Who wants to be a gazillionaire?


LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — I knew when I handed $200 to the money-changer at the hotel on my first day here and received 1 million Kwacha back that getting comfortable dealing in cash was likely to be the hardest part of my adjustment to life here.

The Kwacha was doing better then than it is now, so the situation has only gotten stranger.

And here is part of the problem: I can’t tell you how much stranger without stopping what I’m doing and scratching my head for half an hour, even with an on line currency converter, because long, long strings of numbers have always taxed me to the utmost of my potential to be taxed.

In addition, carrying the amount of cash I sometimes need in a place where credit card acceptance is sporadic requires a larger wallet than I have. The other day I knew I was going to have to settle my hotel bill in cash (roughly 3 million Kwacha give or take if the landlady was going to throw in the two destroyed tires from the one time I rented her car), buy an internet modem and pay for the connection in cash (2.8 million), and buy a bed (on sale, a bargain at 2.9 million) — cash only there too. In addition I plan to go to the crafts market this morning — unquantifiable impulse cash needed there. So in recent days I have withdrawn and, when the ATM ran out of cash, gotten a credit card advance for a total of about K 8,000,000.

You do the math. I have, and I can’t remember. When I was a reporter doing budget stories in the Town of Palm Beach sources would have to spell such numbers for me (eight, two, five, zero, zero, zero, . . . — yes that’s right, seven zeroes).

The other issue with all of this cash comes from the great divide. As strange as these transactions sound to my unaccustomed ear — 2,500 kwacha bus fares, 30,000 kwacha cab fares, groceries last night for 500,000 kwacha — they can sound equally jolting to those living in this impoverished country. The rent on every place I’ve seen here was expressed to me in American dollars — even people accustomed to seven-digit numbers have trouble saying the astronomical prices we will cough up for a “secure” flat.

In my first week here the frame of my expensive titanium frame no-hinge eyeglasses broke. The reason they are expensive, besides being exceptionally light on the nose, and marginally trendy, is that they had lasted a good eight years before they broke. I don’t mention that to be defensive, only to draw attention to the basic fact of economics that having resources in excess of your immediate needs can help one to save money in the long run. So with that value in mind, I didn’t flinch when the man at the eyeglass store told me the replacement frame would cost two million Kwacha. The human resources man from the paper where I am posted who had accompanied me to the store, on the other hand, did. I think that is the reason I got an email the next day from the deputy managing editor cautioning me to try not to make it too obvious that I am “a visitor here” as this might tempt people to take advantage of me. Of all the challenges I hope to meet, persuading people that I am not a visitor, with my fair skin, American accent that amounts to a speech impediment here, and other peculiarities of which I am not yet even aware, is the only one I have little expectation of meeting.

I did, however, try to prove I was nobody’s fool shortly thereafter when the fare taker on the bus asked for 2800 kwacha for a trip that I had just taken in the other direction for 2500 kwacha. Then when people started laughing at me, I did the math to realize I was quibbling over a nickel.

I do have realistic hopes in one aspect of dealing in finance here, and that will be keeping future expenditures of K2 million to a minimum.

Someone left this in the apartment I'm renting, leading me to wonder if they would come back for it.

Someone left this in the apartment I'm renting, leading me to wonder if they would come back for it.

I don't think they will

I don't think they will


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