Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Money Musings

Note to our readers:
Typically Janet drafts, Jeff edits, and takes many of the photos.  But today, he's the chief writer.

A typical challenge for travelers abroad is,of course, figuring out the money system.  But a really curious aspect of that challenge is when the tradition of the culture is to use a "virtual" denomination that doesn't actually exist in the currency in use.

I remember traveling to England back in the 1960s when they were still using shillings and pence to divide the pound sterling.  Twenty shillings to the pound, 12 pence to the shilling, etc. 

1960s Reading, England
That was complicated enough, but many times the prices posted on objects were in "guineas."  Abbreviated Gns I recall.  So what was a guinea?  Turns out it was 21 shillings.  But there was no such thing as a one guinea banknote or a one guinea coin.  And I guess the idea was to make people think that something was only some number of pounds, when in reality they would be paying 5% more.

2013 Leogane, Haiti

Dolas ayisyan vs. goud-yo
Well, Haiti has a similar virtual monetary unit -- the Haitian dollar (dola Ayisien).  Apparently back in the 1920s and 1930s when the US was governing Haiti, the local currency -- the gourde -- was pegged at 5 to the US dollar.  So people began pricing things in "dollars".   
Well, the gourde was unpegged long ago -- today the exchange rate is approximately 43 HTG per 1 USD -- but Haitians continue to price things in "dollars." 
What's challenging -- and fun -- is trying to figure out what units are being used and when.  Street vendors seem to use HDs and even some supermarkets do. Menus in neighborhood restaurants seem always to be in HDs.  There doesn't seem to be any consistent symbology on the price tags.  You just have to know!

At the grocery stores with electronic checkouts the register tape adds up the price in HDs and then at the end multiplies by 5 to show the price in gourdes, which is what you pay.  But Haitian vendors don't need the cash register to do the math -- they are very quick at multiplying and dividing by 5!
The trick for American visitors is to know when to divide by 8 or when to divide by 40 to get an approximate value in USD. 

But if everything were easy, what fun would there be in international travel?  

Another thing that turns out to be surprisingly difficult -- quickly counting the paper currency.  Haiti has denominations that we don't have in US bills.  Specifically, 25s and 250s.

Just try quickly counting 500 plus 250 plus 100 plus 25 plus 10 etc.  and then remember that in the French system of numbers 75 is expressed as 60+15, and you see what fun we Americans have. 

THEY don't seem to have any trouble counting . . .

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