Navigating India, Haggling & Cultural Barriers
“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” – Clifton Fadiman
India was truly life changing for me, but it was not easy. Without the challenge I would not have grown into the globe trotter that I am today. That said, here is another story from the archives.
I had booked a train to return to Delhi after spending a couple days in Agra. I got to the train station and got really confused about which platform to go to. I was lost and could not figure out which train was mine. I must have looked totally frazzled and on the edge of a panic attack, because I was told to calm down and to sit down by this nice man running a stall on the platform. He assured me that I was at the right place, my train was just running late.
I sat down and these four little girls came up to me and held out their small hands to beg from me and looked up at me with big glossy eyes. It was awful, they were so little and so cute. I recognized two of the girls from when I first arrived in Agra, one of them was the girl I had given the cereal to. The only English they knew was for begging, "Ten rupees, madam." The youngest had to be only 3 or 4 and the oldest could not have been older than 8. They stayed by me for as long as I waited for my train. After a bit they stopped begging and through laughs and gestures we played and talked. They were joking and sort of pushing each other and giggling. One girl kept hitting my knee playfully to get my attention. She pointed to her teeth and then to mine, and then to her lips and then mine. She was comparing how we looked. I really wish I had known the right kind of Hindi phrases to really chat with those girls, but all I knew were basic travel phrases. I wanted to know about them, but in that short span of time I felt connected to those adorable girls. I will never forget laughing with them, it was priceless. They were pretty, smart, and playful children who were living on the street.
On the train I sat in a berth with a young family. They had two small children. The mother chatted briefly with me and then went back to attending to her happy family. She was very petite and pretty, wearing a beautiful lime green Sari. When the train started two guys sat across the aisle from me and started to try and talk to me. I felt very uncomfortable because they were leering at me, so I ignored them. They were trying to get a rise out of me and I wouldn't let them. When they realized I wasn't going to respond they left. I relaxed once they left because the man who took their place didn't even acknowledge my presence.
I normally am a friendly person who wants to get know people, but you must trust your instincts when you travel. If a situation makes you uncomfortable, leave it. You have to be aware of your surroundings anywhere you travel, especially in lands that are foreign to you. I think it is doubly important to be vigilant about your surroundings when you are new to traveling, because figuring out how to navigate a new place is a skill that takes practice.
The practice of touting services can actually be a really helpful thing. At the Delhi Hazrat Nizamuddin train station I couldn't locate a prepaid taxi stand, so a I had a barrage of drivers come up to me. I needed a driver, so having them come to me gave me the advantage of choosing between them. After haggling down the price, I got in an auto-rickshaw with a younger guy who spoke English well and was very friendly. Although he couldn't find the YMCA, and I provided poor directions, he was very kind and didn't charge me extra for having gone the long way around.
The next day I explored Delhi a bit more. All along the sidewalks were tiny Hindu shrines. Some with small statues and others just had pictures, and others only had flowers. Each one was elevated on something, probably a box, covered in a black cloth and accompanied by a silver bowl and incense. While I was trying to enjoy walking around, I was getting an incredible amount of hassle. By the end of the day I was actually angry with being touted out over and over again. Wherever I was, even if I was at Connaught Place I'd get hollered at "20 rupees to Connaught Place" "10 rupees to Connaught Place, good price." Even when I said no they would keep going on. "Oh, but madam it is so hot." I couldn't even walk across the street without it.
Children selling goods.
Another real hassle was people who would act like they were helping me but really just wanted me to go into a tourist office. I went into one by myself once to get a new map. After that I had five people try to get me to go into another tourist office. I'd tell them, "No, I was just in a tourist office." In reply I'd just get "Oh, but madam they have big map of Delhi madam." At one point I was standing under a tree and looking at my book of Delhi when another man tried to help me. I told him I didn't help and wasn't lost, "This is B Block madam." I walked further away and he said, "I don't want money where you want to go?" I told him, "No thank you, I do not need any directions." He followed me further and said, "There is a tourist office here." I stopped, turned around and sternly told him, "Look. I don't need help. I'm not lost and everyone wants me to go into tourist office. I will not go."
It took me that day, losing my temper with strangers, to realize that you have to just learn to ignore the touts. At first it seems rude, but it isn't. You can't acknowledge everyone because then it opens up a dialogue. They think they have a chance to sell you something but you are just wasting their time by giving them that opening when they could be selling to someone who will buy. They aren't trying to bother you, they are trying to make a living. If you cannot get to a prepaid police booth that provides fixed rates you have to settle on where you are going and the price before you go with anyone. Above all, make sure you slow down and relax a little, I barely took any pictures in Delhi because I was so concerned with looking like a tourist and being hassled. It was a bad plan, not only did I get hassled a lot, I didn't allow myself to enjoy that lively and exciting city!