By Marcee Murray King
It started with the girl trying to sell me wooden stamps.
She was with a woman down in the park near the seaside, where vendors are set up everywhere selling things. The question is always, “Where are you from?” I always hesitate, assuming the price will go up if I tell them the truth. And, to be honest, I was feeling a little nervous saying I was from America thanks to Trump and his newly-appointed posse. But I do know the rule: haggling is the norm in India—and I don’t know how to haggle.
The question came from another woman shopping there, and I answered truthfully, telling her America. The woman and child were selling some bracelets and wooden stamps, and I knew from looking at them that they were some of the poorest people. I stopped to look and the little girl said, “I show you!” She took my hand and said, “Henna!”, put a stamp in a tub with henna paste wrapped in a cloth and began stamping my palms, decorating them. At first I wasn’t sure if she was selling the stamps or the patterns, but I was charmed by her.
The price for the stamps was outrageous…and at that point I came up with a rule for me: I should never attempt my first haggling with a child. It is hard for me to resist children at the best of times, but this one?Ah….I should have stopped at one. Two. Three was a lot. But four?
I bought four of these stamps at a higher price than I would have paid for them here in America. Sigh. As I walked away, I heard the woman that was with her tell her, “Good job!”
I took them back to my room and chanted my new mantra: Don’t buy from children. Don’t buy from children. Don’t buy from children.
I ventured back out and was soon found by one of the many tuk-tuk drivers that had talked to me the day before. “You said you ride today.” “No, “I reminded him, “YOU said I would ride today. I said maybe.” He nodded and smiled. Honestly, I really wanted to go on one of these rides/tours but had heard so many stories about getting dragged to relatives’ stores and having to buy things, but I also knew if I was going to see further out in the area, this was my chance. I would not have hesitated if I was traveling with someone else, but alone? He was my one chance.
I ask, “How much?”
“100 rupees! No more! Two, three hours. I bring you back here.”
And that was when the lies began.
“Where are you from?”
I hesitated slightly, because I hate lying. It isn’t worth the stress of keeping track and makes me feel all squiggy inside, but what would one little lie to a stranger hurt? A lie that might make me feel safer and maybe help me get a fairer price.
“Canada!” I announced, feeling slightly proud to be out from under the taint of Trump for a moment.
And that’s when the lie began to grow. Indians are curious and chatty, which was nice for me because I had no one to really talk with since I had arrived. He asked what I was doing for my trip, and I told him I was going to Alleppey next by taxi. He asked why I didn’t take a bus (because I didn’t know how, I explained) and he told me how to do this. I started talking about how there isn’t good public transportation where I lived and was going on…and then remembered I am Canadian now. Crap. Canadians have everything. I bet they have good public transportation. I sort of covered my tracks and then tried to be more on my toes.
He took me to this place where laundry was done and that was fascinating, with clothing hanging, blowing in the breeze. He took me to a spice warehouse where ginger was chopped and being dried, with lovely ancient murals. I was taken to Jew Town and saw the cemetery (“All but five Jews moved to Israel!” he told me), to Hindu temples and drove past a Muslim mosque. He told me he was Muslim and we spoke of religion, and how it didn’t matter what religion someone practiced if they were kind.
He took me to a most beautiful place. It was the Mattencherry Palace where the kings of Cochin had lived. The walls were covered with gorgeous icons of Hindu deities in egg tempera and depictions of the Ramayana. It made me weepy to see this beauty, as I paint icons in egg tempera myself and truly appreciated what they were.
He then took me to my first store. “We get out here and you look,” he told me. “No, that’s okay!” “No, no, come on. Just look!” I walked in. Everything was way out of my price range. I don’t even step into stores like this at home, fearing I will break something and knowing I look out of place. I walked out in a couple of minutes and climbed back into the tuk-tuk. Within minutes we were at the second shop. “Look,” I explained, “I don’t really like shopping much. I just want to ride and not buy things.” He sighed, and turned around in his tuk-tuk.
“I have paper, yes? I take you to shop and they give me stamp. I get five stamps, I get free gas. You not buy anything. You just look for five minutes, I get gas, okay?”
Ah, so that’s why so many people kept offering me free rides. They get free gas and, I found out later, big commissions on anything that gets sold. Nice set up.
That’s when the second lie began.
See, every place I walked into, he followed to get his stamp. I had to browse as if I cared. I had to engage in conversation, have people try to get me to buy expensive wool and silk rugs and explain the free exports. “No thank you,” I’d say with a smile. I don’t like deceiving people in general, but I was doing it for this nice driver. It was for a good cause—his gas money and my cheap ride.
The inevitable question always arose: Where are you from?
One man wanted to sell me expensive Buddha statues. “I have statues,” I told him. “How many?” he asked. “Two. One brass and one antique ivory.”
“Ivory? They let you have ivory in Canada?”
What a weird question, no big deal, but I got super nervous. I told the truth, except it wasn’t about Canada. “It is very very old,” I explained. I swore if I just got through this ride I would never again claim to be a Canadian. I survived the ride, got him his stamps, walking away relieved that the shopping and the lies were done, but oh-so-glad that I had had that tuk-tuk ride.
Imaging my surprise the next day when I was approached by another tuk-tuk driver. “Please,” he said, I need gas. I need one stamp. I take you to one store….”
“Okay,” I agreed, and climbed in.
He took me to one, two, three stores, but I had been to all. Finally, I just walked into one I had already been at (and was recognized) walked around long enough for him to get his stamp, and left.
I wondered if he had heard of me from the other driver.
See Part I of Marcee’s Story here.
Photo: Marcee Murray King
Editor: Dana Gornall
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