When Life Hands You an Indian Rupee Crisis, You Make Lemonade

By Chris Biggs

For the last 10 months, Lori and I have devoted our lives, dollars, and sanity to travel. We dreamed up a scheme to quit our jobs and travel the world; spent months aggressively saving to hit our personal financial goals; had plenty of tough conversations; sold off our possessions and unloaded our San Francisco apartment; and spent more time Googling cities, airlines, and tourist attractions than I could ever have imagined.

So by the time January 7, 2017 came around, you’d think I would have been prepared for change. Incorrect.

no particular reason for this photo...i just think goats are cool.

no particular reason for this photo...i just think goats are cool.

We boarded our Etihad Airways flight (which we booked for less than a meal at Chipotle!), spent about 17 hours sitting above the clouds, and nearly a day later we arrived in Trivandrum, the sunny capital of southern India’s tourist-magnet state, Kerala.

In our first 48 hours in India, I managed to rack up a long list of (non) accomplishments that included:

  • Getting into a financial dispute with a taxi driver that required third-party mediation

  • Buying a train ticket in what must’ve been the most confusing, labor-intensive transaction possible (more on this in a forthcoming article, where we’ll share tips for booking train travel here)

  • Breaking out in a semi-hideous heat rash

  • Writhing in discomfort on more than one occasion as pushy grown men essentially grinded up behind me in crowded lines, to the point that if it were a 7th grade dance, the teacher-chaperones would’ve broken it up immediately (but hey, I’m glad the world has noticed I’ve been doing my squats)

organized chaos: a tuk-tuk driver navigates the streets of alleppey.

organized chaos: a tuk-tuk driver navigates the streets of alleppey.

I note the above with a tongue-in-cheek attitude, because for the most part I knew to expect this. I’ve been to India once previously and know that the country is beautiful, colorful, charming, and full of some of the friendliest people on the planet. Lori and I drank fresh coconut water with a wonderful elderly woman; we made Indian friends on a two-hour train trip up the west coast; and I took the most thrilling drive of my life on the back of a Honda sport bike around town with our hostel owner (pro tip: wear a helmet and hold on tight!).

So with all the great moments - and all of the challenges - I was still utterly shocked when we arrived and weren’t able to get access to cash. THE INDIAN RUPEE CRISIS IS REAL, Y’ALL!

Here’s the lowdown: for those planning to visit India in the near future, please know that your ability both to withdraw cash from ATMs and to trade foreign currency for Indian rupees will be severely limited. I won’t bore you with the details of the crisis’s origins other than to summarize: the Indian government, to cut down on corruption and fraud, pulled two of the most commonly-used bills from circulation with little warning and set an aggressive deadline for discontinuation. Banks weren’t ready and now news outlets are reporting that up to 40% of cash machines are empty throughout India - and presumably much worse outside of major cities like Mumbai and New Delhi.

Normally, too, cash isn’t such a big deal: wealways prefer to put transactions for meals and other incidentals on our credit card in order to rack up those beautiful rewards points. However, southern India - at least in my experience so far - generally lacks the mobile payment infrastructure found elsewhere in the country, meaning that it’s pay cash or take a hike, bud. So the need for paper/cash/skrilla/dolla dolla billz is higher than ever.

In 36 hours I visited (and was declined by) eight ATMs here in Alleppey, a beautiful beach city with lush canals famous for its houseboats. The fear started to creep in. We began making contingency plans if we couldn’t get money soon (“Ok, Lori, first we’ll eat our Cliff bar stash, and then I want you to go full cannibal on me - but start with the fingers”).

a little r&r at lighthouse beach, south of downtown trivandrum, India

a little r&r at lighthouse beach, south of downtown trivandrum, India

Before I lost any appendages, though, I did what all hustlers do: KEPT HUSTLING. A local tuk-tuk driver (picture a souped up dirt bike with a few covered seats on the back) shared some intel about a recent cash deposit at a local ATM, and in seconds we were there. CHING CHING!

I’m proud to say we’re now the proud owners of about 6000 Indian rupees, or roughly $100, which should last us for at least a few more days.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep acclimating to our new surroundings. And if the rupee crisis continues to spin out of control, at least I know Lori will live on for at least another week after I’m gone.