The plaintive request is predictable: “No tiene cambio?” “You don’t have change…?”

No, I don’t have change, which is why I gave you a 200-peso bill that the ATM spat out this morning. You’re the retailer, you should have change.

But quite often, nobody has change.

Many things we buy here are inexpensive by Canadian standards. The microbus costs eight pesos, a fresh grapefruit juice in the market is 25, a taco 20. At a little over 14 pesos to the Canadian dollar, that means a half-hour bus-ride into town costs me 55 cents, a juice $1.73, and the taco $1.40. (All amounts approximate, since my math gets lousier with the years, plus the rates change all the time). But this means that for most purposes, the 200 peso bills from the ATM are simply annoying, most everyday purchases requiring a fraction of that.

Even worse are the times when the bank machines are stocked with 500-peso bills. This means joining a line-up to see a bank teller who can break them into more useful denominations. Except for paying things like the rent, a 500-peso bill is a huge nuisance. Bus-drivers, understandably, won’t even look at them.


Sor Juana, a 17th Century nun and author,  glowers from 200-peso notes.

Part of the problem is a dual-track economy. On the weekends, better-off families from Mexico City roll into town for a day, buy a meal and drinks in one of the better restaurants, and then dad pulls out several 500s to pay the bill. Those people expect to buy things at that price-level, as they do at home.  Whereas, a local couple or a pair of backpackers might head to the market, and buy a couple of quesadillas plus a juice or pop, paying under 100 for food that might be just as satisfying as the high-priced plates at El Ciruelo or El Pan Nuestro.

But in the market, there isn’t the opportunity to impress others.

Some local people are doing quite well, thank you, but many shoppers – and stall-owners – in the market are watching their pesitos.  Mexico demands a lot of hard work to achieve a modest income. But poorer people still can’t avoid the change problem. And many small operations rarely start the day with much change.

In Toronto, I lived in an apartment building that still had coin-operated washing machines. For those, I hoarded quarters and loonies, but they weren’t hard to come by. The supermarket, the drug mart, my old hangout the Goat Coffee House – they all had change, all the time. They had rolls of quarters and nickels that the boss got at the bank in the morning.

And yes, the banks here can and will supply coins. But for some reason, that sort of efficiency doesn’t penetrate to the people in the marketplace. Or, maybe some of them live too hand-to-mouth to be able to set the coins aside; I can never be sure, so I’m cautious about judging.

On my visits back to Toronto, I’ll debit purchases, and dig out my Presto card to ride on the TTC. I’ll pull out my Visa card in restaurants and in clothing stores. Nobody will be impressed at this, as the country heads towards becoming a cashless society.

But I’ll miss digging for that extra five-peso coin in a corner of my back pocket. Every purchase I make with a card is traced by The Great Them. Here, only a few people casually monitor the eggs and fruit I buy, or my cross-town travel habits. I mix my own muesli, and there’s a stall where they know my face instantly as the person who buys oats and nuts. A woman with a fruit stand has sold me melons and tomatoes for eight or nine years. A couple of bus-drivers know I’m their customer on the Amatlan route.

I grew up in such an emotionally withdrawn society, that even now, Mexico still surprises me at times with its general willingness to appreciate the mere presence of other people. It might not last forever, but while the small-coin habit persists here, I can both be frustrated by it and enjoy it. There’s a trivial yet sometimes worthwhile human moment when you either apologise graciously, or find the coins and pass them over, that you’d never enjoy using a card with a magnetised strip or chip.

Having change, or sadly confessing its absence, is a very ancient ritual, and the more I reflect on it, the less I want to see it gone.

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