This post is inspired by the Hippie in Heels and a recent love-hate moment.
There’s this cosmic law of justice that all backpackers to India know about.
At one moment you’ll hate the country. Curse all the touts and scammers to high hell. Find your rather PG rated mouth
saying shouting things like “Leave me the FUCK alone!”
But then there will be the moments of adoring affection. You’ll find all of life’s worries so distant to you while flying down a palm tree lined road in Goa seated sideways on a scooter (as long as your purse doesn’t fall off). On a train platform a golden eyed baby will smile up to you from his mother’s dupatta wrapped shoulders.
As the stilettoed hippie would say, “For each terrible, horrible encounter in India, an equally opposite encounter will follow.”
And I have just such a story to tell.
After the disheartening 10 days spent in chilly Nepal waiting for my
6 month 3 month visa (damn!) I arrived in Varanasi, India after a 22 hour bus ride eager to soak in the sun and holiness of the city. Not so eager to soak in the Ganga. Maybe just my toes.
Varanasi, while loud and chaotic, twisting and dark has not disappointed. The colours of the city come alight with the rising of the sun. And, if you search it, peace can be found along the ghats listening to the soft music of bells, chatting, men calling out for customers on boat rides and voices singing a language you can’t identify.
A bit jaded after days spent solo traveling I’m not hopped up with backpacker spirit, but longing to return to the safe little world of relaxation, companionship and puppies I knew during my month volunteering at an ecostay in Goa.
I’m gratified to be back in India and thankful for the opportunity to experience such a spiritual site.
Much unlike my time in Nepal the hours here pass quickly but leisurely strolling the banks of the river, observing a ceremonially cremation and dipping into the alleyways to sample the best lassis in all of India.
Despite all this I’m eager to head South to the comforts described above. Upon arriving at my guesthouse I asked the owner if she’d be able to book me on a train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal for Monday evening, my last stop on my mini tour of the North before settling in Goa. It was Saturday.
My scamming senses tingled when she asked if I would still want a ticket for the day *after* that. Strange, but her smile seemed warm enough and the place was well reviewed. I decided to trust her and say, “Well if there aren’t *any* tickets then I guess we can book the next day.”
That evening I ran into another backpacker, Sam, I’d met who’d stayed in our ecostay in Goa. She also was going to Agra on Monday but hadn’t even thought to start looking to book the ticket. I told her my suspicions of my Guesthouse misleading me in order to get me to book another night with them. She shrugged and told me she’d let me know if she got one.
The next day still alight with skepticism (call it a woman’s intuition) I dipped into a travel agency to check their train ticket prices. The tickets were sold out for the same day although I did have a cynical hunch that they weren’t sold out the day before when I had asked my GH to book.
900 rupees (13.24 USD) to Agra on the 3rd tier class. Hmmm that was what I’d been told I’d have to pay, but this was without any commission. There was no way my GH wouldn’t be taking a small commission was there?
“They probably booked you on sleeper,” the agency man laughed to himself at my guilelessness.
My naiveté didn’t stop there as I asked him what to expect in sleeper class. He explained it would be a lot less comfortable without blankets, pillows or windows. That doesn’t sound all too bad when you think of India, but temperatures can dip down to below 10 C at night in the North.
My distrust flamed again when I realised I hadn’t asked the woman at the guesthouse what class she’d be booking for me.
I set out for my guesthouse alive with cynicism stopping only along the way to check the prices with yet another agency and confirm again that it was unlikely the guesthouse would be charging me the exact asking price of the ticket with no commission.
I hastened my pace in the sinuous and serpentine back streets of Varanasi imploring to myself that this sweet faced guesthouse owner wasn’t truly the slippery swindler I imagined her to be.
Dodging cow dung and mangy mutts I ran smack into Sam. She was on her way to the train station, ticket in hand. I relayed to her all my guesswork at the guesthouse’s deceitful ways.
Her eyes glowed with the schadenfreude that I know only other women will grasp. I’m not sure I’ll ever fully comprehend why this girl-on-girl rivalry is so rampant at all ages and in all places. Our blood isn’t so bad, however, as with feigned sympathy she pointed to a small restaurant and suggested I stay in their guesthouse instead. This was of course after asking how much I was paying and boasting a cheaper price in the least modest of smirks.
Despite her bravado I’m still obliged for the sharing of this information as it was just enough to arm me with the nerve to march up to my guesthouse and call the owner on her shit.
I walked straight into her office (bedroom?) where she was resting lazily on a bed with her husband, a toddler and a young girl. Despite being uneasy around confrontation the teacher in me came out and after learning she’d booked me on sleeper class yet charged me for 3rd tier (over double the price) I began to clearly and cuttingly berate her for her misdeed and hoodwinking ways.
“My friend is on the train tonight and she booked *after* me. 900 rupees is the price for 3rd tier. I will NOT pay the 3rd tier price for sleeper. This is NOT okay. I am very upset.”
I chose my words concisely not wanting anything to be misunderstood. This encounter takes me back to the early days of living in Brazil when my Aussie friend and I walked a half hour to a store to buy concert tickets after repeatedly asking if they were available on the phone and telling the clerk we’d be arriving in thirty minutes. When we arrived the blockhead at the counter told us the ticket seller wasn’t there anymore quickly dismissing us with a flick of her wrist. I shook with rage and began to chide the woman in the most pathetic of reprimands with my baby Portuguese level.
“Somos clientes. We are customers. Não pode fazer isto com os clientes. You can’t do this to customers. Isto é mau! This is bad! Você não é uma boa pessoa! You are a not a good person!”
Another customer overheard my protests and promised to put in a formal complaint for us. Bad karma to that donkey of a salesgirl.
My girlfriend stood beside me not understanding a word but taking in my agitated state. We made it to the concert after all, paying the door price and bursting with laughter at my sudden bout of Brasileira boldness.
But this Indian charlatan was practiced and prepared in this sort of confrontation. She took a defensive stance and asked me not to blame her for what the ticketing agency she booked through was asking. She bitterly asked which agency I had confirmed prices with and when I wouldn’t give the name she accused them of scamming me. Her audacity only ended when I told her I had confirmed with not only TWO agencies, but my friend who was riding the train at the moment as well.
That shut her up.
She said she’d try to cancel (I doubt it was even booked yet) and crassly suggested I take care of my own business instead of confirming tickets I didn’t want with her.
It took some vim and civility for me to not to screech at that moment that maybe she should ask a reasonable fee on ticketing services and not try to exploit and manipulate paying guests.
I pounded upstairs, wrote my mom and a friend a ranting and raging message and then with all my exasperated excitement I packed my backpack, looked over the stairwell to see nobody was moving about and then bounded out of there like a bat out of hell.
It was 5:30 pm, I hadn’t paid the extra night nor the overpriced train ticket.
My cheeks were flushed and all the adrenaline of my disappearing act pounded through me. Cycle rickshaws approached and I forcibly shouted a “NO!” their way with a scowl sketched across my red hot face.
I arrived to the tiny restaurant still fuming and not so politely asked for a room that instant. The kind eyed, moustached man in a lungi hastily ran off to prepare my room and then led me to where I’d spend the night. Right there in the passageways of the ghats I had a private room on the ganga for 200 rupees ($3 USD) a whole 150 rupees cheaper than my flimflam guesthouse a ten minute walk from the river. Thanks, Sam, you big biotch.
I got settled, sighed with relief and felt satisfied with myself for confronting a con artist and getting out when I could.
As a reward, I bought myself a 5 rupee (7 cent) pack of bindis. These past weeks I’ve admired their beauty on other women and finally I decided to risk cultural appropriation and dawn one between my eyebrows.
Feeling guilty for my boorish behaviour at the tiny restaurant I decided to pay a visit and have a veg thali for dinner there.
The poor man didn’t even recognize me in my natural shanti state and bindi’d forehead. I had to tell him I had just checked in with him and needed the wifi password for the guesthouse. His smile grew huge and he eagerly shared the password of the guesthouse and the restaurant.
I decided I’d update my mom and friend before dinner and logged into Facebook to give them the play by play and apologise for my written diatribe.
A few moments later the moustached man arrived and sat before me. His eyes were kind and honest, so I took no offence to this invasion of space.
He looked at my computer with a grin and asked if that was for messaging people.
“Errrrm yes. You can message people. Do you need to use it?”
“Yes,” he grinned.
“Where? On Facebook?” my fingers automatically opening a new window and speedily clicking in the web address.
Again he smiled but this time pulled out a notebook with an email address scribbled on the page.
“You want to email this address? Do you have an email account?”
He shook his head no.
Instantly I realized he had never touched a computer before and wanted me to use my technology magic to write a message to his friend.
I opened my own gmail and then proceeded to compose an email writing down word for word his running dictation.
He told me his name was Babu and he had owned the restaurant for 18 years. Once he met a young customer who asked how old it was and he answered that he’d opened it when the young man was just a toddler. He shook with laughter at his own joke. I shared in his gayety only until I realized he hadn’t made that joke with me.
“I was also a child when you opened this restaurant,” I huffed, my ego slightly bruised.
We carried on chatting about his restaurant and life when I refreshed my inbox and saw that his friend had responded.
“Babu! Christian answered!”
His eyes sparkled with glee as I read aloud the email to him. I felt a bit odd acting as a futuristic crystal ball gazer, yet I was still able to relish in his exuberance at that moment.
I logged off, finished my meal and bid Babu goodnight. My cheer must have been written across my face because as I bounded for the restaurant’s stairs another group of travellers looked up, smiled at me and asked if I enjoyed my meal.
I grinned back, confirmed that I had and made my way back to my room above the holy waters, wholeheartedly and blissfully enamoured by India.