I love those moments when my plane lands in India and I first take in the fragrance of the country. When I mentioned that to a fellow traveler a few years ago, he told me I was smelling diesel. I have no idea what diesel smells like but I knew that was not the fragrance I was talking about. Part of it may be incense, and at times smoke from cooking fires, but I know the odor is much more than that. This country is steeped in spirituality and I believe the distinct fragrance is the result of that. I often have the urge to bow down and kiss the earth when I get off the plane. While I don’t do that physically, I have no doubt that some subtle part of me doing just that.
This is the first time I have taken a layover in Dubai on my way to India and it sure made a big difference. While I was tired when I arrived in India, I didn’t feel overwhelming exhaustion.
I knew I was going to have to deal with something that has never been an issue in the past. On November 8, with no notice, the Indian government discontinued the use of 500 and 1000 rupee bills. (As I understand it, they did that because of the amount of black market money that was in the system and also because the money was being used by terrorists.) Having those bills become useless overnight has caused chaos in the country and a huge problem for many of India’s residents. I had read that people had been standing in long lines attempting to turn in the old bills. Sometimes they with success, sometimes not. Also, the country’s ATMs ran out of money, or would only give tiny sums of money. Many Indians don’t have bank accounts and before long the rule was made that the bills could only be exchanged if you found someone willing to put them into their bank account for you.
A few days before I left for India, I heard that the bills had to be exchanged by November 24. That left those of us who weren’t already in India with potentially worthless bills. I was advised to go directly to the bank in the airport as soon as I passed through immigration, before I picked up my luggage. As I looked at people walking up to the bank counter and leaving empty handed, I knew it wasn’t going to work. I still asked if I could exchange the bills, but received the same answer.
It took a long time for the baggage to come, but I eventually left with two heavy suitcases, loaded mostly with treats and/or supplies for other people. I always feel like Santa Claus when I distribute the items I bring. I enjoy that part of the trip. I also enjoy having nearly empty suitcases once everything is passed out.
From baggage claim, I walked to the currency exchange. That process went well, but they would only give us the new 2000 rupee notes. Even in normal circumstances, India’s small shops ask for payment in small bills, because they usually don’t have enough cash to make change for 500 and 1000 bills. These 2000 rupee bills were bound to cause a problem. I heard other people asking the currency exchange to give them smaller bills with no luck, so I didn’t even bother to try.
Soon I was in a taxi on my way to Amritapuri. I still marvel that taking a taxi to the ashram costs less than $40 even though the drive is 2 ½ to 3 hours. Since I was arriving at a time when there would be a lot of traffic, I expected that it would take the full three hours, if not more. I knew it was going to be an intense three hours when the driver started driving 130 km/hour in a 40 km/hour zone the minute he left the airport. This is not unusual for India but it has been a long time since I have had a driver who drove so aggressively.
In India, traffic seems to have rules of its own. The roads are filled with bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, rickshaws, lorries, trucks, taxis, buses, private cars and an occasional elephant. Pedestrians seem to have no right of way, so they get along as best as they can. The vehicles weave in and out with a precision that is mind boggling. The drivers pass each other by going into oncoming traffic, swerving back into their own lane just before impact. I’ve always said they seem to have incredible skill and nerves of steel.
I remembered the first time I took my daughter to India. I think she was 16 at the time. She sat in the front seat of the taxi and didn’t seem to react to any of this. Afterwards, I told her I was surprised she didn’t have a reaction. She responded that she had kept her eyes closed the whole time; that it seemed like one big game of “Chicken.”
Coming back to my current trip, I was happy there was so much traffic since it caused the driver to slow down. Still, he had more close calls than any other time I’ve taken this drive. I felt very relieved when, three hours later, we turned into the ashram gate.
I was (and am) home!
To read the rest of the posts in this series click here.