I’d like to believe that there is inherent goodness in everyone and in times of crisis, it surfaces. And this may sound like a cliche, but its when you travel that you truly experience it!
It was 2016 and I had decided that I needed to head to the mountains again; this time to explore Kinnaur and Upper Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh.
Intending for it to be a roadtrip without any planning, I set forth for Delhi one cool November morning from where I was to pick up my rental car, a Mahindra XUV 500 that I hired from Volercars.
In a few hours, I was on the way to Narkanda, a quaint mountain town about 65 kms from Simla, my first stop on day 01.
About an hour or so before Narkanda, I stopped at a roadside eatery for dinner. As soon as I entered, the guy behind the counter said, “Look at what Modiji has done Madam…”
“What?” I asked him, taking a seat at one of the numerous empty tables. There were just three other people in the eatery and they seemed to be having an animated discussion until I walked in. It was nearly 8:30 PM. The television was playing some news channel but an advertisement was on.
“He has stopped all 500 and 1000 rupee notes from midnight.”
I looked at him, incredulous, but smiled and said, “Yeah, right. I’m your scapegoat for tonight, aren’t I?”
“Madam it’s the truth!” he said. But he was also grinning from ear to ear and I didn’t know if I could take him seriously. “Modiji’s addressing the nation and you’ll hear it for yourself.”
Just then, electricity failed and as I ordered my food, I whipped out my phone and tried to get connected to Facebook. Network connectivity until then had been patchy and I wasn’t sure if it had gotten better.
The men at the eatery began having a discussion on the ramifications of this action by the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi.
Unsuspecting to the whole country, and I mean nearly all 1.3 billion of us, he announced that two of the high value currency notes in the country would become redundant post midnight on November 08, 2016. Just like that. No warning. No indications.
Thankfully, I was able to open Facebook and to my horror, found my timeline replete with comments from friends about this action being called Demonetisation or Note Bandi in Hindi.
My heart sunk.
I was on a 10 day roadtrip and had Rs. 50,000 in cash for fuel, stays, meals etc. all in both the high value currency notes now being banned. The economy in this part of the country was largely driven by cash transactions and cards, either credit or debit, were not accepted even at government Hotels. Therefore, I was constrained to carry cash.
How would I get through the trip? Would I have to cut the trip short and return? What about the money in my hand? Did it now become valueless, useless? I was very concerned and agitated.
As I continued to read my timeline in utter shock, the electricity supply was restored, the television switched on and I heard the rest of the PM’s address while having dinner.
He had his reasons to take this drastic step – justified or not. He also highlighted the further course of action. We would be allowed no banking transactions for the first three days and thereafter we could exchange Rs. 2000 per person, per week, at post offices or banks for lower denomination notes.
The more I listened, the more my heart sunk. I barely had Rs. 300 in lower denomination notes. As I paid my dinner bill, I gave him a Rs. 500 note and in the change I got in return I got 3 more Rs. 100 notes. Now I had Rs. 600.
I knew that I’d have to stay the night some place even if I were to cancel this trip and begin the return leg the following morning. I located a HPTDC resort in Narkhanda and asked them if they’d accept payment in larger denominations. They agreed. But I’d have to pay for my breakfast in advance too because they had to freeze their accounts at midnight when demonetisation came into effect.
Shacking in for the night, I made the toughest decision of all. I thought, “I have Rs. 600 in my pocket and since petrol pumps are exempt from the drive, fuelling the car won’t be a problem. Only concern was stay and meals.”
But I was prepared for it. I was carrying several packets of ready-to-eat meals and also a blanket and a sleeping bag to spend a few nights in the car. For some reason, I’d come prepared for contingencies. Premonition? Who knows.
I decided to continue my trip.
From Narkhanda, I set forth to Sangla and at the first petrol pump I saw, I decided to fill fuel for Rs. 1200. I reckoned if I gave the guy two Rs. 1000 rupee notes, he’d be compelled to return Rs. 800 to me (hopefully in 100s) and my “useful” cash reserve would touch Rs. 1400.
Well, he refused. Said he’d either fill for 1000 or 1500.
I opened the fuel compartment and told him, “Bhaiyaji I’ve come from Delhi and I have no money in 100s even for food. I don’t know what I’m going to do!”
The sad face helped. He fuelled the car up for 1200 and gave me Rs. 800 in change – in 100s!
Lunch was a cheap affair and I was happy to pay for it with my cache of 100s. On the same day, at the nth hour, I decided to head to Chhitkul, the last village on the Indian side at the Indo-Tibetan border and find a place to stay. At Sangla, I went to a store to pick some chips and snacks and the shopkeeper was happy to accept a Rs. 1000 note. More change in 100s was added.
I couldn’t make it to Chhitkul the same night as the route was treacherous. Saw a board announcing a camp called Devlok at Mastrang, about 20 kms short of Chhitkul and spent the night in the camp there. The owner shared his liquor with me and also accepted the payment in Rs. 1000 note.
The next day, I went to Chhitkul and decided not to stay there. Instead I drove back to Sangla. Now this was the day when I was told I could exchange Rs. 2000 for lower currency notes at a bank or Post office. The village before Sangla had a bank branch where I thought it was more likely to get money exchanged since it was small. But they wanted a photocopy of my Aadhar card. And the owner of the only house in the village with a printer had gone to Sangla. Photocopy machines would be available only at Sangla, I was told. Due to the condition of the roads, I knew it wasn’t possible to go to Sangla and return with the photocopy of the proof they needed.
Dejected, I stepped out of the branch. A gentleman saw me and asked me what the matter was. As soon as I told him, he whipped out his wallet and gave me Rs. 2000 in 100s! A businessman from Sangla, he was at this village on business and happened to have cash on him. He offered me another Rs. 2000 and I grabbed it!
Through the next few days of the roadtrip, I didn’t have to go to the bank or a Post office to exchange money as people on the road helped me wholeheartedly. Fuel pump owners and owners of eateries were happy to extend a helping hand in this time of crisis.
I got a juicy Kinnauri apple from a lady who could speak no Hindi, in return for a ride, lots of conversation and much love from the people of Kinnaur who were excited to see a woman driving a big car.
Many more people helped out on the trip and I returned home at the end of 10 days, rich with Rs. 6000 in 100s!
All I had to do was be optimistic and be receptive to the goodness of people.
This really is #WhyWeTravel, isn’t it?
Postscript: Through this trip, I gave rides to numerous men and women travelling in Kinnaur and not one person complained about demonetisation. On the contrary, they praised the PM for “finally” cracking down on black money – a parallel economy in India valued at thousands of crores, not including about US$500 billion of illegal funds in foreign tax havens.