Sunday, February 06, 2005

Do the Hustle

I'm late in posting because I've been in Pushkar all weekend for another dose of the shanti-shanti circuit. The registered population of roughly 14K seems largely composed of scrawny orange-painted sadhus (holy men who beg for alms) and unwashed hippies (99.9% dreadlocked). Maybe those census people are counting the posses of monkeys that roam the rooftops, creating heart-palpitating thumps when they land on yours. They terrorized a pseudo-Astanga yoga class we took Saturday, galloping back and forth directly behind our heads while we laid flat out in relaxation pose, trying to focus chakras on our shin bones or something (the meditation was further hampered by a Hindi prayer lecture being broadcast over a crackly loudspeaker, interrupted by two or three gunshots, which scattered pooping pigeons off the temple roof and over our heads).

I'm back in Jodhpur today, to take on Monday's Khatawas Class 12. I've promised to take a group photo if the fabled Poushpa shows up. Listed as being one of three girls in this senior English class, she's been absent for three and a half weeks, due to "fever," "headache" and being "away at a marriage." Clearly her parents have no interest in sending her to school.

Every day in India I am happier I signed on to work as a volunteer. When you arrive as a tourist here, you're subject to touts, Indians who front like pals who just want to "practice English." They make money off commissions, leading you to shops and restaurants where their friends work. And if you're Indian, half the city is composed of brother's cousin's aunty's god-sisters. You're one big walking dollar. Even our "sister-mama" Neeta, who took me to the hospital and has been our confident from Day 1, makes a buck or two off us western ladies. Every day she suggests a new outing or two.

"We go to the spice shop today," she suggests/orders last Wednesday. Sure, why not? "I take you where we all go for spices," she insists.

A short auto rickshaw ride and we're at the touristy Clocktower market, ushered into--where else--the Lonely Planet-recommended M.G. Spices, where everything is packaged with chaotically misspelled English recipes. We had visited this very shop the week before, just out of curiosity, and declared it a tourist trap. The owner even acknowledged that his menu's "set prices" had commission built in for tour leaders who brought their charges in.

When he shows us the same menu this time around, we ask for the same "no commission" discount he'd mentioned before. He plays dumb for a bit and then concedes, but is palpable tension in the room. Then he tries to sell us a box of pure Kashmiri saffron for $20. Ok, that's cheaper than it'd be at Whole Foods in NYC's Time Warner Center, but a big fat rip off in Jodhpur. He refuses to sell me the needle box quantity that Neeta herself buys, which I've used to make amazingly throat-soothing saffron milk. Ms. Rathore doesn't bargain on our behalf, as my "aunty" Shuvra did, belligerently, in Mumbai.

In the market outside, I buy us carrot juices, but it's clear she's pissed. Meanwhile, my mind is whirring, thinking back to all spots she's steered us to in the past month: the disastrous 3-minute "manicure" in copper polish from her 'aunty' across the lane; the badly-translated star chart reading--a computer program that tells fortunes based on your to-the-second time and place of your birth--Jess and I had across the street at her friend's book shop. I paid Rs. 350 to hear about my successful future in the Electronics business.

"Helloooo Rose, hellooo Jessica," she says playfully when she sees us, plopping down to me to nudge, nudge about our future business prospects.

"So you look into saffron importing today, yes?" she asked. "We go into export business together, star charts are right these days..." She smiles, "I am your friend, I don't cheat you."

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