When you live in my part of the world - urban North America - it's easy to believe that the long-promised cashless society so beloved of futurists has arrived. I can charge a $4 latte at Starbucks with a credit card in the United States and Canada, so I half-believed I could travel without cash - well, with some cash, but only a little - when I went around the world recently.
Mistake. Cash is king - still - in much of the world. Credit cards, even debit cards, are still not used or really trusted in many places, even some places in western Europe, where globalization and modernity reign most of the time. Not fully understanding that millions of the world's merchants still fervently believe in metal and scrip, I withdrew just $300 U.S. from my bank before embarking on my 28-day trip to four continents. That's plenty, I reckoned.
Things started out fine in New Zealand and Singapore, where plastic and digital numbers flashing on a screen are standard-issue legal tender. But they started going downhill fast in India, then in Eygpt, and even in Rome, Barcelona and Lisbon, where it was cash, baby, and don't try to tell me that little rectangular piece of plastic in your wallet is money.
Cab drivers were especially resistant to credit. A cabbie in Barcelona pretended to swipe my American Express card, then my Visa card, and wouldn't let me do it when I saw he was faking it, pretending the cards didn't work A taxi in Barcelona was plastered with credit-card decals but when I proferred a credit card to pay the fare, the driver wouldn't take it. Ditto in Lisbon, where multilingual signs in my taxi assured passengers we could conveniently use our international credit cards -then the driver told me his reader was "broken.'' In a cafe, also in Lisbon, a waiter called over the manager when I pulled out my credit card and he produced a card-swiper, then seemed not to know the difference between a credit card and a debit card when we half-talked, half-pantomimed in English and Portuguese. I dug into my pocket for euros to pay the bill.
By the time I got to London, my cash on hand was nearly nil. There are plenty of international automated teller machines there, of course, so withdrawing more cash is entirely possible. But Londontown loves plastic, so I was able to charge most anything, even 5 pound (about $8 U.S.) repasts at the fine fresh-cut sandwich and salad chain Pret a Manger. Ditto in Manhattan. At New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, when I arrived curbside, my cabbie told me his card-reader wasn't working. I had $60. I handed it to him and walked to Departures with less than a buck in my pocket, which is what I had when I arrived home in California.
The moral of the story: Take enough cash with you, and make sure you have ready access on the road to ATMs you can readily access, because cash is king. Even now. Even in the 21st Century in much of our shrinking world.