Misadventures in Mumbai

This might look like greasy, fried Western food, but tonight, it was what relief tasted like. It was the flavour of a small victory after a long and frustrating day. It was safety after about as much adventure as we could handle at once.

On Tuesday night, the Indian government suddenly recalled all 500 and 1000 rupee notes. No warning. The prime minister just went on TV and announced that as of that night, they were no longer legal tender.

The banks were closed yesterday to prepare for the onslaught of an entire country trying to exchange old money for new at once. The limit is Rs 4000/person per day (about $85 CAD).

Needless to say, this is causing all kinds of problems, especially for the very poor (who don't know what to do), senior citizens having to wait in long lineups to exchange money, and foreigners--especially certain Canadian foreigners who had all their money in these denominations and whose Canadian debit and credit cards are both not working here. (That would be us, in case you missed it.)

Yesterday, since the banks were closed anyway, we managed to find a tour guide willing to take our "old money." We spent the tour of Mumbai tossing around ideas for how to deal with our money issues, since we still need to book some mode of transportation to New Delhi on Saturday, from which city we fly home on Tuesday.

We thought we had a workaround by getting a Western Union transfer sent to us--but, for some strange reason, none of the outlets here have any legal notes (which would be Rs. 100 notes or smaller) left for us to receive it. (I just can't think why.) So we spent the entire day today trying to get our notes exchanged.

One Thing After Another

By 2 pm, we were standing in a very long line in front of a rather large branch of the Bank of India. In front of us was a very nice and helpful English-speaking Mumbai native , and in front of him was a young French couple who had had the misfortune of landing in Mumbai and exchanging their currency on Tuesday. Yeah. Sucks to be them, too.

After about twenty minutes of the line not really moving (did I mention we were waiting outside on a sidewalk in 33 degree C humid heat?), a bank employee came and pulled us and the French couple (with whom we had been getting acquainted) out of the line and into the bank. Maybe we're finally getting a break, we thought, as we shrugged apologetically to our Mumbainian (is that a word?) friend.

But no. The employee, whose intentions were good, was quickly corrected by a harried teller that foreigners were not supposed to be served at the bank, only at the airport. Whether this was by order of the bank or the government remained unclear to us. But at least we didn't have to take the slow route through the queue to find that out.

By the way, we are almost as far south in Mumbai as it is possible to be--and a one-hour cab ride away from the airport (and guess what we don't have to pay the driver with?) Besides, we had already met a US resident this morning that told us they were out of money at the airport.

Frustrated, we exchanged emails with our new French friends in case either one of us found a solution, then parted ways.

The Adventure Continues

We headed back to our hotel to rejuvenate with sodas from the mini fridge (because we didn't want to spend our few small-denom rupees on anything in case we really needed them later). Slightly refreshed and getting a little desperate, we decided to try again.

We called yet another Western Union depot and were again disappointed, but the helpful proprietor suggested a nearby travel agent he had heard was doing exchanges for foreigners. Since we thought he might also be able to help us book our ticket to New Delhi and find out if the airport exchange actually had money (we couldn't find a number to call online), we decided to give it a try.

... but we couldn't find it, and the locals standing in the supposed location hadn't heard of him. Helpful Western Union guy must have got the location mixed up--but honestly, shops are so small and tightly packed the travel agent could have been right there for years and these guys may not have known about it.

On the up side, there was another bank there with a queue of people trailing out the door. It was about 4:30 in the afternoon. Without other options, we thought we may as well see if this bank would have mercy on us--if not, it was Thai food at our hotel's restaurant for the third night in a row. (It's good, but kinda expensive, and we're getting a little tired of Thai...)

Finally, around 5:00, we got in the door. This was encouraging. Another twenty or so minutes later and we were the proud owners of four freshly-minted 2000 rupee notes with pretty colours and security features (like our Canadian money has). This is a new denomination the government in their wisdom created especially for this event.

But it's so large and Rs. 100 notes in such short supply that none of the vendors or cab drivers can create change for it, yet!

We gratefully took them, anyway, then headed across the street to Cafe Mondegar where we gratefully plunked our butts in some chairs and ordered the most Western things we could think of. 

When the bill came, we pulled out one of our new Rs 2000 notes (the meal came to about half that) and were met with a blank stare from the waiter. He hesitantly took it to the man behind the till. A few minutes later, they called Jason up to try to find an alternative form of payment--surprise, no change! Credit cards only! The doorman got in big trouble for not informing us of this when we came in.

After a great deal of fancy finagling and Jason's adamant insistence that this was the only form of payment we had, they did find us our change. As we left, we waded through another group of foreigners trying to figure out how they were going to eat when informed of the "credit card only" rule.

For our part, we were glad to have gotten a meal in our bellies. We will have to go back to the bank first thing tomorrow (and possibly the next day) to exchange more notes, but we are also thankful that the bank is just around the corner from our hotel.

This was not at all the adventure we hoped to have here. My intention for including this destination in our trip was to do research for Finding Heaven. None of the NGOs I contacted were able to meet with me this week, so I had hoped to at least go see the areas of the city in which my book will be set. Since tomorrow is our last day for that opportunity, I am not even sure that will happen now.

Yes, I have been on the verge of frustrated tears multiple times this week.

But tonight, we enjoyed our fries. We came back to the hotel. And now we are going to sleep, frustrated and exhausted, but holding onto hope that we can work through this mess in time to pay our hotel tab and get ourselves up to New Delhi.

After all, as Scarlett O'Hara says, "Tomorrow is another day."

Hello, friends. I hope you find small victories on your own journey today.

This was probably the best-tasting iced tea I've ever had. :-)

This was probably the best-tasting iced tea I've ever had. :-)