Sep 12

Thoughts on Zimbabwe

by in Postcard Valet, Thoughts On..., Travel

When we were in South Africa, planning our route northward, we discarded Zimbabwe as an option.  Wikitravel and Lonely Planet painted a grim picture of the country, warning us of empty gas stations, food shortages, dangerous animal on the roads, and health care nightmares. (We read somewhere that the best thing you can do if you’re injured or sick is to get the hell out of Zimbabwe as fast as possible.  For all intents and purposes, they claimed, there was no health care for tourists in Zimbabwe.)  We hadn’t been in Africa long and I’m sad to say that we succumbed to our own fears.

By the time we were ready to move on from Botswana, we’d met other tourists who passed through Zimbabwe and had long conversations with our Okavango riverboat captain and first mate, both from Zimbabwe.  Everyone assured us that, yes, Zimbabwe is still recovering and has its share of problems.  On the other hand, there are many worthwhile sights to see and tourists are very welcome.

As for the food shortages and gas scarcity, I got the impression it was much like going camping in the Alaskan wilderness: Go prepared and everything will be fine.

We did go to Zimbabwe, but only for a day and just to see the other side of Victoria Falls.  Turned out to be a memorable day, however, as we ended up going on an elephant-back safari ride, too.  Obviously we didn’t get to see a whole lot of the country, but I did learn a thing or two while we were there.

Victoria Falls

For what it’s worth, I do think the view of the falls is better on the Zimbabwe side.  (Granted, due to high water levels, we were not able to go to The Devil’s Pool on the Zambian side.  That may have influenced my opinion quite a bit.)  Also, the park in Zimbabwe is better maintained with more information, better maps, and paved paths.

Money

In 2009, Zimbabwe went through a dollarization process, so now their official currenty is the U.S. dollar.  That was good news.  After spending some of our emergency dollars on a Zambian visa, we planned to take advantage of a Vic Falls ATM to replenish our stock

Before they switched to the dollar, Zimbabwe’s economy was in shambles with some incredible runaway inflation.  Before the end, they were printing notes with denominations in the trillions.

Today, on the streets, peddlers will try to sell you a stack of the now-worthless paper.  I considered buying some, if only for the novelty of having a note with the number 100,000,000,000,000,000 printed right there on it, but their starting offer of $20 USD for what amounts to colored paper put me off.

Despite having plenty of U.S. bills in the system now (some of the ones and fives were so old they were practically falling apart), Zimbabwe didn’t seem to have many coins in the till.  When we stopped at a bakery to grab some lunch, our total came out to $4.50.  Just like in Argentina, the person behind the counter asked us she could give us a couple extra biscuits in place of our change from a fiver.  I would have been disappointed, but those 25¢ buttermilk biscuits turned out to be better than the pigs-in-a-blanket we’d ordered.

Peddlers

In setting up our elephant-back safari, we walked back and forth between Vic Falls, the town, and the Victoria Falls, the park, three times.  Each time we did, the same tenacious peddlers would walk part of the way with us.  They tried to sell us trillions in worthless money, small carvings, and postcards.  Some wanted to trade me for my sandals or baseball cap.

I tried to be polite, which was a bit easier because they spoke English.  I gave them the truth: We were backpackers, on a year-long trip, and we had neither the money nor the space in our packs for souvenirs.  Didn’t matter.  They kept trying to make a sale.  One guy, seeing us as just a couple more white tourists (and not as people who he’d failed to sell something to twice already) latched onto us all three times we walked down that road.

My favorite interaction was with a guy that walked past us, moving in the opposite direction.  “I like your hat,” he said without slowing. “I’ll give you 10 billion for it!”

Migration

With all the troubles Zimbabwe has had since the 80s, it’s no wonder that a large part of the population has looked for greener pastures elsewhere.  We learned, while we were there, that Botswana struggles with the tens-of-thousands of Zimbabweans who have immigrated, legally and illegally, over the years.

When we delved a little deeper into their resentment, I realized it was exactly the same things we talk about in the U.S.  Illegal immigrants, taking low-paying jobs, have both wrecked and sustain the economy.  Many of the Zimbabweans who live in Botswana (including those working on our riverboat) send the bulk of their earnings out of the country, back to their families.  Our captain had been living this way for six years or so.

The good news is that Zimbabwe’s economy has stabilized quite a bit since the dollarization process in 2009 and our new friends were already looking for an excuse (i.e., a job) to go back home.

Education

Part of the reason out riverboat captain was sending back money was for his children to be able to attend school.  He has three kids and it costs him $100 USD per child, per term, for them to get an education.  I can’t say with 100% certainty that this was not a private school he was talking about, but I got the impression that this money was earmarked for public education.

How can a country expect to do well, long-term, if it doesn’t provide free education for its youth?

Elephants

A lot of what we learned about elephants came from our guides on the elephant-back safari.  Two nuggets of information I thought were interesting:

There are 60,000 to 65,000 elephants in Zimbabwe alone.  I guess I’d never really thought about it, but I always sort of assumed that African elephants were close to being endangered.  Guess not.

Also, the folk tale about elephants never forgetting?  Guess that’s true.  At least with respect to one practical matter:

Because the population of elephants in Zimbabwe is so large, there are times when it falls upon the government to cull some of them.  Tragic, but understandable, I suppose.

Elephants are the second-most intelligent animals in the world after man, our guide told us.  (The smartest was either a dolphin or a primate, I can’t remember which – obviously, I’m no elephant!)

One of the most important aspects of culling a herd, our guide said, was in making sure that an entire family was wiped out.  Elephants don’t forget, and any one that survives a culling of its family will remember and will develop an animosity toward humans.  Not only that, but elephants communicate with each other, he said, and a survivor can spread its hate to other herds.

I can accept the “elephants never forget” thing, but I’m not sure I believe that last part.

Wildlife

Again, we were only in Vic Falls for one day, but I was amazed at how many monkeys we saw running around.  There was a baboon on top of the immigration build at the border.  We saw a whole troop of them crossing the street in the city, just like they owned the place.  In the Victoria Falls park, there were numerous Vervet monkeys all around (and we even stumbled across a pack of wild boars digging up something right next to the path.)

Coming from Alaska, I shouldn’t be surprised to see wildlife so close to civilization, I suppose.  What impressed me, I guess, were the fearlessness of the animals and the indifference of the humans.

Do bigger animals routinely walk through towns?  Do you sometimes have to get off the sidewalk for a parade of elephants?  Do rhinos ever clog up an intersection?  What a wild place!

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Postcard Valet is a travel blog and video podcast by Arlo and Oksana Midgett. They just returned to Juneau, Alaska, after almost three full years of travel and living abroad. Many of their stories, photos, and videos have yet to be shared...

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