Cashless at 14,000 feet
Mountains, narrow winding ways of the legendary Silk Route with few hamlets sprinkled like salt and pepper all over commanded a magnificent view of the hilly terrain. It was a cold day in November, 2016 and a group of six travelers set foot in a small quaint village, Zuluk. Located in East Sikkim, this hamlet is almost 11,000 feet high. Anyway we were a crazy set from different walks of life, setting out on a vacation to unwind. Freed from our corporate urbane clutches for a few days we sought adventure at that height. Who could have thought that the whole nation would experience the same adventure? The entire country went cashless.
It was a cold & desolate night at Dzuluk, we just finished our dinner when the our sole guide and chauffeur Renji almost barged into our rooms with anxious looks and declared that PM has banned all 500 and 1000 rupees notes with effect from today. All such notes need to be exchanged at the banks and 100 rupees notes would be disbursed. It was the second day of our vacation and we six friends had planned to go upto Nathang Valley and kupup the next day. Our next stay was at Nathang which is almost 14,000 feet high. To add fuel to the fire all these remote hilly terrains have just home stay facilities with basic amenities therefore they deal only in cash. ATMs are like remote dreams in their eyes. We drove our young friend away thinking that he might be drunk and playing his usual rounds of pranks. Furthermore there was no net, networks unavailable and no television so it was impossible for us to fathom the truth of this shocking news. Outside it was windy and pitch black. So our weary eyes embraced sleep immediately.
Next morning I was woken up by a boisterous crowd just outside our home stay. I heard them discussing about the same topic of Rs 500 and 1000, few were yelling at such a step taken by the Union Govt. Wrapping up the shawl I went out to the balcony. It was a beautiful morning with Kachenzunga in clear view. But the news kept gnawing at me heart. I saw the crowd at the stairs, my fellow people were still asleep. Suddenly our guide Renji came running and informed that the mobile towers work only at the place where I was standing. Saying this. he made a call. Promptly I ran back to fetch my mobile and called up home from that particular spot in the balcony. They confirmed the news about notes and worried about us. Hell broke loose upon my head. We all have more 500 rupee notes than anything, how do we eat, drive and go back, all these questions tormented me. There were no ATMs. I ran back to our room immediately and woke up my folks. I told them that we would soon be broke and need to go without food for days since we do not have enough 100 rupee notes. The entire group was appalled. The immediate thing was to count the number of changes in our purse.
Subsequently we talked to the home stay owner but to no avail. He would not accept 500 or 1000 notes thinking all fake. Luckily we had paid her in advance so the remaining amount bothered us. Somehow we all pooled in few 100 rupees notes and paid him. Post breakfast at the home stay we drove higher up to Nathang valley. We planned to have lunch at the roadside but could only afford few momos, biscuits and tea. Nathang is picturesque but far from being delighted by the pristine valleys, chalk white monasteries and soft green meadows we hankered for food. By sheer piece of luck all the home stay amount in Nathang was paid in advance. So now our main worry was the car rent and next day’s journey back to NJP. The entire day we were unable to buy anything extra just to save enough change for the plains. Along with the ATM menace there was no electricity and mobile tower. So practically we were cut off from the rest of the world, living in seclusion. No news, no words with home. Renji our kind hearted chauffeur favored us like a propitious deity. He had enough changes in his pocket so accepted few 500 notes in lieu.
Moreover he took his rent with 1000 notes. We would be indebted to him for our entire livesfor saving us from the plight. We derided each other calling ‘rich beggars.’ In fact once in the evening we went to a little shop in Nathang for some bottles of water. The shopkeeper almost yelled at us seeing a 500 rupee note, we pleaded and goaded him to take it, but all such entreaties fell into deaf ears. He cast a contemptuous glance at us saying that “aap log Modi ji ko ja ke bolo na ki yeh bandh kare.” We came back silently. Our next day was horrible as we hardly had changes and so our breakfast only consisted of puffed rice which we carried and some cakes. In fact the journey was devoid of any tea stop just for change. Uproars and outcries in front of banks were a common sight as we approached the plains. Infact, boards with ‘500 and 1000 not accepted here’ burst upon our views often.
The furore continued but we were too hungry to say a word. Whatever changes we kept aside went out on lunch. Finally an acquaintance in the plains came handy and saved our grace. He lent us change for hiring a hotel room in Siliguri for freshening up and buying dinner. And our phone did not stop ringing as worried and tensed parents kept calling us and asking the same question all over again… “could you guys eat and drink with the notes you have?”