Notes On Notes

9th January
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Observations on money I have encountered on my travels.

I use banknotes as wallpaper. This statement isn't an ostentatious boast about wealth, as it might appear, but an ostentatious boast about wanderlust. It has exp-notes-on-notes.pngalways been my custom when travelling abroad to bring back some of the local currency as souvenirs. Save in cases where the lowest denomination banknote is too valuable not to spend or change back to sterling, this usually takes the form of paper money and the notes are now displayed on a section of my bedroom wall. My thinking is that this helps to motivate me to get up in the morning to go to work to earn money to go travelling to bring back more.

One of my first actions on arriving in an unfamiliar country is to check the currency exchange rate, paying particular attention to decimal points. This exp-notes-on-notes1.pngensures that I don't fall prey to modern day highwaymen like the Edinburgh taxi driver who charged an American tourist £800 for a fare from the airport to the city centre which should have been about £20. I'm not sure if the miscreant was ever identified and prosecuted, but the visitor learned the hard way that it's a good idea to familiarise yourself with the local lucre before you part with any of it.

The first time I arrived in pre-euro Italy, for example, I was delighted to receive exp-notes-on-notes2.pngabout 200,000 lira in exchange for £100. My delight lasted right up until the moment I bought two coffees with it. Calling your currency the lira appears to be inviting inflation. Prior to its revaluation, a 500,000 Turkish lira note might have bought you sugar for the coffee.

The United States Treasury estimates that there are more dollars in circulation outwith the USA than within it and also that it is the world's most counterfeited banknote. Ecuador and Panama both use the US dollar as their official currency and it has become the de facto one in several other places. This might explain why their notes are so boring: they print so many to meet demand that they make them as featureless as possible to limit costs. It also makes them a potentially confusing currency as the denominations don't look substantially different from each other. Only within the past couple of decades have greenbacks become less green, with more variety and colour introduced to differentiate them.

At the other end of the scale, nations whose money is in limited, or non-existent, demand elsewhere often produce much more multi-coloured and eye catching exp-notes-on-notes3.pngnotes. The French Polynesian Franc, for example, which survives despite France itself using the Euro, must cost a fortune to produce in relation to its value. But they don't need to print very many, as no one else wants it, except the occasional tourist who takes one home as a souvenir.
The former communist countries of Eastern Europe were the same, producing some highly impressive banknotes which were barely worth the paper they were printed on in the rest of the world. Rumours of them being used as toilet paper were probably exaggerations.
I had a friend at Glasgow University years ago who claimed to be a descendant of the long deposed Hungarian royal family. This was generally regarded with derision and disbelief by his fellow students, including me. But when I first saw a Hungarian 100 forint note, years later, the character on it resembled him so strongly that I was obliged to reconsider.

Inexp-notes-on-notes6.png some countries, it is against the law to export local money. Like pubs that have their names engraved on their beer glasses, this strikes me as a clear invitation to smuggle some home. My, so far successful, ploy for avoiding detection is to conceal a couple of notes inside the pages of books and claim, if apprehended, that I was using them as bookmarks. Since I never have been, my collection includes notes from Nepal, Russia, Vietnam and Cuba. This wouldn't be possible with a Kindle.

Money and politics are inextricably interlinked and many notes feature political figures. Cuba created a new tres peso specifically to honour Che Guevara exp-notes-on-notes7.pngfollowing his 1968 death. The reverse side of its diez peso shows the also now deceased Fidel Castro making a speech in Havana's Revolution Square. You can't actually see his face very clearly, but you know it's him from the location, the beard and the crowd in the background which appears to contain half of the population of the country.

All exp-notes-on-notes8.pngnine denominations of the Vietnamese Dong, surely the world's most hilariously named currency, feature Ho Chi Minh. Similarly, a youthful looking Chairman Mao reminds China, on all of its notes, that it's still supposedly a communist country.

Such practices are not, however, the exclusive preserve of communism. Queen Elizabeth II fronts every Bank of England note, although at least she looks exp-notes-on-notes9.pngroughly the age she actually is. On the banknotes of some Commonwealth countries or protectorates, such as Fiji and the Falklands, she appears to be in her mid-thirties. Since Fiji has been a republic since 1987, it's difficult to understand why she's there at all. The late King Bhumibol of Thailand also looked suspiciously well preserved for a man of his age.

The USA, of course, features several of its former Presidents, but at least they have to be already dead to merit the honour. Indian rupees depict Mahatma exp-notes-on-notes10.pngGhandi, but many of the notes are in such a poor state of repair that they almost appear insulting to the nation's iconic hero. Not every country seems to want to flatter those who feature on its notes, if the character who decorates Sierra Leone's 1,000 leone note is anything to go by.

Generally speaking, the wealthier the country, the better the condition of its banknotes will be and the less likely I am to have kept any. Since the smallest denomination of Japanese yen was worth about £20, I bought a beer with it in Nagoya Airport before I flew out.

The much maligned euro obviously has its problems, but only someone who travelled extensively around Europe before its advent can really appreciate one of its benefits. Spending only a brief time in any one country while Inter Railing, I was obliged to familiarise myself with a different currency every few days. Judging how much spending money I would need in each place was a borderline impossibility, so I almost always had some unspent cash when leaving. I must have lost what would then have been a significant sum to me in commission, changing pounds to francs, escudos to pesetas, pesetas to dirham, deutschmarks to krone, dinar to drachma, lira to schillings, guilders toexp-notes-on-notes11.png francs and sometimes back again. And that's not to mention all the unspendable cents, centimes, centimos, centavos, centesimal, pfennings, paras, groschen and leptons left over. Younger readers might want to ask their parents what on earth I'm talking about. Nowadays, it would just be pounds to euros, or Swiss Francs: more economical, but less interesting. I still have some of the old lost currencies of Europe. I kept them as souvenirs, but who knows that they might not come back again?

Being of a Caledonian persuasion, there is also the sometimes thistly question of Scottish banknotes. Under the 1707 Act of Union, all three Scottish clearing banks retain the right to print their own. This has been known to cause unrest, exp-notes-on-notes12.pngwhen people who don't know what they are understandably decline to accept them. Personally, I have only rarely encountered any difficulty in this respect, but I would usually only offer to pay in Scottish notes in places where they are likely to  be recognized, such as Berwick, Carlisle or London. They only place in the U.K. I've had one refused was in Merthyr Tydfil, but that's probably because Wales doesn't have its own notes. Some of my compatriots, I have to say, can be exceedingly bloody minded on this issue. Trying to spend Clydesdale Bank pounds, which don't even contain the word Scotland, in a brothel in North Korea, for example, is simply asking for trouble.
Looking at my foreign banknote collection inevitably reminds me of how much money I've spent over the years in travelling the world. If I'd kept it all in the bank and invested it wisely instead, I might really be able to afford to paper my walls with banknotes. But, of course, I'm glad I didn't.  

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  • 16th January by steve48

    I'm the same, David. I usually try and save a low denomination banknote from every country I go to. I don't think I've been to quite so many as you though. And I've never got round to displaying the notes - I like the idea of making motivational wallpaper out of them.

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  • 17th January by treacleminer

    I'm another that collects banknotes I was going to put them under glass on a coffee table but never got around to it now I have that many I would need an extended dining table.

    Some of my favourites are the discontinued currencies such as Perus Sol de Oro, Brazils Cruzeiro,Banque of Zaire,The small chinese Jiao & Fen notes and the Iraq dinars note depicting Saddam Hussain

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  • 17th January by Around the world in 8000 days

    I used to keep a bit of currency - though mostly coins rather than notes, but stopped a while back. I have kept one of my personal favourite notes though, which is the Macedonian 10 denar, which has a colourful peacock on the reverse.

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  • 18th January by hmoat 01

    Fascinating. I've had all sorts of problems with my N.I Bank of Ireland notes over the years on returning to England - even when I've patiently explained it's pounds sterling (and that's even after Eire took on the Euro).

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  • 18th January by DavidRoss

    Thanks for the comments.

    I hadn't thought in terms of having a favourite banknote before, but I'd probably go for the French Polynesian Franc. The reverse side is just as colourful as the front and I also like the fact that the people featured are, as far as I know, just ordinary citizens rather than famous politicians or other well known French Polynesians (not that I can think of any).

    The coffee table sounds like a good idea, Treacleminer, as more people would see them there than on my bedroom wall.

    Actually, Helen, the last time I was in Northern Ireland I brought back a few £5 notes and had no problem spending them in Glasgow, but maybe it's different elsewhere.

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  • 19th January by hmoat 01

    No, you're right, David - never had any problem in Scotland. It's England - but I think they're better than they used to be.

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  • 19th January by keithruffles

    I enjoyed this! My proudest (or perhaps most foolhardy) banknotes that I own are the couple I smuggled out of North Korea - it's illegal to export North Korean Won and indeed the only time we were allowed to use any in the country was in a supermarket with an exchange facility set up specifically for group tours. The rest of the time we had to use US$, Euros or Chinese Yuan.

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  • 21st January by DavidRoss


    A friend of mine was in North Korea last year and didn't even so much as see any of the local money. He was obliged to use the currencies you mention and, since he wasn't allowed to wander around on his own outside the hotel, he couldn't buy anything in local shops and get local money as change. I'd be quite interested to see what it looks like, if you can copy and paste it into a comment.

    I should point out, at this juncture, in case anyone got the wrong idea from the final sentence of the penultimate paragraph of my Experience above, that I've never actually visited North Korea, or indeed a brothel. 

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  • 25th January by Nandini

    Did you manage to save a 1000 and a 500 Indian rupee David? I got one of each before managing to deposit the rest!

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  • 25th January by DavidRoss


    The only Rupee notes I brought back were 10s and 5s. Most of the 10s have Ghandi on them, but some have different designs, although they all say "Reserve Bank of India." The 5s are from the same bank and feature a man driving a tractor on one side. I probably spent the higher denominations while I was there, although it was about 15 years ago so I can't exactly remember.

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