Sometimes I make a really piss-poor traveller, you know. Hot weather makes me irritable and lethargic, especially when it's humid; if I don't get a good night's sleep, I get irritable and lethargic; I get ill at the drop of a hat, which makes me irritable and lethargic; and I suffer from regular bouts of homesickness, which would probably make me irritable and lethargic if it wasn't too busy wallowing in self-pity. On most short trips, this homesickness peaks around day three or four, and it happens regardless of what I'm doing – it even kicks in on skiing holidays, which is frankly bizarre. It's a wonder I manage to leave home at all, to be honest.
Being day four of our south Indian jaunt, today was destined to be a disaster from the outset. Throughout our stay in Varkala, the combination of heat, humidity, noisy all-night bars, 5.30am calls to prayer and ear-splitting dawn choruses from the local crows has ensured that we've had pretty much no sleep since landing in India, and considering that we came straight off an overnight flight, we're both suffering from the effects of sleep deprivation. It's slightly worse today as we decided to get up early this morning to catch the train to Kollam, so we're even more bleary-eyed than we've been all week. On top of this, I stupidly forgot to put on any sun tan lotion the other day when we went for a swim in the sea, and despite it being only a short dip, my shoulders are red raw and the pain kicks in every time I turn over on the sandpaper sacks that our hotel has substituted for pillows. In fact, you could say I'm irritable and lethargic, which is at least true to form for this stage of the holiday.
It snowballed today, too. This morning I wasn't really concentrating when I booked our tickets for the train to Kollam, and we ended up in third class, jammed up in the sardine tin that is non-sleeper train travel. It was only a short journey and our fellow passengers were smiley and charming, but in this sort of mood, sleeper class is a much more sensible option. Luckily we fell out of Kollam station and into a travel agency who had a highly recommended houseboat available for the next four days, so sensing a silver lining and the chance to while away our exhaustion on the tranquil Keralan backwaters, we booked our places and headed off to the ATM in a rickshaw to withdraw the necessary funds, with the travel agent in tow.
Credit and debit cards are the way to travel these days. When I was last in India there were no ATMs to speak of, and the only way to carry your cash was as traveller's cheques or foreign currency, both of which took hours to change at the bank. These days you just need to flash your plastic at one of the many ATMs around, and it's all done in a matter of seconds... or that's the theory, anyway.
I thought I'd covered all the bases in bringing both a Barclays Connect card (a Visa-branded debit card) and a Natwest Mastercard, so I fished out my Connect card and tried it in the HDFC bank's ATM, just round the corner from the agency, keying in my PIN and asking for the maximum withdrawal amount of Rs25,000. 'System error,' the screen flashed helpfully, 'it has not been possible to complete this transaction.' Oh well, I thought, let's try the Mastercard, and keyed in my PIN again. The machine spat this card out even more quickly than the first one.
I tried again, but to no avail, and the man standing outside the ATM started impatiently banging on the window, so I went back outside and told the travel agent that I was having problems. He looked like a child whose balloon has just been burst, but gainfully he suggested we try the Federal Bank ATM up the road, a short hop in the rickshaw through Kollam's hectic traffic.
'Transaction declined,' it beeped, rejecting both my cards again. 'Contact bank, code 068,' it continued, cryptically.
All-too-familiar pangs of panic started to well up in the pit of my stomach, as the thought of being stranded in India with no access to money sunk in. 'Shit, what do we do now?' I asked Peta, and she suggested we pop back to the bags to try her credit card.
'To the ICICI Bank,' the travel agent told the rickshaw driver, trying to sound positive. 'And go via the office,' he said, and so we headed out for our final attempt at securing funds for the houseboat. My cards both failed again – so much for third time lucky – and the official from inside the bank could only offer a head wobble and the helpful observation that 'perhaps it is the card, or perhaps it is the ATM,' which I couldn't deny, but which didn't exactly help matters. And then, with palpable relief, Peta's First Direct Visa card hit the jackpot and out rolled Rs25,000 in crisp Rs500 notes, enough to pay for our Rs16,000 houseboat trip, and to see us through for a few days afterwards. Thank goodness for girlfriends; men might be useful for some things, but saving the day evidently isn't one of them.
In Kochi, things would get rather worse, as even Peta's cards would stop working. It appears that these days, most banks will freak out if you try to process a transaction from countries like India or China, and they will freeze all overseas activity there and then. Barclays and Natwest had done just that with my cards, and First Direct decided that as withdrawing money in Kollam was not in Peta's normal routine, they'd better freeze both her credit and debit cards.
Luckily she was able to ring them up and they switched them back on there and then, but clearly there is a golden rule when travelling abroad with cash cards, and that's not only to tell your bank where you're going, but to make sure you've also got a way of contacting them in case anything goes wrong. Ah well, you live and learn...