Who goes to India and doesn’t see the Taj Mahal? Between my own mistakes and some simple bad luck, not seeing the Taj Mahal is one of my biggest travel fails of all time. Read on for this huge hiccup in my round-the-world trip and how you can avoid it!
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Balancing work and travel
Something many people don’t realize about long-term travel and round-the-world trips is that it’s not the same as a year-long vacation. I supported my travels as a freelance writer and spent at least half of my time in every destination working. Sometimes digital nomad life is great! It afforded me balance, a sense of purpose, and a different view of the places I visited. The ten days I spent in India had to be less balanced.
I had a trek booked in Nepal right after my time in India and my boyfriend was coming to join me. That meant my time in India was more like a stepping stone to a bigger part of my trip. Taking time away from my freelance projects for that trek meant I needed to get as much work done as possible while I was in India. During my first three days in Delhi, I hardly left my hostel, cranking out deadline after deadline. (This actually led to another guest wagging his finger in my face telling me I’m bad at my job and clearly don’t manage my time appropriately.)
Not all travel advice is good
I was so nervous to visit India as a solo female traveler. 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 post was to book train tickets online in advance. So while I worked on those freelance projects, 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: a really, really long time. In fact, I didn’t hear back from that office until two weeks after I had left the country.
This is why I consider not seeing the Taj Mahal my biggest travel fail. Some aspects of this story were outside anyone’s control, but this part… it’s all me. I should not have assumed this online process worked and I definitely shouldn’t have waited and done nothing about it.
A stroke of bureaucratic bad luck
The time to leave for my trek in Nepal got closer and closer, and I started to panic. I had a flight booked on Saturday morning and it was already Tuesday! I finally determined that I would just go to the train station in person the next day and figure out what needed to happen.
This was a good plan. But 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. (This would be like if the U.S. suddenly decided $20 bills were no good.) 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.
Ever see old films of the 1929 stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression? The ones where people rush the banks in a crush of chaos? That’s what it felt like as hundreds on hundreds of people stormed ATMs to get small bills. ATMs were quickly drained of cash and all the banks closed the next day to cope with the crisis.
I had some rupees in my wallet and I didn’t want to risk being out in the crowd so I didn’t join the ATM rush. I figured for a bigger purchase like a train ticket, I would be able to use my credit card. (Spoiler: I couldn’t.)
Sometimes you can’t fix the problem
On Wednesday morning, I went to the main Delhi train station. After about 30 minutes of asking directions from approximately a dozen different people, I managed to find my way to the tourist office.
I have a really important aside here: for all the problems I faced in India, the people in the tourist train office were not even close to being among them. Every single person there was 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. (Side note: an emergency USD stash is worth having on your packing list!) It was pretty obvious that this wasn’t the way things typically work and I am 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 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 re-open until 8am the next morning, after this train I was trying to book had left.
So I forked over a 200 rupee cancellation fee and gave up.
I literally paid 200 rupees not to see the Taj Mahal.
Did I do everything I could?
On my way back to the hostel, I considered whether there was any way to salvage the situation. It’s possible that 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 that plan 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 that last-ditch plan 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 probably never gone back to India ever again.
Skipping the Taj Mahal on this 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, more knowledge about how to travel in India, and hopefully better luck waiting for me.
Some General 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 the banks to reopen.
- Give yourself a break. India is a challenging place to travel. 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 beat yourself up stressing over 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.