I gave the man a whack of U.S. dollar bills. As in most countries that accept American currency, I was expecting a quick exchange, a flip through the stack of 20, a swift writing of a receipt, and bam, I’d be free to explore. But instead came an examination that seemed more thorough than my last dental appointment, and with the particular anxiety that comes with that.
There were two other Peruvians hovering over him, silently supervising, as the man held each bill up in the air, flipped it around, eyed every corner, and gently placed it back down on the counter as if it was the Queen’s specially designed Burmese ruby tiara.
This took a while. And as I was about ready to nod off, the man suddenly broke his silence. “Hay un otro?” he asked, pointing to my wallet. Now, I don’t know much about counterfeit money, but this particular twenty looked legit to me and so I tried to question his decision as best I could in my flaw-filled Spanish. However, I quickly learned that my North American opinion had no sway here, as the minuscule tear, right below the second “T” at the bottom of the bill, had the final say. (You can see for yourself, if you squint ever so slightly.)
What I didn’t know is that I am in U.S. Counterfeit Dollar Ground Zero. The Secret Service, in fact, has named Peru the top producer of counterfeit American currency, a business touted as more profitable than cocaine in some reports. And apparently, they’re really good at it, at first glance. So far, the counterfeit bills are made with a paper that seems legit, but deteriorates easily when exposed to water, which may explain why my precious bill, with its ever-so-tiny flaw, was equivalent to a box of nail clippings. There was no reason for me to question further. This was in the hands of a country that knows how much power (or lack of) the currency holds.
$20 poorer than before (at least here), my budget for the week is slightly mangled. Guess I’ll have an ice cream cone for dinner.