THE NIGHT TRAIN pulled into Jaipur city station at a little past eight in the evening; Laura, me, and my buddy Kevin boarded in Delhi the day before. As we step off a young man in a black shirt says, “Need a ride?”
Laura and I have been in India for nearly two months and our reflexes are well honed. “Nope. No. Fuck off. Go away,” I say to the kid, shouldering my pack, eyeing the station for a sign of exit. He follows us, unthreatening grin on his face, pattering on with questions we hear a hundred times daily: Where are you from, how long are you in India, what is your job? The answer to each of these is silence. I ask if he thinks I’m attractive and if that’s why he’s trying to fuck me.
A note to travelers: anybody who offers you a ride while you are still inside the train station does not have your best interest at heart.
The three questions about your country of origin, your job, and your travel plans are part of a process professional salesmen call “qualifying.” They are blunt tools for assessing your ability to pay. At an Indian train station they determine the multiplier on your rickshaw fare.
Rickshaw drivers tripling your fare is par for the course, it’s the platonic ideal of being taken advantage of in India.
We walk through the station, the kid keeping pace with us, helpfully pointing out the exit signs along the way. “Why won’t you let me drive you?” Because you’re a liar and a scammer, I say back. Or something to that effect. Road weariness and recovery from a week-long bout with a gut full of escherichia coli has depleted my patience. Kevin, still new to the country, is shooting bemused looks in my direction, like what’s the big deal?
We get outside. Many Indian train stations have booths where you can find the official fare to your destination. You pay for a ticket and a rickshaw wallah takes you where you’re going. No muss.
I have to give our new friend credit, despite my talents for getting under people’s skin he’s still holding his smile, but it’s beginning to crack at the edges. “Why are you following me? You looking for a date?” Suggesting your harasser’s sexuality may be fluid is potent medicine in backward countries. He’s a stalwart and continues to follow us.
We queue up for the booth and collapse on our luggage while this guy and his three friends badger us about riding with them. “Why wait? We’ll take you right now. You don’t need to wait.”
We stay on the line. It’s our turn. I’m at the counter explaining which hostel we are staying at. The young man begins speaking in Rajasthani to the clerk, who nods as she slips a paper ticket under the window. “He’ll take you.” The price on the ticket is half of what he offered us. He is unfazed. “Come with me, my rickshaw is this way.”
Kevin’s laughing at me. Laura is over it. I’m grinding my teeth. The rickshaw is bedazzled inside with images of Hindu gods, the rear is airbrushed with the slogan: Dangerous. Our driver turns the key over and we pull onto the road.
“You want me to take you on a tour tomorrow?” This is the most common grift in India. A tour consists of a connect the dots slog between rug shops, trinket stores, and tailors all owned by ostensible “cousins” and “brothers.” The going commission rate to the driver is upwards of 50%. I laugh and tell him that I absolutely do not want him to take us on a tour because he’s a devious bastard. Kevin glances over with a nervous gleam in his eye. Laura elbows me, why can’t I wait until we’re actually at our hostel before pissing the guy off? The driver asks what he ever did to me, but there are no more cracks in his smile.
We arrive in front of the Mustache Hostel. The driver offers to carry our bags. I take him up on it, watching at the door as he lugs our backpacks up the stairs. Kevin is a gentleman and carries his own.
Afterward, the driver stands by his rickshaw. “What about the tour?” I tell him I’m not interested and I listen in silence as he catalogues the sights of Jaipur: The ancient forts and the monkey temple, the old pink city. I let him go on.
I know he’s working me for the long con. Nobody with good intentions stakes out foreigners inside a train station, I remind myself. His smile is disarming, he’s a good looking young guy. Guilt, spurred on by the instinct for reciprocity, wriggles around in my stomach.
“What do you get out of this?” I ask. Nothing, he replies with a head bobble and another (less toothy, more innocent) smile. Butter wouldn’t melt.
He asks once more, “What time tomorrow?”
I tell him never, and I close the door.