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:
- 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.)
- Before arriving in a country, go online and determine how many ‘whatevers’ there are to the US dollar.
- Remember this rate. If you are bored, practice multiplying and dividing by it so you are acclimated before you arrive at your next destination.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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: