So, I planned ahead. For the first time, no traveler's cheques. However, ATM card, Visa, US$600 and, at the last minute in Sydney aiport, a prepaid visa that can be used in ATMs too. Activated online immediately & away we go.
In Auckland airport, change my last aussie $20 to buy a drink & sudoku.
In Buenos Aires airport, wander around for a while, looking for an ATM. I want to call La Paz & confirm my room, since I will arrive at 5am.
- ¿Por favor, donde esta la... la... machina por pesos?
- No, no hay. (Points downstairs to arrivals lounge, which, after careful consideration, I decide is insufficient reason to officially enter Argentina for 10 minutes).
Find Casa di Cambio (exchange booth). No pesos on credit cards.
Try the internet cafe, who take Visa, but reject my prepaid card.
Try the "no change required" phones. My Visa doesn´t work. My prepaid Visa doesn´t work.
Finally give up on keeping my US$ until I actually arrive, change $20, and buy small things at different shops to get enough coins for the phone. Ah, booking is confirmed.
Only I don't get to La Paz. After my first night at the Sheraton in Lima, thanks to the airline, I am relieved to find an ATM in the lobby. However
- Your card is invalid for this transaction.
Check the sign: Plus. My card is a Plus card.
Try again. Invalid.
Try the prepaid. Invalid.
Ask the bored Peruana sitting at the change booth.
- But it is a Plus card!
- So it should work.
Try a second ATM and manage to get Nuevo Soles.
Try the prepaid several times and it´s rejected every time.
3 days later, call Australia (I have coins!!!) & am informed that it's not activated, despite doing it immediately. At least it´s not skimmed. Realise that it's already Saturday there & can't activate until Monday.
Arrive in La Paz at 4am & change into Bolivianos at the airport. Sleep for 5 hours but miss the Saturday am banks. Oh well, there are six ATMs within 50m of my hostel, all displaying the Plus sign.
And my card is invalid at every one.
Spend the next 2 days wandering around the city, sightseeing but trying every single ATM I pass. About 40 little green screens confirm my invalid status.
Calculate that, if I change all my remaining US dollars, I can do the tour I wanted and scrape through back to Lima. Perhaps. No back ups. But Lonely Planet saves the day & informs me I can do a cash advance on my credit card.
On Sunday, call Australia and activate my prepaid. It's still invalid on Monday morning. I currently have 67B, about $14. My tour leaves tomorrow.
So, enter the bank. There is a ticket system & 50 people waiting. Today is protest march day - hundreds of thousands of campesinos (rural people) have come to the city to call for the new constitution to be passed. They march & chant & set off fireworks**. As we wait, the security guards open & close the metal doors, barring the entrance to the bank. Everyone seems to be depositing their business' weekend takings, in piles of notes literally 50cm high, taking half an hour to count by hand. We are barricaded in, and it is 2 hours before my number is called.
And today, because of the protests, they cannot do cash advances. Perhaps I should try the ATM?
Despite my best efforts, my frustration wells up. Crying is a necessary part of entering a new culture and here it comes, day 6, right on time. Usually I prefer it in private, not in a barricaded bank with immaculately groomed tellers peering at me & Gwen Stefani on the video on the corner. However, it is useful and I soon have the directions to the central office of another bank written out for me by the manager.
Back to then hostel, to explain, recover & check the map.
Out again into the throngs, each group of marchers seeming to randomly follow its own path. Find the bank - it's open! I can get in! They can do cash advances! But - only with my passaporte originale, not a photocopy. It's safely in the safe at the hostel.
Back through the crowd. The elderly farmers are resting on the central grass on the main road, their red ponchos against the green grass. I have to ask a campesina, in her bowler hat & tiered skirt, to get up off the step so I can get into the hostel.
Explain again at the hostel. Get the passport. Back through the city. Get a ticket. Wait. And finally, I have money.
On the way home via a side street, the crowd scurries to look at the main road. Women with babies in their shawls stand on fences. The President is marching.
And now, they are dancing in the main square. The campesinos have made their point. They are marching for a proposal that will redistribute land. Their subsistence existence can perhaps be improved.
I have money in my pocket, after 3 days of trying. They may be making history - and tomorrow, they return to their farms.
* Apologies, I needed to get it out of my system.