How I Accidentally Stiffed My Poor Venezuelan Waiter

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  • Walking-around money equal to $10 fills a whole shopping bag
  • Currency distortion turns commerce into a funhouse mirror

Venezuela poses many challenges for the visitor -- harrowing roads, dengue fever, the odd kidnapping -- and one of the most daunting is spending money.

The hyperinflation that has relegated the bolivar to the status of pastel-colored wallpaper makes it almost impossible to conduct a run-of-the-mill transaction, like buying a cup of coffee. The fast-moving unofficial exchange rate creates a currency distortion that has turned commerce into a funhouse mirror.

My $10 worth of bolivars was too bulky to carry, and too much to spend.

Photographer: Stephen Merelman/Bloomberg

The basic problem is bulk. The day I arrived, I acquired $10 in walking-around money. That turned out to be 11 bundles of 100-, 500-and 1,000-bolivar notes that were each about an inch thick. I had to haul them to my hotel in a shopping bag. All the pants I packed didn’t contain pockets equal to the task.

There’s an explanation, of sorts. The OPEC nation, run by President Nicolas Maduro and beset by sanctions, has established a complex set of currency controls meant to stop the bolivar’s slide. There are several major exchange rates, including: the official one of about 10 bolivars to the dollar; the Dicom (that stands for Sistema de Divisas de Tipo de Cambio Complementario Flotante de Mercado, by the way), of some 3,345 to the dollar and reserved for use by private companies; and the real-person black-market rate that changes frequently and generally in a downward direction.

It was about 38,000 Monday morning, and 40,000 by Monday afternoon.

Locals have developed coping mechanisms. They refresh the website (blocked, not very successfully, by the government), which tracks rate fluctuations. They queue at ATMs for hours to accumulate enough bills to cover groceries. They pay by direct-bank transfer when they can. On Caribbean beaches, vendors wave wireless devices in the air to catch a signal that will let tens of thousands of bolivars move in exchange for a fried fish.

For a newcomer, operating in Venezuela is an economic spacewalk. Take tipping: After a dinner at my hotel, I wanted to leave my solicitous waiter a generous sum, figuring that in a land where hunger is rife I might help a whole family. I charged the meal to my room and scribbled $10 on the chit -- about 250,000 bolivars at that day’s unofficial rate, enough to buy 10 arepas. Minutes later, the phone in my room rang, and a woman informed Senor Merelman that the establishment didn’t take dollars and so would convert the tip at the official rate.

That turned my $10 to a mere 32,500 bolivars or so at the Dicom rate the day they ran my hotel bill, little more than a buck in real-life transactions at the informal exchange. Later on, I took to slipping dollars under the check.

On the streets, every transaction required a swift mental division of a price by the divisor du jour, a plunge into the pocket for a sheaf of currency and then a prolonged bill-counting session. When I used my company-issued American Express card, that was a whole different deal. This card isn’t widely accepted in a country the U.S. has deemed a dictatorship, and in any event I didn’t want to call attention to myself as a privileged gringo by brandishing an international credit card along with my bumbling Spanish. Without a local bank card, I needed a workaround. That was my colleague Andrew Rosati. 

In addition to being a first-rate tour guide and interpreter of Venezuelan mores, he was a walking wallet. Morning coffee, he bought. Lunch, he bought. Rum, he bought. Before I flew out, we settled up in American cash -- about $150 for a week-long trip.

On the morning I was to leave Caracas, I had spent perhaps 10 percent of the bolivars I began with seven days before, judging by heft alone. I took a few bundles as souvenirs and heaped the rest on the hotel-room dresser with some greenbacks to thank the housekeepers.

Now, on the cusp of a lunch run in New York, the sideburned face of Simon Bolivar stares out from a stack of 100s on my desk, reminding me how lucky it is to know that a tuna sandwich today will cost the same as a tuna sandwich tomorrow.

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