Wednesday, September 14, 2005

DON'T BANK ON IT!

Less than half of Argentines use banks, so says the Buenos Aires Herald this morning. Makes you wonder where folks here keep their cash--and how they buy things and pay their monthly bills.

They use cash. To pay for just about everything from the newspaper to a refrigerator. Even a car. Forget checks and credit cards unless you’re in a supermarket or a mall in one of the few big cities. In many places, especially electronics and home appliance stores give a 10% discount for cash.

I’ve never carried so much cash around in my life. You can often find $200 or more in my purse. Ten pesos here for fruits and veggies, 20 there for meats, 40 at the market for staples, another 12 at the pharmacy. And no one ever has change. And then there’s the peso for the guy who offered to “guard my car” and another for the kid juggling balls in the intersection during red lights.

Imagine handing over 600 bills of one hundred pesos each to buy a new VW. We’ve done it, and noted that we had to go to a special locked office at the car agency to fork it over.

No wonder business get robbed more frequently here! Some keep the doors locked, and thus customers must ring a bell to be granted entry. Some keep dogs. As scary as that sounds, I’ve never read of a shopkeeper or mugging victim being killed or even wounded in over two years here. I figure I have a higher chance of getting robbed here, but I’m more likely to survive the encounter. Are criminals just nicer here? I don’t know. (There is no death penalty, by the way.)

Roberto, at my request, recently showed me how to pay bills. He never sits at the dining table, checkbook and bills in hand, with a pile of envelopes and stamps. Oh, no, he said, no one here leaves a check in the mailbox!

“Get in the car and I’ll show you how it’s done.” He scooped up a handful of bills. We hopped in the car and drove into town, 7 km from us. First we hunted for a parking place on the busy downtown street, then walked to the internet provider office, where we waited for the receptionist, who then looked up our account on her computer, and accepted the cash payment in return for a receipt, then returned to the car. Time elapsed: one-half hour. One bill paid.

“So, my dear, we can continue the rounds of offices (utilities, cable TV, cellular, etc.) or use the faster method.”

“Please! We don’t have all day!” I begged. “Okay, but it costs a little more,” he smiled.

We drove several blocks and parked under a lovely jacaranda tree on peaceful Avenida Falcon. He led me inside GQ, a shockingly orange office with several lines of folks waiting for one of the three tellers. Ten minutes later it was our turn, and Roberto handed over just the statements from companies for whom GQ can credit payment directly. One at a time, the young woman looked up each bill issuer on her computer, accepted the cash, registered it as paid, and stamped Roberto’s statement before returning it. He paid a service charge of $1.50 each. To pay the remainder, we next waited at a nearby desk, where he handed over the rest of the bills and the cash, plus the service charge. The agent stuffed it all into a numbered envelope, and Roberto was handed a receipt. (Later that day one of the black-jacketed messengers will jump on a motorcycle and deliver the payment in person to the relevant offices.) Summary: Under 20 minutes elapsed, five bills paid, with an additional cost of $7.50. It was worth it! Next time I might even call for GQ to send a messenger to my house and spare me the drive to town.

Last year the not-so-smart thief who figured a GQ messenger motorcycle would be an easy target got a big shock. With the robber in hot pursuit, the messenger radioed the office, and the owner immediately radioed ALL the GQ cyclists with the location and direction of their imperiled colleague. Then she jumped in her own car—and got there first, pinning the would-be thief against a wall with her car. They were quickly surrounded by a horde of GQ motos and the cops. End of story. Given the publicity, there hasn’t been a repeat episode! There are other bill-paying companies, but I’m sticking with GQ! My money may not be in an insured bank account, but it’s pretty safe with them!

There is still one thing that puzzles me: If so few people use banks, why are the lines at the bank always so long?

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