Show Me the Money!

When I was in Washington DC, people consistently asked me if I had any Indonesian currency. Money says a lot about a country–the images and words printed on legal tender remind citizens daily of a nation’s ideals. Shared currency is perhaps the only thing that unites Indonesia’s 17,000 islands and innumerable tribes.

It’s also just plain cool. I’ve never heard anyone looking at foreign currency say anything other than “Wow, that’s so cool.” Yes. Very astute.

Here’s the full spread of Indonesian currency, called rupiah. Front:

and back:

$1USD is currently equal to IDR13,000. So what could that buy?

  • transit fare to my nearest city–there and back
  • a Magnum ice cream bar
  • a mid-sized bottle of shampoo
  • More than a dozen eggs
  • 6 or 7 apples
  • 1.5 kilos of uncooked rice
  • two Snickers bars
  • 70 text messages
  • a small bunch of broccoli, a mid-sized bunch of cauliflower, 2 carrots, and a cucumber.
  • 10-20 snacks at my school’s canteen
  • six public bathroom visits, or
  • a pint of Oreo ice cream

You can see where my priorities lie. Here are the coins Indonesians use:

Except for the 500 rupiah coin they are almost useless–so useless that shop clerks will occasionally give out small candies instead of change. I frequently see multiple coins taped together to make larger and more useful denominations. These coins are also far less dense than American coins–they feel like play money when you first hold them.

Money has its own culture and norms. Almost all transactions here are done with hard cash–not with bank or credit cards–and the way Indonesians handle their money is different too. For small purchases the bills are often crumpled and for transit fares Indonesians fold or roll the money almost all the way up, as if to make it as small as possible, then hand it to the driver. They rarely fold it in half only once like Americans tend to do (it was a struggle to find clean crisp bills in the smaller denominations for these photos). For purchases in a store, you hand the clerk money or the customer change with a slight head bow.

Indonesians pay tips to traffic directors, parking attendants, and more–usually Rp1000-2000. These people help cars and motor bikes merge, back up into traffic, park without hitting other bikes/cars, and they keep large pieces of cardboard to shade parked bike seats from the hot sun. Indonesians give small change to performers on buses, beggars, and generally anyone who’s asking for it. I often see under-construction mosques with parishioners holding bucket bath dippers taped to sticks for easy access into car windows.

Typical mandi dipper used for bathing. They fasten sticks to elongate the handles.

In general, Indonesians are very generous with their uang kecil (small money) which isn’t surprising given that one of the five pillars of Islam is the zakat, or charitable giving. Muslims are required to give a portion of their yearly earnings to the poor and needy. In some countries the zakat is compulsory, but not in Indonesia. Citizens of all economic classes give freely whenever they see fit–which is often. It’s something I notice and greatly admire about Indonesians.

Edit: Here’s a link to information about the scenes and people featured on the rupiah. Thanks mom ♥


5 thoughts on “Show Me the Money!

    • At least the guys on the 100.000 note are the first president and vice president. I actually haven’t looked up who the other guys are but I will!

    • those are overwhelmingly local resistance leader/independence revolutionaries/national hero, when it’s a portrait, if they are in a group then it’s a local art/dance + anything that is a specialty to a certain region/something that will remind you of that certain region

  1. What a great blog! It is very interesting to see what can be purchased with one dollar! What a great experience you are having in Indonesia.

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