Being a member of the tourist caste: parting with your money

I call this page 'being a member of the tourist caste' because that is how it felt to me. The caste system leads to a habit of categorising people and the behaviour expected of them quite rigidly and this seems to be applied to the relatively new phenomenon of tourism. It is fairly easy to learn the ropes of what is expected of you as a tourist. You are expected to look at and photograph famous monuments or landscapes, buy lots of things, tip everyone liberally and, ideally, say lots of nice things about India. That is your 'dharma' and most of it has to do with parting with money. In India you will never escape your foreigness, because you are required to fit in a category, and this is the only available one. Of course, parting with money is not quite fit the role that many tourists had imagined for themselves, but all of them will have to cope with that expectation.

On our first morning in India, our driver took us shopping and nearly every guide or driver we had subsequently did the same. Of course we expected this to happen, guides and drivers generally have a relationship with a particular shop and get commission in some cases just for taking you into the shop and extra if you buy anything. We were more or less willing to go along with this, since drivers and guides are not very well paid, and we did in fact have a shopping list of things we wanted to pick up. Some people get very angry about being taken shopping but we had our own way of dealing with it. We never refused to go to a shop, but we always tried to make sure that we got our tourism done first and we certainly took our time about it. This made sure that our guides, etc, were taking us shopping in their time, not ours. And we never allowed ourselves to be pressurised into buying things we didn't want.

Guides and drivers get most upset if you go shopping on your own. We learned that the most amusing way to pay back someone we did not like was to do this and see that they found out about it. In Nepal, Mike walked into a shop where he had seen some clothes he liked. The guide came along shortly afterwards and began arguing to get commission out of the shopkeeper, who was adamant in his refusal (another amusing thing is to have a slight knowledge of the language, and not let on). In Mysore, I was just wandering down the street and happened to see some sandals in a shop window. When my guide found out about them, he was utterly desolate.

Hawkers are to be found everywhere you go and most of them do not sell anything we would really want to buy. I couldn't help laughing on my first morning when a guy shoved a box with a basketwork snake head poking out of it under my nose, and suggested that I might like to take it home. Mike found hawkers distressing, but I observed Indians and soon found the way to get rid of them. The biggest mistake Westerners often make is to lead the hawkers on by saying things like 'No thank you', or 'I really don't want one'. Translated into hawker language, this mean 'Suggest another price'. The correct method is not to engage them in any kind of conversation at all, not to make eye contact or demonstrate any emotion, and to keep walking at exactly the same pace whilst making a small dismissive gesture with your hand. This behaviour, though rude by our standards, is extremely effective. It's worth remembering that the hawkers are very poor, and are only trying to make a living. I have often thought that they would get on better with Westerners if they just laid the merchandise out to be examined instead of thrusting it in people's faces. Culturally, many of us, especially Americans are more comfortable with the hard buy than the hard sell.

Tipping in India is one of the hardest things to fathom and we never became expert at it. We suspected in the end that tipping is to be seen as payment for any service you receive. It is not, as many of us would expect, a little thank you present to someone for a service we are very happy with. However much you have already paid for your car, guide, or whatever, the amount they have been paid is so tiny, even taking into account the local cost of living, that it is little more than a retainer. This might seem scandalous to us, but I suspect it is typical of Indian society as a whole, and therefore outside the tourists' power to change. It has the small advantage of putting the recipient in a position of strength to fix the price of a service after it has been provided. With tourists, the service provider is in a precarious position. Although tourists may be relatively rich, they do not necessarily come from a culture where this type of tipping is practiced, nor do they necessarily have any grasp of the local value of money. The other thing that often happens to you in India is that people will try to provide you with a 'service', such as making echoes in a monument, or trying to explain things to you in bad English, in the hope that you will pay for it.

Being a member of the tourist caste, continued....
( or how to part with your money when you actually want to!)

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