Cultural insight lies in spare change

Coins are like little travel brochures, advertising what a country wants you to know about itself.

At an outdoor market in Havana that was overflowing with guayaberas (shirts), paintings of cars, mildewing collections of Hemingway short stories, and wooden Fidel Castro figurines, I handed a vendor several bills that had gone limp with humidity. She counted them and handed me my treasure: a three-peso piece in change.

I don't remember now what I bought at the market. What I do remember - and still have - is that silvery Cuban coin. It shows Che Guevara in the pose that launched a thousand T-shirts, wearing his beret and a romantically intense gaze. Above his head is the slogan "Patria o Muerte" ("Homeland or Death").

In Cuba, there's nothing remarkable about this coin beyond it being the largest denomination of coin in circulation. If I changed it at a foreign bank, it would only be worth about 12 euro cents.

But I stashed it away in a secret pocket as though it were a doubloon. Back at my hotel, I turned the coin over and over in my hand and marveled at the odd little piece. I wondered: What kind of a country puts scruffy martyrs on its money? Who mints coins in denominations of three? What kind of people calmly accept the word "death" hanging over their every financial transaction?

If foreign travel is rewarding, then those elusive moments when a country reveals little tidbits about itself are the currency in which those rewards are paid. Often these glimpses come at unexpected times. For me, the payoff has always come when I've gone off the beaten path and started looking for what a country wants me to see, not what I came expecting to encounter.

In my experience, the best way to get a taste of what a culture wants you to know about itself is to look at the one thing that almost every citizen carries: coins.

Coins are like tourist brochures, advertising what a country believes to be good and representative of itself. Don't believe me? Look at your own change. Unless you're a Sacagawea hoarder, you've probably got a pocketful of two things we Americans traditionally revere: powerful men and large buildings.

Some countries choose to promote their best selling point on their coins, something that's already well-known to the outside world, such as the Himalayan peaks shown on the Nepalese one-paisa coin, which a friend gave me. Usually, though, coins promote what a country likes best about itself, not necessarily what it's best known for. This probably explains why Swedish coins show the country's beloved King Carl Gustaf and not modular furniture or jump-suited pop stars.

When I travel, I usually resist the temptation to look up anything about a country's coinage before I go because I like to be surprised. Of course, some coins surprise me more than others. One of my favorite parts of traveling is wondering if my next transaction will bring me one of those "only in this country" coins.

It's hard to imagine, for example, the US Mint going anywhere near a design involving mood-altering drugs. But I found that Fijian one-cent coins picture a tanoa, a little bowl used for mixing ceremonial kava. Bermuda has a tropical fish on its nickels, which makes sense from a marketing standpoint, and a pig on its pennies, which really doesn't.

Canadians have fat little beavers on their nickels where we used to have bison. Where American quarters have eagles, Canadian $1 pieces have loons. If that doesn't say something about the nondefensive, laid-back Canadian national character, I don't know what does.

Near the end of my trip to New Zealand, the friend I was visiting gave me a piece of carved native greenstone, saying, "I noticed you didn't buy anything for yourself." I accepted the gift with a mixture of gratitude and sheepishness. It was true I hadn't purchased much for myself. The gifts I had bought for others, however, paid a dividend in the form of a pocketful of New Zealand change that I prized more than any handcrafted sweater.

I had a complete set of circulating coins, including two versions of the 20-cent piece. One was dated 1984 and showed Queen Elizabeth II on the front and a kiwi bird on the back. The other was from 1990, the year the New Zealand Mint replaced the kiwi bird with an unsettling eyeless Maori tiki figure inexplicably brandishing a baby tiki in each hand.

I have to assume that this would not have been Buckingham Palace's first choice of design. I think the coin wordlessly says more than the best guidebook ever could about the uneasy relationship between England and the cultures of its far-flung former colonies.

It's not easy finding peepholes into a country's character. You don't always find them among the monuments and shopping districts of European capitals. And I'm not convinced you'll have a transcendent cultural exchange in the dives and low-rent districts where backpackers insist you'll find a country's "real" culture.

You can't buy cultural insight any more than you can buy happiness. But if you're fortunate, you might just find it in your change.

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