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:

 

On the Road, Preparing, South America, Tourist, Traveling

How to Find an Adventure, Part I

Step one: Follow the advice of travelers you know peripherally, who don’t need to shower more than once a week, think sleeping in the same room with six other people is heaven, find patchouli to be a remarkably endearing scent, and may or may not want to get you into an entertaining mess.

Step two: Do not solicit advice from other, more similarly minded travelers, for whom sleeping without the hair of strangers left behind on sheets and blankets may be a priority.

Step three: go to a very much still developing country, find the least populated part of it, and hop on a tour.

Back up. Step two B: land in the highest airport in the world, spend three days taking Diamox and sucking on diesel and too little oxygen.

I believe I have mentioned this blog should have been called, “flyingbytheseatofmypants.com,” so it will not surprise you that these are the steps my shall-remain-nameless (totally fantastic) Travel Companion and I followed in planning our trip to Bolivia, whose primary purpose was to go on a salar tour. What, you ask, is that? I had the same question.

It turns out much of Southwest Bolivia used to be a great salt lake surrounded by volcanoes. Times have changed, but salt has not.  Over 4,000 square miles of the area is still a great salt field, worked manually by salineros who shovel the salt into piles, let the water (still not far below the surface of the ground) drain, then collect it in a truck and take it to be harvested and packaged for sale in Bolivia, and beyond.  A few meters below the salt lies the largest lithium field known to man, projected to contain 50-70% of the world’s lithium stores, currently in the process of being extracted to power our electronic addictions. All of this happens at close to 12,000 ft of altitude, under some of the clearest skies you’ve ever seen. They are so clear, in fact, and the white flat beneath them is so flat, that the area is used to calibrate altimeters of some Earth observation satellites.

Before we get to the tour, Travel Companion and I have to overcome a couple of obstacles. First, there is La Paz. Here, the airport is so high, it is actually called “el Alto.” All international flights seem to arrive between 2:30 and 6:00 a.m., for reasons I can’t understand, but which lead to a disproportionate number of people finding places to sleep in the small, humble airport until they can get into their hotels, hostels or onto morning flights to other places.  Lucky me, I found a random couch outside a ‘pay by the hour’ travelers’ hotel and happily took it. I donned my eye mask and ipod, and slept in cirque-de-soleil inspired contortion until six-thirty a.m. When the airport roared to life, I changed some money, grabbed a cab, and went to meet the owner of our rental apartment.

Because sometimes I am a moron, and because I was booking my Bogota – La Paz ticket when still in the midst of a severe state of travel panic (see The Terror), despite having read Travel Companion’s reservation six times, I still booked my ticket a day too early, leaving her to fend for herself (albeit with excellent instructions) to get a cab from the airport the next morning. As a result, when she showed up, I was a day ahead of her in the ‘adjusting to altitude and diesel’ environment, having spent about ten hours watching bad American HBO movies and eating peanut butter toast the day before. I’d also adjusted to Diamox side effects, like bouncing eyeballs and tingling extremities, especially hands, which make it difficult to sign your name, or unlock the apartment door.

Such is the state we were in when we headed out onto the diesel-fueled and diesel-fumed streets of La Paz to schedule the tour, at a Lonely Planet – recommended, bilingual tour agency with which I had been corresponding via email. I had been taking this whole thing casually, but my travel companion had been doing research, and she was scaring me. Apparently, it isn’t uncommon for tour drivers to be drunk the whole time they are driving. Since we didn’t want to pay $600 each for our three day tour, our driver would also be our guide and our cook. He wouldn’t be bilingual, and blog-rumor had it he would only cook hot dogs. Also, it was likely to be cold – REALLY cold – at night and we would need sleeping bags, which we didn’t have. What if, as the nurse at the travel clinic had warned her, my travel companion got typhoid? What if we had a drunk AND irresponsible driver and ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere, where no one found us until we had our own Bolivian version of “Alive” in full swing, minus the hot soccer players?

When we found the travel agency, we asked these questions as rationally and respectfully as we could. The kind agent tolerated my continuing to speak bad Spanish with her even when she answered me in English, and reminded us it wasn’t good for them if we had a bad tour. The last time they’d had a bad driver reported was in 2008. She recommended we bring some snacks and extra water, assured us we could rent sleeping bags from the agency, and booked our plane tickets to Uyuni for us. (We may not be willing to pay $600 for a better room, a bilingual guide or a cook, but we sure as shit weren’t taking an overnight bus to arrive the morning of our tour.)

Before we said goodbye, we were committed to whatever adventure we had just paid for, which would start with a 6:30 a.m. flight the next day. Unless the travel agent called to let us know it had been moved up to 5:30. In which case, we were pretty sure we weren’t going anyplace. We went to the grocery for bread and water, and returned home to our apartment for peanut butter toast.

Moving, On the Road, Preparing, Traveling

Where and When

Friends, and total strangers….

I’ve had a couple requests for my schedule, and since I’m currently more interested in whether penguins are hatching in Patagonia than how to figure out the calendar feature on WordPress, I’m hoping you all can settle for the little list of places and dates below. It’s a rough outline; as I may have mentioned lately, I realize I probably should have titled this blog, “FlyingBytheSeatofMyPants.com.”

Through November 25th:                  Chile

November 29-December 14:           Myanmar

December 14-December 22:           Cambodia

December 22-January 2:                  Vietnam

January 2 – January 5:                     Thailand (does anyone else see a problem with my ‘New Year’s on a Thai beach’ plan?)

January 6 – January 12:                   Jordan

January 13 – January 26:                 Kenya

January 31 – February 12:               Morocco

February 13 – February 20:             Spain

February 21 – March 1:                    France and Switzerland (Geneva)

March 1 – March 7:                           Amsterdam

March 8 – March 14:                         Eastern Europe TBD

March 15 – April 5:                            Turkey

Looking at it now is pure insanity and I already know how much I’ll miss the things I don’t get to because of time. It’s also pure excitement to see on a page all the amazing places I will get to experience before flying back into DFW, six months and one week to the hour after I flew in for my pre-departure visit. I will be jet lagged and travel weary and hopefully wiser and definitely ready for a Manhattan on the Tried and True patio so someone hook that up!

Moving, On the Road, Preparing, Traveling, Uncategorized

Goodbye to Good Gear

Good gear is essential  to a good trip. Unlike the life-or-death technical difference that defines good gear for, say, an Everest climber, for a traveler, 80% of the “good” in gear is born of the relationship you build with it over time.

For years, I traveled everywhere with an Eagle Creek shoulder bag that perfectly held a journal, guidebook, waterbottle and camera. It came with me to Korea, China, Italy. Somewhere in India, its zipper gave out, so I sent it back to Eagle Creek, who kindly fixed it for free, and I used it again – Guatemala, Nicaragua – until the waterproof lining began to peel off, the canvas weakened, and I had to give it up. The bag, which I still refuse to throw out, had reached its bitter, beloved end.

Good Gear Gone

Good Gear Gone

So I should have been prepared for what happened my first week on the road. To minimize what I lugged in and out of one-night stays, I packed my road clothes in a small, black Eddie Bauer duffle bag I bought circa 1998. To differentiate it from the crowd at baggage claim, I tied a white polka-dotted ribbon to the haul-strap on one end. It perfectly fits ten days worth of clothes, two books and toiletries for the road.

My first night in Taos, I pulled out my pjs and saw trouble. The black tank top in which I sleep looked as if it had developed dandruff on our 13 hour drive.

Duffle Dandruff

Duffle Dandruff

My jeans seemed to have lice. Had a spider hatched eggs in there? One item after another came out of the bag with the tell-tale signs of water-resistant lining peeling off the canvas like skin after a sunburn.  For four days, I wore my clothes in shame, and mourned the imminent death of this good gear.

By Santa Fe, I was consciously suppressing the urge to tell complete strangers, “I don’t have lice – it’s just my bag.” Something had to be done. I bucked up and headed to REI to buy a duffle, aiming to spend no more than $40. I had to dig – through aisles of backpacks with padded straps and toggled bungees that hold gear, through beautiful Eagle Creek duffles with hard bases and rolling wheels. At last I found a multi-colored, slightly retro canvas bag for $49. Longer than my old one, and rounder, its zipper didn’t quite run the length of the top. There could be an uncomfortable reach to pack-in and grab-out, but it would do..

There is nothing to say about this bag other than it just didn’t feel right. It wasn’t mine. It had to go back – but not before I found the proper alternative. So I headed to Alpine Sports, a small, independent store four blocks off the Santa Fe plaza that has been the solution to many a traveler’s clothing dilemma (including my own).  I walked in and asked about duffle bags, and there I fell in love.

I don’t know the name of the man who helped me. I can’t remember it – though I do remember he was the divorced dad of two-and-a-half year old twins. I just know that when he said, “all we have are those,” and pointed to a wall display of brightly-colored, sealant-immersed duffle bags with backpack straps and multi-colored zippers, it was as if the heavens opened and parted the Red Sea holding closed my wallet.

My Patagonia Love Affair

My Patagonia Love Affair

“But they’re Patagonia,” he said, knowing I wanted to spend under $50. I looked anyway. How could I not? I unzipped and re-zipped the pockets. I pulled out the display stuffing to discover a bright green lining inside. I checked the price, caught my breath, and listened as the clerk reminded me that if I bought one of these, I better like it because I wouldn’t need a new one for another decade. And then I went to have lunch.

While sitting at the Cowgirl BBQ, enjoying a harvest salad and Arnold Palmer with Spanky at my feet, I texted my better shopping advisors for advice. Before one could respond with, “do it, girl!” and another could forward the link for the Patagonia ambassadors page, I already knew what I would do. When you’re in love, you’re in love. No regrets.

Dallas, Goodbye, Life Skills, Moving, On the Road, Preparing, Tourist, Traveling

Dallas in My Rearview Mirror

Tomorrow, I will pack my car and watch Dallas fade in my rearview mirror for the last time as a resident. As excited as I am about the beginnings this end represents, I find myself more mixed than I expected about the ‘no-mores’ and ‘haven’t-yets’ that come with it.

Foggy Day in Dallas

Foggy Day in Dallas

This isn’t an ‘I left my heart in San Francisco,’ kind of moment; Dallas and I have never had that kind of relationship. I came for a job and brought an attitude with me, assuming I’d be here two years, and leave. I never actually checked in, so I’m not sure you could call my approach checked-out. But it definitely was disengaged.

My sweet hundred-year-old home in a rare snowfall

And then a few things happened that kept me here. I liked my job. I could afford to buy a house on my own.I fell in love with the house – and then with the convenience of living in Dallas. I ignored that part of me that wasn’t actually doing any actual ‘living’ – an ignorance that is easy to come by when you do yard work, house work, and burglary prevention, get a dog to play with, and watch too much t.v.

After years of returning to San Francisco and Seattle on vacation and wondering how to respond to questions like, “when are you going to get out of there,” I started getting defensive. “It’s not so bad. It has it’s good points,” I’d respond. And then I’d try to list them, and realize my list was short. ‘No state income tax’ is a weak argument in Seattle, which also has no state income tax, in addition to Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, the San Juan Islands, the Olympic Peninsula, and public transportation that actually gets you somewhere. So I realized I needed to augment my list. I started getting engaged.

I actually liked what I found. Dallas has great music venues, many of them in cool old theaters with no such thing as a bad seat in the house. It has Big Tex, the Texas Star and a handful of good dive bars. In the last couple years, I’ve heard speakers from Junot Diaz to Madeline Albright, watched a taping of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, seen Hair, West Side Story, and Alvin Ailey (among others), and heard bands from Metric to Loretta Lynn. I’ve seen Gordon Parks and Cindy Sherman exhibits. I’ve watched the arts district grow by one theater, then another, then an amazing public park the draws people outside for food trucks and chess games and yoga class. And when I tire of Dallas, when I crave some lefty funk, I head to Fort Worth for an afternoon at the Amon Carter or a night at Billy Bob’s. My time is here is ending, but my opportunities to explore are far from over.

Relentless Reunion Tower

Relentless Reunion Tower

I haven’t yet made it to the Canton flea market, or another Chef DAT dinner. I haven’t learned to love the Cowboys, or even how to talk about football, no matter how good it may be for my social life or career. I haven’t learned to two-step, though I have the boots to do it. I haven’t yet eaten at Nazca, that new place at 75 and Walnut Hill – someone go and let me know how it is.

Despite all I haven’t done, my life here has much familiarity that I will miss: driving by the 1-2-3 Divorce storefront on Fitzhugh, which always makes me smile; brunch at la Duni; morning dog walks on Swiss Ave, watching old, neglected houses come back to life during a loving restoration. I’ll miss Taco Joint migas tacos to start the day. Pizza, wine and writing Wednesdays at Times Ten. Nights at the Granada, or the Kessler, falling in love with music I’ve never heard before, or moving on from music I thought I loved. I’ll miss frontage roads to anywhere, and valets to park you everywhere (actually, I won’t – I HATE valet). And of course, I will miss my friends.
In truth, what I will miss most about Dallas is the one thing so obvious to those who know me here, and so foreign to those who know me elsewhere. Even as a resident Dallas, I am an intellectual tourist. The joy, frustration, challenge, and growth that have come from being unable to assume the people around me, even close friends, agree with my outlook (political, social, economic, artistic, what-have-you), are unlike anything I have experienced in any of the other wonderful cities I’ve been lucky to call home. At home in Dallas, I travel regularly through a place so foreign, I could likely stay forever and never have it feel like home. And there is some benefit to that, as I’m sure I will find on the road.

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