Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tous les Touts

Agra is a war zone. It's a war between the foreigner and the local, the gullable and the savvy. Many foreigners feel like victims and with just cause. It's hard for me to gauge how the Indians feel - it's a completely different psyche. It's a battle for personal space and peace of mind, for the best bargain and for the contents of your wallet, and even for your own health.

Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, is a tragic mess. In 1653, Emperor Shah Jahan beuested on this city a gift that would last a millennium - a white marble monument dedicated to his dead wife - sure to attract kings, paupers and everyone in between. Yet Agra in 2009 is a polluted, dirty, festering blister of a city. The air is so thick with smog that you can barely see the Taj Mahal. Grown adults, mothers in front of children, dispose of their trash all over the streets. Done with that coke bottle? drop it on the ground - I'm sure the cows will eat it. I saw a woman throw the entire remnants of her family's meal out the window of a train while it was stopped at the station - paper plates and all. Nobody blinked. Worst of all are the 'touts' - the scammers who drum up business by annoying the crap out of you until you give them the contents of your purse in a plea for mercy. The touts are aggressive and they are everywhere.

"Where are you from Madam? US? Michael Jackson! Obama! Come in my shop! Batteries, Madam? I give you good price. First customer good price. Madam! Batteries! You need batteries, I have!! BATTERIES!!"

What they don't seem to understand is that it's not usually the sales pitch that gets me to the battery isle. They're also pushing water bottles, rickshaw rides, postcards and taj mahal snow globes. Someone even offered me a helicopter ride. Do I really look that flush? They grab at you and if you ignore them they get closer and louder. The kids are even trickier and masters of the game. On our street there was an insanely loud Mulim festival the other night for 24 hours straight. You cannot imagine the decible level of the music, which blasted from permamnent speakers installed on the streets. I was out taking pictures and dancing, eardrums-be-damned. I group of beautifully adorned children and women in saris approached me smiling. A few yound girls took my hands and coerced me into the parade with them. After about 50 feet, they started tugging at the small wallet I had around my neck, persisting that I give them "pens! pens!" I've offered to buy food for the kids, but they usually just want the rupees. The other night there were six of us trying to negotiate a jeep ride home from a fort about 24 miles away. After a lot of back and forth nonsense with the driver, we settled on the price that our guidebook told us to pay, and we were on our way. Half way there, we stopped at a gas station on an abandoned strip of road. The driver demanded his full fee to pay for gas. We said he could have half now, which was more than a full tanks worth. He get the gas station attendeant involved, telling us he needed all the money. Once he realized he wasn't getting it, he got back in the jeep, in a huff and WITHOUT GAS, and continued to drive us back. If we had given him the full sum, we might have been stranded at that gas station.

A few years ago a scandal was uncovered in Agra. Restaurants frequented by foreigners were in cahoots with the local doctors and hotels. Cooks purposefully put bacteria (use your imagination) in the food to make the patrons sick, then the hotels recommended the doctors. Several people actually died. We are still cautioned not to eat within 500 meters of the Taj. SO far I have met several tourists who have been violently ill since they arrived - my roommate included.

On the flip side (and there's always a flip side) there are more tourists here than anywhere in India and many could use a good spanking - throwing fits over little inconveniences, like inconsistent hot water in their $4/night hotel. We march into town with 40 lbs backpacks chock full of souveneirs. We whip out our $400 cameras to take photos of women preparing their family's meals on the side of the road next to a filthy cow, but won't give money to beggars. We haphazardly flash 1000 rupee notes while rummaging through our wallets after bargaining down a rickshaw ride to 25 rupees (50 cents). We blatantly ignore people who speak to us and yell at the people who persist. We clutch our bags tightly when walking by children, and step around the legless beggars who beg for a rupee or two. Most of the locals live on less than a dollar a day, and are desperate to make a living. And we haggle over cents.

I can't determine which came first in this chicken-egg scenario: the cheating Indian tout or the miserly foreign tourist. I have been driven to the brink in this town and have laid into a few touts and one lying travel agent. I actually sat in front of his agency threatening to drive away customers until he refunded my friend's money, much to the amusement of the Indian bystanders. Agra calls itself the "city of love". But I hate to say that the Emperor's monument to love only brings out the worst in the locals and it's foreign visitors.

Onto Pushkar next, with great hope for a renewed faith in humanity.

***I just realized that I wrote nothing about the Taj Mahal. It was stunning. Amazing. A feat of human skill and artistry. And I'm still not sure it's worh the trip to this city.

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