Zimbabwe

Trip Start Jul 24, 2006
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9
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Trip End Oct 28, 2006


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Flag of Zimbabwe  ,
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

It's been a long time since our last entry, so to quickly fill you in:

It was very difficult to leave our little backpackers' paradise on the shores of Lake Malawi, with its fantastic food and beautiful setting, but we finally made it out of Nkhata Bay and on to the next destination. We took the overnight bus down to Blantyre, arrived at 6 in the morning, and hopped on the 7am bus to Harare. It was a pretty painless bus ride, and arrived more or less on time, which is always a pleasant surprise, despite 2 border crossings (once into Mozambique, and then into Zimbabwe).

There were only three other tourists on the bus with us and had met very few other travelers along the way that had gone through Zimbabwe, so we were rather surprised when we got to the guesthouse to find it full. Three others on the same street were also full, so we had to settle for a bizarre little guesthouse that smelled like cooked cabbage and had a bathtub that hadn't been washed since the 1980s. Over the next few days that we spent in Harare, we didn't see one other tourist on the street. The explanation for the full guesthouses, we were told, was that many illegal immigrants have come to Zimbabwe to make a buck during its crisis (mostly through import/export) and take up residence in the guesthouses. Also, many of those who had lost their homes in Operation "Clean Up the Trash," a government operation to raze all the shanty towns around the capital city, also have taken residence there.

For a country in crisis, Harare showed virtually no signs of it. The streets were filled with people in suits going to work, there were hardly any homeless or beggars loitering in the parks, and the city's skyscrapers were still sparkling. The only giveaway were the long lines at the banks as people waited to withdraw money...something that we had not seen anywhere else in Africa so far. In fact, people are not officially allowed to have more than 100,000 Zim dollars on them because the bank has had a terrible time with people hording money. Since the government refuses to let the currency float, the Zim dollar is way overvalued - the official exchange rate to the dollar is 250 Zim to 1 US, whereas the real rate is more like 700 Zim to 1 US. This means that no one uses the banks or the other official channels to exchange money and instead uses the black market. This, in turn, means that there is a lot of money to be made in exchanging forex...hence, people hord money, taking it in and out of the country in order to exchange it and make a buck. The end result is that when the government most recently changed the currency (the reserve bank has put an expiration date on all the notes and bills) on August 1st, more than 10 billion Zim dollars were missing. People had 21 days to turn in their old currency for the new bills (from which the government had removed three zeros in order to make the sums less enormous...before the change, one stamp would have been 900,000 Zim dollars, a large sum to carry around when the biggest note was 10,000!) The reserve bank has said that it will have to change the money again, but this time they will only allow people 24 hours to change their currency...

As I said, apart from having to exchange money on the parallel market and the occasional shortages at restaurants of various items, as a tourist you would hardly know that there was a crisis. We spent two days at a Lodge just outside of town that has an adjacent game reserve where we could walk out by ourselves among the zebra, elands, and bucks. After a bit of R&R at the lodge, my cousin Anthony came to pick us up and we spent two days with him in and around Harare, having a wonderful time exploring the city and catching up. We went horseback riding at the Mukuvisi Woodlands, where we got up close and personal with giraffes, all sorts of buck, zebra, and wildebeest. Unfortunately, the park has no more elephant or buffalo, as they had to sell many of their animals to other parks in order to survive...this private park was formerly supported by donations from farmers, but since the farming industry has collapsed, they now get by by the skin of their teeth.

In fact, many of the parks around the country have suffered from the economic crisis. Not only are their far fewer tourists, but poaching for food and firewood by surrounding villagers has increased, reducing the flora and fauna of these parks.

After having a high tea at Meikles, a last Lion beer with Anthony, and a failed attempt to make it to Lake Kariba, we left for Bulawayo.
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