24: Sunset on the Zambezi
Sunset on the Zambezi.
The ad was enticing. Take a sunset booze cruise down the majestic Zambezi river. Three hours of non-stop booze, snacks and a chance to meet some new people. The boat in the ad was a wooden double-decker. It looked great.
But like everything else in Africa, appearances, or in this case ads, aren’t always what they seem. A group of us who met at the hostel decided to take the cruise together. Our little band consisted of Raylene, Jason, a British couple and three British army officers we’d met earlier in Harare. These blokes were on a six-week holiday, having just returned from Sarajevo. Since part of their holiday included drinking as much as possible, a sunset booze cruise seemed to fit perfectly into their plans.
Well, our double-decker boat and unlimited booze and snacks turned out to be a flat-bottomed boat that sat 10 on folding chairs, and the snacks and booze were potato chips and two coolers of beer and wine. The guys didn’t seem fazed about anything but the booze. After arguing that two coolers would not sustain them for three hours, they finally got the guide to radio in for another cooler of beer.
After cruising around awhile waiting for the sun to set, our officers decided to see if they could get the bow of the boat to dip under the water… by jumping up and down on the prow.
Jason was not pleased. As I knew from our white water adventure, he’s extremely afraid of crocs… as I would be too if I lived in a country infested with them.
“Hey, hey guys, that’s not a good idea, the boat could sink,” Jason warned as he edged his way from the middle of the scow towards the stern. “That water’s full of crocs and my daddy taught me to respect crocs.”
“I don’t see any crocs,” commented one of the British blokes as he peered over the side.
“Just ’cause you don’t see ‘em, doesn’t mean they’re not there, tell ‘em,” Jason implored the pilot, “tell ‘em how many crocs are down there.”
“Oh, hundreds,” replied the pilot nonchalantly.
“See, see?, my daddy told me to respect crocs… now, if this boat sinks, we’ll have to swim to shore and that means the crocs are going to get some of us and IT ISN’T GOING TO BE ME.”
Luckily for us, they soon lost interest in their game and returned to the work at hand: finishing all the beer.
Oh yeah, and the sunset was really spectacular.
Now that’s Ria’s sort of exchange rate.
A Little on the Black Market
From what locals told me, President Mugabe was sucking the country dry (I’m not trying to be political here), and with the upcoming election (which has happened already with, surprise, surprise, Mugabe winning again despite UN vote watchers there) there was fear of a civil war helping lead to outrageous inflation and a total devaluing of the Zim dollar.
So in tourist locales, such as Vic Falls, there was a brisk trade being done in black market money as people were desperately trying to get cash out of the country. You couldn’t walk down the street without someone asking you if you wanted to trade dollars or pounds. Many businesses – the hostel I stayed at, the sporting companies, safari tours – were now doing business only in US dollars (which surprised me since the pound is an even stronger currency). But others were still accepting Zim dollars and when you worked the black market exchange rate out, it was always a much better deal than paying in US dollars. The rates fluctuated daily and with how much you wanted to exchange. I’d heard of exchange rates from 200-300; my personal best day was trading $100US at a rate of 265:1.
If you run out of US$, you can’t get it in a Zimbabwe bank ’cause it’ll be at the official exchange rate, meaning you’ll end up with a lot less cash. You need to get money in a country with a stable economy, such as Botswana, to make the unofficial exchange in Zimbabwe worth it. How worth it was it? Well, a pasta dinner and a soda at a restaurant similar to any major American chain cost 300 Zim – at the black market rate that day, dinner cost me $1.50 US instead of 5 times that. White water rafting cost me $45US for a day by paying in Zim dollars rather than the $85 US they’d requested. At one place, if I’d paid for white water rafting on my credit card at the official exchange rate, it would have cost me $250!
Now I’m not advocating contributing to this situation, but if you should choose to participate (assuming it’s still happening) here’s a few tips:
- Ask others what exchange rate they’ve gotten
- Go where other people have gone
- Don’t allow some kid to follow you in the establishment and try to tell the “trader” that he brought you. He’ll get a commission which comes right out of your exchange rate
- Bargain – tell the “trader” that you can get a better deal somewhere else
- Count your money in front of the “trader” so you can be sure it’s all there and none of it is just paper
- Hide the money very well on your body, in various locations. With that much cash on you, you don’t want to be a walking mugging target. Don’t have obvious bulges on your body, giving away the hidden locations.
- Be nice to the local touts. After all, even though they may seem like they are pestering you, these guys are just trying to find a way to feed themselves. You’ll find most of the guys will be pretty friendly if you kid around with them.