I’ve been reading Shantaram, the hefty international bestseller by Gregory David Roberts (2003, by Scribe Publications). It’s a well written novel based on the author’s own experiences of escaping from a prison in Australia and moving to Bombay, India. It’s quite an amazing adventure, and I’d recommend the read. Obviously, it held my interest even more because it is mostly set in India.
One of the things that this fugitive takes up in Bombay to provide income for himself is exchanging money on the black market. He begins on a small scale with tourists and ends up working large corporate accounts with the Mumbai mafia.
So, as I’m reading this story in the evenings before I go to bed, during the days I start to get randomly approached by people who ask me to exchange money for them. A driver who works in our neighborhood came to me on a couple occasions with coins, first with a Canadian two-nie, then with two euros, small stuff that I gladly gave him rupees for, at a fair exchange rate. A couple days later, a security guard at a nearby shop approaches me with two Canadian five dollar bills, and asks simply, "Exchange?" I chuckle and hand him four hundred rupees, a better exchange rate than he could get anywhere else. I tell myself that this is a courtesy more than anything. So far, I wasn’t entertaining the idea of charging commission. But I start to wonder a bit more about it when a day or two later the same guy brings me two US twenty dollar bills and asks for the same rate. I oblige him again, but determine in my mind not to let this go too far.
Strangely enough, a few days later, I am approached again by another security guard in another neighborhood, this time with a small foreign currency note that I’ve never seen before. As I look closely, it appears to be from Azerbaijan, 1000 Manat, of which I had no idea about its worth. I confessed my ignorance to the guard, but he asked me to take it anyway and try to find out something about it. With a tinge of curiosity in my mind, I put it in my pocket and continued on my way. I forgot about it for a good day. Then, after re-discovering it in my pocket, I checked the spelling and typed it into Google. One of the links brought me to a currency converter and I casually punched in "1000". I was more than a little surprised when I learned that the funny little note was valued at $1185.00 USD! That’s over 47,000 Indian rupees, probably a tad more than that security guard dreamed. In fact, that’s about a year’s wage for him!
The next question, of course, was, Who is going to exchange this for me? Well, after calling a few money exchange centers here in Delhi, I realized that it wasn’t going to be easy. The last person I spoke with told me plainly that I wouldn’t be able to exchange this currency anywhere in India. So I went back to the Internet and found out more about my predicament. First, I found out that there is more than one edition of the Azerbaijani Manat, and the note that I had was probably worth more like 20 cents US rather than the massive amount I had first encountered. Second, I found out that it was unlikely that I would be able to exchange the note anywhere outside of Azerbaijan. I did find out that there was a Azerbaijani Embassy in Delhi, but unfortunately they haven’t answered my phone calls.
So, what am I left with? Well, for starters, one disappointed security guard. I told him that I was encountering some difficulties, but that I would keep trying to get something for it, and that I would surely give him the rupees if and when I was able to exchange it. I am flying through Heathrow Airport in London in another month or so, and I’ve thought that that might be as good a place as any to enquire about exchange. But I am increasingly doubtful that I will be getting anything for that special little note. So for now, the 1000 Manat remains in my wallet. But I must admit that I’m a little disappointed too. Not only am I not able to surprise the security guard with a huge bonus, but my interesting story is also losing it’s bite. However, the dying wind in my sails is perhaps good for at least one thing, I am less tempted to enter a side-career in black market money exchange. For now, I’ll happily deal with the small stuff and leave the big stuff for the novels.