Visiting Zimbabwe, Africa came with a lot of preparation and planning–but I still ended up learning a lot after I was already there. If I could go back and give my past self (or anyone’s future self) any advice of 10 things to know about Zimbabwe before you go, this is what it would be:
1. Bring a lot of cash
Zimbabwe uses the USD for main currency, but that doesn’t mean it is in great supply. For some large sums and excursions around Victoria Falls, I luckily was able to use my debit card. BUT for the most part, I paid in cash for almost everything else I purchased. Whether you’re out to eat, at the market, or buying souvenirs, expect to pay cash only. And unfortunately, the ATM’s in the town don’t tend to have USD cash to give back to you, so you’re kind of stuck even if you have the money on a card. I would definitely have brought more cash on this trip had I known this, but fortunately I was okay since I was only there for two weeks!
2. Pack in layers
Depending on your personal itinerary, this is easily subject to change (and it is the winter season in Africa right now). For me, I was up at 7 am every morning and out in the bush or walking lions. That meant it was about 60 degrees, but felt a lot colder as we whipped through the national park in safari buses. I would recommend bringing a few sweaters and pairs of pants, as I hadn’t brought enough. The same for the nighttime as well when we had game drives or bonfires and were all bundled up in blankets. Pack some layers and I would suggest a hat!
3. Know what to trade
An easy way to save yourself some cash and to make a great trade with the locals, is to know what they are wanting from you. In my time in Victoria Falls, I was able to trade two pairs of socks, tons of hair ties, and pens in order to get some cool souvenirs for my family back home. If I had known just how willing the venders were to take the pair of socks right off of my feet or the water bottle right out of my backpack, I would’ve prepared tons of these items and donated any leftover at the end of my trip to local schools.
4. Myths versus reality
You can read up on Africa and its current events, you can research its history and past, and you can know everything you think there is to know about it. But it isn’t until you get there that you really find out what are misconceptions, what aren’t, and what you really think. Africa has some bad stereotypes: poverty, violence and abuse, danger. But in Zimbabwe, I never once felt unsafe or vulnerable at the hands of a local. There are definitely stigmas about tourists (especially Asians)–and some of the Zimbabwean people don’t like anything about us but our money, but thats okay. For the most part, all of the local people that I talked to were the most kind-hearted, caring people I have ever met.
5. Malaria pills make you crazy
While at home, I had only been taking my malaria pills for two days before traveling so I hadn’t truly noticed any side effects. But now I’ve been taking them for three weeks straight and they can really mess you up. It might not have helped that I was also taking them along with 5 other pills (I have some personal medicinal use going on right now as well) and let me tell you, there were some not-so-fun times. Due to hallucinations and dehydration from certain brands, I chose to use Malarone. Besides the usual side effects of nausea (ugh, so bad at times!) and weakness, I had bizarre nightmares and wonky dreams, which kept me up at night paranoid and afraid. Sometimes I woke up with vivid memories of those nightmares and felt like I was high. It seems like I could be certifiably psychotic and that wasn’t uncommon in my group.
6. Bring clothes you can donate at the end of your trip
Unfortunately, I had packed all of my clothes for my own use and planned on taking them all back home. But once I had visited some of the community villages and local schools, I knew I couldn’t leave with everything I had brought. If I had known earlier what the conditions were like and how easy it was to be able to donate more than my time, I would’ve packed a suitcase full of things I would just leave at the end of my trip. I left a few things behind, but not all that I wanted to.
7. The food (and water) isn’t weird or that different after all
Before I left, I had been warned a million times about the quality of water in Zimbabwe (or Africa in general–more misconceptions you see?). But I had the best water in all of Zim, and I was able to drink right out of the tap. Although this isn’t the case for all people in Zimbabwe, it was something I wish I wouldn’t have worried about beforehand. They take care of you over there! As for the traditional African food, DELICIOUS. I made sadza nyama, tried the fish they eat like chips (no joke), indulged in warthog, impala (so good), crocodile, eland, and borrewors! And to top it off, I even ate a Mopane worm, which is a common snack over there.
8. Visiting other countries is easy as pie
I was lucky enough to be able to go to Botswana for a day to visit Chobe National Park, which is a must-do by the way. It was so simple and fast, but it helps if you have the right Visa. For me, I had a double-entry Visa so I didn’t have to pay to enter or exit (and Botswana doesn’t charge extra for entry or exit either like Zambia). It took all of twenty minutes to go through the process and is something that I never realized was so easy. But if you don’t have the Visa, it costs a little extra and takes a few extra minutes going through the process if you can spare the time and money.
9. It isn’t all a savannah habitat like in The Lion King
I guess I pictured a wide-open, vast savannah with grazing animals and little to no shrubbery. Boy was I wrong! The national park we were living in was full of trees, bush, paths, and stealthy animals. It wasn’t what I imagined at all, but it was absolutely amazing nonetheless. You wouldn’t believe how easily an elephant can disappear into the bush without seeing it and how well-hidden a giraffe can be even among the tallest trees. I definitely wasn’t expecting that.
10. How badly I would want to continue traveling
Now that my trip has gone and went in the blink of an eye, after months and months of planning, I want to go back! And even more so, I want to see the rest of the world as well. I would love to do an African Impact program in a different part of Africa, but I also am looking for other volunteer opportunities abroad in other places (I will hopefully have a blog post up soon about the best sites and places to look for these programs). I made lifelong friends, experienced a whole new world, and found a little bit of myself while doing it. Traveling to Africa was the best time of my life and I want more of these experiences!
Here’s to future endeavors!