Tag Archives: scam

The Meter Man

One of the challenges with traveling in India is getting the taxi drivers to use their meters. Like in most major cities of the world, meters are installed in all taxis to fairly calculate the fare, including factors like distance, wait time, time of day, etc. The rates are set by the city and all taxi drivers are required by law to use the meters, in part to avoid unscrupulous drivers from taking advantage of tourists. In some Indian cities our guidebook says that it is virtually impossible to get the taxi driver to use the meter, and so in most places we’ve just negotiated a fare, which is almost certainly higher than the meter would have calculated. However, in Calcutta, our guidebook makes no mention of this issue so we expected that meter use would be de rigueur here. In fact, we’d been told by a local man that the drivers always use their meters, and we had observed this first hand. When local people get into a cab the drivers turn their meters on immediately to start the clock running as quickly as possible. Not so for us.

Like elsewhere in India the drivers flatly refuse to turn on their meters for us. In broken English, they provide every excuse in the book as to why they can’t use the meter – it’s broken, it’s night time, it’s a holiday, etc., none of which are valid. They have other more drastic excuses also, but we had no idea just how far they would go until last night, when we decided to push it.

We were heading out to a place to which we only had a name, but no idea of the distance or what a reasonable fare would be, so we wanted to use the meter. We hopped into the cab first, before telling him where we wanted to go, and then insisted that he use the meter.

We named the place and the driver asked for 100 Rupees (Rp). We asked him to use the meter. He refused. Then he started to provide the usual excuses. We insisted on using the meter. He started to drive ahead, but only because we were blocking traffic. When it became apparent that we weren’t going to pay his exorbitant fare, he pulled over and asked us to get out. We refused. We raised the prospect of having the traffic police from the corner come over to remind him of the rules, but he called our bluff and said go ahead. But we weren’t getting out of the car.

He then pulled into gas station and claimed that he was taking the car to the garage. I said that if his car was broken, that we would leave when he found us another cab — one that would use the meter. While Diane waited in the cab, he stood with Patrick by the side of the road, flagged a few other cabs, and half-heartedly tried to convince them to do what he would not, but of course they wouldn’t go for it. When Patrick returned to the cab, the driver moved it ahead to get fuel, and began to complain to the station attendants about us. He was getting really frustrated. He then started to shake the car back and forth from the outside. Was he hoping to dislodge us by vibration? We thought this was pretty funny but tried not to laugh.

Now at this point, most tourists would have backed down. Diane would usually have called an end to the experiment at this point, but we’d had a drink with dinner and were emboldened to take it further. Eventually the driver got back into the car, but this time with another guy from the gas station. It wasn’t clear if he was just giving the guy a lift or if he was trying to intimidate us. In India disputes are often settled on the street by shouting matches with the public deciding. Perhaps he wanted to have an even number for what was building up to be such an event.

The driver started moving towards the destination (we hoped), but continued to insist on the 100 Rp fare. We told him to turn the meter on, or we would pay a fare of 50 Rp only. He did turn the meter on, but covered it up with a cloth to obscure it, but the fabric was so thin and the red LED letters so bright that we could still read it. We traveled in silence.

It turned out that the trip was less than a kilometer. We could easily have walked. It took under five minutes to get there plus the twenty minutes of debate before we departed. When we arrived at the busy square, the police were controlling the traffic, and stopping was restricted. As soon as we arrived, the driver cleared the meter so the fare was no longer showing. We got out of the cab and paid the correct amount (in Calcutta, that’s double what is on the meter plus 2 Rupees), which was 10 Rp, or about 25 cents. The driver insisted on being paid what he’d originally asked for, which was ten times the correct fare. We refused. Tensions mounted. Soon a police officer came over and told the cab driver to move on. He complained that he hadn’t been paid. We explained that we were paying per the meter and that he was trying to get much more.

The police officer went to get his supervisor from down the block. The cabbie ran over to a random group of men on the street and tried to solicit them to support him. He was trying to win over the gathering crowd, which is usually the right approach to winning a dispute in India.

At this point the cars were backing up and honking. The senior cop arrived. Patrick summed up the situation in a sentence, and the animated cabbie did the same. The clincher was when the cabbie mentioned the name of the place we’d come from (Park Street), which the senior man knew wasn’t far away. At that point, he told us to give the 10 Rupees to the cabbie, and then told him to move on. We walked away with smiles on our faces. Undoubtedly the fact that cabbies are known to extort tourists also worked in our favour.

We were shocked at the lengths to which a Calcutta cab driver will go to extort tourists. It is almost certain that no other visitors would do what we did to pay the correct fare. We thought it important, at least once, to see if this was possible but we never expected it would take what it did. We’d like to think we were striking a blow on behalf of tourists everywhere, but I doubt the cabbie will act any differently with his next tourist. After this experience, on our two subsequent cab rides in Calcutta we also paid the correct amount, but with slightly fewer shenanigans.


This morning there was a major eclipse in India. In parts of India it was a total eclipse, but in Delhi it was about 80%. We woke early and headed out onto the roof to watch. This eclipse was apparently special because at 6 minutes it was one of the longest, a duration that will not be matched until 2132.

In the morning we visited the famous Red Fort (Lal Qila) in Delhi. Completed by the great Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1648, the same guy who built the Taj Mahal, it has been the site of many important political speeches and each year on Indian Independence Day (August 15), the Prime Minister addresses the nation from the ramparts of the fort. In preparation for that, there was a crew scrubbing the front walls of the fort. Notice the bamboo scaffolding tied with twine, and the men climbing it without any safety leashes.

After the fort, we walked around Old Delhi for a couple of hours. Old Delhi is a maze of small streets filled with shops. We had lunch at a hole-in-the-wall selling ‘paratha’, traditional fried bread served with ‘chutneys’, a variety of savory, spicy, and sweet accompaniments.

We wandered down the street into an Indian bakery and ordered something that looked like a bird’s nest, about six inches across. While Patrick was ordering, there was someone with a video camera behind the counter. Upon exiting, Diane was in discussion with a group of Indian media students, who wanted to interview us on the subject of street food. We consented to a brief interview. They asked a) what we’d eaten, b) whether we enjoyed it, and c) were we concerned about cleanliness. Our answers were a) just about everything we could find, b)) absolutely, and c) we haven’t been sick so far. However, it’s sometimes easier to enjoy our meal without seeing the kitchen or even the restaurant. Dim lighting helps. Perhaps that’s why Indians don’t eat dinner until late.

After lunch, we headed for Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India (also built by Shah Jahan). The skies in the east were very dark, and the wind started to pick up, so we knew that rain was imminent. We had to put our sunglasses on to protect our eyes from the dust whipped up by the wind. We almost made it. The skies opened just before we reached the mosque, and we took cover under a tin shanty at the entrance. The rain was blowing sideways under our cover, and we were concerned that the roof might rip off. So we made a break up the steps in the torrent to the mosque. The water was cascading down the steps like a water fall. We arrived soaking wet, and took cover under the huge entrance archway with over 100 other people. Diane was wearing a pink tank top that she’d bought the day before, and which was by now totally soaking wet — a bit like a wet T-shirt contest, but at a mosque. We were immediately chastised for wearing our shoes, which should have been removed prior to this point, but there was no one outside to tell us that. It was probably swept away by the rain and wind. Diane put on an additional shirt that she had, one with sleeves, as quickly as possible. When the rain subsided, we toured the mosque, which was really just a vast open compound, with very little covered space. It faces West, because when you’re India, Islam’s holy city Mecca is in the West, not the East (as it is in Canada). The ground was tiled with red sandstone, which heated the rain water, creating warm puddles like bath water. Children were playing in a huge puddle, which was like a kiddy pool at an amusement park.

We’d heard that scams abound in India. Especially in the larger tourist cities, that everyone wants to take our money. This shows up in many ways. Taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers that flatly refuse to turn on their meters, and that insist on fixed fares much higher than Indian people pay. Touts that tell you the official tourist bureau or the train ticket window for foreigners is closed, so they can direct you to a private travel agency. So far, we’ve avoid all of the obvious rip-offs. The only scam we’ve experienced so far is purchasing a pair of reading glasses for 400 Rp (about $10 Canadian) that were only worth 100 Rp. Oh, and we purchased a long distance calling card for about $50 that we found out only works in Mumbai, a city that we probably won’t be going back to, but we’re not sure whether the salesman knew this or not.

India is a handkerchief haven. At home, Patrick sometimes gets grief from friends because he carries a hankie, which is seen as an old-fashioned and even slightly disgusting. With the advent of Kleenex, hankies have fallen out of favour, but they’re much softer and avoid a raw nose during hay fever season. However, in India, handkerchiefs are everywhere. Most people carry one to wipe the sweat from their brow. Due to their waning popularity in Canada, it’s difficult to purchase a quality hanky – anything softer and more absorbent than sandpaper. But in India, people on the street offer to sell us hankies several times a day. It’s just that easy. Hanky heaven. A billion people can’t be wrong.