CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti- “Four dollar,” spoke the woman behind the counter of a restaurant where I attempted to make my first commercial interaction in Haiti.
“What!?! Four dollars for a bottle of water?” I figured that she must have meant four gourde, the Haitian standard of currency. Though this would have meant that the cost of the bottle of water would have been extremely low, around 10 cents. This did not seem right, but I handed over a five gourde coin anyway expecting change.
No, she meant four dollars, not four gourde — four Haitian dollars. As it turns out, one Haitian dollar is the equivalent of five gourde, though I did not know this at the time.
I was confused as I stood in front of the lady with a bottle of water in her hand, as I knew of no such currency as the Haitian dollar. So I asked again what the price was, this time I even asked in French:
“How many gourde?”
The reply was 20. This seemed like a correct price for the item I was purchasing, so I handed over the money and left the restaurant confused.
Why did she ask for four dollars? Was she trying to rip me off? Do I really look that stupid? What is a Haitian dollar? The conversion of the gourde to the US dollar is 40 to 1, but this lady asked for four dollars when she meant twenty gourde, what was going on?
The next day the same event took place as I tried to buy a bundle of bananas. The lady held up two fingers for two units of currency, and I again handed over two gourde. No, she really wanted 10 gourde.
This was the second time that this odd conversion worked out to five to one. The person asks for one unit of currency and expects five? In my travels I had not ever heard of such a business model.
I then walked into a shop determined to figure this out. When the kid behind the counter asked for two dollars, I made him write down what he meant in my notebook.
“How many gourde is a dollar?”
He then confirmed my previous calculations: five gourde equals one Haitien dollar.
Throughout my stay in Haiti, I just paid out at five gourde for each dollar asked for, though I did not know the reasons for doing so. Upon return to the Dominican Republic, I looked into it. As it turns out, for a long time the Haitien gourde was pegged even with the US dollar at a rate of five to one.
Haiti is a country that does business in both US dollars and local currency, and convention decreed that five gourde became interchangeable with one US dollar. When the local currency was set free to float with inflation, verbal convention had a difficult time keeping up, and five gourde continued to be known as one Haitian dollar.
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