Over the past few days, I’ve shared two parts of the intro to my new book, From Hostels to Kids on Camels, one about my dad and one about my mom. Today, I’m sharing a story from my study abroad in Bangalore, India in 2003. In it, I’m taking a weekend trip with two other exchange students to the city of Mysore.
I was looking forward to my first train trip in India, so the fact that we had to catch our taxi at 5:45 am didn’t bother me. That is to say that taking a ride, half asleep, before 6 o’clock, wouldn’t have been a problem with any other taxi driver than Evil Knievel. We, of course, got Evil Knievel. Luckily, none of us had eaten breakfast yet. The plus side was that, by the time the train left at 7, we were wide awake and able to take in the full experience. That’s an excellent thing because I don’t think I could have forgiven myself if I hadn’t been awake for people asking if I wanted “coffee/tea” (say it super fast) or “paper, paper, paper” 37 times before leaving the station. (I bought the English Language “Times of India” for 8 cents, so I guess I’m only mostly sarcastic.)
After the train took off, many of the salespeople left–to make room for the beggars. The prevalence of beggars is a sad fact of life here in India. We generally follow the cues of locals by completely ignoring them and avoiding eye contact, but (because we’re foreign), the beggars can be unpleasantly insistent. Most simply stand in front of you with arm outstretched, hoping you’ll become uncomfortable and give them money to leave, but there was one couple that thought it was wise to sing and clash symbols down the train aisle. Since most of our fellow passengers were previously sleeping, I imagine that this method wasn’t particularly successful.
Once the other passengers were awake, they wanted to talk to us–most Indians that we see outside of school have rarely met a foreigner, especially a blond one like me. After the guy next to me, Mithun from Chennai, asked me the usual questions (“What country are you from,” “What is your name,” “How do you like India,” etc.), he couldn’t quite decide if he either wanted to talk to me or just stare at all of us. Therefore, after I went back to reading my book, every time I was getting back into it, I’d get a new question, extracted from Mithun’s English language memory banks: “Do you have brothers?” “What city are you from?” Even though this was a little annoying, interacting with locals is usually fun. People here especially love it when you take a picture of them and then show it to them on the display of your digital camera. The showing part is a bonus–usually, they’re just excited about having their picture taken. (We’ve decided it’s similar to the way westerners try to walk into the line of sight of TV news cameras.)
Once we arrived in Mysore, we found a hotel (ignoring the one our taxi driver said was “better”–taxi drivers usually get commissions for pushing certain hotels) and set off to explore the city market. Not a tourist site per se—just a place locals go to buy fruits, vegetables, spices, etc.—but markets in developing countries are always interesting to wander, assuming you can stand the occasional smell, hawker, or wandering animal. As soon as we walked in, some guy started trying to sell me a flute.
“Flute, sir? Only 100 rupees!” (About $2.20.)
“Very nice Christmas, New Year’s present!”
“No, I don’t want a flute.”
“OK, 80 rupees, very good price.”
“I have no use for a flute.”
“I see, two for 100 rupees, excellent gift!”
I finally manage to walk away. In the meantime, Lukas buys some bananas, Jaime takes some pictures of the pretty dye stalls and buys a few old coins, and I find a place to buy some incense sticks for my room.
After I buy the sticks, I ask the vendor where I can get a stand to go with it. “Not here. Next street over. He’ll show you.” (Points to random guy loitering nearby.)
“Yes, sir, come. Incense stands very nice.”
“That’s OK, I’ll find it myself.”
“No, no. Come, come. Very nice stands.”
Flute guy suddenly reappears and comes along: “You want incense stand? He show you very nice one.”
I start walking in the direction towards the stands, trying to ignore both of them.
“What kind stand you want, sir? Very nice, pretty gold stands.”
“Very good, I find good one–you wait here.” I keep walking.
Flute guy: “No, no. Wait here. He bring you one. Would you like to buy a flute? 90 rupees! Great gift!”
I walk into a shop and find a couple of stands for 300 rupees or so, but nothing I like. As I walk out, my new friend returns with this neat little brass stand.
“You like? Only 100 rupees!” I do like it, but say I want to see more and keep walking.
“No? OK, 90 rupees.”
Flute guy: “Two for 100! Nice Christmas gifts!”
Stand man: “How about 80 rupees? How much you want it for, sir?”
Me: “I didn’t want to pay more than 50.”
“OK, sir, 60 rupees is a very good price.”
I like the stand and figure it’s worth a dollar thirty to me if the guy will go away, so I agree and start to leave the market area.
(Flute guy starts to get nervous.) “OK, sir, 40 rupees! How much you want it for? 30 rupees is as low as possible!”
I keep walking.
“20 rupees, sir.” Walking.
“Did you say ten rupees?”
“Yes, sir, 10 rupees.”
“OK.” I finally bought the dumb flute for $0.22 and felt quite happy with myself. I, of course, found out later that I could have got the stand for 10 rupees as well, so I guess I’m not as shrewd as I thought I was. (I should add that the “dumb flute” is hanging on the wall in my home in 2020, so maybe not a bad deal after all.)