AMA #4: Money, Money, Money

Today we have a question from Titch:

I used to travel with travellers cheques sewn and concealed in various places, no cashpoint cards, etc. How did you get by?

Having my first cashpoint card as a teenager, it’s hard for me to picture what the situation would have been like 20 or 30 years ago in this respect.

A friend advised me to keep some US dollars in my shoe, in case things went tits up hitchhiking in Kyrgyzstan, but I didn’t even get that far, let alone sewing cash and cheques into my clothing.

When in Latvia last year, I lost my Lloyds debit card, and couldn’t pay for anything or withdraw cash.

Fortunately, I had been persuaded earlier in the year to open a Revolut account.

I urge everybody to do that. I’ve gotten by easily and cheaply in most destinations with Revolut.

The setup was shockingly fast.

Usually, big institutions in our part of the world make people wait in limbo of ‘can-I-even-open-a-bank-account’ or ‘will-I-ever-access-my-money’, with little update in the meanwhile as to whether the banker’s thumb will turn up or down.

Revolut and the like make the big banks, the Lloyds and HSBCs and Natwests of the world, look like the inflexible and unnecessarily cumbersome bureaucracies that they are.

And, most importantly from a travel perspective, Revolut doesn’t charge you through the feckin’ nose for currency exchanges. Lloyds have had more than a pound of flesh from me through overseas payments over the years.

So, in Latvia I lose my Lloyds debit card, I have a digital Revolut card issued, that information is input into Google Pay, and I use that platform to pay with my Revolut card.

Fucking mindblowing to me, still, as I write that down. With just my Dad’s old phone, my passport and my personal information, I opened a bank account and began to pay for things.

A few years back, first seeing people pay by tapping phones and Apple iWatches to payment terminals, I was squeamish. Until I was out of money and out of ideas, and saved by this very technology.

How did I get by in these countries?

Georgia and Turkey were very connected, and aside from being able to withdraw their local currencies, I could also withdraw US dollars and euros if I wanted, and I could pay with card in most places, no problem.

Surprisingly, in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, I had no problems withdrawing money, though obviously cashpoints thinned out very fast going into the sticks. In the capitals of Bishkek and Tashkent I often paid with card. Easy peasy.

Iraq and Lebanon are different beasts.

I’ll tell you a story about Iraqi Kurdistan.

My Syrian host told me that I should withdraw plenty of US dollars before coming to Iraqi Kurdistan, which effectively functions as a cash economy.

Judging from the amount of money I spent in the preceding third-world countries, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (I don’t include Turkey in that category for reasons I may discuss elsewhere), I arrived at the figure of $200 for two weeks.

That would last me a couple of weeks in either of those ‘Stans, comfortably with food and beer, so it stands to reason it would last me comfortably here, eh?

Arriving at the Erbil International Airport, a charmingly sedate place with moustachioed cigarette smoking officials – BOOM! – I am greeted with a $70 visa charge.

I use Couchsurfing mostly, so I have no overheads per se, and when I go to the bazaar in Erbil I discover the produce is cheap, real cheap, on a par with Uzbekistan. Costed me a dollar for bags of tomatoes, cucumbers, cherries and some dill.

My only other expenses were beer, shisha and taxis – necessary in the 45 degree heat, as I quickly discovered. There were all reasonably cheap.

But, alas, I spot a tattoo parlour, run by a German and a Romanian, and the prospect of getting my first tattoo in six years here in Iraqi Kurdistan is too tempting. Big chunk out of the remaining cash.

The tattoo guys say they are going out after work to party tomorrow, I should come along.

Hell yeah, I should! Who knew that there would be a party scene over here?

The tattoo guys say I can crash at theirs, so the next day I take my stuff from my first host’s place and dump it at their swanky high rise apartment overlooking Erbil.

Before I do anything, though, I better go get some money out. I’m down to less than $40 after the last few days of food and beer and shisha and the tattoo.

The city’s 7 ATMs are all located at the mall, which I taxi to for the equivalent of $2.

I insert my card into the first ATM. Nope.

Second, nope.

Third, fifth, seventh, nope, nope, nope.


I contact my bank and ask what the problem is.

“Revolut do not service this region.”

In a region where card payments are but a hopeful prospect for the future, a region currently with a cash-only economy, I cannot withdraw cash.

Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks.

About $40 for around 10 days?

Doable, I think.

If I can make a nutritious meal for less than $1, if I can rely on Kurdish hospitality and hitchhike, if I cut back on the beer and shisha, if I continue to couchsurf, this is doable. Not ideal, but very possible.

When the tattoo parlour wraps up work for the week, we go to party, drinking, dancing, chirping until the small hours.

Fast-forward: I am sat at an afterparty at 6am and – drinking gin and cherry juice, nibbling on dolman, listening to a Syrian explain to me how the British royal family rule the world and the Jews “use magic” to achieve financial domination – it dawns on me.

I have blown all of my remaining cash.

Literally about a dollar to my name.

In the taxi back to our apartment, there is Bangladeshi man standing in the road selling roses.

It’s about 8am, and the sun is already beginning to bake the tarmac, and I think, what a life that is. Attempting to sell roses at this time and place and in this unforgiving heat.

I reward this fellow’s grit by giving him my remaining money, buying a rose for the Iranian girl in our taxi, before we return to the high rise apartment, and I go to sleep, without a physical penny to my person.

Admittedly, yes, of course, I am uniquely moronic.

In my defence, though, we have all become over the last few years quite accustomed to the occidental privilege of withdrawing one’s stored value at the click of our fingers, the swipe of our cards, the beep of our phones.

And, perhaps a less robust defence, how could I turn down the experience of nightlife here in Iraqi Kurdistan?

In the morning, fortunately with a place to stay and internet connection, I get to work trying to obtain hard currency.

I have money, I just need a way to manifest it physically, to transmute my money into hard currency for use here in Iraqi Kurdistan.

But it is Friday, the Muslim’s Saturday, and tomorrow is Saturday, the Muslim’s Sunday.

Banks are closed.

Western Union and MoneyGram, two payment services suggested to me by friends, are open with reduced hours, though.

Western Union does not, for some reason, allow payments to be made from Guernsey accounts, so there’s that idea shot down.

I try MoneyGram, another payment service, but have no joy.

I ask one of my current hosts if I can bank transfer him money and he give me cash, and he says no, because it is useless to him sat in a bank account.

I ask the other host if I can borrow a bit of cash, so I can buy something to eat and get a taxi to the centre where I might be able to obtain cash, and he says no.

I ask my last host, the Syrian fellow, if I can send him money and he give me cash, and he says no.

Alas, I am stranded, a little down-spirited, mostly at my own stupidity and having to debase myself by trying to draw on other people’s goodwill, and additionally so for having my pathetic requests declined. Demeaning.

So, that day, I didn’t eat. I didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t do anything. I just read my books and pissed around on my phone and wrote in my diary.

And, the next day, I didn’t eat, I didn’t go anywhere, I didn’t do anything. I just sipped water in that sweatbox of a room, read books, and wrote in my diary.

On the third day, stomach empty but for water, sweating in the not-yet-air-conditioned room, I was attempting to get around Western Union’s ridiculous no-Guernsey policy.

At that point I remembered the words “Westan You-Niorn” being pronounced in the musical accent of my good friend, the Italian Stallion, Andrea.

Andrea had been caught in a similar pickle when we were in Riga together. I had gladly lent him enough money to see that he ate sufficiently and drank excessively whilst he tried to obtain money from Westan You-Niorn.

I thought I would drop Andrea a message, seeing if he could help me out of this predicament.

Andrea promptly replied, “Morning shag! Davai, we’ll fix that today”.

I sent him my personal details – “Apollo, you serious?” – and transferred to his bank account the amount of money I wished him to send me via Western Union.

Within a couple of short hours, the Illustrious Stallion di Italiano sent me several hundred dollars, far more than even I could hope to squander in my remaining time in Iraqi Kurdistam.

And so it was, that the afternoon on the third day, I went in the 45 degree heat to withdraw money from a Western Union location, left the apartment in which I had stayed, and went to stay in a cheap and cheerful motel, eating plentifully, drinking Beirut beer, and smoking shisha to my heart’s (dis)content with chirpy Kurdish locals.

I was happy with the whole ordeal.

Now, I had money.

I had got a nice fast in, feeling light and fresh.

I learned a valuable lesson about the price of impulsivity.

An even more valuable lesson about the price of preparing poorly – or not at all.

And, puffing sagely on my shisha pipe, I vowed, solemnly, never, ever to be caught in such a position again.

Of course, this didn’t last.

3 thoughts on “AMA #4: Money, Money, Money

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