by Steve Mullaney
Jean-Paul Sarte´s No Exit is a three-person play about hell—specifically the way that people´s attitudes create hell for others. If this play were to be updated for Guatemala in 2011, the three people would be as follows: a teller at Banco Industrial, the woman ahead of me in line with a backpack filled with Q5 notes and myself, who only wants to change $50 USD into the equivalent in quetzales.
Guatemalan banks are in the middle of a long, slow road to modernization. In 1958 banks began accepting paper deposit slips instead of the traditional stone estellas that take months to chisel. Also, in 1986, a landmark reform meant that it was no longer necessary to receive confession from a Catholic priest in order to qualify for a loan. Still, in 2011 there are some hiccups in the system, specifically that it is impossible to get in and out of a bank in less than a half hour. In many banks the goal is to streamline the banking process, ensuring that many transactions will earn millions for the bank in question. Guatemalan banks, on the other hand, aim to make their money by selling refreshments to patrons who have been standing in lines for hours on end.
The average bank will have seven windows, and on average two of them will be used at any given time to serve the 47 people who are waiting in line. One line is dedicated exclusively to having two tellers who stare at the printer and wonder why it is not working; the other line is for counting the 1,284 Q5 bills that some woman has lugged in in a garbage bag. Do bill counting machines exist in Guatemala? Yes. Unfortunately, they are all owned by the narcos or the street gangs, and bank technology is generally 15-20 years behind that of the street gangs.
What then is to be done for the traveler who wants to get some Q´s before the 2012 prophecy happens? Like in many cases, it is much easier to bank directly with the street gangs than with the banks*. Not only are there almost no lines, but you will be able to change practically any currency into either quetzales or the street drug of your choice. This flexibility in service makes it much easier to get in and out, and because you were going to buy drugs anyway, saves you a step.
*Editor´s note: When banking with street gangs make sure to insist upon no-fee checking.