4 - Dodgy Delhi

"Namaste," said the customs agent, no questions asked, no search imposed. "Welcome to India." Sweet! I changed one-hundred dollars into rupees, then I put my passport away, then I walked to where taxis waited. Beggars dragged themselves after me to plead for charity so I gave my coins to the most crippled one, not anticipating that his companions would pursue me with intensified expressions of desperation. I avoided eye contact and quickened my pace to the taxi queue.

"How much to the Shiva Guest House?" I asked. "Near the main train station."

"Two-hundred rupees," said the driver. "Five American dollars."

"Three dollars."


Our deal done, we sped away.

The moon's light was sufficient to see scenery more shocking than the beggars. Women and children slept under cardboard boxes. Armed guards patrolled gated enclaves. Cows chewed on garbage oblivious to the traffic whizzing by. Worst was the foul stench of burning rubbish.

My driver stopped on a dark street then he turned to address me. I noticed a scar on his face and missing teeth. "Sir," he said. "This hotel is very good and inexpensive too. Only forty American dollars. Best value in Delhi, at this time of night especially."

Tempting as it was to get a shower and a bed, I said, "Please take me to the Shiva Guest House... Now, please."

"I'm sorry sir, but I do not know Shiva Guest House."

"Why didn't you say so at the airport?" Sigh.

I retrieved my hotel's phone number from my guide book, then Scar-face made a call, speaking in Hindi. Finally he said in English, "I'm sorry sir, but Shiva Guest House all full, no vacancy."

I had considered booking a room in advance but I didn't bother because I expected to arrive during the daytime. I did not expect that grueling twelve-hour delay in London. Sigh.

I asked Scar-face to call another cheap hotel but he refused, saying, "All of Delhi city is most full now because of international conference. I have taken you to the best-value hotel available, at this time of night especially. Only forty American dollars."

I didn't believe him. I wondered how many tourists fell for his scam, and I wondered how he got his scar, but I figured if he had a gun he would have used it. I estimated that he was a coward, so I tried to look mean and I stared him down.

Finally he said, "Sir, there is tourist agency open twenty-four hours. They will find one room for your good self."

I nodded, and he put his taxi in gear.

In a dilapidated office suspiciously nearby, a man sat at a desk covered with maps and brochures. He seemed to be expecting us. Something other than the sewer outside didn't smell right, but despite feeling frustrated and exhausted, I was excited. I was in India!

I asked the mustached man to please find me any cheap room near the New Delhi train station, a landmark surrounded by a backpacker neighborhood according to my map, and a safe place to wait until sunrise in the worst case.

The man made two phone calls, speaking in Hindi, then he said to me, "I am so sorry sir, but every hotel in Delhi is fully booked now because of very big, international conference. It is crazy! So many people in Delhi now. I recommend you take the forty-dollar room that your taxi driver is recommending. You are lucky it is available. Indeed, this room is excellent value for money, at this time of night especially."

Tempting as that was, I did not want to fall for a scam, so I asked Scar-face to please take me to the New Delhi train station. Instead he drove me to a small, neighborhood station not far away. When I saw that he was playing me for sport, I snapped, "Take me to the main, central train station, the big one, now! Please."

Scar-face insisted that my bill just increased to nine dollars, then he put his taxi in gear. Later as we approached the central station, I ordered him to stop and he obliged.

Incredibly, I saw a sign down an alley that said Shiva Guest House. The alley was deserted except for some night workers hauling cargo, and I sensed no danger, so I put one-hundred-and-sixty rupees on the taxi's front seat, then I marched towards the sign. Scar-face chased after me, demanding more money. He grabbed my arm and yelled in Hindi; this was annoying. He threatened to call the police.

The door to the guest house was locked but a night guard was on duty. Scar-face started to say something but I cut him off to ask for a bed. The guard quoted prices in rupees, about seven American dollars for a room with a private bath.

I stared into Scar-face's unsteady eyes. "Look," I said. "At the airport you agreed to accept four dollars to take me here. Not nine, four. I paid you. Now go away."

I looked to the night guard for support. He put his hands together and bowed. "Namaste," he said. "I bid you welcome in the name of God."