Thursday, July 29, 2010

Treasue City might not have the finest clothes in Austin, but at times, a real gem does come through. I feel that my boots qualify as such a gem. They're solid, comfortable work boots, though when I bought them, they were caked in mud and much of the leather had faded into a dusty beige. If I had the supplies, I would have shined them myself. Since I didn't, they simply fell into worse repair. My sister Katherine pointed out that I could use a shoe-shiner at the airport, though I never did find one. In fact, I never met a shoe-shiner until today. And he was a con-artist, too.

I was walking home from Moonpeak Cafe (where I get breakfast and do my morning emails), when he approached me and offered a shoe shine. Initially I refused—as I refuse most offers given to me on the street—but then I remembered that I really could use a shoe shine. For months, I've been curious as to how my boots will look once they're truly clean. And so I called him back over and asked for her services. He guided me down some back alleyway, and had we not been in a village too small for daytime muggings, I would have been worried. Instead, he sat me down beside a dilapidated shed, a goat standing over my shoulder.

We chatted some, me extolling the scenic beauty of McLeod Ganj and him repeatedly marveling at how young I look. (Several people have been shocked to hear that I'm 28. This doesn't only come from Indian conartists, but also from other travelers. I'm surprised to hear this so much, as nobody ever commented on it when I was in Austin.) He shared some of his life story with me, including that he came from Rajastan and was the only of his six siblings not to get a formal education. Instead, his English came from the streets. And he spoke it quiet well. His name was VJ.

Nobody else was walking through this back alleyway until eventually a group of three other shoeshiners approached. They greeted VJ and I learned from him that they were also from Rajastan. Suddenly, I began to worry that the 6000Rs I'd just withdrawn from the ATM were endanger. If this really were a mugging, I could have escaped VJ alone. Four of them, though. . . . I started to genuinely worry, but put it out of my mind as quickly as possible. Showing fear would only invite extortion.

Being friendly, I chatted with them all about their homes and their livelihoods. Almost everyone in India is friendly to a tourist, and they were certainly friendly to me. I've learned this doesn't necessarily mean they like me. Eventually, though, VJ handed me my clean boots. I complimented him on the difference, which was immediately and dramatically visible. And then they escorted me out of the alleyway and back into the public eye.

I treated VJ and one of his friends to lunch, secretly wanted to extract myself from their company but not knowing how to do so politely. In a small village like this, I'd rather not offend people I'm bound to see again. And it wasn't like they were poor company, either, it's just that in the back of my head I kept wondering what they were trying to pull. It was like I was in New Delhi all over again.

As I was about to pay him for his services, though, he said "No, no, no." His boss would just take his earning away. It would be better if I bought him food, such as rice and soy milk, which his boss couldn't take away. He then took me to a little food stall and piled two bags of rice and a gallon of soy milk on the counter. The owner asked for 1200Rs, about $24. Ah. This was the scam. Get the American to pay an excessive amount for foodstuffs whose value who doesn't know.

I opened up my wallet and showed that I only had 125Rs, not nearly enough for all this overpriced food. (The remainder of my 6000Rs I had hidden away during a visit to the restroom.) I offered him 100Rs of that, which equates to about $2. Honestly, now that I think about it in American dollars, he deserved more. He performed a service which I'd been waiting months for. But it was like this that I managed to slip out of the second scam directed at me.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Up, up over the mountain

India is a nation in everyday anarchy. Nowhere is this clearer than on the roads, which tout a Western ethos of striped lanes and medians—and then proceed to ignore both. Drivers squeeze their vehicles into the most improbable gaps. They don't use turn signals. They drive against the flow of traffic. Sitting in autorickshaws and taxis, I was surprised, though never terrified. The drivers swiveled and swerved with an experienced grace, ballerinas on three wheels. Yet when I got on my bus bound for McLeod Ganj, I discovered that there was a whole new level to the chaos of Indian roads.

The bus itself was an artifact, a relic of bygone mobility. Beneath me I heard the axle scrapping against the hull. When the driver pressed the brakes, there was a loud screech, then one second, two seconds, three seconds, four before the bus actually began to slow. Most the windows were jammed closed, and the various fans and AC units were broken. Forty sweltering bodies crammed into a tin can in the Indian heat.

As with most professions in India, bus drivers don't tackle their job alone. Three sat in the isolated booth at the front of the vehicle, though it was unclear whether or not they rotated duties. If they did, they approached the road with a common attitude. The goals was to get us there as quickly as possible, and they pushed their steel relic faster than anyone else on the road.
Most the other passengers where Western tourists, which thrilled me. After three days surrounded by Indians, it was a relief to be back amongst my element, talking with people I didn't suspect of scamming me. We shared stories of our stay in New Delhi, and I met a man from Texas who was studying dance in McLeod Ganj. He'd already been there for a month, and I made a note of befriending him so he could show me around.

Several of the other passengers were terrified of the ride up, especially as the well paved New Delhi roads degraded into potholes and finally gravel. Ascending the mountains to McLeod Ganj was particularly worrisome, given the bus's uncanny brake system and the steep ledges we skirted alongside. Still, the drivers handled themselves with typical Indian precision, and I found myself relaxing in the back of the bus. As I'd observed in my first day in this country, the drivers in India might seem chaotic, but they know what they're doing. Anarchy works when everyone agrees on how to ignore the rules.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Escape from New Delhi

On arriving in India, one of the first things I discovered was that my debit card had been deactivated. Despite the precautions I had taken by calling my bank and warning them of my imminent departure, I could not access my account, couldn't withdraw any rupees, couldn't pay for a taxi or bus or hotel. Instead, I lingered in the airport lobby, trying to think of a to get access to my money. Had I taken my sister's advice and brought more American cash with me, I would have at least been able to exchange it, get to an internet cafe, and reactive my account. Stranded here, I didn't know what my options were.

This was when a very helpful man approached me, ask about my situation, and offered to take me to his office. There, I could use the Internet or make an international call. I warned him that I might not be able to pay for his services, as I wasn't sure how long it would take to reactive my account, but he said he didn't mind. And so off we went, deep into the heart of Delhi. The city was chaos incarnate. Cars drove between lanes and didn't bother with their turn signals, instead relying on their horns to communicate. These observations would be echoed throughout India. The way they drive is the way they conduct business, is the way they build, is the way they talk. It's aggressive and chaotic. But to my surprise, I never saw a crash.

For what it's worth, I sat in the back of this "taxi," I was aware that I was participating in a scam. I knew this man, thin and fast-talking and more helpful than any stranger should be—I knew he intended to get more money for his services than it should cost. Prior conversations with taxi drivers quoted me at 750 rupees. If he asked for 1500, I wouldn't be surprised. Still, since I was getting more than just a ride and since he was taking a risk himself, I was prepared to pay.

When we arrived at his office, the man introduced me to his colleagues and let me take a seat in his employer's office. True to his word, they let me use their phone for a long-distance call, and I managed to get in touch with my bank, which reactivated my account in seconds. One of them guided me to a nearby ATM, shooing away the young girl who came to beg at my side. Soon, I had a healthy wad of rupees in my wallet and I was prepared to pay for my taxi. He asked for 2000, which exceed even the two-fold markup I expected. Still, he'd helped me in a pinch, and I sincerely thanked him as he took my money. He seemed surprised by my gratitude and looked away.

Now I had to get to McLeod Ganj, the capital of Tibetan exile and my ultimate destination. The men at the tourist office offered to help, and since they'd let me use their phone, I figured giving them a little business was the least I could do. As I was to learn, gratitude is the first hook used by an experienced con-artist. Perform some minor favor for your pat and they're far more willing to listen to your offers. And if you're good (as these men were), you can reel in the big catch.

They were clever about it, too. I was expected a scam, yet they still managed to convince me that all the buses to McLeod Ganj were booked for a week. They even called and let me speak to representatives of several companies. Instead, they wanted me to take an overpriced package deal to the nearby mountains. I shudder to think of what would have happened had I gone. Nothing dangerous, I think, but from what I hear from other travelers, it's not uncommon to get stranded in some remote resort that charges exorbitant rates.

Even though I was tired, naive, and a bit too trusting by nature, I had enough sense to sidestep the trap, insisting instead that I sleep on it. Unfortunately, I feel for their second ploy. Calling various hotels, I was once again informed that all the cheap places were booked. Sunny, Ringo, Ajay. These places only charged 100 to 300 rupees and it made sense that they would fill up. In the end, the cheapest place we could find was the Daanish Residency, which charged 3200 rupees, roughly $80. They personally walked me there and promised to come back the next morning to help me make a decision.

Once in my own room, I started freaking out. My whole trip to India hinged on the India of living cheaply. If it was this hard to find affordable lodging, I was screwed. I'd have to return to the States, defeated, embarrassed. It took me a good half hour to get my senses back, to make a concerted effort on the Internet to find a way out of my situation. Almost immediately, I was pleased to find a bus ticket for only 640 rupees. Of course. They'd lied, used fake numbers, tricked a naive American. I booked the ticket and was ready to leave.

The scam was far from over, though. They thought they had the big fish. They thought they were close to reeling in the sucker that would pay 1200 rupees a night to stay at some shoddy "resort" in the Rajastan countryside. When I informed the hotel clerk that I was checking out, that I had found a bus, he immediately called the tourist agency and they came over, trying to convince me not to go. "It won't have AC." "Very uncomfortable." One of the things about New Delhi is that there are always three to five men working one man's job. They surround you, speak quickly. But I really couldn't afford to listen to them any more.

As a last resort they offered to higher me a taxi, but I instead told them I'd just take a autorickshaw. Finally, they let me go, and I wandered into the streets looking for a ride. Within a minute, one had found me. This might seem like an unimportant detail, which is what I thought at first, but soon I realized he was working for the tourist company. When I shared with him my plans, he warned me of "bad companies that sell fake tickets to tourists." He offered to take me to the tourist office to have my ticket verified. If that wasn't enough of a give away, soon a fellow from the tourist office jumped into the rickshaw as well. I insisted that he take me Connaught Plaze instead of the tourist office, as from there I could easily walk to the bus station. When I wouldn't relent, he pulled over and told me to get out of the autorickshaw. I readily obliged, thinking that was the end of it. He said something to another driver in Hindi, and soon I was on my way.

Yet when I finally arrived in "Connaught Place," I found that the conspiracy hadn't yet ended. Connaught Place was suppose to be the tourist center of New Delhi. Rich, white, and easy to navigate. There, I could wait at an internet cafe until my bus was ready to leave. Instead, they took me to a rundown circle, the streets full of rubble and the buildings gutted, spewing stone and steel all over the place. Hundreds of Indians were in the street, sweeping the dust or banging metal against metal, trying to flatten dents. There were no other white people, no other travelers to get direction from. Looking at signs over the park, I was informed that this was actually Pajet Rev.

As I walked around, people began approaching me, offering to take me to the tourist office since I was clearly lost. I asked each one where I was, and they told me Connaught Place. Since this obviously wasn't Connaught Place, I told them to go away. Autorickshaws pulled up along side me and we had similar exchanges. Everyone was trying to get me to the tourist office, everyone was in on the conspiracy. At one point, I even asked a cop, and he paused for a moment, glancing at the woman beside him before telling me, "Connaught Place." Had she just bribed him? Looking beyond a row of bushes, I spotted one of the men from the tourist office staring at me, talking on his phone.

I had never been hunted like this, and I had no idea how to get out of it. Eventually, I decided that my best bet was to persuade their agents that I wasn't a good quarry, that I had too little money left, that I was better left alone. As more of their agents approached me, I started telling a sob story, about how I'd expected India to be so cheap, but now I only had 2000 rupees left and that wouldn't even last me another day. One recommended that I go to the tourist office for advice, but after a long pause, he confided that that probably wasn't the best idea. If I only had 2000 rupees left, I should just leave town.

Desperate to get away, I slipped into a rundown cafe and got a smoothie. Sipping on it as slowly as possible, I poured over my guidebook, trying to figure out where I was. Eventually, with some relief, I realized that I hadn't been lied to. This really was Connaught Place. Pajet Rev was just the name of its inner circle. I left a little while later, more confident that I could find the bus station. I still needed to print out my ticket, though, and so sought out India's official tourism office, which wasn't far from the cafe. Along the way, I was approached by yet another agent. This one was younger than the others, dressed like a hip Westerner. He said he'd take me there, and since I knew where it was suppose to be, I didn't worry about getting sucked into another scam.

Along the way, we actually got kind of friendly, and as he guided me to what was clearly another fake tourist office, I thought, "Why not?" and went in. This time I was rested and alert, and knew what to look out for. It was actually enjoyable talking with the representatives, and they served some warm chai which I was grateful for. When it was clear they wouldn't get any money out of me, they dismissed me, directing me to a nearby cyber cafe where I could print out my ticket.

In the cyber cafe, the young agent met me again and he started teaching me basic Hindi. Eventually, I offered to treat him to a drink at real cafe, and he accepted. It was good to finally have an ally of sorts in the city. I didn't realize how much I depended on having a "friend" to feel secure about myself. He filled the role quiet well, too. We showered eachother with sweet compliments, and eventually he asked me if I was happy, and I said I was. I hadn't been happy when he met me, but he'd made me happy by being my friend. He then said that there are many types of people, some good some bad. The bad ones try to take advantage of the tourists. I told him it's not about good or bad. It was just business. I used to be a pedicabber, and I knew who had money and who didn't. I tried to get more money from those who had it. It's just how people survive. He smiled at that and then shared with me a secret.

His job was to guide travelers to these fake tourist offices. There were dozens of them in the city. Each time he brought somebody to an office, he got a coupon. With enough of these coupons, he could get us both some drinks. Laughing, I agreed to his plan. We hit four more tourist offices, me playing the part of the naive and cheap tourist and him getting us coupons. I performed well, relishing the opportunity to get revenge. Soon, we were sitting in his friend's autorickshaw drinking from Indian tallboys, grinning over our own escapades. I could have done that all day, but soon my bus was leaving for McLeod Ganj and the next leg of my adventure would begin.

Sitting at the bus station, I realized that New Delhi was a clever city. People lied, cheated, and saw me as a target. At the same time, it was all a game, and I was learning how to play it. I could learn to like New Delhi. Already, I suspected that I would miss the adventure.