Our first India post contained lots of ratings of different parts of our India experience. Rather than explain the individual ratings, which would take forever and probably be pretty boring, we’ve written a collection of stories from our month in the country. These stories highlight what our India experience was like, what we learned, what we saw, and should hopefully give an idea as to why we gave some of the rankings we gave in our previous post.
So without further ado, here are some stories from our month in India:
The Tuk Tuk Racket
The tourist area of Kochi, Kochi Fort, is walkable, so Inna and I set out to see the sites. Except Kochi was really hot and humid, and we weren’t going to last long. So when a tuk tuk driver asked if we’d like a city tour, we were all for it. The price was 50 rupees (less than $1) per person, which seemed suspiciously low, but it was only our second day in India so we didn’t know if there was a catch or if that’s just how cheap things really were in this country.
Turns out there was a catch. In addition to taking us to the sites, including some unique ones we would not have visited otherwise, our tuk tuk driver also took us to tourist shops. These shops thrive on customers brought by tuk tuk drivers (who get a cut of the sales they make) and they sell hard. They are very skilled salesmen, specifically through manipulative selling (read Influence if you want to know their techniques). This was especially true because of this unspoken attitude: “you took the cheap city tour; how did you think it could be so cheap?”
So Inna and I resolved to by something. After all, we did want a souvenir from India, might as well get it here. Inna really wanted a blanket and she found the perfect one, so we bought it, probably paying too much. But even after we bought it, our tuk tuk driver kept taking us to more tourist shops, each one selling us hard. As the tour went on, it became less about the destinations (which really were interesting and worth it in the beginning) and more about shops. Eventually, we told our driver to just take us to our hotel, cutting our tour short.
Lesson learned: Don’t go shopping on tuk tuk tours. Ask for tours that don’t go to shops, even if it means paying more. Or go to the shops but don’t buy anything. If they get upset that’s their problem, they should be up front, not playing these bullshit games.
FYI: the best way to not buy anything at these places (other than being an asshole) is to say you can’t buy anything without the permission of your husband/wife. Unfortunately, this only works if you don’t go together, which Inna and I usually did.
Before we went on our tuk tuk tour, we dropped our laundry off for cleaning. On our tour, one of our stops was at the local laundry facilities, worth seeing because many Indians still wash laundry the old way. And while in the laundry facility, we saw our laundry being washed. We were so excited that we took pictures with it.
Lesson learned: None. This one is just funny.
Our First Full-Blown Scam
Mumbai was crazy, way moreso than Kochi. Arriving there was disorienting and overwhelming. So when I was looking for fruit and couldn’t find it, and someone came to help, I accepted. Big mistake.
After helping, he hung around. I could see it, so I tried to give him a tip. He refused, instead asking if I could buy food for his hungry kid. Naïve as I was, I said yes. He then took me to a corner store and asked for a whole bunch of money (by India standards) to buy the food. Thankfully, a whole bunch of money in India isn’t that much, so I gave him some of what he asked for ($9) and then got the hell out of there.
Lesson learned: In India, if someone offers help, it is because they want something in return. Know this so you can defend against it, or better yet, don’t accept help from anyone (at least anyone in a non-official capacity).
The Crazy Taxi Driver
I don’t haggle. I hate it. It is insulting to both me and the seller and leaves no one satisfied. Instead of haggling, if the quotes price is too much, I simply walk away. Otherwise I buy it, even if it is slightly overpriced (in this part of the world, slightly overpriced usually only amounts to a dollar or two, an amount that is nothing to me but a lot to the locals who live here).
How much money have I lost on this trip by not haggling? ~$100, not very much for nine months of travel (including three in Southeast Asia and one in India). This is especially true when you consider all the energy saved and worry avoided by not haggling. A final reason not to haggle, at least when it comes to services, is that when you simply accept someone’s offer, you are telling them you agree with how much they feel they are worth. People appreciate this and as a result they take care of you.
Inna doesn’t agree with me on this issue, at least not all the time. Sometimes she wants to haggle, and so with one taxi driver, she haggled the quoted fare (he refused to use the meter, an annoying but not uncommon occurrence in this part of the world) from 200 to 100 rupees ($3 to $1.50). She based her price on a recommendation from our hotel, who told us that for where we were going, 100 rupees would be more than enough.
Unfortunately, our driver turned out to be crazy. The whole drive, he asked for more money, even yelling for it as we walked away at our destination. Not only that, but while driving us, he stopped at a gas station to fill his tank, wasting a good ten minutes of our time. I don’t know how he imagined getting more than Inna haggled him down to after that.
Would this driver have done what he did had we not haggled him? Maybe, after all he was pretty crazy. But from this point on we didn’t haggle down fares. Actually, if a taxi/tuk tuk driver took us to our destination hassle free, we gave more than was originally quoted. Prices were so cheap there was no reason not to.
Lesson learned: Haggling, especially for services, isn’t worth it (as long as the difference is only a couple bucks).
How To Deal With Tour Guides
Tourist destinations in India are filled with signs advising not to pay for guides, as many are scammers and none are licensed. The way these guides operate is that they hang out by the entrance to a destination, then help you navigate your way to the ticket counter or inside or something like that, then they ask if you’d like a tour. Basically, the old “give something and small ask for something larger in return” trick, the same one the scammer I mentioned earlier used and one of several techniques outlined in this book.
Knowing this, when Inna and I went to the Elephanta Caves, we were ready. We watched a tour guide operate on someone, not get the tour, then come to us. I noticed in the guide’s previous operation that the last thing he said when the tourist walked away was “but you won’t understand the place!” Knowing this, I formulated a response.
Everything went like clockwork. The tour guide helped us without us asking him for help, and after we said thank you he asked if we’d like a tour, to which we answered “no”. Then, as we were leaving, the guide said “but you won’t understand the place!” to which I responded “that’s okay, we don’t understand anything.”
The tour guide did not appreciate this. Instead of simply letting us go, he said (defending himself and his self-respect) “This is my job.”
I felt pretty bad about that.
Lesson learned: In India, being firm, forceful, even mean is okay, but snarky is not.
Even Nice Hotels Were Shitty
Most of India is cheap, but Mumbai is not. Mumbai is laid out like New York City, in that downtown is a peninsula and everyone uses public transit to commute there for work. Unfortunately, like New York a hundred (or maybe even twenty?) years ago, Mumbai’s surroundings are not the best places, especially not for tourists.
Because of this, Inna and I booked our hotel downtown, in the main tourist area. This would be like booking in Time Square, or walking distance to the Statue of Liberty ferries (actually, we were walking distance to the Elephanta Cave ferries, and the Elephanta Caves are kind of Mumbai’s version of the Statue of Liberty). The cost for our hotel: $100 per night.
One hundred dollars per night is not a lot considering where we were and the hotel we got, but even so, it was a lot for India. Actually, this hotel was one of the most expensive places we stayed at our entire year of travel (even more than New England, the Netherlands, Australia, and Switzerland).
Our hotel was nice; the nicest hotel we stayed at in India. Except for one thing.
The hotel had a nightclub on the second floor. Our room was on the third floor, directly above the nightclub. And the music was loud, really loud. Loud enough to permeate into our room, turning it into an audio torture chamber. Ignoring it didn’t work. Drowning it out didn’t work. Earplugs didn’t work. It was so loud the floor was vibrating and there was nothing we could about it.
We talked to the hotel staff but they did nothing, this despite the fact that they owned the club below us. We asked for a different room but all the rooms were booked. We asked if there was somewhere we could stay until the music was over (we didn’t want to leave the hotel because India isn’t the safest place at night). There wasn’t. We asked if they had any solution to this problem. They just sat there, silent.
It was like this until 1am, when, as scheduled, the music shut off.
All this occurred the second night at our hotel; the club was closed the first night and so we did not experience anything like this. We asked our hotel if the club was open any other days during our stay. It was: our last day. Because of this, we canceled our last day and stayed somewhere else.
Lesson learned: Don’t count on employees in India to be concerned about customer experience. Don’t count on them to solve problems either.
Mumbai was filled with people with deformations, some of the worst we have ever seen. Some of the many deformations we saw: bloated/infected limbs, missing limbs, backs bent and forcing people to stand and walk in an L shape, knees and backs so damaged that the person had to crawl because he could not walk, someone who looked like at one point he was burnt alive, and more.
Most of these people use their deformations to increase sympathy while begging (as deformed as they are, they often don’t have other options). I’m not sure this would work on its own, but even if it did, it definitely doesn’t work when dozens of people are doing it, sometimes right next to each other too.
Most deformities were induced on these people as children, with the specific purpose of increasing sympathy for the child when begging. This was a thing about ten to twenty years ago. Thankfully, international awareness seems to have ended this practice, as we saw no deformed kids.
Lesson learned: International awareness really does make a difference.
Tuk Tuk Fares
Inna and I wanted to go to Pushkar for Holi. To get there, we took an overnight bus from Mumbai to Udaipur and then a train from Udaipur to Ajmer, the nearest train station to Pushkar. Our layover in Udaipur was several hours long, giving us time to explore the city’s main attraction: City Palace.
I took a tuk tuk to City Palace while Inna stayed at the train station, my fare being 100 rupees. However, when it was time to head back to the train station, the reverse fare (quoted by a different driver) was twice that amount. I mentioned this and the driver said his quote was higher because of Holi traffic. I thought he was bullshitting, so I told him I would find a different driver.
While leaving, the driver offered to split the difference, which I accepted (I guess that means I haggled him, this despite what I wrote previously. Oh well).
On our way to the station, there was so much traffic! Way more than when I went the opposite direction. Streets that were open earlier were now shut down and there was congestion everywhere; it was so bad that the tuk tuk driver had to get creative and find a different, longer route to the train station.
When it came time to pay, I paid the originally quoted amount.
Lesson learned: As long as they aren’t undercharging you while secretly planning to take you to tourist shops, tuk tuk drivers’ quotes are fair and honest.
We’ll get more into this in our Holi post. Here we will just say that Holi was an amazing experience, tons of fun and everyone was awesome and energetic and respectful, and Inna only got her boobs grabbed once (thankfully it was superfast and by someone so drunk we’re pretty sure he had no idea what he was doing).
Lesson learned: Indians are the best at celebrations (we actually already knew this, but Holi re-confirmed it).
Holy (Not To Be Confused With Holi) Donations
Inna and I went to Pushkar to celebrate Holi, and also spent a second day there recovering. We explored the city this second day, since it was walkable and seemed pretty nice.
While exploring, locals kept pressuring us to do some local ritual. We had heard that Pushkar was an important religions destination, one many Indians pilgrimage, and when we learned this was similar to the ritual the locals were pressuring us to do, we decided to try it.
The ritual was basically prayers to one of the Hindu Gods, asking for happiness and prosperity for us and our family.
Of course, none of this came without a price. The price was the “Holy Donation”, one of the most ridiculous phrases I’ve ever heard. Just like Kochi’s city tour became more about tourist shops and less about destinations as the tour went on, this ritual became less about spirituality and more about the donation as the tour went on. By the time the ritual ended, it was all about donations, donations, donations. Or, I should say, “Holy Donations”.
Inna and I each gave 500 rupees ($7.50) each and left.
Lesson learned: Some Indians are willing to manipulate even their own religion to get money from tourists.
Some People Never Had A Chance
While waiting at the train station, a malnourished, poverty-stricken mom and her two kids came to us begging for money. They didn’t speak, just stuck out their hands. We gave them a bag of peanuts, which they put away, then stuck out their hand again, begging for more.
We could tell there was no hope for these people. The mom had nothing, including no desire or ability to do anything other than beg. The most upsetting aspect of this was that the mom had already instilled this mentality into her five-year-old (we estimate) daughter, so much so that she seemed beyond saving. The mom’s three-year-old son however, we felt still had a chance, if someone (like the state) were to take him from this situation. But that wasn’t going to happened, at least not as far as we could tell.
After tugging at our sympathies didn’t work, the family continued begging, this time trying to be so annoying that we’d pay them to leave. We ignored them. They would tap us to prevent us from completely ignoring them we would simply say “no” then ignore them again. Eventually they went away. It was pathetic.
Everywhere we went in Northern India had people like this.
Lesson learned: Some parents, even non-criminal ones, deserve to have their children taken away.
Screams Falling On Deaf Ears
Train stations in India have lots of tracks, with elevated platforms connecting them. On one of these platforms, a deformed person (both legs cut off at the knees) was lying face down on a sheet of plastic, screaming. The screams were screams of pain, although I couldn’t tell if they were real or if he was acting in an attempt to create sympathy (I think it was the latter).
Everyone, Inna and myself included, walked by as if nothing was happening.
Lesson learned: India makes you numb. You have to be, otherwise you won’t survive.
The Caste System
We took another tuk tuk tour in Jaipur, one that was underpriced with stops at tourist shops. At the end of our tour, we owed 700 rupees ($11.50), but since it was mostly a nice tour and our tour guides (there were two because the one who was supposed to give us the tour recruited his friend to help) we wanted to pay 1000 ($15).
All we had was a 2000 rupee bill, something our tour guides didn’t have enough change for. So we went into our hotel. We invited one of our guides with us so they wouldn’t think we were trying to stiff them. But when the hotel clerk saw we were with a tuk tuk driver, he refused to serve us. He didn’t want to help someone who was paying a tuk tuk driver.
I was shocked. Such prejudiceness, even to the point of a customer service employee refusing to serve his own customer?
Inna insisted we be served, but the clerk refused. Then our tour guide said something in Hindi and the clerk finally changed our bill. Up until this point, I was so dumbfounded that I thought the clerk and the tour guide were colluding: refusing to change our large bill so we would be forced to pay with the 2000. Thankfully, this is not how things turned out.
Also, every time we asked this this hotel employee for something (basic things, like change, ordering food, toilet paper, etc), he would say something in Hindi to his coworkers hanging out in the lobby, something that always sounded like it was disparaging to us.
Lesson learned: The caste system still exists in this world, and it is bullshit. Also, many Indian employees, even customer service employees, treat their customers terribly.
Lying Even When It’s Obvious
Adding to the above story, when we originally offered a 2000 rupee bill to our tour guide, he told us he only had 450 rupees change. But after we broke our 2000 and gave him 1000 (remember that our total was 700), he responded that he didn’t have change. This despite him telling us he had 450 rupees only a couple minutes earlier. Not only that, but “I don’t have change” was the same response he gave the previous day when we paid a little more than he quoted for our ride from the train station to the hotel. It was obviously calculated and programmed, not honest.
We told him that we wanted to pay 1000 rupees, and that he should go.
Lesson learned: Even obviousness won’t stop some Indians from lying. In fact, a lot of the time, I don’t even think they’re aware they are lying.
They Don’t Even Trust Each Other
One more thing to add to the above story. Shortly after we paid our 1000 rupees and our tour guide left, our second guide came in and asked us how much we paid. It was clear he was worried about getting ripped off by his friend.
Lesson learned: The scammers/manipulators in India don’t even trust each other.
Indians don’t wait in line, nor do they wait their turn; they crowd around an entrance and squeeze their way in. There is no sense or order to anything.
This was exactly happened at Jantur Mantur: a huge swarm of people surrounded the ticket window. No lines, no organization, nothing. To get my ticket, I maneuvered myself in the crowd so that I was behind the person currently being served. I would be next; I would make sure of it.
For whatever reason, it took longer than normal for this patron to get his tickets. Then, just before he was about to finish (ie before I could move in), another Indian tried to squeeze his arm through and buy a ticket.
I stuck my arm out, deflecting his arm. Then I leaned on the wall beside the window, holding my place but also blocking the other guy’s path. I would be the next one served, and I was.
Later, after leaving Jantur Mantur, I went across the street to Jaipur’s City Palace. The ticket window here wasn’t nearly as crazy, and there even appeared to be a line. So I got in it.
The first person in line bought his ticket. The second person, some tourist with her back to counter, was standing with a not-in-line group next to her. Because of this, when the ticket window became open and she didn’t move, I started thinking that maybe she wasn’t in line after all.
I was about to ask, when an Indian darted in front of this girl and bought a ticket. The girl didn’t respond, so I finally figured she wasn’t in line, and I went to move around her.
When the lady saw me do this, she lost her shit. She started screaming that she was in line and we (me and the Indian who she now noticed had bought a ticket) were cutting in front of her. Then, when she saw that I was a tourist, not an Indian, she pointed at me and said: “You should know better (emphasis on the ‘you’).”
I told her that she was just standing there. She said she was standing there because the attendant wasn’t there and the line wasn’t moving. I pointed to the attendant behind the counter (to be fair, he wasn’t there earlier; he arrived when I got in line) and told her that he was right there, the person in front of her had been served, and she was just standing there. She protested again, but I cut her off; I simply said that it didn’t matter, then got behind her in line. Then she bought her ticket, then I bought mine.
Lesson learned: India rubs off on you. It also gets to other tourists, not just Inna and myself.
Drinking OJ On the Streets
I had just bought a container of orange juice and was walking down the street drinking it, when one of those malnourished poverty-stricken kids ran up to me pointing at it. Now I’m not one to give people living in poverty change, as it encourages begging and not getting out of their situation (people down on their luck are different, but that was not what was happening here). But to not give a thirsty child something to drink? You’d have to be a monster to do that.
So I gave her my container, to which she responded by pointing to the cap in my other hand. I gave her that as well. Then she ran off. During the whole interaction, she made no other gestures, and she never said a single word. I doubt she even drank the orange juice; it seemed more like she was delivering it somewhere.
I estimate she was six years old.
Lesson learned: Good luck walking around Northern India with an open and not empty drink container in your hand.
Finally, Someone Nice
Towards the end of our stay in Thailand (yes, Thailand, that wasn’t a typo), we bought a postcard that we were never able to mail. So while in Jaipur, we stopped by the post office to mail it.
But there was a problem, and to solve it we had to go to another desk.
At this desk, a local was waiting. He said hello and asked if he could see our postcard. He thought it was interesting and asked where we got it, so we told him.
Inna and I instantly could tell that this guy wasn’t like almost all the other Indians we’d met on this trip. He was kind, caring, interested, and more important than that, he was genuine. He wasn’t manipulating or hustling or trying to pull one over on us, he was nice and honest. Civilized would be the best way to describe him.
Later, the clerk at desk #2 sent us to a third desk. And then, from the third desk we were sent back to the first one. I already knew that passing responsibility until the customer gives up is a common ploy used by Indian bureaucracy, and this was something we didn’t want to deal with. We were about ready to leave when the guy from the second desk stepped in and offered to help.
Now Inna and I learned early to not accept help from anyone in India, because they always ask for something in return. But we could tell this guy was different. We could tell that he genuinely wanted to help. So we let him.
He spoke to the postmen in Hindi (the postmen didn’t speak English well but the guy helping us did, so he translated). Our helper then told us that because our postcard was thicker than normal (it was, but not by much), India wouldn’t treat it as a postcard. Instead, we had to buy an envelope and send it as a letter. Finally understanding the problem, Inna and I chose not to do this, instead we would send the postcard from a different destination (we’re in Ukraine as I write this and we still haven’t sent it, grrr…).
Before leaving, we said thank you to the guy who helped us, and to our not-surprise, he didn’t ask for anything in return. He simply said you’re welcome and genuinely smiled, and we genuinely smiled back. Then we left.
Lesson learned: Not a lesson, more of an insight. The difference between our experiences with Indians and the rest of the world isn’t India vs the rest of the world (that would be racist), it is the difference between tribal and civilized mentalities. This difference is significant in India because the country has a much higher number and percentage of people with tribal mentalities than the rest of the industrialized world.
This last story, our last story from Jaipur, seems like a good break point. To continue reading our India stories, head to Part 2.