How do you travel in a place where your phone doesn’t work, your ATM card doesn’t work, they use 3 different currencies and exchange rates change daily? With a lot of help from friends!
When I landed in Zimbabwe, Zim for short, I had no idea about the economic sanctions, their financial meltdown or any of the politics that shape people’s lives. Initially, it was disorienting and uncomfortable, like walking through a maze. Little by little, amazing stories of resilience, cooperation and innovation started to reveal themselves. In the absence of a reliable economic system, people get creative. They do things differently and I just need to learn the local ways. Isn’t this what travel is all about?
The first thing I noticed is unprecedented patience. It’s well known that in developing countries, there’s no rush. We take our sweet time. In Zim, they take this concept to a whole new level. Check-out at the supermarket can be a zen experience! Item missing a price tag, 10-15 minutes while we search. Customer forgot an item, no problem, go get it, we’ll just wait; customer finally returns with 4 items because they kept remembering other things. Paying by a foreign card, let’s get the machine that can process that. Highways have only 2 lanes; one per direction. Animals, wild and domestic, have right of way. Many people depend on financial support from relatives abroad. In order to get the money transferred to them, they stand in very long lines, for days! In Harare, the capital, wherever you see people lined around the block, there must be a Western Union office, or other money transfer service. They often run out of cash before they can serve everyone.
In 2008, people watched their money go “poof”! Banks went bankrupt and inflation reached an all time high that they had to abandon their currency. Now they use US$, South African Rand as well as RTGS$ (local currency called bond). Restaurants don’t even bother printing prices on menus as they change all the time. Officially 1 US$= 80 bonds, unofficially, 170 to 180. This lead to the invention of eco cash! In every shopping center, there are people hanging around saying “eco cash?” or “swipe?”. You say “what’s your rate?”. “150” (typically). They give you a bank card and say a 4 digit number. You need to remember this number because it’s the pin code for the card. You go do your shopping, pay with the card they gave you, take the card and receipt back to the person who gave it to you. They divide the receipt total by 150 and that’s what you pay them in US$. You get to pay less (US$1 for every 150 bonds instead of 1 to 80). They get US cash which they can exchange for 180 on the black market: win-win!
Many people do car boot sales. They park their car, open up the trunk and it’s their mobile shop. Everything from fruit and veggies to art to electronics are bought and sold that way. Despite the dire economic situation, or maybe because of it, Zimbabwe is safe, people are very proud, friendly and helpful. Hardships bring people together as they need each other to survive. In the absence of material overindulgence and mindless consumerism, old fashioned socializing is the norm: hanging out with friends, Braai (BBQ) in the park (meat is amazingly tasty, no factory farms here) and group activities. Life is simple, slow paced and still very much connected to Nature. Are economic sanctions a blessing or a curse?
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