Taken For A Ride

*white* knuckle bus ride to Logan
A Literal WHITE Knuckle Ride From Portland to Logan Airport Monday En Route To The Tropics

Yes, I *know* that it’s SO annoying to hear that Eric and Alison are traveling to some exotic location to learn about exotic food. Again. That said, most of you have heard that Alison was selected as an artist in the US State Dept. Arts Envoy Program and sent to Doha, Qatar to spend a week teaching painting. THAT will have to be the subject of another possible set of posts by Alison — I’ve seen only the photos she’s been emailing around, and occasional TXTs checking-in. Her trip brought her within an easy flight of India, which triggered my suggestion to finally have a look at The Jewel.

On Thursday Alison will leave Doha on a direct flight to Bengaluru/Bangalore (local/English names which appear here interchangeably (admittedly I’ve stuck to the western friendly areas so far) but I will call it Bangalore from now on) to join me on yet another food adventure. We will spring-board from this new MegaTechCity to the West through Karnataka toward the intersection with Kerala and Tamil Nadu states at the paint drip end of the Indian sub-continent.

I have just arrived after quite an incredible journey (from the perspective of how a modern system of amazing logistics in the era of terrorists targeting travelers operates more or less efficiently) from Boston through London Heathrow’s Terminal 5 Habitrail then on through the night to land in Bangalore where my fun “Welcome To India” story begins…

Nightmare Scenario?
I am sitting in the taxi (not the autorickshaw in the picture) parked beside a four lane river of vehicles honking and clawing their way along side a highway on-ramp. My taxi driver has turned off the taxi (but not the meter!) and invited me for a milk tea. I declined and therefore sat in the back of the parked taxi watching my driver have a smoke and a tea. Theoretically he was also asking directions to my hotel, a knowledge gap he did not warn me of when I asked him to take me there at the airport curb, but only after he had pulled to the side of this road and invited me to share a milk tea.

It’s been only recently that Alison and I have started to travel in areas where we have zero language base to help us navigate, especially when we arrive out of the clouds. China was our first (actually Amsterdam was our first, but EVERYONE speaks English — as well as about four other languages — so it didn’t feel so foreign), but upon arrival we either had friends to pick us up, or we had known to arrange the airport pickup ourselves. We are also confident that after the first time we’ve arrived in a different place we can pick up on signs and cues enough to effectively find our way after that.

This time, with my Bangalore arrival looming, for some reason I felt I could grok it alone, even if that ultimately meant catching a cab at the curb. (Perhaps it was BECAUSE I was alone and not being depended upon for a smooth arrival?) I did read that the Bangalore airport is a long way (40km-ish) from the City, and it would cost about 700 to 900 INR (with the late night extra charge) for the trip. At (present) 66 rupees to the dollar that’s less than 20 dollars. My brief research did not discover reliable public transport from the airport to the city, and given my three bags and my complete unfamiliarity with the streets and geography of Bangalore that probably would have been impractical at 5:00am when my plane was due to arrive at the airport.

My plan was simple: I would ask someone knowledgeable in the passport line for the best way to the city. They confirmed that a cab at the curb was basically the best way unless you had arranged for a pickup ahead of time. (I was encouraged to download the OlaCabs app — apparently the Uber of India — once at my hotel, however…)

Once I was through Customs I knew enough to ignore the forward phalanx of Taxi Hawkers who jump to the obvious tourists. I also saved 3 INR per dollar in exchange rate by waiting to change a $20 until I had cleared the Customs area and was out into the main airport area. Even with 3 extra INR I got a bad exchange rate, and forgot that I would also pay an exorbitant “convenience” fee at the airport Exchange. Still I received 1100 INR which I expected would cover the trip and tip.

(Once in the city I would find a reputable ATM to generate the bulk of the rupees we would use for the trip.)

I followed the airport signs to the “official” taxi line at the curb, and my first warning should have been that ALL fifty cabs lined up waiting for fares were the same cab company. I showed the cabbie my address on the hotel receipt I had printed, he nodded, put my bags in the trunk, and off we went.

The Toyota was spare inside, but clean, though not air conditioned, which I didn’t mind. It was late night and pleasant temps. The LCD screen mounted on the dashboard with the taxi company logo told me “Make Sure To Buckle Up!” I tried, but the latch would not snap shut. The other latch was buried under the seat and irretrievable. Whatever. The young driver seemed to be pretty good at the weaving and honking I had been warned about. I “let it [the unlatched seatbelt] go” and nodded to the Ganesha (god of beginnings! among many other attributes) figurine mounted front and center on the dashboard.

A few kilometers into our drive we came to a toll plaza. As we pulled up the driver turned to me, pointed to the booth, and said “you pay!” I said, astonished, “not included???” The only time I had been asked by a cabbie for extra was for parking charges if we had arranged for pick-up. Tolls were usually included or tacked onto the fare…? Apparently not here. OK, I handed over a 500 INR note and got back 380 INR which meant that I had 980 INR left to pay the fare. Still, that *should* be plenty, I thought…

…and then, once we exited the expressway and were driving on city streets my taxi pulls over and asks to see my address again. He doesn’t seem to like the street number and name and waves his phone then points at my receipt. I point out the hotel’s number, which he calls and chats. I expect he will start the engine when he hangs up. Instead he says, “U Turn” and twirls his index finger, then invites me to join him at the stall beside us (“Milk?” “What?” “Milktea?” and mimics sipping from a cup. I assume if I refuse we will continue our journey. Instead, he shrugs when I refuse, gets out of the cab, and strolls across the sidewalk alone.)

I watch him light up a cigarette as the stall dude mixes his milktea into a plastic cup. They chat animatedly, which I *hope* is more help with directions. At one point an old man with a walking stick wearing what appears to be a tattered blanket hobbles over to the milktea stand. The cabbie pays for a new milktea and hands it to the old man who thanks him and then totters off sipping his tea. I am *not* in a hurry, so this isn’t a time thing. But I am watching the meter click up a few rupees every 30 seconds during this break. In all it might have added 40 rupees to my fare, less than $1 — not a lot, but still…! Isn’t this what every tourist fears?

When he gets back into the cab and fires up the engine he bulls his way into the river of trucks and cars and scooters that had been flowing past us. It is stop and go for another five minutes or so until he gets beyond the on-ramp and can make that U-Turn he heard about on the phone. He navigates to another wide avenue that is flowing freely, though still quite crowded at 5:30am as the sun rapidly appears. I am watching that meter, though, and it’s now passing 700 INR, then 800 INR. I’m *still* OK, I think to myself, if we are fairly near the hotel, and it does look like we are finally in the city center with a large park (Cubban Park I hope?) on one side of the road.

The cityscape reminds me of our trip into our Beijing hotel when, after exiting expressways, the cab (pre-hired and paid for, so no meter worries) traveled along several wide avenues, then suddenly it slowed and nosed into what appeared to be an alley full of pedestrians, then it bobbed among and through pedestrians and bicyclists for what seemed like 15 minutes but was probably only a few minutes before stopping in front of the unassuming doorway to our hutong hotel.

Except we keep making left turns on the broad avenues, and the park remained on our left, and now the meter has clicked over 900 INR. At one point he pulls alongside one of an auto rickshaws (the three-wheeled open vehicles that seat two people snug in a covered back that are in any image or video of Indian vehicle traffic), rolls down his window, and begins talking to the driver while both weave in and out of traffic. A bit later he slows at an intersection, apparently not sure what to do, and talks to a guy on a motorbike who points one direction, then the taxi turns in the opposite direction. I keep expecting to see my hotel appear suddenly. Just when I have lost hope the taxi slows on a quiet street, stops, and I think — we’re here! And I can tip him with 5 US dollars and we’re good. But instead he rolls down his window and shouts at a young woman walking past us on the opposite sidewalk. She has her earbuds embedded and either doesn’t or won’t hear him.

He dials his phone again and speaks to someone for one minute, looking around at landmarks around us as if he’s describing where he is in order to get specific directions. He hangs up and makes another U-Turn. This time he cruises slowly through side streets, as if stalking our hotel and wanting to sneak up on it. I’ve given up on the meter, realizing I will need to ask the hotel employees for help on resolving this because I could give him plenty in US dollars but what if he rejects that?

“OK!” He says and stops again. He turns to me, pointing: “Hotel!” and sure enough there it is. He pulls up off the street in front of the hotel, we get the bags out, then he gets back in and prints the total: 1160 INR. I wave the hotel man over, who has greeted me in English and explain the situation. “You can change US Dollars here in the hotel, sir!” he says. “Great!” I say, “would you tell him that I am doing that?”

I head in and change another $20, receiving an excellent exchange rate and zero “convenience” fee — 1290 INR — and then go back out to the taxi where I hand him what I just changed which includes a 100 INR tip, which I think is fair given his tea break. His eyebrows collapse. “No tip?” he asks me.

“100 tip. Plus Milk Tea and U-Turns.” I respond.

“No no no no. Tip!” he counters.

Lucky for me the hotel representative addresses him in his language, and must have said get into his taxi and leave because that’s what happens. I apologize to the hotel rep for getting him involved. “NO worries sir. If I say nothing he will stand there and keep talking to you. He called us three times for directions. What did he charge you?” I showed him the receipt for 1160 INR.

“No, no. The airport should not cost more than 800.” He said, and led me to the desk to check-in.

This is a First World problem. I got over-charged by $7.50 for a long cab ride at dawn. And he did deliver me to my hotel eventually. And I did get to witness a LOCAL area of town and watch locals be themselves. And I got a fun story to tell about my trip! All worth the overcharge. But it just feels so ugly to have had no choice in the matter, and to be “played” because of assumptions (mostly correct) about who I was and what I could pay…does that make me an entitled dick to get ticked about being played? It goes without saying that this is NOT an India-specific story — people are trying to “play” tourists for Big Markups in every city around the world including the US. I’m usually more careful and have studied enough to avoid the situation.

Ganesha must have been blushing after my taxi experience because once I had checked it I get breakfast at the hotel restaurant (included with the room), and a very friendly waiter insisted that he have the cooks make me a fresh dosa even though I said I was very happy with the buffet offerings (lentil soup, potato coconut soup, paratha bread, different fried bits, and a sprouted salad). It turned out to be the highlight of breakfast, and so very very tasty. I’m already in love with South India.

dosa stuffed with bean mash, served with chutneys
dosa stuffed with bean mash, served with three chutneys

One thought on “Taken For A Ride

  1. Thanks for the telling. We’ve been there, in Thailand, Paris and so on. Alison must be there by now, “Hi, Alison.” I’m looking forward to her stories, as well.


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