Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sign of the Times

Some day in the distant future, cultural anthropologists will dig around for announcement signs to learn about our society in 2009. I saw a sign in a shop yesterday that gave me pause. This was in a local quick-print computer shop (think Kinko's but mom & pop Mexican style). I went in to have some copies made off my portable USB memory stick. Pasted in big letters on the back of the cash register was this sign:

"If you didn't bring correct change with you, BEFORE you request any service, ask us if we have change to break your bill."

"Wow!" I thought. So now it's the CUSTOMER'S responsibility to A) always have correct change and if not, B) make sure the shop owner has sufficiently stocked his coin drawer to operate his business. Huh? When did it become the responsibility shift from the shop owner to the CUSTOMER to have the proper resources to do business?

It struck me as something that you'd never see in the States. But here...nobody minds. In fact, the lack of change is endemic here. If you give a shop owner a 200 peso note (about $15US), they roll their eyes and plead, "don't you have anything SMALLER?" A 500 peso note (about $35US) causes major alarm. The manager has to be called over. They hold the note up to the light to look for that watermark. They turn the note over and over as though desperately trying to find a reason to reject it. It's as if--in the States--you present the cashier with a $1,000 note. Same skepticism. But we're talking $35 here.

My own uninformed guess is that the Mexicans have never quite gotten comfortable with the idea of paper money. Give me that good old fashioned gold doubloon or a few solid silver pieces of eight. After all, for three centuries the mines of Latin American produced most of the world's two precious metals, silver and gold. A paper bill just doesn't have the same intrinsic "heft." And, of course, after numerous currency devaluations (most recent in 1994), why would they trust it?

Another indicator of Mexican's distrust of paper money is their reluctance to accept notes that are damaged in any way. Say for example you go to the vegetable market to buy some tomatoes. The lady who runs the stand gives you change by pulling a ragged, grayed, and sweaty 20 peso note out of her brassiere. If you then try to pass that note you're going to be S.O.L. A torn corner, a piece of Scotch tape, any raggedy-assed looking bill simply will not be accepted. Then it's a game of trying to find some shop to pass the nasty note onto. Try Burger King. For some reason, they take all bills without too much fuss.