Kolkata’s ubiquitous yellow Ambassador cabs are a convenient option to get where you need to go, and an appealing alternative to the overcrowded metro or the short distance auto rickshaws. However, convenience is an overstatement if the cab driver is trying to scam you.
I’ve been settled in Kolkata for three weeks and will be here until May for my second semester of study abroad. If my Western-style clothing and lack of Bengali language skills don’t give me away as a foreigner, my blond hair and pale complexion certainly do. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to stand out as an obvious foreigner, but it brings on a long list of frustrations and safety concerns – and cab drivers are at the top of the list.
First of all, Kolkata can be difficult to navigate. The streets have two names, a newer Indian name as well as an older British name, and some maps only have one of these names. The one-way streets change direction at certain times of the day, and there are various short cuts and narrow lanes branching off the main routes. My usually decent sense of direction has become confused in this chaotic metropolis, so if I am taken on a different route, I don’t know how to return to the original.
The most basic scams I have experienced with the drivers are either 1) they will offer to take you to your destination for triple the price of what it should be while refusing to turn on the meter, hoping you have no idea how much it should cost; and 2) they will take you on an extended detour instead of the most direct route. With practice and an assertive attitude, I’ve found ways to cope with these kinds of drivers, but I wasn’t expecting one particularly conniving driver.
My roommates and I were headed back from a friend’s house and we were already getting into the later and less safe hours of the night. We were lucky to hail a cab so quickly, and were happy enough to get a driver who would start the meter. To get home, all we had to do was drive straight along the highway and take a left onto our lane, and my confidence in our driver was immediately in question when he pulled over to ask a street vendor for directions. Once back on the road, he made a detour and we had to argue with him to get back on the right road. I was feeling hassled, and it was even more frustrating that we don’t speak Bengali or Hindi and he didn’t speak English. After we had been driving for a while, we realized we had overshot the turn onto our road, and with my confused directional sense I had no idea how to get back. We had him pull over and called our host parents to talk to him. He talked on the phone for a while and kept repeating the same things, while we sat annoyed in silence. Eventually he hung up and pulled a U-turn, only to stop the car and get out.
That was the last straw. This driver, who was either actually lost or pretending to be lost, was clearly stringing us along and we had had enough. He had walked away from the cab, so we got out and started to walk away, which I immediately regretted. He came after us, yelling in some language that none of us speak and we couldn’t argue back other than the word, “no.”
We drew a small crowd of bystanders, and the cab driver started yelling to some of the men standing nearby, and we had no idea what he was telling them or if they could help us. Not wanting to make the already tense situation worse, we paid him a little money and walked away, and thankfully were not chased. That night, I learned that it’s easier to pay the extra money and be assured of my safety.
To read more about Katie’s travels, visit: kathrynccampbell.wordpress.com