Long before the sun crests the horizon a miniature army descends on the sleepy streets of Granada to sift through the bags of trash. They have to get an early start to beat the garbage collectors and the brigade of roaming street dogs tearing through the same bags looking for a free breakfast. These Third World Santas, hauling their booty from street to street in giant sacks are looking for plastic bottles, cans and glass that can be redeemed for meager pay. Meanwhile, there is money just lying on the ground for the taking.
Throwing money away in Nicaragua is an accepted practice. I’m not grasping for a clever metaphor here; I’m talking about taking small coins and tossing them on the ground, often discarding them with disdain. I realize that 10 and 25 centavo coins aren’t worth very much, but shiny coins, legal tender lying on the ground of a poor country is hard to understand, especially when there are people sifting through trash hoping to make a peso a pound. You often hear that poverty is a state of mind. Maybe in Nicaragua part of that state has been elevated to an art form, a sort of performance piece and public art project all rolled into one. Could it be the collective expression of futility? I was determined to find out.
Before I came to Nicaragua I was amazed at what people back home in the U.S. throw their hard earned money away on; designer handbags, ludicrously expensive sunglasses, shoes that cost as much as my first car, mountains of stuff they don’t need including exercise equipment that no one uses, bigger and better gadgets, elaborate kitchen appliances, the very latest fashions and the tempting tsunami of electronic wonders that offer the promise of a simpler life while accomplishing the exact opposite. While some people are busy counting sheep I lie awake at night wondering how many nine-hundred dollar home espresso machines there are in the contiguous forty-eight states that have been used a grand total of three times.
Somehow it’s always the poorest people in the richest countries who end up throwing away the greatest percentage of their incomes and they do it with tremendous enthusiasm. An absurd amount gets spent every week on lottery tickets and the fantasy that wealth lies a mere two dollar scratch ticket away. I can’t argue with dollar signs dancing like sugar plums but so many of those few lucky winners somehow manage to convert their new found mega-millions into total financial ruin in record time. Go figure.
Here in Nicaragua they’ve streamlined the whole process. No First World enthusiasm required. They’ve whittled it down to one easy step and they just throw the money away, right on the street. With so much of it is just lying around it must carry some sort of universally understood message lost on me but clear to anyone foolish enough to pick it up; the stuff is worthless, it has no value. At times, around the market and the nearby Pali the ground literally shimmers with coins in the sunlight like seeds sown upon the fertile earth. People walk by heedless, apparently not the least bit tempted to bend down and pick them up.
Back in the States they still mint pennies for some reason. Penny candy went out ages ago and pennies have become an anachronism and a minor nuisance. They even invented a clever scheme and give them away for free at the counter to aid transactions. Leave a penny, take a penny. Great idea. They may be worth next to nothing but we’ve held onto the notion that they are needed in commerce and people generally don’t throw them on the ground when they walk out of a store. I guess pennies are part of our tradition and even though I also find them a nuisance I’m secretly fond of them and I’d be sad to see them go. Instead, we toss them into jars or some other designated container when we get home and lug them to the bank once every ten years. Or not. Even homeless people have their adjusted-for-inflation sights set higher these days and a quarter or more has become the minimum suggested donation in order to avoid scornful looks.
Occasionally you spot a penny on the ground and you automatically stop and pick it up. At least I still do. Maybe it’s because we like to think of ourselves as thrifty. Maybe we think it will bring us good luck or perhaps we just believe that money deserves our respect. A penny saved is a penny earned and all that. But then again if we are so thrifty how come we spend so much of our time buying more and more stuff we don’t need and can hardly afford? I decided that I needed to look further into the custom of throwing money away in Nicaragua. Maybe there was some arcane cultural truth at its core that I was missing.
First, I dumped all the small coins that I had tossed into a drawer over the last few years and sorted them into piles by denomination. It looked like a fair bit of money to me but after I had stacked them like a high-roller with an impressive cache of poker chips I discovered that it was only forty-two cordobas, not even enough to buy lunch at my local comedor. I was disappointed but it was hardly enough to get me to start throwing the money away as an alternative.
A few days later I nearly collided with a teenager on the street. He had just stepped out of a small store with a bottle of soda and as he crossed the street directly in front of me he hurled a coin onto the ground with obvious disgust and continued on his way. It was the first time I had actually caught someone in the act. He didn’t strike me as someone who had disposable income and I shied away from picking up the coin for some reason. Later the same morning I retraced my steps on the way home and looked for the coin that he had thrown away. It was still lying in the street. I wondered how many people would walk past it before someone thought to pick it up and give it a new home. I also realized that I was no closer to unraveling this latest mystery so the following morning I started to conduct an experiment.
Whenever I left my house I scattered a few coins, 10, 25 and even a few 50 centavo pieces on the sidewalk in front of my door. After a few days I raised the ante and started to add a few more. I soon discovered that even groups of coins lying in plain sight on the sidewalk might remain for as long as several days before eventually disappearing. In a final effort to unlock the mystery of free money in Nicaragua, I scattered a small handful of coins around the plastic trash bag in front of my house. The garbage collectors were only a half a block away and closing fast. They came and went. The coins remained on the sidewalk undisturbed. All I could do was scratch my head and wonder if it might just be the open-air, Nicaraguan equivalent of ‘Leave a Penny-Take a Penny’.
Several days went by before the coins I had liberally sprinkled on the sidewalk finally disappeared and I guess I was relieved that somebody had finally taken the money I had thrown away even if I was no closer to an explanation. In a way I felt vindicated. Some poor soul had taken notice of them and taken every last coin.
That same afternoon my next door neighbor stopped by to borrow a ladder and I told him about my little experiment concerning money tossed on the street. It turned out that he wasn’t able to shed any light on this strange practice in Nicaragua which he had noticed too. He thanked me for loaning him the ladder but as he turned to leave he hesitated. He admitted that he had been picking up the coins. It figures; he’s Canadian.