“Amazing means unbelievable”

Authored By Brian

This is what my tout-guide told me as we sat looking at the shrine of the Shaikh Salim Chishti inside Fatephur Sikri. As if he was going to teach me something new about English but it did make me think about what constitutes “amazing”.

Having recently visited mind-blowing Angkor, I am unfairly conditioned for viewing ruins. To one up the Khmers, you are going to need to bring your A-game.

Take this fort-palace for example: built in the sixteenth century by the greatest Mughal emperor Akbar the great, in a place with not enough water, it was abandoned shortly after his death. It’s constructed of red sandstone with impressive arches and multi story buildings but before getting too excited, let’s consider what else was going on in the world around the same time.

The moors had built La Alhambra in the south of Spain, England littered its countryside with gothic churches and Venetians had already learned how to turn swamp into city and build palazzos. Ah, and Angkor had already come and gone.

Don’t take that to mean that there isn’t anything of interest here because just being here is one of the most interesting things I have done.

Now I am crammed three wide onto a seat for two for the 90-minute swerving and honking competition back to Agra so I will sign off for now and resume my philosophical thinking when this guy’s elbow isn’t in my rib cage.

Ok, switched to the train and now en route to Delhi in second class with a different elbow in my side sitting amongst 3 generations of a family with a cute but squirrelly little girl. Like an idiot I didn’t book my plane ticket to Darjeeling and when I tried to book it tonight it was, of course, sold out suddenly. There is another flight that is twice the cost but there is also the chance for a cancellation on my original choice as well. I hesitated because I checked the weather and saw it was going to be below freezing at night and only 50-60 during the day. That’s chilly… My one pair of pants is really getting a workout.

The last thing I will say about Fatephur Sikri is that in the notes Jennifer took from the Blue List, its remote location was supposed to make it not very touristy but short of the Taj it was maybe the most touristy place I’ve been here. There is a free area where an active mosque resides and there are beggar kids everywhere and super aggressive touts.

Two funny incidents: one guy asked where I was from, then proceeded to ask how many rupees his 1.40 euros was worth. I told him about 85 and he then started putting them on my lap and bartering! “Ok, you give me 85! No? Ok, 80! 80! Ok, 70! I do you favor! 60! 60! OK!”

All the while I am telling him that I don’t live in Europe and therefore can’t use (his dubious) euros but Indian touts may be the worst listeners I have come across. They simply motormouth along telling you how they are your friend and how they are helping you buy souvenir for your mom, sister, girlfriend, aunt, neighbor (insert other English word they know for a relative or friend), culminating with “back home you can sell for twice this price!!”

It took some strong words with this fella until he understood the next time that euro was on my lap I was going to throw it over the fort wall. He muttered something nasty and walked off.

The second was the guy who wanted me to visit his shop and when I lied I had no money left from my earlier purchase, he left me alone. Five minutes later he approaches me again and tells me he’ll let me give him my watch in exchange for some marble elephant. It took a “piss OFF” for this guy to get it. Thankfully these are the first two times I have needed to be rude with a tout or vendor in the 10 days I have been here.

I am, however, getting better at buying stuff. One small victory was my purchase of two marble tealight holders. The first price was 600 rupees each (~$14). I walked off with two for 500 rupees – nice!!

To survive here; no, really, to enjoy India, one must be comfortable with lying pathologically. Nobody is telling you the truth and if you tell them the truth it’s like playing with your cards face up. To succeed in navigating unimpeded, a crafty string of stories or the occassional “no hablo english” is required (worked like a charm by the way – the tricky part is making your facial expressions match pretending you don’t understand English questions). I went so far yesterday at a crafts store that I denied Jennifer’s existence and said my mom had been killed in a car accident to get out of buying something!

It’s not really their fault though. The truth is that they exploit Western customs of patience and politeness. If I felt no guilt in getting up and walking out or giving people the finger more often I could achieve the same but it isn’t natural for me.

Something I have always respected about vFive-Rob’s Peruvian temperament is his instant willingness to be confrontational when necessary. Westerners hate confrontation. Think about any female friend and how long she has let a rift simmer amongst her friends without confronting and resolving it (if she ever does). Lying, in this case, is easier, works well and is more fun. This lets me feel like we are playing a game rather than defending an attack. :)

Without getting into a diatribe here, the last thing I want to touch on is the condition for animals here. Everyone knows that the cow is a sacred animal here to Hindus. They wander freely in the streets, fields, and yes, even Platform 2 of the Agra Cantonment train station. Due to the large Muslim population, pigs are treated the same way.

So what does “holy” mean for a sacred animal? It means they spend all day dodging traffic and foraging among human trash before someone throws them a banana each night. Look at this pig: he is gnawing on a mungy suitcase in a field of trash (Fatehpur Sikri is just out of frame). Thank god that poor thing isn’t in a feedlot getting three square meals a day and veterinary care until his time comes to be turned into chops and bacon! Remind me to send in my PETA donation tomorrow so more animals can live this liberated lifestyle!!!

2 Responses to ““Amazing means unbelievable””

  1. Roberto Says:

    Your bargaining stories remind me of Indonesia — outside of the lux and high end hotels/services/shops, nothing had a real price, including what seemed like legitimate tour/transport outfits. After a while we just adopted a “win-some, lose some” attitude, getting ripped off every once in a while, and watching others get ripped off (and feeling better about ourselves for paying less for the same thing) at others. We debated long and hard about when to lie.

    With a bit more finesse, a lot of the guys involved in the overcharging + commission games could do very well. A little more discipline and they could overcome their achilles heel (the desperate sales-pitches and overeager stares) and cash in less frequently but pulling in more each time. What happened to getting ripped-off in a professional and friendly manner?

  2. Brian Says:

    I agree… the harder they try to sell the more leverage you have as the buyer but I think what they count on (and what others have explained to me) is that they buy something to simply get out of the situation. That’s the point behind my reference to your willingness to confront… most people would rather cough up some money and run away with their tails between their legs than stand up for themselves and at a minimum just say no.

    It was particularly bad at the rickshaw-wallah shops which are out in the middle of nowhere and exist to do two things: ship internationally through arranged deals they have and force Westerners to pay too much. You walk into these shops and it’s the same scene being played out on every couch… unhappy looking potential customers being accosted by salesmen.

    The primary element is patience though… just like with buying a car at the end of the month, you need to increase your leverage and the best way to do that is to lower the sales per hour quota for the guy you’re talking to. But really, you have to lie, and extensively. :)