Let me start out and say that India was amazing. Really. If a friend hadn't invited me to his wedding, I would have never taken the opportunity to visit this beautiful place on the other side of the world. India was more welcoming and hospitable than I would have thought, and more developed than some parts I've seen in the states. One day while visiting a couchsurfing host, I had high speed WIFI access in view of a house that had a tree growing out of it. It's something I could have never dreamed up before going. Nothing in my story should be taken as criticizing the country or an argument for staying home. If you get the chance to visit, go. You will be glad you did.
My trip was planned to last 2 weeks. Since I probably wouldn't return for a while, I wanted to visit many cities during my short stay. India's extensive and accessible rail system connects cities in the golden triangle – Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Within each city, I was never more than a hand-wave away from a quick ride on a tuk tuk.
The guidebook warned against accepting free or reduced fare rides from tuk tuk drivers who send passengers to a shop or hotel before their intended destination. I read the warning only after learning the lesson for myself. The trick is to get a tourist into the shop, an experienced shopkeeper can make a high-pressure sales pitch for blankets, carved figures or any multitude of items sold as souvenirs. After ending up in a stoneworker's shop that extended my free ride by an hour, I learned why it was worth paying full price for rides.
The Taj Mahal opens early in the morning, and I wanted to be there for sunrise. It was sometime in the around noon before I left. There were still a few hours left before my train was scheduled to leave the station on to the next city. Local marketplaces never disappointed me, so I counted on a rewarding busk through Agra's less famous attractions. My driver was maneuvering his tuk tuk through a crowded marketplace, and stopped to get some tea at a local stand where he knew the owners. I had his cell phone and could call him to pick me up closer to the time when the train would leave. I had only taken a few steps on the ground when someone noticed and asked where I was headed.
He must have seen me painted in tourist green. He introduced himself and wanted to hear my story. I said that I was traveling here for a friend’s wedding and wanted to see many of the other cities on the way. It would probably be a long long time before I ever came back, so I wanted to make the most of this trip. He nodded his head and seemed to approve. He asked me where I was staying.
“I’m staying with a host I met through couchsurfing. It’s a website where you can request for locals to host you at their home, or offer your home to other travelers.”
“Yes, I know of that. I heard all about it on the news.” He didn't offer any other details about how he heard of couchsufing, but acted very familiar with it. “I think I understand your travels. You seem very different than other people I have met traveling from America. Here. Let me treat you to a cup of tea.”
“OK, but I really need to make sure to catch my next train. I bought tickets ahead of time and don’t want to miss it.”
“Relax, relax my friend. There will be plenty of time. There is no need to be in a rush. Take some time to enjoy your trip. I assure you that you’ll catch your train. Here. This is an excellent tea stand, I know the owners.”
He ushered me towards one of the wooden benches under a canvas shade and said something to the owners. Nobody else was sitting at this stand, but there seemed to be an unusual delay in retrieving his order. What could be taking so long? This was a typical tea stand. They only served tea, which was already boiling in a kettle since before dawn.
He returned without tea and sat across from me. He started asking me more questions about where I was from and where I was headed.
“Yeah, my friend is getting married up in another city next week. I planned this trip so that I would have time to visit other cities before seeing him. I have a few days before I get there, so I wanted to take some time to travel around and see everything I can.”
“Yes, yes. Come with me, I want to show you something else. I will show you my business.”
This extra delay raised my anxiety, since I desperately feared missing my train and being stranded. I would be able to pull myself away from the marketplace and get to the train station, but I feared getting lost in this rambling new city. Aside from a few numbers and “yes / no,” this was somewhere I didn’t know the language and wouldn’t know how to get home from if my plans got derailed.
“Please come with me.” We left the tea stand without being served and walked to his office. He led me to a room which was full of file cabinets and a large desk.
“Please take off your shoes.”
Since this is a well-known custom in India, I complied without a second thought. He gestured for me to have a seat opposite him as he took a seat at his desk and paused.
“I want to show you something. When were you born?”
I told him, and he paused to think with a thoughtful expression.
“Let me see your hand.”
I was getting uncomfortable, but still had a generally favorable impression of him for at least offering tea back at the stand. He looked at my hand and seemed to form a conclusion about it. Then he opened a drawer on his side of the desk and retrieved a small stone.
“This stone is yours. Take it.”
He slid the small stone towards me, and motioned for me to pick it up. It was round and somewhat polished, like tumbled stones sold in museum gift shops. Apparently, it matched my zodiac sign or correlated with something he'd seen on my hand.
“Oh, that's very nice.” I wanted to be polite, but wasn't really interested in the stone. I smiled slightly and nodded my head without touching the stone. This was not the answer he was hoping for.
“Don’t you think it is worth something?” At this point, he must have been expecting me to show more interest or follow his line of reasoning. I wasn't buying it. The first shopkeeper had run me through a similar routine, so I told a tale of my own.
“I don’t know, man. I just got finished talking to this other guy about stones. He said that this stone represents my symbol. Something about the stone helping my energy. I told him that I wasn't really excited about his magic stones, and I wasn’t in the market. He wanted me to . . .”
Hearing this, he stood up in frustration. He could tell where my story was leading. “What do you think we are working for? Do you think all those people upstairs are working for free? Do you just come here and expect something for nothing?”
He tried to tell me that there were entire floors full of workers laboring above us, turning out semi-precious gemstones like the one he had pushed towards me. Along with being an expert astrologer, I was also supposed to believe that he led a large company that manufactured the stones. Failing to pay for his “gift” was a grievous offense to him and everyone who reported to him.
“I have shown you generosity and this is how you repay me? Don't you think you owe something?!?”
At most, he had taken the time to talk and put up a front of friendliness. He obviously had put effort into his routine and was expecting cash. If he wasn't a psychic or business mogul, at least he was an excellent storyteller. “If you really need something, I guess I could give you ten bucks or something.”
“What do you take me for, a beggar? I don’t even want your pity!”
At this, he stood and opened the door of an iron safe behind his desk, shuffled some papers around and pulled out what looked like a 1000Rs note. He threw it on the floor and glared at me.
“There! Take it if you want! I don’t want your pity!”
This was new. I sat shocked and confused for a moment, hoping his agitation would pass and that he wouldn’t pull any surprises out of another drawer. We had already moved through appeals to mystic coincidence and guilt. I didn't want to find out if he would try brute force to get a contribution.
After it seemed safe, I shook my hands, saying “whoa, man. You're making me really uncomfortable. I’m not so sure about this whole thing and I think it's time to leave.”
Then I realized that removing my shoes was just part of his game. He planned out the whole meeting, betting that I wouldn't dash out of his office wearing just socks. While I was fastening my shoes, he kept up his pitch.
I quickly laced up my sneakers and got ready to leave, hoping he had exhausted his magic charms. I tensed as I turned my back and walked down the hallway towards the street. He threw his hands in the air with an exasperated look, giving it one last try. “Look at yourself! Why do you have to be so. . . so . . American!?!”
Back on the street, I was relieved to be out in the open. It was late afternoon, close to dinner. I grabbed a peppery snack before finding my driver and riding the tuk tuk towards the train station. He was accommodating to have been on call that afternoon, and I thought he deserved a good tip.