Touts and Scams
It’s bad enough being lost when you’re walking somewhere, but worse
still in a taxi or tuk tuk because then you really are powerless, at
the mercy of a stranger who may see you as more than a normal customer
whose only interest is being brought from A to B. He may view you as a
potential meal ticket, and he may be wondering how big a meal he can
make out of you. For example, on our second night, we went through the
highly complex procedure of negotiating a price for a tuk tuk to take
us to a dance school about three kilometres away. We bargained the
price down though, some kind of self-appointed taxi wallah
"controlling" the tuk tuks at our corner. We negotiated the cost from
the obscenely expensive to the merely exorbitant.
Going on a RTW trip? Why you shouldadd Delhi to your round the world trip itinerary.
Our driver, who claimed to be a refugee from Afghanistan, used his
feeble English to provide us with an unwanted potted version of his
life story. About half way through the journey, he pulled over and told
us he wanted to bring us shopping in a place where we would find many
bargains. We said we didn’t want to go shopping and gently encouraged
him to bring us to our agreed destination. He was not taking "no" for
an answer. He explained that he needed us to go shopping with him to
get a kickback from the shopkeeper for bringing foreigners into his
shop. He kept tapping my forearm with his oily fingers, believing this
would make his point more forcibly, unaware of how uncomfortable I find
physical contact from strangers, especially strange aggressive men in
turbans. He kept telling us that the shop keeper had promised to buy
school books for his many children upon delivery of foreigners to his
jewellery store, and that if we did not go into the shop, located in an
unspecified part of a nearby derelict tower block, his children would
be deprived of an education.
The conversation was rather cyclical and went something like this.
You go jewellery store. I get books for my children. Yes. My children go to school.
[3 taps on my forearm]
No, we’re not going into the shop.
Please drive on.
You buy, you no buy, I get books for my children’s school.
You go to shop. You do this for [tap] the [tap] children [tap] Yes.
No shopping. Please drive.
I refugee. I from Afghanistan. My children need
books. You go shop. Good jewellery. [tap] Great price [tap]. You shop [tap].
After about ten minutes of this, I told him to either drive on or let
us leave the tuk tuk. As he had little idea where the dance school was,
judging by the amount of time the taxi wallah had spent giving him
directions, and disappointed at his inability to convince us to shop
till we dropped, he told us to get out. We got into another tuk tuk,
which happened to be nearby, and sped off into the dusk.
The second tuk tuk, driven by two teenagers who claimed to be
university students, turned off the highway, careered through some
dimly lit side streets, travelling at a speed that left us quite
shaken. I wondered suspiciously if they were in cahoots with the first
tuk tuk driver, and if we were about to be robbed down a dark alley. As
it turned out, they didn’t try to rob us, or even sell us anything.
They appeared to be what they said they were; two university students
in a borrowed tuk tuk taking advantage of a Sunday to earn some extra
Not everyone was out to get me, but I couldn’t tell those who were from
those who weren’t. It was to be a problem throughout the holiday. India
makes you paranoid. We got to the dance school a little shaken, waited
on a musty sofa in a large hall to see the "Traditional Dances of
India" show. It was less touristic than it sounds, but also less
interesting than it could have been. The dancers were teenage dance
students, didn’t seem too enthusiastic about performing in front of a
dozen or so foreigners.
In their defence, they were also being asked to perform dances typical
of different regions of India, probably an impossibility. Imagine
asking a dancer in Europe to start off with an Irish jig, then switch
to some Morris dancing, and finish off with a flamenco. In any case,
the musicians, especially the tabla drummer, were really good, so I
shouldn’t complain. The thing is, I simply can’t stop complaining, and
if you’ve got this far in my travel diary, you already know this. I
should also warn you, that I have no intention of stopping! It is the
duty of every writer to report both good and bad.
A few hours later, back in Connaught Square and about to go into an
excellent restaurant called The Embassy, a con man, somehow
successfully impersonating the taxi driver who had brought us from the
airport, convinced us to get into a tuk tuk with him on the pretence of
showing us something or other. He drove us half way across the city to
some decrepit travel agent he insisted was the official government
tourist office. I know this seems incredible, and looking back at it we
cannot really understand how it happened either. It is worth analysing,
as the same elements may hold true for many scams, which do not, as is
commonly believed, always take advantage of the greed and dishonesty of
Scams and Scamming Rules of Engagement
I will go ahead with the scam analysis and try to extrapolate general features of scams.
- Surprise the "mark"
As in military matters, a successful attack is more likely if the enemy
can be surprised. A man caught off guard is much easier to trip up. Our
conman came out of nowhere. As we turned a corner, he was there waiting
for us, a smiling ambusher.
- Feign a relationship
Humans have an inherent distrust of strangers, so conmen must never
appear to be strangers. Our conman had his hand outstretched and seemed
to know us. Moreover, proffering one’s hand instigates physical
contact, and once physical contact has been made, I think it becomes
more difficult to disentangle oneself from a situation. This could be
why politicians are so keen to shake hands.
- Build the relationship
The stronger a relationship between two people, the more likely one
person is to be influenced by another. It is for this reason that
conmen spend so much time and effort building a relationship before
moving in for the kill. Our conman claimed to be our taxi driver from
the airport pick-up, arranged through the hotel. He also claimed that
his brother worked as a receptionist in our hotel. You may wonder, as
we did afterwards, how he managed to successfully impersonate the taxi
driver. My only answer is the power of suggestion, and the fact that we
only really saw the back of the taxi driver’s head for most of the
journey; the back of one man’s head looks pretty much like another’s.
- Guide the conversation
A conversation, if left to its own devices, would be unlikely to move
towards the conman’s pitch. However, the conman must avoid suspicion
and not be too direct. He cannot, for example, say: Now I want to talk
about the product I am going to try and sell you later. Instead, he
must gently guide the conversation to this end. Our conman asked us how
we were enjoying Delhi, what we had seen, and what we intended to see.
In reality, of course, he had no interest in our opinion of Delhi, and
was merely fishing for information to be able to refine the "pitch"
- Mask the "pitch"
Just as a pyramid scheme scammer will never tell the victim that he is
trying to get him to invest in a pyramid scheme, so our conman could
not let us know he wanted to get us into a travel agent to get a
kickback. Instead, he highlighted, in general terms, the importance of
having independent and trustworthy information. He warned us about
unscrupulous touts who might give us untrustworthy information. He
stressed, in an apparently disinterested manner, the advisability of
going to the official Government Tourist Agency.
- Slowly reel in the "mark"
I believe there comes a key moment in every scam in which the victim is
asked to do something he later cannot justify doing, a compromising
action which brings the victim a lot closer to the conman’s objective,
after which escape becomes more difficult. In our case, it was getting
into a tuk tuk with the con man and a tuk tuk driver, who had
mysteriously appeared from nowhere, in order to be shown where the
official government tourist agency was exactly. We tried not to take
this step; it was already night time, and we wanted to go to a
restaurant. In hindsight, I cannot understand why I did not labour this
point, but I didn’t.
The conman used the relationship he had built up previously to stress
that he was only doing this to help his brother, the receptionist in
our hotel, to ensure we had a pleasant stay in India, and did not fall
prey to unscrupulous sharks. He also stressed the shortness of the
Distract the "mark"
The journey was not five minutes, as promised, but nearer twenty, and
it brought us into an insalubrious part of town I do not know the name
of. To distract us, the conmen tried to discuss Indian society,
stressing the problems of poverty and inequality. He deftly changed the
subject whenever I enquired about the unexpected length of the journey.
It was here that his scheme began to unravel. I happened to know that
the real government tourist agency was in Connaught Square, and I also
knew we were no longer anywhere near Connaught Square. All confidence
tricks rely to a greater or lesser extent on the ignorance of the
victim. Information is power. Although I possessed the information, I
was not yet in a powerful enough position to control the situation. I
mean, one cannot simply jump out of a speeding tuk tuk, and try as I
might, I could not control the direction of the conversation, or the
direction of the tuk tuk.
- Pressurise the "mark" and sell the "pitch"
We were eventually delivered to a grotty travel agent down a
rubbish-strewn back street. The conman tried to convince us that this
was the official Government Tourist Office, and that once we stepped
inside, irrefutable proof of this would be provided. The door was
opened, people were waving us in, someone was pointing at a part of a
sign that said "government", and the entire street was willing us into
the shop. The amount of pressure exercised on the victim, I believe,
increases and decreases throughout a scam, but it is always most
intense at key moments like this. For the conman, this was the make or
break. The sequence of scamming is summarised below.
Getting out of the Scam
I knew at this point that we were being scammed. The question was now
how to get out of it. I considered simply walking away and calling him
a cheat, a crook and a liar, but I had no idea where I was, I had no
idea who the people around me were, and more importantly, I had no idea
what relationships existed between the conman and the many undesirables
in the darkened street. I needed to somehow turn the tables, to put the
conman on the defensive.
Desperate to close the deal, the conman again tried to stress the
relationship he had built up earlier, and that he was simply doing his
brother and us, a favour. It was at this point that I destroyed his
pitch. I demanded to know precisely what hotel his brother worked at,
i.e. which hotel he had supposedly dropped us off at. He tried to
change the subject, but I held firm. He was, of course, unable to name
We stormed off, anxious to exploit our advantage before he could
regroup and sell a revised pitch. We reached a relatively well lit main
street; he followed us in the tuk tuk, insisting there had been some
kind of misunderstanding and promising to bring us back to Connaught
Square, free of charge. At one point we were walking down the middle of
the road, cars whizzing by in both directions, horns tooting, and the
tuk tuk a few metres away – the conman, like a shark, refusing to let
go of its prey, believing he could bring us down with just one more
bite. Only when we hung around near some police guys at a corner that
he finally let us go and disappeared into the night.
It was not the first or last time someone tried to scam us in India.
However, it was the nearest anyone came to actually doing it. From that
moment on, I trusted no one, I believed nothing, and I never spoke to
strangers. It meant cutting myself off from over one billion people,
but I saw no other way of getting through the journey.
I don’t know if it was the stress of all these tout wars, the heat,
the change in diet, or just culture shock, but on my second night in
Delhi, I had a massive migraine attack. All light caused pain – the
stronger the light, the greater the pain. Noise became painful too, and
I mean physically painful, not just unpleasant. As the migraine
progressed, it spread to the rest of my body. Cold sweats kicked in
after the third or fourth hour; I tossed and turned. Nausea and
dizziness took hold in hour five, and every inch of me seemed to be
competing with itself to see which part of it could cause the most
pain. The crescendo of pain came in hours six and seven when nausea was
replaced by vomiting, when my stomach was empty, then retching. By this
stage, I just wanted the pain to stop. I woke up the next morning with
the happiest of glows; the pain, which had seemed so permanent, had
Surrendering to Luxury
I had only been in India for two days, but it felt as though I’d been
there months. I felt like I was a raw recruit, dumped in the middle of
a war zone; exhausted, shell shocked, and running low on ammunition. I
needed help. That help came in the form of a man called Raju, who we
hired as a driver for the next twelve days, to take us around Agra and
all over Rajasthan in north western India. We had only gone into the
travel agent, Kumar, on the recommendation of our guidebook, to ask
about the price of a one-way taxi to Agra, but had come out with a
driver for 12 days, all accommodations booked and a one-way plane
ticket from Udaipur to Mumbai.
That’s what shops are like in India. Never go into one you have no idea
what they are going to convince you to buy. They possess occult powers
of persuasion which innocent westerners are powerless to resist. I had
never imagined I would hire a driver, thinking myself an independent
traveller: a user of public transport; a man who hauls his own bags; a
man of the people. When luxury was dangled in front of my face at a
very affordable price, with the prospect of spending the rest of the
month battling armies of touts like we had done during the first two
days, I plumped for luxury.
Sights of Delhi
The Red Fort,
dating from 1639, is a physical demonstration of the zenith of Mughal
power in India. I was surprised to find how great the Muslim influence
had been on northern India. Even the Taj Mahal is an Islamic structure,
and most of the sights in northern India were also very much in the
Mughal architectural style, rather than of Hindu origin.
The Mughals, one of the great Islamic empires, swept east from Persia
and came to control much of northern India, from the sixteenth century
until the British Raj took the reigns of power in the nineteenth
century. The fort is a massive structure, with an imposing red sandstone
wall that stretches for 2.5 kilometres, and reaches 60 metres in height
in parts. This fort city was the epicentre of Shah Jahan’s new capital
city, which he modestly named after himself, Shahjahanabad. He was the
same shah who built the Taj Mahal. However, he never quite completed
the move from the former capital Agra, because he was deposed by his
own son, Aurangzeb, a religious zealot, who sowed the seeds for the
later decline of the Mughals.
The fort used to house thousands of people, but the British evicted
them following the India mutiny of 1857, and deposed the last of the
Mughals, who had unwisely agreed to be a figurehead for the rebellion.
The British turned the fort into their own military base, building some
truly hideous barracks that still scar the fort today. We saw the fort
early in the morning in drizzle and sandals, ignoring the dismissive
glances of Indian tourists, who didn’t seem to notice the drizzle.
A large and immaculately groomed park, this must be a very soothing
place to visit in the winter. However, as the mid-afternoon sun burnt
through the morning clouds and set the ground steaming, it felt like
being in an open-air sauna. My clothes became wet with sweat, as we
tried to admire a simple black marble platform which marks the spot
was cremated following his assassination in 1948. My eyes were red and
I had to hold back the tears, not through emotion, but because my
mosquito spray and suntan lotion were running down into my eyes from my
soaking eyebrows. I thought about how uncomfortable it must be for
women who wear make-up, which is probably something few people consider
when staring at Ghandi’s memorial.
The park is a memorial not only to Ghandi, but also to three other
great Indian leaders; only one of whom, Nehru, wasn’t assassinated.
Indira Ghandi, Sanjay and Rajiv went the same way as the great Mahatma,
testaments to how deeply passions run in India, and how dangerous a
country it is to lead.
Qutb Minar Monument Complex
Battling through the Delhi traffic for what seemed like days, our trustee driver brought us to the Qutb Minar
When we arrived, I asked him what it was, and he replied: a monument.
That was as much information as I ever gleamed from Raju about anything
we visited. I could see his level of English was lacking, but without
knowing a word of Hindi, who was I to comment? Some internet surfing
later, I learned this was a World Heritage Site marking the beginning
of Islamic rule in India. The showpiece of the complex, the Qutb Minar
minaret, is the largest red brick minaret in the world and reaches an
amazing 73 metres, no small feat when you consider it was built in
Some of the materials in the complex were actually recycled from
previous religious shrines. For example, there is a seven-metre high
iron pillar, which has somehow refused to rust, probably of Hindu
origin, may date back to 400 AD. I enjoyed rambling around the ruins,
with the sun setting and the temperatures becoming bearable. Wild dogs
were playing in the evening sun; flies were getting ready for bed.
My time in Delhi was drawing to a close. I was looking forward to
exploring the immensity of India. We spent the evening in a bar with
live music. I think it was called aLIVE. I don’t know if it was the
quality of the music, the ample quantities of Kingfisher beer that
flowed, or the thought that I wouldn’t have to get on a tuk tuk for a
while, but I felt very happy.