I broke a major rule of travel: I used an ATM at a bank outside of business hours, and I nearly paid for it.
I rushed out of my apartment in San Cristobal towards the Yik Cafe on the zocolo. I had set up to meet and interview an artist there who is working on a rather interesting project. En route, I realized that there was no jingling in my pocket, a quick touch down in that vicinity revealed no bills either: shit, I was broke. Being that it is good form to at least buy my interview subjects a beer or coffee, I headed to a nearby ATM, breaking one of my major rules of travel:
Though it was a Monday, it was a holiday in Mexico, and the banks were closed.
Never use an ATM when the bank it is connected to is closed.
This is my second rule of using ATMs when traveling.
In brash nonobservance of my own travel strategy, I shoved my card into the teller machine. It took it, I went through the prompts to make a withdrawal. The max limit that I could take out was 6,000 pesos (US$433), and as I had to make an additional 30 peso service fee to use this ATM and I’m planning on being in Mexico for a good while, I selected this option. What came next I could not have anticipated:
The ATM only spit out two 500s and a fifty, 1,050 pesos when my transaction was for 6000 — a big difference.
Initially subverting panic, I checked the receipt to see if I, perhaps, made an error and took out a lesser amount than I thought. Nope, a 6,000 peso transaction went through. Excited now, I looked down at the gate where the money comes out. It was still open. I peered into the innards of the beast, and, there, in its bowels, I could see an incredible stack of money — my money. Panicking now, I was somehow able to thrust my fingers through the gate, force them deep into the machine, and grasp some of the bills. Working fast, I tore out as many of them as I could, tossing them in a pile upon the floor in front of me. Rather than giving me 12 five hundred peso bills to fill my transaction, this ATM instead tried to give me a couple 500s couple and an incredible amount of 100s and 50s — resulting in a stack that was too thick to fit through the gate.
As I was retrieving my money manually, the ATM’s gate suddenly closed shut, clamping a 500 peso bill between my fingers and the little wheels within — which were now trying diligently to suck the bill back inside. A battle ensued. A corner of the 500 peso note ripped off, but I managed to keep holding it. Shit, the last thing I wanted was to split this bill with the machine, which would essentially render it useless for the both of us. I had to be gentle in this struggle, and, somehow, I was able to slip the note out from the mouth of the beast.
I looked at my loot, it was piled on the floor. I felt a little like a thief as I calmly collected it and began counting. Other banking customers, who were using the ATM immediately next to the one I’d just fought, were privy to what I imagine was a pretty entertaining show: man vs. ATM.
My stack of cash ended up being 550 pesos (around 40 USD) short. This is a lot of money for a traveler living in the south of Mexico on under 4,000 pesos per month. But I could not be too angry, as I could have been out hundreds of dollars — a real travesty — if I wasn’t able to reach inside the machine and wrestle out what I took. But I was still out a good deal of money nonetheless.
I copied down the customer service number that was printed on the automatic teller machine, and, finding nothing more I could do to try to get the remainder of my money, lamely walked away. This is the main reason not to us the ATM of a bank outside of business hours: if you have a problem, there is no recourse as nobody is there to help you.
I tried calling the ATM customer service number, but found that nobody answered — it was a holiday. The next day I tried again, still nobody answered. I returned to the bank, and, finding a long line extending out the door, stomped in and told the first employee I saw what had happened the previous day. He told me to take my matter up with the director, and pointed me over to her booth. This I did, and ended up waiting around an hour as the people in line before me applied for loans, credit cards, asked zillions of questions, and mounds of other crap that I had no interest listening to, let alone waiting for. Finally, my turn was up.
I strode up to the banking director and told her what had happened the best I could in Spanish. Not knowing the technical parts of an ATM in the language I was speaking, I said something like, “I had a problem with the ATM, my money was too thick to fit through the gate and I could not take all of it.”
The bank director knew exactly what had happened — perhaps she’s seen this case before? She asked me how much I’d lost. I told her. She nodded, took my debit card and my ATM transaction slip, and made way for the copy machine that was behind her desk. She made a quick confirmation phone call, printed my details, and returned with 550 pesos.
This was the second experience I’ve had in 12 years of travel of an ATM not giving me or my travel companion the proper amount of money. On both occasions, the bank made good without hassle. I think of all the times I’ve used ATMs around the world, I think of the convenience and security this system offers me, and I know that the occasional problem does not even come close to matching the benefits that international ATMs lend to the modern traveler.