I reach into my pocket for some small change

I’ve been in Chile for a little over a week now, gathering research for my dissertation. Though I’ve traveled to Chile frequently for the past 17 years or so, this is the first time I’ve come alone to stay a significant while in an unknown city: Viña del Mar.

I spent the first few days of this trip in Curicó being overfed, attended to by my family, and prepping for my research in Viña. When I got here on Sunday, I knew the week would be tough especially since I don’t know this area very well. On Monday I climbed sand dunes in the Open City, got lost in a colectivo, and roamed the streets of Valparaíso. Yesterday I visited the most essential archive for my project, did a nerd dance, and whiled away an afternoon viewing photos.

In the end I shouldn’t have been as worried about coming to Viña  since many Chileanisms also take place here. Case in point: my sushi dinner last night. The “3 for 2” roll special could only be paid in cash. Panic. I had broken my $10.000 peso bill earlier that day and had a wallet full of small bills. If you’ve never traveled to Chile it’s hard to understand why this is a big deal. Big bills exist and though they’re legal tender, paying for a $550 bottle of water on the street with a $10.000 bill will be met with an eye-roll, if not a complete refusal. The country just runs on small bills. When you’ve been here long enough, you become obsessed with breaking large bills. I’ve spent hours agonizing about who will or won’t let me pay with a large bill. And the triumph you feel when you have dozens of $1.000 bills is incomparable. You can take on the world. Ride any micro. Buy every empanada.

Until, of course, you’re facing a sushi special where you end up cashing in all your singles except for one. And though I had to have dinner, even if the sushi was a B+, now I’m left with big bills. When I wake tomorrow I’ll have three priorities: write today’s wrap-up notes, visit the archive, and break my bills.

2 thoughts on “I reach into my pocket for some small change

  1. Hello there,
    I’m chilean and I’ve enjoyed reading this article because, as the chilean that I am, I get sometimes obssesed for breaking bills as well. I think that’s a chileanism, one among thousands we have. I hope you have enjoyed your trip here.


    • Dear Juan Pablo,

      Thank you for your message and for sympathizing with my stress over breaking bills in Chile. It’s an endearing custom and Chile is definitely full of them!

      Un abrazo,

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