Thursday, March 26, 2009

the god of small scams

In India, something like 35% of the population lives on less than $1 per day.  China is higher but still similar.  Keeping that in mind puts in perspective the hundreds of small scams we've encountered every day.  What for us is a small amount of money to be scammed out of, for an Indian might be an entire day's, week's, or year's wages.  

For instance, in China the taxis were regulated in all the cities we visited, so you paid exactly what the meter said.  However, we often wanted to take smaller autorickshaws or even bicycle-cabs, which were not regulated.  We'd always be surprised because the unregulated autorickshaw or bicycle driver would quote a price to us that we knew from experience was double that of a real volkswagen or hyundai taxi cab.  He'd often have a seeming gleam in his eye.  He'd make us suckers and perhaps earn himself a nice extra amount of money.   The extra amount of money would often be the equivalent of $1 or less (for a total fare of $2).  To take a taxi anywhere in San Francisco is always at least $5.  The irony is that probably we looked like ignorant suckers to the drivers, but $1 just isn't enough to get all worked up for us, especially since the final fare is still 30% what you'd pay in any big city in the US.  Plus, the rickshaws had much better views of the city than a normal cab, and since Marisa has trouble walking long distances, they were great for us to see lots of things.  We didn't mind paying the little extra westerner tax.

The same thing goes for bargaining for all kinds of other things, like souveneirs at the market and necessities.  For example, today in India a little kid tried to sell us water.  I asked him how much, and he said, "50 rupees!"  I countered, "come on.  15 rupees."  What a little entrepreneur:  Usually it costs 15 rupees.  All he did was go and buy bottled water somewhere and carry it in a big plastic bag to the tourist site to sell.   He offered back 20 rupees.  I started to walk away, so he quickly accepted my 15.  I gave him 20 and told him to keep the change because I was impressed with how he was hustling to carry the water around, if not by his honesty. 

With all that as background, we have a story to share about our first 2 hours in India.  Before coming to India we were warned by practically everyone to be on our guard about the scams.  Our India coworkers warned us (in a more subtle way) about hustlers overcharging us.  

Fellow travelers we met in China who had been to India warned us in particular about the taxi cabs at the airport.  They told us how you need to take an official taxi, and that the airport guy will write the taxi number on a slip.  One of them said that when they went to the taxi line, the taxi's number didn't match their slip and the guy kept trying to get them into his cab, but eventually they found their properly assigned cab, despite the first driver repeatedly claiming he was the right cab.  We also read the taxi section in the book, which basically said the same thing and insisted that you need to go to the Delhi Traffic Police booth in order to get a proper taxi.  Before getting off the plane we read more of the Delhi safety section.  Even though there were two of us, we read the dire warnings in the book to single female travelers.  It said to never get in a taxi with more than one man, and to make a big show of handing the taxi receipt to the police officer at the taxi line in the airport.

Our flight to Delhi left Beijing at 8pm and arrived in Delhi at 1:50am local time.  It was effectively even later for us because we had been adjusted to Beijing time.  Marisa had barely slept on the plane, and I had gotten at most a couple hours of fitful sleep.  We were quite tired, but in a way we were lucky.  Most travelers from the States to India go directly with a stopover in an airport somewhere in Asia, so the trip ends up being an exhausting 30 hours or something ridiculously similar for many people.  This reduces them to even more bumbling morons than we were.  For instance, Marisa had to explain to a very tired passenger the simple logical conclusion that if he and his wife sat in separate rows, they wouldn't be able to sit together, but if they sat in the same row, they would.  He looked awestruck at Marisa's profound intelligence and decided to sit in the same row as his wife.

Even though we had more presence of mind than people direct from the States, we were still not at our best.  We got our bags and cleared immigration and customs.  Before exiting the baggage area, we went directly to the Delhi Traffic Police booth and told them where we wanted to go.  One of the guys first said 200 rupees ($4), but quickly the second guy at the booth said "no, no, it's 250!".  I assume this was the Westerner tax kicking in -- charging us an extra $1.We asked them if we could use US Dollars as we didn't have any rupees, but they said no, and that we needed to go out of the baggage area to the ATM.  We asked if we could come back in once we got money, and he said something that sounded like an affirmative, but many Indians don't speak English well, so we weren't sure if he understood.

As we left the baggage area to the outer part of the airport, a small man (maybe 5'3 or 5'4 and really skinny) ran up to us and offered to help.  We'd already read all about the hucksters who offer to help you in India (this is less common in China), so we told him we didn't need help.  Marisa and I argued about where the ATM was briefly, and he  'helped' by pointing it out.  We went to the ATM and he followed us and stood outside the ATM booth, which was more annoying than worrisome.   After we left the ATM, we saw that there was a second Delhi Traffic Police stand outside of the arrivals area.  We walked back over to where we had seen the first booth, but there were guards with shotguns standing by the entrance.  Because we preferred to go back in to the seemingly safer people we had already talked to, I asked the guards if we could re-enter.  They didn't seem to understand, but the little guy who had been following us around 'helpfully' told us we couldn't and pointed us to the Delhi Traffic Police booth that was outside the guarded area.  We had already seen that, and the logo and uniformed person looked exactly the same as the other booth.  We also noticed that there was a line of Indian-looking people waiting at it, which indicated it was probably legit.  We decided to go to the new booth.

At the new booth the guy quoted us 320 rupees.  We told him the people inside had said 250 (and remember, the initial price was 200).  After some arguing in which he used our ingorance against us (probably), he told us that 'these are nighttime rates,  I don't know why they told you less inside.'  It was now past 2am (later on our Beijing time).  The extra 70 rupees was exactly $1.20 and didn't seem worth arguing about when all we wanted was bed, so we agreed.    Small scams.

To our surprise, when we paid, the guy at the booth told us to go with the little guy who had 'helped' us as we emerged from security.  Assuming now that he was legitimate, I looked at him and tried to smile and make up to him for being a jerk and ignoring him earlier.  Marisa is every vigilant and was still on her guard, though, and asked the booth guy why he didn't write the taxi number on our receipt.  He said something about how they don't do that anymore.  As I will explain, in hindsight we should have trusted Marisa's instinct.  Marisa and I discussed it very briefly, but I thought it was plausible they might have a different procedure now, so we decided to go with the guy, especially since everyone had told us we should use the Delhi Traffic Police booth, which is supposed to be safe.

The airport signage said something about going out a specific exit, B2.  Funnily enough I still remember that message, but I don't remember if the little guy lead us out that exit or not.  In retrospect, I now assume he did not.  He led us out an exit into an area that was nothing like any airport taxi collection area I'd ever seen.  It was our first view of India, and it was pretty bad.  It was extremely dusty.  There was what might have been an airport circling road, but it was nearly in the dark, and we waited on the side of a road in the dim lighting with the guy.  There was no sidewalk.  There was no obvious queue for a taxi and no signage about where to stand, and no police officers around.

At this point I was already 50% suspicious.  This didn't seem like a taxi line, but I and Marisa had no idea what a taxi line would look like at an Indian airport at nearly 3am in the morning.  The airport seemed busy enough with international flights arriving, so in hindsight we should have known that there would still be a real taxi line.  I would normally have been more concerned for our safety at that point, but the guy was so little (maybe this is part of the scam and is intentional) that he wasn't that imposing.  Also, there was a group of about 5 Westerners also waiting on the dirt shoulder of the road.  I assumed they were also waiting for taxis, but then a big charter bus pulled up and picked them up.  After that we were alone with the little guy for a couple minutes, but then a white van-like car pulled up.  Marisa thinks she remembered a Delhi Traffic Police taxi sticker on the van, so it looked semiofficial.  At this point maybe if we hadn't been so tired or knew a tiny bit more about Delhi, we could have given in to our suspicions and checked with someone else at the airport that this was actually the taxi line.  Instead we just assumed it was normal and got into the taxi.

To our further surprise, the little guy got in the taxi with the driver.  Again Marisa was more suspicious than I, because the book said that single women should not go in a taxi with two men.  We were not a single woman, obviously, but still it seemed odd that there would be two people in the taxi.  Marisa whispered this to me in the back, but probably stupidly we decided to stay in the taxi.

For that reason we started off in the taxi completely nervous.  The little guy started to make chitchat with us.  He seemed friendly enough, but he asked a lot of questions about us, and we let it slip that it was our first time in India.  Translation:  We are ignorant and you can scam us.  He continued to make chitchat which made me feel a little better, although his demeanor in retrospect was a little strange/distant.  Maybe he was just trying to get information from us.  We also didn't get to feel much more comfortable for another reason:  The driver's driving was completely insane.  We of course had heard many stories about how crazy driving is in India, so we weren't sure if it was normal or not.  It certainly felt unsafe to us (driving 100 kmh down a city street), but we had no idea what to expect.  Now that we've been in several cabs and have had more time in India, the guy's driving still seems crazy.  

Another weird thing was that they got off the freeway.  They claimed they did that because the freeway was clogged with transportation trucks (which it was), and they explained that after midnight the trucks are allowed on the freeway.  That seemed like a plausible explanation, but it added to our suspicion.  As they got nearer the city we were stopped at a police checkpoint.  At this point things seemed OK since they seemed to be taking us in the right direction.  Even though they got off the freeway, we hadn't entered really seedy neighborhoods or anything (we'd passed nice government buildings and some nice hotels).  I had been paying very close attention to the streets because we were worried they might be taking us somewhere to rob us.  However, given all that we'd read in the book, I got out of the car and made a big show of walking around until the policemen at the checkpoint saw me.  I also saw that the driver and the little guy noticed the policemen see me at the checkpoint.  I assumed that would diminish the change they would do something horrible to us if the police knew Westerners were with them (so we couldn't later go missing).

The little guy called someone on his phone.  The conversation was in Hindi, but I heard the words 'Connaught Place' in the conversation, which is where we were staying.  I guessed he was calling for directions, or maybe just telling someone where they were going. 

Things continued to seem OK as they drove to Delhi, although the driver's driving continued to be nerve-rattling.  A few minutes later Marisa saw a sign for Connaught place pointing right, and we went left.  She asked them "That sign said connaught place!  Why are we going in the other direction?"  They told her, "Do not worry, Madame!  Connaught place is very large.  This is all Connaught Place."  We were ignorant, so we had no reason not to believe them.  Still, Marisa was very suspicious, and this also made me more suspicious.    A few minutes after the sign, we asked them what the nice gardens were to our right, and they told us it was the President's house.  We were still in a nice area.

In retrospect, I don't know why it did not occur to either of us to read about connaught place and delhi in the book as we drove to get a better feel for whether what they were telling us was true.  I think we were too tired.  I did have the presence of mind to turn on my phone and open up my gps application.  I had no data plan access, but I could at least track our path to get a feel of the direction they were taking us in.  I remember thinking all that as we drove, but somehow I never even activated the tracking.  (I thought I did, but the next day when I checked there was no track.)

A few minutes later (now well after 3am), the little guy told us we were almost there.  (By now it had become apparent the driver did not speak English.)  The neighborhood looked a little less nice, but not horrible.  We had been staying in small hostels, so it seemed conceivable to me that we could have a hotel in such a neighborhood.  At this point the driver started going much slower.  The little guy told us, "Your hotel is in that area, but the streets are closed off."  From the car we could see that the streets had chains going across them to prevent cars driving in.  (This didn't look dangerous  -- they were the sort of chains you often see in neighborhoods that close off car traffic.)  The little guy continued, "We will drive around to the other side to see if it's open there."  The other side was also chained off.  They made a big show of driving around more of the neighborhood to show that it was all chained off, called someone on the phone, and finally told us there was no way in.

At this point we had a bit of an argument between Me, Marisa, and the little guy.  I asked if it was safe enough to just get out of the car and walk to the hotel, but Marisa wasn't comfortable with that at 3am in the morning (which was probably good judgment), and the little guy agreed that it wasn't safe.  He asked if we had a number to call the hotel at.  Marisa had the printout from expedia, but for some stupid reason expedia didn't include the phone number of our hotel.  It did have the exact address in Delhi.  We weren't too careful about checking for the number because we have stayed in literally hundreds of hotels and have never had a problem with a cabbie finding our hotel before.  I asked if he could call information, but he said (or pretended) that there is no number for information in India.  Marisa said that we didn't care if it costs money, that we would pay.  I thought this was a pretty subtle move on Marisa's part that left it open to them to take an additional bribe to take us to our hotel.  They could have responded by saying, "Oh, sure, we'll call information, but it'll be 500 rupees".  I would have gladly paid if it meant we would get to our hotel, as 500 rupees is only $10.  However, his response was very scary because he raised his voice a little and said, "Lady, look, you have no number, I can't find out how to get in if you have no number!"  If he didn't want more money, what we did they want?  We asked him, "Isn't there anyone you can call or an information place where we could get the number for the hotel?"

At this point he suggested, "We will take you to tourist information center to call your hotel."  We agreed to that because we didn't know what else to do, although I think at that point we were both 99% suspicious.  What sort of cabbie can't find a mid-quality hotel in a major city, if he's given the exact address?  After this as we drove we tried to pay attention as closely as possible, because we were paranoid about them taking us somewhere dangerous.

Our paranoia was richly rewarded with real world confirmation.  Within a few minutes they pulled up to a very small one storey building that had a seedy sign out front saying something like, "India Travel Agency".  It was very dimly lit in a dark driveway off a small street.  There was a tiny greenish fluorescent glow coming from inside the window and low wattage lights underneath the outside sideboard, but otherwise no lighting.  It wasn't clear anyone was even in there.  It's one of those places where the one forlorn and dirty plastic palm tree decoration makes it looks less instead of more welcoming.  This didn't seem like the promised "Tourist Information Center".  At this point Marisa and I were damn sure we weren't going to get out of the car.  (We agreed while whispering with each other in the back.)  I think we had both read about the shady indian "travel agencies" that try to scam westerners out of money, so it seemed pretty obvious why we were there, although we didn't know how the scam would play out exactly.

I was also worried about physical danger, especially because at this point the driver got out and opened my door.  I was sitting behind the driver, so the seat in front of me was now vacant.  The little guy who spoke English was sitting in front of Marisa, so now the driver was standing to my side, and the little guy was in the front seat to my other side.  They were surrounding me.  I had to lean back to keep both of them in my field of vision as I sat in the car, which I needed to do because I was afraid they might try to hurt us.  I'm not sure what I would have done if the taller driver had done something.  I was worried that if he tried something and I had to defend myself, then that would leave the little guy alone in the car with Marisa.

Anyway, the little guy told us we should get out of the car and go into the office to call our hotel.  We told him, "We're not going inside there."  He insisted to us that we should go in and get them to call our hotel, "Look, this is tourist information office.  Go in and they will call your hotel."  Since I was half-facing the taller driver who was standing near me with the car door open, I directed my response to him, "We're not going in there."  The guy grunted at me and said, "I don't speak English", and the little guy repeated angrily that the driver didn't speak English.

I can't remember exactly what happened next in the dialogue, but we basically argued about whether we should go into the stupid travel agency.  They kept insisting we get out but finally stopped when I said, "We are not going in there.  Please take us to the police station.  We will find out from them where the hotel is or get another cab."

The little guy claimed that he didn't know where a police station was.   I had been paying close attention during the drive and was sure I had seen a police station (because its presence made me feel better), but being completely ignorant of Delhi I had no way of describing where it was.  In hindsight I don't know why we didn't think to ask them to simply call the police and ask them where the nearest station was.  Instead we asked them to just take us to another hotel, but they told us that the way to get a hotel is to go into the travel agency, which we did not want to do.  Marisa (I think) finally had the fantastic idea of just telling them to take us back to the airport.  At least we knew the airport was safe, and they couldn't pretend they didn't know the way to the airport since they had just driven us from there!

Since we'd made it clear we weren't going to get out of the car, the driver slammed the door and got back into the car really angrily and took off in a huff towards the airport.  He drove even faster than before, at more than 100kmh down normal city streets.  They seemed extremely agitated and were muttering to each other in Hindi.

As I mentioned, I had been paying careful attention as we drove from the airport, so I knew that there had been several very nice five star hotels along the way.  I saw one of hotels and asked them to stop, but they were driving so fast (100kmh) that they had already zipped by it.  The little guy said, "Sir, you do not want to stay at that hotel because it's too expensive."  I repeated that we wanted to get out, and he said again "It's too expensive!"   I didn't tell them this, but I didn't care about staying there.  I just figured that a 5 star hotel would be able to find us a taxi that wasn't driven by scam artists.

I knew the second hotel was coming (The Taj Palace), and they zipped by it too as we told them to stop.  I hope they simply intended to return us to the airport and weren't going to do anything else.  Up to that point they were certainly retracing the route they had taken earlier.  However, since we were nearly powerless, I wasn't sure where they were going to take us, I was ready to reach around the seat and start bashing the little guy's head against the window until they stopped the car.  I was pretty afraid for our safety.  As they passed the second hotel Marisa and I started yelling at them at the top of our lungs "STOP THE CAR STOP THE CAR".  The little guy incredulously said, "here?" and we kept yelling, "YES RIGHT HERE  RIGHT AT THIS INTERSECTION RIGHT HERE STOP THE CAR".  

I'm not sure how we got them to stop, in retrospect, as they seemed determined not to let us out.  Maybe the yelling finally scared them enough to let us out.  They had driven a full 1/4 a mile down the road from the sign for the Taj Palace, so we felt pretty vulnerable.  I was also afraid they'd drive off but had the presence of mind to insist Marisa get out before I got out so she wouldn't be trapped in the car with them.  We quickly grabbed our bags.  (We have two small backpacks and two big backpacks.  They're bulky but easy to grab in a rush, luckily.)  At this point the little guy asked us for our taxi stub.  It didn't have his taxi number on it anyway, and since we were a ways from the hotel and still seemed to be in danger, it seemed best to just give him whatever he wanted.  In hindsight, I'm pretty sure he needed that stub in order to claim our 320 rupee fare from the Delhi Traffic Police.  I can't believe he had the gall to demand that from us.  Psh.

Before they managed to drive off, we quickly memorized their license plate number (we later sent a complaint to the delhi traffic police.  We read online that the police physically beat drivers who play at scams like this.  heh.).  Since we were still afraid, we half-ran half-walked for 5 minutes down the road to the Taj Palace hotel front.  It was all barricaded, so we had to walk another 5 minutes to the side entrance.  Entering the security gates at the Taj felt like what I imagine it would have felt like to enter the Green Zone in Baghdad.  It was a huge sigh of relief.  The doormen were really friendly and held the door for us, the porters carried our bags even after we told them we weren't guests and simply wanted to talk to the concierge.  We explained to the concierge what happened, and he was horrified and apologetic for India, but not really surprised.  He asked us if we wanted a room there (which I assume we would have paid for), but we said no, that we were wondering if he could just arrange a reliable cab to take us to our hotel.

We got in the Taj taxi, and less than 10 minutes later we were at the doorstep of the Hans Hotel, where we were staying.  As we arrived, we realized it was in a completely different neighborhood from where the crazy taxi had taken us when they claimed the road was closed to our hotel.  It was in a nice 20+ story building which looked nothing like where they had taken us, and was in a much nicer part of town.  We asked our taxi driver if it was possible that the previous guys could not have known where the hotel was, and the new driver thought that was ridiculous.  He also told us that we should have only paid 200 to 250 rupees, not 320.

We finally got to our room around 4am, and had some things we needed to take care of and were too worked up to sleep until 5am.  I was very very pissed off that the scammer taxi had wasted so much of our time, when all we wanted to do was get off our stupid redeye flight and go to bed.  We were obviously relieved we were safe, though.  I would have willingly paid more money to avoid that hassle and the fear.  At that point, we also had no idea how much money they would have gotten from dropping us off at the travel agency, so maybe they put us through all that just in the hopes of getting a couple extra bucks (which might be a lot for them, but not much for us).  

Later we read more about these types of taxi scams online and in a section of our book that we'd missed earlier and also from talking to legit Indians in the travel business.  Apparently if you do go into the shady travel agency to call your hotel, the agent only pretends to call the hotel.  You are connected to another scam artist who pretends to be that hotel, and who informs you that your reservation wasn't held, and that you'll need to seek new accommodation.  At that point the helpful 'travel agent' sets you up in a crappy hotel where you are charged $100 a night for a room that normally costs $5.  Evidently the taxi drivers would have gotten a commission on that huge profit, but we still don't know how much money they would have gotten.  We were told repeatedly by Indians that we were not in any physical danger, and that these people are just trying to scam money out of us.  Our taxi drivers never threatened us physically, although like I explained, we both did feel in danger.

After the experience we felt pretty crappy about India the next day.  (which only started 3 or 4 hours later, since we went to bed at 5am, and we wanted to get up at a proper time )  We almost wanted to stay in the hotel all day, but instead forced ourselves to explore parliament and the public building area.  We actually had a great time, and it was a nice relaxed way to start to feel better about India.  We sat in the park outside the parliament house, read about Delhi, and relaxed.

It was also a great intro, because since then we have never fallen for any major scam, as far as I can tell.  We're very careful about everything.  (For example, checking many references for the driver we hired and the agency we hired him through.)  There are still scams everywhere.  We went to the government of India travel office to get recommendations for a driver agency.  While looking for the government office, we were directed by maybe 10 different people within 5 minutes to several different tourist offices that they claimed were the government office.  Presumably if we'd gone there we would have been directed to crappier drivers and tour groups that got kickbacks from those tourist information offices.  Luckily for us, we're pretty sensible usually (when we're not tired after a long flight), and we had the proper address and knew where to go to get to the right office.

I hope the long saga above doesn't make people think we hate India.  To be honest, we did hate India for about 12 hours, but our time since then has been great.  We'll hopefully write more about that soon.


  1. I am at a loss for words over this post? Do you remember me telling you growing up that you should always go with your gut instinct? If you feel you are in danger, you probably are! At the beginning you were suspicious of the little guy and then the dirt road and then no taxi number on the slip of paper. Those were all RED FLAGS and your intuition was working. Also, females seem to have more of a gut instinct and/or intuition than men. You should listen to Marisa. It is her "maternal gene" that warns of danger. I am just glad you are safe.

  2. Also, did you ever once think to PRAY?
    Lord God our Father, You kept Abraham and Sarah in safety throughout the days of their pilgrimage, You led the children of Israel through the midst of the sea, and by a star You led the Wise Men to the infant Jesus. Protect and guide us now in this time as we set out to travel. Make our ways safe and our homecomings joyful, and bring us at last to our heavenly home, where You dwell in glory with Your Son and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

  3. What an eventful introduction to India. All of the detail you include makes it seem really scary. I think you're right when you say you'll be better able to spot scams now. My suspicion is that there is now something about you that will cause fewer people to try to scam you. Enjoy India!

  4. Wow! You really told it like it must have felt at the time. A tough lesson, but it looks like it's helped you adjust, keep safe, and enjoy India. Also, I think you've confirmed that your two heads together are better than one alone.

  5. now i understand why my dad was so stressed leading us arnd in india.. not just the translation but dealing with this kind of BS. my brother in law was actually pretty good at sniffing these things out. our driver once took us to a 'great' restaurant in a tourist town. great as in westerner rip off central. he walked in and then walked out and told the driver that this was BS and he better be careful.

    i did not have the balls to do that. you guys were perhaps a bit slow but you handled it in the end.

    patricia: i disagree with your prayer comment. in a situation like this u gotta be alert -- prayer seems like a distraction! but i totally agree with u on the instinct point. in a very less serious situation (my love life) i am trying to deploy just such advice.

    i am glad you guys are ok and enjoying india!

  6. Omar: Good luck with the love life!! If you have red flags rising up, beware. A prayer can be simply, "Help Me." It's not a distraction at all. Although I can see how some would think it is. I thought they could use the travel prayer now before they venture out again.

  7. Heh, this reminds me of some of the dodgy situation I got into in Egypt. I'm glad Marisa had the wit to suggest going back to the airport. She's definitely the brains of your outfit! ;)

    It's also kinda weird that they go to such great lengths to pull off the scam (with the travel agency) rather than just trying to rob you outright.

    I'm glad it all worked out in the end though!