I sympathise with your India experience, O foreign tourist
My first backpack visit to Rajasthan several years ago brought about a revelation. In my own country, and in my own state, I was being perceived as a foreigner. The culprit was my relatively fair skin and brownish eyes which, coupled with a city-bred look, somehow set me apart in the eyes of the locals.
I felt excited with the new found status. Now I could travel with double the self-esteem, or like a born Rajah! What did I know.
The first to fall for the deception were the kids who went with the camel rider at Jaiselmer. They gladly took me to their house. Then, agents would single me out from the crowd. At Jodhpur, when I spoke in Hindi at the fort, the man, instead of replying to me, reacted with, “He speaks Hindi!” And how can I forget the hearty laughter let out by the traditionally dressed guard at the Jaiselmer fort, when he learnt that the gentleman standing at the counter was going to buy the low-priced Indian ticket.
I knew I was in trouble when agents and touts would single me out at the first look, and then pursue me everywhere. It took a few words and some time for the deception to wear off. The touts could be handled with a few jerks of the head and swaying of the hand. But what about prices? Were they quoting the Indian price or the ‘foreigner’ price? Fortunately, travelling Indians are duped too, and so we know how to compare and cross-check before giving in.
The plight of the foreign tourist in India followed me when, next year, I stepped into Uttar Pradesh. At Kanpur, a hotel agent pursued me endlessly for an hour, as I ran in all four directions trying to find refuge in some lodge. He was ultimately taken care of by a local shopkeeper who understood my plight. So at Varanasi, I went prepared, and sneaked out of the station unnoticed.
It wasn’t a surprise that foreigners were chased out of their wits during travel. Seeing it happen at close quarters was a new experience. I saw how touts and agents, with a smattering of French and other languages, will try to win over potential customers, and shower them with deals of ‘cheap’ or ‘budget’ hotels.
The kids of the camel owner who took me to their home soon discovered the truth. But the women of the house were accommodating, and treated me to a hot meal. I went on a half-priced camel safari, and was even considered for an overnight stay. It’s just that they cursed me for not revealing my origins a lot earlier.
Much of the tourist spots survive on tourism, and competition is tough. So is their life. Money doesn’t come easy. At Varanasi, the plight of the boat owner touched me — due to bomb blasts in the preceding days at Ajmer, he had had no business, and begged me to hire him as a guide. I got the value of money when he showed me the ghat where Tulsidas lived.
On return when a local Mumbai fellow at a restaurant remarked that I looked like a foreigner, I could only smile a fake smile. Do the same, O foreigner, when you go about India, and try and appreciate the lost glory of the land. Learn to make out whether the head shake means a yes or no. And when you visit the Ramnagar museum at Varanasi, do check out the steam-powered table fan, the haunting photograph of the princess of Belgium, or the signed letter of Tulsidas. These are the memories that you’ll forever cherish.