Friday, March 9, 2012

Vignettes from Agra and Delhi

Some random observations from the last few days...  This is a joint effort by Lloyd and Janet so that you get to hear Lloyd's opinions too!  (Thanks to Pete for the push...)

Holi--A great example of subtractive colour!!  As you add more and more colour to a person's skin (especially the face and arms and feet) it becomes darker.  There are a lot of very black-faced people at the end of Holi celebrations.  Many people are still using some very toxic dyes, e.g. green is copper sulphate and white is lead.  The favourite colours are very bright yellow, green, red, blue-violet and magenta--all of which combine to make black!

Indian Rules...What rules??!
We're having difficulties figuring out the rules, particularly...
(1) Driving rules. While there are some on paper and in law, they're not enforced and there's no enforcement obvious until after the fact (e.g. an accident).  Example...when there are two marked lanes on the highway, there are 4 or more vehicles taking up the space, with any number in either direction.  This could be motorcycles, bicycles, camel carts, auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, cars, trolley tractors hauling loads, trucks ("goods carriers" aka "God's carriers" in Kerala), ox, donkey and horse carts, as well as the occasional cow or bullock or water buffalo, pig, dog, and also bloody great tourist buses.  All complicated by pedestrians!  And no one looks over his/her shoulder or looks before turning onto the road...   The biggest guy wins period...  Horns are used to announce "I'm on your right", "I'm on your left", "Move out of the way", "MOVE YOUR ASS!"  We have been forced off the road in tuk-tuks, taxis, and in buses.  But we're still here!  Thank Ganesh we are coming home.

(2) Negotiating and bargaining for goods and services.  This is supposed to be fun, right?  Well, we've discovered sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't.  Lloyd had a fun time yesterday bargaining for a beautiful marble inlay box, in the exquisite "pietra dura" technique.  The process began with a demonstration and discussion about the technique with the artisans in their workshop which we stumbled upon in a side alley near the Taj.  They realized we might be potential customers and called their younger brother from the store-front shop to bring more small pieces. He arrived on a motorcycle and produced about 12 pieces from his various pockets!  He was a charming young man whose English skills were excellent (thanks to a BA in English Literature).   He was also trained by his father in the craft and was able to explain the process clearly. We had a choice of plates (large and small), coasters, and containers of various sizes, shapes and intricacies. After the discussion of the techniques and the quality of each piece, the prices were stated and ranged from 300 Rs to 5000 Rs.  Janet then left it up to Lloyd to select the piece he wanted (she has enough stuff) and so the bargaining commenced.  The piece he selected was the highest quality and the highest priced...Once selected, the workshop discount (as opposed to show room price) was applied and it dropped to 3500 Rs.  There was about 15 minutes of respectful and colourful negotiation...the price dropped to 2800, then 2500, and Lloyd's final counter was 2000, nudged to 2100 R|s (about $38).  In the process, no tempers were lost and all remained in good humour with much laughing, smiling and warm handshakes.  They were happy and so was Lloyd, and we parted on good terms.  Nobody won or lost and the game was played.

In contrast to this positive story, we have been in situations where tour companies have tried to take huge advantage of us, e.g. charging close to 100% commission for train tickets or 75% premium on car/driver rates for one day.  This is blatant gouging and no engagement in respectful negotiation.  Sometimes the only way to deal with this situation is to get up and leave, and if they really want the business they come running after us.  However this isn't fun and shouldn't be part of the game.

(3)  Poverty:  Especially here in northern India, the beggars are much more obvious.  Today at lunch in New Delhi, there was a young lad (black-faced from Holi) dressed in rags begging at the front door.  It felt awful to be filling our stomachs when he was obviously hungry.  Ironically, when we gave him a 10 Rs note as we left, he tried to give it back and asked for it to be changed to a newer note (the one we gave him was slightly ripped).  We do know that Indians don't like using ripped and torn money, however it is still legal tender.  We waved him off.  This didn't make us feel very good!  We know that 10 Rs will buy him a full meal on the street, and we have been using ripped notes successfully all along.

(4)  Train Travel:  The rail system carries some 10 million passengers per day and has a workforce of over 1.5 million to run and maintain it.  Buying tickets as a foreigner is a real chore because the bureaucracy is immense.  We tried buying on line, but couldn't because we don't have an Indian mobile phone number.  This forced us to use travel agents who try to charge excessive commissions.  Lloyd succeeded in negotiating lesser commissions but the process has been unpleasant.  The trains themselves have been a great way to travel and meet people.  Conversations with young men have ranged from politics to history, geography and social customs.

(5) Auto Rickshaw (tuk-tuk) Travel:  This is a down, dirty and gritty view of Indian streets.  From the back of a rickshaw you can see and smell everything that you pass sewers...big smoky trucks.  We have seen amazing sights from the back of tuk-tuks.  Well, sometimes Lloyd can't see out because he's too tall!  So Janet has to be fill him in on what she's seeing.  "India is too small" is a constant refrain as Lloyd bends double to see out from the tuk-tuk.  He has had to fold himself in/out of the seat...

(6)  Walking is one of the best ways to get around.  We have poked around back alleys and through crowded bazaars, and snaked our way through wheat fields in our excursions and explorations.  The glimpses we've had into peoples' daily lives have been powerful...we've made eye-contact and exchanged broad smiles and nods, making all of us feel good...from old people with no teeth to little kids on their way to school.  Today in the ride in an auto-rickshaw to the Agra train station, Janet had this experience with a young woman riding on the back of a motorcycle and it set her up for the rest of the day!

We're now at the Cottage Crown Plaza near the New Delhi rail station.  We're in the middle of a big bazaar, and we've already done some more shopping!  We've ordered a shirt and kurta for Lloyd and a Punjabi suit for Janet which will be ready for pick-up Sunday 6 PM, just over 24 hours from the time of ordering.  Lloyd found a barbershop just steps away from the hotel and has had a shave, beard trim and hair cut for less than $2.  Janet's feeling very scruffy but is going to wait until her hair appointment next week in Vernon!

So now we're going out into the busy bazaar again to see what we can find for supper...

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