Mixed Messages

 "It's okay, I just want to help you."

"You can trust me!" 

How many times have I heard claims like these immediately followed by something exceedingly dodgy? Like when I arrived at the New Delhi train station and an official-looking guy took one glance at my ticket and told me that my train was delayed by nine hours - but - I could book a new ticket at the tourist office just around the corner. Right. Because a problem with the train isn't something I can resolve, you know, at the train station? I don't think so, asshole.

It's not my intent to unfairly generalize about the people of India and Morocco, because I'm sure that there are plenty of kind and generous individuals (and I have met a few), but as a tourist the sad truth is that a lot of the people you encounter are just... Let me put it this way: I don't consider myself a violent person but in the last few weeks I've fantasized a lot about punching people in the face.  

Here's another example. I wound up at a handicrafts emporium in Delhi after a tuk tuk driver told me that the market I originally wanted to go to was closed (I checked later; it wasn't), and purchased a silk scarf for about 1000 rupees (~$20). The driver clearly earned commission (the salespeople took note of who brought in which customer; there is something disgustingly admirable about such an abject lack of subtlety) but I guess I didn't spend enough because after a little argument he let me off in a random part of central Delhi. Hardly my idea of a fun afternoon.

A few days later when I got to Agra, the owner of the guesthouse assured me that, in his family-run place, I would be safe from people trying to get at my money. Well for one thing, during checkout my tab from the restaurant was slapped with a 15% tax that was not advertised anywhere on the menu. Not to mention that hours before I left for the Taj Mahal, he warned me to stay away from the vendors near the monument, and in the same breath offered to show me his "friend's" textiles store and his "uncle's" jewelry shop. Face. Palm. Morocco was the same; if you took what people said literally, then everyone was somehow related and/or best friends - a social network of gigantic proportions tied together by money. 

But I digress. The reason I brought Agra up is that, at the textiles shop (which I consented to visit because really there is nothing to do there except see the monuments), I was presented with silk scarves ranging in price from 250-400 rupees. Recalling that awful experience in Delhi, I thought, well, shit - either the saleslady at the emporium was a real hustler (probable) or the scarves I was now fingering in Agra weren't actually silk (possible). How am I supposed to know what real silk looks and feels like? It's definitely not something I tend to shop for at home.

Next we went to the jewelry store, because jewels are a specialty of Agra. (But are they really??) As per usual, the salesman blathered on about quality this, good investment that. I was only half-listening, though, because as I gazed at all the sparkling rings and pendants, I couldn't shake the feeling that maybe he was lying about everything.

It reminded me of when we learned about connoisseurship in art history class. The way my TA broke it down is that, although it does take a certain level of expertise, connoisseurship - in practice - relies more on a sort of gut feeling. 

Take wine, for example. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that wine tasting is bullshit, but even the scientific studies tend to point to one thing - that it all depends on how the subjects are primed. Tourists like me, who come from places where no one actually makes anything for themselves anymore because we outsource the labor to other countries that we then visit for vacation, are like sitting ducks. Tell me a story about how your family has been in the industry for generations, still making things the traditional way, and I'll believe it. Or, rather, that's how I was until the leather flats I had purchased in Fez fell apart after several wears. Call it naïveté or a general faith and trust in humanity, but whatever it is has long since gone.  

Nowadays I take everything with skepticism, which is harsh because I know that there are great things to be found. But getting to them through all the white noise generated by the people trying to sell you products and services at every turn is exhausting, and I'm over it. I've been wrong before about who I can trust, so now I choose to trust no one.

And to the next driver to give me a ride: I will pay you extra not to take me shopping.