HARARE, ZIMBABWE — It's confusing.
The pale blue bank note that says 1,000,000 Zimbabwean dollars really means 10,000,000,000,000,000,000. Yes, that's 10 quintillion, taking into account the 13 zeros Zimbabwe's central bank has lopped off in the last couple of years to make the country's currency somewhat more manageable.
Every time they get out of hand, Zimbabwe's Reserve Bank scythes away 00000s. The largest note, Z$100,000,000,000, released in July and useless within weeks, looked so bizarre with all the zeros squeezed in that it became an instant collector's item.
Regardless, inflation is soaring so fast in Zimbabwe that it's hard to figure out what a Z$1-million note is actually worth on a given day.
Somewhere between July's Z$100-billion note and the more recent zero-reduced Z$1-million note, it's easy to get mixed up. Even more confusing are the wildly different exchange rates that depend on how you pay for purchases.
Zimbabweans chuckle when they see a foreigner bumbling with their currency. They launch into long, looping explanations that leave you lassoed by the zeros, and more confused than when you started. It's difficult to resist just holding up the Z$1,000,000 note and asking a reliable local, "What's this worth?"
But they can get confused themselves. To my surprise, when I tried it last month, my math-savvy friend no longer had the calculation in his head. So he pulled up his cellphone calculator and tapped away.
"Ech! My cellphone can't cope with all these zeros," he grumbled, while I stared at the bustling crowd on Robert Mugabe Street, wondering where they could be going, in an economy where nothing works.
Finally he had an answer: "That's worth about 50 cents, a bit less than 50 cents."
So I used the blue notes for tips. Fifty cents might not sound like much, but in early November, Z$1,000,000 was more than a week's pay for a police inspector.
After tipping car guards, parking men and waiters for several days, I checked the value again. It turned out my friend had been mistaken; the note had been worth about $4, not 50 cents.
Zimbabwe's hyperinflation rate, the highest ever known, is officially more than 230 million percent, but some economists place it in the quadrillions. It seems just a matter of time before Zimbabweans will be grappling with octillions, nonillions, decillions, duodecillions and more.
Just trying to explain the complications in the money system is, well, complicated.
Imagine this: You go from the crowded, dusty streets of the capital, Harare, into a dimly lighted black market money changer's shop that masquerades as a video outlet. Ask the dealer the rate for a U.S. dollar and he says "27." Twenty-seven what is not clear.
Ask him the rate for a South African rand, (worth about 10 cents U.S.), and he still says "27." But this time the decimal point is in a different place.
You walk out with a handful of pale blue notes and little idea of what they're worth.
If all that is complicated, try this scenario from a couple of months back: You're in a supermarket, and for the first time in months there's food there (though it's too expensive for most Zimbabweans). You calculate the cost of about 2 pounds of meat: If you have a Zimbabwean bank account and pay with a debit card, it will cost about $10 U.S.
If you exchange American cash for enough Zimbabwean notes to buy the same unappetizing-looking slab of meat, you'll be out $1,000 U.S. because of a huge difference in the official exchange rate, which applies to electronic payments, and the rate on the black market.
It would seem easy enough to just pay by debit card, but nothing is easy here. In most supermarkets, bank debit cards don't work, either because there's no power or the electronic transfer systems in banks are overloaded.
For the masses squashed together like upright sardines in queues outside banks, buying staples such as maize meal and cooking oil is a struggle. They stand in line for hours to withdraw the maximum weekly limit of Z$100 million, about $10 U.S. on the black market these days, but not even enough for a loaf of bread. (The withdrawal limit was just raised to Z$10 billion a week to enable people to buy food for Christmas. The government also released a new Z$10-billion note.)
Most people use their Z$100 million for bus fare to town. It's a bizarre situation: People come to town to stand in line to get money that barely covers the cost of coming to town.
Crowds of 500 or more jostle outside banks in the heat. Soldiers prowl, beating people with batons when fights break out.
One woman in a bank queue in suburban Avondale last month groused as a group of nurses shoved their way to the front.
"The hospitals are closed and they're not even working," she shouted. "People are dying in the hospital and then those people want preference here."
As others joined in, a soldier stalked up, grim faced.
"You!" he barked. "Just get in the queue and shut up! Stop causing trouble here!"