Turtles on the Move: Money Problems
If you ever want to travel long term, have the opportunity to volunteer, and get food and accommodations in return for a discounted price or even free, then you should definitely check out Work Away! (www.workaway.info). You can search by destination and the type of work you're looking for. You can find anything from teaching English, helping out on a farm, working at a hostel/hotel, or even living with and helping out a family. Blake and I knew we wanted to have more of a cultural experience during our travels and be able to give back. We started searching for a program in India right away.
About a month ago, we reached out to an NGO in the West Bengal area of India to see if we could volunteer with them. The representative, Pawan, responded back to us immediately and said they would love to have us! His organization is a non-profit that has a few schools, a daycare, after school programs, health care awareness classes, and more. For three weeks, we were going to be staying with a host family and helping out at the school and daycare in the afternoons . All accommodations and meals were to be provided for $5 a day in exchange for us working a few hours in the afternoon. The town is called Gorubathan and it's close to the more well-known city of Darjeeling, which is in the Himalayan foothills. We applied for our Indian Visa and made arrangements to arrive in November.
On the evening of November 8th, the Indian Prime Minister announced that 500 and 1000 rupee banknotes were now illegal and would be taken out of circulation immediately, in order to crackdown on corruption and "black money". He announced that banks would be closed the following day and ATM's wouldn't be functioning. They would work to get new notes into circulation over the next few days. But anyone holding 500 and 1,000 notes would need to exchange them at banks immediately over the next couple months, as they were now illegal to use. India is a very cash heavy country so people started to rush to banks and ATM's in order to pull out legal cash. This created long lines and inevitably, a cash shortage. The Prime Minister said It would take time for ATM's to be stocked with the new bills and since the bills had a different size and look, the ATM's would also need to be reprogrammed in order to dispense the bills. He urged everyone to be patient. We began to follow the story closely, as we would be arriving in Indian in a few days.
We got an email on November 10th from Pawan, our host in Gorubathan, warning us about the currency issues. He said that ATM's weren't working or you could only pull out a small amount of money. We contacted our bank in the US and asked what we could do if we couldn't use an ATM. Our bank said that we could just go to a money exchange counter and use our debit card to get cash. (I've never used one of those counters so I wasn't sure about the process or fee's). There are several currency exchange places in the Delhi airport, so we though "No problem!"
We arrived in Delhi, India at 8:30 am on November 12th (just 4 days after the currency changes). We got through customs and received our visa. As expected, all of the ATM's were out of money. We grabbed our luggage and started looking for the currency exchange counters. The first one had a sign up saying it was 'Out of Cash'. The second one had a long line, so we chose the third one who's line seemed to be more manageable. After waiting in line for an hour, we got to the counter and found out that their card machine was down! Also, they would only let you exchange $80. We went to 3 more currency places and none of them were accepting card. Literally, Blake and I didn't have any cash in any currency! We've been traveling for 6 weeks and have used 6 different currencies. Naturally, we used up all of our Jordanian Dinar at the airport before we arrived.
We stayed positive and were grateful that our hotel was just a few miles away and we had a nice place to stay while we figured this out the next couple days. We found a pre-paid taxi counter (that accepted card) and were forced to pay $15 for a 5 minute trip... super frustrating, but we had to get to our hotel. I used points to book 2 nights at the Holiday Inn near the airport since we would be flying out on Monday to our volunteer thing in Gorubathan. The hotel let us check in early (10:30 am) and we asked if they could help us out with the currency exchange. They said they only had a small amount of money left and weren't able to help us, since this was a problem all over India.
We put our stuff in the room and ventured out to find a bank. We found 3 banks down the street and couldn't believe it... the lines were several blocks long! One of the banks doors were chained up and people were still waiting in line! Between the crazy traffic, constant honking, several stray dogs, and a cow in the middle of the road, we decided we would not be standing in line all day.
We got back to our hotel and got online to see what we could do. We read several news articles and learned that tourists were severely affected by the currency changes. We also learned that it was going to take several weeks for the ATM's to be reprogrammed and stocked with the correct notes. We tried thinking of some alternatives. Could we have money overnight shipped to us? We found a few online websites that sell currency and can ship it, but they had taken down the option for Indian rupees. At this point, we started trying to figure out how to get US dollars! We tried calling two of our banks and neither of them could help us. We contacted Pawan to let him know about our situation. He said that all of the ATM's and banks in West Bengal are having the same problems that we were experiencing in Delhi.
We took a nap, thought things through, and decided we would need to leave India. There was no way we could stay in a country for a month and not be able to get cash. Plus, we couldn't even pay for a cab to Gorubathan or pay our family for the home stay. We were super bummed and also stressed about the money we'd spent to get here. Our visa's cost us $120, the airline tickets from Jordan to India were around $500, and our airline tickets to West Bengal were $165. And on top of that, we have a flight already booked from Delhi to Myanmar on December 9th. Big bummer.
We really have no reason to pout and complain, however. We knew we would have bumps in the road and travel mishaps. This has nothing to do with terrorism, we both have our health, and nothing was stolen from us. We have a nice hotel (for free) with several restaurants, a pool, and a workout facility. And because we are part of the hotel loyalty program, we were greeted with several free drinks tickets, a fruit basket, chocolates, and a laundry discount. God was watching over us when I decided to use points to book this hotel. He knew we were going to need a nice place for a few days. I can't imagine if we were stranded downtown at a cheap hotel that didn't take card. Also, we have a travel insurance policy through World Nomads, so I am hoping we can file a claim and get some of our money back.
Soooo, we are flying to Nepal tomorrow! We emailed several 'Work Away' groups and will be doing a home stay for a few weeks just outside of Kathmandu! We aren't exactly sure what we'll be helping out with yet, but they said they could take us tomorrow!
Our adventures continue!