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Currency Inflation

09 Nov 10
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I can’t believe it’s just Tuesday, and I’m already down to my last million. Rupiah, that is.

It’s one of the fun things about international travel – figuring out the currency. Each country (with the notable exception of most of Europe, of course, and the Euro) typically has its own currency, and each currency is valued differently. Last year while traveling in Africa, I found myself spending a week in Zambia, where one dollar buys you 4700 Kwacha, followed by four or five days in Malawi, where the same dollar got you 160 Malawi Kwacha. Then I had a brief stopover in South Africa, where one Rand equals 0.1457 of a dollar, or about 6.8 Rand to the dollar. Needless to say, I’m sure I lost money while purchasing food and souvenirs because of all the confusion these different rates created. By the time I got to South Africa I was just shoving my credit card at people, hoping I wasn’t being cheated too badly. (I won’t even talk about the confusion created by two different currencies with the same name)

And all these rates I’ve quoted are just the official starting points. In Malawi, for instance, I got to know an ‘unofficial’ money changer whose office was the parking lot of a local grocery store. This young, dreadlocked guy had the best rates I could find, and so the exchange rate went up to 180 MK – which meant I would get an extra dollar in Kwacha for every 9 dollars exchanged. I think. Or is that in Rand? It just becomes too confusing.

Indonesia has been more of the same. The exchange rate right now appears to be about 8900 Rupiah to the dollar. So we tend to round it up – 10,000 Rupiah is about one dollar, while 100,000 Rupiah is about $10. (I initially typed that as $100 – it’s very easy to get confused while doing your conversions!) So that magic number – one million Rupiah – equals about $100 in our rough calculations. It’s actually closer to $112, but our rough conversion works for us most of the time by at least getting us in the right ballpark.

Everything here is done in cash, except for some larger items – a hotel bill can be paid with a credit card, for example, and some restaurants will accept plastic as well, although they likely will charge you an additional 3% to cover their transaction costs. But for most items, cash is king. I use cash to pay the cable TV bill, the electric and phone bills, even the $800 for Adam’s scuba trip and our monthly Kampung fee.

We live in a little village, or Kampung, and there are monthly charges for water service, street maintenance, the guards, and who knows what else. The bill isn’t completely itemized, and I have no idea what they really spend the money on – I just dutifully pay it, even though there is no indication in all the paperwork what exactly that extra 20,000 Rupiah is for each month.

So since cash is king, it’s important to remember your conversions (as well as your ATM card, upon which I’ve become quite dependent).

That’s easier said than done, of course. Doing a quick conversion in your head can often lead you to be off by a factor of ten – $10, say, instead of $100, as I found myself doing earlier in this posting.

More importantly, the whole currency issue leaves you with a strange, unsettled feeling. Like when you wake up on a Tuesday morning, after having hit the ATM the previous weekend, and realizing you have just a million left. As the late conservative Senator from Illinois Everett Dirksen once said (although there is some doubt as to whether he was the first), “A million here, a million there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

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