I am now reminded how spoiled we are in the US with our credit cards. Credit card readers in every store & taxi… Online automatic bill payments… These are all things I definitely started taking for granted over the last six years. We were exposed to a much more cash-based economy during our two years living in Mexico City, but even back in 2008, you could count on most sit-down restaurants taking credit cards.
Dar es Salaam has us quickly reorienting to an almost exclusively cash-based lifestyle once again… But a bizarre one in which the largest bill you can carry is worth less than $5.
The largest bill that exists here is 10,000 Tanzanian shillingi (written as TSh10,000 or 10,000/=, though I’ve also seen 10,000 TZS). With the current exchange rate of 2,183 TZS to $1 USD, the largest note buys you about $4.60 in dollars.
I struggled our first week here to reconcile the initial guidance I’d read of “Don’t carry a purse anywhere! Ever! And don’t carry more cash than you need!” with “Where do I put this huge wad of bills to go buy groceries without making it obvious?” Paige & I walked to our nearby grocery store one day with my strategic outfit of pants with back pockets & a long shirt that seemed to partially obscure the two wads of cash I’d stuffed back there.
My math-teacher parents would be underwhelmed to know that my mental math skills are woefully out of shape. I struggled to keep a running total price of the groceries in my basket while also entertaining a three year old and constantly evaluating whether I needed to buy the imported British chocolate bars or salt-and-vinegar crisps. Consequently, Paige & I went to check-out after I stared into my basket for the tenth time, tried to recall/add the cost of each item, figured I was getting close to my limit of cash, and then learned at the cash register that I’d had more than 50,000/= of wiggle room.
We’ve made progress – two of the expat-oriented grocery stores do accept credit cards, so we have the tradeoff of not having to mentally tally our grocery bill, but knowing we are paying too much. I also feel comfortable carrying my tired, old wristlet purse (an older version of this Hobo) with enough 10,000/= notes to cover most potential day-to-day needs. We’ve also learned to stockpile the small bills and coins to pay the Masai parking attendants who man the parking lots outside most stores & restaurants around the peninsula. The going rate is around 500/=, or $0.25.
I still can’t help but feeling like I’m being too flashy/making a personal safety faux pax when I take 15 of the country’s LARGEST BILL out of my purse to pay for a transaction… but I guess this is something I will get used to in five-dollar-bill-landia. And if the exchange continues the trend seen over the last couple years…we may get used to carrying even more.