There´s a saying about the ruling political party: “They’ll change everything to make sure that nothing changes”. This philosophy has clearly permeated all Mexican life, at least retail, because it’s near-impossible to get any CHANGE.

How can an entire economy be so strapped for coin? s? I needed money this evening to reimburse people’s travel expenses tomorrow, unpredictable amounts that I’d have to give in exact money, a familiar enough scenario in the NGO world. And because Mexico is behind East Africa in terms of tech liquidity solutions, there’s no M-Pesa. Electronic transfers need each beneficiary to be typed in to your account, frozen for three hours, and then transfers can only be done during office hours. Presumably to make extortion more difficult. So I went to the ATM in the evening and tried to take out 10,000 pesos. The machine did nothing and spat out my card. I tried 9,000 with the same results, then at the next machine, then 8,000 which did emerge. To my chagrin, they emerged in 500-peso notes, the highest cash denomination. The bank was closed. I’d have to try to get change from …..retailers.

Mexican retailers hate, hate, hate, to give away change. The never-ending refrain is “don’t you have anything smaller?”- in any commercial establishment. It’s as if small denominations and coins are much more valuable than large notes and the shopkeepers resent you for taking them away from them. And now I’d have to, deliberately, make lots of small purchases with large notes. (“Large” – 500 pesos is worth €25.) My face must have betrayed that I knew that I was doing something bad, trying to exchange legal tender for goods and services. The stationery store cashier snarled and made me wait while she served 11 people before giving me my official receipt. (Another way in which Mexico’s state is trying to discourage the formal economy is by making it a 15-minute ordeal, possibly with hours of follow-up if there’s a typo, to get a receipt.) The OXXO clerk gave me the stink-eye and refused to sell me the chocolate bar. This is while I was still trying with big corporate chain stores that presumably have a reasonable operational grasp of how much change one of their tens of thousands of outlets needs on a January Monday. The pharmacy dude checked if I had anything smaller, but I’d just seen him empty bags of coins into the register and he was just asking out of reflex. The supermarket clerk bared her teeth and almost went for my throat. The other pharmacy gentleman, small businessman, turned his previously nice smile into a yellow-fanged horror version even though I’d honestly tried to buy expensive sunblock before resorting to two packs of tissues.  I ended up buying all sorts of half-crap that I only just need. Popped amaranth for muesli. Paper napkins. A big bottle of vegetable sterilising drops. Two-pack of Ferrero Rocher. I ended up feeling terrible, like I was walking around wilfully assaulting my fellow men. And I usually go out of my way to give exact change and pay in coins whenever my purse feels a bit bulky. My good change karma clearly counted for nothing.

Are the shop owners just too greedy to leave enough float at the end of each day? Is there a coin shortage? Everyone pays in cash, to avoid taxes and fees, so why is this such an issue, everywhere, all the time?

I could  steal a business idea from the Dar es Salaam daladala economy and start selling stacks of nine ten-peso coins for a hundred pesos. South-south technology transfer! Make my fortune, and then I’ll take on the monopoly that’s blocking m-pesa.


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