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Changing Money on the Black Market.

“…send lawyers, guns and money, Dad get me out of this…” Warren Zevon

I was casually taking pictures along Calcutta’s infamous Howrah Bridge – munching on a thumb-sized chunk of hash, seriously fucked up. I like eating hash, less obvious than smoking, and lasts way way longer.

Every place I looked, another photo op - each better than the last. Cows protected by the Hindu Religion roaming freely, laying down wherever they pleased, shitting at will. Oxen pulling carts overflowing with huge bales of raw cotton. Guys carrying huge bundles perched on their heads, trotting along single file, one behind the other. Buses crammed to bursting - people stuffed inside, jammed on the roof, hanging from glass-less windows, spilling from open doors clutching desperately at any handhold – the things teetering on busted springs and flattened tires. Bare-footed men pulling rickshaws over steaming-hot, jaggedly broken asphalt. Beggars standing with missing arms, beggars sitting with missing legs, beggars lying helpless in the street, missing both arms and legs. Elegant chauffer driven cars, horns constantly blaring, pushing majestically through the chaos, single passengers in isolated splendor on plush rear seats. Push bikes. Motor bikes. Three wheeled farm tractors. Herds of goats. Herds of sheep. Snake charmers, contortionists, jugglers and fire eaters. Saddhus covered with the white ash of piety, wise men with uncut beards and wild eyes. And people - everywhere, people. An endless, unstoppable river – surging, jostling, foaming, boiling in all directions. A giant heaving mass of people.

What’s that? A dead body? Casually lying there in the roadway? Ignored by the mob stepping impatiently around it? Intent on getting where they are going – uninterested, uncaring, unfazed?

What could be better? A head full of grade-A opiated hash, my new Nikon, lots of unopened boxes of film, unbelievable sights no matter where I look. Massive sensory overload. I can barely work the shutter release fast enough.

Plus, that morning I’d found a new black-market money changer. Changed US$300 into Indian Rupees just like that. No ruinous bank commission – but more importantly, no dealing with the endless, agonizing hours of Official India’s money- changing bureaucratic bullshit. As a bonus, guy turned out to have a fresh supply – for US$5 – of the very hash I was now happily munching on…

You change money on the black-market for various reasons: mostly, of course, for a better rate than that set artificially by Governments. Or, to avoid high commissions; the often time-consuming process itself; when “legal” places are closed; the minor “thrill” of doing it at least once - in order to have a good story for friends.

The downsides, of course, are the un-ending ways you can get ripped off, and the whole thing is usually illegal.

Nothing will make you feel stupider, quicker, than unrolling a thick wad of bills that you got on the Black at an extravagantly good exchange rate – only to find pieces of newspaper where money should be. Or tens instead of hundreds. Or obvious counterfeits… as they said in Ghostbusters, who you gonna fuckin’ call?

Like magic, the rip-offs are done with smoke, mirrors, and misdirection. The switches take place under your very nose, usually right after the correct amount has been carefully counted out into your open palm. Remember, if some guy can make an elephant disappear on live television, imagine what can happen to your hundred dollar bill.

The simple key is for everyone to handle the money once and only once. Which’s much harder than it sounds…

So, strategies to follow when changing money on the Black. Most of these are good practice at “legal” changers as well. Main thing to remember - this isn’t a movie, television show, game, or thrill ride. This is real people - with real money at stake - and the real possibility of getting ripped off, injured, or jailed.

Just how do you find the Black? Fellow travelers or ex-pats are your best bet. Restaurant owners, cabbies, merchants (in Katmandu, Nepal, the Indian rug sellers even change traveler’s checks on the Black), hotel employees, tour guides… Sometimes, it simply finds you – guys’ll call out “change money?” as you walk down the street. In some parts of the World, they are pretty blatant about it, waving around hand-held calculators. You can search the Internet – though often “legitimate” travel sites won’t provide much useful information, other than advising to avoid it – better off with message boards.

Once you’ve found it – and feel secure about the whole thing – do a test run with a small amount. Do your homework first. Know the “official” rate, commission costs at “legal” outlets, and try to have an idea of the going Black rate.

Start by wrapping only the amount you wish to change in a rubber band, and putting it in your pocket. Put emergency money, a copy of your Passport, and a card from your Hotel in the waist carrier under your clothes. Bring your own hand-held calculator. Doesn’t hurt to do a little role playing about now – practice what you are going to say and do.

Approach a guy. He’ll probably speak at least enough somewhat-understandable English to do a deal. Ask, “what’s the rate?”

He’ll usually ask back, “how much you change?” Tell him. He’ll give you a rate. This may be fixed or negotiable. To check, ask if it’ll be better if you change more? But be very clear about the amount you are interested in changing right now! Once you arrive at an agreed upon rate – use your calculator to determine how much foreign currency you will actually be getting. It isn’t that unusual for his to be gaffed!

Once you’ve agreed on terms – and be very clear about amounts, punching them up on your calculator - the real work begins.

You must follow these steps exactly – deviation is where the rip-offs (other than a lower exchange rate or phony calculator or counterfeit money) take place. Also, if for any reason you feel uneasy, just walk away. No matter what the reason, just walk away. There’ll always be another guy, another day…go with your instincts.

But if everything seems fine…

First, have him give you the entire agreed-upon amount of foreign currency. He may ask to see your money - which is ok - but don’t let him touch it. He may piss and moan a bit, or even initially flat refuse. Pissing and moaning is ok, refusal is not. If he refuses at first, ask him once more. If he still refuses, walk immediately away, case closed. No matter what he says or does, walk away. Be pleasant and polite, but go find someone else. He was planning to rip you off.

Assuming he agrees, take all the money at once. Don’t let him give you a little bit at a time, or take some back under any circumstances. Take it and back up a step or two, out of reach. Examine each bill for authenticity. He may try to hurry or distract you, perhaps with side-of-the-mouth talk of “police” or “people watching.” Whatever, refuse to be hurried or sidetracked. After you have thoroughly examined both sides of each bill, slowly count the money in front of him. You may want to count it twice, just for affect.

Do not – ever – give the money back to him. He may suddenly become agitated and have some story about giving you too little, or mistakenly giving you “last year’s currency” or something equally plausible. He may ask, “don’t you trust me?” He may simply grab at it – which is why you remain out of range. Again, do not ever let the money touch his hands again. If you do give it back for any reason, do not continue the transaction. Walk away. There may be some harsh words, but remember you are both doing something illegal…

Once you have verified the quality and quantity of bills, wrap in a rubber band and put in your pocket. This may cause a bit of amusement, especially in those countries where there are like 10,000 somethings to a dollar, and you get a grapefruit-sized wad of money.

Then, and only then, should you take out your own money. Do not just hand it to him! Count it slowly in front of him. And again. Before you finally hand it over, ask if that is the agreed amount? If so, than give it to him, say a quick “thank you.” Follow with, “I may see you again with more,” smile and walk away. Under no circumstances, no matter what, should you ever touch your money again. He may try to give it back to show you something, or explain something, or complain about something, or just suddenly thrust it in your hands. While it is natural to want to take it, do not! Just walk calmly away. Again, always as pleasantly and politely as possible.

To avoid pick-pockets who have been watching, or have been signaled as to which pocket holds your newly-changed money, transfer it to your waist belt as quickly and surreptitiously as possible.

Be aware that while this scenario may not be possible to follow exactly all the time, all the problems, cheats, and rip-offs happen when money is touched for the second time, no matter what the reason.

Try not to be flustered, or confused, or rattled, though it is natural to do so.

If it works ok, go back again to the same guy, but always follow the same rules. Always. Never deviate, never change. You make become friendly over the course of time and transactions, you may even – like me - buy a bit of dope, but never deviate.

Which’s not always easy, especially if you are as fucked up as I was. Suddenly, in the midst of all my frantic and happy picture taking, this little skinny guy dressed all in white appears out of nowhere and grabs my arm. Clamps his hand on it pretty damn hard.

“Hey,” I snarl, “what the fuck you doin’? Get your fucking hands off me!”

“Police,” he says, “you come.”

Uh, gee. Hmmm. Oh, I see now. All white. Brown ribbed army issue belt. Burnished wooden rod hanging by a leather strap from his wrist. Right. Police. Well fuck me!

Again, he says, “you come,” tugging with some force at my arm.

With a head fucked up on hash. And a hand filled with the shit. And it suddenly dawns on me that no one knows where I am. Not one single soul.

Off we trudge to the Police Station.

Arrested in Calcutta.

But that’s another story…

Faxless Payday Loan

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