India and the Black Market
I was flat broke. My estranged husband controlled the purse strings and since he had run off with the maid, those strings had been pulled tight. I was so broke that I hadn’t left southeast Asia in five years. New clothes? Only in my dreams. When I lost my sunglasses while swimming in the South China Sea, I was left squinting in the bright tropical sun for more than six months until I could afford a new pair of good quality shades. My bank balance rarely floated above zero. True, I was renting a lovely little house with a beautiful garden, had many good friends, and managed to live quite happily. But where money was concerned, I was a fiscal mess.
There was an easy way out of that mess — but I resisted. For years, Edward, who lived in another part of the Philippines, had nagged me to sell our sailboat — which was legally in his name but in my physical possession. Despite my dire need for cash, I didn’t want to sell her. She had been our home for the seven happy years Edward and I had spent galavanting around the Pacific, before we fell in love with the Philippines and out of love with each other. I had deep emotional ties to this boat and an irrational resistance to letting her go. But it seemed I could no longer fight the inevitable. Edward was becoming very nasty about it all.
To placate Edward, I reluctantly posted one very tiny ‘for sale’ sign on a single bulletin board, hoping that no one would reply. I asked a ridiculous price, $25,000 for a twenty-five-year-old, 10-meter boat. Aside from sentimental value, the boat was probably worth no more than $12,000. A German named Helmut called me and asked to have a look. He spotted some rotten interior teak and offered to pay $10,000. I scoffed at him. “Here’s what I’m going to do”, I told Helmut. “I’m going to have this wood replaced, which will probably cost about $500 (which Edward would pay for), and then I’m going to raise the price to $30,000”. Surely, no fool would buy her at that price.
A few months later I received a text from my Filipino boatman, saying that a buyer wanted to meet with me. I was loafing on the sofa, reading magazines, but texted him back that I was too busy. “Please show him the boat, Dante. I’m very busy”. An hour later Dante insisted that I really needed to meet with this guy. “OK, tomorrow at the yacht club, 11 a.m.”, I texted.
The next day, a Canadian man dressed like Ralph Lauren asked me what I was really willing to sell her for.
“How about 25?”
He held out his hand to shake on the deal. I had done everything in my power not to sell the boat, but how could I turn down such a ridiculous offer?
Three weeks later the Canadian returned to finalize the deal. He had wired 26,000 U.S. dollars to his bank in Batangas City, on the main island of Luzon. I was to meet him at the bank, collect the cash — then deliver it to Edward, who would be waiting at his bank in another part of the city. Though I expected the inevitable snafu, the transaction flowed surprisingly smoothly. Until the bank clerk began converting the $26,000 into Philippine pesos.
“But I don’t want pesos,” I said to the clerk. “I need U.S. dollars because we’re sending a wire transfer to the U.S. later this morning.”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, these are government regulations. Unless you will be traveling abroad and need U.S. dollars for your personal travel use, we can’t give it to you. It must be converted into pesos.”
Edward was becoming a nuisance, texting and phoning. “What’s taking so long? Where’s my money?” he kept asking — as though he suspected that I was going to run off to Mexico with his cash.
“So, what am I going to do?” I asked the clerk. “I need to convert these pesos back into dollars. Do I go to money changers on the street? That will take me all day and it’s too dangerous.”
“Well,” the clerk said. “If you would like, we can call our black market representative to deliver the U.S. cash to you here at the bank. You will have to buy back the dollars at their rate of exchange though.”
Hmmm. Black market representative? That didn’t sound very good to me. Another text arrived from Edward. “What the hell is taking you so long?”
“Okay”, I said. “Let’s do it.” I wondered what a black market representative would look like. Would he be dressed in dark glasses and a trench coat?
Fifteen minutes later, a very petite office lady walked through the bank’s front door, carrying a small shopping bag. Smiling, she headed our way. “Good morning, Ma’am”, she said. I have $26,000 for you.” She pulled the cash out of the shopping bag and placed a stack of hundred dollar bills on the clerk’s desk. The bills were so crisp and new that I wondered if they had come straight out of the Xerox machine or whatever contraption counterfeiters use over here. This was making me very nervous, but what was the alternative?
“Ma’am, you need to count the bills.”
“Can’t you use the machine?”
“Sorry, our machines only count pesos. These are dollars.”
The bank was crammed with customers, all seeming to stare at me. Look at the white woman over there with all that money, their expressions appeared to say. Feeling paranoid, I stacked the money behind my purse and huddled over the desk. What if one of those customers sends a text to a friend who robs me when I leave the bank? I began counting the 260 bills. And I started to sweat. In my nervousness something very strange happened to my brain — I lost the ability to count. I could not keep track beyond $8000. All I could think about were all those customers who were watching me count these $100 bills. My memory flashed with stories about foreigners who have walked out of banks and been ambushed by thieves who were tipped off by security guards or other customers. I could be killed for this money.
I was sweating from parts of my body that I did not know had glands. My eyeballs were sweating. My toes were sweating. Someone brought me a glass of water. Still, I could not count without losing my concentration. “Are you alright, Ma’am?” I finally gave up and just pretended to count the bills. “Okay, it’s all here. Thank you very much”, I said, embarrassed by the amount of liquid that had pooled underneath my chair. By the time I walked out of the bank I was a complete wreck. Would an ice pick be shoved into my ribs and my handbag stolen? Even in Canada I would worry about carrying $26,000 on public transportation in a large city.
With relief, I spotted a jeepney lurching towards me. I flagged it down and jumped aboard. It shouldn’t take any more than ten minutes to get to Edward’s bank, if traffic wasn’t too bad. Surely, I could survive for ten minutes. I looked around at my fellow passengers. Everyone looked harmless until I noticed a man holding what looked like a large pickle jar now filled with a clear liquid. A huge cloth wick poked through a hole in the jar’s lid. There was masking tape on the jar, on which an upward-pointing arrow had been drawn and one word written with a black marker: FUSE.
Holy fucking shit, was this a bomb?! I couldn’t believe it. There must be a thousand jeepneys rattling around this city. How the hell did I manage to choose one with a fucking bomb on board?! I had to get off before I became a CNN breaking news headline: “HOMEMADE BOMB EXPLODES ON BUS IN THE PHILIPPINES. SIX PASSENGERS DEAD, INCLUDING ONE CANADIAN”. The problem was that I had lost so much body fluid that my legs felt like rubber. I honestly didn’t think I could get off this jeepney and manage to flag down another one. I looked over at the Bomb Guy, who smiled at me. “Good morning, Ma’am”, he said. I tried to decide if he looked like someone who was about to commit suicide. He was smiling and chatting happily away with the driver. No, I didn’t think he was going to blow us up. Everyone else on the jeepney appeared calm and unafraid. I decided to chance it.
Ten minutes later, I knocked on the jeepney’s roof to signal the driver to stop. The Bomb Guy said, “Have a nice day, Ma’am” as I exited. I called out behind me, “Thanks — you too.”
A few more minutes and this nightmare would be over. Inside the bank I was met by an angry Edward. “What took you so fucking long?”
“Watch your language”, I said, handing him the cash. He slowly and carefully counted out all 260 bills in a single attempt, making neat little piles of ten, something which I hadn’t dared to do. I breathed a huge sigh of relief that all the money was there. He handed me my share.
“Okay”, he said to the bank employee, “let’s get started on this wire transfer”.
She picked up the cash and carried it to a desk at the rear of the bank, where another woman began examining each bill and writing something on a sheet of paper.
“Hey, what’s she doing with my money?” Edward wanted to know.
“She’s writing down the serial numbers of the bills. I’m sorry Sir, it’s bank policy that the serial numbers of these bills must be verified. It will take about three weeks before you can send the wire.”
“You’ve got to be kidding”, Edward said, getting really angry. He pointed at me, “But she just got these bills from… uh, what bank was it?”
“Chinabank”, I said. Something had happened to my voice. I couldn’t hear it.
“What was that? Speak up, I can’t hear you.”
“Chinabank”, I croaked. Edward berated the bank staff. “This money comes from Chinabank. Don’t you people trust your own banks?” Edward looked over at me. “Why are you sweating so much, India? Have you started getting hot flashes or something?”
“Shut up. It’s hot outside”.
Finally, Edward surrendered and we both went home to await the phone call announcing that his bills were okay — or not.
Until I knew whether the money was good or not, I decided not to take mine to my bank. I hid the bills in my house and began planning how I would unload them if they turned out to be bad. I would rather have my fingernails pulled out than tell Edward those bills came from the black market. I didn’t sleep well for the next three weeks, nightmares of counterfeit money leaving me tossing and turning. Eventually, the call did come. The bills were genuine. Edward was happy and I vowed never again to delve into the Black Market…