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Haitian currency is five times the trouble

The first arithmetics every Haitian learns are the five times tables. Not just the easy ones, such as one through 12, but more complex ones, like five times 379.

Quick, how fast can you do it in your head?

If you don't already know it's 1,895, you're slower than the average Haitian 8-year-old. And it all has to do with historical currency rates.

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The prices of the smallest items are quoted in the local currency, the gourde (rhymes with food), which is about 2.5 cents Canadian, or 39 gourdes to a dollar. But just about everything is quoted in dollars, only it's not Canadian dollars, or U.S. dollars. It's Haitian dollars, which are constantly spoken of, but never seen, as much as phantasm as the vodou spirits.

It's a worn cliché that journalists ended up in the profession after failing math, and I'm a walking stereotype. I'd be an architect now, perhaps helping to rebuild Haiti instead of reporting on it, if I could have passed highschool calculus any of the three times I tried.

Which means my numerical challenges are evident to every Haitian shopkeeper I've encountered.

Here's why. Back in the day, the gourde was fixed to the U.S. currency at a rate of five gourdes to a buck, so people started calling five gourdes a dollar, and it stuck, even though it's now about 40 gourdes to buy a greenback.

So when I bought gas today for the little moped I've been riding around town, the pump read $26, and I handed over 130 gourdes - after the cashier waited patiently while I did the math on my fingers. A Haitian doesn't see a 1,000-gourde bill for the one and three zeros printed on it, but recognized it as $200.

I wondered whether the practice came about to confuse foreigners like me into overpaying, but so far everyone to whom I've handed five times the asking price has politely returned the extra cash, and given me the same sympathetic look my math teacher had when she returned another test with a mark somewhere below 50 (or is that 250?).

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