Saturday, November 20, 2010

Guerra de Cambio

Ecuador converted their currency to the U.S. dollar a decade ago. For Gringos that means no cost to convert currency and no crazy math figuring out how much things cost. It also means no pretty money like all the rest of the world has (the U.S. has the plainest money eveeeerrrr). And you know in grade school when we learned about currency and how the U.S. printed money and burned the stuff that was too old and ratty to use? Lies.

Turns out old bills come to Ecuador, but not do die. Rather they age as we do: naturally and embarrassingly. The smaller denominations here look and feel as if printed on tissue paper. (And we've encountered some that were apparently mistaken for just that.) It's just like at home: everyone tries to pawn off their flimsiest bills on everyone else so they're not caught with them when the music stops.

Oddly, however, coins greater than a penny are a hot item. At every transaction there is a duel over who has to part with their coins. We were perfectly willing to give exact change early on, till we found ourselves needing exact change because merchants couldn't provide change. In those cases there would either be no transaction or we'd have to pay extra (no or insufficient change). And we ride buses whenever we can. That costs 25 cents per adult (kids free), and no change is provided, so we always have to have exactly 25 or 50 cents on us at all times.

So now we have established pockets that we use to keep potential bus fare (finally found a use for that tiny upper pocket on the right hand of my pants). Those pockets, under no other circumstances but bus, may be used to provide exact change. They offer bus passes here, but they are just prepaid debit cards with no discount. Why would you do that? Cambio armistice, that's why. The change war can get ugly

Last time Di went to the lavanderia (laundry service), she denied (truthfully or not) having exact change. The lady was dubious, so Di got pennies in stacks of tens prepackaged in scotch tape accompanied by the subtlest of "touche" glares for her troubles (Cuencanos are masters of subtle, as they are a conservative and fairly inexpressive culture).

And so we've discovered, even as cheap as everything is here, pennies are used here, as in the U.S. merely as weapon of annoyance, holding no other real value. "Just try passing that stack off on some other merchant" was what her parting smile really said.

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