Wednesday morning this week was a stunning surprise for Indians. Coincidently, on the other side of the world, the US election was unfolding, however the shock in India was not Donald Trump. Prime Minister Modi announced the demonetization of the 500 and 1000 Rupee (Rs) bank notes. An attempt to control so called black money that was tied to criminal elements, corruption, terrorist networks, wealthy Indians/foreigners attempting to circumnavigate government taxes. The sweeping change was not leaked prior to his announcement a feat that I think most American security and governmental bodies would envy. Beginning a few hours after his announcement the two notes could not be used for purchases (with a few small exceptions). The fallout has been a challenge for regular Indians and tourists alike.
We had need of more Rupees and Tuesday afternoon I did attempt to get cash from an ATM but was unable for some reason. Other travelers we met weren’t as lucky and were stuck unable to use their cash. Chelle and I talked with Gaj, the manager of the restaurant we frequented. We were able to pay for breakfast Wednesday and order more food and a bottle of water to take for lunch on the train that equaled Rs500. I was very lucky that the owner of the guesthouse gave me Rs400 change for the two Rs500 I needed to give him to settle up our hotel stay. From midnight on Wednesday and two days following all banks and ATMs were closed.
Traveling south from Jaipur to Jodhpur we found a hotel near the train station and chatted with the owner who by then was most acquainted with our situation. He was quite sure the ATM would be open the following day and all would be well. The train trip was five hours long with very hard seats, Chelle and I dropped our bags, she had a brief cold shower and we collapsed into bed. I ended up falling asleep right next to where I had dropped my backpack.
Sleeping fully clothed has it’s advantages. The sun hit the room, my eyes popped open and off I went to the State Bank of India next to the train station about a five minute walk down the street. First I tried withdrawing Rs10,000 or about $150 USD, but that didn’t work. I then tried Rs1000 or $15 USD but that also failed. We then took a rickshaw ride to the India State Bank at High Court. We went to one line and were instructed to go into the main building. We saw some immaculately dressed men who were obviously bank employees and starting following. The main building was tightly controlled by heavily armed police and security forces. I stayed close to the chap in front of me until one of the security officers pulled us aside. Explaining what I needed he led us up the stairs past the long line of Indians and into the main building.
What we needed and what regular Indians needed was entirely different. They were depositing and we were exchanging. I handed the clerk two thousand Rupee in 500 notes and received an equal amount in 100’s…it was an impressive wad of bills. Only the larger denominations were affected, however when I asked for some fifty Rupee notes I was informed that none were available. I also asked to exchange US dollars for Rupee but was told they couldn’t perform that request and directed we go to Thomas Cook instead. Once back at our hotel and I researched the travel agency location. A stroke of luck! It was near the train station and I was also near the station. I set out for a short walk with my cash ready for action…it took me two tries and 45 min to find the place and be informed to return in a week or two. I did run into two Brits fresh off the train from Pushkar and swap money changing stories. A German couple I spoke to suggested the Western Union where they exchanged Swiss Francs but they couldn’t remember the address.
So, Chelle and I hailed a rickshaw…looking back I see the problem with my methodology. A fellow such as myself with a poor sense of direction explaining how to get to a location unfamiliar to the driver in a foreign country with neither of us able to speak the other’s language. We stopped three times for community assistance with directions and ended up miles from where we needed to be. It was odd though that he had no difficulties locating a back room money changer five doors from where we had originated the ride. Chelle jumped in, and in broken Hindi (she’s fluent in two words) explained the map…it was a three minute ride and we could have walked but it was on a side street difficult to find. It had turned into an all day affair.
All that being said we were able to exchange $100 USD (after first threatening to leave when we were told that amount was too small to exchange). The rate was lower but not so low as to be a hindrance. We also know where the Western Union is located now and can return if necessary. There is a competing exchange shop next door that can be an option if needed. I’m not completely happy with the outcome which will only be fully resolved when ATMs become a viable option again perhaps tomorrow but maybe not until next week. International travel is about adventure and making the best out of changing situations. It was stressful, challenging, frustrating and on a certain level enjoyable.