05 April 2008

Escape from New Delhi

Well, friends. I've finally made it out of not-so-bad-actually-quite-cool-but-I-still-didn't-want-to-spend-nine-days-there Delhi. Let's turn back the clock, though, so I can tell you chronologically what I've been up to.

Each morning for the last week, basically, I went to STA Travel only to be denied an ISIC card for lack of proper proof that I'm a student. Am I actually a student? I'm not sure. But Rutgers is willing to admit that I am (after charging me $2000), so that's good enough for me. I had to drink lots of coffee to keep myself in a good mood, because each denial, deferral, and delay meant I had to spend another day in the city. OK, no problem! as the Indians are constantly telling me. I have consistently managed to find something worthwhile to do.

One day, the same day I went to the Syrian embassy and learned that a visa costs Americans a whopping $250, I also visited a friend of a colleague from Rutgers, and a Rutgers Ph.D. herself, Giti. I had to hire a taxi for the day to do this, since she lives in one of Delhi's outlying satellite communities (which are divided, futuristically, into "sectors" and usually called, somewhat ironically, "colonies"). We chatted nostalgically and literarily for awhile over tea. How civilized!

The next day, after STA denied me again, I was so depressed I had my nails done and then wandered around unenthusiastically. I practically lived in Barista and Cafe Coffee Day this week.

Remembering that another colleague had given me another contact, I arranged to meet this contact, a young Sociology student nicknamed Shubho, at Delhi University. There, I strolled with him around the very nice campus environs, which included passing by the former garden of the Lord-Governor, where Mountbatten romanced Edwina, I am told. How civilized!

The next day, STA turned down my request for an international student ID, and I was thinking about plotting revenge, when I realized I hadn't yet visited the Baha'i prayer hall, which looks like the Sydney Opera House but shaped like a lotus flower about to blossom instead of whatever the hell the Sydney Opera House is supposed to be (sails? a jack-knifed palm tree?). Upon exodusing, I was assaulted by the usual motley of rickshaw drivers. I asked how much to Humayan's Tomb.

Rickshaw-wallah: 100 Rs.

I: 30 Rs.

R-w: OK, but we stop at one shop.

I: If we're stopping at one shop, then you take me for free to Humayun's Tomb and then to the Museum of Modern Art after that.

R-w: Ok, but then we stop two shops.

I: Fine.

...we depart and time passes...

R-w: If you visit one more shop, I take you back to Connaught Place.

I: Ok, but you also pay me 50 Rs.

R-w: Ok, but you visit two shops.

I: Two shops? Then you pay me 100 Rs.

R-w: No, 50 Rs.

I: Ok, I take metro.

R-w: Ok, 100 Rs.

...time passes, I visit museum, see nice photography exhibit, etc., it inexplicably rains, we visit more shops, I buy nothing, we head to Connaught Place...

I: How many shops do you know?

R-w: About 15.

I: Ok, tomorrow, you meet me my hotel 10:30, you take me to shops, we split everything.

R-w: Ok!

I: How much can I make?

R-w: I think you can earn 500 Rs.

I: Sweet.

You see, my friends, I have figured out India: this is a country full of scams. Everyone seems to have one, or more, running at the same time. As a tourist, I am subject to the minor ones, really. Regular Indian people have to deal with corrupt police, venal officials, pushy and deceptive salespeople, incompetent or unreliable employees, two-faced holy men, price-gouging for everything from bananas to real estate, and, at a higher level, more sublime scams like the Delhi metro, the Commonwealth Games, and The World is Flat. It's like a web of scams at the civilization level. You can complain about this, but complaints aren't going to dislodge the combined scamming of a billion people. The only way to survive is join in the scamming yourself.

So I was quite happy to be carted from shop to shop all day, getting a free guided tour of Delhi in the process, honing my haggling skills, and comparing prices for things I had no intention of buying--each shop paying my rickshaw driver 100 Rs. as part of a scam to lure in tourists to buy handicrafts and carpets at marked-up prices, and my rickshaw driver paying me as part of our scam against them (and mine against him--finally I get the upper hand with the rickshaw-wallahs!). Actually, I can recommend this scam as a great way to see Delhi for free and without having to deal constantly with transport issues. They will be happy to take you to all the sights, since that's where the souvenir shops are located, too. Of course you can buy things if you want--some of the things they sell are genuinely fine--but make sure you arrange to split the 5% commission your rickshaw-wallah receives on any expensive items. The salespeople at these shops tend to be very pushy (one told me straightaway when I told him to stop following me, "OK, but you should buy something"), but it's a good test of patience and resilience. Also, it's fun to listen to the smooth-talking carpet salesmen (and these guys deserve their legendary status) discuss the history and merits of their carpets at great length over tea. I even learned enough about them to start demanding the giant 9x6, 426 knot, naturally dyed yak wool on cotton pieces from Kashmir. After visiting a number of shops, mulling over my options, and negotiating hard for a good deal, I finally settled on a crimson yak carpet with an ornate tree of life design in the center for $1600, tax and tariff free, inclusive of door-to-door overseas delivery. Satisfied with both selection and price, I bought the carpet (in my imagination) and thanked the salesman for his time.

And, I forgot to mention, in the morning my ISIC scam finally came to fruition, as well. After the English graduate secretary emailed STA Travel for the third time with a letter alleging my studentness, they finally believed me (it's true, right?) and issued me the coveted, blue discount card. Then, I was finally free to leave the city, about which I will write more, presently.

The rest of this post was lost in an Internet service interruption. I will reproduce it at another time.

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