In the guide books it stands under the title ‘Dangers and annoyances’. I had read all about it before the departure (and during the last minutes before my connecting flight, vaguely wondering why I didn’t just go on a booze cruise and call it a holiday) but I thought it was just another story that had some time happened somewhere to someone. You know, much like that thing where someone spills ketchup on a tourist and then the person who comes and helps them clean themselves up sneakily pickpockets them. It is the occasional bad story that you’ve heard happened to your parents’ friends or that annoying guy from your school, but most likely, it hasn’t happened to you or at least it hasn’t happened to everyone you talk to.
Unlike here. So far I haven’t met one backpacker who hadn’t been pulled into a tourist scam, sometimes without success, too many times with some success.
Tourist scams are a problem I haven’t seen addressed in travel blogs too often, and if they do get a mention, they are often thrown in as a sort of an afterthought. I wanted to take the dirty laundry out and give it a good shake – after all, travelling is not only about sunsets on a dazzling beach, it’s also about that sand you find everywhere afterwards. I’m only talking about India here because for me it’s the first place I’ve encountered such blatant, enormous scams, but I’d imagine this little rookie guide can be useful elsewhere, too. I’m also not including overpricing in bazaars here (because to be honest, if you’re not Indian, you will end up paying more than you should) but mainly discussing rickshaws and experiences.
|Hawa Mahal in Jaipur|
|Amber Fort, Jaipur|
Learn to recognize a scam even before you arrive.
Read about scams and learn to notice the phrases that rickshaw drivers use to convince you. The first scam you’ll probably come face to face with is the hotel scam, where the driver gives you a reason why they can’t take you to your hotel/hostel and tries to bring you to another one which pays them commission. They might tell you that the streets around the hostel are closed, the place is full or closed completely, or even that it has burnt down. You think I’m kidding with that last one. I’m not.
As we were driving towards our hostel the night we arrived, our driver casually mentioned a festival that was going on in the city. A flash of doubt ran through me but as he was the first Indian we were dealing with (and he had welcomed us to the country! That must mean he is one of the good guys!) I wanted to believe.
‘So is it very busy in the city?’ Ben asked the driver.
‘Yes, very busy. Lots of traffic’, he answered, and I gazed through the window at the quiet, empty streets.
He suddenly pulled into a stop to a big yellow barrier that read ‘Delhi Police’. A guy in jeans and a polo shirt approached the car and had a brief, intense-sounding discussion with our driver. Then we heard the dreaded words: the road was closed and we couldn’t get to our hotel. We knew exactly what was happening. Despite our arguments, our devious driver next brought us to a tourist office to ‘book another hostel’.
Shady tourism offices actually act as a stage to yet another popular tourist scam. If you let them, they can book up your whole holiday for you, trains and hotels included. And to be honest, it is all legit – your train tickets get you from one city to another, and your booked rooms will be there to welcome you, it just so happens that they cost you four times more than they should’ve. A couple we met on the mountains had tried to cancel their package halfway through and got close to no refund, which screwed up their budget. Another pair of lads we met in a hostel in Jodhpur said they’d booked into the hostel because their predetermined one had seemed grimy.
The thing is, if you aren’t aware that these scams happen, you will believe them. After all, you’d think the drivers would know, right?
Do your homework – research the place you’re going to.
Ignorance is bliss, right? At least for the rickshaw driver that gets commission for bringing you to his mate’s shop. Copyright laws (or rather the lack of them) have left us snickering in disbelief many times. In Jaipur we were walking down MI Road eyes fixed on street signs, looking for the almost legendary Lassiwala stall that according to our guide book, the hostel owner, the drunk American from the night before and a puppet-wielding tout on the street serves India’s best lassis. (It does.) We did find the place, as well as a handful of other stalls named exactly the same set in line just beside the real deal and a few strewn around other parts of the road. So, even if you have the name written down, doesn’t guarantee your driver is going to take you to some other place.
Looking at pictures always gives you a good idea of what the place is supposed to be like. Read reviews on Tripadvisor so you know what to expect. And if it is starting to seem like that driver that earlier on was looking so amiable and trustworthy has taken you to the wrong place, nope the nope outta that place.
We had a fantastic afternoon planned – quite literally, since our plan was to head to Elefantastic, a park dedicated to the well-being of elephants. You could feed them and paint them, then ride them bareback to a pond to wash them! That sounds like a dream, doesn’t it?
Turns out it all remained a dream. I liked our driver that day. He had been talking freely and friendly about his life and family, asked us all the regular questions, taken us to a cozy Indian café for breakfast. But as he pulled over in front of that elephant yard, I immediately blurted: ‘This is isn’t the right place.’
‘What do you mean?’ he snapped. ‘Come, come.’
We sat down with someone they called Rahul – because Rahul was the name of the owner of the real Elefantastic, aren’t they good? – and sipped chai as he talked about the elephants and, eventually, scribbled the price list on a paper napkin. All the time I had a nagging doubt tapping on the walls of my head, pointing out this and that that wasn’t right about the place. But they had won Ben over, and I was unsure because I had never actually looked at pictures of the real place. Maybe the government had made bareback riding illegal because of some incident. Maybe the reviews had never even mentioned a pond but meant a pool. Maybe I was raising hell for nothing. I could feel our driver getting upset. So in the end I gave in to the scam.
Later on in the hostel I googled what the real experience was supposed to be like and nearly broke down. It all looked so spectacular, and it was painfully clear I should’ve followed my gut feeling instead of throwing my money at some swindler who probably didn’t care for his elephants for more than the money they brought him. I felt dirty.
Since the driver who took us there was arranged by the hostel, they asked us how the experience had been, and we told them everything. They were absolutely horrified and called the driver immediately, and after some obviously furious conversation they let us know that the hostel wasn’t using the driver’s services anymore.
Karma is a bitch.
|Near Govind Ghat|
At home, I wouldn’t dream of raising my voice in an angry tone unless I was bring harassed or in danger. Here I find myself snapping left and right. I fon’t want to create the wrong sort of image – it is totally not okay to come to the other side of the world to yell at people who are just trying to be, but more than once has an almost aggressive tone been essential in dealing with touts. If that guy trying to sell you bongo drums (despite the fact you are travelling carry-on only and don’t, in fact, really like bongo drums) is still following you after two blocks and three polite and firm no thank yous, I feel it isn’t particularly sinful to tell him to skedaddle, or just ignore him like he was Patrice and you were Robin.
Looking like you know what you’re doing, anyway, is a good way of shaking off the attention of unwanted street vendors (and also normal people. I can see you staring with those big creepy eyes but I know you’ll think twice about harassing someone with a well-educated bitch face on.) I also feel like ever since I have started to find my feet in this country and become more confident instead of faking it, I get a lot less hassle from, well, everyone. Drivers take me to the right address, vendors give up after a firm no, and touts at the train stations let me do the talking. They smell fear, guys!!1!
If we hadn’t stood our ground firmly that first night, our stay in Delhi might have been sponsored by a persistent scammer. After our driver had pulled off from the barrier, we promptly let him know we knew the game he was playing and that we wanted to be taken to our hostel. He asked to see the phone number on our reservation, pretended to call that number (yes, they do go that far) and confirmed that our ‘hotel’ was unaccessible. I corrected him, saying it was a hostel, but he had already left the car and went inside the tourist office to talk with his friend.
Ben dialled the number on his own phone and gave the hostel a call. As our driver and his friend approached the car, he triumphantly declared he was on the phone with our hostel – the real hostel. Even after this, our driver refused to take us there. At this point we were both shouting at him (well deserved – what an eejit), but he kept asking us what do we want him to do, the hotel is closed, he can’t go there. I think the worst part was how persistent he was. It was 4 a.m., we had both been travelling for over 40 hours, and all we yearned for was the comfort of a bed and a pillow. A part of me wanted to let him take us wherever, just so that this ridiculous farce would come to an end.
Usually they give up. The next day a driver took us to a tourist office when we needed to get to the train station (the only real tourist office in Delhi is inside it and guarded passionately by touts that claim you can’t go into the station without a ticket – ummm, what?) but after an assertive white lie that we didn’t need tickets because we already had them, he drove us there with no further hassle. But this guy just wouldn’t quit. After ten minutes of aimless driving around and us demanding he takes us to our hostel, we finally just asked him to drop us off at New Delhi Railway Station, which was close to the hostel. All animated talk and pleasantness had gone out of him, as he in grumpy silence dropped us off at the station. We ironically thanked him for a good job and got off.
You know what’s not a nice place to be looking like an utter tourist at 4 a.m.? It’s Delhi railway station. After getting confused by contradictory directions, dodging food vendors heckling at us and stepping over piles of rubbisj and homeless people in slumber, we finally arrived at our hostel. Guess what? It wasn’t closed.
Soon you will start noticing certain signs that are like the guy outside of a gold-for-cash place spinnning an ad sign, only that the sign reads TROUBLE. Maybe it is the young fellow coming up to you, trying to strike up a chat by asking where you’re from, then in the next sentence trying to take you into a temple, then charge you 500 rupees to leave (apparently this really happens in Pushkar and Varanasi – so not a personal experience). Maybe it is the rickshaw driver that first shows you the industrial area and then wants to take you to some ‘cheap local shops’ which is most likely run by a friend and pays him commission, which doubles the prices for goods. (And when you insist you want to go back to your hostel instead, he gets all upset and starts playing with the throttle, making it look like his rickshaw broke down and can’t move any further. Who knew grown-up men could be such drama queens!)
The balance between being aware and being bitter is difficult. It gets tiring to be suspicious of everyone all the time, but if you’re not perceptive enough, you will get scammed – and at the other end of the scale, if you let all sense of wonder go and just adopt the attitude that everyone is out there to get you (or rather, your money) you easily get bitter and are unable to distinguish between a scammer and a potential new friend. But there is a balance, and it is possible to find.
|Near Fatehpur Sikri|
Lastly, two more pieces of advice which are probably as age-old as travel itself. Firstly, trust your instincts. If something feels off, it probably is – and even if it was the right place and the right price, if you feel uncomfortable, the only sensible thing to do is find something else. Secondly, talk to other travellers. They have probably had similiar experiences and some of them might have even fallen prey to a scam, so they can teach you more about what to be wary of.
However, I want to finish by saying that this post is meant as a guide line about how to stay on the track – not as an unwelcoming barrier across your path forcing you to turn back. India is a fascinating country to travel and the fact that its backpacker culture is only budding, it is an exciting frontier for a backpack traveller – plus even when I’ve been exploring the streets on my own, I have never felt unsafe. So yeah, travel India, really, do. But know where you’re coming from. An Indian traveller we met in a hostel very bluntly said that to some Indians a Westerner looks like a walking ATM. As a pale redheaded Finnish girl the only way I could blend in is if I threw on a burkha, and even then my Mr Bean like proneness to disaster (and my occasionally posh English accent) would probably give me away. There will always be some people wherever you go who want to take advantage of you, and here it is only reinforced by the wealth gap. If you are a tourist, it must mean you have loads of money (even if at home the culmination of your culinary expeditions was pasta with cheap ketchup), and some people don’t see anything wrong in smooth-talking that money from your pockets into theirs.
It is easy to lose your faith on the whole nation when you have to deal with scammers on a daily basis, but don’t stop believing (insert Journey voice here) but shrug the unpleasant encounters off and focus on the positive ones. There was a shopkeeper in Delhi who let us cool off in his shop’s AC’d backroom and gave us water, and a rickshaw driver that gave us a map of Agra when we were lost&new in the city. The statement stands – some of the world’s most friendly, caring, hospitable people live in India. For their sake it is a shame that the people tourists often are most and foremost in touch with are giving them a bad name.
By the way – none of the pictures in this post have anything to do with tourist scams. I just wanted to show how ridiculously fun I’ve had here. You guys should come, too.
Do you have any experience on tourist scams?