Hacktreks on Money and Travel
Mark Vender needs a little change...
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 thats when the
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. Im not trying to suggest
that the difficulties in changing large notes are confined to South
America. Its 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
worlds 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 couldnt be bothered sorting
it out, then neither could he hed finished using the Internet
anyway. But of course, thats another thing that just doesnt
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. Id 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, thats 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
Finally, I pulled in at Internet café for an hour or so, but
as it turned out, they didnt 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 dont have change it usually means that they just dont
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 dont even
need to think about playing any more. Im 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
and World Travel in Hacktreks
all rights reserved