A brief update….

Well, it’s been a crazy couple of weeks.  Rio, New York, London.  Hiking, parading, and generally strutting our stuff.

But not much time for blogging.  Sorry.

AND we’re fast approaching the end of our trip and, with that, the end of this particular series of blogs.  Fortunately, whilst we weren’t blogging over the last couple of weeks we were doing some pretty fun stuff so hopefully we’ll go out with a bang!

And hey, you only need to keep on reading our drivel for a few more posts…..so hang on in there!!

The End of the World

And I feel fine.

We’re back in Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, after our incredible Antarctic adventure and we’re ready to spend a few days with our feet (literally) on the ground. After much travail, we’ve found a really nice self catering apartment with amazing views over the city and a kitchen you can actually cook in and life feels pretty good. Our basic plan for Ushuaia is simple: eat some nice plain home cooked food (ship food is both plentiful and rich and we’ve both added a few more pounds to the Christmas load) and hike in the nearby Tierra Del Fuego national park (partially driven by the desire to get rid of said unwanted Christmas / ship pounds). Also maybe to sort out the rest of our trip, so that henceforth we shall be blissfully admin free and able to really enjoy the last few weeks of our journey – we’re due home mid Feb. EEEEK!! Reality looms.

And, ladies and gentlemen, that’s exactly what we did. Three lovely hikes, one up to a glacier including one up an enormous sodding hill, in the rain (so no views from the top of enormous sodding hill then). And we only got properly lost once. Hmm, yes, about that: readers, if you ever look at a nasty muddy boggy path and think to yourself that you could probably find a short cut that took you past that nasty boggy patch – stay on the path. Trust me on this one. Fun as bush whacking through gorse may sound, it’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As in, never again.

Lots of admin, too. Not so exciting for you guys to read about, that bit, but suffice to say that there’s a surprising amount of hard work that goes into the swan like grace with which James and I canter about the place.

And lots of home cooked food. About 25 pounds of lasagna, one banana tree and a pint of dulce de leche. Hmmm, note to self: don’t go shopping for food whilst you’re feeling a tiny bit peckish after a full day’s hiking.

Not the most exciting of all of our adventures, but much needed and much enjoyed. We’re now off to Torres del Paine to hike for 5 days in some fairly mountainous terrain, after which James assures me that our weight loss will be great that we will each have lost one entire millimetre from the circumference of our bodies. Wow, that man really knows how to motivate a girl. If I can only get hold of a micrometer, I might even post the before / after piccies……

No Negotiation Please, We’re British

I have never thought I was the best negotiator. In particular, the hardball, screaming, shouting, temper-losing, bullying, American school of negotiation leaves me strangely cold. I can do it professionally enough if I absolutely have to (the skill is in ignoring the internal voice telling you that you’re acting like a dick), but people who do it to me just piss me off and make me obstructive. Every now and then, however, you need to deal with used car salesmen, Uzbek carpet dealers, New York jewelry makers and other serious professionals, and that is when the negotiation skills have to be dusted off. And I’m afraid to say that recently this didn’t go quite as planned.

We are in a jewelry bazaar in deepest, darkest Asia and we are trying to do a deal. There isn’t a large amount of money at stake, but it’s enough that any money we manage to save would be pleasing enough to make an effort for. We had done our homework properly – a full day walking the stalls identifying the precise type of necklace we wanted. We have taken photographs of all the items on offer, with prices and other details written on the stallholders’ business cards and included in the photos. We have worked out the various pricing factors involved – size, materials, quality etc. – and how they impact “first prices”. We have winnowed out any that are off the quality / pricing curve and have slowly been narrowing down our tastes and choices to a few candidates. We have made a final shortlist without making up our minds as to a firm favourite – price would determine which way we went.

The pricing discussions started well enough: I had (extremely politely, while explaining what I was doing) insulted the sellers of the two final candidates with extremely low offers. Please don’t react now, I had said, we appreciate that these are insultingly low offers and we want to give you time to think about them. Both offers had been flatly refused, and that was fine. The two stalls were within sight of each other and we had an hour and a quarter until the market closed at 5pm. The plan was to loiter within sight of both stalls letting the dealers stew until one of them cracked and tried to negotiate. At which point you stick to your guns but let the other see you talking. My hope was that Lucy and I would be talking to one dealer each at one minute to five seeing who was prepared to offer the best deal. We would never get the goods at our offer price, but we would get the best terms available. And it would be fun.

And we screwed up. We had done a slow walk past of each dealer asking if they had considered our offers (no – far too low) and we were headed off for a drink to let them stew. As a result we had only walked away from each salesman twice when one of their assistants chased us down in the market and agreed to our terms in full. Bugger.

One that we DIDN'T buy, despite the happy Lucy smile!

One that we DIDN’T buy, despite the happy Lucy smile!

Myanmar Money Madness

Ah Myanmar.

Well, it’s actually rather nice. In fact, to those of us recently arrived from North Korea and the “Tibetan Autonomous Region”, Myanmar looks like a paragon of personal freedom and cheerfulness. There is a much longer post expanding on this somewhere in my somewhat lackluster literary lobes, but I may leave that for another time. What I want to talk about here is money.

Given we are traveling for such a long time, we have a few failsafes money-wise. Travelers cheques, a few snippets of the major reserve currencies here and there, debit cards on a number of different networks from a number of different banks in a number of different countries and the occasional credit card that we try not to use. All of these are, of course, useless in Myanmar. What you need in Myanmar is cash.

And not just any cash. Specifically (in case you are wondering) what you need in Myanmar is high value US dollar bills, printed after 2006 (big heads, not small heads, and with color on the notes) and excluding certain reputedly-commonly-counterfeited serial numbers. These bills also need to be utterly clean – as good as new, no tears, no folds, no marks of any kind. And it really matters.

Here’s a test for you: open your wallet, get out all the notes in it and take a really, really hard look at them. You would be surprised at the proportion of bills that have some kind of mark and are therefore considered useless for these purposes. By the way, if you actually carry properly pristine dollar bills around in your wallet, they will be too creased and folded to be usable in next to no time. I have good friends who have been reduced to ironing money to get the creases out on trips to Myanmar (we tried it, and it didn’t work so well – possibly because we didn’t use a steam iron).

All sorts of people deface money in tiny ways for some reason or other. People write notes on them. Banks put counting marks on them. They get stained in people’s pockets. There is a drop zone I know of in the States that was bored of the locals complaining that skydivers were a bunch of good-for-nothing layabouts, went to the bank with a big empty box and started offering visiting jumpers change for their $23 jump tickets in $2 bills. They also stamped these incredibly-rare-but-yes-actually-legal $2 bills with a small aeroplane to show where they come from. The logic being that every time one turned up in a local’s cash register it would be clear that the money had been brought into the local economy by the drop zone (which is all the bloody time – a busy DZ rakes in cash like nobody’s business). It’s slightly surreal, this little island of lightly defaced $2 bills down in Florida, but it’s a nice (and true) story. Just don’t bring the bloody things to Myanmar.

So, we spent a good few days banging around Bangkok trying to get enough clean dollars for a three week trip to Myanmar. No problem, thought we: we bank with Citibank, and there are real life Citibank branches in Bangkok. Let’s just say that Citi continued their gleaming run of international customer service excellence (couriering a replacement bank card to Lucy care of a branch in Hong Kong, only for the local Citibank branch manager to refuse to accept the envelope because Lucy wasn’t there in person; taking quarter of an hour to pre-authorize a bank advance with me on the phone from Uzbekistan at $2 a minute, and then cutting my card off anyway “as a security precaution”). Citi, we hate you.

It took us a few days and naturally ended up a race against time. We got some dollars in Cambodia; we cashed our travelers cheques; we withdrew Thai Baht on all of our cards and converted it back to dollars; we begged and pleaded for the local bank to swap some of our very lightly marked US dollars for pristine ones; we used the US dollar ATMs that are only allowed airside in major Thai international airports (seriously, wtf?). We budgeted, we counted, we safety margined and we packed all the notes secure in card or plastic and put them safely away in our luggage. And we breathed a huge sigh of relief…

…So picture our surprise and joy when we bumped into a working ATM in Yangon, very happily connected to the international ATM network, that took our cards, thought about it, cheerfully pumped out a chunk of local currency and looked at us as if to say “what?”.

————————————————–

Information, for anyone who stumbles across this blog looking for actual Myanmar travel advice rather than vague distracting amusement:

  • The ATM in question belongs to CB Bank. CB has accepted Mastercard since November 2012, so the branch staff told us. The one we used was on the Eastern side of Bogyoke Aung San Market, CB Bank’s ATM locator is here http://www.cbbankmm.com/atmlocator.php.
  • You will hear a lot of people telling you to get your US$ for Myanmar in Bangkok. Thailand actually has pretty strict currency controls – you are only allowed to withdraw Thai Baht on your international debit / credit cards, you then have to convert this to US$, suffering FX margins (twice) on the whole amount. You also have to do this on a weekday, and before 3:30pm, when the foreign exchange desks are all forced to close. There are US$ ATMs in the Suvarnabhumi international airport (BKK), but we passed through a few times before we noticed that these are only airside. If you come off your plane, stroll unawares through immigration and try to get US$ from an ATM while waiting for your luggage you are stuffed. Also, be aware that Air Asia flights to Myanmar (the cheapest and most regular, when we looked) do not go from Suvarnabhumi Airport, but from Don Muang International Airport (DMK).
  • If we were having our time again we would have got US$ in Cambodia (where there are US$ ATMs seemingly everywhere in tourist areas). If we were on holiday to Myanmar rather than on a bloody long trip our advice to ourselves would be to GET YOUR DOLLARS AT HOME! Seriously, be old fashioned about it, go to an actual branch of your own bank, tell them what you are up to, even preorder the notes if you have to. It’s a whole lot easier than getting the things on the road.
  • The purpose of all these dollars is to convert them into Myanmar Kyat (although many tourist hotels take or prefer dollars). There is a whole bunch of advice in guide books and on the internet about how you need to convert dollars with illegal money changers in the market as they give you the best rate etc. This is true in Uzbekistan, but not so in Myanmar – there seems to have been some kind of civilizing currency / banking reform whereby the banks actually offer the best rates, rather than the worst. Lonely Planet – keep up!
  • Not so much information as such, but for those of you who want to visualize our currency fun in more detail, reread the second paragraph of this information section, and imagine finding out every single fact in that paragraph, by trial and error, one at a time, in 35 degree heat and 100% humidity. Joy.

Happy Bloggy Birthday!

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Around the World with James & Lucy, happy birthday to you! Hurrah!

A strange thing to celebrate, perhaps, but today our little blog notched up its 10,000th view. Like finger paint daubings sellotaped to the fridge door, our work may not be the Mona Lisa, but it’s ours and we are rather proud of it. Thanks to everybody who has subscribed, read, flipped through the photos, commented (either on the site or in person) and generally kept us blog motivated through all the tough, dreary days of our round the world trip (ahem…). We couldn’t have done it without you.

Now, technically, this is its 10,000th hit (excluding spam and our own page views) since I worked out how to operate the blog’s statistics package in July, but who’s counting anyway? Interestingly, while we are on the subject of statistics packages (no, seriously, go with me here), the one we are using allows us to see what search terms people enter into google to reach our blog. And it makes rather surprising reading – here are four rather special days’ data that we have saved, from around the time we were blogging about Vanuatu and their dignified, ancient ceremonies…

Seriously?

Who searches for “audio sound track of Lucy gets trapped”? Who are all these dancing people? Where are all their clothes? Why is the internet so obsessed with dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark? What the hell were all the “encrypted search terms”, given what the unencrypted ones were? The mind boggles.

It took travelling all the way around the planet to discover this, but the world is full of deeply weird people, I tell you.

Excuses, Excuses

Wow, it’s been a whole week since the world at large has benefited from our blog-transmitted pearls of wisdom.

Sorry, world at large.

We had a few days trekking (where James wussed out on carrying the laptop with us….using the pathetic excuse that there was no wi-fi), immediately followed by a great couple of days in Hong Kong with Kean and Nyree, two old friends of James (to whom huge thanks for such a fun stay) which has left us painfully blog free!

Anyway, back to civilisation now (we’re currently in Kyoto, Japan) so the blog pipe has been duly unblocked.  Aren’t you lucky?

Ti-Be-t or not Ti-Be-t

That is the question.

James and I started planning our trip many moons ago now, with the rough outline of an itinerary (or at least places we thought sounded cool and would try and wrap in if at all possible) probably having been solidified around January. We’ve had plenty of time to get illogically, emotionally involved with our choice of countries, to the extent that a 3 month delay in our trip didn’t necessarily cause us to change any of our destinations, just the order in which they were visited. And also meaning that some of our planned locations are being visited at rather curious times of year: which brings us onto Tibet.

Our current plan has us trotting into Tibet near the end of October after a rather lengthy connection across China from the end of the Silk Road. Fine and dandy, other than the fact that Tibet is (i) in the Northern hemisphere and (ii) very high and (iii) our plan involves high altitude trekking. Yep, five days hiking in altitudes of well over 4,000 metres and temperatures of who knows what but I’ve got to guess well below freezing at least at night time.

We must have been insane.

Still, the trip is booked and fully paid for. And let’s face it, as long as we don’t actually die of AMS and / or hypothermia, it’ll be pretty darned cool. I think. Maybe.

Enter Mr. Cameron. Yes, him of current UK prime-ministerial fame. You see, Cameron met the Dalai Lama back in the summer, which infuriated the Chinese authorities to the extent that they have been refusing all Tibetan permits to UK nationals since said meeting occurred. For the past 2 months, we’ve been on tenterhooks waiting to see whether the Chinese reversed this decision post the Chinese national holiday at the start of October. Our travel agent told us that basically, we just had to hang on tight and hope for the best and with luck, we’d know where we stood by 15 October, or a whole 7 days before we were due to enter the country. In the meantime, perhaps we’d better consider some alternatives.

Now, I like to think of myself as a reasonably hardened traveler, so it’s not without a small modicum of shame that I confess that our alternative planning had got as far as looking longingly at the website of the Banyan Tree hotel in Li-jiang; plus some pretty advanced double-think on both of our parts to persuade ourselves that the $500 a night charge at said beautiful, luxurious hotel (with private bathroom!!) was totally worth it and in complete keeping with the whole ethos of our trip. I mean, we’d always said we’d be flashpacking, and lately the flash seems to have fizzled out into an endless sea of mutton kebabs and Chinese business hotels (which, in case you’re ever after such a place, are quite possibly the perfect suicide venue; particularly the wet room style bathrooms where you shower kind of on or over the loo. Perfectly rinse clean-able). And the Banyan Tree has a spa. And white wine. And cocktails.

So we were in somewhat mixed minds when we heard 10 days before launch date that the Chinese authorities were now letting English people into Tibet. However, they still weren’t permitting anyone to cross the border from Tibet to Nepal (an essential part of our trip), so we still weren’t sure whether we were going or not. Plus only groups of five or more are currently being allowed in, whilst the plan would be that it’s just the two of us. Our travel agent told us we’d need to hold on another week before getting any kind of decision but to be honest we’d kind of written the trip off by this point. Banyan Tree here we come.

Eventually, we got our go ahead 2 days before our scheduled departure, to the amazement of all we have spoken to. Our group of five fortunately managed to get a permit in the end, although tragically the other three members fell deeply ill and were unable to make the trip, leaving just James and I as the group’s two representatives in Tibet. I’m actually writing this aboard the train between Xining and Lhasa (which is a spectacular engineering feat – almost all at over 4,000 metres and partially built on permafrost – but not in and of itself spectacular. Still, acclimatization wise every little helps), taking a short break from reading some of the material on Tibet I’ve been blithely ignoring for the last 2 months, secure in the knowledge that we’d been rescued from our own craziness by the good graces of the Chinese authorities.

Tibet looks amazing. And cold. I can’t wait to see it all from the snugness of the 5 down jackets and one sheepskin cloak I intend to purchase in Lhasa.

And hey, there’s Banyan Trees all over the place, right?

The planning begins in Xining station. The large plastic bag has our ration of instant noodles for the journey, just in case the buffet car fails us

Xining to Lhasa train. Told you it wasn’t that spectacular!

 

To Health, Comrades!

Memorandum. 18th Oktober 2012.

From: First Under-Commissar of the Standing Soviet Committee on Revolutionary World Travel (Sub-Division for the Care of Reactionary Fat Capitalists)

To: Commandant of the Tamga Sanitarium for High Soviet Dignitaries, Lake Issyk-Kol, Kyrgyzstan

————————

Attention, Comrade.

I command to your care Lucy & James: class enemies, proponents of toxic Western values and running dogs of the Yankees. After months of hard travel through areas ripe for sedition and glorious revolution they have finally come to the alpine region of Kyrgyzstan. They have been betrayed by their soft and decadent constitutions after a mere two weeks of eating Stalin-sized lumps of badly cooked mutton every day and are strongly in need of some mountain convalescence. As such, I command you to do the following:

Allow them two full days to recuperate in the grounds of your historic facility

  • Exert state control over the weather to ensure bright, sunlit autumn days, yet with nights cold enough to freeze the Mussorgzy off a Bolshevik
  • Make an allowance for their pitiful circulations by giving them a bed each, with a mattress, and duvets at least three feet wide
  • Use precious hard currency to feed them a recuperative diet of Western “snickers” bars, “twix”, mineral water and “flat fanta”
  • Allow them full access to their imported medical kit, even their American-made broad spectrum antibiotics
  • Guard them from enemy propaganda on their gentle walks around your beautiful gardens. Instruct the guards to allow them to walk outside of your perimeter down the hill to the lake
  • Finally, make use of a glorious volunteer labour force to sprinkle dry leaves on the ground, such that Comrade Lucy may indulge in her favorite habit of kicking through said leaves while whooping

Hopefully, two full days of rest and recuperation should grant Lucy & James renewed strength to continue South across the high passes to China, inspiring the revolutionary socialist spirit of our people as they go.

Glory! Strength! Cabbage!

Signed: Sergei Sergeivich.

 

Desperately Seeking Suzani

When we wrote about our night out in Port Moresby we made one mistake: we hadn’t realized that there was an active Port Moresby internet community ready to leap to the defense of that fair city. Our ignorant misconceptions about the place were eloquently set right at flattering length in the comments by a nice-sounding guy called Brian. We were, however, taken completely aback that anyone other than our immediate families and friends was reading our blog. So with the knowledge that there is an infinitesimal chance that the world may be reading, I’m going to take a risk: I truly hope there isn’t an active and defensive Tashkent blogosphere. For Tashkent, the grand and storied capital of Uzbekistan, is an utter hole in the ground.

Our experience in Tashkent is almost completely our own fault, for we are looking for souvenirs on our way round the world. Not typically touristy “oh won’t it look lovely on the mantelpiece next to the Charles & Diana memorial crockery” type stuff, but a few nice pieces that we will keep forever. So far we have picked up a little jewelry for Lucy (including a pig tusk bracelet that marks her out as an Ambrym chieftain), an armful of amazing Sepik river carvings, some epic North Korean literature and some statues from Port Vila that we eventually shipped home in a 1.5 meter long box. And it is the shipping that gets you every time – the cost of shipping large items from strange parts of the world can be as much as (or more than) the cost of the items themselves. Walk into any sufficiently far-flung DHL office and there is a good chance that in the back room you will find a few large souvenirs that were simply dumped once the purchaser realized how much it would cost to ship them home (wily bargain hunters, far-flung DHL staff will typically give these to you for free if you can stump up the shipping charges – true story).

We had travelled through Uzbekistan being offered some truly lovely souvenirs: delicately painted ceramic serving bowls, large and ornate embroidered suzani and amazing brightly coloured woven silks by the bolt, all at knock down prices. We had spurned all offers to bargain, however, because there was no way to ship such large souvenirs home from the small towns we were in and they were too heavy for us to carry long distances with our rucksacks. Our strategy, cunningly worked out with a Londoner’s or New Yorker’s faith in capital cities, was to wait until Tashkent, where we could both purchase all of these things and ship them home. Although most canny travelers might stay in Tashkent say, one day, we planned three days in Tashkent to run our errands and move on.

Big mistake. FIVE days after we arrived in Tashkent we finally broke for the border. FIVE days in an expensive hotel complete with hot and cold running ultraviolent Russian movies during breakfast. FIVE days walking huge distances around town to avoid being ripped off by scabrous taxi drivers. FIVE days eating crappy, overpriced meat products and being food poisoned for our pains. FIVE days trying to track down any souvenirs anywhere near the quality we had seen just days before. After an earthquake-leveling in 1966, Tashkent was seemingly designed by a megalomaniac with a love of soul-crushing Soviet architecture and long distances. True, there is the famous metro system, but the knowledge that police are known to shake travelers down for bribes on the platforms really takes the edge off. There is also the famous opera and ballet, but it was closed.

We had set our heart on an embroidered suzani large enough to cover a double bed, with fine silk embroidery on a silk background. We had seen several in Samarkand, and were now facing shopkeepers swearing blind that such things did not, in fact, exist and that we should buy their inferior products instead. We now realized why so many of the carpet and embroidery workshops in the provinces have been set up by UNESCO – in the more progressive capital, people don’t seem to care about such musty old things – give them tight, fashionably weathered jeans and polyphonic cellphone ringtones any day. If any travelers are reading: buy the bloody stuff in the regions.

Anyway, we finally bludgeoned enough reasonably good quality silk road souvenirs out of the city. This rant is already running very long, so I won’t go into the full gory details of DHL Tashkent. Let’s just say that:

  • Putting a notice on your front door indicating that you are out to lunch, and not coming back until … the next day;
  • Making Lucy fill out a lengthy form in triplicate, only to transcribe the results into a computer at the same desk;
  • Telling me that we couldn’t write “8 small ceramic dishes” on a form, because three of said small dishes were in fact small bowls;
  • Sending us on a long taxi ride across town to obtain a document from the ministry of culture proving that our very obviously new purchases weren’t antiques; and
  • Asking us to pay with a two inch thick pile of bank notes, or alternatively a credit card at a 30% higher price

…aren’t the best ways to make James and Lucy happy.

Beautiful Samarkand Suzani – that we didn't buy

Beautiful Samarkand Suzani – that we didn’t buy

 

Dodgy Dealings

Some of you may remember a previous post about the corporate lawyer we met in Cuzco, choking down pizza with one hand in one of the best restaurants in town while frantically blackberrying his holiday away trying to keep tabs on a live transaction. It made us both desperately sad, and rather glad – sad that we had ruined so many of our own holidays doing exactly that, and glad that we didn’t have to let deals interrupt our dinners, at least not on this trip.

Or so we thought. We are in Tashkent, and we have run out of money. Not truly run out of money, mind. We still have a little stashed away in our home bank accounts, and we had recently tracked down a bizarrely incongruous branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland which had given us a small but crisp stack of US dollars. Our money belts were happily replete: those US dollars; some Renmimbi for when we reach the ATM-free far west of China in 10 days’ time; some leftover Hong Kong dollars for our return there in October; and some randoms – a few Euro, some leftover Aussie dollars, a taxi fare’s worth of Japanese Yen and a few Solomons and Bolivianos we had been unable to exchange back when we left those countries. And of course we also carry emergency travelers cheques just in case. But we didn’t have enough Uzbek Som, and this was a problem.

The Uzbek Som is a funny beast: the official exchange rate stands at about 2,000 to the dollar but black market rates are much higher, no doubt because of the rampant inflation in the country that rapidly depletes the savings of any Uzbek patriotic enough to keep their nest egg in local currency. As a result of this gap, almost nobody takes credit cards and there are virtually no foreigner-friendly ATMs – nobody would use them, as they would be pinned to the unattractive official exchange rate. As a result, travel cash in Uzbekistan is still done the way it was when I travelled in India in 1994 – queue up once a week to withdraw dollars from a bank teller and exchange them either at the bank or through some dodgy chap in sunglasses on a street corner. Oh, and add to this the fact that the largest denomination is the 1,000 Som note (worth about 40 cents) making $100 in Som literally about an inch thick (and by “literally” I mean “literally”).

So cut back to dinner – I had reached into my painfully bulging trouser pocket (no, not like that) and counted out my stack of Som (there is a special rapid counting technique, and now I have practiced it I could pass for a used car salesman in the UK). We had enough for a vegetarian dinner or wine, but not both, and we had had a really bad day. We were on the point of rediscovering the excellence of Georgian red wine (hi Dato!) and, faced with the choice of soda water or no dinner, I asked the waitress if they accepted dollars. The answer was unfortunately no (it is, after all, illegal) but they knew a man who could…

So this was the business deal that interrupted our dinner. After a couple of quiet conversations with the doorman, he arranged for a taxi driver friend of his to come, pick up an unmarked $50 note, drive away again, change the cash and come back. Interestingly, if unsurprisingly, the nighttime black market rate is a little worse than the daytime black market rate, but $50 is still enough for a good bottle of dry Georgian red wine.

And it led to yet another great life experience – you are sitting at dinner drinking wine with your lovely fiancée when a man enters, scans the restaurant, makes eye contact and walks over. He stops by your table, subtly slips you a half-inch thick slab of bank notes, bows slightly (with his hand on his heart, in the central Asian fashion) and walks away. Tonight, I am the Godfather.

The Godfather pays for dinner – about $80 for two, with wine

The Godfather pays for dinner – about $80 for two, with wine