For a few rupees more: Making cents of it all
On the lighter side
By Antony Motha
This adventure began when my uncle bestowed me with a 100-dollar bill. I have never been the kind of person who accepts unsolicited gifts; it makes me feel obligated, as if I have to do something in return. So, I flashed Uncle Guy my million-dollar smile in consideration for his kindness. Quid pro quo and all that jazz, if you get my drift… Not a bad deal for stretching my facial muscles… although I surmised that the mystic Mona Lisa could have outdone me.
For my friendly neighbourhood grocer man, however, my hundred-dollar note was the modern-day equivalent of cowry shells. He wanted it because he knew that it was valuable, but he was unwilling to accept it because he was not sure exactly how much it was worth… The trishaw driver, echoing the grocer’s sentiments, snarled, “Gimme rupees.”
Confronted with an existential dilemma of Shakespearean proportions (to exchange or not to exchange?), I began to realize why the barter system was flawed. Valour got the better of discretion and I decided to exchange the 100 dollars for something else. Hard currencies might have their merits, but I prefer something tender any day – especially if prefixed with the adjective ‘legal’.
The quest for rupees began in right earnest. All those evenings spent under my mother’s watchful eye must have paid off. “Do your homework”, she used to say, “before you go out to play.” That advice must have crawled unnoticed into my subconscious mind. So, I did my homework: According to the financial columns of that morning’s newspaper, the banks should give me Rs 109.19 for every dollar.
Dollar signs flashing in my eyes, like a character out of cartoon strip, I sauntered into Hatton National Bank. The chap behind the glass window peered into his computer screen and offered me Rs 107.30 per dollar, the rate provided by ‘Head Office’.
That didn’t seem adequate somehow… When queried why this was less than the newspaper rate, he explained “Some banks pay 10 or 20 cents less or more.”
Next stop: Commercial Bank. The lad behind the counter referred to his register and quoted Rs 107.62. That was better, we were making progress, albeit slowly! “But this is yesterday’s rate”, the lad interrupts, “We will be getting a fresh rate from Head Office by 11:30 AM.” This Head Office phenomenon seemed to be ubiquitous.
The display board at Bank of Ceylon proclaimed Rs 107.85, but man-behind-counter has different ideas. He quotes Rs 107.55 and refuses to budge. “The board indicates yesterday’s rate.” “Why are you displaying yesterday’s rate? How is it relevant?” “It is not relevant today. I am going to change it now. Today’s buying rate is Rs 107.55 and the selling rate is Rs 110.30.” “I want to sell. Will you give me Rs 110.30 for a dollar?”
“No, I’m buying, so I will apply the buying rate.” Stalemate!
Hopefully, People’s Bank would be more people-friendly… They were, offering Rs 108.29 per dollar. That was still short of what the newspaper led me to expect, but better than any other bank. “If you have traveller’s cheques, I would have given you Rs 108.91.” “I’m not a traveler; so, I don’t have traveller’s cheques.” “Can I see your passport?” “As I said, I’m not a traveller. Won’t my National Identity Card do?”
“I suppose it will have to. Where did you get this from?” (Suspiciously)
“Gift.” “Okay… For one or two hundred dollars, we won’t insist on a passport.”
NDB Bank stops screeches to a halt just short of the Rs 108 psychological barrier. They seem to have borrowed a leaf out of Sony’s and Bata’s book, and adopted what is popularly called ‘magic pricing’. They offer Rs 107.99.
Perhaps the foreign banks would be more generous? Standard Chartered Bank is marginally more generous, offering Rs 108. But Deutsche Bank marks a nadir, at Rs 106.30. When my stoicism slips and the hot-under-my-collar feeling results in an outburst, they whisper, conspiratorially, “Try Seylan Bank next door.”
Seylan Bank offers Rs 108, and the display board promises a better rate if you exchange more than US$ 5,000. How kind of them! The lady behind the counter says that, with that kind of money, I would probably get 50 cents more per dollar because she could get a better rate from the foreign exchange dealers.
Hey, did I have to go through all this trouble? Maybe the big branded outlets would accept dollars? Let’s try Barefoot for some colourful attire… They quote Rs 106. This rate was arrived at by taking the bank rate of five days ago (Rs 107) – and “deducting one or two rupees… We can’t give you the bank rate, can we?” Why not, I wondered… Colombo Jewellery Stores quotes Rs 109 – or “whatever is the bank rate”.
Swarna Mahal Jewellers, also guided by a five-day-old foreign currency chart from SCB, quoted Rs 107. Like a sniffer-dog detecting contraband, the salesman detects my dissatisfaction and springs to set things right. He offers a discount such that the resultant exchange rate is Rs 110 or Rs 111… Smart boy!
Nations Trust Bank seems to have got into a symbiotic relationship with the shopping arcades, with a presence deep in the recesses of ODEL and the basement of Crescat Boulevard. They offer Rs 107.87, but will also charge a fee of Rs 300.
Holiday Inn offers differential rates: Rs 108.55 for settlement of bills and Rs 104 for currency exchange. “What happens if I dine at one of your restaurants?” “You’ll have to exchange your dollars at Rs 104 – and then pay in rupees.” What a racket!
The specialists are the foreign currency changers – and Salaka has something akin to a reputation to protect. They offer Rs 107, no questions asked… So, I trudged back to People’s Bank, and bid my hard currency goodbye. The bundle of familiar currency notes nestled reassuringly in my wallet. Over to the better half… Hopefully, she will observe that I need a new pair of shoes.