No one likes to be ripped off. Even worse, being ripped off as a “tourist” when you live in a place is unforgivable. Or is it? It’s easy to get angry but let’s look at what’s really happening.
I went to Palika Bazaar the other day. Read any guide book to Delhi and they’ll tell you about this subterranean market – “not for the claustrophobic” – er, what? Palika Bazaar is underground and it’s a teeming mass of stalls selling electronic goods, clothes and a lot more besides, but it’s not exactly claustrophobic with its wide alleyways. I couldn’t really stop to examine the wares because there were too many people vying for my business. “Excuse me!” “Excuse me!” “Madam, leather jackets,” and so on. It would be impossible to stop and browse. They see you coming and their eyes have already turned to one-armed bandit machines with the rupee signs flashing. All you can do is smile and politely say: “Not today, thank you,” and walk on. Walk on wondering how much these things really cost, because if only they were prepared to treat you like a human rather than the latest prey, you might actually buy something.
So much for the preamble. This column is about rip offs, not about how difficult it might be to do some simple shopping in Delhi. Yeah, you read about the warnings in the books, but you think as a savvy traveller, indeed as someone who lives there, that you won’t get conned. Even before I entered Palika Bazaar I almost fell victim to one of the scams.
A seemingly well-meaning guy with a cloth pointed out a fresh blat of runny cow dung on my shoe and offered to remove it for me. Hang on a minute. I only stepped out of the car a moment ago and if I’d trodden on something it would be under my shoe, not over it. I told him, “I think you put that there,” and he apologised profusely and quickly disappeared into the crowd. Not the result he’d hoped for, obviously.
Meanwhile, I had to go around with this stinking mess on my shoe until I found a legit shoe cleaner/repair man who sorted it all out at more than twice the price a local person would pay. May I be forgiven for thinking that there’s a shoe cleaners’ guild who pay these shit-flickers? Probably not. Standing at the shoe cleaner’s stall, I got chatting to an Indian man and told him what had happened. He was most apologetic but explained that they do this to tourists, it’s shameful, but what can you do?
I protested, “I’m not a tourist, I live here!”
“Oh dear,” he said, “But you look like one.” Right, I guess you mean, how shall I put this? White? I didn’t say it.
Recently, I was showing an Australian journalist around Karol Bagh, one of Delhi’s main markets. That is a local rather than a foreigners’ market. By the end of the trip, my colleague had several razor slashes on his jacket as well as on his small back-pack. How I escaped unscathed, I don’t know. One minute we were happily surrounded by a gang of kids, onlookers, and those that would like their photos taken, the next, when we discovered the damage, the place was deserted.
Now, perhaps this will give a bad impression of Delhi or of India. It isn’t all like that. Well, let’s say that it isn’t like that most of the time. There are so many scams, I couldn’t even start to list them here. You can get picked up by a taxi driver who tells you that the hotel you’ve booked into is full/burned down/closed etc etc and he’ll take you elsewhere, for a fat commission. I won’t insult your intelligence, you know about all this.
To get back to the point, let’s look at what’s really happening. In a place where economic inequities are profound, you’re fair game. Unlike in some places where you’d stand a good chance of being mugged, there seems to be little threat of physical danger. Yes, hang on to your bag. Yes, keep your wits about you. And, yes, don’t believe any of the scams. But then again, don’t forget that what you’d spend on a bottle of cola would feed a family for a day, and if you can afford to go into one of Connaught Circus’s posh restaurants for a meal and perhaps a beer or two, you’re talking about more than a month’s wages for the majority.
I’m not a bleeding heart and it does annoy me when someone tries to rip me off. It doesn’t make me happy to have my shoe covered with stinking cow dung. However, at least I wasn’t mugged, at least I can afford to pay someone to clean it off, and at least I can go home to my nice house and write about it all on my nice computer.
Yeah, it’s a tough life.