The Delhi Hustle

My excitement for going back to India was over shadowed by the known pending exhaustion that is India. Boarding the plane from the Maldives to New Delhi I tried to work out all the angles in how we were going to get to our hotel in New Delhi from the airport. We would take the airport metro subway to the New Delhi train station, from there it was just an easy one kilometer walk to the hotel. I had GPS on my phone, and offline maps with the hotel address preloaded. I even had the hotel name and address clearly written in all caps in my notebook to show any taxi driver.

It started off smooth enough. The airport metro subway was ultra slick and modern and we were whizzed 20 kilometers underneath the city in no time. Exiting the airport metro station I looked at the map and realized the main train station was across the street, and we would have to cross over the tracks to get to our hotel. This meant going through the train station. The plan of simply walking through the train station immediately proved to be a tall order. Inside was the first glimpse of India. A crowded, smelly station full of bustle and action. In the direction we wanted to go was a security counter with a rather long line for the metal detector and the obvious fact that a ticket was needed to cross into the train station. Defeated, we walked back outside and initiated the back up plan of hailing a taxi or tuk tuk, and so the rabbit hole opened itself up before us and down we went. The tuk tuks lined up outside, but did not seem interested in actually giving anyone a ride, which was a strange sign. Approaching a driver I repeated the ritual done many times over of pointing, acting out, and speaking in broken loud English in order to convey my destination. After the driver consorted with about three other drivers, and I explained three more times the name of the hotel we were in the back of a tuk tuk and on our way.

This optimism was deflated when our driver kept stopping and talking to his friends after only a few hundred meters. After a few more minutes he pulled over, turned the engine off and didn’t really say anything. I asked if there was a problem and if he was taking us to our hotel. “Hotel? No Hotel! Only dropping.” Dropping! What the hell was dropping, and where was he dropping us? I said to him “No Dropping! Take us to Hotel”, to which he of course responds “Ok, what hotel?” I told him the address yet again and this time he brought us back to the train station. Another driver approached the tuk tuk that seemed to have a better command of English and explained to us that the area where our hotel is in was closed due to protests from the recent elections. He claimed that we needed to go get a pass in order to enter this area of the city. I again stated that fact that it was only 1km away. If we could just cross the damn train station we would simply walk there. He informed us that we needed to go inside the station and get a “pass” from a police officer. He even escorted us inside and pointed at a man working the metal detector. The plain clothed officer confirmed that the area we were trying to go to was indeed dangerous and I would need to get a pass. It was at this point that it would have obviously been safer to just take the blue pill and get a different hotel and be done with this adventure. But, this is wonderland and I had to know how deep the rabbit hole went. He told us that we needed to go to the official government tourism office or ITDC building. He advised that we take a taxi to this mythical ITDC. He even went as far as coming back out to the taxi line with us and negotiating a price with the tuk tuk driver to take us there. At the time I was quite thankful for his help, then later I wondered how he just abandoned his post at the metal detector.

The tuk tuk driver raced across what seemed like all of Delhi to bring us to a very small “tourist office” in what seemed like more of an alley than a major street. Inside we were escorted into a back room and seated at a desk facing a well spoken gent that seemed genuinely concerned about our problems. He even told us some local facts and dangers about Delhi, like there was swine flu epidemic so we shouldn’t eat the chicken, he even cursed Mexico for making swine flu a reality. Back in relevant land he indeed confirmed the situation that many parts of the city were closed and it would be difficult to get to our hotel. I asked about a pass. He said our hotel would have to somehow authorize a pass. I gave him the hotel’s number and we called from the phone on his desk. I was informed that a pass would be “impossible” tonight and was crudely dismissed. So I asked this seemingly honest non-pushy guy sitting across from me where other hotels were. He said the situation was similar across the city and unfortunately the only hotels were a bit expensive and in the city center. He pulled out what looked to be a legit Lonely Planet guide book and started calling some of them for me. Several were full, and the rest were running around $400/night. It was time for a new plan. He was very confident that we wouldn’t be able to find anything by just walking around and suggested that given the situation we just leave Delhi tonight and go somewhere else. This actually seemed like a good idea, I was getting pretty fed up with this game. So we started looking at trains, which were all full, then buses, there was one seat left. No options were presenting. He then said there was one more option, that I could hire a private car to Agra which would cost about $300 one way. It seemed that the ruse was now in the open. But was this all a trick to get us to buy some over priced car? The plain clothed police officer, needing a “pass”, calling those hotels, looking at train websites? Was it all a giant scam? Were there even protests?! I wasn’t sure what was real, it seemed all too complicated and intricate, and this guy wasn’t pushy at all, he seemed genuinely helpful. If this was a street scam I was way out of my depth. Feeling these dodgy alarms going off I decided to abort, and the cheshire cat smiled. There was a lounge in the airport that we could sleep in, and in that moment it seemed like the best plan on the table. Leaving the office we got in another tuk tuk and headed back to the airport.

The second tuk tuk driver seemed nice enough, we also shared the ride with a young Japanese kid that looked like a typical backpacker. The tuk tuk driver immediately asked why we were in that office. I told him the story of how we were told we need to go to the ITDC office and get a pass and we were taken there. He shrugged at this and make the snarky remark “ITDC office, what is this? It is a lie, and that office was fake.” I guess this only confirmed my suspicions, but still got me nowhere. I asked if it was true I needed some pass to get to my hotel. He did confirm this part, and echoed that parts of the city were indeed closed. So, maybe it’s not all a giant lie. On the way to the airport, he pointed at another tourist office and said that it was a good place, and that the Japanese kid even booked his hotel there. Then he asked in a rather overly enthusiastic tone if we wanted to stop? “Ah, sure” I said, honestly what did I have to lose at this point, the running game plan was to sleep on an airport bench.

We pulled up to the front of this second office and were told to go inside, and that he would wait for us. I guess the Japanese kid didn’t really get a say in this. Inside we were quickly escorted into a similar looking office and met by a faster talking Indian man wearing a face mask that quickly reminded us about swine flu, at least he was staying away from the chicken.  I was hoping this was legit, and he could at least get us a hotel for cheap. I lead with this question which he quickly dodged, mumbling something about affordable hotels. He quickly changed the subject to how we should just go to Agra tonight, maybe hire a car, and then go to Jaipur. I said I didn’t want that, and that I didn’t want to go to Jaipur, he insisted to know why I didn’t want to go to Jaipur? I told him I already have a plane ticket up north to Dharamsala in three days and I just wanted to go to Agra, and more importantly I just wanted a hotel room. “You already have a plane ticket? Did you know you can change/cancel any plan ticket up to three hours before the plane leaves. So you should go to Jaipur! She wants to see Jaipur!” We were also reminded that there were no hotels in town and they will cost $400/night, and the trains are full. So I asked again about buses in the morning. At this point I knew this guy was a sham, but I was honestly enjoying the show. “Impossible to take a taxi to where the private buses leave from in the morning, the roads are all blocked”. “Well that what options do I have” I said.

“I can get you a car. We are leaving in 5 minutes, and will be there in 3 hours, only $300 one way to Agra” he replied. As I was getting up to leave the price kept dropping and dropping to $200.

Getting back in the tuk tuk we continued with the plan to head to the airport. I told the tuk tuk driver what had transpired, he of course seemed appalled and couldn’t understand why such a good office would tell me those crazy prices. Yet again, somewhat over enthusiastically suggested that we stay where the Japanese kid was staying. He asked the kid to show us the business card of his hotel, which he of course had at the ready and whipped out a laminated card that looked like it had been in rotation for decades. What the shit was going on! Who was this kid? Was he in on it too? No way! I had fallen asleep on the plane to India and woken up at the mad hatter’s tea party. Nothing made sense. “Ok fine, take me to the hotel” I said, again with nothing to lose.

Liz walked inside the hotel to check it out and I stayed outside with the bags in the tuk tuk. The 16 year old Japanese kid lingered about texting something on his cell phone. A man across the street lit a cigarette. Three taxis honked and a pigeon flapped its wings. It was all wrong. Five minutes went by and Liz didn’t come back. Then it dawned on me. This was what they all wanted. To separate us! They were trying to steal her into a siberian sex trade ring. I was too late, she was surely already feeling the ether and well on her way in the back of a paneled van. In a half panic I grabbed the bags and burst into the hotel lobby. To my surprise Liz was standing right there trying to negotiate a price.

We agreed on a reasonable room rate, were quickly escorted up to our very spacious room and offered room service for no extra cost. 30 minutes later I was having a beer eating curry in the room wondering what the hell just happened.

To conclude this story the next day I asked the hotel how we could get to Agra, because that was the main objective all along. To stay one night in Delhi, and then go to Agra and see the Taj Mahal. Disappointingly they suggested I go to an office they knew. With no other option and the hotel conveniently not having wifi I obliged. It turned out this office was actually legit. They did indeed confirm that there were no trains, he even showed me on the screen and I checked the website. The poor guy behind the desk was assumed to be untrustworthy from the get go. Again, the offer of a car was placed on the table, but this time it was a driver for four days and a short tour around Northern India for half of the cost I was quoted last night for a one way trip to Agra. I wasn’t sure and stepped outside to think about it. Outside we met three young, very lost looking backpackers. We asked where they were trying to go. The one girl responded “we just want to get out of the city”. “What do you mean?” I said. “We’ve been riding around in tuk tuks for the last four hours trying to go to the train station, and no one will take us, they keep taking us to tourism offices, we say we want to go to the official office, but we don’t know how to get there. It’s like Delhi has kidnapped us.” I decided I was done with this game, I laid down the money and bought the driver and car for four days.