Hyperinflation Left Me Broke in Caracas

(Bloomberg) -- Editors Note: There are few places as chaotic or dangerous as Venezuela. “Life in Caracas” is a series of short stories that seeks to capture the surreal quality of living in a land in total disarray.

I was mesmerized as the cashier at Burger King ran my friend’s debit card.

Whopper, swipe.

Coke, swipe.

Fries, swipe.

Extra barbecue sauce, swipe.

Inflation is now so insane that card-reading devices can’t even ring up a simple fast-food lunch—this one was about 20 million bolivars—without breaking it into small bites. President Nicolas Maduro’s grand plan to fix this situation is to re-denominate the currency and lop off five zeros. He says this will “change the country’s monetary life in a radical way.”

Probably not. But it will at least temporarily ease the madness. There’s not a single business transaction nowadays—paying for a taxi ride or buying a hot dog from a street cart—that’s straightforward and hassle free. Not a one.

Hyperinflation Left Me Broke in Caracas

I mean, I had arrived at the Burger King only because of a bizarre series of events at a restaurant the night before that left me suddenly, and completely, cut off from my cash. It began when the cashier told me that my debit card was declined. And no matter how many times he swiped it, the answer was the same. I called the bank. The fellow on the line informed me that I had reached my withdrawal limit for the month. How much was that? 480 million bolivars. That may sound like a lot, but it’s only about $120.

The cap, he told me, was the banking authority’s way of fighting illicit financial activity. Really. And because credit cards (tiny spending limits) and cash (too cumbersome) have long stopped being viable payment options, I was, as I understood it, penniless for the 11 days until the calendar turned.

This was not real hardship, of course. The rent was paid, the utilities weren’t due. And I had, in fact, managed to eat that Friday night, after the manager was summoned. He agreed to an online bank transfer, though only if I forked over some sort of guarantee until the transaction was confirmed. I handed him my ID and debit card—overnight hostages to a glass of wine and a shrimp-sushi roll.

Burger King, thanks to the generosity of my friend, saw me through Saturday. On Sunday, I went to La Guairita, a neighborhood where vendors sell imported goods long gone from supermarket shelves. All the stuff is astonishingly overpriced, and much of it is way past its sell-by date. The hook, I remembered in my despair, was that I could pay via bank transfer.

Hyperinflation Left Me Broke in Caracas

This sudden rush of financial freedom spurred me to to grab more than I needed. Baking powder, why the hell not? Chocolate cereal, sure. The excitement didn’t last long. My bank’s website crashed.

I slumped into a plastic chair in the sun and waited. As I sat there, the rush from buying a bunch of random stuff slowly wore off. I started removing items. First, it was the box of chocolate cereal and a can of soda and then, sadly, a bag of cheese puffs.

After 45 minutes, the transfer mercifully went through. Smiling now, I walked out with the baking powder, some wheat, and a few eggs and bananas. That afternoon, I made banana pancakes. They were great. Or maybe I was just really hungry.

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