Half a world away

It's a common misconception among travellers that the world is out to get us.  That the numerous scams we hear about are perpetrated only on us.  In western China, I was one of the few passengers on board a local bus not to fall victim to two con men.

We had been on the road for an hour or two when the bus was flagged down by a smartly dressed local man.  He took a seat near the back and the bus moved on.  A few hundred yards further down the road we stopped again, this time to pick up another passenger, a scruffy and simple-looking man, who took his seat next to the well-dressed man.  A few minutes passed and the second man took out a soft drink can.  When he opened it the contents were sprayed all over his neighbour, who immediately jumped up and hurled vociferous abuse at him.  The perpetrator looked sheepish and tried to pacify the irate victim, who carried on with his relentless tirade, ensuring that the whole of the bus turned its attention to the argument.

Finally the cowering man pulled a foreign bank note out of his top pocket and offered it to the other man, whose eyes immediately lit up.  He accepted the note in settlement of the damage to his suit and stopped shouting.  He then asked his neighbour if he had any more of these notes in a voice that was calm but loud enough for the other passengers to hear.  The other man pulled out a wad of the notes from his shirt and the smarter man proceeded to buy a number of them from him.  He then turned smiling to those nearest to him and told them earnestly that his neighbour had some foreign bank notes that he was selling at an extremely favourable exchange rate.  He had no more money on him to buy any more, he said, but they would do well to invest in one or two of the notes.

I sat there cynically suspecting that a scam was in progress, but not sure or brave enough to intervene.  Half a dozen or so of the other passengers handed over their hard-earned money for the mysterious red bank notes.  Finally the fuss died down.  When we arrived in the next town, both of the characters got off the bus.  The rest of us continued on our way, and I dwelt no more on the earlier incident.

Two months later and several provinces away from these events, I was in a tailor's shop when a local woman entered, thrust a red bank note under my nose and asked me to identify its nationality.  She could not read the western characters on it.  I read the note and told her that it was from Peru.  This meant nothing to her and I struggled to explain what and where Peru was.  This, however, was of no importance to her compared to her next question.

She asked me how many Yuan it was worth and I replied, quite truthfully, that I didn't know.  She seemed flabbergasted that I could not tell her off the top of my head the current rate of exchange between the Chinese Yuan and the Peruvian Inti.  I later learned that the note was entirely worthless, in spite of all the zeroes on it, as the Inti had been withdrawn from circulation.  She turned and left the shop, scornful of my ignorance.

As I left, I paused to recall in admiration the trick I had witnessed two months earlier.  I had finally seen one of the notes up close and knew I had been right to be sceptical.  As a traveller it is easy to be cynical when local people approach you with friendship that may be for real or may be the prelude to a scam.  Sometimes you miss wonderful experiences by not trusting someone genuine, but sometimes it's right to be suspicious.  If anyone can tell the difference in every case, they're a wiser traveller than I am, and they're certainly wiser than a number of Chinese bus passengers I know.

© Nicholas White 2000