Last Friday I joined up with my classmate, Julie, and her group for another safari. This time we were heading to Zambia for their famous South Luangwa Game Park, reportedly one of the best Africa has to offer. I met with their group Friday morning and we were off for the daylong journey West across Malawi, then across the border with Zambia and North West to the park.
As an aside, paying for this trip served to demonstrate the economic dysfunction in Malawi. I was out of the American Dollars I had brought with me as of last week and so I figured I would just use the ATM. I had received an exchange rate of 182 Malawi Kwacha for 1 dollar at the local exchange bureau, which was much higher than the published rate online so I was quite happy. Come to find out that most people living here deal with someone directly for exchanges and can receive rates as high as 200 Kwacha for 1 dollar! I was in a rush and confirmed with the safari guide I could pay him in equivalent Kwacha from the ATM since there is no way to get dollars directly here. It turns out the ATM uses the published rate of 150 Kwacha per dollar! So that’s up to a 25% loss right there! Since the guide wanted a certain number of dollars for dealing with things in Zambia, I had to take Kwachas from the ATM and then revers exchange them for dollars at the bureau. So I received Kwacha at 150 and then back to dollars at 193! So, this way $100 ends up being about $77 immediately. So you can see the problem when many businesses want American dollars, especially when dealing across borders. This cripples the Malawi economy. How can you operate when just obtaining the currency you need gives you a 25% loss? This was extremely frustrating and for the rest of my time here I am trying to locate one of the people on the black market everyone uses to handle the rest of my exchanges via wire transfer, providing me the better exchange rate. So when a business quotes you a price in dollars, you need to check with them what exchange rate they will use if you pay in kwacha, some try to put the burden of the exchange rate on you and charge you the higher rate making a price tag of, let’s say $700, more like $900! I heard of a story of someone in Zambia who was able to turn $1,000 into $1,000,000 with just a few exchange transactions with the banks and black market. You can see why they had major economic difficulties, as it wasn’t long before people caught on and took advantage of the situation.
We made great time on the Malawi side since there were paved roads but most of the Zambia route was unpaved and treacherous. I wondered during the drive how much brain damage I was sustaining from the constant jostling, although I have to say there were times when the bumps aligned just right that it felt like a massage chair! We hit one bump going too fast and I looked behind me to watch the trailer fly off the hitch and skid to a halt in the dirt road. Repairing that set us back a couple hours. Did I mention that the trek was made by 8 of us in an open Land Rover (read: 40 year old piece of junk modified with no roof, doors, or seat belts!)? The guide clearly wasn’t very concerned with our safety. The final decision to go with this specific guide was made based neither on price nor the fact that my classmate was on the trip. It was about reputation. Although you would be much more uncomfortable, you would be guided by the best, so I told myself.
We arrived late that night covered in a thick layer of soot from driving in clouds of dust for hundreds of kilometers. Even the people crammed into the minibuses we passed gave us looks saying “what a bunch of crazy asungus (foreigners)!” In fact, many yelled that word as we passed by.
We made it to our bush camp, which was remotely located directly across the river from the park with a few tents set up on the riverbank, a couple chambuzis (holes in the ground), kitchen area, and shower with a bucket. I was paying more to stay here as opposed to the higher end resort on the same property with electricity, running water, pool, bar, etc. I wasn’t getting ripped off. I’m being sarcastic in jest; the truth is it was a priceless experience and an occasional dose of raw nature, I believe, is good for the soul. Sleeping enshrouded by nature is something everyone can appreciate, right? Having a scout standing outside our tents with a large caliber rifle (I believe minimum for their job is .375 caliber but I think this scout’s was even bigger, maybe .458. This is a requirement for thick-skinned animals like elephants) gave us reason to stay in our tents until dawn. I could hear hippos and elephants walking through our camp at night but felt no fear and found the experience to be very peaceful and relaxing. It was slightly unnerving to be in tents on the ground this time rather than on raised platforms but I trusted whoever decided to set them up that way (which turned out to be an older South African gentleman with thick glasses, a slight limp, and a penchant for smoking and drinking: still trustworthy in my book). We rose each morning at first light and went out on a morning safari followed by lunch, afternoon snack, evening safari, dinner, and bedtime.
The head staff member taking care of us in bush camp was perhaps the most attentive person I’ve come across in the service industry. His attention to detail was unsurpassed and he seemed to always know what I wanted before I asked. He was also an amazing cook, having meals prepared for us on our returns from safaris. His make-shift grill built with a grate supported off the ground by some rocks over embers left from a fire made his accomplishments that much more impressive. We ate chicken one night and steak the other and it was some of the best meat I’ve every consumed – what wonderful ends to a long days on safari. I’ve noticed a general trend in the service industry in Malawi and Zambia – staff members are trained quite well. I heard it is leftover from the previous president years ago who emphasized service and attention to detail, going so far as to outline requirements for the appearance of homes and yards. The staff members at the home I stay in are the same way. There is a gentleman, Joseph, who cleans my room daily. I return each day to find my dirty clothes, usually amounting to not more than a t-shirt and underwear, washed and folded neatly on my desk. I returned from safari to find all my shoes has been thoroughly washed including the shoelaces! The cars are washed every morning…you get the idea.
I still find myself feeling uncomfortable at times with the structure of society here. It bothers me that the housekeeper’s kids are not receiving a quality education, one that could allow them to have choices when they are older. I ask them why their English is not as good as others I have met and they explained the national curriculum and the inconsistency between schools. I would feel better if I knew the staff members I meet in all these places chose their jobs, but when I speak to Joseph and find out he is supporting a family of 6+ with his job, well, it’s a little nerve-racking. The culture here carries heavy emphasis on family staying together, and even extended family. So as income fluctuates people have a large support network to reach to for help. In this way, small sums of money are constantly given by those who have work to those who don’t and there doesn’t seem to be any expectation of repayment. When my iPod was stolen from my desk at the office right in front of the secretary and the security guard, I couldn’t help but wonder how much they really enjoyed their jobs. For them, days seem to be mostly passing the time so they can collect their paycheck. If a stranger can walk in and take something unnoticed, your attention is clearly elsewhere. I knew they felt bad about the theft and that it happened while they were present and they didn’t notice but I found myself not all that upset about it. I imagined someone stealing it in hopes of trading for some cash to feed his children. I only hope that is what it was used for.
The current economic situation is dire and the current president seems to be on this way out. The constant fuel shortage coupled with the problem with currency here has crippled industry in a country already struggling to develop. I can only hope better leadership comes soon as this particular president seems to be quite inept.
As I enter the second half of my stay here, I’ve made some new friends and feel more at home. Having some peers finally who I feel a strong connection with helps make it easier to be away from home so long. I’ve traveled many times on my own and realize that I prefer to be with someone close to me when traveling, especially for longer periods of time. I’ve come to the same conclusion as that of Christopher McCandless at the end of his long, solitary journey to Alaska: Happiness is only real when shared.