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 Suddenly, I began to worry that the 6000Rs I'd just withdrawn from the ATM were endanger.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.