“Listen, I need to sell dollars for bolívars… in cash.”
Hmmmm. I can see Nils – not his real name – doesn’t really get it. In a way it’s normal: he’s foreign, he doesn’t speak Spanish, and even if he’s a journalist covering the region, he lives in a normal South American country. How could he get it?
How would he know that, though buying dollars with bolivars in Venezuela is relatively straightforward, going in the other direction takes you into the real black market: a twilight zone of street dealers in dangerous parts of town? How could Nils get it that the word cash is scary; how are we going to find efectivo in a country with hardcore cash issues?
As his fixer/factotum/translator, it’s my job to solve this kind of problem for him. Truth is, I didn’t even know of anyone who could exchange the amount he was requesting via wire transfer. Not that it matters: Nils doesn’t have a Venezuelan bank account. Plus he’s in a hurry. With no bank account and no time, this was going to be tricky.
How are we going to find efectivo in a country with hardcore cash issues?
What do you do?
Well, first I tried the “safe” option. Word is, you can ask at jewelries in some malls in Eastern Caracas for a secure, fast transaction. “Excuse me, do you buy dollars?” I asked the jeweler at the first shop.
“Not right now” the old man said, pointing to the shop in front of his. “Try over there.”
“Over there” was a jewelry shop there were no jewels in sight. “Disculpe, but do you buy dollars?”
It was a gathering of ladies. “Not today” one of them said.
Nils is losing his patience. “Let’s go downtown” he said, and I immediately I thought it was a bad idea. Nils has read up on Venezuela, but he doesn’t have a feel for the day-to-day dynamics yet. He’s super foreign and he looks it.
Sometimes you gotta go with your instinct, you know? That persistent voice in the back of your head shouting out for caution.
“Ok, let’s go,” I said. I should listen to that voice more often.
Now, I’m used to going to El Centro, but not for things like this. I got there with some trepidation and tried to play it safe. I asked a girl selling makeup in a little shop, “Anyone buying dollars around here?”
“Follow me” she said.
“Over there” was a jewelry shop where there were no jewels in sight. “Disculpe, but do you buy dollars?”
We did, not knowing where we were going. We walked into a small, dilapidated building, climbed up through a dirty stairwell and into an “office” stocked with hair products and some guy offering Bs. 5,000 per dollar, almost three times less than DolarToday, the universally accepted Alabama HomeDepot-based repository for information on the going rate.
Keep in mind that, through all of this, nothing would’ve been easier than just snatching our dollars from us at gunpoint. We were crossing the shadowy bowels of the inner city pretty much announcing that we had the most valuable thing around in Venezuela today, and one of us looks like a total musiú on top of it.
How good were our odds? Flip a coin in the air.
With the time limit drawing near, Nils asked the question I’d been dreading.
“What about them?” he asked, as we hurried along.
It was the men selling gold right out on the streets. We had barely asked when they swarmed upon us and, before we knew it, we were inside some other building, escorted by close friends we’d met seconds earlier.
I don’t know how many hallways we crossed. Our stop was at a fancy office, two guys and reggaeton blaring from computer speakers. Swimming with sharks, enjoying the view.
They say rabid dogs can smell fear, that acting nervous makes you a target. No eye contact, no sudden movements. I was a zen master of tranquility, or so I’d like to think.
Keep in mind that… nothing would’ve been easier than just snatching our dollars from us at gunpoint.
“I want cash,” I hear Nils say through a thick accent, and hearing the phrase again, you wonder who else might be listening. One of the guys leaves the office, closes the door behind him and everything goes quiet. Minutes pass, slowly. Then the man reappears.
“No cash, boss.”
“Let’s move” I whisper to Nils.
“Thanks” I say for no particular reason.
It’s back to the endless hallways: jewelry, makeup salons, nondescript shops. Our escorts take us to another building, and here we finally find some buyers, but only through bank transfers.
There’s a shortage of bank notes right now. No cash on the streets. What you do find is near worthless Bs.50 and Bs.100 notes. You’d need a huge santa-claus style sack over your shoulder to carry the amount of money we’re trying to trade in such small bills, and how smart it is to walk about with that in these parts?
Nils and I realize we’re lost. The exit from this labyrinth disappears between the shops and the characters, and collecting ourselves takes a bit of breath-in, breath-out. I find myself mulling over how much they might ask for after kidnapping a foreigner?
There’s a shortage of bank notes right now. No cash on the streets. What you do find is near worthless Bs.50 and Bs.100 notes.
We reach an office where an old TV is playing a rerun of a game show. Guys walk in selling gold and silver, others weight the merchandise and count stacks of cash. No one speaks, like they’re part of some hive-mind alien to us. These guys are so synchronized, it looks like telepathy.
My friend repeats his line about wanting cash, more carefully this time, and it takes a fifteen-minute year to get a response, in the form of a man, duffel bags and a cash-counting machine.
He’s very technical, as trained as any bank teller as he counts out the stacks of bolivars. My friend places it all in a bulgy backpack, we get up and we start for the hallways.
“Be careful” the improvised bank-teller says. Like that helps.
I don’t remember very much of the way back. I remember the sweat, the hurry and the relief at finding our car still there. Even as I write this, I can’t believe we spent our Saturday morning in the Black Market. We made it out in one piece.
But, as wisdom says, once is enough.