An American Abroad

A Low Point

My travel luck ran out last Friday on the train from Tunis to Sousse.

It was six in the morning and I was jet-lagged, insufficiently caffeinated, and burdened by two heavy suitcases, a heavy leather duffel, and a bulging nylon shoulder bag.

As I struggled to board the train, a fellow pushed by me. Then he feigned confusion, turned around, and pushed by me again. And again.

My only thought at that time was “what a rude idiot.” It never even occurred to me that he was actually a smart thief.

It wasn’t until I got to my seat and saw a zippered compartment of my shoulder bag open that I realized what had happened: I’d been robbed of an cash envelope that had been in my bag.

The only other time I was ever robbed while traveling was in Bath, England, about 25 years ago, at a very posh B&B. I suppose I can bear it once every quarter century.

I think of my loss now as tuition in the College of Hard Knocks & Unmindfulness. Last Friday, though, I was pretty miserable. And my first look at Sousse was colored by the loss of my hard-earned cash. I thought seriously of turning around and heading back to the US or to China.

I’ve since recovered most of my usual good humor and curiosity about Tunisia and the world around me. But in my last 14 months of travel to ten different countries, I have never felt so low.

Going Hirsute for Charity

The foreign teachers at Shane English decided to raise some ‘stache for charity during the month of November. We each anted in ¥100 at the start of the month and agreed that if a razor touched any of our upper lips, its owner would have to pay another ¥100 fine. By November 30, my colleagues and I looked like a bunch of castaways, but we were able to make a nice donation to the local widows and orphans fund.
On the last day of the month, we all neatened up a little by agreement (though one of our team had an unfair advantage). Here we are:
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A Banker’s Kindness

Closely following my experience at the tea house, when I was struck by how friendly the people of Yuxi are, another incident yesterday confirmed my positive impression.

I’ll be heading to Hong Kong on Monday on a visa run and wanted to exchange Chinese yuan for Hong Kong dollars. I went to the main Yuxi branch of a large and well-known commercial bank. The first teller I talked with couldn’t help and directed me to a station labeled “Channel for elder, handicapped, pregnant, foreigner and journalist.” (So I guess I am classified with the lame, the halt and the subversive.) The teller there looked stricken when I told him what I wanted. He pulled out his cell phone, dialed a number, and slid the phone to me through the security drawer that separates customers from staff. I picked up the phone and a voice on the other end told me, in very good English, that he could help me and would be there in five minutes.

Not long afterward, a well-dressed young man walked into the bank and introduced himself as one of the managers there. He told me that the he had been directed not to exchange yuan for Hong Kong dollars for foreigners anymore. His disdainful expression told me exactly what he thought of such a policy. But, he went on, he could help me himself. He offered to withdraw the Hong Kong currency against his own bank account and sell it to me. I thanked him, but said I would not want him to get in any trouble. He assured me that he had done this before and insisted that he wanted to help.

My first thought was that this was a money-changer scam and that the guy would take my money and disappear. Still, he had official bank identification and seemed eager and honest. I agreed. I gave him the money. He went to the same teller I had tried earlier, deposited my cash into his account, withdrew Hong Kong dollars, and gave them to me. I counted the bills, did the math, and confirmed that he had given me a very fair exchange rate. We chatted for a little while and exchanged business cards; he encouraged me to contact him again. And I will.

I don’t know if the no-exchanges-for-foreigners rule comes from the government or the bank. Maybe that’s a distinction without a difference. I do know that this man helped a foreigner he had never even met before, possibly at some risk to himself, and that I am grateful.