Email Update/Newsletter #19
Lisa and Joel's Excellent Adventure: Issue 19
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- Money Change In Syria-
by Lisa A. Listro and Joel A. Sward

A few days ago we found ourselves perplexed by an
interesting dilemma.  We think you might find the
problem and the way we dealt with it interesting.

There are no ATMs in Syria and you can not (legally at
least) even get a cash advance on a credit card!
Nowhere, nada, zip -- not even the National Bank of
Syria!  Some of the finer hotels and merchants can
accept credit cards as payment for goods and services,
but they can not legally give you back any cash above
and beyond the cost of the purchase.

When you get to Syria you must have enough cash in
convertible currency (good ole' greenbacks are best)
or travelers checks (even these are tough to cash)
with you to cover the cost of your entire trip.  Also,
after you convert into Syrian pounds it is almost
impossible to convert back to anything else -- plus,
you can't take Syrian pounds out of the country!

We have a stash of US dollars for "emergencies only",
but things like the ferry from Nuweiba, Egypt to
Aqaba, Jordan ($43.00 US a head) and changing money in
Damascus had left us with a meager $66.00 US in cash.
We have cash available on our credit cards, but, as
you can see, we had no way to access the money.

Well, in addition to our $66.00 US we had 500 Syrian
Pounds -- just enough to pay for a bus to Antakya,
Turkey, some dinner that night and breakfast the next
morning.  No problem right?  We could just wait until
we got to Turkey to hit one of their abundant ATMs and
convert some Turkish Lira into US dollars (to increase
our "emergency supply").  Oops!!  We forgot one
"small" thing -- our visas for Turkey.  To our dismay
we read in the guidebook that a Turkish visa was going
to cost $45.00 US each! We didn't have $90.00 and
there was nowhere to get a cash advance and even if we
could we would get the money in Syrian pounds which
are impossible to convert back into US dollars and you
can't take them out of the country anyway. (Way to
plan ahead huh?)

It looked like we were screwed!  We racked our brains
trying to find a solution to the problem.  We could
just head for the border and hope there is an ATM and
money changer willing to sell US dollars sitting next
to the Turkish border.  Fat chance!  We could go over
the border from Syria into Lebanon (you can get a 48
hour transit visa into Lebanon for free) and hit an
ATM there, hopefully be able to convert the money into
US dollars and return to Syria and then go on to
Turkey.  That wouldn't work -- our visa for Syria is
only single entry, we wouldn't be able to get back in.

What's a couple of broke world travelers to do?
Simple, you find an underground, black market, Syrian
mafia, money merchant who deals cash illegally.  He
should be able to give us a cash advance on our credit
card and give us the cash in US dollars.  Sound crazy?
Well, believe it or not, that's exactly what we did.

The process which eventually led us to a fake jewelry
shop, fronting an illegal, black market money
operation, run by a Syrian version of the Godfather,
went like this.

First we decided to go to a legitimate money changer
(at this point we didn't even know there was such a
thing as an illegitimate money changer) just to see if
he would sell us US dollars for Syrian pounds.  We
didn't have enough Syrian pounds anyway, but we just
wanted to see if it was a possibility, in case we
could get Syrian pounds somehow.  Nope, not going to
work, but, he did give us a lead.  He told us that a
girl working the desk at the "snobby snob" Amir Palace
Hotel might be able to help us.

After telling the cutish Syrian girl (who spoke
excellent English) at The Amir our plight, she made a
few phone calls (speaking in Arabic so we had no idea
what she was saying).  After getting off the phone she
wrote some indecipherable Arabic on a piece of paper
and said, "Give this to any taxi driver.  He will take
you to a "jewelry shop".  They will help you there."

After a cab ride to the other side of town (we had no
idea where we were), we found ourselves in a small
"jewelry shop".  Bizarro!  That's the best way to
describe it.  It was so obviously fake.  There were a
few gold chains hanging in the window, a lame attempt
to front as a "jewelry store", but the main thing that
went on here was MONEY!

During the 10 minutes we were in "the store", three
different men came in and exchanged one bag of money
for another.  We know the bags had money inside
because one was opened and at least 20,000 US dollars
worth of Syrian pounds was laid out right in front of
us!  This is when the counting started.  Two young
boys came out of the back and just started counting,
one stack of money after another.  It was hard not to
stare at the wads of cash, but our attention was
turned away by the husky voice of a Syrian Godfather.


"Here's how it works.  For every $100.00 US I charge
your card you get $80.00 US and I get $20.00.  Ok?"
Under normal circumstances a 20% commission rate to
get our own money would be a "little" steep, but we
were in a jam and who is going to say no to this guy
anyway?

After collecting our cash we scurried out the door and
left the crew to the more important chore of counting
all that money.  When we got out the door, after our
"jewelry shopping" we looked at each other and smiled.
We were both thinking the same thing.  Wow!  Did that
actually just happen?

Well, we got our greenbacks and the next we were off
to Turkey.  Just wait, when we get there an ATM will
be sitting right at the border or the price of our
visa will be less than $66.00 US.  Oh well, then we
wouldn't have this amazing story to tell you, would
we?

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Attached photo: Lisa and Joel at Krak Des Chevaliers,
Syria
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(c) Lisa and Joel's Excellent Adventure 2001. All
rights reserved.
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Lisa Listro and Joel Sward are currently unemployed,
homeless world travelers.  For more information on
their adventure see
www.JoelSward.com
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P.S.  (When we got to the Syrian/Turkish border there
were no ATMs or anyplace to get a cash advance.  The
visas were indeed $45.00 US each and if we wouldn't
have had enough greenbacks we would have been
screwed.)