Since losing our bikes on the edge of Europe we’ve had to get inventive regarding our modes of transport. Whilst the loss of the freedom of two wheels has been a big deal for us both we’ve made something of a challenge out of it to keep ourselves light…how many modes of transport can we work in to our journey now we have the freedom, at least, to do that?
The tuks, trishaws or autos as they’re known in India almost simulate the experience of a bike and have the advantage of someone else driving. But they have a notorious reputation for fleecing unwary tourists. As with any real-life interaction though, our experiences have taught us that stereotypes don’t give the full picture. Wherever the bad examples reside you can be sure of finding good ones too.
Since the outset though Mickey has had his eye on getting into one (I’ve had to seriously restrain him from buying one!!) and so we’ve had more than a couple of interesting experiences with them. Here are a few stories of how we got ‘Tuktuk tough’
We’re back in Bangalore for a little respite from the country.
We’ve checked into a hotel room on the north side of town and now we’re heading out for a meat dinner. The sudden and prolonged switch to vegetarianism has taken its toll on my energy levels and, whilst it has made me re-evaluate how much meat I need to eat to be healthy, it’s safe to say we’re both looking forward to a meat meal and a beer (the campus is also dry and we’ve been working hard). We walk a little towards town and spy an auto sat waiting on a dark corner. We could walk but it’s long and dark and we have to walk a stretch on a dual carriageway under a bridge. People do it, but it looks pretty suicidal to us. Bangalore is known for its crazy traffic and as a pedestrian you’re way down the food chain and hardly visible in the dark streets. We ask the driver to take us to Millers road a few kilometres away. “How much?” I ask. “Ahh” he waves his hand and says something I can’t quite catch.
“Meter?” I ask,
“No meter” he says. They’ll rarely switch them on for us.
“So how much then?” I reiterate.
“Ahh” he repeats, and waves his arm dismissively again, more aggressively this time. I sigh, getting in and prepare myself for the battle at the other end as Mickey and I exchange wary glances.
I follow our route on my phone, he’s taking us way out of the way, in the opposite direction in fact. It’s possible he knows a short-cut, but as he passes the first second and third opportunity to right his direction my suspicions grow that he’s trying to push up the fair.
Eventually, he turns onto the street we need and explains in a jolly tone that it’s a one-way system. They don’t always show on Google, possibly due to a rumour we’ve heard that Bangalore roads sporadically change from two to one way, depending on the day. I’m grateful I didn’t start calling him out on his (wrongly) suspected fair-hiking tactics! And take the lesson that a wary benefit of the doubt is a good thing
But the best is yet to come. We get out in front of the restaurant and I ask again how much. He waves his hand dismissively one more time and says the same thing that I still can’t quite catch. I assume he’s letting us off on the fair. Shocked but grateful, I thank him and begin to walk away from the tuktuk until he says “madam, money!”. Thankfully he’s laughing and interprets my confusion for what it is rather than assuming duplicity.
I come back alongside him and this time understand that he’s telling me to pay whatever I think. “Ohhh!” I say, finally catching up.
“How about 100 Rs?”
He looks very happy with that, the journey would have been around 50 for a local. But I’m so happy to have been given the choice and paying just over £1.10 for the journey seems just fine. As a friend of mine says: in any transaction, both parties should, ideally, leave happy. So his tactic of giving me control worked out well for both of us. A good salesman is one who understands human psychology!
Unfortunately, not everyone understands this
Two days later and we need to get to the ring road for dinner at a friend’s house. We set off walking a while up the road from our hotel. It’s a very typical Indian road, the kind you see on travel websites or in your mind’s eye when you think of urban India. Tiny, single-roomed, rickety old buildings line the narrow road. In them, vendors sit cross-legged on the floor next to great burdens of one or two fruit varieties or stand, rolling out naan.
The shops open out directly on to the road, with no pavement in between. And so we dodge the customers on one side and the traffic on the other. At times they all seem to merge and tangle into one endless net, cast wide to catch us. But it never quite does as we nip through the gaps. The bustle of the street is intoxicating – both exhilarating and daunting all at once. The shops entice me to linger but there’s no opportunity to do so.
We spy an auto across the street along with a gap in the traffic mesh, and we skip across. The driver is sat biding his time, whether resting or waiting for a fare I don’t yet know. Unprepared, I pull out my phone to check the address – something I don’t like doing but have little choice if we want to get where we need to. I give him the street name, I show him on the map and I give him the nearest landmark (Indian addresses will often include a landmark to increase the chances of locating it). None of these quite seem to work so I show him the exact address and he shrugs, seeming to accept it.
Mickey asks how much. “200” he replies. It’s too much for the 7 km trip but not by a huge amount and, after all, he has sat patiently while I located the address. Nonetheless, something pricks at my mind, I note as I get into the cab. Something had flashed in his eyes when we accepted the too-high fare easily that my senses had just caught.
The cash crisis must have hit these guys hard, they’re a cash only business and there’s not a lot of cash around at the moment, though it’s getting better. But if demonetisation is a blow to business then Google maps must be a constant thorn in their sides. I track our route on my phone and we approach the location, we’re still a little over 2 km away. Something in his manner changes though, the auto loses some urgency and a second or two before he turns around I suspect he is about to drop us off.
“No,” I say, “keep going, it’s 2 km yet”
He does so and a few minutes later he pulls over where I tell him and Mickey hands him the 200 we agreed. “50 more” he says as he shows the hand that’s been causing the niggling feelings throughout the journey.
“We agreed 200” I say.
“Yes, back there, this is not the address you gave me”. For the sake of 50 Rs (about 70p), I wouldn’t usually argue but his lies and the fact that we’ve paid over the odds too frequently recently all add up to me digging my heels in.
“Yes sir,” I reply, “this is the same address” showing him the map.
“No, it is not.” He says calmly, without even glancing at the map “50 Rs more”
Reason isn’t going to get me anywhere with him, I need to play him at his own game and beat him on authority. I make the decision to walk away whether he accepts it or not. I deliver one last assertion and move to get out.
“No sir,” I say, keeping my voice level and polite but now with a note more firmness in it “200 was already too much, but we accepted it. It is a 7 km journey, 25 for the first 2 km, then 13 Rs per km. 200 is too much. But you have 200. Not 50 Rs more.”
I see the point at which I win the argument. I’m already half way out of the auto as the determination slips from his eyes, but it makes things easier to know it. He’s a chancer, attempting to bully us into paying more. Like most bullies he prefers easy prey to those that fight back.
We walk briskly away. I’m annoyed but not angry. In fact, I’m feeling rather jubilant. Usually, under circumstances like that I would feel helpless and unable to stand up for myself, despite knowing he was taking us for a ride. I just won the argument by staying polite and firm and simply repeating myself. India is indeed teaching me lessons!
The last of my doubts fade a few minutes later. Google maps isn’t always accurate in India but on this occasion it served us well and I don’t need to feel bad as we find the shop we’re looking for exactly where it should be.
On another occasion, Mickey decided to try his hand at negotiations
We’d travelled by auto to our destination so were armed with a fair idea of what we should pay, both officially and on the street. The price on the street includes the seemingly obligatory ‘tourist tax’ that is applied with impunity by autos, shops and museums alike. In fact the autos only add around 50-100% on while the museums can be up to 10 times more.
The first auto pulled up and quoted a price that was twice as much as we should be paying.
“No thanks” says Mickey “we only paid 80 Rs to get here”
“That’s the price” the driver said.
“OK, nevermind” says Mickey, walking off. He flags the next one who quotes the same price “OK, well you can move on too” says Mickey, by now taking to his role standing in the middle of the street waving autos in and on like a concert conductor.
I step away at this point to book a cab using Ola (an Indian Uber-style app). If the autos want to drive themselves out of business they’re welcome to. But at that point another guy pulls up, he’s been sitting across the street watching.
“What do you want to pay?” he asks
“80 Rs” says Mickey.
“I will take you for that” he says.
So in we get and off we go. He shows us his mosque as we drive through town and he tells us about his son who has dengue fever. I have no idea whether this is a play for sympathy or not but he asks for nothing other than that we pray for his son as we step out of the auto at our hotel. I pay him 100 Rs, once again invoking sales psychology: I do not want to side with cynicism for the sake of 20 Rs and he took us for what we wanted to pay when others wouldn’t. I figure that has to mean that he needs the fare more than they do and once again we all walk away up.
Leaving Bangalore, we head out into India and away from the network of good people we’ve built up in this country. Moving through Kerala, we stop at Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of the state
We catch the 6:25 am train from Alleppey at 7 am without issue and settle in for the 3 hour journey. Lush, tropical vegetation and waterways quickly give way to an increasingly cityscape vista, before we’re finally greeted by a mayhem of bodies that not even Bangalore has prepared us for. We walk off the platform into a vibrating throng of people coming at us from every direction.
We’re bombarded with “Sir, sir, sir, sir, sir, taxi, taxi, taxi, taxi, sir?’ delivered at breakneck speed from multiple mouths followed by a ‘madam’ version. We bat of several only to have them replaced by several more. They just keep coming and the whole effect is so disorientating I have to actively fight the urge to scream and run. Forceful “no”s don’t diminish the onslaught one bit.
We find refuge in a crowded ticket hall, waved there impatiently and vaguely by a police officer that we enquire directions of, queuing never felt so good. The lady behind the counter gives more specific instructions in a slightly less brusque way – I think to myself she’s significantly more civil than I would be if I worked in this chaos every day.
We eventually find the pre-pay auto queue after a few more rounds of vague, but unconflicting directions and stand there, welcoming the momentary respite. It’s short-lived.
“Where are you going” asked an approaching auto driver, wearing the obligatory khaki shirt of the auto driver.
“Here” I pointed to the queue.
“No, where are you going, I take you” he repeated.
“Parampara guesthouse” I replied knowing full well he wouldn’t know where it was. It’s often easier to reply than ignore and I was feeling like having a little fun by that point.
“Where?” I repeated the name.
“Do you have a address?” he asked, puzzled and temporarily stymied.
“Kovalam beach” I replied. “Ah”, he replied, back on firmer ground “Come, I take you, 250 Rs”.
“No thank you sir” I replied, “I stay here, pre-pay”.
“I am pre-pay, I work here” he says with frustration showing on his face.
I smile and indicate that I’ll be staying in line. If he worked pre-pay then he would be up front taking fairs and his lie has just confirmed the lack of scruples I had suspected.
“You queue a long time” he says, changing tack and laughing at me as he walks a distance away. “Yes, I queue a long time” I say quietly as he walks off “because I’ve danced this dance many times now and I know how it ends”.
He walks up to the pre-pay booth and lounges on it leering at me as we approach the front of the queue, grinning knowingly. Him paying me wouldn’t have got me in his auto by this point and I smile back at him with a shrug.
He watches us pay for our ticket and says something jokingly to the teller, which they ignore. But for now my attention is off him, we need to get ourselves to the next queue and deal with another grabby driver. I’m one behind the officer validating the tickets and allocating autos when another driver takes my ticket. “Come” he says “I’ll take you”.
By now I’m getting a bit tired of these men and their efforts to order me into paying them a fare. If the locals are getting their autos allocated by the officer then I am too. I snatch my ticket back and point to the front of the queue: I’m staying here. The official validates it and points to our auto.
We get in, but not before the first driver is back again. He wants to see the ticket to see what fare we’ll pay. It’s only 14 Rs lower than what he offered but this one has the security of being an assured fare. He thinks it a great joke that we’ve queued 10 min for the sake of 14 Rs but his face sours a little when I point out sweetly that time is the one thing we have plenty of…what’s the rush? By this point I’d have happily paid double the price not to have to share oxygen with that pushy little man.
I could write a tome about our auto experiences alone. Even the wariest of travellers will likely get stung by the less scrupulous of the tuks but it’s worth the risk. As with similar low-scale risks, our approach has been to throw ourselves at it mindfully and learn fast. This approach has rewarded us. Further down the line, with better haggling skills and more experience, we learnt that a tuk driver is a good person to know . We hired them for days out, and got wind in our face, almost independent transport and a local guide all thrown in for a bargain price. Better yet, when the drivers got to know us and realised we weren’t interested in the normal tourist trail, their love of their country really started to shine through and we gained the benefit of this. These were some of our best experiences while moving around alone and provided us with enough independence to stem the frustration our lack of bikes brought.
Our journey continues, and whilst our independence has been limited without bikes we can’t help but notice that the richness of experience has increased several fold. The trains, the autos and the buses in India all have their own little quirks of service and you’re brought into contact with regular everyday folk in a way that isn’t available to you on a bike. You’re forced to slow down and develop ease with moving at someone else’s pace. And those two things are, after all, the reason we set off on this trip. To meet people and understand cultures; to slow down and connect.
Thanks to Sudhir Sathiyamoorthy for the title suggestion! 😉