Desperately Seeking Rupees!!

Flying into Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, was a whole lot easier than pronouncing it, that much is certain. After a long night in the air (connecting through Doha), I found myself standing outside the terminal in the dead of night. But this is India and even at 4am things aren’t dead. There were throngs of people outside arrivals, only they were all quiet and still. An eerie hush welcomed me. (It wouldn’t last.)

By the time I checked into my hotel in the coastal town of Kovalam, it was 5am. My head hit the pillow and I was out cold… only to be awakened at 9am by the front desk wanting to know when I would be taking my breakfast. Are you kidding me??

I managed to get some more sleep (thank you Ambien!) and eventually ventured out to look around and grab some lunch. Kovalam is a resort town, built around a crescent-shaped beach with a “boardwalk” lined with restaurants, shops, and hotels. By day it is hot — sticky tropical hot. There were westerners here, for sure, but for the most part Kovalam was packed with Indian beachgoers enjoying the warm waters of the Arabian Sea and munching on street (make that beach!) food.

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Our immediate challenge on landing in India was laying hands on some rupees. India is in the midst of an entirely self-inflicted currency crisis, stemming from a November 8 announcement by Prime Minister Modi that all 500 and 1000 rupee notes would immediately cease to be legal tender. That’s almost all the money in India. Worthless. Overnight. In all, the move removed some 23 billion notes, more than 80 percent of the currency in circulation. (Indians were given until December 30 to deposit them in banks.) Naturally, in addition to providing no advance warning of the move, the government has yet to print new notes.

Delhi’s goal is to crack down on the underground economy and tax evasion, but regardless of the good intentions, the move has been deeply disruptive to an economy that runs almost entirely on cash. Regardless of how much money they may have in their bank accounts — and for half the population the question is “what bank accounts?” — ordinary Indians are struggling to get their hands on hard currency to spend. Needless to say, businesses are struggling as no one has much cash.

For us, the currency crisis turned a seemingly simple task (going to an ATM) into an adventure. Most bank machines sit empty. If you’re lucky enough to find a functioning one, you’re likely limited to withdrawing 2000 rupees (roughly $30). If only the problems ended there. The lack of lower denominations made obtaining change exceedingly difficult. Get your hands on a 2000 rupee note and no one wants to change it. Try paying for a bottle of water with one of these notes and it’s the equivalent of buying a pack of gum with a $100 bill — in a country with no tens or twenties. Once you do break a 2000 note, you hang onto the change for dear life. The next two weeks would require continual strategizing and team work to ensure our bar tabs were fully paid.

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You never want to miss the initial group dinner, but I found myself with little choice but to go rogue that first night. It was December 24 and our hotel had organized a Christmas “gala.” This is the worst thing known to man. A massive buffet. A loud rock band (playing together for the first time). A Santa Claus handing out cake and punch (oddly before dinner). I’d learned in Vietnam a few years ago to avoid these spectacles at all costs. So, after finally finding a working ATM, I walked into town and grabbed a sea-side seat at Malabar Cafe. (I lucked out and found a machine that limited withdrawals to 2000 rupees, but didn’t limit the number of withdrawals — four transactions later, I had my hands on 8000 rupees.)

Malabar and a number of other Kovalam restaurants cleverly display their fresh catch on beds of ice by the entrance. Ordering consisted of picking out three of the biggest prawns I’d ever seen, and once they were weighed, into the tandoori they went. Plus garlic naan and lemon rice. I could hear the surf crashing on the beach and the day’s earlier heat had given way to a gentle breeze off the Arabian Sea. As I munched away, my friends Dennis and Warren from Colombia, and their friend Angela, walked by and joined me for a beer.

A pretty good first day in India!