Though I expected to be shocked by the craziness of India, I felt the previous two months we spent backpacking in Southeast Asia had prepared me to handle whatever the subcontinent could throw at me.  As it turned out, I was just a rookie world traveler, and India had a few difficult lessons to teach me.

After our nine-hour flight from Tokyo, we arrived in New Delhi mid-evening.  With the sun going down and our hotel deep in the Paharganj district (known for shady goings-on after dark), we opted to take a taxi from the airport and so strolled up to the New Delhi Police-operated prepaid taxi stand. We had read the stand is a much-safer alternative to the solicitations of random drivers, but we soon learned it too has it’s pitfalls.

The taxi stand attendant quoted us a price of 350 rupees (approximately US$7).  I grabbed what I thought was a 500 rupee note from my wallet and placed it on the counter before turning to Her to ask about the luggage.  When I turned around, the man behind the counter was looking at me expectantly, a 100 rupee note flat on the counter.

“The total is 350,” he said.

Could he have switched the notes?  I was tired and assumed I had made a mistake because I couldn’t fathom how he could have pocketed the 500 note and swapped it for a 100 note so quickly.

So I plucked another 500 rupee note from my wallet and paid him, this time keeping my eyes fixed on the money.  He printed out a receipt, circled the specified cab number and told me to give it to the driver only when I had arrived at my destination.

The printed receipt acts as the payment slip for the driver — he only gets paid by returning the slip of paper to the police at the end of the day.  This system, in theory, ensures that he drops his passengers off at their intended destination rather than at the driver’s brother-in-law’s hotel where he receives a small “finder’s fee” at the customer’s expense.  In practice, however, this system has a major flaw:  The cab drivers park in a gated lot, and the police officer operating the gate needs to see the receipt to let the cab (and the passengers) out.  This requires parting with the receipt.

It was at this point in our cab experience when I realized we were in for a difficult ride.  Our driver, refused to return the receipt to me.  After insisting, for several minutes, that he needed the receipt to find the hotel, then that the copy in his hand was his copy and that I had a separate copy for myself (there was only one copy).  He eventually relented and relinquished the slip of paper to my control.  This may have saved me from significantly more headaches as our driving pair (the man’s “brother” was apparently a new driver and was learning from him) spent the remainder of the ride explaining our hotel was 1) in a bad part of town 2) run by gangsters and 3) burned down.

Lucky for us, the dynamic duo knew of a hotel located in a much better part of town. It also happened to be in our price range (I hadn’t mentioned our price range to them).

“We just booked our hotel online,” I said. “We know it’s not burned down.”

“Mine is better,” the driver replied. “You don’t want that one. Not nice.”

“But we already paid for it,” I insisted. “We’re not paying for another hotel.”

This exchange grew more heated as the trip progressed. Even with the GPS-powered map on my iPhone, it was difficult to discern whether I was winning the tug-of-war and he was driving toward our hotel or whether he had won and was driving who knows where. The two men conversed amongst themselves in Hindi. We had no idea what they were plotting.

Just about when Her and I figured we would have to demand the vehicle stop so we could hail another taxi, the rusty van swerved off the highway and into the grass.

Was this the end? Had they grown tired of our protests and would now rob us?

It was the co-pilot who exited the vehicle. But instead of yanking open our door, he turned his back to us and began to relieve himself in full view of traffic.

The 30-minute ride into the city blessedly came to an end when we saw the neon lights of our hotel, Lal’s Haveli, about a hundred yards in front of us.  Unfortunately our driver, likely still upset from my insistence on being taken to the correct destination, “accidentally” made a wrong turn and put us on the wrong side of a major road.  This meant that what would take us five minutes to walk would take 20+ minutes to drive. Ready to be done with these people, Her and I agreed to walk and grabbed our luggage from the trunk before they could drive off with it.

“Good drivers usually get tips from tourists,” the driver called after us.

We laughed aloud. We turned our backs to him and joined the constant stream of locals crossing the divided highway through a broken section of concrete divider and zig-zagging around the bumper-to-bumper traffic jam on both sides.

We’ll never know whether the taxi driver’s preferred hotel was better than Lal’s Haveli, but as it turns out, it wouldn’t have taken too much to best it. With gray, thread-bare sheets and towels and paper-thin walls, our room was thoroughly disappointing (and likely architecturally unsound — the floor possessed a visible slope). To sweeten my mood, I confirmed, upon counting my cash supply, that the taxi stand attendant really had switched the notes.  On the bright side, our hotel was in a very interesting area of town and was within walking distance of the New Delhi train station.

Yes, the colors, heat, smells, food, commotion and especially the people of New Delhi would make our visit to India’s capital an unforgettable one, but we had a date with some cold beers on the roof of our hotel first.