Thursday, July 19, 2012

In which I change money in Asuncion

I’d arrived in Asunción on a Saturday and wasn’t able to change money. By Sunday night, I’d used the few dollars I’d changed at the border. Monday morning, I went downtown to change money. The banks weren’t open yet, but money changers -- readily identified by the calculators and handfuls of cash they clutched -- congregated on the sidewalk. One approached me. “You want to change money?” he asked.

“Yes, please,” I answered. “Just five dollars until the bank opens.”

“Fine. I’ll give you five thousand guaraní.”

“But the official rate is two thousand guaraní per dollar!” I protested.

He shrugged. “That’s the rate I’ll give you. Take it or leave it.”

“I’ll leave it,” I said, and walked away. I had only an hour to kill until the bank opened.

I sat in a restaurant drinking peach juice. (“No ice cubes, please” I had to tell the waitress. God knows how the water supply was in this country.) I heard a din from across the street. A group of men in business suits were setting off firecrackers and hoisting signs. “What’s going on?” I asked the waitress.

“Oh, they’re bankers,” she explained dismissively. “They’re mad about something that Argentina has done in the Mercosur. They do this almost every Monday.”

I watched them shout and bang drums and set off firecrackers while I sipped my peach juice, the only thing I had enough money to buy. When the currency exchange opened, I went in and waited in the various lines required of one who wants to change traveler’s checks for cash. There was the fill-out-the-paperwork line, the wait-for-your-passport-to-be-photocopied line, the get-your-receipt line, and the get-your-money line.

By the time I’d been stamped and approved and gotten my money, which I had requested in 150 US dollars and 50 dollars worth of guaranís, I was too tired to notice that a mild swindle had been performed upon me: rather than give me my dollars directly, they had converted my 200 dollars of traveler’s checks into guaranís and then converted the guaranís back to dollars, causing me to lose on the conversion. (Just in case this high finance is too complicated: there is usually a difference in the buy and sell rates for US dollars. In this case, I paid one dollar per 2000 guaraní then had to pay 2250 guaraní per dollar.) There wasn’t that much difference between the street changers and the office changers.

I took the bus to the Peace Corps office. As soon as I sat, a woman in a uniform with a clipboard approached me and asked to see my ticket. She was the bus auditor, verifying that the bus driver had given me a ticket for my fare instead of just pocketing the money for himself. The bus lines in Chile had the same practice, but I didn’t see it happen anywhere else during my trip, leading me to think that either the bus drivers in other countries are more honest or that the idea of audit hasn’t occurred to the authorities there yet. In any case, I learned that it wasn’t a good idea to crumple up the ticket and stick it in my pocket, although playing stupid foreigner got me out of trouble the first time.

The Asunción Peace Corps office was nice, with a huge paperback library. After talking to the nurse there, who told me I didn’t need to take chloroquine at all for where I was traveling, I loaded up with about a dozen books, having decided after the bus trip in Argentina that it was worth the extra weight to have something to entertain me. I was pleased to see that someone shared my tastes: I found a Sue Grafton, a Nelson DeMille, and a Sara Paretsky that I hadn’t read yet. I was saved from having to read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I had found at the pensión in Argentina. It looked good to have it along, but wasn’t exactly light bus reading. My strategy was to lay it carelessly on the seat next to me (on the rare occasions when that seat was unoccupied) to spark conversation with any intellectual English-speaking man who might come my way. In the meantime, I would be buried in another murder mystery, trying to outguess Kinsey Millhone.