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Finding Small Change in Haiti is an Uphill Battle

December 16th, 2013

One reason shopping can be difficult here is that many stores simply do not have change.  Restaurants either.  Roadside stands are the same way.  Even Deli Mart, a semi-nice grocery chain, frequently does not have small change.  Woe to the customer who doesn’t have exact bills.

How many times have I given a 1,000 Goude spot to a cashier (about $25 US) and had them groan or roll their eyes or simply look at me as if I were a snake and sputter, “Nou pa gen monnen!” (We don’t have change!)

Now that I’m overseeing a business in Haiti (a bakery), I’ve decided a hallmark of our business will be always having change on hand.  However, I’ve found that isn’t an exactly easy goal to fulfill.  First I have to find change myself.

My initial plan of attack was to delegate this task.  I assigned one of the Haitian workers to go find small change for me.  They would come back with a few coins after having begged them off random street vendors.  It was like Noah sending out the doves, they only came back with little twigs, when I was expecting them to come back with fresh rolls of coins wrapped in cardboard tubes.

“This is no way to do business,” I thought, and re-assigned the task, this time with more instructions: they were to visit a bank or grocery store and make a deal that we would be willing to pay a small fee for them giving us change in coins for our bills.

That also didn’t work.  I was told the grocery store would have no part in this plan, they didn’t have enough small change to spare for themselves.  And the banks hadn’t bothered being checked with, because for some reason they weren’t keen on totally following my directions.  Perhaps a bank was too intimidating to visit, or the lines were too long to bother with.

However, I was informed an entrepreneurial man on the street had been made aware of our plight and had generously offered to supply all our small change needs, for a small fee.  He came up to our window with a hodge podge of coins which was fairly eclectic, and for a pretty steep price, sold them to us.  I think he would take 120 GD for every 100 GD he gave us, or some such thing.  Ridiculous.

I asked how often this man would be able to come up with his few paltry coins to exchange to us at highway robbery prices?  The answer, “Oh, from time to time.”  I wanted more specific, “Like how many time to times?  Like every day, or every week, or every month?”  The response I got was something to the effect of, “As he finds change, there’s a chance that could be frequently.” 

I figured there was a chance that wouldn’t be frequently either, and avowed to take this quest upon myself.

Upon finding out our cashier had turned customers away who didn’t have exact change and told them to go find more small bills themselves, I decided enough was enough and today I would take matters into my own hand. 

With Moise (my 28 year old Haitian co-worker/Bible teacher who speaks good English), we hopped on my motorcycle and drove straight to a bank.  I reasoned that when a guy needs money, he needs to visit a bank, because that’s the one thing banks have: money.  The bank I chose first was the one I am a personal customer of: Unibank.

Upon arrival we saw the line to the cashiers was about 75 people long, wrapping around outside the building.  Moise wormed his way inside the building to the front of the crowd and somehow sweet-talked them into letting us cut in front of everyone, probably because I was white.  Soon I was talking to a manager.  I explained we had a small bakery business closeby and needed a supply of change on a weekly basis.  Furthermore, I was a paying customer of the bank, but even so would be open to paying the bank for this service which should be free. 

He shook his head sadly and said he couldn’t help us, they didn’t have enough change for us.  I argued the point, but he just shrugged and stuck to his original statement.  “At this time we don’t have change."  He suggested we try another bank.  I was a little taken aback.  Banks that don’t have change?  I wasn’t even asking for that much for today.

At the next bank I began my spiel to a cashier.  Turns out the request I was making (to exchange about $25 US into Haitian coins) was far over the pay grade of the cashier and I was immediately ushered into the back office of the Grand Pumba himself. 

Again I explained my errand.  At first it sounded hopeful: “Well, we usually only split big bills into smaller ones for our clients, and you aren’t a customer here.  However, for today maybe we can help you.”  Great.  I showed him my 1000 GD note (~$25 US) and said we would like that broken down. 

  • He smiled and said, “Yes, we can split that into 50’s for you.”
  • “No, you don’t understand,” I said, “We don’t want notes, we want coins, like 5 GD coins.  Exactly 200 of them, which makes 1000 GD.”
  • At this, the Grand Pumba just leaned back and laughed.  “Oh, the smallest denomination we have in this bank are 10 GD notes, we have no change in the bank.”
  • I was incredulous.  “You mean in this whole bank you have no change?”
  • “Yes, that’s right.” 
  • “What about other banks, do they not have change either?”
  • He shrugged, “No, Í don’t think so.”
  • “Ok, so I have a question for you: when the government mints coins, where do those coins go?  Where are they distributed?”
  • He shrugged again, “I don’t know.”
  • “Well, in my country they go to banks,” I explained, “and from there they are distributed to the citizens.”
  • “We aren’t in your country,” he chuckled.   The other employees who had gathered around also chuckled.  Obviously this blan knew nothing about how things work in Haiti.
  • “Ok, so where in this country would you suggest I go to look for small coins?  Should I visit the government mint directly?”
  • “If you want small coins you have to visit the gas stations,” he declared matter of factly.  “They are the ones who have all the small coins.”
  • “Oh, really?”  I was beyond being surprised now.  “And I suppose if I want to buy gasoline I should come visit your bank?”
  • “Well, it is the gas stations who give us cartons of coins every day.”
  • “What???”  I was triumphant:  “So you do have coins in this bank!”
  • “No we don’t either, we don’t give them out to clients.”
  • “So who do you give them out to?  What do you do with these cartons of coins you receive?”
  • “We send them down to the National Bank each day.”
  • “Oh, so that’s the bank I need to visit, I see.  Where is the National Bank?”
  • “You can’t really visit that bank, it’s like the National treasury.”
  • “So I’m confused.  Let’s go back a few steps because you’ve lost me.  Where do the gas stations get all their coins from?”
  • “From the tap-tap drivers.  People pay for transportation in small coins, and then they go buy gas with buckets of coins at the end of each day.”
  • “So, let me get this straight,” (Moise was about to melt through the floor in embarrasment about now), “The National treasury daily collects coins from the banks, who in turn are collecting coins from the gas stations, who in turn are collecting coins from the tap-tap drivers, who in turn are collecting coins from the people.  Right?”
  • “Right.”
  • “Now I have a question for you:  Where do the people get their coins from?”
  • I was on a roll.  I was riled up by now and wanted answers.
  • The Grand Pumba thought a bit and admitted I had him on that one, he didn’t know where the people got their coins from, but it for sure wasn’t from the banks, leastaways not from his bank.

So apparently every day in Haiti, vast amounts of coins are being reverse circulated back into the National treasury, but nobody knows how they get re-distributed into circulation.  Maybe the chronies who work at the treasury spend their days playing coin operated arcade games or frequenting casino slot machines.  That’s my best guess.

With chagrin, we got back onto our motorcycle and went to a gas station.  I asked the attendant if he just so happened to have large sums of small coins on him.  I didn’t guess he did because his pockets weren’t bulging.

  • “No, I have no small coins,” he confided. 
  • “I have a question for you: Where do you think a good place for me to find small coins would be?” I probed. 
  • “I don’t know,” he honestly responded. 
  • “Well, I have another question for you: Do you think a bank would be a good place to go looking for small coins?” 
  • “Yes,” the man vigorously agreed, “I’m sure you can find change at the banks.” 
  • “Well guess what?”  I dropped the hammer, “We just visited two banks and neither of them have any small coins!  What do you think about that?” 
  • The station attendant looked bewildered.
  • “In fact, they told us to visit you guys, because you’re the ones with all the coins! Isn’t that a hoot?” And we took off to try yet another gas station.

The next station was a similar story, but this time I was more obnoxious.  “Look, you’ve got to have tons of change around here somewhere, we just came from the bank and they told us you guys drop off cartons of change every day.” 

They admitted I had a point and went to go find another worker who I suspected was the very lackey who carries these massive containers of coins to the banks each morning. 

He told me it’s true, they have small change, but not right then, because that morning they’d already sent the “heaps-o-coins” to the bank, and wouldn’t have more until the evening when the tap-taps drivers came by to buy gas with their daily earnings in buckets of coins. 

This didn’t totally add up, because I see tap-taps buying gas all day long.  However, he assured me he could set aside for me several coins from the piles and piles they send to the bank each morning.  If we would only come by tomorrow he would give us these for the paltry sum of $4 US for said privilege.

I agreed to come back in the morning to see what he had, if nothing else out of curiosity if all this is true.

However, my next plan of attack is to stop random tap-tap drivers on the street and make a deal with them: change your piles of earnings for bills at our place each day, and we will give you several small pennies for your trouble.

We shall see.

16 Responses to “Finding Small Change in Haiti is an Uphill Battle”

  1. John Says:

    And so I guess you can’t break a 20 for me.

  2. Troy Says:

    This just made my day, Nick. Probably not yours, but you can rest assured this brought me great pleasure. Can’t wait to get back and join in the fun.

  3. Tara Says:

    Way to make us miss EVERYTHING about home. :) Super funny, Nick (although maybe not to you).

    See you soon!

    T.

  4. Ryan Alberts Says:

    Hahahahahaha!!! Great post! I was thinking about this and maybe you could get one of the million tap-tap’s that drive by the bakery to every so often make a “deal” with their coins :-)… who knows what trouble that could bring :-)

    – Ryan

  5. Luke Says:

    Nick, in this life I’m not sure which of us will lose his mind first, but I must grant you living in Haiti is apparently a good way to make progress towards the goal. For certain it will cost you a lot less to go mad in Haiti than it does here in the States. That may have been a clever move on your part, but I wouldn’t rule me out of the running completely, not just yet. For one thing, even in Haiti you still have grocery bags, so clearly there is a ways to go before a complete reign of terror dominates.

    But you are giving us a run for our money, no doubt about it… I pretty much had to take a Prozac just to read your account of the coins.

    In all seriousness, this post was just about a classic of literature. Of course in real life I have to feel sorry for you, but at the same time I can’t deny your absurd tales of the American in Haiti are the cause of much chortling on this side of the screen.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Next try the water boys.

  7. Nick Says:

    I’m glad someone found humor in this.

    Today I returned to the gas station and found Haiti’s hidden dragon lair of golden coins.

  8. Anachemy Victor Says:

    I am glad I got to read this post. This really made my day. We are collecting change here, once we have enough I will let you know. Maybe we can exchange . We will only charge you 1USD for every 5 gdes…hahaha!!!

  9. Ryan Alberts Says:

    lol… love the additional picture of coins!!! hahaha… what a great story :-) I will tell it to Eliana tonight for her bedtime story 😉

  10. How Hard Can It Be To Get Small Change For Our Bakery | Heartline Haiti Blog Says:

    […] Finding Small Change in Haiti is an Uphill Battle […]

  11. Deanna Bortner Says:

    I’d say it’s definitely time for change!!
    Loved this–

  12. The Wyoming Kid Says:

    You should write a book about all the ridiculousness that happens to you in Haiti, sell it, then have all the change you wanted.

  13. Cindy Duhm Says:

    Hi Nick, I’m Jenny Duhm’s mom. Just gotta tell you, this totally cracked me up! I love how you write! And I’m sure the Haitians are cracking up over the white guy with the American mind! LOVE the added picture!!!!! LOL! Sign me up for anything else you write!

  14. Amanda Says:

    Ugh!
    I was getting frustrated just ready about it your situation, much less dealing with it.
    But! I think, even as big a headache as it is to make happen, being one of the few places with change is a Great decision!! It’s a solid/savvy business and customer service practice.
    I can easily see where having change could entice people to buy their bread from your shop. Which, in turn, opens doors of opportunity for sharing the true Bread of Life! Hopefully resulting in real change, which most people didn’t even know they wanted. :)
    Keep up the good fight!!

  15. Amanda Says:

    Ooops. Not sure what happened to that first line… *”reading about your situation…”

  16. Bonnie Says:

    I just read this story (3 years later) and I am laughing my head off. I have spent days on end communication with some people in Haiti trying to arrange for a friend there to have a medical procedure. I go around and around and around in a circle trying to get the order for the procedure written. I just found out she has the order…it’s in Spanish!!
    Oh my goodness we blan have a lot to learn!!

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