Just a quick note to let you all know I’m OK…I made it to Bangkok, after 36 hours of travel hell in India. I now understand why the Delhi airport is crawling with soldiers, armed with rifles and submachine guns: after 36 hours of dealing with double-dealing taxi drivers, extortionate bus drivers, and clamoring beggars, not to mention the WONDERFUL people at Air India, terrorism seemed like a perfectly rational response. (Heck, even the bathroom attendant tried to cheat me.) However, I managed to navigate my way through all the various travel hazards, and landed in Bangkok yesterday morning at 2am. There I promptly fell over dead, having not slept for two nights and eaten exactly one meal in 36 hours.
It is said that India is one of the most difficult countries in which to travel. This is entirely true, although it depends, of course, on what part of India you’re in. The current India covers far more territory, and encompasses many more cultures, than any historical government of the region. So traveling from one region of India to another is almost like going to a totally different country.
That said, my experience with Delhi, and Himachal Pradesh province generally, has been that any Indian shopkeeper, taxi driver, etc. who interacts with tourists regularly, will not hesitate to cheat or lie to you; and that anyone who is being nice and solicitous to you, should be treated with grave (but polite) suspicion. Also, talking to any Indian male for more than ten minutes (or sometimes five) is generally considered a sexual invitation, if you happen to be female and single.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule–the hotelkeeper where I stayed in Delhi, and the thangka shop owner, were both perfectly sweet, decent, and very nice guys–but I think, in general, it’s a good idea to be on your guard at all times in India. Especially since many of the people who lie, are very smooth and scrupulously honest right up until the point where they decide a lie would serve them better. This is apparently extra-true for Kashmiri merchants. So, if you go to India, do take care.
It was interesting talking shop with the Kashmiri merchants: I know a lot about fiber arts, of course, and can distinguish most fiber contents by feel (it’s not that hard). So, after one or two bad encounters, I started playing dumb to test people. It was pretty hilarious: guys were swearing to me that polyester and cotton were silk, rayon was wool, and shatoosh was spun duck feathers (!). The last was really funny–shatoosh, as you may or may not know, is the finest, softest fiber in the world, way softer than cashmere. It’s also illegal. This is because it’s made from the fur of an endangered antelope–two or three chiru must be killed to make a single shatoosh shawl.
So it was really funny watching this guy swear up and down that it was made from the feathers of a very special duck, not from antelope at all (“that’s just propaganda”). He even went so far as to explain to me that the feathers were from big downy tufts on the ducks’ throats, and that not only were the ducks not hurt, but villagers had to go down to the stream every morning to collect the few feathers that had fallen from the ducks’ throats the previous night. Then they took these downy feathers and spun them into yarn. He was so smooth, I almost would have believed him despite knowing all about the chiru–except that I *know* fiber, and if that shawl was spun from duck feathers, I’m gonna start quacking.
Of course, the same guy also assured me fervently that pashmina (i.e. cashmere) was sheared from the throat of a kid goat, and that adult goats couldn’t be used. (Cashmere actually comes from the downy undercoat of adult goats, and is combed out, not sheared.) So I’m not sure if he had absolutely no clue (his supplier could have been cheating him), or if he was merely trying to put me on. In either case, it was a masterly performance, especially since the rest of his stuff was precisely “on”, and he even went out of his way to point out some of the cheats “other Kashmiri merchants” use on hapless tourists.
(Pointing out other people’s cheats, it turns out, is a favorite tactic of people who are trying to cheat you–the idea being to get you off your guard. It can nonetheless be useful–first, because it’s a danger sign in itself, and second, because it tells you what *other* people are likely to try pulling on you. Of course, honest shopkeepers will point out cheats as well, so it doesn’t automatically mean you should walk out. Caveat emptor.)
A pause here for a testimonial: while I rarely mention particular merchants, there is one Indian merchant in Dharamsala who, in my experience, is both totally dependable and quite reasonably priced. He’s the guy who runs Mementos India, on Temple Road, in McLeod Ganj. He also, not entirely coincidentally, has the finest collection of Tibetan handicrafts in the entire Dharamsala area. So, if you are in the area, definitely check out his shop. It’s right near the bus station in McLeod Ganj, and straddles both Temple Road and the road that runs parallel to it; from Temple Road, the sign reads Mementos India, from the other road, it reads Namaste India. He has the wonderful thangka that I was raving about earlier (I later went to see other vendors’ thangka and discovered that they were much poorer quality and much higher priced), *gorgeous* hand-carved silver and bronze Buddha statuettes, and Damascan steel daggers with beautifully silverworked handles, from Punjab. Antique silver prayer mills, exquisite gold jewelry, etc. (Lots of etc.) He is also totally honest about his stuff. So, if you’re ever in Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj, do not miss this shop. It has the best handicrafts I’ve seen in India, or indeed anywhere else. You will not go wrong buying there.
My experience with Tibetans, by the way, is that they are generally honest and helpful, one of the best Asian peoples to deal with. There are, of course, exceptions to this, as to every other rule.
Also, a caution to other travelers: at the moment, traveling as an American is a little dicey. I gather support for the war is strong in the U.S. and Britain, but that is not true for the rest of the world; from my encounters with locals, most of both India and Thailand thinks the U.S. invasion of Iraq is unjustified, evil, and a serious breach of international law. (I can’t say I disagree with them.) In other words, Americans are not exactly popular right now. This has caused me some discomfort, since everyone always asks where you’re from, so I have to identify myself as American some four or five times a day, and deal with the reactions. I’ve never thought about mentioning it before, but now it causes me some hesitation.
(No, I’m not going to lie about it. As a general principle, I won’t lie unless my life is actively in danger–which, by and large, it isn’t. Not only that, but despite the fact that I don’t support the war at all, think we’ve committed a serious act of aggression, and agree wholeheartedly with the many people who are upset at us, I’m still an American, and I’ll stand with the rest of my country. Even if it means I spend the rest of this trip apologizing for our behavior–which I probably will.)
At any rate, I have now revised my nationality to “American-the-war-is-stupid-Bush-is-crazy”, which seems to help somewhat. It is not that people hate Americans (at least, not yet). But there is a hesitancy here, and a latent hostility, that wasn’t there before. (No one, incidentally, is talking about anything *but* the war, either in Thailand or India.)
So, if you had planned on going abroad, I would consider delaying it, or thinking carefully about exactly where you’re going. (I’m very grateful I didn’t go to Kashmir, by the way: 24 people were blown up in a Kashmir terrorist action a few days ago, the border has flared up again, and there have been some pretty nasty anti-American protests.) You could lie and say you’re from Canada, but if this drags on, I don’t think anyone on the American continent is going to be popular, either.
Tomorrow I’m going to meet with the editor of Farang! magazine, and the body painter, and then…well, we’ll see what happens. 🙂 In general this next few days will be “quiet time”–I plan to write some travel retrospectives, and maybe a few pieces on the Dalai Lama’s teachings–so you may or may not hear from me. But I’m in Bangkok, and I’m OK. 🙂
signing off from Bangkok–