Odds are you won’t be able to spend a day in India without someone trying to get the better of you. From the predictable to outrageous, mundane to ingenious, India has it all on display. The reasons for this are numerous. Bollywood has publicized a notion that Westerners are minted. Given that half the country lives on less than 2$ per day, who’s to argue with that. A Westerner in India sticks out like an Irishman at an AA meeting and everyone from the poor rickshaw guy to the town crook is going to have a go at you. Crooks will always attempt to exploit your naivety to run away with your money. It’s a battle of wits out there. If you manage to keep your cool and think like a con artist, you will survive. And if it makes you feel any better, once in a while even an Indian falls victim to these scams.
As with most things Indian, international standards are rarely adhered to. Even among crooks. With their constantly expanding repertoire, it’s difficult for any Indian cheat sheet to be comprehensive. To avoid stating the obvious, I’ll ignore kinder-garden tricks such as the good-old distract and pickpocket, cow dung on the shoes, I’m an English student, etc. Here’s a list of scams that should get you into the Indian frame of mind.
Most taxi tricks are pretty obvious to figure out – ludicrous pricing, deviant routes and dark alley robberies are the text book scenarios. India has another variant. While you’re busy sticking your head out of the door, tongue hanging out, admiring the skill of your friendly neighbourhood two-wheeler, your auto-rickshaw meter has just jumped from 20 to 30, skipping all the small but important numbers in between. Either that or once you’re in the rickshaw, the meter ticks faster than the seconds hand on your watch. On confronting the driver with the jumping meter, he will defend himself with ignorance, innocence and arrogance, in that order. The only choice you have at this stage is to stop the rickshaw, pay him half of what the meter says and leg it. Unless you’re a local and you know roughly what the ride should cost, you’re defenseless against this one. Just pray that the meter doesn’t jump from 10 to 110.
If someone tells you that a tourism office, hotel, travel agent, monument, etc. is closed or does not exist, your radar should smoothly slip into overdrive mode. Watch the person’s next move very carefully. What do they suggest you do next? And how do they intend to profit from it?
This one’s the most unbelievable of the lot. The tiny 5-year old kid pressing her scruffy face against your car window has a boss and the 10 rupees that you gave her doesn’t go towards a snack to quell her hunger. It goes towards supporting an entire begging industry that feeds on people’s sympathy and ironically their lack of concern. The begging industry in India includes 7.3 million people and churns out annual revenues to the tune of Rs 1.8 billion. So the 10 rupees you handed over might have bought you some peace of mind but if anything, it probably has done more harm than good.
This one has the distinction of being an Indian beach special. As you’re walking along the beach, minding your own business, you feel an unknown object being violently thrust into your ear. A wet willie without the wet. At the risk of sounding stupid, the reason this con-man has snuck up from behind you and wedged a metal wire into your ear is because he wants to sell you a service – ear wax cleaning. Why they would choose to approach their clients in such a careless and uninspiring manner is still a mystery. Rumour has it that they use sleight of hand to extract a pound of wax from your ear and then go on to demand equally ridiculous amounts for this treatment. A growing stream of them on the beach suggests that business must be good (Otolaryngologists looking for a retirement plan please take note).
Walk into a store and bargain until your face turns red. The shopkeeper finally relents and sells that adorable little elephant with a bell (why the bell?) to you for Rs 400. Just as you’re giving yourself a pat on the back, the street vendor grabs your 500 rupee note and refuses to give you your change back. You beg, plead, cry, yell and threaten, all to no good. You’ve got no choice but to buy something more from the shop worth Rs 100. Daylight robbery or hard sell? Tough to tell.
Get rid of visions of jumbo the elephant thrashing about in a cool stream, sucking up water into his trunk and then spraying it on himself to cool down on a hot summer’s day. Despite the ticket suggesting otherwise, you’ll be faced with a grumpy elephant, being threatened by a mahout brandishing an ugly iron hook while simultaneously being hosed down with brown water from a garden pipe. Yippee!
Some fraudsters take the game up a notch by claiming to be direct descendants of the original builders of the Taj Mahal commissioned by Shah Jahan (history check – the architects and workmen had their arms chopped off, eyes gorged out or just killed. Work ethics in India has improved since). Once they’re done with their elevator pitch, they whip out a miniature Taj carved from the original marble quarry. What’s even more incredulous is that some tourists actually fall for this.
With such intense competition, branding is an integral part of any strategy to stay ahead of the pack. Given the MBA craze in the country, it’s not surprising that some clothes vendors take this hocus pocus to heart. They take regular cotton shorts worth nothing, brand the material as ‘Gandhi cotton’ (which they claim is sacred) and then sell them off at a cool 500 Rupees (10$).
Incredible India indeed!
Before you start walking around with a pocket knife in your pocket (where else?), it’s good to put things in perspective. Indian scams usually involve some poor guy trying to make a quick buck or a crook testing your gullibility. What they don’t involve is football hooligans with beer in their bellies or kids with red hair armed with shotguns. Treat the whole situation as a game with low stakes. Worst case scenario, you lose a few hundred rupees and escape with a great story to tell at your next dinner party. Best case scenario, you con a con-man.