Currency lessons learned the hard way

   I tried to mentally calculate how much money I had when my math button suddenly froze. Just like that. The numbers stopped registering and I couldn’t add or multiply anything anymore. Panic and fatigue took over, then everything started to spin and go dark ever so slowly around me.

Traveling gives one lessons that are never taught in classrooms or anywhere else, and some of those lessons are learned the hard errr embarrassing way. Sometime ago, the night before I was to leave for Kuala Lumpur from Narathiwat, Thailand, my friend’s brother drew me a map to help me where to go right after I cross the border at Sungai Kolok. I just glanced at it and inserted the slip of paper into my handbag “for later.”

My friend Rolly walked with me across the border and left me as I went to the Malaysian immigration building in Rantau Panjang. Then I was on my own, visiting Malaysia for the first time.

As soon as I exited the immigration building, I fished out the map from my bag and looked for the money exchange center to buy some Ringgits. I saw a row of stores but no sign that says money exchange or anything.

I dragged my luggage through the uneven pavement under the heat of the scorching sun and headed to the bus ticket stations some distance away. There was no money exchange center anywhere and when I asked, they pointed me back to where I was earlier.

I went to one store and asked where I can get Ringgits. I was pointed to the next store. They don’t advertise it but they do exchange currency. When I asked how much was the bus fare from Rantau Panjang to Kuala Lumpur, the store owner said 500. I waited as the store owner made calls to somebody on the phone asking about exchange rates, and waited as that other person made another call to another person before being channeled back to the store owner.

It took forever but he finally came up with figures and rates lower than when you buy currency from an airport or mall outlet. I tried to mentally calculate how much I had when my math button suddenly froze. Just like that. The numbers stopped registering and I couldn’t add or multiply anything anymore. Panic and fatigue took over then everything started to spin and go dark ever so slowly around me. It was like watching a slow-motion movie of me passing out and away in a strange land. I was so tired walking in the heat and as usual, I forgot to drink water since that morning and that was five hours ago.

I fumbled for my wallet and fished out a hundred-dollar bill, Philippine peso bills, Singapore dollars and Thailand baht but it all only added up to 473 Ringgits. There was no ATM and they don’t take credit cards. I shook my wallet and poked through all the nooks and crannies for stray dollars or any other currency but there was nothing more.

I have no idea where to get the lacking 27 Ringgits because you have to pay the fare to the driver as soon as you get on the bus. The store owner said it’s too much to hope for if the bus accepts credit cards.

Did you ever have that moment when you began mentally going through your bag to check what you can possibly sell? There was nothing in mine since I was travelling on a four-country trip, one trolley and one handbag luggage. I have stripped all to the barest essentials except for my cameras and tripod, which I couldn’t part with.

Bus stop outside the Immigration Office in Rantau Panjang, Malaysia.

Bus 29 was scheduled to arrive soon so I decided to take the risk it. I thought if it comes to worst, I could maybe volunteer to clean the bus to pay for the difference or ask the driver to deliver me to the nearest functioning ATM so I could pay.

Soon an old and rusty bus rolled to a stop and I watched everyone get on board with growing nervousness. I saw them all pay the driver with cash and confirmed no credit card is accepted. I was the last one to board and holding out the handful of mixed bills to the driver and murmured “Sorry this is all I have.”

I held my breath as the driver looked at me, then looked at the wad of bills in my hand then looked at me again. Then flipped through the bills without removing it from my hand and peeled off just one five Ringgit bill (yes 5!) and motioned for me to find a seat!

I was astounded and never felt so stupid in my life. The bus fare was 5 Ringgits and not 500, and the trip was for just an hour, not 8 hours.  The bus unloaded the last remaining passengers at the terminal in Kota Bahru where I discovered I was to take another bus for the 8-hour trip to Kuala Lumpur.

Assignment, do your homework before you travel, pay attention to instructions from people who know, learn how to read maps, ask questions, and get some local currency.

Just few of the lessons from that trip which I’m sure I still never learned.

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