November 5, 2013
Spare Change

Yesterday, I saw something I haven’t seen since I left the States. (If you guessed “breasts,” close, but no cigar – Ecuador’s startlingly casual breast-feeding culture has me averaging about 1.5 per day.) I saw, and in a moment of wonder even touched, a $1 bill.

On the surface, it would seem that shouldn’t be so surprising – we are outside of the U.S., after all. However, things become more interesting when you take into account that Ecuador uses the dollar as its national form of currency. If you’re feeling confused, that makes two of us.          

Ecuador switched over to using the US dollar about thirteen years ago as a result of the previous form of currency, the Sucre, apparently inflating faster than Kanye’s ego in an air compressor factory. Sure, this stabilizes their currency and eliminates wondering if a drink that costs eight kabillion Sucres is expensive or not, but it also comes with a slight problem – no one has any change. As most people and businesses nowadays get their money from ATMs in the form of twenties, finding smaller bills is something of a miracle. The general populace struggles by with the help of America’s unwanted step-child of a coin, the golden “Sacagawea” dollars, but even so the situation turns even the most mundane purchase into a high-stakes battle of wits.

Imagine this scenario – you walk into a pleasant little almuerzo restaurant for lunch, your stomach already growling and not minding that there’s some unidentified object in your soup that bears an unsettling resemblance to a chicken foot. You finish off your blackberry juice and walk to the register to pay. “$2.50, por favor,” the sweet elderly woman behind the counter asks. Looking through your wallet, you realize you only have a five dollar bill, which you slowly take out and gingerly hand across the counter, all the while trying to maintain a casual expression. The endearing wrinkles of the woman’s face have hardened into sharp creases, and her small black eyes bore into your fragile gringo soul as she growls, “I don’t have any change.” Liar, you think. Don’t act like you don’t have some dollar coins floating around in your back pocket. Then again, you’re lying too – in your backpack’s innermost compartment you’ve got $4 in hidden coins that you’ve painstakingly hoarded over the past three months. There’s no way you’re blowing them all on this lunch, though, no sir. A staring contest ensues, the very air quivering as each party wills the other to give in. Finally, the lady’s eyes narrow slightly, and she says she’ll check the back, returning a minute later with a handful of change and a look that says next time she won’t be so easily defeated. Shaking from your narrow escape, you avert your eyes and exit as quickly as possible.

While an absurd concept in the US, in Ecuador providing change is the joint responsibility of both the supplier and the consumer. When shopping with friends I’ve learned not to give any hint of our connection to each other in the checkout line lest the cashier pout and berate us until we agree to pay together. Asking your waiter to “split the check” might as well be asking them to cut off their own finger with your butter knife. Here, all it takes to earn the admiration and envy of your friends and family is just flashing a handful of dollar coins you’ve been lucky enough to acquire.

Of all the painful errors I’ve made in Ecuador (shin guard-less soccer, not realizing that when served a fish whole you’re supposed to remove the bones before swallowing), none sting quite as bad as The Coin Roll Incident of Day Three. I got breakfast with friends a few days after getting off the plane in the Ecuadorian equivalent of a diner. The three of us got up to pay, our total coming to $8.75, and as I was out of paper money I naively whipped out a $10 roll of quarters I’d brought from the States to just pay the entire bill and have my breakfast companions get me back later.

As I unwrapped the coins, the small restaurant slowly grew quiet. People from every corner stared at my hands, a trail of greedy drool dangling from the shop owner’s mouth. A man at the table to my right put his hand on my shoulder. “Say, son, think you could change this five for me?” Suddenly the restaurant was awash with noise as other patrons murmured at me asking for the same, all of them closing in around me like some type of monetary-based zombie film. In a moment of panic I threw down our payment, all 35 quarters of it, and ran out.

Thirty-five quarters. Gone before I could even appreciate their sweet usefulness. The other week I considered myself blessed to have five quarters, all of which I quickly lost after a heated argument with an ice cream vendor. (He definitely had change, I know it.) 35 quarters – who knows if I will ever be so wealthy again.