How to Get Ripped Off Ten Ways Before Breakfast

First thing I do, I walk off the plane, and it’s two a.m. in New Delhi. I occurs to me I might have picked a flight with a more convenient arrival time. India’s confusing enough in the daytime, but what the hell. I’m wide awake and feeling brave, so I change $1000 at a booth that looks very regulated and official. The attendant gives me a thirty-five-rupees-to-the-dollar exchange rate. He laughs when I say I thought it was forty-five. What the hell, I do it anyway. I trust him. He’s wearing a uniform. I later calculate this decision cost me $350.

Outside, the curb is lined with several prepaid taxis and an auto rickshaw. I’ve been told to take the prepaid taxis, but they scare me. They’re large, black, and expensive looking.

I approach some backpacking girls from England to see if they want to share a ride to Paharganj, “the backpacker’s ghetto.” They yell “NO!” and run away, out into the street, in what appears to be a very dark and wrong direction. And I thought I was jumpy.

An auto rickshaw driver approaches me as I stand there looking like someone should rip me off and get it over with. He seems very sincere, offers a ride, and I’m so relieved to be not taking the big black scary expensive looking prepaid taxis, that I take the rickshaw.

I don’t ask about the price because . . . because . . . I haven’t got a brain in my head.

We get on the road and he tells me it’ll be 2000 rupees. I tell him nothing doing. It’s 500 or nothing. Take me back to the airport if you don’t like it!

He jokes that he will, but he doesn’t, by which I know he will accept the 500, although he insists on 1500, then 1000, then 700.

He pulls into a gas station, claiming to be out of gas and needing my 500 right away. I know it’s a scam but can’t figure any way out of it. I give it to him. Driving out of the gas station, later, his vehicle sputters and coughs as if dying. I suspect this is part two of his weird rip-off scheme but, yet again, can’t figure a way out of it.

I wonder if he has a button he can press up there labeled, “fake vehicle problems.”

Another auto rickshaw driver just happens to be waiting in the exact spot where this one pulls over. The second man says he’ll take me the rest of the way for just thirty-five rupees. Having gone from 2000 rupees down to just 35, within a kilometer of the airport itself, I conclude the real price of the whole trip was probably a rupee and a half.

I get in, and he drives over hill and dale through the two a.m. darkness, forever. I suspect he’s driving around the city in circles, but I can’t tell, as there are so many roundabouts and long dark lanes that they all look alike. Despite all this, it’s peaceful in the night and smells nice, like flowers. Knowing India, I suspect it’ll be a while before I experience such peace again, so I enjoy it. I later learn the going rate for the ride was actually 200 rupees.

The second driver drops me off at three a.m. in darkest Paharganj, where I want to holler, “YOU MUST BE KIDDING!”

Apparently, I’m supposed to get out of this auto into a dark, dark, dirty street filled with mystery and evil. There is one open-air restaurant where a man ushers me into the bare-bulb-lit space. I order biryani, not because I’m hungry, but because I’m scared. It’s so dry it’s like eating sand, but I pretend to enjoy it, in case anyone’s watching.

Lots of dogs and barefoot men mill about on the street in the patch of light cast by the restaurant, some with arms around each other in the Indian style. I don’t know what they’re up to at this hour but suppose its probably no good. I feel very white, like a glowing light, sitting there, but I try to play it cool, by which I mean I don’t smile.

A penitent type comes along in his dhoti with stuff painted on his forehead. He has beads and things and a long, colorfully decorated stick that seems to bear some spiritual significance. He gets some food and sits on the curb eating it with his hand while I watch, playing it cool. He takes his stick and goes off.

I amble down the street, which is a long, dark avenue of trash, tangled telephone wires, and screamingly good potential for muggings.

Bicycle rickshaws are parked all along the curbs, two and three deep, many with their drivers sleeping, open-mouthed, inside. I’m a sitting duck for some type of assault, but no one wants me. I don’t know how to feel about that.

I try a couple open hotels, but they’re full, so I find one that charges Rs450 for a room with three beds and a toilet stuffed inside. I’m glad to get off the street but don’t let the proprietor have my passport. I’m paranoid of getting it stolen because I’ve been told to be. I think he’s some kind of trickster. Turns out later: you have to give them the passport and sign all this stuff about where you’ve been and where you’re going and so forth—it’s Indian law and a very strict one.

I sleep and awaken to a street transformed into a colorful, hectic marketplace. Nearby, workers are renovating a building and drop bricks, willy-nilly, down to the sidewalk from the second floor. No one seems to mind.

The hotel owner isn’t angry I didn’t comply with the passport thing. I can’t figure out why, because he could get into big trouble, but he just waves me off. I figure he’s just going to keep the dough and pretend I never showed up.

It’s Paharjang, it’s breakfast time, and everyone’s happy.

(For more travel writing and travel writers, see these illustrious posts:

Anthony Bourdain, Chautauqua Park. )

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