Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Tout in Sheep's Clothing - A Beginner's Guide to India

The trip from Delhi airport to the hotel was supposed to be easy. We had arranged for a driver from our hotel to be at the arrivals gate - he was to be smiling broadly, holding a large piece of cardboard with my name on it and ready with a welcoming cup of chai. But as we have learned after a week here, India is the sort of country that will never have 53 different words for 'easy' or any concept that is associated with the undemanding, or effortless, or simple. Perhaps Hindi is still waiting for this concept to appear in the language. In any case, our driver wasn't there, so the first person we met in India was a tout. So was the second person, and the third. 'Where are you going, sir?' 'Taxi?' The fourth person was a kind man who offered to call the hotel for us. One in four - we would never see such good odds again.

To walk down a street in Delhi or Jaipur is to be alive, in the moment. There is colour, noise, activity. Cars, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, people - even the odd cow - scream and honk their way down the cities' roads. Crossing the road against this chaotic parade is a supreme test of patience and nerve, like a game of pick-up-sticks but with the added thrill of playing with your life. Just walking in a straight line along the side of the road requires all your skill and attention. You are taking all of it in, noting the fruit seller up ahead and the motorbike on your rear and the child pulling at your trousers... and it's then that the tout approaches. "Scarf, sir?" "Bag, sir?" And if it's not a scarf or bag it's a shirt, or a pair of shoes, or a set of postcards, or a wooden elephant, or a fake beard. And it's all very cheap, and of very good quality.

An online dictionary gives a neat definition of the word tout: "One who solicits customers brazenly or persistently". They are part of what gives India its character, and almost by definition are incapable of appearing at a good time. There are many types of touts, but the ones we have had the most contact with are the auto-rickshaw drivers. These guys are very handy when you want to go some place - but less so when you don't. We have spent about 7 hours daily talking to these guys, usually as we are walking along the street trying to get across the road, or to that restaurant over there, or to some other place that will not involve a trip in a rickshaw. The conversations go something like this. "Sir, where are you going?" "I'm just walking, thanks." "Do you need a rickshaw?" "No, I'm fine, thank you." "Very cheap." "No, that's okay, I'll just walk." "Where are you from, sir?" "Australia." "Ah! Ricky Ponting country!" "Yes." "Very strong team." "Yes, thank you." "Sir, which hotel you stay at?" [No answer] "Sir, where are you going?" And so on. Each exchange takes about two minutes, and only come to an end after you decline the ride 17 times. And you walk on, and a minute later another driver approaches. "Sir, where are you going?"

It is exhausting. I call on all my reserves to be patient and polite. There is a reason, after all, that these guys hassle tourists so much - one driver told us that he earns just US$20/month, and we globetrotters are cashed up. But every so often my manners gauge hits empty, and I hear myself spraying lines like "I don't want a rickshaw! Did you hear me when I said 'no' the first time?! When I say 'no' I mean it, alright? Now go away!" And a pained look crosses their face, and they drive off, and I wish I'd handled it differently.

Not all the touts are so obvious - sometimes you might not even know that your custom is being solicited. On our first day in India we met a tout who was so smooth that it wasn't until later that we pinned him. E and I wandered into Banana Leaf retaurant on Connaught Place in Delhi, excited about our first Indian meal. Two Indian men sat down at the table next to us. Our thali arrived and as we hesitated slightly over how we should begin eating (with our cutlery? with our hands? with dishes eaten separately or all mushed together?), one of the men at the next table sniggered to himself. We glanced over and told Mr Tout that it was our first thali, and he laughed and chirpily walked us through how we should eat our meal. He worked in the area and often came to this restaurant to eat; we were from Australia, it was our first time in Delhi and yes, Australia does have a very strong cricket team. Over the next hour or so we talked easily about a range of topics, including Indian food, the importance of family and the sights around Delhi. My ears were only slightly pricked by a slow drip of information about how we might travel around the Golden Triangle (the very popular Delhi-Jaipur-Agra (Taj Mahal) route): it is much easier if you hire a driver, more comfortable than the train, you can stop whenever you like, and it doesn't cost that much when split between two people. But these details never got in the way of the rest of our conversation, which was easy and fun. Mr Tout made his mistake when, after gently offering his own recommendation for where we might hire a driver, he left the restaurant with us and ever so casually guided us in the direction of his recommended travel agency. He left us there and, as we sat inside talking with the agent about cars and drivers and 'quality service', we noted that this wasn't, as he had suggested, the official tourist office, and we reflected on our lunch companion's uncommon familiarity with travel guidebooks. And we remembered that just before we walked into the Banana Leaf restaurant, we had walked past this very agency and asked someone for directions to the restaurant... about five minutes before our friend had sat down at the table next to us. We reconstructed it in our minds, and discovered that Mr Tout had spent an hour with us with the sole purpose of presenting a genial character, gaining our trust, plugging his travel agency, accompanying us to the agency in person and, most critically, having the doorman sight him so that later in the day he could collect his commission.

It was a very smooth operation, and seemed to point to only one conclusion: trust people at your own peril! It's a safe starting point for us now, while we are still finding our feet, but we hope to abandon it soon. And it is a strange mystery that, at the end of a week of days that have left our heads and bones aching from the crippling effort required to do some very simple things, I am still intrigued and inspired by India, and will enthusiastically head out tomorrow to see what else the country will throw my way. Perhaps we are gradually coming to understand why so many travellers to India find that they love it and hate it almost in equal parts, but always feel compelled to return.

Photos of a mobbed Edwina at 'English corner', Hong Kong, Delhi and Jaipur


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