In this monthly column, project coordinator Megan van der Moezel writes about her experiences in Quito. Livin’ la vida Local: a humorous beginner’s guide to this fascinating country. This month a column about the Money Game in Ecuador.
By Megan van der Moezel
I’ve decided it is time to talk about money. After all, it always seems to play an important part in your story no matter where you travel. I remember going to Thailand seven years ago for instance. In a matter of days I managed to lose my bankcard simply because ATMs there spit out your cash before returning your card. In other words: I walked away happily carrying my money and leaving my card behind. Spent the rest of the trip bumming cash from my friend, only to have a small -borrowed- fortune stolen from my backpack at a louche hotel on Koh Pangan.
In Ecuador, I am facing a whole nother kind of problem. Here, everyone who steps off a plane will – unknowingly at first – instantly become involved in a highly competitive game. The Money Game, so you will. The good news, is that you can win your first victory simply by not bringing any large bills. It won’t take you long to realize why. Most likely the first time you try to hand over a $10 bill to a shopkeeper to pay for your bag of apples. The typical tortured expression combined with a whiny ‘no cambio’ (no change) that inevitably follows, will haunt you for the rest of your stay.
So what should you do?
Everyone quickly develops their own strategies. Let me share some of mine: Step one is figuring out which locations handle the most money. These will be the easiest victims. My go-to place to break a big bill is the Santa Maria supermarket next to the Local Dreamers office. Get yourself one pack of gum, innocently hand your $20 to the cashier – all the while ignoring the murderous glare you’ll receive as a result – and you’re set for change for at least half a week.
Step 2 is always using the largest bill you think you can get away with for each purchase. Even if you have just successfully completed a ‘step 1’ and are sporting a wallet chockfull of coins. Just flat out lie if you have to. Lo siento mucho love, I really don’t have anything smaller.
Step 3 is never taking no for an answer without sparring a few rounds of ‘no cambio’ versus ‘no smaller notes’ first. Remember, you are not the only player in the game. Just as you are trying to break your big bills, your competitors are trying to hold on to their change at all costs. So don’t give up too easily. And don’t be afraid to go into battle to keep your precious coin collection intact.
Losing the Money Game
And finally, come to realize that there actually is such a thing as TOO small currency as well. Quito’s city busses are the most notorious place to learn this lesson. Trust me. I found out the hard way. It was during one of my first weeks in Quito, and I was hopelessly losing the Money Game. Eventually it got so bad, that I had no choice but to pay for my $0,25 bus ride to work with 5 bucks. The largest amount that any bus will accept, and that any experienced player wouldn’t even consider paying. And no wonder. You wouldn’t believe the size of the pennies-heap that rookie move resulted in.
Luckily, it is a lot easier to get rid of small change, than big bills. Two packs of gum at the supermarket, a five minute wait while the sulky cashier counts my coppers, and voila! I’m back to square one, and ready for another round.