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Must Be Funny

January 27, 2017

On November 8th, 2016 (yes, THAT November 8th) the Indian government announced that it was taking all of their existing 500 and 1000 rupee notes out of circulation. To put that in American terms imagine if all of your 10s and 20s were suddenly no good. Except that comparison doesn’t work because I’ve gone weeks at a time in the US without actually needing hard cash, which would never work in a India where cash is still king (one article said 95% of transactions are done in cash). From what I can understand the reasoning behind this was to fight corruption and force money to be reported to the government so it could be taxed. Three months later it’s unclear if that worked. What is clear is that it made life difficult for the Indian people and maybe hurt their economy in the short term.

2000-rs-new-note

Melanie was the first to bring this story to our attention and she said people were waiting for hours in lines at ATMs and that often the machines would run out of cash. We showed up in India on January 4th and things were getting better by then, but getting enough cash was still a concern. Kira and Melanie tried to buy rupees with our yen, but they would only sell us a small amount and didn’t have enough yen on hand to give us change back for a ¥10,000 note. We were able to buy some rupees, but before we left the airport we decided to use the ATM as well. After going through immigration, getting our luggage and trying to convert our yen there was already a line at the ATM. It was only a few people deep when we stepped into the line with a mixture of tourists and locals queuing up to get out some of the new bills. Each person stepped up wondering if they would be able to get cash out. By the time it was our turn we had learned through others’ trial and error that there was a 4500 rupee limit. We hit it twice before stepping out of the line, which had grown considerably behind us. We knew this would not be enough for our trip because we had some set expenses, like a driver to take us to Agra later in the week, which could only be paid in cash. We were optimistic that since this ATM was working that we would find others available to us.

The worry of having enough cash persisted during the rest of our time in India. I woke up early our first morning and found two ATMs using Google Maps. They were in opposite directions and I picked one at random. I did get a nice 15 minute walk through our temporary neighborhood and I saw lots of families, people heading to work, and stray dogs. What I did not see was a functioning ATM. Initially I walked by the bank and the vacant ATM vestibule. When I realized I had gone too far I turned around and looked at each building more closely as I went. The bank did not look like it was open, but I saw someone come out of the building so I walked inside far enough to see an ATM and a hand-written sign on the dented machine reading. “No Cash. Sorry to Inconvenience.”

Later that morning we stopped for coffee at a place by our closest metro station. Melanie kept calling it a “fancy” coffee place and we hoped to use credit cards (nope) or get change for some of our larger bills we’d received from the ATM the night before (also nope). The young woman behind the counter would answer everything Kira said with, “Yes, Ma’am,” but I realized by the end that those were just words indicating she heard what we said, not that she was actually helping us. While everyone else ate their breakfast I went to the other ATM I’d found that morning which was about 10 steps from the coffee shop. There were about ten people in line in front of me. We all watched hopefully as the person at the front of the line came out with cash in hand. I made it through the line and withdrew another 4500 rupees. We now had enough to get us through the day and probably the next day, but we knew we were still short for our driver later in the week.

It became a game. I looked for ATMs everywhere we went. I wondered if the next place we would go would have an ATM. I wondered if the ATM would be open for business. If we saw a line that was a good thing, but at least once a line of people formed at an ATM that didn’t work for us. About half of the time we found one it would be out of cash. We continued to get money out when we could. At one point we had enough to get to Agra (12,000 rupees) and pay for our admission to the Taj Mahal (1000 rupees each), but then we went shopping at a craft market. The ATM by our closest Metro station was refilled and we were able to get out more money, but it was out of 500 rupee bills so we could only get 4000 instead of 4500 – we did it twice, getting us back to just enough cash for the Agra trip.

Later in Agra we were holding on to the money for our driver, but the rest of our cash was going quickly. We paid for four of us to get into the Taj and we were almost out of cash. After leaving the Taj Mahal, on our way back to the parking lot we passed a currency exchange. We paused long enough for the proprietor to realize we were considering an exchange and he asked how he could help. We said we lived in Tokyo and asked if he would exchange yen. He laughed. He said he could do it if we needed to, but the rate would be about 75% of the going exchange rate. Melanie produced a $20 bill and he was all smiles. She exchanged this for rupees while he encouraged us to look around his touristy gift shop.

This small amount turned out to be crucial later that day when we needed to pay 500 rupees each to enter the Agra Fort. It is a small admission fee and the for was worth it, but at first we didn’t think we had enough cash for all four of us. We stepped out of line and between the little we had left, Melanie’s $20 conversion, and Melanie’s small amount of rupees from her previous time in India we had barely enough. Amusingly, one of the fort’s many “tour guides” saw us scraping together our cash for the entrance fee and immediately asked if we wanted a guide. We laughed. He didn’t push too hard, but he did mention dollars would be OK. We didn’t want a guide, but I was tempted to say, “What about Yen?”

By the end of trip Melanie was annoyed with my hand wringing over the cash issue, but I couldn’t help being frustrated by the fact that I had money, I just couldn’t acquire the right kind of money to buy things in India. It all worked out in the end and we got to do everything we planned, but it took some of the fun out of it for me.

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