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Friday, July 13, 2007

A Fistful of Dollars won't go very far anymore

Note: Almost this same story appears in the July 2007 edition of LareDOS in Laredo, Texas. Read more online at www.laredosnews.com.

BY MIKE McILVAIN

ALMERIA, Spain – A fistful of dollars used to be a beautiful sight, but that big load of cash won’t make anyone smile in some places.
A trip to Spain after an absence of five years taught me my money isn’t good enough, anymore.
I got bushwhacked, pistol-whipped by the Euro and could have been hung, learning the stark reality and depth of today’s weaker American dollar, traveling to the movie sites which gave us Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns like A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More.
Any idea of taking a fistful of dollars or spending a few more there needs serious rethinking these days. Things have changed dramatically since some 35 and 40 years ago when those movies were made.
Get dollars out of your mind and don’t bother putting much in your pocket if going to Europe.
The old reliable, once strong, and mighty dollar has become an almost useless wimp in exchange and acceptance here where the Euro replaced the peseta five years ago and dwarfed the dollar ever since. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that the newfound situation puts travelers here on the American Plan, which is great for losing weight and we have all heard and read how this fat country needs to slim down for health’s sake. Spain, with its old tapas tradition has bar, or bar/restaurant customers eating usually main course and side items in a dish-for-dish fashion, taking the eater right up to feeling filled.
No more food is usually needed, or desired when you have to watch every Euro, too. No one wants to look at dollars in Spain, anyway.
I didn’t want to look at dollars, either, after coming to realize that I was carrying around a large amount of unwanted, seemingly useless money, losing an entire day and part of the next one in the discovery process between tiny Tabernas where only three banks can be found and numerous outlets some 20 miles away in the provincial capital of Almeria, down south on the Costa del Sol.
I had avoided Costa del Sol in all 11 previous trips to Spain, fearing it would be too expensive. It wasn’t – at worst, comparing slightly to Seattle-type prices for some items, but it was very educational.
It’s a good thing I exchanged for several hundred Euros at the bank in Laredo – now owned by Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria – before flying out. Staying in some nice hotels in Mojacar Playa gave me beautiful sunrises, new faces, and familiarization with the area’s motorcycle racetrack, but served to shield me from the horror of trying to exchange the U.S. dollar. Tabernas, separated by a little bit of highway and dusty roads from the western sets of Mini-Hollywood, Western Leone and Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood, was waiting for me.
Without trying to slip into a western frame of mind, I discovered a bit before high noon on a Thursday that I was down to some 17 Euros and knew that wouldn’t take me through the weekend and the banks close at 2 p.m.
Unicaja seemed to want to exchange money, but showed me that their computer wasn’t accessing their company’s exchange page. The very busy two-person crew at Banco de Valencia started to process my request, but the cashier suddenly – on orders from the officer – tore up a machine copy of my passport inside page, telling me no American dollars are accepted. The nervous young man cashier at Cajamar told me they couldn’t exchange money because I didn’t have an account there.
Hey, I wasn’t unshaven, wearing a serape, straight-brimmed hat or smoking a short cigar like Clint might have just down the road several years ago, but I was beginning to look at banks with a different face.
Seriously alarmed after hearing three different stories, denying me a usually easy process in past years in smaller towns in Spain’s northern provinces, it was time to take given advice and grab a cab for Almeria.
No one at the airport there was exchanging money, but there was a cash machine – a sign of things to come – as half of the Jimenez taxi company with her husband, Sra. Jimenez, suggested trying various banks in Almeria, and plenty could be found close together.
Banco de Andalucia at the bus station told me they would exchange U.S. dollars, but not 100s. Unfortunately, what I had of some smaller bills was back in my room in Tabernas, so we zipped from bank to bank -- skipping the three Almeria affiliates of those already tried in Tabernas -- and hopes were high entering the BBVA office, but telling the apologetic cashier that I was with BBVA in the U.S. only prompted more shoulder shrugging and a suggestion that I try a travel agency near the port where the ferry boats disembark.
A couple of port offices and a policeman -- with Sra. Jimenez stepping in to ask more questions, led us to that sought after travel agency office near the port main gate – at the instant they closed their door for siesta.
Exhausted, quiet and in disbelief as we headed back toward Tabernas, a moment of mental clarity pushed past my elevated blood pressure, telling me to catch the next day’s 9 a.m. bus to Almeria, grab a cab for that same travel agency, exchange $200 and return on the 11 a.m. bus back to Tabernas. On that same Thursday evening I took a chance on my VISA debit card in the Unicaja cash machine in Tabernas and it worked for 30 euros. The debit card continued to be the main lifeline throughout the rest of the trip, yanking out bigger amounts as the need for cash grew.
The owner and his wife at the hotel I stayed in a few days later in Mojacar Pueblo didn’t like looking at either of my credit cards, frowning before politely asking if I had cash for a lamb supper, or cordero, and eventually for the room.
Personal vacation preferences often have me taking to the back roads, small towns and off the beaten trail for more quiet and more rest than the big cities offer. A helpful regional bank officer for Banco de Valencia, sitting next to me and our mutual acquaintance Tony in Tabernas’ Gran Café, explained that it is a loss nowadays for banks to exchange U.S. dollars unless there are many others there exchanging the same currency and this is not the case in much of Spain with American tourists usually sticking to the big cities. The banker told me that if I want to travel nowadays that I have to go with plastic – as he showed me four credit cards of his own.
That Friday’s quick trip to Almeria got me cash for the $200 before visiting Western movie sites around Tabernas and ruins of the town’s old Arab Castle, which millions have seen but few recognize. Tabernas’ Castillo Arabe had a modern moment in the sun when acting as a backdrop for Patton near Kasserine Pass in North Africa during that movie’s opening credits seen directly after actor George C. Scott’s famous speech in front of the giant U.S. flag.
Almeria is a relatively large city of about 170,000, but British tourists are usually the first to speak English here. Many movies about the American West were made around Almeria, but Americans have yet to discover the area in any recognizable numbers.
Lawrence of Arabia and Conan the Barbarian were among the numerous other movies also filmed partly in the area when an earlier Spanish economy meant plenty of budget-friendly cheap labor and supplies.
Some Americans in uniform visited the area in 1964 when the U.S. Air Force temporarily lost some nuclear bombs just off nearby Palomares. The British are buying up land and condos on those beaches there where Peter O’Toole, as Lawrence, dealt with his Arab Revolt’s victory at Aqqaba and where U.S. military personnel looked for the bombs. At least they had nice scenery surrounding their search with sea, mountains, sun and clouds casting eye-holding vistas all around Almeria province.
Exchange shock proved to be the only downside of two good weeks in this attractive area, but there was still shock in change.
It used to be so easy and often affordable to take commuter flights out of Madrid to regional capitals, or to fly on them before the flight home. I was too late on the way in, missing the flight to Almeria, forcing me to take a seven-hour bus ride south shortly after arrival.
On the way home, hoping for a night in Madrid, I wanted to take a flight there from Almeria, which I thought should have been easy, too, but I still had more to learn.
Changing the $34 U.S. currency I had at Banco de Andalucia at Almeria’s bus station for cab money to the airport gave me 21 Euros cash after the 3-Euro fee. Ironically, I spent 23 Euros in round trip cab fair after learning that it now cost some 280 Euros, almost $400, for a same day flight to, or from Madrid.
Back at the bus station I bought my 23.16-Euro bus ticket for that seven-hour ride back to Madrid. At least I was correct in seeking a cheaper a room in Barajas near the airport, saving money over earlier ideas of going downtown to Puerto del Sol and nice restaurants near Plaza Mayor. I was still on the American Plan.
Laredo-based BBVA officer Miguel de la Hoz deals with the dollar-to-Euro problem on a personal level, being paid in dollars but trips home to the Basque provinces require Euros. De la Hoz advises taking plenty of Euro cash if heading into rural Spain these days, and he echoes the Banco de Valencia officer’s advice to have plastic available.
“For one to two weeks, 1,500 or 2,000 Euros should be enough, but for restaurants and shops I recommend a card,” De la Hoz said. “In the small towns and cities you need cash, but in Madrid it is no problem.
“There is a problem with the conversion rate for the U.S. dollar.”
De la Hoz also believes the Euro is likely to rise in value against the dollar before it goes down.
At least, now, you have been warned, and is anyone out there still placing the dollar above all else in their life?

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