Traveling isn't free—never was, never will be. While this may not be a source of serious concern for royalty, most of us do have to take the cost of things into consideration. From the larger financial implications of buying a boat to making a choice between olive or vegetable oil for provisioning that boat when we go cruising, money makes the world go round. Then, of course, boats demand repairs and maintenance, and engines and stoves require fuel, and humans need to eat, all of which equal dollars (or rupies, or yen, or pesos). Once underway on any extended voyage (except for the time spent at sea and on desert islands), even if you manage to get by on the cheap, on some level, money concerns will persist to rear their ugly, toothy heads, and these hungry maws mostly prefer cash. This is one of the few things I know for sure. Nowadays, access to bank accounts and cash has never been easier. ATMs have been installed worldwide and in most countries that don't rely on the black market, they also give the best exchange rates for local currency.
I travel a fair bit, sailing in many different countries, and in recent years, the banking world has made it so much easier for merchants and shoppers by eliminating oodles of paperwork, authorizations, and bureaucratic aggravations. The only caveat necessary for the unseasoned, ATM-card-holding traveler is to make sure the PIN code is numerical, not in word form. I can remember two separate occasions—sitting at an Ibizan cafe and in a Singaporean wet market—in which I tried to reconstruct a telephone keypad on paper to figure out the numerical equivalent for Tarzan, my code word then. In Singapore, I succeeded in rendering my account inaccessible because of all the suspicious-looking attempts I made to get my money. This little story seems inconsequential, but it made me wise up and get a PIN number.
Ease of access to cash for cruisers is part of recent history; really only several years old. Not very long ago, other means were used that weren't so convenient, which meant that, in order for money to last longer, we carried more around and worried more about it being stolen or lost. But no matter how it is gotten, for every single way there is to acquire money, there is an endless procession of ways to get rid of it, and as I learned, this is an area where truth can be stranger than fiction.
Back in the late ‘80s, way before the internationally ubiquitous ATM, back when I was garnering my extended cruising experience, accessing cash in far-flung islands and countries played a big part in the adventure. I promise I have never received a cent for saying this, but in those days I planned my landfalls over charts, the amount of reefs that had to be navigated, and a listing of strategically placed American Express agents in main harbors all around the world. I didn't leave home without that green card. American Express also came in handy as a fixed address where traveling cardmembers' mail would be held. The many fulfilled promises of renewed financial security combined with piles of letters and packages from home has secured a warm spot for at least one major corporation in my cynical heart.
For me, the cash-advance limit was $1,000, issued in travelers checks or actual greenbacks, depending on the country. In between Amex stops, I had to stash that cash somewhere safe. Before I left on the trip, my Dad gave me what is called a stash can, a can with a base that unscrews to reveal a hollow bottom. These cans come disguised as any one of several popular brands of products and my particular can posed as WD40; it looked just like the real thing. It lived in the locker with other lubricants and fix-it stuff, next to the empty hand grenade I carried to potentially trick and drive away pirates. I wasn't sure about the grenade's effectiveness because I never had to test it, but I knew there wasn't a better way to hide the family jewels than in a can of WD40 in the tool locker. My confidence in such clever trickery lasted until mid way through my journey the day when the obvious flaw became clear in the unforgettable way any flaw in perfection tends to show up.
The day dawned in the beautiful bay of Atuona, in the Marquesan Island of Hiva Oa. This was where I had my first real introduction to the tropical splendor of the South Pacific and it came after sailing almost 4,000 miles with no engine. Several days out of the Bay of Panama, old unreliable had conked out and my tinkering abilities fell way short of any real understanding of a diesel engine, much less any real repair. In the absence of an engine, I had become a good sailor, but not good enough, I thought, to get through the Tuamotu Islands, a string of reefy, low-lying, atolls strewn between me and my next landfall, Tahiti.
|"When I returned to my boat, I was greeted by sweaty impatience and the declaration that I would have no engine until Tahiti."|
I had a friend on another boat, a French man with a Gallic self-assuredness that outweighed his modest knowledge of mechanics, and he came aboard with great fanfare, waving me off to go do some woman's work—maybe shop, get my nails done, whatever it took to get me out from between a man and an engine. Since this isn't the kind of place I enjoy frequenting, I took off. I don't have any nails to get done, so maybe I shopped—for food—and when I returned to my boat several hours later, I was greeted by sweaty impatience and the declaration that I would have no engine until Tahiti.
OK, then. I believed him and prepared myself to become an even better sailor by working through anchoring and harbor maneuvers in my head whenever nothing better was going on in there which was rather often. The farthest thing from my thoughts was how I would be regretting the hours I had left my engine in the hands of somebody else. Several days later, the time came to reprovision for the week-long trip south to Tahiti and I reached into the locker for my can of WD40. It wasn't in its place! It wasn't anywhere else, either.
Feeling a bit panicky because I was penniless and uncomfortable because my stash can had disappeared and an active imagination can have a field day with such mysteries, I rowed over to the French man's boat and he provided me with a shock that even a charming accent couldn't soften.
"Zut, you keep your money in a can of WD40? Impossible. Only zee Amereecaine could zink of so stupid ideas!"
Yeah, well go right ahead and blame the fact that you threw what you thought was an empty can of WD40 overboard on the Americans and their dumb ideas, you blustering litterbug. That's what he did, no kidding. And, no amount of scouring the shoreline turned up that can ever again. Nothing could have felt more gone than that can with its $400. To add insult to injury, for years my Dad insisted that I had made the story up to cover a frivolous spending spree because it's just too absurd.
Absurd as it is, it's the honest truth. Zut, alors! Even my imagination could never think up such a goofy tale of human error. In time, I've come to think of that lost money as a well-invested travel expense. In return, I got a story that would have a hard time matching with any experience from the age of ATM-driven efficiency where my next best story is about a confused access code.