Tuk Tuks – avoiding death and scam

“Stop this tuk tuk right now or I’ll grab your keys” was one comment I screamed at a driver. There were many others. I estimate that we took more than a hundred tuk tuks in the few weeks travelling through South India and were treated to a plethora of scams and dishonest practices – but there is no better way to experience the towns and cities than to put you life into the hands of a tuk tuk driver.

Especially this driver – as it’s yours truly

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A tuk tuk which is known by the less colourful name of ‘auto rickshaw’ is basically a dirty two-stroke motorbike with three wheels with a hard plastic hood over to seat, well you’d think to seat two people but I did count seven in quite a few of them. Some are the driver’s pride and joy which is evident in its adornments and cleanliness and some are simply a means to an end aka death traps. There are millions of them on the roads in India.

They are without doubt the cheapest and most exciting way to get about the urban areas and you can pretty much be getting into one, only ten seconds after thinking you might need one because in India a western tourist is simply a very sweet and sticky jam and the tuk tuks are extremely hungry wasps. However jumping into one and saying ‘home James and don’t spare the horses’ might leave you disappointed because there are so many pitfalls and stresses once you step over the threshold to taking a ride, that it’s worth knowing some of the latest dupes and scams that you can find yourself involved in and/or the victim of.  It can be a great game to play of psychology and wits as long as it’s not hot and you’re not slightly tired or distracted otherwise you may fall folly to their little games – which seem to vary from city to city. We stayed in three cities and each one had its own unique scam amongst the universal ones.

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In Mysore, it wasn’t too bad. One day you could pay 100 rupees and the next 50 for the exact same journey of 3 miles but as it was 85 rupees to the £1, one at first feels no pressure to grumble but that will inevitably wear off.  ALWAYS ask how much it will be to wherever you’re going and when they tell you a price that you think is ok, repeat it back to them and get confirmation at least three times. Two times isn’t enough. Tuk tuks have meters yet we only saw them in use on two occasion in all the tuk tuk journeys undertaken.

Once in a tuk tuk, most drivers will ask you where you are from. This is not asked to discuss your life or cricket but to know what language they need to scam you in. They are of course very low paid, work very hard and have enormous competition and they will try to sell a journey to every tourist spot in the area – which can be much cheaper and very useful if you actually want to see the places they are offering and in Mysore there are some wonderful places (watch this space for an upcoming Mysore guide blog) but most tuk tuk drivers haven’t yet learned the English for ‘no’. It is good to talk in a slow east European accent naming exactly where you want to go and then answering every question they broach at you with ‘capotski’ and a big smile.  You’ll get to your destination quicker. Always know where your destination is as they don’t.  Whilst in Mysore we were staying near the Pattabhi Jois yoga centre yet it was surprising to us how many drivers asked us where it was and when I explained to them that they in fact were the driver and we the western tourists they would pull over and ask locals who always checked us out and then had a chuckle with the driver in Tamil or Hindi or maybe it was east european but nonetheless it’s a wonderful endeavour for anyone who has or  is recovering from paranoid tendencies .

The driver stopped to run an errand

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In Cochin, they have a  different approach. On the whole they are friendlier here and speak much better English but will offer you a free trip or a very cheap one, at say 20 rupees, if you would only do them a favour and visit this shop or that shop as they get a petrol token from ‘the rich Kashmiri owner’ and all you have to do is look around whilst they wait outside. We did this the first time and the idea is that you are pressured into buying something to which the driver gets a percentage that adds up to much more than any fare he would have received. I assume he gets a little something for just taking you there. We were in Cochin nearly a week and virtually every single driver tried to get you into some shop which are always full of westerners trying their very best to say no as they delve for their purses and wallets.

In Bangalore, and I have to assume all bigger cities, it’s a whole different ball game. They don’t even hide behind friendliness. But above all they tell bare-faced lies and even go close to what could be construed as kidnapping in some countries.

One morning we decided, from our city centre hotel, to go to the huge Hare Krishna temple of ISKCON seven miles away but still in the centre of the city – Bangalore is huge and sprawling. I asked a tuk tuk driver how much it would be to go to the ISKCON place and he looked at me as if I was a talking cat. I said it slowly several times and added other words like K R I S H N A   T E M P L E  but to no avail. We were then ambushed by an astute, silk shirted, much younger driver who spoke perfect English and knew Mick Jagger who pulled us from this ride to his own tuk tuk admonishing the older guy in Hindi. He then explained that ISKCON is closed until 2pm. I said that the lonely planet guide says it’s open all day, he assured us it was not but offered us a tour for only 100 rupees to see various temples. This he did – at first – but then it became a pressured set of stops to various emporiums. I had to demand quite strongly that he returned us. The ISKCON temple, of course, had been open.

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The next day we decided to walk for a while before asking a kerb-crawling tuk tuk how much it would be to the botanical gardens, he said 20 rupees, we got in and off we went. Whilst driving, he told us that the gardens was closed until 2pm and he’d take us on a tour. I told him that it’s OK, just take us to the gardens anyway at which point he stopped the tuk tuk on what can only be described as a six lane inner city motorway with cows and turned to me and said, ‘no it is closed’, I assured him that it was open to which he got a tad annoyed and so we exited the tuk tuk to his fury.

We were then immediately picked up by another one at 20 rupees. I explained that I don’t want to go any shops, we just want to go to the gardens, he agreed then took a turn at speed and in totally the opposite direction before explaining to me that he was just taking us to his friend’s shop. This was the point where the calmness my yoga training has brought me left the tuk tuk and was replaced by my training from the streets of Northern England. It could have got hairy but I didn’t fancy a Bangalore prison so we left him still with his keys to his auto, shouting apologies back at us. I genuinely think it was the first time that he’d been challenged like this.

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But now we were in the middle of nowhere and so we flagged another tuk tuk down as we were determined to see some bloody flowers before the day was out. He told us it would be 100 rupees. And here’s a tip – a tuk tuk is cheap for a reason. This 100 rupee tuk tuk was intending to take us to our destination without us having to look first at wooden elephants and brass Buddhas. I did however, ten minutes later, utter, under my breath, ‘for fuck’s sake’, when he flew past the entrance to the botanical gardens. I told him but he assured me he hadn’t. Two miles further on and for the third time in an hour I forced a driver to stop. This one however was not, it turned out, scamming us, he was just completely clueless and realising his mistake and the time he’d now lost randomly pulled over and said, ‘we’re here’ pointing to what was simply a front lawn in front of an average sized government building.  This time I refused to leave the tuk tuk to which he hailed over a policeman and we both explained our disagreement with me having an ace card commonly known as a city map. The policeman gave him short thrift and 15 minutes later (the time it takes to do 2 miles in Bangalore) we were at the gates.

The gatekeeper mistakenly short-changed us, I say mistakenly in that he had deliberately short-changed us and that was his mistake.

I promised myself there and then that I will never return to Bangalore on purpose – though the gardens were lovely.  They even had spit bins dotted about to stop the paths getting too gooey.
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