Finding Small Change in Haiti is an Uphill Battle

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.


Original Story