Tag Archives: taxi

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.

One Night in Cairo

We arrived at Cairo airport from London at about midnight. We cleared immigration on the 2nd try, after we went were sent back to buy a Visa stamp. Fortunately, it was $15US each, rather than the $25 we expected. Upon exit from the arrival terminal, we were fully expecting to be swarmed by airport “touts”, and had spent time on the plane discussing our strategy. The best approach seemed to be to push through the wall of men offering help with a taxi or hotel, and negotiate closer to the street. The guide book said 35 Egyptian pounds (E£35) was a good negotiated rate for a taxi to the airport, but this may have been only from the city to the airport. After negotiating with several guys, an impromptu auction arose, with Patrick talking to a group of men all at once. Eventually Patrick got a guy to agree to E£45.

He walked us away from the airport and down a long tunnel, which was a bit worrisome. We got to his small car, and Patrick got his first request for baksheesh (alms or a tip) from a nearby taxi driver, which was declined, because this other fella hadn’t done anything for us. Diane rode with our packs in the back seat. Why? Because it is easier to exit the cab for the agreed upon fare if you bags aren’t held hostage in the locked trunk. The car didn’t move for about 3 minutes, which seemed like an eternity, but I think it was because it may have been prayer time, as a chant came across the car radio.

Exiting the airport, the driver wanted Patrick to pay the E£5 airport fee, and he wouldn’t until the driver agreed that his remaining fee would now only be E£40. A bit of shouting ensued, but he was under pressure because we were blocking the toll booth. He reluctantly agreed, but it didn’t seem like he was committed to it, or very happy about it. He drove us to town, but didn’t know where the hotel was. After talking to a number of cab drivers (some while both cab were in motion) and a couple of street police offers, we made it to a huge locked gate on a very dark and dusty street with a painted sign that said “African Hotel” illuminated by a single incandescent bulb. Diane stayed in the car, which we couldn’t afford to lose until we confirmed that we could get in, while Patrick checked the gate. There was an old man on a cot inside the gate, who rose slowly, almost painfully, to unlock the chain that held the very old heavy cast iron gates closed.

We walked down a large hallway into what was once a grand old colonial building, with sparse lighting illuminating pealing paint. We climbed 3 flights of wide stone stairs, following small signs that said “Africa”. On the 3rd floor, we found a small, dimly lit room with a desk, and a helpful young Egyptian. He had our name already written in a book, from our online reservation done in London the night before, the technological advancement of which was in stark contrast to the environment we now found ourselves in.

We were shown to a huge room, with 15 foot ceilings, high door ways, and 3 beds. You could tell this was once a beautiful old building. It still was, if you could see through the dirt and the many layers of cracking paint. The old floorboards flexed so much when Diane walked on them, she was worried she might fall through. The sheets seemed cleaned based on the sniff test, and we locked ourselves into the room using an old-fashioned key from the inside of the room.

At this point, Diane was stressed almost to her limit, and it took some time for her calm down. Patrick laid out our sleeping sheets (individual sleeping bag liners made of silk), into which we put our money belts and ourselves for safekeeping. Diane clung to Patrick as loud noises outside made sleep difficult.

We wrote this the following morning, so we obviously survived our first night in Cairo. It was an exhilarating introduction to one of the world’s great cities.