Change is hard to come by here in Armenia. No one, from shopkeepers to taxi drivers ever seems to have any. Either that or (as is my suspicion) they just harbor a distain for distributing it to foreigners.
The local currency (the Armenian dram) is denominated in a normal way. A coke costs around 200 dram and the smallest bill is the thousand, with various denominations of small coins. The 1000 dram bill is relatively easily used to purchase goods in stores… but it is when you attempt to utilize larger bills that things become a bit dicier.
The 5000 dram bill presents a challenge. As I have outlined numerous times in this blog, people in shops (outside of the westernized capital city) oftentimes don’t care whether they sell you something or not. No matter how willing a purchaser you are. It is something, in my opinion, that this society will need to get over if they plan on becoming a full partner in a capitalist world. I have gone to many a shop and tried to buy… let’s say 1200 dram worth of vegetables with a 5000 dram bill, only to be thwarted by the stores lack of change. The more enterprising among us, might run next door to find some change, or even…oh I don’t know…. keep a bit of petty cash on hand everyday to alleviate this problem. But it’s not just the lack of change. It’s more the distain with which they always stare, eyes boring into me with disgust as if asking who in the world do I think I am bringing a 5000 dram bill into this store (keep in mind 5000 = approx $16).
Heaven forbid that you ever receive a 10000 dram bill. Then it gets maddening. I have gone hungry because I couldn’t purchase food at establishments with such a bill. I monthly approach the ATM machine with much trepidation, hoping beyond hope that it is not stocked with 10000 bills. Once the bank machine gave me a 20000 dram bill and I was poor for a month as I waited to use it to pay my monthly rent. You can imagine my landlords were none to happy.
Again it is not a lack of liquidity or wealth in country, but a lack of preparation to have the change on hand to give to customers, or (when on hand) an incomprehensible unwillingness to use it to complete a transaction. I always enjoy the conversations that ensue when I can actually view the requisite change sitting in the cardboard box that inevitably every shopkeeper keeps their petty cash in. The conversations usually proceed a little something like this…
Shopkeeper: Do you have change? That 5000 dram bill is too big.
Me: No, this is all I have.
Shopkeeper: Well I don’t know what to say. I can’t help you. You may have to go to another store.
Me: But why don’t you just use the change you have in your box?
Shopkeeper: I don’t have change in my box.
Me: Yes you do, I can clearly see it. It’s right there behind you sitting on the counter.
Then the shopkeeper (always with a look of annoyance) does one of two things: more often than not grudgingly completes the transaction, or goes off on some rant about me not understanding because I am from America. As if we count differently in my homeland.
Nor is this a problem of the ‘rich ugly American’ with too much money for his/her own good. Oh no. The problem of change is also present in the use of the small coins of this economy. Even the most minute of denominations the 10 dram coin (equal to less than a penny) is often in short supply. In my first few weeks in country I was always confused as the shopkeepers handed me books of matches after most small purchases. Upon closer examination I learned that the lack of change has led to the acceptance of matches in place of actual money.
So I suppose my recommendation for foreign visitors would be to only withdraw money from the ATM in 4000 dram increments or bring lots and lots of matches.