Anyone going to the former USSR can expect scams that separate travellers from their money

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The Independent Travel
Russia has announced that it will knock three noughts off the value of the rouble at the end of 1997, to remove the sort of inflationary stigma that surrounds weak currencies (it takes just pounds 105 to become a millionaire in Moscow, pounds 220 in newly devalued Indonesia and less than pounds 4 in Turkey). But anyone venturing into the former USSR can expect every rogue in the East to devise scams for separating travellers from their cash.

If the experience of the Yugoslav dinar - destroyed by hyperinflation, but even today being palmed off on the unsuspecting tourists tempted to deal on the currency black markets - is anything to go by, it is safe to assume that old roubles will be misrepresented as local currency in Prague and Krakw, and that gullible tourists will hand over $50 bills in exchange for seductively pretty banknotes with high denominations but have absolutely no value.

A decade ago, there were worthwhile black markets from Cuba to Czechoslovakia, enabling travellers to dodge artificially high exchange rates while also injecting some much-needed financial realism into basket-case economies. Now, though, it seems that every black market functions purely as a con trick. A small truckload of Turkish lire awaits the reader who can demonstrate the most beneficial exception to this rule.

"I share your outrage about the closing of Gatwick airport's tourist information centre", writes Nesta Ross of Manchester. "You might be interested to hear about our experiences of Lisbon airport's tourist office, in utter contrast to the projected decision about Gatwick.

"We had arrived at Lisbon on a cheap flight in the early evening with no reservations booked. We told the middle-aged lady that we were looking for a nice, cheap pension. `No problem', she said, and phoned a suitable abode. `As a matter of fact,' she continued, `I also have a place of my own, but it's full. There are some really interesting people staying there and I'm sure you'd like to meet them. I'm going off-duty in five minutes so I'll drive you up there'.

"We had a hair-raising journey with her - she drove down the midddle of the road sublimely indifferent to all the car horns protesting at her driving. After taking us to the appointed pension, she took us home and introduced us to her various guests of all ages and nationalities. We all went off to a local cafe for an excellent and cheap dinner."

"Alfred Bouch of Tunbridge Wells asks if anyone can top his story of irrelevant time-wasting; I'm not sure if my story tops it, but it may match it," writes Elisabeth Parks, in response to our dismal tale of hitch- hiking without the hitch.

"In that limbo time between the end of A-levels (I was at school in Cambridge) and the start of university life, fatuity did indeed have its own attractions, and I found myself agreeing to a trip to Bournemouth. My friend knew someone who lived there; it was summer, and a good time for a surprise visit.

"We set out early, and everything went smoothly until lunchtime, when we found ourselves stranded in Winchester in a downpour. Of course, no coats or umbrellas; it was, after all, summer. A bread delivery driver took pity on us, took us some way down the road and donated his overall as protection against the rain. Feeling very glamorous, me wrapped in the brown overall, with frozen extremities, we arrived in Bournemouth at 5pm, and to discover that our host had moved on - no forwarding address.

"After a paddle in the sea and a bag of chips, we set off home, deciding that Oxford would be a good focus for our return route."

A glimpse at a map suggests that this was an unusual decision to take. Nevertheless, progress to Oxford was easy: "It was that last leg back to Cambridge that proved the most difficult. We chose the cross-country route, and the `country' emphasis proved stronger than anticipated. Our best lift was from a pig farmer whose empty truck had space for both of us in the back, among the remains of a trip to market with his stock. We arrived home at 4am, in much need of a bath.

"I now live only 10 miles from Bournemouth, but hitch-hiking is, sadly but no doubt wisely, just a memory."

"When, on a wet afternoon, we stumbled towards Black Sail's smoking chimney from the Red Pike ridge which overlooks Buttermere, we were greeted by the warden with a huge pot of tea and improbable instructions to stow our boots on the beam running across the ceiling of the common room. The days when hostellers at Black Sail had to brush their teeth in a nearby stream are gone, but gas light is the only concession to modernity in the unheated dormitories. Washing facilities for perspiring hikers comprise a basin of hot water carried from the kitchen through a field of friendly sheep."

These are the words of Teresa Allan, who died last weekend. Besides being a contributor to these pages, Teresa was a dear friend. She will be sadly missed.