Seeing a movie with the locals is always fun, and given the fact that Jaipur is home to an iconic Indian cinema, the Raj Mandir, a viewing was essential. Our opportunity happened to come on the opening night of Agent Vinod, Bollywood’s answer to James Bond. Even though my stomach was feeling a bit upside down, we bought tickets and hoped we could follow this all-Hindi spy story.
The Raj Mandir’s lobby is delightful- a sort of cheesy overdecoration that manages to maintain a bit of class. The snack bar serves everything from popcorn (for Karen) to samosas (for me). Queueing is futile in India, so after being skipped by 3 or 4 people at the counter, I got aggressive and got a samosa- my apologies to the 10-year-old kid I reached over to grab it.
Inside the theater, the seats were a bit cramped. Seating is assigned, so I couldn’t snag an aisle and stretch out. The screen and sound system, however, were impressively modern. After some commercials, the main feature transported us to Afghanistan, where a highly-choreographed gun battle broke out almost immediately. When Saif Ali Khan as Agent Vinod threw off his disguise and started shooting, a cheer erupted from the crowd. This audience enthusiasm burst forth again and again, when foes were vanquished or scantily-clad women appeared. Mostly the latter, actually- am I seeing this movie with a bunch of 14-year-old boys?!
Every Indian movie has an intermission, a climactic point halfway through where the lights are switched on and more samosas are sold. Agent Vinod had gotten quite talky (in Hindi) and my stomach had gotten quite swirly, so Karen and I decided to leave (along with the other westerners who had only come to see the theater).
For once without our driver and spiritual guide Mr. Ali, we needed a rickshaw to our hotel. And we were ready. From Google Maps, we knew the ride was about 3 km. According to a Jaipur law that went into effect last year, rickshaw drivers must use their meters or risk losing their vehicles. Standard rates are set at 13 Rupees for the first kilometer, and 8 Rupees for each additional kilometer. Drivers still refuse to use their meters, but at least we knew that the ride should cost around 30 Rupees, which helps when haggling.
The half-dozen drivers gathered outside the theater descended upon us: “Where are you going?” Vimal Heritage Hotel. “150 Rupees.” Laughing, I shook my head and moved on to the next guy. “70 Rupees.” “How about 30 Rupees?” I asked, and now it was his turn to laugh, and then say, “50 Rupees.” That’s one US dollar, hardly a blip in the budget, but I wanted to see if I could do better by using a tried-and-true haggling technique: walking away. It didn’t work. He didn’t come after us, the next driver didn’t know our hotel, and the rest were gone. Standing on principle is no way to get a quick ride home.
We crossed the busy street, knowing that a rickshaw would pull up alongside us momentarily. It only took about 30 seconds. “Where are you going?” asked the young driver. Vimal Heritage Hotel. “Fine by me,” he said, turning the handle on the meter as we climbed in.
Hallelujah! We had found him: the Last Honest Rickshaw Driver in Jaipur. Just to be sure, I squinted at the meter in the darkness and saw the number 13, the standard minimum rate. Finally. This kid was just trying to make an honest living and keep his nose clean. I basked in the glow of a lawful ride home.
Until about two-thirds of the way there. That’s when Karen pointed to the meter: 65 and rising. We were being taken for a ride, literally and figuratively. I suspected I had misread the 13 earlier, and the meter had already had time on it. Karen suspected the meter was rigged to run fast. It did seem to be rising awfully fast.
As always, the driver made a few wrong turns, and we had to guide him to the hotel. Final bill: 89 Rupees. Karen snapped, “Your meter is rigged- it’s running way too fast,” and stormed off. I handed him a 50 bill and walked toward the hotel gate. For a moment it looked like he was going to protest. And then he just drove away.