Friday, August 22, 2014

Money Matters

Money matters is quite strange and unique in Zimbabwe. While I had heard and read about the Zimbabwe currency crisis in the past, I did not quite find out about the details until I found myself in the tourist town of Victoria Falls.

With the collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar, Zimbabwe has been using the US dollar since 2009. When I went to the stores, the prices were listed as such - $2.40, $1.75 etc. I made my purchase and paid with a nice $20 note. My change was a couple of filthy tattered notes and some coins. I had no problems with the dirty notes and then I noted (pun intended) the coins. They were South African Rands.

As 1 rand is almost equivalent to 10 US cents, what is happening is that the country is using US dollars for the notes and South African rand as the "change"!

Strange indeed when a country uses two other countries' currency as their legal tender, and sells their own as souvenirs!

Indeed, every visitor to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe would be accosted by locals pushing wads of billion/trillion dollar notes in your face.

"You know how much these are worth? Buy them as souvenirs!", they would all say.

Things got stranger still. Apparently, change is in short supply. This Canadian chap in the hostel related an incident at the supermarket. His receipt reflected a credit of $0.47 when the cashier ran out of rands for his change. A search online revealed that this is but one of the ways the stores handle the problem. Others offer candy/pens/merchandise as "change"! My encounter was equally bizarre. My purchase came up to $2.40. The cashier asked if I had exact change. I dug into my pocket and found 3 rand. I was about to shake my head and put my coins back when she quickly gestured for the coins and grabbed it.

"Tomorrow you bring me the 10 cents ok?", she deadpanned.

It took a whole 10seconds before I replied ok....

So now, I still owe the supermarket 1 rand :)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Bicycle Diaries

I lay on the ground, legs stiffened and face contorted in an ugly grimace. I massaged my thigh vigorously and finally managed to coax the muscles to relax. It was a good 10 minutes of cramps sitting on the road beside a highway and this was my most pathetic cycling experience yet.

Not much of a cycling fan, I only had a couple of cycling excursions during my travels. A nice summer jaunt in the rolling hills of Biei and Furano in Hokkaido; A wine-on-2-wheels cycling tour in Mendoza; An exploration of the Lijiang countryside in autumn; Here in Ezulwini valley in Swaziland, I joined a fellow backpacker on a cycling day-trip because, well, it sounded interesting.

We were to visit the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, and apparently, it could be visited on bike - perfect for folks without private transport. The idea of cycling through a wildlife park in Africa sounded refreshing. Of course, there is no Big 5 in this reserve, otherwise, I have doubts anyone could peddle away quickly enough with a lion hot on his back.

My years of inadequate usage of my cycling legs came quickly to bear after the 10km of tar-road, and 3km of off-road peddling to reach the park. But luckily in the park itself, the frequent stops for nature appreciation dictated a leisurely pace.

We knew we had our first encounter when we saw a group of people congregating around an area. In the middle of the river, like a personal small island, a huge crocodile lay basking in the sun. I mounted my biggest lens, and proceeded to find my angle. A jeep soon rolled by, with a family and their guide in it. The guide beckoned to me, and in a calm robotic manner, warned me off the water's edge. I did not grasp the full extent of his well-intentioned warning until he pointed to a ripple in the water. Barely 10 metres away was another crocodile lazily swimming across the water's edge!!

Huge crocodile basking in the sun
Only when I remounted my bike did I see the sign - "Do not stay too close to the water's edge"! On hindsight, that crocodile was really uncomfortably close, but well, ignorance was really bliss!

The rest of our encounters were alot less intimidating, though, no less interesting. In particular, we were chugging along when Sarka, my cycling companion, caught sight of movement in the trees just 30m from our cycling path. Almost blending behind a blind of trees trunks, grazed a couple of zebras, probably shying away from the open. We crept nearer steathily, but they moved away cautiously, easily detecting our intrusion.

I see you!
We caught sight of other wildlife - deers/antelopes of various kinds, birds of the ibis/heron variety. And then we came to the "Hippo Pond". Alas, the hippopotamus did not make their appearance. And it was one of those animals I had wanted to see in this sanctuary...!

I hovered around the pond area while Sarka went ahead to further explore the park. I knew my return journey back to the hostel would take twice as long, and so had decided to leave earlier. On the way out though, I again caught sight of the family of zebras (ok, it could be another set, but indulge me). This time though, they decided to come out into the open, and sauntered right pass me! THIS is what I call a zebra crossing! ;)

I finally managed to stand up, gingerly picked up my bicycle, and started pushing. Unless there was a downward gradient, I was literally walking and pushing my bicycle all the way back. It was indeed my most pathetic "cycling" trip..... but certainly one of the most interesting!