Africa, Asia, Europe, Middle East and Africa, Preparing, South America, Tourist, Traveling, United States

Money Matters: the new New Math

For the last six months, with the exception of one week in March, I have moved every three to four days. I haven’t slept in the same bed for more than a week since last September. While I didn’t change countries every  time I moved, I did manage to make it to 17 of them, only three of which use the same currency. So while everyone thinks I’ve been off on vacation, I’ve in fact been doing some rather intense money math.

Money math should be easy, but it takes quite a bit of preparation. The longer you do it, the quicker the preparation gets, but the harder the math becomes to perform on the fly, an essential skill for effective bargaining –itself an essential skill in almost every country in South America, Asia, Africa, and the Near East. Here’s how it works:

Crisp, clean US dollars

Crisp, clean US dollars

  1. Carry some crisp, new, $100 US bills, and try never to use (or lose) them. (Even if you are from the Euro zone, you should carry US dollars. Your money may be worth more than ours, but people don’t actually want it more.)
  2. Before arriving in a country, go online and determine how many ‘whatevers’ there are to the US dollar.
  3. Remember this rate. If you are bored, practice multiplying and dividing by it so you are acclimated before you arrive at your next destination.
  4. Avoid currency exchange windows, especially at the airport. Instead, make withdrawals from a cash machine in amounts sizeable enough that your improved exchange rate and lack of service fee offset whatever your bank may charge you for daring to make it interact with a foreign country. Careful not to withdraw so much money as to be left with unused bills upon your departure. The rate to sell these back will invariably screw you.
  5. Because the ATM will undoubtedly give you bills of a denomination large enough to render them useless, go directly to the nearest bank or large, busy establishment (or sometimes your hotel desk) and break large bills for ones that won’t encourage the average taxi driver to pull the “I don’t have change” routine.
  6. Rinse, repeat.

It seems simple. But do it three times in a month. I guarantee that at least once, you’ll forget to check the exchange rate before you land somewhere, and find yourself negotiating for a taxi without knowing whether you are arguing over 100 dollars or 100 cents. By time four or five, you will likely forget to take one of your prior currencies out of your wallet, and will find yourself attempting to pay for your pad thai with pho money. Somewhere in this timeframe, you will also realize it’s started to seem completely normal to carry three currencies simultaneously: dollars, currency of current country, and remnants of a country you’re still too close to to miss.

Colombian Pesos

Colombian Pesos

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Bolivian Bolivianos

Chilean Pesos - note the pretty window in some of the bills

Chilean Pesos – note the pretty window in some of the bills

Suppress the temptation to buy one of those lovely leather travel folios that fit your tickets and passport and itinerary, unless you are on the kind of trip where someone else is creating the lovely itinerary for you and handling most of your logistics. Opt instead for something plastic or vinyl, because at some point, you will find yourself in a country with the dirtiest, moldiest, wimpiest, most ripped bills you have ever seen, and you will likely have a lot of them. For me, this country was Myanmar. For you, this will also likely be the country in which you pull out your precious clean US dollars to exchange them on the black market for a rate up to 100 times that you would receive at a bank. If they aren’t pristine, they will be discounted to only 95 times the bank rate – or less.

The fake Burberry pouch I bought to be my moldy Myanmese kyat wallet

The fake Burberry pouch I bought to be my moldy Myanmese kyat wallet

Due to the exchange rate, I bought this plastic pouch to carry the the hundreds of notes that make up $100 USD

Due to the exchange rate, I bought this plastic pouch to carry the the hundreds of notes that make up $100 USD

Until I found this wallet in Cambodia, which I am still using.

Until I found this wallet in Cambodia, which I am still using. It has the added benefits of water resistance and multiple currency pockets.

If you have chosen to skip step (1), above, you will find yourself doing things like going to a bank machine in Bangkok to pull out baht and take them to the exchange window to buy dollars, just so that you can carry them (new, unbent, untorn) to Myanmar to buy flimsy, delicate kyat. In other words, even your lovely new dollar bills will be double-discounted by your own disregard for the international exchange scheme of tourism.

By the time you’ve been through this rigmarole four times, the preparation part becomes old hat. You are much less likely to forget to look up the exchange rate and land someplace unprepared. (Don’t bother with cash in any country where you’re laying over in the airport. Just use a credit card, or you’ll be left with 30 random Australian dollars and nothing to show for them.)

Australian dollars - for the 15 hours I spent in the Sydney airport

Australian dollars – for the 15 hours I spent in the Sydney airport

 

Note to self: when you find yourself taking money out of the ATM in the Colombo airport at 3 a.m., chances are you don't need it, and you should find an empty chair and go to sleep.

Note to self: chances are you don’t need those rupees you’re taking out of the ATM in the Colombo airport at 3 a.m. Resist the temptation, find the nearest prayer room, and go to sleep.

What becomes more difficult as time goes on is adjusting to the mental money math that accompanies these exchanges. In one week, you may transition from dividing all prices in kyat by 971 to figure out actual cost, to dividing by 3,954 riel to dividing by 21,097 dong. Give or take some zeros depending on how recently a country has revalued its own currency, or whether it has recalled its former currency from circulation and bothered to print up something new. In addition to a language barrier, you are now facing an economic translation grey zone in which you and your provider may be using two different bases on which to settle your accounts, and they differ by a factor of 100.

I shared a cab with a woman in Santiago. She took out bills completely unfamiliar to me, despite my having been in the country for almost two weeks. I asked her where they were from, and she looked at me oddly and said, "here."

I shared a cab with a woman in Santiago. She took out bills completely unfamiliar to me, despite my having been in the country for almost two weeks. I asked her where they were from, and she looked at me oddly and said, “here.”

Now start bargaining. You aren’t used to that in your home country? That’s a shame, because it’s fun. It’s friendly, and vigorous, and slightly different everywhere you go. The whole process will start to seem like a game, in part because the money feels fake: it’s a different color, or size, or weight than you are used to. It has unfamiliar pictures and in some cases doesn’t even use European numerals, so you can’t be sure what numbers you are looking at when you at last agree on a price and pull out your Monopoly bills to pay for things. It will make you long for expensive Europe, where you will be astounded at what it costs to buy coffee but are willing to pay anything just to multiply by 1.4 instead of dividing by 758. Money Matters: the new New Math.

Dear Jordan: I love your country, and I can't for my life tell how much money this is.

Dear Jordan: I love your country, and I can’t for my life tell how much money this is.

 

For the fun of it, more pictures of some foreign currency are below. They are mangled and messy in real life so the pictures aren’t the clearest, but you’ll get an idea of what it’s like to have carried about 15 currencies in six months:

 

Asia, Middle East and Africa

Wadi Wadi, We Like to Party

Everybody’s got to make a living. It’s a simple fact that breeds an annoying amount of value-less interactions between total strangers in countries around the world. Tourists have needs, and anyone looking to make a buck will try to fill them. In the developing world, the volume of these interactions multiplies – but so does their value.

In Nepal, in India, in Bolivia, Colombia, Vietnam– you can’t get out of an airport without a taxi tout offering you a ride. He isn’t the driver – he’s the guy that gets the driver who only speaks the local language situated with a client. He gets the address of your destination, does the bargaining, puts you in a car, but then, he’s gone. You can repeat this with any mode of transport – the boat tours in Inle, the bike rentals in Hoi An, the motos in Phnom Penh – it’s the universal system of transport bargaining when a language barrier is involved.

In Myanmar, in Cambodia, in Thailand – walk near any monument, temple, or attraction and someone will be there to sell to you – postcards, sir? Sandals, buddhas, hand-made paper, bamboo wallets, souvenir t-shirts, sand paintings, Chinese waving happy cats? You need change money? Anything they can find that might interest you in the very least will be there. “Just for looking,” they invite. “No have to buy.” Don’t bother climbing a temple at sunrise to try to escape; a good salesperson knows exactly where the tourists are, and will be there with his paintings before the light clears the horizon.

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Money changing booth at the temple in Mandalay (just in case you need to buy something)

Restaurant owners place their touts in the doorways. “Mingalaba,” they call in Bagan, as you try to bike by without crashing into them. “Massage? Pedicure,” they suggest outside spas on the streets of Saigon, handing a brochure across your path while you walk. The same tout from the same spa will come at you multiple times in a day. You are anonymous potential.  In Hanoi, try not to touch anything you aren’t 100 percent sure you’d like to buy – they say ‘just looking’ but they mean just buying, and dirty looks (or worse words) may be thrown in your direction.  But in Jordan….in Jordan, things are different.

In Jordan, all of it – the touts, the bargaining, the day to day crap of life that must be negotiated in a fashion fit to exhaust those of us who are accustomed to set prices and developed logistics – in Jordan, all of it is a joy. You will not offend by saying no. You will just elicit an escalating entertainment of pitches.

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No, thank you, I don’t want to ride through Petra on your donkey. “Why not?” I like to walk. I’ll use my legs.

“Four legs, madam. Donkey have four legs. Better than two.”

“Walk? You not so fat you need to lose weight.”

“You worry about money? Happy hour price!”

“Taxi, madam?”

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You keep walking down the Siq, past the Treasury, to see the tombs. “You drop something, madam,” a kid will call. In Central and South America, be very wary – this is the beginning of a ploy to distract you while someone else steals your camera, your money. In Jordan, in Petra in particular, it’s the beginning of a joke.

“Madam, you drop something!”

“Me?”

“You, madam,” the child will respond, pointing toward the ground behind you. At some point, despite your better traveler judgment, you will turn around and look. The child will giggle, his friends will join in, and someone will call, “your smile, madam! You dropped your smile!” It makes no sense. It isn’t even that funny, and yet they have so much fun doing it, you have to laugh with them. You also have to laugh because they will remember you.

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Don’t think for one minute that you are an anonymous tourist in Petra. Don’t think that just because it gets over 600,000 each year, you can’t be identified. That kid who speaks to you, who asks you, “where you from, Madam,” on your way into the site in the morning, he could have asked you the same in Italian, Spanish, Russian, French, Portuguese. But he sees you, sizes you up, nationality included, and when you leave later on, he will say goodbye in the language that is yours. He will recall a joke he told you, or an exchange you shared, earlier in the day.

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Feel free to get a little cheeky – the kids enjoy it. If you respond to “where you from,” with the same question back, “and you, my friend, where YOU from,” the answer will not be ”Jordan,” or, “Wadi Musa,” or, “the Bedouin village.”  The answer will be, smiling, “from my mother!”

Don’t misunderstand, you are economic potential. But in Petra – maybe in much of Jordan – the rapport is a prerequisite. Tea first – tea with so much sugar it’s almost a syrup – Bedouin whiskey, they joke – tea is first. A chat. And then – then whatever is coming will come.  “We have tea, then maybe you look at my shop. If you like something, you buy it.” Or it will be time to haggle over the price of a camel ride, or a jeep trip through Wadi Rum, or the aba you see the ladies wearing and think you may want to take home with you.  But first the tea, the talking, the laughter. Because in the wadis, life may be hard (living in a cave, or the desert – it isn’t easy, even if it is full of beauty), but it is also full of joy. And if you come to see the scenery, you must take in the joy as well. And that, for free, you may take home.

For more pictures of my time in Jordan, click here.

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