You know that famous acronym KISS? Keep it simple, stupid? Well, I feel that it could easily be Colombia’s slogan. Manténgalo sencillo, imbécil. MSI–no, it doesn’t have the same ring to it. Ring or no ring, this is a country where simple is the name of the game. Cash is king in the U.S.–or at least was in our grandparents’ day–and simple is king in Colombia. Ah, maybe you see where I’m going with this now. Flinging around simple like a noun, when I’m really referring to its Spanish counterpart: sencillo. In Colombia and many other countries, sencillo means small bills and change. A must-know word because I can almost guarantee that you’ll have to carry and pay with cash here far more than you’re used to in your home country for a plethora of reasons. Credit and debit cards aren’t yet the common, well, currency that they are in many other parts of the world, so you need to make sure to have bills and coins on you at all times. But not just any dirty money will do. No, it needs to be small. It needs to be sencillo.
Yesterday I bought some things at Éxito, a huge supermarket chain here. They came to 30.650 (around 15 dollars), and I handed the cashier a 50-thousand peso note (around 25 dollars). She then asked if I had the 650 pesos- the coins, that is. I could only find about 200 pesos, so I said no, all the while still rummaging around in my purse. I eventually found one more coin, and then another, and then another. But several of them were just tiny 50 peso coins—I really didn’t think I had 650 pesos, and in any case I just wanted to finish my transaction, get my change from her, and leave. She kept waiting, though, eyeing my accumulating pile of coins feverishly. When I finally rooted out all the metal from the bottom of my purse, I silently noted that the seven or eight coins did miraculously add up to 650. But you know what? I didn’t feel like giving her my every last coin and then remaining coinless in the sencillo-obsessed country I live in. It’s a free country, er, world, right? I’m not under any obligation to hand over my sencillo. That’s why she has a huge till full of money. I wasn’t going to be a pawn in her sencillo game.
I told her to go ahead and just give me the change from the 50,000 peso bill. How much do you have there? she asked n0sily. I don’t know; it doesn’t really matter, I answered, feeling flustered. What I was doing was so un-PC, practically against the social law. But, how much do you have? she insisted. To be honest, lady, I’d really just like to pay with the 50. She probably hated me, but I didn’t care. It wasn’t my finest moment. Lo and behold, she gave me my change with a heaping handful of coins. There was no shortage of sencillo on either of our ends, it turned out. I get it, though–it’s the principle. Better to get as much sencillo as you can and hoard it for a rainy day, a complicated sencillo drought. (A rainy day and a drought? Yes, in Colombia you need sencillo 24/7. As well as an umbrella and sunscreen.) In the morning’s sencillo battle, Vocabat: 1, World: 0. A KO.
I felt like a selfish jerk. How could I not give her sencillo when I had it right there? I’ll tell you why. Because I’m the customer and she represents the multibillion-dollar company. Hardly to be pitied. I always pay with sencillo and regularly make unnecessary purchases on the street or at the corner tienda just to break “large” bills and make sure I have sencillo for the bus driver, the taxi driver, and everyone else. But that’s because I’m nice, and I know how life works here. It’s not my problem (in theory) if you don’t have the right change and certainly not if you’re simply loathe to give up your change. Except . . . sigh . . . it inevitably always becomes the customer’s problem. Oh, why don’t you buy one of these cookies so I can then have the right change for you? Sorry, I’m just under, but it’s close, so please just consider it a small tip and skip off. ¡Te quedo debiendo! I’m X pesos in your debt! Yeah, like they’re going to track you down and repay those pesos later! The best way to prevent this from happening is by being armed to the teeth with–you guessed it–lots and lots of sencillo. Such a misnomer! Simple, my foot.
I wasn’t trying to lie to her or even hacerme la pendeja–play dumb–but who’s brave enough to say, yes, I have sencillo, but I don’t want to give it to you? I have just as much of a right to it as you do. Read: you ain’t gettin’ any. The social contract here basically requires that you fork over your sencillo if you have any, though. All right, cough it up, mister! If you choose to slyly omit the fact that you’re in possession of sencillo, you may find that the establishment really doesn’t have change. And then you’re in the awkward position of magically “finding” the sencillo you were so sure wasn’t there just a few seconds ago. It’s really uncomfortable, trust me. Or maybe both sides will act tough, and then it’s just a matter of who calls whose bluff first. What would they do if they found out about those little Take a Penny, Leave a Penny change trays that are so common in the U.S.? You mean . . . they leave sencillo there for anyone to just take?! In broad daylight?! But in Colombia’s defense, you can often fiar things at your little neighborhood store (pay on credit, or they’ll let you bring the money by later if you’re short a few pesos). Why doesn’t the government make things genuinely simple for everyone and stop producing non-sencillo denominations? All I can think of when I get stuck with a 20,000 bill is when and how I can break it; a 50,000 bill feels like a curse.
Who tells that story about the kid who had a fifty-dollar bill, but he exchanged it for two twenties, and then three tens, then four fives, five ones, then six quarters, seven dimes, eight nickels, nine pennies, all because he thought he was getting richer with each transaction as the number of units increased? Sometimes it feels like that here! I feel like a king, the cock of the walk, when I have a pocket full of jangling coins, and practically a pauper with large bills. What good do they do me?
Another common way of saying sencillo is suelto. Which means loose. We talk about loose change in English, but not so much loose bills. It works for both in Spanish, though. (There appears to be a rapper named Loose Bills. I’m sure he’s a favorite of taxi drivers.)
I did some research, and here are different ways of saying small change and bills in Spanish.
Monedas (just coins), menudo, cambio, calderilla (Spain, just coins), chatarra (Spain, just coins), morralla (Mexico, just coins), feria (Mexico), chauchas (Chile, just coins)
For my money, I’d stick to sencillo or suelto when traveling around.
This Actualidad Panamericana article (a Colombian The Onion) exposes a bar where Bogotá taxi drivers go to indulge in their peculiar fetish: massages with small bills sensually rubbed all over their bodies. It would explain a lot.
How do you ask for sencillo? How do you beg someone to break a bill? This was one of my very first questions when tagging along with Spanish goddess Eva my first week in Colombia. Well, you don’t say romper. Let’s just get that out of the way. What you do say is cambiar.
¿Me puedes dar cambio para un billete de cinco?
¿Me podrías cambiar un billete de mil?
¿Tienes cambio de cien pesos?
¿Me cambias este billete?
¿Tienes sencillo para (un billete de) 20 mil?
As you can see, you have lots of wiggle room to play around with the word order.
Now, what about the change you get after a transaction? Or telling someone to keep the change? Ay ay ay, this book–I mean, post–is getting long. I’ll write about that in the next post.
Also, I gave the KISS acronym a few vueltas, and I came up with an equivalent for the Spanish BESO that fits the topic.
BESO: Billetes En Sencillo, ¡Obtuso!
Keep it BESO, keep it sencillo, and carry on!