The King of Vendors (Jaisalmer)
Unprepared tourist can be a cash cow for many touts and vendors. There are many ways to take advantage of someone by pretending to offer assistance. At the same time, many tourists attempt to exploit locals to save a few coins. It is a two-way street. As Westerners collide with locals in Asia, there is sometimes a tug-a-war to see who can exploit whom.
I met the King of Touts on route to Jaisalmer. I gust of wind blew dust around him as he turned to enter our bus. He walked right past me and sat in the back seat. Perhaps an hour later he subtly moved to the seat by my side. He had an English copy of Time magazine, which he suavely opened before me. “Excuse me sir, can you help translate this sentence for me?” he asked. It was an article about the recent detonation of a nuclear bomb in Rajastan by India. After I translated the problem that perplexed him he inquired, “Do you realize that the bomb exploded recently in a city located close by? We will soon pass the area”.
I was drawn into a discussion. When I learned that he was Muslim I wondered how he felt about the nuclear test. He insisted that he was proud of both being a Muslim and an Indian. He told me that he loved India and had no intention of leaving it for the problems of Pakistan. He spoke of peace and how both countries could benefit from mutual trade. He insisted that there are actually more Muslims living inside India than all the surrounding Muslim countries combined.
Twenty minutes before we arrived, he casually mentioned that his family owned a hotel in Jaisalmer and would I mind hearing more about it. He was prepared with brochures and business cards. He was well dressed in western business clothing. “Listen,” he said, “I don’t want to pressure you, but I have to get off at the next stop. If you would like I could follow you to the second stop and take you to my hotel. My family personally owns it. I can even have my friend pick us up and drive us there at no cost”. When I witnessed the first stop, fully packed with several dozen touts and rickshaw drivers, I decided to accept his offer, if anything just to avoid the hectic arrival. He offered to carry my bags but I only had one. When he showed me my room he let me know that I wasn’t under any commitment, I could stay as long as I like and pay before I checked out. We lightly negotiated the price when he invited me upstairs to the rooftop restaurant for some tea. When our agreement had been settled he left.
A German woman who had been watching us leaned over afterward and asserted, “ You just paid him twice the asking price and he has no connection with the family that owns this hotel. He trolls for tourists on the same bus route everyday. He is now on his way to do the same thing on the return bus”. As an expatriate ethnographer she had lived in the hotel for three months and had gathered the inside scoop. I had to chuckle once I found out the scam. I had just met the King of Vendors and I forgot to ask for his autograph.
Any new morning in Jaisalmer one can learn all the archetypes of vendors. One 15-minute walk from any hotel in the city and you will meet them all. They will entice you with redundant come-on lines: Where you from, where you go, what hotel you at, what your name, do you have cigarette, you lost, can I help you find something, and - my favorite - I don’t want to sell you anything, I just want to practice my English. If you answer any of these questions you will have initiated a business relationship.
Your response will also determine how they interact with you. I politely told somebody what hotel I was staying at and later that night they visited unannounced to take me around the city. I volunteered many free English lessons only to have students twist the topics into why I should buy a carpet from them. The sales techniques are diverse and sometimes amusing. Often vendors will launch into a lengthy memorized speech. Some will beg and tell horror stories. Others will bait you with one item while tricking you into buying something else. Many will play skilled mind games to manipulate customers. Most common technique of all is the primal strategy of the high-pressure sell.
One effective method used to sucker tourists is to appeal to nationalism. Once they learn a tourist’s origins they can change business strategies. One vendor explained his methods to me: British are tight with their money until you bait them with sex or imply that Americans are more generous. Irish are more prone to purchase goods if they are approached after drinking. Germans are generous with money if convinced that they are buying something of quality. Americans can easily be persuaded if it is mentioned that the United States is better than European countries; and Israelis will only buy something at the lowest price after ruthless haggling. Of course, the vendor’s assumptions are based on stereotype. However, these simplifications are how Asian vendors sometimes view westerners.
When I inquired many Indian vendors were pleased to rank westerners by preference. A general list would be ordered something like Dutch, Scandinavian, French, German, Canadian, Australian, British, Russian, and Israeli. Israelis were always last on everyone’s list and Americans were usually considered with mixed feelings– they were either really friendly or extremely rude. One day in Jaisalmer and I started to lie about my nationality already. It could have been my imagination but I was treated differently according to what nationality I claimed. Eventually I settled on being a Canadian because this proved a more neutral position. It usually killed a conversation once I claimed to have Canadian citizenship because few vendors knew anything about the country, although some vendors would still try to stretch it into a sale. One vendor asked me, “Canada, isn’t that almost like the U.S.A.?” Another vendor asked if Canada belonged to the United States. The Canadian expatriate that I met in Korea would not have been impressed. A few times I claimed I was from Upper Slovulvia or that I was a Trabauntlander, both non-countries, and vendors wouldn’t know how to size me up. They would respond with a more tempered cautious tone. A couple times I told touts that I was from the global village which was met with dead silence.
Citizens from other Asian countries really confused them. They seldom shared a common language and many cultural obstacles persisted. For examples, Koreans are very shy and uncomfortable when asked to speak directly about buying something. Aggressive touts would scare them off. The Japanese often travel in groups and vendors did not know the appropriate member to do business with, and Chinese husbands had been offended when the salesperson first approached the Chinese wife to do business. In all cases, the vendors I interviewed found it more difficult to do business with other Asians than westerners.
As a citizen from the United States it was quite common for a vendor to tell me that they love Americans and despise the British, somehow perceiving that England was still an enemy of the United States. By allying with my country they believed they would make a sale. A different technique was to play on guilt: come on you’re an American, you can afford it; what are a few extra rupees to a rich American like yourself; why do you Americans hate us Indians? Often tourists would purchase an item out of guilt. However, I had increasingly mixed feelings about this journey. I was getting exploited unrelentingly by citizens of a country that my own country is trying to exploit.
I did not see the Vendor King again. He received his commission and moved on to the next sale. However, his friends, a pair of camel drivers, pestered me on a daily basis to take a tour of the Thar Desert on camel back. Each time one guide talked to me the other would pat me with his hands. I could feel him reach for my wallet. I could usually divert them without difficulty and wander off. On one of these walks I stopped for a bhang lassi at a government operated shop. One glass and my head felt like it was floating. It was a perfect situation to listen to music. Eventually it found me in the form of a musician who introduced himself as Ravanhattha. He played an unusual stringed instrument. It was played with a bell-covered bow and it produced a sound remarkably similar to Appalachian folk music. The music would have fused well with the music of some of my ancestors who once lived in this part of the south. The man wished to sell me his instrument but it would have been too fragile to travel with.
I told him I would buy him and his family tea while they played for me. We gathered in a nearby coffee shop. They played me some traditional folk music for about a half-hour. Every now and then I would give him a little more money to keep playing. His English was quite fragmented but we could still piece together a conversation. When it became evident that I was paying to hear music the man’s competition rushed in to interrupt us. The competition promised that he could play cheaper and sell me his instrument for half price. A fight promptly broke out as the family argued with the shameless competitor. To settle the dispute I offered to pay them both for a duet. After I could physically communicate the term “duet” by motioning with both my hands, they finally calmed down. The duet was beautiful. It lasted five minutes until the competitor insisted on selling me his instrument once again. This time the fighting flared up until he was pushed out of the teashop. The presence of my money had divided this tribe and destroyed the unity of the music.
The original passion was not sparked again. I would hear a few short songs then the familiar plea to buy something resumed. This lead to my dilemma as a tourist. I crave that sincere connection with locals when I travel, but their need of money thwarts my efforts. I sought friendship but the proposition of business always got in the way. Business has become the global altar and tithing is required before admission. The concert had dwindled and I decided to leave. Sensing this the musician pulled out a cassette tape and tossed it on the table. It had a hand-drawn picture of his instrument on it. The rare tape was something that I was interested in. He knew this and asked for a ridiculously high prices (enough to feed his family for two weeks). We started to haggle over price but I did not want our encounter to be reduced to the typical business arrangement. I needed to experience something based on friendship instead of money. I told him I would give him the higher price, but whenever I ran into him during the next two days he would have to play me a song. I would buy him tea on these occasions but he was not to ask me to buy anything more.
We both agreed but I needed to return to my hotel for the extra cash. They sent a young eleven-year-old boy to go with me. They boy dropped out of school at a young age and was making his living from tourists. He explained that education could not help feed his family, in a few days on the street he made more money than both his parents did. Tourists paid him 50-100 rupees to navigate the maze-like streets towards important sites and many would pay him twice that price if they were lost. He was a smart child. He spoke five languages and found many ways to supplement his income.
Vendors would pay him to find out what hotel a tourist lived at so they could visit, he ran errands for elderly Indians, and he would visit the police headquarters regularly to make reports. He made a commission from walking me to my hotel. On route he also offered to lead me to a prostitute for a small fee. When he let it slip out that I was Canadian I wondered where he obtained the “false” information. The only place I could pinpoint was the government-operated, bhang lassi stand. I decided not to let him know where I lived. When he wasn’t looking I reached into my hidden stash and pulled out the money.
After I had paid the musician the boy continued to follow me. I enjoyed his company but he always found a way to lead me into a friend’s shop to buy something. More importantly, he would try to lead me away from shops that did not pay him commission. He would tell me how dishonest the vendors were. He warned me that the competitor musician was a very bad man who beat his four wives. As the boy led me around the city other boys would try to steal me away. His competitors would tell me how evil my guide was and they would promise to find me nicer looking prostitutes. I had no desire to visit a prostitute but I did find it curious that it was always the younger boys that tried to lead me to them. As pleasant as the boy was to talk to I had to pay him to leave. He was taking me to too many businesses and I wanted that feeling of independence once again.
I found my way to a restaurant in the city center where I was welcomed by a table of Canadians. They were dressed in full Indian regalia. We swapped travel tips and traded a few travel stories. The manager, in the meantime, was arguing with some Americans at a table nearby. A woman at the table refused to pay for her meal. She complained that her dinner tasted awful. The manager pointed out that if she didn’t like her dinner than why did she finish almost all of it? Her plate was empty except for about two bites. The American stubbornly asserted that she would not pay full price. The three Americans that had accompanied her offered to settle her tab for half price. The manager rejected the offer, “I gave you a menu with the exact cost listed on it. You knew the price in advance and you ordered it anyway. You never objected during the meal. Now you want to change everything. It is not right”. The group of Americans shouted at him, “You are not getting any more money from us”. They threw half the listed price on the table and started to gather their backpacks together so that they could leave. The manager reprimanded them. “Are you happy with this action, Can you feel good about yourself cheating me like this?”
The woman looked at him and smiled. She had a monstrous Cheshire grin that reeked of victory. She sniffed one last insult. “I am going to report you to the Let’s Go guidebook,” she bullied. Her threat hit a nerve with me because I had already heard it vocalized numerous times throughout India. It is not uncommon for tourists to falsely present themselves as a writer for Let’s Go or Lonely Planet to obtain free food or a discount room rate. Moreover, ignoble westerners often use these popular reference books to badger locals with. This manipulative goad is welded like a weapon to scare locals into complying with a westerner’s demands. If they lose a positive review then business will decline. Tourists know this and use it to their advantage.
When the Americans had exited the manager sat staring at the reduced payment. In all her temper tantrums and shouting fits the American woman had managed to save a grand total of fifty cents. By western standards it would be unheard of to have a full dinner for $1 U.S. dollar but, once in India, Americans will fiercely fall into rages over a few spare coins. The fight had hurt the manager and caused him to lose face in front of his employees, but the Americans did not hesitate for a second.
Later I tried to defuse the tension by speaking with the manager. He was bewildered why tourists behave in ways that would never have been acceptable in one’s own country. It is true. Americans would never be able to barter over price after already eating. What peeved him most was the tourist’s mention of the Let’s Go guidebook. “This is the problem,” he said, “ no editor from that book will ever ask to hear my side of the story. Tourists can make accusations without repercussions and it is always our businesses that suffer”. I pulled my copy of this book out of my backpack. In my hand I held the useful tool but it now shined like a cruel weapon.
Outside the restaurant the musician I met earlier sat near a fighter plane. He played me two songs and I bought him Chai. Afterward he handed me a bedee cigarette. I was enjoying a friendly moment in the sun. The musician interrupted my sense of peace to sell me his instrument. I reiterated that I did not want to buy it. The musician persisted. At one point he pulled up his shirt so that I could see a huge lump on his spine. The injury had crippled him but I had not noticed because he was usually sitting while playing his stringed instrument. I had already given away half my budget to people who suffered more than he had. I was running out of money quickly and my alms giving barely made a dent in anybody’s life. I had to turn him down because I needed to experience at least one more relationship with a vendor that was not based on donations. He was upset but still spent some time with me drinking tea. Minutes later a barber dashed out and insisted that I get my haircut. Whenever the musician would play the barber would apply sales pressure. I could not concentrate on the music. Three or four new vendors crowded around me begging and pressing me to come into their store. I started to visualize myself as a wandering cash cow that could be readily milked or massaged until I shit wealth. It overwhelmed me to the point that I abruptly stormed off.
The situation left a bad taste in my mouth. I have met international students at United States universities as an expatriate worker, an ethnographer, and a tourist; but the highest quality of lasting friendships has always been born out of educational institutes. When money is involved the friendship ultimately becomes watered down. Even the times spent with the King of Vendors ended up fleeting and impersonal once money had exchanged hands. The single exception was in Manali where a friendship was sparked not by money - but by intoxicants. Yet, it can also be asked if one can really drink or smoke their way into a mutual friendship. Unfortunately, in my experience, chemicals have always proved a more reliable bonding agent than a business transaction.
The global village can’t be built on the foundation of money. Although it is true that locals temporarily benefit from monetary exchange, the fabric that binds us must be spun from stronger thread. It is education and time that does this, not tourism in its self. Business transactions between the east and west tend to be exploitive, based on cheap labor, inexpensive commodities, and low-cost natural resources. At the micro level the vendor/tourist relationship is also based on inequality: one person strives to obtain more, the other tries to offer less. Moreover, the injection of western cash causes sharp division among members of a local’s own tribe. Wealth is superimposed over both foreign and local friendships, and even in my own poverty I could not connect with my oversea class equivalents.
The next day I boarded my bus. I tried to buy my ticket with a 500-rupee bill, but nobody would accept it. Pakistan had flooded the market with counterfeits as a tactic to weaken India’s economy and vendors no longer trusted their own money. Shortly before the bus arrived I had rapid encounters with those I met earlier. The King of Vendors had already departed to intercept the next round of tourists arriving, but the young boy tout walked me to the bus stand. I had not asked for the favor but he volunteered while other boys objected that he was dishonest and that I should have selected them instead. He pleaded for American money but I had none. I offered him my spare change. However, when I did, I accidentally dropped a coin that rolled into a sewage ditch. I watched as the boy unselfconsciously reached into the sewage to pick up the coin. I felt badly over his soot-covered hand as he thanked me and wished a good journey.
I felt defeated as I waited at the bus stop. Then I heard sweet music. The musician had come to see me off. He knew I was leaving and wanted to say goodbye. Our last meeting was awkward especially since I left so suddenly. He played me a song. I listened peacefully as I ate a rare Rajastani melon. Then two new vendors arrived and competed for my attention. They shouted at each other and pleaded with me to purchase merchandise. The noise produced by their competition was so loud that I could not hear the music. A competing musician busted into the crowd, standing in front of the other, and begged me to buy his instrument instead. When the bus arrived there were a total of seven vendors clashing with each other. The music was over. I was on the bus in two minutes flat.