Last fall I journeyed to India. The purpose of the visit was business but there were long weekends planned during and after for site seeing and shopping. When asked what India was like I simply say “India was BIG” because trying to convey in a minute or two what it was like, the sights, sounds, the smells, the people, the poverty, the chaos, sheer sensory overload every day, all day long is not possible, and for me ‘BIG’ is the only expression that captures my experience. I had no expectations of India, had not read, researched, nor prepared for anything beyond getting Hepatics B vaccinations, and prescriptions for malaria and some robo-strength antibiotics the rest I lived.
I was shattered by the end of the week and felt sorry for my mind but was determined not to miss a minute; there was time to recover later. I packed a weekend bag and headed towards Agra, home to the Taj Mahal.
To reach Agra from Hyderbad required a plane journey on a domestic airline, intriguing in itself, to Delhi, a rented car and driver for the journey to Agra, and of course stamina. Since it was at least a five-hour journey to Agra if you left before sunrise my business associate and I opted to spend the day in Delhi and travel to the Taj the following morning. I was anxious to see some of the local sites and to shop before taking in one of the seven wonders. At first glance, Delhi seemed less chaotic than Hyderbad with the extremes of the country subdued; of course, we were staying in a five star hotel outside the City Center, sheltered from the maddening crowds and chaos that awaited us. In truth Delhi was more colorful, and had stronger contrasts, the colors were rich brick adobe, vast gardens and tree lined streets similar of any ‘Main Street’ found in the US, except for the Bovine wandering freely through the streets and lounging carelessly on the sidewalks. We found our Driver outside the Delhi Airport, he was carrying a big sign with our names neatly printed across, and it was close enough to the spelling of our names to chance making contact. He had a crooked smile welcoming but guarded eyes he was a cautious man. It was hard to tell when he had his last bath, but his clothes were clean and he was eager to show us around and there was no going back so we followed him to the car and introduced ourselves, his name was Shyam. Thankfully, he had a basic grasp of English, and since neither of us spoke Hindi, we were able to derive a crude, if not effective form of communication, agreed a plan, and set off for the hotel. We checked in, and dropped our bags and were off for some sites and serious shopping.
It was in Delhi where I had my first encounter with a carpet Salesman. I was contemplating buying a silk rug for the Pink Palace (my bedroom). I am not a destination shopper, and have numerous gold medals awarded for the length of time spent lingering in a shop, I am relic by today’s standards as I prefer the physical sensation. Where is the thrill of the chase when shopping entails hitting a submit button? I wandered into my first store and was enthralled with all the colors, and the intricacy of the work astounded me. I approached this shopping experience as any other, to look around on my own, allowing me time to define my likes and dislikes. I was greeted as I entered the door and before I could finish, “No thank-you”, I was man handled and guided to the back if the store and ‘placed’ in a lumpy sofa designed to swallow a body whole, my knees were almost on par with my head while my backside was buried and held hostage by the springs.
My free will, as my body was captive, and a meek self that could only smile and nod politely replaced my normal assertive self. With a hot cup of sugary tea thrust into my hand and the Salesman seated at my feet describing the merits of silk over wool, village craftsmanship and how my purchase could feed an entire village for months carpet after carpet was unrolled and thrown in front of me. They were all beautiful and I did want to buy one, but I was sinking further into the abyss of the sofa and struggling to breathe, I felt trapped and needed time to look around, before making a decision. I wanted time to explore, wander and to see more of what Delhi had to offer before making a decision. My Carpet Dealer had plans for me that did not include me leaving the store without one of his rugs. I needed to make an exit and to find my big voice if I was ever to see the light of day. With the grace of 9 month, pregnant woman carrying twins I hoisted my body from the depths of the sofa certain that the mystery of western woman’s under garments was revealed I looked my captor in the eyes and squeaked out “No thank you, I want to look around town and think about it.”
“NO, you cannot leave; we have more to show you. SIT!” With his hand on my elbow, he guided me back towards the sofa, his darker horse-trading skills appeared, like gills or in his case razor words and dark menacing eyes. I managed to elude the clutches of the sofa – thank goodness for all those years in Ballet and made a beeline for the front door.
“How much do you want to pay, make an offer and then we can discuss?” Foolishly, I opted for, “thank you for your time, I’ll be back,” and I walked to the door.
“Excuse me, I want to go outside and find my companion” the Delhi Carpet bagger had planted his body in front of the door at this point, apparently he had also taken ballet lessons.
“No, I cannot move until you at least offer me a price, you must have a price in mind, with that if we cannot come to an agreement I will step aside.”
Being aggressive was not working so I switched to plan b, which was a kick either to the groin, or to a fake an epileptic attack. As I pondered the merits of each and my chances of escape my companion returned and rescued me or attempted to, chivalry is not dead. We managed to exit the carpet shop, feeling rattled but not deterred I soon resumed a steady heartbeat and found delight in the next stop, a fabric store, equally colorful…
“Madam, do you have a price, your lowest price, please remember the purchase of this rug will feed many poor families, please tell me now.” Regrettably, I had not lost the carpet stalker and with that, he unrolled the carpet across the fabric I had previously unfolded on the table. This was apparently a normal thing to do because none of the shop attendants in the fabric store paid him any mind. There was no stopping this man.
The Carpet Dracula followed me out of the stop and into the next one, and finally we were forced to make our getaway by car. As we started to drive away he pounded on the windows, to this day I am certain he would have thrown something at us had there been something handy. I never did buy a silk carpet for the Pink Palace but I did shop and purchase endlessly throughout the trip, if only for the thrill of reliving the purchasing experience.
Shopping is India is spiritual journey in itself, well, shopping is shopping, it is the actual purchasing that stops a seasoned shopper in her tracks, it is almost an out of body experience and definitely adheres to the “No Problem” philosophy of India, and actually, it sums up India. Of course being a tourist only complicates matters. When you walk into a shop you are flagged and followed around, and of course not allowed to just to look, I think the theory is if they show you everything thing in the shop you have a greater chance of buying more, shop attendants in India make the stereotypical used car salesmen look like pansies. I was forever saying, "I am just looking.” In India there is no concept of going shopping only to look, there has to be a purpose.
On to purchasing: after selection, the sales attendant that has been stalking you for the last hour gathers up your goods and enters all the items into a stand-alone computer, which I will call the Pre-Purchase Entry – Step One. At this time, you are instructed by the shop attendant to go stand at the checkout counter, Payment Exchange – Step Two, where you hand over you desired method of payment to the Cashier. During Step Two the goods you are purchasing are given to a wrap up person by the shop attendant, the idea is while you are exchanging payment at Step 2, the wrap up person is wrapping each of your 18 purchases individually in newspaper, and it can take a while so there is clearly no rush to exchange payment. Step 3 is wrapping although in reality wrapping happens during part of Step 2 and continues through Step 4 – Proof of Purchase and Stamping.
After successful payment exchange, you are instructed to walk, or slide over to the other side of the counter, which is on your left and there is always a pillar between two sections. At this point, you provide the receipt that the Casher has given to you in the previous step to the Proof of Purchase and Stamping person. Proof of Purchase and Stamping is where multiple copies of a the receipt are stamped with a round rubber stamp that has been repeatedly dunked on a blue ink pad and slammed rather forcefully on the multiple copies of your receipt – each time this occurred to me, I watched in complete fascination at the stamper’s zeal and attention to detail, after all stamping is hard work and great care is needed. Stamping takes a while and eventually you start to wonder about those eighteen items, oh yes, the reason you are standing there to begin with, where have they gone. As your attention is diverted from stamping, you catch the wrapper, a sense of calm settles in as you eye your precious goods and wonder, could this be real, is it Christmas? Why are each of your items being wrapped – individually, and in newspaper, I never did get to the bottom of that one, although I did try asking twice but since the reply was always a warm smile, I simply said to myself “No Problem.” The wrapper walks over to the tray of newly stamped receipts and picks up the necessary copies – there are always enough copies, this was a wonderment to me, as I rarely left a store with only one bag and wondered how the Proof of Purchase and Stamping person knew how many copies to stamp…
Why pray tell did I wonder that – I know you are wondering why I would wonder that. It all makes sense, seriously. It’s because a blue inked stamped copy must be stapled to each bag containing your purchases, but how does the Proof of Purchasing and Stamping person know how many bags would be required, how would he know if he never looked at the stack of your goods – I gave into the concept of a mathematical equation that was computed somewhere on the receipt, in white ink of course because there was no trace of it on the final document. The stapling to each bag is clearly a part of Step 3. I make this assumption because the wrapper completes it.
Finally, exit and completion. WRONG.
Removal of Receipts – Step 5. At the entrance door, now the exit door, there stands a lone guard, which to be honest you rarely notice on your way into the store because you are filled with delight at the prospect of shopping and ‘just looking’ at all the goods, but there he is, laying in wait to complete the 5th and final step of the check out process. For the first time shopper you are wondering just how fast you can get back to the hotel bar for a shot of anything so long as it’s strong. Removal of Receipts if the fastest part of the process, as all he has to do is remove the stapled receipts from the bags and ……
What does he do with those receipts?
Stiff drink in hand I stopped wondering, at least until the next trip.
I did make it to Agra, but that is another story.
Shopping in India