political problems these days, well, I'm sure you've heard about it on the news. Mugabe, the president is no new face or name to the world. He's been in power since 1980 and intends to die with it too I guess. Most recently (the end of March) he lost the first round of elections but refused to release the vote count or recognize the results, forcing a second election just last week (a few days after we left). This is not the first time such a thing has happened, previous elections have been heavily criticized as being unfair. Since this past march there has been escalating violence and while we were there the opposition leader actually pulled out of the election to try to stop the violence.
Actually for us it was a bit strange because Victoria Falls (the town itself) is rather small and touristic (though largely without tourists these days) so doesn't openly have the problems that you hear about in the news. We felt quite safe but watching the news in the morning over breakfast we would hear how the country was falling apart with riots and violence in the larger cities. We would never've guessed actually. There were a number of other travellers and expats living in Vic Falls and through them I learned that the locals have actually been beaten and are forced to attend what amounts to propaganda meetings in the evenings. Where we were staying in the hostel, we wouldn't've known anything was going on although there are plenty of predictions that due to their heavy support of the opposition they will ultimately be shut down. Thus far being white owned has protected them and the black staff have been on the receiving end of the police harassment.
The more interesting problem and the most relevant to short-term tourists like ourselves is the economic crisis that accompanies all this political mess. The US and many western countries have long had sanctions on Zimbabwe in retaliation for these bad elections to punish Mugabe and he has dealt with it poorly (interestingly enough, I have also heard that it is actually long-term punishment for Zimbabwe's interference in the DRC, opposing the US-sponsored Rwandan and Ugandan armies in that conflict).
Zimbabwe is currently the world's inflation disaster case with inflation rates of over 1000% for the last couple of years. Do you have any idea what this does to a country? Oh man, talk about a mess. We had a little idea from talking to people that had been there previously and also having talked to people in Serbia about their disaster in the 90's. Right now the exchange rate on the street is 7000000000 Zim dollars to $1US. That's 7 billion to 1 (actually it's probably 10 now)! The money is worthless and everyone wants foreign currency. All those $1US notes that we've been carrying for ages (nobody anywhere else in Africa other than Liberia will take them) suddenly become very valuable. That is both a good thing and a bad from our perspective. They'll take other hard currencies but if you check them all, the $1US note is the smallest value note so everything costs a minimum of that amount. Not a good deal for a postcard. On the other hand, the touts (who may actually be some of the friendliest and nicest touts I've ever seen in a really touristic area. I was very surprised.) are so desperate for money that they will drop prices down quite a bit and you can get pretty good deals on souvenirs if you bargain as usual. The shops have very little in them and are often closed or running with no power. Fuel can only be bought on the black market (we didn't need any) and although camping is cheap, food is very expensive because they have a serious shortage. The touts wanted to "sell" their goods for old clothing and repeatedly asked me for old shirts, towels, socks and especially my sandals. My sandals are literally falling apart and they still would've taken them. I've seen a lot of poverty but I think that is a first.
We paid for everything in USD but couldn't resist the temptation to become billionaires so traded a little money for some of theirs. Their bills come with expiry dates about a year after issue and when questioned about this the people just said "don't worry about that, it'll be worthless well before that day comes". The largest bill is 50 billion and they use as little as 500 million still, though it is already effectively worthless too. A quick look around and we managed to find the full series of bills all the way down to a 1 Zimbabwean dollar note. It expired 2007!
Overall I'd have to say that once again I was pleasantly surprised to find people friendly and smiling against the odds in a country with so many problems. Of course we left before anything really bad could happen to us and didn't go further into the country, mostly because of fuel issues, and after seeing the falls simply backtracked to Botswana on the same road we came in. On the way out we were stopped at 2 police checks and had a brief reminder of our time coming through central Africa. The 2nd check was only 1km from the border and the guy tried to get us to pay up on a car safety violation that only applies to trucks (I think). As usual we got away in the end without too much hassle. The border was surprisingly easy both in and out. I haven't been able to catch the news for the last week other than I know that Mugabe has automatically won the election held a few days ago. Hopefully some day soon they'll pull themselves out of these hard times.
Ammon

1 Comments:

At 2:29 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do guys realize how hard it is to watch the news knowing you are either in, just out, or heading towards the nightmares we see on the TV. I know that there is huge bias, but when BBC, CNN, CBC, and other net news stations are all saying the same thing it is not much fun. I'm suprised Mom Mccall hasn't had a heart attack reading and such. Anyways a great blog Ammon, where to now? Are you still planning on attempting South America? Or some back tracking to the Maldives? Aisia? Australia? New Zealand? Think Lord of the Rings was filmed there, and the Hobbit soon.
Anyways, as we used to say: "Keep on Truckin'"

Love and Big Bear Hugs to all
The Bear

 

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