A fistfull of dinars

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
Trip End Mar 21, 2008

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Flag of Croatia  ,
Wednesday, August 22, 2007

All these darned night buses are getting on our already frayed nerves but we have taken enough over the last 10 months that one more is hardly the end of the world.  Another inconvenience to be endured.  That kind of sums up the last few weeks for us.  Travel has ceased to be the wonderful act of discovery.  It is now little more than a hassle, like a whole day of commuting, the type of thing you go travelling to avoid.

From Dubrovnik, the furthest point north we can get to in one go is to Zagreb, at the other end of Croatia.  From there we decide to catch a train right up to Vienna and then to Janes house in Slovakia.  But our most pressing task is to get rid of all these bloody Serbian dinars that we acquired back in Macedonia when we were planning to actually go to Serbia.  What we have learned since is that Serbian dinars are unexchangeable outside of Serbia.  Why?  Buggered if I know but it is a real pain in the arse for people like us who have a bucketload of them.

We try at the largest banks in Zagreb but they all tell us the same thing.  The only other thing we can think of is to try and offload them to travellers at the bus station or the train station who are going to Serbia, before the 1.15pm train that is our last chance to get out of here today.  We find an Irish guy at the bus station who is off there shortly and tell him our predicament.

"Sure, IŽll take fifty Euros worth," he says in that great laid-back manner that the Irish have.  We happily and hurriedly - for we are still in a rush to continue our northwards march - peel off the equivalent of 50 Euros worth of Serbian dinars.  As I am counting out the bills that I owe this Irish chap, I realise that I dont actually know what the exchange rate is.  Having plowed through about five countries in the last week, we can hardly tell our Leks from our Levas, let alone remember what all the various exchange rates are.  Of course we cannot let our uncertainty show to Paddy, just in case he senses a rip-off and cancels the deal. 

"Right, so it is, um, 50 dinars to the Euro," I say as confidently as possible, choosing a suitably high, round number and assuming that he will not have the foggiest idea if I am correct or not.  "But because we are so keen to get rid of these things, we will give you 60 dinars for each Euro", I continue, counting out 3000 dinars.  Paddy seems happy enough with that rate, accepts the Euros and heads off to his train.

"I have no idea what the actual rate is," I confide to Jane once we are out of earshot and walking hastily across town to the train station.

"What?" says Jane, ever the beacon of honesty in our journeys through ethical darkness.

"Well, I forgot, didnŽt I, and I had to make something up to get rid of those damned things."

We still have about 15000 dinars left and we figure we should find out what the rate is.  However, given that no one exchanges them, no one will tell us the rate either.  We try explaining to a couple of bureau de change attendants that we do not want to exchange the currency, we just want them to look up on the internet what the rate actually is.  No dice.  And not wanting to spend money on an internet cafe (which we couldnt find anyway), we duck into a posh hotel.  Jane distracts the receptionist with a polite inquiry about the tourist highlights of Zagreb while I sneak onto the lobby computer and, as rapidly as the sluggish connection will allow, search for the correct exchange rate.

Once outside, I sheepishly reveal my findings.  "Um, its about 80 dinars to the Euro".

"So we ripped the Irish guy off?"

"By about 1000 dinars."

Janes sense of honesty overrides her sense of convenience again.  "I have to go back and find him", she says. 

"But our train leaves soon and the bus station is miles away," I argue, to no avail.  Jane charges off back to the bus station, clutching a thousand dinars while I forge ahead to the train station to try and find some more Serbian-bound travellers. 

Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, all the English speakers I come across have either just come from Serbia or have no interest in going there at all.  Most of them look a little scared when this half-crazed, scruffy, exhausted backpacker approaches them with an imploring "are you going to Serbia?", as if I am a deranged travel agent or market researcher.  I manage only one small transaction from a nice pair of German backpackers before Jane returns from the bus station. 

"I couldnŽt find him," Jane admits sadly.

"Too bad - lets go change some frikkinŽ dinars."

It is now 1.05, ten minutes before our train leaves.  This small window of opportunity is all we have to take advantage of the train that pulls into the station on its way down to Belgrade.  After all those third-world bus and train rides where we had to refuse the advances of pushy guys peddling their wares through the window, the tables are finally turned.  We approach the side of the train and wave our arms frantically to get the attention of the bemused passengers inside.

"Can you change some dinars?  WeŽll give you a good rate, we just need to get rid of them!  Please!" we cry out to anyone who will listen.  Most passengers pretend to ignore us, just as we pretended to ignore all those Indian and African guys selling bottled water and packets of biscuits.

A compartment full of young Irish backpackers turns things around for us, in a way. 

"Okay then, whats your good rate?" asks the Irish guy, poking his head out the window. 

"Well, the actual rate is 80 dinars per Euro," I say, much more confidently than before, "but we will give you 100 per Euro".  Here I am, thinking I am being a great salesman and increasing my chances of getting rid of some dinars, but the Irishman senses our desperation and calls my bluff.

"Nah, make it 120 or nothing," he demands, clutching a tempting fist-full of Euros.  I would like nothing better than to tell this guy where he can stick his shamrock but we are not exactly in a position of strength. 

"Fine," I say, thrusting a wad of dinars through the window in exchange for a much smaller but more useful wad of Euros.  In a way I guess it is fair, considering that we inadvertantly got the better of one Irishman, that they get their own back.

No time to ponder on this though, as our train is only moments away from pulling out.  Still carrying our backpacks, we charge on board the Belgrade-bound train and desperately plow our way through the carriages.  There is no small talk, no "how are yous" or other pleasantries.  We burst into each carriage brandishing our still-substantial handful of dinars and wave it in front of the passengers. 

"Belgrade? Serbia? Dinars?" we call.  From compartment to compartment we run, with minimal success.  A small transaction here or there but not a major dent in the 8000 dinars we still have to get rid of.

I look at my watch - 1.13.  Two minutes to get off this train, run across to platform 2 and catch our escape from the Balkans.  If this was the Middle East or Africa, we would be pretty confident that our train would leave late, but not here. 

Almost resigning ourselves to an expensive and unwanted souvenir of Serbian currency, we enter the final carriage.  Five old ladies sit quietly, and they clutch their handbags tightly when we burst in and shout "Serbia!? Dinars!?"  My heart sinks - these old biddies arent going to hand over a hundred Euros to strange, straggly foreigners any more than they are going to leap up and start doing the Macarena.

And then we see, sitting in the corner, a thirty-something lady reading an English newspaper.  "I might have some Euros to exchange," she says, calmly folding her newspaper and reaching for her wallet.  "How many dinars do you have?"

"Eight thousand."

"Great, IŽll give you a hundred Euros."

"Sold!" I shout.  I push the pile of dinars into her hand and grab the Euros.  We thank her profusely as we spill out of the train, dash illegally across the tracks and sprint towards the 1.15 as the conductors whistle blows.  We clamber aboard, still holding our bundle of Euros just as the train starts to pull out. 

We peel off our backpacks and slump onto our seats, exhausted but still riding some kind of adrenaline high.  Zagreb starts to speed by, we are finally getting the hell out of the Balkans, without the burden of thousands of unuseable dinars, heading towards the comfort and familiarity of JaneŽs family home in Slovakia. 
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