Austin, David, and Gonzaga stepped off the bus in Hampi at 4:30 AM and were attacked. OK, no one was actually physically assaulted, but we were swarmed, surrounded, and aggressively solicited.* And since we had arrived in a strange place in total darkness without any concept of where we were, we were vulnerable. To the shark-like rickshaw drivers hungry for our rupees, we were like three juicy steaks dangling in front of their waiting jaws.While trying to evade and shoo away the mass of drivers encircling us, we took notice of the most gentle and restrained rickshaw driver we’ve met yet, a young man by the name of Krishna. Actually, Krishna caught our eye not by the way he approached us, but by the way he left us alone. He responded with such receptiveness and politeness even though we had brushed him off rather gruffly. Krishna said he understood our need for space and gave it to us, backing up a couple of paces while we hoisted our backpacks and took stock of our present situation. But although he gave us some room, we could all feel him eagerly awaiting some indication from us that we might want his help.Finally we gave in and chose Krishna as the recipient of our 30-cent fare and asked him to take us to the center of town so we could find a guesthouse. Krishna warned us that everything in town would be shut due to the hour. He offered instead to take us to see a few guesthouses he knew would receive us. We declined, assuming his information was false and preferring to find a place on our own. We figured it would be cheaper to get a room without his help and the resulting commission we’d surely be charged. He obliged us, but when he stopped the rickshaw in the middle of a small dirt intersection with nothing around but what appeared to be a few dark homes, we doubted Krishna’s honesty for a moment. Perhaps instead of taking us to the center of town he had brought us to some remote area in order to convince us that we couldn’t find a guesthouse on our own.We ultimately caved in and allowed him to show us a few guesthouses. We chose the cleanest one, dropped our backpacks, and the three of us crawled into the one double bed. Within moments we were asleep only to awake a mere three hours later to loud pounding on the door. In denial that this was really happening, we all pretend to be asleep. Unable to ignore the incessant knocking any longer, Gonzaga got up and opened the door to find a profusely apologetic Krishna standing before him. Krishna explained that the room we were in had actually been reserved for someone else. He needed us to get out as soon as possible and had arranged for us to stay at another guesthouse just down the road. Sleep deprived, unamused, and grouchy, we packed our things and blearily followed Krishna to the next guesthouse. We forgave him once we decided we liked the new guesthouse better.Little did we know that soon Krishna would for us become synonymous with Hampi. Everywhere we went, Krishna was there. On our way to anywhere, Krishna would appear. We couldn’t walk through the village without bumping into the omnipresent Krishna at every turn. Krishna had a small office in the center of town where he sold various services to tourists. At first, running into Krishna here and there was pleasant enough. He’d ask us where we were heading, what we had planned for the day, and offer us one of his services. After a while however, we grew tired of Krishna and his nosy questions, his offers for overpriced taxi rides, and his unsolicited recommendations. The final straw came one day when Krishna saw us in a roadside restaurant. He came in to interrupt our meal and try to sell us something we didn’t want. If he was picking up on any of the social cues we were dropping he sure didn’t let on. He left us in peace only after Gonzaga very directly suggested he stop talking. Though harmless, Krishna represents a particular type of interaction in which we often find ourselves in India.It seems to us that every purveyor (or wallah, as they are known here) can get us most anything we need or, barring that, has a friend who can. We can pretty much walk up to any chai stand or bus ticketing agent and request anything, even if it’s unrelated to his speciality. Eager to capitalize on the opportunity, he will then promptly make a phone call or show us to to his cousin’s shop down the street. This is a great convenience – especially for people who are skilled bargainers, among whom we do not count ourselves. In our experience, the downside of representing a potential sale to someone is that it is practically impossible to be seen for anything other than a potential sale. The cost of the goods or services we want is based not on the the going rate, but on our appearance and our responses to the following questions asked in rapid-fire succession:
- Where are you from?
- Is this your first time in india?
- How long have you been here?
- How long are you staying?
- Where are you staying?
From this interrogation a vendor can make a guess about our income, our knowledge of prices in India, how many times they might be able to profit from us, and our budget. Once the vendor learns that we are from the United States, the price inevitably spikes.** Not only does this mean we have to work extra hard to get a “fair” price (if such a thing exists for Westerners in India), it leaves us feeling disconnected from the people with whom we interact. We grow weary from having the same conversation every time we need something, and every time we don’t need something and just want to be left alone. For two travelers who seek personal connection with those around us, this can be a little disheartening.And that brings us back to our dear Krishna. He hoped that if he could get to us first, he’d be able to profit from us throughout our stay in Hampi. That morning when he was so apologetic for “accidentally” offering us a room that was already booked? That was just part of his scheme all along. To be clear, we don’t judge Krishna harshly for the field of work he’s chosen. What starts to wear on us, however, is the ubiquitous nature of his approach. His irritating persistence and tactless sales pitches are not unique to him, and they get old after a while. For the record, we recognize that there is likely a lot more going on during these interactions than reaches our awareness. Since we only write from our perspective – that of foreigners in a country which functions very differently from our own – we acknowledge that our understanding is incomplete. We come from a place where most things except for homes and used vehicles are supposed to be sold at fixed prices, regardless of who the customer is. A place with very different notions of personal space, acceptable conversation topics, and social norms. We come from a place that also relies heavily on scripted, predictable interactions – the only difference being the cultural conditioning to which we’ve been subjected. Given several decades in India we’d likely start to adjust. In case you’d like to read another blogger’s trials and tribulations in Hampi, check out Kel’s story about trying to ride her motorbike through town. Though very different from our experience, her frustrations are familiar to us and we stand with her in solidarity.*Dear Everyone, we apologize for sensationalizing our “attack.” We hoped it would create some additional interest in the blog but didn’t intend to cause any concern. Additional apologies to those readers who feel disappointed that this story doesn’t involve bloody scenes of gratuitous violence. **We can’t bring ourselves to lie about where we’re from. Our Spanish travel companion, Gonzaga, found great success claiming Madagascar as his homeland. Whenever a seller or shifty person asked him where he was from, he answered, “Madagascar,” and was always met with a baffled look. Apparently Madagascar is a nation little known to some Indians. It was an effective way to end an annoying conversation – because honestly, it’s annoying to talk about where you’re from when the only motivation is so someone can determine to what degree they’ll rip you off. Upon check-in at a guesthouse one day in Udaipur, the hotelier playfully admitted he would have charged us double if he had known our nationality beforehand.