Picture Perfect: Why Bolivians Insist Upon Flawless US Dollars

moneyMy first encounter with the Bolivian mania for perfect U.S. dollars occurred at 3 a.m., as I blearily stood in line at Immigration, attempting to pay for my entry visa. I’d been in transit for over 30 hours, and was fumbling in my travel wallet for the stack of twenties I’d set aside specifically for this purpose (they want that $135 in USD, no exceptions).

The immigration agent examined each bill with an anal retentiveness surely rivaled by past appraisers of the Hope Diamond. He immediately tossed two perfectly-fine looking bills back at me.

“What’s wrong with these?” I asked. “They are damaged,” he snapped, and returned to closely inspecting my remaining twenties, running his fingers along each edge, and holding them up to the light. I looked at the offending bills, seeing nothing wrong. “Why can’t you take this one?” I queried, holding out the bill in question. My silly question would have made my fresh-off-the-boat status obvious, even if I weren’t standing in the immigration line.

“There is a crease in it,” the officer said impatiently, pointing to a miniscule dent. Fortunately, the rest of my money passed muster. The final insult? Having my visa photo taken (despite the fact I’d brought passport-size photos with me for this very purpose). I now have a very special souvenir of what I’ll look like in another 40 years. That cabin air is really dehydrating.

Over the next two weeks, I continued to observe the Bolivian obsession with flawless dolares de Estados Unitos. By then, I knew the reason. Counterfeit money is a big problem, but they’re not nearly as concerned about the state of their bolivianos as they are our currency. Admittedly, their paper money is fairly pristine. Every trip to an ATM was an anxiety-inducing event … what if the bills were wrinkled, or torn? What if, while in one of the godforsaken, far-flung outposts I was visiting, someone required U.S. dollars and I couldn’t obtain any perfect ones? In Bolivia, you can often pay in either currency, so some travelers prefer dollars because they find them easier to use than trying to convert bolivianos.

Fortunately, it seems most Bolivian cash machines dispense quality bills. I was even able to bail out a befuddled traveler attempting to purchase a bus ticket. His dollars were simply not up to snuff, so I traded him some of my crisp Jacksons to defuse the escalating shouting match.

After I traveled on to Paraguay, I discovered that they’re almost as strict about the appearance of U.S. dollars. It’s a national joke, however, that this attention to detail doesn’t extend to their guaranies. Never have I seen such woefully limp, bedraggled, filthy paper money. Which is ironic, given all the armed guards posted outside of banks and change houses. Then again, money is money, no matter how pretty. If only someone could tell the Bolivians that.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Unhindered by Talent]