Monday, November 21, 2016

It has been a long time since I wrote a blog post but an adventure to India seems like a good reason to start again.

I flew direct from London Heathrow to New Delhi.  This left from Heathrow Terminal 4 which was a bit light on food options at 7am on a Friday.  I checked in at the Air India lounge.  I don’t often fly business class and was thinking there may be a nice, premium lounge but it was actually quite basic.  Just a counter with some small bits of food, 4 or 5 bottles of booze as a bar and a few types of juice sitting on a second counter.  The BA and even the United/Delta basic lounges are much nicer.  That said, there as a good ball of something Indian that I ate there.  My knowledge of Indian food names is terrible.  Spoiler alert: This entire trip is me eating tasty Indian things that I don’t know what they are called.

I headed out of the Air India lounge in search of a reasonable breakfast.  I walked the length of the terminal and found a Lebanese place.  A strange start to my Indian adventure but a nice breakfast.  Sadly, health isn't great at home.  Now my elder boy is also sick.  Tough week for me to be away.

Air India Business class was also not as luxurious as I hoped.  I settled in on the stained, spotted seats as the stewardess walked around spraying what I took to be Indian Febreeze on the unoccupied seats.  A chemically ‘fresh’ sent permeated the air for a few minutes.  It either faded or I started filtering it out.  

The entertainment options were disappointing.  The screen was nice and large but there was a strange collection of movies.  It would have seemed fine 10 years ago but given the options on other carriers, it was very sparse.  Maybe a dozen ‘recentish’ releases and another two-dozen random ‘classic’ movies (from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Rebel Without a Cause to A-Team to Avatar).

The food was actually excellent.  No idea what it was, but very tasty Indian food.  I have been going vegetarian for this trip.  It is easy in India as the veg options are plentiful and filling.

The flight was otherwise uneventful.  Landed at Delhi a bit late around 22:45.  It looked like the airport was mostly shutting down.  There were more staff than passengers as I walked through the terminal.  It seems like they had at least two people to do every job that needed doing, and sometimes 5 or 6.  I guess this is an oversupply of labor?  Maybe they need more management oversight.  I assume they were being paid but far more were sitting and hanging out than actually working.

As I came to the baggage area, I saw a currency exchange spot with (what looked to my naïve eyes like) a huge queue.  There were two lines, probably 20 people ahead of me in my line.  I decided to  jump in one of them before the rest of my plane got here.  I wasn’t sure how long my bags would take but I was guessing it wouldn’t be too quick.

There is a major currency crisis going on in India.  At the beginning of November, the government announced that as of the end of the year, they would no longer accept 500 or 1000 rupee notes.  According to one of the guys in the currency line, 86% of the money in circulation was in these notes.  Not sure whether that is in value or volume.  The stated (and possible real) reason for this is to get the ‘dark money’ into circulation.  Several people have noted that there is a largely cash economy with people living outside of the tax system.  People would also stock money ‘in the mattress’ in these bills.  I would guess getting the money out of people’s mattresses and into the banking system (for the banks to leverage) must be at least as important as the taxes.  The move makes sense but it is causing a lot of pain right now.  Apparently, you can only exchange 4000INR per day (you can deposit the rest in your bank account, if you have or create one).  From the ATMs, you can only withdraw 2000 INR / day (or possibly per week, I heard conflicting reports).  One problem there is that the new 2000 INR notes are a different size and not all ATMs can manage them.  A second problem is that the ATMs that can manage the notes only spits out a single 2000 rupee note.  If you try to buy something less than about 1500 rupee, most sellers will refuse because they don’t have the change.  Even at the Taj Mahal Hotel, the ATM would only give 2000 rupees and it was empty when I got there.  They had refilled it the next day.  The front desk was willing to break it but only a single 2000 note into 100s, they weren’t able to get enough change either.

It is driving a move away from cash, to either plastic or other payment styles.  I saw PayTM accepted in some unlikely looking spots which seems to be a point to point payment system on your smartphone.  It is also driving the adoption of Uber and a local version Ola, which allows you to pay electronically.  This is fine for some section of the population but I understand that a large group of the people are operating by cash.  So if you are a small business, you aren’t able to pay your employees.  They aren’t able to buy food, etc.  It looks to be mass chaos.  While wandering around over the next few days, every time I saw a huge queue, it was for a bank or ATM.  I saw riot chants start at one bank and a physical fight with policemen at another bank.

Anyway, back to my line at the airport.  The line was moving really slowly.  As 5 mins became 30, I started to worry about my bag on the carousel, but I was too far in to abandon my spot in line.  It became apparent that they were only exchanging 100$ per passport and that they had to take all the passport details down for each transaction.  It was also slow as each person in line had a bit of an argument about how much would be accepted and how long the wait was or something else.  Eventually, when I was about 3 people back, they announced a 30 minute break.  I had assumed the break would be a bathroom break or similar but instead, they went into their drawer, dumped all the exchanged currency onto a chair and started sorting and counting it.  Myself and one guy in line, who turned out to be a banking consultant had several suggestions for improvements on this process, we should write Thomas Cook.  Counting took a long time, so we started to get to know each other in line.  The lady behind me was in India on a buying trip for her small clothing business.  She was from Australia, heading to Jaipur.  The trip was as much for the business of buying items and keeping relationships with distributors as it was content for her social media presence!  She has to constantly feed the social media stream to keep her brand presence.  She kindly agreed to watch my bags while I sprinted over to the carousel and got it just as they started loading the abandoned bags onto a cart.

The 30 minute break became 60 mins as the pile of counted and sorted money grew.  There was seriously a lot of cash there.  They piled it up on the counter.  Casually within reach of the public.  There seems to be very little theft here.  The clothing lady had a friend in one of the other queues and she noted there were 35 people in front of her so we thought it best to wait it out.  Eventually, we got going again.  I had GBP so I could only exchange 60 GBP which was around 4780INR.  I would think the 100 dollars is much closer to 80GBP right now but there was little point in arguing.  That got ‘service charged’ to 4500, mostly because I think it was simpler to count.  I am starting to see a loose connection to numbers here.  30 becomes 60, 100 become 60, 4700 becomes 4500.  Later I would see that, although some registers calculate the cents on the rupee, they are rounded up, nobody bothers with anything less than a rupee.  It is often rounded to 10, 50 or 100 as well.
Finally found my poor driver.  I don’t think his English is strong.  I noted it was the currency issue and he seemed to get that.  As we got going I could smell and see the haze of pollution in and around the city.  Exploring the next day, I could taste it on my lips.

The Taj was beautiful, of course.  Service was impeccable as I settled in.  Definitely not India prices.  They wanted 20GBP for a nightcap.  I’ll find another way to wind down, thanks.  Managed to get to sleep around 3am, off to explore tomorrow!

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