I sometimes joke that the national pastime in Mexico is searching for change. Mexico is still very much a cash economy and there are many places that won’t accept a credit or debit card. In addition to that, there are security concerns which means many stores do not want to keep large sums of change in the till. This leads to a never-ending pursuit of looking for change, of which there always seems to be a shortage.
When we first came on a visit to Queretaro in the spring of 2018 we stayed a couple weeks in a little Airbnb in the downtown area. We had to park in one of the many estacionamientos, or parking lots, because there was no street parking overnight. Everytime we left the parking lot we had to pay the required fee. The problem was that we mostly had larger bills of Mexican pesos and the parking lot attendant rarely had any change. More than a few times we would hand over a bill and he would dash off to the nearest business or neighbour to try to find enough coins to pay us back. At the end of our stay we started to notice the attendant getting a bit frustrated and likely muttering something under his breath about inconsiderate foreigners.
At the time, we didn’t realise how inconsiderate we were being, but after moving here permanently we quickly learned to carry around change or smaller bills with us so we could use it in the smaller shops. We also learned in which stores to use the larger bills, such as the grocery store, because they will usually have enough change – although there are no guarantees and the cashier might still ask if you have exact change or she might run over to the next till to get some. But if you use your large bills in the bigger stores, you’ll have change to take to the smaller shops. That seems to be the trick.
If you don’t carry smaller bills or coins, sooner than later you’ll run into a situation where the person you are paying hustles off down the street to get change from some other poor soul who also has limited coinage.
To give you an example, one time after a Spanish lesson I paid my tutor with a large bill and he didn’t have any change in the house. No problem, we crossed the street to the taco stand to see if they had any change. Negative. We crossed the street again and walked to the nearest store. Nope. Next shop over? Also no.
At this point I was feeling a bit embarrassed and ready to give up. But, my friend suggested we go to Oxxo – the largest chain of convenience stores in Mexico and therefore almost guaranteed to have change. So we walked the ten minutes to the nearest Oxxo.
Outside the store was a guy waiting in his car (another Mexican pastime) and my friend decided to make one last valiant effort before going inside the Oxxo and having to buy something. “¿Trae cambio?”, “Got change?” he asked. Still no.
We went inside and my friend bought a snack, got change, and then passed my portion of the change on to me. What should have been a simple transaction turned into a half-hour quest for a few pesos. Good thing I don’t have an appointment to make, I thought, which revealed another cultural-bias – efficiency and punctuality.
When we have our book table in the open-air market a common sight is vendors scurrying up and down the street looking for change. Everybody dreads getting paid with a five-hundred peso bill, which is a common bill you receive when withdrawing money from an ATM. If you see one of the vendors waving a blue five-hundred in the air, their eyes wide with desperation, you feel bad for them. Conversely, if you forgot to take change with you and you are the one paying with a five-hundred, feelings of shame and embarrassment wash over you as you hand over the big bill.
The constant search and shortage of change is one of those cultural things that can get on your nerves if you let it. “What do you mean you don’t have change? This store has like ten tills!” While thoughts like that are normal, the key is to remember that sometimes things are just different, and that is ok. Our job is not to change all the aspects of the culture we don’t like, and besides, we are often blind to the shortcomings of our own culture. A little bit of cultural humility goes a long way.