They are loud, heavy, and easy to lose. When in a hurry, it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. In the United States, they are somewhat of an afterthought, but here in Quito, they are an absolute necessity. They are coins, and I can never have enough of them.
In 2000, Ecuador changed its national currency to the U.S. dollar in response to a traumatic banking event. While you might think that not having to exchange money when traveling is a dream come true, it is more like a nightmare when traveling to Ecuador. In the U.S., it is common to pay for things with twenty-dollar bills. A $6 breakfast? Pay with a 20. A $10 dollar ticket at the movies? Pay with a 20. A $3 purchase of milk and cheese? Pay with a 20. They may not want to give you change, but they will.
In Ecuador, this simply does not happen. For reasons beyond my comprehension, items are preposterously cheap here. I can ride a bus through the entirety of Quito for 50 cents. Just the other day my friend bought a rather hearty lunch for 90 cents. A taxi ride from my house to school (a 20 minute commute) costs $2. So unless you plan on making a very large purchase, walking around Quito with a twenty-dollar bill is essentially the same as walking around with nothing, because if you hand a vendor a Jackson, they often respond with a pleading “¿Tiene sueltos?” meaning “do you have something smaller?” And if you don’t, it’s too bad, because all too often your piddly purchase will not warrant parting with all their precious change.
This coin-centric economy does have some distinct advantages, however. Do you ever wonder where all those really cool $1 Sacagawea coins went? Well they are all here in Quito (along with the burnt chips ahoy cookies, but that is a story for another time). Why? Because they are a lot more useful here than in the U.S. Also, because everything, especially food, is so cheap, there is very little reason not to buy it. For example, if I walked by a bakery in the U.S., the urge to hold onto my money is strong enough to combat the urge to consume a delicious, teeth-rotting treat. But here, the money I would spend is a whopping total of about 80 cents, and the smell of warm bread is a lot more tempting when it is under a dollar.
In many ways, Quito is a lot like any other big city in the states. People dressed in formal business attire fill the streets around the clock. The roads are colored with splashes of yellow from the taxis and red from the public buses. And there are more than enough KFCs for everyone. But of course, it is also very different. Krispy Kreme doughnut shops are replaced with small stands selling maduro and pan de yucca. The Andes Mountains tower like giants standing sentry over the city. And instead of your ipod weighing down your pants, it is a thick wad of quarters and 50-cent pieces.