Monday, August 13, 2007

India, Week 6: Taj Mahell

India has a population of 1.1 billion people. Of these, roughly 1.1 billion want to sell you something. Though the quantity of goods is incredible, the variety is not, and your options are limited to postcards, tours, and shiny rocks. With the markets glutted and supply far exceeding demand, touts turn to hard-sell techniques.
The tout will first try to initiate a bond with you, often by telling you something you already know ("The entrance is under that big sign that says ‘Entrance,'" "You buy your tickets at the ticket window for the price specified by the ticket seller," "Your president is George Bush"), whereupon they hope you will confuse them with someone helpful and procure their service. If you say anything other than yes, they assume you didn't hear correctly, which leads to conversations like the following (I quote verbatim):

Tout: I sell postcards.
Greg: No, thanks.
Tout: Would you like to buy postcards?
Greg: No, thanks.
Tout: I also sell postcards.

The fifty other vendors selling the same thing see that you rejected the first vendor and try to adjust their pitch so that you'll buy from them despite your demonstrated lack of interest in their product (also verbatim):

Postcard Seller: But these aren't postcards. I'm selling greeting cards.
Guide: I'm not a guide. I'm an employee who guides people.

When you decline this second round of pitches, the touts realize that you're not going to buy anything willingly, so they resort to stronger measures. The postcard and shiny rock vendors shove their wares into your hands with the impression that, if you touch their product, you'll realize how foolish you were for not purchasing it in the first place. (As with street crossing, the limbless have an advantage here.) The would-be guides follow you around and launch into guerrilla narration whenever you stop moving.

The touts' methods of preventing escape are no less zealous. As you attempt egress, they'll invariably tell you that you're too tired to walk or that the place you're going is closed despite the fact that you've just come from there, you're now looking at it, and it's teeming with people. If these tactics fail, they're not above holding onto your arm, which is fine, as I'm not above kicking.

This combination of pluck, audacity, and physical violence constitutes the Tout Code, and, wherever I went—from the Mughal ruins of Hampi to the Ajanta Caves—every tout adhered to it most steadfastly. Early in the trip, to defend myself, I developed a three-tiered system of responding ("No, thanks" to the first request; "No, thank you" to the second; and a sharp "NO!" to the third). I learned, however, that touts take politeness as a sign of weakness, so, by the sixth week, I reduced this to a one-tier system:

Tout: Would you—
Greg: NO!

This had two effects, perhaps related: (i) I sounded like a complete jerk, and (ii) touts started addressing me in French. I couldn't maintain this illusion of Frenchness, however, as the fiercest (and only) French I know is, "Je suis un croissant."

After weeks of practice, I was proud (hubristically so!) of my tout-handling and grift-dodging abilities. But, in Delhi, I met my match. Within twenty-four hours of entering the city, I was shortchanged by airport officials, bait-and-switched by the hotel ("Oh, you wanted a room with electricity?"), and scammed by multiple taxi drivers who refused to use their meters (so they could charge arbitrary, inflated rates) and demanded random fees (since their arbitrary, inflated rates didn't include the transport of my backpack). By nightfall, I had also lost my guidebook, snapped my sunglasses, cracked my cell phone, and broken my BlackBerry; I was not a happy camper. India was playing a big game of "Screw the Tourist," and India was winning.

Old Delhi has many sights, including the Jama Masjid mosque (which is gargantuan) and the Red Fort (which is red), but perhaps most interesting is the bazaar. Each sector of the bazaar is devoted to the sale of different, overly-specific objects. For example, in one alleyway, every booth sells used car doors. I'm not sure why you'd need to purchase a used car door unless someone stole one of yours to sell at a bazaar. This steal-sell-rebuy cycle makes the bazaar something of a middleman, but India excels at putting people into fields that aren't strictly necessary, cf. postcards and shiny rocks.

The next day, a Friday, I woke up at 4:30 am and caught the early-morning train to Agra. There is one reason people travel to Agra: to see the Taj Mahal. There is one reason people don't travel to Agra on Fridays: the Taj Mahal is closed. Fortunately, Mughal architecture is pathologically symmetric, so by standing behind the Taj (in a dirt lot across a river), the view was only slightly inferior to if I'd bought a postcard and squinted. As the auto-rickshaw driver shuttled me away from the Taj, he offered to show me the sights of Agra and, to prove his mettle, displayed his testimonial book which previous passengers had signed with comments like, "PK speaks good English" and "The Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays? Fuck." As a helpdesk employee, I have the highest appreciation for both English and profanity, so I agreed to an all-day tour for the low, low price of 500 rupees plus tip and sanity.

PK took me to a variety of sights—all symmetric, all surrounded by touts—including the Baby Taj (just like it sounds, if you hate children), Khan's Tomb (porcelain!), and Akbar's Mausoleum (Akbar was a Mughal king named after the fish-headed guy in Star Wars). PK then brought me to Jehangir Palace, most notable for its extensive harem quarters (whormitories?). These chambers, once home to over 2,000 women (et hetaera, et hetaera, et hetaera), now lodge a large herd of monkeys who ensure the rooms stay true to their previous purpose. (Judging from Jehangir Palace and the Elephanta Caves, monkeys are a prurient lot.)

When it came time for lunch, PK asked whether I'd prefer American or Indian cuisine which, as a question, ranks somewhere near "Angela Lansbury or football?" Upon driving me to the restaurant, PK proceeded to sit at the table with me. I wasn't keen to buy him lunch, and I dropped hints to this effect like, "So when I should I meet you outside?" Alas, the good English promised by his testimonial book did not extend to such subtleties. So I resorted to passive aggression, pulled out a book, and started reading. This made for a rather awkward meal where I struggled to eat my (not Indian!) dish without taking my eyes off my book or making eye contact with PK. Equal amounts of food ended up in and on me constituting a victory that seemed well below pyrrhic.

After lunch, PK announced that he would spend the rest of the day taking me to various warehouses so I could see how Agra's carpets and marblework were made. This is third-world code for bringing a tourist to overpriced stores which give the driver a commission on anything they sucker the tourist into buying. After nearly six weeks in India, I was not entirely naïve (or unembittered), so I recognized the ploy and argued vehemently to go to the train station, rather than the warehouses. PK was just as determined for me to buy things as I was not to, so, finally, we reached a compromise. Marble, but no carpets.

At the marble workshop, the shopkeeper gestured me onto a couch and offered some tea. I declined, for, by this point in my travels, I'd learned that anything anyone offers you is booby-trapped. The shopkeeper was not to be discouraged, however, and he proclaimed that "God has brought us together," for, on Fridays, he was usually at the Taj Mahal, not his shop. (God hadn't told him that the Taj is closed on Fridays.) He went on: "we are brothers, we are the same age," after which he asked me my age and confirmed his prophetic assertion. He became less brotherly, though, when I told him that I really didn't want to buy anything and that PK had brought me here against my will. Having started me out in a room of really expensive merchandise (tables and statues), he brought me through rooms of progressively cheaper goods (clocks, then boxes, then postcards), but I still declined to buy anything (even the figurine he warned I'd never find anywhere else, not even the shop in Delhi where I bought one the previous day).

Upon leaving the workshop, PK tried to take me to another warehouse, but I dispensed with any semblance of nicety (cf. "NO!") and insisted that he take me back to the train station. He dropped me off. He did not, however, ask me to sign his testimonial book.

At the train station, I met a German woman named Brita, by which I mean she sat down next to me and talked for two hours. Brita is a distributor of sound therapy products, which are "audio tracks scientifically engineered to slow the mind's thought processes," not unlike talk radio. I assume Brita uses her own products in abundance, for much of our conversation went like this:

Greg: How do your products work?
Brita: The brain has alpha rays.

Now, Brita's marketing mechanism is very interesting (as you would expect from someone named after a water filter). Rather than having one website and trying to build a brand around it, she has hundreds of sites—each with its own name and dubious domain, like and That way, when someone searches for an applicable term ("meditation," "crazy German woman"), they'll stumble across one of her forty bajillion sites and accidentally buy something.

I got back to Delhi sometime the next morning and, after racing through the National Museum (General Admission: 300 rupees; Student Admission: 1 rupee; Using a Forged Yale ID to Obtain Student Admission and Win a Round of "Screw the Tourist": also 1 rupee), I explored the Rajpath. Some say the Rajpath is Delhi's answer to the National Mall in Washington, DC; this supposes the question is "What if the National Mall smelled like pee?" My explorations were merely marking time, however, until the climactic event of the evening. MY FLIGHT BACK TO AMERICA!

My flight back was the most relaxing experience I'd had since, well, my flight there: a decompression chamber that brought me from the metaphorical depths to the allegorical surface without my contracting the bends or any symptoms, really, aside from a craving for beef and acute xenophobia. After sixteen hours, I was home!

And, lest my employer get ideas about shipping me elsewhere, I plan to burn my passport at the first opportunity.

 The Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays.  Guess what day I visited?

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