Quick update from Tanzania: at the border with Malawi, I pulled out the stack of US dollar bills I had been saving just for this occasion. The visa is an annoying $100, and out of my money belt I pulled… $77.
Why I was carrying such an odd number, I had no idea. I don’t know where the other $23 went, or even if it ever existed, but I was short, and they would not let me into Tanzania without it. They also accept only US Dollars and Euros, and not the equivalent amount in any other currency, even their own, Tanzanian Shillings. So, I had to get a special police escort back into Malawi just to use the ATM, since I had technically left Malawi and didn’t want to re-enter ten minutes later.
I took out 5,000 Malawian Kwacha, enough for 23 US Dollars and a bit more, in case I needed to bribe anyone. I went back into the between border region to the Foreign Exchange office and asked to exchange my Kwacha for US Dollars.
The guy told me they only had Kwacha. They accepted other currency, but could only give out Kwacha. I said that they probably had whatever currency people had turned in that day in order to receive Kwacha, so he could give me whatever that was. He said no, they only had Kwacha.
The problem is that the president of Malawi and other corrupt government officials have created a fuel crisis that have pushed prices to $12/gallon, and food prices through the roof as well. Consequently, nobody wants Malawian Kwacha. The currency has almost no value, and this guy at the window was not going to give me any foreign currency, no matter what it was.
So I crossed to the Tanzanian side to use their ForEx, but it was closed. I related my story to the immigration officials, and asked them what I could do. One of them got on his cell phone and told me that a guy was coming to help me.
Soon, a guy in a polo shirt and jeans walked in, and we were both escorted to a back room, where I made a decided effort to take the chair nearest the door. He told me that the rate was 280 Malawian Kwacha for every US Dollar, so I’d need 6,400 Kwacha for 23 dollars. I told him that that was the black market rate (it is), and that the official rate that you can check anywhere (government, banks, xe.com, etc.) is 161 Kwacha to the dollar, which is around 3,700 Kwacha for 23 dollars. I told him I’d give him 4,000, so a little extra (two bucks), just to get the deal done.
I pulled the 4,000 out of my wallet, keeping the other 1,000 hidden in another pocket, and told the guy that this was all I had, since I had done the conversion myself before going to the ATM, and knew I needed 3,700.
We argued without getting anywhere for about five minutes, when the immigration officer walked in, asking what was taking so long. We each explained the situation in our own language, and the officer pretended to consider it for a moment.
“It’s ok,” he said, “four thousand is fine. Pay him.” I asked for the US Dollars first, and the officer said “it’s ok, you can trust him.” I told him that that was really great and wonderful that he was such a trustworthy guy, but I’d really rather have the US dollars before I handed over the Kwacha. The guy reluctantly agreed, left the office, and came back five minutes later. He slapped 23 rolled US dollars into my hand, I gave him my “only” 4,000 Kwacha, and I got my passport stamped.
Now I’m in Tanzania with 1,000 leftover Kwacha that apparently has no value. Maybe I’ll meet another traveler who’s going to Malawi for whom it WILL have value. Otherwise, does anyone want a paper souvenir?