TLDR: I have money but no cash. Indian bureaucracy is tangled and opaque.
The cash situation in India is grim. The PM removed all the ₹500 and ₹1000 rupee notes from circulation six weeks ago to fight tax fraud, and I havn’t seen a replacement note yet. Imaging what our society would be like with no £5 or £10 notes. People are walking around with money bricks of ₹100 notes, and each person can withdraw a single ₹2000 note from a cash machine each day. 99% of the cash machines are out of cash, and the ones that arn’t can be recognised by the huge queues.
Needless to say, I wanted a way to get out of the melee around the banks. My debit cards are dead weight despite being VISA. I manage to get a single ₹2000 note using my Mastercard at an ATM, which I used to pay the hotel and get some change. There is a restaurant which takes western credit cards, I think I would have starved by now if not for them.
Now I want an Indian SIM card to access 3G. All the free Wifi needs an Indian number for verification too. Visit one to the SIM shop, and they tell me I need my Passport, Tourist VISA and a photo. So I track down a camera shop who knock me up eight passport photos for ₹60.
Next day I go back for visit two, and the English speaking guy isn’t there. So I find a new SIM shop and plug in. A few hours later I have and Indian number but no 3G. I visit a Western Union in the hope of BACS transferring money to myself, he calls eight guys and no-one will take a foreign card. I do find another ₹2000 though.
Day three, I activate my 3G but nothing happens. No working ATM today either.
Day four, now I want train tickets. There are no card readers at the station and I don’t want to spend precious cash. The only way to get them is to sign up for an account with Indian Rail. Indian Rail requires an Indian phone number for verification, which unlike most Westerners I now have. But they repeatedly reject my Mastercard. I call Mastercard in the UK to find out it’s not them.
I go for a walk and chance upon three working ATM’s, which I liberate of ten thousand rupees. Illegal and at 10% service charge but I’m desperate. I find supermarket that will take a Mastercard and stock up on emergency Pringles. And I find a much larger SIM shop that is able to activate my 3G.
I meet a student at the last ATM who tells me everyone is using a Paypal-esque app called Paytm, which is useful to me now as I have 3G. I sign up for an account, to find my recycled Indian phone number already has one. I manage to get access (no money in it), and get all the way through to Mastercard securecheck before it boots me. Mastercard say it’s not them.
Surfing the message boards for other traveller’s experiences, people are using an app called Cleartrip. It logs into you Indian Rail account and makes bookings for you. I try my luck, and success! Mastercard accepted for a small additional fee.
I think I would be enjoying myself more if I wern’t having to continually calculate food, water and cash reserves while walking everywhere (as I don’t have cash for taxis) and avoiding eating things that will make me ill. I have a rail ticket to Jaipur on Sunday, two nights there and I’m on to Udaipur and Mumbai. At least I’m learning to be frugal.