Saturday, March 15, 2014


One of the perils of International travel is understanding foreign currency. Seldom will you find the value of the U.S. Dollar equal to the value of the country you are visiting.

For example, as I write this, the value of one U.S. Dollar is as follows:

0.72 Euros
13.24 Mexican Pesos
6.15 Chinese Yuans
1.11 Australian Dollars (close!)
2,042 Colombian Pesos

Did you catch that last one? Two thousand and forty-two. That's the one that really knocks me for a loop. Early this week I took my first trip to the South American continent and I visited Bogota, Colombia where I got to realize the perils of foreign currency exchange firsthand.

See, while waiting for my luggage at Bogota's El Dorado International Airport, I spied lines of people at the nearby foreign currency exchange. Since the baggage carousel had not yet started, I thought, "This would be a good time for me to go exchange a few U.S. Dollars for a few Pesos so that I can, at least, pay the taxi driver."

Note 1,930 instead of 2,042
I handed the teller three twenties. After investigating my passport and requesting a sign an exchange document, he handed me 115,800.00 Colombian Pesos. "Whoa," I thought. "I'm rich!!" That's a lot of moola!!

By the time I made the exchange the carousel was moving and I immediately spied my luggage. I grabbed it and headed straight for the Salida (Exit; see? I learned some Spanish!). Unexpectedly quickly a lady asked, "Taxi, Sir?"

"Si. Por favor." I replied.

Within 10 seconds she had a cab at the curb and she hoisted my heavy luggage into the trunk. While this was occurring, I fumbled through my wallet to find an appropriate tip.

I spied a 10,000 Peso bill. "Nah. That's too much," I thought.

Fingered a 5,000; thought the same.

All I had was a few U.S. $20s--I wasn't going to give her one of those.

"Oh. What's this? A couple of 50 peso bills?" That sounds about right. I'll give her those.

I hop in the cab's backseat and I'm whisked off to my hotel.

Once there, I open my wallet so that the cabbie can expect my pesos. (A high risk proposition, but what do you do? He speaks no English; I, little Spanish. You just gotta put your faith in humankind and hope that he doesn't steal you blind.) He looks at my 5,000 bill. No, Senor. My 10,000 bill. No, again, Senor. My 5,000 PLUS my 10,000 bill. Lo Siento, Senor.

Finally I show him one of my U.S. twenties. Si, Senor! Si!!

I handed him the twenty and proceeded into the hotel wondering just what the hell happened? I mean, I just cashed in sixty U.S. bucks, why didn't that cover my trip?

I met a few of my associates at the pub and we discussed this. All I can figure, at this point, is that the teller at the exchange didn't give me the proper amount. We even table all of the pesos so that we can expect them. There were 2,000; 5,000; 10,000; and 20,000 bills. In every case, the amount was in thousands as indicated by the string of triple zeroes.

I started to think about those two fifties I handed the taxi caller. "Did those say 50,000 and not 50?!" I wondered.

No. I was positive. They only had a 5 and a 0 in the corner. "I'm certain of it," I reassured myself, but once I returned to my hotel room, I logged on to Wikipedia and searched Colombian currency.

Ta da!

There it was. The bill that has likely messed up many a foreign traveler to Colombia before. The 50,000 peso bill. And sure enough, it only has a 5 and a 0 in the upper corner. However, what sets this bill apart from its brethren is that rather than indicating the thousands values by a string of triple zeroes, this little beauty substitutes the word "MIL". MIL meaning thousand.

I gave the taxi caller approximately $50 just for lifting my luggage into the back of a taxi cab!!

She must have thought I was one big spender and went home to her family to celebrate!!

Crap. Fifty bucks, down the drain.

Well, one of my associates reassured me that this mistake will likely result in some form of good karma that will someday come my way. At least I got that goin' for me.

So take this tip from me (pun not intended), before traveling to a foreign country, look up a little about the value of the currency relative to the dollar and examine the appearance of their cash.

It just may save you fifty bucks.

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