In the developing world they lack many things like clean water, infrastructure, stable governments and pizza delivery. But the one thing as a foreigner that drives me crazy is a lack of small bills or change.
It is usually incumbent upon the customer to supply correct change at all transactions. Even at the best restaurants that cater to tourists or ticket windows at famous attractions they keep only a smattering of coins.
As a result, acquiring small bills is a game. I relentlessly hoard small bills like a Glenn Beck devotee hoards gold and rice.
Virtually every transaction in a 3rd world country starts with me giving the merchant/waiter/ticket-taker a bill and before they even look at it, they say, “Do you have change?” I always present the largest reasonable bill I have. If I buy a bottle of water for 10 pesos, I’ll present a 100 note. If I buy a corona and tamale for 40 pesos, I’ll present a 200 note. In this way, I get the maximum amount of change without creating too much angst for the merchant and looking like a rich foreign jerk.
One thing I have learned is that McDonalds always has the GDP of the country you are in stashed away in each cash register. Sometimes I will take an unbreakable, mint-condition bill fresh from the ATM and buy french fries. I will get back in line and buy a chocolate shake with another large bill. By using two different transactions, I get a stash of small bills. McDonalds McBank: I’m Lovin’ It!
Even with the best hoarding, I sometimes find myself having to hand over a 100 note to a taxi driver after a ride for 60. “No change,” they always say, expecting to keep the rest. “No problem. I have change,” I lie so that they will hand the bill back. I dramatically hold up the bill and say, “I’ll be back. I will go find change,” and take off walking towards nearby shops. Magically, this act creates exact change in the pocket of the driver, who usually peels it off the top of a brick of cash he has been hoarding.
How a typical transaction works in developing countries
I go into a small shop to buy a bottle of water. The price is 30 rupees. I hand the merchant a 100 rupee note. He looks at it and immediately says, “No change?”
I shrug my shoulders. The merchant then looks at the bill again, like I just handed him a 100,000 USD note. He then opens a cigar box and rummages around noisily, dramatically checks his empty wallet and pats around his various pockets in a gesture to show that he has no money. He then blurts out in his native language something to the random guys and employees in the shop. Everyone opens their wallet and peers deep inside, turning it upside down and dramatically dumping it signaling that they have no change.
At this time one of three things happens:
- Reluctantly, a random guy in the shop, maybe even a fellow customer, has change and gives it to the merchant. (I always wonder how this works, if there are ever disputes days later when he tries to get paid back.)
The merchant gives my bill to a random boy in the shop, probably his youngest son or an intern, and sends him running for change. This must be very insulting. You know you are the low end of the totem pole when you have to fetch coffee, clean up on aisle 4 and get change for foreigners. The boy returns after an extended absence with change.
After the merchant badgers everyone in his native tongue and asks me three more times for small bills, he reluctantly, with an air of profound defeat, reaches into his pocket and pulls out a brick of cash with notes in every denomination. Money in foreign countries usually has different sizes and colors for different denominations so the stack of money looks like the sedimentary layers of rock in Utah canyons. From this he provides change.
When I get the change, I then reach into my pocket and retrieve a stack of small bills and begin triumphantly organizing the money I just won.
Do you also hoard bills?
What annoys you about travel?
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