I’m an experienced traveler. I haven’t been a risky one, sure, but I’ve seen the whole range between glitzy and sketchy. And with my Disney on Ice tour, I’ve been required to attend security briefings and learn safety precautions for travelers every few months.
I keep retracing my steps of every decision I made since I landed in New Delhi, marking every slight misstep and blaming myself for where I could have gone wrong. What I haven’t let myself believe yet is that once you’re trapped in that kind of dangerous situation, it’s like swimming underwater, reaching for the surface while strong current pulls you back in.
And that’s why my time in India was so bone-chilling.
My boyfriend, Dustin, and I booked a hotel in New Delhi for a few nights. We planned to take the train down to Agra to see the Taj Mahal on Tuesday, which is almost four hours away.
We landed in Indira Gandhi Airport Monday night around 9 p.m., though it felt like midnight since we had just come from Indonesia. We didn’t see any open taxi stands inside the airport, so we step outside to find a government-approved taxi stand. Immediately the hustle-and-bustle of the airport swarmed us and several men tried to take us to their taxis.
We waited in line for one taxi kiosk; the person up front said there were no more taxis for the night, so we went to another taxi kiosk. While we had been waiting in line, a man with salesman smile, faded jeans, and flip-flops hassled us and asked if we wanted a taxi. Dustin said no, we’ll wait for the taxi from this stand. When the woman at the taxi kiosk — who wore casual clothes and no uniform — lazily said there were no more taxis for the night, we reluctantly agreed to go with this man.
This driver, Kumar, drove us along for about 15 minutes and stopped at a dimly-lit, barricaded side street. He got out, left the car running and the doors unlocked, and talked to a man sleeping on the street.
Well, that’s promising.
Kumar came back and said the roads are blocked to our hotel because of a Hindu festival. Then, Kumar took us to an “information center” — aka, part two of the scam. The man at the information center spoke to Kumar in their native language for a bit and then confirmed to us that the roads were indeed blocked. Dustin asked to call the hotel we booked to pick us up, so the man made a phone call. He gave the phone to Dustin and Dustin asks the man on the phone to confirm what nights we had booked originally. The man on the phone evaded his questions, hurriedly said, “No, there’s no booking!” and hung up the phone. Obviously, this mystery man on the phone was not involved the hotel we had reserved.
The information center man told us the only hotels open in the area were expensive, 5-star hotels. We promptly told him those were out of our budget and asked to go back to the airport.
Kumar then said, “I can take you around the outside of the streets to your hotel and try to find you a smaller one.” We have no choice but to get back into the car with Kumar.
Kumar stopped the car for a third time, this time to talk to a tuk-tuk driver. He said the tuk-tuk could take us on the roads to our hotel that are too narrow for his cab. We pleaded again to go back to the airport, but Kumar insisted that this tuk-tuk is the only way. We reluctantly load all of our luggage into the tiny tuk-tuk, and after we paid Kumar about $15 USD, we never saw him again.
The tuk-tuk driver looked about 50 years old, had a white beard and a turban, and barely spoke English. This man drove us through frightening streets of decrepit buildings, stray dogs, and men either sleeping on the streets or glaring at us as we drove by with our large suitcases. One particularly nightmare-inducing alley echoing with wails and howls made Dustin lean forward and say, “Sir, please do not go down that street.”
He didn’t have to, though, because another man with an intense stare under a thick brow met our tuk-tuk at the beginning of it and said, “No women tourists allowed.” Hey, you don’t have to tell me twice.
Our tuk-tuk took us to another information center with a peeling “Government of India” seal on the front door. For a government building, though, it had fairly late hours of operation as it was after midnight when we got there. There, sat a desk across from a man with a soul patch and long, wavy hair. This man had a calm face with no smile; there was no reassuring grin, but without a salesman smile we briefly dared to trust his sincerity.
Again, we begged to go back to the airport and the man plainly said that we couldn’t at this time of night. (Indira Gandhi airport is open 24 hours). He brought us water and chai coffees in a suspicious attempt to calm us since we barely hid our skepticism and frustration with the night. Long story short, this scammer would not let us leave until we spent 44,000 rupees (700-800 USD) for a new hotel in Agra. The package also included a personal cab driver.
Before we left the “government” office, we visited the restroom. We were told we had to go together, so I held the door from the inside and peered through the cracks in the wooden door to watch our luggage. The restroom was a hole in the ground with feces, mud, and mold caking the walls. The sink was brown and had no running water. This was our last stop before we got to Agra.
The older tuk-tuk driver had been waiting over an hour for us to pay him. We paid him his fee of about $1.50 USD and he left.
This new driver, Ali, embarked on long ride to the new hotel. At this point we had been awake for 24 hours and, as much as we tried to stay alert, we began to nod off. When we arrived at this new hotel, more homeless people lingered near our car, fighting stray dogs snapped at our heels as we got out of the car. The hotel looks clean enough so we give up and spend the night there.
This is not the last we see of Ali, though. For a recap on the scariest parts of the adventure — featuring the US embassy, the police, and a knife — stay tuned for part two.
Because of the whirlwind of events of that day, I obviously did not have time for photography, so I apologize for the lack of photos in this blog post.