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On this trip, Nellu and I try to avoid taking cabs whenever possible for several reason. 1) It is often very difficult to explain to drivers where you are trying to go, even if you have it written down in the local language. Drivers know where the big locations are but very few know the neighborhoods. 2) There’s no guarantee that if you get in you’re going to get where you want to go. (Remember Nellu’s fun ride in Beijing?) For us its much easier to determine where we want to go via public transportation. 3) Cabs tend to be relatively expensive. 4) Even if the fare should be reasonable, when many cabbies pick up foreigners, the meter suddenly breaks and the price automatically goes up in multiples…that is if they bother to stop and pick you up at all. This last reason is by far the most irritating.
In India, we had no choice but to rely on a not cabs but the hordes of auto rickshaws (or autos as the locals call them) that pack the streets. (Delhi does have nice new metro but it mainly runs vertically through the city and not as far west as we needed to go. We hear that they’re building a new line, which would run east/west. I’m sure it will be quite lovely and convenient when it’s up and running.)
It took us awhile to get used to taking autos because in India drivers see dollar signs (or rather rupee signs) when they see foreigners. To be fair, the fares were mostly reasonable. We could get clear across Delhi on less than USD$2.50. But some drivers would try to charge us double. We tried to insist autos use the meter when we got in. This barely ever worked. Our Delhi host Nyamat told us she often offers to pay autos the meter plus 10 rupees (about 20 cents). We did relatively well using this strategy although most drivers sternly resisted. When it did work, it gave us a chance see how much it cost to get certain places so that we could more efficiently negotiate with those who refused to use the meter.
The frustrating part about the negotiation process is that there are always dozens of autos sitting around doing nothing in most places. It was hard for us to understand why they would follow us for three blocks trying to pick us up, but they wouldn’t take us for honest fare (and frankly a good tip if they get us there without much hassle).
Here are the standout stories of our attempts to take auto rickshaws in India:
Trip to the Taj – Agra – 8am to 6pm on a Wednesday
The train station in Agra has a pre-paid auto rickshaw booth. We love pre-paid booths because they seem to provide a small sense of order to the chaos of the auto world. When fares are published, you don’t feel like you’re getting ripped off as much (even when you are). It cost us 80 rupees to get from the train station to the South Gate of the Taj Mahal. Totally reasonable. It was clear across town. We met an Australian kid at the station and offered to share a ride. One of the drivers insisted we could not take three people in an auto, which of course was a complete lie. The guy who did end up driving us downtown seemed nice. On the way to the Taj, he shared a diary with us of testimonials he had from other foreigners who had hired him to drive them around for the full day. He would take you to the various spots around town, wait while you saw the sights, and then take you to the next place for a fixed price of 500 rupees. Nellu and I had already decided that we were going to walk as possible so we politely declined this offer. He continued with the hard sell until we got out.
Later on in the day, we went looking for a driver to take us from just outside the Taj to a bar halfway on the road to the train station. We first got into an auto with a driver that said yes to the meter but then changed his price to 70/80 rupees when we got in. We quickly got out. We started walking and found a bicycle rickshaw that said he would take us for 10 or 20 rupees, but it was clear he didn’t know where he was going. To make matters worse, instead of peddling on the bike, he walked the rickshaw on foot the way you would walk your bike up a steep hill. Our four legs were better than his two so once again, we hopped out. After roaming around and getting lost for a while, we were finally picked up by an honest driver who took us where we needed to go for 30 rupees.
From the bar we needed to go to the train station still about 4km away. The first driver we passed was another bicycle rickshaw driver. When we asked the fare to the station, he replied, “As you like.” Ha! Truthfully, I would like to pay nothing. We offered 30 rupees. He countered with 40 rupees (apparently he didn’t like our “as you like”.) We got in. The one detail that I left out is that this particular driver looked a lot older than many of the others we had seen. I don’t know if it was an act but he appeared to struggle as he peddled us there. I felt horrible, swore off ever taking bicycle rickshaws again, and we gave him 100 rupees for the effort.
The Cheat – Delhi – 11pm on a Wednesday
Our fun with drivers didn’t stop that day in Agra. When we got back to the train station in Delhi, there were swarms of drivers waiting but no one would take us for the meter or the meter plus 10 rupees. The standing offer was 250 rupees or about $5. This was more than double what it should cost. Even though there were easily 50 auto rickshaws waiting outside the station, they all seemed to stick together on this outrageous price. Finally, one driver quietly told us he would take us for the metered fare.
But we should have known there was a problem from the beginning. I was never sure this guy knew where we were going. I kept asking him and he would just shake his head yes. He also kept looking at us in the rearview mirror. By this point in our trip to India, Nellu and I had been around Delhi for about a week and we had started to get to know the city. We were both suspicious that he was driving us around in circles (very easy to do in Delhi because it’s a lush green city with hidden landmarks and many traffic circles). When we passed Humayun’s Tomb on the east side of city north of the train station, when we needed to go west and south, our suspicions were confirmed. Nellu asked him if we was driving us around and he wiggled his hand in a “kind of/so-so/little bit” motion. We insisted he pull over right away and only did when Nellu put his foot on the ground outside the rickshaw. We refused to pay him the fare and walked away (there was a lot of yelling involved).
Less than two minutes later, we were picked up by another auto rickshaw driver, who took us for the metered fare and didn’t drive us around. He got a big tip.
In retrospect, our strategy should have been to walk out of the train station and down the street where we would have found a driver less intent on ripping us off. That was the advice our guesthouse host had told us in Rio de Janeiro: If you walk a block a way from the station (in Rio it was the bus station) you are more likely to find a ride that hasn’t been cooking up a scheme.
The Joy Riders – Amritsar – 4:10am on a Monday
This is by far the most entertaining of all our auto rickshaw rides. Nellu and I had to catch a train that left from Amritsar station at 5:00am. We checked out of our hotel room and walked out into the street. The street was empty but we were soon approached by several drivers. The first two drivers insisted on charging double what it cost to get from the train station (We paid 40 rupees, which was clearly double the locals price already.) Once again, they thought if they double-teamed us, both holding firm on their inflated prices, we’d have no choice but pay it. While I was negotiating with these two drivers, Nellu started talking to a pair of kids who agreed to take us for half. We hopped in.
What was interesting about this trip was that the two kids appeared to be quite young. As they sped to the train station, they talked and laughed, and every once in a while you could clearly understand them saying “40 rupees” and they would laugh again. Of course we’ll never know the real story, but to us they seemed like two kids joy riding around town in someone else’s auto rickshaw getting a huge kick out of making 40 rupees for taking two tourists to the train.
Overly Suspicious – Delhi – 10:30pm on a Saturday
This last story doesn’t quite count in this list because he wasn’t actually an auto rickshaw driver. In fact he had a van. But our interactions with autos across the country shaped this experience so I feel justified to include it.
We headed back to Delhi after our brief tour around Northern India. After arriving by train for the last time, we walked out of the station (a different station this time) to find the usual mob of auto rickshaws. We were approached right off the bat by several drivers asking for 200+ rupees. No way. We kept walking. We were approached also by several cab drivers. Cab fare is usually double that of autos even when they use the meter. No way. Finally, we found a driver who promised to take us home for 100 rupees. Great. As we approached his vehicle, we realized he had a van and not an auto. We repeated several times that we were only going to pay 100 rupees total and would not pay more for a real car. He confirmed again and again and we got in.
For some reason on the way, the driver turned on the meter. This made Nellu and I weary. Was he going to insist we pay 100 rupees over the metered price? Was there another scheme here that we hadn’t seen before? I started to protest but it was clear he didn’t understand. The driver stopped the car, pulled over, and turned around to address us both. In exasperation, he tried to confer that he didn’t understand our English. He repeated over and over that he was only going to charge us 100 rupees total and turned off the meter. He stuck to his word.
. . . . . . . . .
By the time we left India, most drivers offered to drive us for the metered fare. I don’t know if we gained a certain air of experience evident only to auto rickshaws but our suspicions never subsided. Instead of being grateful to drivers who gave us the courtesy of going by meter, we thought to ourselves, “Why does he want to use the meter?”
Ok truth be told, Nellu and I had gotten pretty comfortable in Delhi and I would have been absolutely content to stay there for the entire month we allotted to India if not for the subtle voice in the back of my head that kept saying, “You should really get out and see more of the country. You were the one who wanted to come here for so long. So go. See it.”
So we made a plan, booked our trains and started setting up our accommodations. We resigned ourselves to only covering part of northern India. Essentially, we’d see India’s Golden Triangle – Delhi, Agra and Jaipur – with a few extras. This romp would take us for 12 or so days through five cities. As with China, there were going a number of overnight trains involved, so we made sure to book a few more nights at Mala’s on the tail end of our trip just to rest up and in theory get some work done. (Note for future travelers: we booked all our trains through cleartrip.com as recommended by seat61.com. We were able to do all the transactions online, pay with our Capital One Venture credit card, and print out e-tickets. There was a small, negligible handling fee but it beats running to the train station every other day and doing on the spot re-routing.)
We left our Delhi home with full bellies (we had this divine hot chocolate pudding/lava cake with vanilla ice cream for dessert, no joke) and headed to the train station for our first overnight train to Khajuraho.
Khajuraho is home to India’s slightly scandalous Kama Sutra temples. We arrived first thing in the morning and checked directly into our hotel room. Even though we planned to take the night train out that evening, we booked a hotel room so we could store our luggage, shower and nap. (I know this may surprise you, but sleep on the night train is not always easy to come.)
Right away we realized how refreshing it was to be outside the big city and in the country. Khajuraho is a tiny town that would never register on anyone’s radar if not for the temples. After checking in, we had a breakfast of coffee (thank god) and the chocolate cake tops Mala sent with us. Then we took to the streets with a plan to walk to the first group of temples. Along the way many drivers solicited us but it was a kid on a moped, who decided to walk with us/follow us/try to tour guide us for most of the morning.
The temples in Khajuraho are striking more so for their exquisite detail than explicit sexual positions. The craftsmanship alone is worth marveling at.
After several hours of temple gawking both in the morning and afternoon, we headed back for showers and food before catching the second of our overnight trains to Varanasi.
In Varanasi, we paid extra for our guesthouse to send a driver to pick us up. We rationalized that after two back-to-back nights on the overnight train, it was best to avoid added aggravation of negotiating with auto rickshaw drivers the moment we arrived. The driver met us on the platform and took us to his car. The city was flooded and even though we were about 6km from the train station it took an hour to reach our guesthouse on the riverbank of the Ganges.
Varanasi is said to be the place where Buddhism was born. But more evident is the significance the city has to the Hindu religion. Many devout Hindus make the pilgrimage there to bathe in the Ganges River. The old city is framed around ghats or steps leading down to the river where people can bathe. Hindus believe washing in the Ganges purifies oneself.
The Varanasi entry on Wikitravel suggests that bathing is exactly what you need to do when visiting the city…with several caveats:
Over 60,000 people come down to the waters edge every day to take a dip in the sacred waters of the Ganges. Try not to think too much about the dozens of sewage pipes and sunken corpses in the waters around you and you’ll find it’s not nearly as bad as you expect once you’re actually in it. Although medically, bathing in water in which a corpse resides risks infection with numerous blood borne diseases (notably hepatitis) and many infections.
Hindus also believe that dying in the Ganges will allow the soul to escape the cycle of reincarnation and establish a percent place in heaven. Consequently, in addition to the bathing ghats, there are also cremation ghats. But not all bodies, such as those of children, can be cremated so the corpses are sent into the water with riggings to weigh them down (hence the sunken corpses mentioned above).
I’m pretty sure Jeremy Piven took a dunk in the Ganges for his Travel Channel special: Jeremy Piven’s Journey of a Lifetime. But I imagine he had a team of Purell Super Soakers ready to go when he got out.
Needless to say, Nellu and I didn’t try it out. Not even a pinkie touched Ganges water.
We did take a sunrise boat cruise to see the bathing ghats. The whole time, I couldn’t help but wonder how the bathers felt with all the tourists going by in boats and taking pictures of them while they washed. I guess that’s why they stare and take so many pictures of us… It’s pay back :)
Varanasi is one of the most iconic cities in India and the subject of some of the most striking pictures of the country. But it’s certainly not the place for squeamish travelers. The city may be chock full or yoga studios and mediation centers, but hordes of pilgrims and tourists cause congestion and attract aggressive touts.
From Varanasi we went to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple, one of the most important places of worship in the Sikh religion. Our Delhi host family, the Bindras, were Sikhs and spoke highly of it and shared pictures. It was gorgeous in pictures so you know in real life it was only going to be that much more impressive.
We took a 24-four train from Varanasi to Amritsar in a first-class compartment. We paid a little more for this privilege but of all the things we’ve spent money on in the last six months this one is really high up on the “worth-it list.” As a couple, Nellu and I were given one of the two-people first-class compartments. Yes, that’s right. We had it all to ourselves. We had a door that locked and they even gave us towels. This was by far the best of all our train rides to date. We slept, got caught up on some work, and even got some reading in. We watched the sunset over the Indian countryside in peace and quiet. It was heaven.
Oh and on the way we met our new friend Hamilton. He’s a Canadian/American currently residing in Nepal. He’s a documentary filmmaker doing some pretty inspiring work. In fact, one of his films won the top prize at a festival in France and the People’s Pick: Hanuman Airlines: Fly Over Everest.
Hamilton was going up to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple as well, and had planned to stay at the hostel in the Temple itself. At the Golden Temple, anyone can stay for free. They can also eat for free at the cafeteria in the Temple, which is fueled by donations and volunteers. When you walk by, you can hear clambering of the dishwashers churning through hundreds metal plates. Sikhism is a religion based on equality and Gurpreet Bindra liked to brag to us that at the Golden Temple cafeteria a rich man could be sitting next to a beggar and everyone would be treated the same. That philosophy is felt through the whole complex of the Golden Temple.
The temple grounds really are exquisite. The Golden Temple sits at the center of the complex surrounded by a lake of holy water. This holy water, however, is leagues cleaner than the Ganges river. Devotees bathe in the water and drink it. It looked so nice on the hot September day that I wanted to take a swim but of course that would be disrespectful.
We visited twice, both in the morning and then at night to get the full effect of its beauty.
Just outside Amritsar in Wagah is another prominent attraction: the only road border crossing between India and Pakistan. We were so close, we had to go. There are two flag ceremonies at the border each day: one when the border opens and another when it closes. We made it there for the closing ceremony. It was quite the sight. Both countries have built stadium-style seating facing the border gate and people flock there to watch the spectacle on both sides. The ceremony is full of dancing, goose step walking, bugle horns, and dirty looks. There’s also an announcer that sounded like he kept shouting, “Gooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaallllllllll,” but it was clearly something else.
I am not taking sides or anything but India was having a dance party during the pre-ceremony and Pakistan barely budged.
From Amritsar, we trained it back though Delhi to Ramnager on the outskirts of the tiger reserve at Corbett National Park. We went on two safaris, one jeep and one on elephant back. We didn’t see any tigers, but we did see paw prints.
We also learned that not all elephant trainers are good ones like the one we met at the sanctuary in Bali. This trainer was pretty rough on our elephant using both a bamboo stick and the back of a metal rod. I felt ashamed that we had put the animal through this and we made it clear to our hostel that had booked the ride for us that this ruined the experience. We also swore that the next time we visit elephants, it will be in the wild.
The highlight of our trip to Corbett Park was an accidental meeting of the owners of the Forest Haat, Dheeraj and Amrita Singh. The Forest Haat is a cafe/store in the heart of the park that just happened to be right next to our hostel and had the only working wifi in town. Two days in a row, Nellu and I had gone in search of internet and ended up talking with Dheeraj and Amrita for hours. It was great to share our experiences with the couple who made us feel very normal and gave us lots of great insight. Dheeraj quit the corporate world and found he could make a living following his passion as a wildlife photographer. (He has seen many tigers!) Amrita dreams of opening a small guesthouse at the foot of the Himalayas and if she does, we’ll be back.
After a restful few days in Corbett Park, we got back on the train traveling once again through Delhi to Jaipur. Jaipur is one of the cities that make up India’s Golden Triangle. It’s known as the Pink City because in 1853 they painted the city pink to welcome the Prince of Wales and they kept it.
To me, the beauty of the buildings in Jaipur rival that of the Taj Mahal.
After twelve days and five cities, we arrived back in Delhi in one piece and markedly less tired than we expected. We had two more days in India before flying to Thailand to do it all again.