Sunday, July 1, 2012

"There is no money in this town."


Hello again from Ann.

On Thursday morning, June 28, we left the Etosha Safari Rest Camp, where we enjoyed a one-night stay just after our marvelous three days in Etosha, Namibia’s national game preserve.  This rest camp was delightfully decorated in African decor, a fair amount of assemblage-kitsch-funk, and protest posters left over from the freedom struggle and pro-Swapo movement.  The grounds were elegant, the service was superb, and the two-man band playing in the open-air bar the night before had been crazy fun.

As our bus pulled out of the rest camp we cheered as we were finally driving on paved roads.  Three days of driving on gravel in the park had us a bit tired and worn.  We stopped for a quick comfort stop and Internet (cafĂ©) access in Outjo and then on to Khorixas.  The landscape was lovely, though desolate, and again we wondered were the folks who were walking alongside the road were going?   At Khorixas we turned south, still on a “C road” and the road turned to gravel once again – filled with tricky holes and some amazing small hills which we took at some speed and this all felt a bit like a Disney ride. 

Our lunch stop was in Uis.  In the local tribal language “Uis” means “place of bad water.”   “Uis” could also be known as a place of no water, bad or otherwise, given the looks of things.  We were of course approaching the Namib Desert.

As we pulled into Uis, a very small and depressed mining town, we decided this stop would be brief, be a sit down lunch at a pretty nice looking place, and then we would be on our way.  I volunteered that I would pick up the check to help speed things along as this had worked well a couple times before.  We went in and I asked if they accepted credit cards, “Yes Madam” was the response.  “Great” I said “please give the check to me.”

“Surely, Madam, but today the credit card machine is not working.”

It was explained to me that I could go across the street to the market to get cash from the ATM.  Off I went.  Our driver, Joey, came along with me since you don’t go to cash machines alone.  In the super market, I as amazed to see the cash machine in pieces on the floor.  The manager told me the machine was empty and that more cash would not come until Monday – four days from now. 

Joey learned we could try the place on the other edge of town about 100 yards away. No go there either. 

Oddly enough, I wasn’t feeling any distress.  My colleagues could pool their funds to cover lunch, no problem.  Rather, I was reflecting on what I had first told our group the night before we departed Decorah . . . that 55% of all Namibians live on less than the equivalent of $2 USD a day.  

Joey drove me to the next town, about 5 miles away, where a policeman had assured us there was a woman who owned a convenience store who could help us.  We walked in, this white woman was clearly a Brit, and she asked where I was from as she invited me behind the counter.    

She explained to me her currency granting business.  Using her store’s credit/debit card machine, she allowed folks to make withdrawals from their accounts.  She knew our restaurant’s card machine was down and explained that her system is the same as the restaurant’s, and that I would be lucky if this worked.   We negotiated how much I needed – then she explained to me “that I could step into line as all these other people are needing money too.” 

My goodness.  What I thought had been 10 people in line waiting to pay for their purchases were actually 10 people waiting in line to get money.  She read me well.

“Ah you now see, there is no money in this town.” 

I asked how this was and she explained that such towns as Uis are not high on the commerce routes, so they get their currency late, and after all, there is not a great need, as there is nothing to buy except the basics.    

While I waited in line I wondered how this hardscrabble life was managed.   This convenience store/petrol station was the heart beat of this town, and this woman with her credit/debit machine was the local bank.  

I would do well to think more about this type of desert.

Greetings to you all.             

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