08.11.2016 - 10.11.2016 32 °C
Wednesday 9th November
Jet Airways flight 9W 117 touches down at Mumbai Airport just before 11.00 am, remarkably on time, and after the usual scramble to get off the plane, I clear immigration, pick up my bag, (as always with a sigh of relief that it's managed to follow me) and head for the exit. As I step out of the terminal I am met with a blast of heat and a tout offering a free taxi ride into town if I will change money with him. Knowing a certain scam when I see one I shrug him off and head for the buses to Andheri from where I hope to catch a train into the city. I quickly give up on this idea as the numbers on the front of the buses are an indecipherable squiggle and I haven't a clue which one I should take. Instead I climb into an auto-rickshaw which I am told will use it's metre and we head off into the chaos of the Mumbai traffic. "Solve all you problems - Free advanced astrogogy ", followed by a phone number, reads an advert on the back of an auto we overtake. I look around at the poverty of the street and struggle to think of any personal problems that need attention. Perhaps another day, I think to my self. Another sign states "Shh! No Honking", but no-one takes any notice and the blaring of horns adds to the general cacophony as we slalom in and out of the traffic desperately trying to overtake everything and anything in our way. Eventually we draw up outside Andheri Station and the driver asks me to pay anything I like. I can't work out what the metre says and so I ask him how much. 150 rupees he says. I know this is way over the odds and so I give him 100. He scowls but I am unmoved and we part on bad terms. I know the fare should be nearer 50 rupees and so I turn my back on him with a clear conscience. Being an old hand in Mumbai I have decided to take a suburban train the 30 or so kilometres to the south of the city as it will be dramatically cheaper than a taxi. The last time I was here 2 years ago I paid 1000 rupees for a taxi (I am later told by someone I meet at my hostel that he paid 2000). Mumbai's trains have a fearsome reputation and during rush hours they are packed to bursting point. I have read that an average of eight people a day are killed, either by falling from the open doors or by being hit while walking along the tracks, but previous experience travelling to and fro from the British Consulate to sort out my stolen passport has taught me that at other times of the day the trains are bearable and so I join a queue that moves almost imperceptibly towards the ticket window as an old beggar supporting himself on a stick moves almost as slowly in the opposite direction. Reaching the counter I hand over 10 rupees in exchange for a ticket. Feeling pleased with myself and rejoicing in the saving of at least 890 rupees I find a seat on a hard wooden bench by a window in the 13.28 bound for Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in the heart of the city. The second class carriages remind me of cattle wagons although they do have overhead fans which battle bravely but in vain to stir the stifling air. Hawkers pass up and down the now crowded carriage trying to sell wallets and headphones and the man sitting next to me unwraps a pair and plugs them into his phone to test them before buying. After a few stops he gets off and someone else takes his place. I look over his shoulder at his smartphone and see that he he reading something about the US Presidential election. "Who won?" I ask, and immediately feel sick to my stomach when he answers. The rest of the journey passes in a state of disbelief and I reflect that soon we may all be in need of that astrologer.
Later, I check into my hostel, dump my pack in a three bed dorm and go to the common room where I fall into conversation with a young American guy. We discuss the catastrophic news from the USA before he asks me how I'm coping with the money situation. I know nothing of this and so he tells me that the government has decreed that in order to strike a blow at the black economy, tax dodgers and counterfeiters all 1000 and 500 rupee notes ceased to be legal tender as of midnight last night. All banks and ATMS are closed for the day and so I have no hope of adding to the meagre funds I brought with me. As most of the 3000 rupees I have is in 500 rupee notes I decide to go in search of a money changer but they also seem to be closed and the Western Union offices I try are either unable or unwilling to convert my cash to small denomination notes. I am now beginning to wish I'd made a note of that astrologer's phone number. Apparently the banks are open tomorrow so it looks like I'll have to abandon my sightseeing plans and queue up, no doubt with hundreds, if not thousands of others, in the quest for some legal tender. In the meantime I'll have to conserve what little I have and try and find a restaurant that accepts credit cards.
In the evening I go to my favourite eating hole and having been assured they accept credit cards I order Masala dosa, vegetable samosas, fresh mango juice and a Sprite. The bill comes to a grand total of 228 rupees (£2.70) and having paid with my flexible friend I return to my hostel reassured and relieved that I will be able to cope with the monetary crisis, at least, for the time being.
Thursday 10th November
I wake late, having made up for the sleep missed on the flight here, and having breakfasted on omelette, toast, banana and coffee I set off in search of a bank. I quickly come across one and peering through the door see that the interior is very crowdeI. Nevertheless I decide to go in and am met by a very helpful young bank employee who helps me fill in a form and then whisks off my passport and visa to be photocopied. I then join a queue to have the copies verified and once the three sheets of paper are stapled together and stamped i join another queue to change my four 500 rupee notes for 20 crisp new 100 rupee bills. The whole process takes less than than half an hour and grateful that I still have most of the day ahead of me I set off to do some sightseeing.
Later that evening I arrive at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus at 10.15 pm, 50 minutes before my train, the Konkan Kanya Express, is due to depart for Goa. Despite the late hour the station concourse is full of people waiting to board trains.
I find platform 18 where my train is already waiting and note that the Sleeper and Chair Class carriages and the unreserved coaches are already bursting at the seams.Long distance Indian trains have several classes. The most expensive are the air-conditioned carriages, 1AC, 2AC, and 3AC.Next come Sleeper and Chair Class and finally the unreserved coaches which are a vision of he'll on earth with people and luggage crammed into every inch of space. I find my own 3AC carriage and locate my name on the passenger list pasted next to the door. The carriage is almost empty and I chain my pack to a ring beneath one of the seats and sit back to await the arrival of my travelling companions. They turn out to be a group of twenty-somethings on their way home form one of the gulf states but they largely ignore me and tuck into the food they have brought with them.. The train leaves on time and soon after I make my bed with the sheets and blankets provided and climb up to the top berth. Gradually the chatter off my fellow passengers begins to subside and gently rocked by the moving carriage I drift into a deep and satisfying sleep.