Written by koshkha on 21 Nov, 2013
If you want to take a taxi from an Indian airport you will have plenty of choices but they can be confusing. If it’s your very first time in India, I would recommend to splash out a bit and ask your hotel to send a…Read More
If you want to take a taxi from an Indian airport you will have plenty of choices but they can be confusing. If it’s your very first time in India, I would recommend to splash out a bit and ask your hotel to send a car. You may even find that so long as you’ve a booking for a couple of nights, your hotel might throw in the pick up for free. That can seem like a generous thing to do, but if they send a driver, they do at least know they’re going to get you to the hotel and get your money.If you really want to take a risk, you can walk out of the airport and hop into a car with the first person who comes along and trust to luck and the good favour of the gods that you’ll actually get to where you want to without being told your hotel has burned down and being taken to totally the wrong place. Most local travellers use either the pre-booked or fleet car services. We’ve had experience of both and on our recent trip used both types in Mumbai. The desks for the car services are inside the airport building, usually quite close to the exits. With a pre-paid service you pay the person at the counter the full fee up-front. They then call the driver round to the bays outside the arrivals hall, you show your paperwork, keeping one copy for yourself and giving the other to the driver, and then he takes you to your destination. Tip if you want to, but it’s not expected. With the fleet cars you pay the driver for the journey, but also a small charge to the company arranging your ride. We used a company called Meru Cabs who have some fantastic systems in place to ensure your security, such as mobile phone notifications and tracking. We paid 50 cents to Meru and got a slip of paper with the car registration and the name of the driver. They told us the journey should cost around 250 rupees. Sadly what they didn’t tell us and probably didn’t know was that the driver didn’t know the hotel, couldn’t read the address and had a cold so shocking that I thought his brain might explode with the force of his snorting and honking. It actually cost us 400 rupees, much of the fee for the time he spent driving in totally the wrong direction. Had I been a local or more grumpy, I could have rung Meru and complained about him but the journey was still very inexpensive and well worth writing about.If you are unsure what to go for, and find yourself confronted by a range of different counters, and surrounded by lots of other travellers, my advice would be to not pick the one with no queue at all because they probably don’t have any cars or are so expensive that the locals won’t use them. And don’t pick the one with the longest queue or you’ll be waiting all night. Like Goldilocks, there’s a lot to be said for picking the one in the middle – it might well be ‘just right’. Close
Written by koshkha on 19 Nov, 2013
One of my top tips for a snack lunch in Darjeeling is the canteen at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which offers super-cheap filling food, wholesome and filling enough to help you go out and climb a mountain in the afternoon. It’s worth knowing this place…Read More
One of my top tips for a snack lunch in Darjeeling is the canteen at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which offers super-cheap filling food, wholesome and filling enough to help you go out and climb a mountain in the afternoon. It’s worth knowing this place is there or you’ll probably miss it.After a visit to the Tibetan Refugee Centre, we asked our driver to drop us at the Zoo. The Zoo and the HMI share an entrance and an entrance ticket. As a foreigner it will cost you 100 rupees to get in and a few more for a camera permit and this gives entrance to both sites. If you don’t have time for a full visit to the zoo, my recommendation is to not miss the Himalayan Black Bears and the Red Pandas.Entrance to the HMI is up quite a steep driveway – you can’t really claim that it’s steep when you’re going to a mountaineering place. On this occasion we weren’t going to look at their fabulous displays about the history of Himalayan mountaineering – we were just looking for the canteen. This place is designed for students at the HMI but they don’t turn away hungry tourists.It’s a bit of a scruffy looking place with tables outside and a few more inside. They have just four indoor tables and a small open kitchen at the back of the building from which a couple of men and a few pans can rustle up an impressively long list of Indian and Chinese dishes. They serve cheap food with quite a lot of reliance on noodles although a full veg thali will cost you just 70 rupees and a cup of Darjeeling tea is 20 rupees.We ordered two portions of momos, my absolutely favourite mountain food. 8 of these super little half-moon treats cost just 30 rupees and we ordered a portion each and washed them down with Limca, the local lemon soda. They can be bought steamed or fried but we always go for the steamed and eat them with ultra hot chili sauce. The pasta is stuffed with shredded vegetables and then steamed over water. They are delicious.There are two small toilet cubicles which are clean but basic, a wash basin and a couple of large fridges full of cold drinks. When you’ve finished, just walk outside to the cashier’s desk and pay. Lunch for two of us cost just 80 rupees – at current rates that’s 80 pence. Close
Written by koshkha on 18 Nov, 2013
Our driver seemed determine to make sure we got our share of temples and after two Buddhist temples and monasteries, he took us back into Kalimpong town and dropped us at a third. He didn’t tell us anything about it so it was only once…Read More
Our driver seemed determine to make sure we got our share of temples and after two Buddhist temples and monasteries, he took us back into Kalimpong town and dropped us at a third. He didn’t tell us anything about it so it was only once we were inside and saw the paintings at the front of the room that we realised it wasn’t a Buddhist temple, but a Hindu one. The main icon was of a man with a moustache, backed by pictures we recognised as other holy leaders. We saw Guru Nanak, Jesus, Shiva, Krishna and Vishnu, and a couple of Buddhas as well as a few holy folk that I didn’t recognise. After the ornateness of the Buddhist temples, the room itself was very simple without the intricate wall paintings of the buddhists. It was quite a modern building, opened only in 2008, with marble floors and almost no furniture inside.A young woman came over to speak to us with her father. She was one of those people who positively glows with enthusiasm and faith. She explained that they were followers of the man in the picture Satpalji Maharaj and that he took key learnings from many other major religions. She pointed to the writings around the walls - most of them in Hindi - and one in English, a quote from St John’s Gospel. "In the begining was the word and the word was god". She also explained that today was a holy day - Desserah - and that they were there to get blessings from their teacher, a woman in an orange/yellow robe who was described as a sort of nun. I quipped that it was nice to see a nun with hair and she explained that hair isn’t important, it’s what’s in the heart that matters. I was impressed that their leader was a woman as I’d not seen too many holy women in Hinduism. The girl asked if we’d like a blessing and a tikka (head mark) from the teacher and we said that we would so long as she didn’t make the marks on our heads too big. Most people were walking round with massive tikkas about two inches in diameter and I knew we’d never get through the day without getting all the goop in our eyes. We knelt down, she put the red dye and the pink rice on our foreheads and then the girl gave us some bananas. Who were we to say no to a holy banana? She then asked if we’d like to eat prasad with them. Prasad is holy or blessed food and is usually gooey sweet stuff. We’d got quite addicted to the Sikh prasad after spending a couple of days at the Golden Temple so we said yes and then discovered that what she was actually offering was a full meal. We sat down with the girl and her father, and her mother brought us each a tumbler of warm water and then a plate of food. I made a complete booboo by not realising that the food in the small dish on the plate was actually a pudding and mixed some of mine with the rice. I don’t think anyone noticed but I learned very quickly. The food was delicious and entirely vegetarian. My guide told me that she’d been a strict vegetarian since birth and then told me about the story of Desserah which commemorates Ram slaying the evil Ravana and represents the triumph of good over evil. Her mother told her I looked like ‘A very fine Brahmin lady’ which was very sweet of her. She told me a lot more about their guru and about her life with the group and her job as a school teacher. Whilst I’m not a particular fan of organised religion, occasionally in life, if you are lucky, you get to meet people who are lit up from within by their religious joy. She was one of these people. We were clearly not contenders for any rapid conversion, and all she wanted was a chance to chat to us and tell us a bit about her life.I’d have been happy to stay longer but we were worried our driver might think we’d been kidnapped by the people at the ashram. He wasn’t to know that our five minute visit would turn into sitting down and having a delicious full meal. We took some photos of our new friend and her father and waved them goodbye, wishing them a happy holy day. Close
Written by phileasfogg on 06 Nov, 2013
Talking at one of the sessions ('The anatomy of literature festivals') at the Bangalore Literature Festival, a writer referred to the sudden proliferation of literary festivals in India as "let a million flowers bloom", which is really what this festival is: another one, following in…Read More
Talking at one of the sessions ('The anatomy of literature festivals') at the Bangalore Literature Festival, a writer referred to the sudden proliferation of literary festivals in India as "let a million flowers bloom", which is really what this festival is: another one, following in the wake of India's best-known literary festival (the one at Jaipur), of similar events being organized in almost every major city in the country.
Despite being an author, I tend to stay away from literary festivals - I am, basically, a rather shy person and prefer to let my writing speak for itself. This time around, though, I'd been specially invited to participate in one of the panel discussions scheduled for the festival, and decided it was high time I accepted.
The Bangalore Literature Festival was established as an annual event in 2012, primarily organised by two Bangalore-based writers, Shinie Antony and Vikram Sampath. With the help of publishers and other sponsors (and lots of volunteers!), they’ve managed to make it into an exciting, fun-filled three-day festival that covers everything from children’s literature to translations, crime fiction to literary fiction, to screenplays and even culture.
This year, the Bangalore Literature Festival was organised at Velankani, an event-and-exhibition complex in Bangalore’s Electronics City, on Hosur Road. Velankani isn’t exactly a very good venue to get to if you happen to be staying in Bangalore—it’s at least half and hour’s drive out of the city, and a good two hours’ drive from the airport. For the 120-odd authors participating in the festival, however, this wasn’t really much of a problem, because we were accommodated at the Crowne Plaza in Electronics City, just about three minutes’ walk across the road from Velankani. For people coming to Velankani from the city, shuttle bus services had been organised to help make travel a little easier.
The festival was centred round two main lawns: Lawn Bagh and Mysore Park (the latter a cute pun on the famous local sweet, Mysore pak!) With a stage erected at the end of each lawn, these became the venue for various book launches, panel discussions, and events—including a flute recital by the maestro Hariprasad Chaurasia. At one end of Lawn Bagh was a smaller ‘stage’, rather more like a meeting area, with chairs set up in rows, where the children’s activities were centred. These included storytelling (one, of Japanese folktales, was one even I wanted to attend!) and interactions between children and authors of children’s literature.
Along the main path linking Lawn Bagh to Mysore Park, a series of food stalls had been set up, forming a food court. The food on offer consisted mostly of fast food, such as idli, dosa, vada, chana-bhatura, tea, coffee, sandwiches, and waffles (which, according to statistics released at the end of the festival, were the hottest-selling item on the menu!). A friend and I sampled the coffee and a plate each of chana bhatura (spiced chickpea curry served with a spongy, yeasty fried bread), and while it was not cheap, it at least tasted good. Considering Electronics City is pretty much in the back of beyond and there’s little scope for dining nearby (unless you go to the Crowne Plaza, which is expensive), this was a good arrangement.
Diagonalyl across from the food court, and separated from the lawns by a narrow body of water (spanned by a wooden bridge) was an exhibition hall, where Oxford Bookstore had set up a row of tables covered with piles of books on sale. These included books by the authors attending the festival, thus enabling fans to buy copies and get them autographed there and then.
For the authors and the media, a small building near the food court functioned as a lounge where one could conduct interviews (or be interviewed, depending upon whether you were a journalist or an author), have tea or coffee, wait for your next session to begin, or just sit back and relax.
Of course, the main attraction of the Bangaore Literature Festival was the many events that comprised the festival. With sixty events to choose from, spread out across three days, every day from morning to night, it was impossible to even think of attending each event, especially because events were simultaneously being held at both lawns. Plus, since I wanted to spend time with other authors, it got difficult to choose which events I’d skip and which I’d attend.
Besides the one I participated in (on crime and fantasy fiction, both relatively new genres in Indian writing in English), I picked a few others that I was particularly interested in attending. Among these was an interesting but sadly poorly-attended discussion on translation, its challenges and triumphs, and what translators had to say about how they work. One of the best-attended was a session on best-sellers (what it means, what it takes, and some rather shocking revelations about how some of India’s best-selling authors have gotten that tag). Since I blog about classic cinema, I was very excited about attending a session on writing for cinema, featuring some of the foremost writers about Indian cinema—this was great fun, and quite an eye-opener for me.
Incidentally, cinema being so very popular in India, it was hardly a surprise that it also featured in a literary festival. One of the biggest events was a discussion about the bio-pic Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, with the film’s director/writers and its lead actor, Farhan Akhtar, in conversation. The session was a runaway hit, and Farhan Akhtar got mobbed to the extent that I, trying to get out of the authors’ lounge to go for my session, had a hard time getting past the crowd!
There were other sessions, too, which had only an incidental relationship with literature: the launch of a novel about the rigging of cricket matches, for example, was the basis for a discussion on corruption in sports. Similarly, the release of a politics-themed book led to a very fiery debate on politics.
I wished I could have spent more time at the festival, and could have interacted with more authors (as well as more readers). But, yes, this is one event I’d certainly recommend checking out if you’re in Bangalore when it’s held, and if you’re even slightly interested in reading.
Written by koshkha on 03 Nov, 2013
A few years ago we took a flight with Air India Express from Mumbai to Kochi. The flights were very cheap, but boy did the experience FEEL cheap. The plane was old, battered and the seats were so squeezed in that we almost had our…Read More
A few years ago we took a flight with Air India Express from Mumbai to Kochi. The flights were very cheap, but boy did the experience FEEL cheap. The plane was old, battered and the seats were so squeezed in that we almost had our knees under our chins. I said to myself that I wouldn’t do that again, that I’d pay a little more and go for a ‘proper’ airline. This year we did that and upgraded from the ‘Express’ to the proper Air India. I wasn’t expecting much as I’d read many reviews slating their international flights, but I knew I’d had Air India flights in the past as parts of pre-arranged tours, and I didn’t have any recollections of anything too horrendous.We took four domestic flights in total - from Mumbai to Delhi and on to Bagdogra in W. Bengal, and then 11 days later, the same in reverse. We paid less than £100 per person for all these flights although I should admit that they were booked 9 months before we travelled. Over 80% of the total cost was taxes and fees.There is nothing logical about flying to Mumbai if you want to visit Sikkim. Kolkata would be much more sensible and even Delhi more logical but I used airmiles to book the international flights and Mumbai had availability, the others didn’t.We checked in at 5.30 am for a 7.00 am flight. My first impressions were very positive because the lady on the check-in desk was very friendly and helpful. Not only did she spot that on our second flight we’d been given seats in different parts of the plane, but she went straight back into the system and reallocated them for us. She also then kindly instructed us to put away the boarding passes for the later flight and to put away our passports. "You won’t need them so put them inside your back right away". I felt a little ‘mothered’ but it was quite nice to be looked after.Boarding started very early, not in any attempt to get us away quickly but because our plane was parked many miles away on the other side of the airport in the International part of the airport. Once we reached the plane we were in the first row of economy which was separated from business case by a full divider rather than a silly flappy curtain. The leg room was excellent and the seats were comfortable, considerably more than most European airline seats. Each leg of our journey came with a full hot meal service although it’s worth being aware that there is no alcohol served on Air India domestic flights. The food was very standard Indian flight fare - a small starter, a cold drink and a bread roll, and a hot dish comprising two curries and some boiled rice. I could have predicted the curries before getting on the plain - a veg and spinach dish and a paneer in orangey red sauce. The service is calm and efficient and whilst the food is unexciting, I’m so used to getting nothing or just a bag of crackers on most European flights.Transfer between the two flights in Delhi was easy and straight-forward in both directions. Bags and passengers are searched a second time. Our first flight was about half an hour late but we had a two hour gap between flights so there was no risk of missing the connection. Air India’s planes were better than I’d hoped for, the service on board was generous and comprehensive, and in flight movies were provided even on flights lasting only two hours. I didn’t use this service but fresh earphones were offered on every flight. Luggage bins were large and there was no problem with customers fighting for space. Air India was infinitely superior to their budget ‘Express’ format and given the chance I would definitely avoid AI Express in future. We’ve also flown some of the newer airlines like SpiceJet which have a reputation for being a bit more ‘modern’ but I can’t honestly say I was in any way disappointed by Air India. Close
Written by koshkha on 02 Nov, 2013
We have previously flown from Mumbai’s International airport terminal but never from the Domestic terminal – even when we’d flown domestic flights with Air India’s budget arm, Air India Express. This time we were flying with ‘Air India proper’ and using the Domestic Terminal. We’d…Read More
We have previously flown from Mumbai’s International airport terminal but never from the Domestic terminal – even when we’d flown domestic flights with Air India’s budget arm, Air India Express. This time we were flying with ‘Air India proper’ and using the Domestic Terminal. We’d spent the night at the Ibis hotel near to the terminal and arrived at around 5.30 am for a flight to Delhi that was due to leave at 7 am on a Sunday morning. I would guess that it’s not the busiest time of the week and that anyone who could afford to fly a little later probably wouldn’t opt to be there quite so early. It was also a festival – Dussehra – so once again, most people who wanted to travel for the holiday would probably have already gone.Some airports in India make you X-ray your bags before you fly, indeed Mumbai used to be such an airport but they seem to have now phased this out and we didn’t need to join a queue for a bag check before we checked in. We were pretty early and there was no queue at all and our check in was completed very quickly. The check-in lady told us to put away our passports as they wouldn’t be needed. Considering the normally high levels of security in Indian airports, that was quite a surprise.First step was to get our hand luggage checked. There were two machines in operation and as we headed to the same one, my husband stopped me and pointed out that I was going to the ‘boys’ machine and needed to go to the ‘girls’ machine. Sadly – and quite unusually – the pink line was much longer than the blue, thanks in the main part to a large group of Russian women who seemed to be intent on making their security check as long winded as possible by not understanding that they had to present their computers separately, remove their coats and any heavy shoes. Whilst they fussed around in front of me, two women in Hijab repeatedly attempted to jump the queue, hand bags still over their shoulders. The security women got rather annoyed with them and kept sending them back. When I finally got through putting all my things on the belt and headed through the metal detector, I struggled to get anywhere near the belt again as the Russians were gathered around blocking all the other passengers. One of them was arguing with the security guy who’d found a crystal ball in her hand luggage and was trying to explain that it could be used as a weapon. Watching him miming crushing the pilot’s skull with the large heavy lump of glass was almost as funny as watching the owner of the ball begging and pleading him to let her keep it. I left before the issue was resolved but it’s worth keeping in mind that if you can’t leave home without your fortune-telling paraphernalia, it’s maybe better to stick them in your hold luggage.There are a few shops in the terminal but nothing seemed to be open so early. I did note that even though there were not many outlets, they’d managed to get a Manchester United shop. Clearly Indian travellers have their priorities when it comes to retail therapy.We headed straight down to our gate area where I blew a few hundred rupees in the newsagents and my husband picked up a couple of coffees. Despite us being in an area with several different departure gates, only one of them was being used for all of the flights. The way to tell which flight was loading at any time was to listen carefully to the man at the gate hollering very loudly. Eventually we got the call "De-leeeeeeee, De-leeeeee" and went to the bus.I had previously checked out the Google maps of the airport like a good potential terrorist (sorry, tourist) to make sure I knew where the different terminals were. We got onto a dodgy old bus and then drove for about 20 minutes, all the way round the airport and right back to the International area where we’d arrived the day before. When we returned 12 days later, the bags were delivered to the carousel quickly and efficiently. We quickly found the pre-paid and fleet taxi desks and booked a car for our onward journey. The airport security folk keep all the non-passengers outside the terminal so there’s plenty of space inside and you can’t get approached by taxi touts or other trouble makers. As a domestic terminal you’ll find fewer facilities than in the International terminals, but there are still plenty of toilets and ATM machines – the basics of a travellers needs. I believe there’s a new terminal due to open very shortly which will replace the current International terminals. What I’m not sure is whether it will also handle domestic flights in the same way that Delhi’s new airport was designed to do. Close
Written by koshkha on 05 Sep, 2013
The Charity Donation scam was one of the first I was ever warned about on my first trip to India. The warning on that occasion related to a particular version of this over-worked technique which was based on the use of small flag pins. The…Read More
The Charity Donation scam was one of the first I was ever warned about on my first trip to India. The warning on that occasion related to a particular version of this over-worked technique which was based on the use of small flag pins. The tour guide warned us to be wary of smartly dressed young people trying to pin small paper flags onto us as we walked from the hotel into central Delhi. He explained that they would come up with some nonsense about collecting for an Indian national student support scheme and that if you tried to remove the flag, they’d give you a guilt-trip about ‘disrespecting’ their country’s flag before trying to hook you into giving them money. I had been going to India for more than 15 years before I ever encountered a woman with a flag and she got the wrong people on the wrong day. As she bounded up to us with her flag ready to go, my husband held out his hand and shouted "No!" and she turned tail and ran off. Why was he so firm? Quite simply because the day before he nearly got caught by one of these scammers. I couldn’t be too mad as the same thing had happened to me years before and I knew how easy it was to get lured into a discussion and then fleeced for more than you intended.We had been in Lodi Gardens, wandering around between the various rather unkempt old tombs. It was our first trip to the gardens and we’d been dropped off by a driver who considered them to be a must-visit location. Considering that Delhi is a bit weak on green space, we were happy to just stroll around, keep an eye on the courting couples, snigger at the heavily sweating joggers and just take some time out from the full on intensity of the city. In one of the tombs we were alone, not something that happens very often in Delhi. A gentleman of around 55 years old came up to us, politely asking where we were from, were we having a nice holiday and all the usual stuff. He then tried to pin an artificial flower onto my husband’s shirt. He told us he worked at an eye hospital for children in the city. He may have done, he may not have done, it’s not easy to say. He had an ‘official’ looking badge and a clipboard. He told us he was collecting for the hospital.This particular scam relies on three things. Firstly that you will feel he’s given you something – the silly flower or the paper flag – and that you’ll feel you have to give something back. Secondly that the victim will want to get rid of the scammer but with be too polite to tell an older, well-spoken, official-looking gentleman to go away and leave them alone but may well be willing to give a small donation – maybe 50 to 100 rupees - to make him disappear. We fitted the bill on that one. Finally, it relies on people’s willingness to do what other people appear to have done and to not want to be seen to be mean. We failed on that one as we’re really rather bully-proof.Once the victim has indicated that yes, of course, they’d be happy to give a donation, the clipboard comes into play. The scammer wants your name and address so he can show other people that foreigners like you are interested in his charity. He hands you the board and a pen and you are confronted with a set of handwritten details – people from UK, USA, Australia, Germany, France, wherever. The hand writing is all different – they look to be genuine. You have their names, their addresses (which may or may not be real) and in the final column, the amount they’ve given. You are planning on giving a pound or two – but these people appear to have given £20, £50, £100. If the scam works well, you’ll up your 50-100 rupees ($1-2) to 500 or a 1000 or even 5000 rupees in order to look like you’re just as generous as all those people. I saw my husband looking at the list and panicking. I took the note Tony planned to give and gave to the man, told him we didn’t want to fill in anything, he could take this note or leave it but we wouldn’t be giving more than that to a person approaching us in the street, he shouldn’t waste any more time on us and would he please just leave us alone. "But look madam, people from California, Great Britain, all supporting my charity". I told him again that we didn’t give that sort of money to charities we didn’t know and he started to bluster and I gave him back his silly flower. I asked if he’d like me to call a policeman (as if) and then told him one last time to leave us alone and then walked off, not even leaving him the money we would have given him just to make him go away.I cannot rule out that some of these people may be genuine, that they may really be collecting for charities, but I don’t believe for one minute that the names and the numbers on the clipboard are real. I have nothing to prove on charitable support to India, but I give through recognised charities and not to men with clipboards who sidle up to you when there’s nobody around. The moral of the story is simple. Don’t be ‘embarrassed’ or guilt-tripped into giving money to people whose credentials you can’t check and who want to make you feel bad about not being more generous. The Indian flag version of this works well on British tourists who may well still be feeling a tad uneasy about the excesses of our Empire days and can lead to "My ancestors gave their lives for your country and now you disrespect the flag they fought so hard to win in getting their Independence!" Yeah! Whatever – your ancestors would be SO proud that you’re a scamming little bully. Close
Written by koshkha on 02 Sep, 2013
This scam is not one I’ve ever personally fallen for but I’ve been set up for it a few times and been able to avoid it because I’m a control freak of the first degree and I like to know exactly where I’m going to…Read More
This scam is not one I’ve ever personally fallen for but I’ve been set up for it a few times and been able to avoid it because I’m a control freak of the first degree and I like to know exactly where I’m going to be staying when I’m in India. This particular scam relies on people turning up in a city without a hotel booking and just hoping that the hotel they want having space. It doesn’t work if you’ve already pre-booked, got your confirmation, and had recent email or phone contact with the hotel owner or receptionist.Here’s how it works.The unwary traveller arrives at the airport or railway station, tired and possibly emotional (especially if they’ve been on the train for days and the toilets all backed up). He or she steps out of the station or airport and gets swamped by taxi drivers. Finding one who looks less insane than the others, the tourist asks the driver to take them to a specific hotel. For the sake of illustration, let’s call it the Hotel Xanadu. The Indian yes/no head wobble starts as the driver attempts to confuse the poor tourists. "No, no, sir, madam. Xanadu bad hotel. Xanadu fire, Xanadu closed, Xanadu renovations, Xanadu wiped off the face of the earth by a meteorite" I think you get the picture. The worried tourist is confused but the helpful taxi man wants to help. "I take you somewhere nice, much better, you come with me, very fine hotel, very comfortable " and off you go, into the night (it always seems to be at night) trusting life, luggage and limb to your new best friend. He pulls up outside a generic, grubby little hotel where not surprisingly they just happen to still have a room for you. It’s late, you don’t have the slightest idea where you are, you don’t feel in a position to really ‘negotiate’ and the streets you passed through to get here had enough people sleeping on them already that you’re not keen to join them. If the receptionist is really professional at this scam, he’s going to tell you that there’s a big event in town, all the hotels are full, he has a room for the next two nights but you need to pay for all the nights up front. You weigh up the options and give in because you can’t face going to find another hotel and you’re not planning on staying around too long. You pay way over the odds for a poor room and the driver gets a healthy ‘cut’ from the receptionist for bringing you there. Meanwhile in another part of town, the receptionist at the Xanadu is wondering what happened to those nice people who sent him an email to say they were coming but hadn’t actually paid for the room. He looks around the nice lobby of his hotel that’s not closed, not on fire and hasn’t been hit by a meteorite.The tourists have a room in a hotel they wouldn’t have booked if it were the last on earth and for which they’ve paid well over the odds. The hotelier and the driver are happy – maybe if the tourists only stay the one night, the receptionist can even hide that they were there from his boss and pocket the overnight fees. It’s a dog eat dog world in the tourist trade.So how can you avoid this particular scam? Well if you’re like me, you book ahead, carry the paperwork that shows you’ve already paid, and you mail the hotel a day or two beforehand to remind them that you’re coming and to let them know when to expect you. With online booking so easy these days, you can have a last minute reservation that means you really don’t have to change your way of travelling in order to have security of knowing you’ve got a bed for the night. When the driver says that your hotel has been shut down by the health inspectors, politely say that you think he must be mistaken because you spoke to the manager who is a close family friend just that morning and suggest that maybe he’s mixed it up with another place. This is the polite version. The short version is more direct "I don’t believe you. Do you want to take me to this hotel or shall I get another driver?"If you are of the ‘I’m going to take my chances’ type, then be aware your driver will get a cut, take a good look at the hotel room before you part with any money, and if you don’t like the place, get back in the taxi and ask him to take you somewhere else. The driver isn’t going to give up on you as he’s holding on for his commission. If you have to, make him drive you round for hours until you find a place you like – after all you’re going to be indirectly paying him for his time. Close
Written by koshkha on 01 Sep, 2013
This next scam is not an exclusively Indian one but it’s one I first learned about in India. It’s particularly rife in the most touristic areas of the country – Delhi, the Golden Triangle, Rajastan are all places you can be sure to see this…Read More
This next scam is not an exclusively Indian one but it’s one I first learned about in India. It’s particularly rife in the most touristic areas of the country – Delhi, the Golden Triangle, Rajastan are all places you can be sure to see this in action. As you walk along the street, just minding your own business and taking in your surroundings, young men (I’ve never seen women doing this) will approach you and try to offer unasked for help. They will offer to take you to ‘my uncle’s emporium’ or just guide you to any random shop that you were quite capable of finding on your own. They’ll ask you where you’re from, is it your first time in India (never say yes, even if it is), do you like their country, in fact just about anything to make a connection. Their aim is not to practice their English, nor to flirt with the ladies – they have one intent and that’s to get you into a shop where you will buy things. They will tell you "No charge for looking, madam, please come see" and if you don’t put up sufficient resistance, you’ll soon be stuck in the back-room of a shop being shown hundreds of rugs or shawls or nick-nacks that you probably don’t want to buy.Shopping in India is one of my favourite things to do but I NEVER let myself be taken into a shop. Why? Because the oily little fellow who lured you in will be getting a massive commission on what you spend. And that means, no matter how good you are at bargaining, you’ll be paying his commission on top of whatever minimum amount the shop keeper might have been willing to take.I knew there had to be something ‘in it’ for these men but the amount came as a shock. I was told how this works by a young man in Jaipur on my first visit to India. Four of us had ‘hired’ him for the evening to show us around and he gave us a few useful tips which more than paid for what we gave him for his time. He revealed that he’d made a lot of money (and scored with quite a few young European women) by using his good looks and charm to get them into shops that paid him for his work. He was getting up to one third of everything they paid in these shops, just for getting them through the door. I was lucky to learn this on my first trip to India and that knowledge has saved me a fortune over the years. If I go into a shop, I push past the people trying to ‘adopt’ me for their commission. Once inside the store I tell the shop keeper that nobody bought me there and nobody will be getting commission so I expect their best prices. I’ve always done pretty well – although of course the definition of ‘pretty well’ will be different for each person.Outside the big tourist hot spots you will still get people – typically taxi or tuk-tuk drivers – trying to divert you from your journey to go shopping. In Bangalore we struck a deal with a tuk-tuk driver who kept dragging us to shops. I told him that if he was looking for commission, he was not going to do well from us because we weren’t buying. He in turn explained that he didn’t care – the shops were paying him a basic ‘finders fee’ for delivering us to their store. If we bought, or if we didn’t, he still got a cup of tea and a couple of hundred rupees. By tackling him on the issue of commission, and by him explaining how it worked, we were able to help him out by wandering round a few shops. He in return drove us around all day for 100 rupees, happy with his tea and payments from the shops. I would assume that the restaurant he chose for us to have lunch, also gave him tea and a bowl of food for taking us there. Don’t ever feel guilty that your driver is hanging around whilst you do something – most likely he’s perfectly happy and being compensated for his time.A Delhi variant on the ‘My Uncle’s Emporium’ scam was played on some people who were with us on my second trip to Delhi. I’d told them about the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, a giant multi-level fixed price store on Janpath, close to the Imperial Hotel. If you are not great at bargaining or you long to be left alone to look around without being followed and pestered, then this is a great place to go. No driver can get commission from taking you to this state-run store so two groups found they were taken somewhere completely different. When we asked if they’d been to the CCIE, they said they had and that they’d hated it. They were followed around and given the hard sell. Of course they were in a completely different place where the drivers were getting commission on all sales. If someone wants you to do something, there’s usually going to be some incentive for them so try to find out what it is and whether it’s going to cost you anything. If you know what you’re getting into, you can work their systems to your advantage or at least to your amusement. Most will be surprised that you ask, might well respect you a lot more, and together you can all have some fun. There’s nothing more frustrating than being dragged round shops when you really want to be in a museum or a park, but if you understand the scams that are going on, you can balance the day nicely. Close
Written by koshkha on 29 Aug, 2013
The baby milk scam is one which we observed outside the Dalai Lama’s temple in Dharamsala and a little bit of googling established that this is one of the main places where tourists have seen this particular technique in operation. It’s not exclusively an Indian…Read More
The baby milk scam is one which we observed outside the Dalai Lama’s temple in Dharamsala and a little bit of googling established that this is one of the main places where tourists have seen this particular technique in operation. It’s not exclusively an Indian idea – others have reported it in other parts of the region or in the Far East, proving conclusively that there’s always a market for a really effective and professional scam. I can’t help but almost admire this one.The area around the Dalai Lama’s temple has a lot of beggars and they have a particularly sneaky scam that they work on soft-hearted foreigners. They are unlikely to bother you on the way in, preferring instead to zoom in on people who are feeling ever so slightly holy and buzzing from their recent experience. These people are much more likely to be feeling generous and are more likely to feel bad about brushing away a beggar. Plagues of rat-like girls clutching dirty bundles of rags that may or may not contain small babies plea for baby milk. Most of these girls are clearly too young to be mothers. The babies – if indeed they are babies – are unlikely to be theirs."Not money, madam, milk for baby. Baby hungry, come shop, buy baby milk". They’ve practiced the lines time and time again, schooled in delivering the right degree of sadness to tug at the heartstrings. In me they picked the wrong mug – I have no sympathy for the girls and not one iota of maternal instincts. They are wasting their time trying to scam me on this one.This is a particularly cunning and clever scam since it takes advantage of some basic aspects of human nature. Firstly there’s the feeling of "How can I be harsh outside a temple when I’m given an opportunity to do a small good?" Secondly there’s the tendency for many people to be more sympathetic to a dumb infant (or in my case a dog or cat) than to a grown adult. And thirdly it relies on the exploitation of embarrassment. The reason it’s clever is that this scam is a sophisticated form of up-selling. Many of us would put our hands in our pockets for a small donation outside a temple but these girls don’t want money at least not in the direct sense. If you get hooked by this scam, you’ll get fleeced for tens of dollars or pounds. Take a look at the girls; they are not local. They don’t look like the local people, they don’t dress like them, their faces are a completely different shape, colour and structure than the local people. No mother gets on a bus and travels hundreds of miles into the Himalaya just to scrounge a few rupees. These girls are shipped in from the plains by their employers who train them, give them a baby to hold, or a bundle of rags that looks like a baby, and then drop them off to beg.The unwary tourist thinks they’ll get away with spending maybe 100 rupees (about £1.20 at that time) after all, how much can milk cost? But they won’t got to the nearest or cheapest shop. The girl will lead you to a shop where the shopkeeper (who is in on the scam) pulls out a tub (or three) of very expensive powdered baby formula. This baby – the one whose mother is too poor to feed him – has expensive tastes. She might want you to believe she’s so malnourished that she has no milk to offer him, but baby is on the Rolls Royce of over-priced formula. The scam relies on the donor being too embarrassed to make a fuss. This is why it works well with Brits – we don’t do fuss and we hate to be embarrassed. People don’t want to lose ‘face’ – even if it is in front of a conman shop-keeper and a professional beggar. They don’t want to seem mean or rude and with the shopkeeper watching them, the unwary tourist parts with a couple of thousand rupees. The shopkeeper gets the money, the girl gets the milk and then returns later to give back the milk in return for a cut of the proceeds of the sale of the ridiculously over-priced product.If you want to help poor people in India, don’t give to these girls. If they’re hanging around a temple, then please give your money to the temple or to local charities who can manage it properly. You may say "What harm does it do? It’s my money, if I want to give it to the babies, where’s the problem?" Just ask yourself if that’s a real baby, and if it is, ask yourself why it is that you never see the baby cry and why the babies rarely even open their eyes. Ask yourself if the girl is behaving in a ‘maternal’ way or just lugging the baby around like so much disposable luggage. Some of these babies are drugged up to stay asleep because that way the cause no trouble to their young ‘minders’. You think you’re helping the baby – the scam relies on that belief - but more likely you’ll just encourage people to continue this scam, to buy or steal babies from mothers who cannot afford to keep them, and to hook the babies on cheap drugs. You really don’t want to stop and think about ‘what next’ for a baby raised on opiates and discarded when it gets too big to be carried around. Close