Sunday, April 19, 2009

Misadventures: Getting Conned

At only one point in my life have I overtly threatened someone with physical harm and meant it. Unfortunately for the two Indians sitting across the counter from me, they were the target of my anger.

What brought me to that point started the night before, when my two friends and I purchased train tickets to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. In a country where most people we'd spoken to had a basic command of English, we thought buying train tickets would be fairly simple.

It wasn't. Everyone had forgotten to speak English, and we couldn't even guess at the destinations, since the train schedules all looked like the picture below. Add to that the fact that once we got to the ticket window, after cleverly avoiding a pair of pickpockets and pointing them out to everyone in the station, it turned out that only Indian citizens could buy from it.

The window we had to go to was in a separate building half a mile away. Even when we'd paid for our tickets and gotten the receipt, I had no idea if we were actually going to end up in Agra. For all I knew, our ticket was for Srinagar.

About eight hours after purchasing our ticket, my alarm was buzzing and I rolled out of bed. I don't mind being awake at 4 a.m. if I haven't gone to bed yet, but to actually wake up that early really gets to me.

We were at the train station by 5:15 to catch our 6 a.m. train to Agra, having been amazed that, yes, there is a time of the day when New Delhi's streets aren't gridlocked.

Squinting to read the ticket, I saw we were supposed to go to platform one. All I saw were platforms 6-12. I asked a local, and he started to point me in the right direction, but then another guy showed up and took over after a few seconds of rapid-fire Hindi whizzed past my uncomprehending face.

The second guy, pointed at the tickets and told us we didn't have the tourist stamp. Had my brain been working even a little bit, I would have seen through this obvious and time-tested scam, but I, along with my friends, followed the guy we thought was helping us to a tourism office where he said we could get our tickets stamped.

Two elderly Indians pretended to look at a computer screen and told us all the tourist seats were full, and we were out of luck. I argued with them for about half an hour, telling them there was no reason we couldn't ride second class with all the locals, but he made up some lies about laws to protect local passenger seating or something.

Playing the ever-helpful TI staffer, he was able to get us a car to take us to Agra - for the princely sum of $135 each (our train ticket for three people had been $50).

By this point, we'd missed our train, but I remembered reading something in the Lonely Planet guide six months earlier.

"Let me see your credentials," I said.

"We don't have to show them to you," the man said with an air of superiority.

"Lonely Planet says you do. It's a law."

"Let me see this Lonely Planet."

"No. Show me your credentials."

At this, the man turned to his cohort, who was maybe old enough to have met some British colonists when they first came to India, and produced a book full of blank pages with the India Tourism Office seal on them.

"Here you are, sir. You see? We like Americans. We are authorized."

"No. You're a scam artist," I said, mad at myself as much as at him. "Since we can't use the train ticket, you will refund us the money for it."

"I cannot do this," he replied.

"Yes, you can." I sat back and folded my arms, knowing I wasn't all that much of a threat, but the two guys with me, who had jest returned from 15 months in Iraq, might give him pause.

"I can give you half."

"You will give me all of it."

"This I cannot do."

I leaned forward. "You will give me all of it, or I will step over this counter, take every last rupee in your cash register, and if you stand in my way, you're going to get hurt."

The man's eyes flitted between me and my friends before he said something in Hindi and the amount of our train fare magically appeared on the counter.

It was a small victory, but at least it was something.

Back in the hotel room 20 hours later, one of my friends picked up the Lonely Planet guide.

"If you are told you need a tourist stamp on your ticket," he said, paraphrasing a paragraph in the book, "it is a popular scam. There are no tourist stamps. You will be taken to a nonofficial tourism office and pay exorbitant fees for transportation. The good thing to remember is that there is very little threat of physical harm."

"For tourists," I thought.


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