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Hacktreks on Money and Travel

The Bank Note
Mark Vender needs a little change...

The first I knew about the "change game" was in an Internet café in Puerto Natales, in the south of Chile. My travelling companion and I were ready to leave after spending an hour or so on-line. The bill would have come to about 2,000 Chilean Pesos for the two of us. My friend dropped a 20,000 Peso note on the counter, and that’s when the trouble began.

What I remember most is the absolute blank of an expression that the café assistant gave us. It was as though my friend had placed something other than money on the counter. I’m not trying to suggest that the difficulties in changing large notes are confined to South America. It’s just that in the countries we grew up in, the onus is on the shop attendant to sort out any problems with payment. It was a great shock to feel the absence of what we took for granted as the world’s dominant capitalist paradigm, where the customer is helped in whatever way possible to hand over their money.

For half a minute there was a stand off as we all stared at each other incredulously. My friend was on the verge of walking out, figuring that if the guy who worked at the café couldn’t be bothered sorting it out, then neither could he – he’d finished using the Internet anyway. But of course, that’s another thing that just doesn’t happen where we grew up. We groped around for small notes tucked into folds and coins until finally we made up the total.

The next time I was stung by the change game was in Copacabana in Bolivia, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. I’d woken up after a large drinking session the night before and was surprised to find myself without headache or nausea. I was feeling energetic, and hungry. I decided to walk into town and get something to eat.
All I had in my wallet was a 100 Boliviano note – completely useless for buying an empanada, which is what I was craving. The solution? Buy something else to get the change. Sometimes one wonders if this is what the change game was created for: to encourage travellers to spend more money. At least, that’s what I was thinking as the first signs of a hangover finally started to assert themselves. I stumbled around the main square as vendor after vendor turned away my 100 Boliviano note.

Finally, I pulled in at Internet café for an hour or so, but as it turned out, they didn’t have change either. Perhaps the proprietor took pity on me then, or perhaps he just wanted my alcohol-breath out of his establishment. He went out and five minutes later came back with the change. Finally I could go and get my empanada, which perhaps fittingly, made me sick for days afterwards.

But where I received my real education in the change game was Cartagena, Colombia. It was there that I began to realise that when someone says they don’t have change it usually means that they just don’t want to give it to you. With everyone trying to hang on to his small notes and coins, I realised there was only one way I was going to be able to get on: learn how to play.

I now know that in some places, having a 20,000 Peso note is as good as having nothing. I have perfected the purse of the lips and the brief shrug of the shoulders required when someone asks if you have change. I have learnt that the best places to change large notes are the big supermarket chains, or any shop that sells alcohol.
But more gratifying than all of this is the fact that I don’t even need to think about playing any more. I’m like a card shark counting cards subconsciously. Without trying, I find I always have a healthy stash of small notes and coins for when I need to catch that bus, or eat an empanada.

Perhaps during brief visits it will be impossible to reach this level of proficiency. The best advice for travellers then is to remember that it is a game. And the next time someone in a shop cleans you out of all your small notes and coins and leaves you with the equivalent of a $50 note (in a country where that is more than the average monthly wage), the best thing to do is smile and admit that you got beaten in the change game.

© Mark Vender June 2003
markvender@yahoo.com.au

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