I wasn’t that surprised when I had to cut short my month-long India trip by just two days to save some hassle in the currency crisis (and to avoid the chaos and smog of New Delhi). Agra’s air quality was bad enough and had me coughing by the afternoon of each day. I was glad to have brought my neti pot, as my sinuses were doing a thorough job of filtering a lot of crap inhaled on the street. Still, it was an experience to be remembered, coming to India only a week after the 500 and 100 rupee notes were demonetised overnight, resulting in unprecedented and unprepared-for cash shortage. Prime Minister Modi wasn’t going to spoil my plans!
Apparently, foreign tourism is down 40% so I feel for small businesses like the AirBNB where I stayed for my last four nights in Agra. They only opened their eight guest rooms a few months ago and are already handling cancellations from clients who simply don’t have the cash to keep travelling. Still, the owners have greater problems brewing in their kitchen – staff that are difficult and unreliable. Caste plays a huge part in how business is conducted in India. Because these hosts (and AirBNB novices) are higher caste, fair skinned Hindus with a bit of a problem with Muslims, they can only hire lower caste hindus to make the beds, put on loads of washing, cook splendid meals and do the dishes. In-fighting then ensues because there are strong opinions on fair pay structure, leave rights etc. Yet, the workers refuse to sign contracts (they distrust employers) and they don’t view loyalty as a two-way street. Their lady employer seems genuine and wants to be generous with them in the hope that by giving a little they will only take a little. It’s complicated and I don’t envy her position. Her husband seems to be either constantly nursing a hangover or is so depressed that his serotonin levels are lower than his elastic-waisted pants. His dark, brooding presence is announced by the shuffle of his slippers as he lopes from room to room, nursing a broken arm and a bruised ego. He told me he was running when he broke his arm – I’ve seen sloths move faster than him.
At the Kalakriti cultural centre in Agra, I celebrated my last night in India. I was impressed and yet silently scoffing at the ham-acted dramatisation of the Taj Mahal’s love story. Directed by Bollywood big wigs, the gesticulating actors and voice-over artists recreated a selection of scenes, interspersed with dancers twirling together a blend of sequin-speckled traditional Indian dancing and Bollywood swish. The Taj’s story is considered one of a great ‘love’ between the husband Shah Jahan and his beloved Mumtaz, but few in the audience know how far that fairytale story has migrated away from the truth of it. More on that in my next blog post. That night the glittery costumes and a small replica of the mausoleum were a bit spectacular I have to admit, but the balloons falling from the ceiling at the close were just a bit too much for me. Still, I was glad to spend my last rupees and have my last tourist experience in the country here.
I was lucky with my cash whilst in India. At the vedic retreat, the kind staff made a trip to the bank with any Australian cash we’d brought. I got nearly 15,000 rupees from from my $300AUSD and made it last nearly the whole month. Using Eftpos was a must and businesses that carried that technology are doing well. Sadly though, many small businesses may miss out on purchases they would otherwise make. Still, Indians are well-connected sort of people; they make do and add hours to their working day to catch the passing trade. From one jewellery shop (where some rose gold and labradorite earrings sang to me), I was sent to a neighbouring wool shop to put my purchase through on Eftpos, only to make a second purchase of a kashmir poncho that I lusted after immediately. These two shop-keeper friends keep each other’s businesses alive well into the night.
Other shopping I did on Eftpos at markets and a well know Indian clothing store found in every city across the country, FabIndia. They make wonderful, well made clothes and I happily gave away big dollars at their Agra store after spending an hour walking muddied roads trying to find it. So glad I was to locate the clean, air conditioned store after my tuk tuk driver abandoned me on the side of the road, telling me his vehicle was not allowed to go any further than this spot, which happened to be next to a food stal. He and some other street dwellers gave me some hasty directions yet these and Google maps were not useful whatsoever.
If you’re considering travelling through northern India, even if only for a short time, it’s worth learning a little basic Hindi and collecting as many cash notes as you can before leaving. You will also need a strong billshit detector and a fierce pair of ovaries. Hindi is the language spoken by Rajasthanis, in New Delhi and in the state of Uttar Pradesh (where Agra resides). Tamil is spoken in the south east, Malayalam in the south west and Punjabi is spoken in Punjab state. Arabic floats around many places too so if you’re fluent in that you’re all good. Below are a couple of words I learned and picked them up through a combination of curiosity and necessity. You will do the same, either by grasping at what I’ve written or dismissing it in favour of your own commonly used phrases.
But there is one English word you will hear a lot of, everywhere you go, no matter what time of day or night. If you are a woman, the word “Madam!” will follow you around with the air of desperation and will stab at your ears …..
Namaste – ‘I bow to the divine within you’
A very formal, revered and over-used word in India. Every shopkeeper and salesman will want to appeal to your inner yearning for the authentic experience of India by getting your attention with it whilst bowing slightly with hands pressed together. It becomes tiresome, as it is such a respectful, almost sacred, word to use when someone is after your money. The gesture is meant to be an acknowledgement of one soul to another and that each of you has a divine spark residing in your heart, hence the hand placement. If I met every ‘Namaste, madam!’ I heard on the street with one from my own heart, I’d be a very tired lady by the end of the hour. If you don’t want to be just another foreigner sprouting this word on every street corner, instead use ‘Namaskar’ (greetings) when you want to and wear earplugs the rest of the time.
Kutch nahi – ‘not needed’
Quite useful for getting a shopkeeper, tuk tuk driver or ‘tour guide’ to stop harassing you as you walk by. All over India and in the climate of the currency crisis, pushy men are trying to get your business. A particularly persistent seagull of a man followed me for 100m or so trying to make himself sound so knowledgeable and important that I couldn’t possibly enjoy my viewing of the Taj Mahal without him. My cold shoulder was not enough to say “leave me alone” as his day’s work depends on his ability to persuade those stupid foreigners to part with cash. Tuk tuk drivers are especially pushy and will want to drive you short distances that you are capable of simply walking. They will saunter right up to you, into your personal space or butt into a conversation you are having and try to get your business. Being polite and refusing them in English will only make them more persistent as you give them an opening by acknowledging their efforts. Say (or shout) ‘Kutch nahi’ very firmly and look them in the eye. After that, ignore them.
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16. India: Taj