A while back I read a cool guest post by Money Graffiti on Budgets Are Sexy about the legality of writing on dollar bills. You can read it here. It reminded me of a story from my 14-month backpacking trip about a special and very ugly dollar bill.
A consistent necessity throughout my trip was exchanging money. When traveling for long periods of time and crossing borders frequently, it’s important to carefully track and monitor spending so that you don’t end up crossing a border with too much of a local currency. If you do, you’ll likely pay a hefty fee to exchange it in the next country.
Crossing borders has costs as it is. Costs include a taxi or minibus to get there, the visa at the border, or some other miscellaneous ‘fee’ that the guard probably ends up pocketing (not uncommon at low volume crossings).
Most people would consider that a bribe, but around the world, a little extra cash in an official’s pocket is commonplace. Myanmar was one such place that a bribe was useful.
Background on the Currency of Myanmar
Prior to March 2013, the Union of Myanmar (aka Burma) was notorious for a certain currency exchange annoyance. The official currency of Myanmar is the kyat (pronounced “chat”). When I was there in 2001, the government was run by a military junta and politically isolated from the rest of the world. The kyat was traded internationally at a rate of about 6 kyats per one dollar (see this strange 10-year chart). However, there was a significant black market for US dollars since they were officially banned and scarce. One dollar would fetch closer to 700 kyats in a local market.
The government issued a second currency called a FEC or Foreign Exchange Certificate. FECs were pegged to the US dollar one-for-one. Upon arrival, foreigners were required by customs to exchange $200 US dollars for 200 FECs. That way, the government would get the hard currency, and tourists would use the FECs to pay for things. The kyat was used by the Burmese citizens. FECs were always excepted at hotels and restaurants, but less desirable in markets and on the street where most of the commerce took place. Outside of Myanmar, FECs were completely worthless.
I say the exchange was a requirement, but the Lonely Planet guidebook suggested that travelers didn’t have to exchange all of the $200. For a $5 bribe, the official collecting the cash would lower the required amount to $100. A $10 bribe would lower it to $50. Since the government was generally frowned upon at the time for numerous human rights violations, travelers would execute the bribe to lower the amount given directly to the government, making themselves feel somewhat better about visiting the oppressive country. The dollar was also more desirable when bargaining for goods so it was better to keep them. I opted for the $10 bribe.
A Black Market Exchange
A week or so into the country I was in Mandalay and needed to exchange some US dollars for kyat. I was planning to rent a bike that day from a vendor a few doors down from my hotel. A sign reading Bikes For Hire stood outside of a singular dark red door. I rang the bell and a man came running from another nearby storefront to greet me. He opened the red door leading to his bike storage, which was more of a shed with all kinds of tools and junk. He owned two or three functional bicycles.
In exchange for a bike for the day, I paid him 300 kyats or about 40 cents US. I casually asked him if he knew a place where I could exchange my crisp $20 dollar bill. His eyes lit up. He said he could do it for me at the nearby market. He quoted me what seemed to be the going rate, then ran off with my $20 dollar bill.
He was gone for about ten minutes as I stood there with the rented bike. $20 was two days worth of travel money so I was a little nervous. But the time passed and my broker came running back to hand over about 14,000 kyats.
The man was curious about the United States and rarely met someone like me. He had a plan to leave Myanmar one day to live in the US. The elaborate plan included somehow getting to Thailand and saving quite a lot of money to pay a handler to get him to San Francisco. He figured he could make it happen in five to ten years. It seemed like a long-shot, but I answered his questions about how to get from San Francisco to New York where his friend lived. He borrowed my pocket atlas for the day.
The Sacred Book
The day biking solo around Mandalay was a memorable one. Riding past the local University, a group of four law students approached and offered to buy me a drink (a Star Cola). We talked about the US and why I was visiting Mandalay. I didn’t have a good answer, but I remember pointing to a beautiful giant banyan tree nearby and saying we don’t have those where I’m from. The leader of the bunch and I have stayed in touch to this day.
When I returned to the bike rental shop, the man who rented the bike asked me to wait again and hurriedly ran off. Confused, I waited as I had nowhere to be. He returned with a friend who wanted to speak to me.
The companion looked serious. He carried in two hands a dark, hard covered and sacred looking book. Glancing between me and his book, he slowly opened it to reveal a severely damaged US $1 bill. The bill was heavily faded and in the early stages of disintegration. I saw the George side first. An inch of the top left corner had been completely ripped off, but loosely reattached using two blue staples. Three or four small notches adorned the right side similar to the ear of an alley cat. Small gray blotches, smudges, and black ink marks sporadically marked up the front side.
His English was poor but he tried to speak some anyway. The bike peddler helped translate.
“My friend want make trade, with you my friend.” “My friend…he want to give… you”. Again I was confused. “You give dollar.” After a long pause, I realized the proposition.
The man’s dollar was worthless in Myanmar. Nobody wants an ugly tattered dollar bill. Everyone wants a crisp new bill to hide under the mattress. He simply wanted to exchange his ugly dollar bill for a better one. If I took the dollar home, he thought I could probably get away with spending it.
Once I figured this out, I reached for my money and realized I only had $1 FEC bills. He gladly accepted.
He carefully removed the $1 bill from the book and handed it over. In the palm of my hand, it had the rigidity of a silk scarf. On the flip side, a bright red ink was scattered about as if painted on by a toddler with a paperclip. Another one-inch tear on the left side became evident in my hand when I flipped it over. This thing might need more blue staples, I said to myself. It was far and away, the ugliest and most fragile $1 bill I had ever seen.
I pulled a bank envelope out from my money belt and placed it securely between two crisp US $20 dollar bills and didn’t touch it again for a few weeks.
The Value of a Dollar
In the US, a dollar doesn’t buy you much. Inflation makes it worth less every year. But in other parts of the world, many people still live on just one dollar a day. When I was traveling, each dollar was important because the more I kept the longer I could continue my lifestyle. By accounting for each dollar spent, I knew how much longer I could travel for and when I could spend a little extra on tours or flights.
Landing in the US after a long flight home, suddenly one dollar was worth much less than it was in Myanmar. Sometimes I think about the value of a dollar from the viewpoint of that Burmese guy instead of as an American. It reminds me of the importance of saving money and that I’m lucky to live where I live.
What Happened to the Dollar Bill?
Admittedly, I wish I still had that $1 bill. It was so ugly you would laugh at it. I bargained aggressively for a very nice oil painting in Yangon before I left which is now my signature Burmese souvenir. Framed on my wall, the $1 bill would have been one of the proudest mementos of all my traveling. But I spent it.
Why did I spend it? Well, I returned home from Asia and left for South America three weeks later to continue traveling. Each and every dollar to my name meant that I could keep on going. One dollar was ½ the cost of a nights’ sleep in some towns, a couple of beers in a hostel, or a day’s worth of street-side noodle dishes in China. One dollar meant a lot to me. When that Burmese man asked me to swap him for it, it was worth a lot more than a dollar to him too.
It wasn’t meant to be framed and hung on a wall or stashed in a memory box. That bill was destined to be spent in America, deposited at a bank, and eventually shredded like all the other $1 bills. If only I could find a place that would accept such a bill.
Much of Asia lacks decent cheese. Another thing Asia lacks is nachos. During the trip, my friend and I were always craving good pizza and nachos. Pizza with bad cheese was occasionally available, but authentic stadium style nacho cheese was impossible to find. It was the one thing I craved every day for 4 ½ months.
One afternoon while staying with my parents during my three-week travel break, I went to the nearest 7-11 to buy some nachos. They were out. So I went to the only other 7-11 I knew of, another 10-minute drive away. I bought an order of nachos with jalapenos and ate them on the curb outside of the entrance. They cost me $2.12 with tax. I paid with cash.