Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Markets & Carpets

After breakfast on Tuesday, I called Sonu, my Punjabi Sikh driver, to ask if he could help me run a few errands. In my delirious stupor on Monday night, I'd made a "to do" list:

  • ATM/money exchange

  • Open checking account for taxi fees?

  • Adapter/help with adapters

  • Clocks or clock and watch to tell time here & in USA

  • Hangers

  • How to make calls out of room?

I was pleasantly surprised to be able to cross many of these items off my list after breakfast, but I still thought that Sonu could help with the remaining ones.

He took me to an ATM. The first one was out of order and we had to find a second. At the second machine, I inserted my card and entered my pin. It asked for the denomination in 100s. I keyed in 800 rupees. It asked for the denomination in 100s. I again keyed in 800 rupees. This happened about four more times, then I noticed a line forming behind me. I looked to the guard at the door (there are guards at every ATM) for help. He acted like I'd never ask. "Yes," he said. I said, "I'm trying to get money but it isn't working. I'm asking for 800 rupees but it just keeps saying enter a denomination in the 100s."

"No," he said, smiling, "Thousands. One thousand rupees minimum."

So I entered one thousand rupees and out came my exotic cash, to the relief of the men in the queue behind me.

Next, Sonu took me to a shop that had an adapter I could use with my hair dryer (the power strip from the Ahuja Residency was all taken up with cell phone chargers and what-not). Then he took me to Khan Market, "Very very nice market. Very expensive." I wondered why we couldn't go to a cheap market, but didn't want to ask a lot of questions. Here, he said, I could find a clock, as there was no clock in my room--another source of my disorientation on the night of my arrival. I didn't know what time it was here; I didn't know what time it was at home. I felt I had flown out of the world instead of across it.

The digital clock cost 250 rupees, which is about six dollars. I thought that was okay. Then I asked for a watch so I could keep that set to American time so I'd know when I could call home. The watch would cost me 900 rupees, which I didn't have left after buying the clock and the adapter. The second man at the clock shop offered me a cookie. I said no thanks, but he said, "No, take." So I shoved a dry cookie into my mouth and said I'd have to decline the watch. The first man asked, "How much money do you have left?" I looked in my wallet and saw 400 rupees. He considered the bargain then shook his head. 400 rupees wouldn't work. Then he began talking to Sonu in Hindi. They conversed for a while, then the man turned to me. "Okay," he said. "He will pay, then you pay him back. I know him. Is good man." Sonu was reaching for his wallet. I said absolutely not. I didn't want my driver fronting money for me. The man considered for a moment then said, "All right then, you pay me back when you can. I trust my God. If I do good in business, I have good business."

So off I walked with a Gucci knock-off and digital clock. Sonu was driving me home when he asked, "Would you like to see Indian handicrafts? 15 minutes." I thought maybe I only had 15 minutes left with him as my driver. Then I figured out that he meant the "Indian handicrafts" would take 15 minutes to get to.

I recalled the "scam" I'd heard about in the guidebooks and from Brendan wherein a driver takes an unsuspecting customer to a specific shop and, in turn for bringing in business, gets a cut of any profits that are made. "Don't go look at carpets," Brendan had said.

I'd already agreed to go look at the Indian handicrafts by the time I'd figured out what was going on, so I figured I'd be a sport and see what happened. We drove to a store nestled under a highway. Across the street is a village of hovels and makeshift shelters built out of discarded construction materials and fallen tree limbs inhabited by people whose only possessions appear to be garbage: filthy blankets, used 2 liter bottles. One man is using a stack of paper as a pillow.

Sonu gets out of the car and ushers me into the store where the proprietors give him a subtle greeting. I expected an outdoor market, but this looks like a western shop with glass counters and wooden shelving housing figurines and carvings.

I am first greeted by a man flashing silk scarves "of very good quality. Amazing quality." After I finish looking at the scarves, a woman in a yellow sari emerges to show me papier mache boxes. "You like Santa?" she asks and starts piling box after box on the counter for me to see. The Santa is a little pink and deformed. When I express disinterest she springs out from behind the counter, "Then you like tunic?" Now we are looking at clothes. "I'd just like to look around," I attempt, but this is clearly not going to happen. I am wrapped up in a process and there is no going back. I will not be able to leave the store until I have spoken to each clerk and every counter.

Everyone who knows me knows I am a sucker for clothes, and here I find some items I really like. I also packed light and planned on buying some clothes while I was in India, so I actually consider a purchase at this station. I find a shirt I like for approximately twenty dollars. "All hand stitching. All hand made. Very good quality." But this is not enough for the sales woman. "You like long skirt?"

"No, I don't really wear skirts," I explain.

"No, you look so pretty at your office. It match tunic."

"No," I insist and walk toward the next counter where a man starts extolling the virtues of tiny white marble boxes, "each hand made and [guess what] of very good quality." A bit tired of the pressure, I move onto the section that I really wanted to look at when I first arrived: the carvings. My dad told me to look for a particular type of hand-carved elephant while I'm here and I figure they might have them. But no. They have sandalwood carvings of Hindu gods and rosewood carvings of animals--all expensive. The man is impressed when I recognize the gods--or maybe that was just his sales technique. I move on past the carvings.

But wait! The man also has hand-made wall hangings to show me. These look just like the things I find in Indian restaurants. I like one of them and I think it will look good in my Indian-themed room at home. I tell the man this, but the price is a little high. $36. I bargain him down insignificantly then tell him I'll have to think about it. Maybe later. "There is no later. There is only now," so not only flatterly but now philosophy. I like the hanging enough and decide he's probably right--I don't know when or if I'll ever see something like this again. He got me. I bought it. And some garam masala spice that my friend asked me to look for, and some elephant keychains that I figured would make good souvenirs for people. I knew I was being a first-class sucker, but by western standards, the prices weren't really expensive at all. They just weren't third-world cheap. And so what if my driver gets a cut of this? As far as I can tell, he's making about $36 a day. He can have a cut of my tapestry money. He was willing to shell out cash for me when I wanted a watch. He's okay in my book.

When everything adds up, it's under $100 and I've really got a lot of stuff. As I'm about to leave, the man who sold me the tapestry gestures to a whole room I haven't noticed. In it are hundreds of rolled up carpets. "But wouldn't you like to look at some rugs before you leave?"

"No thank you," I say, restraining a laugh.

I walk out front to find that it's poured in the hour I've been inside, but stopped raining. Sonu is conspiring with a guard from the store. He looks a bit surprised, then hurries to the back door of his car to open it for me.

"Back to Defence Colony, ma'am?"

"Yes, Sonu. Thank you."


Me said...

OMG what an adventure your first couple of days have been! Glad to hear that at least you've been able to score a hot shower, food, and can get all the gadgets plugged in and keep in touch. Hang in there, I'm sure it will keep getting better.

Cheeseball said...

You go girl!