Crossing Borders 5: Moneychanging in Sakartvelo

In my last post, I began the tale of a different kind of trip, driving my personal car across the border from Turkey into the Republic of Georgia. The story, fifth in a series of border crossing adventures, now continues on the other side.

A steady summer drizzle draped the landscape in dappled shades of gray. Having navigated to and negotiated through the border post at Posof, Turkey, I now found myself in a land locals call Sakartvelo, more commonly known as Georgia (not to be confused with my home state in America!).

The first order of business was to buy short-term auto insurance, now “compulsory” according to the customs agent who had just searched my car. I spotted a service station just ahead. Fortunately, there was a green kiosk, about the size of a carnival booth, selling insurance. Unfortunately, I had no Georgian currency.

Moneychanging certainly has changed since my first trip to Europe in 1980. The hassle of swapping currencies when passing through principalities the size of Rhode Island has mostly disappeared, with many countries now using the euro. Anyone remember traveler’s checks? I carried these exclusively in the 1980s, but even American businesses didn’t seem to know what to do with them. Thankfully, these are as bygone as typewriters and 8-tracks. The phrase “don’t leave home without it” now applies to your bank machine card!CB 4

But back at our backwoods border, there was no bank machine in sight, and the insurance guy needed 30 Georgian laris (about $10) for a 15-day policy. My wife bee-bopped over to the service station, popped her head in a small office annex, and using her Russian was able to exchange a US $20 bill, though at a poor exchange rate. Keep in mind, though, that we didn’t need enough to buy a car, just car insurance. Haggling over a dollar or two lost in commission is rarely profitable for either party.

Insurance in hand, we excitedly pressed on eastward into what was once the big blank spot on the map labeled “USSR,” heading for the town of ახალციხე. No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. That’s the ancient alphabet still used to write the Georgian language today. Turkey, a Silk Route crossroads between Europe and Asia, borders eight countries, none of which use Turkish nor English as official languages. Furthermore, five of these use completely different alphabets (Greek, Cyrillic, Georgian, Armenian, Arabic) making me wonder if I’d even be able to read the road signs to find our destination of Vardzia.

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Fortunately, the bright blue road signs were also listed in Latin script (the familiar letters we use to write English)! Arriving in Akhaltsikhe (aka ახალციხე), our second order of business was to find a bank to get more money. I spied one and entered the lobby to wait my turn behind eight other people at the money machine.

I soon sensed frustration setting in. Some people gave up and left, while others tried various button combinations. With only two people now waiting, my heart jumped as I saw the screen was all in Georgian characters – no way I could manage that without help! A man was assisting a woman in front of me, so I politely pointed to ask for help, too.

The guy got me to the proper menu for cash withdrawals. Mercifully, Arabic numbers (the ones we use) are pretty much universal, except of course in Arabic countries like Jordan where a “0” indicates “5,” but that’s another story. I entered a figure that would give me about $150 worth, but a red error message popped up (in Georgian characters of course). The helpful man had left, so I trial-and-errored other mathematical permutations, guessing that it might be out of certain bills. After several attempts, I realized I was right. The machine had only the very smallest five lari notes, with a transaction limit of 20, meaning I could withdraw a max of $33 at a time. With time ticking and other exasperated customers waiting, I repeated the entire process just twice, giving me about $100 in local currency.

Feeling like a poor rich man, I stuck the fat stack of 60 banknotes into my travel-pants’ pockets, as they certainly wouldn’t fit in my wallet. Climbing back in the car, I at least had the satisfaction that I wouldn’t be plagued with another common traveler’s cash conundrum, that of not having any small change!

And we now had enough to last a couple days, at least on this side of the border. More to follow. . .

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The cave city of Vardzia, our destination in Georgia

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