CANTA issue #13, 2017

It’s coming on a year now and soon we’ll be hit with think pieces about Donald Trump. People will ask how somebody who did all the things he did could ever be election to a position of such high authority.

I watched with my girlfriend the results come in from a hotel room in New Delhi. We had just started a two and a half week trip around India but we spent our first night watching the horror unfold in America.

We wondered, how could a country elect somebody like that?

It was remarkable. Yet we were just about to experience firsthand that India had done already beaten America to the punch in electing a dangerous bully boy.

On the exact day of Donald Trump’s electoral coup d’état Prime Minister Modi of India announced that the use of the ₹500 and ₹1000 notes would be made illegal. There was a black market in India and the solution was to make India’s economy cashless. This would have the added benefit of muzzling India’s terrorist outlaws. Physical cash was there lifeline.

The key part about this announcement was that it was immediate. It wasn’t a warning announcement. Modi wasn’t telling us that in two weeks time this money was illegal, he was telling us that it was illegal now. Money could be exchanged at the bank, but nowhere else. I suspect that the date of the policy announcement was not an accident; Modi knew it would be a day of distraction for the world.

It was problematic. We had only just arrived in India and literally had only bought 500 and 1000 pieces. This makes me sound like I was born in the Hamptons, but actually these notes are worth about $11 and $22 respectively. We had $500 New Zealand dollars worth and suddenly it was illegal. We were in India without any money.

We first got a taste of the law as we shopped in the markets inside of our hotel. Barter is the face of tourism and we haggled with a shopkeeper dealing in jewellery. As the fine print of the cost was settled upon, the keeper’s assistant walked out from the back and offered a bargaining chip. He would accept our ₹500 and ₹1000 notes. It genuinely sounded like a joke and I laughed with him. Of course he would take our money, it was legal tender. That’s hardly him doing us a favour. He probably thought I was laughing at him.

As my girlfriend haggled I flicked through an English-language newspaper. On the front page was an article about confiscated cash.  It sat underneath Trump’s smug face so I didn’t pay it any attention.

It wasn’t until I put the news on in my room that I realised what I had been ignoring was actually really bloody serious. Modi ranted in Hindi and across the screen flashed information about the announcement. We sat watching the same information on repeat.. Every cent of our $500 was invalid and illegal – that was all we needed to know, but we sat anyway watching the information on repeat trying to emotionally process it. Angry that we had just been sold bad currency; confused as to what to do about it.

At the lobby I called the New Zealand Embassy. A thin voice greeting me with a “kia ora”, but that was the highlight of the conversation. They were as stuffed as we were. They had these notes too. After all, the policy was made in the first place because nobody used eftpos.  And just like everybody else, I would have to go to the bank to exchange them.

So with no currency and nobody to take eftpos, how exactly do you get a taxi? The answer is that you don’t. You walk – and the nearest bank was ten minutes away.

I had not actually stepped outside of my hotel room, and on top of that the New Zealand government was actually advising that kiwis in New Delhi stay indoors. New Delhi was experiencing the worst smog crisis in fifteen years. You can’t write this stuff.

With the money in my pocket and a semi-functioning cell phone I headed out the front door of my hotel. The air was heavy with smog and the smell of fire singed my nostrils. Street life in India really is incomparable with street life in New Zealand. Here we’re used to the rhythm of one-lane traffic and a few people walking down the street. In India it’s all happening, all at once. To your left, to your right and straight ahead – everybody is doing something. The street is just packed with people, cars and wild animals. The sight of the sickly dogs made me immediately regret opting out of my rabies shot.

A tuk-tuk driver caught my bewilderment and asked where I was going, and if I wanted a ride. These guys are persuasive, and after telling him that it was all good a good several times, I finally gave in. I couldn’t say no to a free ride. As we headed towards the bank he asked me –

“Do you want to give me my ₹2000 now, or after I drop you off?”

I had hoped that my instruction to drive me to the bank was a pretty good indicator that I had NO. CASH.

I asked him to drop me off right where we were. Apologising, he tried to assure me that this time, for real, it would be free. I jumped out and continued the walk on my own.

Crossing the road in India is a bloody nightmare. It just does not stop. I wondered how I would get across my first street. I tagged along with two women. Apparently the trick is to just keep going, and you just don’t get hit. As easy as that.

Checking the map I had saved onto my phone, I focused on my eyes for a bank. I didn’t need the map – the Great Wall of China sized line gave it away. It stretched from the bank right to the end of the street. Testing the waters, I reluctantly and half-heartedly stood at the back of it, weighing up if it would actually be better to just go back to the hotel and look up another bank.  Instead, I walked up to one of the guards and shamelessly played the white Western card.

“Hi there! Do you speak English… ?”

I made it into the bank, sweating. I had only been waiting a minute but the heat announced itself wherever I was. It caused my armpit to saturate, but I didn’t realise this until I had to lift up my arm to pass the first bank clerk my ID. Men with the exact same problem filled up every inch of the tiny room.

The trip to the bank was a three-desk process. The second desk was inside the main building. I had to walk through a metal detector to get in there. The thoughtfulness of the Indians there undoubtedly calmed my nerves. Anyone and everyone who spoke English made the effort to ask if I knew what I was doing, how I was feeling and where I was from.

“New Zealand.”

“Ahh… Do you like cricket?”

Every time.

Finally at the third desk, I emptied out my illegal tender and felt a wave of relief. It was finally over, I thought. The clerk though, turned her head and called behind her in Hindi. I’d rather she just gave me the money, but sure, it’s good to have work friends. A man from behind the bars walked toward me and told me that they only accepted 4000 rupees a day.

I stuttered. This had all been worth ₹4000. With my passport and $500 cash, I had muddled my way through the chaotic streets and rooms of India for $88 only.

I got back to the hotel room smelling of smoke and sweat, throwing the freshly won currency on the bed. We had two days left in Delhi before our scheduled flight to Varanasi. The travel agent had organised for somebody to pick us up, but until then we were on our own. It was exhausting and we decided that the banks would be less busy in Varanasi. Also, the air outside was literally poisonous. Inside the hotel we stayed.

We arrived in Varanasi on another scorching morning. The air was nowhere near as polluted but the sun felt closer, third-wheeling me and my girlfriend for the entire journey. We drove past the first bank, but the line snaked around the building. It was something we would see at every single one until we got to our pre-paid hotel.

It’s amazing how quickly not having any money in India stops becoming an issue when your hotel has a pool. The bar at its side took eftpos and the long chairs invited even longer hours. Not having cash even gave me a convenient excuse not to tip (I told you I was a white Westerner).

Unfortunately for us, our guide Ashish was a good person and wanted to help us. He and his boss had come up with a strategy to get us our money back. The four of us would go the nearest bank and get it all exchanged in one go.

“The man Ashish got us out of a tight situation. And then took us to the Ganges”

We waved goodbye to the pool and took to the street. The first bank was only a ten minute walk away but this time, because of our association with the guides, we weren’t allowed at the front. Either, we could wait maybe two hours or go to the next one. We decided on bank #2 and there we had success. Three fans spun above us, trying their best. I would easily have traded one of them for a chair; it was far too hot to stand. Dozens of local people looked at us through the building’s protective bars. Hundreds waited behind them.

This is my final memory from the 8th of November; Modi’s dickheadedness undoubtedly ruined the holiday. But much worse than that, like incomparably worse, people actually died from this. Opposition parties claim 100 direct deaths, including many from dehydration waiting in line at the bank. People suddenly found themselves without a good chunk of their savings. Some lost it all. A trip to the bank meant setting aside most of your day. For many, that was simply not possible. A few days later, Modi decreased the amount of cash a person could exchange each day from 4000 to 2000.

In Trump’s one year since being elected President, he’s obstructed justice, made a war-widow cry, overseen possibly the worst-ever response to a hurricane and threatened the deportation of thousands. But none of these include policy that directly caused people to die. So yes, express shock at the US election but don’t forget that on the same day Modi became the world’s wanker in chief.

Issue Five: Tiny House 6