In another reversal from home, where pocket change is largely an anachronism, here coins (monedas) are an essential commodity in short supply — due to a national shortage? hoarding? black market operations? — no one seems to have an answer. At any rate, the procurement and hoarding of change is a daily imperative that requires planning and strategy. In conducting daily business transactions, from buying a newspaper at the kiosko on the corner to paying for groceries at the supermarket, the guiding principles are to give up as few coins as possible, and to collect as many as possible. The merchants, of course, have the same goals, so it can become a game of chicken to see who will back down first. If you buy something for, say, 34 pesos, and pay with a 50 peso note (about twelve dollars) the shopkeeper will ask if you have a peso coin so they can give you back a 2, 5, and 10 peso notes. If you don’t have a peso, or at least staunchly resist the temptation to hand over the one that is buried deep in your pocket, then they have to give you a coveted peso coin, plus the 5 and 10 peso notes. Victory falls to the one who comes away with more coins.
Why do you need to hoard monedas? Without it, you can’t take the bus or make inexpensive purchases. The bus fares, though absurdly low (often 1 peso 25 centavos – about thirty cents to ride all the way across town), have to be paid in coin, and round trips for our family of four can run 12 pesos or more – a stack of change that requires several days to accumulate. Merchants may also refuse to sell you something inexpensive (water or gum for 2 or 3 pesos) even if you offer a 5 or 10 peso note — and forget about trying to pay with a 50 or 100 peso bill!
Train fares are about the same as bus fares, but you can theoretically pay for tickets with paper money – though as often as not the ticket-seller will wave you on to the train without a ticket if he doesn’t have change for a 2 peso note, or a sign will tell you to either pay exact change or just get on the train.
One day my stash of coins had grown sufficiently large that I felt flush and frivolously paid with exact change for several transactions in a row – an event greeted with exclamations of surprise and delight from the merchants — Barbaro!! Gracias!! — and then, having squandered my supply, I couldn’t get on the bus to come home.