Peso pinching in Colombia

pesos2A penny is a penny is a penny. Or in this case, as we are in Colombia, a peso is a peso is a peso.

Converting Colombian pesos to other currencies is like reliving the good old days of the Italian lira. As I write, today’s exchange rate is 2,490 Colombian pesos to 1 US dollar. In other words, one Colombian peso is the equivalent of basically nothing in dollar or euro terms. In fact, there is no one peso coin here. The smallest coin minted is 50 pesos. My conversion calculator shows that you need to have 25 pesos to equal one US cent, so a 50 peso coin is worth approximately 2¢.

The conversion rate drives you crazy when you first arrive. It used to be that you could eliminate the last 3 digits in a peso figure, 2,000,000 for example, and then divide by 2 to get a rough US value, $1,000 in this case. With the recent surge in the value of the dollar, all that went out the window. The dollar has gone from a pretty consistent rate of somewhere around 1,800 pesos over the last 5 years to a sudden jump over the last 6 months to now 2,490.

Ni modo, as they say in Spanish. Never mind.

Not exactly never mind, but the exchange rate is not my immediate focus. Even though a Colombian peso is worth essentially nothing in translation, living in Colombia, one begins to understand the subtleties of reality. A peso is a peso is a peso, even if worth nothing abroad. A Colombian peso has immediate value for a Colombian. Add peso to peso, and ultimately you might get to a dollar.

And it might surprise you how Colombians value their pesos.

The old (and colorful) public buses in Bogotá, still extant today, require you to pay a fare of 1,550 pesos (62¢ at today’s exchange rate) on boarding. For many, this means paying with a 2,000 peso bill. The change, which the driver pushes through a small window at the front of the bus, comes to 450 pesos (18 US cents). I take these buses daily and am daily astounded as passenger after passenger counts his or her change, 18 cents, more often than not twice or three times, to make sure that the bus driver is not gypping them. In my experience, the gyp never happens – but the checking of the 18¢ change goes on.

I recently showed a New York Times article on the escalation of tipping percentages in the US to some of my students here in Bogotá. Gasp! A $3 tip on a $4 cup of coffee. Tipping is not favored in Colombia. In popular restaurants, there is no tipping. In more formal restaurant, servers normally ask if it’s okay to include the tip in the bill. I have learned to always say yes, as that way I save money. The tip I would have left voluntarily is always more that what the restaurant calculates – 10%.

Taxi drivers are not tipped here – this is a habit hard to break for someone from New York, for example. Again from one of my students: “The tip is included in their fare. The taxi drivers are already robbing you. You are already rewarding them just by being in their cab.” There is some truth in that. Don’t ask me how many times I have had to confront a taxi driver here because his taxi meter is hiccupping, jumping, adding unnecessary and untraveled units to his meter. Oh, I should have my meter revised, is the usual response. Followed by, How much would you like to pay? Or How much do you usually pay?

Good luck if you are a visitor. You have no idea. The taxi driver is just adding up his extra pesos.

Ceramic piggybanks, produced in the nearby clay pottery town of Ráquira, are ubiquitous on the streets of Bogotá. And for a reason. It is incredible how many people put their daily change into a piggybank at home. A peso is a peso is a peso. At a gallery where I showed and sold my art work in Bogotá, the gallery owner tried to pay me with change from his (very large) piggybank! I declined – not the payment, just the payment in small-change pesos.

Bogotá has tried with limited success to implement recycling policies. There have been campaigns. At different companies where I have worked, the policies were implemented – separate containers for plastics, metals and paper. Employees were fastidious. And at the end of the day, everything got dumped into the same garbage container in the basement! Some months ago in my building, I received a circular saying that recyclables were to be placed in the white plastic bag. What white plastic bag? None was provided and I have never seen one in my building since. There is no designated recyclable container in the garbage room of my building. If I had a white plastic garbage bag full of recyclables, where would I put it? In a regular garbage can, of course.

But there is a silver peso lining to the failure of recycling in Bogotá. Daily, hundreds if not thousands of garbage pickers go about their business of sorting through garbage bags and containers on the streets of the city. Mornings, I pass many of these garbage pickers isolating anything that might have a peso value from the detritus of those who haven’t been as discriminating in their refuse, discarding cardboard, bottles, metal, paper and God knows what else willy-nilly.

These garbage pickers often share sidewalk space with vendors selling tintos, black coffees, for a mere peso in profit.

Bullhorn vans or vendors often come by where I live in the Chapinero Alto neighborhood of the city. On Saturday mornings, a woman calls out selling her tamales. I promise you that she is selling her tamales for a pittance in profit.
Other days of the week, I hear calls for books. They will take any books for almost nothing. Literature, the history of Western Civilization reduced to weight per pound per peso. Other days from my apartment, I hear calls for batteries, old refrigerators, old toaster ovens, anything that might have a peso value for these collectors somewhere down the line.

In Colombia, life is a daily exigency for many. And a peso is a peso is a peso.