How to make cents of change in Nicaragua

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 2.58.37 PMThis is an article about change, mainly about change in Nicaragua, an impoverished country with a tumultuous history and challenges. To a visitor, it may sometimes seem as if it can never change or escape its past or make a better future. While many otherwise poor Nicas use cellphones and even dirt-floor shacks sport satellite dishes, one cannot help but notice how little machinery is apparently available to undertake what we might call “modern work” when so many people drive oxcarts, use foot-powered sewing machines or mules and horses for labor.

But there is another kind of change” and I’m not talking about “change” in the aesthetic or political sense. I’m simply talking about currency or coins, or really about making change in day-to-day business. You know, as in “Puedes hacer cambio por favor?”

“Lo siento. No tengo.” Or “Sorry, I don’t have any.”

It should be a simple request. You pull out currency for something and you expect to get change back from your purchase. Happens everywhere, every day, or so I thought until I visited Nicaragua for a month, including a two-week stint as a volunteer in a poor village near Granada and found otherwise. Repeatedly.

Now before some wizened ex-pat, a Nicaraguan native or more experienced traveler takes umbrage at my essay, let me please say that I really enjoyed Nicaragua. Each day as a volunteer I would walk for about 40 minutes to where the paved road eventually gave way to hardpack earth and then to trash-strewn and gullied earth.  Most days I ate lunch for the equivalent of two dollars in the bustling Mercado Municipal. I am conversant in Spanish and met and became friends with many Nicaraguans of all walks of life.

My first experience with “change” was in a bank in Managua with dollars I brought from the U.S.. Although I learned that dollars were accepted most anywhere and that in the colonial and touristic town of Granada you could get dollars or cordobas from an ATM, on my first full day in Nicaragua I walked in past the shotgun-wielding guard (learned that was normal too) and proceeded to the teller. Well. Well. She had to fill out a form. And then another. And another. She had to type a mess of things on her computer keyboard. She asked for my passport. I had to sign some forms. All this to change dollars into cordobas. It took about ten of my precious travel minutes and the bank was otherwise empty. I smiled and jokingly told her that all the paperwork she just generated would get sent downtown and filed away into a trash can. She hesitatingly smiled but I wondered if that was so difficult, what else might be needlessly complex here? My other travels in lesser developed countries with similar experiences had of course prepared me for this.

A few days later in Granada, I was surprised that, alas, you can make change easily and quickly but I also learned that this was only in front of a bank. In daylight hours. With a man grasping what appeared to be tens of thousands of cordobas. And these guys were licensed with i.d. cards to prove they were indeed legitimate “cambionistas.”  That’s cambionistas, not Sandinistas.

Well, that was easy. But that was on a street lined with banks in a major tourist destination. Gradually I learned that even with ridiculous ATM fees, it seemed to make “cents” to get cash from an ATM in dollars, change into Cordobas and reduce even more costly credit card charges.

One evening I walked into the oddly named “mini-super” along the main tourist drag of Granada. I picked up a gallon of purified water which costs about eighty cordobas, or some three dollars, about three times what it cost in the Pali grocery store that was much further away and also closed at that time. Having just come from the bank and cambionista, I had a pocket full of larger notes. I handed the cashier a 500 cordoba note, about $20. She seemed surprised and said there was no way she could change that.

I explained that $20 was certainly no huge amount and that having been open all day, surely she could make change. She said it was quite rare to get such a large bill. I walked across the store, produced a bottle of whiskey priced at $3,000 cordobas and asked how if she had aisles and aisles of other such liquor bottles and many at higher prices, how could she not have change at 8 p.m. for what amounted to the cost of one or two bottles of the finer rum? She had no answer. So if a small grocery and liquor store in the heart of the most popular tourist area in all of Nicaragua cannot change a $20 near the end of a working day, who can? What was up I wondered?

Almost the same thing occurred there a few days later but with a twist. This time a man was at the register—a point of sale, computerized cash register with a monitor of store cameras—a rarity of high-tech modernity in Nicaragua, and again, he did not have change. So he called over to the lady who was seated across the store. She pulled out her purse and managed to complete the transaction.  There is a bit more to this story as I learned from other locals, but it says more about the store than about the “change” situation.

Perhaps one day you and I will be able to break a $20 in that high-tech, computerized, multi-camera monitor register.

Yet similar things kept happening to me, not only in Granada but later in the tourist-infested beach resort of San Juan de Sur. I went into the crowded market on a hot afternoon, ordered a fresh squeezed juice and when I finally got the drink, I presented a 50 for a 35 Cordoba price. This too was late in the day and you would have thought the shopkeeper would have change. But no. The lady took my 50 and disappeared into the market place. One minute passed. Two minutes passed. I sat down. I finished my drink. A few minutes later the lady finally re-emerged with a handful of coins or 15 cordobas (about $.50) in change.

Perhaps she stopped to chat with a friend. Maybe she had to go to two or three vendors. What happened to all the revenue she had generated during the day’s sales I wondered. Was she delaying intentionally in the hopes that I would simply leave the change?

One can only guess.

One night I took a four dollar cab ride back to my hotel. Again I had just come from an ATM and at least in Nicaraguan eyes, was loaded with big bucks. I told the driver I only had larger bills. Instead of him making a stop at any of the businesses still in open in town, he continued to my hotel on the outskirts even though he told me he had no change. Outside of town, no other place was open. I got to my hotel and gave the man half the payment or all I had in whatever small bills I could muster. I had taken cabs many times in the States and cannot recall if I ever found a taxi driver who did not have change. Was the driver in San Juan del Sur simply hoping that I’d say “Oh nevermind—just keep the change?”

One can only guess.

I had to ask the hotel’s night watchman for help. He did not have any change of course. I asked him if we could dip into the tip jar and the dish where guests paid for bottled water and I’d repay it the next day. We scrounged and managed to find just enough change. But the night watchman or guardiapuerta had to count the change. Once. Then twice. Then he counted it back again for the third time. Out loud. Each time. He was apparently challenged with simple arithmetic, but I guess that a third grade education was not necessary to have a license for the handgun he had in his holster. I waited and so did the taxi driver who was paid and drove off with a tip (somewhat less than had I not given him change) and a smile. I settled with the hotel in the morning but not until the two nice employees asked me not to put tips in the jar but to leave them on the bed in my room.

One can only guess.

The next day at a nearby beach that sported a handful of bars and restaurants, I stood behind a rather pale American girl who spoke no Spanish and just came from California. She ordered a fruit beverage and lo and behold, she only had 100 cordoba bills. And of course the drink was about half of that but the stand had just opened and as with any other business in Nicaragua, or so it seemed, they don’t start their day with any cash or change. Had it been three in the afternoon I could have imagined the same thing. Mayve the owners fear that if they start the day with a cash drawer that it will be emptied by the cashier, or so I surmised. But somehow that did not make, er, uh did not make cents.

I intervened explaining to the newly arrived and still pale California girl quite simply that “They don’t make change in Nicaragua. In the entire country. Sorry. Doesn’t happen.”

“Really?” she asked somewhat flummoxed or was it incredulously?

“Yep” I told her rather smugly. “They just can’t do it. I think it’s against a government decree or something”.

And the words just flowed out as I explained matter-of-factly in a cocky manner. “You see this way they get you to tip them, or to pay more or to buy more. This is just the way it happens. Nobody ever has change. Nowhere—except maybe in front of ATM’s in Granada. But even in Granada, you can’t get a store or restaurant to make change. They just don’t have it or won’t do it…or they think they can simply get Gringo tourists to pay more.”

The young Californian did not know what to do so I suggested she simply buy two drinks. Which she did. The woman behind the bar gladly accepted. All of which proved my point. I think.

One can only guess.

A few days later I was on my way to Costa Rica, where I figured the Ticos could make change. I quickly found that with its much higher prices, there might not be the need for so much change from larger ATM bills. I stopped at a gas station to make a small purchase and get some change before leaving San Juan del Sur. Thankfully the station which could change your tires or change your oil could also change currency. Perhaps a 20 did not seem so much to a gas station.

And guess what happened at the border? I know, you are thinking “One can only guess.”

I was one of perhaps a hundred people in four lines trying to pay our exit fees to leave the country and board our buses. Although I had just come from an ATM, I had just paid another fee and the taxi driver and a bus ticket and the bothersome guys who insisted on shoving immigration forms in my face and then demanding “tips” as I exited the taxi, all I had were twenties. So I did what any normal, red-blooded American traveler would do. After waiting in line and waiting, I handed the officer at the window a $20 bill. She gave me a somewhat pained look and asked if I had anything smaller. Dozens in line behind me were waiting. Was I about to cause an international incident?

So there I was at a major border crossing with hundreds of people in line, already past noon, at the height of tourist season and my $20 bill was causing a border officer some pained difficulty. She asked the officer next to her. Then she asked another officer. Cash drawers were hastily opened, bills exchanged and finally, I received my change.

One can only guess.

One hour and a few hundred feet later I was in Costa Rica, a country whose name in Spanish means “High Costs”. Immediately everything seemed different. More orderly. More official. More modern. Cleaner.And as I very quickly learned, much more expensive, which explains why there were more $20 bills and that less change was needed for any transaction involving “large” bills, which seemed not so large anymore. I had no further change problems in Costa Rica. When I departed a few nights later from the airport in San Jose just past midnight, there was a line to pay an exorbitant exit fee of $22 and they even took debit (but not credit) cards. There was also a nearby ATM.

A big sign explained where that $22 was going. Sure.

Early that morning I arrived in Fort Lauderdale where I waited and waited in line for a coffee and croissant breakfast sandwich. Three customers in front of me were taking their time as was the cashier. I waited. And waited. I paid about $7 for a coffee, small sandwich and tax, and sat down and tried to enjoy it. The coffee was steaming hot but the sandwich was disappointingly cold. I stared at it for a moment, somewhat bewildered that this was my greeting back in the USA. A cold croissant.

I went back to the coffee shop, waited in line again and then politely told the cashier that my sandwich was cold. She said it should have been heated. I said it was not. She again said it should have been heated. I again said it was not. Perhaps she did not understand my English so I spoke in Spanish. She did not understand Spanish.

She grabbed the croissant, yes grabbed it, and placed it on a sandwich iron and slammed the press down …on my croissant. A minute later, she placed the now-flattened croissant in a paper bag that she dropped by the cash register almost spilling its contents. My poor sandwich was crushed, of course further disappointing me by having rendered the now hot but flattened croissant unpalatable. I asked for my money back. The lady complained, demanding to know if I had a complaint about the coffee as well. I said the coffee was fine but I could complain about it if she really wanted me to do so.

I was not going to pay $5 for this sandwich. The cashier made some rather extemporaneous remarks toward me that I answered in a loud Spanish voice, about getting better service in poor countries…or some such thing.

Instead of heating another sandwich, words were quickly exchanged between the cashier and the manager. Nobody asked what the customer wanted. The manager said not a word, punched some keys on the register, the drawer rang open and she produced a complete refund. That was not what I asked for but I got it. Really, all I wanted was a warm croissant sandwich and coffee for which I was willing to pay of course–and receive change.

I got a coffee and that was for free because I got $7 back. Perhaps the beans were produced in Central America.

So there I was back in the US. I was tired but the coffee was hot and I got to keep the change-all of it. I never got the sandwich and I was still hungry but I got the change. We always have plenty of change in the USA. What a country.

One can only guess.

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