I landed in the Mumbai Domestic Airport. In India, they have separate domestic and international airports. (If they didn’t, the congestion at the airports would be unbearable.) I had spent a weekend in Delhi and was looking for the prepaid taxi counter. There are a couple of taxi options in India if you haven’t reserved one in advance: you can sit in a yellow and black taxi, which is not air-conditioned but is safe because it is trackable, or you can get a prepaid taxi, which is around double the price but air-conditioned. The prepaid concept is exactly what it sounds like: you pay for the taxi before you get in it. It’s safer because the taxis have codes.
I thought I had gotten the second option, but I was wrong.
I followed the airport signs pointing to the prepaid taxi counter. In Delhi, it was outside the airport so I assumed it would be similar in Mumbai. I couldn’t find the counter -- turned out that the signs pointed in the wrong direction -- but a man behind the gate outside the airport yelled “prepaid taxi!” I began chatting with the guy in Hindi trying to hide my American accent, asking him his name, where I was going, whether he knew where my place was, etc. He seemed trustworthy so I decided to walk with him to wait while he flagged his car on his walkie-talkie.
I was on the phone, but I should have noticed that there weren’t other taxis around this area. It was mostly domestic vehicles. Mistake #1.
The driver came, the broker got in the front seat, and I got in the back. He started driving and when I began questioning them, they said it was just to get out of the terminal because we couldn’t stand there. I bought it; police were constantly whistling cars and taxis out. Mistake #2.
They drove for about a minute. Once they were outside the domestic airport, they pulled over right next to another vehicle with a large Punjabi man. Nobody else was in sight and the Punjabi man began walking over to the car, standing behind it. I swore under my breath realizing I had no idea where I was and now I had three men who knew I had a wallet surrounding me, two in the front seat and one behind the car.
“1,300 rupees, sir. Pay me right now and you’re off.”
1,300 rupees is a little less than $30, which is better than any American taxi for the 20 kilometers I was going, but is an absolute rip-off in India. The ride should be no more than 500 rupees in an air-conditioned car, and that’s pushing it. My senses suddenly regained themselves and I realized I had two options:
1. Pay the guy the outrageous price, which would mean the guy who I thought was a broker would leave and I would be left with the driver. He would likely take me to the guesthouse but could also just take me somewhere else considering I had no way of tracking who he was or what car he was using. It would also mean exposure to my wallet -- they would get a good look at what it had and whether it was worth mugging me.
2. Argue. Try to get out the car. Risk losing the INR 20,000 that my wallet had along with the rest of my belongings. The upside? I'd get a cheaper taxi fare.
I chose door No. 2. It was riskier, but I didn’t trust the guys at all. I was banking on being able to use my phone to call people and act like I knew the area and the Bombay people.
I started telling them that I’d pay no more than 500, at which point they started yelling. I told them to drive me back to the airport at which point they started yelling more, saying they would accept 1000. I opened the passenger door and was about to get out when the broker got out of the front seat and blocked my exit.
Get the #### out of the way, I said, reverting to English. I grabbed my stuff and simultaneously called one of my friends in Bombay just chatting about our dinner plans; I didn’t care about dinner — I just wanted to make sure that if they did anything, she would hear and know where I was.
I started talking to the Punjabi guy behind the car. I asked him who he was (it turned out he was a retired Air Force officer) and that I’d go with him for 500 rupees, but I wouldn’t pay until we reached the place. I asked him some questions about the Air Force (none of which I knew the answer to) but the answers seemed legitimate. I asked for his card, driver information, and wrote down his license plate, and then got into the other car. Meanwhile, the guys behind me began speaking in Marathi — a language I don’t understand — to the Punjabi guy.
The Punjabi guy hesitated, spoke some Marathi back to the other guys, then said fine to me. I got in his car, and we drove off.
“Most people don’t argue like you,” he said, “Most of the people those guys take they either charge absurd prices or mug the individual.”
We arrived safely after I learned a lesson in India’s taxis.
It turned out that the guys were running an extremely popular, lucrative, illegal and dangerous business (for the passenger). They give you registration numbers, driver numbers, receipts and everything. They look completely legitimate until you try and report the number and you realize it doesn’t exist. People say you should always buy at the airport itself and not outside, but these guys manage to get into the airport. The brokers bribe police officers to look the other way and get access to the passenger right when he/she exits the baggage claim in the “safe” and “registered” area.
They pick their price based on who they think the passenger is and how much they know about what a fare should be. The most egregious case that the Punjabi driver told me about was a payment of 20,000 rupees. About $400 — for a 3-kilometer drive.
In some cities, those who argue and clearly don’t know have any connections within the city get mugged. Thieves take the wallet and the cell phone right away. Those who agree to pay the price get driven safely to the place and never find out until later that they were ripped off.
The Punjabi guy told me that the broker and driver had told him in Marathi that it was safer for them just to take me home at the 500 price. According to them, I seemed to know Mumbai prices enough and could cause commotion since I knew their names (I asked the broker his name before I got in the car, then I asked the driver what the broker’s name was to see if he was full of it — but I thought it was irrelevant; in a city of so many million people, does it matter if I know two taxi drivers’ names?) They thought “I might know people,” so they didn’t mug me. Instead, they went back to the airport.
• Never ever get in a taxi with anybody but the driver even if the guy who is getting in is insisting that it is just to get a quote for a fare or to be driven out of a terminal.
• Never solicit a taxi from anyone but a registered vehicle. This may seem obvious, but often you don’t know if the number they give you is legitimate or not. It is one thing to ask for a number. It is another thing for it to be real. Call in to see if the driver’s number is legitimate.
• Figure out what a typical fare should be. Use your cell phone like it is your job.
Welcome back to Mumbai.