Change you can believe in
A strange and sometimes aggravating phenomenon occurs here in India whereby nobody seems to have small bills or coins. Not taxi drivers, not food vendors, not bookstores, not hotels – nobody. Unless you pay with exact change, no matter the situation, the person you’re paying will say “do you have change?” If you say no, they will sometimes relent and give you change, but oftentimes will put on an elaborate demonstration to prove that they too have nothing but large bills.
Most of the time, this is just a harmless unwillingness to part with the small bills that they most certainly do have. Other times it’s an attempt to take advantage of you to get some extra rupees, and it’s extremely hard to tell which situation you’re in.
For example, in Mumbai, taxi meters start off at 19 rupees for the first kilometer and then start to rise by distance after that. If you’re just going around the tourist areas in south Mumbai, it’s difficult to rack up a charge of 100 rupees or more, so almost everyone utilizing taxis here owes the cab driver 30-80 rupees ($0.50-$1.25) for their services. When you attempt to pay with a 100 rupee bill, you’ll be told that the driver doesn’t have change, I guarantee it. Insisting on change will simply be met with an elaborate display of all of the driver’s 100 and 500 rupee bills to show that they, in fact, don’t have change.
Now, one of two things has happened here. Either (a) everyone the driver has driven around that day has paid with big bills, depleting their supply of small bills, or (b) the driver is simply lying. In my experience it’s usually (b), but the best method to determine which one is the case is to perform an elaborate demonstration of your own.
Step one is to be prepared. Always keep your big bills (100 rupees and up) segregated from your small bills (10, 20, and 50 rupee bills). Step two is to execute. When asked to produce small bills, pull out a few of your large bills and show them off, saying “No Change, ATM”. Then put them away and insist, in as few English words as possible, on change. If the person is willing to budge, they’ll usually do so within 30 seconds. If they haven’t surrendered in that time, you’ll have to decide how to handle it.
There are three general options: (1) Produce your own small bills and pay in exact change, (2) Just give in and surrender the change, (3) make the person wait while you go find change. You could also stiff the person by just walking away if you think they’re scamming you, but I’m basically never going to do that. If I have the change, I’ll always use option 1 (more on that in a minute). For option 2, if it’s less than 50 rupees (less than $0.75) and I genuinely don’t have small bills, I’ll usually give up and leave the change as a tip. True, this money will add up over 3 months, but the stress of it isn’t worth it. If it’s more (or if I’m in a mood), we’ll try to find change at a bank, hotel, street food vendor, or pharmacy. I’m usually successful here, though you may have to buy a bottle of water or something to break a bill.
You may be asking, “Why is option 1 even listed?” If I had the exact change in the first place, why did I put on my own elaborate demonstration and insist that I didn’t? Because lack of change seems to be an epidemic here, exacerbated for the traveler by the fact that ATMs don’t distribute denominations lower than 100 rupees and nearly all things you buy cost less than that. Getting small bills is a war, a series of small battles and schemes – break the 1000s at the hotel, break the 500s at the restaurant, break the 100s at the corner store, and hoard everything smaller. You can’t be caught with a pocket full of 500s at the end of a taxi ride because if the driver has no change or decides to screw you, you’re out a lot of money. You have to have change for those times when you have to have change. So does everyone else. So ‘round and ‘round we go.
We now have a rule here in India: Never, ever pay with small bills unless you absolutely have to. Wherever you are, the local people will know where to get (and be able to get) small bills and change better than you will ever be able to. Don’t give in to their requests. If you do, you’ll one day find yourself paying for a 10 rupee bottle of water with a 100 rupee bill, getting no change, and cursing yourself for being so nice to that waiter at the restaurant earlier by paying in exact change.