Follow the money

Soon after Pat and I arrived in Timor, we travelled to Aileu, about three hours out of Dili. After lunch at one of the town’s two restaurants, I handed the waitress a $20 note. She pointed to the year and gave it back. ‘La diak,’ she said. No good. Bewildered, I pulled out another $20. Same year, same response.

We rustled up enough change to pay for the meal but that took all our cash. To be honest, we hadn’t really thought about funds for the trip. Our accommodation and transport were covered and food was the only cost.

Then it dawned on me. There’s no way to get money in Aileu. No ATM machines. No banks. No cheque facilities. No postal service for that matter. Fortunately the local World Vision office swapped our suspect notes for ones we could use. If we’d been tourists, I don’t know what we’d have done.

Pulsa boys on a Dili street corner.

Pulsa boys on a Dili street corner.

Timor’s a strictly cash economy. The implications of this are hard to comprehend if you’re used to flashing the plastic. Here, you need real money for everything, from a 50 cent pile of garlic to an $80 doctor’s visit.

There’s no billing or internet banking. We buy cellphone top-up cards from the pulsa boys who occupy every street corner, purchase  pre-paid electricity vouchers and refill the gas bottle we use for cooking when it’s empty. All these transactions require cash. In a city of 200,000 people, only a handful of top retailers have EFTPOS or credit card facilities.

Our monthly volunteer allowance gets paid into an ANZ bank account. We have a card to withdraw money from one of the four ATM machines in Dili. It’s not unusual for three to be out of action, a poor show for a bank making record profits of A$500 million a month in the Asia-Pacific region.

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