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Day 45 – Change Is Not Inevitable

November 24, 2010

Location: Buenos Aires, Argentina

Date: Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The hardest thing to come by in Buenos Aires is change. Not political change. Not social change. Not change some naïve collegiate can believe in. I’m talking change as in “coins or bills of low denomination.”

Everyone at tonight’s dinner has experienced it. If you need change to make a phone call—like I did when I arrived in Buenos Aires yesterday—vendors will brush you off and if you ask who can help you they will wave in a direction far away from them. I tried to pay for 4 pesos ($1 USD) worth of stuff with a 5 peso bill and a guy asked me if I had 4 pesos in coins. I gave it to him. I will never make that mistake again.

That’s because here, coins are more valuable than diamonds. Everyone needs them for the bus and the subway, but inexplicably no one has them. Ever. And if they do, they’re using them for themselves and not giving them away for something silly like commerce or selling things. I’ve had shop owners, instead of giving me monedas, force me to pick out a few pieces of gum or candy. It’s crazy.

Making change for bills isn’t any easier. If you pay for 65 pesos worth of stuff at the corner store (the equivalent of $16 USD) and try to pay with a 100 peso bill ($25 USD), the clerk will give you a look somewhere between annoyance and homicide, then ask if you have anything smaller. The Danes who were part of tonight’s dinner party had to guard a store for an owner while he ran around from shop to shop trying to break a bill. On other occasions, they’ve tried to buy 15 pesos worth of stuff and been told to put it back because the shop owner couldn’t (wouldn’t?) break a 50. In other words, the shop chose to not make money instead of giving up small denomination notes. Back home, if you want to pay for a soda with a twenty, the shop will gladly accept your valuable bill because that’s what stores do: take currency in exchange for goods so as to make that cash. Not sure Argentina’s quite figured out the whole capitalism thing.

Banks don’t help out either. If you withdraw money, they will give you only 100 peso bills. Seriously, Argentina. A little help here.

It’d be one thing if this were Bolivia, where everything is cheap because the country is poor. Paying for something with a large bill there might be the equivalent of paying someone a week’s worth of wages. But Argentina is not poor. Prices here are basically the same as in the U.S. or any Western country. One hundred pesos isn’t a month’s wages. It’s not even a couple hours’ wages.

Argentina may have tap water you can drink, toilets you can flush toilet paper down, and stores that accept credit cards, but it’s still South America. The kind of place where 25 centavo coins are worth more than 100 peso bills.

GALLERY: No bonus pictures today.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. David permalink
    December 12, 2010 9:01 am

    huh, the coin thing is interesting.

    • December 13, 2010 2:50 pm

      Very strange. You can get change at banks but you have to wait in line with all the other customers and when you ask for 20 one peso coins the clerk will look at you like you pooped on the counter. When I did this I wanted to tell the guy who disdainfully tossed me a stack of unwrapped monedas, “Dude, this your country. If you all don’t want me coming in a fancy bank to get change, get some coins into circulation.”

      Heard it’s not as bad outside Buenos Aires. I’ll see for myself in a couple of days.

  2. Doug permalink
    December 12, 2010 5:40 pm

    Bienvenidos a Argentina.

    • December 13, 2010 2:51 pm

      Igual que todos los paises en Sur de America, hay algo cosas raros.

      And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my attempt at broken Spanish for today.

  3. February 17, 2011 3:34 pm

    Ha, ha. The problem is that the coins metal is worth more than 5 times the coins value.

    Do your math.

    • March 6, 2011 6:49 pm

      Before writing this up I tried to find evidence of the rumor you’re referring to. Couldn’t substantiate it so I left it out. From what I can tell, it’s a combination of hording by the bus companies and a failure on the part of the government to produce more. Why either occur is still unclear.

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