Last night, upon returning to Latacunga after traveling with my god-daughter and her family for Carnival, I invited everyone out for pizza. All I had to pay was a stack of $2 bills. That’s all I ever have in Ecuador. Since the nation was dollarized in 2000 not many of these bills have made it down here and they have taken on a mystic status in the country.
Two dollar bills interrupt the mechanical monotony of buying and selling. They almost always cause the receiver to take a step back. In Ecuador the reaction is overwhelmingly positive though sometimes the bills are treated with suspicion or doubt.
When we arrived at the pizzeria the lone woman working there asked if anyone had change for a ten.
“Tengo cinco de dos—I have five two’s” I said.
She blankly nodded her head and took the bills but confusion washed over her face as she looked down on the bills in her hand.
“Cuanto valen esos—how much are these worth”
“Each one is worth two dollars,” I said, pointing to the number 2 in the corner of each bill.
She took the bills to the counter to make change but quickly came back.
“There’s only $6 here.”
I took the bills from her and added each one together slowly. “two, four, six, eight, ten.”
As I finished counting a man in a military uniform near our table interjected. “They don’t accept those bills here.”
“No,” I said, looking at the woman. “He is wrong. They do. I spend them everywhere and most people are very happy. I even pay my rent with them.” I could tell she was unconvinced so I offered her the $10 bills back for my five $2 bills.
An hour later we finished dinner and it was time to pay.
“How much is the bill,” I asked, while counting out from my stack of $2’s.
“$23.70, but not with those,” she said.
I only had 2’s and had invited the family out so I was determined to pay.
“Excuse me,” I said to an adjoining table. “Do you know about these?” I held up a handful of 2’s.
“Two dollar bills, yes of course!” the man quickly answered.
His wife interrupted. “Do you have more? Can you exchange one for me?”
“Sure, I said and handed over one bill while she passed two dollar coins to me.
“Me too,” the man said and passed a $5 bill to me.
As often happens when I exchange $2 bills in public places in Ecuador a small line formed. Customers from the remaining two occupied tables all got up and came over to me handing me crumpled bills and dollar coins; $18 in total.
The woman from the pizzeria had looked on during all this mumbling “But the policeman said they don’t accept them here.” The man was military but either way the person wore a uniform of authority.
I ignored her, counted up the new bills, added three $2 bills on top and walked up to the counter.
“See, I told you. People like them here. People want them.”
She shook her head, as confused as ever and repeated “The police told me no one accepts them.”
A woman who had just walked in and stood at the counter ready to order joined our conversation. She was not present when people lined up to buy $2 bills. “Of course people will accept them—they bring good luck.”
Finally the employee seemed convinced and began counting the bills.
“There is $29 here,” she announced. “But I don’t have any change.”
I took the bills from here and counted each one slowly. “18 plus 2 is 20, 22, 24.”
She looked back at the bill. “It’s $23.70.”
“Keep the change.”
She smiled and put the bills in her pocket.