Tuesday, March 20, 2012

ON: Money

Every so often, I realize that I've come to understand some new aspect of Haiti.  And, inevitably, it's right around that time that Haiti says 'Yea, well check this out smarty pants" and I'm dumbfounded again.

Take money for example.  The legal tender here is the Gourdes (pronounced like good if it rhymed with food).  On the street, 40 Gourdes equals $1US.   After a few trips to our local store Marasa Mart (think 7-11), I found I was getting pretty good at converting prices in my head.  

Then, I learned about the Haitian dollar.  The Haitian dollar, used by nearly every Haitian and many stores, is the equivalent of 5 Gourdes.  Except that the dollar doesn't actually exist.  It's a concept.  Goods are priced and exchanged in a fabricated currency.  How much does something cost?  2 dollars.  That would be a 10 Gourdes.

I've heard that Haitians began using the dollar because it made prices seem less (1 dollar sounding less than 5 gourdes).   Or, that it was because of their affinity for the American dollar, which is also widely accepted (add that to the how-much-does-this-cost mix.)   But, it's the same bills and coins- all Gourdes!

At the outdoor markets, where people negotiate prices based on the currency, it's pretty simple as long as you have exact change.  But, in the stores, conversion is so confusing that there are frequently 2 clerks, a supervisor, and a calculator on each register.  If you really want to stir things up, ask to pay in US dollars on a debit card (which I do for the 5% discount.)

So, I've gotten pretty good at my multiplication and division facts involving 4, 5, and 8 (5Goudes = 1 $ Haitian, 40 Gourdes = $1US, 8$H = $1US.  Whew.)

But then, things had to get complicated once again.  In dealing with money, I started learning to count past 36 (my age, being necessary to share with curious kids).  The numbers are pretty simple.  Until you get to 69.  In every other counting system that I know of, 70 would come next.  But, not in Haiti!  No, 70 and 90 do not exist here.  Instead, we have sixty-ten, sixty-eleven, sixty-twelve.... sixty-nineteen, eighty...eighty-nine, eighty-ten, eighty-eleven...eighty-nineteen, one hundred.  What!?!  How is this even possible?  There are words for seven (set) and nine (nef), seventeen, nineteen, but no 70's or 90's.   It's going to take me a while to master this one.

Every time I practice counting, or figure out how much the cereal costs, I have to shake my head.  It's illogical.  It's inefficient.  It's totally Haiti.  And, it makes me smile.