Tales of a Naive Exchange Student…

Go figure. Just as I eased into a comfort zone, the Man decided to stick it to me for laughs.

My bank cards don’t work here, and that’s fine, since I brought the amount of cash with me I wanted to spend, but I had no suspicion the local banking system would become a potential achilles heel.

The first currency exchange I did in Rio Dulce was a breeze. The rate was top dollar, more than I expected, and the Germans in the line behind me offered a random hotel name that my clerk wanted to hear while he checked out my passport to scrutinize my worthiness to stay in his town. That one worked out well.

My second bank experience in Livingston wasn’t so good. As I passed through front door security, and eventually approached the plexiglass window of greenback gurus, confident to receive the same treatment as the last institution, my expectations were quickly dashed. The woman behind the transparent barrier, dutifully watched by hombres with shotguns, almost outright rejected on appearance the hundred dollar American bill I proffered her. The second, third, and fourth bills I presented as viable alternatives received even less scrutiny, before the Spanish version of “Are you fucking kidding me? I ain’t taking any of the shit you give me, no matter how tenaciously you try,” was uttered.


That put me in somewhat of an immediate pickle, realizing there was a distinct possibility that, even though my two feet were solidly planted on Terra Firma, I might actually find myself fucked to cross lands that have established, centurion-guarded boundaries who only recognize paper rectangles as qualification for passage.


The rate of the day was 1:7.45, basically one American buck for $7.50 local. In my “what the fuck are my options” state of mind, I found a touristy vegan cafe close to the docks that was run by a Cantonese woman who spoke English. That was weird unto itself. She offered me a 1:6 ratio, but informed me that she still had to deposit whatever I gave her into the bank, so she wanted to be sure of my bill’s authenticity, sticking it under a blue-light machine that the other bank-mujer never considered as a likely test of merit.

She accepted my exchange proposal. But I graciously informed her I would try the bank one more time to find a different teller, with full intention to return if they rejected me.

Round 2. After waiting through a line twice as long as my previous foray into this den of monetary masterminds, knowing I had a 3 out of 4 statistical chance to avoid the woman who scorned my initial dinero proposal, I all of a sudden found myself a half-second away from coming face-to-face with my nemesis again. But the gods took brief pity on me, as the dude standing to her left suddenly completed his business and afforded me fresh meat to charm with suspect foreign paper.

I’ll tell you this… they don’t fuck around here. American bills are pretty much loved anywhere in the world, but carrying the $100 variety is definitely not a good way to travel — in Livingston, anyway. The slightest stray mark or imperfection is cause for dismissal. My new teller rubbed the offer I gave him with a clean piece of paper like he was an expert on procuring etchings from newly discovered Mayan ruins. He did this for so long I almost considered it was a form of hobby to him. My hope of exchange started slipping again each time he flipped the bill to run his fingers over another edge. I half-expected him to lick it at this point.

But then he wrote a brief note in Spanish, and bounced me to another agent to deal with more protocol based upon his recommendation. My new liaison of finance meditated so hard on her computer screen after scanning my passport that I thought she may have dug up the dirt on my well-known bust of a 10-year coke-muggling scheme I ran in the Honduras.

But she missed it. I was sent back in line to talk to my previous contact. Everything seemed a go. When I arrived back to stand before my welcoming disciple of finance, despite my fear to ripple the waters, I made a snap decision to suggest exchanging another American hundred while fortune was on my side. More etchings ensued, but they were less fastidious than the previous doubtings. A new banking technique unfolded before my eyes, while a mix of worry and entertainment overcame me — the pencil eraser test! Jose eliminated several markings from the edges of my secondary suspect American hundred dollar bill, and ultimately provided me with much needed local currency the woman three feet from his face summarily rejected me from possessing. Praise Allah!

Now here I stand with enough dinero to give me peace of mind for at least 10 more days. But I dislike the feeling that at any point in my existence, a sampling of elaborately coloured rectangles, nestled in my neon-pink, Value-Village velcro wallet, might leave me stranded or fucked out of passage to move anywhere over the lands of the Earth. Heaven forbid I consider carrying incompatible magnetic strips laminated on a pieces of plastic to exchange for goods and services. Fuck!

But forget that story. This morning I woke before the sun poked her head above the horizon, and decided to go for a run. It was a 5 K stint or so, which gave me the opportunity to peer into the living dynamic of humans beyond the touristy hub of town.

Upon returning to my abode, I noticed my loving guardian angel dropped several pieces of noni fruit near my doorstep, alerting me to the fact that noni, cacao, and coconut trees are all within 15 feet of my pickings from this stoop. Sweet!

Everyday provides ups and downs. The only way to navigate the insanity is to choose how we react to the moments that befall us.

Tomorrow’s a blank slate. I’m not going to even bother formulating an agenda because I have no clue what I may choose to seek. Maybe that’s where I continuously misplace my zeal for life in Canada. Routine is not comforting, it’s crippling. If we have no desire to tackle our wildest fears head on, seizing whatever circumstance takes hold, we really aren’t embracing the reason we’ve chosen to be human.

I’m a stranger in a strange land, ignorant of basic communication and protocol. But as of yet, I haven’t been rejected or attacked as an interloper. I give thanks to the fact that, no matter how inconvenient the puppet masters have made it for us to travel and explore, I’m still able to suck a salty breath from a temperate ocean littered with thousands of bits of plastic, and fall asleep with gratitude for warm air and shelter from rain.

We’ll see where the tides flow tomorrow. For now, I’m headin’ to the beach…

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