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Food and Travel: Filthy lucre!

THIS week’s piece involves another travel tip. Zimbabwe is almost exclusively a cash economy. If you want a fairly major item, usually there’s no point in asking for credit, “squedit”, or easy (read hard) terms.

You save, hand over hard-earned loot and become the proud owner of whatever you’d lusted after.

Since the collapse of the Zim dollar, few folk have local or international debit or credit cards or cheques and even fewer would accept payment by such methods. At home, plastic’s almost unheard of and overseas, traveller’s cheques are treated with considerable suspicion.

One answer — if you know movements — is to wire yourself cash ahead, with Western Union or MoneyGram.

The day of beginning my latest jaunt: Harare-Jo’burg (overnighting Protea Airport Hotel); pre-dawn Mango flight to Durban for a three-night Indian Ocean cruise up the Mozambique Channel on MSC Sinfonia … then on to the UK via Dubai … then God knows! I paid an 11th hour visit to the bank to draw cash for the trip.

Then the fun began!

I can’t blame the bank for the putrid state of the US$1 note I planned to tip a porter who insisted on guiding me and pushing the trolley from international arrivals to a chilly spot where local hotels’ shuttle buses  park.

He took one look at the filthy, greasy greenback and almost spat: “We don’t take money like that here.”

“You’re lucky. This is in quite good nick compared with some of the ordure we handle daily in Zim.”

He sneered: “Well I’m not taking it.”

If it hadn’t been for offensive body language I’d have fished out a less disreputable sample, or a R10 note or a couple of high denomination RSA coins, but thought: “Stuff you!”

“Do you want it or not?”  I asked, possibly a little imperiously.

He muttered something almost inaudible, but certainly a negative in Afrikaans, so I shrugged, shoved the buck back in my blouson-photo-journalistique and jumped on the bus.

I must blame the bank for the awful US$10 notes which caused my next brush with authority.

A supercilious Italian assistant purser in the cash office of the Sinfonia made obvious his dislike of handling actual cash… money… folding stuff… when I laid out for on-board pre-payments 20 x US$10 notes the bank gave me 24 hours earlier, claiming, they’d no higher denominations “in stock”.

“Why don’t you use that?” he asked pointing cheekily at an off-shore Visa card spotted in a travel wallet from which I’d peeled off US$200.

“Why don’t you mind your own business?” I replied with the sparkling wit and repartee honed over decades of dealing with petty functionaries like this!

He handled US$170 as if the notes were lab specimens, held gingerly — no wussily — between thumb and “Peter Pointer” (who remembers the nursery rhyme reference to an index finger?) and flatly refused to touch 3 x US$10 notes as “too dirty!”, but without a smile: a charmless refusal.

“OK, just ring up US$170,” I shrugged, apparently indifferently (but with blood boiling).  The loot was to cover purchases of booze in the ship’s dozen or so bars, shore excursions, a visa to clamber ashore on a desert and usually deserted island and “tips” for the staff to do jobs they’re paid to. Who knows, even the poncey purser’s mate third class might have got his nose in the trough when it came down to “divvying” up “gratuities”?

Sixty-hours later with the graceful, spotless ship mooring, back in Durbs, I casually asked the status of my deposit, which I knew must be nearly flat.
“Nil balance,” another junior officer at the cash desk where they hate handling cash snapped!

“Surprise, surprise!” I thought.

If the original Italian teller officer’s attitude was snooty, snobbish and possibly humiliating to a lot of folk with thinner skins than I, his manner was that of a professional world-class diplomat, compared to the next time the rancid roll appeared.

Previous experience has proved bureau de change at almost any Marks & Sparks branch in almost every UK High Street is the quickest, least bureaucratic place to change forex into pounds sterling at best interest rates, often without commission.

(But ensure they’re pounds STERLING! At the greasy spoon transport caff in a drafty, dingy, dirty Portakabin at Milton Keynes, where every third or fourth bus disgorging passengers began its trip north of Hadrian’s Wall, they flatly refuse Scottish banknotes; in Weybridge, pubs both sides of the place where the ferries dock to and from the Channel Islands have proscribed Jersey and Guernsey currency for decades).

You could probably spend a Zim $500 trillion note anywhere on the mainland as easily as a trader would accept a Northern Ireland fiver, foive Oirish “punts” in the old days–or five euros now!

M&S in Edinburgh’s main shopping thoroughfare, Princes Street, failed dismally. Again we had the finger-and-thumb treatment, a bad smell up the left nostril body language and an improbably stiff fifty-Scottish pound perm stating in a preposterous “Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” Morningside accent: “They may be forgeries, sir. There’s no way we can tell with banknotes in this state. I’m afraid I couldn’t accept many, if any, of these!”

The near hysterical rising inflection on the final word was strangulated, emphasising a sweeping dismissal of the US$1 000 I’d laid out to pay for a trip to the Red Sea.

My son was embarrassed, but I scooped up the offending currency, shoving it in my camera bag with a contemptuous: “Have you ever even heard of anyone forging 10-buck notes since the Korean War?”

We walked maybe 100 metres, entered a Lloyds TSB Scotland branch where a cheerful body from Bramley, Leeds, British West Yorkshire (where Rugby League is played) had me initially crestfallen, saying: “There’s a small problem, sir,” after having told us her life story.

“Oh, yep, what’s up?” I asked, ignoring the pongy pile between us.

“Due to today’s rate of exchange, this is slightly more than I can change in one transaction.”

“Oh, really. Well change what you can now, we’ll go to Jenner’s (department store), have coffee and come back and swop the balance later!”

“Of course you will… what the heck, I’ll do it all at once if you’ve got your passport. Fifty ENGLISH pound notes, ok luv?”

I said I’d rather have 10s and 20s!

No problem.

Thank goodness for Yorkshire common sense!

(Preferably, during December)  dustymiller46@googlemail.com   )


Dusty Miller

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