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Why I Didn’t Go to the Taj Mahal

It is incredibly difficult for me not to consider my trip to India a failure. While there were certainly positives, between jackass hostel guests, my own mistakes, and a million outside factors that are nobody’s fault… it was kind of a shitshow. Case in point: Who goes to India and doesn’t see the Taj Mahal?

Work hard, play hard

The ugly truth of my travels that not many people care to see is that I am not on a year-long vacation. I am a full-time freelance writer and spend at least half of my time in every place I visit working. Usually, I really enjoy this aspect of my travel. At its best, it affords me a sense of purpose, a different lens into the places I visit, and a strong work-life balance. But the ten days I spent in India had to be less balanced.

With a trek booked in Nepal and my boyfriend coming to celebrate his birthday, India felt more like a stepping stone to a bigger part of my trip. But more practically, taking two weeks off to gallivant about the mountains meant doing my best to work ahead. The first three days I was in Delhi, I hardly left my hostel, cranking out deadline after deadline. Yeah, it was hard, but I had to do it. (This actually led to some jerk guest wagging his finger in my face telling me I’m bad at my job and clearly don’t manage my time appropriately. Pardon my French, but I need to take a moment to extend this gentleman a very special fuck you.)

When blogs steer you wrong

I was so nervous to visit India alone as a woman. I spent hours on my flight to Delhi reading everything I could. One piece of advice I saw come up in more than one blog was to book train tickets online in advance. While I worked, I followed the instructions for setting up an account on cleartrip, but I needed some sort of government office approval before I could actually buy a ticket to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.

So I waited. And waited. And waited. I had work to do anyway. And I’d be in India for over a week. And surely, they were used to tourists visiting the Taj Mahal. How long could it take?

Spoiler alert: a really long time. In fact, I never heard from this particular office until two weeks after I had left the country.

A stroke of bureaucratic bad luck

As the time to leave for my trek in Nepal steadily approached, I started to panic. I had a flight booked on Saturday morning, and it was already Tuesday. I finally determined that I would simply go to the train station the next day and figure out what needed to happen.

Then all hell broke loose. The Indian government very suddenly announced that it was taking 500 and 1000 rupee notes out of circulation effective midnight that night. The entire country had about three hours notice to get rid of these notes before they were illegal tender, worth no more than the paper they were printed on. The storm on the ATMs felt like it was of Great Depression proportions, and banks closed the very next day to cope with the issue.

Wednesday morning I got up and found that all the ATMs in my hostel’s neighborhood were down. They had been completely drained of cash by the late night rush. I had some rupees in my wallet and figured for a large purchase like a train ticket, I’d be able to use my credit card. (Spoiler alert: I couldn’t.)

When the pieces just don’t fit

I arrived at the main Delhi train station and after about 30 minutes and asking directions of approximately a dozen different people, managed to find my way to the tourist office.

This is very important: for all the problems I faced in India, the people in the tourist train office were not even close to being among them. They were all so helpful and accommodating and clearly felt really bad about not being able to help me.

One woman ran a search on trains for the next day and guided me through the paperwork to request the reservation. I then had to take a number and wait for an agent to make the booking for me. This all ran pretty smoothly, until it was time to pay. They couldn’t accept a credit card, and I didn’t have quite enough cash to cover the full cost of the ticket.

The agent assisting me said she would take the cash I did have to hold my ticket and I could go downstairs to exchange the US dollars I had in my wallet to cover the rest. It was clear that this wasn’t the way things typically work and I was so grateful that she was willing to bend the rules like that. It was not necessary at all.

Unfortunately for me, there was nowhere to exchange currency downstairs. All the banks were still closed, all the ATMs were still drained of cash, and more than one person informed me that no currency exchange office would operate while the banks were closed.

Defeated, I went back upstairs to the tourist office and explained I would need to just cancel the reservation. One gentleman kept insisting that I could go to the bank, but I reminded him that because of the currency change, the banks were all closed. They wouldn’t open until 8am the next morning, after this train I wanted to take had left.

So I forked over the 200 rupee cancellation fee and gave up.

I literally paid 200 rupees not to see the Taj Mahal.

Was that really the end to the story?

On my way back to the hostel, I pondered whether there was any way to salvage the situation. And I think that maybe there was.

As a last-ditch effort, I could have gone to the bank when it opened on Thursday, exchanged my currency, taken a later train, seen the Taj Mahal briefly before sunset, spent the night in Agra, and returned on a morning train the next day. (The Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays and I had my flight to Nepal, which couldn’t be rescheduled, on Saturday, so it was really my only hope.)

So why didn’t I do that?

Because at this point, I had been working myself to the bone for a week. I had poured hours of my time and energy into trying to make this work and it wasn’t coming to anything.

I knew that even if this scheme was successful, the result would be my seeing the Taj Mahal while I felt bitter and exhausted. I would have checked it off my bucket list, left, and never gone back to India ever again.

Skipping the Taj Mahal on this first trip ensured that it wouldn’t be my last. I have a reason to go back to India. I have the motivation I need to try again in the future, knowing more about how to travel in the country and hopefully having some better luck with the bureaucratic side of things.

Tips for Visiting India

  • Carry all the cash you need for your entire trip. Keep it spread across multiple places for safety, but don’t risk being caught without enough money to cover your expenses in cash. Even the big ones.
  • If you plan on train travel, go in person to the tourist office on your first day in the country. Don’t rely on online booking.
  • Plan ahead as far in advance as possible. This is not the place to fly by the seat of your pants.
  • Keep your plans as flexible as you can. If I hadn’t had a tour booked in Nepal, I would have been able to simply extend my stay in Delhi and wait for ATMs to come back online.
  • Give yourself a break. India is a challenging place to travel – there is simply no sense denying that. If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, just step away and find something else to do. You may only live once, but that doesn’t mean you should kill yourself stressing about things that lie outside your control.

India’s bureaucracy was definitely like no other I’ve experienced. Read about other culture shock moments in Delhi.

Have you ever had to give up seeing a major sight on your bucket list? Tell me in the comments.

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22 Comments

  1. Wow! That does sound stressful, we had a few snafus getting married in the Bahamas, like we had to be there in residence at least 3 days before the wedding, we not allowed into the airport to fetch our two kids and had to wait outside until they stumbled out totally stressed thinking we forgot them, couldn’t get married at the time printed on our wedding announcement because they thought it would be too hot and our nice hotel was having a problem with hot water when we showered for the wedding! Quite a few bumps in the road but all in all still had a lot of fun! You will just enjoy India more next time!😍

    • Danielle Bricker

      March 10, 2017 at 2:21 pm

      I’ve had to write about destination weddings for clients before – it’s definitely a unique challenge!

  2. Oh no!!! Sorry to hear about that. There’s been chaos in the Indian community in Dubai and Doha when they announced about the notes being cancelled. All of my friends there panicked, sorry that you got caught in the middle of it.

    It’s amazing though how much the staff at the tourist office wanted to help you. 🙂
    Noemi of Pinay Flying High recently posted…Date Night In London | Bunga Bunga Is Where The Party’s At.My Profile

    • Danielle Bricker

      March 18, 2017 at 2:24 pm

      Oh no! I hadn’t even really thought how this must have affected the expat community of Indians living abroad. Hope things work out for them.

  3. Priyadarshini Rajendran

    March 18, 2017 at 10:14 am

    So sad to hear about your experience in India. It was definitely bad timing and a LOT of people faced many problems for more than a month when the currency ban happened. Hope you enjoy your visit the next time around!

    • Danielle Bricker

      March 18, 2017 at 2:21 pm

      I’m so glad (in a bittersweet way) to hear that it wasn’t just me. It’s easy to feel like a ‘bad traveler’ when you have a negative experience, but it sounds like this truly was just rotten luck. And I’m also a little relieved to know it has taken some time for the issue to resolve – I’ve often wondered what it would have been like if I had been able to extend my stay another week or two. But I know now that it would not have blown over and I would have probably continued to be frustrated and possibly run out of cash entirely!

  4. I hate that the trip ended up being so difficult, but I love how you turned this into a positive experience by looking at it as more of a learning experience for the next trip. The tips you shared at the end are so helpful and I’ll definitely keep those in mind for whenever I start planning my India trip!

    • Danielle Bricker

      March 18, 2017 at 2:22 pm

      Good, I’m glad! When I didn’t have a very successful trip, I felt like a bit of a fraud offering advice. But my experience is certainly a good example of what NOT to do. lol

  5. Ah what an experience! I’m so sorry you didn’t get to see the Taj but honestly – there are so many other wonderful things to see as well that the Taj won’t be your only concern :-). I hope this tells you one thing – that you have to go back to India!

    I was in India in Jan & Feb travelling as a solo female and the cash situation was much improved but not perfect. In one town I had to try 20 ATMs and then wait in line for an hour. Which was actually pretty fun. But I heard from others that in November and December last year that it was a nightmare with cash.

    Although I am a die hard India fan there is one thing India does not do well, and that is ad-hoc/last minute travel, especially if trains are involved! Ah well. I guess that is inevitable when 25 million people travel by train there every day.
    If you decide to go back (which I hope) and need solo female travel advice let me know :-).

    Thanks for sharing your story!! Ellie

    • Danielle Bricker

      March 18, 2017 at 2:18 pm

      I definitely found this to be true. I’ve found the more I travel – particularly for long stretches of time – the less I like to plan. I read a lot in advance to have a grasp of what it will be like and what my options are. But I don’t have a set itinerary at all. Why, these last couple weeks in Japan, I haven’t booked a single train ticket in advance. I just show up when I’m ready to leave and figure it out. But yeah, India is NOT the place to do that!

  6. First of all fuck that guy in the beginning. Really glad you extended that fuck you. Second of all, I HATE when blogs are bullshit and steer you wrong. I’ve never been to the Taj Mahal but this post was really helpful on what NOT to do which is 75% of travel anyway. Thanks so much!

    • Danielle Bricker

      March 18, 2017 at 3:11 pm

      I know right? So many travelers are all “Oh travel is all about the people!” or when they find out I travel full-time say “Oh, you must meet *so many* interesting people!” And I’m like “Yeah…sometimes. But I also meet a lot of assholes.” If I can’t call these guys out on the internet, why even have a blog? lol
      (This is all said very tongue-in-cheek, of course.)

  7. Sad to read that your experience was like that… Bad luck, with governments & ATMs and all that, as I did not carry all my cash with me and I would not recommend it to others (more risk of getting in stolen). I took out cash from time to time in various places and it was ok, so unless government pulls another one like this, should be fine.
    Regarding not seeing the Taj – I actually was planning not to see it, as I didn’t have enough time on my itinerary, but in the end some of my local flights (additional ones that helped me construct the 145 eur return fee from my home) got cancelled so I had a few days more and could do it. I used a friends-friends account for buying the tickets and saw the Taj twice – for a full moon tour and some 9 hours later at sunrise. But, the option with the train return in such a short time before your flight I would not recommend, as trains can get delayed (mine was, I think it was at least 3 hours), so you could have missed your flight!
    I hope you have a wonderful time next time and don’t listen to sh*theads in the hotel!
    Alina from Reverie Chaser recently posted…DELFI: All Articles 2017My Profile

    • Danielle Bricker

      March 18, 2017 at 3:12 pm

      Good tips – I hadn’t even thought far enough ahead to the possibility of a delayed train.

  8. Aw, that’s a bummer. But I think it’s good that you listened to yourself and, while you made a good faith attempt to see the Taj Mahal, I agree that it’s much better to go when you’re physically and mentally prepared to be there, not just checking something off of a bucket list. I much prefer traveling slowly and missing some stuff if I’m just not up to it than trying to cram everything in. There’s always a next time 🙂
    Alissa recently posted…Why I Thought I Would Hate Cancun… And Why I Absolutely Loved ItMy Profile

    • Danielle Bricker

      March 25, 2017 at 9:40 am

      Well put Alissa. I have definitely become much better at listening to my mental and physical needs in my RTW trip. It’s easy for travelers – for everyone really – to push ourselves too hard.

  9. I love your writing, and really enjoyed this post. Bummer about the Taj but you’ll be back 🙂

  10. Oh no! That would have been extremely frustrating spending so much time researching online and asking in person on how to get to Agra. I hope you were able to enjoy a few of Delhi’s sights? It’s a chaotic but facinating place.

    • Danielle Bricker

      March 25, 2017 at 9:39 am

      Yes, I did go to the Lotus Temple and made a bit of an event of going out for a massive vegetarian thali, where I wound up befriending a local. In spite of all the problems with my trip, India is one of the few places I’ve been where I really made a friend I’ve kept in touch with after leaving.

  11. As much as it is a failure, like my not-so-successful Iceland trip where a few of my dream tours got cancelled, it becomes something really memorable doesn’t it? Lol At least that’s how I console myself. AND the need / chance to go back again. Now you know what you should / shouldn’t do next time 🙂

    • Danielle Bricker

      March 25, 2017 at 9:37 am

      Oh, what a bummer your Iceland trip didn’t go as planned. You should definitely give it another go!

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