You’ve just landed in a strange airport, in a new country: it’s exciting, terrifying, overwhelming, and really, really awesome all at once. You’ve cruised through immigration, exchanged currency (don’t forget your passport!), and have gotten your bags.
The porter (you assume) grabs your bags for you and wheels out your trolley to the taxi bay; loads your bags in the back and then waits expectantly; his eyes smiling. You’re staring at your newly exchanged notes and coins, trying to figure out what it means and the value of the money. You tip him some vague approximation of what you tip in your own country, and hope you got it right; but worry that it was too much or too little.
Tipping is a tricky space to navigate, with rules and etiquette and ‘what’s generally done’ complicating what should be simple mathematics. But, it’s all linked in to the value of money and that’s more than a currency exchange rate. It isn’t enough for me to know that 1 Euro = 10 South African Rand, it’s important to know what that 10 Rand can actually buy in the shops.
I think that the best way to figure out the value of your money is to: a) go to the local market, and b) go to the local supermarket.
Make a mental note of what it costs to buy a toothbrush, or a pen. Look at the perishables: how much does it cost to buy a kilo of fruit, how much for tomatoes? Watch people- do they bargain at the local market; does it work? Compare prices and quality between the local market produce and the supermarket produce. Look at the prices for things you normally buy at home- is there a difference, are things cheaper here?
It might seem a little bit too close to doing chores, but it’s an invaluable tool for understanding your money in a new place. It’s an indicator for the cost of living here and thus, a barometer to judge your own costs by. It does help to understand what you’re paying for and helps you (sometimes) spot if you’re being overcharged for something!
I now know that 10 ZAR will get me a ‘to-go’ coffee at my local cafe, and a pot of tea if the owner is in a good mood. A Euro in Vienna will get me past the lady manning the public toilets in the metro. Value.