Never shopped on the foreign black market before? Don’t know how to pick out back-alley kidneys, or make other dark & dangerous purchases? Here are a few tips on how to get bamboozled, cheated and robbed on your first under-ground shopping trip abroad…
1. Visit a location with an active illegal market, preferably where the economy is controlled by a strict military government. Better yet, one where the currency is valued at 6-1 (USD) internationally but 817-1 (USD) inside the country. For an extra challenge, why not use your buying-power in a country that has no ATMs? You can stroll through airport security with a bag full of dollar bills just waiting to be stolen.
**Because Myanmar does not allow foreign banks to operate inside the border, we had to take out a few thousand in crisp notes before we arrived. Any bill that was folded, wrinkled or printed with an unappealing code number was not accepted.**
2. Rather than head straight to the first official money changer or mall, wander the country’s capital (i.e. Yangon) with the look of a wide-eyed, White Man Philanthropist. If no one clandestinely approaches offering you a “special price”, it doesn’t hurt to shout “Backpacker with cash!” as frequently as possible.
**We were propositioned in the public markets, at stop lights, in front of flash Western hotels. Calculator in hand, the most unassuming loiter-er would whisper “Change money? Best rate,” and discretely flash us his digits. We weren’t visibly carrying wallets, or a shopping list, but in Yangon, blond hair was enough of a advertisement**
3. Be a smart shopper, don’t just settle for the first deal you find. Check around, and pick an exchange rate that is higher than the legal one, but not so much as to be an obvious scam. Also, make sure you’re comfortable with the man in the longyi (Burmese men’s long skirt) who is shaking your hand and leading you into the bushes….
**Bam Bam offered us two confident rows of Colgate-worthy teeth and told us to wait behind a few young trees, just off a main roadway. “Because of police,” he winked in jovial affability. What a great guy. What a good idea…**
4. Check your product before you buy. Ask to hold it, weigh it, lick it- whatever is necessary to prove it’s authenticity.
**Recalling the bad-luck stories of other travelers ripped off by cunning money-men, we demanded to count out the kyat ourselves- before passing over our Franklins. Marcus stacked the bills, I re-stacked, Hadyn counted over our shoulder. Everything tallied up, a good sign that we were un-foolable.**
5. Don’t get distracted. So you’re swapping goods in an unlit basement or hidden from a busy traffic intersection? Keep your eyes on the goods at all times, and do NOT, for one second, let them roam to the blood-like stains on the cement, or the mysterious black knuckle tattoos of the man holding your purchased item.
**After we’d confirmed the amount of the exchange, our transaction exploded. Bam Bam was joined by two other strangers, one diverting Hadyn with a game on his phone; one pulling out hundred dollar bills from our wallet while we struggled to push them back in; one waving splayed palms and telling us all our $100 notes had the wrong printing code. “No good, no good,” someone shouted. Fingers pointed, greens flashed. A mini game of keep-away ensued, each of us snatching back notes while our black market dealers – concern etched on their faces – hurriedly whisked them away, “checking” the codes personally.
At this point, two travelers strolled past us on the sidewalk; “Be careful!” the man shouted angrily to us through the trees. Hackles went up on Hadyn’s neck. It was time to abort this shopping trip. We carefully plucked our US dollars out of Bam Bam’s hands, warning him that we no longer wished to exchange money. He responded surprisingly well, collecting his kyat back and letting us walk away without further comment.**
6. Before you brag about your bravery and shopping-completion, double-check your pockets. And billfold. Socks, purse and fists. Is anything missing? Is something there, that wasn’t there before? You may feel like the victor of a dodgy game, but unfortunate chances are, you’ve just lost something extremely important and valuable. Like your dignity.
** “Ha!” I croaked as we left the bushes, “I think they were trying to cheat us out of kyats, but we didn’t give them the opportunity. My eyes were everywhere.” “I know,” Marcus agreed, “I never let those kyats out of might sight.” Hadyn confessed he was nervous when the dollar bills started flying, but he never saw anything amiss. The three of us, smug and proud of our black-market-mastery, stopped to buy train tickets. “Um, guys, how many hundreds did you have this morning?” Marcus quickly counted his. “Because I’m definitely missing one….” Hadyn turned his wallet inside out. Sure enough, $100 short.
“I think we’ve been had…”
7. Never admit you’ve been swindled. Why make yourself the example for naive idiots? Lonely Planet’s not paying you for embarrassment.
**In a valiant effort to re-claim our dignity, some weeks later, we attempted to break up another black market exchange on the very same shaded berm. “Don’t trust them,” we shouted, racing up to two middle-aged Germans in knee-high white socks. “You’ll be robbed, don’t give them your cash.” To our complete disappointment, the men not only ignored our efforts, they didn’t understand English.
“Do you want to change money? Special rate,” one sly Burmese character whispered. “Shut up, or I’ll punch you in the throat,” Marcus growled under his breath.**