Tout: one who solicits business brazenly and persistently
India is infamous for persistent vendors, con-artists, beggars, shyster tuk-tuk drivers, liars, fakes and frauds all trying to get a piece of the tourist dollars flowing into India. Collectively known as touts, they are an omnipresent feature of India as commonplace as curry and cows.
So far, the touts haven’t been near as bad as advertised, then again, we just ignore anyone who runs up to us on the street and says, “What country?” At train stations, we find pre-paid auto-rickshaws, have the hotel pick us up or try to walk a block away and find one who isn’t scavenging to rip off a tourist. We walk past shops and focus straight ahead with laser like glares, not daring to glimpse inside and get accosted by a merchant. Having traveled to Egypt and China and points in between, we are calloused and hardened.
(Note: aside from the touts, the Indian people are friendly, honest and laid-back. We love Indians; we hate touts.)
Having said that, we have had a couple of run-ins so far in India and I have been swindled out of $2.30 that I know of. Here is a tale of two touts.
The cheeky tuk-tuk driver in Ajmer
At the train depot in Ajmer, trying to catch our bearings and contemplating the best way to get a ride to the bus station for onward travel, a very aggressive driver latched on to me and rode me like a horse as we tried to exit the station. He looked like what you’d expect from a creepy Indian uncle – his clothes were a bit dirty and tattered, he had a stubbly grey beard and a vacant look in his eye like he spends much of his day drinking homemade grain alcohol.
As we tried to push past him and the other touts, all of them yelling “Pushkar, Pushkar,” the creepy uncle driver said, “15 rupees I take you to bus station.” Fifteen rupees was a pretty fair deal, probably the actual price. In hindsight, I should have known that if I didn’t have to haggle, negotiate, lie that I’d been to Ajmer many times before, laugh, fake outrage, walk down the street, return, haggle, fake outrage at the price again, shake my head and then begin walking away down the street again in order to get that fair price – then something must not be right.
We piled into the tuk-tuk and took a short journey across Ajmer. On the way to the depot, I said to Kristi, “This is the smoothest tuk-tuk transaction we’ve ever had!” She told me to not get ahead of myself. “We are not there yet,” she cautioned prophetically.
We arrived at your typical third-world country, post-apocalyptic bus station. I reached in my pocket and thought I was giving the driver 20 rupees – two 10 rupee notes. I figured that since it was so hassle free that I could at least give him a slight tip as reward for his behavior. I handed him the money, he counted it and handed it right back to me. “No! No! I said fifty rupees.”
Cheeky, dirty Indian touts! We all knew quite well that the agreed upon price was 15 rupees. We triple checked at the station and even used hand signals – one finger raised on this hand, five on the next. FIFTEEN RUPEES.
I tried to hand the money back to him. I realized at this time that I had actually pulled out three 10 rupee notes, so I was trying to hand him double what was agreed upon, but he wouldn’t take it, insisting I owed 50.
The Bells were both pissed off. Kristi kept telling me not to pay him and walked about 10 feet away. I stood there and glared in anger into his eyes. I tried repeatedly to stuff the money in his shirt pocket but with Mohammed Ali agility he moved back out of the way, dodging from side to side, floating like a butterfly. As he dodged my rupees and argued with faux outrage, he maintained a wry, thieving smile on his face.
A small group of Indians had gathered to watch the melodrama as I took off walking towards the bus station as if I were going away. I went about 15 paces and spun around and of course, he was right behind me. I held out the money to him and he took it, defeated. But not really, because that shyster of a driver still got paid double what we agreed to because 1) I was trying to be nice and tip and 2) the bills were stuck together and so I handed him 30 in the first place!
So we are now a little poorer but a lot wiser. The whole 15/50 scam is pretty creative. The two numbers sound a lot alike plus 15 is probably the actual going rate for the service so it sounds logical and 50 is probably what most unsuspecting tourists end up paying anyway.
This reconfirms that anyone who leeches onto you at the train depot or bus station is not to be trusted and keeping this lesson in mind will keep us from potentially bigger drama in the future.
The Baby Con
I was out taking photos of the carnival-like atmosphere in the streets of Delhi on the main bazaar road of Paharganj when I was approached by a pretty young girl holding a small baby. She started talking to me casually then smoothly segued into a story about how she had three hungry kids and no money. “My babies haven’t eaten in two days,” she said.
We have had several mothers on the street ask us to buy them food for their babies and of all the beggars we see, this one pulls at your heart a little more than most. I talked to the girl for a minute. She was very charming, frequently flashed a beautiful smile and spoke nearly perfect English. I reached into my pocket and felt around until I identified a few smaller bills. Indian money has different sizes for different denominations so I knew I was giving her about 20 rupees.
I surreptitiously slid her the money, but she refused it like I was trying to hand her already-chewed gum. “I don’t want the money, only you buy me food for my baby. My baby is hungry. I need rice, lentils, milk for the baby.” This was tough. I told her to buy food with the money and discreetly tried to slip it her to her again but she refused. Part of me thought it was maybe against her beliefs to take money but food was okay, maybe a pride thing?
She spun around and the light fell on her perfectly. “Would you like to take my picture?” she asked. I did want to, and snapped a photo of her holding her baby.
“Please, please buy my baby some food,” she pleaded again. Now that I’d taken her photo, I felt a strange obligation to reciprocate, so I agreed.
We walked over to a nearby food stall. After waiting in line for a minute, she spoke Hindi to the merchant who piled a small bag of rice, a small bag of lentils and a 10 oz. can of milk on the table and handed me a receipt. As I stood there waiting in line, it occurred to me that this had to be a scam. The girl was too charismatic, her English too perfect, for this to be anything other than a scam. I assumed the bill would be inflated by a few rupees and I slid from my pocket a 100 rupee note figuring that no matter what, this was the max I was paying.
I resigned myself to the fact that I was about to get ripped off. I was willing to tolerate a small screwing, but when the merchant handed me the bill for 1080 rupees, I laughed and handed it right back to him. How stupid did they think I was? 1080 rupees is $20.50. You could go into the best restaurant in the area, drink beer until you were blind drunk, order the most expensive dinner on the menu, tip 30% and still have great difficulty spending 500 rupees, much less 1080. On menus in India the typical side of rice is about 40 rupees at the very most and a lentil curry costs maybe, maybe 100 rupees.
I played dumb, “All I have is 100 rupees.” He took away the small bag of rice and lentils and wrote a bill of 280 for the milk, ignoring that I had just told him that I only had 100 rupees. I felt like a complete dumb ass for putting myself in the position I was in, but nevertheless felt some tiny bit of obligation to give the young mother something, so I slid her the 100 note and tried to walk away. This time she accepted it greedily. She then followed me for two blocks, begging, pleading, asking, whining, telling stories of hungry kids, flashing a charming smile, showing a pouty face, looking desperate, looking hungry and finally bargaining that if I just gave her 100 more rupees that she’d leave me alone. I told her that I wasn’t giving her anything more.
“Why won’t you help me?” she pleaded with sad eyes.
“I GAVE YOU 100 RUPEES,” I declared, amazed at her audacity.
I almost never say the right thing in an argument, disagreement or confrontation. I usually think of the best thing to say late at night, right as I am falling to sleep. This situation was no different.
What I should have said was, “1080 rupees for this! No wonder you can’t feed your babies. Come with me and lets find a different vendor who will treat you fair and I can buy you these items for a cheaper price.” That would have really called their bluff in a sort of we both know this is a scam but now I am messing with you sort of way.
I took photos of people on the street for a few hours that evening and I saw the cheeky little con artist pestering tourists on dozens of occasions. We would make eye contact and then avert our eyes quickly, like we were both complicit in some sort of shameful wrongdoing. I knew she was a Charlatan and she knew she’d got one over on me.
Later at the hotel, feeling a little ashamed of my stupidity, I told my wife about what happened. Kristi said the one thing that could make me feel better about the situation, summing it up like this: “It is good to know the baby thing is a scam.” Agreed. I did learn something for my 100 rupees.