Remembering Europe before the Euro

American travelers often complain about the current money situation in Europe. With the Dollar/Euro exchange rate sitting around $1.40/1, along with inconvenient credit card PIN requirements, making a purchase in many European countries is downright inconvenient. But there was a time it was far more complicated – namely any date before 2002, when Europe’s common currency, the Euro, was first introduced.

My first taste of European travel came in the waning years of Deutsche Marks, Guilders and Pesetas. Every time you moved to a new country, you had to exchange your money for a new currency. For a young backpacker like me experiencing several countries for the first time, it was a confusing and expensive proposition, particularly when you were in transit among several of them at once. Traveling from The Netherlands via Belgium to France? Best not try to buy something in Brussels: that would require you to exchange money. And forget about keeping the notes, coins and exchange rates straight – each brightly colored pink note and strangely bearded head of state was a new lesson in geography, history and politics and quickly calculated math.

Europe has grown up since then. Today, I can use the same money for a pizza in Rome as I do to buy a sweater in Dublin. But despite the simplicity of the Euro, I still find myself pining for those days before the single currency began its monetary dominance. Maybe it’s no more than the naivete of youth – a simpler time in my life when those first exotic breaths of foreign culture and the feel of strange currencies in my palm suggested all the possibilities of travel and adventure.

Is travel easier in Europe now? Yes, absolutely. But with that ease of use, a distinct piece of national identity also disappeared along with it. Our globalized world marches on.


[Photo by Flickr user]

Bank of China offers expanded yuan service

The Bank of China has begun offering its customers in New York City and Los Angeles services in yuan, Bloomberg reports. Services include deposit, exchange, remittance, and trade finance. Business customers may access these services in New York City and Los Angeles, while at the moment individual customers can only access these services at the New York City branch.

What does this mean for travelers? Not much, yet. If you’re one of the many English teachers in China you can send money home more easily, but that’s about it.

It’s the long-term view that’s interesting. China is obviously trying to expand the range of the yuan (also called the renminbi) beyond its borders. In fact, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said as much last year when he expressed worry over how much China’s international assets are dominated by the dollar. This move allows international trading in yuan, which is sure to attract more investment and, if it’s successful, bolster the currency’s strength. It’s already at an all-time high against the dollar. The New York branch’s general manager says the move will eventually lead to the yuan being fully exchangeable with the dollar.

This will encourage further investment in China and could lead to more foreign businesses opening up shop there. It would also make it easier for international travel businesses to have offices in China. A yuan that’s strong against the dollar, however, will make trips to China more expensive for Americans.

Tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors in the Chinese economy. More and more Chinese are traveling abroad, and with greater access and use of their currency, those numbers will only increase. The World Trade Organization says if current trends continue, China will have the largest share of the world’s tourism industry by 2020, with 8.6 percent of global revenue.

Could yuan become another international currency like the dollar and the euro? Could we see money changers accepting them in more destinations? Only time will tell.

[Photo courtesy user Polylepsis via Wikimedia Commons]

A Mexican traveler’s money-saving tips

Headed to Mexico on a budget? Then you’re headed to the right place. In my experience, Mexican businesses and their employees are some of the friendliest and most service oriented people I’ve met, so you should take advantage of the freebies they’re usually willing to offer to visitors. A couple of years ago I started exploring the country of my ancestors, usually with a friend for company. Here are a few of the money saving tips I learned during my travels to Mexico City, Monterrey, and San Luis Potosi.

Take advantage of the free rides some nice restaurants will offer you back to your hotel
My friend and I discovered this service in Mexico City late one night after dinner and drinks at an Argentine steakhouse. We asked our server if the restaurant could call a cab, and instead he offered us the use of the restaurant’s car and driver. We gave the driver a reasonable tip and saved ourselves the cost of a cab fare. This service isn’t available at every restaurant, but all you have to do is ask to find out.

Don’t be afraid of street food
Sure, we splurged at that Argentine restaurant, but my friend and I also ate a lot of our meals on the side of the road, where you can get a hearty, delicious, and inexpensive meal at a food cart. Believe me, it was not easy convincing my friend that street food is safe and delicious. In San Luis Potosi, I finally convinced him to try a street vendor’s gorditas, which are fat tortillas that are split open and stuffed with meats and cheeses. When we were headed home, he admitted it was the best meal he had the entire trip, and it only cost us a couple of dollars!

Keep reading for more tips below…
Visit free admission museums
They’re everywhere, especially in Monterrey and Mexico City. I couldn’t believe how many museums are gratis, while I pay to get into most museums in the U.S. These attractions are a great way to learn more about the local history and culture. You might be approached by a museum guide, but you probably don’t need to hire one. Most of the Mexican museums I’ve been to are visitor friendly, with written explanations in Spanish and English for each exhibit. A word of caution: get there early. Some museums in Mexico close as early as 4pm.

Grab a free city map and guide instead of buying one
Some cities, including San Luis Potosi and Monterrey, have great tourist information centers. San Luis Potosi has one in the town square, and Monterrey has a couple of them in the bus station. Just ask for the oficina de turismo. It shouldn’t be too hard to find one, and they offer free maps and attraction guides in English, handed out by friendly greeters.

Skip the overpriced hotel breakfast
Many hotels in Mexico offer breakfast, but if it isn’t free, then skip it. The one time I ate at a hotel the food was okay, but overpriced and not so traditionally Mexican. Instead, I suggest hitting the streets to find a panaderia, a bakery where you can buy pan dulce, or traditional Mexican sweet bread. Throw in a cup of Mexican hot chocolate or coffee and you’ve got a quick, inexpensive breakfast. Yum!

Use public transportation instead of a taxi whenever possible
When we visited Mexico City, we decided to take a day trip to Xochimilco, a borough of the city that’s known for its series of canals that tourists and locals travel by boat. We could have taken a cab, but we were told it would cost us around $30. Instead we took the light rail train, which connects to the city’s metro system. It took us a little longer to get to Xochimilco, but we took in the landscape along the way, and it cost us less than $5 round trip.

Book your flight through a Mexican airline
Okay, this tip isn’t for everyone, but if, like me, you live in South Texas or another area near the border, this could work. When I was headed to Mexico City, I had a friend drop me off at an airport near the border in Reynosa, Mexico. If you don’t have anyone to drive you into Mexico, take a taxi or a bus to the airport. My plane ticket from Reynosa to Mexico City cost less than $300 on Mexicana, a reputable airline. Compared to the fares I found on several U.S. airlines, that saved me at least $200.

Shop around for a cash exchange rate

Casas de cambio,
or cash exchange houses, are everywhere. Especially in tourist hot spots, you should look around for the best rate. Use an exchange house instead of a bank and you’ll be out of there with your cash more quickly and easily.


Seven things to do with your unused foreign currency

Despite only taking out as much as money from the ATM as you thought you’d need each day, you somehow managed to come in under budget. Now what do you do with this extra foreign currency you’ve got burning a hole through your picket? You could convert it back to your home currency, getting hit with exchange fees again, or you could try one of these seven options.

Save it for next time.

If the currency in question is Euros, it may make more sense to just save the bills for your next trip to Europe. By the time you convert the money back into dollars (or whatever your home currency is), the amount you lose to fees may not make it financially worthwhile, even if the exchange rate eventually changes in your favor. Obviously, with more exotic currencies, this isn’t a good option. Who knows when you’ll be able to return to Uruguay.

Sell it to another traveler.
If you know of another traveler heading to the destination soon, you can offer to sell them your leftover currency. Offer then a rate that is lower than what they pay at the bank or once they arrive in country, but higher than what you would make selling the currency back for dollars. In this way, you both win.Donate it.
You were going to spend it anyways right? Why not give it to a worthy cause? At a few airports, I have seen donation boxes out near the security line. Throw your spare change in here and you may help improve life for someone in that country. You could also convert it and donate the changed bills to a charity at home.

Display it.
I’m fascinated by foreign currency. I always keep one or two of the most interesting or colorful bills and coins from every country I visit. I keep them in a glass jar on my mantel, as both a unique decoration and a subtle reminder of the places I have been.

Spend it on airport souvenirs. …
After arriving at the airport and realizing that (after we took out the money we wanted to keep and take home to display) we still had close to 100 South African Rand (a little more than $10) my husband and I decided to blow it on souvenirs. Since we had some time to kill, we each took 50 Rand and set out to spend as much of the money as we could on last-minute airport souvenir tchotchkes. We had a fun time and came away with a few silly mementos of our trip that we otherwise would not have bought.

Or be a big spender at the airport
I hate spending money at the airport. After spending money throughout my trip, I hate the idea of dumping more money right before I head home. But, when I have some leftover currency to get rid of, it doesn’t seem as annoying. Use the opportunity to get rid of the cash in style. Treat yourself to a a few glasses of quality wine at the airport bar, opt for the more expensive entree, or spring for one of the massages offered in your terminal. It doesn’t make sense to be wasteful of course, but sometimes it is fun to enjoy the little extras that you normally wouldn’t.

Add it to your travel fund.
If you do plan on changing the money back into your home currency, don’t just use the money for groceries or bus fare. Put into a special fund earmarked for travel and contribute to it every time you come home from a trip. After a few trips, you may not have enough to cover a plane ticket, but you might have amassed enough cash to cover a few splurges on your next trip.

A Canadian in Beijing: Floating at Bloody Sunday

Bloody Sunday worried me when I first heard about it. I thought it might be a hardcore women’s event that discussed menstruation and girl power, which to be honest is not for me. I mean, I’ve ‘been there, done that’ and it’s no longer my speed. No offence to all the blood sisters out there who are currently reclaiming their bodies, self-worth and sisterhood; it’s wonderful to experience this kind of transition and learning, especially about patriarchy and empowerment. For me, time passed and now I look back on that time in my life, raise my fist in solidarity and realize I’ve moved on. No crime in that. Part of that very movement is thanks to the empowerment, so credit given where credit is due.

Now, along a different empowerment path, this monthly event is about connecting the arts community here in Beijing. A woman named Pauline organizes the night along with several friends and volunteers. She works full-time in the gallery district of Beijing and is interested in combining arts media together to form alternative gathering spaces in this city. Pauline is from Belgium and she has lived here for many years and so she is very connected to the ex-pat community. We met through my friend Sarah (who I told you about in this blog.)

Anyway, Pauline asked me if I wanted to take part in May’s “Bloody Sunday” event and I agreed to play some songs. This month, it took place in the beautiful Ritan Park ??????????? at the Stone Boat Café, a small restaurant set on the water across a small bridge. It was built about twenty years ago to replicate the traditional structures often built into the water as permanent boat-shaped entertainment spots. (I spoke about a famous one of these structures when I visited the Summer Palace.) Ritan Park itself was built in the year 1530 and is one of the oldest parks in the city. I was told that it once served as an altar site where the emperor made sacrificial offerings to the sun god. By the time I learned that, it was too dark to go exploring. Maybe next time.

I arrived in the early evening to do a sound check and, of course, nothing was ready. I had brought my Chinese textbooks, however, and I was thrilled to sit on the restaurant’s patio working on my reading comprehension while the sound system was slowly assembled on the outdoor platform that would double as the evening stage. I sat right next to the water’s edge and intermittently lifted my head to peer over the railing at the families fishing or laughing as they sat on the rocks around the small lake. I even watched one man successfully pull in a large fish. I have no idea what kind of fish it was but I did notice that he took it home with him, smiling proudly. All in all, everyone here seemed peaceful and the energy was infectious. I felt my muscles relax when I hadn’t even realized I’d been tense.

I sipped tea, translated a text, eventually had some dinner at a very leisurely pace and then it was time for me to plug in my guitar and test the levels. Everything worked out fine and I sat back down again and chatted with the strangers that had taken up residence at my table. It was more of a communal table, really, since there were perhaps eight possible seats (an estimate considering two sides were benches built into the stone boat’s “deck”) and so several people came and went, almost wholly non-Chinese but from various countries. English was our common language.

Some other individuals arrived from the organizing committee and began to pull a large sheet between two trees on the shore. These were the people in charge of programming visuals for the night. As the sun slipped out of the sky, their images lit up the area and gathered a crowd of Chinese migrant workers and Sunday park-goers who gathered on the rocks and watched the silent film clips for several hours as though hypnotized. They were hypnotic, I must admit, and coupled with the music that was spinning by several dj’s including NARA (whose mixes were exquisite), they became hard to ignore.

When it came time for my set, a few of my school friends suddenly appeared to support me and I was grateful. The small area that I was facing was otherwise filled with strangers, so seeing some familiar faces was a treat. Behind me just a few paces was the water and this platform had no railing. I’m sure it was beautiful to see from the perspective of the audience, but I had visions of falling backwards with a splash and electrocution. . . and so I mostly stuck to the microphone and didn’t look behind me!

My voice carried to the tables and chairs on the shore as well, but the performance was really directed at this small area on the restaurant’s patio. The visuals continued throughout my set as well and I occasionally found my eyes pulled to watch while I sang as though I were simultaneously in two different roles: performer and audience. I had to consciously pull myself back and focus on what I was doing because the images were so compelling!

When my set was finished, (and it was very casual and consisted of both English and Chinese – quick spontaneous translations on my part – considering the very mixed audience), I walked around the site more and discovered a brilliant display of items for “exchange.” This was a pile of items that anyone could take, like a free garage sale. People were sorting through the clothing and sifting through smaller items and I’m not sure if much was taken and given a new home, but I love the concept. There was no expectation to actually “exchange” item for item, but the idea of giving away things to others is always positive, both for the person who is minimizing their possessions and for the person who is happy to acquire something new. In this way, it’s a “win-win” exchange, so aptly named.

The best feature of this restaurant was its upstairs room that truly resembled an enclosed upper deck and/or sleeping cabin in a mid-sized leisure craft. Climbing the super steep stairs was also interesting (treacherous?!) and when I got to the top, I found a young man sitting cross-legged on a couch directly facing the stairs who was offering tarot card readings. I asked how much he charged and he told me (with a French accent) that it was 100 kuai. I answered him in French that I’d be happy to have a reading if he’d take a barter of one CD. He smiled and agreed. I sat down to a fairly accurate description of my current life by a complete stranger. I do love a good fortune and this one was fairly encouraging.

I slipped him a CD later on in the evening by ascending the stairs enough to show my head above the landing and then extending a CD through the railings. I leaned it against the chair within my reach. He was in the process of giving someone else a reading and he smiled at me quietly and nodded. Another exchange.

I left the Bloody Sunday event feeling relaxed and smooth, as though the whole event had been a giant reefer for my spirit. I don’t smoke, but this kind of event felt the way I have heard friends describe that feeling; I sort of floated away into the dark night air of the park. I fell asleep soundly that night and dreamt colourful dreams filled with water and travel and painted rafters.

I felt fortunate.