Dodgy deals at the border......
In our plastic fantastic, 12 months interest free credit, withdrawal from the wall, lifestyle, it’s easy to forget that in the Developing World cash is still the predominant currency. A wad in your pocket says more about you than any deck of credit cards. It is rare to find any of these notes in stock at a U.K. Bank and currency usually has to be exchanged at the border with U.S. Dollars being the preferred bartering material, even in countries that hate the U.S.A! There are seldom any written references to the ‘official’ exchange rate and chances are some shadowy figure will shuffle up to you and offer you a ‘special price’, hinting at a large stash in his coat pocket. All the stuff of movies, but a reality on most border crossings in Africa.
Some years ago when I was lucky enough to be travelling overland to Libya on a fairly regular basis I became quite savvy at the system. To complicate matters there were, at the time, two rates of exchange, official and unofficial. Details of which were to be found in the forum pages of www.sahara-overland.com. In the late 1990’s the ‘black market’ rate was about nine times the official rate, therefore if you were changing $100 at the black market rate you would get, say, 900 Libyan Dinars. If you waited until you entered Libya and found a bank your $100 would get just 100 LD. Big difference! In fact it was rumoured that even the Government snook out of the country to change money on the black market, to pay their wages.
In 1999 six of us were driving down to Libya in my Carawagon, and my pal Kev’s, Camel Trophy 110. We had with us the entire budget to support a team of 25 Archaeologists, who were flying into Tripoli a couple of days later. From memory it was in the region of $4000, all in cash. We kept it all in two battered supermarket plastic bags, stashed away in the Land Rovers, or about our persons when not driving. Approaching the Libyan border through Tunisia, the very last town is Ben Gardane, a dusty little market town on the edge of no mans land. As you enter the town men run into the road thrusting huge wads of notes at you. When you don’t stop they return to their old crate seat at the side of the road and wait patiently for the next traveller. Once in the town, the money changing is a serious business with stalls set up adjacent to the market and deals offered on the ‘best rate for you sir’ basis.
We mentioned we wanted to change a relatively large amount of dollars, thousands, not hundreds, and were offered a reasonable rate. Experience had taught us though, that when dealing with these sharp eyed traders the first price is the worst price and the haggling commences. Only when you walk away from a deal and they don’t follow, have you reached the real ‘best’ deal. This established, it was time to count the money out. We first counted out our dollars with them watching, they then counted out the Dinars with us watching. Beware though. The quickness of the hand deceives the eye and a carefully folded 100 Dinar note can look like two, so we then counted them out independently with them watching us, with a look on there faces expressing disbelief that we did not fully trust them. With no paperwork and no auto counting machines we had to be very careful and it took about 20 minutes for the six of us to count every Dinar and return any too damaged to be acceptable in Libya. The deal done we returned to the waiting Land Rovers and got out of town only to park up a few miles from the Libyan border and split the notes between all six of us. We knew it was very unlikely that we would be personally searched, but they did sometimes give the Land Rovers a good look over. Fortunately in January it is very cold and we had an excuse to wear heavy coats which helped conceal the cash. Had we been caught we may well have had to hand it over.
This preferential exchange rate enabled us to support the full team for three weeks and donate some items to our Libyan hosts, but don’t ask me to explain how on earth it works, but it did mean that diesel was about 4p a litre and twenty quids worth in jerry cans got us home a month later. Apparently the games up now and the two exchange rates are roughly similar, so all that is saved is the queue in the bank and the endless paperwork asking for your mothers maiden name etc.
Caption: Following successful negotiations the huge wads of Libyan Dinar lie in the back of Toby’s Carawagon.
A hopeful money changer leaps out into the road on the way in to Ben Gardane.