Scamography Vol. 01 – India

| July 6, 2012


Over the years, and across five continents, I have seen many travelers fall prey to the cunning of scam artists. And it should be noted that their targets know no age, nor social strata. I’ve seen it everywhere, from teenagers weeping over empty backpacks on a train in Thailand; to a well-heeled woman in Rome chasing after her handbag as it Vespa’d down the Via Veneto. It can happen to the best of us. While sympathetic to the victims, I’ve often boasted that I have never been had, as it were, and then I knock on wood so hard my knuckles bleed.
Mother India has surely given birth to more scams per capita than any other country on Earth. Traveling to this incredibly dichotomous country early in my adventures has prepared me for everyone else’s attempted trickery, and frankly, by comparison, all others have seemed downright amateurish and rather genteel. When I’ve encountered travelers breathlessly weaving yarns of scamming shopkeepers, I normally yawn: “Oh, really? Some guest houses near the Taj Mahal, actually poison their guests. Once unconscious, you’re taken you to an ad hoc phony clinic. A few days later, when you’ve regaind your faculties and can walk out, you discover your bank account’s been drained and your credit cards are maxed out. And those are the lucky victims; the others never wake up at all.”
Jet lag is a truth serum. I knew as I was touching down at Indira Gandhi International at 02:30 — wearied from being in transit for over twenty-four hours — that I’d be an easy target if I admitted to my cabbie it was my first time in India. Yet no sooner did I hand him my bag, than I responded honestly when he asked, “First time to my country?”  I tried backpedaling, “I meant northern India. I’ve been to southern India many times.” It was too late, he knew I was lying; meanwhile he’d already set the con gears in motion before even flicking on the headlights. Now I sat staring out at the scarcely lit capital, weaving in between sleeping cows on the highway and half-tempted to open the bottle of Scotch I’d brought along for the hotel’s manager, as barter for my three-night stay.
“Sorry madam, your hotel’s street is closed, let me see if there’s another way around.” And here we go. I responded, “Connaught Circus is a major thoroughfare, it’d be impossible for it to be closed. Please take me directly to my hotel, sir.” A few minutes later we arrive in a narrow alleyway lit by a single street light. He turned off the engine. “Now, madam we will go into this government tourism office and they will let you call the hotel to see if it is open.”
I refused, telling him that I wouldn’t get out of the car and that I was fully aware that he was trying to scam me. “Sir, what you expect me to do is go into that ramshackle hut then someone will dial a number for me. And on the other side of the wall will be a person who will answer the call and tell me my hotel is closed. At this point, you will tell me that the other hotel — where you tried to take me earlier tonight — has an available room for me. And once I’ve checked-in and paid double the room’s normal tariff, you and the front desk man will split the difference. Now take me to my hotel this instant.”
He jumped out, stomped over to my side and snatched opened my door, “You must go inside now!” And without thinking, I jerked the door closed, pulled my knees to my chest and began kicking the front seat until it broke forward, all the while screaming for the police. He yelled back in Hindi and punched my door, then threw himself back in the driver’s seat and sped us pock-marking back down the alleyway, around the bend, and toward my hotel.
Connaught Circus was a ghost town at 04:30 with hardly a soul in sight, save for the tribe of goats being herded down the middle of a four-lane road. Suddenly he slammed on the breaks. “This is it. Don’t move. I’ll check for your room.” I grabbed my bag and chased up to him as he was talking to the front desk man. I handed him my cabfare and insisted he stop talking to the receptionist. “Get out of here, and stop talking to him, I paid you, now leave.” Too late: He’d already plotted another con-alliance in front of me.
“This man tells me that he has no room for you — come, I’ll take you to my brother’s guesthouse.” Now he was in cahoots with the hotel worker. The next place would now have to be triply expensive to pay off three people. I looked around at the desolate neighborhood and thought, I’m on the other side of the world and no one knows where I am. I looked up and down the street; everything was shuttered and the only sound was  a lone auto-rickshaw’s puttering in the distance. I could feel my throat tighten as I pleaded with the front desk clerk; all the while they hammered out their pact in Hindi and ignored me.
And then I remembered something. I dropped my bag to the ground and fumbled though until I found it: the bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. I held it up to the hotel worker’s face “Your boss asked me to bring this to him; he’s expecting it. You either give me my room now or I’ll come back tomorrow, find your manager, open it up, and pour it on the fucking floor. Then I’ll tell Mr. Chowdury that it’s you’re fault. Do you think he’ll like that? Now check me in now. Now.”
Thirty minutes later, I propped my feet up on the balustrade of my upgraded private terrace and sipped my first real chai and my first real victory against not just one, but several scam artists. The sun was warming the view into focus. The wooden shutters from the arcades below were creaking open; a man broomed the sidewalk in front of a teashop. And as the ravens cawed above my head I leaned forward and smiled watching a woman sauntering across the street; a basket atop her head brimming with marigolds. Dawn had broken below the Indus Valley, and the touts, I was determined, would not break my spirit. At least not today.

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Category: Featured, Go, Scams, Travel -- Culture, Travel Scams

Comments (6)

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  1. Anne Turner says:

    This story is so thrilling, it had me wishing it was the first page of a book!

  2. Stephanie Wilkins says:


  3. Eric E says:


  4. Alan Winokur says:

    I’m with Anne, Christina. Your fascinating, well-told tale ended all too soon. I wanted more. Much more. And I feel as cheated as you would have had you let those gents scam you. Please write again about your impressions and adventures in India. It inspires some of your best prose.

  5. Genny-on-a-Friday says:

    Brilliant Evocative and scary. I had a similar experience on my first night in Mumbai last month only I didn’t have any scotch to get in my hotel room so I had to stay in a horrible place one night for (what I would later learn) double the normal tariff. You nailed it and even though it was a tough trip, I already can’t wait to go back.

  6. Carole says:

    To say nothing of simply trying to get nourishment. Great post. I’d love to see a follow-up on food safety in India and the dreaded Delhi Belly.