Taj Mahal, Haggling, and Cultural Barriers: Adventures in India

Summer 2007

The Taj Mahal

Let me take you back to Agra, India and the insanity of being a naive 20 year old navigating a country she knows very little about. Oh, and did I mention this was her second time ever traveling abroad and she was traveling alone? Wild kid.

I went downstairs a little too early for breakfast but Raz, who was running the guest house, let me eat anyway, giving me a couple slices of toast with butter and an orange Fanta. When I was waiting for the toast, the driver from the day before was waiting for me downstairs. Waiting for me? I was completely confused. The driver had come with a car, apparently to take me for the day. I was in no way ready, nor had I requested him to come, and I didn’t want a car tour. I clearly said to him the day before, “No thank you, I do not need a driver tomorrow.” He was incredibly insistent. He said to me, “I’m not stupid. You say all day 400 rupees.” Flabbergasted I told him that I never asked for him to come and explained everything again. I let him know that I did need a ride to the Taj Ganji, but that was it. He finally agreed to have it my way and went to get his auto-rickshaw, to return in 30 minutes to pick me up.

When I first arrived in Agra I had my first real lapse of judgment, but I didn’t realize it until the day after.

I had gotten off the train and was bombarded by drivers who wanted me to go with them. I warded them off and that’s when a man came up to me and said, “You for Tourist Rest House?” I was going to the Tourist Rest House, and they were supposed to send a taxi for me, so I assumed he was the driver the guesthouse had sent and I went with him. In the car he told me briefly that he would take me all over Agra and give me tours of the area. I did not agree to anything and when I arrived at the Tourist Rest House I just went to my room and rested for the remainder of the evening. I read up on the Taj Mahal and got my things in order for the next day.

“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be
wrong is to think you control it.”
[John Steinbeck]

Raz gave me my breakfast and sat with me to give me some much needed advice. He told me that the driver who came was “crazy” and gave me a lot of good tips about being very insistent and how to tell better who to trust. He said I had to be less trusting, a bit less nice, and more firm. He ran me through a few practice scenarios and sent me on my way to enjoy the day. He was a really nice guy, and

I saw why the Tourists Guest House was so highly rated by the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide.

The driver came back and I went in his auto-rickshaw. He took me to the South Gate of the Taj Ganji. The Taj Ganji or the Taj Market is the large area outside of the Taj Mahal courtyard. No automobiles are allowed within 500 meters of the Taj Mahal to help preserve the UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.  In days past this area (originally known as Mumtazabad) was built as an important piece to the Taj Mahal complex. It was first meant for people who were building the site, but became a bustling town full of bazaars. It is like a square, that has two main streets that cross perpendicular to each other, with gates at the four cardinal points (North, East, South, West). I was advised to enter at the South Gate to avoid long lines.

As I was trying to get out of the rickshaw the driver tried to have me stay the whole day for 200 rupees. I followed Raz’s advice and refused, paying 40 rupees for the ride. He then asked me for money from yesterday’s ride. Again, I refused and told him that he had lied to me and impersonated the driver he knew was coming to pick me up (which was prepaid as part of my stay at the hotel). Seeing that I’d caught him in a lie, he told me that his friend who work sat the Tourist Rest House couldn’t make it yesterday so he was doing him a favor. “If you were really helping out your friend,” I told him, “then you wouldn’t be asking me to pay for something I’ve already paid for.” Realizing I wasn’t going to budge he said, “You are a lady, I try not to take advantage.” So, I paid him no more than 40 rupees.

I made my way to the Taj Mahal and paid the entry fee, which is more for foreigners than for Indians but it still was completely reasonable in price. I mean, it is THE Taj Mahal! The Taj Mahal is absolutely gorgeous. It is located on the Yumana River inside of a large Mughal garden. The construction of the site began in 1632 AD and was completed 18 years later. Later a mosque and a reflected guest house (which is structurally the same as the mosque but is on the opposite side of the Taj Mahal) were built by 1653. The gardens with its green grass, benches, and beautiful trees provides a welcome relief to the scorching heat you will encounter if you visit in the hotter months (I was there in May).

Once inside the courtyard there was some hassle from people trying to have me get my picture taken for 25 rupees (which is cheep, at the time it was just over 50 cents), but I didn’t want it done with someone else’s camera. I did get creeped out a couple times, once there was a man who at first seemed very nice and asked me, “What country?” and then asked if I was a student here and after several more invasive questions that I skirted answering I started walking away and he hollered after me, “You have a boyfriend?”

By mid afternoon the heat was becoming unbearable so I headed back to the hotel. I took a cycle rickshaw, but my first driver got lost and he transferred me to someone else. Then this driver rode way out of the way and asked me to go into a store. When I said no he begged me because he would get 10 rupees if I went in. I didn’t go because I didn’t feel comfortable doing that, it made me nervous. The driver was so persistent about wanting to wait for me so he could take me somewhere else, I had to force him to let me pay him for the ride (he wanted me to pay later, so I would have to see him again). Thanks to Raz’s coaching I was firm on my stance, I paid him and said goodbye.

I wasn’t sure if I was more worn out by the heat, the walking, or the haggling, but by the time I finally got back to the hotel the heat was sweltering and I immediately pulled out my journal to write down (and tried to understand) the totally ridiculous communication issues I kept experiencing. I’ll tell you one thing, making mistakes when you travel is the fastest way to learn.

Taj Mahal in Agra, India
Taj Mahal in Agra, India

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  1. mplanck on July 17, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    A beautifully written and descriptive tale of your experiences. Encountering people from a culture and place so different than your own can be so confusing. Most of us assume that “most” people share our western value system. What an eye-opener to discover that this is not always the case. Learning the ropes is like learning a new game. Not always easy if it’s a “crash

    • Kristance Harlow on July 17, 2013 at 5:56 pm

      Thank you. It’s like this quote “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

  2. Rose L on July 17, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    Quite a lesson to learn. I would have a hard time being tough and probably be taken advantage of the whole trip!

    • Kristance Harlow on July 17, 2013 at 5:54 pm

      I have more stories like this, it was not an easy thing to learn!

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